Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Blue at Stonehenge

Stonehenge is not a place you'd expect to find a whale story - the county, Wiltshire, is landlocked - but here it is again: a book on the loose.

I went to Stonehenge when I was 11 and recollect only grassy plains and the imposing stones growing out of a windswept plateau. It was the sort of place my mother insisted we go because she loves to touch and hold history as much as she loves singing oratorios. She made us wait until the light fell just so, that way we'd see the small dagger carved into one of the stones. I think we saw it. It felt like we did.

The experts have found other carvings since using special equipment rather than the naked eye. The latest literature also seems to point to the stones being a burial site for Kings rather than some sort of aid to astronomy.

Thanks to travelling friends Debbie and Alan for the photograph, and Lily for holding the book.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Janet Frame in full remarkable voice

A Night at the Opera
by Janet Frame
New Yorker June 2 2008

We acted the cliché. We melted with laughter. Not the prickly melt that comes from sitting on a hot stove but the cool relaxing melt, in defiance of chemistry, like dropping deep into a liquid feather bed. We did not know or remember the reason for laughing. There was a film, yes: a dumb sad man with hair like wheat and round eyes like paddling pools; another man with a mustache like a toy hearth brush; and many other people and things—blondes, irate managers, stepladders, whitewash, all the stuff of farce. And there was a darkened opera house growing cardboard trees and shining wooden moons.

I shall never know why we laughed so much. Perhaps other films had been as funny, but this one seemed to contain for us a total laughter, a storehouse of laughter, like a hive where we children, spindly-legged as bees, would forever bring our foragings of fun to mellow and replenish this almost unbelievably collapsing mirth.

Nor was it the kind of laughter that cheats by turning in the end to tears, or by needing reinforcement with imagery. It was, simply, like being thrown on a swing into the sky, and the swing staying there, as in one of those trick pictures we had seen so often and marvelled at—divers leaping back to the springboard, horses racing back to the starting barrier. It was like stepping off the swing and promenading the sky.

After the film, we managed somehow to walk home. The afternoon was ragged with leaves and the dreary, hungry untidiness of a child’s half past four. Faces and streets seemed wet and serious. The hem of sky, undone, hung down dirty and gray.

To read the full story online link here to The New Yorker.

Thanks to
Graham Beattie for pointing me to it and Bill for telling Graham. The story is unspeakably good.


LATE NOTE: A discussion on the story on leafsalon has revealed via Janet Frame's niece that Night at the Opera was probably written about 1954. Follow this link to see more.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Our Poet Laureate: every bravery coming

"Do you see me? I am falling out of a blue sky where my days were as dancers in a maze, sure-footed and smiling . . .
Then a pair of taxis went head to head in a distant country so suddenly I didn’t see the difference but it was a wide white threshold. When I couldn’t thread a needle, when I could no longer see the faces of my children or trim their nails, when the colour of money disappeared (and I bare-headed in the midday sun) then falling began and I cried out against it. . .
. . .There is a way, I said, but this is only the first gate. I give what is left of the light of my eyes, I have fallen out of a clear sky. "
from Michele Leggott's poetry collection As Far as I can See (AUP 1999. )

Leggott is the first NZ Poet Laureate (before that they were called Te Mata Laureates). She has a blue tekoteko to prove it. She is rapidly losing her eyesight to the condition called retinitis pigmentosa but she continues to write and to rage.

Her poetry is a visceral rush or a feather falling, it's the 'ear' in heart and the gaps between words where people fall. If you'd only gone to her presentation at the Auckland Writers Festival, and nothing else, you'd have still left satisfied. When Leggott talks you can feel poems in the air whispering, screaming, laughing, there for the plucking. She has to print them out in extra large font now and reads standing. There is still nothing to prepare the listener for the shock of the poem quoted at the start of this post. That final line: 'I have fallen out of a clear sky.'

Audacious? Leggott invented the word. She's written poems that have circumnavigated an art gallery, turned in circles, been tucked into boxes and pop-up books. With her sight dimming she's turning to a more digital mode of expression. Now her words can actually move. On the Auckland stage she showed us a heart box she'd made years before with a felt heart inside it: heartfelt.

And pictured here a piece she made for Valentine's Day once with, she said, all that needed to be said about love: 'Every bravery coming stars love's heartfelt red.' For more on her try Poet Andrew Johnston's Landfall review and the Poet Laureate website where Leggott talks about her projects and the Auckland festival.

And here's one of those digital poems.

I have owned Leggott's collection Milk & Honey for a while now, I bought As Far as I can See in Auckland. I try and read it every day to be reminded of the excitement and energy and courage of words.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

A Perfect World

My friend David Cohen's book A Perfect World, a father's quest to unriddle the mysteries of autism has been shortlisted for the BPANZ Book Design Awards. The designer is Catherine Griffiths. David is quite rightly chuffed about the honour mentioning it in his 'This is not a blog post'. It is a good-looking sort of book to have and to hold although I'm not an expert on book design.

I do know that what's inside is worth reading for its insight into autism and for its take on the way we deal with those on the rim of the society wheel classified as 'different'. David's audacious way of telling a story can wrap up politics, history, culture, fiction, non-fiction and the personal in one magnificent swoop, and leave you in no doubt that what you have met is both a fascinating intellect and a father who won't rest until he's found some answers to explain the riddle of his own small son. Highly recommended. And if you want to know more about Autism or order the book, try .

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Blue goes to University

The first night of Massey University's Writers Read series at the Wellington campus went off with a bang. Fifty people filled the campus venue: students, academics, writers, readers, the curious. They came to hear, well, The Blue.

The event was an hour long with quarter of an hour to read so I managed to fit in a domestic scene (Lilian and the chickens) and a whaling scene. I'm always torn about which way to go at readings, if I go one way it seems to edge out the other important aspect of the book.

There was a q & a led by Massey's Dr Ingrid Horrocks (also a writer and my boss -- she lectures on creative writing and she and I and short story writer Anna Horsley take the workshops).

Ingrid's questions were subtle and insightful, and the audience bailed in wonderfully too. The Blue came out of it well I think. Always nice for a book to get an outing like that and in such sympathetic company. So huge thanks to Massey Uni and especially Ingrid for her hard work on this one. Nice to see some of my students there...

Next up: essayist/memoirist Martin Edmond reading from his work on Thursday August 21 and novelist James George on Thursday September 25. Worth a trip into town for that. You go to Wallace Street, Entrance A, Room 5D16 i.e. Block 5, Level D, Room 16. RSVP to

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Auckland Writers and Readers Festival Highs & Lows


*The enthusiastic crowd including these two audacious festival goers Gael (left) and Mary who came down from Mangawhai, Northland, for the event. They were spotted every day watching the author talks and lining up to get books signed (evidence of only some of their haul in photo). If you look hard enough you will see Gael is holding The Blue. She insists she was planning to buy it before she met me.

*Festival organisers including the titian-haired Shona Gow, Jill Rawnsley and Annaliese Prickett.

*The Blue on a panel with other sea-going books (by authors Joan Druett and Barbara Else), chaired by the colourfully clad, cheerful and efficient Graham Beattie . For more details and photo follow the link to his site.

*Junot Diaz the wildly unpredictable, funny, generous, honest, Pulitzer winner from the Dominican Republic. It took him 11 years to write his novel (when Kim Hill on opening night suggested this was a long time, he said 'that's abuse!') Oscar Wao is a transliteration of Oscar Wilde. The hero is a ghetto nerd living with his Dominican family in New Jersey. And that's just the beginning of what sounds like a wacky ride.

*The Michael King Lecture by brilliant and witty literary biographer Hermione Lee (Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton), and then a session later with Lee and biographer Simon Montefiore (Young Stalin). Montefiore has a racier approach to the tricky biography genre but the same rigour and wit. Lee noted that she never expected Edith would be on the same stage as Stalin, but then again at another similar event Virginia stood side by side with Hitler. Our own literary biographer Harry Ricketts steered this discussion with his usual gentle aplomb.

*Talking to Booker Winner Anne Enright late one night outside our hotel. Just her and me. Later having her sign my copy of The Gathering with a quote from her book: 'I lay them out in nice sentences, all my clean white bones.' I liked her take on Irish literature vs. English: that the latter is about clarity and the former about confusion. And hear this from her mother who used to say: ''Write what you know', then, 'how do you know that?'' (imagine it said with an Irish roll)

*NZ Poet Laureate Michelle Leggott with her pale blue tekoteko who stalked the stage hunting down words and making them squeal and hiss and weep. I wept too, and wasn't the only one, when she read a poem about losing her sight which ended: 'I have fallen out of a clear sky.' Poet Chris Price was Leggott's partner in crime as session chair.

*Hearing writers Shonagh Koea and Peter Wells in conversation -- they are friends and made the audience feel like we were in her pretty house taking tea. The Koea quote that stays with me: when she sees people who look like nothing has gone wrong in their lives and everything has gone right, Koea wants to ask, 'What do you know of dread?'

*Talking to Peter Wells in the hotel lift and the later meeting his proud Mum after a gentle revelatory session about writers and writing led by Kate de Goldi with Wells (Lucky Bastard), Laurence Fearnley (Edwin + Matilda) and Peter Ho Davies (The Welsh Girl).

*Sitting next to Witi Ihimaera at a dinner for Penguin authors which also boasted Maxine Alterio, Duncan Sarkies, Paula Morris, Vanda Symon, Kapka Kassabova, Laurence Fearnley. I am biased but I wonder if any other festival attendees noticed Penguin boss Geoff Walker up the front of every event his authors performed in, grinning from ear to ear?

*Owen Scott on his memoir Deep Beyond the Reef with snippets from Annie Goldson's movie.

*NZ authors Fearnley, Sarkies, Carl Nixon and Louise Wareham Leonard speaking passionately in defence of THE BOOK. Funny moment: a member of the audience asking if any of the panel had used a Kindle, after a pause Nixon said, 'a what?' Good to see Book Council head Noel Murphy taking to the stage as chair.

*Luke Davies, Sarah Hall and Simon Montefiore discussing History and the Novel with Fiona Kidman whose face was a picture when Davies launched into a reading of a mile-high Howard Hughes sex scene.


*The Opening Night which was badly managed by a provocative Kim Hill.

*Nobel prize and double Booker winner J.M. Coetzee who wins no awards for his people skills, and was a thoroughly self-centred and disappointing guest. He refused to answer questions and would only read from his work. At Opening Night he was the last of four authors to speak and he sat so still with his eyes lowered I heard someone behind me say: 'has he died?'


I've probably forgotten something. Astoundingly there was a lot I didn't get to see. You'll have to go elsewhere for that. Graham Beattie's website is a good start. Thanks to other Festival companions: Adina, John, Fiona et al., and to Dave and Angela for putting me up one night.

I hope Gael and Mary got back to Mangawhai okay.

Let's Go Down to the Sea Again Panel L-R Joan Druett, Barbara Else, Mary McCallum, Graham 'Bookman' Beattie. Photo by Bookman Beattie

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Blue and I are off to the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival. The panel we are appearing on is called Let's Go Down to the Sea and it's with Barbara Else and Joan Druett, chaired by Graham Beattie, it's on Friday 10-11 at the Aotea Centre in the NZI Lower Room. Authors will be thick on the ground there for the next four days including J.M.Coetzee who has won the Nobel Prize and is one of only two authors to win the Man Booker Prize twice. Disgrace is in my handbag (that would make a great title for a book.)

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Antarctic Blue

Tamsin Falconer sent this shot of The Blue in Antarctica. She said it wasn't quite as cold as it looks but then locals think of minus 6 as a balmy day.

I don't know her at all but she looks an audacious sort, and she knows writer Kate Duignan who sent the photo on. Thanks Tamsin! I am both grateful and envious.

There's something apposite about a photo like this considering the whales in my novel come from Antarctica and the people on the island are constantly aware of the closeness of the vast southern continent.

In a southerly buster, they smell it on the wind.

Tamsin's email went like this:

Please pass the photos on to your friend & let her know that I am enjoying The Blue very much, though mostly reading it in my bunk, not outdoors.

Interestingly, when I posed for the photo, I opened it up to a page that had at the top a phrase about there being a storm on the horizon and the weather coming in, which is exactly what it was doing.

You can't see it too well in the photo, but there was a lot of snow blowing around.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

A Breed Apart

This book is audacious because the author is audacious and because her first novel A Breed of Women published in 1979 was considered wildly audacious. With Sharon Crosbie telling her radio listeners: ‘Darlings I’ve got the book we’ve all been waiting for. This book is about us. We’re all in it', A Breed of Women by Fiona Kidman was snapped up by 9,000 buyers in three days and continued to sell well for years afterwards.

After reading At the End of Darwin Road (2008) I had to read A Breed of Women, and what do you know, I found a first edition hardback for sale on Trademe for $9 today. So I bought it. [It’s one of the first 9,000 hopefully.] The Book Council website tells us A Breed of Women is the story of an unconventional young woman’s confrontations with a narrow-minded small town society characterised by the grim judgment, ‘There’s no way outa Ohaka, ’cept by flying young, or dying here.’

Fiona knows small town NZ society – she was in it in Kerikeri as a child, Waipu as a teen and Rotorua as a young woman. In her memoir, she talks of the trouble she had conforming. Always feeling like an outsider looking in, she yearned to be a real writer and worked her way up from book reviewer through play and script writer to poet to novelist. It was tough going at times and Fiona has met with her fair share of humiliation, antagonism and maliciousness along the way, but she stuck to her knitting --actually she confesses to disliking knitting -- make that her two-finger typing, and is now a Dame and in 2006 she was the Katherine Mansfield fellow in Menton.

At the End of Darwin Road is the first part of Fiona’s memoir. It explores her life up to the publication of Mandarin Summer and the death of her father, but it also skips back and forward to the place she wrote the book: Menton France. It is a fascinating, unsettling and moving exploration of a woman writer at a time in New Zealand of tremendous social change, when being a woman writer was more of a dream than a reality. Fiona is a recent friend of mine [both of us have written novels set on Arapawa Island which led to the meeting], but until I read At the End of Darwin Road I didn’t know how privileged I was to be able to say that. Recommended.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Sunflower Sestina

A quick break-out from the tale of the travels of The Blue to talk about an audacious poem rather than a book. It is Andrew Johnston's The Sunflower which is a simply stunning poem. It is about the poet's father who died and the grief he felt, and it uses as its structure a double sestina.

This is the audacious thing about this poem. The sestina is one of those poetic forms which has a defined pattern the poet must meet. There is a certain predictability about it which is like the heart pumping blood through the body so it can do magnificent things, and at the same time each time the repeated word is used its meaning is subtly changed, which seems to me (and apologies for shifting metaphor here) to be like looking into a kaleidescope. The marvel is that the same small beads can - with one small movement of the hand - form so many different and gorgeous shapes.

The sestina is six 6-line stanzas, each stanza with the same end words but in a different order, the final end word in each stanza being repeated at the end of the first line of the next, and the poem ending with all six end-words inside the body of the last stanza. The double sestina is twelve 12-line stanzas each one with the same rearranged end words (and same end sounds, too, so 'sunflower' can become 'hour' and 'her' 'brother'.) The final six-line stanza (ideally) pulls together all 12 end-words. This repetition and subtle shifts in The Sunflower, and the final gathering together of all 12 words at the end, echoes the relentless persistence of grief and it's sister, memory.

Johnston's mastery of the sestina form fills me with wonder. He has drilled to the core of his relationship with his father, and to the core of grief itself in all its hatefulness, meaninglessness, significance and bizarre beauty, and come up with something that will surely become a classic. Here's a taste: 'Death /brings lilies, but someone has sent a sunflower:/this is our penance, staring at the sun,/its blind eye, its ragged halo.'

Andrew Johnston is a New Zealand poet who lives in Paris. On the Best NZ Poems website he comments: ‘The Sunflower is woven from many strands. In 1991 I read John Ashbery’s book-length poem “Flow Chart” and was struck by the double sestina embedded in it (pp. 186-193), which borrows its end-words (among them, 'sunflower') from a poem by Swinburne.

'In January 1997, newly arrived in the depths of a London winter, I was bowled over by an exhibition of Anselm Kiefer’s sunflower paintings. When my father died in 2004, my brother Peter suggested two passages from the King James Bible for the funeral service; their language stayed with me.

'I spent November 2005 at a writer’s residence in the north of France. On a trip back to Paris one weekend, I had a revelation in the train: I could use the double-sestina structure, and even Ashbery’s (and Swinburne’s) end-words, plus bits of the King James psalms and Kiefer’s sunflower image, to write the poem I needed to write about my father (there are echoes of many other sources in there, too). I went back to the Villa Mont-Noir and wrote The Sunflower.'

Read it please.