AWF18: Aflame, with Megan Dunn and Gigi Fenster

AWF18: Aflame, with Megan Dunn and Gigi Fenster

Aflame was one of those lovely little sessions of chatter between three people who know, understand and appreciate one another. In many ways, it’s these sessions in the slightly smaller spaces, with purely local voices, that really feel like the heartbeat of the festival.

In ‘Aflame’, the focus was on creative non-fiction by two talented New Zealand-based women. Gigi Fenster and Megan Dunn were the writers, and Carole Beu of the Women’s Bookshop was the highly competent chair. Carole understands what festival audiences want from a panel session – she was, as she said at the intro, a long term Auckland Writers Festival board member – ‘though not anymore, I’d been there too long’. That legacy of experience does makes her a prized chair.

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Megan Dunn, Gigi Fenster and Carole Beu – used with the permission of Auckland Writers Festival

Carole highlighted the fact that she wanted to ensure that the discussion got across ‘how wonderfully quirky’ they both are. And as for the title of the session, it was obvious, with ‘fire and burning and fever’ winding their way through both books.

And then, both authors had the chance to expound upon the story behind their books – Dunn’s Tinderbox and Fenster’s Feverish.

Tinderbox was borne from Dunn’s desire to create a revamped version of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451… and then evolved from there, shifting from novel to memoir in the process. She talked through her background as a roving bookseller, at Borders (RIP) in both Wellington and the UK – describing the dying days of the chain as engaging with customers who were ‘picking over the carcass for bargains’. Likely relatable for a few other booksellers out there!

Fenster touched on why fever was her focus for her memoir – describing how she ‘saw fever as a very kind of creative thing’, relating it to a sense of what went on in Victorian children’s books, with sickly but fascinating characters. ‘The initial idea was to induce a fever and then track that’, Fenster said, but thankfully for her own wellbeing, after a little research into both methods and ramifications, she thought better of it.

Both authors, after their initial contextualisations, read from their books. Dunn began hers by dedicating it to the Elam Fine Arts Library – eliciting a cheer from the crowd. The short passage started with light humour but brought in heavy elements as the temporal positioning became clear – it was set on the day of the London Underground bombings.

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Megan Dunn, Gigi Fenster, Carole Beu – used with the permission of Auckland Writers Festival

At the reading’s end, Beu commented that it was an interesting choice, something so weighty, when so much of the book is hilarious, to which Dunn deadpanned ‘I bring the humour, but I bring the pain too’.

Fenster’s piece spoke of the time when her brother was desperately ill with meningitis, and examined the former role of ‘the watcher’ in the medical profession – those who would sit and wait and watch the patient until the fever broke. The significance of progress was covered, with the vast achievement of ‘I can get it myself’ (in reference to a cup of water) repeated, mantra-like.

While not discounting the care given or the medicine administered, Fenster did come to the conclusion that ‘it was the watching’, her father’s sitting at his bedside and watching him through the night, that saw her brother through.

Both writers took a wander through other aspects of the lead-up to their creating these works. Fenster spoke about a family holiday to Swaziland, where she read Wuthering Heights through the night and had the adult joy of the shared literary experience with her father. She also explained the way that some of the conversations – in what is still a non-fiction book – were created, rather than collected verbatim, but still told complete truths of the experience of the time.

Dunn explained National Novel Writing Month – NaNoWriMo to those up with acronyms – to an enquiring Carole, summing it up as ‘a writing community, with the aim to write a 50 thousand word novel in the month of November’.

She was of the ‘use it as a deadline’ school of NaNo, rather than the online forum-focused option. But in her solitude, she gave it a go, and in 2013, she succeeded, getting her 50K across the line in time. The timers that factored into the plot of Tinderbox arose from her time holding herself accountable for NaNo, with half an hour of writing before work each day.

It was a friendly, upbeat vibe, with plenty of laughter for guests and audience like. One particularly glorious – and interactive moment – was the encouraged discussion of ‘porn names’, according to the internet suggestion of ‘first pet name’ + ‘mother’s maiden name’. While I won’t repeat the specifics here, since that particular internet challenge is rather uncomfortably often a means of digging for password prompt answers – and I don’t want to jepoardise her cyber security – suffice it to say that Beu’s response was the perfect level of filthy to take the audience away in gales of laughter. The perfect way, indeed, to spend a Saturday festival afternoon.

Reviewed by Briar Lawry

Tinderbox
Published by Galley Beggar Press
ISBN 9781910296820

Feverish
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561803

 

AWF18: Wrestling with the Devil – Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

AWF18: Wrestling with the Devil – Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Occasionally at festivals like this, you get moments of where you feel utterly honoured by someone’s presence. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is one such person. While his name was not one I was familiar with before the AWF announcements, a little reading up in advance of his session quickly had me bowled over. And then, despite his 80 years, he proceeded to bowl me over once again at his main AWF session.

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Ngũgĩ was in conversation with Kubé Jones-Neill, who, perhaps deducing that many in the audience had not yet read extensive amounts of Ngũgĩ’s work, noted that the aim for the session would be to introduce his wider body of work to the audience, and provide a context for his writing to date.

Kubé began with a line of questioning around the transitional era in which Ngũgĩ grew up, mentioning that he was born into colonial Kenya, but by the time he graduated from university, ‘it was an independent Kenya.’

As he would prove charmingly adept at doing to over the next hour, Ngũgĩ took the reins of the conversation and drove things in rather a different direction. Eventually, we would get back to his formative years, but first of all there were important stories to be shared about his relationship with New Zealand.

He first visited Aotearoa in 1984, when he was invited to give the Robb Lectures at the University of Auckland – lectures that would ultimately lead to the publication of Decolonising the Mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature, one of his best known non-fiction works. These language-oriented lectures coincided with Māori Language Week, which was perhaps part of what spurred a conversation he had with a Māori woman after one of the lectures.

‘She said, “you are not talking about Kenya – you are talking about us – the Māori people”.’ – an anecdote that spoke to the power and parallels of the post-colonial experience across the world.

This conenction with UoA led to Ngũgĩ’s being awarded with an honorary doctorate in 2005. ‘So technically,’ he said with a grin, ‘I’m an old student! I’m back home.’

Having meandered a ways from Kubé’s question, Ngũgĩ was suddenly perhaps conscious of this fact, as before he headed on another tangent, he turned to her and asked ‘can I say this?’

Permission happily granted, he shared a tale about how he came to love mussels, courtesy of a trip to Waiheke on a previous Kiwi voyage. ‘In the Kenyan highlands, they are very suspicious of things that come from the sea. To her dying day, my mother would not eat fish – even if she was starving.’

So he was very suspicious of shellfish, mussels among them. But when in Auckland, Selina Tusitala Marsh invited him on a trip over to Waiheke, and while they walked on the beach together, Selina collected ‘some things’. They returned to her house, and her mother cooked ‘something’. When the food was laid out, it was – to Kenyan highlander Ngũgĩ’s horror – mussels. But unable to refuse food cooked by his friend’s mother, he ate it – ‘and from that day on, we became converts. Wherever we go, we ask for mussels.’

Courtesy of this revelation – and other soft spots for our shores, Ngũgĩ said firmly: ‘New Zealand is always on my mind.’

Appetite’s for cheerfully enchanting stories having been whetted by the mussel story, Ngũgĩ finally turned back to his earlier years. ‘As a novelist, you’re always drawing on the resources of your own life.’

He was born on the eve of the Second World War to a family with one father and four mothers – his own biological mother his father’s three other wives. It was his mother that really had the biggest impact on his life. ‘She couldn’t read or write, but her dream of education was realised [through me].’ She was the one who pushed him into school, to achieve great things. And even though she couldn’t read his work and keep tabs on his progress that way, Ngũgĩ said ‘She had a way of asking probing questions until she had an idea of knowing how I was doing.’

She put in his head ‘the idea of the best’, he said­, though he also said that ‘she was more interested in whether or not I put in enough effort.’

In an ongoing effort to provide as much valuable context for the audience as possible, he described the segregated nature of his school – Alliance High School – and an African History 101 type brief overview of settler versus non-settler colonies. While inside the school gates he took lessons and expanded his horizons, the outside world was a place of war and fights for liberation.

‘School became a kind of refuge for me. You could close your eyes and not hear the sound of war.’ When he went home to his village after his first term, he returned to a place that had been razed to the ground. ‘Desolation,’ he described it. ‘I’m getting teary when I think about it now.’

And university came next – specifically, Makarere University. ‘For me, it was a remarkable period in my life, those four years between ’59 and ’64 – when I graduated. I came out with an honours degree, two novels, eight short stories, newspaper articles and so on.’

Kubé asked him what he had been writing about, to which Ngũgĩ responded: ‘I was trying to understand myself in history.’

After a little tale about how his first novel was written for a competition – and therefore ‘for money!’ rather than love of the craft. Discussion wove around his journalistic pursuits, his scholarship to the University of Leeds – which was a real eye-opener for Ngũgĩ, introducing him to different types of thinkers like Marx and writers like Conrad, all of which had their respective influences on him.

Every fragment of his history that was shared seemed to have some kind of evocative fish out of water moment – like when he was invited to New York for PEN’s international conference, and he found himself trying out different poses for how a writer ‘should’ sit.

But the next core focus of the discussion was of his shift in his approach to writing and language and to the surrounding colonial environment.

He was instrumental in the ‘abolition of the English department’ at Nairobi University – really a shift in naming and focuses to beyond the traditional Britain-focused literary tradition, moving from Department of English to Department of Literature. ‘We were accused of abolishing Shakespeare – but no, Shakespeare would still be there, alongside other writings.’

‘That was the beginning of my fracas with the postcolonial government in Kenya.’

Petals of Blood, published in 1977 was the last novel Ngũgĩ wrote in English – marking a shift to prioritising his native tongue of Gikuyu. Devil on the Cross was written in a maximum security prison in 1978, where he was detained without charge for a year after his involvement in the setting up of African theatre in the area.

The conversation continued for a little while longer, reestablishing his connections to and fondness for New Zealand. Prior to his final reading, he kept getting caught on tangent after tangent, contextualisation after contextualisation – and ultimately, everything was the richer for it. This was a man of incredible history and reputation, and we were more than happy for him to drive the session on his own terms.

Reviewed by Briar Lawry

Wrestling with the Devil
Published by Vintage
ISBN 9781784702243

AWF18: Dear Oliver – Peter Wells

AWF18: Dear Oliver – Peter Wells

The brilliant mind of Peter Wells was out in full force in his session, where he was in conversation with writer and producer David Herkt. Herkt introduced Wells as ‘an author who writes both with a fountain pen and mobile’ – an apt and literal descriptor of a man who has penned – and typed – in venues both traditional and modern.

As the session name – Dear Oliver – suggested, the primary focus was on Wells’ most recent release, Dear Oliver, while also touching on his cancer diaries, which recently won him the gong for Best First-Person Essay or Feature at the Voyager Media Awards.

‘Wells has never simply been an writer, not that writing is ever simple,’ Herkt said, and Wells agreed.

‘In terms of the shape of my career, it has this social activist impulse threaded through it – it’s not a strictly literary career in that way.’

Herkt rattled off just a few of the different aspects of Wells’s background – from his involvement in the early days of gay liberation in Auckland, to his ‘instrumental’ role in saving the Civic Theatre from demolition, to co-founding (with Stephanie Johnson) this very festival.

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Peter Wells, photo courtesy and copyright Auckland Writers Festival

Such a path has not been without challenges.

‘New Zealand has a really abrasive culture. It’s not particularly supportive for those in the arts,’ Wells commented (to nods around the audience). Expounding on his literary and artistic influence, he went on to comment that ‘probably the most important thing in my life in relation to my writing was my keeping a diary. I kept a diary from childhood onwards – religiously through my morbid teenage years and episodically through my adult years.’

Segueing from discussion of using his phone and Facebook to write what became the ongoing cancer diaries, Herkt asked Wells about the 140-characters or less, Twitter-esque version. ‘Well, I’m not so sure about Twitter,’ Wells hedged. ‘But it’s the history of Pākehā New Zealand told through one family.’

The title Dear Oliver is taken from the fact that the book is addressed to Oliver­ – ‘a young boy growing up in San Francisco with two gay mothers… with the hope that he would understand some of his New Zealand past.’

So it dove deeper into his family history, in Napier, positioning the book as part of a pseudo-trilogy of sorts about Napier (following on from The Hungry Heart (his book on William Colenso) and Journey to a Hanging (a portrait of Kereopa Te Rau). But this title was intensely personal and close to home, as he described some of the influences feeding into its writing and its tone.

‘[Moving to New Zealand] was quite a dystopian experience for most Pākehā migrants… they left everything behind,’ he commented, making specific reference to the economic positioning and according history of his own British tīpuna. ‘Because middle class families wrote so many letters, you tend to get a history of the middle class. But this family was sort of lower-middle class, so we ended up with a story that isn’t told as much.’

But now it is. And if the discussion around it – and the readings from it – are anything to go by, it’s a story very well told. This blogger definitely needs to put it on her to-read list!

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Peter Wells, photo courtesy of and copyright of Auckland Writers Festival

There was also some briefer discussion of ‘Hello Darkness’, the title Wells has given to his cancer diaries. Wells commented that Hello Darkness has many of the same characteristics as Dear Oliver – the same highly personal tone, for one. In introducing how it came about, Wells self-aware-ly said that ‘on November 12th last year, I found myself in hospital with a “very bad case of cancer”, which sounds ridiculous’ – but was, ultimately the truth of it. ‘I had prostate cancer, and it had gotten into my bones without me being aware of it.’

Understandably, such a diagnosis provoked an emotional response. ‘I began questioning my own mortality and mortality in general.’ The Facebook posts started simply as a way of making sense of his situation, and sharing his goings on with his friends – and obviously grew significantly in audience and appreciation from there.

The overall tone of the event was upbeat, a sense of banter between friends despite the ‘Big C’ looming over things. Herkt had plenty curveballs to send Wells’ way. ‘In some ways, it’s a writer’s duty to blab, is that what you’re saying?’

‘To be truthful, yes,’ Wells replied – an almost agreement, and a suitable summary of his art of the non-fiction craft.

 

 

Reviewed by Briar Lawry

Dear Oliver
Published by Massey University Press
ISBN 9780994147363

AWF18 – In the Afterlife, with David Eagleman, Courtney Sina Meredith, Robert Webb and Neal Stephenson

AWF18 – In the Afterlife, with David Eagleman, Courtney Sina Meredith, Robert Webb and Neal Stephenson

The Heartland Festival Room is the place where music and literature mingle in the festival season. In The Afterlife, an 8:45pm session to wrap up the first night of festival goings-on, was a gently rollicking hour of words and melody from an achingly talented group of people.

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The basic premise of the session was the reading of stories from Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, David Eagleman’s collection of beautiful snippets of imagined afterlives – but rather than simply David at the mic the whole time, reading duties were shared with other festival guests: Robert Webb, Neal Stephenson and Courtney Sina Meredith. Between readings, we were treated to the incredible evocative work of Claire Cowan, a member of the Blackbird Ensemble.

To go into the detail of the stories read would ruin part of the joy of absorbing them yourself – but to comment on the nature of the stories, there is beauty, there is sadness, and there is a whole lot of humour. The first story read, the titular Sum, was an especially delightful collection of statistics – the breakdown of how long the average human spends at certain kinds of activities. Personal highlight? ‘77 hours of confusion.’ – sounds about right. That story seemed like the most clear demonstration of Eagleman’s comment during his introductions – ‘I’m a neuroscientist and writer of fiction. Really they’re part of the same thing – just trying to figure out what’s going on around us.’

Through all this – and through all the readings – Claire Cowan sat to one side of the stage, head down and listening, cello unfurling towards the fabric ceiling of the tent. At each cue, she took up her cello and looping pedal (I presume – or other looping device, I was a long way from the stage!) and began weaving the most magical soundscapes as she built clicks upon breath upon layers of different cello melodies and harmonies. It always astonishes me the sound that a solo instrumentalist with looping abilities can produce – each piece was beautiful and complex.

Each reader brought a slightly different cadence to the story they read – Eagleman obviously had the easy familiarity of an author sharing his own work, while Webb brough some comedically trained lightness and Stephenson the slightly somber tone of a novelist of hefty works. Meredith’s poetic inclinations came through in her slightly more lyrical delivery. At the heart of each reading, however, was a real enthusiasm for Eagleman’s work, which was very quickly passed on to those of us in the crowd who weren’t yet familiar with his work.

Reviewed by Briar Lawry

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives
Published by Random House US
ISBN 9780307389930

Each of the guests will appear again during the festival:

AWF18: Festival Gala Night – True Stories Told Live: Under Cover

AWF18 Festival Gala Night- True Stories Told Live: Under Cover 

The authors in this session were Susie Boyt (England), Lisa Dwan (Ireland); Gigi Fenster (South Africa/NZ); Alex Ross (US); Damon Salesa (Samoa/NZ); Tom Scott (NZ); Shashi Tharoor (India); and Jenny Zhang (US). Each of them have sessions later on in the Auckland Writers Festival programme. 

Tara Black illustrates, and Briar Lawry gives us her take on the session. 

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Illustrated notes copyright Tara Black


Briar Lawry words 

The ‘True Stories Told Live’-themed Gala Night is by now a core part of the Auckland Writers Festival to look forward to each time May rolls around. This year’s theme, Under Cover, made for some riveting listening that would prove, as Festival Director Anne O’Brien said in summary: ‘some of them make you laugh, all of them make you think’.

But that’s putting the cart before the horse. In front of a packed ASB Theatre, O’Brien gave a world of welcome, and acknowledged the contribution of both the ‘generous and highly discerning funding partners’ and the support of individual patrons. She shared a few stories, the ‘profound moments’ provided by the festival so far – often relating to the great lengths taken by many of the festival guests to get here, to our far flung corner of the world.

She made one particularly significant comment: ‘We cannot change the privilege that we are born with – but we can change what we do with the privilege.’ This felt particularly relevant, given the predominantly Pākehā make up of the audience, especially when contrasted against the relative diversity of the writers of the night’s line-up. With the likes of Chinese-American writer Jenny Zhang, Indian writer and politician Shashi Tharoor and Samoan Kiwi Damon Salesa on stage, the stories being told frequently uncovered experiences unknown to the audience at large. (To be clear, I count myself among that ‘audience at large’ – while I am perhaps on the younger side of those in attendance, I am still a Pākehā woman.)

Things kicked off with someone a little closer to home and attendee demographic, with Tom Scott regaling the crowd with the story of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s summitting of Everest. He leaped between the hilarious, the meaningful, and the charmingly lewd. From Hillary’s blokiness to Norgay’s prayers of forgiveness as they continued the climb up this sacred peak, it was a rollicking start to the storytelling.

Jenny Zhang was next up, with an easy-going speaking style and a tale of life as a ‘latchkey kid’ and new arrival to New York City as a primary-school-aged child. ‘The curious case of the abandoned underwear’, she described it, going into the detail of an incident of a pair of knickers tripped over in the classroom. This small moment was skillfully connected back to Zhang’s arrival from Shanghai a couple of years earlier, with beautiful moments of remembering laid out for us to enjoy – looking up at the sky while crossing the Williamsburg Bridge between Manhattan and Brooklyn and thinking oh my god, the moon has followed me here – I’m so special.

Her story wove into days of being shut away at home for her lonesome safety, while creating elaborate potential futures, on which she mused ‘I was so delusional. I was so happy in my delusions.’

Taking ‘under cover’ to mean assuming a persona or acting, critic and author Alex Ross assured us that acting is ‘something for which I have no talent whatsoever’. But, as he pointed out, there was ‘the sense of assuming an identity before coming out’.

Ross led us through the story of his return to his secondary school to speak to the Gay/Straight Alliance club – something that he, a closeted child of the 80s could never have dreamed of existing at his ‘conservative, Episcopalian, all-boys’ school. His era was one when ‘the word gay wasn’t as common as the word fag’, he said, so to have this opportunity to be invited with open arms – to a talk in the school chapel, no less – was something else.

Susie Boyt had a more practised delivery than those who came before – each word feeling a little more rehearsed, but not at the detriment to her story. She spoke of the oddities of life as a writer and the gaps betwen writing, reckoning that ‘the life you’re living when you’re not writing becomes so far-fetched’. She also made the quite fair point that the phrase ‘you’ve made your bed, now lie in it’ is ‘actually quite comforting when taken literally. How’s that for under cover(s)?

Damon Salesa’s story of his preteen pilgrimage with his father to Manuʻa in American Samoa hit the balance of humour and gut punches, as he spoke about the experience of being in the direct line of the devastating Cyclone Tusi in 1987. The candid Kiwi kid matter-of-fact humour – ‘when you grow up in Glen Innes, and you hear American Samoa, all you hear is America’, with a touch of his Pasifika roots ‘I had a very Samoan problem – my jandal got caught’.

Salesa’s poignant reference to a woman from the village covering him and his young cousins with a shower curtain as limited protection from the elements brought home the ‘under cover’ intentions of the night – while his description of flying the US flag upside down to indicate distress brought a dose of haunting reality to his piece.

South African-born and now Aotearoa-based lawyer and writer Gigi Fenster had the audience in stitches as she waxed lyrical about her daughters’ tattoo planning – and how low her bar could or should be for tolerance of these specific ways of taking ownership of newly adult bodies. She was unafraid to poke fun at herself: ‘when it comes to bellybutton and tongue piercings, I am a bougie snob’, and played up the under cover aspect in her contemplating her own double life of lawyer-ing and writing.

Lisa Dwan was a bright and delightful presence on stage as she explained her curious instances of the universe knocking her and Alec Baldwin (and his wife, Hilaria) together. ‘No one knows’, she intoned at the start of her story, ‘what fecking path life is going to put you on’. Certainly the lightest and fluffiest in tone of the stories being shared, Dwan’s inherent performative talent meant it didn’t feel that it was out of place – just a shift from what had come before.

The final guest to take to the stage was Shashi Tharoor, an Indian politician and writer. His story was, he said from the outset, not a personal story, but one with a personal connection. It was certainly the heaviest of the stories, in his describing of the ways in which First World War-era India was made hollow promises by the British. The specific instance referred to was the horrific Amritsar massacre, where over 1000 were gunned down due to being in a gathering of Indians together – while all they were there to do was celebrate Baisakhi, a Sikh spring festival.

While he gave the atrocities their due emotional resonance, he did manage to add pops of levity before getting to the really awful stuff – the comment ‘The sun never set on the British Empire, because even God couldn’t trust the English in the dark’ elicited laughter from the audience – and it wasn’t until he told the full story that it became clear just how true that comment was in connection with this tragic event.

As is always the way with these gala nights, it was the perfect way to kick off the festival proper. The emotional ups and downs are a certain precursor of the events to come – and it provided a chance to catch a glimpse of some writers perhaps previously unknown.

Reviewed by Tara Black in pictures, and Briar Lawry in words.

Each person named above is linked to their bios, which will in turn take you to the sessions at which you can catch these eminent writers. 

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’.
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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.
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‘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

AWF17: Time Travel – James Gleick

Time Travel with James Gleick, chaired by Graeme Hill was at 6pm, Saturday 20 May at the Auckland Writers Festival.

Graeme Hill got the audience on side before James Gleick even managed to get on stage. The early arrival of the chair – or more correctly, the slightly delayed arrival of the writer – gave him the chance to pull out a few decent time travel cracks before things really got started. One wonders how carefully he had to practice his brief backwards sentence.

But then the man of the hour, James Gleick, stepped on stage, and both chaps took their seats. There was no mucking around, with Graeme going straight in with a statement-turned-question about Newton and the seeming impossibility of his intellect and ability.

james gleick.jpg

James Gleick

‘I feel the same way – that’s the central mystery of Isaac Newton,’ James replied. ‘And this may be a cheesy segue, but I wish I had a time machine.’

Cheesy it may have been, it served its purpose. And who doesn’t love a little morsel of a pun to kick off an evening session after a long day of being overwhelmed by wave after wave of literary talent and intrigue

James Gleick’s book Time Travel: A History weaves together literary history with physics and philosophy to present a thoroughly researched piece of work exploring this concept that has fed into so many different tales over the past century. But for many, the fact that the idea of time travel has only been around since HG Wells’  The Time Machine is bewildering – at least, according to the explanation made in James’ book. It’s so central to our understanding of science fiction and adventure. As James described it: ‘I know six-year-olds who talk about time travel paradoxes over breakfast’.

time travelBut it seems to hold true. James explained that upon looking into the first instance of “time travel” in the Oxford English Dictionary, it was a back-formation derived from Wells’ hero – the Time Traveller. So many of our pop culture references – Doctor Who, A Wrinkle In Time, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, heck, The Time-Traveller’s Wife, if we want to be really on the nose about it – all of these owe a debt to Well and his decision to have a nameless man travel through time on what amounts to – in James’ words – ‘a fancy bicycle’.

The pair discussed the relationship between science fiction and science fact – and the curious coincidence of Wells writing The Time Machine only about a decade before Albert Einstein put forward his idea of relativity.

Graeme was a very enthusiastic – if not always in a useful manner – interviewer, full of gestures and exclamations that certain concepts were blowing his mind. There was a discussion about the idea of time travel as it currently plausibly ‘exists’ – the idea that someone moving away from Earth very quickly, near the speed of light, will experience time more slowly than someone back home. But this is on such an tiny, tiny scale that the time gained would be in the realm of a fraction of a second. After Graeme went into great detail about this idea, James begrudgingly acknowledged the truth of it.

‘You can call that time travel… but it’s pretty disappointing.’

Graeme used his powers of gesture and outrage at the limits of physics to question, why time, when compared to the three spacial dimensions, could only go in one direction. James explained that in this situation, ‘the idiot’s answer’ is the one he tends to side with. ‘Before we got into time as a dimension, it didn’t matter – we just knew that the past is gone and the future is yet to come. All that is knowable is the present.’

They talked through Newton’s Laws of Motion, and how the work just as well backwards as forward – until they don’t. The example of snooker balls bouncing around on a table was put forward – play any one fragment of a video of them bouncing back or forward, and they are basically the same. But play that opening moment backwards, and the balls suddenly all join together in a perfect triangle – and that just doesn’t happen.

They talked multiverse theory, briefly, and brought in a few more pop culture references, and then wrapped up with questions. James may have been better served by a slightly less animated chair – maybe we ought to arrange a spot of time travel to make that happen ­– but the conversation still packed a whole lot of big thinking in to an hour.

Attended and reviewed by Briar Lawry for Booksellers NZ

Time Travel
by James Gleick
Published by Fourth Estate Ltd
ISBN 9780008207670