Short stories

Short stories - a blessing for those with short attention spans
Short stories - a blessing for those with short attention spans?

My mother was an avid reader who loved to talk about literature. On several occasions I remember her expressing her dislike of short stories. My mother listened to National Radio and classical music, was passionate about gardening and always had every ingredient she might need in her pantry.

I’m afraid I have to own up to a shorter attention span: I get impatient waiting for plants to grow and usually decide to forget about them just when it’s time to give them some more attention; I never manage to buy more than one meal’s worth of ingredients at the market and I usually leave my ipod on shuffle rather than listening to an entire album from beginning to end.

Needless to say, I am a fan of the short story, though like most fiction (or most writing for that matter), it still seems that the really good examples are few and far between. Recently I’ve enjoyed stories from some new and newish collections, including Birthday stories, edited by Haruki Murakami – a collection of stories about birthdays; Second violins, a cool collection of New Zealand stories that take as their starting point the first paragraph of an unfinished Katherine Mansfield story (the unfinished stories are included); Luminous, by Alice Tawhai, a previously blogged-on book by a writer who is currently working on her third collection of short stories and has yet to publish a novel. Her style is unique, colourful and sometimes a little sad for me. She also heads up Second violins with a beautiful story which shows off her descriptive powers (especially pertaining to wallpaper) with a tad fewer depressing reflections on the state of human society.

It was hardly surprising for me to discover that Dave Eggers is a great short story writer, with heaps of amusing and serious surprises in his How we are hungry.

It is particularly pleasing to see a collection that includes stories of absolute minimum size and longer examples of sixty pages.

What is it that makes a brilliant short story, how are they so different from novels and why do most library users (and mothers) overlook them?

Singing the praises of STORE

For my Christmas/New Year getaway reading this year I placed reserves on everything in the library by Austrian novelist and playwright Peter Handke. Although he has been published in English as recently as 2007, the library’s holdings of his works are all from the seventies and eighties, and boy was I pleased and impressed to see that these works are still available to borrowers,  just a $1.50 reserve away.

Of all his plays that I have read, my favourite remains Publikumsbeschimpfung (“Offending the audience”), written in 1966. Like many of his works, it is delightfully, sometimes painfully self-reflexive, and constantly pokes fun at everything we think we know about the culture, routines and structures of theatre.

Of the six pieces in “The ride across lake constance and other plays,” my favourite has to be “Prophecy,” a short (5 or 6 page) script for 4 speakers in which all the lines follow the format “The sunrise will rise like a sunrise / The cold winter morning will feel like a cold winter morning / The honorable man will act honorably / The wild fire will spread like wild fire” and so on.

His humour and playfulness always delight me. He has a penchant for repetition, even to the point of risking losing the bulk of his audience (has anyone ever seen Peter Greenaway’s “Vertical Features Remake”?), but the real key to his appeal for me is his contrariness and breaking of rules – all of his works invite his audience to break out of their roles, examine the expectations they and others set forth for life, work and social interaction, and live their lives in a playful and liberated celebration.

Poetry – the eye or the ear?

Poetry and performance are natural partners. Some of the best poetry are lines, snippets or passages that can be quoted and have a nut of wisdom or a witty observation. Other poems you appreciate more for seeing them on the page, words forming shapes, white space allowing room to breathe, room to think.

The Press Christchurch Writers’ Festival included several poetry sessions which Lucette has written about with the real appreciation of a true fan. I caught up with her briefly yesterday for a chat about the poetry and performance events she has attended and the enjoyment that the performance aspects of the festival have given to audiences.

It’s about nine minutes. Have a listen and then tell us – do you prefer poetry for the eyes of the ear?

We also caught up with two budding poets – Gail and Steph who went to the session chaired by Bill Manhire: hear their thoughts:

Language and Identity

Karlo Mila
Karlo Mila
The final lunch-time poetry session involved no less than 6 poets who had been brought together to share political poetry. Judging by the panel, the main writers of political poetry in New Zealand are beautiful young (well, under 40 anyway) women with Maori and/or Pacific Island heritage. The panel also included 2 men – Jeffrey Paparoa Holman and James Norcliffe – whose political poetry was written a little less from within the scrum and more from a philosophical and historical perspective. I enjoyed Norcliffe’s “My Alien Vegetable,” a quirky and deadly serious look at terrorism.

And what a range of voices and stances and styles there are when it comes to using poetry for political purposes! Hinemoana Baker was awesome, funny, generous and extended an invitation to playful new ways of seeing. She read two poems by other writers from the anthology she has just co-edited, Kaupapa: New Zealand Poets, World Issues, one with the help of a whiteboard, to share with us the poet’s brilliant use of


           ii) and the [notation] of “mathematics” and *logic.

Tusiata Avia’s poetry is boldly political, feminist and, like Baker’s, funny. She performs it with total facial, vocal and rhythmic characterisation, almost singing the poems. Richard described her tone as that of a “sweet assassin,” and that captured it beautifully – feminine, dulcet and deadly, considering (on behalf of the Samoan people) whether to accept Helen Clark’s apology (on behalf of New Zealand) or to kill and eat her.

Karlo Mila surprised me with not only powerful poetry but an entire slide-show to accompany her two poems, both about very particular political events in Tonga, told from a very personal, emotional, perhaps even therapeutic perspective.

And it was Hana O’Reagan who most properly filled the image of a political poet, so sure of her cause, so passionate and insistent, and also full of humour, hope and good-will.

The Original Branch Manual

Catalyst 7: The Original Branch Manual offers 7 poets, 7 artists and 7 musicians in a neatly packaged DVD case with CD and booklet. Providing an answer to my earlier query about the relationship between the different groups of poets that seem to have gravitated towards the peninsula, it turns out that Catalyst’s featured 7 are a diverse group, spanning a range from current university student Rachel Douglass to follicle-minding Irish stand-up Sean Joyce and including Bernadette Hall, a poet who is also represented in Land Very Fertile.

The 7 musicians are present not only on the CD, as musical collaboration for spoken word, but also in the booklet, their lyrics in print alongside the non-sung poems, really foregrounding Catalyst’s editorial drive to include not only poetry but also song lyrics, theatrical texts and experimental writings of other types.

The launch event at Al’s Bar included readings by 4 poets and live music from Lindon Puffin and Le Mot Cafe. Jody Lloyd, whose recording label, “She’ll Be Right Records,” produced the CD, was also present and probably performed after I left – a pity to miss his incredible brand of wordsmithery.

Tonight Catalyst is running a mini Poetry Idol competition in the upstairs bar at the Dux de Lux … your last chance for a dose of local poetry before the end of the festival. Catalyst runs a monthly open mic night, however (which has been running on and off for several years), so it isn’t your last chance ever…

“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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Land Very Fertile

All I can say is what a great thing it is that someone (Coral Atkinson and David Gregory actually) has gone to the trouble of editing an anthology of poetry and (some) prose about and set in Banks Peninsula Land very fertile, a place that is indeed a very fertile home and/or place of inspiration to many artistic souls. It is a beautifully presented and well-sized volume with some lovely photographs and I look forward to dipping into it during my tea breaks. 

Having been present at a number of readings and poetry events on the peninsula over the past 4 years, I find myself wondering what relationship exists between the different groups of poets kicking around the bays: there seems to be a group of under 35s and a group of over 45s with a kind of no-poetry zone in the gap between. 

Tonight the “younger” group also launches a volume of poetry, Catalyst 7: The Original Branch Manual, at the later time of 8pm at the “younger” venue of Al’s Bar in Dundas street. The following comes from a recent email from the editors: “Eschewed by arts funders and ignored by the literary press in New Zealand we have quietly continued to innovate and push boundaries all ‘on the smell of an oily rag.’ We may be small but we are proud.” (See Catalyst’s blog)

Well, I’m pleased and relieved to find that the library holds Catalyst volumes 1 – 6 and will soon own Land very fertile, and, I hope, Catalyst 7 (which comes with a CD). Come read your local poetry at your local library!

Coral Atkinson, David Gregory, Fiona Farrell and Rachel Scott
Coral Atkinson, David Gregory, Fiona Farrell and Rachel Scott