Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Poetry in the City

To celebrate National Poetry Day, this month we took poetry out of the library and into the city streets, or more exactly, onto the city walls. The very cool Phantom Billstickers designed, printed and put up nearly a hundred poetry posters featuring works by Michele Leggott, Robert Sullivan, Selina Tusitala Marsh, John Newton, Murray Edmond, Alice Miller, Jack Ross, Ya-Wen Ho, and Makyla Curtis, stars of this year's Poetry Central, the gig we put on every year with nzepc on Poetry Day.


Here's a shot of Rutland St, where I loved seeing the poster of John Newton's poem "Kerouac, somewhere near Billings, Montana" juxtaposed with posters for "Sunset Road".

Summer, 1975. Rotorua, New Zealand … Jimi Hendrix, motorbikes, ika mata and dawn raids… it’s the scene of Tawata Productions’ new play Sunset Road, by Miria George.

is what the show's producers say about "Sunset Road".

Winter, 1949. Billings, Montana... Jack Kerouac, Greyhound bus, the memory of a girl, the night... it's the episode from Kerouac's journals which inspired this poem. 

is how John introduced his poem at Poetry Central.

And here is the poem, of which John gave a masterful reading before dashing out the door -- "Off to Moscow!" I heard someone say, and thought it was a reference to Ferlinghetti's "Moscow in the Wilderness, Segovia in the Snow", a friendly salute to John's artistic prowess, but it turns out he really is going to the white stone city. Still, the metaphor would hardly have been amiss.

Kerouac, somewhere near Billings, Montana

Beneath the outline of his face, in the smoky window
of the Greyhound bus, the atavistic continent,
its pitch-black mountains, its steel-grey rivers,
scrolls by him. Knight of the Dolorous Countenance.
Here is the west of his mislaid connections: neighbourhood
softball games under floodlights, a girl in bright denims
with strawberry hair, a fatherly face among the wind-beaten ranchers
at the card tables back in some beer joint in Butte.
In every valley there's a single light, and every light
is a family's love, and the inky night between them expands
in his chest. With his hand in his trousers
he comforts himself, adrift in the darkness and solitary joy
of an epic grief that could almost be real, that
could almost be something else, minor, too painful to touch.

-- John Newton

Poets and posters at Poetry Central 2014
The poets with their posters at Poetry Central 2014


You can read about Kerouac's bus trip through Montana in his journals, published as Windblown world : the journals of Jack Kerouac, 1947-1954Deftly and unobtrusively edited by Douglas Brinkley, they make a great read for Kerouac fans, or might get you heading down the Kerouac road.

John Newton's books of poetry are Lives of the Poets (2010) and  Family Songbook (2013). He is also the author of  The double rainbow : James K. Baxter, Ngāti Hau and the Jerusalem commune.

nzepc, which celebrated its thirteenth birthday at our Poetry Day gig, is the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre, an electronic gateway to poetry resources in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the Pacific region, based at the University of Auckland.

To learn more about the Phantom Billstickers, visit www.0800phantom.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Auckland Writers Festival 2014: Sandi Toksvig's evening

"I find life funny."

"Life is funny."

"Funny things happen."

-- Sandi Toksvig

Once again, the Writers Festival teaches me not to judge people by their book covers. Or maybe even by their books! How many times, as we descended the stairs, the ASB Theatre being packed to the brim for this event, and through to the end of the Festival, did I hear people saying that they had not read Sandi Toksvig's books, and had not even now added them to their must-read lists, while at the same time expressing some variation on what session chair Sean Plunket quoted Festival Director Anne O'Brien as having said about Sandi Toksvig after having heard her at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, "She should rule the world!"

Sandi Toksvig? Who is Sandi Toksvig? Am I the only person who didn't know? Her name is Danish but she's the host of  The News Quiz on BBC, her books have chick lit-type covers and as with chick lit there are many, many of them, yet one of her latest is about the Boer War, hardly a chick lit preferred setting or era. Gleaned from the library shelves and the Writers Festival programme, that's about all I knew about Sandi Toksvig, up to when she bounced out on stage.

Well! There was a lot more. She grew up in New York where her dad was The Foreign Correspondent for Danish TV -- not having the budget to plant correspondents around the world, the intelligent Danes decided to plant just one, at the United Nations. During the course of this growing up, she got thrown out of three schools and "I was bored". But then, sent to boarding school in England, isolated by her differences, she found a bookstore and began reading. Hardy, Dickens, Austen.

And writing? "I'd always scribbled. My whole family writes. I just went into the family business. If my dad had been a butcher, I'd be selling you chops."

When she started her new show on BBC TV, the next day the comment from the organisers was "Good news. No complaints". She points out, "A 56-year-old man -- no one would have had any problems. A 56-year-old woman, they can't believe I'm still breathing".

Which brought her to one of my favourite lines of the evening, probably because I am a woman of a certain age myself. "What I like about women of a certain age is that they can't be bothered to dress things up anymore".

Why the Boer War as a setting for her novel Valentine Grey?

"The Boer war was interesting because 1) it was the first war Britain fought where the average soldier was literate, and 2) it was the end of the British Empire -- people were asking why their boys were dying, for what?"

Also, a lot was happening in terms of women's liberation at the time of the Boer War. Bicycles, for one thing. Women were working, as telephone operators, as typists. They needed to ride bicycles to work, and "you couldn't wear corsets and flounces on bicycles". The protagonist of Valentine Grey is an adventurous woman who changes places with a gay soldier and goes to fight in the war in a bicycling regiment.

Toksvig came out as a lesbian in 1984, the first lesbian in public life to come out, she says. She got death threats, and she and her then-partner having three children, had to get protection, go into hiding.  I choked up when she described her public event wedding (actually a renewal of civil partnership vows, for bureaucratic reasons), on the day same-sex marriage became legal in England and Wales. "I wanted it to be free, not by invitation. Two thousand people came, and when I came in on my daughter's arm they all stood up and cheered."

"What makes you outraged?" Sean Plunket asked.

"Girls in Nigeria. Casual racism. Casual homophobia. Fundamentalism, because it doesn't allow for the diversity of human thought."

"What does the future hold?" (slight editing by me who just doesn't like the term 'bucket list')

"Lose two more stone. Travel more. There's always things I'd like to learn. The most exciting is the thing you didn't expect."

The most exciting event I went to at the Auckland Writers Festival was "An evening with Sandi Toksvig".

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Auckland Writers Festival 2014: Alice Walker

Guest post by Ella, Readers Services, Central City Library.

The great author and activist Alice Walker came out on stage to a standing ovation which she received graciously. Alice Walker is clearly used to provoking a strong reaction. She was the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize, but in her words “not the first to deserve it”. She is a polarising figure, considered by most to be a national treasure, but one whose radical politics and individual worldview challenge the norms of conventional society.

Alice Walker’s most famous novel The Color Purple was much acclaimed, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Award in 1983, but has always been controversial and was censored throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. These days the book is a modern classic, but to Walker’s bemusement it is still banned in North Carolina. She suggests she may go down there herself and ask them why. She seems to be joking but she’s a person so strong in her convictions that I wouldn’t be surprised if she really did.

Walker’s powerful stage presence was striking and had me fascinated from the moment the interview began. Selina Tusitala Marsh was a wonderful interviewer and really got a lot out of the author. You could tell that there was a lot of mutual respect between the two women. Their discussion covered a wide range of topics from the writing process and personal growth, to global issues such as the environment and world politics. Feminism, particularly the role of indigenous women, was a key part of the conversation.

Walker is a self-described “democratic womanist” which means that she’s dedicated to making changes for women through government, and by helping people of colour and the poor. Walker thinks that the only way to do this is through the creation of a radically different political system and the inclusion of women in politics. For Walker it is a type of “feminine wisdom” that the world needs to tune in to in order to live on this planet without destroying it. She talked about women’s circles as a mode of engaging with other women and the community to make positive change happen. “Womanism” is Walker’s term for a specifically African-American brand of feminism. The term is related to the word “womanish” that she describes as denoting a kind of “sauciness or bodaciousness”. “Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender” she says.

Alice Walker has a holistic view of the planet, and Buddhism is very influential on her philosophy. Gardening, walking, silence and contemplation are all important parts of her life and her creative practice. Meditation has become an important part of her writing process, which she recommends to everyone. Walker turned to transcendental meditation after a divorce which she described as a time of “intense suffering” and meditation was something that helped her to “connect with something real”, and gain consciousness, as well as find out what really matters in life. Walker has always had a love of story and believes in the magic of writing and its power. It is through her writing that Walker is able to share this “consciousness”.

Alice Walker is a rebel and Selina Marsh asked her where she got this willingness not to conform. Walker responded that she has always felt that she had a right to be herself. She compares herself to a mango tree. A mango tree cannot bear any other fruit, but why would you want it to? A mango tree can never be anything but a mango tree, why ask it to be anything else? It is this attitude that makes Alice Walker such an inspiring individual. She rounded off the hour by giving the audience some sage advice. “Hard times require furious dancing!”. It was a privilege to hear her speak at the Writer’s Festival!

Further thoughts on "Dear Leader" at Auckland Writers Festival 2014

Honour Zhu emigrated to New Zealand from China, and now works at Northcote Community Library. In this guest post she tells about her reactions to the "Dear Leader" session at Auckland Writers Festival 2014.

The author of the book Dear Leader, Jang Jin-sung, used to be a propagandist for North Korea, but now lives freely in South Korea.From the compulsory three-year mourning period after the death of general Kim Jong-il, to the minister who was executed by a flame thrower during a cabinet meeting, North Korea has always seemed mysterious to others in the world.

Having grown up in mainland China, I had some special reactions to North Korea compared to the rest of the public listening to Jang Jin-sung. Until I was ten, the majority of the films I watched were from North Korea. The films always reflected how miserable the lives of South Koreans were, and advertised the greatness of Kim ll-sung. What was most interesting to me when watching these films was that when people mentioned their great leader, tears would flow from their eyes. As a child, I could not understand why, but accepted it as a fact. 

Interviewing Jang Jin-sung, John Sinclair read the poem “The most delicious food in the world” which he included in his book. It was a beautiful poem which expressed how delicate and helpless the children were when they faced the 1990 famine of North Korea. 

The poem made me think of the book Tombstone which is about a similar disaster which happened around 1960 in mainland China, where the book is still banned today.

Stepping out of the Aotea Centre and enjoying the sunshine and fresh air, I felt a new awareness of the privilege I have as an information worker in New Zealand, able to assist people in expressing, disseminating and finding the information they want without any political or religious restraints.

I requested the book Dear Leader and I'm looking forward to reading it.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

My Sunday at the Writers Festival: female voices

Guest post by Ella, Readers Services, Central City Library

My morning began with a thought-provoking hour listening to a discussion between passionate, “radical womanists” Alice Walker and Selina Tusitala Marsh, followed by a talk by the brilliant New Zealand neuropsychologist Jenni Ogden. Already blown away by the strong female presence at this year’s Writers Festival I headed along to “Gender Divides”, a lively discussion of contemporary feminist and gender issues by a panel of fascinating women, led by the multitalented compare Judy McGregor.

Eleanor Catton
Celebrated New Zealand writers Eleanor Catton and Ngahuia Te Awekotuku gave a local and Māori perspective on gender issues, while American entrepreneur Jessica Jackley took things more global, discussing her work with small business owners (primarily women) in the poorer parts of the world. English broadcaster Sandi Toksvig rounded out the group and was a highlight of the event. As a comedian and regular panellist on BBC quiz shows such as QI and The News Quiz Show, Sandi seemed the most at home in the panel style format of the talk. Her humour shone and her “wit, wisdom and naughtiness” kept the crowd chuckling throughout the hour.

Despite all the humour and good cheer there were serious issues on the table. Judy McGregor asked the women whether they agreed with Germaine Greer’s statement that “it’s time to get angry again”. Sandi responded with a call to arms. It’s not enough to be angry, we need to be “enraged”. The talk took on a more serious tone as we were reminded of the dire situation for women in countries like Nigeria, as well as the ingrained sexism closer to home. Air New Zealand’s latest safety video was held up as a “particularly repellent” representation of women, as were some of the billboards on Auckland’s Karangahape Road.
Sandi Toksvig

The point was made that it is time to challenge the patriarchal structures of the culture we live in, rather than making it a simple question of men versus women. Each of the women interviewed has had to deal with her fair share of discrimination. Eleanor Catton has previously spoken out about older male reviewer’s reactions to The Luminaries and their attitudes towards women’s writing in general, and reiterated her point that in our culture there is a structural bias against female artists. These biases tend to exist across the board. Sandi Toksvig recounted similar experiences from within broadcasting; Jessica Jackley spoke about the difficulties for women to get funding for business ventures, due to the fact that most investors are middle aged, Caucasian males who tend to invest in those they can relate to. Ngahuia Te Awekotuku discussed gender equality in a marae context and issues surrounding this. She also brought gasps from the audience when she recounted the story of how racism had her expelled from Rotorua High School at age 12. 
Like much of the festival, the crowd was dominated by women; the group in the packed out ASB theatre was particularly vocal and responsive and the atmosphere was warm and welcoming. Judy McGregor closed the session by asking the women for the advice they would give to a twelve-year-old girl. Ngahuia Te Awekotu began, telling us “Never lose hope, always be hopeful.”. Eleanor Catton followed by asserting “You can do things you’ve never seen done before.” From Jessica Jackley came the advice, “There are very few rules that cannot be broken.”. Sandi Toksvig rounded things off with her two pieces of advice: “Being a grown up is better” and on further reflection “Look to the past and you will have the brightest future”.

My Sunday at the Writers Festival was a day filled with strong female voices that left me feeling inspired, energised and hopeful.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

From the Auckland Writers Festival to the Baileys Women's Prize: Eimear McBride

Iain Sharp, who chaired the AWF session with Eimear McBride, cheers her win (and his call) in the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction.

Having often in the past been proven hopelessly wrong when predicting the winners of literary awards, I can’t resist crowing a little over my successful prophecy that Irish writer Eimear McBride would take the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction with her remarkable debut novel A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. The innovative fragmented prose style, which the author describes as not so much “stream of consciousness” as “stream of pre-consciousness”, commands respect in itself. Beyond that, the deeply disquieting subject matter forces readers to think hard about gender divisions and expectations, not just in 1980s Catholic Ireland, where the novel is set, but in general.

I had the privilege of chairing the session with Eimear McBride at this year’s Auckland Writers Festival. In the days leading up to the event I felt quite apprehensive. This, I hasten to say, was not because I feared that Eimear would be as dark, moody and difficult as her book. I’d read, heard and seen interviews with her and she was pleasant and cooperative in all of them. My worry was that it’s impossible to discuss A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing without touching on the three topics most likely to upset or offend audiences: sex, religion and politics.

As it turned out, I was fretting too much. Eimear, I soon discovered, is skilled at discussing contentious issues eloquently but without causing umbrage and we were speaking, in any case, to a good-tempered, broad-minded and intelligent crowd.

I also quickly learned that Eimear is adept at fending off questions about how autobiographical her novel is. She clearly prefers to keep her private life private. “If you’ve read to the end of the book, you’ll know the girl can’t be me,” she said during the session, then added that ten years ago, when she first tried – without luck – to find a publisher for the book, she was told it might be more “marketable” if presented as a memoir.

Written in 2004, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing was finally published in 2013. Eimear told me that its subsequent success still seemed a bit unreal to her and she was now on the international festival circuit with the likes of Alice Walker and A M Homes. When I met her in the green room, she had just come from attending the hour-long session with Homes, ably chaired by Paula Morris.

As we headed onstage, Eimear was a little nervous. She was anxious, she told me, about losing her voice. As it turned out, her voice held superbly. She not only read – inimitably – from the novel but even did an impromptu recital of the first stanza and the refrain from Yeats’s “The Stolen Child”, which features in the book.

Where dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water rats;
There we've hid our faery vats,
Full of berrys
And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.

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