The author photo

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The author photo

 

Front on, full faced and smiling

at my age, is inadvisable,

I tried it this morning on my phone

alas without an airbrush and

undaunted, I tried again

 

something more serious, more

fitting of a writer perhaps, I

turned sideways, hoping my profile

would be interesting or mysterious

alas the phone has no filter

 

I was certain though, this could be

managed somehow with careful

placement of my head at the right

angle adjacent to books of course

looking authorly my glasses on

 

alas I blame my phone the camera

it’s tricky to get the perfect light

if I wait awhile it might come right

but wrong again, with every click

I’m forced to face the truth of it

 

That look, that sidelong interrogation

the mysterious faraway insightful side-on

almost smile but not so blatant with

chiselled chin and cheekbones eludes

both the phone, and my ambition

 

I’ll have to settle for the loving

Smile at me darling, you look lovely

From my beloved photographer

who doesn’t see my necklines

ignores my crooked mouth

 

and doesn’t understand when

I’m disappointed with the photo

he takes, me thinking there must be

a better version surely, and that

I could look authorly eventually

 

 

 

 

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Everything is here except Elvis

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‘Everything is Here’ by Rob Hack

 

I really like the profile on the Escalator Press website that says this about the poet…

Rob has lived in Paekakariki  since 2005, after a third attempt to live across the ditch. He has been an insurance salesman, greenkeeper , builder, personal trainer, gym owner, factory hand, gardener, shop assistant etc and currently works as a handyman, to buy second-hand poetry books, and petrol so he can visit his grandchildren each week.

There’s a nice anarchy here, the poet as an insurance salesman, which grabbed my attention immediately. And then there is the interesting fact that Rob was born in Invercargill but spent his childhood in Niue. It’s hard to imagine such a striking shift in landscape and indeed, the landscape is preeminent in his poems.

 

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Everything is Here’ is the title of his collection, a series of poems. The poetry is freighted with an emotional energy connected to family, milieu, place, and displacement. It speaks to a New Zealand childhood that I recognise. The poem ‘Canons Creek Four Square’ could easily be my home town of Richmond, but then there is disconcerting twist, the poet as an outsider.  The boy from Niue sent by his Mum to buy a tin of peaches. Innocuous, but powerful and nicely underplayed where racism is mollified with a lifesaver lolly.

The collection resonates with a spiritual thread from one sea to another across the Pacific and as far as Europe. It is a poetic memoir traversing connections to the two sides of his family.  They are snapshots into a life, or lifestyle, at times cinematic, but often leaving the reader wanting to know more. An example is a poem ‘High Noon in Avarua’ which feels like a second-hand local myth retold, handed down, and turned into a poem. And yet I wanted more, I felt I’d only glimpsed ‘Te Kope, the adopted son of the late Nui Manu’. At times, I was reminded at times of Tusiata Avia’s ‘Wild Dogs Under My Skirt’. ‘Blue Laws’ a list poem with fines for misdemeanours including, my favourite ‘If a man cries at the funeral of an unrelated woman $10.00’.

Another poem I really enjoyed with a fabulous long title is ‘James Cook couldn’t land and Elvis never sang on Niue’… which ends with a great three lines

Dad said, Elvis would’ve come to Niue

if he saw your mother dance

but he’d have to leave his hips at the door.

The poems have warmth and humour, they are easy but not light, warm and heart-warming. There is darkness written lightly.  Rob is a true bard. I’ve heard him read now twice (the first time at open mike at the Writers Symposium at the National Library) and then at Litcrawl. He has a strong presence as a performer and these poems lend themselves to the oral tradition. They have an anecdotal conversational air about them.

 

Katherine Mansfield and a bookmark

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Last evening, October 14, we celebrated the birthday of Katherine Mansfield. Nicola Saker, Chair of the local KM Society made a short and pithy toast, pointing out that as poor Katherine had so few birthdays and had the misfortune to be married to a man who often forgot her birthday – it behoved us to raise our glasses on this (if she’d lived) her 127th birthday. This celebration was also a special occasion to raise funds for the prestigious Menton Fellowship.

We were in the new Meridian Energy building – glass from floor to ceiling, looking out at the almost calm and very blue harbour. One of the red tug boats made a cameo appearance, but most of the time our eyes were on the objects being auctioned. My heart was set on a painting of KM by Seraphine Pick. Alas, the auction for this, kicked off beyond my bidding price. It was a real joy to see that it reached $4,000 even if I wasn’t the lucky buyer. I am both a friend and fan of Seraphine who is a most joyful down to earth and hugely talented woman. It was the first time, she told me, that she had been in a room when one of her paintings was being auctioned.

It was interesting to observe the room. These were people with deep pockets. We were drinking French champagne and eating dainty canapés. I love French champagne and I scoffed the stylish canapés to keep pace with my bubbles. When I say deep pockets, I mean people with the discretion to bid recklessly and generously to support the Menton Fellowship. It was a very flash version of the local cake stall in the village – a fundraiser. Kiwis are good at this. And in the arts, we are very good at this and we have to be grateful for people with money who want to support the arts. There were a few writers in the room, but not many.. We talked about this. It’s probably because most writers do not earn enough to bid recklessly at auctions, but are very grateful for the support of the residency.

The highlight for me was queuing at a table where three local poets, Bill Manhire, Greg O’Brien and Jenny Bornholdt sat, on demand, and for a donation, creating one-line poem bookmarks. Earlier in the evening Bill made a very warm and witty speech about the personal impact of the Menton residency on his sense of self as a writer. He then read a poem he was commissioned to write for Sir Ed Hilary on the 25th anniversary of the Erebus crash. A most poignant poem and yet such a tricky topic to do well. Manhire paid tribute to his time in Menton giving him the courage to tackle such a poem for such an occasion. As he was reading the poem, spookily, the super-duper air-conditioning unit re-calibrated making the sound similar to a jet’s wings adjusting.

I chose to queue and wait for Greg O’Brien because he was my mentor in the late 90’s when I undertook the Victoria University undergraduate Poetry Course – I think one of the first of the CREW series. It was an amazing time in my life. I was almost 50, my teenagers had left home and I was full of crazy doggerel. Greg managed to find the poetry in my wild scribbles. I’ll always be grateful for this doorway to a writing life.

The poets asked that you give them a hint or theme for the bookmark poem. I mentioned my character Artemis from my new novel due out soon to Greg for his drawing and to Jenny, I said that I will be getting my ‘gold card’ in November.

This is the beautiful bookmark that I received. I will treasure it. And don’t you just love that something so special can be created ‘on the spot’ by true poets and artists.

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Clive James and the humblebrag

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I’ve just listened to Clive James talking to Kim Hill. She mentioned the ‘humblebrag’ when he deferentially said ‘I’m a fairly ordinary story’ in response to questions about someone writing his biography. ‘Don’t’ forget, ‘he said, ‘sometimes reputations just melt away overnight.’ With further modesty he claimed that one of his main talents was his ability to concentrate and that he had a knack for a turn of phrase.

All I can do is turn a phrase until it catches the light.

He’s dying and so this conversation was about death and regret and about a poem too, that went viral when published in the New Yorker. It’s called ‘Japanese Maple’ about a tree his daughter gave him that is destined to outlive him – but he’s already survived longer than his poem about himself and the tree predicted.

I was struck by the difference in Clive James in conversation with Kim, and a time when I saw him at the Wellington Writers and Readers festival a few years ago. My first impression was great, because he was interviewed by Kate Camp who was an obvious devotee and she brought out the best in him. They had what I call a ‘love-fest’, where the interviewer as admirer creates what feels like a true and mutual intimacy in conversation. Alas, at the same festival, on a panel, he behaved boorishly and condescendingly and was embarrassing. It was as if he didn’t know how to share the limelight.

And so, I am interested in the humblebrag. It’s a tricky thing to achieve and I think writers in particular are quite adept at it. There’s the gorgeous stuff that only the very young can pull off whereby they claim not to care about fame, but draw attention to themselves all the same with their foxy protestations. Then too, there are blogs about rejection. It can sound like self-pity, or self-promotion. But it can also be superb. I recommend Paula Morris nominated for the prestigious Sunday Times short story competition, and her blog posting ‘Not Real Life‘ about daring to dream she might win.

I recently read somewhere that at age 20, we worry what other people think of us. And then at 40, we don’t give a damn what they think, and then at 60, we realise (thankfully at last) it wasn’t us they were thinking about after all. I like that very much and it’s such a gem of wisdom that you wish it was a vaccination.

Why am I writing this? Because I have a blog, and excitingly I have a new novel coming out in October. I wanted to draw attention to myself and to my writing. I needed a hook. Shamelessly I’ve used Clive James as my lure. It’s my version of the humble-brag.

And so I’ll end with a Clive James quote from his conversation with Kim Hill ‘Life is not a picnic – it’s not all laid out for you.’ But if it were, then where better than at our local beach to spread your picnic. (photo by John).

Days Bay, Eastbourne sunset

4th Floor Literary Journal

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4th Floor Journal

This week, I had the pleasure of participating in the live launch of 4th Floor journal. It is the first time that I’ve been able to attend the actual launch. It was upstairs on the first floor of the Wellington Whitireia Campus and hubby was nonplussed in the lift, having assumed the 4th Floor, meant the fourth floor!

Lynn Jenner was the guest editor for the journal and it was very nice to finally meet her. She was so enthusiastic about the work of all the contributors. I found myself sitting next to the fabulous Renée Taylor and in the very good company of Adrienne Jansen and Jane Blaikie, who were tutors at Whitiriea when I completed the Advanced Fiction Diploma some years ago.

Adrienne read her terrific series of poems titled ‘Local’ about her observations while catching the bus and developing stories for the characters she saw. It’s a delicious poem kicking off with the opening line

She balances the tray of eggs

on her fingertips, just like a waiter.

I particularly liked these lines from the poem ‘At the Exhibition’ by Jane Blaikie.

It’s as simple as that, although as must be clear

to us all by now that love and simple are unrelated.

Renée read from her poem ‘Outside the Sun is Shining’

I wanted to post an excerpt from Renée’s poetry here, but the blog format won’t let me scan the full line, so instead I will post a link so you can go right on over to the 4th Floor Literary Journal and read it for yourself (which is partly the point of this blog anyway).

I am a big fan of Renée’s writing and will never forget the performance of her play ‘Wednesday to Come’ at Downstage on the 20th anniversary of its first performance.

I love being part of this prestigious journal alongside such esteemed good company. This year the likes of Elizabeth Smither, Lynn Davidson, Pip Adam, Natasha Dennerstein, Vivienne Plumb and Mercedes Webb-Pullman, to name just a few that I know. Mercedes was unable to attend the launch and I had the privilege of reading two of her poems. I’m always enjoy poetry, so it was a pleasure.

Here’s a couple of lines to tempt you from ‘Are all the pilots down’

through dark clouds colder than ice

into the peace of stars

then vanish where all pilots go

finally home to the sky.

I also really like the poetry of Helen Lehndorf and had planned to post an excerpt from her poetry but alas, I seem unable to retain the right line breaks and so instead, I will send you over to the 4th Floor Journal to read ‘So much white noise’. I can’t resist quoting this perfect question from the poem…

and how can you trust a man without a story?

The most affecting moment of the live launch was the reading of the poem ‘Exceeding Expectations’. I urge you to go on over to the 4th Floor and read this evocative, heart-rending poem. It’s a father son kind of poem and written by Brandon Mehertens who is autistic and unable to speak – a friend read the poem for him. As a poem it sure packs a punch.

Lastly, there is my own poem. I’m very happy this year with my contribution. It is my very first sestina. I find that the villanelle and the sestina allow the writer to traverse tricky topics without becoming maudlin or over- sentimental. This poem, titled ‘Ngawhatu’, is about the psychiatric hospital in Nelson and my memories of it during the 50’s and 60’s – prompted by a recent visit to Nelson about which I have already blogged.

Here’s a teaser line or two for you:

if you’re not careful, shit a brick, you’ll end up there

What’s up there? But no one speaks, it’s all unspoken

get off the grass and up your arse with superstition

hoodackie, thingummybob, bite your bum thoughts

These lines were tweeted and a few of my friends made the comment that they couldn’t imagine these words coming out of my mouth – I rather like that – and yes they did!

Finally, it must be said, that the contributors owe a debt of gratitude to the Whitireia publishing team for all their work behind the scenes, tweaking, editing, putting the final touches to line breaks, mistakes and both querying spelling and author intent.

Kate Sheppard and a tinfoil mouse

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I recently read Penelope Lively’s ‘Ammonites & Leaping Fish‘, a thoughtful memoir in which she explores the meaning of memory and links moments in her life to precious objects, not valuable artefacts necessarily, but meaningful and even sentimental. Ian Wedde, too in his recent memoir ‘The Grass Catcher’ evokes memory through objects and the odours of his youth. The main object being the grass catcher. (Some of the odours he mentions are best left to be read about.) Although, I guess there’s probably not a Kiwi kid from the 50’s and 60’s who doesn’t remember the smell of freshly cut grass, and a hand mower with a canvas catcher. Or indeed, who doesn’t recall the whiff of two-stroke petrol when the family upgraded from a hand to a motor mower… and in your over-enthusiasm pulling out the choke, the mower flooded.

On reading these memoirs, I realised that my garden whenever I wander in it, evokes important milestones both happy and sad. It was over Labour Weekend, home alone with a broken wrist, somewhat sorry for myself, that I sat reading on our sunny deck and recalled it was my Aunt’s birthday.   That’s my deceased Aunty who would have been 94 this year. What made me recall her, was not just the date, the 25th of October, her birthday but that she would often come to stay with us for Labour Weekend and we would share her birthday. And that the cherry blossom tree that we built the deck around would be in full flower. Since then, we’ve chopped down the cherry tree – as it was taking up so much room on the deck but the memory of the cherry blossoms and my Aunt are intermingled.

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This prompted me to explore my garden and I found another blossom tree that forms an almost canopy on the lower part of our hillside section. The first year we moved into this house, our youngest son was six (he’s now 33) and we have a photograph of him standing under the flowering canopy with a chipped front tooth – memorable, because that very next day he was going to be page boy at the wedding of friends, fully decked out in matching tail-coat with his father who was the Groomsman. I remember being annoyed he’d broken his tooth. The couple who married, now have a daughter off to university next year. Whenever I look out our bedroom window in Spring and see the blossoms, I see our son with his chipped tooth, and then I remember our friends’ wedding anniversary.

Immediately beneath the blossom canopy is a very important memorial to our deceased cat Red who just happened to be a almost twenty year old black and white cat. Our granddaughter who adored Red, has made a pile of stones and shells in the garden as a tribute, and this includes a once shiny tinfoil mouse. The cat’s ashes are inside our house in a box, or are they? That’s another story, told in a poem and here is the link.

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Then there are my roses. They bring me both joy and a stab of grief.   Roses enjoy being hacked it seems. The possums last year were feasting on my roses, and so I cut them back savagely to pervert the possums – it seems the roses enjoyed this and they are looking positively radiantly ready to burst into many buds. This includes Kate Sheppard, named after the feisty Kiwi feminist whom we thank for the vote. My Korean daughter-in-law helped me plant Kate – a treasured gardening memory, all the more poignant as this year, she moves on to a new life, away from our family. No-one warned me that as a mother-in-law I could also have my heart broken.

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The Kate Sheppard Rose

The Kate Sheppard Rose

More violent and perhaps funnier, is the silk tree at our gate. One day, some years back now, after a fiery argument with my beloved, in fury and frustration, I attacked the silk tree – it was growing out over the path and obstructing the entrance. I chopped and chopped and snapped and attacked and I’m not sure what my neighbours thought. I felt bad afterwards and imagined the silk tree doomed, but it, like the roses, has thrived – but always to remind me of my tantrum.

Then there are the daisies that were once very fashionable in cottage country gardens. I tried slavishly to cultivate a cottage garden look to no avail. And then when we converted to a more coastal (but let’s keep the roses), suddenly the packet of seed that I sowed decided to grow. And now those daisies are considered weeds, but I allow them their rampancy as it only seems fair that they have tried so hard. They interweave with a beautiful old-fashioned red-leafed creeper with tiny mauve pom-pom flowers. The two fight for supremacy and I keep them both in check.

Too, as you enter out front gate by the almost demolished silk tree, there is a softly delicious smelling jasmine plant that entwines with the wildly fragrant honey-suckle. Both plants are now considered ‘outlaws’ as we live next to a native reserve… but the scent is so delicious of an evening that I cannot bring myself to be rid of them entirely. Inside our front gate are two Daphne bushes bringing their ‘lawful’ luxurious bouquet to our doorstep. Dare I mention my rogue (practically heretical) ginger plants. They look so striking and I’ve tried to strike them out. Alas, they resurge.

The last important memory is about our first day in this house. We inherited a beautiful old-fashioned garden and one of the main attractions were the pink water-lily dahlias. The previous occupant an older couple who had tended the garden for years with love and affection, slyly dug up some of the ‘considered rare’ dahlia bulbs and took them to their new abode. Due to landscaping and renovation, I no longer have any dahlias, but I know where they should be and they remind me of the key to the house, left in a glass bottle under the front veranda by the same elderly couple. And too the note they left us, filled with daily, weekly, monthly chores to be attended to, including the trimming and clearing of the zig-zag down to the road below. There’s a blackbird that comes to sing. We’ve named him after the dear old chap who lived here before us – although we’ve been in the house now for over 25 years, and I’m not sure how long blackbirds live…

Recently I posted a poem inspired by the tuis in our Kohwai tree. This tree was but a wind-blown seedling on the side of a clay bank that I was about to tear out while weeding when we first moved in. Something stopped me. It seemed wrong to not want a Kowhai, even though it was in the wrong place. The Kowhai now is a superstar where in springtime eight or nine tuis can be found feasting. It shades my washing line, something I lament, but the song of the tuis and the sight of the overweight kereru, more than compensates.

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So, my garden is full of birdsong, flowers and my heart’s song, a testimony to loss and new growth.

Wearing a Poem

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I don’t normally rush to publish a poem in progress, but these photographs by John Rainey-Smith are so beautiful that I’ve decided to take a risk – publish the photos and the poem that the tuis inspired, yesterday. I reserve the right to rewrite the poem, extend it or end it. But it does capture the first day of creativity for me in quite a while.

Wearing a Poem

Into this windless blue
cubes of sunlight land askew
on painted indoor walls
accompanied by hammering

as builders repeat their
renovating heartbeat of
another suburban almost
summer in our street

fat and sonsy tuis
gobble kohwai, their
throats awash with song
amid golden profusion

fatter even than last
year, more flowers to
feed upon, thanks
to the endless rain

my silver beet stalks
shine phosphorous red
trapped on the deck
with the mint and thyme

I was reaching for
a grief to nurture
to feed on like
the sonsy tuis

hoping to wear a poem
a somewhat dated outfit
but instead, a poem
wore me.

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We sat together on our deck in the late afternoon sun, sharing a beer, waiting patiently for the birds to return to sip the kohwai nectar. They rewarded us for our silent vigil. I like my poem but I’m even prouder still of John’s beautiful photographs.