Thursday, 8 October 2015

Interview: Patrick Evans

Patrick Evan's new novel The Back of His Head explores ideas about art and genius through the story of Raymond Lawrence, a true literary 'monster'. 

Lawrence is New Zealand's only Nobel Prize for Literature winner, and the novel traces his rise and decline, and the effects of his terrible behaviour on the trustees who are charged with memorialising him and his work. 

The Back of His Head is at once a satire, and a troubling exploration of what it means to make fiction.

Patrick Evans

The Back of His Head is a novel that really deeply questions what fiction is, and how it is made. It’s a game-playing novel right through to the final page; even the author’s Acknowledgements puts question marks around who created this thing. It’s a very effective way to steer the reader. Did you worry about accusations of manipulation while writing it? Or is that part of the point?

No; I expect readers to feel manipulated because that’s what novels do; they manipulate, and that’s something I wanted to show as I wrote – the ‘made-upness’ of fiction and how we buy into that aspect by ‘willingly suspending disbelief,’ and how fiction relies on our doing that, how writing/reading is a collaborative project. The ‘apparent’ authorship of The Back of His Head moves as you read it, from ‘me’ to ‘Peter Orr’ to ‘Thom Ham’ to ‘Patrick’ (whoever he is) to (possibly) the Master himself, in the text and knocking on the door of the Residence later on, when the tapes have been stolen (or is it just the police, called in to restore Order?). Above all, The Back of His Head is a reading experience in which the reader is moved around as s/he turns the pages.
Writing the novel, I had a strong sense of the authorship moving away from me and of myself just going along with that process: I don’t know who’s knocking at the door any more than the reader does, or where Peter and the boy with spina bifida are going near the end, but I know it’s someone important that’s knocking and somewhere important that they’re going. The authorship of the novel has dissolved at this point, and is everywhere and nowhere at the same time, and the ‘tail’ of the book has simply become layers of text, none of them describing a ‘fixed,’ ‘real’ reality ‘back there’. Another way of saying this is that the novel has become ‘de-Oedipalized’ (cf. the bone people after the destruction of the tower two-thirds of the way through: everything changes after that).
An aspect of this recession of the idea of Authorship is the emergence of what I call in the novel ‘the oceanic processes of literature,’ in which the idea of the Author as Master is replaced by the notion of Writing as Master – in which (effectively) all writing is a form of plagiarism and nothing is absolutely new (a notion which itself is not new; cf. the Borges story in which a Frenchman decides to write Don Quixote). And of course you have to ask the obvious questions if you believe this: what use is any literary trust that exists to give permission to quote from writing that is taken from the Ocean of Literature? Who ‘owns’ a book once it’s written – a trustee more than anyone else who hasn’t written it?

Do you think that’s what literature – as opposed to ‘pulp fiction’ – is best at doing: asking questions? This assumes a certain degree of open-hearted and open-mindedness in its readers – do you agree? 

Literary fiction requires both those qualities in the reader, as well as a willingness to be taken somewhere new and strange; otherwise, why read it – why write it?

I think readers of literary fiction self-select to some degree, and therefore know what they’re getting themselves into and, at their best and in their Ideal Reader mode, are open to being shaken up and even (at the far end of the process) shocked and disgusted if they think that is a part of their own enlargement as human beings.

To open oneself up to such possibilities requires not only a willing suspension of disbelief by the reader but a refusal to judge, and, particularly – and above all – a putting-aside of notions of political correctness. This in turn requires an acceptance that a writer knows what s/he is doing and why s/he is taking you to certain places – in other words, that s/he isn’t just being grubby or self-indulgent. All this requires a sophisticated readership, one which (for example) can distinguish between the material being who has written the work and the work’s narrating author and characters, and can understand a creative work as being about certain ideas and not simply as yet one more attack on particular people in the material world.   

The book kicks western culture’s received idea of the author up its complacent backside. It is also a satire, on one level, of the prize-culture around books and writers. How possible do you think it is for a reader to get away from the hype, for a good book to be quietly discoverable?

The Back of His Head is about a Dead White Male Author (think Hemingway, White, Durrell, Lowry and many others of the twentieth century) who is now a dinosaur as a new era of writing evolves that is organized in new ways and for a completely different kind of readership from before. To some extent this involves the return of a colonial Repressed (think of the Master’s replacement in the bookshop’s advertising by the young former refugee/writer and his new bestseller). 

But this new era, it seems to me, involves new modes of hype, most obviously the prize system Raymond Lawrence turns away from after landing The Big One. That’s why he wants to blow up the creative writing school, and at this point I have to say I’m close to his way of thinking – not that I think we should blow up creative writing schools (after all, I’ve taught in one for ten years), but I do think we should become aware of what we’re getting into as literature becomes increasingly commodified by global capitalism. Maintaining locally-rooted literatures, supported by active small publishers, with alert, educated and open-minded local readerships and informed, intelligent critical structures and readerships are (I think) the way to resist the ‘post-colonial exotic’ and the hyper-real hollowing-out of ‘the product’ in a world of superficial display.
As to getting away from the hype: in my experience, the truth will out either way – that a ‘successful’ work isn’t really up to much, really, or a little-known work is. I have first-hand evidence that good books can be discovered, recognized and appreciated without getting a prize: David Ballantyne’s Sydney Bridge Upside Down (1968) was completely ignored when it appeared and long after; now it is widely recognized as a masterpiece, not least by the second-year university students I recently taught it to. All that was needed was that we catch up to it (actually reading it helps). There are further, more recent examples of the way word-of-mouth can ‘get it right’ in the long term – to some extent the bone people began like that: I heard it was being written and was important in 1969, long before it was published.

Raymond Lawrence, the writer at the heart of the new novel, is a colossus of a writer, a man who has won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but who is an appalling human being. Other characters describe him as a monster, yet they indulge him throughout his life. They enable his monstrous qualities to some degree. Is the novel at least partly a comment on a society that looks the other way if an artist is at work?

I’ve always been fascinated by people who are appalling human beings but have a peculiar charm and magnetism that cause other people to love them and even lay down their lives for them, acolytes who – yes, I agree – enable them and without whom the psychopath in question would be nothing. Our belief creates and sustains them: they’re ‘our’ monsters – think of Hitler Youths shooting themselves after Hitler’s suicide, think of Stalin’s victims weeping when he died. 

Raymond Lawrence is just such a being, a man who has sucked the life out of everyone around him and yet is loved and cared for by them – even Thom the dimwitted weightlifter can see him as lovable late in the old man’s life, when Lawrence has been ravaged by Parkinson’s. Peter Orr has been all but destroyed as an individual, yet sits in the darkened Residence calling out to the dead Master, the man who has destroyed him.

The Back of His Head explores the notion that art can come from really unpleasant places, the relationship between art and pathology, and the well-known fact that many writers/artists are at best not very nice people and at worst in the grips of some kind of sickness. This is the sort of thing Joyce Cary wrote about with his potty artist Gulley Jimson in The Horse’s Mouth (1944), but in my novel it’s less cute – Jimson is your standard Corbyn-ish anti-capitalist/anti-bourgeois; what I’m writing about is someone who really might have tortured and murdered a young Arab boy in the desert – and worse. All in order to qualify as an artist, the Master says, all in order to find inspiration: a man who really does believe that a successful work of art should conceal a crime.

It might be fair to say that the plot of The Back of His Head doesn’t deliver a set ‘truth’ about what happens, but at the same time, the sense I got on finishing the novel was that a truth about the creation of fiction and an ethical statement had been made. What do you think?

This is a sharp insight into the novel and mirrors my own feeling as I wrote - it’s exactly the response I hoped for, a sensing of something that’s there but can’t be defined, leaving the reading experience itself as the most important part of the text.

Writing Gifted was easy but with The Back of His Head I really did wrestle with the angel; in writing both, though, I experienced a sense of increasing detachment as if I’d surrendered to the writing process in some way. In a review of David Hare’s recent autobiography The Blue Touch Paper the playwright is quoted as saying that, because his writing comes so independently from his subconscious, it is, “at the deepest level, out of my hands” (New Statesman, September 2015). 

This process is very familiar to me, in which the writing seems to begin to write itself and the writer becomes, quite genuinely, a reader of his own work as it is written, as puzzled and intrigued as anyone else by what is emerging in front of him. Starting from the basic situation of a famous artist-uncle and his nephew (a scenario that has been with me for forty years), I am as surprised as anyone by what has emerged. It leaves me not with a Message but with a trace, like a dream after waking (The Luminaries did this to me, too): in the case of The Back of His Head, something I can’t spell out but which has to do with the importance of life outside literature. I don’t know where the little boy in the wheelchair near the end came from, but it must be somewhere important; and look what happens to Peter, Marjorie and Robert when they fall under the spell of Literature. There is a right way to live your life, and the Master isn’t an example of that.

Your two novels are about literary writers who are, to borrow the title of your first novel, gifted. What has made you want to continue exploring the idea of genius?

Henry James (somewhere) said that no work of art was worthwhile if it didn’t say something about the form in which it was written, and since (like the Master) I have reservations about how much any novel can make the world change ‘out there,’ I agree that writing, to a very large extent, has to be inward-looking and aware of itself as a form – ‘in here’. The most interesting recent writer in New Zealand, for me, is Carl Shuker, each of whose novels and novellas challenges the reader to put all his/her assumptions to one side and learn to read it as something new in the world of writing.

As far as I’m concerned, when looking ‘in here,’ where better to start than at that curiosity of curiosities, the inspirational moment itself, the unanswerable question of ‘where it all comes from’? The Back of His Head was written as the third in a trilogy of novels begun by Gifted; no guarantee, of course, that I’ll be able to write the second, but if I do, the trilogy thus completed will be in honour of Janet Frame’s influence on my thinking as a writer and on my life, and in particular in her fascination with ‘where it comes from’ and the place of language in writerly ‘inspiration’. The Back of His Head is particularly influenced by Living in the Maniototo (1979), the novel some consider to be Frame’s master-work. She never leaves me.

Why do you think literary estates, like the one represented in your novel, are often such fraught organisations?

What comes immediately to mind here is Henry Kissinger’s suggestion that academic politics are as vicious as they are because the stakes are so low. There’s an aspect of the literary world that is the obverse of those soaring humanitarian ideals behind the Nobel Prize for Literature, and in The Back of His Head I’ve been fascinated to explore this kind of heroic pettiness – which isn’t particular simply to literary trusts but extends into reviewing and the awarding of prizes and writing residencies and even behaviour in public readings. By and large, the smaller and more isolated the literary culture, the more (I’m told) this nonsense goes on: issues of personal insecurity seem to be paramount as we all vie to be Top Bitch At Crufts.

I’ve always been interested in the a writer’s ‘corpus and corpse’ – what s/he writes, and then what happens to the Body of Writing and the Body of the Author afterwards – hence my fascination (after helping a friend with Parkinson’s for a few years) with the corruption and dissolution of both the writer’s body and his sense of Self – in this novel, of the Master’s Mastery: who is it who blows up the creative writing school? (And, anyway, is that really what happens?) And who inherits the Master’s Mastery after he’s gone? 

The posthumous ‘secularisation’ of a particular writer’s achievement after his/her death and the use of his/her status and power have always fascinated me, along with the question how a literary guardianship might qualify an author’s heritage and even be argued, in some cases, to have worked against the values espoused in the author’s work and the posthumous reputation of the writer. 

The Back of His Head is available in good bookshops and through our online bookstore now.
p/b, $30.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Poetry and Song

We are very excited to announce that the latest collaboration between Norman Meehan and Hannah Griffin is now available to order from our website: SmallHoles in the Silence (VUP Rattle) is a gorgeous album of settings of poems by Hone Tuwhare, Bill Manhire, Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, David Mitchell, James K. Baxter and Eileen Duggan.

Hannah, Norman and Bill are taking their music on the road with five concerts in the Chamber Music New Zealand Buddhist Rain tour in October:

October 9: Wanaka
7.30pm, Lake Wanaka Centre, Ardmore St    

October 10: Cromwell
7.30pm, Cromwell Memorial Hall. Melmore Terrace

October 11: Gore
3.00pm, James Cumming Lecture Theatre, Ardwick Street

October 18: Warkworth
4.00pm, Old Masonic Lodge, 3 Baxter Street

October 20: Whangarei
7.00pm, Old Library Building, 7 Rust Ave

And concerts in Auckland in October and Wellington in November:

October 19: Auckland
Auckland Jazz Festival
7:30pm, 1885 Britomart, 27 Galway Street

November 13: Wellington
LitCrawl Small Holes in the Silence concert

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Moments of Truth Launched


Moments of Truth: The New Zealand General Election of 2014, edited by Jon Johansson and Stephen Levine, was launched in a packed upstairs bar at the Backbencher on Tuesday 22 September 2015. Victoria University’s Deputy Vice-chancellor Engagement, Professor Frazer Allan, opened proceedings; Kim Hill gave a witty launch speech that included some apt editorial advice; and Jon had the right of reply on behalf of the editors:

Ladies and gentlemen –
On behalf of Stephen and myself, I would like to welcome you all here tonight, and thanks to Victoria University Press and The School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations for hosting tonight’s launch.
 We would like to express our gratitude to Fergus and his team at Victoria University Press for their continuing support of the election series, a collaboration that we enjoy and one that has now produced five election books, beginning with the publication of Left Turn in 1999. You make it easy Fergus, so thank you.  
A special thanks to Kyleigh Hodgson, our copy editor. She makes us want to be better men … at least with our grammar. Thanks, also, to Chris Slane, who has produced another brilliant cover, and a special mention to Timothy Vaughan-Sanders, who compiled the index. Anyone who has done one knows what a unique task it is – so, salute Tim.   
Accompanying the book once more is a comprehensive DVD, complied by Corin Higgs. It offers a permanent visual record of our last election: leaders’ debates, party addresses, campaign adverts, the ‘Moment of Madness’ and so on. We are very fortunate to have Corin compile the material for us, not least because his heart, if not always his mind, is in Chicago, with his beloved Cubs.  
Also included on the disc are the fruits of our esteemed colleague Emeritus Professor Nigel Roberts’s lifelong fetish for billboards: upright ones, struck down ones, wretched ones or wrecked ones. They’re all part of Nigel’s family and we thank him for sharing his album with us.
When Stephen and I sat down to plan the post-election conference, and the book that would flow from it, we were most conscious of our responsibility, as first explainers, to compile for future researchers a comprehensive ‘book of record’ of the 2014 election.   
Prime Minister John Key reinforces our view in his chapter when he says that ‘it is important to reflect in a more considered way on important events like elections’ and that ‘academic scrutiny’ is an ‘important function’ of our democracy as well as something that ‘strengthens it’.
To this end we believed it essential to offer the major participants – our party leaders – the opportunity to talk, reflect and write about their election triumphs and their frustrations. You’ll see in chapters 5 through 13 how well they took it. Stephen and I think it doubtful that campaign books elsewhere could boast such open, forthright opinions from party leaders as Moments of Truth offers its readers.
We also believe that the perspectives of the media – heavily involved in the election event as observers – as well as the analyses of political practitioners, and we students of politics, have their place in scrutinising our democracy, and in explaining our present condition. In this essential sense, Stephen and I see Moments of Truth as our contributors’ book and we are content to have played a small role in facilitating their wonderful collection of insights about where our country’s politics is at.  
We thank you all. And we will come calling again …
Lastly, when commemorating our politics department’s jubilee in 1989, Dame Margaret Clark – to whom we have dedicated this book – discussed the role of political scientists: first and foremost as educators, but also as engaged citizens, participating actively in the society in which they live and work and breathe. Margaret concluded: ‘In short, political scientists have endlessly scrutinised and commented on what government is doing. It does not make for popularity. On one thing at least our politicians are bipartisanly united: they deride and scorn political scientists. Perhaps we have done something right. Perhaps we have tried to guard the guardians.’     
MMP has extended Margaret’s thought; it still rings true, and Moments of Truth, which analyses so well a maladaptive and bizarre moment in political time, represents a lasting testament to not just the 2014 election but also to the simple idea that in politics, as in life, every single one of us can do better.
Dr Jon Johansson (on behalf of Professor Stephen Levine)

Thursday, 17 September 2015

W. H. Oliver, 1925–2015


Like, I suspect they think,
that poet in To the Lighthouse
who had years before written
a dozen or so good lines
and sat out each day asleep
in his especial chair
in a corner of the garden
sheltered as well as may be
from the condoning silence
everyone knew would not end:
like that indeed a little
having managed myself a few
good pages once in a while
I have sat with a rug on the porch,
and a full glass catching the light
of a declining sun and wondered
if it was to be expected
that in my turn I should slip
into the dark as it fell
and into the silence succeeding
the abruptly broken off
song of a homewards bird
and imagined at first idly
that one would come to the dark
with a small light in her hand,
and wondered if I would try
if no more than that to break
the unyielding silence with
what might be accepted as
a note of thanks to end with.

W. H. Oliver

W. H. (Bill) Oliver, historian, editor and poet, died on Wednesday and is remembered in a service at Old St Paul’s at 11.30am Friday. Our thoughts are with his family and friends. ‘Sundowner’ is a ‘late’ poem, from Poems 1946–2005.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Greg O'Brien's launch speech for Ocean and Stone by Dinah Hawken


The title of Dinah Hawken’s new book leads us simultaneously into a deep aquatic zone and a cultivated pebble garden. Once inside, a striking but almost nondescript motif recurs – call it a form of punctuation or a basic decorative device – the black dot which appears, centre-page, five times as you make your way through Ocean and Stone.
An emblem for the book, this recurrent dot is anything but a full-stop. In fact, it is the exact opposite. It suggests we are at the beginning or in the middle of something. It could be a molecule or a dark planet adrift on the Milky Way of the page; maybe it is a mid-Pacific island and the page is the sea. A presence in the midst of absence. We’ve been here before in Dinah’s poetry. Ocean and stone. The stone in the ocean. The dot is also a speck on the horizon, a vanishing or unvanishing point. Things reduce down to this one black spot, reminding us how poetry is, in essence, a concentration of thought and matter. 
Dinah’s poetry traces a movement towards the centre, the heart, the soul. ‘Keep your eye and mind on the lake,’ she writes, demanding a very particular kind of attentiveness of her readers. So the black dot is the centre of an eyeball, looking very closely. It is both open lens and focal point.
There are certain qualities, virtues, in Dinah’s poetry which have been highlighted many times before. Her writing is reflective, responsive, elemental, searching, moral, illuminating, incantatory, sensuous, spiritual, numinous, environmental, environmentalist, edifying, supple, delicate, attentive, radiant… For Dinah, poetry has always been a process of getting things in proportion, in perspective. The poem, like life itself, is a balancing act. I’m reminded again of Claude Levi Strauss’s assertion that art is located halfway between scientific knowledge and mythical or magical thought.
Beyond the unitary form of the dot, the point in time and space, life and poetry tend to be made up of interactions, relationships, juxtapositions and conjunctions. And therein lies one of the most gracious gestures of Dinah’s poetry: her bringing together of ocean and stone, yin and yang, movement and stillness, fluidity and form, agitation and calming. The poetry is at once an awakening and, that rare thing in the modern world, a lullaby. 
In the central part of the new book, ‘page . stone . leaf’, two black dots punctuate the three nouns of the section title.The dots link the nouns together, each a fulcrum,  bringing the disparate objects – page, stone, leaf – into a state of mutual, respectful dependence, an equilibrium.
Dinah’s poems are the subtlest of breathing exercises, their sounds and meanings are drawn in, then exhaled. They could well be a form of poetic Tai chi. However, her poetry is no cloister. Alongside revisited mythologies and oceanic reveries, her new poems are inhabited by a vocal and uncompromising brood of children. We are reminded that grandchildren are as much a part of Nature as is the silhouette of Kapiti Island. Life is not only a leaf-ride, it’s also the train or car trip in from Paekakariki, the trajectory of a plastic bike across a kitchen floor, or quality time spent with a playdough snake. In Ocean and Stone, the happenstance and ordinariness of daily life become a crystalline structure.
As Derek Walcott once observed of the watercolours of Winslow Homer, Dinah has created an ‘elegaic Eden, not a paradise of escape but one of healing’.  She visits a friend hospitalised with dementia and, along the way, enlarges the catchment of her poetic meditation on being, well being and the end of being.
Dinah Hawken’s manner of writing and thinking has become an essential and influential ingredient in recent New Zealand poetry. The work of many younger poets acknowledges Dinah’s legacy of things planted and nurtured, the clearing she has made in the superficial undergrowth of this materialistic era. And I’d like to think her writing has contributed to a broader pattern of thinking and feeling in this country. 
Returning to the dot upon which so much depends – this mark on a map which denotes where we are as well as where Dinah is. The centre point of the mandala. Maybe this dot is also the singular entity, the individual self, surrounded by a world yet to find form or meaning. Thinking further into Dinah’s revisionist grammar, we might conclude that, in her poetry, the First Person Singular is no longer an ‘I’ – it has become a dot, a point in space, a particle or seed, the beginning of life itself.
It is only a week since James K. Baxter’s Collected Prose was launched on a hilltop near here – a five kilogram Holy Tablet hoisted down from the Holy Mountain. I’ll conclude by acknowledging a purposefulness I find in the writing of both Dinah Hawken and James K. Baxter. These two new books demand more than a simple reading. They ask that we consider our actions, and the direction in which we are heading, collectively and as individuals. In their different ways, they are principled, instructive and challenging publications. Beyond that, of course, comparing the books of Dinah Hawken and James K. Baxter is like comparing a kite with an internal combustion engine.
Congratulations to Dinah and to all concerned for this fine, exquisite production, in which the subtle calibrations of John Edgar’s drawings are integral and edifying. 
With no added preservatives, artificial ingredients or genetically modified materials, Ocean and Stone is as real as it is vivid. No animals were harmed during the making of this exemplary production. Dinah Hawken’s poems are not a dairy herd and Victoria University Press, thank goodness, is not Fonterra. This is a supple, organic, holistic, balanced and sustainable production, a creation of self-renewing wonder.

Gregory O’Brien

Monday, 14 September 2015

5 questions for Ian Wedde

Trifecta by Ian Wedde is a funny, fast-paced story about the three children of a famous architect, the over-bearing Martin Klepka. It's a story told three ways, by grown-up siblings who are battling their own problems as well as their on-going sibling rivalry. Trifecta is Ian Wedde's eighth novel. Its publication this month comes only a year after his memoir, The Grass Catcher, was released.

Ian Wedde with Pete (photo: Joanne Forsburg)

Your new novel tackles the sticky territory of difficult family dynamics, in which a home is a place people are either refusing to budge from or desperate to escape. It’s interesting that this follows on from your memoir, which had the subtitle ‘a digression about home’. Can you tell us about the genesis of the Trifecta story? Did the memoir push you in the direction where home and family was something you needed to keep writing about?

There’s no intentional or conscious connection between The Grass Catcher and this novel, though a lot of what I’ve written over the years has had a ‘home’ theme in one form or another.  Certainly writing the ‘digression about home’ didn’t push me in the direction of Trifecta. Some time ago I began to think about writing a series of linked stories in which distinct voices and points of view would intersect in one way or another. 'The German architect’s house' idea had been hanging around for a few years – it became the hub of a possible identity conflict. Then came the infusion of a narrative about the arrival of modernism in New Zealand post World War 2.  This interested me as a way of exploring the influence of an overpoweringly strong-willed authority figure, an architect, associated with that cultural shift and the demands on identity it involved. The red house is the architect’s embodiment. How do his children manage this container, this house/father? Do they want to live in it/him, or get out? Also, I’ve been interested for a long time in the historical disconnects between the modernist house, which in many of its early European forms was more about spatial and functional concepts than ‘home’; and the New Zealand use of the word ‘home’ to mean house.

What’s the difference for you in exploring ideas in fiction opposed to exploring them in memoir?

In fiction I can make characters up, or develop them from minimal components observed in the world. I can make a story the articulating machinery of an idea. The story doesn’t have to derive from a ‘real life’ experience – it doesn’t have to follow the contours of a lived life. It’s unlikely to be ‘personal’. The memories contained in the narrative can be entirely invented to serve the key ideas I want to explore.

Can you talk about the decision to tell the story from the three siblings (the trifecta) points of view? Democracy?

Three is the ideal relationship conflict number (‘sad’, ‘bad’ and ‘mad’). It allows for the development of strongly distinguished characters who, however, can remain in sight of each other in terms of relationship – their triangulation can be both intimate and alienating. ‘Three’s a crowd.’ It’s also a reasonable number of children for their mother to have had! Most importantly, for the reader it’s a manageable number of points-of-view and voices to keep separately in mind, and to relate to each other. So when Mick is convinced his brother Sandy is responsible for a newspaper article, we can take that thought across into Sandy’s world and discover that Sandy knows nothing about the article – the narrative disjunction comes naturally in the writing, it doesn’t have to be spelled out expositionally. Also, the reader gets to know what the characters think of each other, and then encounters each of them separately and is able to measure that encounter against the other siblings’ opinions. And they can be seen to change without that becoming too complicated.

Did Veronica demand more from you than Mick or Sandy? How do you approach character when writing fiction?

No, Veronica didn’t demand more from me as a writer – I enjoyed writing her story very much, and liked her a lot. As for how I approach character – I don’t really know if there’s a simple answer. The three characters in Trifecta are complete inventions, and yet I can visualise them, I can hear their voices, I can even be in their consciousnesses – for example, I was close to tears when writing Veronica watching her daughter leave the Lebanese restaurant. On the other hand, the characters have jobs to do – I wanted them to represent conflicting states of mind or world-views. I needed Mick to represent a biologically determined, endorphin-driven, mesalimbic pathway, dopaminergic world view, but for his brother Sandy to have a view of the world as primarily culturally determined; and for their sister Vero to believe in ‘taking care’, with all the impossible contradictions involved in that; for her to inhabit a richly synaesthesic world; and (in contrast to her brothers) to be good at making relationship-based decisions. All three character-traits collectively form a complex, paradoxical armature for ‘the red house’; they represent the conflicts of values that the house embodies. In a way, each of the siblings has emerged (or not) from the house (from their father) with an aspect of the house predominant in their personality. 

Ian, you seem to be capable of delivering a book every third year or so (two in the last two years). What is the secret behind your output? Do stories bank up in your head and demand to be let out?

I’ve been extremely lucky in having had supported time to write books. The writing time itself is often quite short compared to the amount of time I seem to need to get into the writing as such. I spend a lot of time developing ideas and possible narrative pathways – walking around with a notebook, collecting bits and pieces of information; not so much research as mental play. I usually have an amount of bread-and-butter writing to do, connected to curatorial work or magazine and journal commissions, so I tend to be writing most of the time, and switch to the main job with a certain amount of momentum already established. I was lucky enough to have time in Berlin on the CNZ writers’ residency when I wrote Trifecta, and I was at the stage where I had the momentum as well as a head-full of ready-to-go stuff. I could get stuck in any time day or night, or get on my bike and go somewhere with my notebook, or go to the archives. That said, I often have spells between big projects – these fill up with those other kinds of writing. And some books have taken a long time: I started messing around with Symmes Hole about 1973 but it wasn’t published until 1986; in 1989 I had most of a draft of Chinese Opera but shelved it and in 2005 threw most of it away and finished a version that was published in 2008. In general, though, something new has usually put its hand up before I’ve finished the book I’m writing. I think it’s got to do with being in that overexcited final stage of writing: asking for trouble.

Trifecta is available at good bookshops and through our online bookstore now.
p/b, $30.

Monday, 7 September 2015

Six questions for Dinah Hawken

Dinah Hawken's seventh collection of poetry, Ocean and Stone, is released this month. We talked to Dinah about her new book, which will be launched at Unity Books in Wellington this coming Thursday 10 September.

Dinah Hawken

Your poetry is, and always has been, concerned with the natural environment. Stories and ideas seem to rise up out of an image from nature – the ocean in particular is a starting point. Is this something you’ve chosen to do consciously or are poetry and nature interwoven for you?

No, I don’t set out deliberately to write about the natural environment. Well not unless I’m asked to. (I’m thinking, for example, of ‘The uprising’, a poem in Ocean and Stone that was a commission from the Griffith Review, for the edition of New Zealand writing called 'Pacific Highways'. Or the response to McCahon’s beach walk painting, also in the new book.) But generally I begin a poem with a phrase or snippet of language that comes to mind spontaneously, or is a response to something that is happening around me. Around me is the natural world and I love it in a strong and natural kind of way. I’m amused when I look back to the launch of my third book, where Greg O’Brien described me as a ‘nature poet’. I was amazed – I hadn’t thought of it, but realised it was true. I should have known since the book was called Water, Leaves, Stones!

Some of the poems in Ocean and Stone talk about climate change and are, quietly, political. In particular ‘The Uprising’ speaks about powerlessness in the face of rising tides and lack of political will for positive change. Is it difficult for you to balance politics in a poem? Do I read anger in there also?
It feels similar, but not the same, to be described as a political poet. I’m concerned about social and political issues and so it’s natural to try and write in response to them. But I sense something in the poetry air (at least in the Western world) that sees poetry and politics as incompatible. And true, it is dangerous territory – not in the way that it can be truly dangerous in a repressive regime – but in danger of being seen as too didactic, too emotional, too simplistic, too negative. And so writing a political poem is something of a balancing act for me. It works best when I’m in touch with both my thinking and my feelings about an issue so that what is a political poem is also a personal poem. And yes, I hope you do hear anger in ‘The uprising’: because why are we so slow to face up to climate change? There is so much at stake.

Myth turns up in your poetry – the female deity Inanna, a retelling of the great Flood – what is the attraction of myth for you as a poet?

I'm attracted to myth because of its universality and timelessness.  There's always something to be learned from other times and cultures. But I'm particularly intrigued by the Sumerian myths because they were some of the first stories ever to be written. As well – having been in an undecipherable script and scattered round the world on clay fragments for centuries – they have only fairly recently been pieced together and told again. They have been lying low. I am trying to spread the word.

The poems in Ocean and Stone throw up a lot of philosophical questions – the biggest being, “How do we live within the knowledge of our limits”. Can you say why you ask that question? Also, is this, for you, the consolation of poetry – you can’t change much, but you can write about change?

'How do we live within the knowledge of our limits?' Yes it is a big question. I think of the limits of a single life-time, the limits of a ‘few months left’, the limits of human talent or capacity, the limits of a deteriorating mind, the limits of the earth’s resources, the limits on economic growth, the limits on population growth, the limits on power and ambition, the limits, even, of a single page of paper. Limits, understandably, have a bad name but they are also the frame or sphere in which we thrive. It’s good to know what they are. It’s hard to accept them but acceptance, surprisingly, seems to make room for something new to happen. And it is, as you say, a consolation when you can’t make large changes to make small changes on a sheet of paper or a screen. Anyway, expression does change something – in the writer, if not the reader – and you know what they say: ‘if enough people…… .’ Change seems – most often – to follow a slow accumulation of expression from more and more people.

Joan Fleming said in an interview recently "that I believe poetry comes from psychic places that we can't fully understand." I wondered what you made of that comment?

I agree with Joan about the ‘psychic places’ that poetry can come from and I admire that in her writing – the depth and originality and mystery that can arise from faith in, and access to, the part of the psyche that Jung called the unconscious. Would some people call it the imagination? It’s spontaneous anyway, not something we have much control of. I used to use imagery and scenes from dreams, or daydreams, in my poetry but I do it less now because I don’t have the same degree of access – I don’t remember many dreams. I have to live within my limits!

You've been writing for many years now, Dinah. Do you think your approach to writing a poem has changed in those years? Are there aspects of writing you think you've gotten better at?

Another limitation, now that I’m older, is not having immediate access to a range of vocabulary. Fortunately there is something I can do about that, but in fact I seem to have an urge towards simplicity. In writing and in life. I love one syllable words with strong vowels. More and more I like single words for their own sake. I still like to try something new but at the same time I’m letting myself indulge in my pre-occupations with less hesitation. I still have to work hard at the craft and hope to increase my dexterity in the future, rather than lose it, but who knows?

Ocean and Stone, released 10 September.
p/b, $35, includes colour drawings by John Edgar