Thursday 22 June 2017

Interview with Maria McMillan

Maria McMillan (Grant Maiden Photography)

Your new book The Ski Flier begins with a sequence of poems titled ‘11’. What are these? What is it about the number 11 that people get obsessive about?

It’s a good number isn’t it? And I did get kind of obsessive. These are strict syllabic poems. There’s 11 poems of 11 lines each and each line has 11 syllables. When I told my mother I was working on these she said it made her think of the Armistice, you know the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. And that fitted well too. There’s a lot of violence of various sorts in this sequence, wars I suppose, waged in places other than battlefields.

I liked how relatively long lines gave a conversational tone to the lines, a natural speaking voice I think, but the syllabic restraint still provided a structure and some tension in what could have been become something entirely rambling. Eleven syllable lines forced me out of being too pared back or poetic. It gave me time to figure out things. I got trained into being really sparse in my poetry and so this was good for me. I keep thinking of when Sinead O'Connor grew back her hair, I've earned big hair she said, or something like that. After years of being bald. I reckon I've earned 11 syllables.

Often when I read your poems your concept of space – particularly uninhabitable space like mountains, crevasses, sea floors – reminds me of how Ursula le Guin uses space in A Wizard of Earthsea and The Left Hand of Darkness and Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. People do battle with evil and philosophical conundrums out in these spaces. What is it about uninhabitable spaces that attracts you as a writer?

I had to think about your question for about three days so I didn't just say yeah crevices cool eh? Abysall Plains, woah. What about them mountains? So cold. Deadly mate, deadly. Wicked.

I haven't read enough le Guin. I have an enduring love Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time (don't read the last in that series her morality takes a weird dive into a whacky form of Christianity, AWIT is the best). I love the skipping scene in AWIT. When all the kids are creepily skipping in perfect time in some city controlled by a gigantic pulsating brain. It's so much easier just to be taken over by the brain. Resistance is painful. I love you associated with this book, please continue to do so. 

A teacher I once had said he liked poetry which asks an unanswerable question and then answers it. It feels a bit like that, poems inhabiting an uninhabitable spaces. Going to the extreme of an idea or a situation or a place, to the furthermost point, to the place you can't go past and then going further. It's romantic but interesting, the idea of extremity forcing us into a more pure form of ourselves. Adrienne Rich's Phantasia for Elvira Shayatav, (the leader of an all women's climbing party) is amazing on this
In the diary I wrote: Now we are ready
and each of us knows it I have never loved
like this I have never seen
my own forces so taken up and shared
and given back
After the long training the early sieges
we are moving almost effortlessly in our love
It is kind of fantasy too. All the women in that trip Rich is writing about died. Jennifer Peedom's film Sherpa, is a good one for interrogating some of the heartfelt spiritual urges people have to go really really high, some of the Everest climbers were gobsmackingly arrogant. There's places in this world that should be left alone.

It seems to me (tonight anyway) that what I was grappling with in The Ski Flier was that concept of how do you inhabit somewhere uninhabitable. Both physically hostile and politically hostile spaces. How is it to be on a mountainside where you can't breathe both because it's so beautiful and because you don't have enough oxygen, and you might be about to die. What are you doing going to mountains whose inherent instability is exacerbated by climate change. Everything's falling down.  How is it to come into adulthood as a young woman and have your own sexuality explode at the same moment as having your illusions of a basically just society explode? How can we live knowing and witnessing the terrible cruelties in the world? Why aren't we consumed by hopelessness? Why don't we curl up on a nice snowy rock and let the cold take us? (I am not advocating this, please don't do this) How do, despite it all, hope and kindness undo us? 

Maria McMillan reads at her launch at St Peter's Hall, Paekakariki

You had a reasonably long apprenticeship as a poet before you published a book and now you’ve produced two full length poetry books and a chapbook in the space of 3 years. Does poetry come readily to you? Or did you just have a lot of work backed-up?

Hmm. I wrote the poems that would become The Rope Walk (2013) and Tree Space, (2014) concurrently for about 10 years, figuring out what and how I wanted to write (and this changing all the time of course). By the end I knew they were two different books. But as you know, the lead up to publication is long and  probably I'd written 95% of the poems by 2012. So The Ski Flier is really a sort of themed best of 2012-2016 which makes me seem a bit less prolific. Like lots of writers I know I have long periods of torpor and over-engagement with social media and self doubt punctuated by rare and ridiculous bursts of elated productivity.

Can you tell us the last 3 books of poetry you read that have stuck with you? 

The Collected Poems of Alistair Te Ariki CampbellSpirit House by Tusiata Avia and The Internet of Things by Kate Camp. 

The Ski Flier by Maria McMillan ($25, pb) is available for purchase now at excellent bookshops and through our online bookstore.

Thursday 15 June 2017

Interview with Pip Adam – The New Animals

Pip Adam (photo by Victoria Birkinshaw)
The New Animals is partly about the fashion industry. Is something you’ve wanted to write about for a while now?

Yeah, I think so. I worked as a hairdresser for about 15 years and loved it. I first became aware of ‘fashion’ as a living thing in 1992. I’d been hairdressing about seven years and someone brought in a copy of the Vogue which included Marc Jacobs’ grunge collection.

It was astonishing and exciting for lots of reasons. I remember a group of us slavering over it out the back of the salon – like vultures on a corpse. It felt like a life changer. Several of us were running two wardrobes at the time, one for work in the salon (which was pretty commercial) and one for the weekends which was all flanel shirts and Doc Martins. There was a real sense in those photos in Vogue that fashion could be cataclysmic. Our lives kind of changed over night – the next day I remember wearing a massive fisherman ribbed jumper and see-through skirt over big black boots to work. I got this sense then that fashion often starts outside the fashion industry – that it answers some kind of societal question as well as a commercial one. It was really exciting. I’m also interested in how fashion is kind of like art but is so effemeral and also functional. I love design for that reason.

Also, I guess, I’m really worried about the environmental impact of the fashion industry and that dark side of it really intrigues me too. The way the industry is run by this idea of ‘the new’. Like clothes become obsolete not because they stop working but because they’re out of date. I don’t know how this fits with my excitement around fashion. Maybe that is part of what draws me to it as a subject, the fact that I can’t comfortably reconcile my love of the clothes and fashion and the destruction I know it’s causing. So yeah, this is something I've wanted to write about for a long time, maybe to try and find some sense in my own contradiction and hypocrisy. 

Pip Adam reads from The New Animals (vid by lo&behold)

The story in The New Animals takes place over the period of 24 hours on a day in September 2016 in Auckland – how did this time constraint play into the story and construction of the novel?

Um. Yeah. So, I think it was always going to be a day, and the only thing I think can be tricky with writing a story that takes place in one day is that it runs the risk of slipping into an episodic ryhthm. I guess the real constraint I placed on myself was that it took place on one particular day. I went to Auckland on this day and ‘walked the novel’. So I had a timeline of the book and I followed that. One of the biggest problems in this was that a restaurant I really wanted two of the characters to eat at, was shut on the day of the novel. I had a real conflict about whether to include the scene anyway (I had written a scene I really liked that took place in the restaurant). I decided I wouldn’t. I had set this task and I wanted to see what happened if I stuck inside the constraints of it. What happened, as is often the case with constraint, is that I was forced to solve a problem (possibly the most creative of acts) and something interesting happened.

The novel is concerned with many things – the consumerist and throwaway nature of fashion, the perversity of what is ‘fashionable’ and how we decide that, and – this is what I think of as a recurring theme throughout your writing – the need for humans to be involved in meaningful work. Can you talk about this, whether you see it as one of your themes?

I am really interested in work. I think it stems from working from a young age. I left school when I was about fifteen and work has kind of been my life since. Even when I finally got to university at 21 I still worked. My undergraduate degree took another ten years, and I always worked. My first jobs were at factories and bakeries and hairdressing, so I saw the direct result of my work – things got packed, bread got baked, hair got cut. After university I started getting jobs where the results weren’t quite so directly observable. Which was a weird experience. I often felt, in some of these jobs, that work was just this weird game where I was doing tasks that didn’t produce anything and that the purpose of the game was to keep me entertained until I died. So yeah, I am really interested in this idea of work.

This idea of ‘meaningful’ work, or finding meaning through work, is another interesting thing to me. I feel really strongly about the way capitalism values some work over others. Like the way we think people shouldn’t be paid to look after their children or their parents or their relatives. I find ‘work’ a really problematic thing. One thing I really struggle with is that, actually, to have ‘meaningful’ work, what does that mean? So many people are working in such awful conditions for so little money, there are millions of indentured workers and slaves around the world, and then there are some of us with this weird opportunity to think, ‘Do I enjoy my job?’ I have so many conflicted thoughts about it and I think a lot of my writing, like from the start, has been about trying to figure out these things about the world. So yeah, it’s a theme in me so it’s almost certainly a theme in this book.

The New Animals has one of the strangest endings I’ve encountered in a long time, and yet, it feels so right. Without giving anything away, can you explain a little about this mixture of reality and can we call it ‘fantasy’ aspect of your writing?  It feels like something new for you, but also entirely in keeping with the sort of formal experimentation you’ve played with in your short stories and your first novel.

I think the last section of the book has a lot to do with two books. Janet Frame’s Intensive Care which Maria McMillan recommended to me and The Martian by Andy Weir. Frame’s book is in two halves, the first is a social-realist story and the second is science fiction. I was really interested in how the two halves talked to each other. About how what couldn’t be said in the realist part could be said in the book’s science fiction section. The Martian is a wonderful read about, as probably everyone knows from the movie, a human left for dead on Mars. The thing I love about The Martian is that it’s very ‘hard’ science fiction. Survival is on reality’s terms. No one gets ‘beamed up’.

I’ve read and been in awe of science fiction from a moment in Dunedin in about 1999 when I met my friend Jenn Martin in a Victorian English paper and in our first conversation she told me about Ursula LeGuinn’s The Dispossessed. If I had my way, I’d be writing science fiction – huge, fat, trilogies about intergalactic travel.

So to me, that last part of the novel is a science fiction exercise, not a fantastic one. I read heaps about human bodies and how they work and don’t work in certain environments. The science probably doesn’t stand up as strongly as I’d like it to but I hope there is something in there.

In my mind the ending is trying to do what Frame did. I got to a point where social realism failed me. I was unable to say what I needed to say in the contemporary terrestrial setting so I had to take it somewhere else. The place I took it, like Mars, needed to be the rule-maker, needed to change bodies and minds in ways that were useful for the story I was trying to tell.

 Pip Adam's third book, The New Animals, is released today. You can buy it at the best bookshops, or through our online bookstore here.

There will be a launch for The New Animals and for Tim Corballis's time travel novel, Our Future is in the Air, on Tuesday 18 July at Unity Books, Wellington, 6pm on. To receive invites to our launches and information about our books, sign up to our enewsletter on our homepage here.

Tuesday 2 May 2017

What are they wearing?

We asked our finalists in the Ockham NZ Book Awards some very relevant questions.

Tusiata Avia (Hayley Theyers)

Fale Aitu by Tusiata Avia is a finalist in the poetry category.
What are you wearing to awards night?
A fresh, fruity, fobby frock.

If you win your category what is the first thing you’ll spend your award winnings on?

Maybe a wedding dress - just in case.

What lucky charm or ritual do you perform before things like awards?
Umm, human sacrifice?

Who are you bringing with you to the awards?

My BFF and hopefully my cousin.

Which writer at the AWF would you most like to meet and why?

Mpho Tutu Van Furth!!

Hera Lindsay Bird (Russell Kleyn)
Hera Lindsay Bird by Hera Lindsay Bird is a finalist in the poetry category.

What are you wearing to awards night?
A dress, some shoes and my Britney Spears handbag

If you win your category what is the first thing you’ll spend your award winnings on?
I am saving up to catch some trains overseas. Maybe one of those internet perfumes that smell like bread. 

What lucky charm or ritual do you perform before things like awards?

I brush my hair..............for luck

Who are you bringing with you to the awards?

My mother and my father and my father’s wife and my boyfriend and my friend and her boyfriend who also happens to be my boyfriend’s brother, it’s very complicated.

Which writer at the AWF would you most like to meet and why?
Shirley Jackson, but she’s dead so I’m excited to meet George Saunders who isn’t.

Andrew Johnston (Peter Black)
Fits and Starts by Andrew Johnston is a finalist in the poetry category.

What are you wearing to awards night?
A shirt by Liberty of London (and a few other things). 

If you win your category what is the first thing you’ll spend your award winnings on?
Time to write - a month this year, more later.

What lucky charm or ritual do you perform before things like awards?
I don’t have a charm or ritual, but if I have to speak in public I imagine that I am standing up to my neck in water.

Who are you bringing with you to the awards?
No one!

Which writer at the AWF would you most like to meet and why?
Lloyd Geering, because his book Tomorrow’s God is a favourite.

Adam Dudding (Lawrence Smith)
My Father's Island by Adam Dudding is a finalist in the non-fiction category.

What are you wearing to awards night?
Mostly my favourite designers Farmers and Hallensteins, though I may bust out some of my fancier socks from Barkers.

If you win your category what is the first thing you’ll spend your award winnings on?
Paying down the debt on irrational purchases made in a spirit of optimism since the shortlist came out.

What lucky charm or ritual do you perform before things like awards?
Spend inordinate amounts of time attempting to write profound and thoughtful responses to foolish
questionnaires about what I wear to awards nights, before abandoning the task and spending a few seconds coming up with something glib and misleading instead.

Who are you bringing with you to the awards?

My first wife.

Which writer at the AWF would you most like to meet and why?

Ashleigh Young, because although I’m grateful that she edited my book at VUP, if I can slip
 hemlock into her drink early in the evening, my odds of victory in the non-fiction category rise from a quarter to a third. Also, because though we bonded deeply via email, I’ve only met her a couple of times in the flesh. I also wouldn’t mind touching the hem of the robe of Susan Faludi, Armando Iannucci, Lauren Child, Teju Cole, James Gleick and a few others, just cos they’re great.

Ashleigh Young (Russell Kleyn)

Can You Tolerate This? by Ashleigh Young is a finalist in the non-fiction category.

What are you wearing to awards night?
Maybe just, like, a big pile of snakes. Non-venomous snakes.

If you win your category what is the first thing you’ll spend your award winnings on?
I will take the VUP team out for breakfast the morning after the ceremony!*

What lucky charm or ritual do you perform before things like awards?
I don’t have any proper rituals, but in an ideal world I would swaddle myself in a luxurious robe and then just sort of lie motionless under a tree for an hour. Like a huge baby in a nursery rhyme.

Who are you bringing with you to the awards?
My mum and dad.

Which writer at the AWF would you most like to meet and why?

I would love to meet Dr David Galler, whose work is so great. But also he seems like a very calming presence and I think he would help soothe my nerves. So I would like to meet him right before my AWF session with Roxane Gay and Teju Cole, which I’m very nervous about. I guess I could also ask him to inspect this funny-looking mole on my arm.

*Conditions apply: No talking! Each person is to spend no more than $5 on their breakfast!

Catherine Chidgey (Fiona Pardington)
The Wish Child by Catherine Chidgey is a finalist in the fiction category.

What are you wearing to awards night?
Probably my Tanya Carlson black lace.

If you win your category what is the first thing you’ll spend your award winnings on?
The bit of our mortgage that covers the living room and my office, where I do most of my writing.

What lucky charm or ritual do you perform before things like awards?
I try to wear something meaningful. This time, in honour of the Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize, I’ll accessorise with a 1920s silver mesh bag that has little silver acorns hanging from it.

Who are you bringing with you to the awards?
My husband Alan.

Which writer at the AWF would you most like to meet and why?
Susan Faludi, because she’s Susan Faludi.


Sign up to VUP's e-newsletter during May and you can win one of three prize packs of 6 books by the above Ockham NZ Book Awards finalists worth $175.

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Friday 7 April 2017

Fiona Kidman launch speech for Marilyn Duckworth's The Chiming Blue

Last night Fiona Kidman helped to launch Marilyn Duckworth's new poetry collection The Chiming Blue at Unity Books. She has kindly let us reproduce her speech below.

"The chiming began for me somewhere around the early 1960s. I lived in a provincial town, in the suburbs, and the game of the day was trying to keep the nappies on the line as white as those of the neighbours. That is unless you wanted to be a writer, and I did. I had a little clutch of literary heroines, especially those who were New Zealand women writers. Janet Frame, of course, Jean Watson, Joy Cowley. At the top of the list was Marilyn Duckworth. I wanted to be like her. I wanted to be her. The thought of meeting her one day was beyond my wildest dreams – a woman who was a wife and mother, producing a novel every year, and was little divided from me in age. Her first novel was A Gap in the Spectrum in 1959, the next The Matchbox House, and then in 1963, the same year as my first child was born, came Marilyn’s A Barbarous Tongue.  She’d done it all before I even began, or so it seemed. There would be another ten or so novels to follow and a collection of poems in 1975. Somewhere along the way, after moving to Wellington in the early 1970s, Marilyn and I did meet. But it wasn’t until that first collection of her poems, Other Lovers’ Children, and the same year that my own first collection appeared, that we started getting to know each other well.

There were readings galore and we started appearing together. A lot of them were at the Settlement, Harry Seresin’s establishment – there is no other word for it – and there were some riotous nights there. It was International Women’s Year and nine books of New Zealand women’s poetry appeared that year, more possibly than there had been in the previous 10 years. So there were often half a dozen women reading, drinking Harry’s red wine, talking, laughing,  and crying too when it all got too much for us, far into the nights. Sobbing too – we were an emotional lot. There would be Lauris Edmond, Rachel McAlpine,  Jan Kemp, Riemke Ensing – a whole collection of the brave new uprising that we were. Now those were the days, my friends, they really were. The great cohesive glue for these gatherings was Irene Adcock, Marilyn’s mother, who hosted gatherings of poets, men and women, at her house on Mount Victoria. The Campbells, Meg and Alistair, would be there, as too Sam Hunt, Denis Glover. Irene, to whom The Blue Chiming is dedicated, as too, Marilyn’s father Cyril, was the founder of what is now the New Zealand Poetry Society. Marilyn’s sister Fleur – that’s Fleur Adcock, if you don’t know the literary genealogy of this town, sometimes appeared from England to read with us. Terrifying!

Well, that first collection was terrific. We waited for the next one, but the habit of novels had descended on Marilyn again. We waited. But here we are again, more than 40 years later, and at last we are rewarded with The Chiming Blue, this new and lovely collection of Marilyn’s, this long awaited book, published impeccably, as always, by Fergus and Victoria University Press, with an evocative cover from one of mother Irene’s paintings.

It’s a rich collection, gathered up from the years, peopled with the characters and loves of a lifetime, and reflecting our own beautiful city of Wellington – Karori cemetery, coffee bars that people of a certain age at a particular time in their lives – like in the 1960s and 70s used to inhabit, sharply observed, as in ‘Decision in a Coffee Bar’ that begins: ‘Now that we have bitten back the flesh/we see each other in more livid light/sharp limbs quiver at curious angles/like chicken bones discarded on a plate.’ Indeed.

There are break ups and reunions, loss, grief and laughter, there are writers’ festivals  and conferences, and figs for Denis – Glover of course... Above all, perhaps, there are the voices of children, Marilyn’s four daughters who are here this evening, one of those rare lovely times that we as parents know as we get older, when all the children are together, and already the wings of some of them are hovering like moths at evening, ready for flight again to the other side of the world. So this is a special night for Marilyn’s friends and family to remember and celebrate, the launching of a new book The Chiming Blue.

Marilyn, you have had many honours, not forgetting the Prime Ministers Award for Fiction last year. But I want to thank you for sharing friendship over the years, for constancy and acceptance. I’ve made one or two dreadful boo boos on occasion, said quite the wrong thing about this or that but you have this unfailing grace that smoothes it over and says, it’s all right Fiona, it really is all right. I love that this is you, your way of dealing with the world. All those years ago, I couldn’t have guessed that I’d get up this real and personal, but it happened. Thank you. Thank you for The Chiming Blue, may the poems sail into the world, sails unfurled."

The Chiming Blue by Marilyn Duckworth can be purchased at the best bookshops and through our online bookshop. $25, p/b. 

Monday 20 March 2017

Bill Manhire interview

Bill Manhire (photo by Grant Maiden)

I imagine you’ve heard this a lot over your career – but I’m going to say it anyway. In many of your poems in Coffin I have no idea what’s going on, but I don’t mind – there’s something soothing about the sounds and word combinations, something hinted at that I can’t quite grasp with my own words… It’s not reader’s befuddlement, more a sense that what you’re creating on the page is the part of the world we can’t quite understand. Is this your intention?

Emily Dickinson says that she knows she’s dealing with poetry when she reads something and it makes her feel so cold no fire can ever warm her. I think there’s something you want a poem to do to you as reader, something almost physical, which is quite different from what we’re trained to look for in poetry at various points in the education system. That’s the sort of thing I’m after, I think. I’m not trying to be ‘difficult’ or obscure, I just want a poem, first of all, to exist in the world in its own unparaphrasable actuality, and then to have some resonance beyond itself. The Paul Valery definition/aphorism sums it up for me: a poem is a prolonged hesitation between sound and sense. I like poems that do that sort of hesitation, hovering between meaning and music.

Then there’s the section ‘Known unto God’ which I know from reading this piece in the NZ Listener is a poem made up of the voices of unknown dead soldiers… This knowledge, that you’re hearing the (imagined) voices of the dead makes my reading more poignant. So, my question is – how much do you think a reader should know before they read a poem? Is this contextual?

It’s interesting how after a poetry reading someone will say, ‘I wish I knew what you said about that poem when you were introducing it. Why can’t you give us that sort of information in your book?’ But explicatory notes in a book would be bad for all sorts of reasons, I think. That particular poem was written for a specific context, a commemoration of the Battle of the Somme, and I think there’s a note to that effect on the back of the book. Whether that helps a reader ‘get’ every moment in the poem (especially the ending in the contemporary Mediterranean) is hard to know. Probably not.

I’m pleased with one thing we’ve been able to do with ‘Known unto God’ in the larger book – it’s sort of sectioned off with its own double-black endpapers which I hope gives some sense that it’s an in memoriam piece, almost like one of those orders of service handed out at a funeral.

Sometimes reading your work is like reading a Calvino short story. I’m thinking of ‘What Will Last’ in which I imagine the speaker is an old woman with Alzheimers listing ‘what will last’ in the future. I mention Calvino, because throughout your work there’s a thread of surrealism, a surprising strange element which is always grounded by an earthy voice, a piece of humour. What do you think of this oddness in your work, do you have a name for it? I say surrealism, but that’s not quite right either…

Yes, I think that speaker is entering the world of dementia and memory-fail. She – or he! – is looking for what will last at a time when things in their own life are starting to dissolve. It’s a state that can be pretty unsettling, and the gaps and leaps do have a surreal flavour. I don’t have a name for it, but I’ve always thought poetry needs a bit of weirdness. I love Calvino, so am pleased that you make the comparison. And more generally I like the way comedy can be a means of voicing something that’s also desperately sad.

I think the strangeness in your work sometimes arises out of a mingling of physical body experience and sense of the world with how the mind processes what we see and feel, which can be very confusing! An obvious example would be ‘My World War I Poem’ – a simple, very affecting poem. ‘Inside each trench, the sound of prayer./ Inside each prayer, the sound of digging.’ So you’ve got the sound of the trenches, and the psychological dread of the trenches interwoven, impossible to pull apart. Is it this confusion of experience you’re getting at in your work?

I’ll need to think about that, but you might be on to something! I like readers to feel secure and insecure at the same time. I do think you write out of your confusions, not your occasional moments of clarity. Maybe I tend to leave more confusion in the text than other writers do.

You’ve used erasure in some of your poems. Erasure always slightly piques me as a reader – can you say a bit about why you use it?

I leave lots out, but I don’t think I use erasure all that much. Or not in the way it’s used by Mary Ruefle or Tom Phillips in A Humument, where in a way you’re dealing with work that may involve language but is really a minor branch of the visual arts. But I think maybe you mean the lines that I print but strike out at the same time? That’s just something I occasionally try, without quite knowing what I’m doing. I like the fact that you can see what’s been lost or removed, at the same time as it remains awkwardly present. I think that’s something I’ve done at the end of ‘The Beautiful World’.

Where our sister has opened the door.

Where our father stands beside our mother.

Where the trees have gathered to admire the water.

You can see what the speaker wishes were there for him – the family he has lost – even as you can see that it’s been deleted. His whole life has undergone revision: all he’s got now is some trees and a lake.

What is it with you and lakes, Bill? They occur so often in your poems.

A chunk of my childhood was spent in Mossburn, on the way through to Te Anau and Manapouri, so some of my earliest memories are involved with lakes. I like the fact that you can somehow see both the surface and the depth – or you think you can. And lakes have edges ­– they aren’t endless free verse. Is it Auden who says that the trouble with the sea is that it’s just too sloppy and formless? Another especially good thing about lakes is that a hand might rise up at any moment waving a big sword.

You’ve collaborated with different artists throughout your career. Ralph Hotere was an early collaborator, and an artist to whom the title poem is dedicated. You’ve also got a song lyric written for SJD and a new book of riddles, which is a collaboration with composer Norman Meehan, singer Hannah Griffin and photographer Peter Peryer. Can you say a bit about how those two collaborations came about?

Some people think collaboration is tight cooperative teamwork. I’m happy if it’s less intense, even long-distance. One person does one thing, and the other adds to it and transforms it, and then there might be a bit of to and fro. With Ralph, it was a friendship thing, a temperamental affinity – we both enjoyed sitting quietly in a room and occasionally grunting. Well, I did.

Norman had already worked with Hannah on poetry – mainly ee cummings, and he subsequently set a few poems of mine and asked me along to the performance. I went a bit uneasily because of course a good poem has already been set to music in some essential way. But I sort of liked what he did, so suggested I could try writing some lyrics for him to work with. We’re pretty much up to four albums now. Usually the text precedes the music. There are lyrics I’ve produced for Norman and Hannah that I wouldn’t otherwise have written, and are very satisfyingly weird, and I’m totally pleased they’re in the world. ‘Warehouse Curtains’, a sort of Elizabethan lyric gone wrong, would be one example.

Sean Donnelly got in touch with a few poets last year looking for texts he might work with. I like his stuff anyway, so was pleased to be in the mix, and I really like what he’s done with the words I sent him. I’m guessing there’ll be an album fairly soon. One of the lyrics I wrote, ‘Rescue’, I’ve put in the new book.

Some Things to Place in a Coffin (pb, $25) and Tell Me My Name (hb, $35, incl. CD) are both available for purchase at the best bookshops and through our online bookstore now.

Thursday 16 March 2017

Interview with James McNaughton

James McNaughton (Grant Maiden Photography)
Your new novel, Star Sailors, is set in a version of Wellington in the near future where climate change has severely changed people’s lives. Your first novel, New Hokkaido, was also set in a reimagined Wellington in the 1980s, one in which imagines the Japanese occupied New Zealand in WWII – can you talk about the attraction of turning Wellington on a fantastical slant like you’ve done in two books now? What is it about speculative fiction that motivates you as a writer?
With New Hokkaido I wanted to try something I hadn’t done before: a page-turner. My previous attempts at long fiction were reflexive, digressive and plotless, so this was a big departure for me. It was fun to go forth and tell a love/detective story, but I felt the genre conventions a little restricting. What I like about speculative fiction is that it offers dramatic possibilities and ways into issues that straight literary fiction isn’t allowed.
One of the problems with climate change as a future global catastrophe is that it’s all rather dry and abstract. For a lot of people in first-world countries climate change and inequality have become bothersome background noise that only sharpen into a sense of guilt and hopelessness when attention is paid to them. To travel into the near future transforms vague forecasts of catastrophe into something concrete. Risk becomes reality. Star Sailors shows the disastrous possible effects of climate change and inequality on a day-to-day basis. But the prerequisite for any novel to effectively tackle issues is that it be entertaining. Star Sailors is character-driven. It’s humorous. It’s cinematic. It has momentum. It was written in the golden era of the TV mini-series.
Star Sailors is not a dystopia. I’ve attempted to create a plausible geo-political 2045 in which emission reductions have not occurred. Given the current political climate in the US, for example, this is plausible. To imagine NZ as a haven for international elites doesn’t feel like speculation but highly likely. (Since I started writing the novel, which imagines an elite gated community in the Wairarapa, rich Americans have bought land there.) The future I’ve depicted in which ‘business as usual’ prevails is distressing, but power is never given up willingly and the science is clear that if we keep doing what we’re doing now in terms of emissions and deforestation we are bound for global disaster within decades.
There is a perception that climate change is just about drought and waves beating at the doorstep. My view is that rising sea levels, worsening weather shocks and the spread of pests and of disease will greatly exacerbate existing problems around fresh water, food security, migration and inequality, resulting in unprecedented social unrest. A wheat crop failure in North America due to climate change, for example, can affect the price of bread in Eastern Europe. Everything is linked.
There are a couple of fantastical elements in the novel. One is the arrival of a brain-damaged alien humanoid to New Hokitika (Hokitika has been moved to higher ground and become a rain holiday destination for Australians). The helpless humanoid becomes the property of the news arm of a transnational and a puppet for their commercial interests.
Another element is the idea of the super-elderly class. Out-of-control-unsustainable technology has been described as the Frankenstein child of science, with technology’s grand prize the end of illness and death altogether. But is vastly increased life-span really the boon it’s made out to be? With the elite class of super-elderly in Star Sailors I’ve showed what extended age might mean to society in terms of entrenched ideology and power. And how creepy ancient baby-boomers might be.

You’ve described Star Sailors as cli-fi (climate change fiction). In writing it did you research predictions of climate change disaster or was it fairly easy to come up with your own?
I’ve volunteered for the Red Cross Cred Crescent as an editor at various times, including 2004–06 when my wife-to-be was a Red Cross delegate in South Asia and we were based in Delhi. Weather-based disasters were on the increase in the region and her job was to advocate for those at risk. When I accompanied her on a mission to the Maldives, I saw the vulnerabilities of low-lying communities to climate change. The Red Cross reports I edited clearly described climate change as the major ongoing risk in the Maldives and in the other areas in South Asia prone to flooding and storms. Climate Change wasn’t a bourgeoisie playground or opportunity for trolls, it was real and happening. In 2008, I volunteered for the Red Cross in Bogota, Columbia and edited Spanish to English translations for the South American centre for climate change, which collated and published reports from across the continent. I’ve followed developments ever since.
I took my predictions for 2045 to a few experts and asked them a lot of questions. Those talks were very helpful.

 Is there something in writing about the disasters of climate change that helps you mitigate your fears about climate change?
No, not at all. The more I learned about climate change while researching the novel, the worse the situation looked. Discussing the subject with experts was especially grim. When I started writing in 2014, climate change denial was not uncommon in government. I thought the Paris Accord would make denial untenable for those in power, if nothing else, but depressingly that hasn’t happened. The process of writing hasn’t made me feel any less fearful, but a little less impotent. I’ve tried. 

There have been a few stories in the wake of the recent US elections calling for artists to write about our current troubles. Do you feel you have a responsibility as an artist to write about environmental and political concerns?
Narrative is how we make sense of time and the world. Stories have power, and symbol, analogy and metaphor are powerful communicators. I felt that the best contribution I could make to raising awareness of climate change was to take the content out of unread reports and knowledge-sharing documents into a wider discourse through fiction about people facing the effects of climate change. The decision to write about these issues wasn’t born out of a sense responsibility exactly, more out of anger and exasperation if anything.
I can understand readers avoiding social problem fiction. One of the most attractive things about art is its exemption from having to be practically useful. You’ve got a few free hours and don’t want to be lectured—particularly on a good cause. But at the same time, writing which ignores the pressing concerns of the day runs the risk of being irrelevant. It’s a balancing act for a writer. Great social problem novels don’t preach abstract issues, they’re about people facing those issues, like Huckleberry Finn, The Grapes of Wrath, and the work of Charles Dickens and Dostoyevsky. Social science fiction classics, such as Gulliver’s Travels, Brave New World, and Nineteen Eighty-Four, are less character-based, but work on an important level as entertainment. There’s no point preaching to the choir or preaching to the sleeping.
VS Naipaul said novels should be an investigation onto society, which for me describes what the great nineteenth-century writers did best. It’s probably fair to say that the novel has since moved to more individual concerns. It could well be time for some writers to change focus.  

Climate change can be hard to talk about and get your head around. Is it hard to write about?
Climate change is difficult to talk about, partly because it’s hard to visualise and then depressing if you persist. The inertia, denial and politicisation around it is wearying. To research and write a novel in which things have only changed for the worse thirty years from now was sometimes hard. But this horrible possibility inspired me to find a story.
We need to be worried. Emissions could quite likely continue to increase in response to population growth and growing energy demands. War or social unrest will move climate change to the background. Tipping points may come sooner than predicted. The earth is a balanced system, and feedbacks (such as the effect of disappearing ice reducing solar reflection and increasing warming) are difficult to predict accurately.
Problems are the beating heart of fiction, so from a writer’s point of view there’s plenty to work with around our slide into catastrophe. Star Sailors is a Comedy plot, in the way that War and Peace is a Comedy plot. It’s about people finding each other in a time of trouble—it’s about love. Climate change and inequality are Star Sailor’s Napoleon—its one hundred Napoleons tearing up the fabric of civilisation.

Star Sailors is available for purchase now at the best bookshops and through our online bookstore. p/b, $35.

Friday 27 January 2017

The Relentless Search: Educational Achievement and Success

Bernadine Vester, author of Southern Transformation: Searching for education success in South Auckland, writes about ideas of educational success in the context of South Auckland schools.

Simon, graduate of decile two Edgewater College, is part of a prize-winning team of engineers who have developed a drone that can operate in strong or gusty winds and at greater angles than other models, providing better results for cinematographers. It’s a commercial winner. Simon and his friend Hannah, who started at Edgewater on the same day, are both doctoral students at Cambridge University in the UK. They join large numbers of high-fliers who attended low-decile schools in South Auckland and have gone on to great academic success. The point being, of course, that you don’t have to attend a high-decile school to achieve educational success.
However, stories of individuals don’t trump broader public perceptions about educational success in South Auckland; too often, they are treated as the exception proving the rule. South Auckland is ripe for educational improvement, we are told. When you want to embark on educational improvement, you begin by defining educational achievement and success. Is it getting the qualification? A job? Raising the country’s GDP? Personal and family well-being? Attending a prestigious university in a foreign country?
A clear, widely shared definition of education success is an elusive thing. Some time ago, New Zealand political decision-makers decided that our education system would be measured against the number of students who achieved NCEA Level 2. This became a public service target – a singularity that would improve our ranking in global system measures, enable unemployed youth access jobs and higher education, and identify which schools and students needed more funding and support to fix the social dysfunctions of places like South Auckland.
The top-down push to deliver on the target seems to be winning the day: the numbers look good. Between 2009 and 2015 there was an 11.6 percentage point increase in the number of school-leavers with NCEA Level 2 or equivalent. Asian students had the highest success rate, and Māori the lowest. The target (85% by age 18) is a stretch but improvement seems within reach, with an emphasis on achievement rates for students who are Māori and/or Pasifika.
This makes South Auckland an area of focus.
NCEA Level 2 is an economic ‘productivity marker’. It’s an assessment of the value of state investment in learning. The qualification is a desired ‘efficiency’ for an economy demanding ever higher levels of knowledge and skill. For the sake of the national economy, Auckland’s students need NCEA Level 2. But static youth unemployment rates and slow GDP growth in Auckland betray this assumption.
The qualification has become fraught with middle-class angst. In a market of qualifications, assessment systems are being asked to differentiate personal quality in a global job market. Markets work not just on supply and demand; they also operate on branding and prestige. International private qualifications, run by for-profit companies, play on their reputations for class and global reward. There is no publicly accessible data about them; they are permitted in public schools by global trade agreements and paid for by family aspiration. Knowledge and skills are important currency, but qualifications don’t necessarily lead to economic success. If this were so, countries and regions with highly educated workforces would have high-growth economies – but Spain, Portugal, the UK and the US have large numbers of unemployed graduates. Something else is at work: social value and exclusivity. NCEA Level 2 is becoming a common-garden qualification. Is it true that the more that low-decile schools succeed with their Māori and Pasifika students in meeting the NCEA Level 2 target, the less desirable the qualification they deliver becomes? In a world where status is the market, the goals posts shift simply when the market replaces the local qualification with an international one. Inequalities rise.
Not just students, but schools too, are measured by NCEA. Schools have responded to the 85% target to offer very differentiated programmes. There are upsides and downsides to this. With the wrong credits, students might limit their options. With the right credits, students become eligible for apprenticeships and company-paid training, arguably as good a track for well-paying jobs as any university degree. Any school can mix and match the credits they offer, helping to shape success. Delivering the numbers is what public services are supposed to do. Over time, NCEA Level 2 in a high-decile school begins to look very different from NCEA Level 2 in a low-decile school.
The curriculum offerings of public schools depend heavily on their definitions (backed by parent-led boards) of what success looks like. To many, success in the public mind equals achieving University Entrance – never mind that you don’t need to go to university to establish a solid career (in technical trades, for example). Some have argued that schools apparently 'cheat' young people out of a future by tracking them into options that don’t lead there. NCEA is innovative, internationally portable, quality-assured, able to be applied to both academic and vocation futures, and flexible. These qualities make it very useful for a national education system. NCEA Level 2 can be constructed for a job in barista services and a job engineering for drones. This is NCEA’s strength – and also its Achilles’ heel.
Defining educational achievement and success is a complex question. Simon’s chances of getting to Cambridge University and leading a team to make a commercially viable drone did not depend solely on his school (although clearly it added important value). NCEA was a milestone in his schooling career, not the goalpost.
There are many possible goals in education. NCEA Level 2 is not, however, an indicator that poverty has been beaten, social prejudices removed, spiritual or temporal well-being attained, or even that one has graduated with a passport for a job. The sum knowledge of the world may never be distilled into qualifications. So we over-estimate their importance if we see them as the relentless and only goal. 

Bernadine Vester is the foundation chief executive of the City of Manukau Education Trust (COMET) and operates her own consultancy business.

Southern Transformation: Searching for education success in South Auckland is available for purchase on VUP's online bookstore and at the best bookshops.