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Poetry Shelf noticeboard: The Public History Talks – Fiona Kidman on This Mortal Boy

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The Public History Talks are hosted by the Ministry for Culture & Heritage History Group at the National Library of New Zealand. They are usually held on the first Wednesday of the month from March to November.

Talks in this series are usually recorded and available online

  • Date: Wednesday, 7 August, 2019
  • Time: 12:10pm to 1:00pm
  • Cost: Free. You don’t need to book.
  • Location: Taiwhanaga Kahau — Auditorium (lower ground floor), Corner Molesworth and Aitken Streets, Wellington. Entrance on Aitken Street.
  • Contact Details: ATLOutreach@dia.govt.nz

Please join us to hear Dame Fiona Kidman discuss the writing of her award-winning book ‘This Mortal Boy’.

Albert Black, born in Belfast, was eighteen when he arrived in New Zealand as an assisted work immigrant, in 1953. Although his life in New Zealand started well, he was found guilty of murder after an altercation in an Auckland cafe, two years later. He was hanged in December 1955.

In writing the novel ‘This Mortal Boy’ (Vintage, 2018), Fiona Kidman explores the story behind the headlines and asks whether Black might have been found guilty of manslaughter rather than murder.

The 1950s were a time of social upheaval in New Zealand, and form a background to the events she describes. Central to this talk will be the methods of research employed and the boundaries between fact and fiction.

These free public history talks are a collaboration between the National Library of New Zealand and Manatū Taonga Ministry for Culture and Heritage. They are usually held on the first Wednesday of the month March to November.

Most talks are recorded. You can listen to them at New Zealand History

About the speaker

Dame Fiona is a Wellington writer. Over the years she has been a librarian, radio producer and screenwriter.

She has written more than thirty books, including novels, short fiction, memoir and poetry. Her latest novel ‘This Mortal Boy’ was awarded the Acorn Foundation’s Prize for Fiction at the Ockham Book Awards 2019. She has a DNZM, OBE and two French honours, including the French Legion of Honour.

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf questions: 7 poets name 3 poetry books that have mattered

 

 

My bookshelves are like an autobiography because books, like albums, flag key points in my life.

To pick only three poetry books that have mattered at different points in your life is a tall order but these poets have sent me chasing collectons and composing my own list.

Featured poets: Fiona Kidman, Joan Fleming, Hannah Mettner,  David Eggleton, Sam Duckor-Jones, Amy Leigh-Wicks and Murray Edmond.

 

Fiona Kidman

I was team teaching a creative writing group with my dear late friend, the poet Lauris Edmond, when she read Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “The Fish”. I remember the electricity in the air, as the dazzling images tumbled out, wonderfully read by Lauris. And then there is the moment where the caught fish is released back into the wild. I trembled when I heard the poem, the first I knew of Bishop’s work. This was in the late 1970s. Later, I bought Elizabeth Bishop The Complete Poems 1927 -1979, and discovered her inimitable Nova Scotian poems. I was working towards a novel partly set in Nova Scotia, and I carried the book with me – there, and on all my travels for years afterwards. I had a habit of pressing wildflowers collected along the way, and eventually, I realised that I was a danger to myself at the New Zealand border if I was to continue carrying them. I read the poems at home now.

Another book I have read and re-read many times, is Marguerite Duras’s last  book (I think) Practicalities (published in 1993). I had been influenced by her fiction as a young woman. But this was a tiny book of essays, fragments, interior monologues, about desire, housekeeping, her struggles with alcohol, domestic lists of important things to have in the house, reflections on death.

And one more.  On the bedside table I keep Seamus Heaney’s Opened Ground: Poems 1966-1996. I came late to Heaney’s work, but late is good, because I’m still making discoveries, there are still pleasures in store from the great Irish Nobel Prize winning writer. It’s like tracing my finger through language and feeling my own Irish blood singing its way through my veins. The collection contains, incidentally, a poem about Katherine Mansfield.

 

Joan Fleming

Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red was a gift from Amy Brown on my 23rd birthday. It blew my head off. It is the best and strangest failed love poem I have ever read. But more than that, it showed me how a book could perform an argument, and at the same time, exquisitely fracture the foundations of the kind of thought that makes argument possible.

Jordan Abel’s book The Place of Scraps is an erasure poem and a series of prose reflections, which explode and complicate the work of ethnographer Marius Barbeau. I had been searching for poetry that could do this mode of critical work all through my PhD, and discovered The Place of Scraps very late in the journey, on the recommendation of the dear and brilliant Brian Blanchfield. The book is a stunning example of a new kind of ethnopoetics – or, perhaps, counter-ethnopoetics. I was needing and seeking it, and its sensibility has offered me a kind of permission for my own work.

I wonder if all writers read as opportunistically as this? Maybe we’re all like exploration geologists, searching for those forms and sensibilities that we can mine for our own nefarious compositional purposes. The latest book of this ilk for me has been Rachel Zucker’s Mothers. What gets me about this book is the collage essay form, the candid revelations, and the way Zucker’s poetics walk the line between sentimentality and the rejection of sentimentality. I’m completely charged by the possibilities of this book’s form. Watch this space, I guess.

 

Hannah Mettner

Every birthday when I was a girl, my parents would get me an obligatory book. This wasn’t a problem, as I liked reading, but the choices were a bit hit or miss, and I was often far more thrilled by other gifts. One year though, they got me The Door in the Air and other stories by Margaret Mahy, and it has become my enduring favourite book, certainly the book I’ve re-read most. My current favourite story (it changes all the time) is about a woman who bakes her grown-up son a birthday cake, ices it, and leaves it in a glass dome for the month leading up to his birthday (I presume it’s a fruit cake, otherwise, ew). In a hilarious twist, the cake becomes the next big thing in art, when it’s “discovered” by two gallery owners. I think it’s the perfect take-down of the art scene, and I often wonder what had happened in Mahy’s life that had inspired this gentle trashing of “taste-makers”. It’s also a really beautiful allegory for women’s work, which is so often un-recognised and un-celebrated: by elevating a cake, made with love by the light of a new moon, Mahy draws our attention to how little we do recognise this work, in the usual course of things. In the end, much to the chagrin of the gallery owners, who are considering taking the cake on an international art tour, the cake is eaten when the son comes home for his birthday, as intended. And all the stories in the book are these complicated, magical-realism, gently humorous, domestic, relationship-centred stories that do so much in such a short space.

My current favourite book of poems is Morgan Parker’s There are more Beautiful Things than Beyoncé, which I bought for its provocative title. It is the perfect mix of pop culture, politics and outrageously beautiful lines of poetry. It’s the kind of book that you can’t read all at once because each poem slays you. One of the poems, ‘The Gospel According to Her’ opens with this couplet:

What to a slave is the fourth of July
What to a woman is a vote

I mean! Wow! I’m so tired of the kind of ‘flippant cool’ and ‘awkward funny’ poetic voice that’s been popular for a bit now, and this book feels like such an antidote to that. It’s really important writing about the intersections of race, gender, class and pop culture in America, and it feels fiercely genuine.

And obviously one of my all-time favourite books of poems is Mags’ (Sugar Magnolia Wilson’s) new collectiom Because a Woman’s Heart is like a Needle at the Bottom of the Ocean. I’ve been waiting for this book since I first met Mags in our MA course in 2012, and, though I’d seen (I think) all of the poems in it before it was published, having them gathered together in one place makes them all seem to glow a bit brighter. It possesses some of the magical realism that brings me back time and again to the Mahy, with a slightly darker, more grown-up edge. It feels like a book that has already lived a thousand lives, and lived them richly, and has picked up scraps and talismans along the way to adorn its stories, like the bower birds in the poem ‘Glamour’. It does what the best poetry does, which is to offer you something beautiful and immediate on the surface, but with more and more layers of meaning to unpick as you make repeat visits. I think what it has to say on how we define ourselves in relation to other people is genuinely complex and profound.

 

David Eggleton

The Walled Garden by Russell Haley, published in 1972 by The Mandrake Root, was one of the first poetry books I ever bought, and I bought it in order to read it over and over and internalise it. Its verses I found visionary, oneiric, hallucinatory. I had seen it displayed in Auckland’s University Book Shop, which was then in the Student Quad on campus. I picked it up off the shelf, began idly flicking through and became immediately ensnared by its strange chanting lines:

 

Invest the real with moths of dream

white paper is a time machine

 

and

 

six inches of semantic dust cover the carpet

he drew with his fingers

new maps of home

Grafton Road and Carlton Gore …

 

As I was living in Grafton Road at the time, just along the bustling hippie encampments in the grand old villas near Carlton Gore Road, my brain began to hum. I bought the book and it immediately became my guide to a certain state of mind a celebration of another, more phantasmal, Auckland in the decade of the 1970s:

 

Gagarin is finding a new way to walk

both the rock and the lion are starting to talk …

 

Russell Haley was a British migrant who grew up in the north of England and then served in the R.A. F. in Iraq in the 1950s, at a time when the oil wells of Middle East were relatively untroubled by the meddling of the United States, and archeological expeditions to the Fertile Crescent were proceeding in an orderly fashion, and Persian poetry was being celebrated as the ne plus ultra of the Islamic Golden Age. In Haley’s The Walled Garden, still to me a wondrous book, I was attracted to the private mythology, the prophetic quality, the dream-like imagery, the air of premonition, of the circularity of history he was invoking: a sense of time of time regained out of a kind of colourful rubble — the bric a brac of twentieth century international modernism — which seemed to me at the time seductively exotic. Moreover, he managed to make tenets of Sufi mysticism rhyme and chime with kite-flying in the small hours on Bethells Beach:

 

3.30 am …

 

There are two voices —

the first is that of the man

holding the kite string —

he says everything and yet nothing.

The second is the deep hum of the rope

linking the man and the kite  —

this voice says nothing and yet everything

(from night flying with hanly)

 

Published in Auckland by Stephen Chan’s Association of Orientally Flavoured Syndics in 1972, David Mitchell’s first, and for several decades his only poetry collection, Pipe Dreams in Ponsonby, was reprinted in a second edition in 1975 by Caveman Press, whose publisher was Trevor Reeves. That is the edition, acquired second-hand years later, that I have in my possession, knocked out by Tablet Print in Dunedin and, though in a similar thin black cardboard jacket, not quite as elegant and well-printed as the earlier one. Yet it still conveys the magic, the mojo, of a poet who celebrated the poem as spoken word. For me, David Mitchell is an exemplar of the shaman able to take a poem off the page and make it into something performative, transcendent, on a stage. In Auckland in 1980, David Mitchell established the Globe Hotel weekly poetry readings which became inspirational. Mitchell was a poet of the primal, one who had an ability to suggest and conjure up the electric atmosphere of raw improvisation. A master of syllabics, the man with the golden ear, he was actually all craft. He worked with silence, building up cadences out of short phrases and using the pregnant pause to create resonance. He was intent on emphasising the evanescence of the moment; with the use of subtle intonation and enunciation, seeking to establish an authentic encounter with the poem he was reciting, its mood, its music.

Kendrick Smithyman was another early enthusiasm of mine, in particular his 1972 collection Earthquake Weather in its drab olive green cover, containing the poem ‘Hail’ whose last lines give the book its resonantly memorable title: ‘We call this earthquake weather. We may not be wrong.’

But it is his later epic 1997 poem Atua Wera that spun my compass round as an example of what a truly ambitious New Zealand poem could be. Atua Wera, is a poem glued together out of bits and bobs. It muses on historical hearsay, folklore, museological keepsakes, and intertextual chunks of letters and journals. It requires you to latch onto the poet’s rhythms of thought, his oblique way of saying things as he tells the story of Papahurihia, a Northland Māori millennial prophet who was a tohunga descended from tohunga.

In this verse biography, Smithyman is a prose Browning, up to his elbows in the old colonial dust, breaking up journalistic reportage into cryptic fragments, into crabbed lines scattered across the page, except that where Robert Browning embroidered endlessly in his epic The Ring and the Book on a story that, as Thomas Carlyle said, might have been told in ten lines and were better forgotten, Smithyman’s effort is a superb revivification of an amazing chapter in New Zealand colonial history.

A master-ventriloquist, like his subject, Smithyman uses James Busby, Thomas Kendall and Frederic Maning to tell us about Yankee sailors encountering Moriori voodoo, and about the Garden of Eden snake in Genesis being transformed into a lizard, then a dragon, then ‘a fiery flying serpent’ who turns out to be Te Atau Wera himself, the shape-shifter. Atua Wera is itself a shape-shifting poem of ghost-riders and end-of-world portents, of the phantom canoe on Lake Tarawera before the eruption, and of a light in the sky which turns out to be a TV repeater mast. It’s a book which is a palimpest, a treasure trove, a landmark, a beacon.

 

Sam Duckor-Jones

DIFFERENT DANCES / SHEL SILVERSTEIN
This is a large coffee table book of drawings of naked men and women fucking and sucking and being impaled in various ways. There is straight sex, queer sex, and not-so-subtle nods towards fun things like necrophilia! incest! bestiality! We loved this book when we were kids, we poured over it wide eyed, impatient, tingling and desirous and competitively appalled or nonchalant, depending. A little later, ie adolescence, when my friends and I started liking boys but had no language or real world models with which to express it, we drew: cousins rutting in basements, fey teachers with debased secrets, musclemen kissing in pantries… Different Dances was my manual for lusty expression: put it on the page. To this day I still prefer a pen and paper to real life, sigh.

DEAR PRUDENCE / DAVID TRINIDAD
David Trinidad has this long prose poem called ‘Mothers’ in which he remembers all the mothers from his childhood neighbourhoods. It’s intimate and cinematic and filled with satisfyingly stifling pastels and veneers of conformity and simmering desperations and a serious deluge of kitsch, moving from comic portrait to heartbreaking confession. I read it in 2016 and immediately made David Trinidad one of my favourite poets and Dear Prudence one of my most frequently thumbed books. David Trinidad constructs his poems from celebrity interviews, soap opera scripts, trashy novels, idol infatuations, all with a serious wash of queer love and it’s associated traumas. He takes plain language and wrings it with tight margins til it becomes something crystalized. I love him.

BLISS / PETER CAREY
When I lived in Auckland I was a bad employee. I worked in a number of cafes, briefly. I was scared of the customers and didn’t have the cahones for kitchen trash talk. All I wanted to do was read and draw, why was this not allowed? On a lunch break at a Ponsonby spot where I was the lame FOH, I read Bliss in the upstairs staffroom. The barista came and sat beside me and talked and talked and would not stop talking so I picked up my book and climbed right out the window. I ran along the awnings and shimmied down a drainpipe, stormed righteously to Grey Lynn park, finished my chapter. Caught the next train home to Wellington. Ever since, Bliss has represented a real particular sort of escape to me, and is a reminder that a good book is worth it.

 

Amy Leigh Wicks

I came across Jack Kerouac’s On the Road in university. I resonated with his ability to articulate the insatiable longings of the human heart. The novel wasn’t the best written thing I’d read, but the timing of it, the casual language paired with a desperate feeling of urgency coincided perfectly with my itch for travel and spiritual discovery. Kerouac said in a later interview that the book was really just about two catholic boys in search of God. I think a lot of people might have trouble seeing it because of all the Benzedrine and riotous living, but it hit me in the guts as true.

I was in my early twenties when I read Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Collected Poems. Her sonnets continue to be one great sources of inspiration and reflection. From Sonnet XXX which begins, ‘Love is not all,’ and ends in a surprising turn, to her sonnet What lips my lips have kissed and where and why, which appeared in Vanity Fair in 1920, but reads to me as if it were written now, her poems are delicious, layered, and precisely crafted.

I started studying James K. Baxter while I was working on my Masters in New York, and found a very hard time finding his books. When I moved to New Zealand and came across New Selected Poems: James K. Baxter edited by Paul Millar, I felt I had struck gold. I carry it with me in my purse most days, as it is not cumbersome, and it has a selection of poetry from all of Baxter’s books as well as a selection of previously unpublished works. I find myself coming back to Farmhand, where ‘He has his awkward hopes, his envious dreams to yarn to […]’ to later in his life, the bittersweet but undeniably beautiful He Waiata mo Te Kare where he says, ‘Nobody would have given tuppence for our chances,/ Yet our love did not turn to hate.’

 

Murray Edmond

Plants of New Zealand by R.M.Laing and E.W.Blackwell (Whitcombe and Tombs , 1906)

Shanties by the Way: a selection of New Zealand Popular Songs and Ballads collected and edited by Rona Baily and Herbert Roth (Whitcombe and Tombs, 1967)

Hidden Camera by Zoran Zivkovic, trans. Alice Copple-Tosic, (London: Dalkey Archive, 2008)

I think I was given ‘Laing and Blackwell’ (as it was always called) for my 12th birthday, at the end of 1961. I would have asked for it. I had recently joined the Hamilton Junior Naturalists Club and had begun to discover ‘another world’ in the flora of Aotearoa, which was to be a gateway for understanding many other things about the country I lived in that no one had yet mentioned. Robert Laing and Ellen Blackwell’s Plants of New Zealand was the first serious, semi-populist, reasonably comprehensive book on New Zealand plants. Ellen Blackwell, an amateur botanist in her late thirties, had met Robert Laing, Christchurch school teacher, graduate of Canterbury University College, and botanist with a special interest in marine algae, on a ship heading for New Zealand in 1903. Laing was returning from an overseas trip, Blackwell was visiting her brother Frank at Pahi in the northern Kaipara, her first (and only!) visit to New Zealand. The fruit of this meeting was the publication of the evergreen ‘Laing and Blackwell’ in 1906, with Ellen contributing photos (along with brother Frank) and much of the northern botanical information. The sixth edition I received had been published in 1957. It’s a strange old hodge-podge of a book, with reliable basic botanical coverage, mixed with Maori ‘lore’ on plant use, plus some poetical diversions to William Pember Reeves and Alfred Domett. Pretty soon us budding naturalists had graduated to Lucy Moore and H.H.Allan’s properly scientific Flora of New Zealand, but we never forgot our Laing and Blackwell. Ellen Blackwell returned to England after three years in New Zealand, never to return, but she left a little gem behind her. I wrote a poem called ‘Te Ngahere’ (‘The Bush’), using my new discoveries, and next year, 1963, my first year at high school, it was published in the school magazine.

I bought Rona Bailey and Bert Roth’s anthology Shanties by the Way, when I was a first year student at Auckland University in 1968. It might be my favourite New Zealand poetry anthology. Of the 85 songs, ballads, chants, rhymes, jingles, ditties, shanties, broadsides, protests, burlesques, etc. 21 are by the illustrious Anon. It’s a history book and a poetry book at the same time, a collection of voices, registers and, indeed, languages of Aotearoa. When Russell Haley and I wrote our satire, Progress in the Dark, on the sordid history of Auckland city, for the Living Theatre Troupe in 1971, I raided the prohibition section of the anthology for our play:

 

I am a young teetotaller

And though but six years old,

Within my little breast there beats

A heart as true as gold.

 

Bert Roth, socialist, Viennese Jew, escapee from Hitler’s Austria, declared ‘enemy alien’ by the New Zealand Government, became the historian of the Union movement in New Zealand; Rona Bailey, physical education teacher, dancer, communist, activist, had studied modern dance and the collecting of folk dance and song in the USA just before World War Two. Together these two created a rich record in verse and song of the story of Aotearoa – read it, sing it, and you’ll get the picture!

Lisa Samuels gave me Zoran Zivkovic’s novel Hidden Camera not so long ago. It’s a scary, funny, dark, narratively powerful and hauntingly intoxicating tale that makes you question the very reality around you as you read. Zivkovic, who wrote his masters’ thesis at Belgrade University on Arthur C. Clarke, and latterly taught there for many years, knows his Lem, his Kafka, his Bulgakov and his Gogol. Perhaps his work evokes what a Robert Louis Stevenson thriller or a Henry James ghost story in the 21st century might read like. Aren’t we all being recorded, all the time? Are the narratives of us that are recorded more real than the lives we think we are living? Zivkovic is a writer who makes me want to record narratives myself, if only to fight back against the capture of ourselves, to escape the horror of the prisons we have built for ourselves.

 

Contributors

Sam Duckor-Jones is a sculptor and poet who lives in Featherston. In 2017 he won the Biggs Poetry Prize from the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington. Victoria University press published his debut collection People from the Pit Stand Up in 2018.  His website.

Murray Edmond is a playwright, poet and fiction writer; he has worked as an editor, critic and dramaturge. Several of his poetry collections have been finalists in the New Zealand Book Awards:   Letters and Paragraphs, Fool Moon and Shaggy Magpie Songs. He has worked extensively in theatre including twenty years with Indian Ink on the creation of all the company’s scripts. His latest poetry collection Back Before You Know was published by Compound Press in 2019.

David Eggleton is a Dunedin-based poet and writer, who was formerly the editor of Landfall. He is working on a number of projects, including a new poetry collection.

Joan Fleming is a poet, teacher, and researcher. She is the author of two books of poetry, The Same as Yes and Failed Love Poems (both with Victoria University Press), and her third book is forthcoming with Cordite Books. She has recently completed a PhD in ethnopoetics at Monash University, a project which arose out of deep family ties and ongoing relationships with Warlpiri families in Central Australia. She is the New Zealand/Aotearoa Commissioning Editor for Cordite Poetry Review and teaches creative writing from Madrid, where she currently lives. She recently performed and served as Impresario for the Unamuno Author Series Festival in Madrid, and in 2020 she will travel to Honduras for the Our Little Roses Poetry Teaching Fellowship.

Fiona Kidman has published over 30 books including novels, poetry, memoir and a play. She has received a number of awards and honours including a DNZM, OBE and the French Legion of Honour. Her most recent book This Mortal Boy won the Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize at the Ockham Book Awards 2019. She has published a number of poetry collections; her debut Honey and Bitters appeared in 1975 while her more recent collections were published by Random House: Where Your Left Hand Rests (2010) and This Change in the Light (2016).

Amy Leigh Wicks is the author of The Dangerous Country of Love and Marriage (Auckland University Press 2019) and Orange Juice and Rooftops.

Hannah Mettner is a Wellington-based poet from Gisborne. Her first collection, Fully Clothed and so Forgetful (VUP 2017), was longlisted for the 2018 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards, and won the Jessie Mackay Award for best first book of poetry. She is co-editor with Morgan Bach and Sugar Magnolia Wilson of Sweet Mammalian, an online poetry journal launched in 2014.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Writing Life: Twelve New Zealand Authors – a reading by Albert Wendt and a review

 

writers_cvr.jpg

 

The Writing Life: Twelve New Zealand Authors edited by Deborah Shephard

Massey University Press, 2018

 

 

 

Albert Wendt reads ‘Used-by Date’

 

 

Twelve authors talk to biographer and historian, Deborah Shephard, about writing and living. It is a captivating new book. Deborah has done an excellent job drawing out stories and raising issues; from what it means to write alongside domestic and money-earning demands to coping with both success and failure. She is familiar with the authors’ books and the context of the times in which they were written. The interviews often feel like a warm and stimulating conversation rather than a pre-prepared interview. John McDermott took stunning photographs to accompany the text.

Joy Cowley’s interview is essential reading. I didn’t realise how tough things were for her in her first marriage and how writing became increasingly important. The depth and range of her revelations moved me. I have been a big fan of Joy’s writing for decades. Along with Margaret Mahy she has also shown me that writers can be generous beyond the writing desk – in the way they listen and back younger or emerging writers (from the child to the adult). Joy was motivated to write New Zealand children’s books because it was really hard to find local examples.

Writing was something I just did. Wanting to be a writer, well, that’s like wanting to be a breather. I just lived stories.

Joy said she used to think people were like apples that fell from trees when they withered and dried but that she now thinks of people as onions – beautifully layered. This is an apt description for the interviews, for the writing life.

Deborah undertakes the interviews on the author’s turf, often over several days, and that makes a difference. We discover that Fiona Kidman has images of her writing mentors on the wall: Robyn Hyde, Katherine Mansfield, Margurite Duras. When they talk about Fiona’s mother and her knowledge of china, there is some Royal Doulton with pansies on the wall . That this is the china that featured as decorative end pieces in Fiona’s poetry collection This Change in the Light adds layers for me. I feel present in Fiona’s kitchen and I am reminded of her terrific poems about her mother.

 

My way of communicating with the world from when I was a very solitary child was through the written word.

 

Fiona’s interview covers family, friendship and feuds, love and terrible loss, along with the origins of her novels, the way she brings them to life and the way her writing process has changed over time. Her novels catch me immeasurably with their humaneness, their warmth and empathy; and the meticulous attention paid to details (think dialogue, setting, signs of the time). I have just read her latest, This Mortal Boy, and I recommend it highly.

In her interview Fiona returns to the 1970s, a time when women were reassessing their roles, finding their voice, standing together and speaking out. I was fascinated to read the back story to her debut novel, A Breed of Women – the way an early unpublished novel, ‘Club Litany’, was shelved because ‘it wasn’t a book I was quite ready to live with’. That novel formed the basis of A Breed of Women – the novel that affected so many women at the time. Fiona talks about entering ‘some new hall of knowledge’ and the women who gave her both the confidence to write and the tools to explore feminist issues.

I was particularly drawn to Fiona’s struggle to find a way to put Māori in her novels  – Fiona grew up close to Māori communities and married a man with both Māori and Pākehā ancestry and has a daughter with Māori and Pākehā ancestry.

Again I am riveted by the conversation; the way it takes me back to Fiona’s writing and the way I reconsider what it was like to write in a particular time in a particular place.

 

Owen Marshall’s interview begins with Deborah reading his poem, ‘Missing person file – Jane Ella’, aloud. The poem features his mother and his slender memories of her; she had died when he was young. She is also there because Marshall had adopted her maiden name as his writing surname. His father remarried and had six more children to add to the initial three. Owen wanted to stay at secondary school beyond 5th form so was allowed to if he paid for it and contributed a small sum towards the household. Fascinating – the commitment to learn when many of his friends were reluctant. Like his father he savoured books and academic learning along with outdoor activities.

I loved the way Owen described the relationship between experience and invention in a novel or short story:

Much of that is my own experience, but burnished and reformed by the process that is fiction writing.

And that Owen prefers the novel to autobiography when he is asked about his short memoir:

The memoir is based on two short pieces I did for Sport magazine and takes my life only to the beginning of the nineties when I left full-time teaching and became a professional writer. I did enjoy revisiting an earlier time and earlier self, but the experience hasn’t given me a desire to write my autobiography. I prefer to be seen through the prism of my work.

 

Albert Wendt, like Joy Cowley, has gifted us literature across diverse genres and has offered  extraordinary  support towards other writers, both emerging and established. In the interview he keeps some things private out of respect to the living but he draws us close to his lineage, to parents and grandparents, to the way writing both takes flight and becomes grounded. In a talk to students at his old school, New Plymouth Boys’ High he said:

 

Our lives are made up of great joy and love and also great pain and suffering and change. At times we feel like giving up. But this is the only life we have so we have to try and survive it, and enjoy it. Live it with integrity and honesty and to the best of your gifts.

 

I want to pin this to my wall. Like many of the authors I have read so far, the writing life is a life of both challenge and joy. It is also a life of reading, and in most cases from an early age. Albert is no exception. He read the Bible and then the School Journal before hiding himself away in the secondary -school library. Then his sixth-form English teacher gave handouts of The Waste Land.

 

I’d never heard of The Waste Land but when he began reading, shit, it was like listening to music and the way my grandmother chanted. We studied the whole poem for the next two weeks and my attention was held right from the beginning.

 

Albert talks about the way he has always been political; and of his willingness to write about and challenge racism. He talks about the way politics infused Sons for the Return Home. I remember reading this book the year after I had left school – and thinking, as it settled inside me, this is what writing can do. Albert said:

 

When I write it’s mainly for myself. I’m writing a book that I would like to read. It has to mean something to me and if it has some impact on the public then good, but that is not my aim.  At the time I wrote Sons for the Return Home I had become politicised, and I still am, but I was interested in exploring colonisation, what it does to people, both the colonised and the coloniser.

 

I am also fascinated by the process of  writing and the way it differs from writer to writer. Albert speaks of writing poems:

 

I deliberately set out to make them feel effortless, but to achieve that sometimes I had to rewrite and rewrite, or leave it for a few days and then go back to it. With my new collection From Mānoa to a Ponsonby Garden I decided to write a set of poems fourteen lines long each, and centre each one on this garden and this house and Reina, our cat, me, and any other creature that entered the garden, and see what happened. I was doing what I do with my paintings, deliberately limiting the colours, and the bloody poems began to take off. And instead of having short lines I decided to have fourteen fairly lengthy lines and make them appear just casual, and closer to prose.

 

I love this book. I love the way it returns me to writing I am familiar  with and lives that I am not. It reminds me that the writing process is addictive, sustaining and for many a necessary joy. It is not a criticism – because I found the interviews I have read immensely satisfying – but at the end of each one I wanted to enter the room and carry on the conversation myself.

I shall read the other interviewed authors over summer: Marilyn Duckworth, Tessa Duder, Marilyn Duckworth, Chris Else, Patricia Grace, David Hill, Witi Ihimaera, Vincent O’Sullivan and Philip Temple.

 

Massey University Press page

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the hammock: reading Fiona Kidman’s This Mortal Boy

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Fiona Kidman This Mortal Boy Vintage, 2018

 

Fiona Kidman’s marvelous new novel features Albert Black – the ‘jukebox killer’ – the second-to-last person to be hanged in New Zealand. He had left his impoverished but loving family in Northern Ireland in the 1950s to seek a better life. He was barely an adult.

Having read extensive research material, Fiona recreated the events and relationships that led to Albert’s controversial execution. I knew the ending but I kept hoping the Irish mother or the anti-hanging supporters would change the outcome. Not possible. So I read the novel – so beautifully detailed, so alive in rendition – in  a state of sadness at human behaviour. I am not talking about what seems to be murder in the heat of the moment after physical attacks.

I am talking about the way we treat people – who are claimed as different – as inferior: those from other countries, with different coloured skin, different accents, who make sexual choices other than heterosexual. Albert Black loses his name and becomes ‘Paddy’ because his Irish identity is not worthy of attention. It seems like the legal system, the judges, the media and general public were swayed by cultural scorn.

I might have had ongoing heartache as I read but I also absorbed the pulsating life Fiona created. The dialogue, the characters, the locations, the signs of the times – these all work to make a sumptuous depiction of a particular place in a particular time. I just loved it. I was born in June in Auckland one month before the jukebox event took place on 26 July 1955. Were my parents talking about it in their rented Point Chevalier bungalow?  What did they make of the case?

The execution bothered Mt Eden’s Prison Superintendent, the defence lawyer, friends Albert had made, to the extent public disgust at the death penalty saw the campaign against it work towards change. The new Labour Government of 1957 -1960  (in contrast to the fierce support of previous PM Sydney Holland) commuted death sentences to life imprisonment. In 1961 a National Government introduced legislation to abolish the law and allowed non-party voting. With ten National Party members, and those from Labour, the law was changed.

This is the kind of book that makes you reflect deeply upon how we do things today – how our prison system works to advantage or disadvantage, how difference still contributes to a lack of societal or cultural privilege.

Some books stick to you. This compelling novel is one of them. Beautifully crafted, meticulously researched, with ample attention to the grittiness of life and both the kindness and cruelty of people. I adored it.

 

Vintage author page

Video clip: Fiona talks about the novel

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’

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jesse Mulligan and Louise Wallace talk about Fiona Kidman’s Speaking with my grandmothers

 

 

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You can hear the discussion and read Louise’s fabulous  poem. Check out Fiona’s full sequence in Where Your Left Hand Rests (Godwit, 2010). It is poetry in an exquisitely produced book.

 

All the same, grandmother

how many hills are there left to stand on

because I tell you, it’s getting quite

lonely on this high moral ground

and now that I’ve found you, guilty secrets and all,

I can’t keep away, can’t stop looking at your picture

 

from ‘High ground’ in the sequence ‘Speaking with my grandmothers’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Courtney Sina Meredith airs new poems at a very good Ladies Litera-Tea – here are two for you

 

 

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This year, The Women’s Bookshop hosted two Ladies Litera-Tea events. I didn’t make the first one, but the one on Sunday was perhaps the best one I have been to. The range of voices was inspired programming. I needed toothpicks to hold my eyes up when I left home, but Dame Fiona Kidman had me sitting up listening to the sonnets she wrote for her mother, Kirsten McDougall mesmerised with an extract from the must-read Tess, Heather Kidd showed the diverse creativity and ambitions of rural women (wow!), Michalia Arathimos spoke of the gut-wrenching origins of her debut also must-read novel Aukati, Fiona Farrell’s extract from Decline & Fall on Savage Street had me sitting on the edge of my seat, the sentences were so good (now have a copy!). Hearing how Eat My Lunch came into being from Lisa King underlined the difference one person can make (with help from friends!). 

The first half was a glorious rollercoasting brain-sparking heart-warming delight.

By this stage no vestiges of tiredness. I thought I might flag in the second half but the immune-system boost continued. Wow! Hearing Sue Wootton read poems was a bit like hearing Anne Kennedy read and I just wanted more (please can she come to AWF?), Annaleese Jochems had me gasping every time she read an extract (also now on my table), Diana Wichtel’s account of Driving to Treblinka and her missing Polish Jewish father was so moving I was in awe of her tenacity and ability to bring that story to life on the page, Tina Makereti made abundantly clear why Black Marks on the White Page matters and why this collection is compulsive reading. I actually loved the way – rather than read her own award-winning ‘Black Milk’  – she picked ‘Famished Eels’ by Mary Rokonadravu to read (it had won the 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for the Pacific Region).

We tell stories and we write poems in so many different ways – and that matters.

I came home with four new novels and so much more! Thank you Carole Beu, her team and the authors. I so needed that pick-me-up. Seriously I felt like I had come back from a month at Sandy Bay after reading novels and swimming.

Somewhere in the glorious mix, Courtney Sina Meredith read some new poems – which is no easy thing. I loved hearing her half sing/half speak an early poem,  ‘Brown Girls in Bright Red Lipstick’, and I loved hearing the new poems. There is the same musical lift, the same political undercurrents, the same heart that beats along every line – yet there is also a stepping out, a tasking risks, a renewed self exposure with vital attachments to the world. Courtney kindly agreed to let me post two new poems that make a rather good pairing. Just so you can have a taste. I feel rather lucky as I an read them with her performance voice taking over.

I just adore the way these two poems make conversations with each other.

 

The poems

 

How about being a woman?

How about being a young woman?

How about being a young brown woman?

How about being a young brown queer woman?

How about being a young brown queer single woman?

How about being a young brown queer single educated woman?

How about being a young brown queer single educated professional woman?

How about being a young brown queer single educated professional creative woman?

How about being a young brown queer single educated professional woman?

How about being a young brown queer single educated woman?

How about being a young brown queer single woman?

How about being a young brown queer woman?

How about being a young brown woman?

How about being a young woman?

How about being a woman?

 

 

 

 

I have stolen away into the secret room

mothers build inside their daughters

I am feeding on a dowry centuries old

the bones sucked dry

a feast of bright quiet.

 

My mother’s dreams are here

beside the red gold river

born of shame and laughter

the shifting bank won’t hold.

 

Her mother’s wings are here

wild shimmered iridescent

girl to bird to prophet

an angel killing time.

 

And there is her mother

at the top of the sky ablaze

lighting the islands below

into a string of tears.

 

©Courtney Sina Meredith