Excerpt from a Reading Journal, 2009
At the beginning of the year I went on a mission to tidy up ‘The Shed’. I should call it the studio or something that sounds arty but here in New Zealand ‘The Shed’ has connotations of ingenuity and pottering about, which is true to me.
Ever since I read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, I’ve had a language for this desire, this need to have my own work space. In New Zealand, ‘The Shed’ is traditionally a male space. We had a garage we didn’t use and converted it into an office for my partner when he worked from home. Now he works in the town office again and I reclaimed the shed as my own. I moved all my things into the shed ages ago but it was a huge mess for ages, I couldn’t find anything and I realised how much I have
hoarded kept for prosperity.
My partner often says ‘Put your own oxygen mask on first’. What he means of course is that you have to look after yourself so you can look after those who depend on you. That’s easier said than done when you are a mother. I just had a few days away from the family and almost immediately solved a problem poem that I couldn’t face at home. I often find I have to remove myself physically from the family / home before I can just focus on myself and my writing. Kids take as much as you’ll give them, which of course is natural and excellent for their survival but you have to learn how to take breaks and replenish for your own survival.
I admire and respect mother/writers who have produced books while bringing up small children. Mother/writers must be driven, compelled to write and to snatch time for themselves to do so. I guess we are lucky that we are not made to feel guilty about it to the same extent as mother/writers of previous decades. Often we are all too happy to put guilt on ourselves. I like to think that my children benefit from my writing in that the satisfaction I get from following my dreams makes me a nicer person to be around and hopefully a good caring feminist role model.
This week I’ve been reading more about Elizabeth Bishop and taking notes from Art and Memory in the work of Elizabeth Bishop by Jonathan Ellis.
The notion of poetic form as a hiding place for autobiographical secrets, somewhere to absorb, codify and often re-imagine memories, not just of friends and relatives but of other painters and poets. (15)
Life and the memory of life gets so compressed that they turn into each other. Which is which? These ideas tie back to what I was thinking about Elizabeth Knox making me want to re-write my past. EB seems to be very certain of her memories and their clarity, to have easy access to them. But they are more than just memories.
Memory becomes a synonym for art, for that which is alive forever rather than bound by mortality. It takes on the indeterminate form of a ghost or zombie, something that has a relation to life but is, at the same time, on the other side of the immortal or unloving.(21)
The past needs to undergo transformation though, to be transformed into art. EB uses memory but transforms hers by placing formal constraints on them. I read her poem ‘In Paris, 7AM’. Here’s the first stanza:
I make a trip to each clock in the apartment:
some hands point histrionically one way
and some point others, from ignorant faces.
Time is an Etoile; the hours diverge
so much that days are journeys round the suburbs,
circles surrounding stars, overlapping circles.
The short, half-tone scale of winter weathers
is a spread pigeon’s wing.
Winter lives under a pigeon’s wing, a dead wing with damp
She is playing with clocks and time, looking out from a confused interior, which seems to confuse the exterior, it is quite surreal (although she is not a surrealist). The title is certain of time and place but the content of the poem blurs this reality.
Rather than evading limitations of time (and space?) clocks, all telling different times, seem to lead, via ‘endless intersecting circles’ into a dizzy solipsism. What do we really know? What is real? Does anything really exist? Are past and present separate? How can anything be truly communicated?
Her ideas are so big and this poem is quite depressing, they both make you feel so small and uncertain, vulnerable in the world.
Co-incidentally the exercise of the week is also about memory.
1. Do the fiction writer and the poet owe anything to journalistic or historical truth, or is aesthetic truth paramount?
I think you need to remember that journalism and history are both written by people and all people have a bias. The post-modern dilemma is how any one person can really tell the whole truth. What you select and leave out of the history books or newspaper article can make it untruthful or a partial truth. What is truth? Even statistics can be used to say anything.
2. If a memoir is imaginatively true, does it matter if it’s not literally true? What about a poem?
I think if you are writing about people who are real and alive there are ethical issues to take into consideration. Otherwise I’d make aesthetic truth take priority. A poem isn’t art unless it has been transformed from its starting point.
3. How does tone affect how we read a literary work? What about context? the genre-label?
I remember the public outcry when it was revealed that Jim Crace had invented insects in his novel Being Dead. I couldn’t understand this. A novel is a work of FICTION. What is this current desire for ‘reality novels’ like reality TV?
I had a strange reverse outrage when I first found out the In a Fishbone Church had unchanged extracts from a real diary throughout the novel. It didn’t seem right that she could dump lots of real extracts to bulk up her novel or give it a crutch like support to her novel. ‘They aren’t her own words’ I thought. I’m a bit more forgiving now.
I can understand outrage surrounding the exposure of Norma Khouri because of the way it was promoted. Khouri was toured and deliberately misled in interviews and collected money for ‘charity’. At least Lloyd Jones was upfront about what he was trying to do. I don’t want to be told too much before I pick up a book. Perhaps the reading public needs to be educated in this post-modern dilemma?
I want to be able to trust journalists and historians as much as possible in this on-line-photoshop world of altered truths. A literary truth is not the same as a literal truth and the priority of these depends on the genre. Composite characters in journalism are not new and seem to play an important role in communicating multiple truths in a condensed form. Perhaps we need a better definition of those works that straddle the boundaries. Like conceptual visual art; essayists like Eliot Weinberger can paint with facts.
4. What effect does the blurring of genre-boundaries have on you as a reader?
We spend so much time filtering information off the internet and new applications like twitter are creating a snowball effect. So much information is either false or spin, you need trustworthy sources to make the best of your surf time. Trust needs to be established. I don’t really want to read reality novels; a work of art needs to transform fact.
I think, as writers, we need to take the reader into consideration. I don’t want to totally isolate my readers or irritate them. I would still write if no one read my work but really, in all truth, I think writers write for readers and if no one want to read your work then you’re just talking to yourself. Writers need to establish a relationship of trust with their readers.
However, I want books to excite and challenge me and pushing boundaries is a big part of that. The world would be a very boring place without books like Biografi, for instance. Sometimes I think most of the outcry is because people don’t want to expend energy on actually thinking about what they are reading; they want a safe predictable read. Safe and predictable is not what comes to mind when I think about what makes literature great.
I found the class discussion really interesting and I have a feeling that it will creep into my writing this year.
How old was I when I got my first library card? I’m not sure, maybe six? It was the 1970s; everything was burnt orange and chocolate brown. I remember being very pissed off that I couldn’t borrow adult’s books with my junior library card. I remember reading all the Cricket magazines and scores of fiction. I would usually read a book a day.
Mum worked her way through the entire Crime Fiction section; they all had yellow hard covers with a red stripe. I don’t remember what Dad got out but he had stacks of science books by his side of the bed, Richard Dawkins and the like. My older brother liked Science Fiction and my younger sister had new readers like Hop on Pop. She was quite precocious and memorized Dr Seuss books from an early age, in fact we all learnt to read before we started school, thanks to Mum.
We were members of the Lower Hutt war memorial library, opened in 1953. The main entrance of the library has two huge murals, the first — Their Sacrifice — with service men and women looking bereft under a tree branch with barely a leaf and the second — Preserved Freedom — with happy children and respectful, prayerful adults, some harvesting fruit (presumably the fruit of the servicemen’s labours). ‘It was theirs to make but not to share the morrow’ carved in stone underneath.
Oh! The WASPy guilt I felt each time I passed it. Was it disrespectful to look at it for too long? Was it disrespectful to not look at all? Of course it was fitting to have such a serious, massive piece of art in such a serious, massive (to a child) public building.
The legacy was one of knowledge, guilt, duty, humility, things my parents also felt were important, things they would have been taught in their formative years. My father has an old brochure calling for financial support for the new library and attached Little Theatre. Titled A Call to Sacrifice, it begins thus:
This brochure is a naked and unashamed call upon you, in the name of the City, to make a sacrifice, and its purpose is to inform you why. It makes no appeal to your personal self-interest, does not offer you something for nothing and asks you to give not necessarily that you may receive.
Can you imagine that kind of appeal now? What a joke. Why not let the rates pay for it? Because:
a cultural centre such as is proposed will serve to remind us that they that have left us ‘shall never grow old,’ for culture, like the spirit of man, is of abiding value.
And why should they make this sacrifice?
In memory of others who gave up to six years of previous life, in the heyday of youth, toiling in the hot and arid deserts or in the bitter cold of stormy mountains, and enduring the suffering and dangers of the battlefield that you might enjoy bountiful prosperity and the comforts of home.
Whoa! I don’t think I remember reading a brochure with that kind of language printed in my life time. Finally some of the weirdest sentences that came from my parent’s lips began to make sense.
What has this got to do with reading or libraries? I guess we should be grateful that we have access to these kinds of cultural havens, acknowledge that knowledge is power and also be grateful that this knowledge is available to all members of the community no matter what their income. Mind you the kind of knowledge available in 1977 or 1987 in the Lower Hutt library seemed, even from a child’s perspective, to be limited. What did they want us to know? What was safe for us to know? What was missing?
Still, libraries have always been a special revered place, a family outing; a church for atheists like me perhaps? Maybe that’s why it seemed appropriate to me to have such mixed feelings of lust (for knowledge), guilt, pleasure and worship all mixed up together.
There was also a secret code to learn when you joined the club — the Dewey Decimal System from 000 — Generalities to 900 — Geography & History (821 — Poetry in English). And index cards filed in wooden drawers, you could flick through all the books with the tips of your fingers and find what you wanted. I still love index cards.
It was not just books either, this was the place I discovered The Face magazine, Paul Kelly and the Coloured Girls alongside Mervyn Peake and Elizabeth Smither (once I’d graduated to an adult’s card in the 80’s). All these things seemed so far removed from my everyday reality. I couldn’t afford to dress like the cool things in The Face, I couldn’t find any cool records in the local record stores, I’d never be Fuchsia in Gormenghast and I’d never be a published poet. Not while I was still here anyway.
It was inevitable; I moved to the Wellington Central Library and never looked back. It was an old classically styled building near the old town hall; surely the classical styling would transmit knowledge by osmosis? The steps echoed as I walked up to the fresh index files. There were notices on the wall for Spanish language teachers, guitar teachers, you name it. I felt smarter just being there. Then, glorious! I discovered you could borrow art prints, I was cultured!
Then the library got cultured, or rather modernised and moved to a new designer premises. Style seemed to rule over substance, it seemed they’d blown the budget and couldn’t afford any new books. Lucky for me I had a card for the Vic Uni library. Non-fiction ruled; anthropology, feminism, literary criticism, theory, theory and more theory, until I was ready for real life.
I didn’t belong to even one library while I travelled, I was doing my practical. I still read of course but my unsettled state didn’t allow for the ties of membership. Finally I arrived back home and settled in a small seaside village. I was ready for membership but all previous memberships had lapsed. I began with the Paekakariki village library (about 3m x 4m in size) I got out picture books, that’s all I read for several years.
I joined the Paraparaumu library too, it wasn’t much bigger, I moved onto parenting books. Paraparaumu library was relocated into much larger premises, the extent of their collection was revealed. I started comfort reading; YA fiction, DIY, recipes and craft books. I was almost ready for adult fiction again.
Multiple memberships became addictive, I got an out-of-town membership back at Wellington Central, and the catalogues were now all on-line. I was inter-loaning, reserving, you name it, I was click-happy on the internet. I was really in the zone again, from feminism to craft to poetry to self-help to fiction to YA fiction to DIY to zines to DVDs to CDs. Maybe I was ready for theory again?
My multiple memberships extended to include one more, back to Vic, where juicy ‘Lit Crit’ awaited. On the same campus a small but perfectly formed graduate’s library at the Institute of Modern Letters delighted me. I recently returned to the Lower Hutt library to check out their revamp after visiting my father. The index files were gone, the children’s section was moved to a mezzanine, even one of the large murals was moved from behind the issues desk to a far wall. I’ll be betting they don’t use a date stamp now. But the huge murals in the formal foyer still totally overwhelmed me.
I took a photograph. Was it disrespectful to photograph it? Was it disrespectful to not remember? Familiar feelings of guilt came over me, I was ready to be told off by a librarian but they were too busy being nice to little kids. The rest of the building had, of course, shrunk with age, like my father has lost inches in height. It’s a suburban library, nothing more, nothing less. I walked out through the back entrance and wandered through the historical graveyard, kicking up leaves. It was time to go.
Lannan Foundation Video
The Dream of the Unified Field: selected poems 1974-1994.
Bill Nelson mentioned Jorie Graham on his blog and I looked her up, her style took my fancy so I thought I’d watch her interview. She has a reputation for being difficult to read, in response she said that an apprenticeship to the work of the poet is often required to gain understanding. You need to become acquainted with their collected work, their obsessions, language etc. Things unfold after in-depth reading, try reading all their work in chronological order as fragments will be more difficult. This did make sense to me, especially in light of my experience with Louise Glück. She also discussed difficulty of subject ‘If people don’t have the knowledge (e.g. classical Greek myths) to understand my poetry that’s not my problem’ Ha!! I do angst about the scientific content of my work and if readers will comprehend it. It’s quite liberating to hear poets say things like that. It is quite an elitist attitude and one that I have some problems with, yet when she said that I couldn’t help thinking ‘YES!’ On language she said something like — understanding the complexity of language leads to an understanding of the complexity of your inner world. She wants to challenge people to extend themselves and surely that can only be a good thing?
She also said ‘abstracting emotion doesn’t work, rehearse your vocabulary on the concrete first before you approach the ‘invisible’ — internal or abstract. Approach the invisible via the senses, read Hopkins, for example.’ I think this is probably good advice for me to follow. With my sequence they only started working once I added concrete, sensual connections.
After watching the video I trotted over to the library and got out her selected poems for a read. The title immediately appealed as it harked back to the Field Theory of poetry that Phyllis Webb talked about. The blurb reads:
Jorie Graham’s poetry insists that ‘the visible world’ exists: but what is its existence? Beyond the subjective, the merely lyric, she ventures with philosophical rigour into an area ‘saturated with phenomena’, in Helen Vendler’s phrase, a place of shifting perspectives, vertiginous reversals, but always moving towards possible celebration. Those who argue that poetry and science are at each other’s throats find here a poetry which brings into tense equilibrium science philosophy and history.
Well, I’d love someone to say that about my work.
It’s interesting to see her form change over time, her lines grow longer and longer. Couplets and stanzas disappear, poems grow longer.
In the late 90’s her lines get so long and the last word or words of the line tab out to the
end, like this
or sometimes she tabs
and then goes on
like this, then breaks
like this – en dashes too.
I like it; in fact I tried it out on some new poems this weekend.
Her poem ‘I watched a snake’ is interesting, each stanza introduces a notion of sewing, stanza 2 — thread, stanza 4 — knot, stanza 5 — stitch, stanza 6 pattern, final stanza: stitches, pattern, fastens. In addition the snake has duel meaning of biblical lust versus work and then: Desire / is the honest work of the body’, Passion is work / that retrieves us. This is overlapped with an Elizabeth Bishop style of observancy. In the Lannan interview she talked about ‘Self’ and separation, body / spirit / mind. In this poem she seems to be trying to stitch them all together — very clever.
I’ve been looking at the garden for the last six months, thinking how I should’ve really pulled some weeds so I could plant some more veggies. I promised myself that I wouldn’t make my self feel guilty about things like that in such a busy year but I was a little sad that I wouldn’t be picking fresh veggies from my plot.
Today I grabbed a few handfuls of chickweed out of the veggie patch to feed the chooks and noticed as I got up close: lettuce, celery, carrots and in another corner broad beans! These little seedlings are making their way despite the weeds, on their own accord; plants that had self-seeded from the previous crops. I just need to do some minimal weeding and they’ll take off. The prognosis wasn’t as bad as I had imagined.
When I first started my MA this year I was worried — would I be able to keep up with the workload, would I get writer’s block, would I remember anything, would my brain still work, would all the bright young things leave me in their dust?
I’m sure all mothers experience a similar mix of these anxieties when they return to work after a period of time away with children.
What I discovered was I had 8 years worth of ideas that had been germinating in the dark recesses of my brain, which only needed the slightest stimulation to take off (and that motherhood gives you an amazing stamina!)
I’m slowly starting to realize that it’s okay to let your land / mind lay fallow for a while, in fact, it may even be beneficial — not stripping all the nutrients from extensively working your plot.
I’m sure I won’t be able to (and don’t want to) wait another eight years before the next intensive work effort but I will be less anxious about the wait, happier to see it as part of the process in the future and able to trust that a few self-sown seeds will make their own way to the light.
I guess because the MA is nine months long there are inevitable analogies of pregnancy and childbirth connected to the process. Lately I’ve been feeling like I’m in labour with this book. I’m pushing and huffing and hurting. I don’t know what’s going to come out, or if it will have any birth defects.
There’s a point in labour called transition, you can tell you’re in it when you start whinging ‘I can’t do it, I caaaaan’t!!! I never want to do this ever, ever again!’ It’s the most intense part of labour; some women vomit or shake all over. Midwives like this point because they know it means any minute a head will be making its way out.
I wonder if Chris sees herself as a midwife of books? Either way I feel like I’m in transition with my manuscript, I’m tired, I caaaaaan’t!
To get me through I’m trying to remember how the post-birth adrenalin felt, a massive surge invulnerability and awesome, death defying prowess. ‘I made this!’ And you are looking down at your ugly purple squished up crying bundle covered in cheesy looking vernix, thinking it’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen. You forget the pain and decide they need a sibling.
In two weeks we need to hand in our journals. Mid-term break has begun and I’ve just had a meeting with Chris about my portfolio. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s time to surrender — to the narrative, to the organic will of the collection, to admit ownership of certain pieces and that there are only so many balls I can juggle. This might not be the book I intended to write, I may have expectations of my work that are beyond my current skills but that doesn’t mean this year’s work is crap. It has potential.
I’ve been resentful and angsting over the extent to which my dead mother has hijacked my manuscript. Tony Hoagland has a great little essay in Real Sofistikashun about obsession. He says:
A real die hard, indestructible, irresolvable obsession in a poet is nothing less than a blessing. The poet with an obsession never has to search for subject matter. It is always right there, welling up like an Artesian spring on a piece of property with bad drainage… The danger of obsession, of course, is the potential for redundancy: immobility, stagnation, narrowness of aperture, confinement, paralysis, arrested development. Neurotic recitation can be boring. (81)
I hope I’m not crossing the line into neurotic recitation. I tied myself up in knots, trying too hard to make a sequence that was ultra-tight then found it was so tight that nothing could develop. I think I needed to go through this process to write the material but now it’s time to blow it all open and deconstruct it in order to get closer to what I want.
I have lots of anxieties as a writer. I’m afraid of over-writing, I worry that my style is passé and not experimental enough to be fresh, I worry I’m no good and that my subject matter is of no interest to others, I worry that I’ll come across as self-indulgent and out of control.
Hopefully by the end of this year I’ll feel a bit more confident about what I’m doing and my abilities as a writer. This year has been so fantastic, I want to bottle it like peaches so I can go back and taste what it was like in the future and remember these little revelations.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Helen Heath lives in the sea-side village of Paekakariki, on the Kapiti Coast. She completed an MA in creative writing at Victoria University in 2009. Her poetry has been published in many journals in New Zealand and Australia. Most recently she’s had a chap-book of poems published by Seraph Press called Watching for Smoke. Helen also blogs at Show Your Workings.