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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Essential New Zealand Poems and doggerel

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Essential New Zealand Poems and doggerel

Essential New Zealand Poems book cover

I had the interesting honour recently of speaking to a group of writers completing a memoir course. It was a thrill for me to be invited and in particular, because they had been given my recent Landfall essay ‘Who is Left’ to read and compare with an article by Rosemary McLeod, one of my absolute favourite journalists.

My essay is a personal interrogation of my motivation for not just attending, but actually liking Anzac Day commemorations. Rosemary McLeod had written about stolen war medals and her distaste for the proposed new and very large local war memorial in the old Buckle Street Museum building.

I did not disagree with Rosemary’s piece. I rarely do. She usually nails it for me. I react privately to something in the news and then find that Rosemary can articulate it eloquently and intelligently and I mostly find myself nodding in agreement. I remember returning from my ‘OE’ in the mid seventies and opening up the Listener to read Rosemary McLeod – it was the first time I had read such smart, funny and insightful local journalism. I became a fan and have remained one.

So, there I was on a wet Saturday, talking to other aspiring writers about my journey as a writer, feeling somewhat amazed (flattered) that these students had read both my essay and Rosemary’s article. I’ve been one of those students many times in my journey as a writer. We hope that by listening to others we will unlock a secret door to our own creativity – a short-cut even, or a road-map.

And so, I told the students about what I now call my epiphany. That I was driven to writing passionate rhyming verse about my teenagers, one with dreadlocks and the other a green Mohawk. The epiphany came as I stood in a local mall with both lads and a letter from the local high school principal demanding that the green Mohawk be modified. We found some hair dye and he went from an emerald-green to Gothic black but I must say green suited him a lot better. Out of this, came the doggerel. And out of that, I gained a place on one of the first under-graduate poetry writing courses (now de rigueur) up at Victoria University in the late 1990’s – one of the 12 disciples with Greg O’Brien (not the Last Supper, but my first).

I had no idea that my rhyming verse, was in fact, doggerel. I had no idea what doggerel was, as I’d not heard the word before. I grew up with my mother reciting lines from ‘The Sentimental Bloke’ by C.J. Dennis, and we always called it poetry. So, here I was in Greg’s class with real poets (people who’d actually been published), and my own rather amateurish doggerel, as I discovered. But too, it can’t have been all bad, as there must have been an essence of something for the university to have taken the chance on me and invited me on to the course.

How proud am I, a decade or so later that one of the poems that I started to write during that course, is included in the newly published anthology ‘Essential New Zealand Poems – facing the empty page’… to be between the superb suede-like orange-flavoured covers with so many poets that I admire – too many to mention, many of them now friends.

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.