Archive Jan-July 2012

More about Mahy

July 25, 2012
Margaret Mahy surely knew that classifications like adult/child, science/art and work/play are necessary to librarians (and publishers and other harmless drudges), but she paid them as little attention as possible. Reading some letters from the 1980s, when we were begging Margaret for a contribution to Sport, we were delighted to be reminded that one of her suggestions was a version of ‘Down the Back of the Chair’. While we would love to read that imaginary poem, of course, we wouldn’t swap it for the one that was published, or for the marvellous essay she did send us: ‘A Dissolving Ghost: Possible Operations of Truth in Children's Books and the Lives of Children’. You can read it here, as published in 1991, or in her collection of writing about writing and imagination (and all sorts of other things) for adult readers: A Dissolving Ghost: Essays and More (2001).
Writers from the academic world have begun to explore Margaret’s universe, too. There are rewarding things in Marvellous Codes: The Fiction of Margaret Mahy (2005) and A Made Up Place: New Zealand in Young Adult Fiction(2011). From the latter, we offer Kathryn Walls’s essay 'Money', on the socialist critique of New Zealand in Mahy’s novels for young adults.

Margaret Mahy


We at Victoria University Press are very sad to hear that Margaret Mahy has passed away. As well as being a genius, Margaret was one of the warmest and most generous presences in our literature. Here is a lovely and inspiring short essay on art and science, which was published in 2006 as her personal note in Are Angels OK?: The Parallel Universes of New Zealand Writers and Scientists, edited by Paul Callaghan and Bill Manhire.

Three Things from Lawrence Patchett

May 30, 2012
I Got His Blood On Me
Lawrence Patchett's first book I Got His Blood On Me will be launched Thursday, June 7th, 6pm at Unity Books ( All welcome). In the meantime have a read of something that's been on his mind...
Three things about Wild Nights!
Rereading a big pile of biographical novels and stories for my PhD oral defence, I was struck all over again by the versatility and force ofWild Nights!, in which Joyce Carol Oates riffs on the deaths of Hemingway, Emily Dickinson and others. Her take on the Great Dead Writers speaks powerfully to the current debate about the use of real people in fiction.   
Here are three things that interested me about this disturbing book.

1 - I own you, Emily Dickinson My favourite character is EDickinsonRepliLuxe, a robotic mannequin ‘animated’ with the soul of the American poet. Oates’ brilliant device for focalising the destructive energies of the fame industry, this mannequin is bought by a couple who hope that Emily Dickinson’s presence will banish the ‘torpor’ of their suburban home. But she and her genius are elusive, and in their rage to own and know her completely—in all senses of that word—the couple freak the poet right out. The wife is over-friendly and the husband so excited by the power of possession that he attempts mannequin-rape:  

‘In a rage the husband tore at these [undergarments], he was owed this, he had a right to this, he’d paid for this, under U.S. law this model ofEDickinsonRepliLuxe was his possession and he was legally blameless in anything he might do with her […] she was his to dispose of as he wished.’ 

Other RepliLuxe models for purchase include Freud, van Gogh, and Babe Ruth. Unsurprisingly, most are wrecked by their owners, one way or another, within their first year of purchase.

2 - You’re not going to like this…Real lives are often a focus of Oates’ fiction – Marilyn Monroe in Blonde, for example, and Ted Kennedy in Black Water. Not everyone likes these techniques. In fact Guy Gavriel Kay attacked Blonde as part of the ‘contemporary pandemic’ of novels about real people, a sign of our collapsing ethic of privacy when it comes to other people, especially famous ones. 

I don’t think critics like Kay would enjoy the real-life reinventions of Wild Nights! The way Oates portrays him, Henry James was pompous, physically weak, and secretly lusting after the soldiers he helped as a WWI volunteer. Later he’s whipped by a matron for his ‘improper' desires, and splattered with muck on latrine duty. Having read Oates’ other books it’s easy to recognise her old interests in violence and horror, particularly of the sexual variety, as Henry is forced to bathe the wounded soldiers:

‘they were gravely ill, disfigured, senile, drooling, leaking blood from orifices, comatose, inclined to unpredictable outbursts of rage. They were covered in bedsores and they smelled of their rancid, rotting bodies.’ 

Meanwhile Ernest Hemingway is incontinent, paranoid, and suicidal, fumbling with his toe against the trigger of the shotgun he’ll use to blow his own brains out. These stories are emphatically not Canonisations of the Great Dead Writers. Instead, they’re focused on the last—and least illustrious—moments of these famous lives. 

3 - I kiss your stumpBut if it’s shocking at first, Oates isn’t pretending to be a biographer. Instead she’s attacking the myths that we spin round these famous people, myths that are dangerous because they mask the more complicated human realities that lie underneath. In this way they’re like the fairy-tales she interrogates in her other books—the myth of ‘Mark Twain’ is dangerous because it gives a predator access to young girls, and Henry James’ stuffy persona of style (‘The Master’) divorces him from his own real life and sexuality. Forcibly Oates strips away these legends, reconnecting the men with their humanity: 

‘Abject in adoration, scarcely knowing what he did, Henry pressed his yearning mouth against the stump of Scudder’s mutilated leg, that was damp, and warm, and bandaged in gauze, for the raw wound was healing slowly.’

After these awakenings, and the public shame and humiliation that follow, Henry learns what real life can be—not only amputations and bedpans and pain, but also sexual excitement and deep compassion—and becomes capable of true kindness at last, a kindness he could never quite manage as the celebrated and guarded ‘Master’. Then he slips into a quick and happy dotage and dies. 

Off they sail...

May 07, 2012 | A Booklaunch
Dinah Hawken Lynn Davidson Helen Heath


DInah Hawken, Lynn Davidson and Helen Heath, in the rustic old St Peters' Hall for the Paekakariki launch of Lynn's Common Land and Helen's Graft. It was a heart-warming 'down the hall on Saturday night'. You can read about Helen's Wellington launch here and Harry Ricketts' speech here. Lynn's launch followed readings and a conversation with Helen and Dinah about poetry, writing, family and loss. Dinah's launch speech for Lynn can be read here shortly and Fergus Barrowman sent this message:
Elizabeth and I are very sorry we can’t be here to celebrate the launch of Lynn’s book. We’re in Sydney to celebrate Sara Knox’s 50th birthday. Elizabeth, Sara and Lynn have been writers together since their school days, well before they appeared together in in the second issue for Sport in 1989. Over the years since then, I’ve followed Lynn’s work with enormous pleasure and interest. I thought her 2009 book How to live by the sea was a real breakthrough in terms of her ability to marry often difficult personal experiences with an open-eyed lyrical pleasure in the world. Common Land is at least as big a step again. The way these poems and essays reflect and enlarge one another is truly remarkable. This is a book that will be read and talked about for a long time.  Congratulations to Lynn and thanks for being here. I hope you all have a great evening. - Fergus Barrowman
We certainly did have a great evening, capped off with music from Lynn's sister Clare Christian and local band Blue Vein.
(Photo credit - Jane Harris)

New poetry for May

May 03, 2012 |
Common LandMay sees two new books of poetry (and essays) being released. Tonight we launchGraft by Helen Heath (me!) and on Saturday in Paekakariki Lynn Davidson's new book of poetry and essays will be launched. Elizabeth Knox says of Lynn's work:
"Common Land is possibly the most successful mix of poetry and prose I have read. Nothing is simply occasional, and everything fits together. The essayist tells of the death of her first partner, father of her grown-up son, and the poet remembers a wintertime trip to the isle of Islay with man and child; the essayist reflects upon her musical family and playing the piano accordion, and the poet talks tenderly about her aging father and her mother’s last illness. A day is spent in the Family Court, a daughter leaves home – the essays and poems circle, and shine lights on one another.
Lynn Davidson has produced a deeply feeling and deeply rational book, a thoughtful book, where things are unusual and surprising, and yet necessary and true."
—Elizabeth Knox
You can read one of Lynn's essays here.

The Intentions Book - Extract

March 30, 2012 |
Intentions BookThe Intentions Book by Gigi Fenster will be launched by Damien Wilkins on Thursday April 5th, 6pm at Unity Books Wellington. You're all welcome to attend.
Morris Goldberg is a man who can’t cry. Semi-retired from his career as a metadata analyst, he lives alone and conducts imaginary conversations with his recently-deceased wife, Sadie.
Then news arrives that his daughter Rachel is missing in the bush, with bad weather on the way. While Morris waits, he thinks back over his life, and as memory and dream start to merge, key scenes from his childhood and marriage play out in his imagination and the urgent questions of a lifetime press forward. What happens to us in moments of crisis? Are we capable of change? How can we express our true feelings? How do we survive the endless dance of estrangement and intimacy.

The Intentions Book is a tender and funny novel about love and communication, and the ways our families shape us. You can read the first few pages here.
PS edited to add - here is copy of Damien's glowing launch speech "my find of the year"!

Angels are just fine

March 29, 2012 |
Paul Callaghan
We at Victoria University Press were very sad to hear that Sir Paul Callaghan has passed away. You can read his essay'Luminous Moments', the afterword to Are Angels OK?, the book he edited with Bill Manhire. It seems even more poignant now.
‘Are Angels OK?’ asked Bill the poet.
‘Angels are just fine,’ said Paul the physicist.

David Beach gets Agricultural

March 22, 2012 |
Scenery and AgricultureIf you've picked up the April edition of North & South you will have noticed a couple of David Beach poems from his new collectionScenery and Agriculture, we sincerely hope that North & South will make space for a regular poetry spot. In the meantime, here's snappy teaser from us:

Agriculture 6

Tyrants are sometimes pleased to install
a crocodile pit into which to cast
reformers and other scum. The reptiles'
liberty has been stolen but they do
at least have something to swish their tails
about. The lot of farmed crocodiles is
considerably harder. These dine upon plucked
chickens, or even pellets, wretched
repasts which set the monsters writhing
in a self-hatred more terrible than
any ferocity – all perhaps to be
regarded as necessary preparation,
a kind of softening them up before the
indignity of being turned into handbags.

David Beach

A Busy time for Harry Ricketts

March 08, 2012 |
Just ThenHe's recently launched a book with several other authors about New Zealand YA Fiction, he's been tangled up with a Great Dane on stage during the Festival and now Harry Ricketts is about to launch a collection of poetry and make several appearances atWriters & Readers week in Wellington at the International Arts Festival. So please join us to celebrate this Saturday March 10th from 6.15pm at the Exchange Atrium, 22 Blair Street. It's just a hop, skip and a jump from the Embassy Theatre where most of the Writers and Readers sessions are held. Here's the title poem of his new collection to keep you going in the meantime:
Just then

Thirteen, a summer afternoon,
your mother's kitchen garden.
Geronimo and Sitting Bull
have you pinned between the broad
beans and the box-hedges. Things look
bad. You're both hit, losing blood,
ammo running low. Toff reckons
you should make a break for it
round the pear tree, down the lane,
so you can die properly
in the orchard. And suddenly
just then you know in the way
you know when secret fears come true,
that behind the wall, the pink
roses and the cherished edges,
there is nothing there at all.

Read Ingrid Horrock's launch speech here.

Shaky Ground

February 28, 2012 |
VisitationThe recent Wellington City Council report on the city's earthquake risk brings to mind the last chapter of The Visitation, VUP's recent book about the 1848 Wellington earthquakes, in which the author, Rodney Grapes, imagines the effect of a 7.4-magnitude earthquake along the Wellington Fault in the near future. Although he wrote this chapter long before the first Christchurch earthquake in September 2010, his account bears striking similarities to the aftermath of the 22 February quake. The firsthand accounts of the 1848 earthquakes, which form the bulk of The Visitation � the initial shock and fear, the appeals for and offers of help, and the gradual rebuilding of the city �  are also relevant to the experiences of New Zealanders today, although the circumstances were quite different (Wellington was then only a few years old and contained barely 3000 residents). You can read this chapter as an extract from The Visitation here.
Rodney Grapes had this to say on the matter:
There are quite a number of similarities with the 1848 earthquakes. With respect to the response to these earthquakes, you might also be interested in the following that forms part of a short article in relation to a letter  in The New Zealander, 9 November 1848, from 'a settler' in Auckland, to appear in the New Zealand Geological Society Newsletter.
'Believing that my fellow colonists with render their suffering brethren every assistance in  their power, and hoping that the government will find employment for the destitute, and cheap land for those who may be severely injured in  their fortunes, in a district where land is of use, and of prospective value, 
I have the honour, &c., &c., 
This last paragraph in the letter has obvious parallels to the current situation in Christchurch where the abandonment of some 5000 houses and specified land areas is expected to occur, the affected residents being offered a state payment equal to their home values prior to the first earthquake in September 2010 and given 9 months to decide what they wish to do.
Following the 1848 earthquakes, when there no insurance cover, several measures of relief were implemented. At a meeting of subscribers to the Fire Relief Fund in Wellington on the December 16, 1848, it was resolved ‘that the balance remaining from the Fire Fund of 1842, now deposited in the Wellington Savings Bank, and amounting to 68 pounds, more or less, be appropriated to the relief of sufferers by the late earthquake’. A notice in the Wellington Independent, 5 January 1849, requested ‘that all persons who have suffered losses in property by the late earthquake, will meet at the Stores of Messrs. W.B. RHODES & CO., on Tuesday next, the 9th Instant, at 2 o’clock precisely, to take into consideration the propriety of petitioning the Home Government to obtain a grant from Parliament for the relief of the sufferers by that calamity’. As a result of this meeting, a further notice in the Wellington Independent, 20 January 1849, headed 'Losses Incurred by the Late Earthquakes' stated that, 
‘All Persons desirous of having their Claims embodies in the application about to be made through Her Majesty’s Principle Secretary of State for the Colonies to the British Houses of Parliament, for a Grant in compensation thereof, will send an estimate of their losses to the Undersigned, specifying their claims distinctly in the following manner: 
In Buildings,

“ Household Goods, 
“ Merchandize. 
(Signed)                                              Wm. Hickson, 
Chairman of the Committee’

By 10 October 1849, almost a year after the first great shock of the earthquakes on 16 October 1848, and with aftershocks ‘reduced to the average state - or rather less - since the end of August’ (H.S. Chapman, in a letter to his father in London, 1849), the Governor-in-Chief (Sir George Grey) reported to his Council; 
‘Probably no surer proof could be afforded of the real prosperity of this portion of the Province of New Munster, than the rapidity with which its inhabitants have recovered from the effects of the present earthquakes, from which at one time it appeared so improbable that very calamitous results might follow. The settlers, in this instance, have exhibited their usual energy and perseverance, and I have done my utmost to second this by causing a Circular Letter to be addressed to the Governors of the neighbouring Colonies,* explaining the exact nature of the injuries sustained from the earthquakes, and requesting them to make public in their several Governments the fact that public confidence is entirely restored, and also that commercial and other operations have, for some time past, been resumed and carried on with their usual activity.’ (Wellington Independent, 10 October 1849)        
(*There were 6 separate New Zealand colonies; Auckland, New Plymouth, Wellington, Nelson, Canterbury, and Otago.)

Birds of Clay launched

February 16, 2012 | A Book by Aleksandra Lane
Aleks LaneBirds of Clay is Aleksandra Lane’s first book in English, after two published in Serbian. It was launched on Saturday by Chris Price whose speech is reproduced below:
I’m curious about the title of this book.   The only birds of clay I know of are clay pigeons, birds that exist only to be shot to smithereens.  If so, what kind of targets is the poet taking aim at?  And what kind of egg might this kind of bird lay?  Because the book contains quite a lot of eggs: Easter eggs, eggs in the henhouse, and eggs in waiting to become human beings.  In one of the later poems there is a soccer ball carried across a road at dusk that resembles an egg; and then I start seeing eggs in places where the poet probably never even dreamed of hiding them.  In a book that opens with an earthquake, you just know they aren’t all going to survive intact.
A few years ago now Hinemoana Baker and Maria Macmillan published an anthology of New Zealand political poetry, perhaps to remind those of us who are inclined to wince when those terms turn up in close proximity that there’s more to good political poetry than a kind of overdressed placard-waving.  So if I suggest that some of these poems are political, you should take that in the same spirit as the editors’ description of the aforementioned anthology as ‘a sackful of hand-grenades and fireflies’. 
The ‘War interrupted’ sequence in the first half of the book provides a much-needed alternative to the abbreviated view of Balkan conflict supplied by our TV news. It shows how language can divide people against one another, and its own divided structure parallels what can be said with what’s suppressed. It splits the worlds of both the protagonists and the peace-keepers open, spilling tears, lives and languages.  There’s a line from the final poem in this sequence that has really stuck with me: ‘We stepped on our children’s language on the way out,’ it says. I think has stuck because it manages to express something quite devastating about long-term damage to people whose lives are disrupted or displaced by war, in what reads like a small painful domestic image.
It’s also an image for an experience that has been repeated in that hemisphere and in this - and maybe that’s why the cover image by Andy Leleisi’uao seems to fit the poems so well, despite the artist’s and the writer’s apparentlly very different backgrounds. They both manage to keep the small picture of individual experience and the big picture of history in focus at the same time.  The big black hand descending from the sky in a couple of the panels in the painting - to admonish, or offer aid, or both – could be the hand of a less than benevolent god, of a paternalistic post-colonial power, or even the invisible hand of the market.
In fact quite a number of the poems in Birds of Clay are bracingly alert to economics, another topic some of us may once have thought was best left at the door when entering the poem. Aleks demonstrates that economics and surrealism actually make perfect bedfellows, an idea that the rest of us have been slowly and painfully getting used to outside poetry’s doors in recent years.  
The book has a hinge or a kind of equatorial crossing in the middle, after which the poems are relocated to a hemisphere where the constellations don’t supply the same reassuring reference points they used to, and neither does the language.  At first they suffer the anxieties of acceptance familiar to all emigrĂ©s: will they be seen as invasive aliens, like the Scotch thistle, or simply as a new species that poses no threat to the natives?  But by the time we get to a poem called ‘Wellington Inc’, there’s a sure sign that acclimatization is already well underway: anyone who can confidently deploy our current favourite, self-cancelling statement ‘yeahno’ in a poem has begun taking root in the local soil. 
In case I’ve left you with the impression that these are poems that set out to improve you, or to change your mind, or give you a piece of the poet’s, I should make it clear at this point that the real star of this book is language, used not just as a vehicle for self-expression, but a roadmap to surprise. There are poems that careen around corners doing exuberant linguistic fishtails while the poet waves at you from the back window; there are also side-trips into traditional forms such as the villanelle and sestina, as if to remind you that she is in full control of her vehicle.  There is a prose poem sequence that sounds like the folk history of a Serbian family and its village; there is a charming tale of the chicken and the egg that begins in light but ends in darkness, as do many of the poems in the second half of the book. 
A powerful current of melancholy runs through many of the later poems, all the more affecting because it never slips, even for a moment, from tough lyricism into easy sentimentality.  And to finish with there’s a section of largely found poetry that remixes the voice of Nikola Tesla, another displaced Serb with a sharp eye for the culture of his adopted land. I think this sequence is the gateway to what comes next in Aleks’s writing life, and it certainly left me wanting more.
In the much-quoted essay on different registers in New Zealand poetry called 'Dirty Silence', Bill Manhire says he has always believed that poems "ought at least to be sociable and surprising in their behaviour, in the way they voice and acknowledge the range of languages which the community gives them to use." I'd like to turn that thought around a bit and suggest that we all benefit from being sociable to the range of languages the worldgives us to use — and so we should welcome these distinctive new birds into our nest of lyrical foliage, and remember this motto from 'Earthquake', the plate-smashing poem that opens Aleks's collection: 'Every second wife inherits someone's plates on her wedding day. This side of the equator and that.'
Aleks Lane

Upcoming event

January 17, 2012
Words On Edge



Wednesday, 15 February 2012, 7.30-9pm
Poets reading from their own work, and reading from each other’s, and generally giving the idea of poetry as words on edge a run for its money. Or as Ian Wedde has it, putting words 'on the edges of their seats, at the edges of the known universe, where speaking, writing, and telling get shuffled in the language deck. Edgy words, words on high alert.’
This event is free, Fergus Barrowman will steer, and an edgy time is guaranteed.
The poets
Amy Brown is teaching creative writing and completing her PhD at the University of Melbourne.  Her first poetry collection, The Propaganda Poster Girl (VUP, 2008) was shortlisted for a Montana New Zealand Book Award.
Lynn Jenner’s Dear Sweet Harry won the Adam Foundation Prize for Creative Writing and the Society of Authors Jessie McKay prize for Best First Book of Poetry.
Aleksandra Lane completed her MA in Creative Writing at the IIML (Victoria University) in 2010, and was awarded the Biggs Poetry Prize for her portfolio.
Ian Wedde teaches in the departments of English and Art History at Auckland University. He has published dozens of works and is the current New Zealand Poet Laureate.