Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Tuesday Poem: a runaway (spider) success

Snowball or spider's web? It was called both ... The Tuesday Poem started here was picked up by twelve poets yesterday around the country (and elsewhere) if you include NZ Poet Laureate Cilla McQueen who was linked in whether she liked it or not.

Most of us posted poems first thing in the morning, with some bailing in in the afternoon, and two as late as  nine o'clock at night. We linked to each other and popped in and out of each other's poems all day, and other readers came along too ...  the google analytics and statcounter stats prove it.  It was indeed like an 'open-mike' session in cyberspace with the same excitement, stimulation, and sense of community that inspires. 

I really enjoyed myself - reading and re-reading the poems, discovering poets and talents I didn't know, relishing those I did. Thank you to the Tuesday poets who paused long enough in their busy days to find a poem, to post it with links to other poets, and then sent out emails to encourage poets (two overseas) to join us. 

I'm all on for next Tuesday and I know many of the Tuesday poets are too. So come by here then. 

Meanwhile, here's Claire Beynon's poem which seems to me to sum up what I felt happened yesterday. Spiders, we all. 

Links to the other  Tuesday Poems

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Tuesday Poem: Mulling it over

 Mulling it over
   by Maggie Rainey-Smith

Cinnamon cardamom
                     almonds and wasps                      
plump imported raisins
Uncle’s aluminium pan
 the sunlight is thinner    
   Maria who is Greek is fasting 
                  orange peel floats                  
in the dark pool of wine
        I add sugar and schnapps   watch the liquid almost boil   ladle it into warm mugs
        we breathe in the alcohol   swat the wasps   remember the last Good Friday and one
       before             marvel at the yeasty buns          suck the sticky glaze from our fingers
           lift the pale crosses to our lips         knowing that Judas will betray Jesus   that  Pilate
           will wash his hands     that Veronica will wipe his face   a soldier will lance his side
           that he will chat to a couple of thieves just before he  dies                      but
drunk  on  nostalgia 
ripe  in our  loss
it  is  the  triumph
 of  the empty tomb
we  most  admire 
and   raise  our  
 hot mugs of wine
with relief,  glad

Thanks Maggie. Other bloggers are joining me in posting a Tuesday Poem this week [note this list is regularly updated]. The result is a rather wonderful online 'open mike' session or an informal poetry 'journal'. 

UPDATE [tuesday night]: I had a perfect 5 minutes this morning reading the Tuesday Poems and marvelling at the talent of poets Tim Jones, Harvey Molloy,  Claire Beynon, poet and publisher of poems Helen Rickerby, and author of 'Fifi Verses the World' Fifi Colston.   

South Island poets Penelope Todd and Paradoxical Cat joined us with a poem mid-way through the day, and Kay Cooke  slid her poem in three hours before midnight. I only discovered two overseas poets had posted: Premium T   and Vespersparrow today!

You'll also always find a poem on NZ Poet Laureate Cilla McQueen's blog. She's writing an astonishing poem in instalments  called Serial using images from the National Library. A new instalment is published every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. 

For my past Tuesday Poems see top right tab on the blog. 

Sunday, March 28, 2010


Thanks to UK author, Justine Picardie , for this. How exquisite it is. Love the alignment of hope with a bird.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers - 
by Emily Dickinson

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.

From The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Found on the excellent  Poetry Foundation website . Worth a visit. 

Friday, March 26, 2010

twittering poetry

Wondering about what happens when one posts a poem on a blog - how far and where does it go? It's very different from throwing it into a NZ anthology or collection - readership 500 if you're lucky.

For a start, all my blog posts go out through Twitter which flicks them onto Facebook ... in other words, there's an unknown ripple effect which is both fun and scary.  I googled my Tuesday poem called This Cup which begins 'Orange sarong on the beach, tip-toeing on the hot stones ...'  and one of the delightful places I found it holed up was here . It's an elearning site for English and the page is: 'Sarong Examples on Twitter'. My poem is top of the list. 

I have to say some of the other twitters cited must surely rate as poems even if they're not meant to be. Like this one: 

Now dat a chick got da itis da sun wanna come out ima need it 2 get real hot so I can trow on my louie v sarong & take a walk on dis beach. PrettyDivaMel 

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim'rous beastie

I see our resident mice have invaded the toaster, and one shot out from the open bread bin the other morning, leaping like a sky-diver from the bench to the ground below, and doing the most amazing twist to land on its feet. I feel if we don't do something, we'll end up like my friend Sandra's house where two mice were observed wrestling a Tux dog biscuit down the side of the dishwasher. The critical thing being that no-one in this animal-loving, vegetarian household reacted in the way you'd expect - no shrieking, no traps, no brooms to chase it away.

Bingo the dog lifted an eyebrow and went back to sleep, and one of the children checked his bowl to see there was enough left for him.

So what to do? It's a fine balancing act between being kind to timorous animals and being infested by Disney-type rodents with muscles and no fear. I hate the snap of the trap in the night, and perhaps a squeal, or worse, the sound of the panicked knocking on the ground as the mouse tries to free itself. Last time I used a trap - two years ago? - I was woken by the *snap* and then kept awake by the deep silence. In the morning, I found the trap empty.  My son explained two days later that 'it was okay', he'd released the mouse because it wasn't dead.

Which leads me to this lovely reading of Robbie Burns' To A Mouse. I'd forgotten the way this poem moves from the little mouse disturbed in a field through to the way the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry ....  It is marvellous for its tenderness for all that is mortal, all the struggles, all that feels pain and fear, and it isn't lofty or grand at all, just a man musing in a field, with a frightened mouse, displaying - in his feeling for this creature - his humanity and his own (greater?) fear of mortality. A downer ending, though, not your carpe diem sort of poem.

Still, I get the feeling I'd better just keep on closing the bread bin and put a cover over the toaster. Not even sure where the trap is anyway.

The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!

Still thou are blest, compared wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But och! I backward cast my e'e,
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Tuesday Poem: This Cup

This Cup

Orange sarong on the beach, tip-toeing on the hot stones, a cup of seawater in his hands, 
laughing, keeping it steady, taking it to someone only he can see. I’ve passed him now and
up ahead two people in white – white hair, white hats, white shirts – tipping from the hip 
as the old do, kept from falling by a small child. They stop and watch, they take his hand, 
they go forward on deliberate feet, love spilling from a china cup. Between the orange
sarong and the folk in white, I walk as you’d expect: one foot in front of the other, dressed
in the colour of stones, my devastation an empty spoon. 

                                                                                                Mary McCallum

The other Tuesday Poem: Missed 

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Sarah Waters' Rules for Writers

I've finished Sarah Waters' magnificent ghost story The Little Stranger (in the dark, on my own, the windows other words, very nervously, but compelled to keep reading, unable to put it down and wait until daylight hours). The ending of this novel is a tour de force - the kind of gorgeous revelation that leaves me hurtling back into those 500 pages  again trying to make sense of the whole thing now I know. And yet the sheer gorgeousness of it, is that I still don't know for sure...

There is much to learn from Waters about pace and tension and layering, and I plan to go back through the novel and make notes. In fact, top of Waters' ten rules about writing (as published in The Guardian UK) is  'Read like mad. But try to do it analytically...' - which I do try to do, but often forget, moving on to the next novel and the next. This time, I have the notebook ready.... and tucked under my belt, number 4 on Waters' list of writing rules:

Novels are for readers, and writing them means the crafty, patient, selfless construction of effects. I think of my novels as being something like fairground rides: my job is to strap the reader into their car at the start of chapter one, then trundle and whizz them through scenes and surprises, on a carefully planned route, and at a finely engineered pace.

Bring it on! The full Rules for Writers by Sarah Waters are here with thanks to The Guardian, and there's more on The Little Stranger in my previous post. I am thrilled to see it is on the longlist for the Orange Prize , along with NZer Eleanor Catton's The Rehearsal - another superbly crafted book.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Nose-to-tail books and their authors: catching up with the Writers' Festival

I only got to Neil Gaiman at the Writers and Readers Week here in Wellington - the family called and I could not ignore it this time. Usually, I get along every day possible and nose-to-tail those wonderful gigs:  writer (s), convener, books, a couple of chairs, a water jug, and me. By the end, I am stuffed full of the most stimulating conversation and I have voices in my head.

This year, I had to go it alone. I read both Australian Joan London and UK writer Sarah Waters in preparation, and was thrilled by the discovery of both. I'd been meaning to read Waters for a long time, but London was entirely new to me. The Good Parents is a surprising novel - a quiet thriller that finds the answer to the question of a young woman missing in Melbourne by unlayering the lives of those closest to her, most especially her parents. It is intelligent and insightful and gave me a serious yen to get back to Melbourne soon. I will be reading more of London and have vowed to read more Australian authors, too. The quiet buzz I get when a character buys 'weetbix' is ridiculous really, but it shows how marvellous the discovery of the familiar in a novel.

When I say I 'read' Sarah Waters, what I mean to say is I am reading Sarah Waters. The Little Stranger is a massive tome and I am two-thirds of the way through, and dreading finishing. This is one of those absorbing 'big' reads that maps out a whole way of life and then folds you inside the map. I've wanted to read it since I heard a reviewer say it made the hairs stand up on her arms - and now I have this gorgeous fat novel with its brilliant red cover, I am restricted to reading in well lit rooms preferably in daylight.

The Little Stranger is an old-fashioned ghost story with decaying Hundreds Hall and a family that is decaying along with it, enter the Doctor, a chap whose Mum was once a nursery maid there. He is quickly pulled in to Hundreds' life and the strange things that happen. It feels to me like a cross between Jane Eyre and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The writing is both formal (the bachelor doctor's tentative voice) and fondling (of detail), and builds tension expertly. Note to self: read more Sarah Waters, and make sure you see her next time she's in town. 

I would love to hear what either of these authors were like on stage, and all the rest, too, in fact ... feel free to comment.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Tuesday poem: Missed

for colin

we are under the power lines    under the tui    admiring the self-importance in that white
bubble throat    you’re wearing the tapestry waistcoat and the flying jacket heavy as a
sheep        driftwood for a walking stick        sharks’ teeth on your hat      head cocked
to what I’m saying     it’s lucky in Greece to have a bird dropping land on you

it misses us      just

we howl at this       are helpless with it     our faces cracking      the laughter fat and free
spitting up at the bird the power lines the tree    we chortle it chortles we shriek it shrieks
we merry three       soaring and spilling down the empty street on shiny wings        see,
the boy in the garden     see, Ed and his dog on the beach    see, Evelyn’s lunatic cat    the
bench with David’s name on it     Margaret with lace gloves riding her bike    we suck
and swill and spit     all that’s bright     all that’s ordinary    all that’s upright    all   that
breathes in this sea-licked place    until we are the brightest   breathiest      thing     of    all

there is no sign of the tui now      no sign of its shit       no sign of you      nothing of you
no-one      the air thick with chimney smoke   the crescent moon dark in a navy sky    
the only sound a dog barking   a high cold insistent bark    as if the chain is pulled too tight
around its singing throat

                                                                             mary mccallum

 I hope to make the Tuesday Poem a regular thing. My poems and others.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Neil Gaiman as Mozart

Neil Gaiman is the Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart of writing. When presenter, Kate de Goldi, announced this to the packed Wellington Town Hall last night, it erupted.  Of course he is: Gaiman is prolific, precocious and overflowing with astonishing offerings to a delighted public. He thinks public, he woos public, twitters to over a million people, and has a blog journal where he talks about any and everything: writing, book tours, family, his fiancee (musician Amanda Palmer) and his divine white dog. This is a writer with a packed and public brain who looks like a rock star and quite frankly rocks. He filled the Town Hall, for God's sake.

It was a crowd unlike any crowd I've seen at a writer's event. There were both men and women there of all ages - from the elderly with walking sticks to intermediate-aged children, and a definite skew towards the 20/30 year olds with bandannas, black jeans, layers of coats and scarves, and even the odd top hat. These people are the readers of his adult fantasy fiction - the latest is American Gods  - and his short stories, graphic novels, comic books, film-scripts and picture books. Many will have dived into The Graveyard Book (think: Jungle Book in the graveyard - packaged, like Harry Potter, for both children and adults) and Coraline (now made into a movie and about a girl with a creepy parallel family). My daughter and I were there for these last two, we haven't read the others, but are intrigued. Gaiman declares himself a writer who can turn his hand to anything, and works better with a deadline and limits e.g. he gets excited about a short story commissioned for an anthology about cats who think they're Shakespeare.

This man is first and foremost a storyteller. For a start, he has a deep, confiding, clear voice, and secondly, he transforms even an ordinary conversation into a place where gods leap and mythical creatures come to rest, and thirdly, he tells bloody good yarns. His first reading was a poem, Locks, about reading Goldilocks to his daughter and how when we are young we sleep 'unwisely' like Goldilocks did, but as we get older we become more like Father Bear, checking the locks. His final reading was from American Gods where the mythical and the modern, the living and dead collide in contemporary America. As Kate D G said, Gaiman loves putting myth and fairytale up against the ordinary and mundane. She also pointed out he comes back again and again to two other key ideas: that people aren't really dead, and God is not what he seems* (if Gaiman is the writer as rocker, De Goldi is one of those dudes from Rolling Stone magazine). Gaiman was encouraged to talk about his love of G.K. Chesterton, and how C.S. Lewis's Narnia series introduced him to the creatures of Greek myth.

There were about 30 people lined up to ask Gaiman questions at the end, and he dealt with as many as he could, giving generous and interesting responses. The boy who asked what Gaiman's favourite mythical creature was, was treated to the story of the Basilisk and then taken on a quick tour of the Norse Gods. The woman who wanted Gaiman's best writing advice was told it wouldn't come after five raps on the door on a dark night (open it and find the hooded figures of Stephen King, JK Rowling and Neil Gaiman ready to help), but rather through sitting down and simply writing and writing ... When it was all over, Gaiman looked set to spend as least as much time signing his books as he had talking.

Here's Gaiman on TV3 news (interesting fact stated here, Gaiman is 59 years old! I was sure he was in his 40s - nope, see comment made by anon. below, TV3 is wrong ... ), and Gaiman visiting Weta and interviewed by Kim Hill. This is his marvellously eclectic blog with links to books and book events. And look, here on Twitter Gaiman's view of the Wellington gig!

TWITTER (neilhimself): Wonderful interviewer and audience tonight at Town Hall. Glad the signing only took 3 & a half hours. Have lost fiancée.

Postscript: Apologies for not covering more of the Writers and Readers Festival in Wellington here on the blog, due to family sickness, this is the first session (sadly) I've made it to. Didn't take any notes either, just wanted to sit there and lap it up, so *apologies for any small errors of reportage. Hoping to get to Australian author Joan London today. Fantastic write-up here on Susanna Moore by Maggie Rainey-Smith.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The catalogue of lost books

There are gaps in everyone's bookshelf where those books went - the ones you lent.  You remember the books and, with the important ones, usually remember the people you lent them to. But you aren't in direct contact, and it would take an effort to find that person, and even more effort to make polite reminders about the book. You remember only too well when you said (bossily? generously? casually?) 'you must read this', and why you said it, you remember thrusting it into their hands, the diffident way they put it into a bag or onto a table, you remember them leaving with it.

The Catalogue of Lost Books

The Incredible Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (a problematic Czech-born communist) - this is a philosophical novel about lovers in the Prague Spring discovered by me in London in 1984/5 via a Guardian review read at the laundrette. I wasn't buying a lot of books then because I didn't have the money, but I bought this one from Foyles, I think, or somewhere near by. We lived a five minute walk away. I read it, loved it, took it to Athens when we went there to live for a while, and then handed it to my late aunt's lover to take home. I think I was trying to impress her, I think I was trying to give her a special gift, I think I was trying to make her like me. She was a Greek communist with scathing eyes and blunt hands whom I've never seen since.

Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay - a captivating story about the start of the comic book industry through the lives of a Czech artist and Brooklyn-born writer. My children were small when I read it, and I seem to remember sitting on the floor of the bathroom with the book in my lap while they frolicked in the bath. I also think it was one of the books chosen by my book club, so there would have been a deadline for finishing it. Years later, I lent it to the niece of a friend, a talented young woman who was selling the most extraordinary series of hand-made comic books about her relationship. She owned a small comic-book shop with her boyfriend.  Once they both helped us pick olives, and he wrote a poem about the olive trees which echoed one of Lorca's. I've seen her once of twice since, playing her guitar with her poet, but haven't had the heart to mention the book.

There are others in my catalogue, not always interesting or good. No, mostly interesting and good, that's the trouble. Why lend a dull book?  And I realise, even as I imagine the Lost Book coming back home one day, that such a thing is highly unlikely. It's made its life on another bookshelf now, and there's a certain logic to it being there in fact. Surely it fits where it is. And I guess I like that the new owner is linked to me via the book - after all I touched those pages first ... Or perhaps it was never read but simply shelved, and sent off one day in a cardboard box to the local school fair. Well then it really has gone. But you know, when you least expect it, in the oddest way sometimes, a book can come back , and it's like it never left. 

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Where the left hand rests

Some books fill you up: this palm-sized book with its exquisite end papers and illustrations, with its ineluctable poems by a woman who has lived a life of writing, who has travelled and received honours, who is first of all a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a daughter, a grand-daughter, a mother-in-law, a woman, a friend, for whom it hasn't always been easy, who has relied on an an innate strength and chutzpah and family to make something of it all.

Take the poem 'Pruning roses' written for her daughter Joanna. It starts 'The year we lived in France/I nipped home in July, the cold/ set of winter, to prune the roses/or so I said, although there was/ other business too...'  In France, Fiona Kidman was the Katherine Mansfield fellow in Menton; going home to prune the roses was about keeping the connection with the family and home she'd left behind. 'There were four of us there/ on the day of their ritual/ planting: my daughter, her daughter,/her brother's wife, and me.' And she thinks of the wedding Joanna had there: 'you wore a scarlet dress/and married your love/and we danced on the lawn.'

The day this book came out, three women who came into the bookshop where I work, stroked it, and read it, and bought it. Others admired it repeatedly and will, I am sure, return. This in a place where the sale of a poetry book a week is cause for celebration. One woman I work with - who has never before commented on poetry - came over and made me read 'Pruning the roses.' Oh yes, you must, you really must read this poem. And the one about Katherine Mansfield's shawl, and the one about the poets gathered for afternoon tea, and the one about the Grandmothers. All of them.

The launch of Fiona Kidman's latest collection of poetry was also a celebration of her 70th birthday. A wonderful event, with Joanna Kidman giving a gutsy, funny, moving tribute to her Mum. For an evocative write-up on the launch, go here . Happy Birthday, Fiona.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Gondal-Girl reviews The Blue

One of my favourite bloggers, Australian writer Gondal-Girl, has posted a brief review of The Blue. When the book was a year old, she thrilled me to bits when she sent a cellphone pic of it on the shelves in Gleebooks, Glebe, Sydney. Very cool indeed - especially to find myself next to Canadian author Alistair MacLeod. I've never met Gondal-Girl, but we've been talking through our blogs for nearly two years now. In that time she's produced a baby she refers to as the pixie ... and I haven't produced anything nearly as, well, solid. I've already got three 'Pixies', although two of them have grown to giants. Hopefully this year will yield up a children's book with my name on it - now that's pretty solid - and see an adult novel completed if not actually on the shelves. Thanks for the review G-G, I like that you found the book dreamy.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Lovers in the Age of Indifference

I reviewed Lovers in the Age of Indifference by Xiaolu Guo on National Radio today. A powerful collection of short stories by the author of the Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, who lives in London and Beijing. I didn't say everything I wanted to say, but I did get a good chunk of time on radio today which was wonderful, and gave me a chance to read an extract as well as natter. So here's the review

Monday, March 1, 2010

Tricking the reader - Didion

Love this from Joan Didion - essayist, novelist, memoirist, journalist - in the rich vault of the Paris Review interviews: 
Another thing I need to do, when I'm near the end of the book, is sleep in the same room with it. . . . Somehow the book doesn't leave you when you're asleep right next to it.
And this:
Interviewer: You have said that writing is a hostile act; I have always wanted to ask you why. 
Joan Didion: It’s hostile in that you’re trying to make somebody see something the way you see it, trying to impose your idea, your picture. It’s hostile to try to wrench around someone else’s mind that way. Quite often you want to tell somebody your dream, your nightmare. Well, nobody wants to hear about someone else’s dream, good or bad; nobody wants to walk around with it. The writer is always tricking the reader into listening to the dream.

For more, go here.