Poetry at the library

dressing-for-cannibals-inviteIn the next two weeks the Central City Library is lucky enough to be hosting three poetry events featuring Christchurch poet Frankie McMillan as part of Christchurch City Libraries 150th Anniversary celebrations. 

On Thursday 20th August Frankie will be launching Dressing for the cannibals, her new book of poems, at 5.30 pm and on Friday the 21st of August at 12.30 pm she will be joined in a poetry reading by an illustrious group of fellow poets.

Ross Brighton (Pelt, a shrub, a soil sample), David Gregory (Push), Bernadette Hall (The lustre jug), Michael Harlow, (The tram conductor’s new blue cap) Helen Lowe and Joanna Preston (The summer king) will all be reading from their work.

For those inspired by these readings or looking to add to their skills in writing their own poetry Frankie will be leading a workshop on Saturday the 29th of August at 10 am.

I asked Frankie some questions about her own work prior to her sessions at the library. She began writing poetry at the age of 14, in what she describes as a “vain attempt to attract boys”, possibly inspired by a movie or TV show where the beautiful heroine sat on a high stool and stared wistfully into the distance while she thought of POETRY.

As a small child Frankie was mistress of the 10 page story, written in an attempt to impress her teachers and all with a strange theological bent they shared with her drawings of the time. Moving from theology to drama, Frankie credits the two year Performing Arts Diploma she undertook in  Sydney, where she studied  devised theatre, Commedia dell’Arte, dance and improvisation, with informing her writing.

Her first book of short stories, The bag lady’s picnic and other stories, was published in 2001 and in 2005 she received the CNZ Todd Bursary to write a second collection. Work on this collection continues with her stories being selected for Best NZ Fiction in 2008 and 2009.

Many writers talk about the need to write every day, to sit down and make themselves get something on the paper. Frankie tends to alternate stages of being highly disciplined and writing up to 500 words a day, with periods of waiting until she builds up a head of steam and a sense of urgency. She doesn’t write every day but she is carrying around thoughts about writing and storing away observations for future use.

With poetry she tends to work quite quickly, with the premise that the first idea is the best idea (nothing is original after all), and seeing what thoughts attract themselves to that idea. Bill Manhire’s observation that the words themselves should be part of the process of discovery and not just a recoding device for a familiar set of observations is one that resonates.

So who is her favourite poet? There are a few but one will also be reading on Friday so we can all see how he “uses symbol and image in a tender and magical way” – Michael Harlow, current Burns Fellow at the University of Otago.

Other favourites incude Carol Ann Duffy and Seamus Heaney (both in my Pantheon), Robert Bly, Billy Collins and Sharon Olds for their ability to surprise and unsettle, to reaffirm what it is to be human and their dexterity with language.  

As much as contemporary literature Frankie credits the two year Performing Arts Diploma she undertook in  Sydney studying  devised theatre, Commedia dell’Arte, dance and improvisationwith informing her writing.

What if … history was different?

Recently, a colleague suggested I read a book titled Blonde Roots by Bernadine Evaristo, which she hadn’t yet read it but was looking forward to reading as it has recently won the alternative Orange Prize.

In the first instance, I had to find out what the alternative Orange Prize was. It turns out that the 2009 alternative Orange Prize panel consisted of six young people, aged between 16  and 19, who undertook to read the 20 books that made the Orange Prize longlist before making their own shortlist and nominating a winner of the alternative Orange Prize.

Not surprisingly, this panel of judges came up with a different shortlist and picked a winner that didn’t even make the  non-alternative Orange Prize shortlist.

Anyhow, a bit about the book. Blonde Roots is a fictional version of the slave trade that addresses the question : what if white Europeans were traded as slaves and black Africans were the slave traders?

Evaristo alternates the story between the voice of Doris and Chief Kaga Konata Katamba I, giving new black vs. white interpretations of the underground railway, the slave ships, the holding pens, the impact of geography, the people traders and the people traded.

The tension of the storyline builds as Doris longs for escape, and although the mindset of each character does take on some element of racial stereotyping, this re-creation of an alternate slave trade is well told and digs into the question of how slavery would look from “the other side”. And the opening quote from Nietzsche sets the tone for the book, “[a]ll things are subject to interpretation: whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth”.

Here are some online reviews from the UK, which delve into different undercurrents in the book, from modern fashion to race relations  – Diana Evans from The Independent; Helen Brown from The Telegraph.

If you want a thought-provoking read, or alternatively, you know of a teenager in need of an interesting book for their NCEA wider reading log, then I would recommend Blonde Roots.

Culture Heroes #3 Caravaggio

A moment in the dark with light as a blade. That’s how I’d sum up the painting of Caravaggio.

In the Renaissance appear the rather wonderful terms sfumato (that sm0ky blended quality demonstrated by Leonardo da Vinci) and chiaroscuro. Chiaroscuro is that riveting light and dark effect, and Caravaggio (the other Michelangelo of the Renaissance) was its arch exponent.

This light and dark is not limited to his art –  Caravaggio was the prototypical art rock star, living fast, dying young.  There were art world quarrels, the scandalous circulation of filthy poems, threats directed at a fellow artist for ‘stealing his style’, skirmishes and difficulties with swordsmen and whores, and even killing someone in a gang fight – it was an almost ridiculously dramatic life. Simon Schama’s wonderful Power of Art series features an episode on Caravaggio’s life and there is also a compelling and florid Derek Jarman movie Caravaggio starring Dexter Fletcher, Sean Bean and Tilda Swinton.

His art was just as scandalous at the time – his realism and use of real people as models as striking today as in the 1600s. The paintings have an immediate impact – they look you right in the eye, and grab you by the scruff of the neck. No doubt the man would’ve done the same.