29 June 2008

Poetry competition judging/What I like in poems

Hello again. It's been a whole week since I've posted, and a very busy week at that. One of the major reasons I haven't been blogging, or indeed even reading blogs, is because I have been finishing judging the Junior Open (age 17 and under) section of the NZ Poetry Society International Poetry Competition, and writing the judge's report.

I've found it a really valuable experience. First of all, I enjoyed reading the poetry and was surprised at how good some of it was. I say in my report that I was expecting imagination and promise, but I wasn't expecting poetry that was just actually really good. But I think that all the winning poems are good by 'grown-up' standards.

The other thing that was really interesting was that judging the poems and writing the report made me really think about what attracts me to individual poems. I didn't come to the poems with set criteria, and neither do I when I'm selecting work for JAAM magazine, but I have noticed that there are things that make a poem work well for me, and it was really interesting to figure this out.

  • I like poems to resonate with me and connect with me, which usually means it makes me feel something. Sometimes that’s a feeling of recognition (‘Yes, I’ve felt like that’), or sometimes a feeling of understanding (‘Now I understand what that feels like’). Sometimes it might just make me laugh, or think about things in a new way.
  • I like poems to surprise me. I don’t like to know where the poem is going – like I’ve read it before.
  • I enjoy unexpected metaphors and similes.
  • I enjoy poems with interesting ideas or new ways of looking at things.
  • I like poems in which all the words seem right and necessary. Where the words flow smoothly and the poem isn’t overwritten.
  • I also like poems to sound lovely when I read them outloud. That usually means that that the rhythm 'flows' and isn't clunky - even 'free' verse has rhythm, it just isn't 'regular'. I've also grown to like subtle alliteration and assonance.
  • I like poems that end in the right place. This depends very much on the poem: sometimes ending with a twist or a bang is nice, but sometimes a quieter ending is right. (I often find that the way to fix an ending that isn’t working is to just cut it out altogether).

So now my first experience of judging a poetry competition is over, and I think it has gone rather well.

22 June 2008

Book awards fiction scandal shocker

They’re all blogging about it. It’s the controversy of the decade. Or perhaps of the year. In New Zealand. Among bookish types. Who pay attention to local literature. Ok, so maybe a storm in a teacup, but that’s still quite a storm for the folks in the teacup.

So, basically what’s happened is that the judges for this year’s Montana Book Awards have shortlisted only four books in the fiction category, rather than the usual five.

Various writers and other book people are up in arms. That’s one fewer novel or short story collection that will have one of those little gold shortlisted stickers on the cover, which means one fewer book that will sell more copies than it otherwise might. One fewer writer who will get the recognition boost and general validation that shortlisting would bring.

But the fuss really got going when one of the judges said ‘While there were other great books [nominated], we did not want to dilute the Montana sticker by promoting a fifth.’ As you might expect, that rather p’d a whole bunch of people off.

You can read more about it in Paula Morris’s really interesting article in the Listener, and also on her blog; on Beattie’s Book Blog, where he describes the furore as a ‘major blunder, and a PR disaster’ (it’s also worth reading the comments, where various literatti-about-town have a bit of an argue). Over on McGovern Online, Paul Reynolds isn’t so opinionated about this particular controversy, but he’s spitting that Hamish Keith’s book-of-the-TV-series Big Picture was shortlisted in the non-fiction category.

I’ve been having a bit of a think about all of this over the last few days, and while I can understand why people are upset, I also think we should should leave the judging to the judges. Actually, that isn’t what I think at all – I think we should all keep judging to our heart’s content, but I accept that these judges have been selected to decide what they think should win this year.

But anyway, it also got me thinking about book awards, why we have them, what we want from them, and what they actually do. So I’m going to have a bit of a go at unpicking some of this, but don’t expect anything too incisive because it is, after all, Sunday morning.

I think what we want from awards is some kind of omnipotent and definitive judgement of what is the best book of the year. And we want to reward that book, and it’s writer, with attention, admiration and increased sales.

Many problems with that obviously – including the lack of omnipotent force to judge the awards, and the lack of a definitive standard – what the best book is will being very much down to taste. I assume the judges are selected because they are seen to be people with knowledge about books and local literature. Being human, they will come along with their own tastes, preconceptions and biases, which will inevitably affect their decisions. They will try and be fair and pick and reward the books they collectively consider the best books of the year, of a certain ‘literary’ sort. We hope that the judges’ tastes will mirror our own, but it will be a fluke if it does.

(There's no room for general or genre fiction really, and I was kind of astounded that Paula Morris knew/thought 'there was no chance of Trendy But Casual getting on the shortlist ... It’s a comedy set in New York, which involved the three Rs – romance, reality TV, and Rapstallion, a rap star with a pink-maned horse, who appears in a hip-hopera called “Mary Rappins.” It’s hardly a novel that screams NEW ZEALAND’S PREMIERE LITERARY AWARD.' Surely subject matter shouldn't prevent it being considered, but she's probably right.)

If we’re a writer, we’d hope (most likely) that the judges will pick our book, because it will validate us and our work, make us feel appreciated, make our work known to a wider range of readers, and will hopefully prove once and for all to our families that we are useful members of society (should clarify that I don’t think my family needs such proof).

Publishers (and, let’s admit it, writers) hope that our authors will be picked because it will make the book sell better. Also it will make people think we’re a good publisher for being smart enough to back such a writer.

Readers sometimes look to awards as a guide of what they should read, what’s good. This made me wonder whether many ‘classic’ novels (I guess I mean ones which have stood the test of time and are generally considered great) won any awards. I know some books I consider important, such as Lolita and Ulysses, had quite a lot of trouble actually getting published in the first place, so I’d be surprised if they got awards at the time.

But I guess the thing I like about awards is that they put a little spotlight, for a little while, on literature. And to be honest I think this controversy is good, because it’s doing that too – making people a little bit aware of local writing.

21 June 2008

Why Sean writes

His blog is almost two week's old, and he's written a few posts now, so I think it's time to formally welcome Sean to the blogosphere. Sean's blog, Why I write, is his honest, thoughtful and amusing exploration of the reasons why he writes, as you would expect. Some of you have already discovered his blog, and you are particularly clever.

Sean mostly writes screenplays, so some of his reasons will resonate more than others with writers of other genres. Poets may not nod their heads in agreement with 'For the money', for example, but then again that doesn't work out very well for most screenwriters either, especially in New Zealand!

15 June 2008

Biographies, part IV: Biographical Fictions

Back in nineteen-ninety-mumble, when I was doing honours in English lit, I took a course called ‘Biographical Fictions’. It ranged around quite a bit – from autobiographical fiction (The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath), to fiction that was biography (Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes), fiction that was fictionally autobiographical (Margaret Atwoods’s Lady Oracle), to theories and ideas about biography and autobiography, and ideas and theories about the self. It’s a fascinating area.

Sometimes biographers are people who like the idea of hanging out with people who would never deign to hang out with them in real life. Sometimes they are sycophants, sometimes they’re revenge-seekers. Though most of the time I think they are simply interested people who are trying to find some kind of truth and/or coherent story in the piles of untidiness that a life is.

I think one of the best books about the politics and practice of biography is Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman. Has anyone else read this? What did you think? It’s about the Sylvia Plath biography industry and, in particular, the ‘authorised’ biography Bitter Fame by Anne Stevenson – authorised by Plath’s former sister-in-law, with who she didn’t really get on. The Silent Woman is a wonderful mix of journalism, biography and autobiography. Last time I read it I decided it was one of the best books I’d ever read – though, weirdly, that wasn’t how I felt the first time (I seem to recall thinking it was mean-spirited, but I can’t any longer see why I thought that).

Another cool thing about the course was that for the major essay you could writing a piece of biography – though, being academic and all, you needed to explore some of the ideas about biography we’d been discussing in the course. I wrote what I called a ‘bio-autography’ – I stole the term from somewhere or other – about my friend Wiremu, who had killed himself when we were 18, and about the place where our lives – and his death – intersected.

I explored particularly that idea that when you writing about someone, you bring them back to life. Since he’d died, about three years prior to the essay, I’d been compelled to write about him. The essay was really cathartic – I healed a lot through writing it – I’d been carrying around his death with me every day for three years, but after that I was able to let it go.

I got a good mark too, but the lecturer, in his comments, did tell me he thought it was more of an elegy than a bio-autography, and that the greatest in English is Thomas Gray’s ‘Sonnet on the Death of Richard West’: ‘Take that simply as a reading recommendation; or as a subtle hint that Gray did it in 14 lines’! I've just reread the essay, and I have to say that he does have a point.

12 June 2008

Biographies, part III: the real reason I like them

This poem, which was in Abstract Internal Furniture, possibly explains why we really like biographies:

The Lives of the Dead and Famous

i was reading a biography of
Dora Carrington
and don’t think
this is confessional, don’t
imagine i’m
enough to think
you’re interested in my life
my angst
my problems

because i know
we’re only interested
in ourselves
that we read books
about other people
out of a feigned interest
in their lives,
when all
we’re really looking for
are little mirrors
hidden in the text
small fragments of our-
selves imbedded in the lives
of the dead and famous

11 June 2008

Biographies, part II: the ones I haven’t liked

Some of biographies I haven’t enjoyed, and sometimes (gasp) haven’t even finished, have been ones that are badly written in a particular dull kind of way. There have been surprisingly few of these.

The other kind of biography I haven’t liked are the ones that have such a strong ‘angle’ on the person that clashes with my own. Though you probably need to have read quite a bit about the subject to recognise the angle.

A few years ago I read pretty much everything about Katherine Mansfield. Apart from my own interest in her (and I’d read most of these biographies already because of that), I was also working with Sean on a screenplay for a biopic about her (which we will rewrite at a later date, when we’re better writers).

I ended up disliking all of the biographies, because of the way each biographer ‘owned’ and presented Mansfield. Anthony Alpers has his patronising ‘isn’t she a naughty monkey’ thing going, while Jeffrey Meyers clearly thought she was a bit of a grumpy bitch. I forget the problem with Claire Tomalin's, but she did keep on going on an on about that plagiarism thingy. Anyway, by that stage, after all the reading and thinking and writing and interpreting, I felt that I knew understood Mansfield – or rather, Katherine, as I was referring to her by then – better than those biographers. It’s kind of hard to stop yourself from feeling like you own your subject.

By the by, two of the KM books I most enjoyed were LM’s (aka Ida Baker) Memories of LM, in which KM really did come across as a bitch, and John Middleton Murry’s first and only (he never did finish the rest) volume of autobiography, Between Two Worlds, which I decided had the most accurate portrait of KM, simply because it was one I liked. I felt LM that at least they were entitled to their points of view, because at least they actually knew her.

09 June 2008

Chris Orsman reads at Poetry Society

The June meeting of the Poetry Society, which is also the AGM, features Chris Orsman as the guest reader. Chris's book the lakes of mars has just been published by Auckland University Press. I think it's his third book of poetry.

I really particularly enjoyed his last book South: An Antarctic Journey, which was about Scott's expedition to the South Pole. So I'm looking forward to reading this new collection, and I'm looking forward to hearing him read from it, hopefully.

The meeting is on Monday, 16 June, 7pm at Turnbull House, Bowen St

08 June 2008

Biographies, part I

I love reading biographies; especially ones about interesting and inspirational people. I particularly enjoy biographies of writers, looking at how they became writers and why, what they wrote about and why, and what they were trying to achieve – though I usually find anyone’s life fascinating – so long as the biography is half-way decently written, I’ll enjoy it.

Biographies are so wonderful because you don’t only learn about the biographee (if that is, indeed, a word), you also learn about their time and place in history, the people they knew. You get a glimpse into their world and what else was going on at the time. This struck me particularly when I was reading a biography of Ada Byron (aka Ada Lovelace) and I was introduced to steam engines and the difference railways made to people in England at the time.

One biography will usually spark me to another – suddenly I’ll become interested in a bit player. While reading a biography about Dorothy Parker, I wanted to know more about F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, so hunted around the second-hand bookshops for a bio. And recently I was reading a book that mentioned Vita Sackville-West, read Portrait of a Marriage, about her marriage to Harold Nicolson (and her affair with Violet Trefusis), and then read a rather large biography all about her by Victoria Glendinning. The biography had quite a bit about Virginia Woolf, and so I’m now reading a biography about her, and I have plans to read Mrs Keppel and her daughter, about Violet T.

The Vita Sackville-West biography had quite an affect on me. I didn’t really know that much about her – I knew vaguely that she’d written books – my impression was that they were all about gardening. I knew she had an unconventional marriage. The main thing people know her for now is her friendship/relationship with Virginia Woolf, and that Orlando was sort of about her.

Turns out that she was actually pretty famous at the time (‘the time’ being the 1920s and 30s) – better known and more widely read than Woolf. She wrote novels and poetry (the gardening books came later), she won awards, she seemed to be a serious prospect for poet laureate. Part of the reason, it seems, that she was both so successful early on and so quickly forgotten, is because she was already old-fashioned. She was an Edwardian, even though she only died in 1962; she was an aristocrat used to privilege. She was contemporary with people like T S Eliot, but it is like they were working in quite different eras. By the end of her life she was regretful about her writing. She didn’t rate it, she knew she didn’t understand contemporary poetry, she was becoming forgotten.

Reading a biography so quickly, particularly someone who had a pretty decent-length life (as opposed to the die-young tragedies), makes life seem so short. Makes you feel like you need to get out there and do stuff, and write stuff. (While reading the later part of the book I was feeling a niggling anxiety that I shouldn’t be reading this, I should be writing. I had to remind myself that it was around midnight on a Friday night and really I didn’t need to feel guilty about not writing at that hour.)

It also reminded me that I need to keep on challenging myself with my own writing – pushing the boundaries of art and form, as Virginia Woolf did, which is why we remember her, seems like too big an aim – but pushing myself to be innovative and original in my own work is important. And I’ll try to keep doing that.

02 June 2008

My Iron Spine cover

So this is the draft of my cover for My Iron Spine, my second collection of poetry. It will probably change a bit - we've been talking about changing the typeface - but I'm pretty happy with it. I wanted something very red. Red, blood, flesh and lipstick all feature often in the poems in the collection. Also red is a very vibrant colour, and my hope of course is that it will attract poetry people like flowers attract bees. And yes, as has also been noted by several of the people I showed my various cover ideas and versions to, it will match my wardrobe (I pretty much only wear read and black).
I decided I'd go with a corset on the cover because a) I think they're cool, b) many of the women who feature in the biographical poems in My Iron Spine lived during times when corsets were common, c) a major theme in the collection is constriction and suffocation and such like versus comfort and strength, often coming from the same thing, d) I went to the trouble of painting it.

01 June 2008

Poetry in the mail: broadsheet and Papyri

Recently I received two cool poetry things in the post.

The first was the first issue of broadsheet: new new Zealand poetry. This is a new twice-yearly poetry journal, published by Mark Pirie. As he explains in his preface, last year he printed a number of single broadsheets with poems by people such as Meg Campbell, Michael O’Leary and Basim Furat. They were very pretty and very cool, so am disappointed that he wasn’t able to get them stocked in bookshops.

But instead, Mark has collected them together, with a few poems by other writers, into this new journal. It’s invitation only at present, so he won’t be reading submissions. It will soon be available from independent bookshops, but also via HeadworX.

You won’t be able to see from the pic quite how gorgeous Papyri is, but take my word for it. The red text on the cover is hand printed, it’s hand bound with red thread, and is on textured creamy paper. As soon as I opened the envelope, I felt an overwhelming urge to publish lots of chapbooks (Scarab being my only chapbook so far).

Papyri: love poems & fragments from Sappho and elsewhere, by Jack Ross, was published by Michael Steven’s Soapbox Press. (I met Michael, quite serendipitously on my trip to Auckland in February.) Jack Ross described the poems as ‘versions of Sappho’ . They're reworked translations with a nice, poised but contemporary voice to them. Compare, for example this version of a poem translated by William Harris:

I just really want to die.
She, crying many tears, left me
And said to me:
“Oh, “how terribly we have suffered, we two,
Sappho, really I don't want to go away.” And I said to her this:
Go and be happy, remembering me,

to Jack Ross’s version:

I’m sure
I want to die

She left me in floods of tears
Sappho, I feel like such a bitch

but I’ve got to go
Go if you want to
I replied

but think of me

June Howltearoa - tomorrow

From the Word Collective:

I would like to announce another evening of Howltearoa this coming Monday, 2nd of June, at the Southern Cross, at 7:30

As with all Howltearoa events it will be stacked with poets, rhymers, singer/songsters, fans of doggerel and high verse. We would love to see you there to be a part of or simply listen and enjoy.

To accompany this open mic set will be a performance of work from local artist/filmaker and poet Dra McKay.

I look forward to seeing you there.