Friday, July 30, 2010

NZ Poetry Day: Southern Man

For Penny

The mouth of the harbour and the mountains are bleached
table linen, starched peaks – I run to keep
our meeting at Heketara Street, to go with you to the mouth
bright with fallen linen, to hold our hands out to the steep
sweep of land and the deep strait between. Your land, the South.
Walk with me, speak

of your blue house built on the hillside here, speak
of the sheets he hung out each Saturday, bleached   
and flapping, of the cabbage trees clapping in the south-
erly the day Rose was born, George who keeps
building with driftwood on the beach – teepees with steep
angles that stand the storms, Elsie with her cook’s mouth

chasing the combination of sweet and sour so the mouth
pinches and smiles all at once. Old Molly’s lagging, you speak
to her gently, tie her lead to the tree and turning, find a steeple,
George’s careful construction – the wood clean, bleached
by the sea, a place of safety, a place to keep
watch. He knows to make it strong, face it south

like the house on the hillside with the south-
facing beech trees crowding the windows, the yellow-mouthed
gorse, the two fat kereru, part tree house, part keep –
its casement windows built to speak
to the linen mountains, to the pressing sky,  to the bleached  
confounding light. And how to describe the steep

of your grief, after four years away, to find steeper
than mountains, sky-blue roofing blocking the south?
Behind the faded curtains, the bleached
window frames, all you left there safe to return to, lost. The mouth
of your grief is sour: you speak of vertigo, pale children, peaks
in sight only up at the clothesline. Back to the sheets -- we keep

coming back -- to Alan hanging them out to dry, needing to keep
a weather eye on the mountains, undeterred by the steep
climb, the clapping cabbage trees. He wouldn’t speak
of it but you knew: how the mountains coming and going to the south
moored him here at this harbour’s rim, his mouth
crammed with pegs, something eating his innards like bleach.

We’re nearly home when you tell me of the last bleached sheet, steeped
in sour and sweet – not a thing to keep – used to wrap this southern
man: his breast bone, eyes, mouth, feet, valleys, constellations, peaks.

by Mary McCallum

My first ever poem using the elaborate sestina form, and as much about the land (its north and south) as it is about the man who straddled both places - so appropriate, I think, for the NZ theme on Tuesday Poem today.

As another poet Tim Upperton said to me just the other day, the sestina is a 'weird' form and he's not sure he'll write another one in his life. Me neither. But it has been interesting seeing what it forces language to do and where it makes a poem go. More on the history and use of the sestina here , the double sestina that inspired me here, and how the form works in my poem below. 

Sestina scheme for Southern Man: a-bleached b-keep, c-mouth, d- steep, e-south, f-speak [and variations of those words, note they do not need to rhyme but mine do... ]

a b c d e f (first stanza) 
f a e b d c (second stanza)
 c f d a b e (third stanza) 
e c b f a d (fourth stanza) 
d e a c f b (fifth stanza) 
b d f e c a (sixth stanza) 
a d (1st line of the 7th stanza, "a" must be in the line, but the line must end with "d")
 b e (2nd line of the 7th stanza, "b" must be in the line, but the line must end with "e") 
c f (3rd line of the 7th stanza, "c" must be in the line, but the line must end with "f"). 

For more poems on National Poetry Day and links to poetry events all over the country, click on the quill.
Tuesday Poem

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Tuesday Poem: Best NZ Poems

A hundred people - yes a hundred, or close to - attended a reading of the Best NZ Poems 2009 at lunchtime yesterday here in Wellington, as part of the Writers on Monday series. It was the flag-waver for National Poetry Day this Friday and was, in poetry-speak, PACKED TO THE GUNWALES.

In Te Papa's marae [pictured], the rapt crowd included a couple of babies, a number of elderly folk, a good smattering of writers and young groovy types cross-legged on the floor.

A couple of my students came along too - one even cadged a ride back to the university afterwards. The nine writers on the stage made up over a third of the poets in Best NZ Poems 2009. I don't have the permission to post everything I heard so here are the links (below) with first lines to nab you.

What Sixty Minutes Teaches by Geoff Cochrane 'We're with an embedded camera crew/ in a suburb of Baghdad...'
The Poi Girls by Louise Wallace 'Kahu, Mere, and Faith/stand on the grass/by the corner...'
Certain Trees by Ashleigh Young  'One tree pretends to throw things/ and the wind goes sprinting ...'
Before we all hung out at cafes by Lynn Davidson 'At primary school on the monkey bars/we'd hang, aching, from the middle rung ...'
A Hassidic story might start... by Lynn Jenner ' 'A Hassidic story might start with trees and a problem ...'
Dylan Thomas (b.2003), Coolmore Stud, New South Wales by Gregory O'Brien 'From a paddock lately nuzzled/ by Groom Dancer, Pensive Mood/and Pursuit of Love ... 
Stowage by Chris Price 'The sadness of bells sitting silent/shelved like a library of hearts ...'
Hat by Marty Smith 'Dad wouldn't be seen dead/without a hat...' 
The Starlings by Tim Upperton [has already appeared on Tuesday Poem - Bryan Walpert's blog] 'Anger sang in that house until the scrim walls thrummed...'

Here's the link to more lunchtime readings. 
And more Poems at Tuesday Poem - click on the quill in my sidebar. 

Monday, July 26, 2010

Not enough transfiguration - we writers of damaged goods

'I wonder if there is too much sampling and rephrasing in contemporary art — and not enough transfiguration.'
I couldn't resist this quote from a lecture delivered in 2005 by artist and poet Gregory O'Brien at Te Papa. Called Where the Alphabet Ends, it was part of an exhibition at the museum: Small Town, Big World, and it focused on the work of writer Janet Frame who'd died the year before. Here is the whole passage from this stimulating and provocative speech: 

'Damaged goods
There are a lot of damaged goods in Frame’s book [Living in the Maniatoto]. And language, like goods, can be harmed in transit—as Janet made clear on the back of a marvellously grim envelope which arrived in my letterbox some years back. (The envelope has been glued down then reopened then stuck back together with white tape; an urgent inscription in Frame’s hand is on the right: A BANDAGED LETTER!) Not too many artists these days are all that concerned with the restoration or cleaning up of battered realities. Often they set out to rephrase this brokenness, emptiness or vacuousness---which is well and good, as far as it goes. However, in proposing Janet Frame as an exemplar of the (post)modern artist, I am making the point that art and artists can go beyond that point. I wonder if there is too much sampling and rephrasing in contemporary art—and not enough transfiguration (but maybe that’s because I have spent too much of my adult life in the company of Erik Satie, Marc Chagall and Rainer Maria Rilke).'

Note: 'Janet Clutha' was one of the names used by Janet Frame. 

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Meeting Robert Lowell and Anne Enright

A chance meeting with US poet Robert Lowell by an elevator, a walk in a Boston blizzard, and talk of 'the usefulness of sonnets'. Not me, but someone called M A Schorr who's written about this 1967 encounter in the wonderful Charles River Journal of Boston (September 2009 edition).

Go here to find out how to read the whole article - I'm afraid it involves money - but the link will take you to some of the other articles in that particular journal which are well worth a read.

From Schorr's article, I am particularly taken with the thought of broadening the notion of the sonnet. Schorr says Lowell 'expanded his use of the sonnet form to create an intensely compressed history of the world'.  The poet used sonnets as a personal 'notebook' and they were published as 'Notebooks 1967-68' and later as a larger compilation 'History'.

Fascinating. I battled with a sonnet a couple of weeks back for my Tuesday Poem. It wasn't just the rhyme scheme that caused me to fret, it was also grappling with what a sonnet does. Lowell's view gives me more to think about.

This report on a chance meeting with Lowell reminds me of when I ran into Irish author Anne Enright outside our hotel in Auckland at the Writers and Readers Festival in 2008. No snow, no walk, no sonnets. Although there was a kind of magic Narnia moment as I fell through a door and there she was.

We did talk, though, on that autumn street with taxis and people on their way somewhere else. She, despite jet-lag, was ascerbic, clever, funny, and quick to brush off my obvious fan ecstasy. She was, I suppose, a kind of cross between the White Witch and Mr Tumnus.  I was Lucy I guess.

I don't remember Anne Enright offering me any advice on writing as we stood on that coolish street (no snow remember, it was Auckland) within coo-ee of an elevator (sorry, 'lift'), perhaps she did.

Perhaps it was this - don't hang around famous authors outside hotels hoping for something that will change your life. They just want five minutes of peace after a long flight. They will not give you pieces of turkish delight and if they do, beware.

Friday, July 23, 2010

E is for Book

E-book or P-book? I heard an interesting presentation on this a few weeks back. The P-book was new to me (or so I thought) but it is - get this - a Physical Book, and an E-Book is an Electronic Book. And both, it seems, are books. One doesn't need paper or binding anymore, a screen in your lap will do.

While it's tougher now to get published as a P-Book, it's easier than it's ever been to do the E-Book thing. The potential is huge for writers who want to get their work out there. It's certainly worth looking into if you're clutching a manuscript that hasn't got, well, physical yet.  is one place a writer can publish their own E-Book (or P-Book). There are other sites too - but Lulu seems to be the biggest.

There are also E-Book publishers out there now who will assess a manuscript, edit and promote it. One of those is NZer Penelope Todd (formerly of Longacre Press) with the brand new Rosa Mira Books who is soon to publish her first E-book and is working on another. She comments
The first manuscript is being edited: The Glass Harmonica: A Sensualist's Tale —  a joyous and lyrical novel set between Corsica, Paris, and New England in the late 18th century — by Dorothee Kocks of Utah. We're planning an October launch. I'm currently considering stories from NZ and abroad for the second title Slightly Peculiar Love Stories. 
Which sounds really E-groovy. Good luck, Penelope. Now must get started on that peculiar love story... 

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Tuesday Poem: What Comes Next: In Vitro Fertilisation by Ingrid Horrocks

Egg Retrieval

Even the noun is off.
Retrieval -- the act of getting

something back, as though
a long needle passing through

her vagina wall to draw
her eggs out one by one

while she lies sedated, but
conscious, is any kind of re-

turn. Or do they mean retrieval
as the finding and extracting
of data from a storage device;

her eggs genetic information
to be read and used?

Or perhaps, simply, the rescue from
a state of difficulty or collapse.


She sits in her garden with her
swollen abdomen, her hysterical

pregnancy almost as big as the
belly of a pregnant friend who

will come later for dinner and
distraction. The strangest thought is

her six eggs now outside herself
in the care of embryologists. Even

now, as shade begins to fall across
her bean shoots and new flax

her eggs are in test tubes in a lab,
being carefully fertilised.


She is in the shower.

Outside the sun is shining.

Through frosted glass she
sees him come into the garden

with his breakfast bowl
so she opens the window wide.

They called, he says,
it's good news.
-- We've got embryos.

She leans from the window
all wet and fresh with soap

and kisses him.

This poem has stayed with me since first reading it some weeks ago  when the book Mapping the Distance (VUP) first came out. At the launch, poet and academic Ingrid Horrocks said she wasn't sure about the final series of poems  in the collection (of which this is one) because, I think she said, they weren't quite ready - or perhaps she hadn't thought them through enough. They are very recent poems for a collection that has been crafted over ten years.

I like them very much. It is the material - a couple trying to conceive - that grabs the attention and the way this intensely personal material is delivered with searing honesty. The rawness of the feelings is deeply affecting, as is the way the cerebral [the driving force behind Ingrid's poems] is perforce surrendered to the mysterious workings of the human body and the deeper mysteries of science. Most of all, the power of this final segment of the book is the way it becomes the happy ending to a love story.

For although the book is about mapping the distances travelled on land and between people and through time, it's most of all (it seems to me) a love story between two people - the waiting for, the beginnings, the shock of intimacy, the settling down ... and, finally, after much heartache, the conception. No surprise the collection is dedicated to Ingrid's partner, Tim.

And this poem? I love the wonder of her leaning 'wet and fresh with soap', and the sweetness and wetness of the kiss. And before that the water and the light in the garden, and the frosted glass - and her anxious, perhaps, or just not knowing, behind it. The openness and 'ohs' of the breakfast bowl and window and embryo and soap bring the good news with them  ... This joyful glistening image contrasts wonderfully with the etymological discussion of Egg Retrieval at the start of the poem, and the careful couplets of Later.

I also love the way What Comes Next speaks to the first poem in the collection which has Ingrid's great aunt leaning from a window in Italy eating a fig. In this poem, too, there is a garden, and the fig is wet and cool.

Mapping the Distance is a pleasure for the careful way it crafts language to shape experience but most of all for its voice - a cool, gentle, honest, erudite voice that knows love and how to love. Like the mouth in the final lines of the book, this poet spills words like birds.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Tuesday Poem: Tethering the Heart

Tethering the Heart
 for Fi

To tether the heart we need more than tape –
needle and thread,  perhaps,  string,  staples
or, better, a screw to hold the thing in place.
And what to do with the eyes and the lips? I’ll
say again, needle and thread, string, a screw.
Without vigilance now, the result concerns:
heart awry, eyes askance, lips askew.
Forgive me, old friend, but we’re on the turn -
old lino peeling to show a soiled
floor, lines where insects made their way, a dank
smell we cannot shift. Without strings to hold
it, the heart takes advantage: nudges a loose plank,
slips out - shy and uncertain as a milk-fed calf. 
What then, my lovely? What could it do, that untethered heart?  

Mary McCallum

My friend - artist and fellow Tuesday Poet Fifi Colston - posted 'Getting dressed' one Tuesday recently and asked if it constituted a poem. I immediately wanted to put words to it - there was something about the concentration and suggestion of melancholy in the face, and the insubstantial sticky tape for such a big heart. And I've known Fifi for (um) decades.... since she was sweet thirteen with a mop of blonde hair, groovy shoes and a talent for drawing. And so the poem lifted off ... but the first draft had a sonnet inside fighting to get out, or that's how it seemed to me.

I decided to work on it and see what I could do to make that happen, but it wasn't a simple thing at all. It was difficult and frustrating. The rhyme scheme abab/cdcd/efef/gg took over the words for awhile and made them seem trite. I thought of returning to the original poem but it seemed less substantial than the tighter poem that was an emerging sonnet  ... so I kept working on it.

I started to get excited by the way the form interrogated the words and the ideas behind the poem - which form does, but not usually quite so mercilessly. Many many hours later, this is it. A loose sonnet (no iambic pentameter to speak of and half-rhymes all over the place  ...) but a sonnet nonetheless?

I still wonder if it works. I wonder if there is enough of a fall onto the final word in each line, and if that matters, I also wonder if there is enough of the shift between each of the three quatrains (sets of four lines), and between them and the final couplet. What I'm pleased about is the way the poem has finally emerged with both substance and form. It feels like it's been a long road... better stick my eyes and mouth back on (where is that bloody heart?) and go out into the world again.

Thanks Fi. For more Tuesday Poems please click on the quill in the sidebar.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Word Cloud of O Audacious Book

Wordle: O Audacious Book

The wonder of word clouds. Click on it to appreciate its full glory. To make one, go to wordle. You can feed in a whole novel as I did for The Blue or feed it the url for your blog, as I did here.

I like the felicitous phrases that emerge: 'clenched sausage', 'married shower poet', 'bench bliss' and 'Andre founded sandwich fiction'  are my favourite.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The bliss of Mansfield

What can you do if you are thirty and, turning the corner of your own street, you are overcome, suddenly, by a feeling of bliss – absolute bliss! – as though you’d suddenly swallowed a bright piece of that late afternoon sun and it burned in your bosom, sending out a little shower of sparks into every particle, into every finger and toe?...”  Katherine Mansfield.
Mansfield fan, scholar and poet, Elizabeth Welsh reports on the recent Katherine Mansfield symposium in Melbourne, and explains how reading the passage above aged 14 sent her in pursuit of the provocative, elusive, brilliant Mansfield. Her enthusiasm is, quite frankly, infectious. And the paper she delivered? ‘Mansfield’s ellipses as phenomenological markers of time’. You've got to be a fan...

She begins her report:
As a scholar, enthusiast and society member I was recently fortunate enough to attend Katherine Mansfield, the ‘Underworld’ and the ‘Blooms Berries’Symposium held in the UNESCO city of literature, Melbourne.  I was there to present a paper and to soak up all things Mansfield.  Having spent the last five years immersed in Mansfield studies I was in my element. ... more here at Morph magazine.
Elizabeth is our latest Tuesday Poet, too, by the way. You can catch her poetry here. 

And another enthusiast enthuses on the symposium .... this time it's my mate Maggie Rainey-Smith - a near-neighbour, novelist and Mansfield fan who lives within a stone's throw of Mansfield's family bach in Days Bay, Wellington. I guess where Elizabeth's report is 'in the... mind of', Maggie's is 'in the footsteps of':  
First, as I wandered down the wide pavements of Melbourne where the fat autumn leaves lay undisturbed, I marvelled at the difference and also the similarities between Wellington (birthplace of KM) and Melbourne, where the Symposium was being held.   I don’t think Katherine ever visited Melbourne, but it occurred to me that she would have loved it (as it is now), so stylish, cultural, and definitely a place to find a classy tea shop.  more on Beattie's Bookblog. 

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Tuesday Poem: Epithalamium NYC by Anne Carson

I washed my hair the morning I got married put
red boots found license woke C. set off for City
had ceremony drove to Fairway got cups of tea
at bench on boardwalk watched man & woman
next bench come almost to blows over her having
ketchup on his egg sandwich too bad they couldn’t
trade hers had the sausage Don’t ever put ketchup
my egg sandwich he clenched You handed it to me
cawed meanwhile their aged father paying no heed
pulling out bits of paper one after the other That’s not
he’d say That’s one from four years ago beautifully
he searched on his wife I bet kept track of the list
she was alive bluish mist lifted sank on the water a
(Liberty) slid us a wave from way across the bay.

Found this poem in the New Yorker, August 24 2009. Here it is for those who like to read it that way. Epithalamium links well to the poem I posted last week by Vana Manasiadis because she is a fan of Anne Carson  and her genre-busting style. Through Vana, I became a fan too. Autobiography of Red is one of my favourite books. 

Apologies to those I promised a sonnet to - especially Tuesday Poet Fifi Colston whose artwork inspired me. I thought I'd nailed it yesterday but realised I hadn't quite got the rhyme scheme down, and have since spent hours and hours and hours over the thing but, at 1.09 am on Tuesday morning, I am bailing. 

I feel the poem lacks weight and it's not helped by the way the rhyme seems to trivialise the message. I am tempted to take it back to its raw, non-sonnet beginnings and post that. But no, it leaned so strongly towards the sonnet form that I really had to take it there. Maybe next week. 

Do go to Tuesday Poem for more poems - Janis Freegard is this week's editor.  

Monday, July 5, 2010

I gestate

Had a great day up at Massey University, Palmerston North, last Thursday working as an author/tutor with a group of extramural creative writing students. I was given a whole hour to talk about my writing  - which felt both indulgent and exciting - and then I led a workshop on writing characters in fiction. 

The theme of my talk was 'I gestate' which I took from a great essay by Andre Dubus called The Habit of Writing. Dubus talks about the need to let stories and characters come to the surface and how that may take some time, some thinking  ... and lots of scribbling in notebooks. 

I gestate: for months, often for years. An idea comes to me from wherever they come, and I write it in a notebook. Sometimes I forget it's there. I don't think about it. By think I mean plan. I try never to think about where a story will go. This is as hard as writing, maybe harder; I spend most of my waking time doing it; it is hard work, because I want to know what the story will do and how it will end and whether or not I can write it; but I must not know, or I will kill the story by controlling it; I work to surrender.

Some discussion of the whole essay here and here

Since The Blue came out in 2007, I have indeed been gestating: an adult novel Precarious, a children's novel (nearly finished), a play (in bits and pieces - trying to ignore it) and, just recently, some poems. I read the Massey students extracts from all three novels - it was the first outing for the children's book. Reading work out loud is a marvellous way to see what is good and bad about it as well as helping you believe that what you have is something that's 'alive'.  At the end of the Precarious extract, Massey writer-in-residence Jennifer Compton clapped her hands spontaneously, and told me later how much she liked it. Which helps me to push on. 

Here are the sorts of things I shared with my workshop group on the art of writing characters. And here again is the review of my Massey colleague Bryan Walpert's collection of short stories. It didn't get a lot of air play on the blog when I posted it, and these are great pieces of fiction for students and readers alike.


These stories are extraordinary things. Each one is centred around a single character who grieves for a loss that is usually withheld until the story plays out. Memory and the unravelling of it, and the way people try to make some sense of the apparently senseless by remembering - always a faulty business - is at the core of the book. So too is the questionable power of love to save us.

Author Bryan Walpert is an award-winning US writer who is a NZ citizen and teaches creative writing at Massey University, Palmerston North. As such, that makes him a colleague of mine (I teach at Massey Wellington). His poetry collection Etymology was launched last year and his poem No Metaphor kicked off our Tuesday Poem blog.

As his poetry does so wonderfully, Bryan's stories use language and the prism of science and philosophy to try to rein in and explain the vicissitudes of life and the resulting anguish of the people who suffer at its hands. Bryan has said: 'I think for me, as a writer, the way to the heart is often through the head.' Hence the lack of sentimentality, hence the careful, erudite and skilful writing that gives you deep rivers of emotion but without once leaning in from the important task of rowing the boat to trail its hand in the water.

In discussing No Metaphor on Tuesday Poem, I talked about the interior struggle of the man in the poem to both remember and forget, and the same struggle is to be found in Ephraim's Eyes. The characters' thoughts swirl around philosophy or mushrooms or magic tricks as both a distraction and as a way to explain what has happened to them; and in the same way they also tell stories that they believe to be true and that are sometimes clearly fiction. But Ephraim's Eyes is most emphatically not a bunch of cerebral ramblings. The  muscle of the stories is in the well-wrought complex characters who pitch-perfect voices who live ordinary lives alight with detail (in NZ and the US), and undertake work that is both authentic and fascinating.

Whether it be a man damaged by war who owns a magic shop and finds himself teaching tricks to a needy boy, a man whose job is to check billboards for damage but who is wholly taken up with checking the perceived wreck of his own life, a teenage girl who finds numbers beautiful but is diverted into a destructive sexual relationship, a woman with a secret who needs a new cupboard and gets a mycologist in as a housemate to help pay for it, a girl whose Hawkes Bay olive grower step-father is making her uncomfortable, a man who thinks he's the incarnation of the comic book character Flash.

more here

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Real Mr Pip founds a library ...

... as reported in The Guardian UK thanks to my mate, David.  And here's where you go to donate towards this amazing project founded by Lloyd Jones.