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

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