30 March 2008

The Glass Essay by Anne Carson

In a recent comment about verse novels I mentioned The Glass Essay by Anne Carson.

For the last few years, since I first read it, this has been probably my favourite poem. At least I think of it as a (long) poem. Possibly it’s verse novel, or maybe an epic poem. Not too epic though – it’s about 45 pages long – long for a poem, but short for an epic. It’s presented as a series of poems, or sections rather, as they wouldn’t really work on their own.

The Glass Essay is narrative, but not that much actually happens in terms of plot. A woman – the narrator – goes to stay with her aging mother. She walks on the moors, they take a trip to see her father who has advanced Alzhiemers. The narrator is recovering from a break up, and she’s reading a lot of her favourite author: Emily Bronte.

Some of the reasons why I love The Glass Essay so much are: the way the narrator’s story interviews so gorgeously with the life and work of Emily Bronte; the beautiful, spare language; the control the occasional wry trip of humour; the fact that it’s sometimes poetry-as-literary-criticism.

I also love it because I find it really inspiring. She writes differently to how I do, but this poem inspired me to write ‘Passion’, about Emily Bronte, which was published in JAAM 25.

I’m going to try to write a piece about The Glass Essay for A Fine Line, the Poetry Society magazine (wish me luck), so I won’t go into it at length now. But to give you a taster, here’s an extract (below). But wonderously, I’ve just discovered you can read the whole thing online at the Poetry Foundation.


Three silent women at the kitchen table.
My mother’s kitchen is dark and small but out the window
there is the moor, paralyzed with ice.
It extends as far as the eye can see

over flat miles to a solid unlit white sky.
Mother and I are chewing lettuce carefully.
The kitchen wall clock emits a ragged low buzz that jumps

once a minute over the twelve.
I have Emily p. 216 propped open on the sugarbowl
but am covertly watching my mother.

A thousand questions hit my eyes from the inside.
My mother is studying her lettuce.
I turn to p. 217.

'In my flight through the kitchen I knocked over Hareton
who was hanging a litter of puppies
from a chairback in the doorway. . . '

It is as if we have all been lowered into an atmosphere of glass.
Now and then a remark trails through the glass.
Taxes on the back lot. Not a good melon,

too early for melons.

[. . .]

Out the window I can see dead leaves ticking over the flatland
and dregs of snow scarred by pine filth.
At the middle of the moor

where the ground goes down into a depression,
the ice has begun to unclench.
Black open water comes

curdling up like anger. My mother speaks suddenly.
That psychotherapy’s not doing you much good is it?
You aren’t getting over him.

My mother has a way of summing things up.
She never liked Law much
but she liked the idea of me having a man and getting on with life.

Well he’s a taker and you’re a giver I hope it works out,
was all she said after she met him.
Give and take were just words to me

at the time. I had not been in love before.
It was like a wheel rolling downhill.
But early this morning while mother slept

and I was downstairs reading the part in Wuthering Heights
where Heathcliff clings at the lattice in the storm sobbing
Come in! Come in! to the ghost of his heart’s darling,

I fell on my knees on the rug and sobbed too.
She knows how to hang puppies,
that Emily.

26 March 2008

Paul Muldoon/UK literary scene seminar

A couple of weeks ago it was Writers and Readers Week in Wellington, part of the International Arts Festival.

As usual, I failed to go to very much, but I did see a session with Irish poet Paul Muldoon, who now lives in New Jersey. (I also really wanted to see novelist Ian McEwen, but his session had sold out.) He read quite a lot of his work, which I don’t know very well but ought to read more of. I most enjoyed a couple of earlier poems he read, both about his childhood and also about ‘The Troubles’.

The other Writers and Readers Week thing I did was go to a seminar organised by Creative NZ, about the UK literary scene for NZ writers. It was taken by Gary McKeone, who was the head of literature at the UK Arts Council until 2006. He’s now the chair of the Poetry Translation Centre the Poetry Archive and Poetry London.

He talked for a while about how government funding for literature works in the UK, and then we writers asked him a bunch of questions.

There were two main things that I took from his talk. The first is that the average print runs in the UK are not very different those here in New Zealand – about 3000 for a novel and 500-1000 for a collection of poetry. I’d always assumed that because there were more people there’d be more readers, but I guess there are more writers too.

The second thing, was that he encouraged us to submit to UK literary magazines. I’ve never really known where to start, how to find the literary magazines to submit to. He gave me some suggestions (Poetry Review, Poetry London and Dream Catcher) and directed me to The Poetry Library, where there is this listing of UK poetry journals.

Look out English lit mags, as soon as I get myself together, I’ll start submitting.

22 March 2008

Review of JAAM 25

There's a review of JAAM 25 by Amy Brown in The Lumiere Reader.

It's a pretty positive review, picking out the connections between some of the peices and mentioning some favourites, such as Sarah Jane Barnett's poem 'Grandmother' and Craig Cliff's short story 'Christo Redentor'.

I found myself childishly irritated with her criticism of JAAM's paper stock and comment that it isn't the glossiest of literary mags - given that 25 is probably the prettiest yet. But we aren't aiming for glossy (especially given my penchant for matt laminate over gloss), we're aiming for accessible quality.

But she goes on to say: 'It is, however, a consistently well-edited forum for the work of both established New Zealand writers and promising newcomers.'

The Lumiere Reader is a pretty cool site, which I need to spend some more time having a look through. There's lots of reviews and they now include some fiction and poetry.

21 March 2008

Poetry Society: Tim Jones and Jennifer Compton

Last Monday was another good Poetry Society meeting. Everyone who was there during the open reading read at least one poem, including Alan who arrived a little later and without a poem. Lauris presented him with a random poem she'd printed off the net and he read it so fluently and beautifully, with such modulation, that I told him afterwards it was as if he'd practised for hours. But no, he said, he'd never seen the poem before in his life.

Tim Jones (guest editor JAAM 26, for which submissions are closing at the end of this month)was the guest reader. He read work from his latest book All Black's Kitchen Gardens, which came out last year, and his first book Boat People from 2002.

I was pleased he read my favourite poem of his, 'Going Back' (from All Black's Kitchen Gardens), about a journey home after the death of his mother.

My mother is the gap in the windbreak
the fallen macrocarpa
the flooded river and the flooded plain.

Next month, Jennifer Compton will be the guest reader. She's a New Zealand poet and playwright, but has lived in Australia for many years. She's going to be the next Randall Cottage fellow. I've come across Jennifer's work quite often through JAAM, but it will be great to see her read in person.

The meeting is going to be at a new venue: in the Greta Fernie Room of Leuven, cnr Featherston and Johnston streets. The date and time are: Monday 21 April, 7.00pm.

15 March 2008

JAAM 26 editor Tim Jones reads at Poetry Society

For you Wellingtonians, come along to the Poetry Society on Monday 17 March (this Monday), where to hear Tim Jones will be guest reader.

The reading is from 7 pm at the Paramount foyer, Courtenay Place. There'll also be an open reading beforehand.
Tim is a poet, novelist, short story writer and blogger. His second collection, All Blacks' Kitchen Gardens, was published by HeadworX last year.

08 March 2008

Recent poetry reading part II: The Monkey’s Mask by Dorothy Porter

This post is a little belated – I mostly wrote it a few weeks ago before going on holiday, but it didn’t quite make it out of the notebook and into the blog.

So anyway, not too long ago I read The Monkey’s Mask by Dorothy Porter (who I often confuse with Dorothy Parker, about whom I’ve recently read a very interesting and kind of depressing biography).

The Monkey’s Mask is, as they say in Australia, a ‘verse novel’. In 2001 I was a guest at the Subverse poetry festival in Brisbane, and I got the impression that a verse novel had become an essential stage in the development of a poet: after one-to-two poetry collections it’s time for your verse novel. All the poets seemed to have written one, be writing one, or intending to write one.

The blurb on the cover says:

You will encounter things that you never expected to find in a poem – a missing person enquiry, a tough streetwise P.I. named Jill Fitzpatrick, cars that go out of control on mountain roads, murder, deception and an unforgettable femme fatale. You will find yourself reading the crime thriller of the year.
Sound tacky? To be honest, it kinda is. The fast pace pulled me through the 256 page book pretty swiftly, but at the end I felt kind of cheated. The story seemed clichéd and predictable, and I don’t even read crime fiction. I picked the killer pretty early on, because he was the nicest guy in the whole book. I hoped that, because she's a poet and poets are pretty smart, she was leading me down a path and she’d surprise me at the end. But no.

I’m really interested in narrative poetry – the beautiful, spare but rich way that poems can tell stories. Over the last few years my poetry has tended towards the narrative. My next collection, My Iron Spine (which will be published later this year – watch this space), is mainly narrative poetry: biographical and autobiographical. I’ve even been considering joining the Aussies and writing my long-talked-about (by me that is) novel Cartography as a 'verse novel'.

The thing about poetry that makes it poetry, for me anyway, is the intensity of language. But, while being written as poetry (a series of shortish poems- 1–2 pages each) gave the narrative of The Monkey’s Mask a nice stripped-backness, I found the poetry pretty bland. I recall noticing some nice images on my way through, but flicking through it now, I can’t find them, so you’ll have to just believe me.

I think Dorothy Porter is a really good poet– I’ve read some of her other work and really liked it, so I had high hopes for The Monkey’s Mask. But I guess my main feeling after reading it was that if someone had submitted it to me for publication, I would have said that it’s a really cool idea, and definitely worth pursuing, but that the poetry could do with some more work and the cliche's 'reconsidered'.

But what would I know! – it won the Age Book of the Year for Poetry, the National Book Council Award for Poetry and the Braille Book of the Year. (It’s also been adapted for stage and radio and film.)

Has anyone else read it? What did you think? Anyone else read any verse novels?