AWF17: Old Guard, New Guard – Bill Manhire and Hera Lindsay Bird

This session was on Saturday 20 May, 4.30 – 5.30pm, at the Auckland Writers Festival

I love a session chaired by a peer or colleague – in a broad sense – of the panelists. So ‘Old Guard, New Guard’, which featured Bill Manhire and Hera Lindsay Bird and was chaired by Andrew Johnston, was always going to be an exceptional line-up for this poetry-loving, Unity-old-girl, wistfully-dreaming-of-IIML reviewer. Bill the old guard, Hera the new – leaving Andrew to ponder ‘I don’t know where that leaves me, but I think I’ll be the lifeguard’.
hera
Both Bill and Hera had sweeping introductions from Andrew. There was a certain sense of both of them needing no introduction, but on the topic of Bill, at least, Andrew pointed out ‘there are quite a few things that Bill does – most people know some of them, but few people know all of them. His wider contribution to New Zealand culture is huge’. Poet laureate, CNZM. Honorary DLitt from Otago. The list goes on.

Meanwhile, Hera’s introduction contained the phrase – not the first time I’ve heard the sentiment in reference to her work – ‘it’s rare to hear the words “poetry” and “viral” together in the same sentence’. And yet, there’s really no other way to put it. Andrew let Hera explain the genesis of her ascendance to the stratospheric heights of household name poet.

For those who haven’t actively followed Hera’s goings on – or perhaps if you’ve only just plugged back into the literary landscape after a year in the desert – things blew up when two of the poems from her eponymous debut collection were published on The Spinoff. Then the wider internet came knocking.

‘I woke up one day and someone told me I was in The Guardian. There were 300-long furious comment threads. The one that people were angriest about was “Keats Is Dead So F*ck Me From Behind”. I kind of flippantly name-checked the deaths of a whole lot of American and British poets.’

Hera meant no disrespect, though, she assured us. ‘I was careful to only write about poets that I liked.’

At this point, Bill pointed out the similarities between ‘Keats Is Dead…’ and R.A.K Mason’s ‘Song of Allegiance’. Mason’s poem begins:
‘Shakespeare Milton Keats are dead / Donne lies in a lowly bed’…

And ends:
‘Though my song have none to hear / boldly bring I up the rear’.

It’s a glorious comparison – and yet, Hera claims that it’s purely coincidental. At least, as far as she can remember. Whether intentional or not, it still makes for a beautiful bookending of New Zealand poetry to date.

Further elaborating on the ‘furious comments’, Hera pointed out that she often prefers a negative review to a positive one ‘from someone liking you for the wrong reasons.

‘I had lots of considered and thoughtful and intelligent reviews, but there were also a lot of people who it felt like they didn’t understand what I was trying to do.’

Hera noted that she doesn’t mind when people (incorrectly) assume that everything in the first person in her book is actually coming from her own perspective. ‘There’s always a performative aspect.’

That line of questioning let into a conversation with Bill about the dichotomy of being a relatively private person who has had some very public poems – whether through major commissions or through winning major plaudits that pull the spotlight in his direction. Bill agreed with Andrew’s suggestion that his poetry acts ‘as a kind of defense as well as projection.’

They also discussed the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML) – which Bill set up and Hera attended. While he fell into the role of workshop convener somewhat by chance, his work in that space means that every reader of New Zealand literature owes him a debt of gratitude. So many writers at all ages and stages have gone through the halls of that building on Waiteata Road – and part of the success of so many of them could in part be chalked up to the drive, right from the start, to get people out of their comfort zone. And importantly, to get them towards being the best writer that they can be within their selves, rather than trying to match to some kind of official framework.
bill manhire house.jpg
‘One of the things I’ve always done in the writing workshop world is give people the equivalent of a commission – make them jump the tracks and go sideways from their own sensible selves.’

At Andrew’s request, Bill went into a potted history of the Victoria creative writing programme – both pre- and post-IIML name being added. It was a fascinating wander through time – from implementing a Cambridge-esque optional original manuscript component for English majors through to the IIML of today – in the building now officially called the Bill Manhire Centre (above).

Hera gave a little insight into her experience at the IIML – and her perception of Bill while an MA student there. ‘Bill was the big boss – I think that the only time I saw him in the classroom was at the beginning of year part. He came up to me with a plate of samosas and silently offered me one.’

She went into some detail regarding her own feelings about creative writing programmes – deemed crucial by some, derivative by others. ‘I don’t think it’s essential to do creative writing courses – but they do speed up the process.’ At what other point in one’s young adult life, she pointed out, do we get the luxury of taking a year out from the world just to write?

Bill talked about students coming in intending to focus on one style – and leaving converted to something else. Hinemoana Baker was an example given as someone who came in wanting to be a short story writer, and came out with her first collection of poetry. That particularly close quarters creative environment seems to have a transformative effect on those who study there.

Both poets read examples of their work – Bill lightheartedly requesting to leave before Hera launched into ‘Keats Is Dead…’, but later drawing an incredible stillness from the crowd as we listened to him read ‘Known Unto God’, a poem commissioned as a response to the Battle of the Somme .

There was much more, so much more. Both poets agreed that they do not exist at nearly such extreme poles as the name of the event would suggest. ‘I’ve always thought of Bill’s poetry being quite modern and mine as being much more old-fashioned than people realise,’ Hera said.

‘I think your work is quite traditional,’ Bill replied, describing it as a familiar house with different furnishing.

Old guard or new – or life guard, an essential role for a panel chair to play, after all – when Bill and Hera and Andrew are three of the face of New Zealand poetry today (and yesterday, and tomorrow), it does make you bloody excited to be a reader in this country, doesn’t it?

Attended and reviewed by Briar Lawry on behalf of Booksellers NZ

Hera Lindsay Bird
by Hera Lindsay Bird
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560714

Tell Me My Name
by Bill Manhire
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561070

Some Things to Place in a Coffin
by Bill Manhire
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561056

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Book Review: Fits & Starts, by Andrew Johnston

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_fits_and_startsIn Fits & Starts, people are more or less on their own; sometimes they’re trying to find their way back to an approximation of intimacy they once knew. More often, they are coming to terms with life alone: ‘Sometimes the wind carries her voice;/sometimes she has to carry it herself.’ (From the poem Judges)

Throughout the Echo in Limbo poems, the character Echo wanders a landscape trying to recognise herself in its changes:

But you were always hunting
for something that wasn’t there.

Grace, a trace,
mettle, an element.

Something almost.
Something near.
(Numbers)

The poem Numbers also illustrates Johnston’s language play – his surprising rhymes, homonyms, incongruous nursery-rhyme rhythms – which adds light to the bleakness. There is also a pick-up-sticks game of references throughout the Echo in Limbo poems: they are named after the books of the Old Testament, but their content is classical myth, evolution, ravaged forests and fluorescent lights.

Echo returns in the final section of poems, Do You Read Me?, which are named – as she is – after the radio alphabet. They are placed in the man-made world rather than the natural one, and they are lighter, more playful, while exploring similar themes. In the poem Lima there ‘Comes a day – hey hey – you know you’ll never go/some places in your life and one is Lima.’ But for me these poems aren’t as successful. Sometimes their playfulness strikes me as silly (‘I left myself in the lurch//from yackety-yack to yada yada/from roughly something to simply nada’) rather than illuminating, but perhaps I’m more compelled to angst than absurdity.

But there’s plenty of angst to please me. Throughout the book we are shown the constancy of life, where that constancy is a world which finds ways to keep destroying itself over and over. Johnston portrays a world like that paradoxical river: always flowing, but never the same. In one of the stand-out poems for me, he turns this on its head, showing human history as an ebb and flow the land has long accepted:

I remember this,
said the river:

The snow will melt,
the poppies will grow,

the opium will be harvested.
The foreigners will come,

the foreigners will go.
It will begin to snow.
(Afghanistan)

For me, the book explores how destructive (how inevitably, unavoidably destructive) life is, on an individual human scale as well as a geographic and historical one. There are some beautiful, brutal metaphors here:

… when one glass is full

and one glass empty, the hand will
take the empty glass and smash it.
(I Chronicles)

At the same time the poems insist that we just accept it and get on with things – with the inconsequential human stuff; with living. To live, and to know ourselves, we must exist on the baseline of futility.

Reviewed by Jane Arthur

Fits & Starts
by Andrew Johnston
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776560615

So French: Muriel Barbery & Nicolas Fargues in conversation with Andrew Johnston

I had heard of Nicolas Fargues, though I’d only read one of his books. Well, one and a half. You see his latest book, I Was Behind You, has finally been translated into English. Fingers crossed they’ll follow suit with the other 9. In particular One Man Show. I’ve heard so much about it, I even read a third of it with a friend when I was in Paris about a decade ago. The problem was he read so slowly it drove me batty! I wanted to sit and have him read it to me all at once; he wanted to do other things. Like leave the house. How rude. Alas Fargues’ writing is far above my rudimentary schoolgirl French.

elegance_of_the_hedgehogMuriel Barbery also writes beyond my level of comprehension, but at least she’s frequently translated. Her novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog has been translated into many languages, it’s a New York Times best seller and it’s absolutely gorgeous. Her latest novel, The Life of Elves has also been translated and just as Hedgehog made a delightful film, I believe Elves will, too.

Apart from the fact they’re both French, it would be hard to find two more different writers. Barbery writes in a delicate, pleasantly bubbling style of warm interactions and discoveries of human nature. Of secrets uncovered to unite and build. Fargues on the other hand, writes with a pen dripping in scorn and insolence. His characters are mean; taunting karma and enraging the fates. They’re opposing factions – darkness and light. Perhaps that’s why they were a good match for this session.

Chair Andrew Johnson started the sold-out discussion by asking about French stereotypes. What is with that bored, disaffected, malaise that the French seem to have perfected?
Barbery went first. “It’s because we believe we could all be kings. We are the best. We are never satisfied. We have an eternal desire to make others look and feel ridiculous.”

Fargues agreed meanness was at the centre of the French way. “It’s bitterness really. We are bitter. As a French man you cannot merely admire. We can admire, but there MUST be a but… Being completely full of joy is impossible.” Speaking of his time traveling, and of the number of young French people who would rather work in places like New Zealand, Australia or Canada making coffee than go home to France and the troubled culture there, he summed it up succinctly. “We are a rich country but we’re not happy.”

muriel_barberyMuriel Barbery also spoke of France in terms of its abundance of assets. “We have everything we need but we still want more. We are spoiled. We are like spoiled children. The rest of the world knows this more than we do I think.”

Barbery also spoke about Romanian writer Emil Cioran, who was as successful writing in French as he was in his native language. Citing the way he mastered the language and wrote with a fluid beauty that only non-native speakers can find, his subject matter was often of the nature of France and her people, their spiritual and cultural unrest and dissatisfaction. Harsh realities wrapped in exquisite words.

nicolas farguesAgain Fargues took a more direct approach.”I love my country but I don’t want to live there anymore. It’s like loving a member of your family who isn’t taking care of themselves anymore. It’s too hard. You are better to love them from afar.

“You (in New Zealand) believe in your commonwealth. All of the countries in the French Republic, all the overseas collectivités and territories believe in the republic. Except one. France! We mock how they speak French. We laugh at how they claim to be French. It is wrong. We are wrong.

“We are ready for a change.”

chanel allure homme adsWhen it comes to change, we all know that the polished creatures we meet at Writers Festivals didn’t start out that way. Not all, but most, had other professions when they began their writing careers.

Muriel Barbery taught philosophy at a university, then at a teachers college before dedicating herself to writing full time. Nicolas Fargues has worked as a journalist and ran Alliance Française in Madagascar for a period of time. He also – and this is the first time I’ve ever found an author with this on their resume – modelled for Chanel as the face of their Allure: pour homme fragrance back in 2002. (left)

Currently the writer in residence at Randell Cottage, in Thorndon, Wellington; Fargues is here until the end of June. From there he’s unsure where he will go, though Quebec sounds like a distinct possibility.  The one place he’s sure it won’t be is Paris.

“Paris Syndrome is a real thing.” says Muriel Barbery. “People arrive and they’re disappointed. It’s not like the books. Or the movies.”

Right on cue, as if an author had written it, a lady in the front row spoke up “You’re right. It’s just not as French anymore.”

And with a wry smile and a cocked eyebrow from the guests of honour, SO FRENCH came to an end, and so did my Writers Week for 2016. Bring on 2018!

Atte

So French: Muriel Barbery & Nicolas Fargues in conversation with Andrew Johnston
2pm, Sunday 13 March, The Bats, Dome Theatre

The Elegance of the Hedgehog 
by Muriel Barbery
ISBN: 9781933372600

The Life of Elves 
by Muriel Barbery
ISBN: 9781609453152

One Man Show
by Nicolas Fargues
ISBN: 9782070428861 (French edition)

I Was Behind You 
by Nicolas Fargues
ISBN: 9781906548056

A Short History of Decay
by Emil Cioran
ISBN: 9781559704649

Fits and Starts
by Andrew Johnston
ISBN: 9781776560615