Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Tuesday Poem: Facing up to it

In this city of furrows, we fall over ourselves
tripping down
Devon Street, tipping down
and a return trip at such
an angle that
our foreheads kiss
the pavement.

Some days, it’s not furrowed at all,
a flung thing that’s caught
the wind:
a blanket,
a swag of kelp, newspaper balled
a good-sized fist. On

a good day, it is
all dimples,
this city. Ample, it dips
and here, and here -
the harbour  (the smile )
the place we fall

                        Mary McCallum

I posted this poem right at the start of the Tuesday Poem project, and I was looking at it again after a trip up Bolton Street (I took the photo on the way back down). It's a poem that suits the festive season I think - a cheerful sort of poem with a (smile) in it and dimples. And it's a grateful poem which is partly what the great festivals, like Christmas, are about. 

Although I live on the flat bit on the other side of the harbour now, I am at heart a hill dweller like the two in the photo: what you see is a younger woman (red skirt) and an elderly gentleman who was already on a lean before he hit the incline of Bolton St. 

So Happy Christmas everyone -- and may you have more good days than bad, more smiles than furrows, more poems than not in the coming year. Thank you for coming to visit my blog and the Tuesday Poem blog and I'll be back on deck here in the New Year after a time away at our place in the Wairarapa - a place of flatness and rivers, big sky, sharp blue mountains.

Do please click here for the Tuesday Poem hub and the blissful A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas. In the sidebar there, more festive treats from the wonderful bunch of poets that make up TP - the community that I co-ordinate with the help of Claire Beynon in Dunedin. 

Friday, December 16, 2011

Who by socks - the sequel


I'm sick
of socks

the losses.   

           Jenny Bornholdt

Visited my friend Mia the day after I posted Jenny Bornholdt's poem Socks for Tuesday Poem. By the back door: the basket of socks waiting to be matched up by her 'willing' daughters, and behind it, a bag of what the family calls 'orphans' - the socks that have lost their other half.

On the kitchen bench, the list of jobs for the family to do and at the top 'Who - Socks?' Which brought to mind Leonard Cohen's 'Who by Fire' song ....

And who by fire, who by water, / who in the sunshine, who in the night time, / who by high ordeal, who by common trial, / who in your merry merry month of may ...

Looking at Mia's basket of needy socks and thinking of the matching basket here at my house, the matching bag of 'orphans', too, and I can't help but wonder - who by socks ?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Exercise Book

Reviewed this fabulous book on National Radio Wednesday - you can listen to it by clicking on the player above (you need to jig the little dot on the left a little to get it moving for some reason).

Terrific exercises in this book for the beginning writer, for teachers of creative writing courses to plunder, and for established writers who want a pick-me-up. It's been put together by the International Institute of Modern Letters in Wellington to fund their scholarship programme.

I've already used some of the exercises with an adult writing group I'm running locally and had huge success with them - tried a few myself, and been excited by the results. Some of the exercises are old chestnuts, others are brand new, and range from the randomly crazy e.g. Hinemoana Baker's 'Remix Mashup' to get to a poem -- to a careful unlayering of writerly craft e.g. Laurence Fearnley's exercise on writing the Big Scene in a novel.

There are warming up exercises, exercises that 'steal' from other writers, memory prompts, script writing and performance exercises and much more. Something like 60 writers contributed from Baker and Fearnley to David Vann from the US. Highly recommended.

Thursday update: My heart goes out to Radio NZ staff as they mourn the death of their colleague Phil Cottrell murdered in the weekend. While I was doing the book review, Kathryn Ryan was handed the media release about two young men being charged with his murder. You can hear the paper crackling while I'm talking. She was visibly upset as she read it out after the review ended, but being a consummate professional she continued on with the show.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Tuesday Poem: Socks by Jenny Bornholdt

I'm sick
of socks

the losses.


Socks was published in Mrs Winter's Jump (Godwit 2007) - a beautiful limited edition book to celebrate Jenny Bornholdt's poet laureateship. Two thousand copies were printed and I have book no. 1415. 

There are many entrancing poems in this book - Jenny entrances, it's what she does -- but this one had me at 'socks'. They are the musak of my life - there are so many socks in an almost grown family of five: so many to wash, to dry, to roll together in pairs (the 'spares' going into a almost full grocery bag) and to put away. But look, there are two stories inside this poem: the story of common everyday lost socks, and the uncountable story of loss - all loss, universal loss, mine. 

It's the leap over the white that keeps the two stories both together and apart. 'Socks' and 'losses' echo each other across the divide - sharing 's' and 'o' sounds, emphasising the bathos, and note how the socks are kept together in a pair (of lines) held together by half rhyme, while 'the losses' are - as one would expect - out on their own. I think this poem is pure genius. 

I have a lovely story about it. I was working in the Rona Bookshop one day four years ago, and an elderly woman was brought in by her relatives who left her sitting in a chair while they browsed the books and paintings. I went over and started talking. Turns out the woman was from one of the homes for the elderly. She was right by the poetry section and I asked if she liked poetry. I can't remember if she did or not, to be honest, but she was certainly open to trying one or two. 

I found 'Socks' and said, listen to this, and read it to her. She burst out laughing as soon as I'd finished, so loudly - the other people in the shop looked round. She was lit up, transformed. We both agreed it was a magnificent poem about socks and loss, and were still talking about it when the woman's relatives came along and took her quickly off for morning tea or something. 

A few days later, I wasn't at the shop and a call came through from a wavery uncertain voice wanting the book about the socks. No-one on deck that day knew which book she was talking about, but they asked which day she'd been in and realised she'd talked to me. I was at home. A phone call later and the book was found and sent off to the home for the elderly with an invoice. Shortly afterwards a cheque arrived with a little note in spidery writing, which I have still, somewhere - about how much the woman loved the book and most especially the socks poem. I've promised it to Jenny, when I find it. 

The poem 'Socks' is published with permission. Do go to the Tuesday poem hub to read Lyn Hejinian and the thirty poets in the sidebar. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Tuesday Poem: 'Wabi-sabi' by Helen Lehndorf

I was thirty-three before I learned

people stuck in snow
can die from dehydration.
I would melt icicles
on my tongue for you, resist
the drinking down, drip it
into you. Then repeat, repeat
until my lips were raw.

Continues here... 

I have long been a fan of Helen Lehndorf's poems - seeing them on the net and hearing them at poetry readings, and now at last I can own her first collection The Comforter (Seraph Press).
Her publisher Helen Rickerby says, 'This poem, as people at the launches will have heard me say, epitomises what I love so much about Helen's poetry. It is sharp-eyed and specific. It introduces a number of interesting ideas and has more than one thing going on at once. When it talks about life and love, it's authentic and fierce, not clichéd. And it is impossible not to be moved by it.'
Sadly I missed Helen's launch in the weekend, but she reports on it on her blog here. I wrote on this post earlier that Helen's reading at Blondini's in Wellington on Wednesday, when in fact she's not! Got my Helens muddled.

Still, Blondini's (The Embassy Theatre in Campbridge Terrace) at 6pm this Wednesday will be terrific fun with Helen Rickerby, Vana Manasiadis, Stefanie Lash and Emma Barnes . What a feast! And I have to be there this time come what may, I am the MC. Do join us, with these women poets it can only be stimulating and fun. 
And to check out more Tuesday poems, visit the Tuesday Poem blog

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Tuesday Poem: What they don't tell you on Food TV

the best fish is handed to you over the side
of the boat, the best fish is fried, bones and
all, and eaten in a sun so bright it’s white,

snapping off the ends of beans is like lips
popping, a pork cookbook is the best place
to find that picture of you and your mum

at Taupo in summer, a turkey too late
into the oven can make a grandmother
cry with hunger, come Easter in Crete

lambs are bloody sacks, here, their milky
mouths butt your hip, eggplant is purpler
when you call it aubergine, aubergine

is purpler when you call it melitzane, another
thing again when you call it Mellie-Jane, crack-
ing eggs is an act of belief whichever way

you look at it - each time the epiphany, there’s
no better breakfast than a three-dollar special
in a New York diner, watching her swallow

every shred of yellow from the yolk - every
lick of milk - every crumb, fasting is not all
its cracked up to be unless it’s in a monastery

in Stokes Valley under a gold stupa and dawn
brings porridge and bells, at the end of a long
day in the city there’s nothing better than

meat and tomato and oregano walking you
up the path and the eldest son at the kitchen
bench grating cheese, no better rice than his

brother’s unmoulded from a bowl to a white
plate, risotto is best measured in handfuls by
Marielle - uno due tre cuatro, zucchini flowers

must be carried in two palms like a prayer,
father and feta are from the same family of
words, you cannot make yorkshire puds as

good as your gran’s no matter how hot the oil,
an apple is sweetest from a tree, and if not that
then untucked from its tissue, its wooden box,

oysters are sweetest swallowed like shots
of seawater, beef is best on charcoal tended
by laughing men, ginger needs to be grated

in finger not thumb lengths, crushed olives
are the smell of the earth – all that history
of heating cooling burying spitting up, oil

rising of its own accord from the purple crush
is named after the yolk of the egg, asparagus
is just what asparagus is,  those apricots she

makes every summer are apricots blooming
in a bowl, and spooning yoghurt and honey
into a mouth on white-washed steps with

a turquoise sea and a donkey crowing and
someone calling kali mera into the bleaching
light, is like scooping up the sun and eating it

                                             Mary McCallum

I've been wanting to write a list poem ever since I set it as an assignment for my creative writing students at Massey University. I got the idea at one of our first Tuesday Poet drinks at the Library Bar. Helen Rickerby - poet and publisher of poets - had been talking there about a successful workshop she'd had with the students of Harvey Molloy's (also a Tuesday Poet) at Newlands College. She'd read the kids a list poem by Helen Lehndorf called Poem without the L Word and got them to write list poems of their own.

I asked Helen to promise to send me the poem as soon as she got home (she's publishing it in Helen L's out-this-week collection The Comforter), and the next day, I set my students the list poem to do and got some lovely stuff.

So last week, with uni over, I started up an adult writing workshop here in Eastbourne. The first assignment: the list poem. This is mine. There were seven others, every one different and astonishing in its own way. What impressed us all was the way the power of each poem grew with each listed thing, and the real subject of the poem elbowed its way through. It is what poetry's all about, really.

What's this poem really about then? Food and family - how they feed and make each other. How simple both can be, how complicated. It's about my family history too, how it spreads itself across many countries and generations, and how food in all those places and times is both different and the same.

Do check out the hub poem on Tuesday Poem. It's by Wellington poet Harry Ricketts.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Tuesday Poem: Sea Grapes by Derek Walcott

A friend of mine was taught poetry by this man. In fact, as with all the best students, he said he didn't teach her at all, she already had it in her, which I can believe. The 1992 Nobel Prize Laureate in Literature, Derek Walcott reads his poem Sea Grapes from "Collected Poems 1948-1984". To learn more about Derek Walcott,  visit:http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1992/index.html

Do check out the Tuesday Poem hub for an Iain Britton poem. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Magical realism and Dybek

Chicago short story writer and poet Stuart Dybek on the sensibility in his writing which feels European or could be Latin American or could just be magical realism.... 

Dybek: I shy away from a term like magical realism because it somehow implies to me that I read Marquez and decided, well, I'll take some of these supernatural elements and graft them on to what I've been working with. And in my case anyhow that is not the way it came about at all. It came about more out of a feeling like this: 

You're walking down a street, Twenty-Fifth Street say, and right on the corner there's a candy store and a bunch of kids are coming out of it. They're arguing about candy, calling each other sonofabitches. On the other side of the street there's a tavern. You can hear the jukebox music, and you see someone sneaking in for an early drink. Coming towards you is someone eating a bismarck, dripping jelly on their shirt, and there's a whole bunch of cars, guys cruising up and down, gunning their engines. A truck is going by, loaded with something that's making a clanking sound. And then there's a church. In it, a bunch of old ladies are saying the rosary in Polish--or in some language that you think might be Polish, you can't exactly figure out what it is--and there's this smell in that church that smells like something out of the fifteenth century. You look up. It's Lent. There are these crazy statues standing there with their eyes bulging with all kinds of weird visions, except now they've got purple shrouds over their heads. That jump from walking off that street and into that church and then back out again, I think, has made my style the way it is. After that, you read Kafka and you say, "Oh my God! Of course, I understand this." Or I read Ed Hirsch's poem about his grandmother's Murphy bed, that when she folds it back into the wall it's like putting away the night. I see that if I'm writing about my grandmother, who really believed that the dead came back and needed to nibble breadcrumbs off her table, then maybe instead of saying, "My grandmother thought so and so," I could have a dead person, in the middle of the story, sitting at her kitchen table.

From an interview on Artful Dodge - more here. Stuart Dybek is the author of a particularly wonderful short story called Pet Milk that is a set text for the students I tutor at Massey. Every year I get more out of it, and this year a student wrote a great essay on Pet Milk complete with a link to this interview. What a find! 

I am a big fan of magical realism in fiction and Dybek's explanation is as good a reason as I can think of for why... 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Tuesday Poem: All Together Now - A Digital Bridge for Auckland and Sydney

Kia Kotahi Rā: He Arawhata Ipurangi mō Tamaki Makau Rau me Poihākena         

In Auckland and in Sydney, in March and September last year, there were two poetry symposiums, and up online the nzepc (NZ Electronic Poetry Centre) built a DIGITAL BRIDGE between the two.

The site is PACKED WITH POEMS: text, video and audio from a stunning array of poets, and includes images and writings from the two meetings on either side of the Tasman.

The builders of this bridge appear to be NZEPC editors Michele Leggott and Brian Flaherty, Pam Brown and Martin Edmond. As they say on X-Factor - 'props' to you four. It's a stunning achievement. And what I love best is the fun everyone seems to be having!

I am especially in love with the poetry videos -- I was just thinking this week how we have too few of our NZ poets on film. Well here they are in full and glorious flight with the Aussies.

HERE it is. The videos here. Enjoy.

And another must-see Australian poet video is linked to from the Tuesday Poem hub - this time a performance poet posted by Australian Janet Jackson. This is poetry as you might not imagine it to be. Go and see.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Ever fresh with praise

'Let my mouth be ever fresh with praise.'

'Each morning new/each day shot through...'

'We inhale the frozen air/Lord send me a mechanic/ if I'm not beyond repair...'

I've had churches on my mind this week -- human mortality -- illness -- loss, so this song is a natural one to hunt for on youtube. Love those lyrics, the raw screamy way John Darnielle delivers them into corners of this beautiful church.

I was at a funeral at the local Presbyterian church for a woman called Nell Manchester who died aged 87 - hence the church thing. An autodidact and writer who always looked a million dollars and whose mind was crisp and curious until the moment she died, Nell went into the hospice with her favourite volume of Keats and the new Peter Bland collection 'Coming Ashore'. The last thing we talked about was the latest Woody Allen movie, and she told me how much she'd laughed at the first Woody Allen movies all those years ago (remember, before cell phones?). Manhattan was on Sky last week, so I watched it for Nell.

It was a lovely send-off at the local church masterminded by her daughters Anne and Catherine. I sat by the stained glass windows beside the woman from the 4-Square supermarket who'd dashed in in her 4-Square shirt. She said Nell had given her the famous Raleigh bicycle with a basket on the front she used to ride around Eastbourne. I like sitting in pews - they remind me of all the churches I've ever been in. The smell of wood, the stained-glass light, the organ wheezing, the sense of being made to sit still for a moment and listen. There were readings from Nell's books, some Shakespeare, a sing-along to Blue Moon and an older Judy Garland singing Somewhere over the Rainbow in a crackle of a voice that John Darnielle would have approved of (Nell loved Judy and loved movies). We also sang the hymn Jerusalem - now that's a song to belt out. Afterwards we ate tiny delicious sandwiches and cake. Go well, Nell. We'll miss you.

Human mortality -- I haven't just been thinking about this because of Nell. This cancer thing is everywhere. Women and men I know and love of all ages are fighting it courageously. One of them Harriet or Hat as she's known, is only 18. Her blog posts are monumental feats of courage. Yesterday's is no exception. It's titled 'The Fight' and here's an extract:

It's hard. I will never be able to say it isn't. This week is testament to that. It was supposed to be my easy week and just no. It was not, at all. I wish I could just fast forward the next year but hey! Life isn't like that. 
You get your ups, you get your downs. My life has been pretty easy. I can't believe the things I used to complain about. They seem so silly. So pathetic. Even now there are so many people who have it so much harder than me. 
I tried to make a wish today as it was 11:11 on the 11/11/11. I ended up just being thankful for all the things that I have in my life. I can't tell you my wish but it wasn't for me. It never will be.

The Mountain Goats song - for you, Harriet.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Tuesday Poem: About

About four in the afternoon they said,
which could be wrong, but my boys,
both men, were in the kitchen then,
helping themselves to slabs of bread

and ham, laughing at something they’d
seen on Family Guy, their bodies filling
the whole of the space between bench
and stove, fridge and dishwasher. And I

was complaining from the family room
(it was nearly time for a glass of wine)
about how I’d worked all day to fill
their well-fed stomachs, and they, well,

what had they done? How they’d laughed
at that, laughed and eaten of the bread
and the ham, and drunk of the milk
(straight from the bottle), and talked

about the episode of Family Guy with
Jesus dancing – funny, this Jesus, not
miraculous – talked in the cartoon voices
of Pete, Stewie, Brian the dog. Outside

in the thickening day in the thickening
water, the young man, really a boy, had

probably already fallen from the kayak, 
and was struggling to keep his head up,

the salt water thicker with each pull of his 
arms, the ragged bulk of the island dragging
him down, and back at the beach he’d left 
behind – houses with windows flaring,   

kitchens with people eating bread
and cake and pouring wine and frying
onions and thinking dully about taking
in the last of the light walking the dog. 

What did they do, my breathing boys,
my chewing men? They couldn’t have
heard the splash or cry, but saw perhaps
through the open window the failing

sun shining, as it had to, on white legs
in green water. Thought it a boy falling
out of the sky.  Something amazing. But
the sun shining on water can be anything

when you’re tipped back swallowing milk
in an untidy corner  with stacked  dishes
and an empty cornflake packet, waiting for
your brother to recall the irreverent dance

moves of a cartoon Jesus.   They’ve  sailed
now, the young masters, vessels navigating
choppy waters with a calm that belies their
private concerns about disaster. When I ask,

they don’t recall the sunlight catching on
anything that day or if the exact time they
inhabited the holy space  between  bench
and dishwasher was the same as the time

of the drowning, or even why they hung
around longer than usual when they
nearly always had somewhere to get to.

                                                             Mary McCallum

This poem. It's finished at last. It began with the death of a young man by drowning - in the part of the harbour we look out onto from our house. That day, my sons were in the kitchen. I was there, too. We weren't aware what was happening until later in the week, but that evening, we remember the helicopters and wondered if someone was stuck in the bush up behind us. They were looking for him. We didn't know. 

The poem is closely tied to Auden's Poem Musee des Beaux Arts - one of those poems that is never far from the place in my head where I start to write. It begins:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
The rest of it here with the Brueghel painting that inspired the poem. Worth checking out. 

Do go to the Tuesday Poem hub this week for a deliciously playful poem by Joan Fleming posted by Helen Heath. 

Monday, October 31, 2011

Tuesday Poem: Bill Murray reads Poems to Construction Workers at Poets House

I can't believe I went to Battery Park in New York only months before they opened an all-new Poets House. I missed it: a house dedicated to poets and poetry with a collection of over 50,000 volumes — including books, journals, chapbooks, audio and video tapes, and digital media.

Before it moved to Battery Park in 2009, Poets House was in a loft in Soho for 24 years, a self-proclaimed home for all who read and write poetry.

Bill Murray, it seems, is one of those. Here he is reading poems to the construction workers on the Poets House site back in May 2009 when it was nearly finished. Watch their faces when he reads the Emily Dickinson poem (find it at 2'38 on the movie) I Dwell in Possibility! And they applaud him when he finishes! It starts like this:

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Another poem Murray reads is Poets Work by Lorine Niedecker (at 1'47) which starts 'Grandfather/ advised me:/ learn a trade...'  and can be read here - it's brilliant and short, although it would have worked better for a bunch of poets than builders.

My son has just started a building apprenticeship after four years of on-again-off-again work and bouts of unemployment. He's all signed up. Those two sentences, now that's poetry. 

Click on the Tuesday Poem QUILL in the sidebar for more Tuesday Poems. 

Just discovered a video of the Poets House dedication in 2009 with poems and song. More Bill Murray! And a terrific poem by Kay Ryan 'Lighthouse Keeping' at 2'13, which can be read on the page here.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Within every story another story is hidden

"Within every story another story is hidden, autonomous and unfolding though scarcely noticed except now and then, inadvertently, when, just as with a slip of the tongue a woman exposes a bit of the turbulent life under way in her unconscious mind, a rat scurries through an open window with a doll’s head in its mouth, or a man shouts a couplet from a passing bus ('o queens of urbanity, kings of the crush / let’s sing of convenience, importance, and plush')." Lyn Hejinian • Conjunctions

I use this quote a lot when I'm marking student fiction. I love it. Award-winning writer Craig Cliff (Man Melting), when he talked to the Massey first year creative writing students this year, had another way to describe these slips in a story when another story peeks through. He talked about layers. Sadly, I missed his lecture but one alert student in my tutorial reported back to me what he said.

The idea of layers works well to understand what a story should do I think. I immediately visualised geological layers -- maybe because I walk alot and earth and what it does beneath the feet, interests me. There's the grass and earth at the surface, dig down and there may be clay or sand or stones - and on you go through all the various geological layers - each one differently formed with a unique history and holding evidence of the impact of man and animals and movements of climate and earth, then, if you're lucky, you may come upon shards of pottery and glass, a bone or two...

I said to my students, it's as if you're walking along inside a story, and beside the path, the surface is scraped away to show the darker earth beneath, nothing much, not enough to notice; and then there's a small hole, barely there, big enough for a tent pole. Easy to miss, but you register its presence without realising. Your attention is on the walk, and it's a lovely day out there. Still further on - there's a ragged hole where a dog has buried its bone and dug it up again and left it there for some reason. It nearly trips you up.  You can see the layer of clay under the earth, it's thick and yellow like plasticine. You stop and look at the bone, a little annoyed, briefly interested. What sort of bone is it?

A little further on, there is another scraping the size of a shoe showing the earth beneath the tussock grass. It puzzles you - didn't you see one of these before? What's made them? Puzzling, you continue on past a manhole with a man in it fixing the pipes underground. This gets your attention. You can hear him under there, see flashes of his torch, his tools hitting something - concrete? stone? You wonder, what would it be like to work underground like that? How deep he goes?

You keep walking. Another small hole for a tent pole. Strange. But you are almost upon the moat the children dug around a fort they were building in the school holidays. You remember them doing that, three boys and a dog, and all the wood they gathered from under the pines, you stop a moment and admire the collapsing fort and the depth of the muddy moat, think how wonderful that children are still building forts these days. Then you see it - stuck at the bottom of the moat, in a layer of dark stony earth, is a child's jandal. You wonder if you should fish it out and decide not to. It's muddy after all, you have nothing to wipe your hands on. And you must get on.

Finally, you reach a hole the size of a pond filled with water from the heavy rainfall the day before. You can't see the bottom because it's deep, and the water is murky with wet clay and soil and rotting plant life.  There's something floating there, though. It's pale and too big to be a stone or a shoe ...  It all comes back to you: the scrapes of earth, the holes, the hole with the bone, the man underground (was he working? or doing something else?), the moat and the jandal, and now this...

Which is only the beginning to the holes that must be dug and discovered and filled in and forgotten and found again to make all the layers of a story ... It's not easy work, but someone has to do it.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Tuesday Poem: Lassoed

Loose on the beach, the dog and I, and drawn up beside
the still pool of fresh water. Spilt down the hillside, it's piped

here, pools here. Two silent ducks on the surface. We watch
the silent ripples they make. Limitless. Rebounding. The way

the ripples become light and climb them, ring by ring by ring,
until the ducks are lassoed. One is dull, the other glossy.

The dog moans and pulls. Out on the edge, beyond the pool,
beyond the beach stones, I can hear the matey voice of the man

with the big red backpack talking to Bill with the jandals.
I can hear the jandals. I can hear the King Charles Spaniel yap

in his garden, one yap every three seconds. I can hear the tap
of the sticks of the woman who had the stroke, I can hear the feet

of the woman with lean legs and white-blonde hair - she
has a particular way of running. I can hear the shuffle of the man

who walks as if he's leaning into a strong wind. In the distance,
coming towards us, I make out a family: a man, a child with thin

shoulders, a woman reaching for the child, a dog running rings
around them. The ducks break away, swim, consider flight.

My dog and I walk again. Each stone is separate and porous in the light.
I make them crunch and spatter. I rattle the dog chain. Itself a kind of lasso:

the dog at one end, me the other. Noisily, we re-enter the beach
from wherever it is we have gone. Still, I hear the sea sighing. I hear the sea sighing.

                                                                    Mary McCallum

Another Tuesday and a poem 'found' from notes in my Moleskine (posted yesterday, revised today). Please go to the Tuesday Poem hub to read a poem about a birthday goat by Kendrick Smithyman.You won't be disappointed.  And then the TP sidebar has some more treats.... Just click on the quill to the left.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Tuesday Poem: Baxter-Curnow Band Live At Hyde Park 1969 by Tim Jones

Nobody smiles on the gatefold sleeve
(though that might be a smirk from the drummer) -

this is art, not pop, from the summer when love
curdled to discontent.

It surely wasn't easy,
playing behind those two:

Curnow always demanding, Baxter
perfecting the prophet's penetrating stare.

Four sides, nine tracks,
no singles and no flash photography.

Over-long, we'd call it nowadays, overblown -
cowbell and mellotron, zither, Hammond organ,

Marshall stacks and London Philharmonic;
odd metres, broken rhythms, two voices

straining for harmony, their differences
as much musical as personal.

Within six months it would all be over,
Allen going solo, Jim

in a different hemisphere, getting his head
together in the country.

Let this stand as their monument,
these two vinyl slabs

of pretension and achievement.
Lift the tone arm. Lower the needle.

Be transported back
to granny glasses, new-mown grass,

two voices high and rising
above the restless crowd.

From Men Briefly Explained (Interactive Press) published with permission.

Tim Jones is a Tuesday Poet who lives in Wellington. His new collection is out and about on the internet and is starting to make its way into NZ bookshops. In fact it's on a national tour with Keith Westwater's Tongues of Ash, or rather the poets are, and the bookshop where I work Fridays - Rona Gallery - is hosting the Hutt Valley leg next Friday at 6 pm. A POETRY tour. How wonderfully rock music. Next thing they'll be playing at the Westpac Stadium.

I'll be at the Rona Gallery gig, not least because I read Tim's manuscript some months ago and provided one of the many glowing recommendations on the cover. It goes like this:
Tim Jones' new collection holds men up to the light with poems that are intimate and playful, smart and satirical. He focuses on the rituals and carapaces of men and the relevance of that gender in the future. Men Briefly Explained is an engaging and provocative read.
I know Tim enough to know he likes music and poetry and has a sharp sense of humour and likes to be playful with facts -- imagining real people in unusual settings, for example. So it seems perfectly fitting that the poem I've posted here has two of the fathers of NZ poetry gigging together in Hyde Park in the year - I think I'm right - Baxter started writing the Jerusalem Sonnets. Which seems more than a little audacious.

It surely wasn't easy,
playing behind those two: 
Curnow always demanding, Baxter
perfecting the prophet's penetrating stare.

I love these two stanzas which seem to refer to both the other NZ poets writing at the time, and those who came after them chronologically, including Tim himself.

I'm sure there are a raft of allusions in the poem that I'm not getting, but the great thing about a poem like this is the way it sends you off to explore. I've read a bit about James K. Baxter in the past but not much about Curnow, and don't know enough about how they got on (or didn't). However, I did meet Curnow once, when he won the Queen's Medal for Poetry. I was a young radio reporter and went to Parliament to report on it.

I was charmed by the tall thin poet with the twinkling eyes who seemed very modest and more than a little emotional about his win. And the poet's poems charmed me too. Before I interviewed Allen Curnow, I bought one of his lovely books and got him to sign it.

There's an interesting piece here in the Britannica online about the time in NZ poetry Tim Jones writes of in Baxter-Curnow Band - an extract below. When I have a minute, I'll go a little further afield. Before you go, remember to visit Tuesday Poem itself, to read a post by Tim Jones himself of another very interesting poet: Majella Cullinane.

Britannica online on NZ poets:
By the end of the 1950s—when his second and more comprehensive anthology, The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (1960), was about to appear—Curnow was already a major figure on the literary landscape against whom younger poets felt the need to rebel. The decade of the 1960s, however, was dominated by Baxter’s poetry and charismatic presence. Baxter was a very public and prolific writer whose Collected Poems (1979), which appeared after his death (in 1972 at age 46), contained more than 600 pages; it was said that possibly three times as many additional poems remained in unpublished manuscript. He was effortless and natural in verse—a modern Byron—while Curnow was all conscious skill and contrivance. 
It was in the year of Baxter’s death that Curnow began publishing again, extending his reputation at home and, through the 1980s, establishing a reputation abroad. Curnow received many awards, culminating in the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, a rare honour he shared with such poets as W.H. Auden,Robert Graves, and Ted Hughes.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Tuesday Poem: Love Poem for Mark by Airini Beautrais

Mark follow your heart.
Over seas to the girl
who hung all your doors.
A floating dream
is better than sinking awake.
It is time the great apes
reconsidered the trees.
A world of wood is waiting
in bins and garages.
To be fastened by nail and trunk.
To be three sided.
To move in the muscle of the wind.

Airini told me once that I could do whatever I liked with her poems. So here's another one from her collection 'Western Line.'  They get their hooks into you these Airini poems. No, that's not right, they circle around, touching my elbow, tickling my feet. So I think, where's that book gone? And I get up to go and find it. It's in the upstairs study.

As Mark is bidden to do, Airini floats outside of the usual stuff of poetry - this is a romantic poem but in a fairytale way rather than a cheesy 'romantic' way. She writes often and unselfconsciously of hearts, especially young men's hearts, and travelling and trees. Airini watches people a lot, and loves them. This is her skill.

I'm not quite sure I get this poem, in fact, but I like it all the same. You can read some of the other Love Poems here (there are more - and Curses and Tricks and Charms!)

Then do go to the Tuesday Poem hub where Janis Freegard is editor and her poet this week is Wellington poet Viv Plumb with a very Wellington poem!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Tuesday Poem: After the Tsunami

For Japan 2011

So, the obliteration of the snow –
and with it the iteration of this thing
we know: ‘this too will pass’ –
the sweet lives, the sour lives, their 
sweet-and-sour obligations, their 
trappings, brought down 
by a wall of water, blanketed now.

In time - always time - lifted from
the winter vault, 
washed, caressed, and laid to rest 
where the earth breathes fresh
again. We know only what we know.
We know not whence the water, 
we know not why the snow. 

Mary McCallum

I have been 'collecting' my poems together for various publications and applications and in the hope of doing more with them, and I realise I write too many poems about personal tragedy and disasters of various kinds. Here's another one. For more Tuesday Poems click on the quill in the sidebar. 

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Yearning and the epiphany in fiction: Robert Olen Butler

"James Joyce appropriated from the Catholic church the term epiphany. An epiphany literally means "a shining forth." He brought that concept to bear on the moment in a work of art when something shines forth in its essence. That, he said, is the epiphany in a story or novel.

What I would suggest is that there are two epiphanies in any good work of fiction. Joyce's is the second, the one often called the climax of crisis of a story. The first epiphany comes very near the beginning, where the sensual details accumulate around a moment in which the deepest yearning of the main character shines forth. The reader responds in a deep visceral way to that first epiphany -- and that's the epiphany missing from virtually every student manuscript I've read.

It is an element also, of course, missing from much published fiction. Various stories you read may leave you a little cold, distanced -- you may admire, maybe you have a kind of "smart" reaction -- but nothing resonates in the marrow of your bones, and the reason is that the character's yearning is not manifest.

This lack is interesting, because writers who aspire to a different kind of fiction -- entertainment fiction, let's call it, genre fiction -- have never forgotten this necessity of the character's yearning ....  The difference between the desires expressed in entertainment fiction and literary fiction is only a difference of level. Instead of: I want a man, a woman, wealth, power, or to solve a mystery or to drive a stake through a vampire's heart, a literary desire is on the order of: I yearn for self, I yearn for an identity, I yearn for a place in the universe, I yearn to connect to the other. But that there must be yearning the genre writers never forget. We do.

Desire is the driving force behind plot. The character yearns, the character does something in pursuit of that yearning, and some force or other will block the attempt to fulfil that yearning. The character will respond to the force in some way, go round or through or over or under it, and continue the pursuit. The dynamic beneath the story is plot: the attempt to fulfil the yearning and the world's attempt to thwart that."

Extract from, 'From Where You Dream: the Process of Writing Fiction' by Robert Olen Butler.

I have been reading about fiction and how it works because I am marking Honours papers in creative writing and the end of year portfolio arrives soon, because I am working with first year students on fiction after weeks of poetry, because this year I have been forcing my first years to buy notebooks and to observe the world and write it down and share it and to use it every week, because a student turned an average story into something with real potential using an observation of dead flowers in a vase - the look of death, the smell, the way they turned a place loved into a place less welcoming; because a student said defiantly the other day that she 'likes cheesy', because we're doing PLOT this week and PLOT is tricky.

The two epiphanies. Thinking about them has taken me back to my novel The Blue. I know exactly where the epiphany comes near the end, and I am reminded again of the shock of that:  it came as much as a surprise to me as it did to Lilian. And I'd say there was an epiphany near the beginning - a meal of fish pie, the family eating together, the simple stuff of family, the thing she'd chosen -- but really it's a little way in, and is it really about what she yearns for? When I think about an epiphany right near the beginning, one based on yearning, I need to pause a moment, and I have a couple of false starts.

I realise eventually that it is where Lilian emerges from feeding the chickens (a responsibility/crowded/demanding/society of sorts) and looks down from her home at the beauty of the place she loves (and fears) - the deep water Sounds - 'drowned valleys' where the land feels for a handhold - all that expanse of water is quite simply purity and beauty and freedom and escape from familial responsibilities and the demands of love.

This is evoked a little later on when she's out fishing with her son and looking back at the island where they live, and which holds their whole complicated history, and she says something about liking to go out on the boat and fish because things look different from out there. I knew all this instinctively when I was writing the novel, but hadn't thought of it the way Olen Butler puts it. I certainly hadn't focused on the need to have the epiphany based on yearning near the start to orient and engage the reader.

This is wonderful stuff. I realise my favourite readers like Alice Munro do the epiphanies (two of them) exquisitely. That is what I read them for.  All very useful for teaching plot. Clearly, my student with the dead flowers in a vase needs an earlier epiphany with strong sensual details, and she doesn't. And very useful for writing my own fiction too...

The next chapter of Olen Butler's book is called 'Cinema of the Mind', and I will discuss it here next week sometime.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Tuesday Poem: So sweet, so cold

The thing is, and this
is the thing,

you think you know
a person, then

you turn up one day
and she’s

on the phone.

it under her chin
she gestures for you

to follow, opens the freezer,
takes your hand, places on

the palm a single lolly
heart. Closing

your fingers around it with hers,
she takes another for herself

and leaves you alone,
aniseed on your tongue --

cold, very cold.

There's a tin of catfood on
the kitchen bench, a half-made

pie, a list of things to buy,
a child's drink bottle (pink).

You can tell by the way
the conversation’s going

that when you’ve finished
the heart, she’ll still be

talking, and you’ll have
to go. A half wave,

extravagant eyebrows,
pointing at the wrist. It’s

easy enough to find the bag,
between the frozen

peas and a haunch of beef.
You say later you were

in two minds:
maybe it would be kind

to leave a note
like that guy

with the plums.
But you couldn't

find paper
or pen

Mary McCallum

Another old poem given a facelift - old as in sitting on the computer for a little under a decade. Happy with it now, and thrilled too that my poem 'Bidding' posted last week has been selected for an upcoming edition of Poems in the Waiting Room - a fantastic project that began, I think, in the UK, and has been taken up in NZ with gusto by Ruth Arnison.  I have also been asked by another poetry visionary, Mark Pirie, to send some poems to him for an upcoming edition of Broadsheet.  Must get onto that. All pretty bloody exciting. 

Go and visit the Tuesday Poem hub and find a whole host of other wonderful poems in the sidebar there. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Tuesday Poem: Bidding

My friend finds the dresses on Trademe, they’re
hung on a door or laid out tragically on a bed,
near an exercycle or a half-drunk cup of tea.
She shows me the wedding gowns – the deleted
faces, the arms spread like hostage victims,
buy now $80. Not that she wants one. She’s
after something in a floral, with bodice,
pleats, buttons of mother-of-pearl.
Each time she bids, it is an act of liberation:
wresting the dress from the cheap duvet,
from the hands of the woman who’s ballooned,
from the disenchanted wife. The packets arrive
in the arms of the courier man who whistles
the Marseillaise, and stays a moment too long
on the doorstep. She can’t wait to rip
them open, watch the dresses tumble out,
a garden right there on the table, but no
whiff of rose or lavender, the scent
is old duvet. Straight away,
she feels the seams, tugs and tugs the buttons,
washes by hand with Sunlight Soap, drapes them
in the garden in the sunshine to breathe. At dusk,
they come inside to the bedroom to join the others.
They have a lot to talk about.

Mary McCallum

Do pop to the Tuesday Poem hub for a fantastic video of poet Rives and his poem 'Rives controls the internet' selected by Sarah Jane Barnett. And a host of other wonderful Tuesday Poems in the sidebar. 

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Violin Lessons by Arnold Zable

This is my Radio NZ review of a collection of stories Violin Lessons (Text) by Australian Arnold Zable of Greek/Polish Jewish descent. They are true stories, written 1970-2011, peopled by those who've lived or continue to live in places like Iraq, Poland, Greece, Germany, Vietnam, Estonia -- refugees, immigrants, people displaced, dispossessed, devastated.

Zable is a human rights advocate and performance storyteller, and I met him at the Christchurch writers' festival a few years back.

Many of the stories in Violin Lessons are linked back to Zable's family history -- his mother was a Polish Jew whose family ran in terror from their burning village in WW II, and all are linked by music. As Zable explains it,  music "comes unbidden when all else fails us", awakens memory and feeling, restores order, is an exorcism, an act of defiance in a partisan song, a lullaby to comfort a child.

From the stories:

'You get inside music and the music gets inside you. You see? There is no politics in it. Only music.'

Regarding Egyptian diva Umm Khultum: 'each performance was an act of renewal – building in intensity to an exalted state known as tarab …'

“There was a time when language and song were one, when to speak was to sing, a cry of rage against an unforgiving sea, an impassive sky.”

This is a powerful collection that builds its power story by story. Many of them shave set up camp in my head especially the story of Iraqi refugee Amal Basry and 'Threnody' about the death of Zable's nephew.

More details in the review. 


Thursday, September 15, 2011

Whitcoulls withdraws from NZ bookscan - Bookman Beattie calls for boycott

Graham Beattie, former publisher and bookseller, leading book blogger and arch supporter of the NZ book industry, is furious. His blog's banner headline today is: "Whitcoulls pull the plug and let down the whole NZ book trade."

Nielsen Bookscan has advised that "Whitcoulls will stop contributing sales data to the NZ Bookscan panel from Week 37" -- which is next week. Nielsen Bookscan uses book-buying statistics from a panel of NZ booksellers from Whitcoulls through to independent booksellers to show trends in book sales. These are vital for the book industry in making strategic decisions about publishing, promoting, getting support for and selling NZ and overseas titles. 

The Nielsen statistics are also used to draw up the weekly bestsellers list published by Booksellers NZ. This list influences many New Zealanders in the books they buy. As a bookseller myself, I know this for a fact. (I work Fridays at Eastbourne's Rona Gallery.)

In the same way many people choose the wine with the gold and silver award stickers, so they often select books that are already selling well because there's less risk involved and the outcome is more predictable. The book will at some level be a worthwhile read and the $30, $40 plus investment won't be wasted. Without the input of stats from bookselling giant Whitcoulls, the Nielsen scan and resulting bestsellers lists will have less meaning and less impact here. What will buyers do? Look at the greater safety of the overseas bestsellers? Where does that leave NZ books?  

Graham Beattie: "This is a very sad day for the NZ book trade and The Bookman suggests that Whitcoulls are being hugely irresponsible by withdrawing their participation in the Nielsen BookScan programme. Shame on you Ian Draper. (Whitcoulls MD)
I for one shall register my dismay and disappointment by never buying a book at Whitcoulls again. If enough book buyers also take this action then the absence of their sales figures would become irrelevant."
Auckland University Press’s Sam Elworthy: “Whitcoull’s lack of participation in BookScan is very disappointing for the whole book industry really.”

Publishers' Association NZ President Kevin Chapman: "I have told Ian that I consider it no less than industry vandalism. It doesn’t take us back to the Dark Ages, but it certainly gives us less light to see our way ahead.”

Boycotting Whitcoulls is one way to fight back. I don't go there anyway, so I'm happy to join Graham's crusade, and urge other book buyers to do the same. Nielsen's advises, that as of next week the NZ panel for the bookscan will include the following retailers:

K Mart
LS Travel Retail
Paper Plus
The Warehouse
Independent – general, specialist and Internet retailers
                                                 If you're got a choice, pick one of those.