30 October 2008

Book Review: AUP New Poets 3

The books in the AUP New Poets series are an interesting hybrid of a collection and an anthology: they consist of selections of 20 pages or so by three different poets, brought together under one cover. AUP New Poets 3 brings together sets of poems by Janis Freegard, Reihana Robinson and Katherine Liddy.

So, rather than reviewing the book as a whole - except to say that I like it and think it's well worth reading, which is the first and most important thing to say - I will review each poet's selection in turn. In the interests of full disclosure, I should say here that I know Janis, and had the pleasure of hearing her read some of the poems in her selection at the book's Wellington launch; I've never (so far as I know) met Reihana or Katherine, although it's Reihana's painting that adorns the cover of JAAM 26.

Janis Freegard, "The Continuing Adventures of Alice Spider and Other Tales"

Janis's selection consists of two sequences of prose poems, "Animal Tales" and "The Continuing Adventures of Alice Spider: A Selection", and several other individual poems. Janis's style is mostly unrhetorical and ironic, with a surface lightness concealing varying depths. The things I like most about Janis's poetry are her precise, apt, and unusual word choices, and her humour. Her style striked me as being not dissimilar to Bill Manhire's - and Bill Manhire is one of my favourite New Zealand poets.

Out of all these fine poems, the final stanza of "The Liking" showcases what I like so much about Janis's poetry:

Today when I woke
I wrapped daybreak round my waist.
I expect she's awed by my
dawn brightness
my few clouds
a kingfisher on the power lines.

Reihana Robinson, "Waiting for the Palagi"

Reihana's selection contains a number of individual poems and then a sequence entitled "A Hum for Pitkern". The words "A Hum" always remind me of the Winnie the Pooh, but the tone here is very far away from A.A. Milne's whimsy, as the poems uncover the violence that underlies Pitcairn's origins, the hard labour of life on that isolated rock, and the shameful sexual violence that has had Pitcairn so much in the headlines in recent years. The sequence circles the island and its history, jabbing at it from unexpected angles. I think it's very good.

Of the individual poems, I especially enjoyed "Noa Noa Makes Breakfast for Caroline and Me" and "Waiting for the Palagi". Once or twice, Reihana uses words which I think are hard to make work in a poem - 'immortality', 'portentous' - abstract nouns which, for me, detract from the immediacy and vividness of the rest of the poems in which they are embedded, especially when they're used to conclude a poem. That's my only, small, complaint.

Katherine Liddy, "A History of Romance"

I found Katherine's selection the hardest to get into, but I also found it rewards a second and a third look. "A History of Romance" is much more formal in tone and content than the other selections: after a tremendous opening poem about the Crab Nebula, it's a series of poems about mythology and history, moving forward through time to the present: the last few poems are less distanced, more overtly personal.

Most of the poems are rhymed. I have to declare a personal prejudice here: in modern English-language poetry (serious poetry, at any rate), I usually find rhyme distracting. In languages such as Russian, word endings vary according to the use of words in the sentence, providing a wide range of potential rhymes to the poet. In English, on the other hand, word endings are largely invariant, apart from plurals: whether it's "the cat sat on the mat" or "the mat sat on the cat", the spelling of 'cat' and 'mat' doesn't vary. This means that poets writing in English work with a smaller range of potential rhymes, and often leads to English rhymes appearing forced, or syntax being distorted to make a rhyme - whereas, in Russian, the word order in a phrase or sentence is almost irrelevant, as the word endings make it clear what function each word is performing.

I've already mentioned the opening poem, "Crab Nebula". This is rhymed, but such is the strength of the imagery in the poem, and the subtlety of the rhymes, that I didn't notice this until I'd finish reading it. By contrast, at the end of the first section of the "Delphi" sequence, this couplet distracted from my enjoyment of the poem:

Bronze statues line the way and oversee,
through the air thick with sacrifice, Delphi.

Given her formal abilities and her interest in the Victoria era, I would love to see Katherine Liddy emulate my hero among the Victorian poets, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and write more poetry in blank verse.

But despite this caveat, largely a matter of my personal preference, I find myself wanting to return to these poems to tease out their subtleties.

Three poets, then, with quite different styles, themes and concerns. It makes for an intriguing and rewarding collection.

26 October 2008

Downtuned to Nowhere: A Metalhead’s Journey. Part 2: Too Old to Rock'n'Roll, Too Young To Die

I posted earlier this month back about my long love affair, dating back to my teenage years, with heavy metal in general, and Metallica in particular. Very little of this has come out in my fiction, although I’m sure with a little more imagination I could do something about that:

- Darling, I —
- No, Celia, don’t say anything. Not now.
- But darling, I have to tell you. I can’t keep it a secret any longer. You see, I —
- What? What is it, Celia?
- I’m … I’m leaving you, Clive. I’m leaving you to go on tour as the new keyboard player for Lordi.

Brief Encounter was never like this!

In a classic case of the “return of the repressed”, however, what is absent in my fiction emerges in my poetry, in the form of poems about ageing rockers. Why ageing rockers? I think it’s because there’s something of both valour and pathos in the grizzled hero strapping on his wig of flowing chestnut locks, his armour of leather and studs, and his battered, trusted guitar one more time and going forth to do battle against the night. It’s like Tennyson’s Ulysses with a merchandise table.

In honour of ageing rockers, I present, in increasing order of the protagonists’ decrepitude, these three poems from my recent poetry collection All Blacks’ Kitchen Gardens.

An Adventure

He put his Steely Dan CDs
in a box under the bed
bought three pairs of baggy shorts
wore his cap backwards
learned to swear like Fred Durst
(or was it Kirsten Dunst? He could
never be entirely sure.)

Took to clubbing. He sought out
young women with black hair
(or auburn — almost anything but that particular
shade of bottle blonde)
and more money than good sense.

For a while it all went well.
With the little blue pills
bought cheap online
he gave them a good time
every time.

Then, in a private moment
one of his conquests
caught him listening to the Moody Blues.
When she spread the word
the good times were over. He hung up his cap
gave the shorts to charity
and subscribed to Sky instead.

Norah Jones or System of a Down

I'm visiting Lemmy from Motorhead.
"Lemmy," I say, "how did you get that
bass sound in 'The Watcher'?"
He shows me the fingering on his Zimmer frame.
He's forgotten most of Motorhead
but he's frighteningly lucid on Hawkwind.

Unasked questions throng my head.
Lemmy, who was your favourite band?
Lemmy, what drugs do they still let you take?
Lemmy, when did you start growing old?
"Lemmy," I say, "are you cold?"
He is. I wrap him in my coat.

Visiting hours are over.
I shake the maestro's hand.
The warts on Lemmy's ravaged face
stand out like sentinels
defeated by the beat of time.

There's music piped into the rooms.
It's Norah Jones or System of a Down.
I take my leave.
I brace myself against the cold.
I embody the presence of silence.

New Live Dates

It's a meat market in here.
Why girls as green as grass
Should dance to the songs of a man ten times their age
Climb on their boyfriends' shoulders
Throw their panties and their room keys on the stage
I'll never know.

They wanted to send me out backed by machines
Some guy in a booth somewhere, flicking switches.
I said no: give me a band, the younger and louder the better.
Let the old man have his Zimmer frame of noise
His crackling fire of guitars
His beating heart of bass and drum.

I've lived; no, not lived, let's say survived
To hear my music cut to pieces, used to sell
Everything from shoes to car insurance
Everything from fried chicken to retirement homes.
It doesn't matter: nothing matters
But the lights, the noise, the stage

And my women. I drink them up.
I leave them pale and drained.
In the morning, they don't know themselves
Waking with a shiver to the memory of pleasure
The scents of whisky and old leather
And the sound of curtains flapping in the wind.

22 October 2008

Updated: JAAM 26 is printed / Otago Daily Times review of Transported

Two bits of news: first, issue 26 of JAAM magazine, which I guest-edited, has now been printed. Sorry for the delay, folks! Contributors' copies will be sent out during the next week or so. I may be biased, but I think it's full of great stories and excellent poetry, some by writers already well-known, some by writers you will be hearing a lot more of in coming years.

It's an excellent idea to subscribe to JAAM, but you can also pick up copies of the magazine at the following bookshops, which have standing orders (list kindly supplied by Helen Rickerby):

* Parsons Bookshop in Auckland (26 Wellesley Street East)
* Time Out Bookshop, Auckland (432 Mt Eden Road)
* Unity Books, Auckland (19 High Street)
* University Bookshop, Auckland
* Women's Bookshop, Auckland (105 Ponsonby Road)
* Unity Books, Wellington (57 Willis Street)
* Victoria University Bookshop, Wellington
* University Book Shop Canterbury, Christchurch
* University Book Shop Otago (378 Great King Street)

Here's the cover, based around a painting by Reihana Robinson:

I love that painting!

In JAAM 26:

  • Poems by Amy Brown, Anna Rugis, Anne Harre, Barbara Strang, Barry Southam, David Gregory, Davide Trame, Dean Ballinger, Elizabeth Smither, Emma Barnes, Eric Dodson, Fionnaigh McKenzie, Garry Forrester, Harvey Molloy, Helen Heath, Helen Lowe, Iain Britton, Janis Freegard, Jennifer Compton, Jenny Powell, Jessica Le Bas, Jo Thorpe, John O'Connor, Keith Lyons, Keith Westwater, Kerry Popplewell, L E Scott, Laurice Gilbert, Mark Pirie, Mary Cresswell, Miriam Barr, Rhian Gallagher, Robert James Berry, Robert McLean, Robin Fry, Sue Reidy, Sugu Pillay, Theresa Fa'aumu and Trevor Reeves.

  • Short stories by Beryl Fletcher, Ciaran Fox, Darian Smith, Eden Carter Wood, Esther Deans, Helen Lowe, Jeanne Bernhardt, Lyn McConchie, Michael Botur, Michele Powles, Renee Liang, Suzanne Hardy and Tracie McBride.

  • An essay by L E Scott.

The second bit of news is that Mike Crowl's review of Transported has now appeared in the Otago Daily Times. Thanks, Mike!

19 October 2008

One Stop on a Whistlestop Tour

I've now run three author interviews on this blog, with Helen Lowe, Harvey Molloy, and Helen Rickerby. I have more in mind, but I haven't approached some of the authors involved yet, so I'll leave these a mystery for the moment.

What I can say, though, is that this blog will be one of the stops on the virtual book tour for Tania Hershman's short story collection The White Road and Other Stories. A virtual book tour is a more carbon-friendly version of the traditional author book tour. Instead of schlepping herself and her book from city to city, the author makes a scheduled series of appearances on blogs, with the blogger at each "stop" conducting a brief interview with the author.

My blog "Books in the Trees" is stop 6 on Tania's tour, although the order is a little unpredictable. Click on the cover of Tania's book to go through to the full details of The White Road and Other Stories and the tour - and check out the tour schedule below. (What would be really cool is a tour jacket like those that rock bands sell on their merchandise tables ...)

What links a café in Antarctica, a factory for producing electronic tracking tags and a casino where gamblers can wager their shoes? They’re among the multiple venues where award-winning writer Tania Hershman sets her unique tales in this spellbinding debut collection.

Walking the White Road: Tania Hershman on Tour Oct-Dec '08

28 Oct 2008: Keeper of the Snails

05 Nov 2008: Literary Minded: Angela Meyer

09 Nov 2008: Vanessa Gebbie’s News

18 Nov 2008: Sue Guiney: Me and Others

26 Nov 2008: Tim Jones: Books in the Trees

02 Dec 2008: Eric Forbes’ Book Addict’s Guide to Good Books

10 Dec 2008: Eco-libris

16 Dec 2008: Kelly Spitzer

23 Dec 2008: Kanlaon

29 Dec 2008: Thoughts from Botswana

15 October 2008

Ten Reasons Why Transported Makes a Great Present

Presents. We all need to come up with them from time to time: for Christmas, for birthdays, for other holidays. But what to buy? For many situations, the answer is short story collection Transported, by Tim Jones (which you can buy online from Fishpond, New Zealand Books Abroad (for both overseas and New Zealand residents), or Whitcoulls). Here's ten reasons why.

Teenagers: Although - or perhaps because? - Transported wasn't written with a Young Adult audience in mind, I've heard that it's doing well in high schools, among both boys and girls. So if you're looking to buy a present for that young man whom you wish would read more, or that young woman who has recently started writing short stories, Transported is the book to give them.

Adults: But just because Transported is a good gift for teenagers doesn't make it an unsuitable gift for adults. Transported is packed with adult themes and content. There's sex (discreet), violence (not too much), and language. In fact, it's nothing but language from the first page to the last.

Fun: Transported is fun. Don't take my word for it: listen to reviewer Mike Crowl, who says: "Tim Jones' Transported is a pleasant surprise. None of the tales have that kind of super-seriousness about them that's typical of NZ short stories. Instead, they're an intriguing mix of tongue-in-cheek, subtle humour, history turned inside out, and sci-fi".

Funny: It's not only fun - it's funny. There are jokes, quips, and jests. There is surrealism, absurdism, and plain old silliness. Reviewer Rosemarie Smith says: "The mix is clever and compelling, and though there may not be much riotous laughing out loud, there's many a quiet chuckle." So Transported is the perfect book for buses, trains and planes, where riotous laughing out loud won't go down well.

Proudly local: Transported is as New Zealand as the All Blacks, Lemon and Paeroa, and our banking system - oh, hang on a minute ...

But anyway, the contents include stories set in Southland, Fiordland, Dunedin, and Wellington. Palmerston North gets a look-in too. It's as New Zealand as a Tourism New Zealand billboard!

Confidently international: Tired of stories set in provincial backwaters? Ready to go exploring? Then take a trip to the Caribbean, Russia, the USA or even Dubbo. Investigate the inner workings of the Soviet Politburo, the Australian Tax Office, and the College de France. Meet famous historical figures such as Michel Foucault, V.I. Lenin and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Live a little!

Boldly outerspatial: Hard to find presents for the alien in your life? Cow tipping and rectal probing not really doing it for them any more? Then invite them to kick back and relax with tales that encompass election campaigns contested by talking kangaroos, eyes that work like telescopes, and how alien immigrants are received by the inhabitants of a typical New Zealand street.

Epiphanacious (not sure this is actually a word, but what am I, an author?): Everybody knows that proper short stories must include an epiphany, a still, small moment in which the protagonist experiences a moment of revelation about his or her life. New research reveals that 11 out of the 27 stories in Transported contain an epiphany. That's over 40% proper short fiction in one compact volume!

Value for money: Transported contains 27 stories, and its recommended retail price is NZ$27.99. That's only a dollar a story (apart from a few inconvenient cents which we can account for as "rounding error"). A buck a story? That's real value!

Readily available: Sure, you can buy Transported online, but it's also available in lots of New Zealand bookshops. A full list is here, and it includes Whitcoulls, Dymocks and Borders branches, Unity Books, and many independent booksellers, such as McLeods (Rotorua), Page and Blackmore (Nelson), and Wadsworths (New Plymouth).

So there you have it. Transported. You will be.

12 October 2008

An Interview with Helen Rickerby

Helen Rickerby is a Wellington poet, publisher (through Seraph Press) and blogger whose second poetry collection, My Iron Spine, has been released to considerable acclaim. I interviewed her by email to mark the publication of My Iron Spine.

First of all, congratulations on the publication of My Iron Spine. What can you tell me about the book, and where can interested readers find more information, and copies to buy?

Thank you. I’m pretty excited about this book coming out – it’s been in process for a while, and I’m quite pleased with it. Also, I think I’ll be able to move on now to the next thing.

About My Iron Spine: well it’s divided into three sections, the first is autobiographical poems, which are arranged, more or less, chronologically. The biggest section is the middle, which contains biographical poems about women (and one man – sort of) from history. Most of them are written in the first person, and some of them are rather long – the longest is 11 pages. The final section kind of brings the other two together – in these poems I hang out with various women from history – I go swimming with Virginia Woolf, party with Katherine Mansfield, knit with Minnie Dean, and so forth. That section is a bit lighter, with more fun poems. Running loosely through the whole thing is the theme of the ‘iron spine’ – things that constrict or suffocate us, but which also make us stronger.

You can get more info from the HeadworX site, and also I’ve blogged a bit about writing it and the process of putting it togther.

Where to get it? It will be in ‘all good bookshops’, which means most of the independent folks around New Zealand. It's now on Fishpond, but you could also contact HeadworX. And I have a bunch of copies to sell also, so you can always get one off me (helen.rickerbyATparadise.net.nz).

My Iron Spine is your second poetry collection, after Abstract Internal Furniture (2001). Without sounding too much like an essay question, in what ways are the books similar, and in what ways do they differ?

While I’m still very fond of Abstract Internal Furniture, I think that My Iron Spine is a step up in terms of my development as a poet. It’s more ambitious. I spent more time crafting the poems – tinkering with bits that weren’t working or could work better. I began to appreciate and use like alliteration and internal rhyme – which I’d previously been scared of – and I think the language is more playful. Also, it is more of a whole than the previous collection. It’s kind of hard for me to compare them – I’m sure I still have some of the same concerns, like the place of women in the world, and identity and stuff, and I suspect that the colour red features quite a bit in both.

I know you as a publisher, editor and blogger as well as a writer. Do you find that these different roles fit well together? Does your writing sometimes suffer because of the time and effort you need to put into the other roles (not to mention everything else that's going on in your life)?

My writing does seem to suffer in relation to everything else – my full-time job is probably the main thing that gets in my way, and I’ve had to figure out tactics to make some time and headspace for creative writing. And sometimes publishing, editing and blogging do take up the time I might otherwise use for writing. But I also find those other things enormously valuable.

My involvement in JAAM Magazine is the most longstanding thing, and that’s been really important in exposing me to the work of lots of writers, and making connections with some of them. My Seraph Press publishing is intermittent, so when I’m working on something it takes up a lot of time, but often I’m not. I’m very proud of the books I’ve published, and think they are all books that really should be out there in the world.

Blogging is quite a new thing for me – I only started my blog late last year when I suddenly realised that blogging wasn’t just a waste of time, as I had suspected, but that it was an informal but public outlet for writing about stuff that I’m into – like poetry and publishing, and writing generally. While it can take a bit of time, I’ve found it really, really rewarding. And I think it’s actually helped my writing, of prosey things at least – made my writing more fluent. When you’re writing a blog post, you don’t have the pressure of writing something more formal, which is quite a freedom. But writing things down also makes you think about what you’re writing about in a deeper way than if you were just thinking about it, or writing about it in a journal, or even talking about it. The other really important thing I’ve got out of blogging is a sense of community from writing and reading blogs – Wellington writing bloggers all seem very friendly, and I’ve also made some poetry blog friends overseas. And I’ve now met some of the more local folks in real life.

One of the things that strikes me about My Iron Spine is that it's a very clearly structured collection. Did you have the structure of the collection in mind before you wrote any of the poems, or did it evolve as you went along?

It evolved as I went along – it grew out of what I was writing. I noticed I’d been writing some poems about real people, and thought I’d write more. And then at some point I started seeing a structure, and then I wrote some more poems that fitted in with what I was doing. I wrote most of it in a year that I was fortunate enough to be able to take off work (pre-mortgage, you understand), and as well as writing, I was reading a lot of collections of poetry. And the ones that struck me the most were ones that worked as a whole, rather than just being a ragbag of poems, because they set up resonances that made the whole even stronger than its parts. It’s something I’ve become really interested in.

Also, I find it easier to write when I have a kind of poetic project – I guess in Abstract Internal Furniture my series of Theodora poems were a bit like that, and I’m now working on poems which are loosely based around ideas of cinema. It means you don’t have to start from scratch each time, and you can really explore and develop some ideas.

The middle section of My Iron Spine features biographical poems about a number of well-known women, and then, in the third section, the poet interacts with these women. Abstract Internal Furniture also features biographical poems. Why does writing biographical poems appeal to you, and what balance of research and imagination goes into them?

To be honest, I haven’t really thought about that – I’ve thought about why I’m interested in reading biographies, but not why I’ve enjoyed writing these poems. I’m really interested in people’s lives, and in biography, which isn’t quite the same thing as someone’s actual life – it’s an attempt to turn someone’s life into a coherent narrative. I guess a biography is to a person what a map is to place. I suppose these poems are like that too. I think I’ve enjoyed writing these poems because I enjoyed imagining the character, how they might sound. But mainly to interpret them, highlight aspects of their story or personality. I also like stealing ideas from elsewhere – possibly I don’t have enough of my own.

For some of them I did a lot of research, but I found that if I knew too much in the beginning, then in made it harder to make a poem out of it. I wrote some poems before I did research, and then had to alter them. There’s one in the voice of John Middleton Murry, Katherine Mansfield’s husband. I knew a lot about them both when I first wrote it, but then I read his autobiography, and then I rewrote it a bit, because I felt I’d been too hard on him. I’ve tried to evoke these people in ways that might be true, but there’s a lot of creation, especially about what they might have been thinking. You really can’t know.

Which poets have had the most influence on your work, and which poets do you most enjoy reading? (Of course, these might be one and the same.)

Sometimes they’re the same, and sometime quite different. For example, Scott Kendrick, whose work I’ve published, is one of my favourite writers, but we’re doing such different things in our writing – in style at least. There are very few poets that I know are influences on me – Anne Carson is one, and Margaret Atwood another, and I was trying to be influenced something in the style of T S Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’ when I wrote parts of ‘Empress Elisabeth’ – but I’m sure many others have been also. Sylvia Plath almost certainly. I’ve also very much enjoyed Anna Jackson, Jenny Powell-Chalmers, James K Baxter, Ursula Bethell, Vivienne Plumb, Dinah Hawken, Anne Sexton, Fleur Adcock, T S Eliot, Stevie Smith, Sharon Olds. You will notice that they’re mostly women, which isn’t deliberate, and many of them are people I know. I guess you put special effort into reading work by people you know, which I think is usually rewarded by getting extra out of it.

How about prose writers?

Again, Margaret Atwood, though I haven’t read as much of work in the last 10 years, because I overdosed by writing a masters thesis on her (‘Fairytale intertextuality in the fiction of Margaret Atwood’). Jeanette Winterson is a favourite, and her novel The Passion is a total inspiration to me. If I could have written any book in the world, it would be that one. Other favs include Douglas Coupland, Charles Dickens, Angela Carter, the Brontës…

What writing projects do you have on the go at the moment? (If you're prepared to talk about them, of course: I know I don't always want to talk about what I'm working on right now.)

The main think I’m working on is the cinema poems I mentioned earlier. I’ve written quite a few, but I feel like I’m still in an early stage with these. I’m hoping they will turn into a collection. Once I’d finished My Iron Spine I felt like I needed to go in a different direction, and leave the biographical/narrative poems for a while. I felt the same after Abstract Internal Furniture – I felt like I could write a parody of a Helen Rickerby/Theodora poem, and that it was time to write something a little different. Some of the cinema poems are still narrative, but others are more surreal or impressionistic.

A tough one to end on: if you had to choose three words to describe your writing, what would they be?

That’s very, very hard. I don’t think I know my poetry well enough from the outside to really be able to say. Last week someone I don’t really know, who had heard me read at the Winter Readings, told me that my poetry was like nothing he’d come across before (‘in a good way’ he qualified), and said it was intelligent. And one always likes to be thought of as intelligent, though I don’t always deserve it. Other people have said that my work is accessible, which also isn’t always true. I’d like it to be intricate, beautiful, layered, mythic, and so that’s something to aim for, and that’s more than three words…

09 October 2008

What Our Book Group Reads

I'm a member of a book group. Nothing unusual in that, I suppose. Our book group formed in early 2004. The group was formed by several parents of children in the same class at Kilbirnie School, plus friends, and though people have come and gone over the years, three of the founding members are still involved.

We're much like any other book group in many respects. We meet each month in the lovely house of one of our members - with occasional forays to other members' places - have a glass of wine or a cuppa, a piece of cake, and discuss that month's book, plus what else we've been doing, reading and watching. Books we all like, or books we all hate, don't provoke as much discussion as books we have mixed feelings, or a variety of opinions, about.

There's some things about our group that are a little different, though. For one, we've always had a roughly equal balance of women and men: at the moment, when all of us are in the room, there are four men and three women. For another, we read widely, in both genre and time. We've been back to the 19th century with Bram Stoker's Dracula and Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, and further back to the roots of the novel with Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote; then all the way forward to Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness. We've had excursions to Russia, Poland, and recently the Dominican Republic with Junot Diaz and his Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Although we mainly read novels, we've also read short stories by Jorge Luis Borges and Dorothy Parker, and a little biography and poetry.

And I know all this because one of our members, Richard, has kept a list of what we've read since 2004 (and what we've watched as well: there are many copies, and we have a plan). We've read many fine books, but of all of them, I think the best has been Plumb by Maurice Gee. I think it might be that legendary beast, the great New Zealand novel.

05 October 2008

An Interview with Harvey Molloy

Harvey Molloy is a Wellington teacher and poet whose first collection of poetry, Moonshot, has just been published - which made this a very good time to interview him by email.

First of all, congratulations on the publication of Moonshot. What can you tell me about the book, and where can interested readers find more information, and copies to buy?

Moonshot is my first book of poems. It's divided into two sections. The first 'Gemini spacewalk' explores space, the universe, and how space features in the imagination. The second section 'Learning the t' is down to earth and concerned with travel, particularly my time in Singapore, and family relationships. The book is orchestrated to follow these themes but some poems don't fit this pattern and I've included them because I like the poems. You can find out more about the book over at my blog at http://harveymolloy.blogspot.com and you can order the book from me from the blog.

Moonshot is your first poetry collection: a significant milestone for any poet. How long have you been working towards having this first collection published?

I started to write poetry again back in the mid 90s. In 2000 I moved to Singapore to work at the National University of Singapore. At this time I became interested in Asperger Syndrome, which is an autism spectrum disorder, and wrote some research articles in this area. After Latika and I finished our book Asperger Syndrome and Adolescence: Looking Beyond the Label, which was published in 2004, and moved back to New Zealand, I began to focus more seriously on the poetry. About four years ago I decided that I had enough poems published in different journals to put together a manuscript. So I guess I've been working on it seriously for four years or so although it’s been on my mind for around eight years.

They say “It’s tough oop North”, and if it is, the two of us should know, since you were born in Oldham and I in Grimsby. Though you’ve lived in many countries since then – the States, Singapore, New Zealand – do you think there’s a Northern English sensibility to your poetry?

Yes, I do. The northern sensibility comes through in the sound of the words. Living right on the Pennines also has a powerful effect: the northern landscape is incredibly varied: it's both ruggedly rural and horribly industrial all within the same borough. I think that there's a particularly Manchester sensibility: it's part humour, part gothic horror, and part self-parody. Lancastrian is the only accent that sounds as if it's mocking itself or refusing to take itself seriously whilst also sounding out the very roots of the language. And I also think there's a 'Lancastrian male hysteric' element in the culture; northern masculinity is very different and more feminine than the 'kiwi bloke' culture: you see this in Billy Liar, in Alan Garner's novels, in Amis's Lucky Jim, and in bands like The Fall, Joy Division, Magazine and The Smiths, etc.

We have something else in common: an interest in science, and in science fiction. I was intrigued and impressed to see that you’ve put the science and science fiction poetry up front in “Moonshot”, whereas in my books, it’s been tucked discreetly down the back. What made you decide to put this section first?

Part of this has to do with Helen Rickerby's advice. I sent an early version of the manuscript to her and she suggested that I organise my material more thematically and write more about space. Although all the threads were there until I had her help I couldn’t see the shape I wanted. I'm not that fixated on SF or space – the new work is different – but I am committed to what I very loosely think of as a SF or fantasy sensibility that I clicked on around age 12. I remember seeing J.G. Ballard on a BBC book programme when I was 13, talking about his novel Crash. It just reprogrammed me in much the same way that Alan Garner's Redshift changed my life. Garner's and Ballard's work aren't SF or fantasy but they are deeply concerned with 'psycho-landscapes' or unusual geographies. I wanted the astronomical poems up the front as many poets write about their families and their childhoods but few write about astronomy.

When I jotted down the recurring themes of this collection, the words “astronomy”, “history”, “geography” and “myth” appeared. Have I made them all up? Have I missed any? Why do these areas especially interest you?

No, I think that's accurate but "history", "geography" and "myth" are also connected with family life. I'm married to an Indian New Zealander and part of me lives in an Indian world and this hopefully comes through in some of the poems. In some ways, I think each individual is a culture with their own myths and I'm trying to explore some of these myths. But I'm also trying to include a variety of different voices and concerns in the poems.

Which poets have had the most influence on your work, and which poets do you most enjoy reading? (Of course, these might be one and the same.)

The following are a selection of poets I love to read and who have moved me: Hone Tuwhare, James K. Baxter, Elizabeth Smither, Sylvia Plath, Seamus Heaney, T.S. Eliot, Adrienne Rich (marvellous), Philip Larkin, etc. and I'm particularly fond of Alistair Paterson's Qu'appelle (talk about a SF sensibility: Wellington gets nuked!). Recent books I’ve enjoyed are Sue Wootton’s Magnetic South and Helen Rickerby’s My Iron Spine.

How about prose writers?

Alan Garner's an amazing writer and I think Neil Gaiman's brilliant: it's a pity that Gaiman’s film work doesn’t match his prose. And Samuel R Delany’s Dhalgren has a lot to answer for! I also enjoy reading good science writing and have wide ranging reading habits: I’m currently on the last chapters of George Eliot’s Middlemarch and next up will be Mary McCallum’s The Blue.

A tough one to end on: if you had to choose three words to describe your writing, what would they be?

On the line

01 October 2008

Downtuned to Nowhere: A Metalhead’s Journey. Part 1: Youth and Young Manhood

I listened almost exclusively to classical music until I reached high school. Musicals, and occasional outbreaks of the reel and strathspey in the capable hands of Jimmy Shand and His Band, were as ‘pop’ as we ever got, while at school, it was Alex Lindsay and His Orchestra who ruled the roost:

“Do you like to dance?”
Oh no, thought Robinson. Please, not that. Last night, he had run through a range of possible disasters, but he had never dreamed it would come to this. In Standard 3, the teacher, Mr Willis, had made them do folk-dancing. Mr Willis concealed an elderly record-player somewhere about his person and would, with the aid of a series of frayed extension cords, set it up in the playground. He would then produce one of a series of records by Alex Lindsay and His Orchestra, put it on, and order the children to line up in pairs and do the strathspey, or the springle-ring, or whatever other bizarre form of torture appealed to him that day. Mr Willis (for those were innocent times) would take the hand of some mortified girl and lead her through the required steps while the other children watched silently. Then he would remove the needle, return the tone arm to the beginning of the record, and watch as they shuffled around, with a hey-nonny-no and a tirra-li-li and a bow for Good Queen Bessie.

(From “Robinson in Love”, one of the stories in my collection Transported. Autobiographical much?)

Then, at high school, I discovered rock. It was 1973, and Deep Purple and Uriah Heep ruled the roost. Someone – it may have been Athol Fricker – had a record player which he was allowed to coax into life in the common room at lunchtime. I listened, entranced, to this alien music, and something clicked into place. I loved classical music then, and I still do now, but now I knew I had been born to rawk: and, though I like many genres of music, there’s nothing that stirs my blood so much as a crunching riff, a pounding drum, and a lead guitarist showing he* can play scales really, really fast – also known as “spanking the plank”.

In short, I’m a metalhead from way back.

The passion has waxed and waned: later in the 1970s, newly independent in Dunedin, I hewed to the line of the New Musical Express, at the time a haven of jejune postmodernism, and if it wasn’t punk or new wave, I was obliged to dismiss it (trying to pretend, as I did, that I felt no excitement as Chic and the Village People on the one hand, and Yes, Jethro Tull and Iron Maiden on the other). I was mainly into Thin Lizzy then, as they were one of the few metal bands of which the NME approved.

For most of the 1980s, the nearest I got to metal was the angular, cerebral progressive rock of King Crimson (although they do get pretty darn metallic at times). It was easy to dismiss metal then, for that was the era of “hair metal”, bands with all the heft and weight of Snowtex.

It took one video to change my mind. I was living in the Township of Gordon Housing Collective in Dunedin, and one flatmate, Louise, and another flatmate’s boyfriend, Eddy, would go on and on about how great this band of young Bay Area metallers, Metallica, were. Yeah yeah, I thought, reaching for the latest Dexy’s Midnight Runners album [check timing]. Finally, Eddy prevailed upon us to watch the video for Metallica’s new single, One. It was serious music played by serious young men. Fantastic music: tight, powerful, engrossing. I was hooked all over again. I worked my way through Metallica’s oeuvre (soon to take a controversial left turn) and discovered other bands like Megadeth and Pantera.

One of the marvellous things about metal is its variety of sub-genres – how’s this for a found poem? And in some respects, I’m stuck in the past, at the point marked “thrash metal”. Metallica took me with them when they changed to the more groove-oriented hard rock of Load and Reload. They made one of the best and most revealing rock documentaries you are ever likely to see, Some Kind of Monster – the classic being the cardigan-wearing therapist who pushes the band too far when he wants to start writing their songs — and one of the worst comeback albums ever released, St Anger. Now they are back with new album Death Magnetic, and on what I’ve heard so far, it’s a return to somewhere on a par with … And Justice for All (one parallel is that both Justice and Death featured a new bass player who is buried so deep in the mix as to be almost inaudible), and not too far behind their classic second and third albums, Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets.

That’s enough for now. More in Part 2 ... but let me leave you with Metallica’s finest moment, Fade to Black.

*Lead guitarists in heavy metal bands are almost always male. Why, when so many leading violinists (for example) are female? A number of reasons come to mind, sexism first and foremost. Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be that way. (The sound quality isn't great, but note the guitarist on the left. This band, Beneath the Silence, won Smokefree Rockquest 2008).