All mixed-quality photos without credit by me
Back home after a head-and-mind-rich time at Writers and Readers Week in Wellington. I loved the change of venue to the waterfront cluster: Circa Theatre, the Festival Club tent, Te Wharewaka o Pōneke, the Michael Fowler Centre and Renouf Foyer along with a few outlying places such as The National Library. The diversity of the programme, as it moved across genre and person, was terrific. With four sessions in each slot, like the Auckland Writers Festival, it was impossible to get to everything you ticked. And that is what festivals are about: an explosion of taste and flavour.
At festivals, I love supporting my friends, going to local writers (especially poets), much loved international writers, but I also like stepping out of my comfort zone and trying things that are completely unfamiliar. You could say that opting for discomfort along with comfort – because you never know what gold nuggets will gleam – is a festival must.
Things didn’t quite run to plan and I came home with a fragmentary notebook and novels unread as you will see.
But warmest congratulations to Mark Cubey and his team, because this was an excellent occasion that had audiences, including me, buzzing with delight. Thanks for the invite!
My fits and starts diary
I have my checked-in bag with books for every mood because I am off to Wellington’s Writers and Readers Week to mc and read poems at Call Me Royal and chair Capital Poets, Bill Manhire and Mike Ladd. Having sent off my ms on reading New Zealand women’s poetry, this is my poetry treat. I want to go to every poetry event and read novels in the gaps.
I leave the heat and humidity of Auckland’s West Coast and step out into the wet and cold of Wellington. It is a sweet relief to feel like moving and thinking again.
First up is a bus ride to Rimutaka Prison to participate in a writing workshop with some prisoners thanks to Write Where You Are Collective. On the bus are a mix of organisers, festival people, balloted public and a handful of writers. Waiting for the bus, I am asked to speak at the end – what I thought of the event and about writing poetry – and I am really nervous! I have run countless workshops but have rarely if ever been a participant. I summon Hone Tuwhare’s ‘Rain’ and Y12-me to find courage. I say that while we are not allowed to take the writing out, I am also not going to share the details of the experience in public. And I am not. However the general mood I carry back into the city is absolute enthusiasm for what has taken place. This is special and I would do it again at the drop of a hat.
Next up my hotel room – the chemical cleaners are so strong it triggers an allergic reaction that just grew worse over the five days. I know not to stay in this hotel again – luckily the hyperactive Wellington wind is able to blast through the window each day. My post-writing treat suddenly becomes a matter of survival and definitely not luxuriating in a hotel room reading novels or writing lucid accounts of the sessions for my blog. (I had to flee several sessions with a coughing fit fighting for breath and attendees were wondering whether to call an ambulance.)
I arrive at the VUP book launch late but love the tail end of Damien Wilkin‘s launch speech celebrating new books by Vincent O’Sullivan, Therese Lloyd and Gigi Fenster). I am sitting here in a toxic chemical haze and the little readings flick about like little hallucinogenic butterflies. I buy the two books, that I don’t have, to read at home.
The Gala Night, Women Changing the World – is kaleidoscopic in range and impact and I am still on planet hallucinogenic butterfly. Renée gets an almost-standing ovation. Selina Tusitala Marsh shares a poem for Teresia Teaiwa (1968 – 2017) to whom she dedicated Tightrope, her most recent book. I am reminded how important Oceanic foremothers are for Selina, not just as a poet but as a woman forging her way in the world. This is breath-catching (dangerous in my state!). Along with Selina the highlight for me is hearing Harry Josephine Giles read their body twisting, word slipping, gorgeous glorious evocation of life and living. Check out graphic artist Tara Black‘s take.
I am at Loretta eating snapper pie with freekeh topping and it is comfort food cutting through the toxins. I am wondering if poetry is comfort food as much as it is discomfort food and that we need both and everything in between. At the moment I crave comfort.
I have coffee with Jane Parkin who is going to edit my book. We have never met before but it is such a pleasure to talk about the pleasures of punctuation. I didn’t tell her I used to read grammar books and dictionaries in bed at night when I was primary school. I am thinking grammar and punctuation is always on the move – I am so excited she is going to go through my writing with a fine-tooth comb spotting all the infelicities. As a poet I often use a punctuation mark as a guide to breathing and pause. How will this change in prose?
Next up Sarah Laing talks with two American comic artists, Sarah Glidden and Mimi Pond. The conversation flows between the personal and the political with revelation and reflection and I buy both books risking an overweight bag. Tara Black is in the front row drawing her fabulous renditions of a session.
This festival puts comic and graphic novelists centre stage, both local and international. I like that. Check out Tara’s review and images.
This is where my good plans go awry and I have to opt out of a few things. Sadly.
I am lying on the bed with the wind gusting in. I feel like I am in the cleaning cupboard.
I make it to Tusiata Avia in conversation with her cousin Victor Rodger (and an excellent chair not named in the programme). This is mesmerising stuff. I instantly connect with their need for some kind of truth. Truth got a bad rap when I was at university because it is mobile, unreliable and hard to pin down. Yet when I hear or read a writer working from the truth of their experience, (however you see that) it just gets me. Check out Tara‘s review and images.
Tusiata talks about her epileptic history, perhaps for the first time in public, and how she might have an aura on stage. She reads her epileptic poem and it feels tough and vulnerable and full of music that replays a fractured inner state. I want more poems but I am loving the talk. She reads a poem that responds to an ongoing painful knotty experience of Unity Books wanting to check her bags fifteen years ago, on two occasions, because they suspected her of shoplifting. She has mashed up an email from them to show her point of view, to show how racism is embedded in the unconscious way we speak and communicate. She puts pronouns on alert. My heart is breaking because I don’t know how to fix this rift knot. I love Tusiata. I have family connections that link me and Tilly back to my daughter’s parents. I love Marion, bookseller extraordinaire. I don’t know what to do to help.
I have to stand on stage and mc tonight and celebrate poetry and I can’t breathe.
My first book, Cookhouse has a poem, ‘Listing the breathless women’, that I wrote in hospital when I couldn’t breathe.
who will live in this place of white sheets
when the stories built to terrifying pitches?
I have missed The Lauris Edmond Memorial Award. I have missed the Bloody Difficult Women and I loved Kirsten McDougall‘s Tess so much.
I put on a blue dress and a Parisienne necklace Sue gave me, and Tusiata’s pounamu bracelet. I told a prisoner that when I get nervous, I picture something in my head that I love, or wear something someone has given me (usually a gift from Michael). Then I am fortified to go on. When you lose your breath you lose your voice and I am wondering if I will be a ghost on stage even with the necklace and the bracelet.
Photograph credit: Mark Beatty, photographer, The National Library
To be in the Alexander Turnbull Library, at Call Me Royal, with a fine showing of the librarians who helped me find my way through the archives is restoring; to catch sight of dear Elizabeth Jones for a second is restoring. And Peter Ireland the Laureate guardian, ever helpful, ever supportive of poetry. I lay my stones for Selina Tusitala Marsh as a gift for her mana, and then let her do the talking and the poems. We write and speak from an embrace of women. The ‘Unity’ poem for the Queen, the way it came into elusive being, always captivates. Again the pronoun strikes: the ‘i’ and the ‘u’ in ‘unity’ is genius.
I am wondering what the audience makes of us. The way we hug and perform because this is a poetry whanau. We have many connections and we are all driven to write and stand on stage and open up poetry for the ear, heart and mind. The space between is alive with what we think and feel. Check out my photo gallery and intros here.
Photograph credit: Mark Beatty, photographer, The National Library
I am back at Loretta having another snapper pie and talking about poetry with Helen. All I need is comfort food in this state of discomfort. Maybe that includes poetry.
I am eating poached eggs with Bill and Marion and the conversation sets me up for the day like a good slow release protein. I miss Charlie Jane Anders and Samin Nosrat. I miss fun and games with Harry Josephine Giles. I miss the amazing Charlotte Wood because I am about to go on stage with Mike Ladd and Bill Manhire, the Capital Poets. First I need to lie down with the window wide open.
I have an early lunch with Selina and Serie, and we bump into Rachel McAlpine, whose poetry I write about in my book. Four poets, by chance, in Cuba Street,
When I agreed to chair the Capital Poets session a month ago, I thought these poets were chalk and cheese, and I wasn’t quite sure how Bill was a capital poet bar the fact he was a good one, and he lived in Wellington. But as I ran on the beach each morning, I began to find connections. I decided they both write with an economy that is paradoxically rich and they both write from attention to humanity, not necessarily blazing on the line, but as a vital core. MIke’s poetry often takes me to a sharply rendered scene that is so bright (or dark) I get goosebumps. Bill can transport a reader into a more mysterious interplay of dark and light, full of glorious movement, offbeat or sideways, so you find and lose and find your bearings. Another kind of goosebump. Goosebumps are an excellent, but not the only poetry barometer.
Being a chair, in a space that feels like a lounge, means it is like you get to talk poetry at home with quite a lot of strangers listening. I find it fun. You set up a conversational field and go exploring. I cheekily got Bill to pitch Wellington to a stranger in 60 seconds which he did with good grace. I really liked the idea of a city where you constantly bump into things around corners. But as always it is the poetry readings that get me – and I can now play Mike’s poems in my head in his voice and that makes a difference. I can hear his fascination with sound and the way politics always find a way in. Bill read a brand new short poem with Colin Meads and some good rural vocabulary before turning a corner and letting us laugh-bump into the ending.
I spent two and half years writing my book, and when I sent it off a few weeks ago, I felt there was so much more I could explore and write. Same with a festival session; the time goes by in a whizz and we barely scratch the surface of conversation.
Paula Morris gets to talk to Teju Cole and it feels like balm and challenge as we see his photographs and hear the story behind them. I could have listened for hours. I reviewed his tremendously good essays for The NZ Herald ages ago – so it was a treat to listen to that mind roving. Paula is just the right mix of adding comments and getting the speaker talking.
Next up Blazing Stars: Hera Lindsay Bird and Patricia Lockwood with Charlotte Graham. I miss most of this session. I sit down in the front row with a bunch of writers but have a coughing fit to the point I can’t breathe and have to walk out. Embarrassing! The festival people are so kind bringing me things. I sat on a chair outside and then at the back. I am back with the hallucinogenic butterflies. Charlotte is wearing a butterfly dress and Hera and Patricia seem to be in some kind of butterfly bitch challenge. Hera reads a poem with psychedelic metaphors. I desperately need a stunt stand-in to pay attention and write things down for me.
I eat roasted fish and fig pie at Floridita before going to bed. I am thinking about my new poetry collection and how I need to blast it to smithereens. Then I might see what to do with it. This happens at festivals. It gets you thinking about your own work and all its failings and possibilities.
I miss Outer Space Saloon. I really want to go.
Fruit at Loretta and a coffee to pull the bits of me together. If I wasn’t making this my Poetry Day, I would be off to hear the fabulous Ursula Dubosarsky.
Essa and Tayi
First up The Starlings – a festival highlight for me. Chris Tse is also in the audience supporting these young writers. The session features 9 writers aged under 25 who have been published in Starling (now up to 5 Issues). The journal is edited by Francis Cooke and Louise Wallace. They mc the session with Sharon Lam, Rebecca Hawkes, Claudia Jardine, Tayi Tibble, Emma Shi, Joy Holley, Henrietta Bollinger, Sophie van Waardenberg and Essa Ranapiri. The poetry resists homogenisation as it travels across distinctive and diverse moods and revelations, challenges and connections. I love it – and will be posting poems from this across the next month or so when I reignite Poetry Shelf next week. See my photo gallery here.
Apologies to David Larsen because I don’t know how to mute my camera – just took photos at start and end.
Second up, my other festival highlight: Harry Josephine Giles in conversation with Chris Tse. The poetry – with its meshing up of Scots and English, its filthy patches and rollercoaster rhythms, its musical effervescence and its little heart taps – is astonishing! No other word for it. Great chair, fluid talk, happy audience. I go out and buy all their books so I can do a feature on the blog if I dare. This session was like a dose of breathing medication and was the only time I wrote screeds in my journal.
One sample: ‘When your body is at odds with what is normal – not that anyone is normal – I can play with this. I can muck around with it.’
I like the idea of mucking around much better than blasting to smithereens. At breakfast when I asked Bill if he was writing he said he was mucking around. I thought of Tom and the Hired Sportsmen who were expert at mucking around before they ate greasy bloaters. Poets like mucking about.
One other thing. Harry Josephine was at pretty much every NZ poetry event I went to. I loved that. There was a handful of Wellington poets at the Laureate event – but mostly it was poetry readers not poetry writers. I wondered why this was. Harry Josephine was there talking to the locals.
Next up Patricia Lockwood is talking with Kim Hill and I get another coughing fit – the breathing medication has worn off so I have to walk out several times. It is like they are talking on another planet and I can’t make head nor tail of anything. I decide you need oxygen to listen.
I am sitting outside in the wind sun wondering what makes writing matter. What makes a poem matter when this one over here doesn’t. I can’t think of a single thing. It seems to depend upon the individual. Some kind of mysterious alchemy. I told the prisoners music is always the first port of call for me. Actually I told Bill that on stage when he said music mattered. The first hit from a Manhire poem is music.
Marae and Vana
I am off to Helen Rickerby’s Seraph Press launch of Tātai Whetū: Seven Māori Women Poets in Translation. We are welcomed on with a little powhiri and a big mihi. Editors Vana Manasiadis and Maraea Rakuraku acted as mcs. This is my third festival highlight. An utterly special occasion, uplifting and challenging, as I listen to Te Reo and English versions of each poem (Anahera Gildea, Alice Te Punga Somerville, Kiri Piahana-Wong, Tru Parahaa, Michelle Ngamoki, Dayle Takitimu, and Maraea). I will be posting a poem from Maraea on the blog.
I am reminded, how on so many occasions at this festival, I witness the creative strength of women (wahine mana), not just in the poetry families/whanau, but across genres. Maybe because poetry is such a poor cousin in the book world, the bonds are forged tighter.
Helen Rickerby from Seraph Press
I miss the editing session with my new editor, because I just can’t duck out of this one. Like I said, when you are on the verge of breathing collapse you crave comfort. That doesn’t mean poetry without edges, because this poetry has raw cutting edges, sharp spikes, but it also feeds upon humaneness, writing with heart, hankering after truth. In a lopsided endangered world that can be a vital tonic.
I bump into Elizabeth Knox and her fabulous skirt. She is long overdue for a Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction, just saying.
I made the Poetry International event where post accident, highly medicated Chris Price does a stellar job as mc/chair. This feels like a risky format combining reading and questions with nine poets, both local and international. As you would expect, several resist the brief in their 6 minute slots. But you end up with a glorious explosion of words and thoughts and poems. I jot this down from Bill after saying he had read a lot of American poetry: ‘I feel uneasy about my enthusiasms. I feel I’ve reverted to the local.’
The final thing and I am at Anna Jackson and Chris Tse’s AUP book launches in the crowded Circa foyer. I did an email interview with Chris over the past weeks so I know his book well and love it to bits. His speech moves the socks off us when he says he wanted his friends and family to be proud of him and that he hopes the book will fall into the hands of those who will see themselves in it. I am equally in love with Anna’s book, a Selected Poems, that travels through decades of writing with new writing at the end. Anna and I are in the middle, or near the end, of an unfolding email interview that I will post soon.
This was my experience, slightly skewed by being on the edge of a breathing precipice. Elizabeth Heritage wrote up the Harry Josephine session like I wish I could have done!
There is always a bridge between ourselves and the page, between ourselves and the reader and speaker. Sometimes we skim across it with ease, with all kinds of sparking connections. Other times the bridge falters and it is hard to find a way. Then there are the occasions where crossing is like an impossibility and the page, the reader and the speaker are utterly out of reach. It happens to me. I wait. It may mean I need to retune the way I walk.
I am back home grateful for the invitation to participate. Happy to be back to the quiet and the wild and the chance to write new things.
There is a strong chance this blog is riddled with mistakes – let me know so I can correct. Meanwhile I am off to sleep.