Memoir    Interview    Poetry    Fiction

Excerpt from a reading journal, 2006

My First Workshop:

Well this was an interesting experience. I was so utterly shamed by what I’d submitted that I imagined a whole classroom full of frowning faces and the quiet desperation that comes from a group of people trying to think of nice things to say.

But it wasn’t like that at all. I had mainly positive feedback, and some very helpful comments. Probably the most useful was the discussion on ‘punch-lines’. I am aware that a lot of my recent poetry rounds off with one little smart-arsey, jokey line. It’s something that I really don’t like about a lot of my poems, but it’s surprisingly difficult to get out of the habit. I think the fact that everyone picked up on it definitely confirmed what a pain these little punch-lines are.

There was the obligatory disagreement over which poems worked and which didn’t, and I was surprised at how many people seemed to enjoy ‘My Ex Rang Me Up Drunk . . . again’.

I realised the importance of standing up for your work too. There was one particular poem that most people seemed to think was a bit obscure (my homage to Robert Creeley called ‘Bluffing’), but I had to make my own quiet little standpoint for that one because I worked hard on it and, not to sound like too much of a wazzer, but I’m secretly quite pleased with it.

The workshop made me think a lot about performance. I think because I’ve done quite a few public readings and poetry shows etc., that when I write poetry I’m writing with performance in mind, hence the punch-line endings. I want to spend more time now on crafting poems and getting the most I can from them; but often I get caught up with the rhythm of them in my head and then the words themselves become slack and lazy. Basically any old thing sounds good if you read it well, but that simply won’t wash on the page.

. . .

Spent the afternoon with Anne Sexton of all people yesterday.

I was trawling through various poetry websites the other night and found a reference to Sexton’s Words for Dr Y: uncollected poems with three stories. It intrigued me seeing as in my last meeting with Damien he suggested I write some prose for fun (fun, aye?); although he did add that perhaps a portfolio of poetry with ‘three short stories chucked in’ might be a bit odd. So naturally, I read it as some kind of sign when I stumbled upon Sexton’s book of exactly that format.

The rain was persistent and the wind was howling as I sat with Anne in a cold corner of the seventh floor of the library, while she told me how horrendous everything is. Really, everything. But as is sometimes the way with these things, I found it all strangely uplifting and I garnered some rather choice fragments and chunks from her work. For example,

            why else keep a journal, if not
            if not to examine your own filth?

There’s something so bold and confrontational about ‘confessional’ poetry, although there is only so much of this particular collection of Sexton’s that I could read before I started feeling it was all just far too self-indulgent. The three short stories were bleak beyond comparison; horror stories about vampires and crucifixion and people reincarnating as bats. It made me think about my own funny/odd little poems and how incredibly small and domestic they feel. But I can’t hide from my terribly ordinary upbringing. Really, most of the things in my life are just quite nice? So what can I do?

. . .

Got very interested in Simic’s ‘Assembly Required’ in Orphan Factory. It was something I tried to do myself earlier in the year at my workshop. They’re basically fragments of poems, either abandoned, or half finished, mostly only two or three lines long, that he’s bundled all together over nine pages. There’s no real overall sense to them, although often he stays on one theme for several ’chunks’. Some of them even read like distorted haiku.

Speaking of which, I found something I wrote at some point on a scrappy corner of my journal which when I read it, cracked me up. I’ll share it here, because God knows it’s got nowhere else to go!

            Lazy eye.
            You lookin’ at me?

The current dilemma I’m having is not being able to attend the Writers on Mondays sessions because of paid work commitments. It's a case of bad timing that I happen to work at the Brooklyn Library (the smallest of the branch libraries; and it smells like soup) every Monday from 12-4pm. Apparently I’m needed there because of the one class of kids from Brooklyn School that occasionally turn up for their library visit.

I admit that I do get a huge kick out of taking these sessions with the kids. I read them one of my particular favourites, which is more often than not a story by Anthony Browne because he’s so sneakily moralistic and his illustrations are incredibly intricate. Then after the story we discuss the literary merits of the book. Keeping in mind that these kids are about six years old, it’s incredible what some of them come out with.

One little boy said to me the other week that Willy the monkey (from Browne’s Willy the Champ) looked ‘insecure’ in one of the illustrations. Crikey! I wasn’t sure whether I was impressed or frightened. I think it was the latter.

Anyway, as much as I enjoy these sessions, it's frustrating to think of all the writers I'll miss out on seeing. I mean for goodness sake, Geoff Cochrane's in the line-up of poets tomorrow and I've never heard him read before.

I was worrying unnecessarily.

I managed to wrangle a shift-swap at work and was able to attend the first of the Writers on Mondays sessions. And what a session! Eleven poets, one poem each – what a fantastic format!

My sister and I have been talking at length about some of the God-awful poetry readings we’ve been to in our lives and how today’s session was like a breath of fresh air in comparison.

James Brown’s poem was a stand-out despite him having prefaced it by saying it was no lyrical masterpiece, which I guess it wasn’t, but it was funny and sharp and very entertaining.

It was nice to finally see Geoff Cochrane read, and even nicer that he read his lovely ‘postcard’ poems to his brother from his book Acetylene. (I think it was from that collection?)

I also enjoyed Ian Wedde’s poem a great deal. I read his latest book Three Regrets and a Hymn to Beauty at Christmas so hearing him read a selection from it reminded me of summer and beers outside in the garden, although that’s a completely subjective view and has nothing to do with the actual poem! It was the first time I’ve ever seen him read, so that too felt like an absolute treat.

Greg O’Brien’s poem left me a bit cold but I really can’t tell you why. It could have been the slightly overdone fabric/fashion motif going on . . . or perhaps I was just channelling my sister’s embarrassment as she happened to be wearing her Doris De Pont coat to the reading with Greg O’Brien poetry scattered all over its pockets.

As is often the way with these things, I couldn’t help but get distracted by the gump in the front row who refused to clap. He sat towards the end of the row closest to the podium, in full view I’m sure of the readers (unless the lights were doing something tricky from the stage) and never clapped once – just sat there looking pissed off and haughty. Perhaps he had a clapped-out hand or a dicky elbow . . . I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, because otherwise he was just plain rude.

But aside from the distracting non-clapper, it was a really lovely and inspiring session . . . I only wish I could go to them all; but you know, the children of Brooklyn need their books, and God knows I’m the only person able and available in the world to service them.

. . .

I’ve just found the most succinct explanation of why punch-lines in poems don’t work.

           There is no point to rereading such a poem; I have gained everything
           I need to know after one reading. By erasing any ambiguity or mystery,
           by requiring only a single read, the ending makes the poem much like
           the fax itself: resembling a poem, but not a poem. And it is easy, flat
           endings . . . weaken the whole collection.

This is from Claire Hero’s book review in Landfall (May 2004) of Sarah Quigley’s poetry collection Love in a Bookstore or Your Money Back.

I feel so fortunate to have found this little quote . . . it’s plainly obvious, yet so astute. Like I was saying before, punch-lines are strange phenomena that have only started occurring recently in many of my poems. But Hero is right . . . they completely undercut everything in the poem that went before, belittling the reader and removing any sort of mystique or lasting impression that the poem may potentially have had.

But they are quite infectious, and it’s surprisingly easy to slip one on like a sock at the end of many of my poems.

. . .

I like what Simic has to say in Metaphysician in the Dark about the poet’s role as historian.

             . . . a poet who consistently ignores the evils and injustices
            that are a part of his or her own times is living in a
            fool’s paradise.

I’ve often felt that one of the biggest problems with my poetry, and some of the poetry that is coming out of New Zealand at the moment, is that it’s incredibly self-focused and localised. There seems to be a real fear of writing bold poetry about anything too grand or with universal themes. I know I’m making sweeping generalisations here, but I think there is at least a grain of truth in what I say.

He also says in an earlier article:

            The task of poetry, perhaps, is to salvage a trace of the authentic
            from the wreckage of religious, philosophical, and political systems.

I wonder if it’s just that I’m misreading texts or not paying enough attention, or not looking hard enough for the subtext – but sometimes I feel as though there is no subtext. As far as my own writing is concerned, I fear that I am living in a bit of a ‘fool’s paradise’ in terms of greater context to my writing. But try as I might, I just don’t feel comfortable writing about the travesties happening in the Middle East at the moment or anywhere else in the world for that matter. I think the most political I’ve ever got in a poem is one I wrote about the inner-city by-pass!

Simic’s point is an interesting one, but he also acknowledges that his own early childhood experience was of being a refugee in Europe during the Second World War. He is bitterly angry with the events of the twentieth century that saw his family ejected from their home and exiled from their country never to be the same again. My comfortable little suburban upbringing seems incredibly indulgent in comparison.

And perhaps this is my problem; I don’t feel that I have any right to write poetry that makes statements about the world in which I live when I’ve never known what it’s like to live in a war-torn country and experience the many horrors that accompany such a state.

Obviously Simic isn’t saying that experience of war and the subsequent writing about it will clear me from my status as fool’s-paradise-dweller, but he does make a convincing argument that historically, poetry is a more reliable record than any history book.

I guess all I’m trying to say is that Simic’s argument has highlighted one of the key concerns I have with my poetry: that my poems focus only on the domestic and don’t illuminate anything more global.

Although, I should mention that the Newtown poems I’ve written are supposed to be commentaries on social and class issues within NZ. But sometimes I think I’m the only one that sees that!

. . .

The triumphant return of the women!

I’ve spent much of this year so far reading poetry by men. Charles Simic, Raymond Carver, Robert Creeley, Geoff Cochrane, Philip Larkin, Mark Strand, Frank O’Hara etc. Finally after all this time I’ve made a move back to the women.

I’ve been getting so sick of my own voice. There’s a strange kind of cynicism and irony that wears thin after a while. It’s hard to explain without being overly general, but I feel like there is something less tangible and slightly more whimsical in the voice of the women’s poetry that I’ve been reading.

I’m thinking a lot at the moment about translation and interpretation. I’ve got an idea which I’m really excited about that has to do with hieroglyphics and images translated into words. I’m hoping it will satisfy my desire to write a ‘found poem’, one of the many things I wanted to do at the start of the year, but for some reason lost my way.

I found an exquisite little book about the Egyptian language at the library. It was one of those weird serendipitous moments. The book was on the floor in the kids’ section of the Brooklyn Library. It didn’t even belong to that library, so it was spooky indeed to find it there. Anyway, the book has some gorgeous hieroglyphs and funny little translations of poems and fables.

I’m imagining using some of the text (not visuals) to create a kind of glossary/poem. There are so many beautiful bits and pieces there that it makes all my existing poems sound so horribly clunky.

My favourite so far is a hieroglyph of a little mound like a loaf of bread and the definition is: ‘lady: bread, mistress: cake’.


. . .

I’ve been reading some of the essays in Writing at the Edge of the Universe. I thought James Brown’s essay, ‘Literary Politeness: Not Saying It’ was particularly interesting, especially his reference to Good Luck which I’ve just reread. He describes the first section of Livesey’s book as ‘well-made and well-behaved’.

I thought his comments that ’middle-classness is something that no one seems to want to own up to’ but is the norm for New Zealand’s writers was also quite apt. The comment resonated with me because of my own issues (as mentioned earlier) about the general pleasantness of my own upbringing! Brown’s essay also threw a lovely looming shadow for me over Simic’s comments about writers living in a fool’s paradise if they don’t acknowledge the travesties of their times. In reference to the school of ‘writing what you know’ he says:

            The doctrine seems to preclude imagination from the creative act.
            Boring middle-class men can only write about being boring middle-class
            men, young thugs can only write about being young thugs, etc. One of
            the great possibilities of art, it’s always seemed to me, is that it allows
            you to imagine what it might be like to be somebody else.

I suppose what I like here is that I feel like I’m being let off the hook a little. I don’t have to feel guilty about what or who I am, but I also don’t have to be restricted to writing solely from my position as middle-class honky chick, even though that’s what I am.

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