Tag Archives: Ashleigh Young

Poetry Shelf review: Ashleigh Young’s How I Get Ready

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Ashleigh Young, How I Get Ready, Victoria University Press, 2019

 

 

A woman smiles out of a plastic coat

its yellow turning rain to torches.

 

Light rests on a man waiting to cross,

coats his dog.

 

Light crosses a man

waiting to rest.

 

The hills pull fog around themselves

and trudge to the sea,

carrying all our houses.

 

from ‘Lifted’

 

 

I like the shape of this book – this matters with poetry – because when a poetry book is good to hold it makes you want to linger even more, to stall upon a page. The book looks good, the paper feels good, and the cover drawing by Sam Duckor-Jones is a perfect fit. His idiosyncratic artwork moves in and out of reality, a person tilted by anxiety, the wind, both exposed and screened. A little like the poems inside the book. This is a collection of waiting, breathing, of curious things, anxieties, anecdotes, lists, found things, recycled words; little starts in your head as you read. It is extremely satisfying.

The Notes acknowledge the jump-off points of a number of poems – a line in a letter from Andrew Johnston turns into ‘Turn Out to Be Something’. Poems spring from epigraphs, a contents page, Margery Kempe, psychiatric cases, other poems. Where the poems shift to is perhaps a blend of the fictional and the personal. The speaker is always on the move.

One of the joys of reading these poems is the way connective tissue or an invisible thread holds the poems together; it might be the way you stay with one character or situation or mood. Yet the doubled reading joy is in the glorious little leaps: from an idea, admission, description or trope to another idea, admission, description or trope. Surprising, startling, fascinating and always feeding the invisible thread. Take ‘Ghost Bear’ for example. Eliot pulls me through the poem. He is the mystery and the guide. You will move from a ritual where someone tests themselves against a ghost bear with a skull head to a boy who gets electrocuted but survives then scores a try (‘He’s just showing off  / because he got electrocuted’)  to an inappropriate kiss. Before the strange, goosebump ending, I got stuck on this verse which feels like an intrusion from the poet herself:

 

 

When there are two frail old women together, there is always one

who is visibly stronger.

I have an old friend and I think about whether we will be old together

and which of us will be stronger, holding up the other

which of us the wind will push over first

for a good joke

 

 

The opening poem, ‘Spring’, begins with an eye-catching image : ‘I saw a horse lying on the street / and people were trying to help it up.’  It is a poem of little fascinations (forgive me if I keep using that word!) but it is also a poem of breath, of holding and releasing breath, of waiting. The words form little exhalations on the page. I am standing with the person (the ‘I’) standing in the street thinking random things as they wait to see that the horse will stand. I am fascinated by the little admissions (they have waited so long it is too late to go to work). I am fascinated by the personal truisms (‘When I am satisfied with one thing / I want something else’).  I am fascinated by the biography of the speaker.

 

My mother   assured me

that when I feel     that I am not wel-

come at home and everybody has

hatred towards me that it is       only

my imagination. This statement

made me feel very good;

I went to bed    and

slept sound

 

 

The poem arrives in surprising increments – in bursts of unsettling strangeness. Who is this speaker who must keep revealing things? I look at the Notes, only after musing on the poem awhile, and discover it is a found poem, with the words borrowed from the study of a young man with compulsion neurosis who transforms his life into bizarre distortions. (published in 1918).

‘Turn Out to Be Something’ is also a poem that involves waiting;  the speaker waits for things and then modifies the admissions; waiting is fine as long as waiting is not in vain and something is at the end, although not necessarily what is first expected.

 

I can wait for a layer of sandstone to form over me

and freeze and thaw and freeze and be shattered

and be piped into the sea            as long

as that turns out to be something.

 

Many of the poems play with lists, repeating the beginnings of stanzas before swerving or drifting in myriad directions. Take ‘Guide’ for example. A poem written for an exhibition of Colin McCahon’s Walk (Series C) at Te Papa. I love this poem; I love the way it builds upon ‘what if’ and gathers heart,  wisdom and downright surprise. Ashleigh steps off from Colin’s ‘walk’ along Muriwai Beach and walks through meditations on water (the sea, fresh water, a river mouth, waterfalls). Her poem walks us into the physical and then catapults us elsewhere. It makes my heart ache.

 

If a girl is lost, someone will walk a long way to get her.

If her hand is held all the way back, it will be a short walk.

 

I have to share the ending with you because it gets right to the heart of what makes an Ashleigh Young poem so darn good.

 

If a waterfall no longer has water, it is a groove

that suggests a falling motion, just as this trail

suggests a walking motion

 

but if a person keeps walking until there is no more walk to take

they will no longer look forward to it, so will turn back.

 

Pretty much every poem is a poem I want to talk about. I want to talk about ‘Driving’ because it feels like a miniature autobiography that goes deep into experience. It gets personal but it’s prismatic in image and ideas. Somehow in this mix of riding a bicycle, learning to drive and imaginative leaps, the poem feels acutely human. Like it is breathing life back into me. When I stop on this double page I am thinking you could swap ‘driving’ and ‘riding’ for any number of things. The way the things we do conjure anxious thinking and random thoughts. I read the poem and replace all the driving/ riding words for ‘writing’. For example:  I write along the street outside your house / with my heart floating loose and getting chain grease on it.

Yes this poem is a gem – it builds and ducks and freewheels. Here is the start:

 

They tell me any idiot can do it and I tell them

I’m not just any idiot, I’m specific. Even when my lungs

are bursting – properly bursting

like things dragged up by a deep-sea fisherman

I keep riding.                  I get tired.                      I just keep riding!

 

I have written about this book in Wild Honey so have tried not to repeat myself or even refer to the poems I picked to talk about in the book! But Ashleigh became one of my sky poets for all kinds of reasons.

Every poem catches me! Some books you pick up, scan a few pages and then put down because you just can’t traverse the bridge into the poems. Not this one. It is as exhilarating as riding a bicycle into terrain that is both intensely familiar and breathtaking not. The speaker is both screened and exposed. The writing feels like it comes out of slow gestation and astutely measured craft. I say this because I have read this andante, at a snail’s pace. Glorious!

 

What song will they play if I don’t come home tonight?

I wished  someone would write a song for me, then someone did

but it was a song berating me; it was called ‘Actually, Ashleigh’

 

and I think of the cruelty of songwriters as I get ready

how their music makes their words sound better than they really are

how our feelings make music seem better than it really is

 

and how the difficulty of getting ready is a pure, bitter difficulty

like calculus. In the back row a once-promising student cries.

What will my face become? Strings of demi-semi quavers.

 

from ‘How I Get Ready’

 

 

Victoria University Press page

Read ‘If So How’ from How I Get Ready

 

Ashleigh Young is the author of the poetry collection Magnificent Moon (VUP, 2012), and the essay collection Can You Tolerate This? (VUP, 2016) which won a Windham-Campbell Prize from Yale University and the Royal Society Te Apārangi Award for General Non-Fiction in 2017. She works as an editor and lives in Wellington.

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: Ashleigh Young’s ‘If So How’

 

 

If So How

 

Opportunity I love you

Windows and watermelons march down the street

—Robert Winner, ‘Opportunity’

 

 

Please detail any future opportunities

you secured as a direct result of the project

 

oooOOOooo

 

I have a feeling I will be stabbed

and I wanted to tell someone.

 

Sometimes my neighbour’s crying

sounds like music and sometimes it sounds like confession.

 

At eel o’clock

the air fills with ferns and gelatinous dark . . .

 

I get opportunities

and release them back into the water,

their colours autocorrecting to grey . . .

 

Sometimes my crying feels like paperwork and

sometimes it feels like an argument

bleeding through my earplugs.

 

The opportunity never to do this again;

the opportunity never to be this again.

 

oooOOOooo

 

Did you meet with any people

(including festival directors)

who could have an impact

on future

opportunities for you

 

oooOOOooo

 

I was walking on the street one morning

and, yes, festival directors were winking in the snow.

One of the festival directors hid under a car

when a group of school children approached,

and I crouched down to see if he would come out,

and I saw that the festival director had lifted his body

right up into the undercarriage of the car, as if possessed.

 

oooOOOooo

 

Did the event help to increase

your long-term international

market profile

If so how

 

oooOOOooo

 

You leave the room for a moment

and when you come back, not only

 

has the jug come to the boil

but someone has died.

 

The lesser greens start to fray as

a new jag of green comes out of the soil.

 

I’m in over my head.

I remember praying

 

because I dreaded school

and the future

 

and I prayed to be hit in the head by a cricket ball

and to spend my last days alive hurtling

 

back through all of the profiles of my life. How? as if pushing

into a row of warm office shirts on the line

 

helplessly ensnarled

and some part of me (neck?) increasing within them,

 

their tiny frayed parts,

and all the workplaces they might represent.

 

oooOOOooo

 

Have you identified

any further markets

or future audience development

opportunities

as a result of this tour/event

 

oooOOOooo

 

I will go on a tour

of my future

 

I will identify

which of my selves

 

to plant in the cool damp soil

and which of my selves

 

to boil alive

and which of my audiences

 

to take down with me.

 

Ashleigh Young   (from How I get Ready, Victoria University Press, 2019)

 

 

Ashleigh Young lives in Wellington and works as an editor at Victoria University Press. She is the author of Magnificent Moon (poems), Can You Tolerate This? (essays), and How I Get Ready (poems). She writes a fortnightly column in Canvas magazine and is the poetry editor at The Spinoff.

Victoria University page

Ashleigh appears at Auckland Writers Festival event Literally Lorne on Friday May 17th.

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Reading The Friday Poems in a book

 

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Luncheon Sausage Books, 2018

 

A new poem. Wow just wow

A new poem that no one will forget any time soon.

A new poem. I think it’s important.

I wrote a new poem. You’ll be amazed at what happened next.

 

Bill Manhire from ‘Thread’

 

Steve Braunias kickstarted his Friday poem at the Spinoff four years ago – which prompted me to shift my Friday poems to Mondays! Decided to begin the week  with a poem in the ear and have since started an ongoing season of Thursday readings (I really like hearing other poets read, especially those I have never met). More importantly I also like the fact we have more than one online space dedicated to local poems. Steve tends to pick from new books which is great publicity for the poet. I tend to pick poems that have not yet been published in book form and find other ways to feature the new arrivals (interviews, reviews, popup poems on other days).

Steve’s anthology of picks from the Friday-Poem posts underlines our current passion for poetry. I don’t see him belonging to any one club (like a hub around a particular press or city) – unless he is inventing his own: Steve’s poetry club. And there is a big welcome mat out. You will find mainstream presses and boutique presses, established poets and hot-off-the-press brand new poets, a strong showing of Pasifika voices, outsiders, insiders. He is fired up by the charismatic lines of Hera Lindsay Bird and Tayi Tibble but he is equally swayed by the tones of Brian Turner, CK Stead, Elizabeth Smither, Fiona Kidman.

 

She cried wolf but she was the wolf

so she slit sad’s bellyskin

and stones of want rolled out.

 

Emma Neale from ‘Big Bad’

 

Who would he feature at a festival reading? At Unity Books on November 12th in Wellington he has picked: Dame Fiona Kidman, Bill Manhire, James Brown, Joy Holley, Tayi Tibble.

The anthology is worth buying for the introduction alone – expect someone writing over hot coals with an astute eye for what is happening now but also what has happened in the past (especially to women poets). And by hot coals I mean a mix of passionate and polemical. This person loves poetry and that is hot.

 

Where there’s a gate there’s a gatekeeper, I suppose, but I think of the past few years as an exercise in welcoming rather than turning away. Publishing works of art every week these past four years has been one of the most intoxicating pastimes of my writing life. But I came to a decision while I was writing the Introduction, and commenting on the work of women writers, and adding up the number of women writers: it’s time to step aside. An ageing white male just doesn’t seem the ideal person right now to act as the bouncer at this particular doorway to New Zealand poetry. Women are where the action is: the poetry editor at the Spinoff in 2019 will be Ashleigh Young.

Steve Braunias, from ‘Introduction’

 

I felt kind of sad reading that. I will miss Steve as our idiosyncratic poetry gate keeper.  Of course this book and the posts are unashamedly Steve’s taste, and there are a truckload of other excellent poets out there with new books, but his taste keeps you reading in multiple directions.

That said it’s a warm welcome to the exciting prospect of Ashleigh Young!

 

On most drives I like quiet because my mother

had a habit of appraising every passing scene, calling ordinary

things, especially any animal standing in a field, lovely

 

and this instilled in me a strong dislike for the world lovely

and for associated words of praise like wonderful and superb

but on our drive home tonight the sky is categorically lovely

 

Ashleigh Young from ‘Words of praise’

 

 

 

 

 

 

The NZ edition of Poetry

 

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I know I find it hard to listen.

I read too much. I often need a drink.

It isn’t the world that makes us think,

it’s words that we can’t come up with.

Sure, I can work up fresh examples

and send them off to the committee.

But the poetry is in the bird. And in the pretty.

 

Bill Manhire, from ‘Polly’

 

International poetry traffic is so often dependent upon fortuitous connections. The degree of familiarity with poetry from elsewhere is utterly paltry compared with the degree of familiarity I have with local writing. Yes I have studied American and British poetry but I am more aware of the luminous stars in these poetry constellations than the grassroot outings.

On the other hand, we are no longer dependent upon ocean voyages and the constraints of distance, but to what degree does our poetry travel (compared say with fiction)? Or our poetry conversations extend beyond our lapping tidelines.

I am acutely aware of my impoverished relations with contemporary Australian poetry. Perhaps Joan Fleming and Amy Brown could guest edit a local journal with an Australian focus? But then again our journals are often annual and offer vital but scant opportunities for local poets.

This is not the first time an overseas journal has showcased New Zealand poetry, but it is perhaps the example I am most excited by. The editors – Stephanie Burt (USA), Paul Millar (NZ) and Chris Price (NZ) – have worked hard to present a distinctive and diverse overview of our current poetry. The selected poets cross all manner of borders: age, geographical location, style, university affiliation, gender, ethnicity. This matters if we want to move beyond the legacy of white male predomination, urban bias and privileged poetry models. I cannot name a NZ journal that has achieved such movement.

Yes the five books Daisy Fried reviewed – from the fifteen 2017 publications she was sent – were all Victoria University Press. Her selection certainly does not reflect the contours of that year, and we can all stand on the sidelines and shout (or sing) about the books we loved, but I have no issue with reviews reflecting individual taste. However I do take issue that a short intro and five VUP books can respond to her opening question: ‘How to characterise a national poetry?’ Why would you even try! It is a personal take on five excellent books.

The rest of the journal is an altogether different joy. The effect of reading is symphonic in the different hues and chords. Every single poem lifts off the page and catches both ear and eye. Such freshness, such lightness, darkness, musicality, room to breathe, surprising arcs and links and undercurrents. I keep swaying between Anna Jackson’s glorious bee poem and the flickering titles that coalesce in Nina Powles’s offering or the infectious wit of James Brown, Ashleigh Young and Tim Upperton.  I am pulled into the bite of Anahera Gildea, Chris Tse and then Tayi Tibble and stop in the tracks of reading. Travelling with Janet Charman and the revelatory suite makes me weep. Switching to Anne Kennedy and the momentum coils and overlaps and poetry transforms a starting point into elasticity on the line. Bill Manhire flips me over into the second stanza, and the lacework of reading – intricate yet full of holes – offers mystery, surprise, wit, curious things.

 

The time of breathing into clasped hands

hovering over a lighter to make a flame

 

not knowing

that an angry man threw his eyes into the night

 

the belly of his shattered father

weeping rain for separation of earth and sky

 

Jessie Puru from ‘Matariki’

 

 

The editors did not feel beholden to poetry that targets versions of New Zealand/ Aotearoa; our poetry might do this and then again it might not. The poems have the freedom to do and be anything whether they spring from spoken-word rhythms or  talkiness or thinginess or anecdotal revelations or sumptuous Baroque-detail or story or slanted humour or cutting political edges.

The poets: Anna Jackson, Kate Camp, Michele Leggott, Therese Lloyd, Jessie Puru, Essa Ranapiri, Tayi Tibble, Robert Sullivan, Kerrin P. Sharpe, Hera Lindsay Bird, Dylan Horrocks, James Brown, Murray Edmond, Jenny Bornholdt, Anne Kennedy, Bill Manhire, Nina Powles, Janet Charman, Anahera Gildea, Bernadette Hall, Vincent O’Sullivan, Courtney Sina Meredith, C.K. Stead, Chris Tse, Tim Upperton, Gregory O’Brien and John Pule, Faith Wilson, Ashleigh Young, Albert Wendt, Steven Toussaint, Erik Kennedy

This issue is a cause for celebration – I absolutely love it – and my celebration will take  the form of a subscription. New Zealand poetry has been well served – congratulations!

 

Poetry here

 

everything I never asked my grandmother

I can understand but I can’t speak

no one has played that piano since

New Zealand is so far away from here

let me translate for you the poem on the wall

 

Nina Powles from ‘Some titles for my childhood memoir’

Hats off to The Ockham NZ Book Award Winners

Congratulations to the winners, commiserations to those who missed out and hats off to Victoria University Press for an extraordinary showing. VUP is a strong supporter of local writing, publishing more poetry that anyone else without compromising on quality. Three cheers VUP! Hats off to all NZ publishers, large and small, who back local writers and books. We are in debt to you. Away from the glitz and flare of an awards ceremony, there is an active terrain of writing and writers. Hats off to that too!

And hats off to the winners! Enjoy this moment of well-deserved recognition by your peers.

This year’s four category award winners will appear at a free event at the Auckland Writers Festival: The State We’re In on Friday 19 May at 5.30pm in the Heartland Festival Room, Aotea Square.

 

 

Fiction: Catherine Chidgey

Internationally renowned Ngāruawāhia resident Catherine Chidgey has won New Zealand’s richest writing award, the $50,000 Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize, for her novel The Wish Child. The award was announced this evening at the 2017 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.

The panel of judges — Bronwyn Wylie Gibb, Peter Wells, Jill Rawnsley and inaugural international judge the Canadian writer Madeleine Thien — said  “The Wish Child exposes and celebrates the power of words – so dangerous they must be cut out or shredded, so magical they can be wondered at and conjured with – Chidgey also exposes the fragility and strength of humanity … Compelling and memorable, you’ll be caught by surprise by its plumbing of depths and sudden moments of grace, beauty and light.”

The Wish Child, Chidgey’s fourth novel, comes 13 years after her last work, The Transformation, was published to critical acclaim. Chidgey’s previous novel Golden Deeds was chosen as a Book of the Year by Time Out (London), a Best Book by the LA Times Book Review and a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times. Her debut novel, In a Fishbone Church, won a Commonwealth Writers Prize (South East Asia and South Pacific).

Her latest novel, published by Victoria University Press, is one of four Ockham New Zealand Book Awards category winners, selected by four panels of specialist judges out of a shortlist of 16, which were in turn drawn from 40 longlisted titles from 150 entries.

 

Poetry: Andrew Johnston

Paris-based Andrew Johnston won the Poetry category for his collection Fits & Starts (Victoria University Press), a book described by the category’s judges’ convenor, Harry Ricketts, as a slow-burning tour de force.

“The judges’ admiration for Andrew Johnston’s remarkable collection grew with each rereading, as its rich intellectual and emotional layers continued to reveal themselves … Using a minimalist couplet-form, the collection is at once philosophical and political, witty and moving, risky and grounded, while maintaining a marvellously varied singing line.

“To reward Fits & Starts with the overall poetry prize is to reward New Zealand poetry at its most impressive and its most promising.”

 

Nonfiction: Ashleigh Young

Ashleigh Young (Wellington) took the Royal Society Te Apārangi Award for General Non-Fiction for her collection of personal essays Can You Tolerate This? (Victoria University Press).

The category’s judges’ convenor, Susanna Andrew, says Young’s work sets a high bar for style and originality in a form that has very little precedent in this country. “Always an acute observer, it is in Young’s commitment to writing as an art that the true miracle occurs; she tells us her story and somehow we get our own.”

Young catapulted to international recognition earlier this year when she won the Yale University US$165,000 Windham-Campbell Prize for the collection.

 

Illustrated Non-Fiction: Barbara Brookes

Dunedin writer and historian Barbara Brookes won the Illustrated Non-Fiction category for her meticulously documented work A History of New Zealand Women (Bridget Williams Books).

The category’s judges’ convenor, Linda Tyler, says Brookes’ work combines deep research, an immensely readable narrative, superbly well-integrated images and is distinguished by close attention to both Māori and Pakehā women.

“Putting women at the centre of our history, this sweeping survey shows exactly when, how and why gender mattered. General changes in each period are combined effortlessly with the particular, local stories of individual women, many not well-known. A wider sense of women’s experiences is beautifully conveyed by the many well-captioned artworks, photographs, texts and objects.”

 

Best First Books:

The Judith Binney Best First Book Award for Illustrated Non-Fiction: Ngarino Ellis for A Whakapapa of Tradition: 100 Years of Ngāti Porou Carving, 1830-1930, with new photography by Natalie Robertson (Auckland University Press).

The Jessie Mackay Best First Book Award for Poetry: Hera Lindsay Bird for Hera Lindsay Bird (Victoria University Press).

The E.H. McCormick Best First Book Award for General Non-Fiction: Adam Dudding for My Father’s Island: A Memoir (Victoria University Press).

The Hubert Church Best First Book Award for Fiction: Gina Cole for Black Ice Matter (Huia Publishers).

Ashleigh Young’s Can You Tolerate This? Personal Essays – This is a fabulous, symphonic collection

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I have already posted this but thought I would do so again in view of Ashleigh’s prestigious writing award from Yale University (Windham-Campbell Prize).

You can hear Ashleigh and Kathryn Ryan in conversation on Radio National at 9.30 this morning.

I loved this book so much – well deserved congratulations, Ashleigh.

 

Can You Tolerate This? Personal Essays,  Ashleigh Young, Victoria University Press, 2016

The other day I was on a plane about to fly to New Plymouth to go to the Ronald Hugh Morrieson Literary Award ceremony in Hawera. It was tight timing. I was going to jump off the plane into a car, drive for an hour, and walk into the function in the nick of time. But the plane’s lights kept switching on and off, the engine sounds rising and falling. It was faint-inducing heat. Babies were screaming, a high pitch of chat drowned out the safety talk. I had Ashleigh Young’s book of essays on my lap to finish on the plane. In my head I shouted, I just want to get off this place. Seconds later as though my wish made it true, we were told the plane had been cancelled and we needed to get another. I was right down the back of the plane and still not up to running in my foot-recovery regime but knew I really really wanted to do my job as judge. So I started running towards the ticket counter, foot alarmed.

I am running like an elephant or our duck-waddle cat. I can hear all these other flights that have been cancelled due to engineering problems. Everyone is running and scrambling and agonising. Three-quarters there and I hear our plane has now switched to delayed. I limp back to the regional cafe and start reading Ashleigh Young to blot out the panic. She is on an aeroplane. She is sitting next to a woman who tells her life story and her life story is extravagant. We hardly know what to trust – and that is what makes it such a gem. I can’t focus though. I can’t pick another story now with my skewy focus so hobble back to the ticket counter and hear all sorts of rumours. Our new plane was the cancelled Taupo plane. Everyone else is being bussed. I keep thinking about the woman with her extravagant stories and it reminded me of an Italian author Gianni Celati who collected the stories of others where the feather line between real and unreal is flighty. I am in the muddlewash of queues when a woman calls out asking if anyone needs special assistance. I ask for a wheelchair. I am being wheeled. I am back on the new plane next to the same young woman. She is studying physiotherapy.  I could embroider my life.The fact I even tell her where I am going is like a little character warpslip as usually I don’t say a word on planes. We talk about injuries and homes. I have two of Ashleigh’s stories to go. I don’t get to read them. I walk into the ceremony 40 minutes late.

Asleigh Young’s collection of personal essays is an addictive read, but it is the kind of book I wanted to eek out (I read the last two stories on the plane home!). What would fill the gap? What would deliver the same sustaining mix of wit, revelation and aromatic detail. Ashleigh gathers in stories from her own life and replays them in sentences that flow so sweetly. Each essay is like a musical composition but it is the content that offers the reader gold. I love the shift in perception from child to adult, in reflecting back. I love the way stories harness what is intimate and personal but also venture out into the world, a world filtered through reading and the experiences of others, fascinating or strange.  Perhaps it is all to do with a wry and agile mind that likes to roam and fossick.

 

Here’s a tasting plate of things I loved

Now and then you fall upon the way story comes into being. This one is especially good. It’s in in a terrific essay on her brother, JP:

‘My enthusiasm for the story was such that I felt it would write itself. The story was virtually already made. All I needed to do was grab hold of one end and pull the rest up behind it like an electric wire out of the ground.’   from ‘Big Red’

 

In the same essay this gem:

‘Just as JP was abandoning fashion, Neil and I were finding it, and fashion equipped us with new ways of being embarrassed.’

 

Still in the same essay, Ashleigh gets thinking about story again when she thinks about her film-making brother Neil:

Write your way towards an understanding, a tutor told me in a creative writing class. But what if you went backwards and wrote yourself away from the understanding?’

 

This strikes me as the kind of thing a Chinese philosopher might say in that going backwards is in fact your way forwards; in not knowing what you know, in knowing you don’t know.

 

One of the poems in New York Pocket Book picks up on Frank O’Hara’s accent. I loved reading the Frank O’Hara segue (pp70-71).

‘I returned to his lines over and over.’

Reading Frank’s lines from ‘Adieu to Norman, Bonjour to Joan and Jean-Paul,’ got Ashleigh thinking about continuity:

‘I fixated on these lines because they made me think about ways in which to continue, and what continuing meant. Getting up in the morning was one way. Getting dressed, facing the people around you–these were ways of continuing that kept your life open to possibility. But there was another way of continuing, and this was the continuing of silence. Our family had always continued to continue through events that we did not know how to speak of to one another.’

 

This from the plane story ‘Window Seat’:

‘I made my mind up to not decide there and then whether she was telling the truth. I wanted to stay open for as long as I could. I was wide awake when she said with resolve, ” Now, I’m going to tell you about you.”‘

I found this story moved me on so many surprising levels. The woman and her extravagant tongue. Especially the portrait of Ashleigh. I was holding the book on a plane and squirming. Squirming too at the way we reveal ourselves in shards that might embarrass. The  book made me laugh out loud. Or just smile at that coiling thought. Or the deep-seated warmth of family, whatever the ups and downs. I thought the last essay, ‘Lark,’ an essay in which Ashleigh’s mother is encouraged to write, was the perfect ending. The mother rode her bike alongside them on the way to school, she used jackhammers and stripped paint off furniture. I adored the shadowy overlap between mother and daughter. Here is the gorgeous last paragraph of both book and essay:

‘A wine glass with tidal marks is on the table beside Julia’s father’s desk lamp. The lamp is doubled over like something in pain. From our desk inside the house where we are studying, we can see her through the caravan’s oblong window. Tonight she is at work on the book. She is trying to remember things. It is like practising another sort of language. It leads her to herself and it leads her away. Sometimes it unsteadies her until she finds another small friend to hold on to. A moonish light comes from her window. Her cloudy head bends over the table as she writes.’

 

This is a fabulous, symphonic collection. Ashleigh dares to imagine as much as she dares to admit. She has no doubt prompted us, from Cape Reinga to Rakiura, to get out pen and paper and write our way backwards, pulling electric cables, making room for extravagant tongues and familial love. I cannot recommend this collection highly enough.

 

Victoria University Press author page

Congratulations! Ashleigh Young awarded prestigious Yale Writing Prize

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1 March 2017
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Victoria creative writing tutor and alumna awarded prestigious Yale writing prize

Victoria University of Wellington staff member and alumna Ashleigh Young has won a prestigious Windham-Campbell Literature Prize worth USD$165,000 for her book of essays Can You Tolerate This? published by Victoria University Press (VUP) in 2016.

The annual prize is administered by the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University and is awarded to writers around the globe to support their writing. Ms Young is one of eight prizewinners this year, and the first New Zealand writer to be awarded the prize since it was established in 2013.

Ms Young, who is a creative writing workshop coordinator at Victoria and an editor for VUP, says when she was first contacted about the prize she thought it was a hoax.

“A few moments after receiving a dubious-looking email, I was speaking to a man named Michael Kelleher, in Yale, Connecticut. He said: ‘So, listen, we’ve all been reading your book.’ It is an incredible thing to hear those words spoken in an American accent. And he said there was this prize called the Windham-Campbell Prize, and the prize was $165,000. And I had won it, for my book of essays.

“By this point I was clutching my head and my knees were giving out. I got off the phone and all my workmates were screaming. There was a lot of screaming that day. I’m actually still screaming right now. Just very quietly.”

The nomination process for the prize is done privately and the phone call from Yale is the first time winners are made aware of their award.

Previous winners of the prize include Helen Garner, Teju Cole, Hilton Als and Tessa Hadley.

Ms Young will receive the prize money in September, when she travels to Windham-Campbell Festival at Yale.

Ms Young says she’s finding it hard to accept that the prize is real.

“I’ve always thought of myself as ‘a small writer’. Someone who could only ever write in the margins, and only ever about her small experiences. But this truly mind-boggling honour means that suddenly, a dreamlike opportunity has opened up in front of me – to bring writing into the heart of my life and to have faith that it’s the right thing. I feel a gratitude that I can’t find words for. The generosity of the prize is completely astounding.”

Can You Tolerate This? is a collection of 21 personal essays with content that ranges from Hamilton’s nineties music scene to a stone-collecting French postman, family histories to Bikram yoga.

Ms Young began the collection during her Master of Arts in Creative Writing at Victoria’s International Institute of Modern Letters, and won the Adam Foundation Prize in Creative Writing for her Master’s manuscript. She has also published a collection of poems, Magnificent Moon (VUP, 2012).

Can You Tolerate This? has also been longlisted for the 2017 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.