Monthly Archives: May 2016

Auckland Mayoral Writer’s Grant winner announced: poet Grace Taylor!

Papatoetoe resident Grace Taylor has been awarded the second annual
Auckland Mayoral Writers Grant.
Grace’s winning proposal was for
City of Undone Darlings, a poetry collection
intended for publication in paperback and as an e-book, and for performance.
Mayor Len Brown established the $12,000 grant in 2014 to capture Auckland life
in the written word. It is awarded to local writers on completion of a quality text
work about living in Auckland.
“I established this grant to support our local literary talent to capture our young
city in the written word,” says Len Brown.
“Auckland has a relatively short history, but it is a great history to reflect back on
and a great future to look forward to as our city undergoes a major
transformation.”I’m thrilled at the response we’ve had 55 entries in all, covering a wide range of styles and genres.”
The two other shortlisted writers were Louise Tu’u of Kingsland for Magdalena ofMangere, a script for theatre and film and Professor Tony Watkins or Karaka Bay for Taurere: A history of Karaka Bay -non-fiction.
The grant assessors agreed all three shortlisted finalists were outstanding candidates who demonstrated heart and talent.
They praised Louise Tu’u’s script for its “ambitious reach and fresh and imaginative perspective” and highly commended the scope and range of the ideas in Professor Watkins’ proposal as well as the originality of its emphasis on looking back at the history
of Taurere Karaka Bay in order to look forward.
The assessors also had universal enthusiasm for Grace Taylor’s proposal to
evoke the social landscape of Auckland through five diverse and credible
characters presented with humour and affection.
Dr Scott Hamilton of Glen Eden won the inaugural grant  in 2015 for his project,
Fragments of the Great South Road

Hurrah!The Academy of NZ Literature is launched – Steven Touissant contemplates the NZ poetry scene

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Such noise! So many voices!

Steven Toussaint investigates the contemporary New Zealand poetry scene, and discovers much more than a tale of two cities.

Earlier this year, the Aotearoa/New Zealand literary community celebrated nearly twenty years of its Poet Laureateship with a sold-out gala event in Wellington. The laureates took turns at the podium, in the order of appointment, to read selections from their work, but also to reflect on the laureateship itself, on lives dedicated to poetry. In his opening remarks, the inaugural laureate Bill Manhire joked about English laureates like Robert Southey who ‘turned out poems for royal birthdays’. ‘Fortunately in New Zealand,’ he added, ‘there’s no requirement or expectation that you produce poems for the Queen or Prime Minister.’

Manhire’s remarks and the reading that followed presented a picture of the New Zealand laureate as public servant of the average reader—maybe even one uninitiated to the mysteries of poetry. This isn’t to denigrate the position, only to demystify it a little,tempering some of the pomp and circumstance.

‘New Zealanders are doubtful in an entirely pragmatic way,’ Manhire wrote in a 2011 essay for World Literature Today. ‘They want to give most things, including poems, a bit of a kick to find out just what they’re for.’ He characterises recent New Zealand poetry as ‘very happy with daily life’, and points to fellow laureate Jenny Bornholdt as a master of quotidian lyrics ‘where tradesmen call, children and recipes and baking are often on your mind, and neighbors behave in slightly quirky ways.’ Bornholdt enjoys an immense influence over the current landscape, he suggests, because ‘many of us recognise our lives in her poems.’


For the rest of the article go to the Academy website here.

You can also find details on the members, interviews, conversations, articles and other news.


Congratulations on the site and the initiative! Anything that will showcase our writers and writing, across both genre and region, is to be applauded. Bravo Paula Morris and team.

And thanks for acknowledging Poetry Shelf, Steven.

#awf16 Going to the Sarah Broom Award


(excuse my photos but I have managed an eerie poetry light on everyone!)


Going to the Sarah Broom Award is always a sad-glad occasion for me as I get to remember a wonderful poet and to celebrate the vitality of New Zealand poetry.

This year was no exception. The award is a gift from Sarah’s husband, Michael Gleissner. His dedicated drive to support NZ poetry offers an award for a poet at any stage of their career. For the past two occasions, an overseas judge has selected the shortlist and winner. This year, acclaimed Irish poet, Paul Muldoon, was judge. He had no idea who wrote the poems and insisted on reading all the entries (over 250) because he wanted to find the entries that ‘judge you, that read you and impress themselves upon you.’


Paul’s short list: Airini Beautrais, Elizabeth Smither and Amanda Hunt

Paul began with a moving tribute to Sarah, Sarah’s family and her poetry. He read her poem (among others) ‘Holding the Line’ and said: ‘We’re all trying to hold the line of poetry which seems a little perilous, but that’s what we’re all trying to do.’

Each poet read a handful of poems.



The winner, Elizabeth Smither read the poem about her mother that she read at the Laureate Circle event in Wellington. Kate Camp and I were in a frenzy to read it again. Elizabeth so kindly gave Kate her copy and signed it and emailed me one. It is the kind of a poem that has built a room of its own in my head. The sort of poem that rises and pierces your heart with the acute depiction of a moment. Elizabeth is outside in her car in the street seeing her mother move through her house without realising her daughter is watching. Elizabeth followed it with a poem, ‘The name in the fridge’ that made me laugh out loud. She and friend had put the name of someone they wished ill of in the freezer but nothing bad happened (see poem below). As Paul said, Elizabeth has the skill to blend humour with seriousness. Yes, her poems can handle that and so much more. The stillness, insight and deep connection to humanity makes Elizabeth a poet writing at her very best.

Elizabeth is a former NZ Poet Laureate, has published numerous poetry collections that have garnered awards and high praise, along with short stories and novels. She lives in New Plymouth.


The name in the fridge

Someone we both disliked: you wrote

his name on a slip of paper

folded it, and inserted it in the freezer


under a tray of ice cubes, next to

a frozen chicken, frozen vegetables

a casserole sectioned into cartons.


You’d read about it. Nothing too serious

would happen. Perhaps he’d lose his job

or his dog would need taking to the vet.


The dog would recover, the bill be huge.

His wife might flirt with someone at a party

and be noticed: notice was a big part of it.


When nothing happened after six months:

his dog had puppies, he got promoted

we took out the paper, ice-encrusted


and brushed it against our jerseys. Soft

powder fell into the sink. You said

you’d take it with you when you went to England


as if it would be more potent there.

A huge fridge near an Aga

stuffed with grouse and pheasants and wild boar.


©Elizabeth Smither




Airini Beautrais read from a sequence of poems that forge links with the Whanganui River. As a poet she bends the line and then makes it glow with luminous detail so that as you listen to the contours of voice you are both skimming the slopes of  every day living and doing little side jumps to out-of-the-everyday. It all comes down to voice. To human beings finding their way in different circumstances. As I listened I felt like I want to read the river, to read the whole sequence, and follow people as much as river currents.

Airini has published three collections of poetry and is a graduate of IIML. Her most recent collection, Dear Neil Roberts, was longlisted for the Ockham NZ Book Awards in the Poetry Category. Like Amanda she studied ecological science at university. Her debut collection was named Best First Book of Poetry at the Montana NZ Book Awards 2007. She lives in Whanganui.

Airini acknowledged the significance of  Sarah’s poetry: ‘As a mother and writer I find Sarah’s poetry particularly moving, and also inspirational. I am inspired by her bravery and strength. She has left us an important legacy.’




Kids, who wants to look up through the telescope?

This is the largest unmodified refractor telescope in use

in New Zealand. Birthday girl, you first. I hope

you’ll see a planet up there, with rings. That might come loose

if you fiddle with it, be careful. It looks like smoke?

That would be a cloud. Is that really a planet? Yes.

Nah, I stuck a picture up on the end. That was a joke.

Could an asteroid destroy humanity? Well, I guess

there’s a chance. No object we know of threatens us any time soon.

Is there life like ours, out there? Keep looking up, wave a little.

Parents, bring your kids back one Friday night, maybe the moon

will be visible. Who hasn’t had a turn yet? Look there, and it’ll

be right in the middle. Ha, that’s what everyone says. You know how

they called this planet Saturn? They really should have named it Oh wow.

©Airini Beautrais




Amanda Hunt read a bunch of native bird poems that were glorious renditions of birds but offered so much more in terms of life and living. Like Elizabeth she had the ability to make us laugh and pause. There was the joy of hearing a poet for the first time that you know absolutely nothing about and have no idea what effect her poems will have on you. I loved the static between visual detail and people doing things.

Amanda is a poet and ecologist based in Rotorua and, while she has been writing poems for awhile, is beginning to seek increased publishing opportunities. She studied medicine and environmental science at the University of Auckland. She has worked in environmental and resource management throughout New Zealand and Australia, but returned to her home town a few years ago.

Amanda said that she ‘felt the award helps to keep Sarah’s amazing work very much alive and it was a real honour to be reading at this event in her name.’



He says

the grey warbler sounds

like the beginning of a Bizet aria


a small pale bird

ruffling its feathers

inside a red dress

one wing outstretched

as its sings the same song

over and over


all our birds have

funny names and

our voices are strange so

he has to ask us to repeat

what we say

over and over


the cold is on the border

of being worth dressing for

he came without gloves

it’s still winter and the

wind blitzes us from the south


but in the morning he’s not sure

if it’s snow he sees on the hills or

the sun in his eyes


we drive on the wrong side of the road

there are no newspapers in his language

and he still wakes late with jet lag


and yet

every morning

in the kowhai tree behind his house

the first notes of a song

he already knows.

©Amanda Hunt



(Elizabeth with her AUP editor, Anna Hodge)

When Elizabeth was announced as winner she was a little shocked (I do think the finalists could be told back stage so they don’t have to sit on stage for an hour, with the the sizable store of nerves that build when you are about to read in public). She searched in her bag for a piece of paper while Paul supplied her with another poem to read.

I thought her thank-you speech was very moving. She said, ‘It feels like having your first poem accepted again. The chase is always on the for the next poem that might be better though it is always moving out of reach.’

Elizabeth was reminded of her short story where a young girl, notebook in arm, struggled to be a writer in Paris. Elizabeth had included this quote from Mavis Gallant in her story: ‘She was sustained by the French refusal to accept poverty as a sign of failure in an artist.’

Elizabeth said that poets would be familiar with this and ‘That is why the Sarah Broom Award is so marvelous. Sarah and Michael have exactly understood the position, the amount is perfect, the conditions are wonderful.’

Like Airini and Amanda, she paid moving tribute to Sarah’s poems: ‘I heard that a whole new cluster of planets has just been discovered. That’s how I think of Sarah’s poems: flying through space, serene and beautiful, wrought from tragedy and beauty.’

Elizabeth also thanked the audience! She made us feel that as readers we matter: ‘And I want to thank the audience for being present. Poetry could not survive without you. The girl in the French cafe was counting on that: if she could write something, someone would read it and she then would be a writer.’

Thanks to AWF for hosting this event.

Thanks for a terrific occasion Michael. Three very special writers. One very special award.



Ika Issue 4 – a feast indeed


With the latest issue, Ika is planting its feet firmly on the NZ writing landscape, as a journal to take notice of. Each issue tweaks the design a little. This one looks good. Poems luxuriate on the page. The art is honoured. The internal design is appealing to the eye.

Anne Kennedy, with her astute eye and ear, has assembled writing that matches the fresh appeal of the design. Like Sport, the journal acknowledges its links to its Creative Writing programme and allows established writers to rub shoulders with students. I applaud the celebration of Pacific writing. You will find art, poetry, fiction, an interview and nonfiction. A feast indeed.

Lovely launch at Auckland Central Library on Saturday with a fitting speech by Sue Orr, a handful of readings and  wow-factor song.


A taste of poetry:

Annaleese Jochems: She is a graduate of MIT and is now doing a Masters in writing at Victoria. Her poem is your entry into the book and it leaves you wanting more. Just what a new voice offers: surprising lines, audacity, elasticity.

I must go home for dinner,/ but I don’t want to go home/ where I play my unrequited/ love like a banjo


Poet and publisher Kiri Piahana-Wong has a suite of poems that I think are her best yet. How do you reproduce feeling in a poem in 2016? Kiri shows how: ‘A month later my chest/ still felt like a stone/ was inside it so I stayed/ there and I kept waiting’


Bill Manhire also has a suite of poems. The first poem, ‘We Work to be Winners’ got under my skin because I loved the surprising juxtapositions of one line alongside the next. It got me thinking about the origins of the poem. Sometimes if you know that, it changes the way you read the lines. In this case I began inventing origins as I waited in a festival queue. It felt like the poem had a fascinating backstory which could become a poem in its own right. It might be a found poem (but from where? that is what intrigues). It could be written from the point of view  of someone who writes a sentence in a diary each Thursday. Or the offbeat biography of a hippy from the 1970s. Get the journal and decide for yourself. First line: ‘I left the ashram running for my life.’

Craig Santos Perez: ‘Micronesians in Denial’ brings mouth-watering detail alongside history alongside political spikes. I also loved ‘Aunty of rainwater and Smoke’ – the title says it all. This is poetry song and poetry joy.

David Eggleton (winner of Poetry Category at NZ Book Awards last week) is hitting his poetry straps so to speak. You get two poems that are a linguistic explosion in the ear with musical chords sneaking in and rhythms pulling you along at breakneck speed. It is not just aural gold though because there is the visual weave that ignites all senses.

Awks: you winged Auk-thing, awkward, huddling;

you wraparound, myriad, amphibious,

stretchy try-hard, Polywoodish

juggernaut’ (from ‘Edgeland’)


I am flicking in and out of the journal waiting for a session at the festival and stumble upon these lines by Hera Lindsay Bird (she has a book out with VUP later this year!): ‘O Anna/ let us jettison the manky quilts/ of our foremothers’ Yep – it is a terrific poem.


Courtney Sina Meredith’s ‘of all the bricks we laid in our sleep’ stuck with me, haunted me as I drove home on Sunday with festival fatigue. this poem was like a haunting refrain. ‘and hear your soft waiata/ through the floorboards’


This stanza from Doug Poole‘s ‘The light I had hoped’ also got to me:

As a child I would lie awake listening to my grandmother slapping

clothes on her bedside chair, speaking aloud her thoughts of the day,

clicking rosary beads and whispering her prayers


This afternoon I fell upon  ‘Chasing Spirits’ by Kim M. Melhuish. A voice keeps asking ‘how’s this’ and the answers tumble like little poetry postcards perfectly formed:

two words

fishing for love

pink orchids

finger paint

the night ahead.


And then it was this delicious morsel from Vivienne Plumb from ‘Peach Tree’:

The cactus unfurls its one brilliant

blinding flower. Excuse me,

there is no poetic peach tree here.


AND I still have to read poems by these poets: Airini Beautrias, Bryan Walpert, Charlotte Steel, Elizabeth Morton, Gregory O’Brien, Makyla Curtis, Manisha Anjali, Ria Masae, Richard Von Sturmer, Sophie van Waardenberg.

I applaud everyone involved. This is a journal worth subscribing to.



submit at





Congratulations #AWF16 – It’s a bouquet of roses


Once again the AWF have delivered a gift to readers and writers. I applaud the fact they showcase NZ writers as much as they do those from overseas. I applaud the free sessions (ok I got used to sitting on the floor with my recovering fractured foot rebelling with all that queuing). I applaud the fact they cater for children. I applaud a programme that is so very diverse and that offers moments that shake you apart — that reminds us what is so very important about sustaining a book culture from birth to 100. Books do matter. Conversations about books matter, whether you are reader or writer. I applaud all the writers who were so very generous with their self/ideas/issues/stories/poetry exposures.

Thank you so very much Anne O’Brien and your fabulous team.


Saturday (I booked ended a full day at the festival with short stories and a feminist icon)

The short-story session was a standout event – the exact reason I am prepared to face parking issues, hordes of people, endless queues.

Sue Orr in conversation with Damien Wilkins and Elizabeth McCracken was such a treat. Genius idea to read a short story by another author and explore the craft. Elizabeth read Lucia Berlin’s ‘The Jockey,’ while Damien read Janet Frame’s ‘This Is My Last Story.’  Elizabeth responded to the potential workshop criticism that Lucia’s story gave the protagonist no biographical details. Elizabeth: ‘Her voice is so full of life you know that character.’ Damien even suggested the ending (‘This is so marvelous.’) might not survive a workshop – but that it works.

In the review I did with Bill he suggested he wasn’t straitjacketed by rules. Both stories read were perfect examples of this.

Damien said he goes to Janet’s collection of stories when he feels language can’t be fresh any more and is rejuvenated. Hearing him read her story so beautifully, with such verve, made me want to scoot back home, pick up her book and get reading.

Loved hearing their own stories too, and the fact Damien had to start rewriting his!


Second standout event of the day – Tusiata Avia in scintillating conversation with Maxine Beneba Clarke.

Both writers bemoaned the way they get pigeon holed as being writers of colour. The empathy between them was infectious, the poems read utterly vital.

Tusiata talked about the way the job of the writer is to bring the unseen into the world, bringing it out of the dark places, even it is painful, even if it’s not attractive.

Maxine added that the drive to pick up the pen is affected by the need to change something and that one might not write in a utopian world.

This session was polemical, uplifting, moving – and a reminder of the power and beauty of poetry.




Third standout moments were hearing Cilla McQueen and Lynn Jenner read in the Excavations session.

Having read both books, these two readings lifted me out of festival fatigue. Highly recommend Lost and Gone way and In Slanted Light. Lynn’s refreshing approach to nonfiction, Cilla’s refreshing approach to memoir.



Fourth stand out moment

Gloria Steinem.


I will do a separate post on The Sarah Broom Poetry Award.



Absolute standout moment of the festival Jeanette Winterson doing Shakespeare

Standing solo on the stage Jeanette delivered an impressive monologue on Shakespeare, on why she chose The Winter’s Tale to do her cover version (The Gap of Time).

I never thought-drifted off. Nor when she read two sections from the book. Read is hardly the right word to describe her electric-electifying performance.

I walked out gobsmacked. Speechless. It was like she was feeling Shakespeare with every twitch, every lift and rush of word, every pore of skin. She felt it, so I felt it.

She said we live in such a complicated world, you can’t reduce it with the karate chop of syntax. We want to expand us/the world. It is like the way, in another language, thought shrinks to the language available.

Book quote: ‘What is memory anyway but a painful dispute from the past.’

She referred to Dante’s idea that writers are putting into words things difficult to think. Jeanette adds: ‘and feelings.’

I kept bumping into people who were as blubberingly euphoric as me after this session.


Second standout session of the day Michel Faber in conversation with Paula Morris

The most poignant  moment of the festival was seeing Michel’s wife Eva’s little red boots on the stage, standing in for her, this huge absence he carries on his travels.

I looked at this unbearable emptiness as he read poems from his forthcoming collection, poems that navigate her illness and death, his loss and grief.

Astonishing. And his declaration, well known, that he has written his last novel. ‘I only had this many novels in me,’ he says.

Again the tricky question of whether fiction and poetry make a difference to us came up. Michel didn’t used to think so. Now he says, ‘if a decent human being can feel something for an hour reading poetry or fiction regarding the evils of those who rule us, then it is a value, even though it doesn’t affect how things turn out. Maybe that’s enough.’



And bravo CK Stead stepping into Bill Manhire’s shoes to converse with Paul Muldoon.

A fascinating session. Hearing the poems with that Irish lilt again means reading the new collection with just the right musical inflections. The pauses were memorable. Best poetic pauses.











EILEEN MYLES Performer, memoirist and ‘Rock Star of Poetry’ in her only New Zealand appearance


I am so sad to miss this. Would some one like to do a wee write-up for Poetry Shelf please? If so email me:



Performer, memoirist and ‘Rock Star of Poetry’
in her only New Zealand appearance

Reading / Q&A
Free and open to the public

Thursday 19th May 2016
5-6 PM
Owen G Glenn Building Case Room 2/057

Sponsored by the School of Humanities
University of Auckland

All Welcome

Poetry winner, David Eggleton’s seven best things to make a poem memorable


David Eggleton won the Ockham Book Award’s  Poetry category this year. Here are his Seven Things That Make A Poem Memorable. Gems.

1. The first thing is the poetic license, the dispensation, a poem grants allowing the poet to take liberties with language, with literary form, to yoke together like with unlike, the probable with the improbable, in a tiny space, and create a kind of explosion — sometimes thermonuclear, as in T.S.Eliot’s Modernism-defining 1922 poem ‘The Waste Land’. Virginia Woolf wrote shortly after this was published: ‘I sun myself upon the ravishing beauty of one of his lines, and reflect that I must make a dizzy and dangerous leap to the next. . .line.’

2. The second thing is the wonderfully mesmeric power of a poem’s metre, the entrancement of its heartbeat, its rhythm, its breathing, as these two lines from a Samuel Beckett poem indicate: ‘the churn of stale words in the heart again/ love love love thud of the old plunger. . .’ Allen Ginsberg shows another way the metre can memorably become stirring, march-like, uplifting, as well as amusingly sardonic, in his poem ‘Howl’: ‘buried alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison Avenue amid/ blasts of leaden verse & the tanked-up clatter of the iron regiments of fashion/ & the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising/ & the mustard gas of sinister intelligent editors. . .’


for the rest of the list on The Ockham Book Award site see here

The Stories of Bill Manhire – a wee review and a wee interview – ‘I think that by and large I’ve written against rules’

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Bill Manhire occupies a significant position in our literary landscape — as both a poet and as founder of the International Institute of Modern Letters. As poet he is lauded on an international stage and at home was recognised  as our inaugural Te Mata Poet Laureate. As teacher and mentor at Victoria University, his outstanding contribution to our writing communities was honoured by the naming of the Bill Manhire House at IIML (April 2016). I have read Bill when he is not writing poems and have admired his clarity and elasticity of thought, but I had not read the early fiction in his recently released The Stories of Bill Manhire (VUP). Things escape us for all kinds of reason. In the 1990s, I focused on all things Italian as I wrote my doctoral thesis and missed too many local things. What a loss!

Amongst so many books I have loved, three books have really got under my reading skin in the last month: Cilla McQueen’s memoir, In Slanted Light, Tusiata Avia’s Fale Aitu, and Bill’s short stories.

Each of these books took me by surprise. Like little thunderbolts where you can feel your heart rate pick up as you read. Bill’s book didn’t cleave me apart like Kafka’s axe to the head or heart (he says the frozen sea within) but felt like the utterly satisfying thirst-quenching intake of sparkling water.  Writing that is effervescent, clear, restorative. I guess that is doing something miraculous to your parched state (a different kind of frozen sea). This is what words can do.

To celebrate this book – a short review from me and an interview with Bill.


A wee review:

The stories in this collection are gathered from The New Land: A Picture Book, South Pacific and Songs of My Life. There are previously unpublished stories, The Brain of Katherine Mansfield where you choose your own adventure, and the memoir, Under the Influence.

The writing is inventive, refreshing, surprising, on its feet skipping kicking doing little jumps.

How can I underline how good it is? As I read my way into days of reading pleasure, I squirmed cringed gasped laughed out loud sighed did wry grins wriggled on the spot leapt over the gaps laughed out loud again and felt little stabs that moved.

The stories highlight place and character, become nostalgic with detail that glints of when we were young (well for me anyway). You might move from the Queen’s visit and telling jokes to a dog named Fairburn, to a sci-fi keepsake on the tongue, to questions and answers on writing, to a dead-end job. Yes, the subjects are captivating but it is not so much what the stories pick as a starting point but how they travel. Take any story and it is a rejuvenating read. ‘Nonchalance’ for example, is like a series of postcards, travel or writing tips; or arrival tips with love and broken heart, soldiers, soldiers’ wives and the locals. You enter a realm of first things and floating elements. The readerly effects are kaleidoscopic.

To give you a taste of the book (I hope this doesn’t ruin things for you), here are some of the first and last lines. So important in a short story – these just nail it.


First lines:

Some critics write me off as just another ghost character activist, whereas I think I add up to a lot more than that.

The bishops come ashore.

Through here?

You are just an ordinary New Zealander.

The poet looks at the poet’s wife and says: You are my best poem.

He says: ‘Give me something significant.’

A slight scraggy moustache.

There are many tricks I have used repeatedly throughout my career to date, and others that I have done only really as one-offs.


Last lines:

Like a gasping in the chest.

The paddocks are left grey, stretching out to the edge of the frame.

Clouds pour across the sky and my lungs fill with air as though they might be sails.


But jokes are too difficult: I’m getting someone else for that.

God bless him, and all the other poets.

That is how it is, adventure and regret, there is no getting away from it, we live in the broad Pacific, meeting and parting shake us, meeting and parting shake us, it is always touch and go.


The ‘Ghost Who talks’ made me laugh out loud with all its literary references alongside or inside the tricky business of getting ‘you’ and ‘I’ active in a story. Ha! It felt like the pronoun ghost out stalking. Then again the playful absurdities in ‘Kuki the Krazy Kea’ made me squirm with its dry wryness. Or the magician’s performance tips. Head back to the stories at the start of the book and the bits that taste a little different:  details of a nuclear winter, Ghandi’s funeral pyre, the melancholy of an empty pool, a mother colour-tinting photographs at the kitchen table. Bill enters the story to give writing tips here and there, to tilt the world a touch so you have to steady your reading feet (where next! What next!), to frame a judicious amount of missing bits, to be a little bit cheeky, to catch something provocative or lovely or poignant. This is a book I will recommend to friends.


A wee interview:


What satisfies you about writing a story?   

Pretty much what satisfies me about writing a fully-functioning poem.  There’s pleasure in the mix of surprise and inevitability, which needn’t be plot and character based. Sometimes it can just be a sense of musical completion.

I also like it if readers are given room to move and even a little work to do, and they end up feeling pleased about this, rather than grumpy. Maybe that’s explicit in The Brain of Katherine Mansfield, which is my shot at a choose-your-own-adventure story. But the best writing always invites readers to make choices as they go along. I’ve always liked Whitman’s take on the text-reader relationship: “I seek less to state or display any theme or thought, and more to bring you, reader, into the atmosphere of the theme or thought—there to pursue your own flight.”


Were there any rules you wanted your stories to obey? Or disregard? I love the way some of the stories sneak in instructions for start-out writers.

I think that by and large I’ve written against rules and tried to avoid what’s sometimes called the beige short story, of which the great exemplar is probably Joyce’s ‘The Dead’.  Glorious stuff, but . . . well, Joyce didn’t want to go on doing it, did he? Mark Haddon was writing about beige stories in the Guardian recently: ‘modest, melancholic stories, not arcs with beginnings, middles and ends, so much as moments and turning points.’  I’m a big fan of melancholy, but you read too many stories like that in a row, quiet epiphany after quiet epiphany, and the whole world starts to feel a bit insipid.

I suppose those instructions for beginning writers represent a complaint against the formulaic. What I mean is this sort of advice, which comes from a New Zealand book called How to Write and Sell Short Stories published back in the 1958:



(a)  Plots with a sex motif.

(b)  Where religion plays a dominating role.

(c)  Plots where sadism or brutality appear.

(d)  Plots with a basis of divorce.

(e)  Plots where illness or disease must be emphasised.

(f)  Plots dealing with harrowing experiences of children.

(g)  Plots dealing with politics.


And so on. Remove plots like those, and it’s hard to see what’s left.  I’m generally quite troubled by short story writing manuals, and by creative writing workshops that behave like short story manuals.


I also love the detail that catapults the reader to specific times and places  — how much did that sort of thing matter to you?

Getting the voice right in each case felt like the most important thing, and of course details are a crucial part of that.  Quite a few of the stories are really dramatic monologues, opportunities to try out some other voice or personality. That’s most obvious when they’re written in first person, but also in a strange way it’s also there in close third person.  The story called “Highlights” is third-person but it comes across in a flat, somewhat affectless voice – because it’s about a rather passive person. Anyway, the voice thing mattered to me, and I found myself trying on a range of idioms. I don’t think in general it’s a good idea to read a lot of short stories in a row, especially if they’re by the same writer, but I hope there’s quite a variety of narrating voices in the book.


Can you recommend some short-story writers?

There’s so much I haven’t read, but I’d go for Grace Paley every time.  Also Donald Barthelme and Lydia Davis. Gogol is my greatest favourite, especially “The Nose”, which I was once able to read in Russian. Early Sargeson.  Some of Ashleigh Young’s personal essays feel to me like beautifully told short stories – they just happen to be true, or true-ish. And the best of Barbara Anderson’s stories go on being brilliant – full of such sudden things. William Brandt’s collection, Alpha Male, has rather dropped out of sight, but it’s pretty fantastic – he does these wonderfully indignant, damaged narrators.


Do you have a favourite in the collection?

Probably “The Days of Sail”, though that may be because I know the back-story – it’s prompted by a covered-up assassination attempt on the Queen in Dunedin during the 1981 Royal tour.  A 17-year-old took a potshot at her from the top of a Med School building in Great King Street. Imagine if it had been successful! Dunedin would be totally on the map! Anyway, I built a rather cranky story around that fact.  There’s a nice radio adaptation that used be in the RNZ archive that I’d quite like to hear again.  It ends with a children’s choir singing “God Defend New Zealand”.


Do you find endings difficult (I have to say I loved the endings!)?    

Yes, they’re the hardest things.  I think I manage to get them right most of the time – except maybe for “The Death of Robert Louis Stevenson”, which of course is obliged to end with his death.  Not exactly a twist in the tail. Maybe the best ending is in “The Brain of Katherine Mansfield”.  Or, I should say, endings. I’ve met people who feel quite put out by the apparently brutal instruction, “Close the Book”, which comes at the close of several of the plot strands.

But “The Brain” is also about white middle-class complacency and its right-wing tendencies – so there is a “real” ending, too.  I won’t quote it, but anyone who wants to see what I mean can try to get to section 50 online, courtesy of Richard Easther and Jolisa Gracewood:   I’d also advise readers to pause on Greg O’Brien’s illustrated section headings.  There are lots of good visual arts jokes, along with a couple of depictions of C K Stead as a mad Nazi brain surgeon.


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