Happy Birthday, Janet: WORD Christchurch

Janet FrameAugust 28 2014 marked the 90th anniversary of the birth of one of New Zealand’s most celebrated authors (so far) Janet Frame. As part of WORD Christchurch, Bernadette Hall, Owen MarshallTusiata Avia and Janet Frame’s niece and literary executor, Pamela Gordon discussed her work and influence.

Owen Marshall said that although he met Janet Frame three times, the thing that most closely aligned them was their shared common experience and knowledge of Oamaru and the fact that he “loved her work very much indeed”.  He read her description of returning to Willowglen, her family home, after the death of her father. Owen Marshall also visited Willowglen, when it was in a derelict state, and took a plug and chain as a souvenir, which he showed to the audience.

Tusiata Avia, the winner of the 2013 Janet Frame Literary Trust Award, read four beautiful poems from Stories will tell: I take into my arms more than I can bear to hold, If I read St John of the Cross, Drought in another country and The end.

Bernadette Hall told us about her attendance at Janet Frame’s 70th birthday party as part of the New Zealand Arts Festival in Wellington. She remembers her as a ‘sturdy, white curly haired figure” with her handbag on her lap, underneath which was a book with her bookmarks and speaking notes. As she stood up to giver her speech, her book and marking papers fell out which Bernadette felt “rather charming”.  Once she gathered up her notes she read two passages, My Cousins ‐ Who Could Eat Cooked Turnips and an excerpt from Daughter Buffalo about two dogs mating. Bernadette enjoyed the juxtaposition of the writing with the formal occasion she was presenting it in. Malfred’s train journey from A State of siege was the work she choose to read, with emphasis on the quote:  ‘Where were the people to look on the scene and know its meaning?’

Book cover of A state of siegeBernadette also shared her original poem, Dark pasture, written with permission of the Janet Frame Literary Trust. Alternating lines from A State of Siege and Hall, it ends with the Frame’s line: “where is the Ministry of Imagination? the Secretary of Empathy?”

Pamela, chair of the Janet Frame Literary Trust, said she was also “lucky enough to be her friend” and that people are surprised that the real Janet was “ribald and quite funny”. The Janet Frame Literary Trust believes “exaggerations and errors of biographical fact” abound about the life and personality of Janet, and states that as time passes, “the Janet Frame ‘story’ hardens into a legend”. The biographical page of the Trust hopes to debunk some common myths about the writer; including her mental health and reclusiveness.

As her works were read at the event, it is hard to argue with Pamela when she said “her work remains strong and vibrant today.”

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Tusiata Avia

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Bernadette Hall: WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival

WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival kicks off on 27 August. We’ve asked three quick questions of festival guests:

Bernadette Hall – poet, playwright, and writer

Cover of Bird NorthWhat (or who) are you most looking forward to at WORD Christchurch?

I’m thinking that I’ll go for a cocktail of poetry and edge. I want to find out more about the short stories of Breton Dukes and make the journey to Hicksville with Dylan Horrocks. And there’s exciting stuff on the poetry scene. I’m looking forward to celebrating as Kerrin and Hinemoana launch their new books. And then there’s the Lyttelton love story from Sarah Amazinnia and Andy Coyle which promises to be electrifying. And Kristin Hersh and Aldous Harding on song-writing. Sorry novelists, I’ll catch you if I can.

What do you think about libraries?

I adore libraries. What pleasure to entrust yourself to the random wisdom of a library. How often does a book I really need leap out and grab me as I potter between the stacks. It’s as if my feet have been led to a particular spot, my hand to a particular shelf. That’s how I found Coco Chanel: an intimate life by Lisa Chaney. Or rather, that’s how it found me. As did The Case for God by Karen Armstrong. And KISS, KISS, YUCK, YUCK by Kyle Mewburn.  Sweet entrapment in the Hurunui Memorial Library.

Share a surprising fact about yourself.

I guess people might be surprised to know how obsessed I am with dead fish and seaweed. How I drag these things home from the beach. Or how much I love horse droppings. Given the choice at a roadside stall, I’d take a sack full of the stuff rather than a box of black Dawson cherries every time. Thus have I turned a barren, sand and riverstone section into a garden.

Cover of Life and Customs Cover of The lustre jug Cover of The merino princess

Seven minutes with Bernadette Hall

CoverPoet Bernadette Hall was one of three Cantabrians who flew the flag for Christchurch at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival. She kindly gave us some of her time for a bit of a chat. This seven-minute interview covers:

  • The ‘crucial and essential’ role of writer’s festivals in building a community of writers;
  • The Hagley Writers’ Institute  as a yeast in the mix of a healthy Christchurch poetry scene;
  • How Hall is trying to change her poems and is writing short fiction.

I started the interview (which was just after a chat by Emily Perkins, Damien Wilkins and Fergus Barrowman, and before a late lunch) by asking what it was like to attend the festival as a writer.

Bernadette Hall read with Alison Wong, Ian Wedde, Jessica Le Bas, Ben Brown, Jeffrey Paparoa Holman and Alicia Sometimes at the festival.

With luck she will appear at the  Christchurch Writers Festival in October.

“I split language / to make poems burn”

Thanks to brilliant facilitation by Bill Manhire, the session “Conversation on Writing Poetry” was one I’m really glad I didn’t miss. The hush that came over the audience as Bernadette Hall prepared to read the first poem she felt really happy with was symptomatic of a general atmosphere of extreme respect which fitted well to Manhire’s interest in the public role of poetry and poets within their ‘tribe’ (the two other panel members, Brian Turner and Michele Leggott, have occupied or currently occupy the position of poet laureate).

The idea of reading and discussing the first poem you felt really happy with, leading to discussions of how each became a poet and when in their lives they first felt they could – or wanted to – call themselves a poet or writer, was perfect for a panel of such confident New Zealand writers. It did something else wonderful too: For me, at least, it created an almost interactive, at least very inclusive, situation, in which I was also lead to remember the first poem that I had felt proud of, my current feelings about writing and where I place myself in the strange and slowly unfolding process of becoming-a-true-poet. It is quite a skill to make an audience feel so included without any actual participation.

There isn’t enough space here to record all the beautiful “bright moments” that the poets shared from their lives …

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