Excerpts from a Reading Journal, 2012
9 th March — Ron Rash
Two brilliant masterclasses at the Stout Centre today — first up, Ron Rash from Appalachia, who spoke candidly about his writing practice (poems, short stories, novels). He described himself as a regional writer and a Jungian, and said one of his aims was to counter Southern stereotypes: the Deliverance-style dimwit beloved by New Yorkers, for example. His Southern accent — ‘y’all mai-ght th-ink ne-ow’ — did momentarily conjure up the stereotype, but it as quickly left.
He extolled place and climate, and read from the opening pages of his new novel The Cove. Out of a long riff describing the dead heat of summer, crops dying, tobacco by the river — the main protagonist, Billy, emerged.
Landscape itself can be a character, he said, inviting the reader into the picture. He finds openings the hardest. He completes many drafts of each piece. The novels run to about twelve drafts, with the last couple being about individual words and sounds. The idea is to create a memorable voice. As a Jungian, he sees the ‘regional’ as being a gateway to the universal — once you dig deep into a character or story you hit the collective unconscious, the universality of all people.
I asked him about the shock value in his stories (the murder in ‘Lincolnites’ and child abuse in ‘The Ascent’) and he replied that in extremis characters can reveal more about themselves. I found that even the self-contained and historical story ‘Lincolnites’ threw light on contemporary society. He said people from the Left and the Right told him how to write, but writing is the grey space in the middle.
Each piece of writing is usually inspired by an image that’s compelling, and he’s learnt to trust that image and ‘just work with it’, describing it as a lump of clay to pound and prod and poke. Later he used the example of Michelangelo who would look at a block of marble knowing the statute was in it waiting to be discovered.
You have to stay with the image and find the novel and what it’s about. After about six months, he usually finds the novel ‘dies’ on the page — and then it’s just a case of working on regardless. On good days, he gets into a kind of trance and can write for ten hours, but it feels like one and he forgets to eat. On others days, he just has to sit there and usually after forty minutes or so something will start happening. He goes into his writing room, no computer, doesn’t even look out the window, and sits down for the allotted time — say, three hours.
He wrote for years, badly, before committing to it (dropping out of a PhD in Literature programme in his mid twenties) — working for years, often doing grunt work, before hitting success in his early forties.
He described his childhood among family who’d lived on the same land for 200 years — pagan/Baptists: an uncle taught him to cross a creek at the fast-flowing spot because the ghosts can’t follow there (a Scottish superstition taken to the US). He had a speaking problem as a child, and one day was sitting on the porch listening to older relatives talking, listening intently to try and grasp how to make the sounds he couldn’t, when a large green moth flew by: he tried to grasp it but couldn’t, and that’s how writing is, you must try to grasp it.
He recommended the New Zealand novel Sydney Bridge Upside Down.
I’m left thinking about regional writing, which I have loved — Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Alice Munro; this year Dylan Thomas poems, his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, Seamus Heaney — but is there much new regional writing around? especially in a European voice? Is regional writing less popular now because of the global village — writers who grow up in it, to my mind, often have an uninflected voice, noisy yet demanding attention. Does the ‘regional’ writing of Mãori, Pasifika, African writers get more of a look in? Isn’t it that regional writing can go a lot deeper somehow, really mix it up at the back of the brain, spring unforeseen insights, words, ideas? Done badly though, it’s horrible — possibly in current times it has to be startlingly good to even get a look in?
(March 11 — something Ron Rash said that seemed so obvious at the time it didn’t need recording now calls to be spelt out. Almost as an aside, he said there’s no need to write in a line, for writing to be linear. You have an image or an idea, write it down; have another one not particularly connected to it, write it down. He continued on in that anti-planner fashion (which may be more about personality than a right or wrong way?) and I thought no more about it. But at the City Gallery this afternoon, doing the ekphrasis exercise, it worked — apparently unrelated lines and jottings, coming together.
(Having trained as a journalist, I’d always thought my circling ideas, leaps and disconnectedness a problem — but maybe not.)
9 th March — Michael Hulse
The other ‘master’, Michael Hulse, is more difficult to discuss. A poet and anthologist (The Twentieth Century in Poetry [TTCinP]), he presented as an erudite raconteur. It worked for me, but not for others in the class. So I’m a little embarrassed to note that for several weeks TTCinP has taken prime spot in my reading day — last minutes before lights out. Why? Because the poems are connected to society, community, people.
Someone asked Michael Hulse why the collection featured so many white men, and he made a long explanation about how it reflected who was writing in the last century, particularly in its first half.
This didn’t sit well in the class, but I recall my first full-time job as a bank clerk in the late 1970s — women couldn’t get a loan or an overdraft without a written guarantee from their husband or father. Until recently, so few women had the time, income, education, physical space, or milieu from which to write and overcome discrimination that, unsurprisingly, only a tiny number did write to a publishable standard. The changes in the last few decades have been radical. And let me present my feminist chops: I did camp at Greenham Common, work for Women Against Pornography, was Women’s Officer for the Bank Officers’ union, so I’m no apologist.
Do I become grumpy?
[I don’t think so. I read this week, late August, a Guardian review titled ‘Have you heard the one about rape? It’s funny now’ about the prevalence of misogyny at the Edinburgh comedy festival. Misogny, masquerading as humour (‘feminists have no sense of humour’), was certainly a way of intimidating women when I started out in financial journalism in the early 80s (The Dominion, New Zealand Times, etc). Surely, by forgetting its pervasiveness, we risk the re-emergence of chauvanism and discrimination?]
Enough of that, and back to Michael Hulse: we looked at a few poems from TTCinP, including Anthony Heist’s ‘It out-Herods Herod. Pray you, avoid it’ and Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘At the Fishhouses’. We were to look at Bill Manhire’s ‘Jalopy: The End of Love’, but we moved on surprisingly quickly when Michael Hulse asked if we had to be polite and one or two nodded. He clearly likes New Zealand poetry and poets, (including Bill Manhire), telling a long anecdote about how he read R A K Mason’s ‘Lugete o veneres’ to a group of Americans who doubted his enthusiasm for New Zealand poetry, leaving them stunned to silence by the complexity and withering insight of this poem about a rather pitiful farm boy pining for a girl who is moving out of the district. We also heard a lot about the ideas from the TTCinP introduction:
In fact, the true story of poetry in English in the twentieth century is not told by tracing the line of communicative and conceptual intractability, a line which fetches up in the dead end of poetry fired by linguistic philosophy and designed to appeal to a coterie of initiates. It is a story of success in finding ways of dealing with the truly complex experience of modern life in language that is resonant yet down-to-earth.
He said a poem succeeds when it knows what it’s doing, and succeeds on its own terms. He claimed that a lot of current ‘experimental’ poetry was now conservative, the ideas having been around for a hundred years.
His own poems in the handout were earthy, full of real things, in the ‘The Kid’, for example: ‘His meaty carbuncular beet of a nose/was pulsing with veins of imperial purple’.
But my mind kept trailing back to the Elizabeth Bishop poem, its visual quality, the clarity, and something to do with its symmetry — both literally in how some of the sentences break, and also in how their meaning has an almost geometric patterning. For example, in the lines below the break after ‘netting’ and the hesitation created by the near repetition of ‘net’ on the following line, signal the centre mark of this opening sentence. The broad picture of the cold evening and the fishhouses from this point dives to the detail of the shuttle. There’s something very attractive too about the neatness of the two sets of three lines:
Although it is a cold evening,
Down by one of the fishhouses
An old man sits netting,
His net, in the gloaming almost invisible,
A dark purple-brown,
And his shuttle worn and polished.
I asked Michael Hulse about working with strong emotions within more formal structures (thinking too of Anthony Hect’s references to the holocaust within the discipline of iambic rhythm and an abab rhyme in the Herod poem). He said that was the conventional view — strong feelings or a difficult subject are best contained within a formal structure — but it wasn’t necessarily so, and good free verse did this well too (perhaps Elizabeth Bishop’s?) He qualified his comment with an explanation of a void in how free verse is described, that it needs a ‘taxonomy’. Somebody needs to write that book and I’d like to read it.
Later that week
Hearing both writers was a hugely valuable experience, a restating of some writing basics I’d forgotten or hadn’t had explained so well before.
I’d started the week thinking about keeping this journal to a theme of ‘being as it is’ — knowing that my writing too often goes off in tangents, I don’t stay with it long enough to get pieces to their true shape, I get distracted and too easily bored, or seduced by the business of living. Both these writers gave insights on such difficulties, which I can choose to take in, or not.
The lingering idea is very liberating one: there’s plenty of bad poetry being published, been published — Michael Hulse’s ‘dead-end’ comment — but there’s also fabulous work, and finding more of it is the work of this year. Although I also wondered again if what one person might consider ‘bad’ poetry is also to do with personality, politics, or fashion — what’s going to appeal to one reader at a particular time will be different for another reader at another time?
On my desk at home are piles of books — many of them ‘ought to reads’. I don’t think I’ll bother with much more than a glance through some of them now. I’d rather stick to poems that leap up at me, demanding to be read now: this week Philip Larkin (again), Hone Tuwhare, and Wendy Cope.
Thank god for Wendy Cope — she enabled me to cope with the first class exercise, the ekphrasis. I love the crispness of her lines, a no-nonsense but edgy take on the everyday world. [Although by late August, I have to say I’m completely over my Wendy Copy infatuation — now she seems pretty, trite, disingenuous, conservative. But she’s a good one to pass on to friends who want a ‘readable’ poet.]
Unfortunately I missed the Terese Svoboda masterclass, which reminds me I did make the Teju Cole class — an engaging, erudite Nigerian novelist based in New York. Loved his ‘news’ Twitter feed, particularly as a way of daily practice. Something to look to for a writing ‘habit’ next year? I look forward to his book set in Nigeria.
Classmates said that Terese Svoboda’s history of the line break was invaluable (dang), but Michael Hoffman was better. I did make his class and, well, it was like a short story. So why not.
A brief row of students, all women, fill seats toward the back of the room. Two lecturers sit closer to the speaker. The lecturers look now and then to the doorway as further along the hall another door, opening to the outside world, bangs with comings and goings, but just one more student, then a final straggler, appear.
This last student is ten minutes late, but the class still has not begun. She is one of the older students, a single parent who has kept working, always rushing in or out, too often forgetting to switch off a mobile. She mutters something about parking, and sits in the second row not far from the lecturers.
She sees immediately that the speaker is a striking man, the kind who might appear on a movie screen or in a glossy magazine — sitting on a log by a lake, wearing some inordinately expensive wristwatch, dressed in jeans and a shirt with an open-neck collar.
But this man is clearly uncomfortable: the legs pull in, the legs stretch out; he rubs his grey eyes, drawing attention to the dark marks beneath, though he doesn’t run his hands through his curls, just beginning to silver, just this side of receding.
Is it the paucity of audience or something else that worries him? A bad journey, poor accommodation?
But when he speaks all queries diminish. Here is the real oil — his writer father; his PhD, abandoned in Paris; his love of Lowell; his German translations; his poems; his reviews in the London Review of Books: his quicksilver sentences.
In one anecdote, he is young and has been invited to translate one of twelve volumes of Freud: there would be twelve translators, each taking one of the books, each giving a different voice. He signs the contract because he loves his volume’s title — Wild Analysis. But when he starts reading the book, it is so dull — Freud says that analysis can only be done by people like himself. The master speaker exclaims, ‘Like a closed shop, like a trade union!’ He withdraws from the project, cancels the contract.
In another story, all things Victorian are dismissed — ‘pleasant, sensible, huh!’
Not a student says a word, asks a question.
He reads an extract from a German short story he has recently translated. He repeats some of the sentences. He says, ‘I think these are beautiful.’
The students begin to ask questions. He says that he sees the stories’ German writer about every two years, they’re not really friends. They don’t really talk. There is something the German writer has said to him, after he had seen the book’s proofs, something positive, a very short sentence, but he, the speaker, the translator, is still pleased by it.
The story opens with a kindergarten teacher cooking dinner for two work colleagues and their male partners. She’s single, older, and they pity her. After they leave, she hears an upstairs neighbour, whom she had thought to be an old woman, making odd noises. She investigates and discovers the neighbour is a young man wearing an Iron Maiden t-shirt. They begin a fraught relationship, approaching sexual intimacy but never arriving. The story ends with her lying in bed, hearing him in the room above, yearning.
In the class, the discussion circles around the role of the translator — to what extent does the translator change the work of the author. The speaker says that he has used slang to convey the character of the teacher — ‘this older rapacious woman’, he says.
The student in the second row starts, what a word to use — rapacious. The speaker continues to talk about the slang sentences, ones such as: ‘I imagine him grabbing me and throwing me down on the floor’, how he believes these have worked well.
The student in the second row asks if these are literal translations, and the speaker reaches to the table behind him, where his own books are, and picks up the German text of the stories — the book is still wrapped in cellophane, and he notes his lack of desire to even open it. He must have made the translations from unpublished copy.
He goes to the story, looks at some of the sentences he has read, and says no, the German is more formal. In German, the character — and by implication her voice — is almost pedantic.
One of the younger students says that she didn’t imagine the character to be that much older than the young man, and perhaps the slang, which is not that informal to a Kiwi, makes her seem younger. He says, ‘She is a lot older than the young man.’
The student sitting by herself rolls her shoulders, tucks in her chin. She cannot help herself. It is a small group, she is toward the front. There is nothing between her and the question she finds forming itself to consciousness. Lately, she has given up something, some old ambition, some old necessity to accommodate — one of those things that happens when she has been writing a lot, some shift in character, which is why in the end she keeps with her writing, despite its dips, its obvious failures.
She says into a moment of silence, ‘This might be a bit naff, but I work with kindergarten teachers, and this teacher doesn’t seem to be at all like New Zealand kindergarten teachers. Perhaps in Europe they are more sophisticated, more worldly?’
The group laughs, but for her the question is serious. The kindergarten teachers she knows, from the trade union where she still works, are disheveled, exhausted women — dressed in colourful easy-wash clothes, highly sociable, kindly people.
The speaker says for him the teacher is a very true portrait.
Another student, a new-entrant teacher taking a year out to write a memoir about autism and ADHD, makes a comment about the moment in the story where the teacher reflects on how she smacks the children, ‘lightly’.
‘That stopped here,’ she says, ‘in 1982.’
‘Well, I was smacked,’ says the speaker, and the conversation moves on.
The student who first asked the question about the teacher, who is of an age with the speaker, is quiet. She recalls a comment made to her about teachers — that until the 1970s, teaching was one of the very few jobs open to women, along with nursing, so all the clever women became teachers, even those who weren’t suited to it.
The speaker has begun to read one of his own poems, called ‘Fairy Tale’:
It struck me I was exactly the person
to write the life of the pink shopping bag
on the triangular intersection below
He rubs his eyes, the legs go in and out, the students ask questions about lines, certain words. The sunshine, which had been tinkering around the room’s large windows, fixes itself through two panels of stained glass — bright colours in a pattern of rectangular boxes, a tapa-cloth motif, the initials of a benefactor, RS, entwined.
The speaker leans forward in his chair, collapsing over his knees. He hasn’t written anything in fifteen years, he says, no new poems. When he was eighteen, he realised he wanted ‘to be a man of letters’, like his father. The reviews, translations, teaching were all to be a part of that, the poetry would have to fight its way out, if it was strong enough it would emerge.
He says, ‘It’s rare to have a real conversation. There are only two or three I remember.’ Mild surprise ripples along the row of students. ‘I’m very grateful to a man at the London Review of Books. We were at the Review’s Christmas party. He said, “Don’t worry about not writing, that happens.”’
He looks at the students, the lecturers. He sighs. He reads another poem that ends:
as often each hugging his edge of the bed, lying three or four
wrestling with ourselves and our doubts and miseries, and you
awkwardly, unexpectedly, apropos of nothing much: ‘Do you
think I’m real?’
The time is up. The student who came late is first out the door, already hunting in her bag for keys, mobile. Other students drift toward the front, they’re going to look at his books. Ask more questions. The lecturers smile at the speaker, move closer.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jane Blaikie completed an MA at the IIML in 2012 with a poetry folio titled ‘The Neurology Department’. Its opening section is about the Wellington artist, designer and gallerist Dave Kent who was diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease in 2009. Lines in the poems in italics are taken from notebooks that Dave has used to communicate with by writing after he became mute.