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.