Saturday, November 16, 2013

Excellent mini movie: First walk on the ice.

Excellent mini movie. Congratulations to the writer, director and cast. Structurally strong: begins with mystery (face hidden), has rising tension (what will her reaction be, how slippery is the ice), a good second act turning point/point of greatest reversal (at 0:09), a strong third act buildup (the reaching hand) then has an unexpected climax. Early runner for the Oscars.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Almost invisible again.

African American author Ralph Ellison's landmark book about dis-empowerment, and ultimately the journey to empowerment Invisible Man was recently banned by a school board in the U.S.A. It is not important so much that a single school district in the U.S. had chosen to ban a book as to look at the reasons why, and examine this issue in the wider sense. Read the article here

Each individual case needs to be looked at in its specifics, but in cases like this where the book is 60 years old and has been held in libraries since the 50's, a magnifying glass needs to run over why - now - it has been judged to have transgressed some social standard. There is often a repressive and oppressive gene in boards pretty much anywhere, but individual opinion can't be decoupled from the potential of structurally ingrained prejudice. 

These kind of episodes are concerning, and are important to highlight and speak back to. Often the concerns over content and appropriateness and judgements about literary value (laughable, in this case) are beards for suppression of narratives that run counter to traditional power. Terrible irony that 'Invisible Man' itself was subject to an attempt to render it invisible. 

This particular example demonstrates several things:

1) the potential for agendas to come into play at any time, and skew the mix of what is available to our culture, to their own ends
2) that the post-colonial era and its divorce from the colonial past is sometimes only a sheet of paper deep
3) that people, readers, writers, political activists, or just people who care, can fight back. That oppression loves a vacuum, and generally dislikes being daylighted. We can make a difference.The ban was overturned. 

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.

~ Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man, 1952

Monday, September 23, 2013

A few thoughts on theatre

On the weekend we went out to Unitec in West Auckland to see a production of Australian author Tim Winton's novel Cloudstreet.  This was put on by second year students from Unitec’s School of Performing and Screen Arts. It was an enthralling production, fast paced, full of movement - though not sacrificing depth and resonance for the speed and movement. While watching, a few thoughts struck me.

Firstly Tim Winton is one of the great chroniclers of the lives of the Antipodean working class. His warts and all portrayals are steeped in a sense of storytelling history, full of Australian vernacular (that NZ audiences can relate to easily), and they often reflect the lives of people whose lives resonate with characters from our own NZ and Australian past. At AUT today I did a lecture on ‘What is most personal is also most universal’ (quoting American psychologist Carl R. Rogers.) Winton’s stories reflect that principle, with his characters’ lives and conflicts riffing off our own, with authenticity and a refusal to compromise to any formulaic concepts of happy endings, characters who act as the ‘love interest. His stories detail the lives of the ordinary, though aren’t predictable. We know them, but we get to live them anew.

Another of Tim Winton’s stellar pieces of work, The Turning, has recently been turned into a movie. Watch the trailer here. The Turning, a short story cycle/composite novel does not seem a book to easily re-script as a film. I’m reminded of Robert Altman’s film ‘Short Cuts’ taken from nine short stories and a poem from by Raymond Carver, which never really worked as a coherent whole. I am hoping The Turning fares better.

Second thing that struck me is the physicality of theatre and its sense of three dimensional space. Physical in that the running feet are in the room with you (as an audience member), that the lighting effects include the audience, that each seat in the house has a different angle on the characters and action. If well used, and in this production it was, it can give an intimacy unique to theatre. I’ve seen a few too many productions that were 90% sound (mostly dialogue) and functioned almost as a radio play with some interspersed movement to keep your eyes awake. That physicality, the sense of being in the same space as the cast’s muscles and facial expressions and even momentary ‘fluffs’ gives the experience an extra tension, a special sense of the ‘now.’  

Third thing: just how vital live theatre is to the (storytelling) arts scene. Fortunes seem to wax and wane with theatre in New Zealand, and it’s important for funding bodies to recognize theatre’s intrinsic worth as both entertainment and as a context for developing writers/actors/directors. I’ve heard conflicting opinions on the demise of the Downstage company in Wellington, and I guess individual stars rise and fall, but live theatre as a concept and a unique medium is critical to the world of storytelling.

The Unitec cast of 'Cloudstreet,' 2013.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Divine Muses - ten years of celebrating National Poetry Day

Friday 16th August was National Poetry Day and a large and varied number of events were organised to celebrate it in Auckland and around the country.

The Divine Muses, the brainchild of Siobhan Harvey, was the event I went to. Siobhan (and friends) has been organising and running this event for the last ten years. I think I've managed to get to eight out of the ten events and every one has been an interesting and worthwhile evening of free poetry readings by established, emerging and new poets.

This year it was held in the Gus Fisher Gallery on Shortland Street and had an exceptional line up of stellar poets, including Riemke Ensing, Albert Wendt, C K Stead, Kiri Piahana Wong and Siobhan herself.

The theme of the evening was memory and loss and what struck me as each of the poets mentioned above read their work was the very deep integrity and clarity of their observations, thoughts and feelings written in language that sparked and sparkled, even when reflecting on grief and death.

It was a privilege to be able to listen to some of our most respected and well known poets, to hear the fire and ice still encapsulated in their words and to join with others to celebrate them and their work.

Well done Siobhan for another excellent evening. And I can't resist adding the last section of a poem by Riemke Ensing - After Matisse (for Jean Horsley, painter) -  that I have on the wall above my desk that seems to sum up some of the feeling of event:

                      ... We may imagine
                         but are swept away
                         by the dark. The canvas
                        is still white. The artist
                       for that fierce impulse.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Wonderful quote by Pablo Neruda

Couldn't resist sharing this quote I saw on the Teachers and Writers Collaborative Facebook page by the great Pablo Neruda.

In two short paragraphs it seems to sum up so many aspects of writing, both prose and poetry. It's a powerful illustration of why 'show don't tell' matters in writing, not just because it's  a technique to master in order to make your work more immediate and alive, but because of the physical, emotional and spiritual resonance of all our interactions with the world, and with the way these interactions shape and change us and the world. I particularly love the phrase, like a text for troubled lyricists.

Ah, to have such insight and eloquence...

"It is good, at certain hours of the day and night, to look closely at the world of objects at rest. Wheels that have crossed long dusty distances with their mineral and vegetable burdens, sacks from the coal bins, barrels and baskets, handles and hafts for the carpenter's tool chest. From them flow the contacts of man with the earth, like a text for all troubled lyricists. The used surfaces of things, the wear that the hands give to things, the air, tragic at times, pathetic at others, of such things - all lend a curious attractiveness to the reality of the world that should not be underprized.

In them one sees the confused impurity of the human condition, the massing of things, the use and disuse of substances, footprints and finger prints, the abiding presence of the human engulfing all artifacts, inside and out.

Let that be the poetry we search for: worn with the hands obligations, as by acids, steeped in sweat and in smoke, smelling of lilies and urine, spattered diversely by the trades we live by, inside the law or beyond it."

(Pablo Neruda, quoted in, Illuminations: Great Writers on Writing,


Thursday, May 2, 2013

The annoying falseness of reality

Reading about English actor Ben Kingsley playing a part Maori character and the associated complications (Maori Cliff Curtis as Colombians and characters from the Middle East etc) reminded me of when I toured ten years ago with Cherokee writer/broadcaster Thomas King. He spoke of a woman he met in Europe (on a train, I think) who refused to believe he was Cherokee, and said 'You're not the Indian I had in mind.' By that she meant that he didn't fit the stereotypical 'Indian' of so many film narratives. It was an interesting case of the fictional narrative replacing the real narrative, and the audience then taking umbrage at the 'falseness' of reality. Reminds me of both Umberto Eco and his riffing on the 'hyper-real' and Baudrillard and his 'Simulacrums.'

The fictional portrayal is often more convenient, for the dominant power and its audience, than the real one. It allows both engagement and disengagement, simultaneously. Engagement with the piece of the narrative which keeps the 'other' in their place, providing comforting views of their differences, and often putting them safely in a separate timeframe. At the same time it drops the curtain over the grit and sharpness of the reality - of its 'nowness.'

It is interesting though that the other displaying their otherness is only welcomed when bid by the dominant force, not when confronted in its own context. An example would be the anger of the Australian government at the Aboriginal activists at the 1982 Brisbane Commonwealth Games. The games contained convenient references and illustrations that highlighted the Aboriginal experience deemed fit for international viewing. The reality was very different.

It makes me think also of the reaction of the Danish politician in NZ recently, against a Maori welcome. It seemed to me much  of her anger was that no-one sought her permission to confront her, especially in a surrounding that seemed so 'European.'

Complicated territory to negotiate, and having to go through so much BS narrative doesn't help us confront the reality. Narrative is used in many ways, and for many very different reasons. 

Thomas King wrote a poem about his experience, and it underpins this multi-person reading in this excellent short film.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Those aren't your memories, they're somebody elses.

When looking through You Tube for teaching resources recently for a class on mapping out and writing dialogue scenes (spoken lines and body language), one  of the scenes I considered but didn't ultimately use was from the movie Blade Runner, specifically the scene where Deckard (Harrison Ford) tells Rachael (Sean Young) that she isn't real - that she is a replicant - a genetically engineered organic robot. The memories she has have been planted, her past is fake. To Deckard's surprise, the emotional connection Rachael has to this fake information is very real. The short scene is underplayed and very poignant.

Sean Young was never better than in this scene.

The line about the spider's egg hatching and all the little spiders crawling out and killing their parent, is metaphorical for one of the film's themes, dealing with robotics and artificial intelligence and who ends up controlling who.

The film itself has been hugely influential, with it's constant twilight going to dusk, and the sense of dirt beneath the fingertips grounding a whole new breed of science fiction and later leading (indirectly) to concepts like cyberbunk. It banished the men in shiny silver suits moving in stainless steel rooms with pristine floors that peopled so much 1950s/60s science fiction to the outer margins.  

The success of the film also saw a resurgence in interest (and a new interest from Hollywood) in the novels of author Phillip K. Dick, whose novel 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep' is the prose work the movie is based on.

Reaching in and grabbing out...

Watched an interesting interview with China Mieville, the English fantasy and science fiction novelist. You can watch the full interview (28 minutes) here.

Mieville's novel The City and The City (2009) is a nightmare noir, combining classic 40's detective story tropes with the kind of encroaching darkness explored in dystopian future and cyberpunk novels. Certainly one of the more interesting stories I've read in recent years.

I can certainly relate to Mieville's line in the interview:

'My head, like most people's head, is a kind of washing machine full of jostling nonsense....and both my academic and political interests on the one hand, and my fiction interests on the other, reach in and grab out from that shared arena.'

The interview is conducted by American librarian of some repute, Nancy Pearl. I attended a Writers Festival a few years ago in which Nancy was one of the guests in a small group that I was in that traveled to a small retreat for a couple of days. I have rarely met anyone more in love with (and knowledgeable about) books.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

On reading your work in public

This is my first post for 2013 so Happy New Year and may all your New Year's resolutions be happy and achievable ones.

Apart from spending some  - okay, quite a lot - of my time lying on the couch or sitting on the deck reading as part of my summer holiday, one of the things that has occupied me has been reflecting on the experience of reading my own work in public at the Inside.Out open mike evenings held once a month in Cafe 121 in Ponsonby. This is pretty much a new experience for me and one that I still find nerve wracking. (The only other time I read in public was a few years ago when I won second prize in a short story contest and, sadly, I can only remember before and after the reading not the event itself.)

I would have thought being a teacher (in the tertiary sector) for over twenty-five years would have knocked the nerves right out of me and I'd be capable and confident but, alas, it isn't so - reading my own work is not the same as teaching.

Part of my anxiety is to do with the thorny issue of voice. Do I read in my own everyday voice in a conversational way as though I'm just talking to friends or family, or should I be  much more overtly 'dramatic'  and take on some kind of public reading persona?  Many poets do this and have a special voice they use when reading or reciting.  Is it 'me' who should speak at all or should I be channeling the character and speaking in their voice like an actor would? Then there's the voice of the piece itself, its emotional structure, mood and tone, all of which would be so much easier to convey if it was a song (rather than prose) and the words were only part of the story and supported by the music.

One of things I do to help me work through these issues around voice is to listen to an old CD I have of Lauris Edmond reading her own poetry. There's something about her voice, as well as the poems themselves, I find comforting and sustaining. Somehow she is completely herself, grounded, no bells and whistles, no smoke and mirrors; there's a quiet plainness in the way she reads that makes me want to listen. The rhythm and intonation of her speech are familiar to me, and, most pleasing of all, she never feels the need to shout to get my attention or involvement.

Apart from trying to get to grips with nerves and feel my way towards an authentic reading voice, I've  realised how useful preparing to read is for me as a writer. It makes me think very carefully about what might capture and hold an audience, what images will resonate, what language is clumsy or overblown and what sections need a lot more work. It's a reminder that reading writing out loud, even if only to yourself, quickly shows what works and what doesn't.

The other up side of the experience is, of course, the priviledge of listening to others read their work and to get that sense of being part of a local writing community.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Practice of Attention

Read an interesting article by Roger Housden on the Huff Post, musing on the value of poetry. This line struck me.

Poetry is a way of rescuing the world from oblivion by the practice of attention

One of the great beauties of poetry is that it coaxes the eye to slow down, disrupts the pattern of a-one-and-a-two narrative that we often get trapped in. In the same way that great photographs do. The put space and time back into the claustrophobic business of our world.

It is our attention that honors and gives value to living things, that gives them their proper name and particularity; that retrieves them from the obscurity of the general.

You can read the whole of this brief but worthy article here. 


I went to see the new James Bond movie 'Skyfall' last week, and left the theater a little non-plussed. Some superb cinematography, an opening chase sequence that reminded my heart (after some very tedious trailers and adverts) that it was alive, some gorgeous landscapes. The Bond franchise has always been a repository for action thriller cliches (many of which it pioneered, to be fair) and some pretty lame attempts at titillation in its quieter moments. The best of the films (Goldfinger, You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty's Secret Service) have shown a bravura sense of style and physical timing, as good as any in their genre. They pretty much invented their genre. Even the worst of them have a couple of uber-cool moments. The one thing the series has never really done is try to take itself seriously. Until now. Until the Daniel Craig (as Bond) versions beginning with Casino Royale in 2006.

But that's problematic. Bond has long been a momentary break for ordinary guys, from the humdrum of their daily lives, its hyper-real feel and innate ridiculousness a shot in the arm for drudgery. He was an antidote for packing boxes and digging ditches and reconciling lines of figures in accounts books. That was his beauty for a male audience. The downside of that was a bunch of lazy sexist undercurrents, with women characters as tassles with body parts attached. But Daniel Craig and presumably the writers of his films have set out to give Bond depth. But it's like looking for nourishment in a slice of Pavlova. The character's whakapapa works against it. It's not impossible that action movies can have depth - for example the Bourne Trilogy with Matt Damon giving a nuanced and sometimes tortured performance as an action hero for whom you felt you could really care - not just cheer.

In Skyfall they attempt to flesh out Bond's backstory by getting him to ponder some conflicts from his childhood, the one area that's always been off-limits in Bond films. They give him a suitably gothic homestead with threatening skies, surrounded by vast empty spaces, old stone works and scrubby trees. That actually highlights one of the key dilemmas in what the film-makers are trying to do. Even in attempting to access some deeply buried emotional and psychological trauma they're still banging the kettle drums to do it. They'd never consider a two-up two-down with milk bottles in the doorway and a whippet tied up in the yard, and an emphysemic Dad banging back flat beer while confusing Bond with his brother, what's-his-name. That wouldn't do. It has to be an orphan story, stark gravestones highlighted by flames, his parents names etched in chiseled blood. They're still images from a teenaged boys scrapbook.  

There are still some moments where the old ugliness breaks the surface. The flippant 'ta da, the helicopters have arrived' follow up to the moment when one of the temporary women 'characters' is killed. That's a troubling miss-step. But give this crew credit for trying. There are some human moments where Bond is clearly aging. His gun hand wavering is a nice touch. But what will the end point of this deconstruction of one of cinema's great mythologized superficialities leave us with. A broken franchise for a a new crew to try and reconstruct, or a hyper real hero with holed socks and a tremor. Whose purpose will it serve?  This was always about style over substance. Perhaps that was always its point, that a man can be an awestruck boy again, if only in the brief stretch of time between sitting down in a theater's seats and standing up again. Trying not to think that even at his best, Bond is a sociopathic bastard with a cartoonish sense of patriotism, but with cool cars and some serious chat-up lines.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Ever diluting circles

The debate about whether ex world heavyweight champion boxer, Mike Tyson, should be allowed a visa for a speaking engagement in NZ in November brought to the surface some disturbing narratives. Some of the more worrying trends were around the diluting of specific language when describing Tyson and his crimes, and showed how language can be used as verbal sleight of hand to hide what is really happening. Mike Tyson was convicted of rape in March, 1992. The conviction still stands. It has never been overturned. He did three years of a six year sentence, then he was released.

More than a couple of things bothered me about the way language morphed in this affair, but I want to specifically address two.

Firstly, while the arguments pro and con Tyson's being granted a visa went back and forth various voices on the radio in NZ (callers, interviewees and hosts) described Tyson's crime with such language as: 

'That business at the Miss America pageant.' 

'Look, I think he probably did get a bit wild with her.' 

'Well, we all know it was a ridiculous charge, wasn't it.'

'Look, he's made mistakes, he admits that.'  (This was a very common refrain.)

Language can sometimes become an ever decreasing and diluting circle, where if the words wash round long enough they loose all specificity and potency and ultimately - context and meaning. Rape becomes a 'mistake'. Violence becomes 'a bit wild.' This is the linguistic legerdemain of denial, used both by bullies (including politicians - the diluting term 'collateral damage' comes to mind) and by those whose emotional attachment to figures they've given great weight to (sports stars, musical stars etc) have them acting as unofficial public relations operatives.

Secondly, I'm bothered that a change of language can be perceived to be some kind of cleansing device. In this article in the NZ Herald, there are references to abusive language, and more importantly, content  (and I assume - intent) in some of Tyson's shows overseas. I don't mean bad language, as in profanity, but abusive language designed to marginalize and reduce. Here is a review from the Guardian about Tyson's show. Broadcaster and former MP Willie Jackson defended Tyson, because he believed what Tyson would have to say would benefit disadvantaged youth. I can't agree. For me Tyson represents a dangerous mirage, a false version of the warrior image so beloved in modern culture, and brought to (commercially lucrative) life in characters such as Aragorn (Lord of the Rings) and the All Blacks.

If Tyson is a changed man, as this heroic survivor narrative (rather theatrically) demands, then that will come out in his behaviour. And the chief insight into that is his language.

From the NZ Herald article above:

But Mr Jackson, who wants Tyson to speak to disadvantaged youths in south Auckland, today stood by his support for Tyson's latest visa application.

"Broadway shows are quite different, I think, from messages to youths and to disaffected people," he said.

Mr Jackson would discuss with promoters what Tyson would say on his marae visit.

"If he comes, we do not expect him to be bringing his show to the marae."

But Tyson would have brought himself, the creator of the show with its abusive language used to marginalize and reduce. The man isn't cleansed by a change of language. If only it were that easy. If he waters his on-stage self down to suit an audience, what does that prove. It is simply verbal sleight of hand.

As for 'youth', discussing this with Trisha, she made the comment 'Why is it assumed that whenever the term 'youth' is used, that it is always exclusively male. Don't young women actually exist?'

Maybe Tyson has a knife-edge appeal to some people, in the way when I was a kid we used to light thunder crackers and run like hell. Liking their smoke and noise and primeval sense of destruction, without ever stopping to think what would happen if one went off in our hands. Doubtless someone else would then have had to pick up the pieces.

Boxing has produced a number of fighters much closer to that much overused warrior image. My post last November on the passing of former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier was about one of them. But this issue was never about boxing. Now that the legal position has been enforced and Mike Tyson didn't get a visa to visit New Zealand, I'm left with the uncomfortable feeling that the dust it kicked up carries within it more than a few suggestions that our dark underbelly is only ever a euphemism away. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Some ideas on narrative

Here is a link to a very interesting post by Charles May exploring some ideas about narrative.

May is currently writing a book about storytelling and in some of his recent blogposts he is sharing a selection of his background reading for this project.

 In this post he is outlining some of the ideas he found useful from  a book by Jermone Bruner called, Making Stories: Law, Literature, Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, NY, 2003).

Of particular interest is his outline of Bruner's characteristics of narrative and characteristics of the self.

I also like this statement by May:

In his short summary chapter, entitled simply, “So why narrative?” Bruner reiterates what he stated in the introductory chapter—that narrative is not only a human delight, it is also a serious business, the essential means by which we express human aspirations.  Stories are important because they impose a structure on what we experience.  Stories help us to cope with surprises by making them less surprising.   This “domestication” of unexpectedness that story makes possible is a crucial way our culture maintains its coherence.  

Friday, October 5, 2012

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

What we don't know

In prepping for a recent class on getting students to come up with ideas and ways to develop story from a factual base I thought of a couple of news items from recent years, that had pricked and held my attention. They were both news items that had interesting details, but the most interesting - and personally resonant - facets of them were how they highlighted what we don't know, and the emotional and psychological power in that gap in our understanding. Writing is as much about trying to speak to what we don't know, to find some sense or at least symmetry or justification - a language to speak to it in - as it is about what we do know.

The first item was the story of Oscar the cat, from a nursing home in Rhode Island in the USA. Over time Oscar was observed visiting patients and getting close to them in their last hours. He seemed to show the ability to discern from all the ill and dying patients who had the least time left. Articles have been written about the possible whys and wherefores of his behaviour, such as Oscar is able to detect ketones, which are biochemicals given off by dying cells. On a story level I'm not so much interested in the science but the 'what-if' factor, always embedded in the concept of what we don't know. I must admit the first time I read this story that my imagination left me awestruck, wondering (on an emotional level) if Oscar was moving between two worlds, the living and the dead. I had scenes from the movie in my head in seconds. The unknown is such an enormous room for the imagination to bounce around within.

On a sadder note, the other story I was recently reminded of when putting together my class notes was this one, the story of Richmal Oates-Whitehead, a woman who told a harrowing narrative of destruction and solace on the day of the London bombings in 2005, when she had been caught up in the carnage happening right outside her office's door.

She told of treating 12 injured people, or boarding the destroyed bus and seeing 'body parts.' Administering and consoling the injured. She was quoted in the media, interviewed, praised.

But, as later came out, the whole tale was a fantasy. In fact her apparent medical degree and (clinical) career was an invention. She was an administrator, who had trained to be a radiation therapist. A troubled woman, she was found dead only weeks later. No one else was sought in relation to her death.

This story, like the story of Oscar the cat, has a hole running right through the middle of it. A why, a how, a what does it all mean?

Oscar's story potentially suggests a metaphysical dimension, beyond the physics. Or maybe its just about smell, and ketones. Richmal Oates-Whitehead's 'invented' history suggests psychological splitting and need that overpowered her.

A lot of stories involve a retelling of known events, designed to bring order to our perceptions of them, or to get inside what we know and look for human resonance. Or perhaps to pay final respect to those involved. An example of this would be 'Out of the Blue,' the film of events in and around the Aramoana massacre in 1990. Though even though the events are known, the motivations are still a hole in our understanding.

So with the old adage of 'Write what you know,'  we can add: 

'Write what you don't know, or what you don't understand about what you know.'

Friday, September 14, 2012


Picked up an old Granta from the public library (Granta 100, Winter 2007) last week and came across these lovely quotes from the following three writers.

 From Marie NDiaye:

'Marie, why do you write?'

'I've been writing for a long time to try and establish a little bit of order
 in what seems like one big confusion: the world, language, thoughts.
I want to get all of this clear, focus it as you do in photography: at the beginning all blurred. But then you start to focus and the object appears in all its clarity. For me it is the same with the act of writing. Writing is the focussing of what surrounds us.' (p258)

From Richard Ford:

'Richard Ford, do you know what's important to you?'

'No, but I can make it up.'  (p290)

Here is a link to a recent Guardian Interview with Ford where he does talk a little about what's important to him.

From Gao Xingjian:

'Gao Xingjian, what have you never done that you would like to do?'

'Music. Inside of me there is a rhythm. But it's very complicated
to make it real.' (p312)

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Te whare tapa wha - text as house and home

Two disparate events have happened recently to do with reading and writing, yet they have become connected in my mind - connected I think, because the first one gave me a way of thinking about the second.

The first concerns the launch of an educational video now available on the website of the National Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy which explores, among other things, what a text is and what reading means, especially, but not only, in relation to tertiary and foundation education. Among other things, the video explores the contribution Mason Durie's Te Whare Tapa Wha model (1982) makes towards understanding the creation and reading of text. Te Whare Tapa Wha, a model originally used to promote the understanding  and use of  a Maori view of health, has been used extensively in the NZ health sector and is increasingly being applied to many other areas as well.

Here is a link to the video.

My (small) involvement in the video - and the project behind it - gave me the opportunity to learn from a gifted teacher and colleague, Herewini Easton (you can see him in the video clip) who has expertise in both Maori and Pakeha/European pedagogies. One of things I learnt from him was to think of a text as a whare - a 'house' that is constructed by the four walls (or dimensions) of wairua, hinengaro, tinana and whanau - spiritual, mental and emotional, physical, social.
Thinking about text in this way is a wonderful opportunity to open up how we view reading and writing; and it makes (better) sense of some of my own feelings about, and responses to, reading and writing novels, short stories and poetry.

The second event  that occurred recently - inside.out - was a NZ Society of Authors Auckland branch event which provided an opportunity for writers to read their work in public. Held on Monday 6th August at 121 Cafe on Ponsonby Rd, it was a lively and well-attended event that grew out of discussion in the Auckland branch that while there are a number of opportunities for poets to read their work, e.g. Poetry Live, there are none for those who write novels, short stories, non-fiction and so on. Poets could also participate of course, and they did.

I commend all those involved in organising and participating in this event which I hope will continue  on a regular (monthly) basis and I very much enjoyed most of those who read their work - but, unfortunately, there were a few times during the evening when all I felt was shouted at, and abused as a reader/listener, and as a fellow writer, as if the 'performer' believed I/we were just a mirror to view themselves in rather than a community with which to genuinely share their best efforts.

Perhaps considering a perspective on constructing and sharing text like Te Whare Tapa Wha would help us to deepen and enrich both our writing and reading and help us all show more respect to each other and to our work.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Doing the work and remembering - Memories of Fairlie

A month ago I travelled south to Christchurch for my aunt's 90th birthday. My aunt - Mary-Lucy - is one of my father's sisters and has outlived him by just over 30 years. They grew up in the small South Island town of Fairlie in the Mackenzie Country, close to the Southern Alps and Mt Cook/Aoraki.

Dad was born in 1920, left formal education at the end of primary school, worked as a shearer on local farms, as had his father, served in the Middle East during the Second World War, suffered major injuries and spent a long time in hospital recovering when he returned home. He loved politics, country music and the poetry of Banjo Patterson. I remember him playing the guitar and singing and have a photo somewhere of him as a young man wearing a cowboy hat.  The Mckenzie Country,  he felt, was a kindred spirit of  the Wild West although there were far fewer cows and many more sheep. One of the things he wanted to do when he was forced to retire from ill health at 55 was to write his memories of the place he grew up.  He didn't live to complete this but had managed to write enough for my mother and I to put together on his behalf, a small publication called Memories of Fairlie in 1982. It included some of his poetry as well as his memories of local people and events.

Since then this little self published book has sold around a thousand copies and my family still get requests for copies from people who either grew up in and around Fairlie, or whose friends and family did.  In the last few years some of the poems included in the book - in the Banjo Patterson style -  have appeared in other books on the district. Recently I've had a request  for more information about Dad and his poetry from another local author who is writing a book about Mckenzie Country poets and wants to include Dad's work in it. Dad would have been very pleased indeed.

All this has made me  think about how important it is to do the work - to write what matters to you, even if it seems too hard or too late, no matter if  the audience seems local or small, and readership is built by word of mouth. No matter how much hope or despair you feel as you write - that's what I tell myself. Go Dad.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The creative class

Interesting and saddening article on Salon recently about how there has been a massive drop in work opportunities for those in what article author Scott Timberg calls 'The Creative Class.' Many groups have suffered in the recession, but this article is, as much as anything, about presiding narratives. About how classes are portrayed, by whom, and with what agenda.

This from the article:

Novelist Jonathan Lethem, whose father was what the writer describes as “a non-famous artist,” sees the American artist as living in internal exile. American history is stamped with “a distrust of the urban, the historical, the bookish in favor of a fantasy of frontier libertarian purity. And the Protestant work ethic has a distrust of what’s perceived as decadence.”

For me, that resonates with my sense of New Zealand too.

There has been much talk recently about anti-intellectualism in large sections of the U.S.Where creative artists are mistrusted, and how people are being persuaded to mistrust creative workers. This opens up the whole debate of course, over just what we consider a creative worker, and who is it that is in the creative class. I often remind my students that creative is not a state of being, but an action, and perhaps an understanding.

The man alone against physical wilderness held great power over this country for a long time, and has never really left us. It is always problematic though, as it can inspire insularity and paranoia. At the very least it is always male-centric and even its view of the rural is onesidedly male.

The same resentful and paranoid chills have affected the U.S.

Again, from the article.

But these seeds of paranoia really blossomed with the invention of the term the “cultural elite.” During the “Murphy Brown” wars of 1992, Vice President Dan Quayle spoke at the Commonwealth Club of California, connecting the Los Angeles riots to a group sitting “in newsrooms, sitcom studios, and faculty lounges all over America,” jeering at regular people. “We have two cultures,” he said, “the cultural elite and the rest of us.”

It will be a long time before the dust settles on this issue, and on the recession in general and its survivors. It is important though, as always, that we drive our own narratives. If we give away control of our stories we become secondary characters in the stories of others.

You can read the full article here.

In the margins

Interesting reflective piece from writer/poet Serie Barford, at the Poetic Inspirations blog, about her life and her poetic process. Serie has taught poetry on some of my courses, and is always well received. It's fascinating to watch an audience and a class switch gears when a poet who is an expert performer takes center stage.
Poetry often slips under the mainstream radar in New Zealand (and often elsewhere) but the poetry community is vibrant and self sustaining and poets, especially those whose public readings add an extra dimension to their written text (as Serie's do) tend to make their own waves, rather than wait for waves to come and find them.

From the article:

I’ve since resigned myself to the fact that I live in the margins and that’s okay because I can create from this space and it’s my ‘inner world’ that keeps me anchored to the ‘outer world’.

Serie's poem 'Plea to the Spanish Lady' about the influenza epidemic that devasted Samoa (and many countries) just after WW1 brings up the the issue of hidden narratives, or more correctly, narratives that are hidden. Hidden by governments, by media who represent just one strata or colour of society. How whole histories and traumas and tragedies vanish because they're not told, outside of the people who directly experienced them.

Here's an excerpt:

Plea to the Spanish Lady (extract)
 Today the Samoan Times is all news:
death notices and a front page
Today the editor died
Today Teuila’s screams awoke me
as she lay between her parents
dipping fingers in their sweat

Serie's work and the work of other Pasifika poets such as Selina Tusitala Marsh, John Pule and Karlo Mila add extra bite and resonance to what in New Zealand was often a very monochromatic literary scene. We can acknowledge Shakespeare and Browning, yes, but we don't need to be imprisoned by them. Poetry also lives here in the Pasifika New Zealand. Now.

Kudos too to Maryanne Pale for setting up this poetry blog. Long may it continue.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The iron dark of the world.

There he stood, just come in from that bare and desolate wasteland, into the well lit hallway with its dreams and ghosts of movies long dead and gone and shorn of all meaning. He'd walked through the tangled mesquite brakes and up beyond the south fork of the river to where the movie theatre stood skeletoned in the burning sunset. He'd stood at the ticket office, the clerk jaunty and misbegotten and he'd bought an ice cream and so burdened he'd made his way through the bloodred reefs of moviegoers to that long, haunted corrider where the theatre doors broke away left and right. Somewhere a tap dripped and dripped, counting away the days and nights and other days and nights of the world. His tie hung canted, angled, a chimera cast perhaps in some demonic tiemaker's forge in the iron dark of the world. A tie whose stripes spoke of that lost dream. A camera bulb flashed.
You're not smiling, the woman said.
I reckon you're smiling enough for both of us, he said.
Did Billy bring the horses in?
Yes mam. Crapped all up and down the hallway.
He'd woken that morning from a dream. In the dream a great black shape had risen from some far off cave across an oily black river and he'd watched as it turned into a thunderhead blacker than any he'd so witnessed before.
He leaned and spat.
His horse whinnied.
It ain't nothin he'd said.
His horse nodded. They rode on.
So riding they came upon a road of bones and among those bones a single flower lay half crumpled but green still and it grew greener as he stood watching. He crouched, passed his hat across his face. No reason, really, he just liked to do that. And then the flower began to rise on the breeze and he rose with it and it grew then into a twig then a branch then a trunk then a torso until what stood before both man and horse and other men and horses (as a crowd had gathered) was a woman. She turned, glanced down for a moment then turned and walked out across that foreland plain where even the vaqueros wouldn't ride. She leaned and drank rainwater from the rockpools, her face lost to them. She walked until the narrator bid her to stop. She turned at last to regard them. Then she was gone. Lost in that thunderhead. He awoke. A thousand years older.
Where did you get those boots? said the woman in the theatre.
Texas. Where did you get that outfit?
They stood.
There's a cafe in the lobby, she said. You a coffee drinker?
Coffee? he said. I once shared a coffee with an old man, just south of Testeverde, New Mexico. He sat in a field in a highland plain where the winter sun turned the grass a burnt umber and the horses milled about, hazing among the flowers whose pollen hung in the sun like powdered gold and...where'd she go?

(A thousand apologies to Cormac McCarthy)

Light and Shadow

I was watching a few clips from the Charles Laughton directed 'Night of the Hunter' on YouTube.It's the tale of two childrens journey to escape a psychotic pseudo preacher. Robert Mitchum plays the preacher, with creepy intensity. 

Laughton, one of the greatest actors of them all, directed a grand total of one movie. One. This one. The critics panned it, perhaps because its sense of cinematography, hell, its sense of everything was way ahead of its time.

Here is a clip from this film. Laughton had a sense of how to use light, shadow and layered sound to create a total experience of a scene. A sensory and cerebral 3-D, without the stoopid gadgetry. The expressionistic vision and use of light/shadow in graduated contrast (the steeple shape above the child's bed, for example) is stunning. It's not a film for the feint-hearted, but worth the experience to see such risky and visionary film-making in action.

First books...

This was the first book I ever owned. Great little story. I must pick up another copy. Parents bought it for my 5th birthday. 

I was the saddest dog you could ever see,
Sad because no one wanted me.
The pet shop window was my jail.
The sign behind me said, "For Sale."

For my 7th birthday (when I was sick in bed with the flu) my mother bought me a set of a half dozen Secret Seven books by Enid Blyton. Then for my 9th birthday she bought me 'Of Mice and Men' by John Steinbeck. I looked at it, looked like a small book, easy read. That was the end of the beginning for me.

Makes me think of first books and of the children lucky enough to be introduced to the world of books and reading early. Ours wasn't a house of books by any means. Even cheap paperbacks required putting money aside, and a book as a present was for birthdays and Christmas only. 

But then I discovered libraries. 

Stories have been captured and housed and transported within many different forms, oral, the early presses, ornate hardbacks, bargain paperbacks, mainstream paperbacks with higher production values, .pdfs, e-books. I'm certainly glad to have lived in a time where, as a child, books were both a voice created in the reader's imagination, and a tactile, sensory object. My early books eventually required large amounts of cellotape. School librarians would shudder when they saw me coming. The 'new' world of e-books will give us different pleasures, and some of the children's e-books out have exquisite graphics and lots of interactivity. But there will always be something to be said for rolling up a bent and battered copy of 'Of Mice and Men' in your back pocket and riding your bike to somewhere with grass and a tree and pulling it out and flattening the pages.  
They're all good times, just in different ways. As long as we keep telling stories, and listening, and reading.

The Ngaio Marsh awards

At the NZ Society of Authors Auckland branch meeting last Friday we had Craig Sisterson come and speak. Craig runs the Crime Watch blog. One of the subjects he spoke about was the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel by a New Zealand writer.

The long list for this annual event is out now.
The longlisted titles are:
  • COLLECTING COOPER by Paul Cleave (Simon & Schuster)
  • LUTHER: THE CALLING by Neil Cross (Simon & Schuster)
  • FURT BENT FROM ALDAHEIT by Jack Eden (Pear Jam Books)
  • TRACES OF RED by Paddy Richardson (Penguin)
  • BY ANY MEANS by Ben Sanders (HarperCollins)
  • BOUND by Vanda Symon (Penguin)
  • THE CATASTROPHE by Ian Wedde (Victoria University Press)

Great to see this award, both in its role of supporting crime writing by New Zealanders, and also it's dual role in honouring the grande dame of New Zealand crime/thriller/mystery writing, Ngaio Marsh.

Craig made a point also of grouping writers/writing/readers of the genre in wide terms. Crime/mystery/thriller. That takes into account the traditional English cozy mysteries of Agatha Christie (cozy in setting and to a degree - style, not in incident) and texts a million miles away from that, such as Lee Child and his hyper-violent Jack Reacher series of novels. Readers within the wide framework of the genre probably change their positions over time, and this range of scope reflects many different needs, expectations and styles. That's a good thing.

Here is the link to the Ngaio Marsh Awards' Facebook page, so you can keep up with developments. Best of luck to everyone, and congratulations to the organizers for setting up the awards to support and promote this field.

Water flows through flat land...

I look high up on the wall, all the way to the top where there is one of them skylights, them lights that let the sky in. I ask Pa why them city folks let the sky in when the wind and rain and the rustbrown dead leaves of November come in too.
'Don't be asking me such darned fool questions,' he says.
'I need to know, pa,' I say.
'Boy, you need to bring that mule round front. That's what'n you need to do. Lord knows I've suffered enough.'
'I did, Pa.'
'I asked Vardaman to look on it.'
'He's just a boy.'
That boy, that Vardaman, he comes in now carrying a fish, darn nigh as big as he is. He slops it down on the floor, stands with his legs apart, like a man.
'Where's the mule?' says Pa.
'Can't eat no mule,' says Vardaman.
Then that boy, that Vardaman, he goes out, down the long low lazy looping hallway to where you smell the woodsmoke on the wind. We follow him out across the dirt and leaves. I stand. Pa stands. Vardaman stands.
'Everyone else drives around in cars,' I say. 'Why we still using a mule?'
'Can't a man have a moment's piece,' says Pa, 'less'n he's set trials and tribulations by the good Lord on the road to his reward. Lord knows I've suffered enough.'
'Even Didley Dooley has a Nissan Smart Car.'
'Lord knows. Electric cars. Next they'll be a fixing us electric lamps too.'
Then that Cash appears. He's covered in sawdust from his head to his boots. He's wearing his tool belt, the one with his tools in it. He carries a brown paper bag. One of the tongues of his boot hangs loose, flaps in the wind. He reaches into his toolkit and takes out a hammer and knocks it back in. The nail draws blood. His face doesn't change. The look in his eyes don't change neither.
'I smell viddles,' says Pa, looking at that Cash, looking at that paper bag. Cash looks. Pa looks. A feller riding past on a bicycle looks. 'Lord knows I could use some viddles. To ease my journey on the way to my reward. You durn been hunting in that there long grass?
'No, pa,' says Cash. 'I been to McDonalds. Like them normal people.'

(Apologies to William Faulkner)

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The old man and the cat.

And the man turned, looked past the wine bottle at the cat. Furry, fluffy, desolate. And the man knew then he would not pat that cat though he wanted to, just like he had in that house in the snow in Austria where he'd sat with another cat and another bottle of wine, where they'd looked out the window at all the cat tracks in the snow, muddy, blurry, and someone said they weren't cat tracks, no, those aren't cat tracks, but they were cat tracks and they saw those cat tracks all that winter until they died.

(Apologies to Hemingway)

Graham Swift on the Narrative Physics of Novels

I've just read an interesting article from the English writer Graham Swift (Waterland, Last Orders) about the slowness of writing. I've long admired Swift, though it would be over the top to say I've loved all his work. There are great snatches: the final image of the motorbike standing alone by the canal's edge in Waterland, the moment the old geezers have their puffing and heaving fight (they're trying to swagger) on the hillside in Last Orders.

Anyone who works on prose fiction likely knows the strange feeling that writing can flow, and you can get a lot done quickly in a scene, but a narrative as a whole is painstaking. I've written most of the passages in my current novel quite quickly, with a sense of being in the real-time 'bubble' of the scene. Hearing the spoken dialogue at the speed those words are spoken, watching characters move across the landscape in the time it would take in the world. And yet it's taken years to get to the point I'm at.

From the article.

I’m not disheartened by the thought that what takes me years to write may occupy a reader for just a few hours. To have made, perhaps, a benign intrusion into someone else’s life for even such a short duration seems to me quite a feat of communication, and if that communication becomes for readers not just a means of passing those hours, but a time-suspending experience that stays with them well after they’ve closed the book and that they might one day wish to return to, then that’s as much as any novelist can hope for.

Most of us are probably not aware of exactly what we're doing when we read, and how we slip in and out of ticking-clock-time. Maybe that's one of the roles of the novel, and of reading itself, to disrupt that regimentation.

The answers to the question that arises out of my opening paragraph are simple ones. Why do novels take so long to write when so many scenes go by in real time?

* drafting and redrafting until it's the best we can do to have the text do the story justice
* writing isn't just the fingers on keyboards phase, it's the reading back, the thinking, the reframing
* the moment so often seen as the 'creative moment' is just a beginning. There's much work to do after that.

To read the full article, click here.