Thursday, April 29, 2010

The miserablist and the poet from Tipperary

Self-declared miserablist and poet Helen Lehndorf is part of the Tuesday Poem project which I began three weeks back, and her posting You by Irish poet Dennis O'Driscoll has led to a fascinating discussion between another Irish poet and herself that you can see here

It's one of those 'no way the world's surely not that small' discussions that goes like this:
Helen finds the poem You by O'Driscoll in the New Yorker and posts it on her blog as part of this week's  Tuesday Poem  (see our badge on the left) which links 24 poets to a blog hub each Tuesday. The poem begins: 'Be yourself; show your flyblown eyes/to the world...' , and her liking it explains Helen's self-declared miserablism. 

Well, another Tuesday Poet, John Griffin from Tipperary - whom, I remind you is one of only 24 poets linked to the Tuesday Poem blog - pops up in the comments at the bottom of Helen's post to say (amongst other things): 
O’Driscoll is from Thurles, just down the road from where I live in Ireland. He works with my brother in the Revenue Commissioners.
And there's more. Check it out. 

Monday, April 26, 2010

Tuesday Poem: Umbra by Julian Heyes


I am born at sunrise,
my long shadow
obscuring the path ahead.

At noon I am a midday man,
each confident stride
outstripping my scrap of shadow.

And as sunset approaches
I shuffle,
the weight of my shadow
dragging me back by the heels.

When a child dies,
her long shadow lingers
and deepens mine.

                                   Julian Heyes

Tuesday PoemCheck out the other Tuesday Poems by clicking on the new button. 

Julian Heyes is a friend from the 1970s who has surfaced again, just recently, thanks to Facebook. Another friend, Simon Wright, started posting photos of us all at that time: perms, short shorts, high-waisted jeans - you know the sort of thing. And there's Julian with the shortest shorts of all and the best legs. 

Legs aside (and pretty shapely sideburns, too), Julian turned out to be rather good at, well,  everything. A Rhodes Scholar, even. He studied plant biology, and is now Professor of Postharvest Technology at Massey University. So it came as no surprise to discover, last week, that he wrote poems as well. 

Spotting the Tuesday Poem page on Facebook, Julian emailed me this poem. It came out of the blue and rather stopped me in my tracks.  I found the image of a child's shadow lingering and deepening the shadow of a grown man deeply affecting - and still do.  

I like the poem's simplicity, and the way it is both intimate and mythical all at once - the 'I' as ordinary man getting through the day, and as Everyman moving through life. An earlier title was 'This Transitory Life.' 

An Umbra is the darkest part of a shadow or, strictly, the part of the shadow where all light from a given source is excluded.  Thanks, Julian.

Tuesday Poem

Banquo's son and the art of getting down to it

What I should be doing. And here's more about TK (aka Tania) Roxborough's trilogy which began with Banquo's Son (shortlisted for this year's NZ Post book awards but enjoyed by adults and children alike) - and will continue once her editing work on the second book is done.

Tania's advice is spot on.

This woman is a machine: teaching full-time, her own children at home to care for, and researching and writing flat out at night. And she manages to both get on with the writing and 'incubate' at the same time. At the moment, I spend far too much time 'incubating'; and quite frankly the trouble with a book 'pregnancy' is if it goes on too long people start to think it's a phantom.

So, inspired by Banquo's author and her heroic battle with the 11th century, I'm hurtling back into my children's novel today with a vengeance. It's not too far off being finished, but I do need to do a little more research on old lighthouses.

As luck would have it, I ran into an expert in old lighthouses at the Four Square the other day. As I paid for my toilet paper and Weetbix, I had an epiphany:  the woman behind me in the queue is an artist who paints lighthouses and whose husband inspected them (or something like that.) I waited for her outside, and sidled up, supermarket bags rustling companionably.

Jacky told me her house is indeed stacked with archival photos and notes about lighthouses - she painted 40 of the classic NZ coastal lighthouses! - and she has some rather marvellous stories about them she hopes to put into a book one day. She told me two - about a blind lighthouse keeper and about an Indian princess who became a lighthouse keeper's wife - and said of course I could come and see her archives. Any time.

Trouble is, I wasn't able to get to get round there before Jacky went to Queenstown for the week. So my characters are still flying towards the lighthouse... and they don't know what they'll find there. Neither do I.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

O exquisite quill of granite

Tuesday Poem

So you like the Tuesday Poem blog as much as I do? Put one of these badges in your sidebar - just go here, and cut and paste the code for which ever size you'd like on your own blog.

Thanks to Claire Beynon for her lovely graphite quill and Helen Heath for designing the badge.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Never write a post before rushing to the bookshop

This is Stephen Oliver (NZ poet):

Not this:

The man above doesn't look a lot like the small photo of Oliver on the Phantom Billstickers poster there, but I thought perhaps a shave, perhaps a toupee, perhaps glasses?

Okay, I was hurrying to work at the bookshop, as I do every Friday, and assumed - for the purposes of a blog post on the Phantom Billstickers - that what the Billstickers people had sent me was proud poet and poem when it was in fact proud librarian and poem. An Iowan librarian what's more - a Mr Martin Schmidt. Apologies to both men.

Meanwhile, I realise that I must never have seen Stephen Oliver read a poem or appear at a writers' festival or other sort of event, which seems strange given his body of work. But scooping through the internet, it appears he might be living in Sydney (which sort of explains it.) Although he did grow up in Brooklyn, Wellington, where one of my best friends lived.

I also found an astonishing review of his collection Harmonic, which makes me want to read it.

Nicholas Reid from Antipodes writes: 'Stephen Oliver’s new book, Harmonic, is a tour de force, and I doubt that Australasian letters will see a more important volume of poems in this decade. If his gift in the past has been for the beautifully crafted lyric and the brilliant image, here we have the series of major poems that should cement his reputation, once and for all. ...the volume as a whole has an architectonic, a movement from an early crisis of metaphysics to a final home-coming, in a brilliant series of poems that celebrate the real.

side by side with tom waits

The Phantom Billstickers are back! They're putting poetry out on the streets of NZ and the US and, it seems, the World. Catch this - Phantom Poet and NZer Brian Turner (black and white posters on the left) hanging out with Tom Waits somewhere in central New York City last year. 

This year, there are ten more poets from NZ and beyond out there on Phantom posters, and they will be plastered up all over NZ and the States, as as far afield as Berlin. They're being launched at old Government House (Uni of Auckland) next Wednesday April 28 5pm. All welcome. 

The ten featured poets this year include Stephen Oliver with his poem The Great Repression which should go down a treat on the streets (if you look closely, you can see it in the piccy below behind Iowan librarian Martin Schmidt - and late note: apologies for referring to this man earlier as Stephen Oliver himself.) 
Anyway, as the organisers say, this project is kinda punk, kinda rock'n'roll, yanking poetry out of the the careful slim volumes in the bookshops, mussing up its hair, piercing its nose and teaching it to yell. The project is also about hope. 

"In a world of splitting opinions, extreme violence and never-ending political and commercial intrigue, the aim is to bring Truth and Beauty back into the streets. This is what has been missing. These posters and in fact all posters are truly 'Flora for the Concrete Jungle'. The wish is that people partake and celebrate in the creativity of language. The aim is inspirational and uplifting, the presence of poems in our cities is about re-claiming the world through art."

Apologies for the capitals, my html has gone haywire... but, oh, I love the concept of Phantom Bills. I reckon it's on the same page as the Tuesday Poem blog I've just started with 20 other poets from here and elsewhere. For the past two weeks we've used our blog to tell a bit and draw attention to ourselves in the blogosphere. It's a kind of open mike session on a digital street corner - we select a Tuesday Poem each week to focus on and the link to a host of poems via a live blog list. All day they pop up - and into the night when the Americans awake - and the interested blog reader just has to click on them to read. 

We're madly inclusive so any poet who blogs is welcome to join us - young, old, from Dunedin, Boston, Tipperary ... The catch line is 'A fresh poem every Tuesday and that's just the start.' Okay, so a lot of our readers are poets - and one of the marvellous things about the Tuesday Poem is the way it creates a community and encourages poets to write and share their stuff and comment on other work - but I can see from the viewing states that we are also getting random hits from the blogosphere: people who light on us (as if passing a street corner), and others who appear to be seeking us out. One of the seekers is novelist and teacher Tania Roxborough (of Banquo's Son fame):
Wednesday is my creative writing class day (lunchtime in my room with 20 odd keen bunnies) and we are just loving the Tuesday poems. I have a data projector in my room and we sit in the dark and oh and ah over your poems. You (as in all you wonderful poets) may or may not want to be a fly on the way with their responses - these girls are quite opinionated. Today I will show them Harp and Well and Mr Walpert's poem (can't remember the name). They absolutely LOVE being a little bit a part of something that's happening right now and 'discovering' poets and words and enjoy being delighted and surprised by words and the arrangement of them. Thank you. Now, back to the marking!

Something that's happening right now and discovering poets and being delighted and surprised, is what it's all about really. Phantom Billstickers quotes one of the original poetry rockers: 

The only thing that can save the world is reclaiming the awareness of the world. That's what poetry does. Allen Ginsberg. 

Whether the discovered poem is peeling off a wall in New York City or in front of a bunch of sandwich-eating teenagers in a classroom in Dunedin, it's alive and loud and hungry and prey to exhaust fumes and spit and crumbs. 

Do visit the Tuesday Poem project and then keep an eye out for the Phantom Bills - wherever you are. Here's the list of the Phantom Billstickers' 2010 poets. 


From Aotearoa (New Zealand):

Chris Knox, well known Kiwi musician, song writer and Beat Mystic.

Bill Manhire, New Zealand's Man of Letters and five-times winner of the New Zealand Book Awards Poetry Prize.

Tusiata Avia, Pacifika performance poet and current Ursula Bethel Writer in Residence at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch.

Stephen Oliver, poet and voice artist, author of fifteen volumes of poetry including the recently published collection 'Harmonic'.

Cilla McQueen, poet and artist, three-time winner of the New Zealand Book Award for poetry and current New Zealand Poet Laureate.

Mariana Isara, rising poetry star and winner of the Heritage Christchurch summer poets competition.

From the USA:

Robert Creeley, Black Mountain poet of the Charles Olson school and guardian of innovative poets and poetics everywhere.

Gerald Stern, Poet Laureate of New Jersey, recipient of the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets, US National Book Award winner for poetry and a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

Michael Palma, poet and translator of Dante's 'Inferno'.

Roy Smith, vital unpublished poet from New Hope, Pennsylvania.

You can read more about the Phantom poetry project on


Monday, April 19, 2010

Tuesday Poem:Harp


In the dark, I feel her breathe. I know she sleeps holding a hip
in the palm of one hand. Likes to walk finger tips on a rib cage, to overlap
finger and thumb when she circles a wrist. She has gone from me on tip-toe,
my milky girl, and become her own instrument - one of those fine-boned harps
that need to be played to keep in tune. Those strings. They shudder as I pass.

                                                                                             Mary McCallum

Do go to the new Tuesday Poem site to read the poem selected for today and find links to the other Tuesday Poets. We are 21 at last count and growing.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

the writer, the lovelorn

Advice for the lovelorn... I mean writers is a terrific post on The Elegant Variation by US author, screenwriter and film director Marisa Silver (The God of War).

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Trespass by Rose Tremain

I reviewed this book for The NZ Listener April 3-9.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Alice in chains?

My mate Deb's partner, Mike, is determined to introduce me to the joys of reading on the iphone and ipad. He sent me this link to Alice in Wonderland which is gob-smacking, I can't deny, but it is also deeply baffling.  Where does my mind go when I 'read' this way? Alice is given new and unexpected life in Tim Burton's latest cinema outing (loved it), but why do I want visual brilliance like that when I curl up to read, Mike?

For reading to me is about curling in on myself. It's about putting aside my increasingly cluttered, noisy, bright, highly visual, digital world and allowing my own interior 'brilliance' to kick in. The ipad thing is a bit like sitting in a well-lit room watching a cooking show on TV (a fab one with one of those talky American hosts and loads of cilantro) vs. opening a fridge. Okay, a large well-stocked fridge with an ice-maker and double doors and a very bright little light.

Forget it. The metaphor isn't working.. and it doesn't link particularly well to the title of the post. You see, I'm all in a tither. Then I think that, perhaps, I've misunderstood - that what I've shown you here is not a new form of book, but like the 'extras' you get on a DVD. Either way - thanks, Mike, for sending me the link. It's given me a lot to think about.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Tuesday Poem: Kiss


what it is
to wake to a kiss
he's water and mint
aloe and citrus
bending half-dressed

love in a thimble

                     Mary McCallum

Go to the new Tuesday Poem blog to read No Metaphor by Bryan Walpert, and find links to a host of other poems by the Tuesday Poets. I'm the Tuesday Poem editor this week, and it's been a real pleasure working with Bryan to publish his poem on our new blog. Next week, Tuesday Poet, Claire Beynon, is the contributing editor. 

Monday, April 12, 2010

A fresh poem every Tuesday

The Tuesday Poem begins on its own blog starting tomorrow. Join us!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Under the Huang Jiao Tree

I reviewed Under the Huang Jiao Tree - Two Journeys in China by Jane Carswell (Transit Lounge) on Radio NZ's Nine to Noon last Thursday. Winner of the 2010 Whitcoulls Travcom Travel Book of the Year Award, this book slayed me. 

It begins with a quote: 'There is a meaning in every journey that is unknown to the traveller'  by Deitrich Bonhoeffer,  and it is this mystery in the book - Jane's not knowing entirely what the journey's about - along with the meshed journeys into both China and Jane herself, and the subtle, evocative way she writes, that makes this book so powerful.  Nay, more than that - unforgettable. 

Jane Carswell gives me an insight into a way of being that I had not properly considered or understood before, and I carry that with me now. Here are my notes from the review - tidied up a bit, but essentially notes. The radio review is linked at the start of the post if you want to hear it. 

Jane Carswell (her mother's maiden name) was a farmer's wife in rural Canterbury (NZ) who raised children and taught the piano. She always felt an outsider and was aware of an interior dissonance - she was complex, awkward, too analytical. At 56, Jane was offered a job teaching English at a foreign language school in China - the city of Chongqing (an industrial city in mountainous Sichuan, 7 million in metropolitan area, fog-bound for half the year). She felt an affinity for China and the Chinese, and thought vaguely this might give her an opportunity to write, something she'd always wanted to do. 

1. Arrives - a little terrified - 1200 students and a few hundred teachers live together - she has a basic apartment - no toaster, no phone etc -  'mysterious household equipment' - gadgets that don't work - a muddle and a baffling lack of logic to it e.g. a table but no chair, and finds this extends to the rest of her life in that city - and yet people seem sanguine - 'perhaps tomorrow' is the catch phrase.

The phone: finally gets one, it doesn't work, 'perhaps tomorrow' - gets a large number of 'wrong number' calls - explained by the fact that there are a large no. of 8s in her phone number - eight sounds like 'rich' so people can't help dialling it. 

Jane struggles with teaching and with coming to grips with living in China:  
- random changes to the timetable - few resources - unclear what expected of her - but the students are alight with the desire to learn and energy and curiosity
- people she meets have an openness - lack of coyness - politeness and generosity that is refreshing - but on the other hand, there are many enthusiastic invitations to visit that come to nothing
- a difference between the official and unofficial versions of things at all levels - and always the need to be patient, to wait...

2. The humour in cultural and language mistakes: a conference where the badges say 'extinguished guests', someone wishing her a ' have a very tight sleep' , a fellow teacher gives her an egg in a jam sandwich half way through the meal and calls it 'toast' 

3. Loves the simplicity of life in China. The simple interactions between people and between people and the environment - the acceptance of their lot in often cramped apartments (toilets a 500 metre walk for some) - believes they are more economical and sensible than wasteful unnecessarily complex western households 

- when the invitations to visit do materialise - people don't look in the pantry first - they just give what they have - a woman she doesn't know gives her a pear when she's out walking -

Jane longs to live this simplicity but: 
'I'm too soft, too complicated, the knowledge of how to live simply has been bred out of me. Education and affluence have left me unfit for what I long for. How would I get on without books, antibiotics, travel?' 

The strength of the writing is the way the mystery is allowed to be and Jane's thoughts circle as she tries to understand the place, her journey, herself. She wonders, for example, if simplicity is really poverty 'pinched of hope' and is horrified by the poverty she sees.

4 Jane becomes homesick for the countryside, and when it's foggy - for light. She misses music at first  - her 'ears hungrier than eyes', she notices the sounds of mahjong, a man singing, music on loud speakers.

5. Politics rears its head - the bureaucracy, the feeling of always being watched - public property vs privacy of self, the need to say the 'right thing' publically, the way joining the communist party is the right thing to do to get ahead - whatever your beliefs, the community expectations - conformity, obedience, long ceremonies and mass exercise vs. those with different preoccupations (of the mind), who don't meet expectations, are more sensitive, or  suffer from mental disorders/depression  ...  what of them?

6. Jane becomes comfortable with her own interior dissonance - people have always told her she's cautious, easily pleased and patient - and she find this nature of hers fits well with the Chinese people  - she doesn't feel so 'ineffective' here - 

7. The illogicality of China outside the school e.g. the Dinosaur Lantern Festival which includes a 2-storey high dinosaur made from condoms. Jane realises she needs to respect the mystery of difference, because she can't understand everything. She's learning at a deeper level about herself  - feels the 'pieces moving inside'. 

8. Jane went to China - partly - as a Christian presence.... she thought she had to 'teach' to do that, but she realises that her presence was really as a disciple, she was there to learn. One day she sees a man standing under a Huang Jiao tree - his eyes shut, simply standing there at peace in the bustle of this crowded city - the images sears itself on her brain. 

9. Epilogue - Jane returns to NZ - sifts through her experience - feels enriched but is not sure the journey has given her more than that - but finally she comes to a point of understanding about herself which is that paradoxically rather than understanding herself, she needs to simply stand and wait like the man under the Huang Jiao tree. As an overly analytical person, this resonated with me, and continues to resonate. 

To receive gifts, she says, you need empty hands. I don't know how many times I've said this to people since I read it. It's so hard to do - to have those empty hands - but it transforms things. I've seen it.  

In the end, this knowledge she's brought back from China leads Jane back to God, and to twice-daily meditation as a Benedictine oblate. Two journeys, indeed. 

Note, Under the Huang Jiao Tree still isn't available in every bookshop in NZ. Even Whitcoulls - who sponsored the award Jane Carswell won for this book - seems to have trouble stocking it. The trick is to ask your bookseller to order it. Insist. 

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Defending Sylvia Plath

Just discovered a marvellous essay on Sylvia Plath, in Slate, written back in 2003. It's called Poetry's Lioness - Defending Sylvia Plath from her Detractors,  and writer Meghan O'Rourke is responding to NZer Christine Jeff's biopic Sylvia. It's a same argument Pamela Gordon makes about her aunt, Janet Frame - that people are wrong to fossick around inside art determined to explain it by what happened in the life of an artist.

Here's O'Rourke:

Early on, feminists approached Plath's opaque poems as codes to be cracked with biography, teaching us to think of her as a woman whose art was entirely bound up in her personal grievances. In fact, the poems that Plath selected for Ariel are the least confessional of those she wrote during her last year of life; and, as scholars have pointed out, we can see from Plath's papers that she assiduously removed the most personal details, draft after draft.
(Here Pamela Gordon might part company with O'Rourke, as she would say it was male writers in this country - rather than feminists - who were guilty of boxing up Frame's art inside the frame of a vulnerable, highly sensitive woman, and refusing to let it stand alone.) O'Rourke argues it is reductive to view Plath as a 'death-obsessed neurotic' and see her work purely in light of this, and her suicide at age 30. There is a lot more to Sylvia Plath the artist than that, for example:

Sylvia [the movie] fails to explore the fact that Plath was one of the first major American poets to be a mother and to take the pleasure of motherhood as her subject.  
And then there's the poet's wit, her fascination with myth ... and more  .... it's worth a read. Although I'm not sure I agree with the beating O'Rourke gives the feminists. They weren't the only ones who trapped Plath's work inside her life story, more's the pity.

For an interesting link between Janet Frame and Sylvia Plath, go here.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Tuesday Poem: Facing up to It

    Facing up to it

    In this city of furrows, we fall over ourselves
    tripping down
    Devon Street, tipping down
    and a return trip at such
    an angle that
    our foreheads kiss
    the pavement.

    Some days, it’s not furrowed at all,
    a flung thing that’s caught
    the wind:
    a blanket,
    a swag of kelp, newspaper balled
    a good-sized fist. On

    a good day, it is
    all dimples,
    this city. Ample, it dips
    and here, and here -
    the harbour, the smile (
    the place we fall

                            Mary McCallum

    Welcome to the second Tuesday Poem - an event shared by a growing number of poets in NZ (and some elsewhere) and begun here. Visit the other Tuesday Poets who will pop up throughout the day with their own poems, or poems they've chosen to host. It's the blogosphere's version of the open-mike night - and as stimulating and as fun.

    Up now

    claire beynon 

    harvey molloy

    helen heath  (new)

    tim jones

    cilla mcqueen - nz poet laureate - who posts monday, wednesday, friday

    fifi colston 

    ilikesweating (new)

    paradoxical cat

    kay mckenzie cooke


    pamela morrison (new)

    penelope todd

    janis freegard (new)

    updated at 11.57 pm (NZT)

    Notable NZ Books ...

    ... for children and young adults. Here at the Storylines website.  All the NZ Post Book Award Finalists are there with the exception of Wonky Donkey by Craig Smith which is being lapped up by avid book buyers, but is - according to those in the know - simply a rehash of an old drinking song. Nothing wrong with that if you like old drinking songs, I guess. They certainly have that there's-a-hole-in-my-bucket join-in-ability factor, and the book comes with a CD.

    Good to see my mate Fifi's Glory in the list. Now this is a humdinger kiwi original for 11-14 year olds about a 13-year-old in Oamaru called Florence Bright who has a yen to win ... well, anything .... and when thwarted yet again exacts revenge. Having come up so far empty-handed in fiction and in fact (the NZ Post Book Awards snubbed it), the Notable Books List seems to do the trick for young Florence.

    A reminder to anyone interested in participating in the Tuesday Poem [posting a poem on a blog or website and linking with other Tuesday Poems] to email me on sometime today.

    Friday, April 2, 2010


    Saw this marvellous word writ large on the back of a caravan yesterday and underneath it:
                                                          (Endless Wanderings) 

    I wonder why the caravan owners (a couple in sensible polar fleece with strong chins, it turned out) felt the need to include a definition of 'Peregrinations' which summons the delicious art of roaming - often on foot. Rightly or wrongly, I can't help but think of peregrine falcons, too, roaming in a focused floating kind of way. It is so much nicer to wonder about a word as you tootle along the motorway behind a large white caravan, rather than be told and remove all doubt.

    Anyway, I have been putting this blog through all sorts of peregrinations in terms of its shape and colour etc etc. Apparently the last colour scheme gave people (sorry, Tina and Fifi) headaches. So now this -  more muted, kinda cool. If it gives you a headache, please email me forthwith, do not peregrinate. And now here's another phrase gleaned from my motorway trip to send you off into a festive Easter:

                                                            Amazing Glazing

    Now where does that take you?

    Me: Amazing Grace, windows in churches - stained or clear, one in Samoa - an 'unglazed' circle in stone, the need for that clarity and simplicity when there's an azure sky, the glaze on home-made hot cross buns (see Maggie's delicious poem below), the sense of the marvellous, marvelling, joy.

    Here's hoping.  Happy Easter.