Tara Black recorded this at the Manawatu Writers’ Festival this past weekend. Copyright Tara Black, all rights reserved.
Illustrated notes copyright Tara Black, reproduced with permission.
We Can Make a Life
by Chessie Henry
Published by VUP
‘Featuring local featured poets Hera Lindsay Bird, Anahera Gildea, Bill Manhire, Courtney Sina Meredith and Anna Jackson together with international poetry guests Jeet Thayil, Patricia Lockwood, Harry Giles and Mike Ladd.’
Honestly, I’ve never been really sure where I stand with poetry. I remember Dad reading us Edward Lear as children, and memorising Wilfred Owen’s sonnet in high school (which I can still recite – ask me next time you see me). At uni I studied English, including poetry, and submitted to the belief that poetry was difficult on purpose and only those with the right number of degrees could hope to correctly interpret it.
Since returning to Aotearoa and wiggling my way into booky spaces here I’ve put my hand up to review NZ poetry several times. I always have to take a deep breath first, to try and shake off the terrible lessons of my formal education. To trust myself and my ability to read at least thoughtfully, if not expertly.
So it was with trepidation – plus a good dollop of end-of-the-festival, mind-spinning fatigue – that I turned up to review Poetry International. I hadn’t been scheduled to review it, but I was keen to see as much of Harry Josephine Giles and Patricia Lockwood as I could before they left.
Poetry International was inspired by the February 2018 edition of Poetry magazine that celebrates NZ poets. It was a rather disjointed and long-winded event. The poets came on stage in two lots, since there were nine of them and only six seats. The chair, Chris Price, had come straight from the hospital and added a note of muted medical emergency to the proceedings by holding a bandage up to her face as she listened.
First up were Anahera Gildea, Mike Ladd, Anna Jackson, Harry Josephine Giles, and Hera Lindsay Bird. They all performed their poetry and made some remarks, and then Price briefly interviewed them. The two stand-outs for me were Gildea and Giles, who both spoke with great power. Gildea – like Emma Espiner at Tikanga Now – talked in English and Te Reo about the erasure of wāhine Māori from NZ’s Suffrage 125 celebrations. Her poem was written as a kōrero with C19th suffrage activist Meri Te Tai Mangakahia.
Also on the theme of (de)colonisation, Scottish poet Giles said that most of the places they go around the world they’re following their people, who ‘chose to steal and murder and orchestrate genocide’. Giles is trying to remake the world, but acknowledged that they were doing so ‘in and through system of racialised capitalism from which I benefit’. They then blew up the earnestness of the event by enthusiastically performing a poem in the Scots language about butt plugs. Hashtag festival highlight.
The next tranche of poets comprised Patricia Lockwood, Courtney Sina Meredith, Jeet Thayil, and Bill Manhire. Meredith spoke with understandable exasperation of being constantly required to ‘diversity up’ the place a bit, since she is a queer Samoan-Kiwi woman (triple whammy!). I was particularly struck by her remark that ‘opportunities are often just mountains of hard work’. Too true.
I had been looking forward to seeing more of Lockwood, and enjoyed her poem about being on the plane where John Ashbery no longer exists – although, due to my aforementioned lack of poetry expertise, I didn’t know who Ashbery was or why I should care. Unfortunately Price’s brief interview with Lockwood fell flat: a mismatch between Price’s earnest intellect and Lockwood’s acerbic wit. I had managed to catch the first half of Blazing Stars (Charlotte Graham-McLay chairing Lockwood and Bird) and noticed a similar thing. Lockwood and Bird together were hilarious and I would have preferred to see them by themselves just riffing off each other without the chair interrupting with serious questions.
Thayil, an Indian poet and musician, was the only person I noticed in this festival to mention rats (an extremely underappreciated literary topic – festival organisers please note I have a keynote prepared to remedy this lack). He performed a poem called How To Be A Bandicoot and explained that bandicoots are ‘large unkillable rats’, which of course prejudiced me immediately in favour of them. He also performed a poem called The Consolations of Ageing which comprised him standing on the stage in silence. Do you get it, it’s because there aren’t any. He helpfully held up his book of poetry to demonstrate the blank page.
After three solid days of performing, talking, tweeting, and reviewing, my note-taking skills were faltering. (Under Bill Manhire I’ve written ‘dead All Black’.) I had failed to read the programme correctly and wasn’t prepared for Poetry International to last longer than an hour. Towards the end I slid off my chair and typed rather forlornly on the floor. Emily Perkins smiled at me kindly. Later, Elizabeth Knox very generously described my festival reviewing as ‘a service to humanity’. Over and out, my friends. Ka kite anō au i a koutou.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage
Sometimes at literary festivals you get those HOLY CRAP moments. I had one at Auckland Writers Festival in the signing queue when I thanked Gloria Steinem for helping make me who I am and she said “someday, someone will thank you in the same way”. I had one at WORD Christchurch when Ivan Coyote ripped my heart out, made it better, and gave it back to me. And I had another at this year’s Writers and Readers gala night when Harry Josephine Giles performed their poem about the bodily experience of being trans.
This is the first festival where I’ve been both a chair and a reviewer, and so I had the cool but awkward experience of seeing the people I’ve been reviewing backstage in the green room. I bumped into Harry a few times and they were so friendly and pleasant to me; but all I was able to say were anodyne phrases such as ‘your poem was really good’. That isn’t what I meant. Harry: your poem wasn’t really good, it was a bloody revelation. In those few moments you had on stage at the gala night you performed that poem with your entire body and I could feel mine moving in response. All the little hairs on my neck stood up. I shivered. In the silence immediately following someone near me quietly said ‘Fuck’. Like the end of a prayer.
The purpose of the gala night, as well to open the festival, is to make you immediately rearrange your schedule to spend as much time as possible with your new favourite writers. I was gutted to realise I had clashes with nearly all of Giles’ events. But on Sunday I got to squeeze myself into the hot and uncomfortable small theatre at Circa to see Chris Tse interview Giles.
Word had got around: the theatre was full. (Good news for Cantabrians – Giles is coming to Christchurch next.) Wellington poet Tse was a good interviewer, obviously very familiar with Giles’ work and asking short, interesting questions.
Giles grew up in Orkney and writes in English and Scots. The decision to write in Scots – a ‘minority recovering language’ – is conscious and political. They are trying to escape from the idea that you can only discuss local things in the local language, and are instead writing on all kinds of topics in Scots. They performed a few of their poems. Scots is a sister language to English, and after a while we could pick up the meaning of most of it. It’s easier to understand out loud than written down, so Giles provides free audio downloads with their poetry books.
The challenge to become bilingual or multilingual is a theme that has run throughout Writers and Readers. Giles said our nation states are formed through the erasure of language and identity, and the state finds it threatening when the languages want their existence back (*cough* Don Brash RNZ *cough*). Our brains are made to know multiple languages: ‘it’s a crime to squeeze your brain into just one language’. On the downside, writing in a minority language can limit your audience. Giles said ‘I write what I want to write and the audience is either there or it isn’t.’
Giles said they struggle to write good personal poetry (the poem they performed at the gala is unusual in that regard). Instead, they channel it through someone else – for example, a series of poems written from the perspective of a drone. ‘I was figuring myself out during that book.’ Now they have a lot more questions about gender and identity to ask: ‘poems should start with questions. Poems that start with answers are terrible.’ Giles says they’re ‘itching to write about that drone again.’ A show based on the drone poems will be touring next year.
Tse asked about Giles’ performance work, related to the ways in which queerness is often performative. Giles said ‘I’ve never really tried to hide that to be honest.’ When your body and your life is at odds with what normal is – ‘not that anyone is normal really’ – you recognise that everyone is performing all the time. ‘And I realised, oh, I can play with this.’
Giles also wants to bring something queerer into Scottish poetry. ‘What’s been published and celebrated in the Scots language has been incredibly masculine and macho – but the kids are so over that.’ Instead, Giles wants to bring in a more feminist sensibility, and acknowledge the women poets who have always been writing in Scots.
Harry Josephine Giles: ngā mihi nui ki a koe. Nearly everyone I’ve spoken to about Writers and Readers so far has named you as their stand-out experience. Please come back soon. Arohanui.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage
Harry Giles was brought to New Zealand by LitCrawl with the support of International Literature Showcase and Writers’ Centre Norwich.
Chair Lydia Wevers noted at the beginning of the session that three months ago, she had never heard of guest Ursula Dubosarsky. She has since rectified this and become increasingly embarrassed not to have read her work previously, noting ‘Ursula is a brilliant, satisfying and haunting writer,’ also noting to her ‘Awards grow on you like mushrooms.’
Lydia began the session with a question about writing – what comes first for Ursula – character or a story. Ursula told us a few stories about how she writes, which as for many writers, is a summation of experiences she has had over her lifetime. In the case of First Book of Samuel, for instance, she’d first heard the name of Elkanah at a kibbutz, describing somebody who was very charismatic and damaging; much later she realised the name was biblical, so this character was born and brought the story with him.
She also told the origin of The Red Shoe, which was from a talkback radio show that saw a caller ring in to talk on the death of the wife of Vladimir Petrov, the caller noting she lived next door from them and the Australian Diplomatic service would give her and her sisters a ride to school each morning.
Ursula says ‘All you need is a hair and some blue solution – something has to stick.’ The intuition is the hair, and this refers to an experiment she did at school where they grew crystals on a hair.
Lydia noted that over her career, Ursula has become more preoccupied with historical realism – at some point there was a shift in focus. The Blue Cat, Ursula says, came out of an editorial her dad wrote during the war for his school magazine (this was a surprise in itself as her father, when asked about school, would state it was ‘brutal, sadistic and cruel.’) The book itself includes several historical documents, including this editorial, and focuses on a Jewish immigrant to Sydney and the friendship a young girl creates with him despite their language barrier.
In Ursula’s books, Lydia says, ‘children are not protected.’ The books are also frequently funny, with a particular strength being interactions between parents & children. This leads, for Ursula, into a discussion of her book Abyssinia. She notes first that when writing picture books, she can see her audience on the mat in front of her – it isn’t like this for novels, but she is always writing for children.
Abyssinia is about a child being left in a home where they seem to have a purpose which isn’t clear. The adults in the book say ‘for every child that is lost, a child must be found,’ then the lead character must go on a journey. Ursula notes that this particular book is greeted by adults with a kind of fury, while children understand it more readily. It was written while she was working as a typist for Court cases, and was writing one hour every day prior to having her morning coffee and beginning her cases. She thinks perhaps her mind was in a dreamlike state – and the intuition for this book began at a dollhouse museum she had taken her daughter to.
Lydia wondered whether Ursula believed that any content in books ought to be restricted for children. She says, ‘You can write about anything for kids, it just depends how you write it.’ For instance, Golden Day as Lydia perceives it is possibly about rape and murder. But it isn’t explicit. The intuition for this book began during Ursula’s work as a Court typist, where she encountered an awful rape/murder case which involved a ‘good’ seeming person. ‘It is hard for children to recognise bad people and know what to do when they find one. It is hard for adults as well, sometimes.’
It isn’t only children that are confused much of the time in Ursula’s work – the adults aren’t having a good time either. Businesses and marriages fail, there are dramas just out of earshot of the children. It’s real life.
While I enjoyed hearing about these works, I found the session a little frustrating – there was a bit much explanation of books and what they were about, and I was amused at the most passive aggressive question I’ve ever heard being asked at the end. ‘In the programme it says you would talk about the difference in perception between an adult and a child. Can you talk to that please?’
I am looking forward to delving into Ursula’s work however, and I’ve already begun with a few books from the Unity Bookstore stall outside the session.
Reviewed in words by Sarah Forster
The Blue Cat
by Ursula Dubosarsky
Published by Allen & Unwin
Brindabella (out 28 March)
by Ursula Dubosarsky
Published by Allen & Unwin