Book Review: Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2017, edited by Jack Ross

Available now in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_poetry_nz_yearbookThe best way to take the pulse and determine the health of poetry in New Zealand is to crack open the Poetry New Zealand Yearbook. It is proof that the art form is very much alive and vibrant in 2017. As the first issue through Massey University Press, the journal covers a lot of ground. Since its inception in the 1950s, the journal continues to showcase poets of longstanding, such as Riemke Ensing, Michelle Leggott, Owen Marshall, Iain Britton and Elizabeth Smither, while introducing readers to younger, emerging poets, such as Devon Webb, Callum Stembridge and Harriet Beth.

The inclusivity of this issue is a sign of the times, with a curatorial tendency towards one or two poems from a larger pool, rather than several poems from fewer writers. This makes sense from a sales and marketing perspective. It widens the net of potential readers in the form of friends and families of the poets. As a reader, it is akin to the way television flits from image to image at breakneck speed; it allows little time for immersion and only a brief window into the sensibilities and fascinations of each poet.

On the subject of inclusion, Janet Charman’s feminist essay on the editorship of Alan Curnow is a brave and robust insight. In her well-researched piece, Charman explores the historical tendency toward erasure of the feminine within New Zealand poetry anthologies.  In 2017, the journal celebrates and promotes the work of women poets, both through featuring their work and discussing their books in the review section.

Elizabeth Morton’s suite is accomplished and mesmerising. At times her work sends the reader on a surreal journey, like a Chagall painting. She drifts in and out of dark themes, from the personal (visiting someone in hospital) to the political (the refugee crisis). It is satisfying and intriguing work: ‘I bring you / blackberries, frankincense, / lorazepam. / I make marionettes with my hands / I make you the best alpaca you’ve ever seen.’

In terms of content, not many poets included attempt traditional forms, opting instead for mostly blank or free verse. The poems meant for performance are easy to spot, with their emphasis on the lyrical rhythm: ‘Do not become / your mother. / Not because you / do not  love her, / you do… (Note to self).’ The inclusion of poetry from this milieu offers a fantastic glimpse of the generation gap in approaches to the craft (why labour over an enjambment when the meaning will be lost when read aloud?).

Of course, it wouldn’t be New Zealand poetry without the references to the great outdoors: ‘for several summers we camped there / canvas tents cheek-by-jowl guy-ropes… (Paraparaumu) and familiar settings (A Dunedin bar, the Wellesley Street intersection).’

This collection offers jumping off points for anyone, no matter your poetic inclination. Not one to be raced through, each reading brings a fresh new image, ‘when you least expect…a dull ache in the memory (When you least expect) …has the / power to flatten me.’ (Lithium).

Reviewed by Anna Forsyth

Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2017 
edited by Jack Ross
Published by Massey University Press
ISBN 9780994136350

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Book Review: Love As A Stranger, by Owen Marshall

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_love_as_a_strangerI have never read Owen Marshall before. I don’t know why, as he is certainly well-known in New Zealand writing circles, well-reviewed and favoured by many. His speciality is short stories, featuring acute observation of behaviour and motivations.

The central premise behind Love as a Stranger is the quote “When love is not madness, it is not love”, penned by seventeenth-century Spanish poet and writer Pedro Calderon de la Barca. Our culture is saturated with love stories gone wrong – usually involving young lovers. We think of the madness, craziness and recklessness of new love as being the domain of the young – think Romeo and Juliet. Very rarely do we hear of wild, crazy, obsessional love applying to older people, people who maybe past their physical prime, people facing difficult questions related to ageing. This is exactly what Owen Marshall tackles in this novel.

Sarah is in her late fifties. She and Robert have been married for many years, mostly successfully, sometimes not, but to their credit seem to have stuck together, lived a good married life, and are now planning on growing old together. However things aren’t so rosy at the moment, with Robert having chemotherapy treatment for a cancer. They have moved from Hamilton to Auckland for the duration of the treatment, living in an inner-city apartment. They don’t know many people in Auckland, so their daily lives revolve around Robert’s treatment programme, and his need for rest. Sarah is quite literally at a loose end, which gives her plenty of time for long walks, contemplation, and drinking coffee in the many city cafes. She is observed by Hartley, early sixties, recently widowed and understandably lonely, slightly disoriented and also at a bit of loose end.

One day while walking through the Symonds St cemetery, Sarah stops at a grave for a 17-year-old girl, murdered by a spurned lover way back in 1886, when Hartley, a random stranger also walking through the cemetery, happens to join her. So begins a friendship that very quickly becomes a love affair. This is a first for Sarah, and for awhile she fully embraces the excitement, the anticipation, the attention, the flattery, the subterfuge. Until she senses that things are tipping over slightly from a good fun time into something a little more obsessive and disquieting. She has to make the decision between her husband, Robert or her new lover, Hartley. Naturally there are consequences, none of them good, of whatever decision she makes.

My plot summary gives the impression that this is Sarah’s story, but it is actually more the story of Hartley, with Sarah and the love affair being the catalyst for the madness of love that develops. The tone throughout the book is slightly menacing and sinister. You know, really, from page two and the words on the headstone in the cemetery that something is going to go badly wrong somewhere: it is really just a case of wondering at which point things are going to come undone.

Owen Marshall keeps the reader in an increasingly tightly-wound grip, precisely paced with really well drawn and complex characters. This has been greatly aided by the ominous illustrations at the beginning of each chapter – a long dark grey shadow of a suited man randomly placed onto a lighter grey background. It is a love story, but not really as we know it, and I am not sure if young(er) people would get as much out of this novel as those who are a similar age as the protagonists. It is about mature love, and love in the hearts of people who have different pressures on them than young lovers do. Sarah, for example has to consider not only her seriously ill husband, but the effects of her actions on her own children and grandchildren, and the ‘family’ unit she and Robert have made over the years. Things that would not enter the consciousness of childless, mortgage-free, financially independent young(er) things! But in an ageing population that is living longer, with marriages and relationships facing different pressures from those faced one generation back, there is quite a lot of reality here.

This really is a very good story, well-written, with suspense and interest maintained throughout, with above all very believable characters. They could quite literally be your next door neighbours, or your work colleagues. It is the three main characters who really make the story, as they face questions and issues, having to make decisions that many of us could now be facing or may possibly face in the future.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

Love As a Stranger
by Owen Marshall
Published by Vintage (PRHNZ)
ISBN 9781775538578

Book Review: The White Clock, by Owen Marshall

cv_the_white_clockAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

The White Clock flits from the everyday to the classical and then back again. In one poem, it brings the image of Socrates’ death to mind. Then another moves to capturing the feel of night traffic, of cars that are fireflies that pulsate “through the / dark galaxy”.

The opening poem portrays the white clock as a strong beginning image. The clock steadily moves through the minutes regardless of what’s happening around it; it is a countdown that cannot be stopped. However, time is no concern for Owen Marshall, when he can write snippets of history into his poetry and keep moments preserved through his words.

And so, time passes. There is an underlying current of nostalgia as people pass by, some leaving larger footprints than others. Freeze Frame is a short poem that encapsulates the movement of time, forever working onwards. Marshall beautifully describes how things are doomed to pass, “Everything so fleeting that it dips / and pales almost in the momentary flare / of its creation”.

Reverie Cascade is an interesting series of poems in which Marshall explores memories that are associated with certain settings. There is Te Kuiti, his familiar place of birth. And there is Anacapri, an island where Marshall juxtaposes the more ancient settings of Italy to the modern landscape he sees before him. I especially enjoyed Portsea B&B, a simple poem that describes the temporary state of travelling, encapsulating these destinations simply and profoundly as “A place to come to and also leave”.

Some references to the classical, however, felt a little forced. The first reference to “memento mori” felt fresh but by the third time, the unique little phrase had lost its magic. Some poems were so deeply wound in classical imagery that they felt out of place within the collection. It was hard to find a single theme when there were so many poems out of depth with each other; the breadth of scope was truly amazing but also overwhelming to take in at times.

I also would’ve loved to see a greater variation in verse, especially themes that could’ve been developed into longer pieces. My favourite poems were the pieces part of Haiku Sequence, which showed off another side of Marshall’s writing where, due to the format, it had to be more tight and secure. It was a sequence of beautiful and short imagery, of “sea drizzle” that glistens and clouds that “seem firm enough to support a / heaven”. They are small snippets that, together, form a longer poem that brings a place and atmosphere into being.

In The White Clock, Marshall brings the reader to all these different moments in time whether past, present, or imaginary. Although it gets a little lost within grand imagination, Marshall’s final poem feels a little like alighting on solid ground again. He captures the simple image of a little girl bouncing on a trampoline and innocently “smiling open-mouthed”. It is a simple frozen frame and from reading the collection, it is clear that the moment will pass and time will pound forever onwards into the future. But this beautiful and delicate image makes it feel like sometimes these little flashes are just enough.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

The White Clock
by Owen Marshall
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9781877578632

A Novel Relationship and The Stars are Out Tonight, at WORD Christchurch Writers & Readers festival, Friday 29 August

Sarah Jane Barnett is a poet, creative writing tutor, and reviewer from Wellington. Matt Bialostocki is a writer, photographer, and bookseller from Wellington. Together they went to a full day of festival events at the WORD Writers’ & Readers Festival 2014 in Christchurch. After each of the sessions they recorded their conversation. This is what was said in their final two sessions.

A Novel Relationship
Friday, 29 August 4pm
Owen Marshall and Laurence Fearnley discuss their new novels, and their experience working with editor Anna Rogers, with Chris Moore.

M: I think we need to open by telling everyone that Rogers said of split WORD-Author_OwenMarshallinfinitives, ‘mercifully, the world has decided we can boldly go, which has made everything so much easier’.
S: She was fascinating, and the close relationship between the two writers and their editor was clear.
M: They were funny, too.
S: Did you not expect that?
M: Well, Fearnley said that she gets nervous about being edited to the point where it can ruin her Christmas. She did say, ‘I once received an email saying I’d used the word “just” 146 times’.
S: What stuck out for me was when Rogers said her editing should be invisible, and that she ‘helps the writer say what they want to say, the best way they can’—
M: And that the best writers were always the ones that valued the editing process. Both Marshall and Fearnley saw it as a positive application to their work.
WORD-Author_AnnaRogersS: It seems we were lucky to hear from her—that there are fewer full-time working editors in New Zealand.
M: While Rogers (left) wants to be invisible, she did say it was noticeable when editing is skipped in the book-making process.
S: I like that, the ‘book-making process’. They did see themselves as a team, the writer and editor. Both Marshall and Fearnley said the editing process helped them see the ‘blind spots’ in their own writing; Marshall said he appreciated an editor with expertise who could ‘interrogate’ his work. Fearnley talked about how there would be parts of her novel that would niggle at her, but that she was resistant to revise because of the domino effect on the novel. A good editor saw those parts too.
M: Towards the end of the session Marshall read us an excerpt from his novel, Carnival Sky, and Fearnley read us a section from an untitled book that’s due out later on in the year.
S: Do you know what that is?
M: I’m not sure. It’s about Quinn, a young artist, and it’s set in fictional Wellington. Something to look forward to!

The Stars are out Tonight
Friday, 29 August 7.30pm
John Campbell introduces Eleanor Catton, Diane Setterfield, Damon Young, NoViolet Bulawayo, Anis Mojgani, Meg Wolitzer, Kristin Hersh. The sold out session was held in the Transitional/Cardboard Cathedral. (all names link to the authors’ other sessions)

S: Holy shit! I mean—can I swear? That was incredible.
M: John Campbell closed with ‘I can’t think of any event in the world that would have been like this’.
S: It’s 10pm.
M: Time to go home.

Happy Birthday Janet and Reading Favourites with Sarah Jane Barnett & Matt Bialostocki, WORD Festival Friday 29 August

Sarah Jane Barnett is a poet, creative writing tutor, and reviewer from Wellington. Matt Bialostocki is a writer, photographer, and bookseller from Wellington. Together they went to a full day of festival events at the WORD Writers’ & Readers Festival 2014 in Christchurch. After each of the sessions they recorded their conversation. This is what was said in the first two sessions.

Happy Birthday, Janet
Friday, 29 August, 12pm

Owen Marshall, Tusiata Avia, and Bernadette Hall celebrate Janet Frame’s 90th birthday with favourite janet_framereadings and musings. Chaired by Pamela Gordon (Frame’s neice and literary executor).

Sarah: Our first session of the day was quite a session. What did you think?
Matt: The selection of material was great—a short story, four poems, and then a novel excerpt and a poem.
S: Each writer talked about the way Janet had influenced them. Owen Marshall—where did he get that plug from? [During the session Marshall had held up a bath plug on a chain]
M: Willowglen. It’s where Frame lived in Oamaru, a town where Marshall had also lived. He ripped it out of the sink in the corner of a room.
S: Yeah, it seemed important to him that they’d both lived in Oamaru, that they’d inhabited the same space. I was also quite excited by Bernadette Hall ‘stealing’ Frame’s words—in her making them part of her own poem.
M: They were from the novel, State of Seige. Hall used them in her poem, “Dark Pasture.”state of seige
S: It was Hall’s response to Frame’s work. She alternated her lines with Frame’s. That reading floored me; it showed me how much Frame still influences our writers.
M: They all had a personal connection to the work they were reading, and to Frame’s work as a whole. Marshall also noted that while a lot of people related to her fiction, there is a tangible sense of response to her autobiographical work because she was writing about places people knew; they were places they lived and places they shared.
S: He’s an amazing reader. I would like to have Marshall read me one of Frame’s novels.
M: You’d just have to watch out for your bath plug.

Reading Favourites
Friday, 29 August 2.30pm
Kate De Goldi, Sarah Laing, and Carl Nixon talk about two of their favourite New Zealand books with Guy Somerset.

cv_sydney_bridge_upside_downS: That was freaking amazing!
M: Fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels! Let’s quickly cover the books. First, De Goldi told us about Sydney Bridge Upside Down by David Ballantyne. She called it the ‘great unread New Zealand novel’. Laing recommended the graphic novel Hicksville by Dylan Horrocks, and Nixon recommended The Day Hemingway Died and Other Stories by Owen Marshall.
S: Nixon said he felt it shows a darker side to Marshall’s writing. I want to read that.
M: For her second book, De Goldi raved about Welcome to the South Seas: Contemporary New Zealand Art for Young People by Gregory O’Brien. She said that we needed more creative non-fiction for kids in New Zealand. I agree. Laing showed us From Earth’s End: The Best of New Zealand Comics by Adrian Kinnaird. She pointed out the ephemeral nature of NZ comics, and how this means it’s easy to miss new titles. Finally, Nixon spoke to us about Gifted by Patrick Evans—a novel about Janet Frame and Frank Sargeson.
S: His reading was fantastic. So fantastically funny! That is definitely one I’m going to read.
M: It’s developed a cult following.
S: day_hemingway_diedThey all recommended books they came to through a personal process of discovery. I think there’s something in that. Laing read comics as a kid, but then discovered them again in her 30s; The Day Hemingway Died was the first book Nixon discovered himself at age eighteen. De Goldi used the word ‘evangalising’; they really wanted us to read these books—to love them as they did. Many were out of print, though, or first published outside New Zealand. What does that say?
M: Yes—Hicksville was first published by the Canadian publisher Black Eye Productions in 1998 [and VUP in 2012], and Sydney Bridge Upside Down was originally published in 1968 but was out of print for years until De Goldi foisted a copy on a Australian publisher who was over for dinner.
S: De Goldi talked about the value of libraries. That’s where we find out-of-print books.
M: And all of these books were loved by at least one other person on the panel. Actually, Somerset was a great chair. He got them talking about the books so we could hear their varied responses.
S: He called them the ‘uber book group’. I felt encouraged. Nixon said he doesn’t read graphic novels and De Goldi said, ‘You need to learn to read them’. This is something I think for myself.

 

These conversations were recorded and transcribed after the events: Happy Birthday, Janet and Reading Favourites, by Sarah Jane Barnett and Matt Bialostocki.

Line Up, poetry at the Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival

The poet Emma Neale (right) could make a emma_nealecareer out of emceeing poetry events.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, to a room full of attentive listeners in the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Neale introduced five poets with a series of eloquent encomiums that might have had the line up blushing were it not composed of old pros. It was lovely to listen to.

Bernadette Hall, Owen Marshall, former poet laureate Cilla McQueen, current poet laureate Vincent O’Sullivan, and Brian Turner had a tough act to follow but were up to it as one-by-one they stepped up to the microphone, most in quite sensible shoes, to deliver a cupful of their ‘crisp’ or ‘pellucid,’ ‘pared back’ or ‘erudite’ poetry.

The oeuvres and achievements of these writers – writers who are arguably among this country’s finest and most prolific – are well known to a reading public. So rather than describe the content of their selections, it might be more illuminating if I focus on the cumulative effect.

For an hour or so, the most valued currency in Dunedin and thus the world was language: carefully chosen words detonating sensual shock and visual charge, delivered in the various tones of the sufferers of that condition called being a poet.

And after the poetry, the questions from the audience, provoking the small revelations of self which readers love to hear. We left with humming ears.

Event reviewed by Aaron Blaker, on behalf of Booksellers NZ

Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival – Chain Reaction

“Chain Reaction” was one of the earliespp_philippa_duffyt events on offer during the inaugural Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival—in fact it preceded the official opening. But I, as a booklover, was very happy to see that didn’t stop a big crowd turning up (in inclement weather, no less) for this six-launches-in-one event. After drinks and nibbles, Philippa Duffy (pictured) from University Book Shop opened proceedings and introduced the writers whose books were being launched—David Eggleton, Vincent O’Sullivan, Breton Dukes, Paddy Richardson, Owen Marshall, and David Howard.

Unfortunately, the night started on a somewhatcv_born_to_a_red-headed_woman sombre note. Kay McKenzie Cooke had been scheduled to also attend the event in order to launch her third poetry collection, Born to a Red Headed Woman. However her mother—the ‘red-headed woman’ of her collection’s title—very recently passed away. Rachel Scott from Otago University Press spoke on Kay’s behalf, and read “Family Tree” from her collection.

David Eggleton’s address was jovial and lively, in support of the latest issue of Landfall, going strong since 1947 and, in David’s words, “like Aorangi [Mt Cook]… a landmark” in Kiwi letters. Although themed around “vital signs”, Issue 227 sounds like quite a varied smorgasbord cv_the_familiesof delights (or as David put it, “a cabaret between covers”!). There’s poetry from 34 poets, an essay on the word ‘Solomon’, and a suite of paintings by Mark Braunias.

Fergus Barrowman from Victoria University Press then introduced Vincent O’Sullivan and Breton Dukes. Vincent spoke first, and quipped that, given that the writers stood on the mezzanine level of the venue while most of the crowd stood below, “this will the closest any of us will get to the Sermon on the Mount!” Then, while he was in the midst of thanking VUP and Fergus Barrowman for their support of his new short story collection The Families, his cellphone rang. Oops.cv_empty_bones_and_other_stories

Breton Dukes read from his new book Empty Bones And Other Stories, which was the product of two years’ hard work. He described a short story as an immediate “transport system” to the experience or revelation of a character. He also described some of the stories in his collection. As a student, I was amused to hear there’s one about getting drunk and stealing a car from outside Poppa’s Pizza, the local pizza joint opposite the University’s main library. Nothing like a bit of local flavour!

Paddy Richardson also read from cv_swimming_in_the_darkher new book, called Swimming in the Dark and published by Upstart Press. The passage she read, which detailed her German protagonist’s sense of displacement in New Zealand, was evocative and certainly held the audience’s attention.

Owen Marshall was there to launch Carnival Sky (Vintage). In particular, he singled out his long time editor Anna Rogers for thanks, as well as the Henderson Arts Trust, which granted him a residency in Alexandra that enabled him to finish Carnival Sky. (Incidentally, a significant portion of that novel is set in Alexandra.)

Finally David Howard read from his new chapbook The Speak House, which imagines thecv_carnival_sky fevered thoughts and memories of Robert Louis Stevenson in the last hours of his life—what David described as Stevenson’s “mental disarray”.

All the speakers thanked the organisers of the DWRF for organising the event. Fergus Barrowman went a step further and thanked them for bringing the festival back, and foretold (hopefully correctly!) that the DWRF would be an important fixture in Dunedin’s calendar in the future. Hear hear!

Event reported by Febriani Idrus, freelance writer and student