Monday, 28 July 2014

Astonished Dice


In preparation for Geoff Cochrane's Astonished Dice, collected short fiction release, we gave him a list of questions to answer. He arrived for coffee one Tuesday morning with the below typed sheet. The questions became irrelevant. Herewith, the answers:

Less is more. Though Hemingway's brand of simplicity can be a bit of a con, less is always more. And my history of addiction to alcohol (my very own 'backstory') is a gift that just keeps on giving.
*
My work has been described as 'dirty and miraculous'. And Michael Morrissey had this to say: '(Cochrane's) prose frequently does what we hope drugs will do–present things in the now, in a different light.'
*
Anne Carson is mad or plays at being mad. Anne Carson does exactly what she likes, producing thus a radiant derangement. The youth at night would have himself driven around the scream. It lay in the middle of the city gazing back at him with its heat and rose-pools of flesh. Terrific lava shone on his soul. He would ride and stare.
*
Some books of short stories seem as substantial as Middlemarch. They're more than the sum of their parts, somehow. They have a heft out of all proportion to their actual size, and they leave one with an impression of coherent incoherence. I'm thinking here of Barthelme's Amateurs or Tobias Wolff's The Night in Question. E.L. Doctorow's Lives of the Poets would be another.
*
As to the business of getting started on a story, I'll probably begin with some small thing I feel I can do justice to. A line of dialogue, a certain sort of weather, the look of a certain person or thing, a fragment of language crying out for a context. I'm likely to have a little stack of notes, a scrappy little stack of bits and pieces, and then there'll come a moment when these tatty little notes achieve critical mass and I can see a story in them. Three or four wispy wee notions will suddenly seem replete with possibilities.
*
To put the above in a slightly different way, ONE NEEDS INGREDIENTS, AND THEY MUST BE GOOD INGREDIENTS.
*
In my late teens and early twenties, having decided to become a some sort of writer, I practised moving words around within sentences, and then progressed to moving sentences around within paragraphs. What effect did I want, and how could I best achieve it? And thus I learned to FINISH WHAT I STARTED and not leave myself with a hellish mess to clean up later, a task which always proves to be well nigh impossible. Those 'teachers' of creative writing who instruct their would-be novelists to write a long first draft willy-fucking-nilly SHOULD BE TAKEN OUT AND SHOT.

Astonished Dice is on sale now.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

The Red Queen


Damien Wilkins launched Gemma Bowker-Wright's debut collection of stories The Red Queen. We're grateful to be able to share his launch speech.

 
It really is my great privilege to say a few words about Gemma’s extremely fine first book.
Of course all books are hard to write, let’s face it. But I’ve always thought that a book of short stories comes with some unique and fairly punishing challenges for the writer. Novels, you know, work through accumulation, more of the same, another scene, another scene and so on. Novels are word-count and momentum, a distance event. After a while, if you’re lucky and good, you feel the thing rise up and it’s running and you’re running alongside it.
Set out to write a collection of stories and at first, if you’re lucky and good, it’s running, you’re running, maybe even quite fast—hell, you’re sprinting and a wonderful light comes on, you see everything—then a hole opens up and you’re back in the dark—oh, that’s the end of your story—your first story—and you need to climb out of the hole and start running again. You need to do this eleven more times, in Gemma’s case, before you have the book.
The short story is a kind of interrupted art form. It’s always stopping you in its tracks. The writer, as much as the reader, submits to a greedy world of beginnings and endings. Always starting again, books of stories work through periodically—about every 15 pages or so in Gemma’s case—aiming blows at the reader’s brain and heart. It’s best to read one and walk away; read more than two and you’ll need a concussion test. Because the best collections do feel like contact sport: bursts of feeling, incident, illumination, exchanges between people that look like one thing but somehow generate meaning far beyond those moments.
The Red Queen, Gemma’s book, is full of all of the above. It details a dozen different scenarios—and Gemma is brilliant at openings that state plainly where we are and what we should pay attention to; she’s a natural at getting us underway—and then in deft strokes, worlds are summoned: the world of university students, the world of couples, of scientists, trampers, radio announcers, broken families, recovering families, abandoned children, hesitant adults. And even though I said you have to take breaks between stories, you also start to feel the deep pleasure and often the productive disquiet of returning themes across the stories, of shared concerns, the lingering sense of unfinished business which marks the real writer.
Real writers, as we know, don’t have themes, just obsessions. In this public forum I won’t say what I think Gemma’s are—you need to buy the book and work those out for yourselves. But in one of the stories, the narrator observes of her relationships with others that ‘Something had changed between us—a slight repositioning that I couldn’t put my finger on.’ Gemma’s terrific achievement is to dramatise this ‘slight repositioning’, to communicate how change in our lives occurs on a sliding scale—there are massive movements but also the smaller shake-ups and who’s to say whether we might not register love or separation, beauty or terror in surprisingly minor ways.
Searching his memories for a full picture of the father who left the family years ago and now returns awkwardly and loudly for birthdays or holidays, the young man in the terrific story ‘Cowboy’ remembers the time when he was fifteen in a bar and his father tried to show him how to pick up women. The father fails and the son feels ‘intensely lonely and yet buoyant at the same time, as if he could float up off the stool. It seemed, then, as if he was watching his dad from a great distance, like he was up there suspended below the ceiling, looking down at his dad’s head, all that way below him, balding and unprotected.’
Gemma knows how to calibrate the pressure of her prose so that we always feel a finger is being put on some tender spot.
Sometimes these spots are great undercurrents of emotion; at other times, these spots are simple isolated images: I love lots of the noticing in this work, as say when a daughter during a funeral describes her father’s knee jiggling ‘throughout the service, like a dog running in a dream’; or when a woman sees that the back of a man’s knees are hairless, ‘the skin a silvery colour’. Turns out Gemma is a poet of knees.
The core of the collection was first written in 2011 during Gemma’s MA year and I haven’t read the work since—I was struck by how firmly their atmosphere, which frequently rests in a haunted version of our outdoors—hills, gardens, bush—had stayed with me. I only had to read a few sentences and I was back inside these worlds. That also makes me think these stories will stick around inside your heads.
One of my favourites here is an 8-page story called ‘The Takahē’ about two young women, students, on an island in the Sounds for a research project monitoring weta. But what they really want to do is see a takahē. There are two DOC rangers on the island and one of the students get obsessed about their lives, if they’re a couple, if they’re having sex. It becomes clear that the two students are out-of-their depth, unsuited to each other, consumed with an appetite for experience, poised on some terrible edge. But the fierceness of this longing is contained and compressed in the telling. Nothing much happens but the slight repositioning feels momentous. Amazing.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

An interview with Maria McMillan



We spoke to Maria McMillan about Tree Space, her first full collection of poetry which is launched next week, Tuesday 10 June.

Why do you write poetry?

Creating something is important to me. Maybe it's important to everyone. Because I have spent lots of emotional and intellectual energy over the years thinking about difficult stuff that's going on in the world, I've found poetry a way to not get too lost or sad about it all. Amidst destruction, there's an enormous and sustaining joy in building things that are all my own. It's like nose-thumbing at all the silencing and control that goes on. It's a rebellion and an answer of sorts to the things I hate.

And poetry, poetry just makes sense to me. I like words. That sounds trite but I really do like words. And I love a good poem - those full body experience poems that involve your heart and your head and make you tilt your head to one side to listen to their music. Poetry that you feel in your knees. I want to hear that and read that and do that.
    
There’s a lot of sea in your poems – the underwater world is very present – where does this come from?

The first time I went snorkeling was in choppy waters off Great Barrier Reef. I was astonished by it. That what I thought was the hub, the centre -  life on land  - was sort of insignificant to what was going on down there. The closest I can think of how to describe the sensation is Tina Makereti's line "when at night there was this — the pure thrilling sensation of it?" in Where the Rēkohu Bone Sings. I'm being overly earnest because she was talking about the astonishment of good sex in a world that carries on seemingly unmoved by it, but the same sort of deal, we're up here wandering around oblivious, and then down there, get this, luminous fish in colours I thought were entirely human made, soft coral that moves in time with your breath, those stiff brilliant landscapes and how movement, not stillness, governs that place. Much later I found a couple of ocean related science books that fed my fascination Killer Algae by Alexandre Meinesz and the wonderful Mapping the Deep by Robert Kunzig.
    
There’s also a lot of amazement in your poem – at the incredible things in the world, both natural and human-produced – and at the strange behavior of humans. Is it fair to say that amazement drives your poetry?

Yes I think that's fair. And poetry feels like a medium where I can, on good days, handle that amazement without my knee-jerk self consciousness kicking in. I'm torn because I find expressions of awe sort of cringey and want to snort contemptuously at them especially when I think awe is often played up as a out of the box spiritual experience - it's packaged and contrived. I feel like there are waves of books coming out where people got book deals to write about their incredible and unexpected life changing experience in a foreign country before they've actually had that experience. And there's that website which people tweet and share all the time where everything video is "Watch this video and you won't believe your eyes" and "What happens next is truly incredible". All of them. And some of them are of course amazing but it makes me so sad and cynical. On the other hand I am in awe of people, and the natural world, and the way some moments seem to bend time and become something entirely else. I want to find a way to live with that awe and enjoy it.

You use a distinctive syntax throughout the poems where you cut short your sentences with a full stop. It has a stop-start effect, like the flickering of images and sounds – can you talk about why you use this effect, what it does to your poems?

As I worked with others on my poems I often got feedback that I was being a bit overboard with adjectives or repeating the same thing in a number of different ways. I realised through this, that the guts of my poems were often in very plain pared back language. I guess I've explored that and pared back not just words within conventional syntax but the syntax itself. I think it probably started with figuring out I could often just say a single word or concept without having to explain it so I'd often find say Sky to be more parsimonious, to offer more to the reader than The blue sky or The expansive sky.

Later I was quite influenced by Mei-Mei Bersenbrugge who uses long unbroken streams of words and ideas contrasted with short sharp phrases. The music of it and the way it sensually loads a poem actually made me breathless when I first encountered it. It also does wonderful things to meaning. I think her work helped me understand how fracturing sense can add depth. Take a simple sentence like I am walking down the road and you get a single meaning. But what if we break it up? Say I am. Walking down the road. Or even I am. Walking. Down the road. Suddenly we get a metaphysical declaration. I am. A note like diary entry with Walking. And Down the Road which could be a situating statement, or temporal, or ambitious. And then by the end of the whole phrase you also get the meaning of a whole. This example is pretty cheesy and would be irritating if you encountered it in verse, but I like having multiple meanings going on. Poets often do this with line breaks, but using a full stop forces the reader to slow down and I hope to concentrate on each part. I love the idea of shifting time through syntax as well as sense.

You’ve been writing poetry for a number of years – and suddenly two books appear – your chapbook The Rope Walk last year, and now your first full collection – can you say a bit about the long process of getting to a published book?

Both manuscripts were produced over about 10 years. The Rope Walk poems are persona poems from many generations of a fictional family and I always knew when I was writing a poem that fitted into that set. So I had my Rope Walk poems and then I had everything else. I always wanted The Rope Walk to be a standalone things but on advice I tried to fit them into a wider manuscript, and then I took them out. I shuffled them and wrote a few more poems that belonged in there.

As for the other pile, over that time, my tastes changed and I would keep rejecting things I previously liked so the pile didn't grow very fast. Meanwhile I was having children and trying to fight water privatisation and working. I finally realised that if I didn't do something soon I would end up getting annoyed with myself and maybe with the world a bit. The Rope Walk felt finished and I had enough other poems for a full-length manuscript. In a burst of energy I summoned the courage to send, in the same week The Rope Walk to Seraph Press, because I knew they sometimes published shorter books and Tree Space to VUP.

Tree Space was the result of culling and sorting and culling and sorting. I almost re-sorted it all again before I sent it but I realised that was procrastination and if Fergus liked the poems and hated the order he'd come back to me. Tree Space went through various name changes as well, but other poetry books kept getting published which stole my key words. That's bound to happen over a decade. I am grateful now though, Tree Space is absolutely the right name for this collection. When we got closer to publication, about a  year after Fergus had said yes, I added three more poems to Tree Space and reordered it again and that order seemed to work for everyone. There's actually been no substantive changes to the manuscript. The whole thing, from giving a brief to the designer (Keely O'Shannessy) and getting back her glorious design, to various bits of proofing, to having the chance to reflect about it all, and getting some lovely feedback from a wider group of readers has been a very happy experience.

Tree Space is available for purchase now, pb, $25


Thursday, 8 May 2014

May newsletter



 
Vincent O'Sullivan must be one of New Zealand's most catholic writers when it comes to form. He is the current New Zealand Poet Laureate, wrote the libretto for Ross Harris's latest work Requiem for the Fallen, and this month has a new collection of short stories out, The Families.

Vincent says that families are a natural starting point for fiction.

"I'd guess that five out of six fictions, long or short, are likely to be about families in some way. After all, you can't have characters who don't have one, even if they don't know about them. It's the one inevitable framework, and its possibilities are enormous. Take a family of four, and already you've got twelve variables of relationship to work with. And yet something that often strikes me is how little we may understand about the family context of most people we know, how guarded that part of their lives may be. So it's a marvellous if obvious place to play with light and shade."

The Families is available now, p/b $35
















Breton Dukes's second short fiction collection, Empty Bones and other stories, is a novella and five short stories. Many of the characters in his stories are ordinary New Zealanders in seemingly ordinary situations, then something goes wrong.

Breton says he likes characters who are stuck in their own brains and disconnected from other people.

"Bad things happen to this sort. They generate real and emotional danger for those close to them. This creates intensity and energy and you establish the potential for momentum, which is vital to a short story."

Dukes knows how to ramp up the tension in the space of a short story, but he says any menace that grows in a story must also happen in the space between the page and the reader's imagination.

"If you come home from the supermarket to find a strange man waiting, menace is immediate. From there, I think it's about making him real. Having him clear the egg from his lips and try to hide a fart by coughing. Giving him a hairy little tummy and bare feet and a knowledge of cheese making. The reader will grow their own fear from there. As for that part – the reader's part – I think that is about space. Too much telling and the reader doesn't get her chance to add her own detail, to draw from what she knows of the real world, from her world. Fear grows there."

Empty Bones is available now, p/b $30


In May we also release Framing the Commons: Cross Cutting Issues in Regulation, edited by Susy Frankel and John Yeabsley.

Framing the Commons analyses the challenges of developing regulation in New Zealand, including how to work with New Zealand’s unique features; the role of experimentation, monitoring and review; finding the balance between certainty and discretion in regulation; and the pros and cons of the analytical techniques (such as cost-benefit analysis) that are used for evaluating regulations once they are implemented. It makes a strong case for focusing on the early stages of the regulation-making process and building in better processes to learn from existing regulation, in order to improve the flexibility and durability of regulation in New Zealand.

Framing the Commons is available now, p/b $50

Our new editor

photo by Robert Catto














We are delighted to announce that Ashleigh Young is joining the small VUP team, and will start work as an editor on 19 May.

Ashleigh brings to VUP a wealth of experience, primarily her seven years in professional publishing, in New Zealand with Learning Media, and in the UK with the Institute of Ismaili Studies and Aga Khan University. She has worked with many publishers and writers on a freelance basis, and her commitment to the profession of editing is also demonstrated by her founding of the Concerned Editors Support Group on Facebook.

Ashleigh says she couldn’t be happier about joining the VUP team.

“Helping to shape or gently nudge into position the work of VUP's writers is such a pleasure and a privilege, as is watching their books unfold into the world. For me, editing is about standing on the very edge of a manuscript with the writer and looking together at all of the possibilities stretching ahead of it.”

Ashleigh’s commitment to the development and encouragement of new writers is also shown in her work with the IIML, where she has supervised MA students and currently co-teaches an undergraduate workshop in Science Writing.

Ashleigh is also an outstanding poet – we were honoured to publish her first book, Magnificent Moon, in 2012 – and essayist. Her blog eyelashroaming.com is a must-read.

We are also of course delighted that Victoria University has shown its belief in VUP by adding to our numbers.
 

Very good things


Dylan Horrocks's Hicksville is number 12 on Rolling Stone magazine's 50 best non-superhero graphic novels list

David Eggleton enjoys Tim Wilson's "fast, farcical and feverish" novel News Pigs – review in NZ Listener

"Writing fiction, there's also the element of being someone else, or a number of someone elses" – Elizabeth Knox's very interesting interview with Helen Speirs of the ODT

5/5 for Marty Smith's "gutsy book of poems", Horse with Hat

Laurence Aberhart's moving and insightful interview about his 'digger' photographs with Richard Langston on Radio New Zealand


May giveaway

This month we have two short fiction collections to give away: The Families by Vincent O'Sullivan and Empty Bones by Breton Dukes. To win these books, please tell us briefly what it is you like about reading short fiction. Click here to enter.

Congratulations to Lindsay Pope for winning last month's giveaway of Laurence Aberhart's Anzac and Tim Wilson's News Pigs. Lindsay correctly identified David Verrall as the man in the top hat. Thanks to all who entered.


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Thursday, 3 April 2014

April e-newsletter from VUP




ANZAC: photographs by Laurence Aberhart



Laurence Aberhart's brilliant book of photographs of New Zealand and Australian digger memorials is released this month. This hard cover production of seventy black and white photographs has been produced alongside Dunedin Art Gallery to coincide with the exhibition of Laurence's photos. Featuring memorials in places like Bunnythorpe in Manawatu, Mataura Island in Southland, and Tikitiki on the East Coast, the photos transform those familiar scenes into eerie places, strange landscapes. These are photographs that make you look again.

Leading New Zealand historian, Jock Phillips, whose essay introduces the photos, writes: "They stare aimlessly into the distance, ignored, slightly sad, timeless, peculiarly inactive – Laurence Aberhart’s Anzac diggers seem a long way from the energetic ‘mates’ that they were once erected to represent. They have been transformed from men struggling to survive in the muddy trenches of the western front into static marble figures in a landscape.  And while the messages on the gates which enclose them or the pedestals which support them proclaim, ’Their name liveth’ or ‘We shall remember them’, the overwhelming sense is of figures who have been forgotten, left to weather and fade from memory, unable to fend off the encroaching environment. It is the contrast of surrounds with marble statue which is the enduring impression of Aberhart’s powerful images."

ANZAC: Photographs by Laurence Aberhart
$60, h/b

News Pigs

This month Tim Wilson's third book, News Pigs, is released. Tim's new novel is a media satire, a hilarious fast-paced story about a flailing reporter, Tom Milde, who gets pulled into covering a live TV report about the latest gun massacre in an American university. We asked Tim whether the media world he satirises in News Pigs (a world of cowboy reporters with superegos and little morality), reflected his seven years' experience as TVNZ's US correspondent. Tim replied:

'Hunter S Thomson called television a shallow money trench where pimps and whores prosper, and good men (to which we would add women) die like dogs. This is understatement. Kidding. I got into TV about the same time I started reading the Patrick O’Brian ‘Master and Commander’ series, and the sense of going to sea conveyed in those books is comparable to being a TV correspondent. Long hours, isolation, conflict, stress, cruddy weather; in other words: glamour. As to how real the story is; everything that I describe [in the book] is a literal transcription of three days in my life. Okay, all of that stuff happened during one day, but it was a BIG day.'

News Pigs
$30, p/b

Halcyon days

March was a busy time for VUP. We hosted our successful publisher's party and book launch for Caoilinn Hughes' Gathering Evidence and Dylan Horrocks' Incomplete Works, attended many NZ Festival Writers Week sessions for own writers and visiting internationals, and then headed directly for Hokitika for 'An Evening with Eleanor Catton'. The Hokitika event – a conversation between Eleanor and her English editor, Granta's Max Porter – played to a packed house and was widely reported on. It seemed the whole town turned out for the session, including the Mayor and a man in a top hat (see pics below).
Elizabeth Knox talks with a fan at NZFWW











Fergus Barrowman and Granta's Max Porter











Dylan Horrocks - cover boy





 

 

 

Max Porter and a man in a top hat

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review highlights

Nicholas Reid marvels at Caoilinn Hughes' Gathering Evidence: "From the very opening poem, 'Avalanche', there is the sense that imagination and feeling are trumped by the brute facts of physical reality for, as the mountain avalanche comes bounding down, "My cries could not contend with this parade / of physics". Because of this perspective, Hughes' view of science is not a simplistic wonderment. She is aware that scientific daring can be lethal."

Michael Larsen in NZ Listener enjoys Dylan Horrocks' Incomplete Works: 'Visually, the book is a smorgasbord, the finely etched first frame of Captain Cook’s Comic Cuts (yes, the great explorer was a cartoonist, didn’t you know?) contrasting in style with my favourite piece, Western Wind, its stark, dark frames erotic, wistful and deeply personal. Another highlight is the deeply disturbing There Are No Words in My Mouth.'

April giveaway

We have two books to give away this month. One is Laurence Aberhart's stunning ANZAC, and the other, Tim Wilson's News Pigs. Name the Hokitikian in the top hat featured in the picture above to go into win a copy of each of these books. Entry closes April 30. Entries accepted from subscribers only. To subscribe to our newsletter, you can sign up on the front page of our website.

Congratulations to Jane Arthur for her winning entry to last month's giveaway, on why she loves autumn, which contained some choice language and a winning bribe. Jane wins a copy of Lamplighter by Kerry Donovan Brown, and Horse with Hat by Marty Smith.

Monday, 3 March 2014

March newsletter

This is a simple text version of our monthly newsletter. You can subscribe to this and to receive our book launch invites on the front page of our website.

Festival madness
NZ Festival Writers Week kicks off this coming Friday and we're there!

Along with our book launch for Caoilinn Hughes' Gathering Evidence and Dylan Horrocks' Incomplete Works on Sat 8 March, VUP writers at the NZFWW include Eleanor Catton, Elizabeth Knox, Damien Wilkins, Geoff Cochrane, Jenny Bornholdt, Emma Martin, Danyl Mclauchlan, Ashleigh Young, Marty Smith, Harry Ricketts, and chairing sessions, Pip Adam, James Brown and Kate Camp. The programme looks terrific.

Hokitika
On Thursday 13 March, we head to Hokitika for 'An evening with Eleanor Catton' at Hokitika's Regent Theatre. The whole town has got behind this event, with shops being encouraged to dress up for the day!

Reviews

Marty Smith's Horse with Hat and Kerry Donovan Brown's Lamplighter were launched in grand style recently and both quickly received excellent reviews. Horse with Hat was no. 2 on the NZ Bestseller List late last week and a Booksellers NZ review said, 'Marty Smith’s poems are by turns quirky, sad, punchy, amusing, thought-provoking, and above all they provide a sense of time and place and family.' In NZ Listener, Louise O'Brien said 'Lamplighter is notable next for the striking and sparkling originality of the world it imagines[...] Both fairy tale and contemporary fable, Lamplighter is a lovely surprise.' We can only concur.

Books to watch for
In April we will launch Tim Wilson's new novel News Pigs in Auckland, and Laurence Aberhart's ANZAC at Dunedin Art Gallery, alongside the opening of the exhibition of Laurence's Anzac photos. More about these brilliant new books next month.

Autumn giveaway
To mark the beginning of autumn we have two books to giveaway – Lamplighter by Kerry Donovan Brown, and Horse with Hat by Marty Smith. To be in to win, send us one sentence to this email as to why you love (or loathe) autumn. Be as poetic or prosaic as you like. Entries will be judged by VUP staff over coffee on Monday 17 March, so get in before then.

'Monsters' Prize Draw

Congratulations to Marie Hodgkinson who won a copy of Elizabeth Knox's Wake and two tickets to her 'Letting the Ghosts In' session at NZFWW.

Events in March

NZFWW
Fri 7 March-Weds 12 March

Some top picks
  • Sun 9 March: 'Scenes of Secrets and Disguises' - scenes performed from Damien Wilkins' novel Max Gate
  • Tues 11 March: 'Bursting the Baby Bubble' Monica Dux in conversation with Pip Adam.
  • Tues 11 March: 'First Published' - free reading event at Meow Cafe, featuring Caoilinn Hughes.
  • Weds 12 March: 'Letting the Ghosts In' - Elizabeth Knox in conversation.
The full Writers Week programme is here.

Book launch and publisher's party

Sat 8 March, 7.30pm-9.30pm. We launch Caoilinn Hughes' Gathering Evidence and Dylan Horrocks' Incomplete Works at 24 Blair St - The Atrium Exchange Building.

Hokitika

Thursday 13 March. 'An evening with Eleanor Catton' - Eleanor in conversation with Max Porter.
Bookings essential.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Horse with Hat - book launch

Last week we launched Marty Smith's debut poetry collection Horse with Hat at Wellington's oldest pub Thistle Inn. Damien Wilkins did the honours, and herewith, his speech for the collection that has since been described in a NZ Booksellers review as 'quirky, sad, punchy, amusing, thought-provoking'.




"It’s a deep deep pleasure to be standing here with Marty’s wonderful gorgeous engrossing book, Horse with Hat! Been a long time coming but totally worth the wait. Totally. Now the obvious thing, given the title and the subject matter, would be to trot out a lot of lame horse metaphors but nah, scratch that. 
As many of you know, in 2004 Marty took a year out of her normal professional life as a teacher and became a student. She was a member of what is described by that class as the last true MA workshop at Victoria University, since they numbered 10. The following year we created two MA page workshops, so you see it became twice as easy to get in. They’re a very proud bunch. And I do remember the first weeks of that class – course I do – it was my debut year at Masters level and I have a vivid, no doubt highly paranoid image of Marty sitting in her seat – she was directly opposite me, down-the-barrel, regarding me with that look of hers – you know the one – a kind of ‘Who have we here?’ measuring scepticism . . . yet through the opening weeks I didn’t get a strong sense at all that she was intimidated by me or her classmates but what I think she had to do over that year, an important year when the skeleton of this book was erected, and subsequently, as she’s continued to add poems and refine and revise, was to reconcile a few things, or at least put them into their most productive relationship . . . So this is highly presumptuous of me but Marty will forgive me. I think she had to reconcile her natural loquaciousness with the demands of a literary form; she’s had to work out how to find room for her jokes as well as her seriousness; her appetite for gossip and her writing’s sense of decorum, to really find a way of suggesting, I suppose, the fullness of her temperament on the page: the public Marty, who revels in mischief, with a more reflective side . . . I don’t mean in any sense to make the wildness go away but to manage, as one of her poems has it, both the saliva and the static! 
With this book, I think she’s done it. 
She’s managed action and drama but also pauses and gaps – the poems can be headlong in a rush of voice and detail and then immediately they can usefully hide, tellingly and affectingly disappear. There’s a lovely kind of ‘now you see me, now you don’t’ throughout the collection. The book tells secrets, beckoning you closer and closer, but retains a core of privacy and, for me, that’s what the best writing can do—it’s intimate but with a formal intimacy, a shaped intimacy that might also push us away. And that reticence is perfect for the family Marty describes and animates in these poems. The Smith family may carry a startling commonness in their name but Marty has them individualised, particularised, memorialised, editorialised, de-Smithed.
Most of you probably haven’t seen the book yet so just to prove I’m not making this stuff up . . . Horse with Hat announces itself quite defiantly as a family saga – after the contents page, you get this lovely photo of Marty’s father’s family – their names and dates, under the title ‘These are the characters’ . . . and of course that’s a sly joke too – these are the people who populate the poems but they are also ‘characters’, the kind who might say of someone else ‘he’s a real character’ . . .  and that’s also what I think Marty had to make sure of in this work – firstly how to do them justice, this tough crew, but then to think how does ‘doing justice’ to one’s immediate forbears square with doing justice to the reader of a bunch of poems. So the writer asks, How can I hope not to be pious or – worse – dull if, in effect, what I’m doing is saying to strangers, ‘Here, let me tell you about my fascinating grandmother’? 
Again, the book is a triumph of family writing – it vividly renders the speech of these Smiths – that brilliant moment when Dad sees the Jehovas coming down the drive: ‘Fuck, he says, go and tell them we’re Catholics’; it captures the gestures, the faces – there’s a wonderful line which goes ‘they’ve got these high cheekbones, you know, that sort of scrawny look in the lower face’, and through all this the book gives us the world-views of the damaged dead – men who returned from the War and hid revolvers they never handed back in their bedrooms - and it delicately places into that lost time a girl who moves on its margins, sometimes in awe, sometimes in need, sometimes in fear. After all, the girl sees, in one poem, that she has a grandmother who wants to eat her body and drink her blood – as another voice comments – ‘Scared? ‘Scared wasn’t an option.’ I love the balance between comedy and menace. ‘Don’t cheat’ instructs another poem. ‘Shake people’s hands, the lying bastards.’ ‘Bastard’ is a recurring word – the fury at a world that’s not quite delivered. Horses are bastards when they don’t behave.
The material is often about the intensely physical world of work, working with horses, on the farm, on the track, but there’s also a powerful element of whimsy and risky exciting acts of impersonation and identification – the poet not just of horses but as a horse too, as Marty climbs so far inside her subject she finds herself peering out – at, well, us. So a collection that at first blush looks chatty and anecdotal  - yarny and friendly – grows a bit stranger, more abstract, a matter of hauntings and dreams as much as mud and effort. And that’s where I think the artworks peppered through the book fit in. 
I promised no horsey stuff but I would like to accuse Marty of doping – in her use of Brendan O’Brien’s meticulous and eerie collages she’s obviously gained an unfair advantage over all other poetry books. To be honest, I don’t know about poems with pictures. What’s the poet trying to paper over? But this move makes sense – the collaborative intent is so delicate and the double-page spreads, so lushly detailed and elusive, enlarge the reading experience, are themselves pauses in a book that seems to say so much while poignantly retreating in the face of the mystery of human behaviour.
I started this with mention of teachers and teaching and Marty generously acknowledges many such figures in her writing life so let me end with a line from one of my teachers, the American writer Stanley Elkin who begins his essay about his father with this: ‘All children’s parents are too complicated for them. Love, like an obstacle, gets in the way. We know them too early. Then they die.’ I said before that Marty had to do all that reconciling of elements before these images of family could stick, but the ‘obstacle of love’ is the most persistent one and that bastard is here too on these beautiful pages."
– Damien Wilkins