Confessions of a Jane Smiley groupie

I’m a great fan of Jane Smiley. I came across her in the late 90s when I read Moo and was impressed by her ability to write about issues confronting contemporary humanity – in this case how agribusiness was impacting on academia – with a quick wit and a writer’s eye that can spot hypocrisy at a hundred paces.

I followed up with Good Faith in which good natured real estate agent, Joe Stratford, gets seduced by the rich pickings of the US property boom and becomes a wheeler dealer par excellence. I was hooked.

Cover of A thousand acresJane Smiley spoke at the Great Hall at the Arts Centre when she visited Christchurch to promote her 1998 historical novel The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton and I was there in the front row. Smiley shows her range in this novel by writing about American history as competently as she does contemporary issues. And, I mustn’t forget to mention, Smiley was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for A Thousand Acres.

Jane Smiley is an author to watch. She doesn’t flinch from the big themes and her penmanship would make many fellow authors want to throw down their laptops in a fit of chagrin and take up a nice, easy career in brain surgery.

When I was offered the opportunity to see her WORD Christchurch talk at the newly reopened Christchurch Art Gallery on Monday 9 May, I jumped at the chance. I’ll make sure I get there early and I get a spot in the front row again. I’m a Jane Smiley groupie and I’m not ashamed to shout it to the world!

A Life in Pictures – the work of Michael Foreman

I fell in love with Michael Foreman’s illustrations many years ago when I first discovered Michael Morpurgo’s books. I soon found out that he also wrote and illustrated his own stories, including War Boy and War Game which were stories about his experience of World War II. I found out a lot more about Michael Foreman and his huge body of work when I borrowed a fascinating new book from the library called A Life in Pictures.

Pages from A life in pictures
A glimpse inside A life in pictures by Michael Foreman

A Life in Pictures is written by Michael Foreman himself, and looks back over his long career in the creation of books for children. It is a beautiful book that is packed with Michael’s illustrations and stories about the books that he has worked on and the people he has worked with. You can read about Michael’s war childhood, the importance of location and landscape in his illustrations, the people that have influenced him and the people that he has collaborated with.

If you’ve read a Michael Morpurgo book you’ve probably seen Michael Foreman’s illustrations. The M-Team have been collaborating for over 20 years (their first book together being Arthur, High King of Britain, published in 1994).

I’ve always felt that Michael Foreman’s illustrations are the perfect match for Michael Morpurgo’s stories. Michael Foreman mentions in A Life in Pictures that ‘Michael Morpurgo not only writes good stories, he writes good pictures. His stories are full of them.’ His illustrations for Morpurgo’s stories are usually in black and white, but it’s the smaller, shorter stories, like Little Manfred, where his full-colour illustrations shine.

Over the years Michael Foreman has worked with many other authors, both living and dead.  He has brought the stories of Shakespeare, Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Dickens and Kenneth Grahame to life, bringing the ‘classics’ to a new generation of children.

My favourite edition of Michael Foreman’s classics is Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows.  The colours are so vibrant and the characters leap off the page. Michael also travelled to New Zealand in 1987 to visit Kiri Te Kanawa to research a book based on legends told to her by her grandmother. This book became The Land of the Long White Cloud.

A Life in Pictures is a fascinating read for anyone who loves books for children and would be a valuable resource for artists or those wanting to become illustrators.

Ngaio Marsh and Shakespeare

There’s a Ngaio Marsh birthday party event at Christ’s College Old Boys Theatre this Sunday 24 April. The event is a fundraiser for the Ngaio Marsh House and Heritage Trust, and includes wine, nibbles, and a talk on crime fiction by Professor Ken Strongman. Find out more on the Ngaio Marsh birthday event on Facebook.

Crime writer and theatre director Ngaio Marsh’s actual birth date is 23 April, and she shared a birthday with Shakespeare. It’s doubly appropriate – as her production of Shakespeare’s plays were widely acclaimed. This is Ngaio as Hamlet …

Baverstock, William Sykes, 1893-1975. Ngaio Marsh - Photograph taken by W S Baverstock. Dacres-Mannings, J :Photographs relating to Dame Ngaio Marsh. Ref: PAColl-0326-09. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23167157

If you want to find out more about Ngaio and Shakespeare, I recommend the splendid Inaugural Ngaio Marsh lecture – it was given on 22 April 2012 by Elric J. Hooper, MBE who appeared in several of Dame Ngaio Marsh’s acclaimed Shakespeare shows. He explains how they met (pages 10 and 11):

Three years later, in 1956, I was appearing in a student revue in the Civic Theatre and Gerald Lascelles told me that Ngaio Marsh and Charles Brash wanted to meet me. I went up to the empty stage after the performance. Two figures were standing there. The man was reticent. The woman was flamboyant. She was dressed in a handsome, three-quarter length seal skincoat. She was wearing a grey woollen skirt – not trousers. Her hair was wildly dressed. She smoked a cigarette. She asked me what I had been doing. Said Macbeth.
“Not the thane!” she said in alarm.
“No, A lord. Lennox.” I said putting her at her ease.
She mentioned that she was about to direct Lear.
A few weeks later, I auditioned for Ngaio. I was chosen to play the Fool in King Lear.
It was a memorable production with Mervyn Glue as the King, salivating so copiously that looking up into the lights one did not have to imagine the rain and storm. The costumes and set were blue grey. The set was a curved podium which a descending ramp on one side and steps down the other. In the centre was a kind of shelter for hovel. It worked extremely well.

Cast of Hamlet. Marsh, Ngaio :Photographs of theatrical productions. Ref: PA1-q-173-73-2. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23074208

His summary of Ngaio as Shakespearean director is a good one (page 10):

One of the great features of Ngaio’s Shakespeare were the moments that can only be described as “Theatrical.” Hamlet, at the end of the speech which concluded the first part, “The play’s the thing whereby I’ll catch the conscience of the King,” threw the loose sheets of the play in the air and stood there while the leaves descended around him. In Julius Caesar, hands were bathed in blood. In Lear, the eyes were ripped out.

Hamlet, produced by the University of Canterbury Drama Society and performed at the Civic Theatre [11 July 1958] CCL PhotoCD 17, IMG0039
Hamlet, produced by the University of Canterbury Drama Society and performed at the Civic Theatre [11 July 1958] CCL PhotoCD 17, IMG0039

More about Ngaio Marsh

Three New Zealanders: Ngaio Marsh

#shakespeare400 tweets

Striking Gold: Sporting achievement amidst political turmoil

Cover of Striking GoldIt’s 1976 and the Olympic games are being held in Montreal, Canada. In protest at New Zealand’s attendance at the games and ongoing sporting association with Apartheid South Africa (specifically the All Blacks continuing to tour there), many African nations refuse to take part in the games.

This was not our finest hour as a nation. So you can imagine that telling the story of a plucky band of Kiwi hockey players who achieve Olympic gold against the odds (in the final they faced an Australian team who had a 13 game winning-streak against them) – is somewhat problematic given the setting.

Fortunately in Striking gold: New Zealand hockey’s remarkable victory at the 1976 Olympics author and journalist Suzanne McFadden has done a great job of sitting the stories of these individual players in amongst both the history of hockey in New Zealand, but more importantly the political and social context of that time. In reading the book I’ve learned at least as much about the politics of the era as I have about the sport.

I asked author Suzanne McFadden a few questions about the book, and what she was hoping to achieve in writing it.

Your background is in sports journalism and you’re a self-professed fan of hockey. Was writing this book your “dream gig”?

Suzanne McFaddenIt was definitely a dream first book for me to write, in so many ways. Hockey was my sporting passion as a kid, and growing up, I was aware New Zealand had won an Olympic gold medal in hockey, but I didn’t know a lot more about the story behind it. Very few Kiwis did. As a journalist (now in my 30th year), my passion has always been people – and telling rich human interest stories. And Striking Gold is really a collection of great yarns about a bunch of great Kiwi blokes, who may have come from very different walks of life, but all shared the same passion – to win Olympic gold.

How important was it to you that you cover the social history and context in which all this was happening?

It was hugely important. I didn’t want Striking Gold to be branded as “a hockey book”, or “an Olympics book”.  I wanted it to portray an era in New Zealand where sport was still played on a purely amateur basis; where the men in the New Zealand hockey team also held down full-time jobs and helped raise young families. They had balance in their lives.

Although it was an amateur era, they were absolutely professional in their approach to the sport.  Players like Barry Maister, John Christensen and their captain, Tony Ineson, would head down to “Hospital Corner” at Hagley Park every week-day lunchtime to practise their penalty corner moves, hundreds of times over, and then return to work. It was critical, too, to describe the political backdrop, especially when New Zealand’s sporting contacts with South Africa cast such a shadow over the 1976 Olympics.

Do you think we New Zealanders have really “processed” the part our country played in the controversy of the Montreal Games? My feeling is that we seem to gloss over that period a bit.

I’ve been surprised that so many people had no idea that the All Blacks tour of South Africa in ’76 threatened to derail the Montreal Olympics.  We remember the Springbok tour protests of 1981, but the shame of 1976 is like a part of our history that we’ve conveniently extinguished.

The hockey gold medallists certainly remember it very vividly, recalling being too embarrassed to wear their New Zealand tracksuits around the athletes’ village. Some of them maintain it should have been the New Zealanders sent home from Montreal instead of the African nations who walked out.

There are some amazing things that happened to the players in this champion team.  What was your favourite story that you came across in doing research for this book?

There are so many! But one of the great finds was the Jack Lovelock letter, hidden in an old leather suitcase in Selwyn Maister’s home in Christchurch.

The letter of thanks was sent from Lovelock soon after he won his Olympic gold medal in the 1500m at the 1936 Berlin Games, addressed to Havilah Down – Maister’s grandfather who essentially ran hockey in New Zealand for 30 years. The lovely coincidence was that 40 years after that letter was sent, Maister would join Lovelock as the only two Rhode Scholars to have won an Olympic gold medal for New Zealand.

Sometimes Kiwis aren’t good about talking about their achievements as it’s considered “skiting” to some. In speaking with the players were they reticent to talk about their experiences or were they pretty forthcoming?

Initially, some of the players wondered why I would even want to write a book about a sporting tournament that happened four decades ago, and whether we would print just enough copies for them to hand out to their children and grandchildren… They are a truly humble bunch! But once they started talking, they opened up and shared some incredible memories.

They never bragged about being the best team in the world; instead they marvelled in how they came together as a perfect unit, and with a lot of hard work, skill and even a little luck, beat the world’s best.

Do you think there are other, equally extraordinary, “hidden” sports stories in New Zealand history that are waiting to be written?

Absolutely – especially from sports considered outside the mainstream. It’s just a matter of finding the time to tell them all!

If someone were interested in this period of sporting history, what books would you recommend they read?

Cover of Old heroesFor more about New Zealand’s performances at the 1976 Olympics, you can read Ivan Agnew’s book Aim High. There are some great New Zealand sports books on the 1950s and ‘60s – Arthur’s Boys by Joseph Romanos, detailing the astonishing achievements of Arthur Lydiard’s track athletes; and Old Heroes, Warwick Roger’s excellent recollection of the 1956 Springboks tour of New Zealand.

Even if your non-fiction reading doesn’t usually lean towards the sporting, I’d recommend giving Striking gold a go as it’s an engaging read that pulls you with its cast of hockey personalities, turbulent geo-politics, and unlikely twists and turns.

Win a copy of Striking Gold

We have one copy of this fascinating book to giveaway. Entry is open to Christchurch City Libraries cardholders. Simply leave a comment with your suggestion of a great sporting or history read by 5pm Friday 22 April to go in the draw. A winner will be announced on Tuesday 26 April.

More information

Library resources

Literature, culture, economics, and history anyone?

KTT Four into the eResource foldWho doesn’t like something new? These four wee beauties are online portals to authoritative information about a huge range of subjects. They were on trial and were popular enough to be made permanent residents of our collection. So from now on, you can access:

The Economist Historical Archive, 1843-2012The Economist has been highly regarded for providing independent global, economic and political analysis since its first publication in 1843. More content will continue to be added;

Listener Historical Archive, 1929-1991The Listener was a weekly magazine established by the BBC to reproduce and expand on the content of its broadcast and television talks. It is regarded as the premier cultural studies magazine of the mid-20th century;

TLS_Cover_Septembe_1074419a (194x250).jpgThe Times Literary Supplement Historical Archive, 1902-2010 – (TLS) is the world’s leading newspaper for cultural studies. It offers comprehensive coverage of the most important publications as well as reviewing theatre, cinema, music and exhibitions;

19th Century UK Periodicals – a collection of often rare online British magazines, journals and specialty newspapers that aim to provide an in-depth view of life in the Victorian age.

All of these eResources are accessible from home or in libraries and can be searched individually or as part of the wider content included in Gale NewsVault.

So if you are looking for a answer to a query or feel like reading something informative and interesting then these newbies are a great place to start.

Margaret Mahy and the importance of childhood reading

There’s a painting of a lady on the wall at my work. She’s sitting in an armchair, with a big black dog at her side and a black cat on her lap. Behind her is a bookcase full of books and to her right side a window, opening up to a garden and a sea on the horizon. There is a lot on the painting I can relate to. Books, a dog, a lazy cat. But the woman in the painting remains a mystery. All I know is her name: Margaret Mahy.

Portrait of Margaret Mahy by Glenda Randerson
Portrait of Margaret Mahy by Glenda Randerson. Flickr CCL-2012-07-24

I am most likely the last person who should be writing a blog about Margaret Mahy. First time I heard of her was three years ago when I realized I might be moving to Christchurch. The only New Zealand author who I had found on the bookshelves of my school library at home was Witi Ihimaera. So I did a bit of homework before I set out for Aotearoa. To my surprise I realized I was moving to a city that used to be a home to the greatest New Zealand children’s author, someone who won the Hans Christian Andersen award – the most prestigious and highest recognition in the world of children’s fiction.

margaret-tale   mahy organ music   mahy kaitangata   aotearoa mahy

After I landed, further revelations followed. Everyone I talked to seemed to know Margaret Mahy’s work or at least know about her. Even more: I was very lucky to make an acquaintance with a lovely lady who used to be her neighbour and a close friend. I ended up working at the same library as Margaret did. A lot of my colleagues still remember her. Her eccentric personality and masterful storytelling. Her fiery wig and starry cloak. Sue, who used to work with her, recalls her immensely generous and extremely modest nature:

She was very hospitable and often entertained colleagues and hosted parties for the local Children’s Literature Association at her home and was a wonderful friend and a colleague. She was also immensely interested in EVERYTHING – she learnt to fly, she studied astronomy. She was also a keen gardener.

Even though I have heard so much about her as a writer, a storyteller, a librarian, a person and a friend, she still remains a mystery to me. I have a strange notion the reason for this might be in the absence of her books in my childhood. It feels like she has never become a part of my imaginative landscape. She never entered my literary homeland because I never got a chance to read her books as a child. When I read them now, I still feel like I missed that initial, formative reading – experienced through child’s eyes, mind and imagination.

The irreversibility of time is unavoidable and cruel. I am reminded of that every time I talk to a person who read a certain book or author as a child, which I haven’t. I find myself swallowed by the feeling of missing out. It is similar to regret, that comes along when a favourite music star passes away and you realize you will never ever be able to see them again.

This points to the importance of reading in childhood, creating an imaginative mental space mutual to all – every reader, no matter their origin and background, can enter it. With reading, authors and books become a part of our collective memory, collective culture and make us feel at home, connect us together. With every new reader, this memory gets stronger.

mahy old3  odl mahy   mahy mrs

Reading and nurturing readers is not the only way of strengthening this memory. There are other ways as well. Every morning on the way to my work I am reminded of that: Margaret Mahy’s name greets me from the stone wall of the new exciting playground on the Cambridge Terrace. When I visit my colleagues at Fendalton Library or go to library’s storage facilities, I can’t resist not to browse through Margaret Mahy’s collection: a treasury of old children’s books that (most likely) your grandparents used to read as kids. Some of them never made it to my shelves. But they maybe did to yours.

I am inviting you, to help me figure out the mystery of the lady on the painting and create another little piece of collective memory of Margaret Mahy. Have you read her books as a child? What was it like? Which one was your favourite? Did you read them to your children? Grandchildren? Do you remember her? Have you been to any of her storytelling sessions in the library? What was she like? I can’t wait to hear your stories about her – please post them as comments below!

As for myself I will persevere. Reading her books, listening to stories about her. I hope one day I might be granted a visa to enter that world of collective culture, of bountiful legacy, that Margaret so generously laid in front of her readers. Until then, I will salute that lady on the painting every morning I come to work: in my name, yours and most importantly – in the name of those to come.

Read:

Things we LOVE about poet Anis Mojgani

Anis Mojgani is a songful sculptor of words. It was apt that on his return visit to Christchurch, the US slam poetry champion performed at both the Wunderbar in Lyttelton and the Christchurch Art Gallery – hosts to music and art – because when you witness Anis in full flight you can’t help but marvel how artful and performative he is. WORD Christchurch Literary Director Rachael King introduced him to Saturday night’s audience as someone who “engages your brain and heart and something intangible within you”. On Saturday, he certainly engaged a few librarians.

Here is our list of reasons why one should never miss out on seeing Anis in performance:

1. The way he moves

It is as if Anis embraces the whole world with his arms. Along with his voice, his gestures illustrate images in front of one’s eyes. His expressive hand gestures call you in and lift you up; they manage to point to the cosmos and vital organs all at once. His exceptional performance illuminates poems in a different light, so they reveal themselves in a new, unexpected context, different from the ones that surface up during a reading experience.

Anis Mojgani in performance
Anis Mojgani in performance at the Christchurch Art Gallery, a WORD Christchurch event. Flickr 2016-03-19-IMG_3205

2. The way he is in relationship – with you and the world. His empathy and inclusiveness.

The phrases and lines of his poetry honour who you and we all are as human beings. He draws you in to be in relationship – with him and with others (Come closer). He invites you to be empathetic and to see the good in others and yourself. He speaks of the human condition in a playful uplifting way. His poems resonate the excitement of being alive (Direct orders), but also battle with the enigma of it (For those who can still ride an airplane for the first time). His poetry honours the holiness in the ordinary and looks for ‘God’ in the everyday.

In particular, his well-regarded poem Shake the Dust is an ode to the unheard, the unnoticed, the unnamed, the unloved, the innocuous and the banal and even the inappropriate. He doesn’t discriminate. He bears witness to us all. He speaks for the bullied and bullies. He honours, validates and appreciates everyone.

During the performance, Anis revealed one of his favourite phrases these days – “10-4“ – which is his way of saying “Ok, I read you, I hear you, you are understood.” Having grown up in New Orleans, he has a genuine understanding of the process of grief, sorrow and healing we experienced here. His particular affinity to Christchurch is obvious, you feel “he gets it.” And when Anis tells us his name means “companion“ an “aha“ moment happens. Yes, he is a companion in our collective journey of experiencing and examining humanity. Indeed, we are all each other’s companions bearing witness to one another’s existence. In Here I am he answers our fears:

“Will I be something? Am I something? And the answer comes: you already are, always was, you still have time to be.”

3. He honours childhood and a child’s view of the world

Particularly striking is how many of his poems deliver an impressive and colourful tapestry of a childhood. Told from the eyes of a child, who has an incredible innate gift of poetic language, they draw from childhood memories and experiences such as climbing trees, playing on street or overhearing parents in another room. His poetry takes listeners back to their childhood and school days, and reveals a child’s open, innocent and exuberant experience of the world (Even if somebody pooped a poem it’s alright cuz somebody somewhere made it or Invincible) in which “small children speak half English and half God” and “peace comes with a popsicle” – instant resonance from both a child’s and a parental perspective.

4. We love how he oscillates

He manages to write about his own individual experience and a collective experience in one swoop. He says he speaks to the spectrum of love – and not-love. He conveys what it is to be at once both vulnerable and invincible. Ordinary human abilities to a child can seem like superpowers. Within a single poem, he swings listeners from amusement to sadness, from love to fear, from laughter to deep contemplation about the saddest and cruellest moments of human experience. And while performing, at times Anis seems to hardly stop to breathe when he recites his poetry, but can slow things right down and draw you in.

5. His vibe and presence. His warmth and wit. His generosity. His aroha.

Anis doesn’t talk to the audience as a crowd, he addresses each individual. Even though you find yourself sitting in a hall full of people, you have feeling that he is talking directly to you. His poems are “for you”, they are yours – it seems his generous outreach to the listener:

“I am cutting out parts of myself to give to you… make my words worth something more than just a poem, write make this more than just a night that sits heavy over every one of us …”

His poems seem to reach out, to hug and kiss you, inviting you to walk with him through ups and downs of life (Come closer).

Watching Anis perform is like being at the concert of one of your favourite bands. The anticipation of your favourite lines to come is electric! When they come, you find yourself grinning. You can feel that warm feeling of satisfaction spreading through your body and lifting you up above the crowd. It’s addictive. And then there are some lines that are totally new to you and come like marvellous gifts, falling from the sky. “Rock Out”, he insists in a prolonged invitation in his poem Direct orders. On the drive away from his show the temptation is too great to not blast the car radio and do just that – singing at the top of one’s voice.

For one librarian lucky enough to get a book at the signing afterwards – just before they sold out –  his inscription reads: “Keep your heart full of wonder”. It feels like quite the invitation indeed.

Anis Mojgani in performance

Our Flickr set of images of Anis

Listen into this

Shake the Dust

Come Closer

TedxAtlanta Talk

Anis was presented in association with the 2016 New Zealand Festival Writers Week and Golden Dawn Auckland.

Anis Mojgani’s performance was a taster for this year’s upcoming WORD Christchurch Writers & Readers Festival being held from 25 to 28 August 2016.

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feather room junkyard over the anvil

Masha and Kim

Which of these writers is a Great Kiwi Classic?

Which of the following writers do you think deserves to be considered a Great Kiwi Classic?

Cover of Maurice Gee Life and work Cover of Your unselfish kindness Cover of The plays of Bruce Mason Cover of James K Baxter Complete prose

The answer is all of them, but if you had to pick one which would it be?

Since 2014 the New Zealand Book Council and Auckland Writers Festival,  have been awarding the title “Great Kiwi Classic” to our country’s most revered literary treasures. In 2014, Keri Hulme’s Booker Prize-winning novel The Bone People was selected after a wealth of public nominations, and Owls Do Cry by Janet Frame received the 2015 crown.

And they’re at it again this year with the above shortlist which will be hotly debated a the Auckland Writers Festival event, The Great Kiwi Classic: Face-Off, in which four super fans will each argue on behalf of one writer for the title 2016 Great Kiwi Classic author. A follow-up discussion will attempt to distil the essence of home-grown literary classics, chaired by Rosabel Tan, editor of The Pantograph Punch.

Rachel Barrowman, Mary Paul, John Smythe, John Weir

Literary biographer Rachel Barrowman (shortlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards) will punt for Maurice Gee; Mary Paul for Robin Hyde; theatre critic John Smythe for Bruce Mason; and John Weir for James K. Baxter.

Which of the four would you nominate as the 2016 Great Kiwi Classic author, and why? Let the New Zealand Book Council know in 400 words or less via email greatkiwiclassic@bookcouncil.org.nz or via a post on their Facebook page by 15 April 2016.

Your contribution could be published on the New Zealand Book Council’s blog Booknotes Unbound, and you’ll automatically be entered into the draw to win a prize pack of classic NZ books!

A sum up of New Zealand Festival Writers Week

Observations from the 2016 New Zealand Festival Writers Week

  • Cover for CreationEvery person I sat beside had a fit bit thingy instead of a watch.
  • Science sells – by far the biggest attendance at any of the sessions I went to was at Adam Rutherford (no relation). The person I sat beside there went to sleep immediately and stayed that way for the entire hour. Perhaps her fit bit was able to tell her if it was REM sleep or not.
  • Some sessions featured Sleater-Kinney T-shirts and Lea DeLaria haircuts, most did not.

Things some of the writers love

Cover for A Little Life

Good things some of the writers said

The power of a story teller is to build a shelter. (Cornelia Funke)

 

A geneticist is a ‘gel jockey’ and origin of life research is a fractious field full of people who hate each other (Adam Rutherford)

 

There is nothing better than a painful childhood for a creative life (Mariko Tamaki)

Things resisted

  • Joe Bennett resisted the impulse to bow down before C K Stead, the Poet Laureate, when they shared a lift.
  • I resisted the urge to ask Joe Bennett “How did it go Joe?” when passing him as he left his sold out session.

Recommendations

  • When you ask a question, care about the answer – not how clever you are being when you ask it.

A new chapter: An interview with Anis Mojgani

Performance poet Anis Mojgani is coming to town this week courtesy of WORD Christchurch. He is performing at the Wunderbar in Lyttelton on Thursday 17 March, and at the Christchurch Art Gallery on Saturday 19 March. Check out WORD Christchurch’s info and get some tickets. Librarians – and fans – Kim and Masha asked Anis some questions, thanks Anis for your fab answers!

You performed in Christchurch at the WORD Festival in 2014 – what impact has visiting the city and its people had on you?

My visit felt pretty impactful on opening me up to a literary community on the other side of the world, both the the work and stories produced by it, and also the people making and supporting such literature, which I’ve been very grateful for. But also, I had a very strong connection to visiting in 2014. New Zealand felt like a place I would return to and could see myself spending an extended period of time inside of, and still feels as such. A lot of that was definitely connected to being in a city like Christchurch that seemed to be in a period of sorrow and confusion and rebuilding, one similar to my hometown in the wake of its destructive natural disaster. But also, the strange quirky creative patches of Christchurch that I was shown or stumbled upon, spoke to me, as well as being inspiring. And the audiences I had in Christchurch were some of the best I’ve ever had, terribly kind and inviting, present and excited.

Ania Mogjani

Photo from WORD Christchurch

You are from New Orleans, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. What observations or messages would you share with people of Christchurch based on your experience in New Orleans?

I don’t know if I’m the best person for such, I haven’t lived in New Orleans in a number of years. But being from there, and going there often, as that’s where my family still is and is, as Rachael King shared with me the other day, one of the places I would refer to as tūrangawaewae, there was a strong connection to Christchurch I felt because of the disasters in both cities.

When walking through Christchurch in 2014, I was reminded of how confused New Orleans was while in such pain, that it didn’t know in what direction it was supposed to move, how to begin rebuilding, what was the right choice. And as I write that sentence, I recognize the same connection in my personal journey over recent years. And as such with both, just to say that 1. when in broken places, sometimes, often, it is important to just get moving. To get out of the rubble, to move debris out of your home, to build again. And then see what to fix and change. To not let the destruction make you fearful of a future or to hinder the decisions that need to be made.

And 2. To use this opportunity for change, to change in good ways and with different patterns, while not forgetting to hold on to the beautiful traditions from before. I think about how it has been challenging for New Orleans, a city so incredibly rich with culture and tradition, to progress and rebuild, while keeping the parts of itself that make it the city that it is. A lot of growth there has threatened to change the city, and not necessarily in good ways. There are definitely people in New Orleans that have used the wake of Katrina to shape the city that may be more in line with the city that they envision it should be––losing and getting rid of people and cultures that they deem undesirable, which is a travesty. So I think of that, but don’t want to suggest that a broken thing should only then heal back to the same place it was before. What I loved, utterly LOVED, about Christchurch on my earlier visit, was how people embraced their city and claimed ownership of it by creating these pockets of awesome and weirdness and creative endeavours, to inspire others and to push forward perhaps the possibility of what an additional aspects of their city could grow to embrace. And those things are not what should be lost as the city rebuilds itself but rather invited to the table to participate, perhaps more fully.

What role/influence have libraries and books played in your upbringing? Is there a library you call your favourite (besides yours, which has 17 books).

Huge influence. There was a library called Nix that was about three blocks from our house growing up and was also on the walk home from school, and having one so close was very special. Not to mention memories of my school library, and of course the children’s bookstore my mother had when we were growing up. We’d walk there from school usually about half the week, and it was like having a large personal library, combing the shelves for the next thing to open and discover and explore. That was crazy influential, I think in a myriad of ways. Not only the importance of stories and how many different ways there are to share them, but also the feeling one gets from being surrounded by possibility, that here are these shelves to walk between and you have no idea what’s between all these covers – it could be anything! And you’re allowed to seek that out, you have permission to step into that mystery and many mysteries. So that sense, that feeling of discovery and curiousness is something I feel was fostered from the library and the bookstore.

I don’t know if I have a favourite library – the library as a whole in Portland Oregon where I live, is a really great library system that has an incredible selection. And there is a beautiful house of a library in New Orleans, the Latter branch. I love though seeing photos online of libraries that stand out, ones that are so beautiful, like temples designed and built to respect that which they hold. But also ones that are so small and tiny, in the middle of nowhere, that illustrate that even in the emptiest places, there should be a place where a person can go and discover books.

A rumour reached us about your current project, which – if we got it right – includes illustrations and is aimed at children. Could you tell us a bit more about that or is it a secret?

Can definitely tell you some! And it’s a couple things that you may have heard of. The first is my new book The Pocketknife Bible, which is a weird book that’s kind of a poetry-novel-memoir-picture book for both adults and children. It’s through the voice and eyes of me circa 6-8 years old and my childhood and the surreal wild boring beauty of childhood, but enters into some strange and dark places. It’s fully illustrated by me which is the first time I’ve done a book like this.

The other thing is that I’m starting to more seriously work on some stories for children, picture books mostly at the moment. Just completed a residency specific to that, so finished that up with a number of my stories more developed and fleshed out, story- and art-wise. So excited to see where all that goes.

feather room junkyard over the anvil

Slam performances have a similar spirit as music gigs, there’s a flow in communication and audience seems to be very expressive. What was the most unusual reaction from the crowd you ever got?

I can’t think of a specific instance unfortunately, but it can be pretty interesting  and fascinating. Because we all process information so differently, so there are plenty of times where you might share something that you think is funny and no laughter, or where a laugh may spring out of a random audience mouth, in the middle of something serious or sorrowful. And it’s definitely like music, because those little blips add to me then rolling with it, maybe reshaping little bits in the moment, like if there was something sad I spoke to and there was a chuckle, how can to offer up the next line in a manner that both makes that reaction comfortable and allowed, while also pulling the person/audience back in the direction I’d like to move them towards.

Who are you at the moment? A poet, an illustrator, a slam star? All together? And what else?

Who am I at the moment. I don’t know. Tired? But excited. Scared. And curious. Filled with sorrow and pain. And joy and a terrible gratefulness. I don’t know. I’m asked this question at a very open and new chapter in my life, one where I’m not fully formed, one where I’m reforming so many parts of who I am and what I’m seeking to make. I look at myself as an artist, and strive to continue creating work that respects this and speaks to it, whet here that’s through words, pictures, music, performance, or whatever. I love the work that I’ve been focused one for the past decade, but feel a reimagining of this as of late, or a new exploration of it, whether that is in the context of what is being written, or through more performative ways such as dance or theatre, or whatever.

Who/which are your recommended/favourite reads/authors and illustrators? Any that you have recently read and have lingered with you for a while?

Right now I’m reading The Tiger’s Wife which is pretty good and a children’s book I just got from Gecko Press called The Day No One Was Angry, which is awesome! I have Ben Okri’s The Famished Road waiting for me at home, I’ve started it and I’m really excited to return to its pages.

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I always recommend the poets Lucille Clifton and William Stafford, Kevin Young’s Dear Darkness. Tracy K Smith’s Life On Mars is wonderful. I didn’t get to finish Brown Girl Dreaming but it is beautiful. I’m drawing a blank on his name, but the author of the Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now, I think it’s Gary something? His books are magic.

My three favorite books, novel wise, are probably East of Eden, To Kill A Mockingbird, and Maniac McGee. But I have too many books stacked up to read and probably even more that I’ve only started. I need to crack the whip and find my way back into a good kick butt reading habit. Crossing the seas is both a good and bad thing, as it invariably introduces me to books/writers that I wouldn’t have known before. As such, I’d want to read Elizabeth Knox’s Wake, and Tina Makereti’s Where the Rekohu Bones Sing.

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 What do you hope to do while you are in Christchurch / New Zealand this time?

A return to C1! Miniature burgers delivered through vacuum tubes is how all life should be!

C1 Espresso
C1 Espresso Flickr 2014-05-16-IMG_0085