Who needs food when there’s poetry for lunch? An interview with Iggy McGovern


Owen Marshall had looked forward to speaking with him. So had I. He was meant to participate in ‘Poetry for Lunch’, ‘A Tale of Two Cities: Belfast and Glasgow’ and ‘Survivor Poetry’.” But when the Press Christchurch Writers Festival was cancelled, Irish poet and physicist Iggy McGovern came to Christchurch anyway. No 7.1 could stop this super-poet!

“I do like Christchurch,” Iggy commented when I asked him if Christchurch has influenced his writing: 

…it’s just the right size — I had the ultimate pleasure of being recognised when I came into the library! South Island is the only Christchurch poem so far but the 2010 aftershocks are bound to ripple up sometime soon…

Iggy had planned to read from his poetry collection, The King of Suburbia alongside Owen Marshall, among others poets. But what is it like to be both a scientist (a synchroton radiation techniques specialist, to be exact) and a poet?

Certainly Iggy is not the first to combine the forces of science and poetry. Goethe may be the most famous example. There is also Czeck poet and immunologists Miroslav Holub. So, why does poetry and science coalesce in some individuals? What links these seemingly disparate fields? Iggy supports Holub’s idea that poetry and science are ultimately “…about the defense of Truth.”

Read my full interview with Iggy McGovern.

Science is always striving for the one meaning and is ruthless about excluding things that are unsubstantiated… Poetry on the other hand is always striving for different meanings.
Iggy McGovern

Who is that Illustrated Man?

cover imageRevisiting childhood memories as adults can sometimes leave those memories… paled. Or smaller. Or totally rocking!

As a kid I loved reading Ray Bradbury, not an author usually associated with childhood reading. I can’t remember how I came across the iconic American writer in the first place. I was never assigned to read The Illustrated Man or Fahrenheit 451 in English class. Yet after this revelatory discovery, I consumed as many Bradbury books as the school library held. 

Recently, I reread The Illustrated Man (25 years after the first read) and discovered that time had erased most memory of this short story collection. I wondered what had so appealed to me as a child about this book? Published in the 1950s, much of  The Illustrated Man takes place in the future. 2005. Or 1979. Or 1990. Books that include rockets or interplanetary travel don’t interest me. Now I realize that these topics must have interested me once.

With this most recent read-through, I chose to not reject the book at every mention of Martians or space explorers, food-delivery tubes or electro-magnet dusting machines. Instead, I marveled at Bradbury’s extraordinary gift at exploring the subtle division between impressionable children and stoic adults, as well as humanity’s conflict between technology and psychology. The heartbreaking tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick at the end of the story, “Marionettes, Inc.” struck me as deeply devastating the second time through as it did the first.

Have you tried revisiting favourite childhood reads? What was your reaction?

A glimpse of Owen Marshall

The series of author interviews I’ve undertaken recently in the endeavour to bring a bit of the Press Christchurch Writers festival to CCL readers has been deeply interesting. The manner in which the interviewed authors have responded to my questions has provided a glimpse into their personalities, writing style and process.

Some have answered in a very considered or academic style. Others were more off-the-cuff, humorous and loaded with information and insight. This must reflect the writer’s personality, no?

In my recent interview with author Owen Marshall, I was struck with how succinct his answers were. There were no wasted words – a definite sign of an accomplished writer and, perhaps, an indication that in life Marshall is also  thoughtful and deliberate.

Though Marshall considers himself primarily a prose writer, he was scheduled to be one of the presenters at the Poetry for Lunch session at the Writers Festival. I had looked forward to hearing him read his poetry, to experience the words by the man who had birthed them and therefore has a deeper familiarity with them than anyone else in the world. In his interview, Marshall revealed that he had planned to read from his newest collection of poetry Sleepwalking in Antarctica at the Writers’ Festival.

Being a non-native New Zealander, discovering many of these New Zealand writers and their work has been a revelatory journey. Yet I’m left with a lingering question: is all writing somehow an unavoidable revelation of self? Is studying the way a writer approaches, builds and uses language a kind of map into the writer as an individual?

Read my full interview with author Owen Marshall.

Can you Handel it? Hallelujah!

CoverIt’s that time of year again. You know. Christmas. It’s right around the corner! Being from the northern hemisphere, it’s hard for me to get into the Christmas spirit in Christchurch. BBQs and jandals and Christmas just don’t seem to mesh! But throw a little of Handel’s Messiah into the mix and, voila, Christmas spirit aplenty!

It’s ironic then, that Messiah was orginally written for Easter. The libretto (drawn from the Old and New Testament) devotes more time to the Passion and resurrection of Christ than to the Christmas narrative. Since Handel’s death it’s become customary to perform Messiah during Advent rather than Lent or Easter.

So if you  need a little Messiah for a Christmas pick-me-up, the library has numerous copies by a wide range of choirs from around the world. Every year I like to borrow a few versions to listen to and pick my favorite. (Not all tenor soloists are created equal!) So come in and borrow a copy or two. And then if you are so inclined, go and hear it live. I know a couple of choirs perform Messiah each year in Christchurch.

Stewards of a lost art: born to run barefoot

CoverThe Tarahumara are stewards of a lost art. For centuries, the reclusive Mexican Indians have practiced techniques that allow them to run hundreds of miles, rest-free, and enjoy every mile of it. They’re healthy and serene and immune to diseases that can plague modern existence. But how?

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen asks this very question. And one answer the author came up with is… drumroll please:

They run barefoot. Well, almost barefoot. They craft simple sandals from old tyres – no pillowy soft air cushioning, no dynamic cradles that can be found in over-priced running shoes.

People were designed to run. Barefoot. This is the theory established in Born to Run. Barefoot running strengthens the foot and creates  a solid foundation for the body. Running shoes  force the foot to rely on the shoe for support, weakening the foot, which can lead to injury. When ‘proper’ running shoes were introduced in the 1970s, so too were running injuries. The more expensive the shoe, the higher the rate of injury!

So what is a lover of running to do? Likely we don’t want to wear old tyres or risk naked feet when there’s glass and rocks to contend with. There is an answer. It isn’t pretty. But it is oh, so comfortable. It’s a barefoot running shoe. I first read about them in Born to Run and now  I wouldn’t run in anything else.

Like to run or thinking about starting? Born to Run will psyche you up. Read on! It might just change everything.

Check the Christchurch City Libraries website for great running resources.

Night writer: Craig Cliff

There’s an old riddle: what do post-its, perspiration, literary schizophrenia, and Flight of the Conchords have in common? Well, okay. It’s not an old riddle. I just made it up. And the answer is my recent interview with Wellington-based writer Craig Cliff.

We had planned to meet up for a chat after Cliff’s “Hot off the Press” session at this year’s Press Christchurch Writers Festival. When the festival was cancelled, we opted for an email interview.

I had a few questions for Cliff after reading his first book – A Man Melting: Short Stories. I didn’t end up asking him what he does for his “day job,” something I’d pondered in a previous post. (I’ve since discovered he’s quite open about his work as a policy analyst on his blog.) I had more pressing questions such as: does he have a favourite episode of Flight of the Conchords? Answer: “The New Cup.”

All joking aside, A Man Melting is an illuminating read and I found myself, time and again, amazed at Cliff’s understanding of people,and his ability to build such true and layered characters. I had really looked forward to meeting him at the festival and then, post-earthquake, to having some questions answered that could bring a new depth of appreciation to his debut novel.

I wasn’t disappointed. Read my full interview with Craig Cliff!

Does the comedy-writer make his family laugh? An interview with Roger Hall

He has spent three decades making audiences laugh, but is the prolific playwright Roger Hall funny at home? Ah, the suspense. You’ll have to read his recent interview with us to find out!

In the absence of  The Press Christchurch Writers Festival, CCL came up with a plan. Yes, the festival was cancelled due to the unexpected arrival of that disruptive quake, but that needn’t stop us from bringing a little bit of the festival to our loyal blog readers! I had really been looking forward to Roger Hall’s session, “Fifteen Years to be an Overnight Success.” When the festival was cancelled, I emailled Hall and he kindly agreed to an interview. And I had oh, so many questions.

Eighteen actually. He replied via email with a “phew” when he’d finally gotten through them all.

One of those many questions was, “How do you view and use libraries?” He replied in part:

Libraries have always been a big part of my life, thanks to my parents’ love of reading. In my childhood it seemed we went almost daily (an exaggeration, surely) but it indicates how important it was… When I first came to NZ, it was the Wellington Central Library…  In recent years it’s been the Takapuna Library, part of the North Shore, and now, bliss, once the Super City comes about, I can use my card back at Auckland Central if I wish. I have been researching Russian immigrants to New Zealand for a play which I hope will be coming to The Court in 2011 (may as well get a plug in now). One Russian lady said ‘Your libraries, so nice, so friendly!’ Yup.

Find out what books are on Roger’s nightstand, which one of his plays he would have liked to act in, what he’s working on now and what book he wouldn’t be “Roger Hall” without. It’s all there. Enjoy!

The heir of successful books

Hold on to your hats, this ball is starting to roll! Award-winning fiction writer Helen Lowe has just come out with a new book, The Heir of Night. In an amazing feat for any New Zealand writer, Helen’s first book, Thornspell was published in the U.S. and proceeded to garner multiple awards and praise. The Heir of Night – the first in a series of four – might just follow suit.

No superhero powers were needed here to acquire such accolades. Just gripping writing and engrossing tales. Helen was scheduled to attend the “Hot off the Press” session at The Press Christchurch Writers Festival last month.

When the festival was cancelled (no need to remind everyone why!) I contacted Helen for an in lieu festival interview. I asked her, among other things: If you could be a superhero, what would you want your superpowers to be? Interestingly, she did not wish Coverfor flight or immortality or even laser vision. With childhood superheroes such as Robin Hood, King Arthur and Queen Elizabeth I, Helen’s longing for superhero powers came from the Old Testament’s young King Solomon. In Helen’s words, she: 

…was always struck by the Old Testament story where the young King Solomon asks for the “gift of an understanding heart.” I have always taken “understanding” in that context to be a blend of discernment and compassion, which as superpowers go, is difficult to surpass.

The “gift of an understanding heart?” What a thoughtful response and useful gift. Difficult to surpass, indeed. For more from Helen Lowe, including how Christchurch has influenced her writing, read my full interview.

If you could be a superhero, what would your ideal superpowers be?

Bring on the heritage!

How do you plan to participate in Heritage Week (21 – 31 October)? Christchurch City Libraries is celebrating with  a whole month of free heritage-inspired activites, including ancestry and family history workshops. But the question remains: have you ever taken the plunge into genealogical research?

For her recent novel, Past Perfect, New Zealand writer Karen Zelas has done just that, travelling as far afield as Rochforte, France and as close-to-home as the Christchurch Central Library. Like the heroine in her book, Zelas ended up in the Aotearoa New Zealand Centre here at Central — a specialty family history area with genealogical research facilities.

Past Perfect weaves together two Canterbury stories — one set in 1840s Akaroa and the other in modern-day Christchurch. In my recent interview with Zelas, she discusses the “very enjoyable, even compelling” research process. Without having undertaken genealogical research before, Zelas took the plunge in an effort to make her character’s process as authentic as possible, unearthing all the relevant historical information she needed for her novel.

Zelas was scheduled to attend the “Hot off the Press” session at this year’s Press Christchurch Writers Festival. Disappointment was rampant when the festival was cancelled. So here’s a bit of a post-festival fix. Read my full interview with Karen Zelas and bring on the heritage for CCL’s Family History Month!

Down the rabbit hole at Ron Mueck exhibition?

I didn’t find a mysterious bottle labeled, “Drink Me” to make me extraordinarily small (that’s me pictured next to Ron Mueck’s sculpture, In Bed). Nor did I eat any cake that made me grow to great heights (see picture below). I attended the sneak peek of Ron Mueck’s exhibition at the Christchurch Art Gallery. Wow!

Many people initially respond to Mueck’s works with: how lifelike! That has to be the first reaction. The lifelikeness smacks you in the face. The skin is so real you would expect it to be warm and supple to touch. But it’s not. It’s hard and room temperature. (I didn’t touch the artwork! A small resin sample is available to provide this tactile experience.) Pimples, goose-flesh, veins, folds in the hands and feet… It’s all there. The ability to so  absolutely render the human form is a tremendous skill, a skill Mueck refined in his past life as creator of photo-realistic props and animatronics. His craftsmanship is impeccable.

But how does a work of extraordinary craftsmanship transcend craftmanship to become “art?” Continue reading