Thursday, 24 March 2016

Rachel Bush

It is with great sadness we learned that our good friend Rachel Bush died yesterday. Rachel was a wonderful poet, an astute reader and a warm supporter of other writers. She will be greatly missed. Our thoughts are with her family and close friends.
Thought Horses, Rachel's newest collection of poetry, will be published in April. We are so pleased that Rachel was well enough to work on her book with editor Ashleigh Young, and that she also got to see and hold her book. 
We will be holding a reading and celebration of Rachel at Vic Books on Tuesday 19 April.

Sing Them

Because I need to sew me 
a composer and knit me 
a singer who will wrap me
in the sounds of the words.


Because in this house I hear
sparrows in the fan palm and tui that
hang out in pink camellia flowers but
these voices have no words.


Because we lived with their questions 
when our mothers sang to us.
Who is Sylvia, what is she?
When our mothers sang,
the words became us
and the songs became us.
Where have you been
all the day, Billie Boy, Billie Boy?


Because this was a congealed
day at the cold leftover end 
of the rind of winter but when 
you said you’d sing the poems,
they put on their warm clothes
and went out walking.


Because every day the poems 
stay folded and pressed flat in 
a suitcase of their pages 
till the composer unfolds
them in sound lines and when
you sing them, they float.

From Thought Horses by Rachel Bush (VUP, April 2016)
Rachel is also the author of The Hungry Woman (1997), The Unfortunate Singer (2002) and Nice Pretty Things (2011).

Monday, 14 March 2016

Fits and Starts – an interview with Andrew Johnston

Andrew Johnston (photo supplied)

In your day job you work both as an editor and as a teacher of ‘plain English’. Poetry is the opposite of plain English isn’t it – thinking here of the way you play with words and their sound, with language’s slippery meanings?

It’s all about language, that’s for sure. I guess you could say that the day job, unlike poetry, is about making things happen – I teach people in the United Nations and in aid organisations how to write policy that is more likely to get results with decision-makers. Plain English is part of it, because they have to learn to ditch the jargon. But I take them up close to language, too – we talk about Shakespeare! We talk about noticing the Anglo-Saxon and the Latin inside English, about saying things as simply as possible.

When it comes to poetry, I’ve always been more interested in language as substance, as sound and form, rather than any idea of language as a transparent, purely utilitarian medium. I like listening to the way language pushes back when we want it to say something. It says less than we want it to, and it says more than we want it to. I’m interested in the “more”. Like many poets, I love what Wallace Stevens said: “There is a sense in sounds beyond their meaning”. Language is incredibly musical. It’s a whole orchestra. Some poetry sticks to just one instrument – the speaking voice, the narrator. I like poetry that tries out lots of instruments.

In ‘The Otorhinolaryngologist’, a light in the speaker’s mouth gives them a god-like perspective, before they’re pushed into the ‘hollow places’ of the street – does poetry give you a scope to move between the sublime and the mundane to a certain extent?

The light-in-the-mouth thing actually happened, in the sense that I went to this old-fashioned specialist who stuck a light bulb in my mouth that apparently illuminated my sinuses. It was a bizarre experience, because the light was coming out of my head. It felt like knowledge, and it felt like delusion, so I put the two together in the poem (Perhaps knowledge is always a kind of delusion.) It’s partly a poem about imagination. Imagination has to cope with the mundane, too – I think that shuttling between imagination and reality is one of the engines of poetry.

Echo, the Greek nymph, is a recurring character in the book – walking through poems named after Old Testament characters. What made you want to write these characters from ancient literature into your new poems?

It’s all a bit accidental and obsessive so I think the only true explanation is in the poems themselves. But this is how it happened: I started a sequence based on the radio alphabet (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, etc) because I like the words. When I got to the E word, Echo, I started reading about the Echo myth. Echo is condemned to repeat the last words of what others say. And then she falls in love with Narcissus, who as we all know was in love with himself, so that wasn’t going anywhere. She wastes away till all that is left is her bones and then just her voice.

What was it that drew me to the Echo myth? Perhaps I thought I could use Echo to evoke the sense that something extremely important is missing from your life but you don’t quite know what it is (I tend to have this feeling most of the time, in spades). As a poet, it’s easy, too, to have a sense that you’re condemned to repeat what others have said.

Then I started another sequence, based on the books of the Old Testament. Echo wanted to be part of that, too. I’m not a believer, but I’m intrigued by the ancient weirdness of the Old Testament stories, so full of loss and exile. Perhaps I’m interested in how missingness is part of being human. Also, the Old Testament is at the root of both Judaism and Christianity – and living in Europe, you can’t get away from that. The Holocaust never went away. But that’s another story.

You’ve lived in Paris for a number of years now. Has becoming fluent in another language affected the way you write in your native English? And has French poetry had any influence on your own poetry?

France has a strong myth of integration – the idea that if you do things right, you too can become French. (“How’s your integration coming along?” my wife’s great-grandmother used to ask me.) Whereas the experience of migration is more often one of realising how much you have been formed by the place you came from – and the language you came from. So being in France has pushed me deeper into English, paradoxically.

As for the influence of French poetry, I just don’t know. I like poets such as Jacques Roubaud and Jacques Jouet who can shift from being playful to being serious (and back again). But much French poetry is just deadly serious, even fatally so. It’s terribly abstract and philosophical – whereas the great precursor for much New Zealand poetry is William Carlos Williams, who wrote “No ideas but in things.” I love the thinginess of New Zealand poetry.

I like John Ashbery’s response to the same question (he lived in Paris for 10 years – and the scene he describes hasn’t changed):
“I found my poetry being more influenced by the sight of clear water flowing in the street gutters, where it is (or was) diverted or dammed by burlap sandbags moved about by workmen, than it was by the French poetry I was learning to read at the time.”

Fits and Starts by Andrew Johnston is available from good bookshops and through our online bookstore now.
p/b, $25.

Monday, 7 March 2016

Dad Art – an interview with Damien Wilkins

Dad Art is Damien Wilkins eighth novel. It will be launched on Thursday 10 March during Writers Week in Wellington.

Damien Wilkins (Grant Maiden photography)

I heard I rumour you wrote this book in a matter of weeks? How did you do that? What influence did this rapid writing have on the shape of the book?

If I knew how I did it, I’d do it all the time. At the moment I’m not sure if it was a lightning strike or a working method. But let me just praise speed for a moment. I teach creative writing and one of the themes of that world is that it’s very hard to write a book. You’re working with people for whom writing is new. They struggle. You struggle with their struggle. I believe in that struggle. But there are other ways to go about things. I was impressed that César Aira says he never revises. He’s published something like eighty books. The other thing on my mind was the work of painter Euan Macleod. I’d written a piece for Art New Zealand on his big retrospective show. One thing amazed me: the speed of his composition. I really envy painters their brushes and their splatter, their approximateness. Language isn’t paint. It’s a world of care and creeping along. But what would it be like to run ahead instead of go my usual sideways?

My one rule was that the action of the book had be commensurate with the time in which I was writing it—meaning the main character and I lived through the same day, the same news cycle, the same weather. Which, come to think of it, makes it sound like a diary. It has more shape than that. Anyway I wanted it to be unabashed about its contemporaneity. Partly that was helpful in overthrowing the disabling idea that I was writing A NOVEL. People can start to stiffen up when they think of writing a novel, as if you’re entering a fancy Great Hall with Henry James at the top table—mentally you put on a bowtie, your best shoes. No, I was just writing. When I sent it to Fergus, my publisher, I said it was ‘ranty’. By the way, I do actually have Henry James at the top table.

Dad Art takes as its main character a recently divorced, white, middle-aged, middle-class man – who is very aware of his middle-ness and tries to open himself up to new experiences by taking Te Reo classes, trying out online dating. Michael’s certainly quite self-aware of where he sits in society, and his daughter’s art project goes someway to upsetting his perch a little. Was the ‘middle-class/age’ issue very much on your mind as you wrote this?

Yeah it’s a great burden to be the repository of so much historical advantage! The world needs more novels from dudes like me.

Actually what interests me is the dynamism of New Zealand society, the feeling that things aren’t static. I’m talking about changes in the wider culture and the ways they register in our lives. Our national life turns out to be very much like our private life in that the things a lot of us want ‘to put behind us’ are exactly the things that keep popping up. Let me give you a tiny example which doesn’t come from the world of politics or talkback. Last week my father-in-law stayed with us. He’s a retired South Canterbury farmer who left school at age 15. He was in Wellington to attend the Edinburgh Tattoo with his daughter and was in a suit and tie—unusual for him. Before they left for the event, he showed me the tie which had a pattern vaguely like a koru. ‘This is pretty cultural, isn’t it,’ he said. Then at the Tattoo there was a moment when the large choir sang ‘Pokarekare Ana’, and my wife turned to look at him and he was wiping away a tear. I don’t want to be silly about it but I do think that the path from his slightly uneasy joke about the tie to his helpless emotional response to the song describes a dynamic that’s worth thinking about, even dramatising. I think that would make a very New Zealand short story. My father-in-law, like me, lives a basically contented life with a pulsing vein of anxiety; or maybe we both live basically anxious lives with a pulsing vein of contentment. Anyway, this is the sort of territory I was trying to get at in Dad Art—the push and pull of change; how, for instance, a big idea such as biculturalism shows up in what we say to each other about some tie we had to put on for a show.

Your writing in this novel is funny and I’m always interested in how writers approach humour – it’s not something you want to come at head-on, I reckon. Is humour an important part of what you want in a novel?

It’s an important part of what I want from life. I remember Colm Tóibín at the Auckland Writers Festival saying that in his family you could be the worst person, a real reprobate with a very bad history, but the greatest crime was to be boring; that was unforgiveable. I’m with him. My favourite fiction doesn’t have to be ‘a laugh riot’—Herta Müller and Christa Wolf aren’t full of jokes—but I think the best novels dissolve solemnity. It’s something to do with fiction’s relationship to authority. Power of course doesn’t like humour. A national flag can’t be funny. (Dad Art features a running gag about the flag debate.)

Your last novel, Max Gate, was set in the early part of the 20th century but you generally focus on contemporary times, like you do in Dad Art. What have you noticed as the differences or restraints between writing ‘historical’ and ‘contemporary’ fiction, aside from the research you might have to do for historical fiction? Do you have a preference for contemporary settings?

The difference is this: you don’t need to get anything right in historical fiction; whereas you need to get everything right in a contemporary story.

One of my favourite passages about fiction comes from Charles Newman, who was my workshop teacher at Washington University for a semester back in the early 90s. He wrote a great bad-tempered book of criticism called The Post-Modern Aura. In it he talks about fiction’s uniqueness being that it remains ‘ineffably amateur’: ‘It violates every principle by which responsible interpreters try to legitimize a subject matter by limiting its scope and thus make it epistemologically responsible.’ Newman says that fiction doesn’t limit itself in advance. That’s why it’s amateur—it’s sloppy and that’s its strength. In Montaigne’s words, you’re ‘an investigator without knowledge’. I re-read this passage regularly whenever I feel too dumb to write something. What did I know about Thomas Hardy? Who cares! I am an investigator without knowledge! However, I always notice that Newman is no simple cheerleader for the imagination’s wildness. He points out that because fiction can’t limit itself in advance, it has what he calls ‘an unprededented failure rate’. Yep.

Dad Art is available for purchase at good bookshops and through our online bookstore from Thursday 10 March. p/b, $30.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Cold Water Cure: Q&A with poet Claire Orchard

Claire Orchard's debut poetry collection, Cold Water Cure, will be published and launched at our Writers Week publisher's party next week. Ahead of the launch, we asked Claire about her collection and its 'main character'Charles Darwin.

Claire Orchard (photo by Grant Maiden)

The central part of your book draws its ideas from Charles Darwin’s diaries while on his long exploratory trip on the Beagle, then following the publication of On the Origin of Species. Darwin does offer some fantastic material for a writer (he was himself a good writer), but what was the attraction of his life for you specifically?
From my first encounters with Darwin’s writings it was obvious he was a man deeply committed to his many research projects, one who was able to keep his mind open to new understandings, however challenging they were to existing thinking. But for me as a writer the primary attraction became exploring the parallels I detected between the life he was leading in his society then and the one I’m leading now. Of course, he was a gifted and ground-breaking scientist and I’m most definitely not. But he was also a person who, like many of us, spent his down time working on his marriage, on his relationships with friends and extended family, on writing letters and playing games with his children. He was a very hands-on and engaged parent to his – I get exhausted just thinking about this bit – ten children. He does not at all fit the stereotype of a stern, distant Victorian family man. Charles Darwin is a gigantic public figure; I wanted to get past those images of him as Father of Evolutionary Biology and Challenger of the Myth of Creation, to find the person that lived behind all that.

Not only do you cover his scientific work, but his home life – the death of his eldest daughter, his penchant for billiards – and his musings on the decision to marry: ‘a wife will be a vast help in organising notes.' Did you end up liking Darwin? Does it matter for the purposes of the project whether you like your subject or not?
Yes, the scientific work is so much an integral part of the man it is inevitably present in many of the poems but as you say, it is the family man and his home life – as billiards enthusiast, as doting dad – that I particularly wanted to open up to view. In the process I did grow to like him very much. It feels almost as if we’re acquainted now, in some weird way. ‘Voyages’, the long poem sequence in which Darwin speaks and a 21st century speaker responds, is the closest I managed to get to holding a conversation with him. I’d got quite into it the idea of knowing him personally at that point. Of course I knew I couldn’t actually pull that off, but it was fun trying. I don’t believe you have to like your subject, but I think there has to be something about them that fascinates or intrigues you, something to sustain your interest. Much as I came to like and admire Darwin, in some of the poems he is represented in a less than flattering light and that’s as it should be – we’re none of us paragons of virtue and are all products of our time and society.

What do you think a poetic project of Darwin’s work and life might offer over a straight biographical work?
One thing I think a poetic project can offer is an imaginative (and by this I mean at least in part inventive) interpretation of a life. In the case of this project that meant employing biographic material in an attempt to consider, feel or experience what it might have been like to be Charles Darwin at particular moments in his life. Initially I was very concerned to not put words in Darwin’s mouth, but to allow him to speak for himself, so many of the poems I wrote earlier in the project integrate phrases lifted directly from his books and letters. The haiku, for example, were found with the aid of a haiku-seeking computer programme my brother kindly wrote for me, which I applied to an electronic text copy of On the Origin of Species. Mind you, I did have to trawl through a lot of very gnarly seventeen syllable phrases to unearth a few rare gems. However, as my research progressed I decided I needed to have the confidence to speak for Darwin at times or risk stalling the project. Very little is known, for instance, about his personal reaction to the death of his daughter Annie, who died – most likely of tuberculosis – aged ten. Darwin left very little written record of his thoughts about Annie after her loss and, according to his other children, he never spoke of her again, thus the poems concerning the traumatic aftermath of this event are not informed by a primary source from that time in his life. There are also poems from the points of view of Darwin’s contemporaries, whilst in others the speaker is essentially me, looking back at his life from my perch in the 21st century.

There are a lot of children in your book – witnessing their sometimes crazy, hilarious minds – but also wanting peace from them, to get on with your work, like Darwin. How did so many children end up in your collection?
Yes, I often wonder how Darwin managed his workload. He worked from home, and I’m sure must have found it difficult on sunny days to resist the temptation to head outside and join his children in the garden instead of once more hunkering down alone in his study, chipping away at the riddles of life on earth. For myself, I find having other people (also known as my family) milling around in, or near, my workspace (as I’ve taken to designating the dinner table) is not generally conducive to getting a lot done. Frankly, I believe the children in my poems just burrowed their way in – they would not be denied! My own two children are grown now but when I’m not writing I work at a primary school, so it feels inevitable and appropriate that the people I spend a significant part of my day with will occasionally infiltrate my poetry. Children often say the most outlandish things in the most interesting ways and have a talent for coming up with the greatest, most out-there ideas – perfect raw material for poetry.

Cold Water Cure will be available for purchase from March 10 at good bookstores and through VUP's online bookstore. p/b, $25.