Excerpts from a reading journal, 2007
Newtown Poetry Reading
I drag my flatmate Dion along with me to a poetry reading. I used to love the monthly Book Slam nights in London’s Cherry Jam basement bar.
‘It’ll be great’ I say. ‘We’ll drink red wine and be inspired by the artistes.’
Everyone else in the audience is in their sixties, except for one man who has multiple piercings and broods black, hunched alone in the back row.
I end up having to dash outside in the middle of one woman’s piece, as she fossicks in her plastic bag for her next poem which begins, ‘the flowers in my garden are pretty’ and I am holding my hand over my mouth and bumping into the chairs as I am running out of the room and into the street and crying out loud with laughter with shame with miss London so much with the god damn idiocy of being a poet.
I go back in, once I have released all the schoolgirl-giggles, and the brooding man walks on to the stage and launches into a poetic attack on Bill Manhire’s poetry school. It concludes:
the sound of one hand clapping,
Cripes! I wonder whether to stand up and shout out in defence. I imagine myself climbing on the chair, waving my arms about dramatically while reciting some witty poetic repartee.
I sit quiet.
‘One of the more unusual nights of entertainment I’ve had,’ says Dion as we leave.
Would Katherine Mansfield have gone to a creative writing programme? Are creative writing programmes the place where modern writers gather, the circles where ‘real’ art, ‘lasting’ art flourishes? Or is it to be found in the fringes? The subversives, the Newtown collectives…?
My Writing Desk
I bought a writing desk from Trade Me. My first purchase from Trade Me and she’s a beauty in the style of an old school desk. Clean. Simple. One drawer in the middle. The description talked of her sturdy steel frame and said she was well loved. I couldn’t believe no one else put in any bids for such a gem. Sold! For twenty dollars! I set her up in front of my window looking out over Oriental Bay. I sit at her and think; this is my writing desk. I am A Writer sitting at my Writing Desk. It feels odd. It feels like I am pretending to be a writer. I am being ridiculous!
the bone people Keri Hulme
I finished the bone people yesterday. I’d read it before, but had forgotten much of it, retaining only a vague sense of the three characters and their lives. And, that I had enjoyed it.
I finished it as I ferried across to Day’s Bay to my friend Anthony’s wedding. Reading quickly. Wanting to conclude it before I arrived at the wedding, and rushing the final pages to discover its ending. And this rush to finish seemed to echo the book itself, as it seems that everything rushes to a hasty conclusion. It all finishes a little too neatly. As the boat shrugs into shore I muse on the importance of mystery and that you don’t need to tie everything up completely. The ending is vital as it leaves such a taste in the reader’s mind.
The book didn’t fit into my dainty decorative handbag, so I was forced to carry it around in the crook of my arm, and received many comments on it:
‘The bone people!’ derisive. ‘That book is so dull!’
‘The bone people’ recognition. ‘I keep meaning to read that book’
‘The bone people’ resigned. ‘The first half is wonderful, the third quarter pretty good, the final quarter, a load of bollocks.’‘Awful book’ said another.
‘Have you read it?’ I asked.
‘About 20 pages… that’s as far as I could get. Awful.’
Everyone has an opinion on it.
And mine? I like it still. There are numerous passages where I lost myself in the musicality and play and wit of the language. Keri Hulme has created three fascinating characters. All three are outcasts from society and broken in different ways. They learn through each other and must each face up to their own particular demons before coming back together. The book incorporates Maori words, phrases and mythology along with European history and culture. It is a large sprawling book with a poetic quality to it. There are unusual line breaks and much associative writing. There are places where it seems to spill over into authorial indulgence, but despite the somewhat contrived ending, on the whole it is a wonderful read and very original in style. Keri Hulme refused to let an editor near it apparently. Hmmmm. This is something I think on. The influences of others on one’s writing. When to hold to your own belief that something is right and when to listen to others. This will be part of the year’s learnings I suppose.
Meanwhile the Wednesday reading programme has been continuing.
It was a treat to hear Dora and Damien read. Dora’s poems are packed tight with meaning. She talks of being a poet who accretes images. She keeps a notebook of different details and crafts poetry by making arresting connections between small details and observations. An image stands for the unspeakable. The objective correlative! I like the way she says that there is a mysterious mercury of language and that often words glom together.
like glow and glue.
Damien reads from his book of short stories that is due to be published soon. He says he wanted as a young writer to explode NZ prose and get everyone reading the ‘right stuff’ and that his first book was consequently a lot of showy surface. He says that first books often seem to clear the decks for later writings.
He says that he enjoys prose for its ability to change gears. He mentions Edward St Aubyn as a writer he has a lot of time for. Time is always something to consider, pacing. When action is required to engage the reader and when mere texture of words can be sufficient. Variety all important, different textures and pace. Clarity not necessarily the ultimate goal he says — think of Faulkner. Hmmmmmmmmmm…
Dave speaks the following week. I enjoy his controversial stance and his fresh, hands-on approach. He says he likes to make people laugh and then punch them in the guts. In his writing!
His subtext for the session was: ‘What’s a bum like me doing in a place like this?’
He is a real storyteller and enjoys a good yarn. I saw his play Niu Sila when it was on at Downstage a few years ago. It was great. Funny and tragic. Powerful.
We have a useful discussion on how to generate ideas — odd signs, history books, weird events in a newspaper, things that shock, concepts or issues, the what ifs of the world, juxtapositions, contradictions.
He also says don’t forget that sometimes great art comes from necessity. Apparently, ‘to be or not to be’ is a speech to cover a scene change!
Andrew Johnston is quiet, thoughtful. He reads some poems from his latest collection, Sol. Later I get it out of the IIML library and read through it.
Some of them are beautiful. I particularly like two that he read to us, ‘Les Baillessats’ and ‘Mauve’. I can hear his quiet thoughtful voice as I read them again. I like his clean spare poetry where he leaves suggestive space. A certain delicacy. Like an orchid. He is very conscious in his cap-doffing to other poets.
It is the week before the Easter break. Term One is all but over. I go and visit Dora and tell her I feel really stuck. She says, ‘Yes, it is like you have stage fright.’ She gives me a book of collected poetry from the Iowa summer workshop she took last year and points me specifically to an extract from Joe Brainerd’s ‘I Remember’ where he lists off a number of memories. ‘These can be a wonderful jumping off point’ she says. ‘Don’t feel hemmed in by what you think you should write, and don’t feel tied to poetry or prose, instead go back to why it is you enjoy writing. Find your pleasure in the craft again. Don’t worry too much about form, just write, write, write and the only decision you need to make is not to censor yourself.’
Praise Robert Hass
‘Have you read any Robert Hass?’ Dora asks. ‘Try reading him. He plays with different forms.’ And actually I see Chris Price had suggested him too on my list of poets.
Thus instructed! To the University library. To the shelf. To Praise.
Marissa and I go after class to Yakitori Bar and restaurant. We are sitting sipping miso soup and green tea and nibbling skewered salmon. The chefs are steaming in front of us and our legs are dangling from stools and I am kicking the sides of my legs with my legs and then I pull Praise from my bag and say to Marissa, ‘Let’s take a look at Robert Hass.’
In class, Dora had read out a little of one of his poems. We were talking about poetry and appropriate subject matter. Can you write about anything? Can you write about anal sex in poetry? she asks. We read some of his poetry. Medb thinks ‘fuck’ is too loaded a word for poetry. ‘Like a gun’ she says. I like the work fuck. It has power. The power we give it. It can be a sweet word. With suck and force.
‘judiciously’ jumps out from the first poem. I begin to have a good feeling.
I choose ‘Sunrise’ first up and Marissa and I spread Sunrise on the bar between us and the soy sauce drips.
and the beginnings of beauty…’
o praise him.
Each word sets off tingles of image, thought and emotion sucked and swallowed, gulped at greedily. wanting to stuff more and more, a mouth full of them.
‘What a dazzle of petals for the poor meat.’
It is exploding all those restrictions I had placed upon myself of how I had to write. The forms I had to write within. ‘How does a writer write?’ I asked my friend Anthony. ‘Why don’t you just write,’ he said.
I’ve decided I want to create something that is a mosaic, a snapbook, a photo album of words and incidents.
But there must be an over-arching plan! says Sonia. Even a blank page must be a well designed blank page.
Eliot said the reader is the unifying element. I like this idea.
We talk in class about books as cultural icons and touchstones in our lives.
When I go home after class I think about my significant books. I suppose I have about six or seven books that I think of as particularly significant because of the way they affected me at the time I read them, and they each continue to do so in different ways.
However, there is one book I have on my shelf that I haven’t read at all and it is one of the most precious things I own. I don’t know if it is an especially good book. It is not beautifully bound. It is not by anyone well known. It does not have a particularly fine cover. But, it was a present given to me by my Grandmother when I was in my mid twenties. She died very suddenly a couple of months after my birthday. I carefully packaged the book up into my pack and took it with me to London when I went to live there and all the years I lived there I never read it. I started it about five or six times, but somehow didn’t want to let myself get involved. I have had it now for over seven years. I intend to read it one day I suppose. But for now, it is almost more precious as that book I am about to read. It has assumed so much significance now that it may only be a disappointment if I do read it. So, if I leave it sitting on my shelf, it will always retain that sense of promise. That feeling that there is still one conversation left with my grandmother. A final message within.
Eliot Weinberger’s Masterclass
I have enrolled as one of the students for Eliot’s Saturday workshop. We are asked to write a creative non-fiction essay in preparation. ‘Creative’ in the sense that it is not a newspaper article. ‘Non-fiction’ in the sense that the information presented is verifiable.
As it happens, my boyfriend Saki has been sending me articles on the disappearance of the honey bees in America. I decide that bees and their disappearance will make for interesting research.
I am surprised by how much I enjoy looking into this. I become increasingly fascinated by bees. I want to read more and more about them. People start avoiding me because all I seem able to talk about these days is bees. bees. bees.
Eliot is a character.
I learn much from this class. Eliot doesn’t beat about the bush; he slashes at the bush.
He seems to like my sexy honey bee essay, on the whole. However, he tells me to re-order it a little and to keep my tone consistent. He also says that the story about the honey discovered in the Egyptian tomb is great. I knew when I found it in my research it was great. It is one of those stories that makes you go, Oh!
It has been said that honey was also used in the mystical mummification process and Abd el-Latif tells the story of the modern day treasure seekers who one night raided a tomb and finding a jar sealed with honey, ate it greedily, amazed at the retained sweetness. It was only when they were part way through the jar, they discovered it also contained the body of a small crouching child.
The power of shock. Of the unexpected.
Eliot peers at me through his thick lenses. ‘Get rid of the corny bee jokes.’
Sonia’s Reading Programme
I enjoy reading Sonia’s reading programme on Sound. We watch Beckett’s ‘Not I’. I saw it performed once in Edinburgh and found it shocking and deeply affecting then. Its power is not diminished on second viewing and I can’t stop thinking about that babbling mouth out of control after the apparent years of repression, ‘the buzzing, the buzzing.’ Bleak horror. We also do an interesting exercise where Sonia plays us a clip of a man talking in another language and asks us to write a poem of translation. I write
The black momento
of a modular burn
and his endearments wrap
through the full chapped lips
of a clandestine plan.
Turns out it is Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ speech in Russian. Ha! It’s refreshing to listen without understanding to words and so hear them as pure noise, sound, music.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rachel Burt lives in Wellington. In 2007 she completed an MA in Creative Writing a the International Institute of Modern Letters. Blue Birds Fly is an homage to her grandfather, CNB French.