Te Hui Whakapūmau/Māori Students’ Graduation Address 2014 – Hinemoana Baker

Hinemoana BakerKia ora huihui mai nei tātou katoa. Me kii, ko Tukorehe me Ōtākou ōkū marae-a-hapū, marae-ā-iwi rānei, engari ko Te Herenga Waka tōku marae whakatipu kei te Whanga-nui-a-Tara, nō reira tēnā tātou, tēnā tātou, tēnā tātou katoa.

Thank you to Victoria University and to Te Kawa a Māui for asking me to be here and speak today – a privilege and a pleasure. It’s quite emotional to be back here in Te Tumu Herenga Waka, at Te Herenga Waka, the marae which raised me in many ways, and scores of others over the decades.

It has been nearly 20 years since I graduated right here with my BA in Māori and Women’s Studies (back when there was a Women’s Studies Department) and ten years since my Masters in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters. First, I want to mihi to all of you Māori graduands whose day it is today. I mihi to you in the widest, warmest, truest, most deeply felt, most ‘I get what you’ve been through to be here’ kind of way. I want to congratulate you all on what you have achieved and what is being recognised today.

When I was sitting where you are, I felt a combination of things. Relief that the sheer workload was over; excitement; a kind of tired triumph. But I also felt grief – or a prescience of grief – anticipating what changes might come after this day, those connections that would inevitably unravel a little as the future arrived with its new opportunities and demands.

It might seem strange, at a time like this, to talk about sadness. But in the Māori world it’s a natural thing. Whenever we are welcomed in pōwhiri on any of the marae around the country we are invited to grieve, to bring on our dead and our sorrows alongside our celebration.

I believe the true beauty of occasions like this lies in this variegation. As scholars, as thinkers, as Māori and as human beings, it’s part of our duty to remind the world about the beautiful complexity of things.

When I was sitting where you are, it was the sadness of what I was leaving behind that affected me. And not just what I was leaving behind on this campus, but in my life and my life-path up until that point. It was this sadness, just as much as the excitement at what I was about to step into, that made this day in my own history so important and so memorable.

So in this spirit I’d like to share with you some words from a Bohemian-Austrian poet writing at the turn of last century. His name is Rainer Maria Rilke, and I have found his words nourishing at moments in my life of transformation, of deep and significant transition. He writes a lot about sadness and anxiety, but in this passage from ‘Letters to a Young Poet’, he also writes about knowledge, about the limits of knowledge. He writes about the future, and how we may embrace it, how it may embrace us when we least expect it:

If only it were possible for us to see farther than our knowledge reaches, and even a little beyond the outworks of our presentiment, perhaps we would bear our sadnesses with greater trust than we have in our joys.

For those sadnesses are the moments when something new has entered us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy embarrassment, everything in us withdraws, a silence arises, and the new experience, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it all and says nothing…

We could easily be made to believe that nothing has happened, and yet we have changed, as a house that a guest has entered changes.

We can’t say who has come, perhaps we will never know, but many signs indicate that the future enters us in this way, in order to be transformed in us, long before it happens.

In closing, what I’d really like to do is my best John Campbell impersonation. I feel like exclaiming ‘Remarkable! You are all quite simply remarkable! Marvellous!’ But in fact I’m not sure if that’s John Campbell or David Attenborough. In Māori, I would say: Koia kei a koutou, e – which I think could be loosely translated as bloody good on you all. May your futures step into you today.

Mauri ora

Hinemoana Baker is the 2014 Writing Fellow at Victoria University. Her latest collection of poems is waha | mouth (Victoria University Press).

Emily Perkins – Candour v Confession: on reading Robyn Davidson’s Tracks

Mia Wasikowska stars as Robyn Davidson in Tracks (2014)

Mia Wasikowska stars as Robyn Davidson in Tracks (2014)

At the Byron Bay Writers Festival this month I met Robyn Davidson, and have since been immersed in her book Tracks. As you might know from the recently released movie of the same name, it’s about her odyssey on foot and camel from the centre of Australia to the coast in the 1970s. I haven’t seen the film but have gone online to search images of various characters who feature in the book, mostly to discover that the real people (‘the originals’) have been usurped by screen-stills of their movie-star avatars. Take only photographs, leave only footprints, or something.

This memoir has got me thinking about the literary difference between confession and candour. There is intimacy to a confession that draws you in, makes you lean closer. I often admire softly spoken people for the effect of their modest pitch. But speaking up and speaking clearly doesn’t have to mean shouting. (I have a theory that this is something women, particularly, worry about, for various obvious reasons.) Tracks reads like a direct, honest book, and involves transformation and soul-searching, but has none of the tinge of confession that we often find in personal stories. Davidson does not position the reader as more or less powerful than her narrating self. She’s not in search of absolution and she accepts there are limits to understanding, even as she tries to expand her own – and ours. If she moves us, that is an effect of the work, not the primary goal, which seems like something simpler, such as exploring, if that’s not too reductive.

If the book were being written now it’s easy to imagine a different and possibly diminished version – even, in our documented age, the self-consciousness of a journey undertaken in order to tell the tale. Back-story, confession, analysis, struggle, revelation, growth. The book as it stands resists that order, refusing to psychoanalyse itself in any simplistic way, and spares the author nothing, good or bad, in all of her incarnations through the desert. It’s beautifully shaped: expansions and digressions are made and much is elided. The shifting tone is anecdotal, lyrical, pragmatic, bewildered, funny and angry, and in leaving questions unresolved the memoir chooses honesty over comfort.

Robyn Davidson

Robyn Davidson

There’s more that I’m thinking through about this, and if anyone has responses I’d love to hear them. In the meantime here is a distinction between candour and confession I plan to take into my writing and teaching: confessional work asks to be forgiven, or to be liked, whether ingratiatingly or confrontationally; candid work has other motives. In candid writing the writer and reader are equal, with cost and reward to both in the investment. No one is showing her pain to elicit sympathy, and no one is falsely comforted by a sense of superiority or ‘there but for the grace of God’. Candid writing generates more clear-eyed recognition than misty sympathy. A book like Tracks is interested in exploring the larger nature of the story it is telling, leaving an open space for the reader to enter. Before the 18th Century, when ‘candour’ came to mean ‘freedom from reserve in one’s statements; openness, frankness, outspokenness’, its meanings included ‘openness of mind’ and ‘freedom from malice’. Its root cand also belongs in candle, and accendere: to kindle, to set alight.

Emily Perkins teaches the MA Fiction Workshop at the IIML. Her most recent novel is The Forrests.

Faith and Will – Carl Shuker

carlshuker

INTERVIEWER
So, how do you write, exactly?

BALLARD
Actually, there’s no secret. One simply pulls the cork out of the bottle, waits three minutes, and two thousand or more years of Scottish craftsmanship does the rest.

Obviously the Ballard here is J.G., in his Paris Review interview. Here is the author of, at his death in 2009, 18 novels and by my count 22 assorted collections of short fiction. In 1984, when he said this, James Graham was 54 and had published 10 novels and 15 of those collections. What lies behind this perfect little quote is an enormous lived treatise on the faith and will of writing.

J.G. is turning irritably in his grave right now, but hear me out.

In 1964, three novels into his career, Ballard’s wife died of pneumonia. In his joyous, playful The Kindness of Women he rewrote his own biography such that she dies after a fall at a Spanish beach resort. He is forced to drive his three children home to their dusty semi in Shepperton, TW17. Imagine that drive.

JG-Ballard-outiside-his-h-007

J.G. Ballard outside his house in Shepperton.

Shepperton, to his readers, is an otherwise banal London commuter circuit suburb luminous with his fiction: its reservoirs clasping drowned light aircraft in their waving weeds; its leafy green über-English foliage poised trembling ready to explode into a precisely and passionately observed tropical rainforest; its residents walking as if lost in a dream, ready for their deviating sexualities to emerge and find their fullest expression on church pews and dashboards.

What he did, just three novels in, his wife dead, age thirty-four, was to drive home to Shepperton with his three bereaved children, and commence the unimaginable task of bringing them up alone and writing his life’s work. And though Miriam died of pneumonia, not of a mysterious concussion in the back of a Catalan ambulance, whether or not he verifiably drove those children home doesn’t matter. Because that is what he did. He drove them home from the place of their mother’s death, and then he drove them to school in the morning, every morning, and came home, poured himself a large Teacher’s at (I like to imagine) about 9:15 (elsewhere in a very generous and humanising admission he talks of it calming his nerves), and commenced on the next 500 to 1000 words of some of the most devastating, numinous, repetitive, terrifying, sad, monotonous, prophetic, hilarious fiction we keep from the latter half of the twentieth century. (Martin Amis called Ballard’s fiction “at once totally humourless and entirely unserious”: his persistently strange work always rewards the paradoxical juxtaposition, and like all the biggies, he always reveals his reviewer.)

This is an act, behind his—and any big writer’s—apparent bravado, Godlikeness, unassailability (I don’t ever think of McCarthy sitting down to Blood Meridian and murmuring “Oh, I just can’t enter into this imaginatively today”): an act of faith, and of will. Because the weird catch-22 or ouroboros of novel writing is that to do the creative, imaginative work of making a piece of prose ring in a reader’s imagination, to raise and fire an undoubted world with bounce and blood and passion such that the reader has total faith in it, you must have faith in yourself. It’s a requirement.

It may sound trite. But consider this: out of nowhere, you’re say 24 and haven’t hardly finished a proper emotion let alone a thing we might call a book, you’re required to have faith that this tiny two-inch corner you’re painting right now will form an inevitable, essential, closely examinable and yet seemingly seamless and unremarkable part of a huge, huge canvas (you know only it’s really big) that you don’t know the exact dimensions of yet. (There’s a not-small element of bluff.) Because if you don’t have that faith then the brushstrokes, the mark making, will be incongruous; tiny, perfect details here; broad evocative strokes out there when you got confident but ran out of time/material/story/whatever. Pacing all wrong. Result: “Patchy”—L. Patchett, Listener. “Uneven”—Michiko Kakutani, NYT.

So because it’s me and not, well, you, I’m actually talking about, back to the first person: the catch: in order to do what I need to do and what I know I can’t do, or certainly have no prior evidence I can do, I must have faith in myself that I can indeed do this miraculous thing. Faith is a synonym here for love of self. But also, over time, as the fiction progresses, for me, faith in the people of the fiction. Faith in the world as it is transformed into the fiction. Faith as synonym for love of world. (Of course what also works is support of community, of family etc., apposite energies or obsessions like anger, loss, love, big passions which can be channelled, etc., Scotch.) Will is the element of getting myself into the position to have faith. “I will, every day, be here at this time doing this thing and if you think I won’t and that I will fuck this up like I fucked those other things up you’re about to get a lesson in will.” Or something equally self-exhortatory, vociferous, not to say strident. This is our only time and our only time in the sun; bitching about publishing and about debt and stress and hard work and tiredness and failure and dumbing down of this and that are just ways of not doing what I really have to do.

Don DeLillo has a lovely bit about will, in Underworld:
“Have you come across the word velleity? A nice Thomistic ring to it. Volition at its lowest ebb. A small thing, a wish, a tendency. If you’re low-willed, you see, you end up living in the shallowest turns and bends of your own preoccupations.”

It’s a Jesuit talking to a young man. And I can see it’s kind of scary in isolation from the big sepia warmth of that book. It’s not just about set teeth and application of trouser seat to chair, as Kingsley Amis has it. Here’s Ballard, at his desk every morning in his, let’s face it, filthy house, his three children (three children) off at school, with his glass of Scotch, commencing on the next page of the novel, of his alternative affirmation of the psychosexual horror-comedy of the twentieth century.Drowned_World

And before I tell you what he does next, looking down at what he’s written, there’s another thing I might mention, apart from writing, and books, that is the result of this exercise of faith and will. Bill Manhire reports on always feeling like the youngest person in the room. And it’s written all over his face. Seamus Heaney said, “All poets are young poets really, that’s the beauty of it.” It was written all over his face too.

There are writers out there, and unhappy, frantic-seeming people with intense inner lives who haven’t found their work, who only calm under the weight of a task. I think of them like certain teenagers, all power and energy and no direction. Give them a task, give them a weight to bear, precisely calibrated just above their expectations of themselves. And they may bitch and moan, but the weight must be such they are forced to concentrate, and calm. There is a peace.

And there’s more. Because here’s Ballard, 34, with his three children, his debts, no doubt, and his memories of murder, atrocity, torture and starvation. His lost wife. He looks down at what he’s just written and chuckles.GetImage

Carl Shuker is the 2013 Writer in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. His books include The Lazy Boys and The Method Actors. His latest novel is Anti Lebanon. Asked to recommend Ballard titles, Carl writes: ‘For new readers I’d say definitely start with the canonical Crash, or for those more squeamish, The Drowned World. And for the wonderful transmogrification of Shepperton: The Unlimited Dream Company.’

Carl is representing the MA year 2001 at the IIML Alumni Reading on Sunday 29 September from 7.30pm at Circa Theatre, Wellington.

Research and Improvisation – Amy Head

 

Image

For the first time in a while, recently, while I was packing up to move, I put my hands on the folders and clear files relating to each of the stories in Tough (a collection set in the past and present on the West Coast). I’m far less likely to happen on digital files in the same way, and it was the first time I’d looked at this material together as one record. Each story had its own spiral-bound notepad. There were photocopies from library visits and pamphlets from tiny museums in the middle of nowhere (more like sheds, some of them, supervised by no-one). I found an exhibition catalogue and a promo DVD from Solid Energy.

Image

The folders were filled out with print-outs of past drafts – three or four per story. Flicking through the old versions reminded me of entire sections of stories that had been scrapped, like the deleted scenes in DVD extras. It reminded me how unexpectedly modular the stories had been, allowing me to shift paragraphs around when I’d finished the first draft and could see more clearly what the story was about. It was all there: characters whose names had changed, the story I had to rewrite after being burgled.

Image

I especially enjoy the research and discovery phase of developing an idea for a story. At its most ‘method’, this has meant persuading a friend of a friend, a textile historian, to let me try on her collection of hoop skirts. At its most leisurely it meant tracking down and watching old goldrush movies.

Image

Sometimes these diversions were justified. After all, I have to inject the language with my own energy and commitment. I have to make the first draft sparkle enough to keep me interested in all the subsequent drafts, when I’ve switched the paragraph order and changed my mind about tense and point of view, and it’s all an unpacked mess that has to be put back together somehow.

But often, when I’ve forced myself to stay at my desk and write past the point at which the day’s writing began to feel stale, I’ve eventually arrived at an idea or image I’ve liked. I’m not sure that all of the preamble, my holistic approach, which I hoped was building up a unique world, attitude and tone for each story, was actually necessary. Although it may have given the stories the occasional sentence or image, the language and style is far more likely to have been enriched by what I was reading. On my MA year in particular, I was reading more, and more widely, than usual, and being encouraged to try new things.

During an interview for ‘In the Actor’s Studio’, Robert de Niro said he often found he got to the same place in his characterisations by skipping most of the fastidious preparation, instead starting to improvise and rehearse as soon as possible. I wonder if, when I start out in my next project, I’ll find a better balance between preparing and doing from the outset. If I start writing earlier, my subconscious can continue the work while I’m skiving off watching YouTube footage of the world’s highest waterfall, a demonstration of how to put my hair in victory rolls, or Roberto Begnini performing his one-man show about Dante, in Italian, in front of the Duomo.

Amy Head’s first book of stories Tough is published by Victoria University Press. She appears in the Writers on Mondays lunchtime series at Te Papa on 29 July.

Dear Me – Emma Martin

Writing exercises often focus on the initial act of creation: here is the blank page, what will you write on it? But let’s assume that you have a piece of fiction with a start, a middle and an end. What do you do now?

Image

Two things are helpful at this point. Firstly, critical acuity: the ability to see into a piece of fiction, under it, through it; to understand what it is doing, and also how it is doing what is doing. Secondly – this is the tricky bit – the ability to apply this acuity to our own writing. Otherwise, it can be hard to know if a story is finished. Or what to do with it if it is not.

Reading helps develop our critical abilities, of course; but it did strike me, as I made my first forays into writing fiction, that whatever I had been doing with books had left me curiously ignorant of what was required in order to write one. Well-crafted fiction presents itself with a kind of inevitability. It answers its own questions. It paints over its own steps. It pulls its ladder up behind itself, folds its arms tightly across its chest and deflects our tiny arrows.

As we learn the craft of writing, then, there can also be value in reading the work of peers – work that is imperfect, unfinished, still taking shape on the page. What is the impact of the point of view the writer has chosen? What would happen to the work if it began or ended at some different point? If the narrative was condensed or stretched (is this a novel cramped awkwardly into the frame of a short story, or a story that has lost focus and become too novelistic?) Were there points at which the writer seemed to try too hard? Were there particular images that resonated? Did the story touch you? How did the writer achieve that? There are a thousand questions we can ask of a piece of fiction; our first task is to formulate the right ones.

This sharing of work is best done in an environment of trust. When I did the MA at the IIML, prior to each workshop we wrote individual feedback to our classmates in the form of letters. This, we were told, would help us find the right tone: respectful, truthful, intimate. We were instructed always to include something positive (“if you can’t see something positive, read the work again until you see something positive”). At first I thought this was merely a matter of diplomacy, but later concluded it was not. We were being taught look for the energy that is driving a piece of fiction. The possibility in it.

We learnt, too, what to do with feedback on our own work: to hear it well, but hear it in silence. The impact of the story on the reader wasn’t for the writer to debate. We did not need to justify our work to anyone – only (only!) to let ourselves be open to seeing it afresh. Which is not to say that being workshopped did not sometimes feel like having your skin peeled off and being dipped in a salt bath. But I found that I was less flayed by the judgement of others as my confidence as a writer increased. Tellingly, some of the most useful feedback I received mirrored things I knew deep down myself, or was on the cusp of recognising. The aim of the process is not to create a dependence on the opinions of others, but actually quite the reverse. It is to close the circle between giving and receiving feedback, so that – unlike in old-fashioned games of hunt the thimble – we begin to sense for ourselves when we are cold, and when we are warm.

So, the exercise: take a story you have not looked at for several months. Read it and walk around with it in your head for a few days. Read it again. Then write yourself a letter. You are not writing it for an audience: whatever you say is between yourself and yourself. When you have finished, read your story again.

Now rewrite it.

Emma Martin grew up in Dunedin and has lived in Melbourne, Manchester, Edinburgh and London. She lives in Wellington with her partner and two children. In 2012 she won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for the title story of Two Girls In A Boat, her first collection. The book is launched at Unity Books, Wellington, on 2 May. 

Emma will appear at Bats Theatre, Wellington, in The Exercise Book Live on 14 June.

Poetry Parnassus

Two of our MA graduates, Tusiata Avia and Kapka Kassabova, are representing Samoa and Bulgaria at Poetry Parnassus, the Olympics-related poetry festival which is about to take place in London. Tusiata and Kapka have both been interviewed for the Festival by UK poet S J Fowler.  Here are one or two excerpts.

Kapka Kassabova

SJF: In its sheer scope Poetry Parnassus offers a unique opportunity for you to interact with fellow poets from every corner of the globe. How do you think this collective experience will benefit those who attend, to be exposed to so many different traditions of poetry, to hear poetry in so many languages?

KK: The world doesn’t often see an Olympic congregation of poets, so it will either be alarming or exhilarating to the public (and the poets!). And eye and ear-opening, I think, to be reminded that the world only speaks English some of the time. The rest of the time it speaks and writes in hundreds of other languages. Isn’t it mind-boggling?

SJF: The Parnassian ideal that really centres the Poetry Parnassus project reaches back to the Poetry International festival held in London in 1967 which sought to address notions of free speech, community and peace through the art-form of poetry. Do you believe this tradition needs to be maintained in 2012?

KK: Especially in 2012! We desperately need the quickening spark of poetry in our lives. We are surrounded by jaded attitudes and people, and poetry, as Robert Frost said, is that by which we live forever and ever unjaded.

Tusiata Avia

SJF: In its sheer scope Poetry Parnassus offers a unique opportunity for you to interact with fellow poets from every corner of the globe. How do you think this collective experience will benefit those who attend, to be exposed to so many different traditions of poetry, to hear poetry in so many languages?

TA: I have always loved international festivals for this reason – the coming together of poets from different places. Many of us tend to operate in a fairly solo way, so the opportunity to be part of this community of poets is something very special. Poetry Parnassus takes this to a different level, to have so many poets from so many countries will be very exciting indeed. Connections are made, friendships are forged and one would have to be made of stone not to be inspired.

SJF: Could you describe your poetry, though I know this is difficult if not terribly reductive, in reference to what you think poetry should, and can, achieve as an artistic medium?

TA: I’m known as a Pacific Island poet, because I write in [and] about the Pacific and of course because I am a Pacific Islander. I also often write poems set in other ‘exotic’ places in the world. But that is really only a vehicle for much more universal themes that I think many artists explore. I write about the human condition, about the place of the child, the place of the immigrant, the place of the outsider. I write about love and violence, justice and injustice. All those things that human beings struggle with. Most of my work tends to be shot through with a dark humour.

One aspect of my poetry that I’ve always be passionate about is it’s ability to reach people. While I write for the page, a certain amount of my work suits the stage very well. I am known (in New Zealand particularly) for my performance poetry – I have a one woman show called ‘ Wild Dogs Under My Skirt’ which fuses poetry and theatre. In this way poetry reaches a wider audience – and often an audience that would not normally open a book of poetry – than it does on the page.

Poetry can be life changing, it can reach into the soul, past the protective barriers we all erect, and touch something in us. It can move one to tears, it can trigger a spark of recognition – a feeling of being seen and understood, it can light a fire of inspiration, it can stir one to action. The moments my poetry has done any of these things and I have been there to witness it have been some of the most precious of my life.

There’s more of Kapka Kassabova’s interview here.

and more from Tusiata Avia here and there are many more interviews with the Parnassus poets here.