Photograph and poem – Kerry Hines

 Choose a photograph to work with – one which is unfamiliar to you, and which interests you and piques your curiosity in some way. There are no constraints on what kind of photograph you choose, but it must have been taken before you were born, and must have no direct personal associations for you – so you can’t, for example, choose something from a family album.

Look closely at the photograph for at least 5-10 minutes. Consider what you know and don’t know about the image, and what it is that attracts you to it. Stay curious, and be attentive. Hypothesise, speculate, notice. Set the photograph aside for a few days, then repeat this process. Feel free to make notes and to search out contextualising information about the photograph, but in addition to looking, not instead of it.

Then write a poem in response to the photograph that builds on (but does not make explicit) this experience of it. Your aim should be to write a poem that would surprise and interest the photograph, rather than telling it what it already knows. In particular:

  • avoid describing or paraphrasing the photograph, or otherwise trying to translate it into words;

  • steer clear of any reference to photographs or photography in the poem;

  • take care to avoid clichés and easy conclusions about the past.

Kerry Hines was the IIML’s first PhD student, and was recently awarded her doctorate for her thesis After the fact: poems, photographs, and regenerating histories. Kerry will present work from her project at the last Writers on Mondays session for the year at 12.15pm, Monday 8 October at the City Gallery, Wellington (note venue).

Working with an archive of nineteenth-centure photographs, Kerry Hines has written a compelling collection of poems that bring together text and image, fact and imagination; raising the question of how we look at and imagine our history. Kerry will discuss the archive and its creator, outline the origins and development of the work, and present a selection of the poems and photographs which form part of her creative writing PhD thesis. Chaired by Roger Blackley.


Snowstorm – Ken Duncum

Ken Duncum
I do this at the first class of every year. It’s a good ice-breaker in itself, and leads to homework which is then the first writing read in class.
I cut up lots of strips of paper – and label three boxes CHARACTERS, LOCATIONS, CONVERSATIONS.
I then dump 200 strips of paper on the table and tell my (10) class members to write an invented character on each strip and put it in the CHARACTER box while saying it out loud.
Characters are briefly named rather than described at length – e.g. lovestruck teenager, seasick pirate, the last woman in the world . . .
When 200 characters have been invented, declaimed aloud and stowed in their box, I dump another 100 strips on the table and we set about inventing locations in the same way – heaven, a treehouse, a sleazy bar . . .
When that’s done, it’s on to ‘things a conversation could be about’. These might be subjects like ‘the existence of God’ or ‘the price of fish’, or could be snippets of lines such as ‘Why don’t you love me?’ or ‘That’s the stupidest haircut I’ve ever seen’ (though that last one probably wouldn’t fit on a strip).
Once that’s done, I give the contents of each box a stir, then each writer has to pick (without looking) two characters out of the CHARACTER box, a location from the LOCATION box and a conversation topic out of the CONVERSATION box.
They read out what they’ve got – e.g. a lovestruck teenager and the last woman in the world in a treehouse talking about that’s the stupidest haircut I’ve ever seen.

Homework is then to write that scene as a script – could be film or theatre – of about three minutes’ duration (no longer) and bring copies for everyone to the next week’s class.
The following week we read them out loud in class.
It’s a good way to start that process because it’s an arbitrary (and kind of silly) exercise, rather than a piece of writing dear to the writer’s heart. Very often the inventiveness of how the writer tackles their task is truly admirable – and sometimes writers have gone on to develop their short homework script into something ‘real’.


Extract from The Exercise Book from VUP.

Ken Duncum is The Michael Hirschfeld Director of Scriptwriting at the IIML. Ken will be at the next Writers on Mondays with the Masters scriptwriting students at Circa Theatre, September 24th 12.15pm, introducing the latest crop of emerging talent. Full WOM programme details here.

True Stories as told by Damien Wilkins

Damien Wilkins, photo by Greta Wilkins

I use this exercise in the first few weeks of the MA workshop. By this time we might have done a few exercises which centre around autobiographical writing. This one frees us from the burden of confession and asks us to enter and create other lives. Newspaper photographs, which are often stagey and awkward, can be great prompts for story. Once you have a face and a few facts, it’s addictive to start reading and writing against the grain. Lawrence Patchett’s wonderful stories about 19th Century NZ are a form of this kind of approach – alternate histories made from real sources.

The other reason I like using the exercise is to remind people about the great Mavis Gallant. Her Collected Stories is almost 900 pages and essential. ‘The Moslem Wife’ is a favourite but once you have that one in your system, there’s nothing to do but push on.

True Stories
‘A journalism student in Germany once told me she was bothered by the fact that the most plain and simple and ordinary news stories could conceal an important falsehood. She gave me an example, say, a couple celebrating their seventieth wedding anniversary. They will sit holding hands for the photographer and they’ve had their ups and downs over the years, but the marriage has been a happy one. The reporter can only repeat what they say. But what if the truth is that they positively hate each other? In that case the whole interview is a lie. I told her that if she wanted to publish the lie perceived behind the interview, she had to write fiction.’
– Mavis Gallant, Paris Review, Winter 1999
Choose a photograph from the newspaper and write a piece of fiction that imagines the lie behind the official truth.

Extract from The Exercise Book from VUP.

In 2013 Damien became the Director of the IIML, having taught in the Masters programme since 2004. He’s the author of numerous books, including six novels. His latest novel Max Gate is published this October.

Using Another Person’s Words in Poetry

Sarah Jane Barnett

I notice that writers do it all the time. Sometimes it will be song lyrics, or a quote by a famous person. I also do it all the time. Other people have such interesting things to say.

A few years ago, after finding a website that featured the last words and criminal reports of death row inmates, I wrote a series of poems about executions in Texas. In some of the poems I quoted the inmate’s last words. What a tricky business. While writing I asked myself some questions. Should I edit the inmates last words? Did my poems exploit the inmates? Was this a form of plagiarism? More recently I’ve used other real words such as a saying from my mother, a report on bird attacks, and lines from a book on geography. These are the tips that I would give to someone who wants to use someone else’s words in a poem.

1. Chop and Change

 My biggest decision when using another person’s words is whether or not they need to be verbatim, or if I can chop and change them to suit the poem. For instance, I felt comfortable changing the location and season of an online report of a bird attacks. Who would care? With the death row poems, it was a little different. It felt unethical to change the inmate’s last words—spoken at possibly one of the most vulnerable moments of their life—for the sake of sound or rhythm. So before writing, decide where that line is for you.

2. Give It To Me Straight

 When using another person’s words, especially if they’re verbatim, I feel it’s necessary to make sure a reader can tell they’re not mine, but not in a footnote kind of way. Actually I did try out the footnote idea, but it made the poem feel a bit stiff. The best ways that I have seen are:

  • italicise the other person’s words
  • attribute the words in the notes section at the end of the book
  • use spacing or line breaks on the page to indicate a change in voice
  • use a different tense to indicate a change in voice
  • make it into dialogue and attribute it that way

For instance, in my death row poem Dennis Dowthitt, I tabbed Dowthitt’s words into three columns so they stand out as being different from the rest of the poem (and also make them sound a little crazy). As his last words are in the first person, I wrote the rest of the poem in the third person so a reader could tell where my voice ended and his began.

3. Last Words

 My last word on using another person’s words is to make sure you have permission. This is a really boring tip. But if you suddenly become sold all over the world (the dream!), and happen to have a quote by The Beatles in your poem, you might find yourself in court. Or if you use a funny thing your mother tends to say, and then publish a book, you might get a brusque “I never said that!”


Sarah Jane Barnett’s first collection of poems, A Man Runs into a Woman, was launched by Hue & Cry Press in August 2012. You can find out more about it on the Hue & Cry Press website. Sarah has a Masters from the IIML, and is currently completing a PhD at Massey University in the field of ecopoetics. You can listen to some of the current MA students from the IIML Writing for the Page workshops read next Monday, September 10th at Te Papa, to get a preview of the latest crop of emerging talent. Full WOM programme details here.

Performance Tips

Bill Manhire

There are many tricks that I have used repeatedly throughout my career to date, and others that I have done only really as one-offs. I am happy in a show to perform effects from either category, in fact I like to mix them up a little. Generally I prefer to use the term ‘effects’ in preference to a word like ‘tricks’, but in the following I will use them interchangeably. A lot of what I say will also apply to most psychic routines and how we lead our lives in general.

•    Let me start with this which will seem odd advice, but it comes from many years on the road and I will offer it anyway: Never let sailors tie knots. Think about that statement and you will soon see that I am right.

•    It is good to make up a programme which has opening, closing, and intermediate effects. Variety is generally a good thing, and order and selection can always be varied for different occasions and conditions. Five well-executed tricks may be better than 25 ordinary ones and could well stay in the audience’s mind a lot longer.

•    Sometimes people will come up after a show or a single trick and say, ‘How did you do it?’ It is no help either to you or them to tell them – they will be disappointed while you will just lose their respect and perhaps an opportunity of future work. In such circumstances it is best to say something like, ‘Can you keep a secret?’ and if they say yes, reply, ‘So can I!’

•    If a trick fails. If a trick fails, just say, ‘The real magician will be here shortly.’ This usually produces a laugh, and a degree of goodwill which can actually be quite helpful to the rest of your performance.

•    Levitation without apparatus. You cannot go past the Balducci Levitation which if you hunt around you can just get off the net.

•    Misdirection is the only way forward. (This is a thought you can revisit many times.)

•    Of course a whole book could be written about misdirection. Another way of making this point is to say that sleight-of-hand is important but is not the be-all and end-all. Work on your patter.

•    You may sometimes find yourself performing in strange venues, such as bare, draughty halls. I once found myself performing at a Lotto outlet, another time at an RSA. You may also have to eat unusual meals with members of community fundraising committees.

•    A sense of vocation. Of course you will make very little money compared to dentists and others. But that is a choice you must make. You do this work because you love it.

•    Even so, I am still sometimes asked: Why do it? Well, if you are lucky, you are creating memories. These are precious. You will be remembered for the overall magic you have brought into people’s lives. Magic is the poetry of the stage. Be on your guard, however, as there can also be a lot of alcohol and drug addiction in this business.

•    After a while, some magicians start to ‘walk through’ their performances, so you must find ways of maintaining your enthusiasm for what you do. Remember, there may be a young boy out there in the audience who himself aspires to be a magician. That boy could have been you once or me.

•    Volunteers. If you get a volunteer up on stage, start by saying, ‘What’s your name, sir?’ If they answer, for example, ‘Bob,’ you then say, ‘Sorry?’ They will say, ‘Bob,’ again, at which point you say, ‘No I heard you, I’m just sorry.’

•    ‘Horses for courses’. What works well in a place like Christchurch will not necessarily go down in Masterton. That said, The Severed Head of Patrick D. Evans is a popular effect which needs little preparation and has made money for me in recent years.

•    Sometimes magicians divide along a line as to whether they belong to the apparatus school or the non-apparatus school. I myself am happy with both. I am not an innovator, I will take my tricks from anywhere. Nevertheless I have always put in the hard yards beforehand.

•    Once I was approached after a show by a beautiful woman who said she wanted to learn my secrets. We talked excitedly all through the night and spent many subsequent weeks and months together. In my heart I dedicate each new show to her. When I am developing new tricks, I often wonder, would she be fooled by this one.

•    Television. Magic on television is not magic. There is no substitute for a live performance of Satan’s Scissors or The Floating Arab. Mostly I prefer the conversational style of presentation, but a more dramatic routine is not without its advantages.

•    Magical ‘teams’. These are a contradiction in terms. A magician works alone, or with an assistant.

•    Likewise feminist magicians. I once sat through a whole show by Fat Girls Walking Slowly and, if I can deal with the subject by putting it this way, I have to admit I was distinctly unimpressed. My note on ‘magical teams’ above is also relevant here.

•    It is important to be neatly dressed, but it is not a good idea to overdo it, especially if you are working with children. For a few years I tried wearing raven’s wings but they were not a great success and I would not recommend them.

•    Of course you need a good name. Blitz the Magician was a good one, likewise Houdini and The Great Benyon. Dave the Wizard I would rule out, but something like Alakazam would be fine. That said, David Blaine could hardly be more famous, so it is hard to give the best advice in this area.

•    While I am on this subject here is a timely quote from David Blaine for all aspiring magicians. ‘Don’t let anybody tell you what to do. When you are doing something you love, it’s easier to succeed at it than doing something you don’t.’

•    This will sound old-fashioned, but a wand is very useful and most audience members expect one.

•    Remember, a good magician is always more than a mere publicity hound. Constant practice and hard work and personal sacrifice are necessary. Sometimes, though, everything will just come together without you even thinking about it and then there is nothing like it. It is truly magical.

•    Finally remember there is always a next level. Getting to the next level inevitably involves more hard work but I think you can do it. In fact, I will be there, in my white cape, waiting for you.


This extract, written by Bill Manhire, is from from The Exercise Book, available in all good book stores or online from VUP.
Bill will be appearing next week, September 3rd, at Writers On Mondays in the event Songs of My Life. The publication of his career-view Selected Poems is the perfect opportunity to profile this major figure in our literature. In his retirement year from Victoria University, it might also be time to lay to rest rumours of warm slippers and the fireside chair. The five-time winner of the New Zealand Book Award for Poetry will read and discuss his work with Damien Wilkins.  Full WOM programme details here.

The Rules from Kirsten McDougall

Kirsten Mc Dougall

Okay, I’m someone who hates wasting my reading time, so if you don’t like the idea of writing ‘rules’ don’t read any further (but do read rule 5).

Personally, I love/hate writing rules. It’s very appealing to think that if you follow The Rules then you will write The Book, but what a load of shite. It’s a bit like those magazines that give you 5 bullet-points for happiness. You should read any rules with a coarse grain of salt. Generally, I only apply the rules that fit with what I’m currently trying to do. I heard on the radio that this is pretty much what humans do – ask questions that support their preconceived answers. The other great thing about these rules, maybe aside from the one about double entendres, is that they can all be applied to running.

I’ve been taking my writing seriously for ten years now. Some days I think I’m getting the hang of it, and then I go and read a book like Prowlers (Maurice Gee’s masterpiece from 1987) and realise that I have neither the talent nor experience. So, until I do, I shall fall back on The Rules. Here are some of the good ones in no particular order, collected just for you.


Read your work aloud to yourself.

Kate Camp told me this years ago – basic good advice. You can hear the sound of your work better out loud. You’ll pick up clangers, repetitions and typos very quickly. You’ll hear your characters’ voices. Does that dialogue sound real or like what a character in a book might say?


Don’t give up your day job.

This one I’ve followed and ignored. You will not make money from writing. You will not be happy if you don’t write. It’s a bind and a constant frustration. The main thing is that if you want to write you must make time for it, regularly, whether it’s your day job or not. The time might be 5am (Nigel Cox) or right through the night (William Faulkner). Whatever. Just do it. (See how the running application works?!)


Rule 5. Every hour get up off your arse and move around for a few minutes.

Okay, this one is from my osteopath. This is probably the only rule anyone should follow. I’ll go further – always follow this rule.


‘Don’t be making time changes on your first page. Give your reader and character a chance to settle.’

This from the astonishing and terrifying Irish short fiction writer Claire Keegan. I sat in on a workshop she ran last year at Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, where she gave out a lot of rules. This was one of them. I’m currently testing it in my next novel, where I have a time change on the first page. I wrote the opening passage, then looked up on my wall and saw this rule. (I hang her rules on my study wall). She’s probably right. We’ll see.


Don’t quote songs.

This is practical advice. It takes an age for a music publisher to give copyright permission and you will need to pay for it. Unless David Bowie is a good friend, don’t use his lyrics in your work.


‘Do not make use of double entendres. Since your work is intended to be overtly erotic, you should only concern yourself with single entendres. If you happen to come across a double entrendre in one of your drafts, a handy trick is to divide it down the middle and move the second half to any section of your manuscript in which entendres may be lacking.’

This is taken from Seth Fried in an article on erotic fiction, read the full article here.

I love this rule for its mathematics. It’s not erotic fiction, but my novella Homefires had a double entendre joke in it. When I wondered aloud the wisdom of putting a joke in a story, Damien Wilkins (my MA teacher while I was writing Homefires) said that he’d read a story with a good joke in it. Well, it’s a good joke and I copy it here for your reading pleasure:

A man walks into a bar and asks the bartender for a double entendre. So the bartender gives him one.

In the future I’ll be using more entendres, double and single, halved and quartered, hung and drawn, in my work.


It’s a long, hard, slow game.

This gem from Gregory O’Brien. He was my first writing teacher back in the day when I thought I might be a poet. He’s talking about marathons. And writing. They’re kind of the same thing.


Write to amuse yourself.

Seriously, if it doesn’t amuse you then what’s the point? This is my litmus test. If the characters and the words on the page aren’t making their own electricity, then probably the scene and the words are dead. Discard and start again. Or find the one sentence that is alive and grow a new paragraph around that. Frances Wilson reviewing Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies in The Observer finished her review saying ‘Mantel, like Cromwell, seems not to mind if we are there or not: she is writing, as he was living, for herself alone, where they said… well, we should all aim to write as entertainingly as Mantel.’ Indeed, we should all aim to write as entertainingly as Hilary Mantel.


Kirsten McDougall’s first book The Invisible Rider was launched last weekend. She was a winner of The Long and the Short of It short story competition in 2011, in which her story ‘Clean hands save lives’ won first prize in the short section. You can catch her at next week’s Writers On Mondays with Gigi Fenster and Lawrence Patchett when they talk about “Blood and Money” on August 27th.  Full WOM programme details here.

Ideas? Search Me

Writers in my MA Scriptwriting class quickly find out they have to come up with a lot of ideas very quickly – sometimes on the spot. And not little ideas – big ideas that could make a feature film or full-length play. My hope is to make them aware (if they’re not already) that they are swimming in an ocean of potential stories – they don’t need to clutch at the first straw that comes floating past, rather they can endlessly make up ideas, audition them, make them compete against each other. It should always be a question of why this idea instead of all the others, what’s the imperative to write this one now?

Earlier this year, when sending the writers off to think up yet more ideas I took pity on them somewhat and produced the following cheat sheet they could use if they felt they were running dry. It’s a series of Google (or search engine of your choice) search terms – pairs of words. A lot of the pairs have got some kind of inbuilt tension, a friction between them, from which drama is likely to spring. The idea is that the real-life stories the search terms reel in from the net provide inspiration for fiction.

This is me trying to be modern – usually I just send idea-challenged writers back to the newspaper, that old-school and reliable compendium of human drama in all its forms.

To throw some arbitrariness into the mix – and prevent uncomfortable racking of uninspired brain – feel free to plug any of the two-word search terms below into Google and follow the results till you feel the tickling of a new idea …

Take what grabs you from the net stories these terms link to, and make your own story for a 30 minute theatre piece.

Search on …

Strange case

Bizarre incident

Family tensions

Desperate dilemma

Sibling rivals

Past haunts

Town divided

Passion proves

Feuding friends

Mystery unsolved

Lovers vow

Ken Duncum is The Michael Hirschfeld Director of Scriptwriting at the IIML. Ken will be  at the next Writers on Mondays with David O’Donnell at Circa. It’s said that, all going well, the playwright/director relationship can be ‘better than a marriage’.  Ken and David will talk about who does what and who did what in their world premiere production of West End Girls (running at Circa, 4 Aug-1 Sept). Where – if anywhere – are the creative divisions between writing a play and directing it? Are they two different things – or different phases of the same thing?