September 28, 2010

Talking Poetry

The launch of 99 Ways into New Zealand Poetry

syndetics-lcPaula Green and Harry Ricketts have been incubating this wonderful book for a long time and on September 17th ten invited poets, plus Paula and Harry, very good poets themselves, spent an evening at the library to celebrate its arrival by talking poetry and reading poetry for an assorted public of fans and friends (also fans).

I am rarely able to truly take in poems I hear being read (an exception might be the old recordings of Yeats sonorously tolling his beautiful lines, one by one, like majestic breakers rolling in, not to mention the dramatic rolling of the r's) because I’m one of those people who has to see the poem on the page. I need to be able to gaze at the whole as I zoom in on the part, visualize the verses and slip from one to the next rather the way falling leaves descend floating first to one side then to the other, to finally catch and hold perfectly still for a fraction of a second before landing just there and nowhere else.

But Paula’s genial idea of having everyone mix talk and poetry unexpectedly made it work for me. It should be de rigueur for readings – although I suppose you’d need to  have poets who are interesting talkers, like Sonja Yelich, whose chosen topic was erotica (I loved it and I bought her book Get Some, the only book of poetry I’ve ever owned with a US Marine on the cover), or Anna Jackson, offbeat and tender, or Robert Sullivan being wry about our setting, Central Library, where he once worked, and offering up several surprising poems, including this one which stole my heart, from his new book Cassino City of Martyrs / Città Martire:

The Dalai Lama’s Smile
brings one to me when I think about him

99 Ways is a gorgeous book, thick and heavy, a bright orange cover pleasingly devoid of rural highways and sombre beaches – against that orange? -- nothing figurative at all, in fact, just giant white handwriting as if a mad housepainter suddenly decided to write a scrap of poetry on the wall with his huge whitewash brush (the lettering is the work of Athena Sommerfeld, who designed one of my favourite last year's book covers, the little book from AUP of 50 James K. Baxter poems selected by Sam Hunt). When you open it, the paper is sweet-smelling and shiny, a photograph-type quality which amazingly doesn't glare at me when I put the book on my kitchen table under the old hanging lamp we keep meaning to replace. It is dense with text in a small but classic font, poems in a more rarified and artful font which slows your reading down just the right amount, and photos of poets and their books.

As I skip around in it – the only way most of us can approach a book like this -- I keep encountering the moments which have marked the chapters of my New Zealand life.

“Oh look, there’s CK Stead’s book with the writing in the shape of a dog that I always chose for the new books display."

“Oh look, The loop in Lone Kauri Road, that I photocopied the poem from, when Jen was living on Lone Kauri Road...”

“Oh look, Rain, the first New Zealand poem I read which took my breath away.” 

“Oh look, The Long Road to Tea Time”, that had the poem about Ursula and Gudrun in their Minnie Cooper shoes which had just been used for a poetry display when I came to work at Central, and I was wearing Minnie Cooper shoes at the time, and I pinned the poem up on the wall by my desk.”

“Oh look, a photo of Bob Orr without his cap. And look at this poem from Valparaiso, watermelons cut in half revealing ‘the cool pink of dawn and small dark boats a long way out to sea’!  I have to get Valparaiso!” 

Here is how Paula opens the last chapter of the book, which she calls "Ways into Writing (New Zealand) Poetry". I like it because I have something like this too, mine is when I'm driving home and cross the Ponsonby ridge at sunset, heading down into Grey Lynn, and suddenly see the view out over the water towards Te Atatu, every day a free show, unexpected and utterly unlike the one of the day before.

“Whenever I leave home I have to drive along a ridge with Auckland City and the Sky Tower visible in the distance on one side and a smidgeon of Tasman Sea on the other. My eyes are always drawn to the ocean because it seems like two tablespoons of poetry on the horizon. Like a poem, this visual magnet depends upon set ingredients (water, salt, sky) and then transforms them to strikingly different effect each day. And like so many poets facing something utterly magnificent, I wonder how words can do justice when the view itself seems to be poetry enough. My body tingles, my breath catches and I feel moved as I absorb the ocean, yet I have never written a Tasman Sea poem."

"Each day I pass this sea view, I choose a single word that captures its essence: bloated, translucent, smudged, skinny, gone, swollen, blue. How then does the world become poetry? How do we face the unsayable – the world’s largenesses (love, death, beauty, truth, tragedy (and the world’s particulars (things, daily routines, daily relations) – and produce poems? Trawling through the writings of poets, it is clear that the ways into writing are as rich and varied as the ways into reading poetry.”

Although the back of the book says the 100th way is “your own unique take” on appreciating poetry, I like what Elizabeth Smither said in the Sunday Star Times:

“Inspiration is unconfined. You write with all you’ve got in order to find out what it is you’ve seen or felt or experienced… New Zealand needs poets and this book leaves a gap for you. You could be the 100th.”

September 25, 2010

Kafka in the news

syndetics-lcOne of the funnier things that happened in the book world last year was someone publishing a book made up of the reports Franz Kafka wrote for his job at the Workmen’s Accident Insurance Institute in Prague (see Books in the City's “The unexpected Kafka”). Now Kafka’s unpublished writings are again in the news, thanks to Elif Batuman (author of  The possessed: adventures with Russian books and the people who read them), who has been to Israel and gotten the story of a legal tug-of-war going on there between two aged sisters and the National Library of Israel for the papers of Max Brod, and thus Kafka's papers, and reported on it in a long and very readable article in The New York Times

Max Brod was the friend to whom the dying Kafka turned over his unpublished manuscripts, diaries etc. with the request to burn them. Taking this as the expression of a mood rather than a conviction, Brod got three of the manuscripts published (The Trial, Amerika and The Castle) and took the remaining papers with him when he escaped to Israel just as the Nazis were about to close the Czech borders.

Except Brod (dead), no one has really seen those papers except Esther Hoff, Brod’s assistant and “presumed” lover (also dead) and her two daughters (alive), who are holding onto them for dear life despite a strong claim by the National Library of Israel that Brod had never named their mother his heir, but only his literary executor. This would mean that on her death the papers would revert to his estate, which he had stipulated pass to a public library or archive in Israel. The sisters wish to sell the papers to the German Literature Archive in Marbach, Germany, to which their mother already sold the manuscript for The Trial for 2,000,000 USD.

I’ve never been able to think of Kafka’s works as German Literature, despite the fact that in libraries his books are classified as such because cataloguing rules, which cataloguers never ever break, classify literature by the language in which it is written. I suppose the classification which least startles me, when I have seen it in discussions of Kafka's work, is “Czech-Jewish”. Kafka’s family were Jews from Bohemia. His grandfather spoke Czech, his father spoke Czech, and he himself spoke fluent Czech. It was to be more upper-class in a country which had been conquered by Austro-Hungary that Hermann Kafka, a man of the middle class with ambitions for his children, decided they should speak German and that his son Franz should attend the prestigious German Gymnasium.

Most of all, when I think of Kafka, I think of his birthplace, and the city he hardly ever left, Prague. Prague with its enormous Jewish heritage -- at the start of  the 18th century more Jews lived in Prague than anywhere else in the world, Prague, one of the vertices (along with Turin and Lyon) of the white magic triangle of esoteric legend, Prague with its “Old New Synagogue” and a clock in the Jewish quarter with hands which run backwards, Prague whose old town has such tiny streets and houses that walking in it I felt as if I were Alice in Wonderland after eating the “Eat me” cake, and whose “new” town is medieval and crisscrossed by a maze of concealed passageways called things like the “Lantern” passage (where there is a statue of Wenceslas riding an upside-down horse), Prague with the golden roofs, but dark and mysterious too, the city Kafka called “this dear little mother” and then “with sharp claws”. "She never lets you go," he said.

Milan Kundera, in a very old Granta (1984!) which I got at a library withdrawn book sale, writes about how much Kafka is inseparable from Prague and Prague from Kafka. He tells a story to illustrate this. When a friend of his, the philosopher Karel Kosik, was accused of counter-revolutionary activities and expelled from Charles University after the Russians invaded, his sex life immediately "took off" (as Kundera puts it), his flat becoming besieged by admiring young women. Kundera asked one of them, a hairdresser, why. “All defendants are handsome” she replied, using the words of Leni in The Trial, amazing Kundera once again with how “the images, situations and even the individual sentences of Kafka’s novels are part of life in Prague.”

It was when I was reading this story that I realized for the first time that my grandfather would have been born almost exactly the same year as Kafka, and not far away, in a village just a hundred kilometers from Prague. I emailed my uncle to get the exact date so I could compare. The reply was “My father was born in 1886, so the blackbird was older" (blackbird being his colloquial translation of the Czech word ‘kavka’, the learned one being 'jackdaw'). So, just three years difference.

The blackbird/jackdaw is known to have frequented Karlovy Vary, the famous Czech spa which was also visited by Mozart and Casanova. I wonder if he was ever served by my grandfather, who worked there for a time as a waiter at the Grand Hotel Pupp, saving his money to buy a ticket to America, still just a boy, as they did in those days. That would likely have been the only place their paths could have crossed – not at the Prague coffee houses Kafka loved and certainly not at Charles University. But they did have one other thing in common, as did probably most young men of that time and place: authoritarian fathers.

Much is made of Kafka’s relationship with his authoritarian father – how when he published A Country Doctor, which he dedicated to his father, he gave him a copy and his father replied ‘Put it on the night table’. In our family story, when my grandfather was leaving the house at dawn to start his voyage to America, still in his teens, his father didn’t get out of bed to see him off, nor let his brothers do so. The story goes that the father said “We have to work tomorrow. We need our sleep.”

When I was little I took it literally: it was like a Grimm Brothers fairy tale, the youngest son of the exceedingly poor woodcutter family setting off to make his fortune, the father who worked so hard he couldn’t drag himself out of bed. But actually the family owned an inn, and when, older and aware of that, I heard the story again, I interpreted it differently: a father's integral, if harsh, statement of disagreement with his son’s decision,

Kafka is buried in the New Jewish cemetery in Prague. I assumed it would have been the Old Jewish Cemetery, which my mother had wanted to take us to visit when she first took us to Prague, but which the regime of the time had long kept closed, so that all we saw were photographs of it at the Jewish Museum. I only found out now that he is actually buried in the New Jewish Cemetery, as the Old Jewish Cemetery, as so often happens in Europe, was really old, having been founded by a King of Bohemia who appears in The Divine Comedy.

The New Jewish Cemetery was built in the 19th century and was planned to last one hundred years, the equivalent of 100,000 graves. Instead, it remains a sort of architectural monument which will probably never be completely filled. When the Nazis arrived in 1939, there were 118,000 Jews living in the Czech lands; 26,000 managed to get out, including Max Brod. Of those who remained, 80,000 were murdered by the Nazis, including all three of Kafka’s sisters.

Is this Kafkaesque or just Czech irony? According to Czech, the express train R 354 FRANZ KAFKA goes from Prague (Czech Republic) to Munich (Germany).

Recommended: Kafka's Prague : a travel reader by Klaus Wagenbach; translated by Shaun Whiteside

September 21, 2010

Hunter S. Thompson demurs -- in style

If, like me, you have wondered about the quotes by celebrated authors splattered over the covers of less-celebrated authors’ books, telling you this book is the greatest I’ve read all year, you will enjoy this letter Hunter S. Thompson wrote to Ted Solotaroff of The American Review, demurring an invitation to provide such a quote. I found it in Fear and loathing in America: the brutal odyssey of an outlaw journalist 1968-1976, the second volume of his collected letters ("A wild ride!" -- Karen Craig).

--ellipses are HST’s, not mine

February 3, 1976
Woody Creek, CO
Dear Mr. Solotaroff…

I’ve spent about three hours trying to write you a letter to say why I can’t send the kind of “words of welcome” I suspect you want in re: Even cowgirls get the blues. But everything I’ve written so far would almost certainly sound rude and cynical & arrogant on your end, so I figure it’s best to just junk all the earlier drafts and tell you in this one, that I spent a few years as a part-time book reviewer and almost ten years, now, reading reviews of my own books … and on the basis of all that evidence, I think I’ll pass on the chance to render any judgement on other people’s books.

There are, of course, exceptions. When I first read Dog soldiers, for instance, I recommended it to friends with the assurance that I’d reimburse them for the price of the hardcover if they didn’t like it…and on the other end of the scale, where rancid bullshit lives, I am forced from time to time to comment on the Works of “Werner Erhard.”

In any case, I wish to hell you’d never sent me the galleys or proofs or whatever of Cowgirls – but since you did & I tend to trust yr. judgement for a variety of reasons that would take too long to list or even think about here I’m inclined to lend you the use of my name (since I assume that’s why you sent me this goddamn thing in the first place) to say – and to reproduce in any & all forms – any combination of English-language words amounting in total to less than 20, to say anything you deem fitting with regard to the merits of Cowgirls. You can say, for instance: “A weird & stunning work,” or “Sooner or later a book like this was bound to be written.” And sign my name to anything you compose.

I just got back home from 3 wks in Miami & LA, and I’m not in the mood to read a book that begins with an apology by the author for his use “throughout this book” (of) “third person pronouns and collective nouns in the masculine gender” – or any other gender, for that matter… And I also opened the book, as in my wont with unknown manuscripts, to a page somewhere in the middle: and in this case I hit on pages 160 and 161, where I found the style & tone or whatever of the writing to be not in my taste… which doesn’t mean this is anything but a wonderful book; but that’s your business, since I assume you’re somehow involved as an editor, and because of that and what I’ve heard about you I figure you’re in a far better position to judge this book than I am… and for that reason I’ll trust your judgement (in twenty (20) words or less) to say anything you want about the book, and to use whatever you want to say in my name for any purpose you think is right; I can’t imagine that anything I’d say would make the slightest difference in any way, but if you think it might, seize this opportunity & kick out the jams. For any & all legal, promotional & esthetic purposes, I hereby appoint you my spokesman for any combination of up to 19 words you can lash together.

          For good or ill;
          & Good luck,
          Hunter S. Thompson

 Incurably curious as I am, I wanted to know if Mr. Solotaroff took him up on the offer. The American Review has long since ceased publication (it folded not long after Even cowgirls get the blues came out, in fact), leaving no digitized traces. But surely a pithy 19 words-or-less endorsement by Hunter S. Thompson would have found its way onto the cover or the frontispiece of the book itself? Where could I find a 1976 copy of Even cowgirls get the blues?

The only person I could think of who would have kept his all these years was my older sister’s first boyfriend (I bet I’m not the only person this is true for). But presumably he is still living in Los Angeles -- not necessarily still with long hair and vaquero boots but quite possibly -- and our last encounter was in the pre-email era, so that didn't take me very far.

Who else could I try? Aha! A collectible Even cowgirls get the blues on a page of 50 iconic covers in the AbeBooks website’s Rare Book Room. A nice dustjacket with no quotes, no 'Search inside me'. Yeah, you know, collectible, as in quaint.

As long as I was there, I took a quick look at the AbeBooks price for a first edition ($1000 signed by the author, so I guess the market won’t be flooded by graying pony-tailed guys in vaquero boots selling their copies to buy a condo in Hawaii for their impending retirements – or maybe they have flooded the market, and the price used to be 5 times as much) and then headed down into my Old Faithful fabulous Central City Library basement, where I found a Bantam trade paperback bearing a 16 word testimonial from... hold on, one Thomas Pynchon. “This is one of those special novels – a piece of working magic, warm, funny, and sane.”

If you know anything about Hunter S. Thompson you can see how alien that would be to him. Warm, funny and sane?

If you don't know anything, or not enough, I recommend:

Buy the ticket, take the ride: Hunter S. Thompson on film. A documentary on DVD with lots of actors, some authors, and one really cool sheriff talking about Hunter S. Thompson, along with some good HST in first person. Includes Harry Dean Stanton singing Danny Boy to HST's memory.

Fear and loathing in Las Vegas

The Gonzo papers anthology

Ancient Gonzo wisdom : interviews with Hunter S. Thompson / edited by Anita Thompson.

The proud highway : saga of a desperate southern gentleman, 1955-1967 (the preceding volume to the one I am reading)

The kingdom of fear : loathsome secrets of a star-crossed child in the final days of the American century (the volume after the one I am reading)

Fear and loathing in America : the brutal odyssey of an outlaw journalist, 1968-1976, the one I am reading, with an Author’s Note from Hunter S. Thompson which ends like this:

“The period covered in these letters (1968-1976) was like riding on top of a bullet train for eight years with no sleep and no wires to hang on to. (Is that a dangling participle?) Never end a sentence with a preposition. Never get off a train while it’s moving. These are only a few of the rules I have learned & carefully broken in my time.”

I also like the homage to HST which John Dolan, American poet and author who resided in New Zealand during the final years of the "American century" (as HST liked to call it), wrote for the online version of “The Exile -- Mankind’s only alternative since 1997” called “A Hero of Our Time Hunter S. Thompson 1937-2005”.

September 01, 2010

My Dedications collection

It’s Books in the City’s second anniversary, and like last year I thought I'd celebrate by sharing the book dedications I've added to my collection over the last 365 days  -- at least the ones I remember, or can find where I scribbled them down, and can still read my handwriting.

1. From a very old-looking novel in the Central Library basement called Sally Lunn, by a certain Leo Walmsley, who turned out to be a friend of Daphne du Maurier’s, so not so old after all. 1937 is the publication date. I read the ending. Sally is accused by the man she loves of being “swank” and just wanting to go off to London. She swears she is not swank, and to prove it she pulls out the Guernsey sweater she has knitted him. They embrace.

The dedication reads:

For our darling Boodles, whose home is the sea.

Who is Boodles? I thought it might have been a family cat who drowned, but from the "Walmsley Society" website I learn that the family cat was named Choo-i.

. And the prize for best sense of humour goes to Christine Leov Lealand, author of a R18 book at Central Library called Quintessence: Erotic adventures of fantasy and desire:

Dedicated to everyone who knows that sex is better than drugs
To all who encouraged me as I wrote.

If you think you feature in this book please introduce yourself.
I’m always interested in meeting figments of my imagination.

syndetics-lc3. Larry McMurtry’s book The Last Picture Show is a sad book about two incoherent boys and a town beauty growing up in a small town in West Texas which was a "thinly disguised" (as they say) portrait of the small town McMurtry himself grew up in. Many years later, in his book about the lost art of storytelling, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: Reflections at sixty and beyond, McMurtry returned to write again about this town, called Thalia in his books, Archer City in real life, like this:

"And always, there were diners who were just passing through, few of whom aspired to stay in Archer City. They stopped at the Dairy Queen as they would at a gas station, to pee and take in fuel, mindful, gloomily, that it was still a good hundred miles even to Abilene, itself no isle of grace. Few of these nomads, if they had stories to tell, bothered to tell them to the locals – and if they had wanted to tell a story or two, it is doubtful that anyone would have listened. People on their way to Abilene might as well be on their way to hell – why talk to them? Folks in Archer City knew the way to hell well enough; they need seek no guidance from traveling men."

The Last Picture Show's first page reads:

This book is lovingly dedicated to my home town.

4. Rudyard Kipling’s Plain tales from the hills:

To the wittiest woman in India, I dedicate this book.

She turns out to be a certain Lucy Hauksbee, aka Mrs. FC Burton. I found this out from a google book which was missing the pages, as google makes sure happens with their books, which might have told me something about her. For now, a mystery.

5. I thought Marie Corelli was a Saint, so you can imagine my surprise when I opened an old book of hers in the basement to find the dedication:

To the absinthe drinkers of Paris.

She turns out to have been a bestselling 19th century English author of eerie and occult novels, on record as having had various mystical experiences, which might be what had led me astray. I think mostly I just confused her with the Italian saint Maria Goretti. Pretty similar!

As it turns out, the novel is called Wormwood and the absinthe drinkers of Paris are depicted as poor tortured souls damned by their fatal addiction. So the dedication is actually a sort of “You who are about to die, I salute you.’

6. Thanks to Nick for this last and best, from JD Salinger's Franny and Zooey:

As nearly as possible in the spirit of Matthew Salinger, age one, urging a luncheon companion to accept a cool lima bean, I urge my editor, mentor, and (heaven help him) closest friend, William Shawn, genius domus of The New Yorker, lover of the long shot, protector of the unprolific, defender of the hopelessly flamboyant, most unreasonably modest of born great artist-editors, to accept this pretty skimpy-looking book.

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