To Eleanor, With Love

A lot has been written about Eleanor Catton’s interview on liveMint TV and Sean Plunket’s response to that interview (see The Dim Post, Gordon Campbell, Morgan Godfery). What was overlooked in the kerfuffle were Catton’s comments about New Zealanders’ reluctance to express firm beliefs, in particular the beliefs New Zealand writers hold about writing. Catton said:

But I think it is always a shame when people don’t stand up for what it is that they really believe. And I do think the problem we face in New Zealand is that we are reluctant to express firm beliefs in anything. An example would be, I was teaching in class in Auckland. I made up a statement with manifestos from all over the world, different writers who all thought what writing should do or not do. I was going to give it out to my students and have them write about the one that spoke to them the most. When I was putting this document together, I thought, hang on, I don’t have any New Zealand writers here. And I spent an entire day on the Internet trying to find an aesthetic statement from a New Zealand writer and there was nothing. Hopefully in the future, we will have more people being brave in that way.

It is certainly a debatable point of view, and one that reminded me of how spoken interviews often lend themselves to generalisations. That said, I think Catton’s underlying point deserves more discussion. One writer I emailed cited Allen Curnow’s controversial introduction to A Book of New Zealand Verse 1923-45 (1945) as a form of manifesto, as well as Michele Leggott’s Opening the Archive. A quick browse of Best New Zealand Poems will throw up many a manifestoesque statement, for example Ian Wedde’s belief in the diversity of poetry. On the other hand, New Zealanders are often so agreeable that they do not speak out, and, as Brian Easton points out of Catton, when they do, they are attacked by the media. The dire consequences of such an attack are outlined by Godfery on Overland. 

Whether or not you agree with Catton is not really the point. She is a writer that spurs intellectual debate about the role of writing and writers, and she is also someone who stands up as a public intellectual. This is a valuable thing, and it’s certainly brave. To show my support for her right to speak, I asked a few New Zealand writers to write their own statements or manifestos about writing – a love letter of sorts to Catton’s outspokenness. Thank you to those who responded. If you’re a New Zealand writer, post your own in the comments (or email them to me) and I’ll add them to the post. Please feel free to repost.

Free speech is the non negotiable space writers and writing must inhabit. As part of the Fourth Estate it is every writer’s job – as it is every journalist’s job – to hold governments to account and to speak out against them if/when things go awry. In this, the remits of the Fourth Estate – impartiality, integrity – are those which guide the writer through their free expression of opinion and critique. Writers and writing should never be lambasted, shamed or demeaned for simply ensuring democratic principles such as liberty and open discourse are upheld. – Siobhan Harvey, poet

Poetry should walk the tightrope between the right and the left brain and never fall off. It should create whole worlds that the poet cannot fully understand, and be soul-work, and never lie still. – Joan Fleming, poet 

Writers write for all sorts of different reasons, so I wouldn’t expect each and every one of them to be the critical voice of their generation, or to regard speaking truth to power as a moral imperative. However, these are very legitimate and I would say necessary expectations for a society to place on its intellectual class overall. This is why we must stand by those writers among us who dare to be critical of our society and its institutions when they are under attack. Solidarity with Eleanor Catton. - Giovanni Tiso, writer and translator

The writer must be true to herself. Truthfulness is beautiful although it may be hard to hear and hard to look at. It can be brutal. It can fail. Truthfulness does not speak for the sound of its own voice or step forward for the pose. A character may act falsely, a plot move may be a false lead but the force that through the green fuse drives the flower must also drive the writer’s hand. The writer’s hand is hers alone. – Kirsten McDougall, novelist

I’m a little allergic to the idea of manifestos, I guess because of their insistence and demands for certainty in a pursuit (that, to my mind, better rewards suspension of judgment, and uncertainty). A characteristic in our literature is a determination to stay open, to allow multiple realities into a work, to intentionally puncture the tendency towards easy and firmly held opinion. This is one of the brilliant offshoots of what is essentially a postcolonial literature, and one of the reasons why there are so many excellent New Zealand poets. – Anna Smaill, poet and novelist

I think writing should not be afraid to offend, not offense for offense’s sake, but to address issues and subjects that the writer feels strongly about and to which certain sectors might take objection. Satire is an under-used and under-appreciated genre in New Zealand writing. Many New Zealand writers shy away from dealing with political issues in their writing either because politics doesn’t interest them or because they fear the backlash in a small society. In this way, I think it is brave of Eleanor Catton to nail her political colours to the mast. Art addresses the full spectrum of the human condition, but we must not forget that we are citizens as well as writers. As writers, we can use our talents and our vision to effect change. – Andrew M. Bell, poet, fiction writer and playwright

Writing should be an honest, pioneering inquiry into the aspects of the writer, and the world the writer inhabits, which are concealed or overlooked. Sylvia Plath’s promise to ‘write until I begin to speak my deep self’ is attractive to me. I don’t think this ‘deep self’ is found by solipsistic tunnelling, but via perilous imaginative journeys that send the self into alien circumstances. This sort of writing should startle both the writer and the reader – perhaps by showing what is presumed foreign to be familiar and vice versa. Writing should also be readable. If the writer fears, disrespects or neglects the assumed reader, writing becomes muddy. Instead, writing should accentuate the muddiness of quotidian language and inspire us to demand better. If we only receive politicians’ cliché-muffled meaning, advertisements’ senseless promises, and bureaucracies’ contorted parlance, we might forget how much clearer expression could be and relinquish our own clarity of thought. Writing should ward off such a vulnerable impairment.Amy Brown, poet

Writing at its most radical is an act of empathy. It makes you, as best you can, inhabit the mind of another person. Even if that person is cruel or hateful or simply different to how you see yourself, it makes you spend time understanding their perspective. - Sarah Jane Barnett, poet and reviewer

Tuesday Poem: ‘Conspiracy (to breathe together)’ by Camille Dungy

Conspiracy (to breathe together)

Last week, a woman smiled at my daughter and I wondered
if she might have been the sort of girl my mother says spat on my aunt
when they were children in Virginia all those acts and laws ago.

Half the time I can’t tell my experiences apart from the ghosts’.

A shirt my mother gave me settles into my chest.

I should say onto my chest, but I am self conscious—
the way the men watch me while I move toward them
makes my heart trip and slide and threaten to bruise
so that, inside my chest, I feel the pressure of her body,
her mother’s breasts, her mother’s mother’s big, loving bounty.

I wear my daughter the way women other places are taught
to wear their young. Sometimes, when people smile,
I wonder if they think I am being quaintly primitive.

The cloth I wrap her in is brightly patterned, African,
and the baby’s hair manes her alert head in such a way
she has often been compared to an animal.

There is a stroller in the garage, but I don’t want to be taken
as my own child’s nanny. (Half the time I know my fears are mine alone.)

At my shower, a Cameroonian woman helped me practice
putting a toy baby on my back. I stood in the middle of a circle
of women, stooped over and fumbling with the cloth. Curious George
was the only doll on hand, so the white women looked away
afraid I would hurt my baby while the black women looked away
and thought about not thinking about monkeys.

There is so much time in the world. How many ways can it be divided?

I walk every day with my daughter and wonder
what is happening in other people’s minds. Half the time
I am filled with terror. Half the time I am full of myself.

The baby is sleeping on my back again. When I stand still,
I can feel her breathing. But when I start to move, I lose her
in the rhythms of my tread.

Photo Credit: Ray BlackI read ‘Conspiracy (to breathe together)’ in The Best American Poetry 2014, although it was originally published in The American Poetry Review. Dungy is the author of Smith Blue (2011), Suck on the Marrow (2010), and the sonnet collection What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison (2006). She has a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. She has also received an impressive number of awards which are listed on her website.

Although I didn’t realise it until researching Dungy, she often writes about the human/nature relationship, which was the central theme of my PhD. On the scarcity of African American poets in anthologies of nature poetry, Dungy states, “I miss seeing writers of color in the conversation. Until we have greater variety in the conversation, it is not a conversation—it is a monologue” (Poetry Foundation). She has been active in addressing the issue, having edited Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (2009).

Every time I read this poem something new rises to the surface: the young mother’s fear of failing; the traits we share with other animals; how the wonderful line ‘Half the time I know my fears are mine alone’ captures the way we carry echoes of our parents’ insecurities and the stories we learned about ourselves; Dungy’s subtle comments about race. What I found most profound was the title’s play on the word conspire which comes from the Latin conspirare ‘agree, plot,’ or con- ‘together with’ combined with spirare ‘breathe’: to breathe together. For me it suggests that the women in the poem — ‘Cameroonian,’ ‘black’ and ‘white’– are part of a greater and shared womanhood, while also being divided in different ways.

For more Tuesday poems check out the hub.

Tuesday Poem: ‘malady’ by Hinemoana Baker

malady

As our ancestors did before us we claw
at ourselves and each other, we swell, seize up,
snipe and bitch, hating each other for cytosines

and thickenings, for the errors of general practitioners,
for long nights awake without medicine. You scratch
so hard you bruise yourself. I give away hours of night

to the next yellow day. My mother remembers the rash
that raged across her back and the fleshy heels of her palms.
It vanished the day she said those words, under her breath,

while stacking kindling in the shipping container
we used for a woodshed. We left two weeks later.
My father is all for aloe vera and manuka honey

and us coming up for a break. I pulverise an old
carrot in the screaming juicer. You get a ten-dollar
haircut. The sun comes out like a fucking miracle.

HinemoanaHinemoana Baker is a writer, musician, and producer, and in 2014 she was the writer in residence at the International Institute of Modern Letters. She is descended from Ngāi Tahu in the South Island, and Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Toa, and Ngāti Ati Awa in the North.

The poem ‘malady’ comes from her third collection waha | mouth, which was published by VUP in 2014. It is such a generous collection; Baker’s poetry is lyrical and intellectual, tough and everyday, surprising and deft. As a poet I had many ‘ah!’ moments when I appreciated the care and craft that went into these poems. Both Paula Green and Booksellers NZ have written, in my opinion, spot on reviews of waha | mouth.

I think ‘malady’ appealed to me because I read the collection just before Christmas, that traditional time of family togetherness. If you’ve read my poetry you’ll know I sometimes write about the difficult relationship I have with my father, which in essence is writing about my relationship with myself as so many of my traits I’ve inherited from him. Baker’s cracking last line made me laugh — some days just walking out onto this green earth feels like fucking miracle.

For other Tuesday Poems check out the hub.

The Americans and other poetry

A new year, a new pile of poetry books that I bought last year and didn’t read. That’s what we have new year’s resolutions for.

Check out the Americans: Mary Oliver, Adrienne Rich, and Jorie Graham. Interestingly they’re all women, and all born in the early to mid 20th century. This seems to be where my interest lies, in post-war American poetry, often from the West Coast. I’m an Americophile, at least when it comes to literature. Someone also gave me a copy of The Best American Poetry 2014, which I started to read last year. The opening poem ‘Sonnet, with Pride’ by Sherman Alexie is, on the surface, about lions escaping from Baghdad Zoo during the Iraq War. It’s sharp and wonderful.

Other collections that came my way are because of my interest in narrative poetry: Dear Neil Roberts by Airini Beautrais, South by Chris Orsman, The Odour of Sanctity by Amy Brown, and The Rocky Shore by Jenny Bornholdt (all VUP). They’re also writers that I’ve enjoyed in the past and know I can learn from. I also managed to pick up quite a few out-of-print collections and nearly have a complete set of Bernadette Hall’s poetry. I’m going to read her first collection Heartwood (Caxton) and then her latest, Life & Customs (VUP). Then there are the books I simply wanted to read: Bird Murder by Stefanie Lash, Cinema by Helen Rickerby (both Makaro Press), How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes (AUP) by Chris Tse, Cloudboy (OUP) by Siobhan Harvey, Thicket (VUP) by Anna Jackson, The Unfortunate Singer (VUP) by Rachel Bush, and Horse with Hat (VUP) by Marty Smith.

Pile

The Americans

Bernadette Hall

Smith_Tse_Harvey

Tuesday Poem: ‘A Story About the Body’ by Robert Hass

A Story About the Body

The young composer, working that summer at an artist’s colony, had watched her for a week. She was Japanese, a painter, almost sixty, and he thought he was in love with her. He loved her work, and her work was like the way she moved her body, used her hands, looked at him directly when she mused and considered answers to his questions. One night, walking back from a concert, they came to her door and she turned to him and said, “I think you would like to have me. I would like that too, but I must tell you that I have had a double mastectomy,” and when he didn’t understand, “I’ve lost both my breasts.” The radiance that he had carried around in his belly and chest cavity–like music–withered quickly, and he made himself look at her when he said, “I’m sorry I don’t think I could.” He walked back to his own cabin through the pines, and in the morning he found a small blue bowl on the porch outside his door. It looked to be full of rose petals, but he found when he picked it up that the rose petals were on top; the rest of the bowl–she must have swept the corners of her studio–was full of dead bees.

‘A Story About the Body’ must be one of Hass’s most famous poems. I read it as part of a creative writing reader long before I bought his collections. It comes from Human Wishes (1989), Hass’ third collection, and a collection which has the most apt title for poetry. I think critic Dob Bogen most accurately describes the collection when he says it ‘captures both the brightness of the world and its vanishing.’ So many of these poems are concerned with loss, transience, and with the process of seeing something disappear; even in this poem the young man’s ‘radiance’ withers from his chest. In Human Wishes Hass really gets into longer lines, and an entire section is dedicated to prose poems. I can’t get enough of them–they so completely inhabit and create a world.

For other Tuesday Poems check out the hub.