Book Review: The Fuse Box – Essays on Writing, edited by Emily Perkins and Chris Price

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_fuse_boxWhat a fascinating collection this is. Poets, novelists, playwrights, tutors all write about their experience of writing. Their stories are remarkably different – Elizabeth Knox says she learned stories first as spoken narrative (her old sister Sara told her stories all the time) and later to read independently. That’s not so unusual, most kids hear narrative first – but few have the same talented sister to spin the tales, and even fewer find their creative voice as successfully as Elizabeth Knox has.

James Brown discovered at some point that reading could make him laugh and cry, and that it is not necessarily so for everyone. His piece is an alphabetic framework of his experience of writing and what the intending / aspirational writer should keep in mind. It’s well done and ranges from discovery through flarf (look it up!), intervention and shit detection to zing. It’s a clever idea and it works really well.

Lloyd Jones writes ‘to unlock something I don’t know exists. It’s in me somewhere and I’m in search of it’.

Damien Wilkins sheds light on Dennis McEldowney, among others. Stella Duffy views writing from a mid-point in life, with ideas to assist new writers. As she says, you can ignore all her points except this one: do the work. You have to do the work.

She also says that writing is not hard work. ‘Being a miner is hard work. Working twelve hours a day in a textile sweatshop is hard work………Writing…is not hard work…. but you have to work hard at it’

Patricia Grace is interviewed by her playwright daughter-in-law Briar Grace-Smith in a wonderfully interesting set of questions and answers. Much to be learned here.

For Victor Rodger writing is a political act, and for Nina Nawalowalo, necessity is the mother of her invention – there are stories which need to be told. As Tina Makereti quotes at the beginning of her essay, ‘Beautiful writing alone is not enough. Not now – look around you.’

There is a wealth more in this small book – it’s a really excellent insight into how many of our best writers write, teach, learn and create. If you want to write and don’t know how to begin, most of the experience in this book seems to say “just do it” and then see where it goes. That is really great advice. I think this is a great addition to our New Zealand literary canon, and I just have to end with the most wonderful quote from the last piece in this book, a poem by Hera Lindsay Bird where she says:

‘You start to wonder about the future and the great untitled project of your life

It keeps you up at night, like a big fluorescent sadness’

Maybe the solution to that is simply to start writing.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

The Fuse Box: essays on writing from Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters
Edited by Emily Perkins and Chris Price
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561650

 

AWF17: Behind the Scenes at Landfall

Another free session! Fantastic, and again 300 plus people. There was a real buzz of anticipation from this lively crowd. I suspect many were there to relive old memories of their association with Landfall over the past seventy years that Landfall has been in continuous publication for. The title of the session would suggest the exposure of numerous scandals and raking over the coals for juicy stories. A little misleading perhaps, as the session was really about celebrating this seventy year milestone. It would seem all old secrets are staying right where they are, in the Landfall vaults. But the session was lively and interesting, with no need for any salacious details, the history of the journal another intriguing morsel in the saga of publishing in this country.

landfall coversThe session was introduced by writer/editor/curator Peter Simpson who would also appear to be the unofficial historian of Landfall. Although never an editor, he has contributed regularly since 1977. Deeply immersed in NZ literature and its authors, he is very well placed as commentator on the story of Landfall and the place it holds in New Zealand’s literary development. Joining him on the panel was Ian Sharpe, editor 1985-1992, Chris Price who edited from 1993-2000, and current editor David Eggleton. I found it really interesting that each of these three editors were poets before taking up the Landfall mantle. I like to think that the poetry side of their lives provided a perfect outlet when dealing with the tumultuous life of being Landfall editor.

There were a number of themes to come out of each of the editors. Firstly, was the ongoing struggle for survival with rival magazines started up, firstly by Robin Dudding and Islands in 1972, then Sport from Fergus Barrowman in 1989. There is such a small pool of writers in New Zealand, and funding has always been very tight. The journal nowadays only survives thanks to a Creative NZ grant, and very generous funding from current owner Otago University Press. Plus, the goodwill of many contributors.

Secondly, there seems to have been a determined commitment to follow the principles set down by founding editor Charles Brasch. A magazine ‘distinctly of New Zealand without being parochial’, writers were to be paid, the perfect platform to show the world what the voices of this country were all about. There is no doubt that the high standards, level of professionalism and genuine care for New Zealand writing that defined Brasch’s legacy set the standard for the journal. In David Eggleton’s words, Landfall is a ’plucky little magazine, a prime mover of who we are’.

landfall covers 2Thirdly, the journal has always had to work hard at keeping modern and current. From post-war uncertainty around what exactly is New Zealand writing, to the post-modernism of the late 1980’s when Ian was editor, to the magazine being approachable and not too high minded for new/young writers, to recognising the increasing regionalism and cultural diversity of this country. Chris Price is particularly proud of starting the annual Landfall essay competition which is still going, having grown and developed to a high standard, contributing to the literature of this country. The latest winner of this competition is in the current issue, the 70th anniversary issue of the journal. David commented further that attracting new and young writers is a constant challenge, especially with the formidable and intimidating air Landfall has developed around it.

pp_david_eggletonThe fourth theme emerging was how damn tough these editors have had to be. A thick hide would appear to be number one requirement, to cope with being the critic of submitted work, managing writer egos, making suggestions for improvements, plus truckloads of stamina. So much going on all of the time in this 70-year history – definitely the little magazine that could. There is also always conflict over the final choices for each issue. David (left) commented that as editor, you may make mistakes in choosing what to publish, it is very hard to please everybody all the time with the content of each issue. But his final words were that each issue of the magazine ‘becomes a time capsule or a particular moment’. And really what else can it be, the fact it has lasted seventy years is testament to how it continues to be both relevant and controversial.

David spoke briefly on the impact of the digital revolution on the magazine. Landfall Review has been online since 2011, with six reviews of current New Zealand writing put up a month. It also chooses to do reviews of books that aren’t extensively covered by mainstream media, giving a much needed avenue to these lesser known books. David also says he does virtually all his communication by email, which has streamlined his job significantly, but has made his relationships with writers and reviewers less personal. He receives hundreds of submissions for each issue which is fantastic, even if it does require him to make some tough calls.

The session organiser did their cunning best to get the panel to talk about skeletons in line with the session title, but those lips were going to remain firmly sealed. There were glimmerings of the conflicts that followed Denis Glover and Robin Dudding everywhere, as well as Dinny Donovan being difficult. Landfall was always associated with factions – in Wellington the likes of Louis Johnson and Alistair Campbell; Auckland with Keith Sinclair, and Kendrick Smithyman; the North Shore with Frank Sargeson, Janet Frame and Kevin Ireland; and continually stirring the pot with his meddling James K Baxter. Oh, such stories those walls could tell! Maybe we could do with a definitive biography of Landfall – it’s first seventy years.

Attended and reviewed by Felicity Murray on behalf of Booksellers NZ

Behind the Scenes at Landfall
featuring Peter Simpson, David Eggelton, Chris Price and Ian Sharpe
Auckland Writers Festival 2017, Friday, 19 May, 2.30 – 3.30pm

The Odd Woman and the City: Vivian Gornick at #AWF16

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‘That was the best thing, ever. It is so good to be reminded why we go to these things’ said my companion amid the fiercely appreciative clapping at the end of Vivian Gornick’s hour talking with Jolisa Gracewood.

vivian-gornick-body-image-1432301445Feminist, memoirist, journalist, novelist, walker, and owner of wonderful cheekbones, Vivian Gornick (picture above by Mitchell Bach) was captivating, strong and reassuring – rather sweetly assisting Gracewood at one point when she became (charmingly) overwhelmed by the possibilities of their discussion (‘my brain is going in five different directions right now!’).

cv_the_odd_woman_and_the_cityThe hour revolved around Gornick’s latest memoir The Odd Woman and the City, described as ‘part paen and part elegy’. Fifty per cent of New York’s households are single occupancy, and the majority of those households are occupied by women, we learned. Oh to be a woman and to live alone, in a city like New York. Listening to Vivian Gornick is like listening to your best inner feminist self, winning the argument over the worst. Gornick says that the feminist revolution is the ‘longest revolution in history’ and ‘every fifty years we are called something different – ‘new’, ‘free’, ‘liberated’, backhanded descriptions…’

Gracewood asked who is ‘the odd’ woman – good question. For Gornick, her ‘odd woman’ was inspired by George Gissing’s 1890s book called The Odd Woman, in which, Gornick says, she saw herself in Gissing’s descriptions of the early feminist movement. You become the odd woman, she says, when you recognise that you can’t not long for equality.

The other primary characters in Gornick’s book are best friend Leonard and the city of New York. Leonard is the fictionalised version of a very real friend of Gornick’s – a gay man also searching for equality. In their friendship, said Gornick, she sees the paradigm for modern life. The question of writing your life came up several times across the session. In the case of Leonard, Gornick said she knew that the real Leonard was pretty OK with how he was represented because he asked her “can I audition for the role of Leonard?”Alongside this friendship is Gornick’s relationship with the city, which she describes as constantly presenting episodes of theatre (in big cities that is, and no, Auckland does not count – we’re more like California here), always reinventing itself but always remaining the same – ‘It’s the crowds, the blissful anonymity of the people at eye level that are the same. (I don’t look up or I’d wanna kill myself – the buildings look like they’re warring with each other)’.

One of the more moving parts of the hour was when Gornick described the way her relationship with New York shifted after 9/11. She described the loss of nostalgia ‘stunning beyond stunning’ – she was feeling as though she was walking through a devastated landscape. And the only way she found to understand her devastation was to read European novels by women who had experienced war (namely Natalia Ginsberg and Elizabeth Bowen). These stories soothed her because they were ‘looking past the history, beyond the bleakness to tell it like it really was, without sentimentality or nostalgia’. And that is clearly what Gornick prides herself on in her own writing – the ability to tell the hard truths.

cv_fierce_attachmentsGracewood brought the discussion to Fierce Attachments, Gornick’s first memoir about her relationship with her mother and with the woman who lived next door. Both women were widowed but one became a professional mourner and the other ‘the whore of Babylon’ – and Gornick ‘was embroiled between them’. This in-between-ness seems to have defined Gornick for a large part of her life – the struggle to justify herself to herself. Her epiphany came, she said, in her 30s, when she realised that ‘the princess was always after the pea, not the prince’ and the feminist movement came upon her.

Gornick’s mind comes up with striking images – on her discovery of the power of applying her mind to writing she said ‘an image had taken shape in my mind and the sentences were trying to fill that space’ … ‘a rectangle opened up inside my body, clearing space, with myself in the middle wanting to clarify and be clarified’. With that discovery she found joy, safety, peace and understanding. ‘And then I got divorced’.

Question time was hampered by a lack of roving microphone but the best of the lot was: ‘Is Hilary Clinton a feminist?’ Her answer: ‘NO!’ ‘She’s a politician through and through’. Gornick said that Bernie Sanders is important as a provocateur and that Trump is truly dangerous – the hope is that Clinton will get it but only because she’s not Trump.

Gracewood finished the session off with a final question, about Gornick’s idea of the twin persona involved in the writing of a memoir. A vital concept in non-fiction is that you have to pull from yourself the person telling the story and that your narrator contains the tone, the structure. You have to be both sides of the question in non-fiction – you have to find your own part in the conflict so that you have a narrative.

Gornick’s double selves have served her well. And the self on stage today was truly inspiring. What a woman.

Reviewed by Claire Mabey

Vivian Gornick will also appear in the free event Tell It Slant, Saturday 14 May 2016, alongside Steven Toussaint, Stephen Braunias, Chris Price and Joan Fleming

Books:
The Odd Woman and the City, published by Nero, ISBN 9781863958141
Fierce Attachments, published by Daunt Books, ISBN 9781907970658

Book Review: Beside Herself, by Chris Price

Available from bookshops on 21 March 2016.

cv_beside_herselfChris Price’s forthcoming collection, Beside Herself does wonders for the imagination. The mask-like face on the cover evokes the masks used in Greek Theatre; tragedy, comedy and tragicomedy all taking their turns to appear. A playful atmosphere is created throughout the book, where these different styles merge together and flow from one to the other.

There are moments where the poems skip off the tongue and reading them aloud adds a new level of enjoyment to the page. In ‘Trick or Treat’ we are given rhyme after rhyme, hold or sell / kiss or tell / stare or blink / hood or wink – / then / it’s / my air-guitar / your whammy-bar. ‘Antipodean’ plays with opposites and other contrasts, I am the wrong / way round, my north, / your south, my up, / your down, your Krone / my Crown. These poetic moments are not only enjoyable to go through, but they bring a lightness to the poetry, a comedy of sorts.

In contrast there are some more serious moments that balance out the more light-hearted pieces. ‘Paternity test’ starts out with the lines Here is how it is: / if I cannot kill you / I will kill myself. / As I cannot kill you / I will kill myself. Price easily exchanges one mask for the other, moving from comedy to tragedy between the pages, but it doesn’t feel forced, more like a natural progression that goes back and forth. This movement keeps each poem fresh, and as you continue to read, more and more voices and characters appear.

Perhaps the most interesting characters, and one that is given a lot of space, is the medieval thuggish Churl form the long poem ‘The Book of Churl.’ This poem spans twenty-eight pages, dealing with the life of this strange figure from the past. He is not like the knights commonly found in medieval literature, carrying a cudgel instead of a magic sword or lance, and his princess turns out to be a girl he finds in the forest at night. If he were a hero, something / would happen now. Instead, he lives / a long unhappening. Unadventure, / unbirthdays, unrest. But his ‘unheroicness’ is endearing in a way, and his character sticks out and feels whole, and the drawing that follows the poem seems to capture his essence.

The drawings by Leo Bensemann that bookend the different sections of Beside Herself really help to give even more character to the pages. The figures come to life in the words, both directly and indirectly. It is a refreshing collection, a good mixture brought forth by the different masks, the different voices and characters. At times it is fun and light, at others serious and intense. But above all it is an interesting study of the different personae created by Chris Price.

Reviewed by Matthias Metzler

Beside Herself
by Chris Price, drawings by Leo Bensemann
Published by AUP
ISBN 9781869408466

Book Review: Transit of Venus / Venustransit, by Hinemoana Baker et al

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_transit_of_venusFour years ago three New Zealand and three German poets went on a journey to Tolaga Bay to witness the transit of Venus, an event that occurs in pairs every 120-odd years. Famously, Captain Cook landed on that very spot during a transit of Venus some 250 years ago, for what is regarded as the first friendly encounter between Europeans and Maori.

Now the poems written on and around this trip in 2012 have been curated in a marvellous collection in German and English, some with a Māori component. A number of poems are juxtaposed with their respective translation, some remain within their language; an added air of mystery for monolingual readers. Many of the poems delve into the mysterious, pick up on the goddess theme, such as Uwe Kolbe’s total mythology mash-up Venus, Ein europäischer Transit … , or bring the surroundings into the poetry; and then there is the odd (very odd) shanty.

Just as the Transit of Venus can only be observed through a telescope, many of the translations involved an intermediary to aid with clarity between the languages. Translations were collaborated on via skype, which means the poems went up into space before landing back on earth in their altered form. It is this complex web of interaction and intermediacy, which makes this project so interesting.

The collection is rounded off with a profile of each poet and an interview with the three German poets, at least one of whom had never been to New Zealand before. Another first encounter for them.

This collection is exciting on so many levels. The reader does not need to know all the languages involved to be able to enjoy the interplay, but it sure adds another level. What we have here is a voyage of discovery, an experience of proximity and distance in time, space and language. A connection forged between two continents. May it persist and prosper.

Reviewed by Melanie Wittwer, English/German translator

Transit of Venus | Venustransit
by Hinemoana Baker, Ulrike Almut Sandig, Glenn Colquhoun, Uwe Kolbe, Brigitte Oleschinski, Chris Price
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9780864739797