WORD Christchurch: Starry, Starry Night

WORD Christchurch: Starry, Starry Night

‘What a nice guy!’ Poet Hollie McNish exclaimed of host John Campbell as she took the stage. Campbell was in his usual fine form, gushing over each of the gala night’s participants, generating excitement for who and what we were about to see. He picked up the festival’s theme of adventure, and wove together his introduction, equally generous in his praise of each of the seven storytellers, poets, writers, activists, and filmmakers.


First to take the stage was Joseph Hullen, a Ngāi Tahu storyteller. Hullen was a perfect choice to ground the proceedings, a local who talked of the increased visibility of his iwi and their story in post-quake Ōtautahi.

Next up was Scottish poet Robin Robertson, who read grim poems that captivated the audience. Robertson has been blessed with the kind of voice you could easily listen to for hours, slow and deep, with just the right amount of gravel. He dedicated his final poem to programme director Rachael King, who has brought all of these seemingly discordant writers to her city and bound them together in the epic event that is WORD.

Documentary filmmaker and author Yaba Badoe (Ghana/UK) read the first chapter of her book A Jigssaw of Fire and Stars. The story told of haunting dreams, of a perilous sea journey that ended in destruction, of hope lost, and histories that replay over and over, demanding to be heard.

Hollie McNish announced she was going to read two poems about the most adventurous person she knows – her daughter. They were poems full of love, fear, anger and hope. She then read her poem ‘Polite’ as mentioned by Campbell in his introduction, a hilarious yet poignant tale about a teenager giving her boyfriend a blow job.

Wellington novelist by way of India via Canada, Rajorshi Chakraborti, talked of his latest book, The Man Who Would Not See. He told the tale of researching the personal family story that was the basis for the book. Intended as a work of non-fiction, Chakraborti’s investigations changed the course of his family’s story, meaning he had to switch forms and instead write a novel.

Following Chakraborti, UK author Philip Hoare read two short sections from RisingTideFallingStar. The first told a tale of rotting deer carcass, brutal in its descriptions of the natural world, but switching into fantasy at the end. Then came a piece about a performance of breeching whales, and the audience felt we were right there on the boat, marvelling at the sight.

Sonya Renee Taylor (USA) was a powerful end to the evening’s proceedings. She read a section from her book The Body is Not an Apology, then performed two poems. The first, about her mother, was heartfelt and emotional, leaving more than a few audience members teary eyed. The second, a rousing, powerful, and unapologetic rendition of the piece her book is named for, filled the Isaac Theatre Royal with her presence. It demanded attention, and lifted everyone’s spirits.

John Campbell then retook the stage to remind the audience that what we had seen that night was uniquely special. ‘We go to so many events,’ led Campbell, ‘where we watch the same thing. I’ve watched so many rugby games and seen the Crusaders beat the Hurricanes over and over again.’ Appealing to hometown hearts is always a winner. ‘But what we’ve seen tonight,’ he continued, ‘will never happen again. These seven artists will never again share a stage. They will never again be in a room together. And that’s special.’ And indeed, it was.

Reviewed by Gem Wilder

Other times you can see some of these folks:
Mortification (Robin Robertson – Saturday, 5.30pm)
Hollie McNish and Hera Lindsay Bird: Poetry Stars
Te Ao Hou: Weaving indigenous identity back into Ōtautahi (Joseph Hullen, 2pm Sunday)
The Politics of Fiction (today, 4pm – Rajorshi Chakraborti)
Soundtrack, or, dancing about Architecture (Sunday, 11.30am with Philip Hoare)
Robin Robertson: The Long Take (Sunday, 2.45pm)
The Freedom Papers ( Yaba Badoe – Sunday, 2pm)

Book Review: Tell You What: Great New Zealand Non-fiction 2016, edited by Susanna Andrew & Jolisa Gracewood

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_tell_you_what_2015In his foreword to Tell You What, John Campbell is keen to engage the reader in a discussion about what might constitute ‘New Zealand culture’ these days. He starts out by quoting Allen Curnow: ‘Not I, some child, born in a marvelous year,/ Will learn the trick of standing upright here.’ Campbell goes on to list the ways and individuals in which identity and culture have developed and found expression in the years since Curnow wrote those lines in 1943: the Springbok tour, Bastion Point, frigates in Mururoa, Whina Cooper’s hikoi, Bill Manhire’s poetry, Janet Frame, Flying Nun, Marilyn Waring…

What Campbell is referring to is a two-faceted shift in the way that New Zealanders represent themselves. The first is that many of the people of Aotearoa do now stand conspicuously upright, in many locations, for many reasons — in anger, in celebration, in dissent, in assertion of the need for something better. And linked to this, making it all visible, is the emergent confidence, talent and stridency of our storytellers. There are multitudinous voices, pluralistic points-of-view! And to the great good fortune of the reading public, particularly for those of us who still prefer to read paper books, the second annual instalment of Tell You What has arrived just in time to stave off the despair at contemporary reportage that might, to paraphrase Campbell, have readers climbing into the oven beside the turkey.

So what is going on in New Zealand, for New Zealanders, for New Zealand writers? Judging by this collection, heaps. There are twenty-four pieces, if you count the foreword (which you should, because Campbell is a marvellous writer). There are personal and political accounts from Christchurch, China, Huntly, Frankfurt and the front lines of journalism. There is a lot of humour, which has me thinking that we might be quite a funny people, sometimes. It would be curious to see how much of the humour (Steve Braunias’ satire, Megan Dunn’s surrealism) would translate culturally. If Jermaine and Bret can be known worldwide just by their first names, perhaps the New Zealand sense of humour does cross cultures.

Within the uniformly excellent ranks (there are no weak links in the volume) there are a half dozen prices of writing that particularly resonated with me, either through the subject matter or the style of writing, and usually both combined. Charles Anderson’s account of the sinking of Easy Rider off Bluff combines journalism with a poetic sensitivity. It is a sad, sad story, made all the more harrowing and haunting through being nonfiction.

Braunias writes of his failure to respond adequately when a faulty heater almost sends his house, his daughter and his whole life up in flames. Braunias, like David Sedaris, has the ability to paint failure and weakness in a funny and sad light. His self-absorption rarely crosses over into self-indulgence.

Dunn’s ‘The Ballad of Western Barbie’ begins with an epigram: ‘Two things happen in Huntly: something and nothing. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which.’ Her narration of life in Huntly, as perceived when young and then as a well-traveled adult, is enlivened by conversations with her Western Barbie. It sounds odd from a distance, but it works.

Ross Nepia Himona has thought and written an unhyped analysis of the complexities and contradictions inherent in New Zealand’s ANZAC commemorations. In a piece taken from his blog ‘Lecretia’s Choice’, Matt Vickers offers us a head-and-heart dispatch from the front line. And Sylvan Thomson’s portrait is a funny and tender insider’s tale of how it is to make the physical, social and psychological transition from young woman to young man.

As mentioned earlier, the quality of the collection is even. The overall effect for the reader is a sort of mental and emotional relief, a confirmation that something human and intelligent is consistently being expressed and deciphered in New Zealand. In an era of persistent media and political distortion of life big and small, writing like this offers counterpoint and advice: Don’t simplify complex matters, and don’t complexify simple matters.

Reviewed by Aaron Blaker

Tell You What: Great New Zealand Nonfiction 2016
Edited by Susanna Andrew & Jolisa Gracewood
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408442

AWF15: Carol Ann Duffy, and An Irresistible Critic: Daniel Mendelsohn

Now that’s something I haven’t seen before: John Campbell visibly nervous. British poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, however, seemed calm. They conversed together on stage and Duffy read us some of her wonderful poems.

In some ways it was a strange session. Despite Campbell’s proven skill as an interviewer and his obvious deep admiration of Duffy’s work, they failed to connect. This is partly because Duffy told us she doesn’t enjoy this kind of thing: “I’m keen for people to read my poems but not to read me”. It was also because, in his boyish and – unusually – inarticulate fandom, Campbell came across as just a bit silly. This understandably nonplussed Duffy; even made her a bit impatient.

I would have been happy to spend the whole hour with her alone at the podium telling us about her poems and then performing them – Duffy’s mana was magnetic. She read us three poems from The World’s Wife that I absolutely adored: “Mrs Midas”, “Mrs Tiresias”, and “Mrs Darwin”. The second of these, in particular, got huge laughs – especially the part imagining what men would be like if they got periods (a week in bed, and writing letters to the editor demanding twelve weeks’ a year menstrual leave).

I’m not sure whether Campbell had seen (or heard about) David Mitchell’s session on The Bone Clocks yesterday (which I reviewed here). If he hadn’t, it was a strange coincidence. Mitchell had said he sometimes reads what he’s written and thinks “god I’m good”. Campbell asked Duffy whether she does that. She looked at him like he was nuts. “No.” We were all completely with her.

She read us five poems from Rapture: “Text”, “Tea”, “Row”, “Syntax”, and “Art”. They were sonnets; a form Duffy called “the little black dress of love poems”. There is something very special about hearing poems read aloud to an audience, when we can enjoy them together “in company”, as Campbell said. Someone from the audience asked Duffy whether she writes for performance. She said she doesn’t plan how her poems will sound aloud, but does listen to that silent voice in her head for the music of the poem.

The Irresistible critic: Daniel Mendelsohn

cv-daniel-mendelsohnMy second session today was also my second one about criticism, a subject that interests me greatly. Ian Wedde interviewed US critic, classicist and memoirist Daniel Mendelsohn. He was absolutely charming, and I was fascinated to hear his views about what criticism is, and what the critic’s responsibilities are.

On Friday, in The Role of the Critic, Wystan Curnow said a teacher had told him that “the function of criticism is to postpone value judgement”. Mendelsohn’s view is slightly different: to criticise is to narrate the means by which one has come to a decision (or value judgement) about a work. By making the mechanism of decision-making apparent, the critic also invites the reader to apply their own tastes and opinions, and form their own conclusion. This idea of dialogue, says Mendelsohn, is all part of the fun.

Mendelsohn’s training is in the classics, and he told us that word critic comes from the Greek word meaning to judge. I was delighted to hear Mendelsohn speak passionately about the crucial value of judgement. It’s one of my particular bugbears as well, the way in which, in our culture, judging has become a suspect act. The reason we have intellect, says Mendelsohn, is to enable us to make critical judgements.

Something else Mendelsohn takes very seriously is the critic’s responsibility to do their homework, and actively seek to inform themselves. He said he remembered a teacher telling him “before you write anything you must have read everything”. This idea of amassing a body of knowledge before being licensed to write reminded me of what Nick Davies had said in Hack Attack on Friday. One of the things, said Davies, that journalism must do to survive online is provide what he called “explanation by brilliant people”.

It occurs to me that this phrase could easily have been one of the subtitles of the Auckland Writers’ Festival itself. I am hugely grateful to the organisers and all the speakers. It’s so wonderful to take time specifically to celebrate, share, and generally rub one’s face all over books, words and ideas. Thank you, thank you everyone – and happy reading.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage