Tuesday, 30 September 2014

3 Questions with Steven Loveridge

Steven Loveridge's Calls to Arms: New Zealand Society and Commitment to the Great War was released in September. It considers New Zealand's war commitment as emblematic of deeper cultural sentiments and wider social forces which were marshalled in a cultural mobilisation.

What argument or discussion does Calls To Arms set out that is different from the many WWI books currently on the market?

Within New Zealand historiography, military historians have typically studied the war as a military event while social/cultural historians have elected to focus on particular subjects. Both approaches, while fruitful, have left us with a rather fragmented vision of the society that went to war. Calls to Arms seeks to place the military effort in a broader cultural context and offer an overview of New Zealand society’s commitment to the war.

What were the ‘deeper cultural sentiments and larger social forces’ behind NZ involvement in the war? 

Popular memory, and some accounts, of the war have gravitated to notions of grand manipulators deemed culpable for the appalling costs of the conflict. This top-down sense of an imposed project is not a complete fabrication (it can cite all too real instances) but it can distort our comprehension of the relationship between society and commitment to the war. 

New Zealand’s war effort was not only driven and shaped by military and political figures but by various social forces and cultural dynamics. Within Calls to Arms considered examples include study of the continuation of New Zealand’s orientation towards Britain in wartime solidarity, the mobilisation of gendered ideals around masculine and feminine duties and the sanctioning of conscription with a broad consensus on the desirability to equalise sacrifice. Studying the larger forces in play provides fresh insights on the people of 1914-1918 and recognition that New Zealand poured its social, as well as its physical and human, capital into its war effort.

What was it about your research that you found most interesting?

For me the most fascinating aspect of the project was recognising the complexities of New Zealand society at war. Recent research has modified conventional notions of universal responses to the war, revealing a far more complex social consensus which impresses some of the humanity of the subject. Thus I found prohibitionists, who interpreted the struggle to one against vice, being answered by assertions that a war for British liberties included the right to a drink. Still more flexible were a plethora of commentators who presented social elements – Catholics, militant labour, capitalists, Australians, the Irish, Rua Kenana – as being in cahoots with the Kaiser. Such layering of meaning on the war continued in post-war arguments over how various representations of the war years squared with personal comprehensions.

Calls to Arms, p/b, $40.

Monday, 22 September 2014

3 brief questions: Ian Wedde

Ian Wedde's memoir, The Grass Catcher: A Digression About Home, is one of our new titles this month. For the past year Ian has been in Germany on the Creative New Zealand Berlin Writer's Residency, but will return to home in Auckland at the end of September. He answered these short questions about his latest publication.

What prompted you to write memoir?
I never wanted to write ‘memoir’ and still am uneasy about the term. I wanted to write about home, what we mean by that, and how memory works around the conditions that we call ‘home'. Inevitably if you write about ‘home’ you’ll be remembering personal experiences, so what you write will be ‘memoir’ by default. But what I’ve written is very sketchy in terms of conventional memoir - I had no intention of going into the details of my personal or professional life, or of following any kind of comprehensive chronology.

What was the process of remembering like for you?
Remembering was fascinating. I used a kind of seance approach, in which specific objects or events ‘spoke to me’. The results tend not to follow a linear narrative chronology because the memory triggers were unpredictable and sometimes unreliable. I just went where they took me. My brother Dave has a great memory for detail, so our conversations were a lot of fun, with his exactness complementing but sometimes correcting my excursions.

Were there events that you skipped over for fear of giving too much of yourself away?
At one level the writing was very revealing for me in that I rediscovered experiences that I hadn’t thought about or even been aware of for a very long time. But I had (and have) no intention of writing an intimate account of my life – its relationships, work, contextual histories etc – so only ‘gave away’ as much of myself as I was prompted to by the method I’d adopted: following the grass catcher, if you like. I didn’t exclude anything that process revealed to me.

The writing which is to say the thinking – in this book keeps criss-crossing and doubling back: digressing. That’s how I think memory works. It’s not orderly in a conventional sense. But the kind of ordering memory does seems very rich to me, and it works across a rich territory in which factual, sensory, synaesthetic, fetishistic, dreamlike and documentary kinds of knowledge and experience get mashed up. I was at home in this kind of place.

The Grass Catcher, hardback, $40, available now.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Launch speech for Sleeping on Horseback

It was a warm crowd for the launch of Frances Samuel's Sleeping on Horseback last week. Editor Ashleigh Young launched the book. Herewith, her speech:
"It is my very deep pleasure to hold Frances Samuel’s debut collection of poems, Sleeping on Horseback, in my hand. It is an exhilarating, singular book that in some ways I am still reeling from having the privilege to work on. The obvious first thing to say is that it has been a good year for horses at Victoria University Press, what with Marty Smith’s poetry collection Horse With Hat published earlier this year. I went back through the VUP archives to see if there had been other books about horses too, to see if perhaps there was a secret horse-book publishing plot going on under my nose, and I got distracted when I found a book by the shellfish research scientist John Booth about a kind of lobster called the packhorse lobster that, as a juvenile, is tiny and leaflike and helpless but, as an adult, can be as long as two school rulers and very strong and hardy with it.
I couldn’t help thinking that it was exactly the kind of creature that might appear in a Frances Samuel poem: an everyday, workaday, load-bearing creature but also, somehow, a magical, delicate, otherworldly creature. And it wouldn’t just be a straightforward description of some funny crustacean; it would be a luminous moment in time, or a collision, or a memory, concerning that crustacean. Because Frances is the master as taking something strange and revealing its everyday inner life, its daily routine, and also at taking the everyday and revealing its inherent strangeness. In this way this book is always gently jolting you awake, and … awaker. And for me personally, just like when I saw that lobster, a few times I’ve been walking along and I’ve caught myself saying to myself, ‘That man should be in a Frances Samuel poem’ or ‘There’s something very Frances Samuel about that pigeon.’ Frances Samuel has become an adjective, absorbed into my lexicon at a rapid rate.
Frances has been writing for a long time. She completed an MA in Creative Writing in 2003 under Bill Manhire’s stewardship, and a few of these poems began to take shape back then, and earlier, but many of them have come about in the years since, as she worked in a bookshop, and at the Book Council, and most recently on the writing team at Te Papa. The first time I came across Frances’s work was more than ten years ago. She was a good friend of my brother JP’s, and he showed me some of her poems, and I was transfixed by their electricity, their braininess. I remember wishing I could be inside her head, visit the world as she visited it. So I always remembered Frances’s poems and from time to time I’d search for her book, in vain, thinking it can’t be far away, not realising that Frances was actually very much like me in her approach to writing – in the nicest possible way – in that she takes ages to get things finished. It has been a great privilege to work with her on this book, years later.
I should clarify: Frances’s book has no lobsters. But it does have escaped zoo animals, and pigeons, and doubles waiting to board the ark, and friendly dogs, an elephant, a caterpillar, stones that speak, long grass that argues and laughs like an extended family. The book bristles with diverse life forms, many of them in surreal scenarios. As James Brown, a poet and Frances’s colleague at Te Papa, said to me about this book the other day, ‘I like seeing realism get a poke in the eye with a sharp sponge.’ I like the way these poems resist telling us things about our immediate reality, the way they resist what has been called the scourge of relatability, whereby the ability to see our ordinary selves reflected is a measure of the work’s value – Frances pokes all that in the eye. But gently. With a sponge. And, of course, we are reflected in this book, because in reading we map a world using our own experience and imagination, but my sense is that Frances wants us to take the longer route there, towards the inn, towards the mirrory experiences of music, of loneliness, of travel, of waiting, of festivals, of wanting to be remembered.
Along the way Frances makes the simplest scene somehow profoundly beautiful and/or profoundly strange, such as a zookeeper deciding one day to let all the animals go, or an elderly man sitting on his roof observing the passersby, or the fact of snow covering the ground. I sometimes feel a bit dubious when a poet is praised for simplicity or meditativeness, as if we should be relieved that poetry is giving us a break and not being too difficult for once. But Frances’s poems redefine simplicity – there is always a deeper story running through them; time reaching out on either side, even when we begin with ‘Morning: he thought he did not deserve it’ or ‘It is not always winter’ or ‘There are so many ways to write about dying’. Frances is a poet of the shining line that you always want to grab, like a magpie, and keep with you.
There are often details inside those simple scenes that pull the poem back from reassuring you too heartily that everything is quite normal and OK. So you have the zookeeper ducking his head as he gets into a police car; you have the elderly man whispering ‘Beautiful is more possible from a distance’ when he gets a puncture on his way to the sea; you have cheese and butter and wool and socks turning to snow. We think we’re on safe ground and then suddenly we’re not; we’re on this whole other ground that we didn’t know it was possible to stand on.
Beyond the first section of this book, when we see Po riding towards the sanctuary of the inn, there are few actual horses. It’s not a horsey book. Instead, what we get is a sense of moving ever onwards, or of pause and waiting to move again, the pull of journey beneath us, even an impossible journey like walking to the moon. It’s what I imagine it’s like to sleep on horseback, where the journey unfolds almost despite ourselves, where even rest is continuation. There is a line in ‘Duckshooting’ when a character named Johnny rides toward the speaker on a horse. The speaker stays where he is; thinks, ‘If someone is via horse, exit on foot is futile.’ It is a moment of entrapment, by horse. As if trying to escape the ever-onward movement of the horse is futile. Without wanting to resort to terrible horseplay puns, this graceful, funny, deeply peculiar and wonderful book, too, picks you up and carries you.
Finally, I’d like to make mention of ‘the elusive blue’. No editorial process is a completely hiccup-free, and during the layout process we found that the perfect shade of blue, for the cover, kept eluding us. There was a conversion problem with the files from the illustrator. We went back and forth, searching for solutions, trying to recreate this perfect shade of blue for the printers. There was endless, what we call in the publishing business, tinkering, and/or tweaking. What was this elusive blue? Did it even exist? Had it ever really existed? Frances argued that her shade of blue was slightly less childlike, was the more serious, more thoughtfully muted blue; I could almost see what she meant but at the last second my eyes would fail and all the blues would look the same; meanwhile, as we tinkered and tweaked, Fergus turned a whole other shade of blue with exasperation. But finally, and I’m not sure how, we achieved the blue, and now it was Frances’s book. It struck me that Frances is the kind of writer who will always determinedly follow the elusive blue, the blue that others can’t easily see, the blue that really means something. Which is what all good writers do."

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Sleeping on Horseback

Tonight we launch Frances Samuel's debut poetry collection, Sleeping on Horseback. Here is a short Q&A with Frances, ahead of the launch.

How does it feel to be publishing your first book?
I’ve felt a spectrum of things – excitement, relief, anxiety – but where I’m at now is: curious. I’m interested to find out which poems particularly resonate with people. Sometimes I’ve found, after readings for example, that it’s the poems I’m most unsure about that receive the most comments.

What themes or feelings of urgency drove the poems in Sleeping on Horseback?
One of the (unexpectedly) great things about the publishing process was having the editor give me an overview of what she thought the book was about. It was a revelation. I didn’t have the distance to be able to see those themes myself. The urgency you mention – this is slightly off topic, but for me I think a lot of it has to do with whether the poem is even going to make it into existence. A line will sort of catch in my mind, and if I have some uninterrupted time, and I can grab a pen and paper and write it down, I’m away. I usually get the shape of the poems down fairly fast, and then there’s lots of revising of course. After that, I might sit on them for, well, years, before possibly changing something again. ‘Sleeping on horseback’, the title poem of my book, was different because it was slow to write: the stanzas came almost complete, one after the other at a steady midnight hoof pace.

There's a liminal space that some of your poems seem to inhabit – or is it better to describe it as a mythical space?
It’s definitely a tricky space to describe … Perhaps not entirely mythical, because the worlds or scenes in the poems are plausible in a sense, I think – vivid and precise rather than watercolour. When I’m writing the poems, there doesn’t feel to me to be a boundary between the ‘real’ world and imaginary. The poems just seem to need to be located in certain landscapes in order to say what they have to say.

You've been publishing work for a while now in journals – a long gestation?

My first published poems were in Sport in 2002. Actually, thinking about it now, one of those poems is in this book! So yep, luckily for me, sometimes if you sit on something for long enough, it hatches.

Sleeping on Horseback will be launched by editor Ashleigh Young tonight at The Guest Room, Southern Cross Garden Bar, 39 Abel Smith St, Te Aro. 5.30pm–7pm. 

Frances Samuel, photo by Grant Maiden