NZF Writer’s Festival: Harry Giles Poetry

Elizabeth Heritage reviews Harry Giles’ poetry session at the NZ Festival Writers & Readers Week. 

Sometimes at literary festivals you get those HOLY CRAP moments. I had one at Auckland Writers Festival in the signing queue when I thanked Gloria Steinem for helping make me who I am and she said “someday, someone will thank you in the same way”. I had one at WORD Christchurch when Ivan Coyote ripped my heart out, made it better, and gave it back to me. And I had another at this year’s Writers and Readers gala night when Harry Josephine Giles performed their poem about the bodily experience of being trans.

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This is the first festival where I’ve been both a chair and a reviewer, and so I had the cool but awkward experience of seeing the people I’ve been reviewing backstage in the green room. I bumped into Harry a few times and they were so friendly and pleasant to me; but all I was able to say were anodyne phrases such as ‘your poem was really good’. That isn’t what I meant. Harry: your poem wasn’t really good, it was a bloody revelation. In those few moments you had on stage at the gala night you performed that poem with your entire body and I could feel mine moving in response. All the little hairs on my neck stood up. I shivered. In the silence immediately following someone near me quietly said ‘Fuck’. Like the end of a prayer.

The purpose of the gala night, as well to open the festival, is to make you immediately rearrange your schedule to spend as much time as possible with your new favourite writers. I was gutted to realise I had clashes with nearly all of Giles’ events. But on Sunday I got to squeeze myself into the hot and uncomfortable small theatre at Circa to see Chris Tse interview Giles.

Word had got around: the theatre was full. (Good news for Cantabrians – Giles is coming to Christchurch next.) Wellington poet Tse was a good interviewer, obviously very familiar with Giles’ work and asking short, interesting questions.

harry and chris

Photo taken by Elizabeth Heritage

Giles grew up in Orkney and writes in English and Scots. The decision to write in Scots – a ‘minority recovering language’ – is conscious and political. They are trying to escape from the idea that you can only discuss local things in the local language, and are instead writing on all kinds of topics in Scots. They performed a few of their poems. Scots is a sister language to English, and after a while we could pick up the meaning of most of it. It’s easier to understand out loud than written down, so Giles provides free audio downloads with their poetry books.

The challenge to become bilingual or multilingual is a theme that has run throughout Writers and Readers. Giles said our nation states are formed through the erasure of language and identity, and the state finds it threatening when the languages want their existence back (*cough* Don Brash RNZ *cough*). Our brains are made to know multiple languages: ‘it’s a crime to squeeze your brain into just one language’. On the downside, writing in a minority language can limit your audience. Giles said ‘I write what I want to write and the audience is either there or it isn’t.’

Giles said they struggle to write good personal poetry (the poem they performed at the gala is unusual in that regard). Instead, they channel it through someone else – for example, a series of poems written from the perspective of a drone. ‘I was figuring myself out during that book.’ Now they have a lot more questions about gender and identity to ask: ‘poems should start with questions. Poems that start with answers are terrible.’ Giles says they’re ‘itching to write about that drone again.’ A show based on the drone poems will be touring next year.

Tse asked about Giles’ performance work, related to the ways in which queerness is often performative. Giles said ‘I’ve never really tried to hide that to be honest.’ When your body and your life is at odds with what normal is – ‘not that anyone is normal really’ – you recognise that everyone is performing all the time. ‘And I realised, oh, I can play with this.’

Giles also wants to bring something queerer into Scottish poetry. ‘What’s been published and celebrated in the Scots language has been incredibly masculine and macho – but the kids are so over that.’ Instead, Giles wants to bring in a more feminist sensibility, and acknowledge the women poets who have always been writing in Scots.

Harry Josephine Giles: ngā mihi nui ki a koe. Nearly everyone I’ve spoken to about Writers and Readers so far has named you as their stand-out experience. Please come back soon. Arohanui.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Harry Giles was brought to New Zealand by LitCrawl with the support of International Literature Showcase and Writers’ Centre Norwich.

 

NZF Writers & Readers: Ursula Dubosarsky – Through a Child’s Eyes

Tara Black reviews in pictures, while Sarah Forster reviews in words, Ursula Dubosarsky – Through a Child’s Eyes at NZ Festival Writers & Readers, on Sunday 11 March. 

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Chair Lydia Wevers noted at the beginning of the session that three months ago, she had never heard of guest Ursula Dubosarsky. She has since rectified this and become increasingly embarrassed not to have read her work previously, noting ‘Ursula is a brilliant, satisfying and haunting writer,’ also noting to her ‘Awards grow on you like mushrooms.’

Lydia began the session with a question about writing – what comes first for Ursula – character or a story. Ursula told us a few stories about how she writes, which as for many writers, is a summation of experiences she has had over her lifetime. In the case of First Book of Samuel, for instance, she’d first heard the name of Elkanah at a kibbutz, describing somebody who was very charismatic and damaging; much later she realised the name was biblical, so this character was born and brought the story with him.

She also told the origin of The Red Shoe, which was from a talkback radio show that saw a caller ring in to talk on the death of the wife of Vladimir Petrov, the caller noting she lived next door from them and the Australian Diplomatic service would give her and her sisters a ride to school each morning.

Ursula says ‘All you need is a hair and some blue solution – something has to stick.’ The intuition is the hair, and this refers to an experiment she did at school where they grew crystals on a hair.

Lydia noted that over her career, Ursula has become more preoccupied with historical realism – at some point there was a shift in focus. The Blue Cat, Ursula says, came out of an editorial her dad wrote during the war for his school magazine (this was a surprise in itself as her father, when asked about school, would state it was ‘brutal, sadistic and cruel.’) The book itself includes several historical documents, including this editorial, and focuses on a Jewish immigrant to Sydney and the friendship a young girl creates with him despite their language barrier.

In Ursula’s books, Lydia says, ‘children are not protected.’ The books are also frequently funny, with a particular strength being interactions between parents & children. This leads, for Ursula, into a discussion of her book Abyssinia. She notes first that when writing picture books, she can see her audience on the mat in front of her – it isn’t like this for novels, but she is always writing for children.

Abyssinia is about a child being left in a home where they seem to have a purpose which isn’t clear. The adults in the book say ‘for every child that is lost, a child must be found,’ then the lead character must go on a journey.  Ursula notes that this particular book is greeted by adults with a kind of fury, while children understand it more readily. It was written while she was working as a typist for Court cases, and was writing one hour every day prior to having her morning coffee and beginning her cases. She thinks perhaps her mind was in a dreamlike state – and the intuition for this book began at a dollhouse museum she had taken her daughter to.

Lydia wondered whether Ursula believed that any content in books ought to be restricted for children. She says, ‘You can write about anything for kids, it just depends how you write it.’ For instance, Golden Day as Lydia perceives it is possibly about rape and murder. But it isn’t explicit. The intuition for this book began during Ursula’s work as a Court typist, where she encountered an awful rape/murder case which involved a ‘good’ seeming person. ‘It is hard for children to recognise bad people and know what to do when they find one. It is hard for adults as well, sometimes.’

It isn’t only children that are confused much of the time in Ursula’s work – the adults aren’t having a good time either. Businesses and marriages fail, there are dramas just out of earshot of the children. It’s real life.

While I enjoyed hearing about these works, I found the session a little frustrating – there was a bit much explanation of books and what they were about, and I was amused at the most passive aggressive question I’ve ever heard being asked at the end. ‘In the programme it says you would talk about the difference in perception between an adult and a child. Can you talk to that please?’

I am looking forward to delving into Ursula’s work however, and I’ve already begun with a few books from the Unity Bookstore stall outside the session.

Reviewed in words by Sarah Forster

The Blue Cat
by Ursula Dubosarsky
Published by Allen & Unwin
ISBN 9781760292294

Brindabella (out 28 March)
by Ursula Dubosarsky
Published by Allen & Unwin
ISBN 9781760112042

NZF Writers & Readers: Ready to Die? with Charlie Corke

Sarah Forster reviews Ready to Die? with Charlie Corke, at the NZ Festival Writers & Readers Festival on Saturday, 11 March. 

Ready_to_Die_WR18_c_450x375_3.2e16d0ba.fill-300x250.jpgDr Charlie Corke’s book Letting Go is a powerful book about how we handle these final moments of our life. Dr Corke is a career-long intensive care specialist, and he wrote the book to fill a gap for those sitting with their dying loved ones in their final moment. He notes later ‘I got into it for the machines when I was young, and as I got older I became more thoughtful.’

This session was chaired by the reliably excellent Jo Randerson, who began with the question ‘What does a good death look like?’ Dr Corke says, ‘Death is always bad, but we can make it worse. In general, deaths that are anticipated and planned for and gentle, where the family and loved ones are there – with few tubes, and little intervention are what most of us aspire to. And then there is the opposite of that.’

Part of his aim while writing the book was to express how far we’ve come in intensive care. When he began practising medicine, intensive care and kidney dialysis wasn’t even considered for anybody over 65. This discussion is now happening for older people, which means it is more ‘real’ – the person involved is not able to contribute usually. And you need family to decide what to do.

One of the things Dr Corke campaigns for is for people to have end-of-life care plans, which Letting Go includes suggestions of at the back. An end-of-life care plan is something between a patient and their doctor, based on a conversation. This means there has been a discussion about limits of what is acceptable and not acceptable. The problem with these ideal plans is, he says, ‘Doctors wait for patients to say, and patients wait for doctors to ask.’

Why do we resist? The vast majority of us think that when the time comes, our family and our doctor will know what to do . But that’s not quite true. Dr Corke reminds us that when we are confronted with this crisis, there is always something to do now – the question is whether this something is acceptable to the individual whose decisions we are making.  ‘You don’t want to treat somebody who doesn’t want to be treated, or not treat somebody who does.’

At the point of being housebound with a chronic illness, 95% of patients are beyond planning. If you begin a plan now, before you are unwell, it is much easier to tweak it as you go. Dr Corke wants everybody to consider it.

In past years, a care plan has included technical details – what tubes are okay, and which ones aren’t – but now we are moving to answering the question ‘What situation is unacceptable to you as a person.’ A bit of poetry is best. The worst deaths are where nobody agrees on what a person who is unable to make their own decision wants – when they have a plan, or do agree, Dr Corke likens this to a perfect dive.

Both Jo and Dr Corke gave personal examples of situations throughout this session, which drove home just how important this work is.

Part of having a care plan can be to select a ‘substitute’ in your care plan that you would trust to make your decision for you. Dr Corke notes that family often  aren’t that respectful of decisions made by elder relatives. You need somebody who will listen to everybody respectfully, and make a decision on the information at hand. He has appointed his eldest daughter as his agent. He is concerned that his wife likes him and would keep him going longer than he wants. He has told his other daughters and they have agreed that she is the right one – they reckon she’s ‘hard.’

Dr Corke has set up ‘my values .org’ as a space to talk about what we want at the end of our lives. The values in this area are about independence, on the other end being prepared to be looked after. Within those values we can get a perspective on where people are at.

We then discussed dysthanasia. Dr Corke says, ‘Dysthanasia is something we can all agree we don’t want – this means, literally, ‘bad death’. ‘ This is the name for screwing up death with too much medical treatment. He is looking forward to people understanding this, that they don’t want too much medical intervention making a mess of things.

Dr Corke notes, ‘If there is no plan or discussion, then the system will just carry on and do everything to prevent death. You now have ambulances who will come to your house and resuscitate everything – then the patient moves to the intensive care department, where everything has to be done within seconds – xrays, blood … In first world countries, our systems are geared to do it, and to not do it is becoming increasingly hard to do.’

This session was full of shocking facts – perhaps the most shocking for me is that 70% of treatments in ICU work are provided where they can’t and won’t save lives. Dr Corke wants people to know this because he can’t see the medical system changing on its own – it needs a grassroots movement from patients to make it re-think its philosophies. ‘We need to say medicine is a good thing, but it can go bad.’

Jo brought up the concept of Christianity and how it impacts end-of-life treatment. Dr Corke said he doesn’t know what happens when we die. ‘Personally, I just don’t want to leave a mess.’ They agreed though, that funerals are important as that is where we often have the hard discussions about what people mean to us.

The discussion turned a little to the past, when death was witnessed more frequently, and Jo noted that there are no longer as many frameworks around death now that we all live so far apart, and there is so much intervention. We have a tendency to put it in a box. Dr Corke said, ‘Noone wants  to talk about it, but when people are being frank about it you will find that families will discuss it together. You need to listen to each other.’

The questions in this session were worthwhile and thoughtful, and I’ll give the final word to Dr Corke: ‘You don’t resent having fire insurance for the house. Likewise, you don’t resent having an advanced care plan.’

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Letting Go: How to Plan for a Good Death
by Dr Charlie Corke
Published by Scribe Publications
ISBN 9781925322705

NZF Writers & Readers: Cut it Out, with Jane Parkin, Ashleigh Young, Fergus Barrowman

Tara Black reviews Cut it Out, a discussion about editing between Jane Parkin, Ashleigh Young and Fergus Barrowman. Images copyright Tara Black.

Jane Parkin has edited hundreds of books, and she joins Ashleigh Young – to talk editing, with Fergus Barrowman.’

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NZF Writers & Readers: Tikanga Now, with Emma Espiner, Māmari Stephens and Morgan Godfrey

Tara Black and Elizabeth Heritage have both reviewed Tikanga Now, Tara in pictures, and Elizabeth with considerably more words.

Emma Espiner, lecturer Māmari Stephens and unionist Morgan Godfery discuss why Pākehā need to understand and embrace tikanga Māori, alongside Paula Morris. A timely conversation for all  New Zealanders.

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Big chunks of the Renouf foyer had packed out for Tikanga Now to hear Paula Morris chair a panel with Emma Espiner, Māmari Stephens, and Morgan Godfery. They all have essays in the Journal of Urgent Writing.

We started with definitions of tikanga. Godfery said people think of tikanga as magical, ‘but it’s simply the right thing to do’.

Stephens said it’s a Māori approach to things and mode of doing. Tikanga can be uncertain, but that uncertainty is positive and generative. Tikanga provides a framework upon which practices can hang – it saves you from awkward silences. Stephens also noted that there are ways in which tikanga can be used to exclude. For example, there are tensions between groups saying that te reo Māori is for all Māori, and those who say it is for everybody. ‘The same thing could be said for living our lives with tikanga – it’s a gift for beyond just those of us who are Māori.’

Espiner said that, for example at a tangi, the tikanga helps take the pain out of it a bit because you know what to do. Sometimes people are frightened of getting it wrong, but that discomfort is part of it. Look for the situations where you don’t feel safe. If you’re feeling comfortable it’s probably because you’re within the dominant culture.

Espiner said that as someone who is both Māori and Pākehā sitting across two worlds, she notices how things could be done better if you apply the principles of one to the other. She spoke about the importance of representation, noting for example Mihi Forbes’ essay on The Spinoff about being invited to a prestigious event celebrating International Women’s Day and Suffrage 125 but then being nearly the only Māori in the room.

There was an interesting discussion about ‘Maussies’ – Māori people in Australia. Māori are the tangata whenua of this land, but not of the land in Australia. Is it appropriate for them to build marae there? Godfery thinks it’s unacceptable. Stephens pointed out that ‘as Māori, we were not born to be just in one place’, and talked about the Māori diaspora.

Another point raised was about how cultural familiarity with te ao Māori can vary enormously even between neighbouring suburbs. Damon Salesa has written about segregation in Auckland and white flights from South Auckland. Espiner said that one of the most harmful things about our society is that we don’t live together.

Morris noted that te reo is having a cultural moment. Espiner is very optimistic about this, especially about the recent increase in enrolments in beginner te reo classes. She says the next step is to have lots of places where te reo is spoken, to support te reo teachers, and to have excellence all the way through.

Stephens noted the learning te reo isn’t just about learning the lexicon and the grammar, it’s also about engaging with the practices of Māori life and with real live people. ‘Whanaungatanga is the act and art of creating relationships.’ She spoke about the importance of marae, and how small rural marae are in danger of ‘going cold’ through neglect. She noted that, often when Māori are faced with threat, they build a wharenui to come together and discuss. In the 1960s and 70s especially there were massive marae built because of all the political ferment. Pan-tribal marae in urban centres are particularly important.

Morris brought up the question of tikanga and gender. In the 21st century, is it fair to ban wāhine from doing certain things? Stephens said it makes more sense if you take a step back and look at all the history. Tikanga can be changed, but it has to be the people of that particular marae who make that decision. Espiner pointed to the most recent episode of Kaupapa on the Couch, a web series about all things Māori from Te Ātea editor Leonie Hayden at The Spinoff. In it, Hayden addresses gender issues and mana wāhine in tikanga. She points out that, although men and women have traditionally had different roles in te ao Māori, women were not regarded as less than men. And many Māori gods and supernatural deities that we now think of as male may have been female, since te reo has gender-neutral pronouns. Maleness may have been imposed upon them by colonists.

The standard of audience questions in this session was very high. One question was about combining tikanga with environmentalism and business practices. Godfery said that on the issues of whether tikanga Māori can coexist with capitalism: ‘Hell no! But reasonable people have different views.’

Reviewed in pictures by Tara Black, and in words by Elizabeth Heritage

 

NZF Writers & Readers: With Salient Urgency

Tara Black reviews With Salient Urgency.

‘Writers & Readers manager Mark Cubey talks to a range of fellow Salient alumni, including counsellor Bill Logan, publisher Roger Steele, RNZ journalist Sarah Robson, Spinoff editor Toby Manhire, cartoonists Toby Morris and Tim Bollinger, data journalist Keith Ng, investigative journalist Matt Nippert, JustSpeak director Tania Sawicki Mead and current Salient editor Louise Lin.’

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I’m sure some of these wonderful people will be around at other sessions, or certainly wherever the after-parties are. Go and introduce yourself & have a yarn if you are around the Festival & missed this.

NZF Writers & Readers: Francis Spufford: Electric Eclecticism

Tara Black reviews Francis Spufford: Electric Eclecticism. 

Francis Spufford has written about science, history, politics, theology and technology. His most recent book is True Stories & Other Essays, and he won Best First Novel at the Costa Book Awards last year with Golden Hill.

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You can see Francis Spufford on Saturday, 10 March at 11.30am at Francis Spufford and Elizabeth Knox talk about God.