Tag Archives: David Mitchell

Maria McMillan on Wordsongs



Wordsongs, St Peters Hall, Paekākāriki, 3rd March 2016


I go partly because there’s like a major poetry type gig in Paekākāriki and I’m a Paekākāriki poet and it feels a bit rude not to go. Imagine, I think, if there’s only six people there without me and they decide never to have anything poetry related in our village ever again. Yes, we call it a village and I needn’t have worried. Having scoffed down as much of a delicious fried-rice concoction as I possibly could in 94 seconds  I arrive three minutes late and take the Very Last Seat. It’s an actual excited crowd, in carefully arranged tiers. They’ve turned St Peters Hall around so we face the direction of the sea and one long side of the hall with its cool house-shaped wooden-window shutter things. The huge red velvet curtain hangs over the stage to our left and the doors to the village main street to our right.

I love this hall but truthfully, I’m a bit wary of poetry set to music. It’s the puritanical killjoy in me which says, honey, you need to decide, music or poetry. Just get away with your weird, not very interesting bongo drumming interspersed with a man saying two words usually something like organic tomatoes in  a quiet yet loud, yet well modulated, yet with working-class-solidarity voice and then pausing a full minute while making eye contact with every member of the audience before saying wet. But I know it’s kind of prudish of me and I need to open myself to new experiences so I am willing and here and listening.

Local poet, Dinah Hawken, who starts us off, makes me feel very comfortable. She reads her poetry sans music, the way it should be (sorry) and she starts with a good long poem about environmental catastrophe. The poem earns its length and I enjoy Hawken’s meditative delivery. She reads slowly and thoughtfully and the poem turns from lament to challenge to conversation. I feel like I’m hearing more and more poetry like this, laced with planet grief and helplessness and wonder. I’m glad it’s being written.

The main act is  Bill Manhire with singer Hannah Griffen, pianist Norman Meehan and Hayden Chisholm on saxophone and clarinet. To begin with I think Chisholm is tuning up, his sax is breathy and rough and understated and there’s no clear strong notes but then I realise this is part of it all. He’s throat clearing and then the other clear notes come, but through the set I see this replication of human noises, and also the absorbing of other sounds and instruments. I hear reverb and the plucking of a guitar, slow growling, didgeridoo and the noise of traffic all through his instruments.

In this first song, an interpretation of Baxter’s High Country Weather, the piano and singing come in beside the brass and I’m startled by how much action, how much sound can be produced by just three people. Griffin’s voice is like some really good jazz club singer. I get that vibe through the night. I want to be sitting at a small lamped table having intimate conversations. She sings big, beautiful and clear, high and low.  Next Bill, congenial and with charming anecdotes that thrill the poetry nerd in me, reads Rain by Hone Tuwhare and then the three musicians play it back to us. I get it now. I can listen to the poems read as poems, and listen to the music as music. No bongo drums. No organic tomatoes and soulful stares. It’s a relief. And when I hear Rain sung I’m struck by how lineation changes with the music, the words become split and lumped in different way. We can hear hidden rhymes and rhythms which may be a subtle backbone to verse on the page but in music are drawn out and played with. Cool.

Meehan tells us the set is pretty much the album Small holes in the silence, featuring versions of  Manhire and other poets’ work as songs. We hear interpretations of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, Manhire, David Mitchell, and my favourite piece, two poems by Eileen Duggan. I can’t actually hear the words as Griffin sings so perfectly in tune with the sax, so my liking this all the same proves how thoroughly mature I’ve become about the whole poetry and music mash up. What I love in this song is the way the sax more than ever takes the role of a voice; for a moment the sax and the singer are a duet and in a kind of heady triumph. After that the two seem to swap places; Griffin no longer singing words but sounds become another instrument and the saxophone becomes a human voice. It’s a meandering interesting work. I also love Manhire’s stories about and poem for Cornish poet Charles Causley. The evening ended with a spoken and then musical interpretation of Manhire’s rhyming list poem ‘1950s.’ The crowd loved it, they threw flowers, they cheered, they stomped. Well, they didn’t but I’m sure if they thought of it they would have. They applauded long and hard. I wander out into the Paekākāriki night. Now the traffic sounds like a saxophone. The crossing signals go off. A train, windows bright, rumbles past us on its way to Waikanae. I wave.

Maria McMillan



AWF15 bouquets and brickbats

This morning I ran along the beach into the hit of the west-coast wind, and it felt like a hinge between four glorious days at the Auckland Writers Festival and getting back to work. As I ran, I pictured myself asking Murakami running questions. Where does he like to run? Is it in a wild space where you hardly see another soul as I do and your mind empties as the rhythm of the run takes over. You might see a puffed up dotterel out of the corner of an eye or a pied stilt wading. The rhythm of the run sends me into a pre-writing state but mostly it is is just me and breathtaking beauty.

This morning as I ran it took awhile to get into that equilibrium of silence as the festival keep drifting through. What I loved. What I loved a little less.


My bouquets in no particular order

1. To Anne O’Brien and her team for creating a dazzling programme that pulled me out of hermithood into the city for four full-to-the-brim, glorious days, that filled an auditorium over and over, that offered free sessions. This was one of the best festivals I have attended yet in terms of the range and quality of voices on offer. The audiences.

2. The new dedicated focus on children’s writing with the School Days, Family Day and sessions featuring a children’s author. I was coming out of a session and saw David Walliams at his signing table and was incredibly moved. He was looking with careful attention at a picture a young child had drawn for him, taken the time to pause and wonder, when his signing queue had stretched out into the square at the start of my session. It seems to me the festival has also become a gift for our emerging readers and writers, our thinkers and our scientists, our comics and our leaders. Thank you!

3. The amount of poetry this year. Sure I still love a line up of ten poets like a tapas tasting lunch that shows you the terrific width of our poetry communities. But I love the way poets now read along side international authors and local fiction writers in panels. This exposes our poets to a much wider audience. One stand out for me (sadly I missed some poets I had wanted to see due to clashes) was John Dennison. I have just reviewed his stunning debut collection on the blog but his poems lifted and became even more exquisite as I listened and shut my eyes. Two poets came to mind: Gregory O’Brien and Bill Manhire. I could hear a faint, appealing somethingness  of them in John’s intonations, the pauses, the repetitions, the stresses — the downright joyous musicality. If you don’t have John’s book, I highly recommend it. Maybe you can find him reading a poem or two on YouTube.

4. More poetry. The session with Anna Jackson and Daniel Mendelsohn on translation gymnastics was fascinating. I had Anna’s new book, I, Clodia, and a bilingual edition of Catallus in my bag all weekend as I am working on a review. I think I will save some of the gems from Anna until I do the review. But hearing the poems read aloud, we all leaned forward into the beauty of them. Gorgeous!

5. The Gala Night story tellers hit the mark. Sometimes I have been at previous ones counting how many to go. Not this time. The last one spoke, the time was up and I had stayed glued to every word.

6. Mrs Dalloway: I was in awe of Rebecca Vaughan maintaining those weaving voices for ninety minutes, pulling us into the shifting detail, moods, revelations.

7. Amy Bloom in conversation with Carole Beu. I had just read Lucky Us. Sparkling, scintillating, sent me straight to the book stall to buy the short stories.

8. Kim Thúy, a Vietnamese-Canadian novelist, in the panel session on Asian Histories. I didn’t know her at all but loved the little stories that ballooned out from a single word. Loved it when she said Vietnamese don’t show the feelings so much, and that her parents never asked her how she felt, but would ask her if she was hungry, then feed her mood. Dashed to the bookstall and bought Man. This writing is astonishing and I want to read everything she has written. I bumped into her when she was talking to her friend Anne Kennedy and so she inscribed my book. Ah the joy of lucky moments at festivals.

9. More poetry. Hearing Chris Tse reading a breathtaking selection from his debut collection How to Be Dead in the Year of Snakes.

10. Some favourite chairs: John Freeman, Carole Beu, Noelle McCarthy, Catherine Robertson, Christine O’Brien, Ruth Harley (many I missed sadly).

11. The privilege of sitting on stage with Edwin Thumboo to talk about poetry and Singapore was an utter highlight. He is, as I said in the session, like Margaret Mahy was, and Michele Leggott and Bill Manhire are: writers whose work fills you with endless admiration but who also occupy the world as writers in a way that is extraordinary. He is a Singaporean national taonga, so how good he read and spoke to a packed house. We barely scratched the surface of what we could have traversed, but to hear his poems hit the air/ear was such a treat. Preparing for the session sent me on new paths of thinking. I am so grateful to the festival for this opportunity.

12. David Mitchell in two sessions. In the first he was jet lagged and in the second, in a panel. Here are some of the gems I loved: He used to make his own Middle Earths with card and paper. He was a low maintenance kid! He stalled on a sip of tea then talked on the über novel, then cautioned new writers to be careful naming things as the name sticks. On character: A character moving into a new book brings a suitcase of credibility from previous ones. On discussing how to pronounce ‘archipelago’ with Catherine Robertson,  they both slide into an hilarious word jam. On links between books: there are doors wormholes tunnels from one book to next but not many. Ponders on how to make many different things coexist in one book: one way is to compartmentalise. He apologises for bringing his wife into the discussion (she was back stage!) on entering the female mind as a writer of his protagonist. He has five friends on earth, three of whom don’t read him! Question: Do you have an attic mind?  Mitchell: a junk shop mind. On names: high scrabble scores generally make useful names. They stick to the eyeball.  On the intensity of writing: You get through the intense immersion of the current novel underway ‘with little kisses of thinking about the next one.’ On fear: you should go outside your comfort zone. Have I bitten off more than I can chew? is important. He offered to read a Stephanie-Johnson draft when she said showing unfinished novels to others was an imposition. He said he wasn’t a novelist; he writes novellas with bridges and tunnels between. [I love this idea the connection can go through air or underground!].

13. Emily St. John Mandel on editing: Retype your entire draft, read the whole thing aloud to yourself, edit pages in random order.

14. Helen MacDonald. Now I have to read her book, H is for Hawk. Things I loved she said: We use nature to prove our concepts to us. On the joy of festivals: They let thoughts and words be said that aren’t normally available in everyday life.  There’s no past or present when you are flying a hawk. When you have a big loss: After a year of grief, I started to grow around the holes. It was all about love.

15. Carol Ann Duffy. Carol Ann Duffy. Carol Ann Duffy.  Carol Ann Duffy. Hearing her read. And loved this bit from John Campbell on the joy of reading her poems: (can’t quite remember exact words) but ‘drilling down into your particular way of knowing.’

16. The fabulous Tim Winton: I  think perhaps people are wired to hope.

17. Hearing Ashleigh Young read her remarkable new poems, especially the casino one and the road one. They felt like a glorious step up from her debut. Fresh, elastic, lyrical, effervescent, surprising. I am going to post one on the blog as soon as possible so I can talk about it. I do hope a new book is on the horizon line.

18. Anne Kennedy talking about Janet Frame’s Owls Do Cry, the Great Kiwi Classic this year. She was so lucid, so on the button, with what she said. Reading the book for her was like a sock between the eyes. She loved the way the vernacular had been transformed into the poetic, but that it was above all a triumph of kiwiness. Anne said Janet rescued kiwiana and polished it like a gem. For Courtney Sina Meredith reading it was like a rite of passage. She said she was terrified of it at university (if you can’t get into this, you can’t get into New Zealand literature) but then she became deeply connected. Wonderful! Damien Barr cried after he read it (hearing his autobiographical anecdote I am not surprised). Great session steered by Kate De Goldi, but more audience involvement would have been good. I think that is the intent of the NZ Book Council that it becomes a very interactive session.

19. The Honoured NZ Writer: CK Stead. Wonderful movement through his life and career. Loved the poems breaking into the conversation. Like the way he said Catallus gave him a persona where he could go to the edge of things that had sometimes happened to him, or that were an invention. It became an area of freedom when he was not mentally a confessional poet. He had returned to NZ because he wanted to be a NZ writer and turned down the option of a very different academic career in Britain. He doesn’t regret it but sometimes ponders the possibilities of that different track.

I have been especially drawn to Karl’s recent poetry collections, their reflectiveness, musicality, ability to matter and move. You saw that a bit in the conversation. On being a critic: I was too dogmatic, too excited, things could have been said more subtly. I discovered what it was like to be characterised by what was a small part of me. On rereading Death of the Body for this ‘ordeal’ decided it was so much cleverer than I am now. A terrific way to end the festival.

20. Hearing fabulous Irish poet, Vona Groarke read her own poems and talk so beautifully about the finalists in the Sarah Broom Poetry Awards. I am so tempted to get to Wellington to hear her talk and read for a whole hour!

21. Stepping into the shoes of Alice Miller to read her finalist poems at The Sarah Broom Poetry Awards. I was amazed at how reading the poems of another poet out loud in front of an audience drew me so much closer into the very heart of them. The poems were breathtakingly good. I should do this more often. Find a special place to stand and read aloud the poems of another.

22. Ah! Murakami. Ah what a tremendous session. Ah! Ah! My daughter gave me some of his novels to read over summer and I was hooked. How had I not read him before? The outright surprise, wonder and delight of where he leads you. So to find out he was coming to the festival was the absolute highlight. I loved the fact he wrote his first novel and cast it into the bin as dreadful. He then wrote it in English as he had a limited vocabulary and stock of phrases. He translated it back into Japanese and achieved the simplicity, the economy and clarity of writing that is now his trademark. He likes his writing to be unpredictable to himself, which it is why it is so gloriously unpredictable to the reader. He feels he can be anybody when he writes (not all writers feel this!). He enjoys reading his books that have been translated into English (a few years after the original) as it is like reading it afresh and he can’t remember what happens. He likes Japanese tofu and donuts! Maybe a tofu donut! The chair, John Freeman, was exceptional. What made this session so utterly special were the silences, the long pauses that became little pivots of contemplation for both speaker and audience. One writer said Murakami says more in his silences than some writers say with truckloads of words. The t shirt he was wearing:







23. The volunteers, the lovely stage crew, the festival team and of course all the readers and writers who filled the Aotea Centre with a buzz of ideas and response. Astonishing!

Thank you thank you thank you


The brickbats that aren’t really brickbats at all

I. I wish Anne O’Brien could get to see more than the odd session. To sit back and enjoy the fruits of her labour.

2. Missing out on a ticket to The World’s Wife. My fault. From all accounts it was fabulous.

3. I was a chair, so feel free to criticise me (like all chairs I walked away wondering how I could have done a better job!), but sometimes the research and commitment as chair takes over whereas it should take the back seat along with your own ego. It seems we now live in an age where audiences have no problems in letting a chair know when they are dominating the conversation. Fair enough maybe, as it keeps us on our toes. The other tricky thing is that the audience will be a clashing mix of expectation, and equally varied mix of experience of the subject and writing under the spotlight. We are all different kinds of readers searching for different things. The sessions where the writers opened out into a warm and and sparking conversation were gold.

4. Why didn’t I run to the free sessions to make sure I got a seat?! Missed out on a few gems.