Monday, 11 May 2015

6 questions for Roger Horrocks

Poet, filmmaker and biographer Roger Horrocks has a new poetry collection, Song of the Ghost in the Machine out now. Ahead of his launch at Gus Fisher Gallery in Auckland on this Wednesday, we asked him a few questions.

You say about writing poetry that it is 'almost always a process of looking inside’ – do you think that poetry in particular equips you to do this better than say with prose? Why use poetry to put these thoughts in order, and not say, an essay?

Poetry is like music in that it requires a writer to take great care with the rhythm. I enjoy that challenge.  At the same time, I think too many contemporary poems are as short and limited in scope as generic pop songs. Poets paint themselves into a corner by feeling they must be lyrical in a conventional way. I like lyricism but I also want poetry to think and argue more. What’s wrong with the idea of a ‘poem essay’?  Lucretius wrote a famous one – “On the Nature of Things” around 40 BC – and there have been plenty of later examples, from Pope to Blake to Stevens.

Song of the Ghost in the Machine is divided into 11 different sections ‘melancholia’, ‘self’, ‘sleeping and waking’ - did you set out to write on particular subjects or did the material accumulate into what I’d almost like to term a poetic-essay?

I’ve always admired the omnivorous kind of long poem that has the appetite to absorb everything – grab-bag poems like Williams’ Paterson, Pound’s Cantos, or Silliman’s Alphabet. I can’t claim to be in their league, but I have also set out to write a book-length poem that will swallow as much of life as possible, in a year of writing.

The book also seems to be a way to explain what it is to exist – both physically and spiritually (or metaphysically) is this a fair description of what you’re doing with this book?

Poetry is almost always about what’s been called ‘the experience of experience.’ But mostly we stay close to the surface of our lives, writing about ourselves and something we’ve seen or felt, so it’s rather like a ‘selfie’ in words. This time I wanted to go deeper and ask basic questions about what it’s like to be alive, the rock-bottom facts of human life. Scientists have a lot of interesting things to say on the subject, and I quote a number of them, but the way we consciously experience our lives remains a mystery.  Scientists refer to this puzzle – how the lump of meat which is our brain produces our personal feelings – as ‘the hard problem.’  Some scientists see our cloud of thought as a kind of mirage and call it ‘the ghost in the machine’ – hence the title of my book. But as the poet John Donne – and the artist Colin McCahon – put it, ‘Each of us has one world, and is one.’ This book happens to be my world, inhabited by a freewheeling ‘ghost,’ and these are its curious songs.

Can you make an argument for poetry? As a publisher of poetry, we’re in a minority – with diminishing attention and readership as people turn to other forms of entertainment and ways to use their time – what is it about poetry that gets you excited? What would you say to a reader to get them interested in your own work?

I don’t think any writer can concentrate on producing their best work if they worry too much about the potential audience and whether their work can compete with Xbox, Fifty Shades of Grey, the World Cup, etc. Of course a publisher and a bookshop-owner does need to worry, and I am profoundly grateful to every person of that kind who risks his or her shirt on poetry books. But as a writer, I want to say how angry I am with the promoters of Rogernomics and its many successors who think of the space of the arts as just another marketplace, and the writer or artist as just another brand. To readers I would say, ‘Don’t reduce your scope to that of a “consumer” looking for “entertainment.” Think about Paul Gauguin’s comment “Art is either revolution or plagiarism”. (This is the artist who made a great painting with the great title: ‘Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?’)’

Quoting from your poem ‘The Daybook’: ‘All thinking is wishful, all questions are rhetorical […] There’s no escape/from double talk’. Is writing somehow getting beyond cheap talk or simply another form of wishful thinking?

I guess it’s typical that the lines you quote can be interpreted in more than one way, and they can be taken positively, too. A few lines later I say: ‘I think, therefore I write on the walls of our cave.’  In short, writing is as natural an activity as breathing. But I can’t say exactly what writing is because I have a different view each day. In the end, my book isn’t philosophy or science, it’s irresponsible and unresolved as poetry prefers to be. In the course of my poem I refer to John Keats’s lovely description of ‘Negative Capability’ which is when a person ‘is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’

There is a lament for pen and paper, the physical book in your poem ‘Evolution’ . How is this lament tied to your own thinking and writing?

I can’t imagine anyone who has learned what the Internet has to offer wanting to give it up. But we do need to be aware that every powerful new technology comes with a downside as well as an upside. Otherwise, before we know it, we have swallowed the problems as well as the perks. The Web yields a marvelous wealth of words and images, but it may encourage us to respond to overload by developing a faster, superficial style of reading. The Internet specializes in quick answers, headlines and sound bites. Studies like Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together and Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid provide evidence of the mental and social changes this can produce. For some people, life on-line is like a constant diet of fast food. In contrast, reading a book can exercise a different set of mental muscles, which is just as important for adults as for kids. A book stretches our attention-span and reminds us of the benefits of looking at a subject in depth. Poetry offers this experience in an especially heightened and engaging form.  As a reader, I think of myself as having a range of different speeds – there are times when I need to surf through a stack of documents at top speed, but I also value the opportunity to change down to first gear and move slowly through a particularly rich, concentrated piece of writing. I never imagined that books could become an endangered species, but this will happen if we don’t continue to buy them and keep flexing the reading and thinking muscles they have helped to build.

Song of the Ghost in the Machine is out now. You can buy it through the best booksellers or on VUP's online bookshop. p/b, $25.

Monday, 4 May 2015


Two new poetry titles in May

We release David Beach's fourth collection of sonnets this month. Jerusalem Sonnets, Love, Wellington Zoo contains series of sonnets that tackle these three topics in turn. We asked David to talk about this form, and why he can't keep away from it.

"Apart from that I can’t write anything else the reason I keep writing sonnets is that it’s a particularly useful form if unity is the thing you’re most aiming for. Too much shorter than a sonnet and there just isn’t enough of a poem for the unity to seem meaningful. Too much longer and the sharpness of the unity starts to blur. And unity appeals because with that as its engine a poem writes itself (slow though the process might be), the conscious mind put in its place as the lackey of the subconscious."

Our blog this month features a piece written by David about the form and his obsession with it which you can read here.

Jerusalem Sonnets, Love, Wellington Zoo will be in good bookshops on 7 May or you can order it through our online bookstore here.

Songs of the Ghost in the Machine by Roger Horrocks is a free-wheeling philosophical poem that emerged during the walks he took over one year of his life. About the book, Roger says that writing poetry is almost always a process of looking inside.

"This time I wanted to go deeper and ask basic questions about what it’s like to be alive, the rock-bottom facts of human life. Scientists have a lot of interesting things to say on the subject, and I quote some of them, but the way we all consciously experience our lives remains a mystery. Scientists refer to this puzzle – how to get from our physical brain to our personal feelings – as ‘the hard problem'. Some think it’s just an illusion and call it ‘the ghost in the machine’ – hence the title of my book. But as the poet John Donne and the artist Colin McCahon put it, ‘Each of us has one world, and is one.’ This book happens to be my world, inhabited by a freewheeling ‘ghost’, and these are its curious songs."

Song of the Ghost in the Machine will be launched by Murray Edmond at Gus Fisher Gallery, Auckland on Wednesday 13 May, 5.45pm.




Auckland Writers Festival 2015 fantastic line-up of writers includes some VUP literati. Stephanie de Montalk talks about her incredible memoir, How Does It Hurt? with Deborah Shepard on Sunday 17 May at 10.30am.

Helena Wisniewska Brow (Give Us This Day) talks with fellow memoirist, American writer Daniel Mendelsohn about loss, discovery and heartfelt family matters on Saturday 16 May at 12pm.

Bridget van der Zijpp (In the Neighbourhood of Fame) appears in a reading event alongside Australian writer Tim Winton, and fellow New Zealand novelists Tracey Farr and Laurence Fearnley.

Wystan Curnow (The Critic's Part) talks about the role of the critic with Shakespeare critic Peter Holland on Friday 15 May at 2.30pm.

Airini Beautrais (Dear Neil Roberts) appears in a reading event with international writers on Friday 15 May at 4pm.

We're delighted that Caoilinn Hughes is a finalist in the Royal Society Science Book Prize this year for her poetry collection Gathering Evidence. The prize announcement will be made by Dr Philip Ball following his event on Friday 15 May at 5.30pm.

Finally, we were excited to learn that VUP's Ashleigh Young is a finalist in this year's Sarah Broom Poetry Prize alongside Diana Bridge and Alice Miller. The prize, one of New Zealand's most generous, is worth $12,000. The three finalists will read in a free session at the AWF15 on Sunday 17 May from 1.30-2.30pm in the Upper NZI Room, Aotea Centre, Auckland. Irish poet and this year's Sarah Broom Poetry Prize judge, Vona Groarke, will announce the winner at this event.

AWF15 programme is online here.


Readers' Salon After-hours at Vic Books


Join us for a glass of wine as we chat to writers Anna Smaill (The Chimes, Hachette) and Bridget van der Zijpp (In the Neighbourhood of Fame, VUP) about memory, music and fame in an insightful evening especially for book-lovers, hosted by writer Kirsten McDougall at Vic Books, Kelburn.

Share in the conversation as Vic Books is transformed into an intimate after-hours readers' salon on Wednesday 3 June, from 6.15pm–7.30pm.

Tickets $15 – includes a glass of wine & shared platters, plus 10% off featured books on the night.

Tickets are strictly limited and can be purchased on our webpage here

The news

The news hasn't been that good for the NZ literary world recently, with NZ Book Month being put on hold indefinitely, the loss of sponsorship for the Katherine Mansfield short story competition, and no New Zealand book awards to celebrate this year. It's nice to see a small initiative started today on twitter where in lieu of NZ Book Month, people are being encouraged to tweet a favourite NZ book each day for a month using the hashtag #NZBookMonthMay. Also good to see Eleanor Catton's Horoeka Reading Grant website up and running and now looking for editorials on the state of play in NZ literature.


Ian Wedde reviews Wystan Curnow's The Critic's Part in Journal of New Zealand Literature, 2015.

"...there is not often that I can read with such enjoyment a book built on a theoretical platform I'd decline to share. I think this enjoyment is made possible by the writer's generosity [...] to the objects of his close attention, to his readers, and to his belief in the need for such 'transactional relations.' And, in the end, to his generous fidelity to his own convictions."

Susanna Andrew reviews Bridget van der Zijpp's In the Neighbourhood of Fame in Metro, May 2015.

"The writing is marked with empathy and perception. Van der Zijpp is good at fathoming the odd ways in which people think and love and miscommunicate, and she puts me in mind of Zadie Smith's writerly commandment that 'the time to make your mind up about someone is never'."

You can also hear an interview with Bridget on Radio NZ here.

Briar Lawry reviews Stephanie de Montalk's How Does It Hurt? on Booksellers NZ

"Regardless of your own experiences with chronic pain, How Does It Hurt? is an important and beautiful book, both tragic and hopeful."

Friday, 1 May 2015

On Sonnets

"Generally poets viewing the universe, post-Darwin, post-Freud, post-J. K. Rowling, as meaningless, continue to feel the need to incorporate a fair amount of meaninglessness in their poems, the results not so impressive, partly simply because it’s hard to distinguish between chaos representing the chaos of life, and chaos which is just chaos."

This month we have a new poetry collection by David Beach, Jerusalem Sonnets, Love, Wellington Zoo. This is David's fourth collection of sonnets, and here he explains the attraction of the form.

David Beach winning the 2008 Prize in Modern Letters

Before I was a foe to Romanticism writing chopped-up prose sonnets I was a foe to Romanticism writing chopped-up prose shortish poems some of which in a bad light could have been mistaken for sonnets. As an example of early work, the following poem was published in The Canberra Times and then a little later in my self-published first collection ‘Apropos of Nothing’ (1993):


The film is over and lights
start to appear in the lot:
they flick on at random,
just a few at first, white
canes tapping the dark;
then the place goes up like
paper – a gorgeous pit where
the wild, jousting beams have
their few minutes fray until
the cars fly into the night.

Reading this poem now, I think it does contain a sense of the self being provisional. However, I wouldn’t call it anti-Romantic. Indeed it has quite a whiff of epiphany––the view mightn’t be from a mountain top, but it’s from some vantage, and some sort of significance is perceived. I might have felt I was battling the Romantics, but clearly had far from escaped Romanticism’s clutches myself. That’s not to say the poem is a bad one. Contradictions can be the stuff of art and the first year or so I was writing poems I think the contradictions in my position were productive.
However, that didn’t last, and over a period of a few years the poems dried up, until eventually I gave up poetry ‘for good’. That turned out to mean for a couple of years, when trying a few things I stumbled into writing sonnets. And writing to a form seemed to provide a kind of missing ingredient. In fact I saw the sonnet as a frame as much as a form. And having the poem ‘out there’, in some sense already occupying its space, prompted the lighter tone which had been eluding me.
The tone, as well as being lighter, seemed dare I suggest it, modern. I realise that the notion that poems might be modern should hardly be expressed nowadays without accompanying hollow laughter. But is a century of sparse achievement, more sparse the nearer one comes to the present, a reason for poets to give up on the avant-garde project?

The task can be put as how to write as a self which isn’t a soul, isn’t sovereign over the brain it’s a function of, doesn’t have even a secular essence it’s so shaped by circumstances. And the chief problem is that selves have a natural, probably a healthy, disinclination to be demythologised––it’s one thing to intend modernity, quite another to prevent the self insinuating itself back onto centre stage.

Restricting myself to sonnets helped with this problem because it did away with the Romanticism inherent in a ‘content generates form’ approach––previously indeed I would never have written to a form on the very grounds that to do so was inauthentic. And by calling a sonnet simply 14 lines, each approximately ten syllables, I had a form (frame) which fitted very well with my prose-does-the-job style. It became a case of cutting poetry back to its essentials––a doing away with the aura of the self by doing away with the aura of the poem.

It might be objected that just by deciding what a poem will be about the self grabs the microphone. I would point though to the cumulative weight of the choices made in writing a poem, and here I think, if the focus is wholly on the poem’s subject, whatever it is, the self’s pretensions can be reined in–– the poet ‘losing’ him or herself in the effort to do justice to the subject, to write on it with all possible vigour.

I’m not suggesting that prose sonnets are a magical pass to the modern. Indeed Romantics and other truth-tellers have been responsible for most recent prose-style poems, sonnets or otherwise––writing unpoetically because they want to convey their truths clearly. My point though is that the unpoetical approach is also available to poets who dispute truths exist. Generally poets viewing the universe, post-Darwin, post-Freud, post-J. K. Rowling, as meaningless, continue to feel the need to incorporate a fair amount of meaninglessness in their poems, the results not so impressive, partly simply because it’s hard to distinguish between chaos representing the chaos of life, and chaos which is just chaos. Prose sonnets, and especially sonnet sequences, are a way for moderns to keep hold of clarity and eloquence. Romantics hate the idea that their suffered-for wisdom and heart’s blood feelings don’t in fact come with any authority––that these are simply the product of the history behind any individual. To be modern is to accept what a complete accident any of one’s particular personal bedrock amounts to. And one sonnet after another, rocking out in pirate prose, seems exactly suited for this aesthetic of ‘anything could just as easily have been anything else’. The form maybe won’t generate the content, but at least it won’t subvert it.

Jerusalem Sonnets, Love, Wellington Zoo is released on 7 May, $25, pb.