Book Review: XYZ of Happiness, by Mary McCallum

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_xyz_of_happinessThe title of Mary McCallum’s poetry collection, XYZ of Happiness, explains just what this book is about: those feelings of happiness that colour our lives. Each letter of the alphabet is used as the first letter of each poem. The first poem is titled, After reading Auden, the second, Bee story, the third, C, and on the poems go in alphabetical order until the final piece, Zambia.

The poem After Reading Auden won the Caselberg International Poetry Prize and it’s a wonderful start to the sequence. Happiness here is found in the midst of nature. McCallum describes the force

of the river’s intimacy, its deep
soundless need—not sour,
not shiftless, but lucid, expressive,

It seems the river is something full of power and emotion, yet still carries a softness. She goes on to describe the sensation of being in the river and falling into all that beauty:

we, the girls
and I, dissolving

And we dissolve with her into the bliss of the moment.

The poem Things they don’t tell you on Food TV was one of my favourites in the collection. In the piece, McCallum shows how food is a great conjurer of happy memories. McCallum talks about the

sun blooming in a bowl, and spooning
yoghurt and honey into a hungry mouth
on whitewashed steps with a turquoise sea

and a donkey crowing and someone calling
kalimera into the bleaching light is just like
scooping up the sun and eating it.

As I read the poem, I was instantly in Greece. The things that McCallum highlights in this poem are beautiful moments that I remember from my time there too. The combination of yoghurt and honey is a wonderful image, and her description of eating the sun and swallowing up that light perfectly describes how heart-warming such a scene can to be. As McCallum states, these memories are things that they don’t tell you on Food TV. They are personal stories.

The danger of writing with such a deep focus on happiness is that it can seem excessive and overdone. Some poems tipped a little to this side. In her poem Just Happiness, McCallum talks about a shop selling ‘Happiness Bowls’ and the image feels overwrought.

But for the most part, McCallum presents happiness in a subtle way. There are poems about when happiness is missing too, and when it’s something that’s being searched for. In the poem C, McCallum talks about a tender subject. The second part of the piece is titled 2. CHEMOTHERAPY. Here, she describes a body

young enough to smell of milk
in the morning, one the mother must
return to sit beside and stand over

McCallum shows a scene of vulnerability and presents the protection that the mother brings. Part of this section’s title is in bold for a reason. Chemotherapy, mother. And from here, McCallum highlights a great little wordplay within the word:

How could we not see it? Listen closely
now for the rest, say the word with soft
mouth lest you miss them: first and last
and barely there, but holding mother like
ribs, the key to (almost) happy.

It leaves you rolling the word chemotherapy in your mouth. She’s right, the mother is always there. Trying to hold things together like ribs, trying to create safe spaces of contentment. Complex poems that explore the different kinds of satisfaction we can feel and create, like this one, gave a true depth to the collection beyond simple bliss.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

XYZ of Happiness
by Mary McCallum
Published by Mākaro Press
ISBN 9780995109223

Book Review: Udon by The Remarkables, by Harvey Molloy

cv_udon_by_the_remarkablesAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

Udon by The Remarkables is an enigmatic and curious title that drew me into this little book of poetry. Harvey Molloy himself is a man of many different worlds: as a teenager, he moved from England to New Zealand and has lived in the United States as well as Singapore. In this way, Molloy chooses not to anchor himself to one experience and instead expands his writing near and far.

The poem that shares the title of the collection is one that places contrasting objects within one piece. There are the ‘black crags of The Remarkables’, mountains that carve out the landscape. And there is a bowl of udon that is just ‘a little oily with a tang of pepper’, which the poet eats alongside the scenery. The amalgamation of these worlds becomes representative of a new world where all these various aspects find a place together to create the present.

The poem A Migraine in Valhalla feels like a stream of consciousness and describes the haziness of such pain. As the poem progresses, it becomes more airy and soft to the point that the centre lines on the road “floated untethered” amongst the light rain, creating a picture of the blurry haziness that comes with a migraine. This imagery typical of magical realism ultimately ends in Valhalla, a majestic and heaven-like place of Norse mythology.

Molloy also offers his own translations of Anglo-Saxan texts, with his aim being to create contemporary poems ‘as they were contemporary for their audiences’. Molloy does, indeed, succeed in this aim. Our song is a beautiful poem laced with the references that ground it within an Anglo-Saxan world—Eadwacer, the Wolf—yet it is crafted with the subtlety and precision that is found in many brilliant modern poems. The tone of longing in the poem Our Song is a human emotion that is still, and will always be, relevant to any reader.

Poem A charm against fever dreams, translated from the Anglo-Saxan, is short and sweet. It is tightly bound in a culture of folklore and, similar to A Migraine in Valhalla, it feels magical and light. Just like a spell, the final verse chants, ‘this charm will never hurt the sick… nor the ones who find it’. For me, these poems gave a new insight into a language that I have always associated with being archaic even in translation and therefore difficult to read; Molloy portrayed these poems in a much more accessible and softer contemporary light.

And with different worlds, come different farewells. Poem The goodbye rejects the romanticism that comes with departure; the idea of reunion and the idealised image of ‘cruising azure highways together’ is out of the question. Nevertheless, Molloy still attempts to comfort those who are left behind, understanding that it can still be a world of beauty where ‘late summer waves’ flow upon the wet sand.

The scope of Molloy’s Udon by The Remarkables is an impressive one that attempts to make sense of all that Molloy discovers. It is a lovely collection that reaches into different worlds and all the way back to Anglo-Saxan texts. Finally, it roots these experiences within the modern world to create an outlook on reality that is just a little bit different and a little bit more magical.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Udon by The Remarkables
by Harvey Molloy
Published by Makaro Press (Hoopla series)
ISBN  9780994117298

The story of Hoopla – three at a time, by Mary McCallum

On my desk at Mākaro Press, I have the four winds, I have all the hoopla, I have a book my friend Vana gave me to write poems in. I’ve started writing in the beautiful handmade book, but not nearly enough. As a new publisher, I find there’s too little time to write, or to read books published by others. It’s all about the books I’m making.mary_mcCallums_desk

Of course Four Winds Press is one of those ‘other’ publishers, or was. And a small Wellington one too, founded by author Lloyd Jones. His vision was to publish essays by New Zealand writers in sets of three – small, smart, thought-provoking books. I collected them until they stopped, and still look for them in secondhand shops. They helped inspire the ‘hoopla’ on my desk: the series of poetry that I launch every year in April, in sets of three: small, smartly designed, thought-provoking collections of poems.

HOOPLA was named for its connotations of commotion, extravagance and play. And three at a time because we like them marching out together – supporting each other at launches and readings and in bookshops, making a splash. Deliberately, we have a late-career, mid-career and first-time published poet, and we make sure we spread ourselves geographically … always a South Islander.

On the bookshelf behind me as I sit at my desk is another series that has always inspired me: Faber poetry. Those plain, bright, font-driven covers I grew up with that – even now – look like they’re in loud and earnest conversation.

Our Hoopla series began in 2014 with the trio of Michael Harlow (Love absolutely I can), Helen Rickerby (Cinema) and Stefanie Lash (Bird murder). Three beautiful, provocative poetry collections in reds, yellows and blues on the themes of ‘love’, ‘film’ and ‘crime’.


The three poets behind their collections. L-R Carolyn McCurdie, Jennifer Compton and Bryan Walpert.

This year, the colours are oranges, yellows, and greens, with a touch of bone. The poets are Jennifer Compton (Mr Clean and The Junkie), Bryan Walpert (Native Bird) and Carolyn McCurdie (Bones in the Octagon), and the themes are ‘vice’, ‘settler’ and ‘south’ (in that order). What a whanau! They cry out (I believe) to be bought, borrowed, held, read, re-read, read from, heard from, collected.

You can find out more about the series on our website and order there, or better: go and ask your local independent bookstore to order the books in (if they haven’t already).

Meanwhile, I am not writing enough in Vana’s book. Nor anywhere else for that matter. I miss it and will redress the balance soon. But it’s early days with Mākaro and it needs me. This too I know … collaborating in making books out of a tendril of an idea or a digital file or dog-eared manuscript is in itself a fabulous creative act. Like an excellent series of books, it gathers its power from the numbers involved, and from its own collective joy.

by Mary McCallum
Publisher, Mākaro Press

Island-styled success with Mākaro Press

I asked three new publishers five questions, in an effort to understand why you would decide to start anew in the current publishing environment (see feature article in The Read last Thursday.)  These are the answers from Mary McCallum from Mākaro Press. Here are the answers from Paper Road Press, and the answers from Pip Adam and Emma Barnes from Cats and Spaghetti Press.

  1. Why did you decide to create your own publishing company?
    I have been involved with books in almost every way except for publishing for years. I am a writer myself, as well as a writing mentor, creative writing tutor and reviewer, and I have worked as an organiser of literary events, a bookseller, and a trustee of a literary residency. I have always supported NZ literature and had thoughts – on and off – about I would go about publishing local fiction and poetry.At the start of 2013 I was working as co-editor on an anthology of Eastbourne writing and we were looking for publishers, at the same time my son Paul (below on the left) had completed an Honours degree in film studies and was looking for work. We employed him to do some work on the anthology and found he was great at what he did, and then it occurred to me that he and I could take the book through to publication ourselves. With local publisher Steele Roberts mentoring us, and generously offering us an office, carpark and computer, Mākaro Press was born. pp_paul_and_mary
  2. You have had some success already – what is your aim with the company? What constitutes success for you?
    We started with a vision but without a plan. We wanted to show New Zealand writing at its best, including those books that might not otherwise be made due to larger publishers contracting, and to make all efforts to get those books into the hands of readers. There is definitely a niche in this country for smaller publishers, and we’re still finding out the size and shape of that niche, but so far we’ve enjoyed exploring it.Eastbourne_pileUnlike some other small publishers starting up at the moment, Mākaro Press aims to be a self-sustaining business that eventually brings an income and makes some kind of profit. The cost structure in this industry and the shift in book-buying practices make that very difficult, but we’re looking at ways of making them work for us. Some things we’re doing are: trying to make our books fit a format to keep costs down, looking at different ways of funding books and marketing them to the communities that will support them, and collaborating with other publishers e.g. ebook publisher Rosa Mira Books. Who knows if we can manage it in the end, we’d like to hope we could.

    Success for us is holding a book in our hands that wouldn’t look as it does, might not even be a book at all, if we hadn’t taken it on, and that feeling is doubled if the reviews are good and people buy the book.

  3. How are you selecting your titles? Have you got a MS pile yet?
    Yes, we have a pile already and I feel guilty about how long it takes me to get through it because so many other things call on my time. We are being sent manuscripts at an increasing rate now that writers have us on their radar, and we go looking for writers, too. We approach poets for our HOOPLA series, and approach other writers we think are writing books we could publish.It takes so much longer than I thought it would reading and assessing manuscripts, thinking about them, and talking to the author before the editing process even begins. I keep in front of me the patience and encouragement of Geoff Walker of Penguin who published my novel The Blue in 2007 after having shown an interest in the manuscript three years earlier, the openness and flexibility of Julia Marshall of Gecko who allowed me two goes at convincing her with Dappled Annie and the Tigrish (published this year), and the respectful but firm approach that editor Jane Parkin — who edited both novels — shows authors. I am also influenced by the personal hands-on approach of Roger Steele and his crew at Steele Roberts.
  4. How are you going with distribution? Is there anything you would like to see booksellers doing?
    I distribute via PDL, with the wonderful Paul Greenberg and Joan Roulston of Greene Phoenix marketing the books to bookshops and libraries. Paul is pragmatic, hardworking, enthusiastic, supportive and fights for our corner. I could help him more by getting our publishing information out earlier than I do i.e. three months before publication, but that’s a bit hard for us to do at the moment. Indie and certain Paper Plus booksellers have been amazingly supportive, and others are coming on board as they get to know our books, but I’d love to see the same support from Whitcoulls. Not just for us, but for New Zealand writers as a whole.It would mean a lot for our business if returns from book sales could make their way to us more quickly than they do (we can wait four months) – this feels like a complex industry issue to do with sales and returns etc rather than something booksellers can sort but they could perhaps contribute to the discussion. It would also make a huge difference to us if booksellers could see their way clear to dropping their cut for NZ books from 40% to 35 or 30%, but as a former bookseller I can understand their position.
  5. I would imagine with a small list, you are easily adaptable for new realities. How are you dealing with future technologies for distributing/publicising your books?
    Yes, we are adaptable. We print a number of our books using print-on-demand, so that means smaller print runs and less outlay all at once, and we have worked out a way of publishing poetry titles by doing them as a bunch (e.g. as a series of three) to keep printing costs down. We are also building a relationship with Rosa Mira Books who are making an e-book of one of our titles. We hope this relationship will lead to more such collaborations.

– Sarah Forster, Booksellers NZ

Book Review: Dappled Annie and the Tigrish, by Mary McCallum

Available from bookstores now, launch on Sunday 9 March 6pm. Details below.

Annie, or more correctly Dappled Annie, and her little cv_dappled_annie_and_the_tigrishbrother Robbie live in a remote (and idyllic) location; their father is the lighthouse keeper. I know this is supposed to be the lighthouse at Castlepoint (the afterword tells me so) but it could be anywhere along the New Zealand coastline. For me, it’s Burgess Island in the Mokohinau Islands of the Hauraki Gulf. A place so remote as to be perfect.

With busy parents, the two children in this book only have each other and their imaginations to fill the long summer days. Annie likes to get close, very close, to the natural world. When she stands surrounded by the interleaving branches, the individual trees come alive. To Annie, the trees are alive; she hears and converses in their language. I found the way the trees come alive a little forced, but in reality, how else do you make trees come alive? The wind brings a pivotal creature – the Tigrish – into the story. And the adventure begins. It was easy to get swept up in the tale and by the end I came to view the hedge as alive as Annie herself.  After all, who hasn’t seen faces in a hedgerow or a tree trunk? And noticed the dappled light as shadows come, grow, and eventually disappear?

I love the way Mary McCallum brings a wonderful child-level view to the world. For example running through a pine forest dodging the pinecone grenades that drop from the sky. She captures the exaggerated nervousness that can only occur in one’s own mind:
“Annie heard a sound on the stairs as if someone was following her. Out of the corner of her eye something flickered. A moth? A mouse? Something bigger?”

She captures the bravado of a child:
““I’m ready,” she said again, which meant she wasn’t really ready but was trying to be.”

And she captures the musings of a child eavesdropping on a fantail family as they “Pick! Pick! Pick! Me!”  The baby fantails call to their father as they jostle for the next unlucky insect he brings. Annie hears the yearning and angst of that family.

It’s a lovely original story. Children with vivid imaginations, who love playing outside (like we all used to do), will find some synergies with delightful Annie. All children need to push themselves outside of their comfort zone and Annie and her brother do that – facing their fears and embarking on a unique adventure. This is a thoroughly New Zealand adventure and delightful story.

Reviewed by Gillian Torckler

Dappled Annie and the Tigrish
by Mary McCallum
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN 9781877579192

Dappled Annie and the Tigrish will be launched as part of the festival at 6pm on Sunday 9 March at the Westpac Festival Hub, First Floor, St James Theatre, Courtenay Place, Wellington.