National Poetry Day and Broken Egg

Today is New Zealand’s National Poetry Day. There have been heaps of cool events this past week, and still a few more still to come. You can check them out here.

In celebration of the day, I thought I’d share one of my poems, titled Broken Egg. I wrote it in 2013, and it was published in the February 2014 edition of Writing Tomorrow. I hope that you like it.

 

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Broken Egg

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They come bounding at me bow-legged,

expecting beaks like upside down spoons and brass eyes unblinking.

Oi, get off, I skip backwards, I gave you the wheat!

Don’t you remember pecking my hand and hearing me squeak?

 

I check for eggs inside the roosting shed, poke my head in,

perceive a hen-like shape and beak swiveling my way.

Oops, sorry – I say, retreat, retreat.

A rock in your place, a sleeping cat, even,

so stuffed with shadows, I’d think it a hen.

 

Sometimes I hear you wailing all the way from the front fence.

With misshapen eggs, I wonder why you lay.

Maybe because, secretly, you enjoy the quiet, dark,

the rustle of your feathers in the straw,

the curve, the release.

 

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My mother owns sixty-one eggcups

though seldom eats her own eggs.

They sit in a brown cabinet

beside the lamp whose height hides a layer of dust.

The rest of her house is spotless, of course.

She’s a short woman, it’s not her fault.

 

She tried to have more kids but was stuck with just the one,

then my dad won big with the bonus bonds and moved away

with the lady who cut all our hair.

Two of the eggcups were wedding presents.

They sit front, centre, polished brightly.

Mum doesn’t receive many gifts.

 

In the early eve she’s sleeve-deep in the garden

speaking to her hens, upturning rocks.

Beetles and millipedes have no safe nooks.

I’ll never understand the pleasure she gets, digging potatoes,

wrenching sticky weeds from the mischievous earth.

 

She lays her carrots with care,

side by side on the lilac rug we used to take to the beach.

It’s covered in holes, I don’t know why she doesn’t biff it.

I sit with her till dusk while she shovels compost, full of broken shells.

She told me once that when hens eat a broken egg they get a taste.

 

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Dad could catch a wave with his body, like a rocket,

arms stretched straight in front, strong legs kicking.

Mum and I skulked beneath the parasol, watching him.

I hear he has three kids now – probably brown, and fit, like him.

 

As a teenager I hated this farm.

I’d climb the overgrown rhododendrons,

perch like a pissed-off gargoyle, listing unfairnesses.

There’s nothing fun about being a kid.

When the doctor told me I couldn’t have any I was glad.

 

Dad sent me a postcard once, from France,

wrote it like he wrote them every week.

I didn’t recognise the handwriting

till Mum pointed out his name at the bottom.

I remember she cried.

She told me once she would’ve liked grandchildren.

 

Sometimes I see you running wide-armed at me,

scabby knees and bright eyes unflinching.

I’ve seen plasters with pictures on them, at the supermarket, just for kids.

Oi, get off, I tut, holding you at arm’s length

and poking your tummy till you squeak.

 

For a downloadable copy, click here.

 

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Poi E: The Story of our Song (movie review)

Tonight I went to the movies to watch Poi E: The Story of our Song, written and directed by Tearepa Kahi. I guess the fact that it’s freezing outside, and that it’s a Monday night, accounts for the fact that my friend and I had the whole theatre to ourselves… and usually I’d have been stoked to not have to crane my neck around the tall dude sitting in front of me or to have to mentally fade out the mandatory movie cougher (and because I got to lie back with my feet on the seat in front). But tonight it just seemed wrong.

Poi E poster

 

I’ve always loved Poi E, the song. I wonder if there’s a New Zealander who doesn’t. It’s part of our culture, as well as part of our pop music history – along with Six Months in a Leaky Boat and Slice of Heaven. Yet, weirdly, I had no idea when it was filmed, no idea about the woman who wrote it, the club who performed it, or the man who brought the whole thing together – Dalvanius Prime. Maybe I’m just too young (I was born the year before it was released). When I sat down to watch the movie, therefore, I wondered how anyone could possibly create a whole documentary about a single song.  Woah – I had a few things to learn.

This documentary takes you on a journey from the small town of Patea all the way to England and back. You get to witness a community’s love for their songs, for their culture, and for one fat Maori dude who knew how to make music. There are moments when you have to have a wee giggle about just how ‘kiwi’ some people are – in fact, if I’d watched it while overseas I’d probably have been overcome with homesickness and flown right home (except, if you know me, then you know I’m not so much into glorifying the freezing works). But most importantly, the film addresses the stifling of Te Reo Maori that occurred, well, up until recently really, as well as the pigeon-holing of the whole Maori culture that took place (when there were only certain contexts when it was acceptable for people to speak Maori or to act in any way not white).

And so because, like most people, I’ve always just sung along to the “Poi e” part of the lyrics, sort of mumbling or humming over the rest, I decided to go home tonight and learn the full song. And then I sang it several times to myself, strumming on my guitar, not quite ever mastering all those syllables, but getting close enough!

Go see the film. No arguing. We need to support NZ film makers and become more culturally enlightened wherever possible. And here, of course, is the song itself!

 

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Middlemarch

In March I attended a writers festival in Ohakune – a little town at the foot of the majestic Mt Ruapehu. On the final night I stood up nervously in front of a room full of respected NZ writers and read Middlemarch, a poem told in the perspective of a woman who is unhappy with her marriage. It was the first time I’d read one of my poems to pretty much anyone other than my six old son, who is nearly always nice about it (though actually, everyone at the festival was nice about it too). I then returned to my cold and tiny backpackers room to find an email from Landfall, informing me that the very poem I had read was to be published in their next edition. I was absolutely thrilled!

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This fruit is called a Cape Gooseberry, or a Ground Berry. I think they’re awesome.

It’s taken me a shamefully long time to announce this properly. In fact, it’s winter now, and this was an autumn edition. I think this is because the poem was written about my own failing marriage – now recently failed – but hey, really that’s no reason not celebrate a publication. I’ve begun reading the other poems and stories contained within, and am proud that Middlemarch is tucked in among them. The full list of contributors can be found here.

 

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An Interview with Phil Dadson

Phil Dadson is one of those legendary New Zealand composers /musicians / artists, respected by anyone who knows him or knows his works. He’s also an extremely warm and cheerful chap, and a pleasure to be around. I was lucky enough to talk to him about Five Rhythm Works, his upcoming re-release of five of his earliest From Scratch pieces. The interview can be found here at Pantograph Punch.

Photo by Phabu Makan 1978

Photo by Phabu Makan, 1978.

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Shortlisted, and a trip to Ohakune

I figured I could combine two posts into one – some would call this efficient, others rambly. Whatever. My first item of news is that my story Pocket Wife (published by Paper Road Press) has been shortlisted for the Sir Julius Vogel award for Best Novella 2015. That’s pretty exciting. The full list and voting info can be found here.

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Last Thursday my friend Allan and I took a train down to the little town of Ohakune, to attend the first Ruapehu Writers Festival. I didn’t want to admit to any of the locals that I hadn’t actually heard of Ohakune before I booked my ticket to the event… but I hadn’t. It’s a quiet town that apparently explodes during the ski season (most of the shops and restaurants were closed, displaying signs that claimed they’d be “back in winter”). I’ve never skied, so I suppose that’s why Ohakune had never entered my radar.

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The festival was held at the Powderhorn Chateau, although I stayed in a somewhat cheaper (okay, a lot cheaper) backpackers down the road. My box-like room was crammed between the communal kitchen and bathroom. Sleep wasn’t really on the cards.

But my having to rough it was worthwhile, as from 9am till 9pm each day I was able to sit and absorb some of New Zealand’s best poetry and prose. I participated in a workshop with Sue Orr, listened to writers’ and publishers’ opinions on their works and the industry, and even read my poem Middlemarch at the Poetry Slam night.

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One of the highlights was the walk to Waitonga Falls, Tongariro National Park’s highest waterfall. It’s a beautiful (and reasonably easy) walk, so if you are heading to that area you can find out about it here.

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The speakers kept referring to the festival as the “first annual Ruapehu Writers Festival”, so I can only presume there will be another one. Ohakune is conveniently in the middle of the North Island, easy enough for those in Wellington and Auckland to catch a train or drive (sorry South Islanders). Here’s a shot of Mt Ruapehu, taken from the train on the return journey.

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Book Review: Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake

I finished this book at least a month ago, but have been putting off writing a review. To review it seems almost condescending – like rating Beethoven’s fifth symphony or deciding how many stars you’d give Michelangelo’s “David”. This book is a masterpiece.

Which is exactly what I’d heard, actually. I’d been told on numerous occasions that I must read it, that it would be an unforgivable crime for a speculative fiction writer to have not read Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast series. It took me a while, I have to admit, before I brought myself around to actually sitting down and concentrating on what I could see (by casually flicking through the pages) would be some pretty dense pre-1950s literature. It seemed like it would be a bit of a slog, though why I thought that then I now don’t know. Because once I started reading I was thoroughly hooked.

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Titus Groan is set in Gormenghast: a crumbling fortress of ancient stone, with precarious towers, gardens, and clusters of patchwork buildings built between and among its decaying walls. It is also the seat of the family Groan. Seemingly oblivious to the world outside their small sphere of everyday events, the lives of the people who live within the Keep (and even those “mud dwellers” who live huddled against its outer walls) are dictated by rules and rituals put down as lore too long ago to remember. Everything must remain the same (no matter the consequence). The rituals must be adhered to (no matter how ridiculous and irrelevant). Change is sacrilegious.

The story covers the first few years of Titus Groan’s life, the new heir to the Earldom. I am certain he’ll play a more central role in the two following books, but as he’s just a baby, it’s those around him that we get to know well – his parents, his older sister, his nanny and aunts, and the few key servants who are close to the ruling family.* Each character is as downright mad as the next, from Mr Flay, the Earl’s tall and angular personal servant whose joints are so dry that he crackles each time he takes a step, to Ladies Cora and Clarice, identical twins whose facial muscles, so under-used, are unable to muster a single expression. As you meet each one they begin by seeming simply ludicrous, but by the end of the book you feel you know and understand each intimately. Central to the overarching plot is Steerpike’s story, and we watch him ascend (through intelligent manipulation) from lowly kitchen boy to an esteemed servant; so too is the feud between loyal Mr Flay and Swelter, the wildly obese and sadistic chef.

*As an aside: about halfway through the book I stopped and counted the characters and was happily surprised to realise there was an equal number of men and women.

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The beauty of this book is not actually in the story or plot (I could sum that up by simply saying “change does occur”) but in Peake’s beautifully poetic writing. Really, he’s a literary master. Every paragraph contains at least one exquisite description, or a way of portraying something (even just the play of shadow and light) that seems so very right. Even the mundane, like the weather, is captured so correctly:

A bird swept down across the water, brushing it with her breast feathers and leaving a trail as of glow-worms across the still lake. A spilth of water fell from the bird as it climbed through the hot air to clear the lakeside trees, and a drop of lake water clung for a moment to the leaf of an ilex. And as it clung its body was titanic. It burgeoned the vast summer. Leaves, lake and sky reflected. The hanger was stretched across it and the heat swayed in the pendant. Each bough, each leaf – and as the blue quills ran, the motion of minutiae shivered, hanging. Plumply it slid and gathered, and as it lengthened, the distorted reflection of high crumbling acres of masonry beyond them, pocked with nameless windows, and of the ivy that lay across the face of that southern wing like a black hand, trembled in the long pearl as it began to lose its grip of the edge of the ilex leaf.

Yet even as it fell the leaves of the far ivy lay fluttering in the belly of the tear, and, microscopic, from a thorn-prick window a face gazed out into the summer.

This particular paragraph is a favourite of mine, showing Swelter’s hatred towards Flay:

Swelter’s eyes meet those of his enemy, and never was there held between four globes of gristle so sinister a hell of hatred. Had the flesh, the fibres, and the bones of the chef and those of Mr Flay been conjured away and down that dark corridor leaving only their four eyes suspended in mid-air outside the Earl’s door, then, surely, they must have reddened to the hue of Mars, reddened and smouldered, and at last broken into flame, so intense was their hatred – broken into flame and circled about one another in ever-narrowing gyres and in swifter and yet swifter flight until, merged into one sizzling globe of ire they must have surely fled, the four in one, leaving a trail of blood behind them in the cold grey air of the corridor, until, screaming as they fly beneath innumerable arches and down the endless passageways of Gormenghast, they found their eyeless bodies once again, and re-entrenched themselves in startled sockets.

Really I feel I can’t add anything further. If you like fantasy (there’s not much magical about the world, but it is a different  world), then I’d recommend reading this. If you like good literature, then I insist that you really must read this. And if you like neither of these things, well… then don’t. See if I care.

Interestingly, Peake is not just known for his writing, but for his illustrations too (he’s Alice in Wonderland, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, amongst other things). The version of Titus Groan I own is speckled throughout with the odd sketch, adding to its overall charm.

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JAAM 33 – Small Departures

On New Year’s Eve, one of my best friends introduced me to one of his other friends as “a philosophy major, and a writer of short science fiction stories”. It struck me how weird it is that we do that – that we categorise people, choosing a few attributes and defining them as a combination of those things. Probably they were the most interesting attributes he could think of (you don’t want your friends to seem boring, do you?), and I guess it would have taken him too long to list everything he knew about me… “She’s 165cm tall, which you can see, she prefers peanut butter without added salt or sugar, she’s allergic to the powdery stuff on the skin of grapes…” Luckily our friends also miss out the embarrassing stuff when they categorise us for the benefit of a stranger.

Where was I going with this? Oh yes. I apologise for the small departure from the real topic of this post, which is my newest publication. My poem ‘Across so much water’ has just been published in JAAM 33, Small Departures.

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It’s a very non-sci fi poem, based upon my experience as a child when my mother told me she was leaving our family and moving to the United States to be with an unknown man whom she’d met on the internet (which was a lot less common over twenty years ago). This was a traumatic part of my life – and I spent nearly two years off school, recovering. The poem means a lot to me – as my poems nearly always do. Writing them is a whole different experience to writing my speculative fiction stories, which are more about the weird ideas I have in my mind, rather than the feelings and memories I want to try and make sense of. If you’d like to have a read of this poem, here’s a link to bookshops that sell JAAM’s publications.

I received my copies only a few days ago, and haven’t done much more than flick through their pages. But I’m thrilled to see my name alongside some of New Zealand’s great writers.

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