Archive for the ‘Essay’ Category
Towards the end of last year I went hunting for some replacement Allen Curnow in the NZ poetry shelves of Arty Bees. An acquaintance who’d borrowed the beautiful, second-hand Curnow I’d found there had cheerfully denied any knowledge of it when we met on the corner of Wakefield and Tory, so I hoped to chance on more of his poetry. Curnow was absent that day, but this turned up instead.
It seems likely, given the ‘NZ Room’ sticker on the spine, and the barcode inside the cover, that this copy of Jerusalem Sonnets by James K. Baxter was purchased by Arty Bees from one of Wellington City Libraries’ regular book sales. Probably no-one had taken it out in a while: ‘STACK’ is written in red biro on the library’s shelving sticker.
Maybe it was a City librarian who affixed the sticky plastic to the brown and straw-gold loose cover, catching a few air bubbles. (The cover is a brighter, less muddy gold than in the photo.)
Before the City library owned it, it belonged to the Lower Hutt Library of Sacred Heart College. The collection seems so little handled – the pages barely marked, foxed or dog-eared – that I wonder if it was hidden permanently under the librarian’s desk, Baxter’s references to sex and pot and crabs deemed too explicit for impressionable minds. I should probably store it somewhere darker than in the leaning row under the windowsill on my desk, but I like to have it close at hand.
I imagine a conscientious and literature-loving Sacred Heart librarian who, having heard that Baxter wrote the sonnets while living at Hiruharama / Jerusalem, the settlement on the Whanganui River where Suzanne Aubert founded the Sisters of Compassion, decided that this Catholic son’s work must be included in the school’s collection. She must have been onto it, to get one of the first 500 copies. But after all, one of Sacred Heart’s six houses is named for Aubert. On receiving the collection, our librarian reads it (with some pleasure, we hope), and then slips it straight into a drawer, so as not to raise controversy amongst parents and disquieting giggles between the girls. I hope she pulls it out from time to time to revisit the poems.
I’ve never had the inclination to be a first-edition fiend. I just don’t see the point of collecting them for their own sake. (This past weekend at a neighbour’s garage sale, I recognised the local man who, two years ago, responded to my Freecycle ad and picked up my mother’s brittle and browned Coronation newspapers. Having failed to provoke interest either on Trade Me or at Arty Bees, the papers were headed for the recycling bin. I was glad they still had a life in someone’s mind.)
Nonetheless, the fact that this is the first edition of Baxter’s Jerusalem Sonnets is part of why I love it. I love its air of contingency: here is an object produced with care and attention, but likely to perish within a few years unless protected in library stacks or a bibliophile’s careful shelves. It’s made of A4 paper and light card, fastened with staples. It’s a zine-like production. It feels both personal, and professional.
By contrast, my great-aunt’s self-published volume of ‘verse’, in which swaying multitudes of flowers sigh, wander, cluster, gaze and glimmer, sports a durable blue cloth-and-board cover with a textured, watery effect. I never met her. She was told she had a nervous disposition, and died before I was born.
The Jerusalem Sonnets paper is of a sufficient, serious weight. (Colin Durning, to whom the poems are addressed, paid for their first imprint at the University of Otago Bibliography Room.) The poems are typo-free, impeccably type-set, and well-placed on the page. The sinuous line drawing on the cover, reminiscent of a topographical map’s channel or ridge, is by Ralph Hotere. Since 2001 the drawing has found a preserved, if miniaturised, life on the cover of the annual online collection Best New Zealand Poems. (You can also see the drawing here, but as in my photo above, the whole image seems horizontally squashed. What is it with photos on the web?)
I also love the evidence of past ownership, particularly the school’s marks: the embossed stamp in the top right-hand corner inside the cover, in which the words ‘Congregation of Our Lady of the Missions’ surround a robed, haloed figure. Some librarian’s old-fashioned handwriting, looking like a great-aunt’s: ‘820 Bax’. The whited out top line of the address: ‘Convent of Our Lady of the Mission’, and the school’s badge-stamp. And I love reading the poems. I like their colloquial, personal and narrative qualities, their energy and movement and specificity, and the questions they ask.
Many months ago I wrote a guest post on poet Helen Heath’s blog about how much I enjoy my Kindle. There wasn’t room in that post to discuss a Kindle’s drawbacks. One of the most obvious is that on a Kindle, you can’t flick through the pages. It’s laborious to find the passage that you’re thinking of. As others have observed, when you read a paper book, often you haven’t marked that passage: you simply know that it’s somewhere towards the bottom of a left-hand page, and, oh, it comes after this bit, but before that bit (and meanwhile you’re finding other sections you liked, and which are relevant to your line of thinking).
On a Kindle, the equivalent of ‘flicking’ is unrewarding and dull, involving much back-and-forth on screens which lack any of the interest of the text’s actual pages. When reading a non-chronological, unconventional novel like Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation, the difficulty with flicking became a downright problem, preventing me (not the most retentive of readers) from figuring out who was who. If I had been more committed to the book, I would have made notes: on paper, of course.
But conversely, I think that if I’d read Visitation in a more easily manipulated three-dimensional form, my commitment to it would have been greater. I imagine that reading Egan’s wonderful Visit from the Goon Squad on a Kindle might have been similarly frustrating, but thankfully I bought a proper copy of that. And while I need to keep every book I read, I do want paper copies of the books I adore. (On my list for regular searches at Arty Bees is Virginia Woolf’s The Waves.)
It wasn’t long after my post on Helen’s blog that I found this Baxter. Contemplating my love for it, I began to imagine a future in which paper books are the exception. I do believe that small runs like this 1970 edition of the Jerusalem Sonnets (500 copies) will survive, for the same reasons that the zine scene is flourishing. However, in a world in which a poet can tweet and Facebook her way to thousands of readers, maybe it’ll be a brave writer who publishes only on paper. I find it moving to look at these pages knowing that this edition marks the first time that a mass of New Zealand readers encountered these sonnets.
I also imagined a future in which hard-copy books might only be produced as souvenir editions, or because they will ‘find a market’ among nostalgic fetishists who resist the onward march of technology. The prospect saddened me. One reason this book means something is that you know, looking at the typeset poems on the pages, that the circle of passionate response to Baxter’s poems had yet to spread far. (Not that it took long: as the site The Black Art – very much worth a visit – tells us, 2000 more copies were published within 18 months of this edition.) People cared about this publication and made it happen not because of market forces, but for reasons to do with life force, and love, and art, and concentrated effort.
The title of this post is taken from Poem for Colin (6) from the Jerusalem Sonnets:
The moon is a glittering disc above the poplars
And one cloud travelling low down
Moves above the house – but the empty house beyond,
Above me, over the hill’s edge,
Knotted in bramble is what I fear,
Te whare kehua – love drives, yet I draw back
From going step by step in solitude
To the middle of the Maori night
Where dreams gather – those hard steps taken one by one
Lead out of all protection, and even a crucifix
Held in the palm of the hand will not fend off
Precisely that hour when the moon is a spirit
And the wounds of the soul open – to be is to die
The death of others, having loosened the safe coat of becoming.
James K. Baxter
over at the blog of my lovely publisher, Victoria University Press. It’s about the writing process. And things.
It starts like this:
Can a writer alter the type of story she instinctively writes, or the temporal and psychological structure of that story, and produce a new story that is not false, unsuccessfully experimental or try-hard, but has conviction and internal strength?
Here’s a story I often find myself writing. In the story’s present my protagonist is strongly affected by an event or series of events that’s already complete, and usually of some duration and complexity. The effect of the inciting event on my protagonist is inevitably emotional and psychological. Therefore, in order for the reader to properly understand the protagonist’s current state of mind, the event needs to be narrated in detail.
More (scroll down a bit)
Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat Pray Love) is of the opinion
that ideas and creativity circle the world like gulfstreams, looking for ‘portals’, and if you’re not open to them, they’ll go and find someone who is. I get the impression that she means actual gulfstreams of ideas, just as she seems to mean actual angels when she talks about angels.
I too entertain some unverifiable ideas, though I don’t have Gilbert’s ability to believe in discrete, human-like supernatural entities. But for writing purposes, I’ve found that pretending to believe can be useful. Our imaginations believe and act on what we tell them.
Back when I was writing the first draft of Acts of Love, I tussled with the character who eventually turned out to be Stella. At that point she had a different name, and having written a few chapters, I couldn’t figure out anything further about her or what she might do. Stuck stuck stuck. One day I got myself into a bit of a makebelieve trance and told her I’d ‘interview’ her. My agreement with myself was that she temporarily existed outside the world of the book. She was to talk to me, the writer, about the way I was writing her, and about what might happen to her in the novel. Then I wrote non-stop in my notebook in ‘her’ voice for about forty-five minutes. Amongst a load of twaddle, she said something which changed the direction of her character: ‘I’m not as angry as you’re making me out to be.’
That was a surprise. At the time I couldn’t see any way for her not to be fundamentally furious. But over the following months she changed shape (and name) into a less whiny, more active person. I’m not suggesting that I actually communed with her ‘spirit’. I knew, at the time, that I was fooling myself. And I understood that something in me knew more about her character than I consciously knew at the time.
In the same Radiolab podcast that I linked to above, Gilbert also talks about finding the title for her bestseller Eat Pray Love. Essentially, this consisted of gently asking the manuscript to reveal its name to her.
I thought this sounded a little kooky (though really I wish I had Gilbert’s ability to believe like this – it’s as though she never became divorced from that childlike part of herself), but historically I’ve been bad with titles. I still haven’t officially graduated my MA – ten years this year – because I’ve been too embarrassed by my collection’s title to lodge it in the university library. I really must get onto that.
Recently I needed to find the title for a story and having just listened to the podcast, thought I’d trick my imagination into setting up a quick link into my conscious mind. There’s a fairly left-field body-mind thing that I do, so I did that, and asked the story for its title, and ta-da, there it was. Not perfect, not particularly memorable (‘Everything That Rises Must Converge’) but good enough for a deadline and a lot better than any of my previous attempts.
This idea that so much of what we write comes out of the non-cognitive parts of our minds does fascinate me. In the Guardian Weekly (11.02.11), John Gray wrote in the The Hunt for Immortality that H. G. Wells, having absorbed Darwinism, was convinced that humanity would become extinct unless right-thinking people seized control of evolution. He thought the Bolsheviks would do a great job of creating a higher species, and found Lenin ‘very refreshing’. He wrote that if the Soviet state killed lots of people, ‘it did on the whole kill for a reason and for an end’. Chilling.
However, Gray points out,
“His scientific romances tell a very different story. When the time traveller journeys into the future, in The Time Machine, he finds a world built on cannibalism, with the delicate Eloi seemingly content to be farmed as food for the brutish morlocks, and travelling on into the far future finds a darkening Earth where the only life is green slime. In The Island of Dr Moreau the visionary vivisectionist performs vile experiments on animals with the aim of remaking them as humans. The result is the ugly, tormeted “best-folk” – a travesty of humanity.
Wells’s fables were a kind of automatic writing – messages from his subliminal self that his conscious mind dismissed. They teach a lesson starkly at odds with the one he spent his life preaching: the advance of knowledge cannot deliver humans from themselves, and if they use science to direct the course of evolution the result will be monsters. This was Wells’s true vision, always inwardly denied, and for much of his life expressed only in his scientific romances.”
Gray suggests that despite what Wells thought he believed about the construction of a ‘higher species’, Wells’s subconscious knew better: that it was wiser, closer to the truth, and more far-seeing. (Though ‘closer to the truth’ just shows my own biases.)
How can we know ourselves well enough so that, maybe, we can write the strongest stuff in us without it having to trickle down through the convoluted pathways and firewalls we may have set up between our dreamworld and our conscious minds? The best way I’ve found, so far, is just to write, and write some more. More on that another time.
This morning, in time set aside to write, I slunk away from my desk for half an hour and started Hamish Clayton’s Wulf (Penguin Books, 2011: you can read an informative review here). I found myself wanting to read aloud so as to live the words and see the images:
Every word spoken, sent like a raft of smoke onto the air of that strange country, smelled like the blood riding the breath of their great chief..
The prose is mesmerising and there’s promise of a compelling story. I also love the occasional prose-poetry that marks off segments in the first chapter, and Clayton’s hypnotic use of repetition. (Made a mental note to mention him in writing classes as an example of a writer who breaks that not-particularly-hard-&-fast rule beautifully. Beginner writers often unconsciously repeat words from sentence to sentence.) This’ll probably turn out to be one of those books that will live on my bookshelves all my life: no trade-in at Arty Bees.
I did write, finding my way in the dark as usual. I love those sparking moments when a new aspect of a character whom you barely know enough to narrate, yet, reveals itself. Kept my leg tied to the chair.
I’ve also recently read Their Faces Were Shining (Tim Wilson, VUP), and August (Bernard Beckett, Text Publishing), but won’t write about those novels here as am reviewing them for New Zealand Books. However, I’ll say it was no hardship to have to reread them while preparing the review, and anyone who wants to be happily submerged in fiction over the Easter weekend could look to these two New Zealand writers.
A significant cohort of the boys at Tobias Wolff’s Old School (set, I think, in the 1950s) want to be writers. Of course, there’s no mention of the Internet, or America’s Next Top Model, or MTV. This atmosphere of dedicated literacy reminded me of reading old copies of Life magazine in Wellington Central Library while researching early 1960s US culture, and being startled by the elegance, lyricism and complexity of their current affairs writing – politics aside.
The school believes itself to be an egalitarian meritocracy, blind to class or financial distinctions. However, Wolff’s protagonist, hiding his Jewishness because he has the ‘tremor of apprehension’ that the school somehow sets apart those identifying as Jewish, speculates on the motivation of the aspiring writers:
Maybe it seemed to them, as it did to me, that to be a writer was to escape the problems of blood and class. Writers formed a society of their own outside the common hierarchy.
Does anyone out there want to comment on why they write? Elizabeth Knox included her essay ‘Why I Write’ in her collection, The Love School (more on that another time). Elizabeth seems to me like someone who has always worked in interesting ways towards being conscious of what’s going on in her mind (although she’s also said that she’s not the type of writer who’s solely curious about her psychological workings, but instead naturally turns to making up stories, which tendency is pretty clear from the novels she’s written). This extract is a lovely example of the consciousness, though:
In the dedication at the beginning of R. L. Stevenson’s novel The Master of Ballantrae, the writer talks as if to to the father, who, addled by strokes, is no longer able to follow his work. Stevenson says what I’d like to say in dedicating my next book to my dead father (to the man his family all but lost years before he died). Stevenson says it perfectly, but I’d like to add this – that you don’t just walk away from any of the people from whom you write. You notice them missing. You stop and go back and try to coax and help. You stand still and wait for them to be themselves again. Perhaps you get mad with them. But you wait, you wait. Then finally you walk off and leave them behind. And you find that, while you’ve waited, a dark wood has sprung up around you…
(A friend recently returned my copy of The Love School. I had mourned it, unable to remember whom I’d lent it to and thinking it lost, but it was on her bedside table the whole time, one of a pile of books lent over a year ago during a post-op recovery period. She’s very good about – eventually – returning books, so I needn’t have worried. These days I write down every book that leaves the house in a notebook kept on the bookshelves for the purpose. No more lost books! Who has my copy of Maurice Gee’s The Big Season, or Patricia Grace’s Baby No-Eyes? Huh?)
If we narrate our lives through our thoughts and dreams, first, and then through incidental conversations at work or the bus stop or on the pillow or in the car, that has never felt like enough for me. When I haven’t been writing, I feel like I don’t know myself. Even if everything other element in life is running along perfectly, it all feels skewiff. Conversely, dust can accumulate, letters can go unanswered, my attempts at cooking dinner can be mediocre, and it’s all OK if I’ve written, even if the writing is unusable. And there’s something about joining in with the song, the continued murmur, that long-lasting overseeing conversation and the talk that goes beyond our daily experience and is also tied to it.