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.

I believe writing needs to burn through to something. That’s the reason I do it. To hopefully create a sense in the reader, and also in myself, that some kind of incandescence has occurred, illuminating the world, human beings, power, nature, history, the future, our mothers and fathers, our ancestors. – Hinemoana Baker, writer and musician

The choice or drive to write anything goes beyond speech. It is both more free and more fixed. To write is to attempt to fix something, to find something of which we can be certain, to delay or stretch time, to hold all that is evanescent in words. ‘Should’ or ‘should not’ have no place in this drive or decision. It rests on ‘can’ and ‘must’. For what writing can and must do is provide us with evidence of self and world – evidence being a moment in which something is fixed. Every writer – whether of novel, poem, letter or email – seeks and accomplishes this with greater or lesser truth, greater or lesser technical ability. So all writing is both self-portrait and picture of a world – representation of what we characterise as inner and outer life. And here is the marvel. Writing is both portrait of the writer and mirror for the reader. Every successful portrait is a mirror. It is of us and belongs to us as soon as written, for it is in our language. We may recognise ourselves or not, be flattered or insulted, comprehend the image or be baffled by it. These are our own, individual responses. But the mirror, the written text, does not answer to us. It travels. It is a mirror for individuals unknown to us, unlike us, even unborn, to see, confront, appreciate, understand themselves. For these reasons, we need writers who have no interest in being told what writing should or should not do. Those who are concerned with should and should not are those who would avoid or control the mirror. – Harold Jones, poet

It’s hard to take literary manifestos seriously, and I’ve always liked Frank O’Hara’s “Personism” essay, which is both jokey and useful. When you write a poem, “you just go on your nerve,” he says. “As for measure and other technical apparatus, that’s just common sense: if you’re going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you. There’s nothing metaphysical about it.” But what does it mean, to “just go on your nerve”? I don’t know, really, but O’Hara did it, and I wish more poets followed his example. – Tim Upperton, poet

Ellie Catton’s comments about firm belief resonate strongly with me. As to what writing should or should not do, it has to be up to the individual writer. Hard-and-fast rules or encompassing statements tend not to be particularly useful to creative practitioners in any field. I think this discussion raises two separate points: firstly, what attitudes should writers express in their work, and secondly what attitudes they should express via other means, such as interviews or public talks. What has angered me most about this media incident is the implied idea that a writer shouldn’t be publicly criticising her country or its government. That is absolutely a totalitarian attitude. – Airini Beautrais, poet

Writing presents a brave act of magic, and an aid to survival. Writing focuses and controls our thinking, while we make our infinite world within into something finite, to work in the world of others. Often writing inspires or provokes dialogue. Buber, the German philosopher, said the only way we progress is through dialogue. Writing may be deliberately set to encourage people to communicate well with each other. Also, writing may expose a unique, talented individual unafraid to display their work, even if knowing it is rare, strange, and at times startling, or controversial. Although various attacks, envious remarks, sabotage, threats, and basic rudeness may result, it’s important to write well, and enjoy it, and learn. Writing has also a honourable purpose in that we may record what we experience, recall, or imagine, because we believe human beings matter, and what we form into language can assist others immeasurably, in ways we can often not imagine. So we need to work hard, trust others, and publish no matter the opposition, for the good of the many. – Raewyn Alexander, writer 

It’s easy to tell stories about New Zealanders as a people who don’t have (or particularly want) full access to the world of ideas; who prefer to traffic in physical expression, via outlets such as sporting prowess and the conspicuous acquisition of material wealth. There are those who mistake these stories for incontrovertible truth, proclaiming them to be “the way things are” or “how the world works” as if it were ever possible to tell such a story. Such absolutist types can often react poorly to storytellers who chip the concrete absolutism from their sustaining narratives, revealing the shifting impermanence beneath. But it’s these second kind of storytellers we need: those who make the world bigger, not smaller, revealing possibilities outside the reductive narratives by which we’re tricked into viewing our lives. Eleanor Catton has reminded us this week that there is no reason on earth why people living in New Zealand should not enjoy access to such storytellers. She doesn’t belong to New Zealand — her work happened in her mind, not in this country or that — but inasmuch as her voice sounds recognisable to us, we are fortunate to have the chance to hear her stories. – Tom Goulter, writer

The art of writing is couched in a shifting constellation of ideas, philosophy, politics and moral vision. It is an inherently political act, whether one acknowledges it or not. Because of that, it comes with a responsibility to continue to learn, to critique and to be mindful of our own thinking and to be curators of our own beliefs. This ongoing process of reflection is the examined life – the only one worth living. – Anna Forsyth, writer and musician

I do believe that writers are more than a ‘brand’ or producers of ‘product.’ We should support the right of writers to question authority and political leaders. In my work, I am striving to reach an honesty. I want my work to be of the highest quality – I am trying to reach my best. Writers should not be expected to be cultural ambassadors or even role models. I support Catton’s statement and her sentiments and admire her courage. – Harvey Molloy, poet  

It is the job and function of artists of all kinds to be political, to be dissenting voices, to challenge the status quo. It is our job to show the truths we perceive and the alternative possibilities we visualise. It is our job to speak clearly and to ensure that debates about how our country (and our world) is governed aren’t held only between the people who do the governing and those who aspire to replace them. Who is better placed to do this than artists? – Joy Green, poet, reviewer, theatre pactitioner & teacher

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

It’s true New Zealand writers (with the obvious exception of Allen Curnow and a few others) don’t tend to go in for personal manifestos or literary creeds or dogmatic aesthetic statements. This is partly due to not wanting to seem ‘up yourself’, partly to a distrust of movements and slogans, partly to our culture of politeness (which is definitely a likeable trait, but does inhibit our willingness to review each other’s work). I’ve found that the most useful literary statements are more like tips and are mostly just common sense: “originality is better than repetition”; don’t write something just because it sounds rhetorically or sonorously effective; “They learn in suffering what they teach in song”; develop your own ‘shit-detector’, your own inner reader; with poems, the proof of the pudding is usually in the rhythm. Manifestos (besides propaganda, posturing and self-promotion) are only really useful to writers if these help them with the work itself. Ironically, writers who come up with literary creeds are often at their most interesting when they’re breaking them. – Harry Ricketts, poet, academic, editor, reviewer

For me, it’s important to distinguish between an ‘aesthetic statement[s]’ about ‘what writing should or should not do’ – most often made, I believe, by individual white men and those who help them create/sustain their canon – and a ‘manifesto’ that groups of writers and artists make collectively. And there’s a fine tradition of manifestos/kaupapa in New Zealand. The one closest to my hand – and probably my heart – is this one from the Mothers exhibition catalogue (1980); I laughed when I reached for a heavy book to hold it flattish to photograph and that book was Charles Brasch: Journals 1938-1945. Mothers includes poems from Elizabeth Smither, Fiona Kidman, Joanna Margaret Paul, Juliet Batten, Keri Hulme and Meg Campbell.

women's gallery manifesto

I’m pretty certain that there are similar manifestos from other groups, like the founders of Spiral magazine. Their manifesto may have suggested that women artists and writers benefit from extended periods when they read and look at women’s work only. That’s how I came to know and love that strategy. The Haeata Collective certainly had a kaupapa and may have had a written version, perhaps in its Karanga Karanga catalogue – from artists and writers like Maaka Jones, Patricia Grace, Robyn Kahukiwa, Keri Kaa, Irihapeti Ramsden, Shona Rapira-Davies, Tungia Baker, Roma Potiki.These manifestos/kaupapa – and the actions they inspired – arose from conditions that made it difficult for diverse women to make work and to have it published or exhibited within an appropriate context. Public and private reactions to the manifestos/ kaupapa and the related activity were often intense, intended to silence participants and hurtful to individuals. Those who had a strong publication or exhibition record and contributed to these collectives’ ideas did so for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they wanted to take risks that their dealers or publishers would not support. And/or they wanted to ensure that audiences experienced their work within an appropriate collective framework. And/or they wanted to act in solidarity. Of New Zealanders who’ve worked consistently with a personal manifesto I think film editor Annie Collins has been most influential, because her kaupapa’s ethical and aesthetic elements have affected so many New Zealand films and filmmakers. – Marian Evans, writer and maker

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 their demands for certainty in a pursuit that, to my mind, better rewards suspension of judgment, and uncertainty. If NZ writers are in fact reluctant to write manifestos, I tend to think it’s not due to a lack of firm belief, but another characteristic in our literature – a determination to stay open, to allow multiple realities into a work, to intentionally puncture the tendency towards easy and firmly held opinion (cf Keats’s negative capability). To my mind 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 NZ 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 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: ‘Phoenix Foundation’ by Harry Ricketts

Phoenix Foundation
(for Will)

‘Ent-tnt': that was what you used to call
an elephant. You’d say ‘I carry
you’ when you wanted to be picked up.

Each time we read that page in Peter
and Jane
where the farmer is getting
ready for work, you’d shout out ‘Boots on!’

because on walks you wore your red boots.
You had long yellow curls like Little
Lord Fauntleroy, a Leicester accent

thick and ruddy like the local cheese.
Once in the grocer’s in Stoneygate,
an old lady bent down, stroked your hair,

murmured: ‘What a very pretty boy.’
‘Fook off!’ you said, starting at your boots.
She jerked her hand away as though stung.

Years after, I see you running round
and round a room, arms flapping wildly.
You stop. ‘I can’t fly,’ you say, surprised.

But here tonight you’re standing stage right
behind your barricade of drums. Shaved
head, black singlet, sticks raised, you might be

the sorcerer’s lastest apprentice.
The guitars kick in, the blue light spins,
your hands begin to fly.

“Phoenix Foundation” appears in Harry Ricketts’s new collection, Just Then. “El Prado,” another poem from the collection has previously featured as a Tuesday Poem my blog. For me, “Phoenix Foundation” captures the tender relationship between father and son, but without reducing it to sentimentality.The son is innocent, abrasive, naive, and independent. The father is protective, proud, and inspired. I also enjoy the poem’s clever construction : the “Ent-tnt” at the start mimicking the sound of a drum hi-hat; the repetition of the child’s boots. I myself was inspired by Ricketts’s light touch.

The poem is also funny (“‘Fook off!'” yells the little boy to the old lady), and many of the poems in Just Then use humour and understatement. But the book has a lot of variety. Older poems dating back to 1975 play with form and rhyme. There are poems about poetry, reading, sex, departed friends, and boyhood. The most memorable for me were two poems about second-hand books that imagine the previous owners through the books’ inscriptions and book plates. In terms of boyhood, I’ll leave you with this snippet from “Some flotsam”:

Swearing at School

It was as though
if we said the f-
word often enough
it might come true.

The poem is reproduced with permission of the author. For other great poems check out the Tuesday Poem hub.

Tuesday Poem: ‘El Prado’ by Harry Ricketts

El Prado

A damp morning, just a touch nippy
for January. You’re here
in this indoor meadow, this art-house barn,
randy for epiphany,
or at least hoping to be surprised.

So Raphael’s Transfiguration
is certainly dramatic –
in fact, quite literally uplifting.
So why does that boy agoggle
at Christ levitating leave you cold?

Thirty-five years ago with a head
full of Gormenghast, Seventh
Seal, Crow, the Velvet Underground, you’d have found
El Greco’s silver-lit e-
longations ‘really weird’, but not now.

Now what hits home is Saint Barbara
by Parmigianino,
a left profile. Her face shines with youth.
Braided, brown hair hangs on her
right shoulder. She’s holding – what? – a part

of the tower daddy’ll shut her up in.
Her upper lip curves over
slightly. She wears rather a chic pink
number, such an inward look.
She knows exactly what lies ahead.

And here, opposite Van der Velden’s
flesh-heavy Deposition,
Robert Campin’s Annunciation.
Mary’s a blonde, long, straight hair,
bit plump. A nice girl lost in a book

and apparently quite unaware
of the heavenly rays round
her head, beamed down from top left,
or Gabriel patiently
kneeling, wings half-furled, with some pretty big news.

Harry Ricketts is a New Zealand poet, reviewer and cricketer who teaches creative non-fiction and English at Victoria University. His New Zealand Book Council bio states Ricketts “studied English at Oxford University and lectured in Hong Kong and Leicester before arriving in New Zealand to a post at Victoria University in Wellington in 1981. He has edited collections of verse, critical essays, and other works of non-fiction and his acclaimed biography of Rudyard Kipling was released in 1999. His poetry is defined by dramatic and satiric devices and tones, often grounded in personal commentary.”

Ricketts’ most recent book New Zealand Sports Writing was released in June 2010 and features eighty pieces of writing selected by Ricketts that cover a wide range of sports. You can read a full review of the book on Beattie’s Book Blog. ‘El Prado’ previously appeared in The Warwick Review in 2008. For me this poem is quite timely because I am heading to the Prado in just a few weeks. The poem deftly mixes the imagery of art with a whimsical voice that allows the poem to talk to ideas of perception and youth without being heavy. The result: a funny but pointed piece.

You can enjoy other Tuesday Poems on the Tuesday Poem Blog.