Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Best New Zealand Poems 2009

Best New Zealand Poems 2009 was launched at midday today, which made me happy: it's becoming a key date in my reading year. I was in Uruguay when last year's version came out, but in 2008 I blogged about Best New Zealand Poems 2007 and compared this anthology to the Scottish version published by the Scottish Poetry Library.

Funny, then, that this year's editor of BNZP should be Robyn Marsack, the director of the Scottish Poetry Library.

Marsack, a New Zealander who left these shores in 1987, notes in her introduction that her selection comes from a particular place: "New Zealand viewed from Scotland", but has little to say about the actual poetry being written in Scotland.  Introductions for anthologies of this sort always follow the same recipe (a dash of 'O! the subjectivity', a pound of generalisation, a tablespoon of pet peeves, toss with liberal references to contributors and season with the best sources...), but one comment struck a chord:
"There are a lot of two-line stanzas out there, and sometimes that construction seemed quite arbitrary."  
This was a general criticism of New Zealand poetry circa 2009, but even BNZP09 is awash with two-line stanzas.  By my count 7 of the 25 poems present their wares in two-line chunks... So less than a quarter, but by far the most dominant type of verse here.  It's a relief to find something longer, like Louise Wallace's rhythmic 'The Poi Girls' or the rhyming quatrains (shock horror) of Tim Upperton's 'The Starlings'.

Just as it was with BNZP07, my initial faves this year were shorter poems, namely Elizabeth Smither's 'Two Adorable Things About Mozart', and Lynn Davidson's 'Before We All Hung Out in Cafes'.  I also really like Tusiata Avia's 'Nufanua Goes to Russia and Meets Some Friends from Back Home', which is longer (like its title).

But it's all online and you can quickly read all 25 and decide on your own favourites (from Robyn Marsack's favourites from New Zealand poets from 2009).  It's worth remember the restrictions, eh?  Coz if you like a couple here, then heck, you're bound to find more in the big wide world...

And while I'm talking about poetry, I should mention the burgeoning Tuesday Poem movement in Blogland Aotearoa.  See progenitor Mary McCullum's blog for details.  Basically, poet-bloggers are posting poems (their own or by others) on Tuesdays...

This, combined with my growing interesting in more rigourous structures in poetry (credit to Tim Upperton's A House on Fire and more recently Geoff Cochrane's villanelle, 'The Lichgate') leads me to my theme for April...

I hereby commit to attempt a villanelle, a triolet, a rondeau, a cinquain (though not necessarily in this order) this month and subject you to them.  A-ha!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

March's Reading in Review

As the Earth Turns SilverAs The Earth Turns Silver by Alison Wong (novel, NZ)

“She put down the lantern, suddenly wishing she’d blown out the flame. The hatpin. Her fingers felt thick, clumsy. She was pulling the pin from her hair, feeling that this was an extreme act of intimacy, like taking off one’s clothes, petticoat by petticoat, like being caught in moonlight naked. She dropped the hat, her hair falling over the back of her neck, over her face, felt his lips on her forehead, his hand cup and lift her chin, her mouth towards him…”

Yung and Katherine come from different worlds… after 144 pages, they rendezvous at the Basin Reserve in the middle of the night...

I once lived in an apartment overlooking Haining Street. I found it hard to reconcile this quiet side-street circa 2004 with the bustling hub of Chinese settlement in Wellington a century before. Wong’s novel deals with this era and features Haining Street prominently – so I came to the book with great anticipation…

But this is a historical romance at heart – not my favourite genre. No surprise then that I have mixed feelings. I respect many aspects of it, but can’t say I ever enjoyed it.

The Worm in the Tequila
The Worm in the Tequila by Geoff Cochrane (poetry, NZ)
See my review.

by Barry Hannah (short stories)
I blogged at the beginning of the month about Hannah’s death, and the fact I was two stories in to re-reading Airships. Well, I finished. I have to say, I remembered the collection differently. I still feel there are some great stories (‘Water Liars’, ‘Testimony of Pilot’…), but some I really didn’t care for this time around (‘Return to Return’ anyone?). The strength of the collection I remembered was its variety: the off-kilter realism of ‘Love Too Long’ to the the dystopias of ‘Eating Wife and Friends’, and ‘Escape to Newark’; the Civil War-era gore-fests (now I know what Wells Towers ‘Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned’ from the collection of the same name reminded me of) and the similar-but-different stories about, or tainted by, Vietnam. But there are some bum notes. And is it wrong that I’m now bothered by the frequent use of the ‘N word’ and all those race-y questions? Surely I’m just being oversensitive and should trust it was Hannah’s intention to disquiet and discombobulate… but still.

(This is why I don’t re-read a lot of books.)

The Faber Book of Contemporary Australian Short Stories edited by Murray Bail (short stories)

I lived in Australia for almost four years and yet I could probably count the number of Australian books I’ve read on my fingers. (Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus is one of them).

So it’s something I’m conscious of, but I’m not exactly being systematic about addressing my near-ignorance of Australian fiction. This collection dates from 1988, the year I started primary school, so let’s asterisk the ‘contemporary’ in the title. I picked it up at the bookfair at TSB Arena back in September, along with The Penguin Book of Modern Canadian Short Stories (1982).

I enjoyed some stories in Bail’s selection. It is probably more telling about my perverse taste that the most memorable story for me was Dal Stiven’s ‘The Wonderfully Intelligent Sheep Dog’, about a kelpie with superhuman (let alone supercanine) abilities. The story is formulaic, lags in parts and is beyond laughable in others, but sitting as it does amongst serious story stories, this yarn is both a breath of fresh air and captures an aspect of the Australian experience (if there is such a thing) that its contemporaries did not.

Road Trip: Cape Palliser

On Saturday, M. and I crossed the Rimutakas and headed south... as far south as you can go in the North Island in fact.  Twas a great day.  Here's some pics:

Palliser Bay and the Orongorongos

Boats and dozers at Ngawi

Fur seals (kekeno) at the North Island's largest seal colony

A bird (grey warbler? a stray brown creeper? the suspense is killing me) at the North Island's largest seal colony

The lighthouse at Cape Palliser

Sunrise this morning (to show the other side of the Orongorongos...)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Beyond Those Wild Dreams

I went to the Royal Society of New Zealand's Rutherford Memorial Lecture last night, delivered by Martin Lord Rees, President of the Royal Society of London and Astronomer Royal. The topic was 'The World in 2050', and it packed out the Wellington Town Hall but didn't quite bring the house down.

Lord Rees spent a lot of time on the risks: global warming, pandemics, overpopulation, diminished genetic diversity… presenting each topic clearly and concisely without saying anything new. There were brief moments when his topics ranged into murkier, more exciting waters, such as the suggestion that the world might be able to support 20 billion people (current population around 6.7 billion) if we all lived in tiny apartments, ate rice and only travelled in virtual reality (I think South Korea meets Demolition Man). Or when he suggested that perhaps we were reaching the analytical limits of the human brain to try and answer the remaining unaswerables about the universe - after all, our brains evolved to support omnivorous bipeds on the African savannah and it is incredible we've come this far. Lord Rees suggested that computers were likely to continue to push science forward, new discoveries would continue to be found, and that the prize would still go to the scientist in charge of the computer, in much the same way that Olympic medals in Equestrian go to the rider rather than the horse.

So there was definitely some food for thought (amidst all the ricey requisites). But I wonder what would happen if you gave that topic to a less eminent scientist (one for whom bold predictions are unlikely to sway government policies or be quoted back to lecture halls in future eras as proof of his eminent wrongness), and let them run with it.

(Perhaps what I really want is to go to a writers festival with science fiction writers on the bill…)

For those that are interested, and missed the lecture, I believe Radio NZ will replay it on Easter Sunday.


In January I blogged about heading into the bush on Tinakori Hill to look at Pohutukawa/Rata. Well, with a bit of tweaking I turned that experience into a travel story of sorts, and it managed to get me a Highly Commended in the AA Directions Magazine New Travel Writer of the Year category at the Cathay Pacific Travel Media Awards, announced last night.

You can read my story here.

I felt a pang of jealousy when I skimmed through the winning and runner-up stories (set in Bulgaria and Argentina x2); an I could have done that! moment, having done the European and South American backpacking thing. But the fact is I didn't write about that, and am still chuffed with my Highly Commended.

Wouldn't it be sweet to be paid to travel and write about it?   *quietly stuffs down this thought and replaces it with a calculation of how long it will take him to iron his shirts for the rest of the week*


While we're talking about wildest dreams… I twittered this the other day, but Owen Marshall (yes, the guy I devoted the month of October to here at This Fluid Thrill) will supply a blurb on the back cover of my debut short story collection, A Man Melting. At one stage I felt like the back cover was a bit empty, and the designer humoured my requests for puddles and pigeons, but a nice blurb beats them all.

(I've read many derogatory articles about blurbs -- like this one from the Guardian Online -- in my time, but blurbing isn't as prevalent within New Zealand fiction releases as it is overseas, so hopefully it won't seem tired and empty. Heck, I don’t even care if O.M.'s blurb is a value adding proposition or not: I feel like a kid who just got a certificate in front of the whole school, and I'm damned sure gonna put it up on the refrigerator when I get home.)

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Worm in the Tequila by Geoff Cochrane

The Worm in the TequilaAcetylene (2001)
Vanilla Wine (2003)
Hypnic Jerks (2005)
84 484 (2007)
Pocket Edition (2008)
The Worm in the Tequila (2010)

Geoff Cochrane has been churning out a new poetry collection every two years or so for the past decade (note: his output stretches back to the Seventies). In each you’ll find poems about his time as an alcoholic, and the years teetering on the wagon since. These aren’t the only kinds of poems Cochrane writes (far from it) but they are, I suspect, the easiest to write about.

With a title like The Worm in the Tequila I was expecting more poems about alcoholism, and the collection certainly doesn’t confound this. Early on there’s ‘Three Songs’, which takes us back to the Duke of Edinburgh pub, circa 1972, and ‘The Rooming House’, where the poet, “drank and drank my plonk / a little at a time, / like a student of something large and long”.

Pocket EditionBut something has happened in the poet’s life since 2008’s Pocket Edition. It began with, “a week of the most tremendous thirst,” (as explained in ‘Flesh and Blood’, ostensibly a letter to the poet’s brother). Diabetes quickly establishes itself as the collection's other theme, and provides a perfect foil to all the poems about alcoholism. The disease and the addiction are blurred, conflated, confused from the outset:
I minister to myself… NovoPens and testing-strips and knowing little meters: these are my consecrated instruments…
…my alcoholic past comes back to me too when I consider the matter of the jelly beans.
(‘The D Word’)
In ‘Bitter Suite’, the poet proclaims, “I’ve begun to consume myself, / Begun to burn the furniture for warmth…”
I make a tidy list
of the new foods in my life
(the things I’ll never eat)
and my squared mind can bask
in order’s white effulgence,
the blur of its warm white room.
Diabetes, it seems, is about kicking another habit. But where the poet often mourns the loss of a community of drinkers (like the busker keen to write his biography in ‘Robin’), diabetes gives the poet entrée into another “cult” (albeit a “phony, plastic, made up” one), a place where he must pay regular visits to nurses, doctors and Korean Kim the pharmacist, and write letters to relatives informing them of his diagnosis.

The poet’s present infirmity also leads him back to past ailments, such as his childhood asthma in ‘Black’.
(I should have been drowned at birth.
My asthma set me up for alcoholism.
Set me up for wanting to seem
tougher than I was.)
Diabetes -- the revolt of the body, the onslaught of mortality and similar poetic overstatements -- also lends a greater meaning to passages about alcoholism that could have just as easily appeared pre-diagnosis:
I’ve lived through the age of rat and rot
And wearing rags to court
And wearing rags to funerals.
(‘Ages and Ages’)
The majority of the poems in The Worm in the Tequila shirk the archetypal poem in some way. Some are only three or four lines long. Others consist of several snippets separated by stars, dashes, dotted or straight lines, and united beneath a title such as ‘Fragments #3 to #5’ or ‘Lines in Purple Ink’. Others chose prose over verse: ‘Ringing O’Hara’ is a six page short story that just happens to come two-thirds of the way through a poetry collection.

This is not to say Cochrane can’t write within poetic forms (‘The Lich-Gate’ is a killer villanelle), or stick to the same topic for more than three stanzas. Indeed, when the next editor of Best NZ Poems is rifling through this collection, it will probably be poems such as ‘The Lich-Gate’, ‘Ages and Ages’ and ‘For One Night Only’ that make the short list. But, when looking at The Worm in the Tequila as a collection, and a reflection of Geoff Cochrane’s last eighteen or so months, I am forever grateful that he lets himself run the gamut of thoughts and forms.

As Cochrane says in the first section of ‘August: A Broadsheet”: “Every morning I man my station. / Man my station, take down what I hear.” We then get short sections about the “flit and yellow flash” of finches, the “pharmaceutical detritus” in his ashtray, the colours of Matisse, and “the tar-black hulks” whistling in the night. The connection between these sections, of course, is the poet, and the poet is very much Geoff Cochrane.

AcetyleneSeveral poems in The Worm in the Tequila make this explicit. In ‘For One Night Only’, a friend rings to say, “he’s reading Acetylene” [Cochrane’s 2001 collection]. Later, Cochrane admits: “I’m hungry for a druggy drug-debauch. For one night only, Geoffrey off his face.”

Cochrane is at the foreground of so many of the poems in this collection (and those that have gone before) that there is both a pleasing comfort in the reappearance of certain places and characters that have come before (the Duke of Edinburgh; his father), and a thrill in the things that have changed. For one, it seems Cochrane has moved from Berhampore to Miramar, the poems now take place in and around Crawford Green, Acropolis Fish Supply, the Four Square in Strathmore, “the swish and sizzle of the airport’s wet tarmac.”

While Cochrane as poet and poetic focus ties together the fragmentary poems, the collection as a whole, and his poetic oeuvre, it is a disservice to keep telescoping the analysis out to the biographic, the generalities of career and collection. The true joy of reading Geoff Cochrane is in the lines.

It’s the wry Zevonesque ending of ‘For One Night Only’:
Oh for my old comforters.
Oh for my old friends
Digesic Hemineurin Prednisone.

It’s the music in the second section of ‘Some Last Words’
The junkyard lacks a junkyard dog.
The red-and-yellow circus
is missing certain bulbs
It’s the feeling that, while Cochrane may man his station everyday, there is a great poet taking down and mediating what he sees and hears. And while it seems addiction is never licked and Cochrane has ceased to believe in his “own inner soundness and good order,” it seems he’s far form exhausted, physically and poetically.

If anything, this is the most resolute we’ve ever seen him. After pocketing the 2009 Janet Frame Prize for Poetry, Cochrane considers a trip to a foreign metropolis:
But what if I got stuck
In some congenial bar?
Better perhaps to stay put,
Inject my insulin,
Buy myself a sturdier table.
(‘Prize Money’)

Thursday, March 18, 2010

:: Gulp ::

I had the privilege of speaking to a night school short fiction class this evening.  They all seemed in to it (writing) and on to it (ur, life).

Only one hiccup...

They'd been given a copy of my story 'Copies' the week before, and I was asked to read a passage from it.  Fine. I knew about this in advance. I had my copy of Essential New Zealand Short Stories with me (I wasn't about to pass up my first chance to give a reading from an actual book rather than an A4 printout). I chose to start at the beginning, but what did I find in the fourth paragraph?  Yup, a typo.

"One of his first projects was copying of the photo of the Mona Lisa..."

Damn you, Rogue Of.

When I got home just now I ran to my bookshelf and pulled out my copy of Best NZ Fiction #5, where 'Copies' first appeared...

Double damn you, Rogue Of.

How many times did I read over this blunder?  How many other people missed this before it went to print (twice)?  Worse: how many people have picked this blunder up since it was unleashed upon the world...?

Take a breath.

This isn't a biggy. What's done is done, and all that.

The problem, though, was that I've just handed back the final proofs for my short story collection, A Man Melting, which includes 'Copies' (round round get around, it gets around).  Have I just blundered in triplicate?

Panic.  I don't have the proofs, how can I be sure...

I opened up the word document for my collection, already composing the hapless, panicked email to my editor in my head, but what's this...

"One of his first projects was a photocopy of the photo of the Mona Lisa..."

Still two Of's, but neither is rogue.  Hurrah.

I don't know when I changed this sentence, or why.  I never went from my Word file to my bookshelf looking for a grammar bungle... I'm not even sure about the doubling up of 'photo' in the revised sentence... but it's grammatically correct (hurrah), if a bit cumbersome.

But maybe I'm reading over some other error.  Maybe the sentence was changed from the Word file I submitted to the final proof...

Heck, this is only one sentence of 7,000 in my collection.  There's bound to be more slip-ups. Alack, alas, ah well.

I just hope one doesn't pop up during a public reading again.

Monday, March 15, 2010

I Saws

I saw the unlinkable orange sunrise, then I went to work.


I saw Martin 'Marty Two Toes' Guptill walking down The Terrace today. He was wearing jandels but I didn't think to look at his toes until he'd passed me.


I saw this article about an American who wants to be the world's fattest woman. "She has a weekly food bill of $750, which she funds by running a website where men pay her to watch her eat fast food..."  You stay classy, humanity.


I saw Mark Twain and Me in Maoriland this evening as part of the festival.  It's a real genre mash-up, asking a lot of the cast (karakia, two-man banjo, accordions, accents, sound effects, dance, stand up...), but they delivered. Review here.


I saw the unlinkable orange sunset and I went to work.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Seeing the sights... anew

It’s no secret I’m on a mission to learn more about this fair country, the one I chose to return to. In January I documented my first forays into a deeper knowledge of New Zealand’s native flora and fauna. But I’m also interested in the history of this place.

The two are interlinked.

After I ventured into the bush on Tinakori Hill in search of pohutukawa and rata, I also looked up the history of the hill.

When walking around Island Bay, I noticed the spelling of Houghton Bay (“Haughton Bay”) on the band rotunda and did some digging to find out if this was a typo or the spelling has changed over time (this).

But some weeks I can walk around blissfully unaware of the questions I should be asking about this place I’m in.

I’ve discovered a tonic for such complacency: spending time at the Mt Victoria lookout.

On Saturday M. and I walked from Mt Albert (as in Queen Victoria’s hubby) along the Southern Walkway to Mt Vic (and back – oh yeah!). There was a lot of interesting stuff along the way like the back of the zoo ( we saw baboon, African hunting dogs and giraffe), Truby King Park (an interesting history in itself), and the mountain biking nationals on the slopes of Mt Vic. But in 10 minutes at the summit, I compiled a list of things I needed to learn more about, all by eavesdropping on other people’s conversations.

Some were clearly locals (or British subjects who now call Wellington home) who were showing visitors to our fair city the sights. They’d point to the Basin and say, ‘That’s where they play test cricket,’ then go into a long story about how the founding fathers (his term) of the city planned to carve a canal from the waterfront to the Basin (an actual sinkhole back in the day) along where Kent and Cambridge Terraces are now. I remember reading this somewhere, but seeing it from Mt Vic made it sink in for good.

There was also a real kiwi bloke who was, I suspect, running a mini-van tour. I listened to him explain how Miramar was an island, and up until 1855, it was only a sandbar that ran from it to the mainland. That what is now Kilbirnie, Rongotai, Evans and Lyall Bays has all been reclaimed in the last 150 years. I’m quoting this guide now, and haven’t looked into how correct his dates are. That’s on my to do list.

Aside: The other day I was listening to the radio on the way on from work and the two DJs had the most inane conversation about what the Japanese word Tsunami translates to in English, and whether there was a difference between a tsunami and a tidal wave. It would only have taken them 10 seconds to find on the internet, but they managed to generate a couple of minutes of “content” from their ignorance before I changed the station in frustration. I know that I risk doing the very thing that turned me off by talking about my own ignorance, but let me plead my case. The purpose of this blog post is not to generate content with the least amount of effort (a la the ignorant DJs) but to A) alert readers to ways in which they might awaken, reawaken, or heighten their interest in their own surroundings and B) track my own response to being back in New Zealand after five years (of and on) away.


There were also clusters of tourists without local friends or tour guides up the top of Mt Vic, and their conversations were often as compelling. They’d point at buildings or streets or islands in the harbour and lunge for a name, perhaps in the hope of triangulating their position. Most of the time I knew the names of the landmarks they discussed, but not always. What’s the name of that observatory up passed Brooklyn? Is it an observatory or a spybase? Wait, don’t tell me, I’d like to find out myself…

Ah, I mean the radar transmission station on Hawkin’s Hill. Sounds like I’ve got my weekend walk sorted.

Barry Hannah 1942 - 2010

Sad news via the Guardian
Acclaimed US author Barry Hannah, who won the William Faulkner award for his debut novel Geronimo Rex in 1972, died on Monday, age 67.

Barry Hannah is one of my favourite writers; I'm particularly fond of his short stories.  In fact, I was three stories into re-reading his 1978 collection 'Airships' when I heard the sad news.

AirshipsThere's even a tribute to Hannah in my forthcoming short story collection, A Man Melting. After reading Hannah's story 'Getting Ready', the main character in 'Fat Camp' attempts to fashion his own stilts and wade around his local lake...

Re-reading 'Airships' now takes on a different significance, and also bumps a few more of Hannah's books into the re-reading pile.

Monday, March 1, 2010

March Theme: Choose Your Poison

Depending on your outlook, my theme for March is either The NZ International Arts Festival or my own frugality. I plan on attending as many free events as I can (see list below), but can only afford to go to the other shows if I manage to get $20 tickets. (The Festival has introduced a new initiative this year, "Tix for Twenty", where 10 tickets for each show are held back and sold for $20 on the day of the show to lucky/patient people at the booth in Midland Park).

The main focus of the festival for me is always the Writers and Readers Week. This year the standard sessions (60-75mins duration) are $18 plus a booking fee. There are some sessions that tempted me at theat price, but they are mid-week during work hours… I understand the economics of putting on a book festival with international authors, etc etc, but I do feel priced out of a situation where I can discover new writers. I guess I'll just have to stick to buying and reading books!

But the Festival (especially the book week) are to be commended for the number of free events (at times outside working hours!).  My booky highlights:

Monday 8 March - Once Upon A Deadline (all day around Wellington, with a read-off at 6.30pm in the Town Hall).
Wednesday 10 March - Poetry Reading, featuring Glyn Maxwell, Kevin Connolly, Kate Camp, Geoff Cochrane and Ian Wedde (5.15pm, Embassy Theatre)
Thursday 11 March - VUP Publisher's party (doubles as the launch for new poetry collections by Geoff Cochrane, Bill Manhire, and Kate Camp (6pm, Exchange Atrium, 22 Blair Street)
Friday 12 March - Telling Stories session, featuring short story writers: Anna Taylor, Charlotte Grimshaw, Lisa Moore, Joan London and Fariba Hachtroudi (5.15pm, Embassy Theatre)

There's also a bunch of visual art exhibitions (free) around the city which I hope to check out.