My father had a piece of kauri gum with
an insect entombed within its amber glow.
A slender fly, buckled in futile agony
as the resin gradually engulfed it and set
fast. He kept it on his desk, a talisman
from a Wekaweka boyhood and an oddity
no doubt. Hundreds of years may well have
passed since this incidental tragedy within
the cloistered Northland bush, yet thin, black
lines of the body are preserved within the
jewelled translucence that caused its death.
Owen Marshall, novelist, short story writer, poet and anthologist, has published over thirty books. Awards include the Deutz Medal for fiction, the New Zealand Literary Fund Scholarship in Letters, fellowships at Otago and Canterbury universities and the Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship in France. He is an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature, a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit, and has received the Prime Minister’s Literary Award. He is an adjunct professor at the University of Canterbury.
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.
Owen Marshall, The White Clock, Otago University Press, 2014
In Owen Marshall’s third poetry collection, The White Clock, poems provide a frame for contemplation—for reflecting back into the hills and dales of memory and for musing upon the physical and metaphysical currents of the world and of living. The adept fiction writer is at work here, with his trademark economy and grace, but so too is the roving mind of a philosopher. There is also the bird watcher (I should say life watcher) as Owen trains his figurative binoculars upon detail that renders his lines lucid and vital. Not all poems work for me, but those that do (the majority), dig and delve into the essence of humanness. There is humour (wry and infectious) and there is tenderness. As a whole the collection provides lovely contours of thought and feeling.
The title poem takes us in all directions—from the ‘multi-limbed Leonardo man’ to the idea that ‘Time writ this large is discomforting.’ This sway between the transient and the concrete, the hard to pin down and the readily held, is a terrific vein throughout the book. Thus ‘Freeze Frame’ observes the fleetingness of time. The opening line, ‘In the spool that is my life,’ makes a nice link to the way photographs also share ‘the stabbing sadness/ of glimpsed transience.’
Owen embraces playfulness. ‘Dog Winds’ does just that. He links a season to a wind and that season to a dog.
Winter wind is the starving bitch
heeding no one’s whistle, baring
cold, white teeth if faced, with ribs
of adversity and a muzzle-up howl.
Or he returns to the fable of the tortoise and the hare and resists favouring the tortoise that is ‘commensurately wise’ and endures ‘an eternity of slow vegetative mastication.’ Instead:
Better a mad March dance before
a lover, the sprint with wind in
your hair, the ultimate exhilaration
within the headlights’ glorious flare.
In ‘Watcher on the Shore,’ Owen (or narrating voice) confesses he prefers ‘Brueghel’s/ trivial and persistent cruelties’ to ‘transcendent, uplifting paintings.’ Is the last line then a cue for us to see the darker line of thought in the collection?
Like old Jacques I find more sustenance
in melancholy than any other humour.
Sometimes the humour, though, is laugh out loud. When the poet-narrator is about to talk about ‘narrative point of view/ and psychic distance’ he looks into the crowd and spots a woman asleep. Disconcerting, hilarious:
[ ] Golf balls could
have been dropped into her mouth
and there was nothing I could say
that would add to her contentment.
What I particularly love about this collection is the way the poet opens himself up for inspection—through what he observes, experiences and thinks. It imbues the poems with an acute truthfulness (which goes against the grain of poetic game play and irony). One black coat (now a little shabby) was purchased in Menton and conjures up past memories in ‘Habit.’ It is the last verse that shows Owen at his perceptive best:
[ ] We
are a fit, and I cannot bear its
replacement with any companion
less familiar with my life and form.
The White Clock, like the Graeme Sydney image on the cover, provides a frame for shimmering contemplation.
Award-winning author and editor of 25 books, Owen Marshall is both a poet and fiction writer. He is considered one of the most significant writers of short stories in New Zealand. He received the 2013 Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction, and was awarded an Honourary Doctorate of Letters from the University of Canterbury where he is an adjunct professor. Owen’s poetry reflects a deft and economical eye that catches luminous detail. His poems are steered by love as much as keen intelligence as they travel from everyday experience to an eclectic reading history to contemplative moments.
To mark the arrival of his third poetry collection, The White Clock (Otago University Press, 2014), Owen kindly agreed to be interviewed by NZ Poetry Shelf. I will review this new collection shortly.
1- Have reading and writing always been important to you?
My father was a lover of books, and he read to us as children, mainly from such authors as Kipling, Dickens, Galsworthy, Conan Doyle and the lake poets. He was also a devoted walker and loved the outdoors. I was open to both enthusiasms. Although a keen reader I made few attempts to write until I had finished university study.
2- What poets have influenced you?
I have enjoyed reading poetry since my teens, but began writing it comparatively recently and without systematic study. Early haphazard reading included the usual suspects – Housman, Auden, Eliot, Dickinson, Bishop, Yeats, Frost, Hughes and Dylan Thomas. I was drawn to the lyrical qualities of Laurie Lee, which are evident in his prose as well as his poetry. I much admired Jane Austen’s epigrammatic precision which may be so effectively used in poetry. When in my twenties I was stunned by Henry Reed’s wonderful poem, ‘The Naming of Parts,’ and it remains a favourite. More recent influences are people like Paul Muldoon and Gary Soto. James K Baxter is the leading New Zealand poet for me, despite the unevenness of his work. Among many others I admire are Vincent O’Sullivan, Brian Turner, Bill Manhire, C.K. Stead, Michael Harlow, Fiona Kidman, Lauris Edmond, Frankie McMillan, and Fiona Farrell. There are many more.
3 – In my Herald review of your collection, Sleepwalking in Antarctica, I suggested your poems were `an exquisite marriage of musicality, observation, elegance and economy.’ What are the key things for you when you write a poem?
I hope for emotional intensity. Word play may be attractive, maybe even dazzling, but eventually it palls for me if not in the service of something sincerely felt. When I read I want to find out more about how others find the business of living to be. Wordsworth’s definition of poetry has become a cliché, but `emotion recollected in tranquility’ still takes some beating. Humour and satire are attractive in poetry, and of course cadence, insight and originality.
4 – Has your writing changed over time?
I hope that my writing has become more assured, but the work always twists in the hand and never matches the artistic intention. In the end you write as you can rather than as you wish. No doubt an evolution is discernible in my fiction, but all the poetry I have published is comparatively recent. I do feel however that it continues to free up, and increasingly I feel comfortable with using the vernacular.
5 – You write in both forms. Are you attached to one more than the other, or are both necessary to you?
In reading I make little distinction. In my writing the inclination is perhaps to the short story, which itself tends towards the associative effects of poetry because of the need for economy. My poetry tends to be more personal than the prose, directly related to my own experience and feelings. I can’t will poetry in the way I can prose. The poems come in their own time, sometimes thick and fast, sometimes not at all. I was fortunate to have the Henderson Arts Trust residency in Alexandra last year and many of the poems in The White Clock were written while I was there, and out of the stimulus of a new setting.
6 – What irks you, and delights you, in poetry?
I dislike cloying sentimentality and obfuscation parading as profundity. I admire cadence, exactitude, sincerity and striking imagery.
7 – Do you find social media an entertaining and useful tool, or white noise?
I’m not involved with it. It seems to me peripheral to the central concerns of reading and writing, and life generally.
8 – What activities enrich your writing life?
Nothing is more important than family. Friends and outdoor interests help prevent too much studious self absorption. I used to play a lot of sport, but the joints protest now. Writing has taken me to many places – France, Italy, China, Antarctica among them. My degree is in history and I find travel in Europe especially interesting. I always keep a journal to record impressions and experiences. Also as an adjunct professor at Canterbury University I have enjoyed keeping up with younger people interested in literature, being challenged in my views, reading and practice.
9 – Your writing is enlivened with acute details of place. Is a sense of home an important factor as you write?
Our physical environment influences us in tangible and intangible ways, and we in turn mold it. Cityscapes and landscapes are far more than just backdrops. The latter tend to dominate in my work because most of my life has been spent in provincial centres. I’m rather drawn to natural places that are not overwhelmed by people.