Monday, December 18, 2006

Dream Poems

I was reading a post by Jen Crawford which included an old poem she'd found in a notebook, which got me to thinking about some of my old notebooks. I remember, at one period when I was very blocked, scribbling down some versions of my dreams in very loose blank verse.

It wasn't writing exactly -- more like somnambulism, but it was kind of interesting to dig them out (interesting for me, at any rate -- some very revealing comments here & there, but I've left most of those out). Anyway, here's a selection of a few of them. See what you think.

Stalin's Raven

I dreamt of a kind of fool, a court jester
beaten with sticks, me watching, heavy
blows on shoulders, back & legs.

a parallel unfolded, a black raven
pecking at other birds in a great mass
of feathers, sawdust: like a sand-pit.
The court, somehow, was Stalin's – like a Tsar.
A group of doctors stood around a bed,
– white masks, white faces – tending to his wounds.
Was I one? I think not.

Then the pip
of the alarm. Not a nightmare, tho' the blows
& pecking stabbed sufficiently at me: onlooker
on the fringes of the scene.


The War

I ran into an old friend on the street
(the scene: some future, broken-down New York)
she & her boyfriend were wearing overalls
& emptying the trash into a long
& complicated articulated machine.
They greeted me: Jack, whatcha doing here?
I answered: Hustling, since out of labour camp.
I'd turned the corner from another world,
a hotel run by gangsters – on the desk
a cute, dark girl, whom I'd addressed in
chin-Italian (their password: Chinese-Italian),
but from upstairs had come no nod
(But boss, the dormitory sleeps sixteen!)
Anne and her boyfriend sympathised with me –
the lucky ones, they'd been here doing this
all through the war – & now were moving house
to look after an apartment for a friend.
We got to talking – the friend had not been keen
on all their safety clothing – Anne confided
He told us that your body gets slip-streamed
from years of this exposure, so no problem.

I told her (I think truly) this was false
You must keep your protection – if he minds
construct a hallway closet with your things
ready for each morning – otherwise you'll die.

Anne – six-foot, slim, dark curly hair – had changed,
her hair was smoother, strung-out, she looked tired –
the opening, I felt, for something else.


Lion’s Head

Not an erotic dream – a dream of flight
& slaughter. The chase has bloody roots.
fleeing from a cabin full of death
(boyfriend among the dead), the girl
– shorts, t-shirt – waves down a white car.
The driver is an easy-going bozo, believes her,
pedal to the metal, u-turns with a roar.

[Next scene:] They are discovered, having driven
miles (America?), in one more cheap motel.
startled, late at night, they drive off the back porch
down onto clay, a grassless slope, with new-laid roads
that end in concrete dams. The choice is simple,
a youth below looks up – they fell him,
hold up his bent corpse. Above, inside the room,
three figures – one a lion’s head –
the sacrifice accepted? Who can tell?
They find the car, roar off on a dead end,
bump over grass ... till woken by a squeal,
a set of squeals – or barks? – or mechanistic
screeches. Nightmare-like, dissolves.


Saturday, December 09, 2006

Pania Press

The very lovely Bronwyn Lloyd and I have started a small press together. It's called Pania Press, and will specialise in small limited editions of original texts by local poets and artists, with individual handcrafted covers.

The first three books (slated to go on sale next year) are:

1/ Jack Ross, Love in Wartime
(a sequence of poems with illustrations and accompanying texts)

2/ Therese Lloyd, many things happened
(a debut poetry collection from this promising young writer, who recently completed her Masters in Creative Writing at Victoria University's International Institute of Modern Letters)

3/ Michele Leggott, hello and goodbye
(a new sequence of poems by one of New Zealand's brightest poetic luminaries)

Future titles will be announced as they become available, but the point of this post is just to direct you to the Pania Press blogsite we've set up to advertise (and sell!) our wares. Get in quick -- there won't be many copies of each one to go around ...

Sunday, December 03, 2006


the rolling whale’s-eye
of the Farmers’ Santa
in its transplanted state
Queen St / Victoria
St corner

eyes fixed on your phone
– can I sit here?
– our bus is coming in 5 minutes, mate
– time to finish
up my smoke

plugged in – the Asian girl
cocks her head to one side
as if listening for it
for what? invisible
the sentence of her life


Saturday, December 02, 2006

Gabriel's Groundhog Day

“I’m both! I’m a celebrity in an emergency …”

This is my launch speech for the screening of Gabriel White's new film (see further details here):

There’s a scene in the movie Groundhog Day where the cameraman Larry is trying to pick up a girl at a party. “People think that I just point my camera at stuff, but there’s a heck of a lot more to it than that!” She’s clearly unimpressed, and makes a hasty excuse to get away before he even gets to show her the inside of his van.

I guess the first point to make about Gabriel’s work generally, but especially his new film Aucklantis, is that there’s a heck of a lot more to it than meets the eye. Yes, on the surface it’s all very simple. He walks along the street, filming himself, and talking. Sometimes he does the washing-up while he’s talking. Sometimes he discusses where he’s going to put the camera.

This conciseness and economy of means is a mask, though. Gabriel has understood that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. The remorselessly quotidian and ordinary nature of the things he films is designed to wake us up to the myriad strangenesses in the ways we react to the world around us.

I guess the most obvious analogy is with Joyce’s Ulysses (which he actually invokes at one point in the film you’re about to see). Again, the concept is simple: the events of one day in Dublin, seen through the eyes of a number of different characters, but patterned on the events and people of the Odyssey.

Joyce undercuts the bourgeois complacencies of provincial Dublin by setting them against the heroic intensity of Homer. Or does he? Perhaps he means to say that Leopold Bloom really is as much of a hero as his original, Odysseus.

Gabriel’s own model is Plato’s Atlantis – does he mean to satirise our lifestyle or simply examine it? That’s for you to decide. He certainly succeeds in making provincial Auckland seem as much of a battleground for the gods as Plato’s lost continent ever did.

I’d prefer to posit a connection with Groundhog Day, which is (I have to admit) one of my favourite films of all time. Phil (or Bill Murray) is forced to repeat the same day over and over again until he exhausts every possible way of living it. He ends up becoming a better person through sheer boredom and failure to discover anything else to do with his time.

“One of these days someone’s going to see me interviewing a groundhog and decide I don’t have a future …”

Gabriel, too, is bound to the beat between Freemans Bay and the City Centre. He, too, resolves to get all he can from it. But is it Gabriel the character or Gabriel the filmmaker I’m talking about? Is there a difference? In Groundhog Day the weatherman Phil is constantly paralleled with the groundhog Phil. Every day the groundhog is frightened by his own shadow, and so the endless winter goes on. Phil the character tries kidnapping his alter ego, singing its praises, abusing it – nothing works. When he stops acting like a kind of human groundhog himself, though, the enchantment is broken.

At one point in his own film Gabriel speculates that his shadow is spying on him through stealth technology. He’s getting the better of it, though, by watching it spy on him, and thus getting an angle on how he appears to it. He even acts up to it at times to give it interesting things to watch …

Groundhog Day required a cast of hundreds, a set of Hollywood Stars, finding a more photogenic small town to stand in for Punxsutawney, Philadelphia, and a few million dollars. Aucklantis succeeds in covering substantially more territory at a fraction of the cost by the simple application of wit and ingenuity.

It came as a great surprise to the makers of Groundhog Day when they started to get letters from rabbis and monks and religious leaders praising them for the wisdom of their film. It was, after all, just supposed to be another frothy Hollywood comedy. Gabriel’s film is funny, too, and one can read it on that level with no problems at all. Go deeper, though, and it’ll repay your scrutiny.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Screening on Saturday

Well, there are a couple of reasons for putting up this post.

The first is to publicise the screening, on Saturday 2nd December, of Gabriel White's new film Aucklantis (you can read my review of the parts I'd then seen here.) Full details of the screening can be found on his website here, but I'll just mention that it's at 3 pm, in lecture theatre WE240, AUT, Auckland (signs around St. Paul Street will direct you).

The second is to mention Gabriel's set of digital essays "The ABC of XY and Z," which are also now available on his website. Modesty forbids me from saying too much about these pieces, since the first, "Planet Atlantis" is an analysis of my novel The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis. The second, however, "Music Word Fire" (much longer) concerns the work of the composer Robert Ashley, and the third, "The Avoriginal" gives an account of Gabriel's own practice as a filmmaker. I'd certainly recommend giving them a look, especially (but certainly not exclusively) if you're thinking of coming along to the screening.

Further reports on that later ...

Wednesday, October 25, 2006


"Martha's really into taxidermy."

So said the man showing the successful Apprentice contestants around one of Martha Stewart's weirder country houses on TV2 last night. This was their reward for selling more garden hoses than the other team had sold portable air pumps.

"Martha's the biggest animal-lover you can imagine," he continued to gush as he ushered them past a succession of immense stuffed fishes plastered all over every available wall. She loves 'em, all right -- especially stuffed.

The colours of the whole house were based on this fish motif, apparently, because Martha's "really into monochrome design" -- she likes painted ceilings; she got the colour for the wall from an old faded print (it looked a bit like it, too) ... and so on and so on and so on.

The progressive deification of celebrities has reached frightening levels on this spin-off of Donald Trump's presumably deliberately absurdist The Apprentice. One begins, finally, to get some inkling of what the Romans felt inside while worshipping their emperor as a living god.

Marcela gushed on and on for minutes about what it meant to her when Martha deigned to lean over and sample a bit of her sugar bun at another reward ceremony (breakfast at another of Martha's ghastly vulgar over-designed pads). "It was so intimate," she explained, "sharing a moment like that." Martha Stewart taking a piece from one of the very pastries she herself had (allegedly) baked ...

The funny thing, of course, is that the programme completely tanked in the USA. Martha was seen as wimpy and insufficiently decisive, and Trump had to tick her off for damaging his franchise.

One can see why it failed -- all the mad antics of the various performers fail to explain why any of them would want to work for Martha. Her "business strategies," as outlined in a series of excruciatingly banal inserts, consist of revelations along the lines of "Buy low, sell high." Last night she solemnly informed us that doing a good sales pitch involved trying to make your words reach your audience in order to promote the product you wish to sell.

What's next? "Speaking is when you open your mouth and words come out of it ... if you choose the correct words, then people sometimes understand what you say. On the other hand ..." Perhaps that's a little too philosophical for Martha.

The whole jailbird thing is adroitly mixed into the combination trainwreck / history lesson that is Martha Stewart: The Apprentice. Roundly rebuking a "quitter," Chuck, on an early episode, she declared: "I've never quit anything in my life. I even went to jail, for God's sake ..."

Funny, she almost sounded like Gandhi there for a minute. He went to jail to fight for the independence of his country; Martin Luther King went there to agitate for civil rights -- but Martha went to jail for a far higher cause, her own sacred right to party. Why shouldn't she play the market, do a little insider trading? They were her stocks, after all ...

The bitching and moaning in the loft has reached the usual poisonous levels familiar from earlier incarnations of this programme (in its various Trump avatars), but once notices that Martha's wisdom and mana remain beyond criticism. To question that would be indeed to sin against the holy ghost.

Martha's poor long-suffering daughter, who sits there week after week biting her tongue and looking as if she might have a thing or two to report about her mother if only she were given free access to a camera (and had a fully-fuelled jet ready to whisk her off somewhere beyond the reach of the Martha Stewart goon-squad immediately afterwards), is the final bizarre ingredient in the mix.

It's a stuffed program. We all knew that going in. What's refreshing and wholesome about the Martha Stewart "reality" show is that it actually failed. Apparently there's a moment when people have had enough of toadying and grovelling to this repulsive saccharine-scented bully. Maybe quite a few of us actually do notice the difference between Paris Hilton and a singer (or a celebrity, for that matter).

I agree it's not a lot of hope to hold out, but it's something, at least.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Myth of the 21st Century

I remember reading somewhere about the "Derridean biblioblitz" of 1967 -- the three books Of Grammatology; Writing and Difference; and Speech and Phenomena.

Far be it from me to suggest any resemblance between us, but this has been, nevertheless, an unusually busy year for me in terms of publishing. It began with:
1/ my novel The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis;
2/ went on to the Classic New Zealand Poets in Performance anthology;
3/ and now concludes with this collection of new fiction, edited by Tina Shaw and myself, entitled Myth of the 21st Century.

The stories were all commissioned specially for the book, so it was rather difficult to predict in advance just what the finished artefact would look like. Everyone has risen magnificently to the occasion, though -- we've ended up with 14 very quirky and individual stories, all grouped around the concept of myth, and specifically designed to focus on what the dominant myths of the next century might turn out to be.

The authors are (in order):
Patricia Grace, who rewrites the Maori legend of the tides;
Martin Edmond, who creates an urban myth for the Jenolan caves;
Tina Shaw, whose feral children catch and kill an albatross;
Mike Johnson, who spins a lush version of Psyche’s story;
Poet Karlo Mila, who offers a stunning Tongan nightmare;
Anthony McCarten, who tells a growing-up story in reverse;
Tracey Slaughter, who gives a disconcerting take on the Fates;
Vivienne Plumb, who makes some old fables disconcertingly new;
Charlotte Grimshaw, who pairs a warrior with his modern twin;
Jack Ross, who brings to life a selkie legend;
Maxine Alterio, who unfolds a contemporary Aztec myth;
Aaron Taouma, who tells the story of Uncle Sione, an urban holy fool;
Judith White, who spins a mythic yarn about a doomed love affair;
& Tim Corballis, who explores the very idea of myth itself.

(That's how the blurb describes us, anyway).

I think there's some pretty damned good stuff in there (though possibly I'm prejudiced). It was certainly an intensely educational experience putting it together. I enjoyed most of all the chance of observing a group of fiction-writers at work. Since I'm trying to horn in on their game, I'd better get an idea of some of the ground rules. Tina was very helpful there, and a tower of strength throughout the editing process.

The official publication date is today, so I guess I'll be raising a glass in celebration later on (we're not having an official launch this time). Check it out in a shop near you. It'd make an ideal Christmas present for some mythologically-minded friend or relative!

Tina and I will be interviewed by Lynn Freeman on Radio New Zealand's Arts on Sunday programme on Sunday afternoon (22/10) at 2pm, so that should be worth a listen, too. There's a link to the recording here, which should be up for the next four weeks (it's also available for download).

Saturday, September 30, 2006

An Inconvenient Truth

[Kevin Costner and Jeanne Tripplehorn in Waterworld (1995)]

Well, we're really in for it this time, it would appear. I went to see Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth at the cinema yesterday, and - yes - it scared me senseless. Well, temporarily, at any rate. By the time I'd got home my senses of inertia and fatalism had begun to reassert themselves.

Some points about it interested me particularly. First, the statistic that a survey of nearly 1,000 peer-reviewed scientific papers on all aspects of Global Warming published over the last decade or so revealed 0% doubt on the basic processes at work. Second, that a survey of journalistic articles published on the same topic over the same period revealed 53% expressing doubt and reservations. In other words, the less you know about the subject, the easier it is to dismiss it.

It's interesting to notice the same trends at work here. The NZ Herald, that bastion of journalistic truth and objectivity, summarises Gore's film as follows (in the appropriately named TimeOut for 28/9/06):
A documentary about climate change which occasionally lets its focus drift but is a compact precis of urgently important material.

Pretty compelling write-up, huh? It's true that there's a lot of stuff about Gore's childhood, career ups-and-downs etc. in the film which might have been dispensed with on a strictly utilitarian basis. But cinema-goers are not strictly utilitarian people, by and large. What's more, one can see precisely why all the folksy just-plain-folks stuff is in there, too. "I am not a crank," Gore is trying to say. "I am one of you" (by which he means an ordinary God-fearing American, albeit a Democrat).

He really really wants people to listen, and uses every conceivable device of propaganda to achieve that end. I'm prepared to forgive that, personally. Like the Herald reviewer, I too would have preferred more content and less barnstorming, but there really is plenty of content there already, and it's desperately disturbing. Basically, we're all going to drown or fry if we don't listen up soon. Both Greenland and Antarctica are melting ... massive rises in ocean levels are no longer just possible but almost inevitable. Combined with out-of-control population increase, that paints a pretty grim picture. Where the hell are we all going to live? What are we going to eat?

Go and see it yourself. There were two other people in the cinema while I was there (admittedly it was the middle of the afternoon, when most decent folk are working). They were teenagers. They sat at the back and sniggered from time to time at Gore's wardrobe. It's hard to know what other reaction they could have to the discovery that their elders and betters have so comprehensively fucked up the world they're going to inherit.

Check out the website for what you yourself can do about it.

The real point Gore wants to make is that this process is not irreversible. It's not too late. Like CFCs and the hole in the ozone layer, we can actually slow down and even reverse the buildup of greenhouse gases. Even if we can't, we can stop it actually accelerating.


I watched another interesting film last week (on DVD, somewhat belatedly). You've probably heard of it. It's called What the [Bleep] Do We Know?

I guess I thought it might be interesting to contrast it with the Al Gore film because they might both loosely be grouped under the title of "science documentaries" - both have had a lot of success at Festivals and even in the mainstream cinema; both use a lot of heavy-duty authorities to back up their conclusions.

Don't get me wrong, I found the [Bleep] film fun. It was beguiling to watch, and even instructive in some cases, but for the most part I thought it the worst hash of pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo and garbled mysticism I've come across for a long time.

It began with a lot of very tendentious summaries of the "implications" of quantum theory, delivered by a lot of people in suits made up to look like Stephen Hawking-style physicists, but who turned out later (in the credits) to be teachers of psychic medicine, PhDs in other subjects, freelance lifestyle writers etc. (one of them actually turned out to be "channelling" a great healer from another dimension). This was then extended to the "discovery" that we're addicted to bad emotions, and that if we can just learn to love ourselves, then truth and justice will spread in all directions. The film claimed, in fact, that the crime-rate in Washington DC was lowered 25% one summer by a concentrated act of meditation performed by a bunch of the enlightened.

Now some of this stuff I sort of agree with, really. No-one could seriously contend that the mind doesn't affect the body. The psychosomatic effects of placebos are almost as well documented as the somatic effects of actual medicine. Quantum physics is weird and wonderful.

What I didn't like was this idea of making it all sound scientific by using authoritative-looking talking heads, dressed up in all the panoply of ideological respectablity, and then the gradual revelation that the film's real message was a kind of smug New Age quietism. "Don't worry about anything," it basically turned out to be saying, "because it's all in your mind."

War, cancer, injustice, Global Warming - we don't really have to do anything about any of those things except sit at home and direct good thoughts at them (maybe have a gin-and-tonic and admire the view while we're at it).

Fuck that, is all I can say. William Blake might have attributed much of the trouble in the world to "mind-forged manacles,"but that didn't make him any less prone to intervene himself. In one case the tiny poet accosted a man beating his wife in the street with such fervent indignation that the hulking brute ran away in terror. Acts of injustice (we're told) made him feel almost physically sick.

Al Gore's film uses the arts of persuasion to back up a message which is only too compellingly cogent. If you want to belittle his efforts, provide some similarly solid data.

The [Bleep] film uses half-truths and a vague fudge of science and mysticism to preach the 21st-century equivalent of Mary Baker Eddy's Christian Science (like her female American disciple during the siege of Peking in 1900 who denied that any of it was actually taking place, claiming instead that all the shells and bombs were simply figments of their diseased imaginations ...)

The superficial similarlity of their methods is, I suppose, why I'm devoting so much energy to criticising [Bleep]. It would be just too tempting for all of us to shunt the warnings of Gore's film into the too-hard basket, and continue to console ourselves with the notion that scientists always disagree with one another, anyway.

If the UN stage smelt of sulphur after George Bush had been there, the Rialto cinema (for me) smelt of hope after Gore had had his say. At one fell swoop, Al Gore joins my select group of culture heroes.

Monday, September 18, 2006


[Gabriel White - photo by Lies Vandesande]

I remember back in the late seventies there was a lot of controversy because Richard Ellmann’s edition of the Selected Letters of James Joyce made public a few of the rather frank epistles he’d written to his wife Nora. I seem to recall a passage along the lines of how much he wanted to “fuck his little fuckbird’s cunt,” but it’s been a while since I checked them out.

An article I read at the time by some American smartarse began by debating the matter fairly solemnly before concluding that all obligations of decency and respect to the departed had to bow down before the sacred duty of giving the rest of us a good laugh. The author then went on to fabricate a series of similar letters by similarly grand men and women of letters (Hemingway, Faulkner, Gertrude Stein etc.)

Gabriel White’s latest video project Aucklantis is a fucking good laugh. That’s not all it is, of course, but isn’t that enough to be going along with? I mean, how many successful pisstakes are there out there that one can afford to neglect one?

If you don’t believe me, check out the sample here.

Gabriel’s been back in Auckland now for almost a year. He brought back a lot of video footage and a lot of interesting ideas. Some of those ideas will see solid form soon (hopefully) in a DVD / book called Tongdo Fantasia, part of which is already available on his new trial website. It takes the form of a talking-head travelogue filmed in Korea, but the setting could really be anywhere. Gabriel’s method is to weave strange thoughts and associations around everyday objects as he talks to camera – banality is his domain, unexpectedness his stock-in-trade. He stalks the city like a latter-day Baudelairean flâneur, weaving a complex meditation on the bizarrerie of the ordinary lives and landscapes we take for granted.

The packaging and the ideas have evolved somewhat, but one can still see a definite continuity with the two projects we worked on together:

A Town like Parataxis: A Colouring-in Book (Auckland: Perdrix Press, 2000)

was a collection of poems by me with photos by Gabriel. It’s now almost unobtainable, as we only banged out a hundred or so copies on some institutional xerox machine before we got caught. The pictures, though, are still a miracle. Gabriel had a theory at the time that simple colour snapshots blown up to A4-sized black-and-white would show strange complexities of texture and design. The results certainly bear him out. That carwash looks like the gates of hell to me.

The Perfect Storm (Auckland: Perdrix Press, 2000)

was an extension of the method to video. [That one I do have some copies of, if anyone’s interested (price $NZ10 plus $5 postage & packing)]. The Public Library catalogue described it as “poems read by Jack Ross set against Auckland landscapes” which about sums it up. I remember viewers tended to spend their time speculating where we’d shot particular bits of film, rather than noticing the strange dance of the cars around the roundabout, or the peculiar costumes of the boys crossing the street outside McDonalds. In a sense it was too obvious for anyone to see it. Once they’d worked out that there was no real continuity between the text and the pictures, they lost the ability to see what we wanted to point out: the hauntedness of the everyday.

Aucklantis seems to me a step beyond anything Gabriel has done before because the tone has shifted just a notch. His decision to look at Auckland as a tabula rasa, a blank slate literally anything can be written on, works because it’s so hysterically funny. It’s hard to imagine anyone taking seriously Gabriel’s descriptions of how to paint a rock grey or how to open a blank account, and yet – like the best stand-up – they make you see things, all of a sudden, in a new light.

Gabriel’s work is reactive, in the best sense. He takes the place he lives in and interrogates its peculiarities. His formidable erudition comes down, in these latest works, to one man talking on a moving screen – somehow he succeeds in making this the Platonic essence of cinema.

Of course I can’t help but see some connections between these ideas and my amnesia-novel The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis, which Gabriel helped launch earlier this year (I’m actually a bit peeved at not having thought of that “Aucklantis” portmanteau-word myself). What mainly strikes me about it, though, is the elegant simplicity of Gabriel’s solution to problems I could only approach by wrapping them in layers of crabbed discordant text. (For a video-clip of part of Gabriel's launch-speech -- filmed by my friend Rowan McCormick -- click here).

His latest work is so brilliant it can’t help but make the rest of us feel a little jealous. I take some pride, though, in having had some part in stimulating him to make this quantum leap. I think anyone who watches the finished work will see just what I mean.

Happy Birthday, Gabriel!

Gabriel White: Select CV

Shows and Performances:

· Sep 5, 2006: Video work “Aucklantis” included in Lazy Susan and Smelly John (St Paul St Gallery, AUT, Auckland). Curator: Mark Harvey. Artists: Sean Curham, Alex Monteith, Tessa Laird, Brydee Rood, Cat Gwynne, Linda T, Susie Pratt, Cushla Donaldson, Ben Holmes, Melissa Durbin, Aaron Hurley, Gabriel White, Mark Harvey.
· Aug-Sep, 2001: Video work for Adrift – Nomadic Art from New Zealand (Conical Gallery Fitzroy, Melbourne). Curator: Emily Cormack. Artists: Richard Lewer, Caroline Rothwell, Patrick Pound, John Pule, Mark Braunias, Brielle Hansen and Anushka Akel.
· Feb-Nov, 2000: Senior Tutor, Studio One Elam School of Fine Art.
· 1999-2000: Member of Rotaction, sound performance group, directed by James McCarthy. Performances at Lopdell House Gallery, La Mata theatre and the Adam Gallery. Awarded best multimedia performance at the Wellington Fringe Festival 2000.
· 1998-2000: Stop Gap, Auckland based poster installation project. Curator and artist.

Published Work:

· “I for an I,” Landfall 200 (2000): 187 [article]
· Review of Tessa Mitchell and Ben Holmes, "I am a Dark River." Pander 9 (1999): 40
· Review of Ronnie van Hout and Mike Stevenson, "Premillennial: Signs of the Soon Coming Storm." Pander 8 (1999): 36-37
· Review of Ross T. Smith, "Hokianga." Pander 6/7 (1999): 54-55
· Forgiven by the Moon, CD with Steve Abel, (self-released, 1998)
· Spacesuit, self-titled CD (released nationally, 1997)

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Tony Chad on Leicester Kyle

Tony Chad writes in to say:

Hi Jack - strange though it may seem (I was in Mexico on 4th July) I have only just heard of Leicester's illness and passing - although I fondly kept in mind the thought of another visit to the West Coast and inevitably to Leicester's hideaway in the hills, I never did make it and now of course it is too late. I was deeply saddened and shocked to read the news in the August NZPS newsletter (only just received). I had (I think) 2 visits to Leicester's, where I enjoyed his hospitality and some memorable walks. These memories are often referred to in our home, and will I am sure, stay with me through time. He was indeed a real gentleman and touched many people's lives and hearts. As you so rightly remarked, he moved visitors to write poems about their visit... here attached is one from my latest book - all the best, Tony

Of chains & bondage & a walk in the bush

Two hours we journeyed in the faithful red land rover, the Ngakawau landscape instantly recognisable by the way the residents had transformed coal trolleys from the mines into flower boxes. We arrived safely at the secret parking place in the bush and travelled another hour on foot attended by the fantail and accompanied at times by bellbird, robin & tit. We smelled and glimpsed tiny native orchids and other memorable plants (whose names I forget), marvelled at gushing waterfalls, lunched on an island, carried the heavy rucksack by turn filling it with treasures until it was time once more for the faithful red land rover, a pint of Miners Dark at the Seddonville Hotel, then home to Millerton wondering who put chains around the trees, and why?
- Tony Chad (from Self Titled (HeadworX 2006)

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Death of the Old Gang

For this week's post I thought I'd reprint a review which Alistair Paterson commissioned for Poetry New Zealand [33 (2006): 96-101]. The book is by my friend Sarah Broom, and it seems to have already attracted quite a bit of favourable comment in the UK, where it was published.

Sarah Broom, Contemporary British and Irish Poetry: An Introduction. Basingstoke & New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

There’s a scene in the 2003 film The Sleeping Dictionary where a newly-appointed British colonial officer is disconcerted to find a Dayak headhunter who can recite the names of the Kings and Queens of England. The two alternate rattling off the dreary list for quite some time until they get to Edward VIIII (it’s the Abdication year: 1936). “You left out Queen Anne,” remarks the headhunter. “You left out Stephen” is the young Oxonian’s terse response.

English poetry used to seem a bit like that: a set of clear-cut generations with their stars and also-rans. The twentieth century began with the Georgians (Brooke, Masefield, de la Mare), then the War poets (Graves, Sassoon, Owen), then the Modernists (Wyndham Lewis, T. S. Eliot, Pound), then the Leftist thirties (Auden, Spender, MacNeice), then the forties and the New Apocalypse (Dylan Thomas, Keith Douglas, Henry Treece), then the fifties and the Movement (Amis, Larkin, Wain), then the sixties and the Mersey Beat, then the seventies and … at about that stage the patterning ran dry. Who could make sense of the warring voices of the present? All those manifestos, slim volumes, blaring voices? What seemed certain was that at some crucial stage something had changed, the centre of gravity had shifted.

In New Zealand (about as far from literary London as a Dayak longhouse, I suppose) that shift was very clear. All of a sudden the literary gods lived in New York. American Modernism now ruled the roost. William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Robert Lowell had taken up the slack when the British faltered. One can observe the moment of change in the shift from 1950s Curnow (A Small Room with Large Windows) to 1970s Curnow (An Incorrigible Music).

It was, after all, a bit hard to get excited about post-fifties British poetry. There was Larkin whinging on about how miserable he was, and cataloguing the dreary appurtenances of what sounded like a used-up country. There was R. S. Thomas being grim and craggy. There was Geoffrey Hill being even grimmer and craggier. By contrast, there were the Americans, energetic, vital, sexy, humorous – New World. From the mid-sixties onwards America became the centre of the poetic universe (in English, at any rate).

And so the litany became: Williams and the Objectivists, Ginsberg and the Beats, Lowell and the confessional poets; then, in the 1980s, Ashbery and the L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E poets. As a result, we gradually lost sight of British poetry. The odd gleam shone out here and there: Seamus Heaney (but he was Irish), Douglas Dunn (a Scot), the odd wild man like Tom Raworth or Jeremy Prynne, but otherwise the visionary gleam seemed to have departed for good for more congenial climes.

But here comes Sarah Broom to set the record straight. Her book Contemporary British and Irish Poetry is designed specifically to answer the question “What happened then?” She concentrates on the poetry written over the last two decades in the British Isles and demonstrates, in the process, that the scene there is anything but moribund – on the contrary, that what is moribund is that old-fashioned recitation of schools and influences we memorised in English class. If the tangled, complex biosphere of Caribbean poets, feminist poets, gay poets, Irish & Scottish Nationalist poets, experimental and postmodern poets that constitutes contemporary Britain can’t be neatly summed up under one convenient label, then it’s time to junk the model.

“Death,” as Auden so succinctly put it, “of the Old Gang.”


At this point in the argument, I have to declare an interest. I know Sarah Broom. In fact, she’s a friend of mine. More to the point, I’ve witnessed various parts of the long process of compiling her book.

Does this predispose me in her favour? I don’t honestly think so. I was quite prepared for this to be another disappointing piece of academic discourse about other people’s creativity, writing that makes no serious attempt to engage with a living audience.

Which is why it’s such a huge pleasure to be able to say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading Sarah’s book, and that I found it profoundly informative about a number of writers and movements I’d had the sketchiest ideas about previously.

[Insert: a seminar room at Massey University. Dr Sarah Broom is giving a seminar on modern Scottish poets’ responses to devolution; Jack (as honorary Scot – by virtue of descent and four years’ study at Edinburgh) has been deputed to read out various pieces of Glaswegian in his best “Eh Jummy!” voice. The faces around the table assume a polite rictus of disbelief as the appalling racket goes on – and on …]

Like so many other books of this type, it began as a Doctoral thesis. What is unusual about it is how much it has improved along the way: how much the long process of turning it into lectures and seminar papers, and then reassembling it into this “introduction for students” has clarified its lines of argument.

The secret to Sarah’s success, I think, is sympathy. A good defence attorney, she tries to make the strongest possible case for each of the representative poets she has chosen. There are 24 of them in all, divided into seven chapter-categories, so you can see that requires a good deal of tolerance.

My own personal lowpoint would be, I think, Eavan Boland (b.1944) whose musings on her own status in Irish life and letters include the stirring reflection that when the younger generation of Irish women writers try “to combine writing and parenting”:

I wrote like that once.
But this is different:
This time, when she looks up, I will be there
. [122]

I suppose that W. B. Yeats got a bit above himself at times – all those exhortations to Irish poets to “learn your trade, / Sing whatever is well-made” – but for sheer arrogant silliness this remark of Boland’s takes some beating.

What I admire about Sarah’s writing, though, is that she is content simply to present the bathetic posturing of Boland’s verse without feeling the need to put the boot in:

Come back to us
they [“the collective of Irish women through history”] said:
Trust me I whispered [121]
“It is tempting to read ‘Mother Ireland’ in this case as representing Boland herself,” is Sarah’s deadpan comment on this passage. This is, of course, a perilous critical strategy. If you allow ironic juxtaposition to convey your reservations about certain poetic approaches, there’s a risk that you’ll be read as wholeheartedly endorsing them.

Sarah clearly sees herself as more of an anthologist than a legislator, though, and her chief regret seems to be the number of poets she’s been forced to leave out for one reason or another (there’s a list of 29 of them in the preface, including such names as Tom Paulin, Derek Mahon, Paul Durcan and even Geoffrey Hill). It’s a measure of her success as a commentator that one does indeed regret not being able to hear her views on these writers. Certainly I finished each chapter of Sarah’s book feeling I’d learned something new, even about poets such as Heaney and Tony Harrison whom I’d been reading for years.

If Boland shows the perils of Sarah’s catholicity of taste, I feel her two chapters ‘a fusillade of question marks’ (about the Troubles in Northern Ireland), and ‘The Tribes of Poetry’ (about postmodern poetry in Britain) show its strengths.

Of course I’d heard of Peter Reading. I think I even owned a volume of his selected poems. It wasn’t till I read the discussion of him in Sarah’s final chapter, though, that I realised just how profoundly odd and interesting his poetic project actually was. My first act on finishing her book was, in fact, to order his collected poems on, and you can’t ask for a more ringing endorsement than that. She quoted just enough lines from Perduta gente (1989) his episodic narrative of London’s lost people, to make me realise that I needed to read it at once:

sometimes it seems like a terrible dream, in
which we are crouching
gagged. disregarded, unsought
in derries, dosshouses and spikes,
and from which we shall awake,

mostly, it seems, though, we won’t
. [249]

Reading’s curious mix of discordant subject-matter, technically precise verse and formal innovation was just too exciting to be ignored.

It’s not just a question of poetry, you see. I was there. I lived in Britain in the late 80s. Edinburgh is, admittedly, a much harsher place for the homeless than London (you either migrate south or die when winter begins – and it seems to last at least nine months a year). They were always there, though – on the borders of our vision. I remember one man joining in our philosophical discussion on the steps of the university library before, with elaborate periphrasis, making the inevitable demand for change. I also recall a friend of mine describing a couple she’d seen walking down the Grassmarket who were smiling as if proud of their brand-new status. Their clothes, she said, were still shiny and new, as if they’d just walked out of the old life that day.

It was a world where farmers proudly turned their livestock into cannibals, where Thatcher’s ministers took the concept of “plausible deniability” (i.e. lies) to a whole new level. It was the time of the poll tax, where Scotland had become a laboratory for testing out ideas too extreme even for the English. Reading’s book, then, for me, is as much a palimpsest of memories and impressions as a Dantesque charting of the lower depths. What is certain is that its inner seriousness utterly exposes the hollowness of so much of what so facilely passes for poetry nowadays.

I suppose that’s also my attraction to Sarah’s chapter on Northern Ireland. For once a set of modern poets came face to face to with the real thing: a real live civil war, with snipers, bombs, and oppressive occupiers. In the age of television, the violence suddenly erupted off the screen. The discussion here of Seamus Heaney’s approach to the victims of the troubles, his perhaps too-ready tendency to see them as martyrs, sacrificing themselves for the community like the neolithic Tollund man, is subtle and illuminating The real surprise for me, though, was the next poet she discusses, Michael Longley.

And when they had dragged Melanthios’s corpse into the haggard
And cut off his nose and ears and cock and balls, a dog’s dinner,
Odysseus, seeing the need for whitewash and disinfectant,
Fumigated the house and the outhouse
… [159]

In these lines from Gorse Fires (1991), Longley unpacks a little of the sickening violence which has always been basic to European culture. The analogy with the events of his own lifetime is clear:

He collapsed beside his carpet-slippers
Without a murmur, shot through the head
By a shivering boy who wandered in
Before they could turn the television down
Or tidy away the supper dishes.
To the children, to a bewildered wife,
I think ‘Sorry Missus’ was what he said
. [155]


Eugenio Montale, a man of singular integrity, who managed somehow to live through the Fascist era, the second world war, the boom, even the Dolce Vita, wrote in “A Poet”:

I hope
I shall have some way to dedicate my poor songs
to the next tyrant …
He will be eager for spontaneous praise
gushing from a grateful heart
and he’ll have it, in abundance.
At the same time I’ll be able to leave
a lasting mark. In poetry
what counts is not the Content,
it’s the Form

[trans. Kendrick Smithyman]

Is that correct? Is that what counts, not the content but the form? I was having an argument about it (or rather, a discussion – we didn’t actually come to blows) the other day at a dinner-party. My interlocutor quoted from a radio interview he’d just heard with the Booker prize-winning novelist John Banville, who said that when he sat down to write The Sea he’d done so with the deliberate intention of producing a work of art. It was technique alone, apparently, that counted.

Far be it from me to judge John Banville or his book. I haven’t read it. It clearly pleased a number of competent judges, or it wouldn’t have won the prize. The question is, will we still want to read it in twenty years time? fifty years? a hundred? That, it seems to me, is more a question of content than form.

Sarah Broom’s book offers a window on a number of poets whom I’m sure we’ll be reading for the rest of this century, but also a number we won’t. If the fag-end of the twentieth century has told us anything, it’s that ironic detachment generates very little heat. You can idle an engine only so long before it stalls. For me the most memorable poems / poets in this volume are the ones who engage most fully with the external world around them.

Robert Lowell’s sonnet on Flaubert ended, originally, with a quote from the writer’s mother, who complained that “the mania for phrases dried his heart.” When he rewrote it, the new version ended: “Till the mania for phrases enlarged his heart.” That’s the paradox the best of these poets – the Readings, Heaneys., Longleys, Muldoons, Carsons – engage with: the search for a technique which can illuminate, not starve, the human heart. On the evidence of Sarah’s book, these few of them (at least) have been brilliantly successful.

[Peter Reading, photograph by Jay Shuttlesworth]

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Messenger from Depth

While I was travelling around Asia in 2001-2002, I wrote some poems in Hong Kong, some more in Thailand, and finally a whole bunch in India.

When I got back I vacillated for a long time over what to do with them. I kept a travel diary as well (of course), and I had a sort of idea that an edited selection from that might make quite an interesting travel narrative. I guess the idea was that I'd committed every conceivable error a naive Western tourist could compass, which might be amusing for readers to contemplate.

The travel book didn't really work, though I did produce a lengthy typescript version of it: "Too many signs," said one disinterested critic.

What did seem to work was a collection of the various sets of poems, faced with severely edited versions of certain of my diary entries. This became a book which I called Messenger from Depth (after one of the exhibits -- I think an underwater listening device -- in the Technology Museum in Bangalore). I was the messenger, back from these deep and ancient cultures ...

The book went so far as to be scheduled for publication, but then I got cold feet. I still liked the individual sets of poems, but they didn't really seem to add up to more than the sum of their parts (my own running definition of a book of poems).

As a result, I put out the Indian poems in a little chapbook entitled A Bus Called Mr Nice Guy (Auckland: Perdrix Press, 2005). The Thai poems were published in Summer Book from Eye Street, an anthology edited by my friend Raewyn Alexander (Auckland: Bright Communications, 2005). There wasn't enough space to put in the diary entries there, though, and the pictures had to be in black and white. I've therefore decided to post the whole set of Thai poems here on my blog, colour pictures, embarrassing confessions and all.

See what you think. When I read them out at the farewell dinner for our little group of Intrepid Tours travellers, they certainly provoked a certain amount of response (and even a few corrections on matters of detail). Maybe they were just too drunk to be embarrassed.


  1. Hill Country

  2. In the Opium Museum

  3. Golden Triangle

  4. On the Frontier

  5. Air-con Bus

  6. The Débâcle

  7. Ayutthaya

  8. To the River Kwai

  9. Rafthouse

  10. Erawan

  11. Erewhon

  12. The Massage Parlour

  13. Bangkok

7 - Bangkok

Two things are degrading to a man:
Learning that is superficial,
Sexual enjoyment that is paid for
And dependence on another for food.
The Hitopadesha

The Golden Mountain

How many kids
on that bike? Four kids
The temple stuff’s
not all that nicemillions of stairs
and bells to ring


It’s really popular
Put your hand
on itswear-
words in Thaithe Nation's
stand on child sexUncool

[Summer Book from Eye Street, ed. Raewyn Alexander
(Auckland: Bright Communications, 2005) 8].

The Massage Parlour

Possibly these are rather uncharitable reflections, but the way to operate here seems to be to ask yourself, “What’s the scam?” whenever a local speaks to you, rather than “Is there a scam?” The sole exception so far is the nice lady from Phuket in the temple. She said she was on holiday.
I met what seemed to be a nice guy; he told me he wanted to practise his English, and invited me to go for a drink in the old part of town. We did. At his insistence, we had some food to go with it.
The whole thing ended up costing 470 baht – a trifle steep for two beers and some bar snacks, I thought. I had to pay, of course, as his “bankcard wouldn’t work there.”
He then persuaded me to go with him to get a massage – traditional Thai style, very good, only 500 baht. It seemed a bit much, but he was very eloquent, and so we went.
Man, it was painful! She kept poking and prodding and twisting me for what seemed like hours. What seemed like and what indeed was hours. An officious bastard came in after a while to demand 1120 baht – 500 per hour (I’d gone in at 5 p.m. and it was now 6.30) + 120 for “entertainment” (i.e. one cup of tea). I paid, with an ill grace, but it kind of negated the interest of the whole experience for me.
Sure enough, when I went out, the first guy was gone, though he’d promised to wait in order to pay me back. He seemed so nice, too. Why did he do that? Mislead me so deliberately? Now I’m left with roughly 300 baht per day for the rest of the trip ($NZ18) which will not be enough. I could strangle the little prick, with his NY Yankees cap, and his sad tales of his dead brother (killed in a motor bike accident – he was driving. That should have warned me).
I feel properly pissed off, for the first time in ages. Scamming seemed amusing at first, but it’s now become more serious. I must become far more bloody-minded if I’m to survive over here.
Time for a good old sulk/soak and a read. Relaxed? I feel about as relaxed as a tiger about to spring. I feel not in the least guilty for not having tipped the masseuse.

6 - Erewhon

At the royal gate and in a crematorium,
One who stands by others is indeed a true friend.
The Hitopadesha

No Fear

Umbrella on a
above the wheel
for flowers and offerings

‘Show a little compassion, guys …’

Blood nose mosquito
bites hip bruises
sandal sores
cyber-egg or Samurai pork
burgerFeed your head

[Summer Book from Eye Street, ed. Raewyn Alexander
(Auckland: Bright Communications, 2005) 7].



Seventh level of the waterfall

The best pool was definitely number three, with a little cave behind the waterfall where one could climb in and sit, safe from the white squall outside.

“Thailand slut” uniform – this consists of as few clothes as possible, as tight as possible, with as much cleavage and arse showing as possible. The male equivalent is even more disturbing. It’s called showing respect for local customs.

Sidewalk Restaurant Menu

Steak Muu/ Steak Kai
Brawnie (served with ice-cream)
let’s click

Beside a teddy bear and boy on a moonbeam:


FOR GET ME NOT [on the side of a blue van]

5 - Rafthouse

A king, a family woman, a Brahmin,
A minister and breasts;
When displaced from their proper positions,
Do not appear attractive.
The Hitopadesha

Wat Tam Sua

A B DAnother Bloody
Dogthe more you wait
the worse it getsScreaming
gibbons captured
when they come to drink

Khun Phen

It’s gonna be hard
we could’ve eaten them

a horse a sword the soul
of an unborn childbats
roost inside the cave

[Summer Book from Eye Street, ed. Raewyn Alexander
(Auckland: Bright Communications, 2005) 6].

To the River Kwai

At the train station. Romance of the departing express. “The onlookers go rigid as the train goes by …” (Kafka). Copying down the sights – hawkers, stalls, our luxurious sleepers.
“Got some beers,” says Jeff as he passes on the platform, gnawing a chocolate bar.

The teletext spells out a perpetual stream of complex instructions:
20 baht charge for ordinary fan seat 50 baht for Air-Con seat or berth (seeper) tictek Allowed twice only Refund of fare Have to apply for the refund more than 3 days from the date of travel deduct 20% and not more than 1 hour from the train departure time deduct 50%
Drunken orgy in the train. On my second Singha beer now (donated by Jeff).
Amazing misty Northern Thailand landscape streaming past.

At the War Grave cemetery in Kanchanaburi. Almost unbearable to read the inscriptions. So much emotion there. One in Gaelic. Some from the Bible – others little verses. Immaculately maintained.
The most interesting thing was the display of pictures of old POWs revisiting the camp. The colour prints have sun-faded to virtual invisibility, like ghost photographs. Only the oil paintings survive.

Our luggage was taken to the hotel by some very spirited Samlar [=rickshaw] drivers, who then bicycled us around town in a little tour.
“Otherwise the ancient art may die,” says Lien.

4 - Ayutthaya

The following should not be trusted:
Rivers, persons holding weapons,
Those with claws and horns,
Women and royal families.
The Hitopadesha

Victory Chedi of Naresuan the Great

That fish they caught
the Mekong catfish
was half the height
of this thing

A cat inclines one ear

The Squirrel

Put flowers in your hair
the spirit-house
has Pikachou in plastic
wrappersyellow billows
round Buddha’s behind

[Summer Book from Eye Street, ed. Raewyn Alexander
(Auckland: Bright Communications, 2005) 5].

Monday, August 28, 2006

The Débâcle

I would rather have stayed in the temple. That’s the point I need to stress. There was a moment when the chanting began, and the curtains were pulled, and the monks were sitting inside shielded against the chill of the mountain air, when I wanted to join them, put on an orange robe, give myself permission to be an ascetic, instead of this fatal inversion: mixture of boredom and concupiscence.
The guy videotaping the monk’s blessing was a good example. Whatever you think of the merits of such gestures, filming it makes it experience kept at a perpetual second-hand. The only thing the girls took seriously, I noticed, was the fortune-telling with yarrow stalks. Frighteningly so.
All of which leads me to last night. I knew the others were intending to find another bar, but I needed to collect my jacket and go to the men’s. There was a queue in there, and when I got out I stood for quite some time at the front waiting before I realised that they weren’t coming.
Going back in, I found Chris, who informed me that they’d gone “next door.” But the main bar, the riverside one which they’d been talking about, took a lot of hunting through. I should know. I ransacked the whole place twice.
After the first futile effort to find them, I set off to walk home, only to realise I wasn’t even sure which side of the river our Guesthouse was on. Or any other details about it. Like its name.
After that I went back and searched again, more desperately and assiduously. No-one. I finally remembered that it was near a McDonald’s and a Starbucks, as Jeff had been using them as landmarks.
Luckily the tuk-tuk driver knew McDonald’s, and still more luckily it was the only one around, so I did find my way back.
I felt a bit peeved with them for ditching me, but it now seems to me part and parcel of the attitude – the arm’s length approach to experience. Empathy is impossible for the voyeur, as it wipes out the element of desire. It’s therefore unnecessary to worry at all about other people’s feelings or convenience.
I guess I’d like to contrast it with the temple. The almost – just possibly – successful eclecticism of all that garish gold, and decoration, and absurdity, and silliness, and dignity. Just a pipe-dream? Who can say?
Those frescoes were the best thing of all. Damaged, but still beautiful genre scenes, life under the beneficial influence of the Buddha, in all its variety and outpouring. One must have something to rely on, after all. Scam vs. transcendent domesticity.

3 - Air-Con Bus

A woman is like a jar of ghee,
A man is like a hot charcoal.
So a wise man should not keep the two together.
The Hitopadesha


I’ve been to America
not South America
I’ve not been to South Africa
or Africa

Red beaded braided hair


Show us your ring
You mean like this?
bend over
Throwing the yarrow stalks
before Guanjin

[Summer Book from Eye Street, ed. Raewyn Alexander
(Auckland: Bright Communications, 2005) 4].

On the Frontier

At the Burmese border. Half of us are paying 250 baht for the privilege of crossing. I can’t see the point myself.
For virtually the first time this trip, I feel a little hungry. I was going to have an ice-cream, but Lien persuaded me it’d be bad for my sore throat. Dunno, though.
Bugger it. Bought a chocky ice-cream.
That triggered an old lady beggar to come up and start hassling me. I didn’t give her anything, though. I don’t like being poked and prodded.
“People are extraordinarily rude today,” said Caroline earlier, after our run-in with the leathery Englishwoman + statuesque daughter who accosted us, begging for a lift to the frontier. “‘Is that a public bus? Can we go with you?’ rather than, ‘Would it possibly be conceivable for you to dream of allowing us to …?’”

Agreed to take a picture of a guy with his trophy girlfriend: young, svelte Asian girl in tight red top and black trousers; older Anglophone greyhead (50’s?) in black jeans and blue shirt. She looks peevish; he happy. One invents little scenarios in one’s head.

The monks here almost never look cheerful. They scowl or look sullen or blank – especially the ones in the slightly muddier orange robes coming over from Burma (Myanmar). A frontier is a strange place. The Zone. Like the apotheosis of tourist transience, only on a permanent basis. The DMZ.

Time for more wandering. I’m getting sunburnt, I fear. They’re playing the theme from Indiana Jones in the tuk-tuk [= cheap-cheap] taxi-rank. Some tourist behind me is recording his own quacking voice on a camcorder.

Watched a little fender-bender in the car-park. Desultory movements of the mind.

A woman comes out of a shop with a plastic chair for me to sit on. Good business, no doubt, but nevertheless exceptionally considerate of her, I thought.

Darren bargaining for a jacket.
Vendor: “300”
Darren: “100”
V: “[snort] – 280”
D [to Tracy]: “She’s not serious if she won’t come down by 50”

2 - Golden Triangle

If free scope is granted to her,
Slavery sits on the head
The Hitopadesha

Mekong Sunset

Lines of inundation
sap the fields
dream landscape
like Martian war-machines

Lao-Burmese Border

I was in Saigon
waiting for a mission

last seen at a toilet-stop
in Northern Thailand
bound for Vientiane

[Summer Book from Eye Street, ed. Raewyn Alexander
(Auckland: Bright Communications, 2005) 3].

In the Opium Museum

Sign in the foyer:

Drug addicts are mentally sick people. Drug addiction, then, indicates mental sickness. Curing mental sickness is the only way to help drug addicts.

The smell of opium is the least stupid smell in the world.
Picasso to Cocteau

The questionnaire:

In your opinion, opium smells like:
a/ the smell of gunpowder
b/ the smell of sex
[lots went for this.]
c/ factory smoke

Selected replies:

Johny Bravo:No opion [sic] sample today!
Karen, England:how can it smell of
anything that its not?

1 - Hill Country

To one whose feet are covered by shoes,
Is it not indeed
As if the entire earth were covered by leather?
The Hitopadesha

Ban Rim Lai

she must be friendly with
Meet me in Chiang Rai
marching up the sky

Chiang Rai

Dusty northern
towncrank up
the volumeDarren
If you look for long enough
the letters come in focus

[Summer Book from Eye Street, ed. Raewyn Alexander
(Auckland: Bright Communications, 2005) 2].


There are four different species of opium poppy – white, purple, pink and red. We’re standing beside a field of them now.
“Quite beautiful,” says Caroline.
It’s so nice when you stop.
“24 hours to go,” says Jan.
“I wish I’d never come,” says Chris.

Little farming shed
ploughed fieldsgrazing horse
packs and a jacket

Lunchtime. My pen’s gone. Luckily I have another.
Four dogs are having it off up the hill. “Better get your little book out,” says Chris.
[5 mins later] “Jesus, those dogs are still going for it.” (Jan)
“We’re lying in the gutter, and some of us are looking at the stars – but all of us are looking at the dogs rooting.” (Caroline)

Chris and Daniella have been teaching me Australianisms:
“I’m jack of this” = sick of it.
“crack a shit” = have a tantrum.
“wallaby-tedded” = roo-ted.

Dinner over. Mist creeping in. Three of the cutest little black puppies imaginable are frolicking around (Rose is cuddling one of them). I’m trying Fabienne’s tried-and-true taught-to-her-by-a-Brazilian remedy for hiccups. Surprisingly, it works. For a brief time, at least. I have the devil of a headache, but the cold bath may account for that.

Seven Levels of the Waterfall

(for Lien Stevens)

[map by Matthew Kelly]

Friendship seems like coconuts,
While others appear like Badari fruits …
Even after the lotus stalk is broken,
The filaments cling to each other.
The Hitopadesha: An Ancient Fabled Classic, trans. G. L. Chandiramani (1995)

Saturday, 12th January 2002
Viengtai Hotel, Bangkok

Dear Lien,

You were always curious to know exactly what I was writing in my notebook. Well, here’s part of the answer, at least. The Chinese landscape painters – some of them poets also (Wang Wei, for instance) – used to compile long scrolls to describe a region or a journey. Or else they might follow a river from its source in the mountains all the way down to the mouth.

This is a little scroll I’ve made to evoke our trip. Each tanka is composed of observations, bits of conversation, snippets from here, there and everywhere.

You were our guide, our Virgil, so it’s only fitting it should go to you.

Love, Jack

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Life Writing

[cover design: Sarah Grimes / cover image: Simon Creasey]

[cover design & image: Lisa Allen]

Yesterday Dr Mary Paul, Xiaoping Wang and I were interviewed by Ling-Ling Liang of World TV for her Chinese-language news programme (available, she told us, on Sky Channel 10). The subject? The Life Writing course Mary and I teach at Massey Albany. We've been getting quite a lot of publicity for it lately.

Ling-Ling's interest was specifically in the various International students who have taken or are taking the course. There were three Chinese students in the class this semester alone (including Xiaoping), and in the past we've had many others, as well as people from a plethora of other countries: Russia, South Africa, Yugoslavia, Zimbabwe, and so on. It's been running for six years now, since 2001.

The course has three major parts: there's an anthology of readings, which are discussed and analysed in the weekly lectures; there are two-hour workshops, where students read out and critique a series of prescribed writing exercises; and there are the assignments: a reading journal, a selection from each students' completed exercises, and the final assignment -- a ten-page piece on any subject (biographical, autobiographical, genealogical, even fictional ...) in virtually any genre (verse, prose, interview, script, video, album ...)

It's a creative writing course, then, but also a vehicle for the Academic study of the various ways in which people use their own lives (or the lives of others) as raw material. What we do in teaching it is discuss the pragmatic implications of certain technical writing choices. Any story, true or false, needs to be told -- it's how best to tell it we can help with most. Beyond that, a large part of the pleasure of the course lies in sitting back and listening. It's amazing how well you can get to know a person simply by hearing some of their stories.

So far we've published two anthologies of work generated by the course: [your name here] (2003), and Where Will Massey Take You? (2005). A third is now in preparation. They're available from the School of Social and Cultural Studies at the (to my mind very reasonable) price of $10 each.

So if you're interested in exploring some of the ramifications of your own life story, or the life stories of people close to you, why not begin by doing our paper? It's a stage two English paper, but there are no specific prerequisites, and you won't have to submit a portfolio of work in advance. The more the merrier, so far as we're concerned -- the more diverse points of view and backgrounds the more we'll all end up learning.

I'll end with a passage from Nathan Calvert's interview with Farid Shafizadeh Dizaji, a young Iranian immigrant to New Zealand:

Did you know when you talk with a bad intention,
Every word in your mouth is a lethal weapon?
– Lethal Weapon (written 03/05)

… He grabbed me by the throat and I grabbed him by the throat and I had a crowbar in my back pocket and, um, I started hooking him and then all my friends started beating him up too, and the police officer he had no partner, no nothing, and then I grabbed my crowbar and hit him in the face and then he got knocked out and we were all just stomping him down and, um, yeah, and then we just gapped it and jumped in the car and rushed off while we left him bleeding, and left him injured really bad.

... and then about nine cop cars arrived on the scene and we all got arrested. That cop that we assaulted came as well and he said, “Yep, this is them.” From then we got arrested, went to court, no, went to jail, Takapuna cells, got fingerprinted. Got like, you know, got pretty hits in the cells too from other cops for hitting the other cop. But that was all good, we couldn’t do nothing, there was thousands of them, um, we just stayed there and took it. And then we got bailed, like, four hours later and then we just, yeah, and that was it. That’s how the incident happened.

Nathan: So what’s happening now? Have those actions had consequences after the event?

Farid: Well, I’m sure they do, but I haven’t really met them yet. What has happened is they’ve made me go to court and at first I didn’t wanna plead guilty because the way I was treated. I didn’t feel I was treated like a normal human being, a normal citizen. In New Zealand. I have a New Zealand citizenship. And I don’t think no-one should treat me the wrong way because I’m from somewhere else. They should treat me the same because I treat everybody else the same. No matter where they are, I treat them like brothers. But, um, so I pleaded not guilty, so they held my court case for a month, no, I think it was two weeks, to go back to court. And then they told me to write a letter, why I believe, why I plead not guilty.

[Where Will Massey Take You? Life Writing 2, ed. Jack Ross (Massey: School of Social and Cultural Studies, 2005) pp.34-36.]

It's no excuse, I guess (nor would Farid and Nathan see it as such), but the policeman Farid assaulted referred to him and his friends as "mongrels."

Thursday, August 17, 2006


[photograph by Simon Creasey]

Hello Jack - I had a great tutorial on Wednesday, I read them Celan's 'Corona' and we spent about 30 mins discussing your own poem, coming up with ideas, me talking a little about dialectics and poetry referencing poetry.

Afterwards the students requested I ask you to provide your own reading of your poem, and i thought this would be a good idea, so, if you get time before next week could you send me a few lines on the poem? The main query was: who is the 'she' saying 'it's time the asphalt bled'? - '5-fingered sky' brought up some interesting comments: fingers of light coming through clouds and some discussion on the sky as a hand, or were there five clouds?...

Matt Harris and I are teaching the Massey-@- Albany Stage One Creative Writing paper together this semester. In each tutorial we discuss work by the students, but also pieces from the course anthology. It includes the following poem by me - first published in Poetry NZ 28 (2004): 9:


Es ist Zeit, daß es Zeit wird
– Paul Celan, ‘Corona’

bird stalks by
5-fingered sky

in the rearview mirror
Autumn gnaws my hands
we’re friends

van reversing
past the

check out those jeans
swap spit
talk shit

don’t stare at

time she said
it’s time the asphalt

it’s time

I guess I should preface any discussion of it by saying that it's the first (and so far only) time that I've published a poem which began as a class exercise. A few years ago I was teaching a session for a Masters course in Creative Writing, and I decided to get the students to compose a poem based on a picture I gave them and a literal translation of a poem in a foreign language (rather similar to the Workshop exercise we did at Bluff 06 this year).

The pictures were all landscape photographs taken by my friend Simon Creasey, whose (then) girlfriend Kika was very keen on hillsides and cloudscapes. The photos he took to send to her were accordingly mostly bare of human beings, buildings, and other obvious distinguishing features. The one I've included above was the sole exception, and it's the one I used myself to write my own version of the exercise.

I attempted to combine it with the Paul Celan poem "Corona":


Aus der Hand frißt der Herbst mir sein Blatt: wir sind Freunde.
Out of my hand Autumn eats its leaf: we are friends.
Wir schälen die Zeit aus den Nüssen und lehren sie gehn:
We shell time out of nuts and teach it to go:
die Zeit kehrt zurück in die Schale.
time returns into the shell.

Im Speigel ist Sonntag,
In the mirror is Sunday,
im Traum wird geschlafen,
in dreams is sleeping,
der Mund redet wahr.
the mouth speaks true.

Mein Aug steigt hinab zum Geschlecht der Geliebten:
My eye descends to the sex of the beloved:
wir sehen uns an,
we look at each other,
wir sagen uns Dunkles,
we tell each other dark things,
wir lieben einander wie Mohn und Gedächtnis,
we love each other like poppy and memory,
wir schlafen wie Wein in den Muscheln,
we sleep like wine in mussels [conches],
wie das Meer im Blutstrahl des Mondes.
Like the sea in the blood-beam of the moon.

Wir stehen umschlungen im Fenster, sie sehen uns zu von der Straße:
We stand embracing in the window, they look up at us from the street:

es ist Zeit, daß Man weiß!
It is time that one knew!
Es ist Zeit, daß der Stein sich zu blühen bequemt,
It is time, that the stone condescended to blossom,
daß der Unrast ein Herz schlägt.
That restlessness beat a heart.
Es ist Zeit, daß es Zeit wird,
It is time that it should be time.

Es ist Zeit.
It is time.

l.15. bequemen (v.t) – to accommodate oneself to, conform with, comply with, put up with.

[Inspired by the literal version in The Penguin Book of Twentieth-Century German Verse, ed. Patrick Bridgwater, 1963 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968) 268]

I guess it's obvious that I took a lot of images from the Celan poem. I also tried to emulate its atmosphere of a doomed love story ... at least I read it as doomed. Celan scholars might disagree with me there.

I tried to combine that with the sense of desolation and emptiness in Simon's photo of the main street of Coromandel. The van comes from there, as does the 5-fingered sky, which I think was meant to evoke the five fingers of cloud which seem to be reaching out towards the viewer in the photograph.

I think my lovers (the guy driving into town at the beginning, the girl in the jeans) are trying to get out of town. I think they may not succeed. I think the asphalt is hungry for them. My friend Stu Bagby told me he thought I meant to imply that they'd robbed the pharmacy first. I hadn't thought of it, but maybe they did. Certainly they seem to be on the run from something at the end: fate?

I wanted to pare down my language to what my two characters might actually say to one another, but also to echo the kind of prophetic Biblical tone which Celan is so adept at. The poem is (obviously) meant to be suggestive of a story rather than filling in all the blanks, but I think in that it's fairly true to human experience. Mine, at any rate.