“You don’t get to be Britain’s poet laureate by having a tin ear," notes Claire G of Grey Lynn Library, who relished the chance to hear and see the multiple-award-winning Carol Ann Duffy, and tells us about it in this guest post.
Here she is in Auckland at last, netting elusive truths as a skilled gillie might a slippery fish. Without fuss.
Carol Ann Duffy stands at the mike and reads – from The World’s Wife (Mrs Midas, Mrs Tiresias, Mrs Darwin), from Rapture (Text, Tea, Row, Syntax, Art) and from The Bees (Mrs Schofield’s GCSE, Premonitions, The Counties). Some of us have previously read these poems ourselves but we’re spellbound.
She talks a little, sitting across from broadcaster John Campbell, who leans forward as she just perceptibly leans back. She somehow – invisibly – holds that eager puppy at bay, tolerating his fond effusions without letting him lick her face.
“God I can’t recall when I was so nervous,” he tells us, and her. “Holy ****!” He indicates the bottle by his chair and the glasses of some dark liquid that he’s requested for himself and our guest. He claims, a little later, to have discovered a twinkle in the eyes of the black-clad, pale-faced poet. And “God damn it, Carol Ann,” he implores at one stage.
We knew she’d be wonderful with words and she is: you don’t get to be Britain’s poet laureate by having a tin ear. What we don’t expect are her silences. They are magisterial, magnificent – all the more so for occurring at a weekend that is essentially a talkfest, in which even the breaks between sessions are abuzz with conversations. The people who’ve filled the Aotea Centre’s ASB Theatre to hear her are hanging on her every word, but on her pauses too.
“Do you ever think, ‘God, Carol Ann, that’s good’?” asks John Campbell. (He’s just echoed, in a way that indicates he finds it marvellous, one of the lines from her reading of Mrs Midas.) For quite the longest time, she says nothing in reply. Then,
“No.” Another pause. “I was never quite sure about that one, actually,” she adds, in her northern-not-quite-Scottish accent. The repeated line has Mr Midas – the man with that golden touch – spitting out corn kernels like rich people’s teeth.
The whole ‘Mrs Midas’ poem might have taken two or three weeks to write, its creator says. “A lot of things come together before you put pen to paper.... There’s a lot of silence beforehand.”
In a way, that short work and its companions in The World’s Wife (1999) were forty years in the making. At school Carol Ann Duffy was taught about the figures from classical myth and legend, on the basis that they might be useful. They never were, so eventually she set them to work in poetry.
She reads next from Rapture (2005). This collection records a love affair from beginning to end by way of sonnets, which she describes as “kind of the little black dress of poetry”. Barely perceptibly – some might say sexily – she moves as she speaks.
“How true is it?” John Campbell asks. “Does it need to be true? Does it matter?”
For those who are desperate to see the personal in the poems, she agrees it’s there, but it’s like “the sand in the oyster that produces the pearl” – a simile she also uses in her (ever so slightly) more candid interview with Kim Hill on National Radio the previous day.
Carol Ann Duffy doesn’t discuss the affair. She is famous for being as mean with autobiographical detail, or gossip, as she is generous in the promotion of poetry, poets and other good causes such as public libraries, books in prisons.
J.C. is leaning forward again, his hand extended like (but less languorously than) that of a figure in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Finally, the creator of Rapture reaches out and touches his hand with her own. “I’m fine now,” she deadpans, looking him in the eye.
At question time people, including the playwright Roger Hall whom John Campbell enthusiastically introduces, leap to the proffered mikes. The laureate puts down – does she? – someone who asks a question to which he should perhaps already know the answer.
And the last questioner wants to know about The Dolphins, republished in New Selected Poems 1984–2004. Carol Ann Duffy explains that she once saw captive dolphins giving a public performance and as a result “felt very screwed up... about these poor creatures being forced to do tricks.”
How could she not?
May 25, 2015
Thanks to Ella from Collections Development for this guest post.
“Mariners read the ocean much as you would a book. Each wave a page.”
At the Auckland Writers Festival last week I descended into the belly of the great whale that is the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki to hear Greg O'Brien speak about Whale Years, his latest book of poetry, and the journeys and experiences in the seas of the South Pacific that have informed the collection and left an indelible mark on his prolific artistic output.
Greg O'Brien is a man of many talents. Well known as a poet and writer, as well as a visual artist, he's also known to be a bit of a “cultural odd job man”. Some of the odd jobs he's been involved in over the years include curating and writing about art; and importantly, advocating for the environment, our special place in the Pacific and the people and creatures that live within it.
Lately he has been preoccupied, or self admittedly obsessed by whales, even though he has never been lucky enough to see one in reality, and wonders if maybe he prefers it that way. He likes to explore ideas of fantasy and the subconscious in his work, and it would seem to be the intangibility and elusiveness of these ocean dwellers that appeal to his active imagination.
The hour was a meandering exploration of our oceans, our environment and the life that exists within them, including enthusiastic readings from Whale Years, beautiful images, videos and tall tales from Greg's travels.
Greg O'Brien has been writing and musing on whales ever since his 2011 voyage with a rag tag group of artists on the ship HMNZS Otago, which followed the migratory routes of whales to the most remote part of New Zealand, the Kermadec islands, and on to Tonga.
These experiences inspired something in Greg and the eight other artists on board, something that O'Brien admits he found hard to shake. The artists -- image makers, writers and poets, designers, a film maker and a sound artist -- took on their roles as ambassadors for the ocean with enthusiasm, producing fascinating imaginative responses to this experience.
The spirit of exploration, and collaboration that developed from this journey was present throughout the hour as Greg O'Brien introduced the audience to some of the work that came out of the trip. John Pule's etchings of imagined flora and fauna, Robin White's beautiful collaborative tapa works and Fiona Hall's sculptures, chosen to represent Australia in this year's Venice Biennale, were just a few of the many intriguing works that illustrated his poems.
We were brought back to reality when Greg started talking cold hard facts and the environmental purpose of this trip really hit home. In October 2011, a few months after the artists returned from their journey, this region was affected by the horrifying Rena disaster and the fate of the area became even more precarious.
This was a memorable talk which left me with much to mull over as I emerged, rather dazed, out into busy Wellesley St, images of whales still swimming through my mind.
|John Pule, Kermadec Exhibition (www.studioj.co.nz)|
|Whale Years |
May 24, 2015
Tim Kidd tells us about the seriously fun session he attended, as our AWF15 coverage continues.
Perfect names for toy companies. Names I remember from the tag on a cloth cat, whose stomach unzipped to accommodate a hot water bottle, and from the underside of the pocket-sized yellow bulldozers that I seem to have found in every sandpit I ever came across, as kid or adult.
JUMBO… TIGER… CRANKO… MO-BO… HERCULES…
In the heyday of New Zealand toy manufacturing, these companies and others made fun things for boys and girls to play with. Dave Veart’s book Hello Girls and Boys! A New Zealand Toy Story is a history of toys in New Zealand and it tells the story of these manufacturers and much more besides.
I went to Veart’s session, one of the Writers Festival's Weekend Gallery Series, and was impressed with what a smart and entertaining speaker he was. Of course toys are a fun subject, and there were so many great images to look at -- beautiful paper dolls, amazing Meccano sets, two boys driving their homemade go-kart down the road at rush hour!-- but Veart, with his archaeologist background, knew how to extract the full story every time. His book is one of those social histories told through the prism of a given subject, and it seems like the feeling of a particular time and place really is funneled, unfiltered, into the things that children play with-- and way ahead of what adults might be seeing.
Veart went back to the early days of New Zealand and the wonderful toys Maori children would play with – kites, knucklebones, spinning tops that raced over complicated tracks –did I hear him say they had tops that could climb trees? Not sure; I hope so.
In the 19th century, New Zealand children were apparently notorious for being particularly wild -- "lots of kids, lots of wild space, not much adult control". The neighbourhood I live in would have been like that a hundred or so years ago, but now I think it is the exact opposite. A great photo of these wild children shows them dressed up as pirates and soldiers and other things fun and jaunty, but then there’s one kid who is swathed in what looks like matted sheep wool. Is he some kind of castaway figure ? A wild man? I don’t know. It looks fun though. The toy of choice for these kids: the Pampas pocket knife (I’m pretty sure my Dad has one). Sharpen pencils, cut fruit and, crucially, make your own shanghai. Again, pretty sure none of the kids at our local primary school are knife-wielders.
Fifty years later and kids were more civilised and played with trains and Meccano and dolls houses. They became the town planners of the future. There was a picture of a modernist doll’s house that I really loved. Some hep dolls in the fifties got themselves a swinging pad one Christmas. I am pretty jealous of anyone who got one of those.
After the Second World War, import restrictions meant that the local toy industry flourished, but by the eighties that had all changed and toy companies folded one by one. I remember when I was in primary school in the early eighties, how suddenly there were these amazing futuristic toys – Zoids, Transformers, and all the other robo-hydrid toys. At the time, as a kid, it seemed like the greatest time for toys. But now I’m sad about those small, singular things that disappeared.
Like the story of Johnny Prowse who ran North Shore Toys. His factory was located opposite a primary school. A lot of employees were parents of students and worked school hours. I like that there is a particular group of adults who still remember what it felt like to finish school every day and walk across the road to the toy factory where Mum or Dad worked. Even better, there was a space at the factory for employees' preschool children - the kapok room!
As an adult, looking back, I think I’d surely trade my Optimus Prime, much as I loved it, for a memory of playing in that room.
May 20, 2015
"Good morning everyone, I'm Diane. I'm a MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Auckland. Welcome and I'll hand over to Ron."
I felt as if I'd fallen down the rabbit hole rather than just descended into the Auckland Art Gallery basement for this session in the Weekend Gallery Series. Who is Diane, (except of course a MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Auckland)? She has no lanyard, she's not wearing a Festival t-shirt, nor an Art Gallery t-shirt, but rather a loose white cotton shirt which I later look for and find on google images described as a "New Sexy Classic Womens Boyfriend Wind White Shirt Loose Long Sleeve".
Behind Diane, on the stage, the unintroduced Senior Curator, New Zealand and Pacific Art Ron Brownson is sitting chatting genially with someone who must be the artist Jim Allen, previously unknown to me, and the subject/author of a new book called Jim Allen: The Skin of Years.
Diane gets back down and Ron raises his mike, looks at us, smiles, pauses, and premises, "Looking through The skin of years, I realised it's impossible to cover it in 40 minutes."
I'll just insert my own premise here. Ron Brownson is always a pleasure to listen to, for his vast knowledge, his thoughtful intelligence, and, not least, his sly humour.
The book was born out of a series of recorded interviews with art historian Tony Green and artist Phil Dadson.
Ron asks, "Was there a lot more talking that didn't make it into the book?"
"Wystan Curnow, in his foreword to the book, said 'Jim Allen is, we should now be saying, our first contemporary artist.' Do you agree with this?"
And then, "Is it okay if I tell everyone your age?"
There's just the slightest hint of a communal chuckle, but no worries, they are about to hit their stride. That last query was a lead-in to the story of how it all began: how Allen, after serving in World War II (making him now over 90) found himself in Italy, where the British Army, bless their hearts, ran courses for their soldiers, including art courses. Allen did a one-month course in clay sculpture which was held in the 16th century Medici Stables, just outside of Florence. "They were all marble," he says. "We had a stable for two."
In 1948 he received a government scholarship to attend the Royal College of Art in England. He was given 1200 pounds, which it was intended he would live on for three years. "How long did that last?", asks Ron. "Oh, about a year."
Ron shows us Polynesia, Allen's 1951 diploma work for the Royal College of Art, carved of Ancaster limestone, one of Henry Moore's favourite stones, as hard as marble but "warmer and fleshier", as Ron has so ably described it. In 2007 Allen gifted this sculpture to the people of Auckland, as part of the permanent collection of the Auckland Art Gallery.
|[Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of the artist, 2007]|
|Sculpture 1 (photo courtesy Ron Brownson)|
|Light modulator, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki|
The most amazing discovery for me was the Futuna Chapel in Wellington, "one of the most spiritual interiors in all New Zealand", as Ron describes it. It was designed by John Scott, with windows by Jim Allen that cast shimmering patterns of coloured light on the walls, which in the course of the day move across a large scale, magnificent mahogany Christ figure, also Allen's work. This "very emotional, very passionate work", to use Ron's words, was missing for 12 years, stolen, but happily it was recovered and reinstated in the chapel. Allen remembers, though, not being happy with the fact that "a local person" had thought it would be a good idea to oil it until it was almost black. Looking at the mahogany, you can understand why.
|Photo by Simon Burt www.futunatrust.org.nz|
|The Futuna Christ www.futunatrust.org.nz|
The next image is Allen reclining on the floor among 4 chainsaws.
Photos of another piece, called Contact, presented at the Auckland Art Gallery in 1974, show us people in their underwear with buckets of paint, then the same people applying the paint to their "points of articulation", and finally all the people covered in paint, entangling with each other in a sort of orgy of smear and colour. It was about human contact, but, says Ron, "I have to confess I was there and I didn't understand it. What was the reaction?"
"Oh, it was picked up at a high level. I was warned they were going to try to join in."
"In 1974, this was really outside New Zealand contemporary art, wasn't it?" asks Ron.
"Yes," says Jim, "I think so."
He pauses and goes on, "I think that at the time very few people understood what I was doing. They didn't have a clue. Recognising that gulf between the audience and the work, I persisted in the work."
I persisted in the work.
Acknowledgement and admiration from me and everyone in the room, for that. Ron Brownson, in closing, says it for us. "Jim, thank you so much for your generous art and your wonderful book."
Guild hunting with Nalini SinghThanks to Joanne Graves from our Central Auckland Research Centre for this guest post.
Nalini Singh is quite likely this country's most successful author that no one has heard of, Graham Beattie remarked as he introduced her to the audience. As a reader of her work from way back -- I remember reading her first Psy Changeling novel in one sitting, and I'm not even a paranormal reader -- I think he's spot on. Nalini mentioned it took six books doing very well in the North American market before New Zealand publishers cottoned on to her, and she now has a local fanbase that is steadily growing.
At the book signing afterwards, fans waited with piles of books for her to sign, and watching the slow-moving queue, it stood out that she's living a life most writers can only ever dream of. Writing full time, hitting the lists -- USA Today and the Holy Grail that is the New York Times -- awards and nominations, a Kirkus best book, book tours around the world, and an international fan base so eager for her work that her publisher puts her books out in the notoriously-priced hardcover first.
Nalini began writing contemporary novels for one of the Mills and Boon lines, but it's the paranormal books where she's made her name. Add to that, she is indie publishing a series revolving around a Kiwi rock band and it shows just how enterprising she is. She attributes it to discipline, and loving what she does. I remember a Metro article back in 2007 where she described herself as the typical girl at school with her head stuck in a book; a daydreamer who read everything from fantasy to sci fi to romance to literary fiction.
Someone in the audience asked what she puts her appeal down to and she thinks it's because she's got an international voice -- born in Fiji, moving to NZ when she was ten, then living in Japan after she finished her BA/LLB. She also believes that when you're starting out you should "write in isolation" to develop voice - it's the most critical thing. She never showed her work to anyone for a long time, and believes you risk writing your book by committee if you do.
It seems to have worked. In a time when publishers are cutting back on expenses like book tours, Nalini does them. She talked about arriving at airports to find a driver waiting for her, being driven to the hotel, then to the event, then back to the hotel. On New Zealand tours, she has a publicist with her all the time but in the US, she’s on her own. On her second book tour to North America, she took her sister for company.
She likes to get the admin side of writing out of the way in the morning (she jokes how she once tweeted she had zero in her inbox but it lasted about a minute) and as long as she finishes a day reaching her word count – even if that day is 3am – that’s okay. She writes on a computer that has no internet access but she loves social media. Her break times are spent on Facebook and Twitter and she finds them rejuvenating. On the question of illegal downloads of her work, she isn’t precious about it. “They would probably have never bought the book anyway.”
She’s had ‘bites’ from production companies and her agent in LA handles the movie arm of the agency but she says she won't get excited about any TV or movie deal until "its signed in blood, in triplicate, and I’ve been given a cheque.”
When asked how someone so young could write about the depths she goes into of the male/female relationship (she was first published in the romance genre in her early 20s), she noted that emotion is emotion, feelings can be translated, and she’s a very good listener. Although, she quipped, she doubts crime writers get asked how many people they’d killed to write about murder.
Towards the end, someone asked her how she found writing about rockstars compared to writing about the paranormal. Not missing a beat, she joked, “Its not all that different from paranormal romance because - you know - rock stars..."
May 16, 2015
A “very nice, polite apocalypse"Parnell Library’s Laura Caygill sits in on Emily St John Mandel and Jolisa Gracewood, and provides us with a report and a recommendation:
Canadian author Emily St John Mandel can’t understand why everyone thinks her books are so nice. “I did kill off 99% of the population with a super-flu”, she muses, wondering how much more brutal she could have been towards her characters in her award-winning novel Station Eleven.
I was looking forward to hearing Mandel, having read the post-apocalyptic novel in three sittings. I could have happily read it in one, had sleep not got in the way.
In conversation with Jolisa Gracewood, Mandel was typically (she is Canadian, after all) delightful. Trained as a dancer, she grew up on a small island in British Columbia and now lives and writes in New York. One of the reasons I loved Station Eleven, and it’s something Gracewood alluded to, was the gentleness of the telling of the tale. Mandel focuses on the normalcy of the pandemic and its aftermath, rather than the action of it.
As Gracewood noted, her characters are all stranded in different ways – from their previous lives, from their friends, geographically (petrol has gone stale in the years following the Georgia Flu), and culturally. The Travelling Symphony, the Shakespeare troupe at the centre of the novel, attempts to bridge these gaps, roaming the eastern shore of Lake Michigan in a horse-drawn pickup truck that bears the motto “survival is insufficient”. According to Mandel it’s a line taken from a 1999 episode of "Star Trek Voyager"; the pieces of life to survive this superbug are beautifully random.
To say that Station Eleven’s is a “very nice, polite apocalypse” (as Mandel self-deprecatingly quipped) is missing the point a bit. This isn’t an action novel. Indeed it’s not even intended to be science fiction. Her previous books have been variously labelled as crime and literary noir, which she puts down to their “crime elements”. Wanting to avoid being pigeonholed as a crime writer she intended her next work to look at the “extraordinary things” in the world we live in. She decided that “the best way to write about the spectacular apparatus of technology that surrounds us was to write about its absence”, and thus Station Eleven was born.
Like her characters one gets the sense Mandel feels stranded by genre allocations. She is, I believe, much closer to fellow Arthur C. Clarke award winner Margaret Atwood in bridging the gap between literary and genre fiction than any labels (as well as her recent endorsement from George R. R. Martin) might suggest. Mayhem, murder and – yes – a flu pandemic that travels across the globe in mere days, are, she says, “best rendered with the lightest possible touch”.
If you haven’t already, do read Station Eleven. Mandel’s light touch means the book’s 333 pages are ones to curl up with and enjoy. Just maybe listen to the author’s advice first: “It should come with a warning sticker – don’t read this on an aeroplane”.
May 14, 2015
It was a bittersweet welcome to the Festival this year, with Anne O'Brien up at the podium citing Oliver Sacks. As we might know, she said, but I didn't, Oliver Sacks was diagnosed with terminal cancer a few months ago. Then she read us some heartbreaking excerpts from a piece he wrote for the New York Times after his diagnosis, called "My own life".
I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.
This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well).
I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.
Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.
The news hit me close to home. Oliver Sacks, I mused as Anne read, had always felt like an old family friend. Like the women of our family, he suffered from migraines, or as he put it, he was a "migraineur", in that exhilirating way he had of not treating anything that happens within our brains as merely negative. Such a liberating concept! Everything that happened was interesting and had something to tell him, which he would then tell us. I caught Anne saying something about the importance of personal encounter, and that was when I had the epiphany.
Why, above all, did Oliver Sacks seem like an old friend? Because he told such good stories! The special intercourse of writers and readers! What does a Writers Festival add to the already heady experience of this special intercourse? I'll tell you. The extra-special intercourse of the stories that didn't make it into the book. Told in person! Seeing the choice of footwear of your favourite authors is cool, but it is just the icing on the cake.
Tonight's preamble to three days and 100 opportunities to hear the stories which didn't make it into the book saw us treated to eight "true stories told live" by eight writers featuring at the Festival. The theme, with a nod to Oliver Sacks, was "plain speaking".
|L to R, top: Michele A'Court, Amy Bloom, Alan Cumming, Peter FitzSimons. |
L to R, below: Helen Garner, Aroha Harris, Nic Low, Ben Okri
The American writer Amy Bloom told of picking out a plain navy blue enamel urn for her mother's ashes, in deference to her parents' attitude (she had found her grandfather's ashes in the garage in a coffee can), which had seemed peculiar to them, and how that attitude did or did not turn out to have been preserved -- although not on a shelf like the ashes, whose plain urn Bloom's daughter soon decorated with a "Florida Bohemian" style necklace.
Peter FitzSimons, ex-Wallaby, current pirate and author of a book on Gallipoli, had a story about a rugby game and the worst - something - pass ever (sorry, strong Aussie accent) (Did someone say "hospital" pass?) (what?), which included some hard-won words of rugby wisdom which I think could possibly be universalised: "They will chisel something on your rugby tombstone and that will be the thing you'll be remembered for."
Aroha Harris, co-author of Tangata Whenua: An illustrated history, told about her ta moko experience. The applause was already breaking out before she got to the last word in her last sentence: "I love my ta moko".
The Australian author and journalist Helen Garner had wry stories about getting old, and a wonderful quote: "It's good to live long enough to get over the grievance".
Nic Low, kiwi short story writer, had a story about "fraudulessence"... his own, in allowing himself to be passed off as a celebrated writer when he was not, but consequently realising that it was, in fact, a kind of truth, in the sense of a revelation to himself about what he really wanted.
Alan Cumming, actor and now memoir writer, Scottish and lively in wind-around scarf, bright shirt, grey mocs, told about the long road to an appearance in a Kubrick film, not to mention into the moody Kubrick's heart.
Michele A'Court, comedian, author of Stuff I forgot to tell my daughter and, she revealed to our surprise, grandmother. Her story in fact was about the birth of her granddaughter. "I'll tell my granddaughter it's still okay for Nana to say fuck".
Ben Okri, whose new book is The age of magic, glanced back tenderly at his mother, their relationship, and her death. "The substantial things in life are insubstantial during grief." "The worst day of my life was also the most transcendent."
Congratulations to Anne and her team on a great start to this year's Festival. It was wonderful walking over tonight and seeing, already from afar, Aotea Square full of Festival goers kissing cheeks, comparing schedules, wondering where the partner had gotten to, fitting in a wine.
I must come up with a collective noun for Writers Festival attendees -- any suggestions?
In the meantime, keep visiting Books in the City for more AWF15 stories, including guest posts, and more footwear details!