Tuesday, 28 May 2013

David Beach on Found Poetry

Found poetry’s special edge is that it’s poetry without the poetical sensibility. The lack of violins may partly have been what the Australian poet Laurie Duggan had in mind in ‘Hearts (1983)’, from ‘Three Found Poems’, which features such instructions to abattoir workers as:

The hearts shall be trimmed of protruding veins and arteries making
sure the aorta valve is removed. Hearts are to be incised to enable them
to be packed flat.

But while found poetry can stage provocations, the main game has to be poems which are the poet’s own words and ideas. This though can include poems which resemble found poems. At least this was my approach in the sonnet sequence ‘Agriculture’, which includes passages in an encyclopaedia-entry style. And the heavens forbid that any farmer should mistake the poems for reliable information.
Poems, too, can be ‘found’ as they are written. And this can’t happen when the poet is right up in the front of the poem. Back in Sydney about 1990, beginning writing poems (something of a found poetry experience in itself actually as my first poem started life as the opening paragraph of a short story I was working on), found poetry wasn’t the plan at all. But by writing poems which generally were closely focused on a subject, probably already I was in the found poetry camp.
Found poetry’s key implication though is that all poetry is found. Here I’m definitely in the found poetry camp, can see in my own work how ideas are never ‘original’, but always have antecedents. For example, I returned to writing poems after a period as a film reviewer. Over a few months I tried out various approaches, eventually leading to the unrhymed sonnets I’ve been writing ever since. But after producing a couple of these I noticed their distinct similarity to the shorter of the film reviews I’d been penning and now regard my reviewing stint as a creative writing course where I learned to write poems which are like capsule film reviews.
Or, of several other possible examples, a few eons ago I made an attempt to be a cartoonist, this failing miserably partly due to a total inability to draw. But I’m sure that the cartoon strip structure – two or three panels followed by a panel with the punchline, so close to the structure of the Shakespearean sonnet – predisposed me towards sonnets, and influences my approach to writing them.
And then there are any number of poets I’ve founded my work on. The way this usually goes is that I read a poet’s work, forget about it, and only later realise I’ve been influenced by it. One important influence of this sort was W. H. Oliver’s ‘Counter-Revolution’, an uncompromising ‘sonnet as miniature essay’ – much more interesting to my mind than any of Robert Lowell’s sonnets, where the egocentric blah keeps getting in the way. Also important (and forgotten) was the Victorian poet W. E. Henley, blurring poetry and prose in the wry, black, ‘Waiting Room’, with its super-droll likening of the hospital waiting room to ‘a cellar on promotion’. Or indeed there’s Laurie Duggan’s abattoir poem, which only after thinking of using it for this post did it occur to me was very likely a factor in the idea to write a sequence including some found-like agriculture poems.
It’s this sense of being caught up in the world which for me is where the Muse lives. And why I’m sceptical of a lot of contemporary poetry, especially that in the first person, is that it comes with a poetical tone which suggests the poets feel that they are looking out over the world from some privileged perch. That’s not to say the first person pronoun’s days are finished – for example Albert Wendt’s ‘Garden’ poems look to me a classic, giving a ‘Samoan strum’ to the sonnet form, and the first person used without a trace of complacency.
To bring up notions of found poetry is to ensure you don’t have a quiet life. It’s to identify oneself as a postmodernist and the popular view of postmodernists is that when they aren’t drinking the blood of newborn infants they are lifting other writers’ work without attribution. I can only keep saying it’s a little more nuanced than that. For me the whole point of postmodernism is that writers start with a blank page, cudgel their brains to haul truth shining from the abyss, and this truth then turning out to be just one more wrinkle in the general culture. As to the other matter, population numbers have to be kept down somehow.

Agriculture 15

The cacao tree, from whence chocolate, is
an understorey rainforest species. It
can be (should be) shade-grown, in jungly
plantations. Depending upon continent,
jaguars or leopards prowl below while the
pods ripen. When the pods are ripe they are
hacked down with a machete (a long-
handled variant used where necessary) and
then hacked open with one and the pulp and
seeds removed and left to ferment, beneath
the trees all the vat that’s needed. The
pulp sweats itself to nothing. The seeds are
sun-dried on racks, bagged, away then to the
various devisings of confectioners.

David Beach

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Kate Camp on 'thinkiness' and Berlin

It’s spring in Berlin now, early summer really. Such a green city, so many big trees, and on the traffic islands and empty sections, there will be knee-high weeds. Our stereotype of Germans is controlled and anal, and in many ways that’s true. But Berlin is so laid back.
A classic Berlin footpath is several metres wide, with room for people on bikes, people pushing strollers and walking dogs. There’ll be dogshit and broken glass: both are ubiquitous in the city.
And there’s graffiti everywhere. When I was ‘walking’ the streets on Google earth before I left New Zealand, I thought our apartment was in quite a run-down part of town. It wasn’t, it was just the graffiti. For us it signals urban decay, but in Berlin it’s part of the city’s character. It has a noble history too, of course, because the western side of the Berlin wall was covered in graffiti and murals.
What do I miss about Berlin, apart from the luxury of all that writing time? I miss riding my bike, on the flat, with no helmet. I miss the horse chestnut tree in the courtyard of our building, filling up the kitchen window with its flowers, its leaves, or its snow-covered black-and-white branches. I miss the sense of achievement that comes from ordering a taxi, getting your shoes resoled, or buying a bra, in a foreign language. I miss the U Bahn saying, ausstieg links.
When I look at the poems in Snow White’s Coffin I can see the influence of Germany, not so much in the subject matter, but in their thinkiness, their willingness to talk about ideas. That’s something I’ve always skirted around – in New Zealand it feels like a bit of a wank. Apart from a plastic cuckoo clock, a slightly less sensitive wank meter may be the best thing I brought back from Berlin.
Kate Camp, May 2013.
Victoria University Press warmly invite you to hear Kate Camp discuss her time in Berlin and read from her new collection Snow White's Coffin at the City Gallery, Wellington.
Kate held the Creative New Zealand Berlin Residency between September 2011 and October 2012.

Thursday 23rd May, 6pm
City Gallery
Civic Square, 101 Wakefield Street


Snow White’s Coffin is published by Victoria University Press, paperback $25.00

Seats are limited so get in early to avoid disappointment.

With the support of The City Gallery, NZ Book Council and the Goethe-Institut.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Kissing Toads

We were so taken with Emma Martin’s speech for the launch of Two Girls in a Boat that we convinced her to share it with our readers below. Emily Perkins launched the book with another wonderful speech, which you can read here.

Someone asked me recently if I’d always been a writer, and I had to say, no. For no other reason than that I didn't really get my act together when I was younger, and then jobs happen and kids happen and life just gets filled up. If you’re not careful, whole decades can slip by like this. Then five years ago, for my birthday, my partner Billie gave me a voucher for two and a half hours writing time each week for a year. It might not sound like much but it’s a rare luxury when you've got very young children, as we did at the time. We were living in London and I used to sit in a cafĂ© in Clapham Common on Sunday mornings and drink peppermint tea and try to work out how to write fiction. I managed to put together a submission to do an MA in Creative Writing at Victoria; somewhat to my amazement, I was accepted.
And you know how it is. You’re not a young student fresh out of school with your life stretching unbounded before you; you've had half your life already and you've realised there’s less of it than you once thought. So you put on your best outfit – you want to look sort of writerly but not as if you've tried too hard; a cardigan is good – and you catch the bus to the university. But you get confused by the map of Kelburn because everything’s on a slope, and you end up approaching the building from below instead of above; and although it looks close on the map actually there are lots of steps, so you’re sweating and breathless by the time you get there. This is it, you think. This feeling wells up inside you, an urgent conviction that you've something to say. Your heart is bursting with it.
That MA year was a wonderful one but also a hard one because I would start each story with such hope and then it would be finished and I would look at it on the page and wonder what an earth I’d done. There’s a fairy tale about a girl whose words, when she talks, turn into toads and drop to the ground at her feet. That’s what kept happening to me. I was producing these warty toads with bulbous eyes that sat there staring at me. It turns out that it’s not enough to have that bursting sense you've got a story to tell. You actually have to know how to write one. I tried and tried and it never worked out how I wanted it to. At the end of that year I went to see Damien Wilkins, who was my supervisor. I was sitting in his office and it was a bit socially awkward because there were all of these toads on his floor, kind of flopping around at my feet. The thing is, once they’re out, you can’t really put them back in again. Damien was very good: he just acted like they weren't there. I said, “And after all that, I still don’t know what a short story is.” “Neither do I,” he said. “But I know one when I see one.”
Now, it is a little-known fact that if you kiss a toad it really does turn into something else; though mostly it turns into another toad. Over the next couple of years I went back to those stories and some of them I rewrote four, five, six times. After a while, you start to feel quite attached to them, warty and misshapen though they are. Maybe they start to look more in proportion. Maybe they even become a little beautiful, in their own way.
All the same, my writing group would say, ‘How is the collection coming along’ and I’d say, ‘ I'm not writing a collection!’ I didn't know why you’d want to take a bunch of short stories and put them together to form a book. It felt like cheating, as if you couldn't write a real one. I was late understanding how stories can amplify and reflect each other, yet eventually did realise that I’d been working on something over and above some individual stories. Meanwhile I’d been sending some of those stories out into the world. When one of them, astonishingly, won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, I guess I thought, okay, maybe I'm writing a book after all.
Well if you want a book, there’s no maybe about it. You have to go hard out. And you rely a lot on other people. Many of the people who helped make this book happen are here this evening. I want to thank Fergus at VUP for being fantastic and also Helen, Ashleigh and Sarah. My wonderful writing group: Fiona, Mel, Francie, Jo, Hannah, Meg, Claire and Breton. Emily for her incredibly kind words. Damien. Commonwealth Writers. Also Matt and Unity Books. And finally thank you to all the friends and family who’ve supported me, especially my mother, my children Eli and Bessie, and Billie, for my two and a half hours – and for all of the hours since.
 Emma Martin at Unity Books on May 2nd
photos © Matt Bialostocki

Monday, 6 May 2013

Fighting to Choose launched at the new VicBooks

We had an amazing night at the new VicBooks last week launching Fighting to Choose: The Abortion Rights Struggle in New Zealand by Alison McCulloch.
Dame Margaret Sparrow has kindly supplied her speech notes to give you a flavour of the night. There were a lot of familiar faces there but also, wonderfully, a bunch of fresh younger faces too.
This book came about largely as a result of a generous bequest to WONAAC. Originally it was going to be a history of WONAAC – and yes it does that well - reminding us of WONAAC’s colourful history, the many campaigns of the 1970s and 80s and a chapter on those outrageous Double Standard posters from 1978-1985 – but in the process of writing this history the manuscript grew into a much more comprehensive account as the book’s subtitle indicates: The Abortion Rights Struggle in New Zealand.
Who better to write a feminist pro-choice history of this struggle than Alison? She is an acclaimed, prize-winning journalist and editor with over 20 years experience both in New Zealand and in America – so she brings both a local and international perspective. In 1990 she joined the new Rainbow Warrior on its trip to Mururoa sending her reports to The Dominion and the New Zealand Listener. She has a BA in political history from Victoria University and a PhD in Philosophy from Denver and New York. In 1999 her team at the Denver Post won the Pulitzer Prize in journalism for their coverage of the Columbine High School massacre.
Her writing style is that of a reporter from the battle lines but she is generous in acknowledging the work of others and when it helps to make a point she quotes directly from other writers. If she has one fault it is that she is incurably modest.
Her research has been meticulous and well documented in the copious end notes. She has delved into boxes of papers in libraries, waded through court reports and Hansard, interviewed 17 participants and in the process recovered much information some of which will be new to readers. She has brought into focus a number of newspaper articles that made an impact at the time and which I am grateful to be reminded about – for example on Pg 68 the open letter from James K Baxter to the Catholic Church – a gem.
She has divided the book into two parts – the first and larger part is devoted to the struggles of the 70s – the opening of the clinic (39 years ago on the 17th of this month), the Woolnough trial, the Royal Commission and the 1978 legislation. I particularly appreciated Chapter 8 on “The Report” exposing the many flaws and weaknesses of the Royal Commission Report. So often it is regarded as an authoritative document and is still referred to in court judgments but in Alison’s words on Pg 153 “The Commission’s report was filled with internal inconsistencies, logical errors, unfounded assumptions and arguably biased consideration of evidence”. Her critique is perceptive and incisive.
The second part deals with 80s and beyond up to the present day. Alison analyses why we ended up with such a bad law and argues that it is not good enough to leave things alone just because women can get abortions. The only reason they can get abortions is because the certifying consultants currently are able to give the law a liberal interpretation. But as she says on pg 274 “The current situation is tenuous at best, enshrined in no law, championed by no political party and currently under siege” [end of quote.]What we need is a way to maintain good safe medical services in an environment that respects women’s autonomy. Taking abortion out of the Crimes Act would be a good start.
In the last few decades there have been many changes in society and many shifts in attitude. This book will make you angry but it will also make you reflect on your own values. It certainly made me question mine. In the 70s I felt more comfortable with the more moderate stance of ALRANZ, with its emphasis on safety and access – what Alison refers to as the conservative medico-humanitarian approach as opposed to the more radical feminist right to choose approach of WONAAC. But over the years I have changed and so has ALRANZ, appreciating the need for a greater emphasis on women’s rights. I look forward to the new leadership in ALRANZ, under President Dr Morgan Healey, spearheading further changes.
One of the great strengths of Alison’s book is that she has been involved in both WONAAC and ALRANZ and understands only too well the common ground as well as the differences between the two approaches and how in the future both must be utilised for the benefit of women.
Understanding our history is essential as we contemplate the future. My dream for the future is much more ambitious than Alison’s. I dream of a time in the future when people have much better methods of contraception to prevent unplanned pregnancies in the first place and when these occur (as they always will) there will be a safe, reliable and private method of abortion making politicians, lawyers and doctors largely irrelevant.
But until then we will need to be resourceful and this book will help us to avoid some of the mistakes of the past. It is a must read for anyone interested in women’s issues and reproductive rights. It will be referred to by many in the years ahead. Thank you Alison for providing us with such a useful resource.
Margaret Sparrow, May 1, 2013.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

You are warmly invited

Victoria University Press and the Adam Art Gallery warmly invite you to hear Fleur Adcock in conversation with Harry Ricketts.

This is a rare chance to catch an internationally renown poet on a fleeting return trip to New Zealand, it also marks the launch of her latest volume of poetry, Glass Wings, jointly published by Bloodaxe books and VUP.

Monday 6th May, 6pm

Adam Art Gallery

Gate 3, Victoria University,
Kelburn Parade,

Fleur Adcock writes about men and women, childhood, identity, roots and rootlessness, memory and loss, animals and dreams, as well as our interactions with nature and place. Her poised, ironic poems are remarkable for their wry wit, conversational tone and psychological insight, unmasking the deceptions of love or unravelling family lives.

Published by Victoria University Press, paperback $28.00