26 January 2014

Reading Virginia Woolf's diary

Virginia Woolf, 1939
It was Virginia Woolf's birthday yesterday - she was born in 1882.

She kept a journal from 1915 until she died (in 1941). I'm not reading the whole thing (there are volumes and volumes), I'm reading a selection that focuses on what she wrote in her diary related to writing. I do love reading writers' diaries and journals, but there's always a somewhat uncomfortable feeling when you're reading someone else's private writing.

In some of the early pages she wonders what future Virginia will make of these pages when she reads of them - she hadn't imagined another audience for her diary except herself. I had to keep reminding myself of that sometimes when reading - when she says something really snobbish or nasty or vain - it's not really fair to judge someone harshly on the things they write only for themselves (God knows I would hate for people to read my private thoughts! I have left instructions for my journals to be burned unread so no one knows how shallow I really am...), but nevertheless it's hard not to.

I had previously read some of the bitchy things she's said about Katherine Mansfield (as well as some of the admiring things), so I was compared. I did have to put the book down for a bit when I read her thoughts about Don Quixote:
writing was then storytelling to amuse people sitting around the fire without any of our desires for pleasure. There they sit, women spinning, men contemplative, and the jolly fanciful delightful tale is told to them, as to grown up children ... So far as I can judge, the beauty and thought come in unawares: Cervantes scarely concious of serious meaning ... Indeed, that's my difficulty - the sadness, the satire, how far are they ours, not intended.
I have to confess that I haven't actually read Don Quixote (yet), and I know that the time and situation you live in will of course alter how you read a book, but to imply that a book was accidentally good or satirical, and that those childish people in the past couldn't possibly understand or feel quite to anything like the same level as Victorians was pretty infuriating.

Moments like that aside, it's a fabulous book, giving an insight into this particular writer's mind and processes, and her conflicted feelings about wanting her work to be popular, and not caring if it isn't. There are lots of wonderful quotes, like this one more about how she felt about Jacob's Room, her third novel:
There's no doubt in my mind that I have found out how to begin (at 40) to say something in my own voice; and that interests me so that I feel I can go ahead without praise.
Several years in - by 1926 - she was considering that there could be another audience for her diaries:
But what is to become of all these diaries, I asked myself yesterday. If I died, what would Leo [Leonard - her husband] make of them? He would be disinclined to burn them; he could not publish them. Well, he should make up a book from them, I think; and then burn the body. I daresay there is a little book in them; if the scraps and scratching were straightened out a little.

Finally, here's a thing that has been floating around the internet lately, the only surviving recording of her speaking:

20 January 2014

A book that caught my eye: I'm Working on a Building by Pip Adam

Recently I had the opportunity to write a piece for the Book Council about a book that had caught my eye, design-wise. After a few days considering what I wanted to write about, I settled on a book I'd finished reading (twice - once forward, once backward). This isn't so much about the graphic design of the cover, but more about the physical/structural design of the cover, and how how it reflects the novel inside.

A book that caught my eye: Helen Rickerby

It isn’t until you hold the book in your hands and begin to read that you’ll really get just how disorienting the cover design of I’m Working on a Building by Pip Adam is.

We all know how book covers work: there’s a back and a front and a spine. The spine is on the left of the front cover, and the right of the back cover. We know how novels work: characters move through time chronologically (even if there are flashbacks); there’s a beginning, a middle and an end – in that order. But let go of what you think you know…

Read the rest on the Book Council site...

13 January 2014

Careless People and The Great Gatsby, or, What I read on my holiday

My main holiday book this year was Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby, by Sarah Churchwell, which was - as I mentioned in an earlier post - awesome, and I'm going to devote this entire post to it.

This book, which describes itself on its back cover as 'the biography of a book' (the book being The Great Gatsby, which I should say at the outset that I love - I even loved the recent Baz Luhrmann film, somewhat to my surprise). It's kind of a carnival of a book. It's wide-ranging, academic while not being dull (or having footnotes - though it does have an extensive and scholarly notes section), and also is lots of fun and easy to read. It's an academic book for a general audience in a way - and I for one think more academic books should be like this. Brainy but fun.

It weaves discussion and interpretation of The Great Gatsby with especially relevant biographical info about the author, F. Scott Fitzgerald, his wife Zelda and their milieu, with contemporary trivia and current events that are likely to have had some influence on the story - especially the 1922 Hall-Mills case: a double murder of a rector and his lower-class choir-singer lover who aspired to greater things.

Scott and Zelda in the 1920s

A great deal of the book is concerned with 1922, the year the novel is set, and also the year F. Scott and Zelda returned to New York after a brief time back in the Midwest, and lived and partied on Long Island. It's also the year that the verb 'partied' had it's first recorded use: in a letter by poet e. e. cummings, in which he described a night spent with the New York literary crowd.

There is a whole fabulous section devoted to the language of the time. The book quotes Virginia Woolf, who, in 1925, said in an essay about American fiction: 'The Americans are doing what the Elizabethans did - they are coining new words. They are instinctively making the language adapt itself to their needs ... Nor does it need much foresight to predict that when words are being made, a literature will be made out of them.'

On the next page of Careless People lists words that were first used in the 1920s (including many I thought would have been much earlier, or much later - such as post-feminist), and then is a list of words that were first used in 1922: 'brand-name, Hollywood, moviegoing, rough cut, performative, robot, sparkly, schlep, dimwit, no-brow, oops, multilayered, rebrand, mass market, broadcasting and broadcaster, finalize, lamé, sexiness, transvestite, gigolo, to proposition, libidinal, post-Freudian, cold turkey, quantum mechanics, polyester, vacuum, notepad, duplex, Rolex, entrepreneurial and party-crashing '. I took the 1922 words along as a prompt to my New-Year's-Day writing session. Two of us wrote poems that included sparkly lamé at a party!

This is a bit of a digression, but I took another couple of quotes quoted in this book along to our next writing session as prompts. Firstly:
The artist, wrote Conrad, shines 'the light of magic suggestiveness' on 'the commonplace surface of words: of the old, old word, worn thin, defaced by ages of careless usage.'
This book is full of gems like that!

And, secondly, F.Scott Fitzgerald himself:
And lastly from that period I remember riding in a taxi one afternoon between very tall buildings under a mauve and rosy sky; I began to bawl because I had everything I wanted and knew I would never be so happy again.'
Tragic! But beautiful while being tragic. And also I clearly don't agree with his philosophy on happiness. But anyway...

The more I learn about F. Scott Fitzgerald the more amazed I am that he wrote The Great Gatsby, which to my mind is such a wise and insightful book. Fitzgerald himself does not appear to have been especially wise: he was a bit of a clown and was destroyed by alcoholism. It seems to me now that he wrote a book that is better and wise than he is/was. I feel the same about Tolstoy. I find it magical and wonderful that sometimes we can write above ourselves. (I once wrote a character who I'm quite sure was funnier than I am, though I don't know if I've been wiser, or even wise.)

Another big reflection of mine after reading Careless People is how I, and I think most present-day readers of The Great Gatsby, didn't realise quite how topical the novel was at the time it was published, how the events in it - the car crashes, the parties, the murders, the jazz age, etc - were so of the time. I mean, surely I knew but seemed to have forgotten that it is set during the prohibition - so no wonder so many people flocked to Gatsby's parties, where alcohol was free and also of high quality. Apparently hundreds of people (mostly poor people) died from drinking alcohol that had been made out of industrial alcohol, to which the government had added poison in an attempt to stop people drinking it. No wonder anti-prohibitionists in NZ used the US example as a reason to not ban alcohol!

When The Great Gatsby was first published, people by and large seem to have been unable to see past that up-to-the-minute surface. One early reviewer, Isabel Paterson, said that it was 'an imponderable and fascinating trifle,' that had not 'gone below that glittering surface, except by a kind of happy accident' and 'What has never been alive cannot very well go on living: so this book is of the season only...' She continues: 'He gets the exact tone, the note, the shade of the season and the place he is working on; he is more contemporary than any newspaper'.

As Sarah Churchwell says:
Fitzgerald's first readers could only see one half of the meaning of the book, its entaglement with the facts and contexts of the day, and were blind to its transcendent meanings. We tend now to focus on those universal meanings, letting our myths and misapprehensions about the 1920s take the place of facts about Fitzgerald's world. Each moment mistakes the part for the whole, seeing only one side of his book, the other side obscured by the darkness of the era's own blind spots, the lustre of the moon half hidden by the shadows of the earth.
The initial print run of The Great Gatsby was 20,000 copies and the reprint of 3,000 copies never sold out during F. Scott Fitzgerald's lifetime (his previous two books sold more than twice that). Fitzgerald, who had enjoyed early success and notoriety, had become largely forgotten, or at least dismissed, by the time he died in 1940. (He was only 44, but had been prematurely aged by alcohol.) His last royalty cheque, which covered a year, was for $13.13. His funeral had a few more attendees than Gatsby's, but not many. The minister who agreed to bury him 'charmingly' said: 'The only reason I agreed to give the service, was to get the body in the ground. He was a no-good, drunken bum, and the world was well rid of him.'

But it didn't take too many years for Fitzgerald's reputation to increase again, and especially appreciation for The Great Gatsby. And it might be true that we only see part of his work now, as Churchwell suggests, but we do generally now see through the surface of the novel to the universalness, the timelessness, the humanness of the novel. I kind of which Fitzgerald could know that - that his work is appreciated after all.

11 January 2014

My first writing session

Write a persona poem from the perspective of a dance, singing or instrument teacher about a student.

I am sitting at Maria's table with Maria, Helen and Helen. We're having a writing session. Above is my prompt.

I want to follow the rules, but I know that my immediate response would be a cliche, and I think that's often my problem with writing. And so I want to twist it somehow, weirden it a little. Make it not the nostalgic bittersweet thing that I first jumped to, that everyone could jump to, but something else. Something surprising and slippery. But there's the difficulty - how to turn it over, how to see it new? Perhaps the teacher is other than I expect, perhaps she is younger, not older, than the student. Perhaps she is not jealous of her student, or proud of them - him, her? Perhaps it's not about their relationship at all. Is it dance, is it music? What kind?
And then the time ran out and I never did write that poem....

09 January 2014

A sort of a review of 2013 but mainly a list of the books I read (or at least the ones I can remember)

In my last post I said that 2013 had been a bit crap, which is true - there were some crappy things that happened. The main bad thing was discovering that we needed to do a LOT of work on our downstairs flat after our tenant of forever (well, seven years) left, and the money and time and especially the stress that ensued.

But many good things also happened, and I had lovely times with friends and family and so forth. It just got a bit much at the end of the year!

Principal among the good things of the year was having an enthusiastic publisher (Mary McCallum of Mākaro Press) want to publish Cinema (which, as I said in my last post, is coming out next year). I also really enjoyed doing some finishing work on Cinema, and getting some really good and helpful feedback from Mary and also from Anna Jackson.

Another highlight was publishing two fantastic new books - as Seraph Press: Paula Green's The Baker's Thumbprint and Maria McMillan's The Rope Walk.

Other highlights were the lovely poetry conference in Hawke's Bay and especially getting to read at it;  talking to writing students about publishing and publishing students about editing for the web (a bit of a step outside my comfort zone); a great trip to Auckland in May to launch The Baker's Thumbprint, attend (a little bit of) the Auckland Writers Festival and hang out with friends; restarting a writing group with a bunch of my friends (most of whom were part of the JAAM writing groups that the eponymous magazine came out of in 1995); launching the latest issue of JAAM, and oh a bunch of other stuff. Like going away for long weekends with Sean. That's always lovely.

And somehow I seem to have read quite a lot this year. Mainly novels and non-fiction - my poetry reading seems to have been a bit thin.

Among the poetry that I can remember off the top of my head, I read and enjoyed Kate Camp's Snow White's Coffin, Rachel O'Neill's debut collection One Human in Height, Janis Freegard's The Continuing Adventures of Alice Spider. Gosh, there's surely more! Oh, and the lovely Night Swimming by Kiri Piahana-Wong. A big highlight was actually reading an unpublished poetry sequence by Anna Jackson. It's called I, Clodia and is in the voice of an ancient Roman woman (and gf of Catullus). You too can enjoy it probably sometime this year - it will be in Anna's next book.

This is some other stuff I read that I can remember:
  • Biographies of Virginia Woolf. I read two of these, one after the other. The first was a shorter, introductory sort of biography. I think it was a necessary introduction to the other, much longer and more in-depth biography by Hermione Lee.
  • I had quite a run of New Zealand fiction, beginning with The Last Days of the National Costume by Anne Kennedy. I've mainly only read Anne's poetry (I especially recommend The Darling North), but she's a fantastic novelist too. The strongest part of the book for me is the middle, where one character talks about his childhood in Northern Ireland. It was amazing. Riveting and straight to the heart.
  • Dead People's Music and The Fall of Light by Sarah Laing. Both were great, and I loved the images in The Fall of Light. I also read four collections of her comics, which I bought off her after a talk at the National Library. I've been really enjoying her comics online, especially the ones that feature Katherine Mansfield (often interwoven with Sarah's own life). I'm really looking forward to reading her completed graphic novel about Katherine Mansfield (being the big fan of KM that I am).
  • The Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley by Danyl McLauchlan. It was strange and exciting to read about my own neighbourhood, albeit reflected in a rather distorting and somewhat grotesque mirror! Also cool to read about characters based on people I actually know (also distorted). I was a bit disappointed that The Campbell Walker, while a great villain, didn't seem much like the real Campbell Walker, who I think would also make an excellent cult leader. The launch of this book was also a highlight, not just for Danyl's hilarious launch speech (Sean said it was the best launch speech he'd ever heard, which of course offended me greatly as he's been at all my launches), but because we got to nose around inside the School of Philosophy on Aro Street, which we've all been dying to see inside for years.
  • The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. I started reading this when I wasn't very well, hence I could devote the necessary vast swathes of time to it. Consequently it only took me a week to read (and really only in the weekends). And, for all its size, it is quite a fast read. It took me a little while to get over the fact that a book I knew was written by a young woman who lives in Auckland sounded like it was written by a bunch of crusty old Victorian gentlemen, especially at the beginning. But once I got past that dissonance I was impressed with the writing. And the end gets rather spare and lovely. It certainly is ambitious and, while it didn't entirely connect with me, I'm delighted she won the Man Booker Prize, and I loved her speech and her philosophy of writing. I was also pleased I'd read it before she won the Booker, so I could become the resident expert on The Luminaries at work, as the only person on my floor to have read it.  
  • I'm Working on a Building by Pip Adam. Conversely, this is quite a small novel, but it took me ages to read in little bites. I wanted to savour it and give it space. It's a book that builds up piece by piece, and the characters, especially the protagonist, don't reveal themselves to us in a hurry, but it's worth the wait. It's like there are concrete blocks under the words, giving it weight and density that I didn't expect from the size. Its chronology runs backwards, chapter by chapter, and it's like nothing I've ever read. I think this is an amazing and important book. I've written about it for the Book Council's online newsletter thing, so I'll link to that when it's up.
  • Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers by Janet Malcolm. I love Janet Malcolm's writing, and these articles and essays are almost all amazing. Especially the longer ones - towards the end were some shorter pieces that I'm not sure deserved collecting, but still, great book.
  • Memoir of Silence by Lloyd Jones. I love me a good wide-ranging, thinky memoir, and this didn't disappoint. While my family isn't quite like his, I related to the things he was remembering and exploring, and the story he uncovered about his mother is fascinating and rather sad. 
  • Artful by Ali Smith. I'm still not sure what this book is. I mean, its several lectures that Ali Smith gave about art and stuff, which mix fact and fiction, but I'm still not sure where the fact ends and fiction starts. They purport to be based on notes that the author's partner (who is haunting her) left when she died, but I think (from reading the internet) that Smith's partner is alive and well, and that Smith herself is not in fact a tree surgeon. Anyway, lots of lovely things along the way, though I wasn't quite sure what it all added up to when I was finished. Also, for some reason these lectures didn't seem to go through a usual editing process when they were published, and so things like book titles weren't in italics when they should be, and for some reason that niggled at me quite a bit. Gosh, that all sounds much more negative than I feel about it - it was a joy to read, with lots of little treasures.
  • The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. I finally got around to reading this. I'm a big fan of Margaret Atwood - I wrote my masters thesis on fairy tale intertextuality in her fiction, but I actually haven't really liked anything she's written since Alias Grace (which came out while I was writing my thesis and I managed to sneak it in). Has she changed, or have I? I feel that she has become more propagandistic and less artful, and also just less good. Possibly I disliked The Year of the Flood slightly less than Oryx and Crake, of which it is the sequel, but then I also had lower expectations. I started to read MaddAddam, but stopped after a few pages because I just didn't want to continue. Maybe I'll finish it this year - they're a trilogy and I do hate a loose end. No, that's a lie, I love loose ends in all sorts of things, but I do usually finish what I've started.
  •  The last book I read in 2013 was A British Picture: an Autobiography by Ken Russell, which I devoured in a couple of days after Sean gave it to me for Christmas. It's great! Whatever you might think of Ken Russell's movies, he sure can write. This was thematic rather than chronological, which I really liked. I love his movies, even when they're awful, and it has sent me back to watching some more of them, and re-watching some. We re-watched The Lair of the White Worm the other night, which is great fun. When I first watched it I was sure it was supposed to be funny, though this time I wasn't entirely certain of that. Very surprised to see Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) as the archaeologist. So young!
I also started, but didn't finish, Careless People, which is all about The Great Gatsby and is so awesome that I'm going to devote an entire post to it.

What did you read? Have you read any of those? Thoughts?

05 January 2014

Welcome to 2014! And a sort of announcement of something you probably know already

I have high hopes for 2014. Last year was a bit crap, for various reasons, but this year is going to be awesome. I am determined. And there are some very cool things coming up, which I'm sure will make for a good year.

It has started off very well so far. We spent New Year's Eve in Paekakariki with a dear friend who lives overseas these days. We had been planning to go to a party, which would have been lots of fun, but instead we decided to stay in and spent the evening reflecting on our plans, goals and hopes for the year, which felt right. The next day I got to hang out with some poet friends who were about - mainly because they live there - and we even had a writing session, which felt like a very auspicious start to the year. I'd never written with other people quite like this before: the four of us sitting around a kitchen table and, with the help of prompts, writing solidly in our notebooks for blocks of time from five minutes to half an hour. It didn't matter what we wrote, but our pens just had to keep moving. I think one of the main advantages is that you can't just go and check that one thing on the internet, and then inevitably fall down a rabbit hole; but I also loved being in the same space creating with those dear poetic minds. We did the same thing a couple of days later, and I hope for more of the same.

Writing is going to be my focus for at least the first half of this year. My own writing. I've decided to not begin a new publishing project until at least the middle of the year. The particular reason for this is the most exciting news, which I think I've probably told most of you already, but which I haven't formally announced or anything, so this is my formal announcement:

My new poetry book, Cinema, is going to be published by Mākaro Press! (It's scheduled for March at this stage.) Mākaro Press is a new published company started by the multi-talented Mary McCallum, which has just published the fabulously successful Eastbourne: an anthology. Cinema is going to be published as part of a batch of poetry books, a triptych perhaps. It's in fine company: the other two are a debut book, Bird Murder (a murder mystery in poetry), by Stefanie Lash, and a collection of love poems by Michael Harlow. So, a new poet, an eminent poet, and me.

The poems in Cinema all take film, films or/and film-making as a jumping off point, but they fly in all kinds of directions and explore other themes and ideas. I've been working on Cinema for a long time now, writing the poems, and then working on the poems, and shaping the book and reshaping the book, and then reshaping the book again. At several points in the process I've had some trusted people read the poems, and then the manuscript, and give me lots of helpful and encouraging feedback. It's a better, and shorter, book for all that.

Another thing I want to do this year is blog a bit more again. I haven't much in the last few years, and it hasn't been where my head or time was at, which is fine. But I think that sort of reflection and kinda public-ish writing is something I want to do again, for a while anyway.

What are your plans for your year?