NZF Writers & Readers: Poetry International

‘Featuring local featured poets Hera Lindsay BirdAnahera GildeaBill ManhireCourtney Sina Meredith and Anna Jackson together with international poetry guests Jeet ThayilPatricia LockwoodHarry 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_WR18_600x500.2e16d0ba.fill-300x250Poetry 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 

 

 

AWF17: Must Not Reads

This was another free session, and well attended with as many men as women, plus a wide age range. It had all the indicators of being a lively and humorous session with the panel consisting of the wonderful Stephanie Johnson; scriptwriter and film director Roseanne Liang; lawyer, reviewer and author Brannavan Gnanalingam; and Bill Manhire. The session was chaired by writer and editor Rosabel Tan, although I did feel that she was overshadowed by some of her panelists.

fourWe are regularly inundated with lists of books to read before you die, lists to read on a longhaul flight, lists to read to your grandchildren, top 10 Dickens, top 10 authors you have never heard of, Reader’s Digest 14 books you really should have read by now. I feel the vast majority of these pretentious lists are generally designed to put us all on some sort of guilt trip as to how inadequate we are as intelligent readers. So, I was looking for a bit of light relief in the book lists department, especially in the closing hours of a Sunday afternoon at the end of a very stimulating and busy weekend.

And we got off to a great start with Stephanie’s blast from the past – Harold Robbins. Ooooh yes, this was something most attendees could relate to. Her father was a great HR fan, and Stephanie being the voracious reader she was, first picked up HR at the tender age of ten. I trust her father didn’t know. She then proceeded to read out a seduction scene from one of the novels, which had us all falling about ourselves with laughter, in all its illustrative glory. He was a master with words that Harold Robbins, and in less sophisticated times it made him millions.

Roseanne continued the theme with 50 Shades of Grey – oh dear. Truly awful. She asked how many in the audience had read this, a brave few put up their hands. I can say, hand on heart, I haven’t read any or seen the movies. The subject matter put me off, as well as having teenage daughters at the time it was up to me to set the good example. I felt vindicated when I later found out how truly badly written they were. These were Roseanne’s points too, stressing how atrocious the writing is, the awful story, and her disbelief that is this what woman really want to be reading about. She made some great points, and then asked Bill to read aloud a seduction scene in his best seduction voice. Awful in every possible way, but made the point.

cv_a_bend_in_the-RiverBrannavan, bless him, had never heard of Harold Robbins. But then I would say most of us had never heard of his choice of book – A Bend in the River by VS Naipul. I am not entirely sure why he chose this book, other than his comment that a white writer would never have got away with writing a book such as this. Naipul won a Nobel Prize for this book, which in Brannavan’s opinion treats Africa as a pathological place where violence is always present. He made a comparison later in the session to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Bill wanted to ‘dredge up old grievances’ as stated in the Festival programme, with specific mention of old high school teachers and their dubious expertise in adequately teaching poetry. A recently received newsletter from his local garden centre really got up his nose. Time to plant spring bulbs and ‘Daffodils’ by Wordsworth the perfect device. But shock horror, oh no, someone had centered all the lines, rather than printing it in its original format. Bill hates line centred text. And to add insult to the already injured, the whole poem was in italic font. In Bill’s opinion, graphic designers and italic typographers are the true enemies of poetry, more so than high school teachers.

cv_zealotStephanie introduced her second offering – Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan, a previous Writers’ Festival guest. This sounded a bit heavy, all about Jesus the man, rather than the pivotal religious figure he became after his death. Stephanie explained that this book, although extremely well written, researched, very powerful and heartfelt, did negatively impact on her own Christian faith.

Bill also had a book in the Jesus theme, and this sounded very bizarre. The Three Christs of Ypsilanti: A Psychological Study by Milton Rokeach. Bill read this when he was a young man, and I am not at all surprised it has stayed with him over the years. Rokeach was a social psychologist, and took three paranoid schizophrenics who each believed he was Jesus Christ. He put them in a room together and observed what happened. Bill said that something like this would not get past an ethics committee today – it was 1959 – but it did leave a great impression.

cv_not_that_kind_of_girlRoseanne stayed with the young women theme in her choice of Lena Dunham’s memoir Not That Kind of Girl. Many in the audience would not have known who Lena Dunham is, so that took a bit of explaining. Roseanne had been a great fan of Dunham, seeing her as an excellent role model for young women with her TV show Girls, but the book fell completely flat because she simply had absolutely nothing to say. Dining out on the fact that she is Lena Dunham and that is it.

There was some discussion on how it is to read books enjoyed as a young person, and reread them some years later. Brannavan mentioned Jack Kerouac’s On the Road which he enjoyed immensely when he was a younger man, and now not so much. Which led Bill to mention Enid Blyton. If there was ever an author that grown-ups found all sorts of things wrong with, and conversely, whose books children absolutely adored – talk about polarising – then Enid Blyton is it. Yes, there was so much wrong with what this woman wanted to say, but oh did she write some great stories! Bill mentioned The Magic Faraway Tree, chock full of imagery and the tree climbing to heaven. But children don’t see the heavy messaging, they simply see a fantasy magical story, and isn’t that what reading for pleasure is all about – taking us someplace else.

This was an interesting session, and always good to get others’ views on books they have read, especially such a well-read and articulate group of writers as this one. The dominant themes were sex and religion, and some politics would have completed the trifecta. For me, I would have liked perhaps that the chosen books were a little more well known, which would have made the audience feel more involved in the discussion taking place, rather than as observers watching an impromptu show.

Attended and reviewed by Felicity Murray

AWF17: Must Not Reads featured Brannavan Gnanalingam, Stephanie Johnson, Roseanne Liang and Bill Manhire. The session was chaired by Rosabel Tan
Sunday, 21 MAY 2017, 4:30pm – 5:30pm

 

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

DWRF 2017 Showcase Gala: Metamorphosis

Although I arrived 20 minutes into the ‘drink and nibbles’ introduction to this event, it was clear upon entering the beautiful Toitu Settlers Museum building that things were pumping. Gala Showcase: Metamorphosis was a sold out event, and the room was packed. When the call was made for the audience to take their seats, the attendees had to make their way from one end of the museum to the other – a canny move as this meant the best of the museum was showcased before the event had even started.

Kate De Goldi emceed this meditation on ‘metamorphosis’ and introduced each author before they responded to a selected book (or books) that embraced this concept. Whilst it was a treat to hear each author give mostly prepared talks on this topic, it was also an excellent ‘taster’ as all authors have further events this weekend.

ian-rankin_5Ian Rankin (left) was the first to speak, and his thoughts centred around metamorphic considerations in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. He talked of how his books were influenced by this one, and shared anecdotes of macabre body snatchers and dichotomous laboratories in the times before bodies could be legally left to science.

Stella Duffy gave an impassioned speech about the power of words and the way they can change readers. She used the touchstones of Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban and Janet Frame’s fiction to explore this concept in her own life. She particularly marveled at the way these texts created music for the reader through words alone – no mean feat.

John Lanchester was softly spoken but exceptionally articulate in explaining the effect the poetry collection Ariel by Sylvia Plath had on him as an 18 year old school leaver. He talked of the way Plath took seemingly nebulous emotions and feelings and nailed them to the page in astonishing ways. His explanation of the literal metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly was beautiful and a fitting metaphorical end to his talk.

hannahkent-2016-credit-lauren-bamford_origThe story Hannah Kent (right, photo Lauren Banford) wove about her school exchange from South Australia to Iceland was atmospheric and gripping. She explained how she felt literature saved her life in the early days of that time, in the dark winter days next to an Icelandic fjord. She talked of how To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf opened up her understanding of what it means to be human, and how, ultimately, this is what people are searching for.

When Bill Manhire stepped up to the microphone few would have expected his choice – The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton – but his exceptional discussion of Blyton’s dreamlike sequences in this selection convinced many of the extraordinary value of transformation in children’s texts.

The night ended with Victor Rodger speaking to his experiences in mid-1980’s Christchurch as a closeted gay, half-Samoan teenager and the moment of reckoning and solace found in Another Country by James Baldwin, the gay, African-American author with anger in his veins. It was great to have Rodgers back in Dunedin, as he almost feels like ‘ours’, having been the Burns Fellow in 2016.

All of these showcased authors have events on this weekend, and, after seeing what was on show tonight, I highly recommend attending. I’m sure you will be in the hands of experts.

Reviewed by Lara Liesbeth

Events with Ian Rankin (also at WORD Christchurch and Auckland Writers Festival)
Events with Stella Duffy  (also at WORD Christchurch and Auckland Writers Festivals)
Events with John Lanchester (also at Auckland Writers Festival)
Events with Hannah Kent
Events with Bill Manhire (also at Auckland Writers Festival)
Events with Victor Rodger

 

Book Review: This Model World, by Anthony Byrt

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_this_modern_worldI first heard of Anthony Byrt quite recently, when Kim Hill quoted him extensively at an event about Simon Denny’s Secret Power installation (first shown at the 2015 Venice Biennale – a section of this exhibit is now at Te Papa). I state this to explain my own perspective: I am interested in art, but have not studied it extensively and am not familiar enough with art criticism to know New Zealand art writers by name. It quickly became clear that I did not have to be an historian of contemporary art to enjoy and appreciate this new book.

Over the course of several years, Byrt visited exhibitions and studios around the world, interviewing or reflecting on 12 contemporary New Zealand artists. Six longer chapters are interspersed with shorter features on artists whose work extends or links to themes in the longer sections. Byrt appears to have given a lot of thought to the first-person narrative style of writing. I think that it works very well here: in places he steps back to detail an artist’s background, then he comes back into the frame to talk about his own experiences and changes in perspective relating to their work. Becky Nunes’ photographs throughout the book seem similarly well-thought-out. There was a conscious decision to focus on the artworks and the artists’ working spaces, rather than photographing the artists themselves.

The promotional blurb describes this as “a riveting first-person account of one author’s travels to the edge of contemporary art”. I did find Byrt’s journeys quite riveting. He has a talent for describing certain scenes so you can imagine yourself in the space with the artwork. However I’m particularly drawn to the phrase “the edge”. We in New Zealand “live at the edge of the universe, like everybody else”, as Bill Manhire’s words remind us on a concrete slab on the Wellington waterfront. And now, after so long being considered physically on the edges, we can participate in the global conversation about art more instantly than ever before, like everybody else. What will this mean for New Zealand art and artists?
i-live-at-the-edge-of-the-universe

We’re looking at some of the big, tricky, –isms here: globalism, commercialism, post-colonialism. Questions of how to critique a system while taking part in it. These themes interweave the stories of individual artists and their preoccupations.

I read this book over a couple of weeks and, on numerous occasions, found parallels between themes coming up in other parts of my life and in Byrt’s writing. I attended a symposium about health research, at which a book of new protocols for working with Māori genomic data was launched . One of the researchers stated that in this context we see how whakapapa is both a scientific AND a cultural construction. That evening, I read the chapter on Peter Robinson, whose early work dealt with his identification as “3.125% Māori”: “whakapapa rendered as stark biological fact”. Byrt sees some of Robinson’s more recent, interactive work as “a critical examination of the power dynamics of knowledge acquisition, of putting people to work, of who can speak about what and for whom”. And I found myself exclaiming, yes, exactly, that’s what we social researchers have been pondering too!

It was only partway through the chapter about Steve Carr that I realised Byrt was describing an exhibition I had just been discussing with my visiting father (we headed to Wellington’s City Gallery and his first question was whether “the watermelon” , which he had watched last time, was still there). I recalled Carr’s clever video works, some of which feature a slowed down bullet passing through several apples, and balloons containing contrasting coloured paint being popped. I had felt a childish glee, watching these scenes of beautiful destruction in a way that the human eye could not hold onto in real life. But there was something more going on – something visceral that I could not quite articulate. Byrt, of course, can articulate it: Carr uses camera technology “to create an image of total bodily empathy. His balloons, and the paint they contain, hang like organs and burst with human release.”

cv_creamy_psychologyIt has been a particular thrill for me to read Byrt’s take on several exhibitions that I had seen but not taken detailed notes on. I could certainly say that Yvonne Todd’s photographs struck me as creepy and hyper-real but, again, Byrt can explain why they seem that way.

Postcolonialism is, unsurprisingly, explored from various perspectives. Shane Cotton is known for painting large canvases with recurring themes including wide skies, stylised gang patches and the tattooed, preserved Māori heads that were notoriously collected and traded to European museums in the late 1800s. The discussion of his work is woven through a chapter which also features Byrt’s visit to look at different large panel works in the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas (I wondered whether anyone other than a recently-arrived New Zealander would describe the edges of these panels as having “a jet-lagged shimmer”) and a brief tour through the problematic history of Western exhibitions featuring Māori art. Cotton and his contemporaries work in an era where people recognise and debate the ethics of representing colonised cultures. Rather than taking an explicitly moral position, his representations of the disembodied heads, Byrt surmises, is “simply an act of re-presentation: a way to keep the disruptive residue of our violent history, still alive, staring back at us”.

In the final section on Simon Denny, Byrt draws links between historical events, rapidly evolving media representation of these events, and how our (that is, Byrt’s, Denny’s and my ‘older millennial’) generation sees the world. I had also briefly visited Venice in 2015. I had taken the opportunity to do two specific and, I thought, unconnected things. Firstly to retrace my maternal grandfather’s World War Two footsteps, taking a photo in the exact same spot as him outside the Hotel Danieli. Secondly to visit Denny’s Secret Power biennale exhibition at the Marciana Library. I was somewhat stunned when the chapter on Simon Denny opened with a description of the New Zealand forces’ stationing at the Hotel Danieli. Byrt linked that earlier example of New Zealand’s contribution to global affairs with the opening of Denny’s exhibition in Venice 70 years later: “a test of New Zealand’s contemporary political significance”. Byrt says that Denny made him rethink the significance of personal memories linked to historical moments. Now his writing on Denny’s art is having a similar effect on me.

I found this book thought-provoking and personally resonant. Alongside the description of the modern art world is a reflection on how contemporary New Zealanders negotiate our tangled global whakapapa to contribute to international conversations. I might have considered these ideas before, but not with such a focus on the role that art plays. I believe Anthony Byrt has come up with something quite profound here. I look forward to reading more of his writing.

Reviewed by Dr. Rebecca Gray

This Model World: Travels to the Edge of Contemporary Art
by Anthony Byrt
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408589

NWF: The Great Debate: Toby Manhire, Michele A’Court, Paula Morris & Leilani Tamu with Te Radar

te-radar

Te Radar

Okay, I’ll admit it – after the release of the now-infamous NZ Book Council research report, I was disappointed that these four debaters emerged from this session with their limbs still attached. The moot “Do New Zealand Books Need Special Treatment?” has become so topical in the past week that the organisers of the National Writers Forum must have been delighted by both their foresight and brilliant luck. I myself reveled in the pre-glow of what I hoped would be a bitter bloodbath, ending with Te Radar’s tender hand floating across the tops of long stems of golden wheat. But Te Radar isn’t Russell Crowe, and this was no Gladiator.

 

Overall this session was less battle to the death and more battle of the wits, and boy, did Manhire come out swinging. Leader of the affirmative team, Manhire suggested that, yes, New Zealand books do need special treatment – in almost every sense of the phrase. Not only do they need to be stroked, cared for, given attention, and lovingly durasealed – and New Zealand writers given resources and plenty of biscuits – but sometimes New Zealand books also need “special” treatment – their prices slashed as they’re chucked into the Whitcoulls cheap basket.

Paula Morris followed up with a compelling argument from the negative team, stating that Manhire and A’Court are both “strange and volatile people”. She argued that New Zealand books aren’t basket cases, and that they need to be given the opportunity to stand up and skirmish with international titles on general fiction shelves – very sensible.

Michele A’Court responded on behalf of the affirmative team, explaining that reading New Zealand’s special books gave her permission to be a writer. Separating New Zealand literature was not a way to weed out New Zealand titles from the good books, but to wave, to say “I’m like you, come and find me.”

Leilani Tamu replied with a poignant anecdote of her child’s first take-home reader – about the importance of engaging with and bonding over a love of story, not identity. New Zealand books need to assert themselves, she said, because they are worthy of the world stage.

What do I think? I have no bloody idea. The treatment of New Zealand books is currently so contentious, with so many credible arguments for each side, that it’s not an issue that I feel my small voice would progress. Perhaps, as Te Radar said, “it really doesn’t make any difference who won this debate”. Another brilliant you-really-had-to-be-there session by the National Writers Forum.

Event attended and reviewed by Emma Bryson

Image of Te Radar from: http://johnsonlaird.com/our-mcs-entertainers-speakers/Te_Radar

 

WORD: The Power of Poetry: Dr Paul Millar with CK Stead, Selina Tusitala Marsh, Ali Cobby Eckerman, Fiona Kidman and Bill Manhire

While it was raining and bleak out in the street
We had wonderful words to finish the week.

So National Poetry Day saw five craftspeople read and discuss their poetry, in this, the second poetry-focused event of today. Dr Paul Millar from the University of Canterbury had cleverly selected a number of poems to introduce the guests.Auden was read to introduce CK Stead, because Stead has a great love of Auden.

Stead shared some of his tasks as Poet Laureate and the guidelines that come with such a commission. WW100 was written for the Navy on the 100th anniversary of WW1. He read a series of beautiful vignettes; each a glimpse of some aspect of war. They were very visual and included Mansfield reflecting on the loss of her brother, ‘Gallipoli’, ‘Passchendaele’ and ‘In Memorium’. This final poem was for his Great Uncle.

We then moved to the more lyrical poetry of Selina Tusitala Marsh. ‘Eviction Notice 113’ was written on the death of her mother and links the family home to her mother, as gradually one becomes the other. Her reading was rhythmic and musical and urgent. It really made the words come to life, truly put them in orbit. Her next offering was the poem she was commissioned to write for Queen Elizabeth. We had the conditions, the guidelines, the performance and the response. It was a very clever way to use words, to unite 53 Commonwealth nations.

Ali Cobby Eckerman is an Australian poet who weaves her Aboriginal experiences into her poems. Meeting her removed son at 18, her own Mother at 35. This was gritty writing, raw and difficult. ‘I Can’t stop Drinking’ says much about how experiences shape us, and the danger of judging on appearances. “…don’t judge too hard, cos you don’t know what sorrows we are nursing.”

Fiona Kidman took us to her childhood memories of country living, ‘living at the end of Darwin road’. The landscape plays a big part in her poetry. She reflected on the Irishness of her Dad and her memories of Christmas.

Finally Bill Manhire launched us into a list of all the things we had as kids in the 1950’s. It was brilliant and I just itched to rush off and create a visual. I loved his quote from Emily Dickinson about poetry, “a prolonged hesitation between sound and sense”. He also shared a poem commissioned for the war memorial services. ‘Known Unto God’ brought the Somme experience to the current time, and finished with a young girl in the Mediterranean.

It was a powerful hour of wondrous words. I was reminded of the importance of spoken poetry, rather than my silent personal reading.

We ventured back out to the dark, wet streets with a song of words in our hearts to keep us warm.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

(ed’s note: books to come. Possibly also pictures.)