Excerpts from a Reading Journal, 2010
(don’t read this again, just keep going)
This is a reflection on the festival, during which I thought I took many notes, but did not, and have simply ended up with some strong feelings and hints towards establishing a writing practice. Free tickets for the shows came by volunteering to babysit a writer for the Once Upon A Deadline writing marathon. Lucky me, I was assigned to Neil Cross. I was his facilitator and guardian that day. I had chosen the people I wanted to see and hear, and had already booked a ticket to see him speak, so spending the day as his ‘minder’ added to the thrill of seeing someone close up who had made it his job to work as a writer. The day included visits to Mojo roasting house on the waterfront, the airport, Wellington College, the Radio Network offices, Moore Wilson’s fresh markets and the Vesuvius exhibit at Te Papa.
One of the most extraordinary things about the process was Cross’s enormous faculty of focus. Chris suggested to us that writers have a stock supply of answers to fend off the media with and this seems to be a useful lens to examine a writer in action. He was interviewed by project creator and director, Robert Mack, on the bus to the airport, and their conversations seemed candid and sound-bitey, which was an interesting mix to me: all businesslike and ‘getting the right light’, on the 91 Airport Flyer.
A day spent in company with someone unknown makes for small talk to soothe the silences. Cross seems to be a writer who tolerates no bullshit, and has a fierce love for his wife and children. There is nothing unmanufactured, I suppose, in the construction of a life. Cross produced 2500 words in an hour and a half and spent the remainder of the day editing and reducing and reconstructing his piece. He has previously worked in publishing and worked for the publishing house that produced that classic of modern literature, Bridget Jones’ Diary, which made me laugh. His work is hard nosed and hard bitten, so the fluff factor was a strange balance to his crime-story telling.
It was a strange day of heightened emotion and observation. The job of organising a festival and all the tempering of personalities involved is not a job I envy particularly, so Laura Kroetsch and her team do a spooky and excellent job. The eventual winner was written by Dianna Fuemana – a moving story that was inspired in part by the five venues that we visited.
Ilya Trojanow and Kamila Shamsie spoke together with John Newton. Trojanow’s book The Collector of Worlds, about Sir Richard Burton, has made its way onto my pile of ‘books to read when school has finished’. I heard of Burton when I visited his grave at St Mary Magdalen’s in Mortlake, on my first visit to London. The local Catholic church had a marble Bedouin tent in its church yard, and it was so out of place that I needed to find out more. Trojanow reflected on Burton as trickster and a shapeshifter. He mistrusts psychology and discovery. Trojanow represents for me a real citizen of the world, outside the Anglo-Saxon blandness and USA vanilla flavoured sameness. ‘If you don’t know anything, it is impossible to find anything.’
John Newton says ‘DO THE WORK ‘.
Shamsie talked about how to notice the world, from the personal, to the national, to the international. Her favourite piece of writing is from Michael Ondaatje, called In the Skin of a Lion. History keeps tripping you up. Shamsie talked about a different sense of history, with a sense of complexity and depth. 9-11 is not the beginning of the chaos in the ongoing historical narrative, though some in the United States might have us believe that. Begin in the eighties when the USSR invaded Afghanistan, and the strange effects of foreign policy. Eduard Shevardnadze, USSR Minister of Foreign Affairs, was involved in the peace process.
In session with the poets – Ian Wedde, Geoff Cochrane, Kate Camp, Glyn Maxwelland Kevin Connolly. Free events get the big thumbs up from me. It’s already clear to me that I’m going to be exhausted after this week, and I’ll never be able to take enough in. Wedde I enjoyed. In the past I had just put him in the old-man-NZ-poet box and never really considered pushing myself far enough to follow up his work, but his walking, talking, Adelaide Road poem was just a delight – maybe because I could see the places he’d been. It just carried me along with him in his reading – the sheen of the polish. Wedde offers simple pleasures and conviviality and Theocritus.
Cochrane, a cranky ex-addict (sorry, Mr C, I don’t know if you are, but you certainly look like you’ve lived) who writes like a man possessed. Archival, fake antique, artfully distressed, large, long, complacently abstruse. Clorpromazine, Mr Thorazine.
Camp gave me something to chew on. I’d heard some of these poems last year in class, when Camp came to town, and I liked the back-bone story of fourteenth-century heretic, Marguerite Porete, burnt at the stake. She sounds like one hell of a woman, and it seems like Camp is too. She references Milosz, ‘but that is not the same as understanding.’
Maxwell, the muscle of praise.
Connolly, a sneeze, a word. George Steiner – On Difficulty. The business of plenty, and moribund casinos.
Geoff Dyer and Philip Hoare‘s discussion was chaired by Harry Ricketts. They were three Englishmen in a row, and as a team they were really entertaining. It’s starting to sink in that these writers really have to write their script and can’t keep revealing everything just because they are at a show. There’s a certain amount of ‘for the camera readiness’, which seems entirely reasonable and starts to put Cross’ formula into perspective. Hoare talked about W.G. Sebald, and Dyer referred to John Berger. Add more to the list of things to read and think about. I’m thinking about freedom and the Balibo 5, Moby Dick, and the spumy discharge of the lungs of the whale.
Somewhere in the midst of it all, Kevin Connolly read his poem which is all about beauty, and beautiful things and ‘plenty’. He is magical and gentle and the partner of Gil Adamson. Here is evidence that there are even more successful Canadian writers to remain in awe of. His jokey good-naturedness makes me think that he’d be a good bloke to ask round for a barbi. He’d probably tell funny, dry stories about his dog and his ute. A decent sort of a man. He talks about the gimlet process and I can’t even remember what that is, except that it moved me to write it down, thinking about a martini, or something else gin-related. He sounds like good fun as he plunders cliché and errata and play and the daily up-ending spirit of poetry. He talks about John Ashbery – the experience of experience. And the advice I take from Connolly is to plunder, even though I can’t quite remember if that’s what he advised. It’s in my notes so it must be true.
One of the festival highlights for me was the conversation about Judith Binney‘s work Encircled Lands, chaired by Paul Diamond, with Dr Claudia Orange, Rev. Wayne Te Kawa, and Dr Rawinia Higgins. It was an exciting and vibrant discussion with full respect to the hard work and intellectual determination of Binney and it was impressive to begin to understand that there was a deeply complex historical background long before European laws were settled in Wellington.
Likewise, Jane Stafford in conversation with James Belich was thrilling too. Belich reiterated that the past is always contestable, and the pleasures of history come alive again. He talked about the settler revolution as a time between 1783 through to 1939, and the rhythm of settlement, and the noisiness of pioneering and the hybridity of technologies explicit in the expanding new frontiers. It’s fast.
Ingrid Horrocks chaired the ‘Bad Girls’ session with Gil Adamson and Lisa Moore, and an initially absent Susannah Moore, who arrived half way through the hour. L. Moore and Adamson looked like sensible Canadian women, and the way they talked about their books and work was truly inspiring, but when S. Moore arrived, she added another style entirely. Moore looked like a supermodel or one of those fancy Fifth Avenue women in spring frocks. She had beautiful Chanel-style ballet slippers and some beautifully pressed fine cotton clothing. She looked incredible and I thought about the laundry. I need to buy a washing machine because hand-laundering is bloody killing me. S. Moore said she considers the ‘virtue of being unafraid to look’, the richness of an alternate world, and read from her novel In the Cut. I had forgotten how funny she is. Her reading made me laugh out loud at the bravery and transgressiveness of her Frannie character. L. Moore was more subdued, but Chris had told me that her book Alligator was worth reading. L. Moore read from her new novel February about the Ocean Ranger disaster on Valentine’s Day 1982. The rule of the sea is not to be taken lightly, and nor should the full pleasure of painting and art. The embeddedness of tune, and the business of emotion and memory become almost the same thing. Consider solitude versus loneliness; the learned and pleasurable solo adventure, and the healthy part of spirituality, alongside the situation of being lonely.
Neil Cross entertains as thoroughly during his session as he did in my guardianship project earlier in the week. In conversation with Noel Murphy of the NZ Book Council, he asks the question, ‘How can we do very bad things, and still retain our soul?’ Yes, quite. He believes in evil, and the televisual crime procedural. He perceives a fundamental difference between the UK, where it’s all about the restoration of order, and the US, where free will is exercised as sin. He went on to compare the TV series The Wire with the works of Charles Dickens, and showed us a preview of his new show called Luther, which is about to screen in the UK. Also, Idris Elba is a very handsome man. He describes being a father as filled with panic, terror, self-hatred, and sleeplessness, and the mastery of the story from Stephen King.
And last of all, on a Sunday afternoon, I started work early, so I could catch an hour with Philip Hoare talking his crazy whale talk. He sure is a compelling man, who recognises his own level of lunacy, and embraces it. I loved his story about the constraints of his life and how he keeps to the same routine, in his small town, taking his breakfast, taking a turn by the seaside, swimming his lengths, drinking his tea. Don’t bother calling him outside the appropriate time, he says, because he simply won’t answer the phone. Excellent.
I am a little bit in love with Hoare; he spends his holidays with John Waters of Hairspray fame and other less salubrious movies, and the fabulous Divine. He is particular friends with Waters, because Waters lives in Provincetown, on Cape Cod and is close by a whale-watching opportunity of his ‘charismatic mega-fauna’. Whales make good press, and their oil doesn’t freeze in space. Hoare is appealing and very, very funny. His passion for his subject and his pursuit of his own truth compel me to take him seriously, and I love that his gentleness and humour shine through. Sincerity seems to work for him – something to consider as a plan.
Louise Glück, Proofs & Theories : Essays on Poetry (Hopewell, New Jersey: The Ecco Press, 1994)
I’m finding Glück to be an old cranky-pants and I think I might even be in love with her. The very first line of the first essay she writes ‘the fundamental experience of the writer is helplessness.’ Well, take that, sureness!
I have found it hard to put down this book; its meditations and mediations of the poet’s world is frankly terrifying and so loaded with consequence that I am almost overwhelmed. So I want to jot down in this journal some of the thoughts that I’m tempted to write on my bathroom wall.
From the essay ‘Education of the Poet’:
• On the writer’s will, ‘the only real exercise of will is negative: we have toward what we write the power of veto.’
• On her fascination with words, ‘the possibility of context…. the way a poem could liberate, by means of a word’s setting, through subtleties of timing, of pacing, that word’s full and surprising range of meaning… I liked scale, but I liked it invisible.’
• On ‘women’ writers, ‘puzzled, not emotionally but logically, by the contemporary determination of women to write as women…. If there are such (sexual) differences, it seems reasonable to me that literature reveals them, and that it will do so more interestingly, more subtly, in the absence of intention.’
From the essay ‘Against Sincerity’:
• On honesty and sincerity, ‘not necessarily the path to illumination’ and that ‘honest speech is a relief not a discovery.’
• On secrets, those which ‘we choose to betray lose power over us.’
Glück defines some of her terms to begin.
• Actuality as the world of event,
• truth as the embodied vision, or illumination, or enduring discovery as ideal of art, and
• honesty/sincerity as ‘telling the truth’ and not necessarily the path to illumination.
She quotes V.S. Naipaul who describes the aim of the novel to be an ideal creation ‘indistinguishable from truth’. She is delicious and instructive, and I can see real benefit in taking the specificity of an honest/sincere thing and transforming it to an artistic truth, and have willingness to distinguish truth from honesty/sincerity. I’m coming along for the ride again with Richard Hugo’s ‘The Triggering Town’ essay I read earlier in the year. It is interesting to me that it keeps coming back to me in various ways, again and again.
The source of art is experience, and the end product is truth. The artist intervenes/manages/lies/deletes in the service of truth. There is no test for truth, therefore no security and the artist suffers. Association of truth with terror is as old as the hills, e.g. Psyche and Eros – she breaks the single commandment and needs to know, destroying her peace/happiness.
Honest speech is a relief and not a discovery. When we speak of honesty, in relation to poems, we mean the degree to which and the power with which the generating impulse has been transcribed. Transcribed, not transformed. Any attempt to evaluate the honesty of a text must always read away from that text, and toward intention. This may make an interesting trail, more interesting, very possibly, than the poem. The mistake, in any case, is our failure to separate poetry which sounds like honest speech from honest speech. The earlier mistake is in assuming that there is only one way for poetry to sound.
Art as being redefined by honest speech. Keats’ inward listening and attentiveness, and his body of work corresponds to and describes a soul’s journey, to shed light on hidden forms, with more feelings and fewer alexandrines (line of poetic metre comprising 12 syllables). Compare Milton and Keats, in the tradition of sincerity; Milton’s ‘consider’, allowing disposition, intelligence, inclination and time, to Keats’ ‘felt’, acute sensation, that is primal, unwilled, democratic and urgent. Glück makes ‘a particular case for anguish because we are accustomed to thinking the “cerebral” contradictory to the “felt”.’
Keats’ poems sound like honesty. The self is like a lightning rod, attracting experience.
… several things dovetailed in my mind, and at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.
Glück concludes with the advantages of poetry over life – poetry, if sharp enough, might last. The theory of ‘negative capability’ is more commonly ascribed to scientific minds, and an absence of bias is cultivated, to convince, and inspire confidence. Materials may be subjective, but methods are not. The true has ‘air of mystery or inexplicability’ and ‘in poetry, is felt as insight…. very rare, but beside it other poems seem merely intelligent commentary.’
Kate Camp, Realia (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2001)
The Mirror of Simple of Annihilated Souls (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2010)
The question that arises is how to go about assembling a collection. It’s not simply matter of counting how many poems are there (Realia has 35, Annihilated Souls 28) or the number of pages totalled (Realia 64, Annihilated Souls 64), so how to do it?
Realia feels deeply embedded in place; Wellington, New Zealand. Except that when you read them closely, Taupo, Sydney, South America, the Tate Gallery in London and Constantinople also appear. Camp gets around but still keeps me settled here. Perhaps it’s the knowledge that she is around town and a working poet. Camp came to our CREW253 class last year to read from her new book, and I was inspired by her admission that she only writes for a couple of hours on a Wednesday morning, and actually most of that morning she reads, and then spends a small part of time writing. Also impressed by the business of her writing group, with a few women from, I think, her MA year, who provide her with the feedback and support that seems to be so important in this life.
There’s a nautical man, waves and sails and rivers, transportation, Sydney Harbour Bridge, the ANZAC bridge, cars and the railway. Stopping at the crossroads. Breaking into houses and hearts, with languages tricking the native speaker, the translator and the foreign guest, viewing the viewers, facing in to the inside, and the waters of the sweet life – sweat, beer, pissing and kissing. I like this book of poems, Realia, and the way it tracks to the work of four years. Particularly, I enjoyed ‘Just Been Kissed’, with its threat of dentist, or something more intimate, and ‘Stars Without Makeup’. There is an attention to the gaps between people and the Poet, who I want to call Kate. Camp seems like she really is ‘in’ this book.
while you are talking
I am planning
what to say
when you stop
from ‘The Spine Gives Up Its Saddest Stories’
Oh yes, I want to say,
I am the very devil for injury
I disguise myself
as a white line and live on the road.
I do not say this, I lie …
When Kate came to our class last year, she read from the galleys of her work but somehow forgot to read the back and front pages so we enjoyed a strangely abbreviated version of the title poem, ‘The mirror of simple annihilated souls’. This year I picked up the beautiful volume with its Aberhart-owled cover and slightly off-kilter shape, so it won’t fit elegantly in with the other more typically shaped volumes of poetry – she sticks out. With thanks to Wikipedia, Camp’s inspiration for the genesis of this book came from twelfth century mystic, Marguerite Porete who was burned at the stake for heresy in 1310. Porete wrote of the annihilation of the self in order to spiritually connect and commune with God. Camp traps a vision of the tarot in my mind’s eye; all the crazy myths and legends of a nightmarish dream like a surrealist painting, or something like that… Her book reminds me of Peter Ustinov, who I heard in an interview, discussing his multi-lingual ability; for him it seemed natural and sensible to speak to his mother in one language, his father in another, the nanny, the cook, the butler and the chauffeur in a new one for each of them. I couldn’t tell you why this is the case, but I’m getting the hang of the sparking of ideas against the flint of someone else’s poetry. Helpfully, the Porete thread connects Kate Camp and Anne Carson who referenced Porete, alongside Simone Weil, in her work Decreation. In poetry, everything connects, and I feel like I’m in a Price-shaped maze of literary proportions.
When I returned from New York, like it was its own country, the only way you could get a full-time job in Perth in hospitality was to be a manager and I was stuck in the most isolated city in the world, and couldn’t get a proper fine-dining job. I ended up with two jobs that still didn’t pull in enough cash, turning up for my five to eleven shift at the wine bar, only to be told not to start until six thirty, and then getting knocked off early at nine… and public transport in Perth was a bitch.
The job worth having was at a restaurant called Jacksons. One day a man from Manjimup brought the largest truffle ever found in Western Australia in to the shop. The truffles were seeded from oaks in Perigord, and imported illegally. The smell, though, was freakish – truffles of such extraordinary size smell, very distinctly, just like semen. This is a part of my previous professional legacy, and brings me back to Ms Kate Camp.
from ‘The mirror of simple of annihilated souls’
How such creatures no longer know how to speak of God
There was a time when he filed their mouths
with a mushroomy taste of semen
but that is not the same as understanding.
Camp has a dirty mind and I love it. I don’t understand it but she moves me, makes my face curl and excites me. Her spooky darkness is not so much ethereal as extremely real and visceral. Rhydian and I talked about Will Self who wrote a Penguin 60, chapbook size, about a man who lived next to a miniature village, called Scale. The wee book has a picture of a green tuatara-shaped lizard on it, against a turquiose crayon-coloured background. Kate Camp gives me a dose of the Will Selfs. Her annihilated soul is busy and empty and thorough, suspended and balanced in the businesses of delight and dying. In this book, ‘the ordinary can be miraculous / if it happens often enough.’
from ‘Piano Concerto for the Left Hand’
…my language tutor
– a jerky woollen man form the Swiss-German border –
said that grammar not so much eludes you
as flees the room at your approach.
Oh yes, humour infused my childhood
like the bad air of a marsh.
from ‘Gambling lambs’
Pascal invented roulette to aid his research
how maddeningly joyless your knowing has made you
All the parts of the body are alive and dangerous; vulva, penises, kidneys, and pregnant bellies under C-section, and even digital rectal stimulation. And the animals too; some of them are taxidermied and some of them are shrunk to fit on the palm of her hand, but there they are, in their complete animal-ness, waiting to meet you at the end of the poem, and perhaps eat you up whole.
Even having heard Camp read, I cannot say she is joyous. There is something dark and unwholesome about her, but I like the nuance and the troubled shadows that her work is swimming in – up to its modest erection, kiss[ed] goodbye failings and her own elegant, fragile neck are deep in it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kate McKinstry lives in Mt Cook, and reassures friends it is a suburb of Wellington, and not as slope on the southern mountain. They believe her easily. She has completed an MA at the IIML in 2010 She prefers to live in a city and has lived in Auckland, Christchurch, Taipei, London, Antibes, New York, Perth and Melbourne, which is the setting for a series of Eurydice poems.