An Interview With D J Connell

D J Connell is a New Zealand novelist who currently lives in London. She has lived and worked in various countries including Australia, Japan and the UK. She wrote for many years as a journalist and copywriter before moving to Europe a few years ago to commit to writing novels full time.

Her first novel, Julian Corkle is a Filthy Liar, was written in Paris, France. The book was released in New Zealand in March to great reviews and media attention. It is being released in Australia in May and in the UK in July. A French version will be published by notable French publishing house, Editions Belfond, at year end. The book has also been optioned for a film by Sarah Radclyffe Productions of the UK and Macgowan Films of Australia.

Her second book, titled Sherry Cracker Gets Normal, will be released next year by Blue Door, an imprint of HarperCollins UK. Blue Door bought her first two novels in 2009 in a deal negotiated by Sophie Hicks, managing director of Ed Victor Ltd, a top UK literary agency based in London.

D J Connell currently does not have a website or blog but Julian Corkle has his own Facebook page which is open to the public. You are cordially invited to befriend him.

My blog interview with you came about under rather unusual circumstances. Would you care to tell readers the story?

I was in a pub in West Hampstead, London, with a writer friend from Paris when a woman leaned over and asked if I came from New Zealand. The woman, Deborah, had overheard us talking about the upcoming release of my book. She gave me your email and encouraged me to contact you. Kind!

With a major publisher behind your first novel and film rights optioned, Julian Corkle is a Filthy Liar looks like an overnight success – but overnight successes are usually the product of years of hard work. How many years’ work has gone into the success of Julian Corkle is a Filthy Liar?

Perhaps I should first outline the publishing system in Britain. To get published, you generally need an agent. If you don’t have contacts, then the only way into a literary agency is through the ‘slush pile’. This entails sending in a synopsis and the first 50 or so pages of the book along with a cover letter.

I didn’t have any connections so I had to do it the hard way. I sent in samples and got back six positive replies from agents asking for a full read. I was new to the game and had no idea that this was a brilliant response.

So, when the first agent declined after a full read the second told me that my manuscript needed work, I began to panic. When the third offered to represent me, I immediately accepted. However, this agent was new to the game and was not particularly well connected. To be fair, my novel also needed work.

When the agent didn’t manage to sell it, I put my head down and kept writing. I spent a few years in a very dark place not knowing whether what I was doing was worthy or marketable. It was a very challenging period. I’m not sure what kept me going but I do know that my ego got ground to dust in the process. My family was very worried.

After the first agent and I parted company, things suddenly began to move for me. I was introduced to my publisher, the marvellous Patrick Janson-Smith, and my current sharp-shooting literary agent, Sophie Hicks.

So, no, there was no overnight success. It was a long, ego-crushing process. I was living off savings and was down to my last 1,000 euro when the contract came through. I would like add, however, that I also learned a lot about the importance of being fully committed, determined and focused.

Do you think that the humour in Julian Corkle is a Filthy Liar derives mainly from the characters, or from the situations you put the characters in?

My writing is character-driven. Once I nail a character and know what will work for him/her then the situations almost write themselves (then require a lot of rewriting and editing).

Take Julian, for example. He’s a show off with a habit of telling whoppers. So my job was to put him in situations where he was going to trip himself up or make a fool of himself. But the trick was to do this without losing reader sympathy. He’s a fool but my challenge was to make sure that no matter what the situation or his crime was, he remained a loveable fool.

Humour is deceptively complex to write. It’s all about the set up and the payoff and involves the unexpected and the absurd. The reader expects or hopes Julian will do one thing but being the fool that he is, he usually does the other.

How did your recent return visit to New Zealand go, and what has been the reaction to Julian Corkle is a Filthy Liar and its success in New Zealand?

It was a wonderful trip. My book got an excellent reception. I did quite a few radio and print media interviews and was even on TVNZ’s Good Morning show with Sarah who gave the book a lovely endorsement. The New Zealand Woman’s Weekly made Julian Corkle is a Filthy Liar Book of the Week in its April 19th edition and it received two excellent reviews on the National Programme. An interview with Kathryn Ryan aired on the National Programme’s Nine to Noon on April 26th and is currently available as a podcast.

I also managed to visit many bookshops and talk personally to booksellers who were very welcoming and positive about the novel. There’s nothing quite like walking into a bookshop and seeing your book on display.


I mentioned earlier that Julian Corkle is a Filthy Liar has been optioned to be filmed. Can you tell us a bit more about who has optioned it, and where things are at with the film adaptation? Will you be writing the screenplay?

Sarah Radclyffe Productions and Macgowan Films are independent film companies that are renowned for making phenomenal films. Between them they have made such cutting-edge films as My Beautiful Laundrette, Death Defying Acts, Two Hands and more recently The Edge of Love. They are currently working together on South Solitary in Australia. At the moment, all I know is that the film will be made in Australia and that they plan to start next year.

Unfortunately, I am not a screenwriter so I won’t be writing the screenplay. I would love to be involved but that will be up to the producers and their team.

People ask me if I fear that the book will be destroyed as it is made into a film. Strangely, I don’t. First, I have a lot of faith in the two production companies and second, I am happy to see the story that I’ve created become another person’s creative project. I’ve written a book that I love. I hope that the filmmakers will make a film that they will love, and that others will love, too.

Are there writers who have had a particularly strong influence on your writing, and which writers do you most enjoy reading?

I’m not sure who has influenced me but I can give you the names of some of the writers that I love (please note that these are just the tip of the iceberg): Jane Bowles, William Trevor, Evelyn Waugh, J D Salinger, Albert Camus, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Annie Proulx, many of the Russians such as Gorky, Gogol and Dostoyevsy. More recently, I’ve been reading Alice Munro and Anne Enright. Wonderful stuff.

Do you have other books in the pipeline, and if so, are you managing to find time to write them amid all the publicity work for Julian Corkle is a Filthy Liar?

I am currently refining my second novel, Sherry Cracker Gets Normal, for publication next year. I have a third and fourth in the pipeline. I manage to write by living in a very disciplined manner. I get up at 5am every morning and begin my day with a pot of tea and two cats for company. I don’t drink alcohol and I don’t have TV. I don’t even own a car. My life might sound boring but I am doing what I love and there is no better high than creating something that works and brings joy to others. I write to make people laugh. In my opinion, there’s not enough of it. Humour is underrated.

Julian Corkle is a Filthy Liar is available at most bookshops, and online shopping sites such as Fishpond, Mighty Ape, and Amazon.

An Interview With Vana Manasiadis

Vana Manasiadis was born in Wellington in 1973. She studied English and Classics at Victoria University, and later completed an MA in Creative Writing there. For the last few years she has been living in Crete, and travelling whenever possible, but she plans to be back on Wellington’s South Coast at the end of the year. Her poems have been published in a variety of journals, and her first collection of poetry, Ithaca Island Bay Leaves, was recently published by Seraph Press.


What was the genesis of Ithaca Island Bay Leaves? Did it start life as your project for the MA in Creative Writing at Victoria?

An earlier version of Ithaca Island Bay Leaves did end up as my MA folio, but my idea at first had been to explore that quite antipodean rite of passage commonly known as the OE. I was drawn to questions of mobility, transferability, and the various notions of home like comfort, familiarity, repose.

But, I didn’t get very far with my tales of the backpacker before the family stories of movement and flux blew in. My grandmother’s in particular, and then my mother’s. They both had/have quite conflicted relationship to moving and movement, to home and time; and I became interested in those tensions, and about people’s desire and ability to adapt and re-invent themselves, to settle or not settle.

So, the book became about my family’s various movements, and also about the various movements of figures from ancient history, as I’ve imagined them. (And, because I have difficulty conceiving of time as linear, everyone ended up sort of co-existing, crossing over countries and years).

I suspect many readers of this blog won’t be familiar with the form of a mythistorima – I certainly wasn’t! What is a mythistorima, and why did you choose this form for your collection?

I really like this question, because it gives me a chance to explain! Although mythistorima specifically means ‘novel’ in modern Greek, and also more generally ‘fairytale’ or ‘fantasy’, the etymological meaning (perhaps not surprisingly), is myth and history combined – from the time when people disseminated myths and (his)stories by word of mouth. I really like the fluid and undisciplined nature of speech and so I decided to kind of unfix the form of Ithaca and assume oral language with its tangents, fillers and pauses, as the governing concept. I tried to make sense of all the different forms in the book as transcripts, or fragments, then pieced them together so that they might ‘tell’ a kind of story while still remaining a little elusive.

Is there an identifiable tradition of Greek-New Zealand writing, or New Zealand writing about Greece, and if so, do you see Ithaca Island Bay Leaves as part of this tradition?

I’m not really aware of an identifiable tradition of Greek-New Zealand writing, but I could perhaps point to Michael Harlow who has Greek-Ukrainian heritage and whose poetry I’d say very strongly reflects an ‘older’ or ‘other’ world co-existing simultaneously with the here and new. In terms of New Zealand writing about Greece, there’s naturally a body of academic writing about ancient Greece via classics departments, and some non-fiction like travel writing and historical writing – for example on the battle of Crete.

In Ithaca I was interested in exploring ideas for which the country Greece became a bit of a vehicle. But, there’s no denying, I am of Greek descent, and so the whole thing becomes a bit chicken and egg.

I have to admit that I’m a little cautious about categorizations such as ‘Greek-New Zealand writing’. I think they can be useful in some situations (like this one!), but they have the potential to be limiting too. I went a bit nutty recently (then felt bad), when some new work which had nothing to do with Greece, was accepted by a publication and labeled Greek-New Zealand writing because I’d written it.

What has been the reaction to Ithaca Island Bay Leaves from readers of Greek descent in New Zealand, and in Greece and Crete?

So far my sample size is quite small, and I’ve only recently got back to Crete, so don’t have much feedback from this end. Readers of Greek descent in New Zealand seem to have related to the linguistic and cultural meeting points; and to the moments of loss, being-at-a-loss, slight absurdity. An older second-generation Greek woman said she cried, and that was really amazing for me – to hear that.

Are you involved in the poetry scene where you now live, and if so, can you tell us a little about it?

I haven’t really found a poetry scene in the town where I’m living, maybe it’s behind an amazing hidden door and I just haven’t discovered the secret handshake. I can say that I went to a talk tonight on Sappho which is part of a series of talks on various poets organized by a kind of bar/arts centre here. There’s a lot of interest or reverence or passion for poetry and literature generally here, and tonight’s question-answer time turned into a very animated affair as usual. So maybe I could say that I haven’t come across that many writers, but it seems that pretty much everyone feels very strongly about writing.

The production quality of Ithaca Island Bay Leaves is very high (as it has been for all the books published by Seraph Press). Were you heavily involved in the design of the book?

Helen Rickerby, of Seraph Press, did an amazing job with the design of Ithaca, and she was really wonderful to work with. The whole production aspect of the book was so easy and stimulating and a very positive experience.

We had similar ideas about the look of the book, about how things like the font, and the amount of space on the page and around the words could mirror the tone of the book. We liked the idea of the words and lines looking like loops of crochet, and seeming more frail than emphatic.

Also, it was Helen’s idea to have an image of my grandmother’s crochet on the inside cover, and she took the beautiful photograph of Island Bay on the back cover to complement Marian Maguire’s lithograph on the front. I’d been in totally in love with Marian Maguire’s work for a long time so excited to have Athena Observes a Fracas for the cover.

Have you been satisfied with the critical reaction to Ithaca Island Bay Leaves, in terms of both the number of reviews and the reactions of those who have reviewed it?

To date the book has been reviewed in the New Zealand Herald and the Otago Daily Times. The Herald review, by Paula Green, was a really positive and generous review, and (of course) I felt that she really got the book when she said, ‘It is a way of telling stories, and a way of being told’.

The ODT review, by Bluff resident Hamesh Wyatt, said something along the lines of fascinating, funny and a bit random. Lynn Freeman on “Arts on Sunday” – and I don’t know if this counts as a review – said nice things during her interview with me on Radio New Zealand too, and that was really exciting for me. I’m pretty happy and surprised to have had any critical response at all – but Helen has done some great work publicising in an environment where poetry, especially from small presses, sadly doesn’t get a heap of attention.

Which poets have had the most influence on your writing, or are among your personal favourites? Are there any whom you’d especially recommend?

Having recently seen Jane Campion’s Bright Star, I feel I have to say that John Keats was one of the first poets that really mattered to me. I remember receiving his embrace of life and earthy decay as epiphany.

In more recent times, I’ve really enjoyed and been inspired by Greek poet Nasos Vaghenas, Derek Walcott and Anne Carson – particularly Anne Carson – for her play with forms, and the unpredictable, magical, moving, powerful combinations of those forms, and times, settings, and voices. And, she knows a lot of stuff. When I read Anne Carson I feel in the presence of both raw heart and razor-sharp mind. I’ve also been reading a bit of New York poet Kenneth Koch, and his vitality, energy and again dancing and surprising combinations of images and directions have been pretty elating.

But, I have to admit that I read more prose than poetry, and at the moment Roberto Bolano has my favour. Entirely awed by his epic 2666, I’m now reading his Savage Detectives which has me equally amazed and moved and feeling very alive. His prose is active and declarative, and again, very intelligent. His characters are both egotistical and vulnerable at the same time, are vexed by longing and hunger.

Do you have a plan for how your writing career will unfold? If so, and if it isn’t a secret, where do you see yourself and your writing in five years’ time?

I should pay you for asking me this. I don’t have a plan, I feel like I should, but I don’t. It’s been five years since I wrote the first version of Ithaca, and although I’ve been working on other projects since then, its been in a very uncommitted, very inconsistent way.

My most stubborn project has grown out of a conversation with my sister who directs and writes for theatre. She had been working on a script and was interested in including prose written by one of the characters, and suggested I contribute the writing. The experience of collaboration was energizing and has made me think that I’d like to work more collaboratively in the future in general.

Writing is so solitary but it doesn’t have to be, and working on Ithaca has made me think about community. Sure, there’s often a writerly community, and the potential for numerous discussions, influences, inspirations, but ultimately a work ends up with a single author’s name on it, and I’m becoming quite interested in ideas of likeness and kinship. Let’s say that in five years I’ll be part of some collective writing type thing, and merging lots more.

Sample Poem: King of Mycenae

Menelaus was known as a bit of an eccentric.
Over a pint at The Arms, he’d boast about this
and that: his kidnapped wives, his wagered wars,
his days as a people smuggler. He’d sailed on
the Queen Mary, ridden on the Orient Express,
eaten quince. He was the talk of Greymouth.

For a longer poem from the collection, see Tuesday Poem: Ithaca.

Book Availability

Ithaca Island Bay Leaves is available from the publisher, Seraph Press, and from independent bookshops around New Zealand, including Unity Books; Otago University Bookshop; The Women’s Bookshop (Auckland); Parsons Books (Auckland); Scorpio Books (Christchurch); Time Out Bookstore (Auckland); and Page & Blackmore (Nelson).

It can be ordered through any bookshop, using its ISBN: 978-0-473-15235-2

Finally, if you have a jones for author interviews, you can view all the author interviews on my blog by using this search.

An Interview With Robert McLean

Robert McLean was born at Bethany in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1974. He graduated from the University of Canterbury in 2004 with an MA in political science and art theory. He returned to complete an MFA in creative writing in 2008. His poems, translations and articles have been published in a variety of print and electronic periodicals and anthologies, both locally and overseas. His first collection For the Coalition Dead was published by Kilmog Press in 2009.

Robert, I think of you as having a strong interest in poetic form. Do you regard yourself as a formalist in the poetic sense?

I do have an interest in form for its own sake. Since I’m invested in functionality of meaning in a poem, I’m interested in the semantic ‘difference’ between, say, a Petrarchan and a Miltonic sonnet. There are many problems associated with my decision to write the way I have done. Whilst meter can serve to squeeze excess connotation from a saturated word, as Allen Tate often did, it can also make despicable rhetoric seem convincing, as do the relentless iambs in Pound’s Canto 81 – ‘Here error is all in the not done’; not my idea of humility. And since the printing press, the use of rhyme and meter as aide-memoire is almost redundant, which was the point of their development. Whilst nostalgia isn’t a concern for me, redundancy is a worry.

Since I’ve made a case against myself, I’ll try to answer it. Having witnessed first-hand the horrific consequences of unrestrained libidinal bloodlust, who could be surprised that the returning WWII US service men who also happened to write poems, especially those who took advantage of the G.I. Bill, turned to Augustan fixity in verse forms?

I grew up in New Zealand the 80s, when the Invisible Hand was given free reign to determine how much food ended up in our bellies – amongst other equally vital requisites of a dignified life. While I was at school, handing out the Communist Manifesto seemed more important than Jim Norcliffe parsing Wilfred Owen for School Certificate English, though I’m sure he did a fine job.

Imitative form never seemed to me an appropriate response. Besides, I started writing in my late 20s – anger had been replaced by sadness by then. What anger remains goes into my music. In short, I utilise non-organic form(s) for extra-poetic ends. Mediating reconciliations between sincerity of utterance and pre-determined patterns of relationship is utopian i.e. political. The integrity of every syllable is constitutive of structure, which is in turn dependant on maintaining the former to remain legitimate. To do so without semantic violence intimates my hope correlative social and inter-personal resolutions can also be possible. After all, the word is no less indeterminate or relative than the human.

So, yes: this is a socialist poetics – iambic pentameter quatrains reek of nostalgia and tradition, but they, for me, can also be read as anticipatory, should the reader so choose. This choice between signifying futurity or declension, rarely made in favour of the former, is the necessity and discrediting of my decision to write in such a way. I live with this.

I freely admit that to adhere to such a theory requires submission by its practitioner and relinquishment of much authority. It isn’t fun and I don’t like it. It is exhausting and unlikely to be sustainable. I find it painful. It involves exclusions and limits and refusals. It requires absolute scepticism of that into which I have most invested.

Most importantly, it demands that one takes full responsibility for the consequences of a poem, even, perhaps especially, for those which were not intended or desired. To write a necessary poem is the most difficult task I know. The standards outlined above are stringent and I have never met them.

You say “The standards outlined above are stringent and I have never met them”. Let us hope you do; but if it becomes apparent to you that you may never meet them, would you rather relax the standards, or go in a different poetic direction, or keep trying to meet them anyway?

If it became clear to me that meeting the standards was impossible, or, more likely, that I was falling ever further away from them, then I hope I’d have the grace to stop. Like I mentioned above, I don’t write for enjoyment or pleasure; and nor has my reading been hedonistic since Treasure Island and whatnot as a child.

It’s probably no coincidence that a fair proportion of the writers from whose words I’ve learnt most about better living and loving – Edgell Rickword, Laura Riding, Rimbaud etc – let it go. And of those whom I esteem who didn’t stop, most of them were far from profligate: Mallarmé, “the Hamlet of writing,” as Roland Barthes called him, published some sixty poems in thirty-six years – or Curnow. Besides, there are more than enough poems without me adding to the heap. The world is littered and noisy and by now I need very good reasons to publically raise my voice when what is needed is quiet.

In correspondence, you said “My poetics are an end point of other political and philosophical commitments and obligations”. What are those commitments and obligations, and how do your poetics emerge as their end point?

How I write is determined by two concerns: first, what poetry is (not what it has been) and what a poem can be; second, of what a responsible speech act ought to consist. To some extent, this can be understood as what my rights are and what my obligations must be.

Having spent seven years at University largely devoted to studying philosophy, I am well aware of the cogency of the ‘linguistic turn’ in thinking about thinking and the world. I also believe that whilst such destructive measures were necessary, now we need to reach tentatively across the space which has been cleared before it is filled with noise and consider constructive ways to rethink communicative possibilities which take into account the material conditions of existence without back-peddling to inappropriate strategies due to discomfort or difficulty. As Habermas wrote, “it is nigh impossible to think of ‘the ethical’ or moral consciousness outside of the sphere of language i.e. Communication”, and it is to discourse ethics I have turned as, for now, the best hope for solidarity and reconciliation through language in the public sphere.

I’m not a linguist, but if a phonological or lexical sign is the basic unit of language then the sentence is the basic unit of ‘discourse’. The linguistics of the sentence supports the theory of speech as an open-ended event. The premise is that human beings are unique rational (in terms of gathering as opposed to possessing knowledge) creatures that possess the ability to converse with each other without necessarily being dominated by coercion or instinct and recognises the ‘vulnerability’ of the individual.

There is interdependency between the individual and the collective in a shared ‘life-world’ and it is the communicative action of its members that produces a ‘language community’. ‘Life-world’ is the schema that you carry with you in an everyday sense, something that can be used to make judgments of reality and to help build a self-understanding of who you are. It is symbolic of how we may hope to orient ourselves as beings in relation to other beings. In the idealised ‘life-world’ that discourse ethics conceptualises, cases of disagreement ought to be brought to agreement by argument as much as possible.

Here, communicative action might be the mechanism by which agreement is brought about. What this means is that some kind of agreement is achieved that is considered fair and just by all individuals involved and nobody is forced to do what he/she is not convinced that he/she morally should do or tolerate: comprehensibility, knowledge-sharing, truthfulness, and consensus are requisites in this process. This is in contrast to strategic action, in which one actor seeks to influence the behaviour of another by means of the threat of sanctions or the prospect of gratification in order to cause the interaction.

There is no space to go into the details of the process, versions of which are readily available, but it is important that discourse ethics is founded not on the ‘I’, but more correctly on the ‘we’ and on the basis of a ‘mutual understanding’ between all parties. Self-expression is not its end. Within forms of communication there rests an implicit recognition of the other ‘I’. If the two ‘I’s’ can be referred to as subjects and there exists a discourse between those subjects then there exists an ‘inter’- subjectivity which has the potential for mutuality. We look for discourse ethics in the life-world of the ‘inter’ – and the ability that we possess to communicate through discourse and reach mutual understanding with each other, admitting that it can never be defining or exhaustive.

This leads to the second determinant of my poetics – what poetry is; or, in terms outlined above, what kind of life-world is poetry? My reply to this question is anti-honorific and anti-Romantic: it doesn’t raise poetry to Parnassus above street-language or scientific journals; nor does my answer amount to stating what I feel poetry should be and that much of this or that falls below a measure based on preference.

When it comes to poetry, I am not an idealist. Poetry is a social practice and institution. The practice involves producing poems and the institution legitimises or otherwise contextualises what its practitioners produce. Historically, both these functions have radically changed, as has the degree of independence poetry has had from other life-forms, so much so that apart from ‘Wittgenstein-esque’ ‘family resemblances’ and nominal continuity, little else connects, for example, Thus Skelton to Jack Spicer. Thus, poetry is what poetry-makers say it is.

Since people involved in poetry surely know the nature of the life-world of which they are constitutive, there is no need to go into great detail about its present characteristics. However, given that my fidelity to emancipatory speech ethics takes precedence over my investment in poetry, some aspects of the later and their bearing on the former are worth mentioning:

  • The open-endedness of discourse clashes with the seemingly definitive presentation of the published poem. Given the lack of stringency in criticism, with which process could be reintroduced into poetry reading, this bluntness is even more exacerbated.
  • The over-emphasis on license and rights by poets with respect to their own work denies any correlative obligations they could have outside the poetry-world.
  • Comprehensibility, knowledge-sharing, truthfulness, and consensus are not lingua franca in practicing poetry, at least not at present.
  • Strategic action, especially in terms of the prospect of gratification, say of ‘poetic experience’ however conceived, predominates in poetic practice.

I could go on, but clearly most of the principles involved in discourse ethics clash with those of at-present-poetry, but since my understandings of the former is idealist, albeit based on empiricism, and the later is pragmatic this is hardly unexpected. To state my current situation succinctly, it would be to say that when I write a poem, my first obligations are to responsible speech-making; only if these have been met do I then consider the rights of the poet and the peculiarities of the poetry-world.

What would you like potential readers to know about your collection, “For The Coalition Dead”?

A preference for Moltmann over Kristeva would be helpful for the reader. Reconciliation, not schism, is dear to me. Various prosodies are employed from poem to poem, but if iambs and trochees too uncomfortably remind you of your father’s authority, especially if you consider that authority to be illegitimate, it would best be avoided. Apart from all that, it is lovely object into which Dean at Kilmog Press has put much time and energy. He deserves the support of people who want a sustainable alternative to the pulp culture of book-award winning presses.


What are your next priorities? Do you have further poetry projects planned out, or are you taking that as it comes?

The last poetry related projects on which I worked were seeing through to press another small collection ‘For Renato Curcio’, which is with Rob Lamb at Gumtree Press in Port Chalmers, and working on poems for my feature in the next issue of Poetry New Zealand, both of which involved revision and rewriting, not newly completed pieces. I haven’t written much at all since finishing my MFA with John Newton. If I do write another poem and continue to grope towards the standards I’ve set for myself, it seems to me the only way forward is to live better. There is an intimate connection between person and persona and what’s written. Being ever more attentive to my family, friends, and strangers, maintaining the distance of which Weil wrote that makes love, instead of possession, possible, and not over-privileging words – if I were able to do all that, then maybe I would move closer to writing the way I hope to write. But in so doing, I’d also move further away from having to write at all.

THE PATRIOT

Sweat beads my tonsured cranium:
above me I can hear a hum –
electrical. No longer dumb,
of what I know, I’ve told him some,
just not enough. My body’s numb –
but still he beats me (like a drum?):
blood freckles the linoleum.
Dispersed, I am the total of his sum.

He took a moment to explain
his expectations, which are plain:
to launder each inhuman stain
from where I am – what will remain
is emptiness except for pain
nuanced and measured out. He’ll drain
from me the substance I contain:
the truth is something that one cannot feign.

At first, I found it strange that he
could speak my language fluently,
and with a perfect accent. We
are countrymen. How could it be?
I never thought I’d live to see
this come to pass. Oh no, not me.
Belligerents, officially
we are engaged. We are our enemy.

He seems unfailingly polite –
he has no bark. Indeed, he’s quite
a gentleman, and yet his bite
is so severe. There’s no respite:
by now I must be quite a sight.
Back when I volunteered to fight
I could determine wrong from right,
but now I don’t know if it’s day or night.

So handsome in his uniform:
I watch him flick a switch – a swarm
of angry bees: I cannot form
a thought for sting and singe. The swarm
again, again, again – a warm
patch sops my pants. O he’s the storm
that rages when I can’t conform
to what he has established as the norm.

Consequently the rich smell
of shit and piss has filled the cell
I’ve absented. Somehow, I tell
him something true. Although I yell
and scream for God to stoop to quell
my agony, he knows I dwell
in his domain. I pray for Hell…
This is his job. He does it very well.

Each variation on his theme
is played just so. Thus I blaspheme:
mine was the blood Faustus saw stream
across the sky. He is supreme:
for whose voice is this I hear scream?
I must accept his will to deem
me thus reduced. And it would seem
not every nightmare has to be a dream.

Why did we let ourselves be swept
up by mere words? We could have kept
what land we had. Instead, we leapt
into the fray, repaid some debt
we thought we owed this beast that’d slept
within our civil state. Except
for Him, we men, all of us, stepped
in line. Watching us march, our mothers wept.

At last the stories that the old
ones used to tell make sense. Behold
the Man!
More water…will it scold
or freeze? Of what I know, I’ve told
him some, perhaps too much. I’ve sold
a lie. I long for him to hold
me close, but all he does is fold
his arms and sigh. I feel so cold. So cold.

Book Availability

Kilmog Press books are available from Parsons Books Auckland, the Dunedin Public Art Gallery and Kilmog Press directly (Kilmogpress at hotmail dot com).

An Interview With Bryan Walpert

Bryan Walpert is the author of a book of poetry, Etymology (Cinnamon Press), and a book of short stories, Ephraim’s Eyes (Pewter Rose Press), both published in 2009. His poetry, fiction, and/or essays have been published in New Zealand, Australia, the UK, Canada and widely in his native United States. His poems have won a number of awards, including most recently both first and third-equal prizes in the 2007 NZ Poetry Society International Poetry Competition and the James Wright Poetry Award through the Mid-American Review (U.S.) the same year. He won the 2007 Royal Society of New Zealand Manhire Prize in Creative Science Writing for his short story “16 Planets,” a story included in Ephraim’s Eyes.

A former journalist, he holds an MFA from the University of Maryland-College Park and a PhD in English from the University of Denver. Bryan is a senior lecturer in the School of English & Media Studies of Massey University, where he teaches creative writing. He is the recipient of a national Tertiary Teaching Excellence Award from the New Zealand Qualifications Authority.

Etymology and Ephraim’s Eyes are both available through Fishpond, the Nile Bookstore, Amazon.com, the Book Depository, and directly through the publishers: http://www.cinnamonpress.com/titles-poetry.htm and http://www.pewter-rose-press.com/books/ephraims/ephraims.html. They are available as well at Bruce McKenzie’s bookstore in Palmerston North.

Bryan, you are known both for your fiction and your poetry. In your writing practice (if that’s not too pretentious a term), do you slip frequently between one and the other, or do you focus for long periods on one genre, then switch to the other?

I tend to focus on one or the other. I’m usually writing the genre I’m reading. But that includes non-fiction as well. When I’m writing poetry, I can’t imagine why anyone would write anything else. Or for that matter do anything else. When I’m writing fiction, I feel the same about fiction. Perhaps this makes me disloyal. Or fickle. But I think it just goes to show how seductive different kinds of languages can be.

Your short story collection Ephraim’s Eyes contains a mixture of science fiction and literary fiction stories. My own experience is that some reviewers and readers find such a mixture disconcerting, while it appeals greatly to others. How have readers and reviewers reacted to the mixture of stories in Ephraim’s Eyes?


Are you thinking specifically of “Speculative Geography”? I don’t see it as a science fiction story, per se, though. I see that story as simply referring to, or making use of, the SF genre. “Speculative Geography” is about a writer of science fiction, rather than strictly about a science fictional world, though it describes that world. I like playing with genres of all kinds, hence for example “Speckled Hen,” which is meant to read a bit like a philosophy essay, and “Word Problems,” which plays with math. I’ve only received a few reviews so far, but no one has had a problem with those elements (as far as I know!).

I’ve read a couple of reviews of your poetry collection Etymology which suggest that there is a tension in the book between science and humanism. Do you think there is any truth to this?

The tension I see reflected by readers is between emotion and intellect. That is, the idea is that that poetry should be purely the heart—expression—while science engages the head. My own take is that this is a dated and counter-productive view of poetry (and science for that matter). I think poetry is very much an intellectual (or can be an intellectual) engagement with the world (and word). But at the same time, I hope even the science-oriented poems in the collection appeal to the heart. I think for me, as a writer, the way to the heart is often through the head.

Etymology does what it says on the cover: there is, indeed, a strong focus on etymology in the book. Why did you choose to make this a central focus of the collection?

It chose me, I think. It goes back, really, many years. My wife found an etymological dictionary in a used bookstore and handed it to me, knowing my interest in language. Reading the entries—and following one to another—led to some of these poems, including the title poem. That title poem was initially called “Shit.” The editor of a journal that accepted the poem suggested changing the title to “Etymology.” That led to the title of the book, which shows how important editors are and how collaborative writing is, in the end. The collection gradually took shape, much as a poem does, as one thing echoed another.


What benefits, or disadvantages, have you found in moving from the US to the New Zealand literary environment?

One great benefit has been how much easier it is to get to know other writers; the circle is smaller and the distances shorter, so I’ve met many writers here whose work I enjoy. Another benefit is the general interest in poetry and literary fiction in New Zealand—it seems to play a large role in the culture here, seems an important part of national identity.

One disadvantage is the difficulty keeping up with new American writing, poetry in particular. Books come out all the time, and I don’t get to run across them on the shelf very often. When I get back to the States for visits, I always hungrily browse the shelves at the bookstores. And I don’t get to see my writing colleagues in the U.S. very often. I feel increasingly part of two worlds, which is both interesting and challenging.

It is particularly challenging to move to NZ because there is a whole history of literature here—tied in of course with the cultural history—to catch up on. I was asked by a U.S. poetics journal, Reconfigurations, to solicit some NZ poems for an issue and to write a foreword for the group. I was very conscious as I did so of being an immigrant. If anyone’s interested, you can find the NZ feature at http://reconfigurations.blogspot.com/2009/11/new-zealand-poetry-poetics.html. You’ll need to scroll down for the NZ section.

I had a great time when I visited Palmerston North last year for a poetry reading. Is it important to you to be, or feel, part of a literary scene, or could you work just as happily in splendid isolation?

Palmerston North has a lively writing scene, doesn’t it? I think periods of isolation are useful. But from the beginning I’ve always written in a community—that’s part of what graduate poetry workshops offer, for example. And I do like being part of a larger literary environment.

I help to coordinate a literary reading series Massey co-sponsors with the Palmerston North City Library, for example—called Writers Read, it is in its 5th year—because that sort of environment is important for writers, students and the community at large. The community has been incredibly supportive of it, with audiences at times of 200. It helps that we’ve had such wonderful writers in that series. Listening to writers read their work can often change my relationship with their poems and stories; and it can often be inspiring.

I’m also part of an informal writers group here; it’s very useful to get feedback on work. In other words, I do believe that writing in isolation is splendid, but again I do believe that writing in the end is collaborative.

How does being a teacher of creative writing affect your own writing?

That’s a good question. It’s a bit difficult to pin down, though surely it has an effect. It has sharpened my thinking about writing: What is a poem? What makes it work? What is a story? What should it accomplish? To what extent are my own poems arising from or working against tradition? Beyond that, it’s hard to say.

Which writers of fiction and poetry have been most influential on your own work, and which writers do you most enjoy reading?

There have been so many writers who have been influential. But if I were to choose several that, at various stages, have been particularly important to my writing or to my thinking about writing, they would be Philip Levine, Donald Revell, Alan Shapiro, Alice Fulton, Joan Retallack, and David Foster Wallace.

What writing projects do you have on the go at the moment, and where are we next likely to see you in print?

I’m focusing intently now on completing a scholarly book on the intersections of poetry and science, so that’s pushed poetry and fiction to the margins for a few months. But I have a second book of poetry completed and submitted to publishers, largely in the U.S. I have a third collection of poetry well underway that is oriented towards New Zealand. And I’m working on a collection of creative non-fiction essays that have to do with poetry and, often, with moving to New Zealand. Watch this space.

Etymology

Shit: A sibling to schism, its root means
separation, and perhaps we are
severing an unwanted self, hiding
or drowning it or at least distancing

ourselves from mistake or memory.
My grandfather, years before
we released him to the ground,
paid someone to hold him

over the toilet, to pull him to his feet.
The door ajar, I saw him lean
naked on his nurse, who later folded him
against the pillows in his kitchen chair,

emptied. And what to do but fill that void
with his wife’s bread or familiar touch,
a word that once meant a bell striking,
as if a caress rang a pitch that might

connect us to what we were before we split
the infinite with language—me, wife, earth
words to name and know ourselves as parts.
When we part, we say farewell

(fare a word for food) or good-bye,
which once meant God be with you.

And The Winner Is …

The winner of the signed copy of Nalini Singh’s UK edition of her novel Angels’ Blood is blog commenter Edna (see my interview with Nalini). Congratulations to Edna, and thanks to everyone who commented and tweeted in response to the interview and the competition – a special thanks to Nalini for her responses to comments.

That about wraps things up for 2009. Until about the end of January 2010, I’ll drop down to my “summer schedule” of roughly one blog post per week. But I have already lined up my first three author interviews of next year, and in between those – well, I’m sure I’ll think of something to post…

The highlight of this year for me from a writing/editing point of view has been the success of Voyagers: Science Fiction Poetry for New Zealand. I haven’t had quite the same level of success in meeting my self-imposed deadline of Christmas Eve to finish my novel draft: I still have a little under two chapters to go. They are more or less complete in my head: I just need to channel them through my fingers.

By New Year’s Day, maybe?

After that, while the draft sits for a few weeks, I want to turn my attention back to my much-neglected, partly-completed next poetry collection. Furthermore, there’s a world to save …

But this is Christmas, this is the holiday season. Family time. Then, as the robots say, I’ll be back.

An Interview with Nalini Singh


Nalini Singh is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of the Psy/Changeling and Guild Hunter series. Born in Fiji and raised in New Zealand, she spent three years living and working in Japan. Now back home in New Zealand, she is currently at work on her next Psy/Changeling novel.

You can see travel photos, read excerpts and find behind-the-scenes info on her books on her:

Website: www.nalinisingh.com
Blog: www.nalinisingh.blogspot.com
Facebook: www.facebook.com/nalinisingh
Twitter: www.twitter.com/nalinisingh

Paranormal romance has become a very successful genre over the past decade. For the benefit of blog readers who aren’t familiar with the genre, can you describe it?

Paranormal romances (pnr) are stories that encompass a wide range of elements beyond the norm – things like psychic abilities, vampires, alternate worlds, and shapeshifters to name a few.

Because of this, there’s a huge freedom in where you can go as a writer – and for readers, this means a wonderful breadth of choice. I think that depth and breadth of content is one of the strengths of pnr.

The three authors who come to mind when I think of paranormal romance are Laurell K. Hamilton (with her Anita Blake series), Charlaine Harris (with her Sookie Stackhouse series), and Mary Janice Davidson (with her Undead series). Each of these, to my mind, combines romance with horror. Would you say that the romance/horror combination is characteristic of paranormal romance, or do romance/science fiction and romance/fantasy also form an important part of the genre?

For me, the three series you’ve mentioned are more closely aligned with Urban Fantasy. UF and PNR are on the same continuum, but in very basic terms, urban fantasy tends to focus on one protagonist’s journey through a number of books, while pnr tends to tell the story of a different couple in each book.

I think one of the best things about pnr is that there are endless possibilities. Horror/sf/fantasy, all of these elements can, and have been utilized by different authors. For example, my book ANGELS’ BLOOD, is very dark and gritty, and could be said to have elements of horror. (This book actually has Urban Fantasy Romance on the spine, which speaks to the overlap between pnr and uf). However, my Psy/Changeling series has elements of science fiction.

In addition to your own work, which paranormal romance writers and novels do you particularly recommend?

As I’ve noted above, the brilliant thing about pnr as a genre is that it is so huge. If a reader wanted to dip their toes into the water, I’d suggest trying a number of different authors and series – not every author works for every reader, but by that same token, there are lots of diverse and vibrant voices in this sub-genre.

Some of my recommendations:

PNR: Meljean Brook, Jayne Castle, Christine Feehan, Lora Leigh
Urban Fantasy: Patricia Briggs, Ilona Andrews

I’d also recommend Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels Trilogy. It’s dark fantasy with a romantic thread, but most readers of pnr really enjoy this series.

If you’re looking for a PNR with fantasy, C.L. Wilson’s Lord of the Fading Lands is brilliant.

And Kay Hooper does a wonderful thriller/mystery series (Bishops/SCU) that also has paranormal / romance threads.

I see that your work has been commended for its strong world-building — and world-building is one of the things I most enjoy about both writing and reading science fiction. How do you go about building the worlds in which your stories take place?

My writing style is very character-based, so I tend to let my characters show me their world. I see through their eyes, and each time they turn, there’s something new to discover.

However, given that I write series, I also maintain complete notes about the world – continuity is so important in world-building, and I make a lot of effort to ensure that it’s maintained from book to book. Nothing makes me crazier as a reader than a writer who doesn’t follow the rules of her own world.

What are the main series you have written or are writing?

I write the Psy/Changeling series, which is set in the not too distant future and features three races—humans, the Psy (who have powerful psychic abilities), and the changelings (who can shapeshift into certain animals). Book one is SLAVE TO SENSATION.

I’ve also just begun the Guild Hunter series, which is set in an alternate earth where archangels hold sway over mortals, with vampires as their servants. Book one is ANGELS’ BLOOD.

They’re two very different series, and I really enjoy that. If your readers would like to check out either series, excerpts are available on my website.

What does it feel like to get on the New York Times best-seller list?

Amazing, stupendous, fantastic!! I still can’t believe it at times. ☺

I’m very impressed by your productivity as a writer. What kind of writing schedule do you maintain, and how do you balance this with the many demands on a successful author’s time?

I write pretty much every day, and I think that’s important, not just in terms of productivity, but also to flex and strengthen your writing muscles. I also set daily goals for myself and stick to them.

As for balance, that took me a while to work out, and what I found is that being flexible works for me. If, for some reason, I’m unable to put in productive hours on one day, I’ll work an extra hour or two over the next couple of days to bring myself back on track.

Paranormal romance appears to be a field where there is a lot of collaborative work – multi-author anthologies, and so forth. Have you got involved in many such projects, and do you enjoy taking part in them?

Most anthologies tend to be by-invitation, and I’ve been very lucky to be invited to participate in several, including a recent one headlined by the fantastic Charlaine Harris.

And yes, I love them because I really enjoy writing novellas.

What’s next for Nalini Singh?

I have the second book in my Guild Hunter series, ARCHANGEL’S KISS, releasing in February.

Then in July I have BONDS OF JUSTICE, the next book in my Psy/Changeling series, and in August, I have a novella from the same series in the BURNING UP anthology.

I’m very excited about all of these releases!


Nalini Singh Book Giveaway Offer

Nalini Singh has generously offered a signed copy of her book Angels’ Blood (US version – the cover image used in this interview is from the UK version) as a giveaway to accompany this interview. If you’d like to be in with a chance to win this copy of Angels’ Blood, you need to either (1) Make a comment on this blog post or (2) follow me on Twitter (http://twitter.com/senjmito) and then send me a tweet saying why you’d like a copy. The deadline is one week from today: 5pm on Thursday 24 December (New Zealand time). If you are making a comment on the blog, please include your email address or Twitter or Facebook ID so I have a way of contacting you to get your address details.

Happy commenting and tweeting!

UPDATE: Helen Lowe has interviewed Nalini Singh for Plains FM. You can listen to the interview online, or download the interview in mp3 format, on the Plains FM site.

An Interview With Sally McLennan

Sally McLennan says she writes strange fairy tales and lives stranger ones. She was once the tooth fairy of a small mountain town and she has been the editor of two American health care newspapers (The Medicare Pathfinder and The Medicare Navigator). She has lived in Australia and Thailand. Her time in Thailand gave her the ability to speak passable Thai, carve a pumpkin into really interesting shapes, and she gained her parachuting wings with the Thai Royal Airforce. After living in Thailand, Sally studied at Canterbury University where she gained a First Class Honours degree in English literature. Now, some years later, she divides her time between many bookish works in progress.

Sally’s first book, Deputy Dan and the Mysterious Midnight Marauder, recently won the Sir Julius Vogel Award for the Best Professional Publication. It is a picture book heavily influenced by graphic novels. Sally describes the book as the story of ‘a crime spree so unfathomable that the law enforcement agencies are stumped, and the public is captivated, and a criminal so strange that nobody could guess who the culprit might be.’ Dan, the hero of the book, sets out to solve the crime and bring the criminal to justice. This is a story about magic and regrets, about learning to feel more and judge less, and the true treasures in life.

Deputy Dan and the Mysterious Midnight Marauder can be purchased from Te Papa’s Kid’s Store, Barbara’s Books, Scorpio Books, The Children’s Bookshop, Unity, Storytime, Vic Books, Arty Bees, The Christchurch Cathedral shop, UBS Canterbury, The Arts Centre Bookshop in Christchurch and from Sally’s website.


Sally, there’s all sorts of stuff I want to ask you about, but to begin with, how did you manage to get the Wizard to compere the launch of your book? Also, the launch of her first book is a very special time for any writer – how was this launch for you?

Ah, Jack the Wizard was lovely. It was no trouble at all. I randomly mentioned how much I wished the Wizard was my compere to the Town Crier of Christchurch, Steven Symons, after someone introduced us. I’m not even sure how it came up! It turned out they were friends and within a day he gave me the Wizard’s contact information so I was able to make a very nervous call to the Wizard. Luckily, he was pleased with the idea, and played along with everything beautifully. He said a wonderfully theatrical blessing of the book which would have been perfect if he had been able to actually remember its name. Instead he called it by five or six different titles and I think this added greatly to the charm of the event. We did two launches; one each in Wellington and Christchurch. The reason was that my publisher is based in Wellington, and we wanted an event that coincided with the National Science Fiction convention held there, as the people involved have been very supportive of my writing. However, everyone else who worked on the book – and there was a large team – was based in Christchurch.

The Christchurch event was huge. We started with dinner served in trams circling the city while jazz musicians played their way through the carriages. Then, we had the launch ceremony at the Design and Arts College of New Zealand where Joel (the illustrator) studied. Five hundred individual cakes were served that night and a segment from the book was narrated in sign language. It was completely special. One of the best nights of my life. I think for both launches Joel and I floated – leading up to them there is this strange terror that something will be wrong with the book or people wouldn’t love it somehow – then momentum takes over and the launch itself is a blissful dream come true sort of experience. Its a feeling I can highly recommend and one with lasting sweetness.


What was the path that led you and Deputy Dan and The Mysterious Midnight Marauder from first thought to publication?

It was long and twisty, that path. It started with a dream while I was still studying. In it a blond boy was trying to track down a robber… who it turned out was not a robber at all! I asked myself if I could write that boy’s story and – just for kicks – write it into verse. It was a sort of joke with myself, an experiment, and I suspected I was insane for wanting to try it. Twelve years later the book was published and my suspicions had been confirmed! I wrote Deputy Dan during tea breaks from my day jobs – ten minutes at a time – all that time. After several years of that my health abruptly deteriorated. I was – mistakenly – told by one Doctor that my condition was terminal. I decided that I preferred to fulfill the dream of being a writer, and finish Deputy Dan, rather than succumb. I finished the story while still very ill. When she was out with him for a business lunch my sister told Tim, the publisher, that he had to read my work. He declared it all publishable. At about the same time I submitted the story to the judges of the Conclave Award (for Fantasy Poetry) as a handful of photocopied sheets and it won.

Production began. I had an idea that as the book started life as the work of a student I wanted another student to illustrate it. I ran a competition with the Design and Arts College of New Zealand and the student who came up with the most apt character sketches won the chance to illustrate the book. That was Joel and we worked closely together for almost a year and a half. We were, under Tim’s direction, involved in all the processes of publishing. Tim wanted to teach us what was involved. Finally, at about 1.30am on the 17th of March, 2008, the first printed pages of the book began rolling off the presses. It’s an amazing thing to experience on the ground as I did.


Why do you write? What do you hope to achieve from any by writing, both in personal terms and in terms of the effect your work has on readers and on the literary community?

Writing is a strange illness that nobody has found a cure for. For me, its a compulsion, and I am happiest when fulfilling that absolute need, instead of hiding from it. I feel like I am talking with the world I am part of when I write. I reach out, and see if anyone reaches back, while breathing life into characters and their world; communication and creation at the same time. In personal terms I hope to make a book people might enjoy. I also try to write beauty more than ugliness (inner and outer). I don’t know if I think of having an effect on the literary community – it seems like such a big thing – but I do have a few ideals I cling to about what I want my work to do socially. I want to wise up children rather than dumbing down books. In other words, I don’t like limiting my vocabulary or ideas when I write by trying to direct them to an age group. I think that breaks your writing and I don’t want to patronise readers. I think using more challenging words well encourages kids to learn them.

How do you fit writing in with the rest of your life? Where and when do you like to write?

At the moment it’s really difficult. I am transitioning between cities and that is taking its toll on me physically. So, I am in a hiatus. In the past six months, I’ve done a fair bit of editing and written ten thousand words of the series I am most focused on. I’ve also written a short story. Now I am at the tail end of that transition, I am really looking forward to more writing time. I think to myself that I’ve just had the rite of passage now I want the writing of passages!

I’ve learned I am someone who needs a dedicated writing corner of some sort. Now, I have bought a home and it has a long, narrow, office at the top of three stories looking out over trees. I am really looking forward to writing in that tower like crevice. I do most of my writing in bursts late at night in my office and in cafes during the afternoon. I am also often running ideas around in my head when I am seemingly otherwise occupied. I do some of my best writing while drifting off to sleep or doing the dishes. I have learned to carry paper everywhere.

Some writers say that they find it hard to read for pleasure – that, willingly or not, they read with one eye on how the book they’re reading achieves its effects, or they read to see what other authors in their genre are up to, or what’s selling well at the moment. Are you an analytical reader, or do you read primarily for pleasure? Can you tell us some of your favourite writers?

I read with absolute indulgence for pleasure. I know the book is failing for me when I become super analytical and start pulling out my inner editorial red marker. I write the sort of stories I enjoy reading – YA, Children’s books and fantasy/ slipstream. My absolute favourites are Robin Hobb, Catherine Valente, Neil Gaiman, Margaret Mahy, Diana Wynne- Jones, Keri Hulme, Paul Stewart, Phillip Pullman… well, its a long list and one I could add to for a while!

I know that you really enjoy New Zealand’s national science fiction conventions. What’s so good at about them?

I’ve found the people there to be incredibly enthusiastic and supportive – its a great community. I’ve learned more about writing at those conventions than through any other forum – its invaluable to meet the experienced guest authors they host each year – and the convention members themselves have sometimes benefited by the years and years of exposure to these guests. So they are also really knowledgeable around the craft of writing. I’ve learned a lot about how to get published (ah, the debate about the necessity of agents continues though!), generating ideas, and by seeing how other authors work. I found that many use sensory keys to tell themselves its work time, such as a particular drink, or piece of music. When that music is played or that drink poured its time to sit down and write. It almost becomes self hypnotic the association becomes so strong and that’s a good thing; the hardest part of writing is sometimes to start doing it.

Why are the Sir Julius Vogel Awards so special to you?

I think its huge that New Zealand has its own trophy for Science Fiction and Fantasy writing. Its got a great lineage, being named for the Prime Minister who wrote science fiction back in the Victorian era, and with the trophies themselves crafted and donated by Weta Workshops. It seems like each year the award gains significance and gets more noticed. The award has its origins in the grass roots of fandom and is an absolute credit to the teams of volunteers who have devoted years to running it for little or no recognition. The service they do to the writing community is amazing. To be awarded one was an incredibly proud moment and especially because it put me in the company of a group of author friends. On the actual night of the awards Helen Lowe and Nalini Singh and I all sat together and all, happily, got at least one Vogel (Helen did really well and got two!). It made things even more special, if possible.

You have been involved in the Books In Homes scheme. What is so good about this scheme, and have you found your involvement rewarding?

Duffy’s Books in Homes is a wonderful programme. They have given away over five million books to kids in lower decile schools in the fourteen years they have operated and their 588 schools show a 35% increase in mean reading levels. So: that’s great. But the Books in Homes focus on learning and achieving through goal setting – with reading as a tool and a focus – seems to have a massive impact on entire communities around participating schools. Parents are taught and encouraged to read to kids, jail rates fall away in these communities, bullying and truancy diminish. Camberley school reports that vandalism of school property dropped by 90% as a result of involvement in Books in Homes. Adult literacy improves and job opportunities are derived as a result. The programme involves kids in pre-school, primary school, and then High School kids become role models. Parents – especially Dads – and grandparents are encouraged to participate. It’s inspired.

I went into the programme as a role model. This means I visited schools talking about how reading has made a positive difference in my life, to encourage kids to read, and I gave out their free books at the awards ceremony afterwards. I thought I was engaging in an act of service but, in fact, it has proven at least as inspiring for me as it was for the kids. I was the Books in Homes role model for Van Asch Deaf Education Centre in Sumner. The kids there, and their teachers, were amazing. I never saw anything as expressive as one of the teachers signing part of Deputy Dan to the kids. Their whole language of gesture is beautiful and an art form in itself. Later, they hosted me at a school performance of Oliver which was really special. Then, at the book launch, a senior student named Mark signed part of the book. His skill dumbfounded everyone who watched – I was mobbed by people wanting to talk about how theatrical it was afterwards – and it was a powerful moment. He gave me a brooch bearing a golden butterfly which made me an International Friend of the Deaf – it apparently is recognised all over the world – and which symbolises the Deaf Community: silent but beautiful.

What’s next for Sally McLennan? What writing projects do you have underway, or in mind?

I’m dying to get settled into my new home and stuck in! I want to have as much as possible, if not all, of the Somewhere Else trilogy finished ahead of World Con (AussieCon 4: The World Science Fiction convention in 2010). The first book is about a group of kids who are translated into another world, one linked with our own, and at war. Of course, as in all fantasy stories of this type, there is the expectation that the children will be heroes. Of course, this story is a little more true to life about what happens to young people who suddenly find they are in the middle of a war. It’s quite gritty and I am really enjoying writing it. A series about an imaginary friend who comes to life is ticking along nicely – the Jessica and Spuds series – which is definitely in prose. I also have, way on the back burner, a sequel to Deputy Dan.

While all that is going on Joel wants me to pen words to his graphic novel about JoJo, a boy in a circus, in space. That is a perfect continuation of our partnership: he has had to put images to my ideas now I have to match words to his images. I love working with Joel. He is my creative brother. Together we could come up with almost anything.

An Interview with Tim Upperton


Tim Upperton’s poetry and fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in AGNI, Bravado, Dreamcatcher, Landfall, New Zealand Books, New Zealand Listener, North & South, Reconfigurations, Sport, Takahe, Turbine and Best New Zealand Poems 2008.

Tim has won first prizes in the New Zealand Listener National Poetry Day Competition, Takahe magazine’s poetry competition, and the Northland and Manawatu short story competitions. He is a former poetry editor for Bravado, and tutors creative writing, travel writing and New Zealand literature at Massey University.

Tim, your first collection, A House on Fire, was launched on Montana Poetry Day, Friday 24 July, in Palmerston North. What are the key things that you would like prospective readers to know about this collection?

It’s a various collection, ranging across different forms and engaging with familiar aspects of domestic life as well as with things that interest me but which are remote from my daily concerns. So one poem is about making lunches each day for my four children, and another is about history as successive erasure, one forgetting piled on top of another. The first poem I ever published is in the collection, and that was ten years ago. And the most recently published poem, “History”, is also there, and appeared in New Zealand Books in June. So the collection is a record, I guess, of my published writing over a decade.



Is the collection representative of your poetry as a whole, or does it focus on one or more particular aspects of your poetry?

It’s representative in that most of my poems have found their way into it! Though there are exceptions: a few poems that have been previously published in magazines didn’t seem to belong, and have been omitted.

How did you become involved in writing poetry? Which, if any, poets have been most influential on your writing?

I studied literature – mostly English – at university, and had some ambition to be a writer, without actually writing very much. I wanted to write fiction, but the first piece of writing I submitted was a poem, and I was lucky to have it published in Sport. So of course I submitted a further batch of poems to Sport, which were duly rejected. And that was the start, for me – I kept writing, kept submitting, and the rejections and the acceptances came in. Fail better, as Beckett says. It took me a long time to realise that you don’t have to be very smart to write poems. I don’t think I have any particular wisdom to offer, and I’m bored generally by poets who do. Language is smart, so I don’t have to be – I try to listen to language, alert to the wisdom that’s inherent in it. And I arrange it on paper, a bit like shaking a kaleidoscope and looking to see what patterns emerge.

I often look to overseas models – British and American – when writing my own poems, and often not-so-recent poets with a formalist bent – Elizabeth Bishop, Weldon Kees, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Theodore Roethke. But lately in my capacity as poetry reviewer for Bravado I’ve been reading and enjoying a lot more contemporary New Zealand poetry. And I’ve been teaching New Zealand literature at Massey University this year, so I’ve been reacquainting myself with Curnow, Bethell, Baxter and so on. I admire the sense of place in contemporary New Zealand writing – there’s an ease and confidence there that I would wish to emulate.

I very much enjoyed my introduction to the Palmerston North poetry scene in June, when I visited to read as part of the Stand Up Poetry series. Do you regard yourself as an active member of that scene, or do you prefer to work away on your own for the most part?

Well, I’m active in that I attend most poetry gatherings, and there is a lot going on – tonight, for example, I’m reading with half a dozen other poets at Te Manawa, the Palmerston North museum, and that will be the third poetry event I’ve attended this week. Such events are fun, and they draw surprisingly large audiences, but they’re in stark contrast with the actual business of writing, which is generally solitary and difficult.

On July 20th, you and many of the other poets whose work is included in Best New Zealand Poems 2008 read together in Wellington. What did it mean to you to have a poem chosen for this collection, and did you enjoy the reading?

I was very pleased to have a poem included in Best New Zealand Poems. It is of course one person’s – in this case, James Brown’s – take on what is best; the selection process is hopelessly subjective. But I found myself in good company, and I caught up with a few friends on the day, including you! It’s a pleasure – and this is true also of the local events I mentioned previously – to be among people who take poetry’s importance and centrality as a given.

You teach creative writing at Massey University. Does working as a creative writing teacher have a good (or even a bad) influence on your own practice as a poet?

It must be a good influence, as I’m writing more these days than I did when I worked as a manager in local government. Writing is a series of delicate decisions, and as I review the decisions my students have made, I can’t help but reflect on my own.

You have been a poetry editor, and judged poetry competitions. I’ve enjoyed the editing I’ve done, but found that I don’t write much poetry while I’m looking at lots of other people’s poetry submissions. Has this been a problem for you?

Yes, my experience has been similar. I enjoyed editing, and also judging the Bravado poetry competition last year. But the work seemed to use up the writing part of my brain, and I didn’t produce many poems of my own at that time.

Turning away from poetry for a moment, I was intrigued by some comments you made, when we talked in Palmerston North, about your dislike of narrative in short fiction. Would you care to elaborate?

It’s of course a very general comment, and I can immediately think of exceptions. I’ve just reviewed Charlotte Grimshaw’s volume of linked short stories, Singularity, for example, and I admired it very much. But as a general comment, it’s true – narrative doesn’t particularly interest me. All that cause-and-effect, establishing motive, character development, the workings of plot – it’s like some rusted, obsolete machine cranking away. I love the economy of poetry – a short lyric poem can convey an effect that it may take a whole novel to produce. I can see that this is a personal prejudice. The contemporary fiction that interests me most is the kind that upsets our expectations of narrative – W.G. Sebald’s work, for example.

Finally, what literary project or projects are you now working on?

I’ve started writing poems again, which is a relief after some months of grooming my already-written poems for book publication. I sincerely hope my next collection won’t take as long to write as my first one.

Kindness
by Tim Upperton

Evening light, olive oil
poured from a high jug: streaming
over the burnished back of the cricket
riding its bowing grass stem; glossing
the spade with its broken handle
leaning on the strainer-post that is itself
leaning, its crumbly lichen glowing,
the wire tired and slack; pooling
on the surface of the leylandii stump,
with its surround of buttery chips
from inexpert swipes of the axe.

Light is light, it is not kindness,
but if kindness had a colour, perhaps
it would be this – yes, you turn away
impatiently, yet it’s you who cannot
bear to crush a snail; who once, in heavy
traffic, abandoned the car, and in tears
strode to a maimed pukeko that fluttered
beside the wide road; you who killed
that bird with a swing and a crack –

stay with me, as the light goes
from gold, to grey, to black.

Book availability

A House on Fire, by Tim Upperton, Steele Roberts, 61pp, $19.99, ISBN 987-1-877448-68-3
Available from:

  • The publisher (www.steeleroberts.co.nz)
  • Bruce McKenzie’s, Palmerston North
  • The author (t.l.upperton (at) massey.ac.nz)
  • Or by ordering through your local bookshop

An Interview with Joanna Preston


Joanna Preston’s first solo poetry collection, The Summer King: Poems, has just been published by Otago University Press. The manuscript won the 2008 Kathleen Grattan Award.

Joanna Preston was born in Sydney and spent her childhood in outback New South Wales. In 1994, she migrated to New Zealand, although from 2003 to 2006 she lived in the UK, where she gained an MPhil in Creative Writing from the University of Glamorgan. Her poems have been widely published, and won awards, in New Zealand and internationally. She has had work published in The Best Australian Poems 2005, edited by Les Murray, and in the prestigious 2007 Carcanet anthology New Poetries IV, edited by Eleanor Crawforth.


Joanna, The Summer King was launched on Montana Poetry Day, 24 July. How did the launch go?

It was a great night – the weather that day was horrible, but cleared up just in time. We had a full house, and the atmosphere was really buzzing. A real party feeling.

I am very impressed by the production quality of The Summer King – it’s a credit to the designer, Sarah Maxey, and to the publishers, Otago University Press. Are the physical qualities of a book important to you, or are you a person for whom it’s mainly about the words?

The words, every time. If the book is rubbish, then no amount of gorgeous presentation will save it. But … it’s a bit like the question from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. “Don’t you know that a boy being rich is like a girl being pretty? You wouldn’t marry a girl just because she’s pretty, but my goodness, doesn’t it help?”

There are some books that you just can’t help picking up. You hope that the cover design will make people want to look at the book, and that the contents will make them want to keep it. I think Sarah and Wendy have delivered exactly that, and I am so incredibly grateful to them.

In her preview of The Summer King on Beattie’s Book Blog, Helen Lowe described you as a narrative poet. ‘Narrative poetry’ makes me think of Sir Patrick Spens and the Border Ballads. Do you think of yourself as a narrative poet, and if so, in what sense? How is that manifested in the collection?

I grew up with the Australian poetic narrative tradition, so I’ve got those sorts of inclinations fairly deeply ingrained. As much as anything, I call myself a narrative poet because I’m not really a lyric poet. There’s almost always a story behind the poem. It’s most obvious in persona poems like “Lighthouse-keeper”, but it’s there in most of them. I guess it comes down to how you define “narrative” and “lyric” poetry, and it may be that the distinction is no longer useful.

You are a poetry reviewer yourself. Does that make you more, or less, or not at all nervous about the critical reception The Summer King may receive?

Tim, I’m absolutely terrified. I am a complete and utter coward. Of course I want everyone to love the book, but I know that there will be plenty of people who don’t.

My intention is to try to not read the reviews. If there’s something that needs to be addressed, I’m sure I’ll be told and will try to address it. But ultimately the reviews have nothing to do with me. You don’t review a book for the author – you do it for other readers.

(That sounds impressively adult, doesn’t it? I suspect the truth will involve a lot more cringing, but we’ll see.)

You lived in the UK for three years, where you completed a Master of Philosophy in Creative Writing at the University of Glamorgan. Do you still have a strong connection to the poetry scene in the UK in general, and to your tutors and peers at the University of Glamorgan in particular?

Once a Glam Girl, always a Glam Girl! There’s a private mailing list for alumni, so we all keep in touch and up to date with each other’s successes. It’s a fantastic resource – no matter what the literary question, one or other of us will have an answer. We actually form a surprisingly extensive international network. It’s a little bit skewed by the fact that I was the only survivor of my cohort …

“The only survivor of my cohort” sounds distinctly ominous. Please explain!

Well that’s a slight exaggeration. Two of us (out of eight) made it to the final residency, but so far I’m the only one to have gone through submission and viva. I think Barbara is planning to submit everything in the next few months, so I’ll be sitting on the (virtual) sidelines cheering for her when viva time comes.

The course is pretty highly thought of, and they fill the eight places a good six to eight months in advance. There’s usually two or three who drop out over the course of the two years (putting your life on hold for a one year full time course is one thing: much harder to juggle the same amount of work over a two year period while trying to maintain a normal life), but we ended up losing everyone except the two of us. Nothing sinister, just life getting in the way. Job promotions; illness; personal upheavals.

We started second year with three people deferring for another twelve months, and ended up with only two of us there for the last two residencies. It made for the most intense critical focus I’ve ever experienced – terrifying, exhausting, and quite exhilarating by the end. I think it ended up being about an hour and a half per session, just on one person’s poems. Then it’d be the other person’s turn. Then a change in the tutors, repeat, repeat again, and come back tomorrow to do the same again. Two residencies in a row! I don’t know how we survived it.

From what you’ve written on your blog, and from reading The Summer King itself, I’ve formed the impression that the craft of poetry is very important to you: that is, that a concern for the technical aspects of poetry is very strong in both your own work and your reaction to other poets’ work. Is that a fair assessment?

Absolutely. I’m a formalist by inclination, and that was only strengthened by my time in the UK. Welsh poetry in particular is incredibly musical. (And much loved by ordinary people – surely not a coincidence?) It’s not ornamentation: it’s an integral part of poetry. There are too many tin-eared poets. The Irish poet, Michael Longley, summed it up beautifully: “if many of the folk who call themselves poets were tightrope walkers, they would be dead.” Without craft, what do you have? Chopped up prose? Meaning is important, but it’s at least 50% in the hands (mind, rather) of the reader. Craft is the poet’s business.

Where’s the line between “poetry” and “chopped up prose”, and how do you determine what side of the line a particular piece of writing falls?

Good question! I’m sure there will be plenty of disagreement, but for me it comes down to music. If there’s no music, no rhythm, if the linebreaks don’t seem to be doing anything other than acting as airbags against the right hand margin … that’s prose, surely? The music doesn’t have to be pretty – it can jangle and be ugly, as long as it’s doing that for some sort of reason. I tell my students that poetry is, above all else, patterned language. There’s plenty of grey areas on the margins, and that’s what margins are for – to be the zone of “still awaiting classification”, or “other/pending review” or “mixed source, parentage uncertain”. Craft, craft, technique and craft.

But as I said, that’s my personal view. Not universally held, and subject to revision on a case-by-case basis.

Which poets have been most influential on your own work, and which poets do you most enjoy reading?

Oo, a long list, and it varies wildly. I’d have to start with Shakespeare, Donne, Coleridge, some Wordsworth. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti. Lorca I fell in love with when I was little, and he still makes me tingle. Of recent years – Kate Llewellyn, Geoffrey Lehmann, Les Murray (of course), Hughes and Heaney (ditto), Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage, Selima Hill, Pascale Petit, Louise Glück, Carolyn Forché, Mary Oliver, Mark Doty, Li-Young Lee … if I add the NZ contingent we’ll be here all night.

Influences – Les Murray and Ted Hughes are fairly obvious. (I was given a copy of Lupercal when I was ten or eleven, and I still find his shamanistic poems utterly compelling.) And I’m trying to absorb some of the wildness of Pascale Petit’s work – she’s an criminally underrated poet. I can spend hours pouring over her poems, trying to see what makes them tick and how I can use that myself. Same with Louise Glück. And I have to work hard to not pick up Duffy-isms if I’ve been reading her.

What writing projects are you currently working on?

Trying to get back into the flow of writing properly! One of the downsides from the MPhil was that I burnt myself out a bit, getting everything completed and ready to hand in before we left the UK. It’s a little over three years since I finished, and I’ve really only written a handful of decent poems since then. It’s taken me quite a while to come to terms with that. But I’ve started to feel them again.

Finally, my favourite poem of the many fine poems in The Summer King is “Phlogiston”, and you’ve been kind enough to let me reproduce it below. I’m not going to ask you “what it’s about”, because its air of mystery is one of the things I like best about it. But I’m interested in the way its two-line stanzas (and single one-line stanza) work together. How do you decide the length of stanza to use for each poem you write?

You break lines for all sorts of reasons to do with rhythm and pattern and sound and emphasis, but a stanza break is a bigger thing. The best explanation I’ve come across is something that Stephen Knight worked hard to drum into my skull: there should be some sort of payoff to reward the reader for trusting you and crossing that white space into a new stanza. It sounds extreme, but it’s a good mental check. Maybe it’s a rhythm choice; maybe you’re following the logic of new thought: new paragraph. And those reasons work well. But … I like the idea of “little dramatic moments” (another Stephen Knight-ism – he was a very good tutor!), of the poem being like riding a cross-country jumping course – logs and fences and ditches, and the need to position the reader so that the flow through the poem is as true and exhilarating as possible. It’s not a bad aim to start with.

Phlogiston

by Joanna Preston

It glowered from its box
growling and hissing,

a beautiful thing, caged
behind a brass screen.

I hugged myself, stared
back at it for hours,

its scent draped
around me like fox-furs.

Dangerous
was just a word

until it escaped one night
and the neighbours came home

to nothing.

The calcined skull
of their yap-dog

crunched under my heel
like frozen grass.

“Phlogiston” was first published in Magma 35.

An Interview with Mary Cresswell

This is the first of three interviews I will be running over the next few weeks with New Zealand poets whose first solo books of poetry are being launched on or near Montana Poetry Day on Friday 24 July.


Mary Cresswell is a Wellington poet who lives on the Kapiti Coast. She came to New Zealand from Los Angeles in 1970, after having lived in various parts of the US, in Germany, and in Japan. She graduated from Stanford University in California with a degree in history and English literature. She is a freelance science editor and proofreader and has spent at least one lifetime in the Wellington workplace.

Her first book appearance was with Mary-Jane Duffy, Mary Macpherson, and Kerry Hines as co-authors of Millionaire’s Shortbread, published by the University of Otago Press in 2003. This book is illustrated with collages by Brendan O’Brien, has an afterword by Greg O’Brien, and introduced these four poets to the Wellington scene.

Mary, your first solo book of poetry, Nearest & Dearest (Steele Roberts, 2009, NZ RRP $19.95, illustrated by Nikki Slade Robinson) is a book of humorous poetry, which is a side of your work I’ve not seen before. Have you always written humorous poetry alongside your serious poetry, or has that been a recent development?

The opposite, actually. I stopped writing serious poetry when I was about 17 and only took it up again the year I turned 60. All the years I didn’t write serious poetry, I’ve frequently come up with silly stuff for friends, for occasions in the office, or for family. That’s been a constant. I just wish I’d kept copies!

How did you become involved in writing poetry? Which poets have been most influential on your writing?

I was raised in a family where capping verses (usually limericks) was a standard indoor sport, so I have emitted poetry as long as I remember. Important poets? My sense of rhythm owes a lot to Anon. and to Cole Porter. My parents lived on folk songs and cabaret songs, hence my need for accentual (rather than accentual-syllabic or free) verse. Individual poets: Lewis Carroll, Auden, Eliot, Poe, Dorothy Parker, Donne, Walter Scott, Byron, Longfellow, Ogden Nash, Sidney Lanier… for starters. These days I’m reading Kay Ryan, Marie Ponsot, Robert Alter’s new translation of the Book of Psalms, among others.

“Humour” and “playfulness” are not words often used to characterise the literary scene in New Zealand. Indeed, there seems to be a view here that purse-lipped seriousness is the only acceptable literary stance. Have you run foul of such attitudes, or is this just me being paranoid?

I think “literary” is the operative word here, and no, you’re not paranoid. But this isn’t poetry’s fault: A lot of people last thought seriously about poetry in the fifth form and settle for genteel obeisance to Beauty and Nature when they think of it at all; light verse is for greeting cards, and they can’t imagine a serious message coming via humour. — And there’s also literary fashion. Humour is difficult in personal-experience poetry written in free verse, with no formal aspect. In New Zealand, we have to go back a generation to, say, Denis Glover to find a top poet writing humour, especially black humour, with a sting in it. Was Glover ever considered literary? I don’t know; I wonder if his contemporaries kept him in a category of his own.

Not many Americans write poems that feature cricket, such as “Willow Green Willow” in Nearest & Dearest. Do you now feel thoroughly ‘acclimatised’, if I may use the term, as a New Zealand poet?

After forty years in New Zealand, I’m about as acclimatised as I’ll ever be. I switched to correct [sic] spelling early on, though my spoken accent will never change much. I’m not sure, though, if any poet can or should aim for the mainstream. I know that both Americans and Kiwis think I don’t really belong, and the discomfort that comes from this seems to keep my satiric side alive and healthy.

Several of the poems that I most enjoyed in Nearest & Dearest are parodies of or based on other poems, several from the Victorian era. I know I like reading these – what attracts you to writing them?

They’re easiest to get started. Many of them (like the office manager’s Shakespeare sonnet (see below) or playing games with Wordsworth in the ‘Pass at Grasmere’) are based on poetry I read years ago, and they’re part of my sensibility in a way more recent poems aren’t. So a phrase—a few lines—perhaps a rhyme for ‘schadenfreude’— will pop into my mind by surprise; then I spend hours and hours trying to polish a humorous poem that also is a credit to the original.


Your poem “Metastasis” appears in Voyagers: Science Fiction Poetry from New Zealand, and you work as an editor of science publications. How much of an influence has science had on your poetry? Would you describe yourself as a “science poet”?

Not a “science poet” in that I rarely take scientific principles into account; “Metastasis” is a bit aberrant. I take notes of and am definitely influenced by goofy-sounding phrases I run across in the course of proofreading fearsomely technical material. (Who would be a “ring-based indole”, I ask you?) The US magazine Umbrella publishes an annual light supplement, Bumbershoot. This poem: http://www.umbrellajournal.com/summer2009/bumbershoot/light_verse/LabNote.html reflects a temporary passion for technical terms beginning with “Sq”.

Are copies of Nearest & Dearest available in bookshops yet? If so, where can people find it?

Absolutely. In Wellington, try Unity Books; Moby Dickens and Paper Plus in Paraparaumu; Bruce Mackenzie’s in Palmerston have it for sure. Books a’ Plenty in Tauranga. If you don’t see it on the shelf, ask for it. Supporting your local bookseller is admirable, virtuous, and a sign of high intelligence. If all else fails, the book’s available from the publisher and from Fishpond.

Finally, what’s next for Mary Cresswell as a poet?

Write more. Read more. Read more. Write more.

Watch this space.

THE OFFICE MANAGER ADDRESSES HER MIRROR
by Mary Cresswell

Shall I wear the Gucci scarf today?
It’s far more lovely and more corporate
than what sleek young managers affect
in all the offices up and down the way.

It gives an air of strength, they always say,
classic looks for classic power dressed,
Look and feel and act as though you’re best
and the rest will follow, as the night the day.

No dangly earrings! What women call
postmenopausal zest, in other places
gives a bad impression overall.
I will notice all their airs and graces,
a quiet woman, not looking to outwit them…
I shall run the show before they know what hit them.

This interview is the first stop in Mary’s “virtual book tour” for Nearest & Dearest. The next stop is on Janis Freegard’s blog.