Sunlight and Seamus Heaney

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Seamus Heaney (St Seamus) has died.
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I didn’t meet him, until 1999, when I slipped at the last minute into the undergraduate Poetry Course at Victoria University. My first notification told me that I had ‘missed out’ and they listed the 12 names of the chosen ones. It felt like the Last Supper with Greg O’Brien at the top table and me, with no invitation. And then, one Saturday morning, unexpectedly, a phone call from the poet Greg O’Brien. I was, at the time, working in the recruitment industry and unbeknown to the poet Greg, I was imagining he must be the Greg O’Brien from the recruitment industry.

Greg had phoned me to say he loved one of my poems. It was a warm-up to explain that I was now being invited to the Last Supper. You see, one of the ‘chosen’ twelve had turned out to be a non-starter… I can’t recall exactly, but I think she hadn’t even submitted a portfolio.

It was my good fortune.

And so, in those few life-changing weeks that I attended the Victoria University undergraduate Poetry Course – I think one of the first few… I met Saint Seamus. I also met Eavan Boland. I found my life forever changed. When I was running a book group and writing class at a local women’s prison, I found myself in awe, as a prisoner deconstructed Heaney’s ‘Bog Queen’ poem – good poetry crosses all social divides.

One of my favourite Heaney poems (besides of course ‘Digging’) is ‘Mossbawn 1.Sunlight’
This poem speaks to me of my own mother, also Mary, but she was called Molly.

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Instead of an outside pump, I see the woodshed, the kindling, the coal bucket and the roaring fire. I watch my mother apron-less, glide across the linoleum (the new linoleum that my Aunt ruined with her stilettos one Friday night when she turned up for our Catholic Friday night fish dinner). My Mum made her own batter, crisp, light and golden. She had tiny feet, size 3 shoes, and was as slender and light as plum tree branch. Her hair was a charcoal perm, she wore crimplene button-throughs, and her only accessory was a cigarette. Yes, she stood by the window, to look at the blue Richmond hills. The slung bucket was for coal. The tinsmith scoop was an old crockery cup that dipped in the flour bin. Flour dust trailed across the polished floor to the bench where she rolled pastry with a lemonade bottle. She had biceps the size of a downtown gym membership, earned from beating the butter and sugar by hand. I wrote a poem about this http://www.maggieraineysmith.com/cms/node/28

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Yes, I love Seamus Heaney’s poetry. It speaks to me of my Irish ancestry and my own Kiwi childhood. The new apple green half-size fridge throbbing under the Bakelite blue radio. My Dad’s chair in the corner where his hair oil bubbled the paintwork behind him. Scones lighter than Nigella could imagine, sponges dropped on the hearth to prove (no sudden dips in my Mum’s cakes). The back door open with sunlight pouring through in the late afternoon. Doors open and closed to control the oven temperature – a window opened instead. Mid summer in Nelson and the coal range raging, the hot water cylinder rumbling like Ruapehu and then erupting and spilling over old red tiles (no OSH health and safety measures required).

Yes, I love Seamus Heaney – RIP. For Seamus and my Mum, Molly, July 16, 1974.

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It’s my best book

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I was clearing my mailbox in our local village this week, and bumped into a fellow writer. She is a published children’s writer. I hadn’t seen her in a while and so I commented. “You haven’t been to any meetings lately.” The meetings I was referring to are the local meetings of the Wellington Branch of the New Zealand Society of Authors. We host local writers as guest speakers and there’s a good sense of community and shared experiences.

“No,” she replied, “I can’t get my book published!” I was taken aback, and queried her. “It’s my best book,” she told me. She went on to tell me how writing is her raison d’être, and how she feels about rejection … well, I know how she feels, but there’s no point is there, I told her in hiding away. Yes I understood, but I was also less sympathetic than perhaps I might have been a few years ago. The fact is good writers are being turned down all the time by publishers right now, I told her… I tried to jolly her along, with tips for self-publishing (quoted Ted Dawe’s success with ‘Into the River’), spoke of EBooks, plied her with encouragement and as I urged her forward, I was barracking for myself as well.

And then on Facebook, I saw a link to this comment by the astonishing, grounded, super-talented, Man Booker Prize long-listed, Ellie Catton, answering this question for the Herald…”Are you an easily intimidated woman?” She replied:
No. In my experience intimidation is linked to competition in a fundamental way – people who are intimidated, or who consciously intimidate, are competitive in their attitudes towards others – and there’s no room for competition in literature. I do feel very impressionable, though, both as a writer and as a person.

And this set me to thinking about my conversation with my fellow writer in our local village. I know she felt very alone in her sense of rejection, as if only she could understand how awful it was. I think I used to feel like that, but I don’t any more. I recognise now, such things as what a privilege it is to be able to write (the time for one thing). And too, what an honour and privilege it is to be published. And, more and more, how many talented writers there are – what competition we face.

I love the quote from Ellie Catton and too, I admire her talent and modesty. But I disagree. Writing in itself is not a competition. But being published, having your book purchased, making the long list (and surely the short-list) for the Man-Booker is all about competing. There are judges, and they have to choose, and this is a fiercely literary sort of competition – high art – and how do you judge – but judge they do, and it is the very best writing we hope that will win.

Here in New Zealand I sense pride, I think we are thrilled about Ellie Catton’s success. But too, it’s partly self-interest. I suspect we imagine that her success will cast a glow upon New Zealand literature and that somehow the reading public will be more inclined towards us – yes, us (local writers) all of us, by association. But that’s not true, not really. Ellie’s triumph and her talent is all her own.

“It’s my best book.” This lament has stayed with me. I feel the same about my third novel. But there’s no point in lamenting or wailing, there is only the writing – and it’s either good enough, or not. It may have been good enough before the advent of the EBook and the closing of book shops, but now your manuscript will have to compete even harder – it will have to look like a best seller.

Ellie Catton’s runaway best seller debut ‘The Rehearsal‘, evidently sold… 3,500 copies in New Zealand. You’d expect a lot more wouldn’t you for an internationally acclaimed, prize winning novel? I imagine it has sold more internationally – I sure hope so.

No, literature is not a competition in the way that sport is, but if you’re going to cross the finish line (i.e. a published manuscript), then you’re going to have to compete. Nowadays it often begins with competition for a place on an MA course at a university. Well, just like being selected for the swim team, you have to compete in the trials and meet a certain standard. this means submitting your ‘best’ pieces of writing. Not all of those who get selected get published, but the odds are probably stacked in their favour… normally an MA course means a University Press with a vested interest in their own ‘product’ and why not?

And then, if you win that round and have a real book in a real bookshop, you’re competing with all the other beautiful books (oh covers do matter), and you are competing for readers, reviewers, or goodness me,stars on Goodreads…and on it goes. And unlike swimming or running, where you know what the world record is, in writing, you have no idea… and nor should you, other than your ‘own idea’.

You can be a Booker Prize Winner, but still not sell as many books as, well, er Dan Brown. I guess it depends what you’re competing for…but readers surely are the bottom line, or not…

My friend’s lament ‘It’s my best book’ may well be the lament of writers everywhere. And indeed it may be true, and that indeed that is all you can do – the rest, is up to the publishers, the readers and the judges. And all the best to Ellie – go team New Zealand!