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.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006


Planet Stories (July 1952) -- Philip K. Dick's first published story, "Beyond Lies the Wub" appeared in this issue (though it isn't mentioned on the cover ... I take it that lobster thing is meant to be a moondog rather than a wub).

When Tina Shaw and I were kicking around suggestions for a book we could do together last year, one of the ideas that came up was for an historical anthology of New Zealand Science Fiction. In fact, we ended up editing a collection of contemporary stories about myth instead (due out from Reed in late 2006 -- watch this space), but it still seems to me quite an interesting project.

Now John Dolan writes to say that he's writing an essay on what has (inevitably), to be called NZSF. I don't in the least grudge him his priority. In fact, I'm very curious to see what he makes of it. I hope he's not too unkind to them, though, our pioneering SF writers -- they are, after all, "ours, by God, / peculiarly by virtue of whatever was / held in common with other colonies." (Kendrick Smithyman, "Research Project").

Yes, I mean, how different can a specifically New Zealand SF actually be? Ours ... by virtue of whatever was held in common with other -- in this case pulpy scribblers about Androids and Rockets and Mars and the Future and Alternate History, etc. etc.

I don't know. It would have been interesting to speculate about it. My first impression is that SF has always had slightly more of a high culture cachet in NZ than elsewhere. A surprising number of so-called "serious" writers have tried their hand at it here. I drew up a list of the ones who were most interesting to me at the time, though it could undoubtedly be updated and expanded:

Samuel Butler (1835-1902) Erewhon; or Over the Range (1872)
Erewhon Revisited (1901)

Julius Vogel (1835-1899) Anno Domini 2000; or, Woman's Destiny (1889)

M. K. Joseph (1914-1981) The Hole in the Zero (1967)
The Time of Achamoth (1977)

Maurice Gee (b.1931) Under the Mountain (1979)
The World Around the Corner (1980)
The Halfmen of O (1982)
The Priests of Ferris (1984)
Motherstone (1985)

Margaret Mahy (b.1936) The Catalogue of the Universe (1985)
Aliens in the Family (1986)
The Tricksters (1986)
The Door in the Air and Other Stories (1988)
Dangerous Spaces (1991)
(TV miniseries) Typhon’s People (1994)
A Dissolving Ghost: Essays and More (2000)
Alchemy (2002)
Maddigan’s Quest (2006)

Craig Harrison (b.1942) Tomorrow Will Be a Lovely Day (1975)
Broken October (1976)
The Quiet Earth (1981)
Days of Starlight (1988)

Phillip Mann (b.1942) The Eye of the Queen (1982)
Master of Paxwax: Book One of the Story of Pawl Paxwax, the Gardener (1986)
The Fall of the Families: Book Two of the Story of Pawl Paxwax, the Gardener (1986)
Pioneers (1988)
Wulfsyarn: A Mosaic (1990)
A Land Fit for Heroes. 4 Vols (1994-1996)

Michael Morrissey (b.1942) The Fat Lady & The Astronomer: Some Persons, Persuasions, Paranoias, and Places You Ought to Encounter (1981)
(ed.) The New Fiction (1985)
Octavio’s Last Invention (1991)
Paradise to Come (1997)

Mike Johnson (b.1947) Lear: the Shakespeare Company Plays Lear at Babylon (1986)
Anti Body Positive (1988)
Lethal Dose (1991)
Dumb Show (1996)
Counterpart (2001)
Stench (2004)

Hugh Cook (b.1956) (10 vols) Chronicles of an Age of Darkness (1986-. )

Phillip Mann wrote a very useful entry about it for The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature, ed. Roger Robinson & Nelson Wattie (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1998) 481-83.

My introductory essay didn't really get very far. To be honest, I'm really more interested in trying to write Science Fiction than in writing about it. I suppose I hoped that the two interests might fruitfully overlap -- hence my opening question:

Night in the City:
Strange Days in NZ sf

  • How does one actually go about writing a science fiction novel?

    In a 1964 letter to his close friend, Ron Goulart, the appallingly prolific (and intermittently brilliant) Philip K. Dick explained how he wrote one:

    this is how PKD gets 55,00 words (the adequate mileage) out of his typewriter: by having 3 persons, 3 levels, 2 themes (one outer or world-sized, the other inner or individual sized), with a melding of all, then, at last, a humane final note. [Quoted from Lawrence Sutin, Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick (1989): 138].

    The three characters should be, respectively:

    · “First character, not protagonist but … less than life, a sort of everyman who exists throughout book but is, well, passive; we learn the entire world or background as we see it acting on him”;
    · “In Chapter Two comes the ‘protag,’ who gets a two-syllable name such as ‘Tom Stonecypher,’ as opposed to the monosyllabic ‘Al Glunch’ tag for the Chapter One ‘subman’”;
    · “through Mr. S’s eyes and ears, we glimpse for the first time … superhuman reality – and the human being, shall we call him Mr. Ubermensch? Who inhabits this realm.”

    So, “just as Mr G. is the taxpayer and Mr S. is the ‘I,’ the median person, Mr. U is Mr. God, Mr. Big” – the plot development of the book is based on blending the original personal dilemma (“marital problems or sex problems or whatever it is”) of Mr. S with the worldwide “Atlas weight” problems faced by Mr. U, until:

    The terminal structural mechanism is revealed: THE PERSONAL PROBLEM OF MR. S IS THE PUBLIC SOLUTION FOR MR. U. And this can occur whether Mr. S is with or pitted against Mr. U.

    It all sounds a bit mechanical, and certainly helps to explain how Dick managed to churn out eleven novels in two years, but when one adds that among them were classics such as Martian Time-Slip, Now Wait for Last Year, Dr Bloodmoney, The Simulacra, and Clans of the Alphane Moon, one has to acknowledge that there may be something to be said for such formulaic blueprints after all. Possibly the most disconcerting of them all, however, was The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, which depicts an invasion of Earth by some kind of Gnostic demiurge who has taken on the form of the slit-eyed, prosthetic-handed, steel-jawed Terran entrepreneur, Palmer Eldritch ...

I'm still very interested in that Phil Dick prescription for how to write a novel, but wresting it around to a discussion of specifically NZ themes was undoubtedly going to be a bit of a chore. So I had go at a different kind of beginning to the essay ...

  • At the end of his fifties post-nuclear holocaust novel The Chrysalids, John Wyndham’s telepathic characters are making their way to a remote haven in the South Seas called something like “Sealand.” That tends to be it for New Zealand in classic Golden Age Sf: a place sufficiently remote for civilisation to survive there after the devastation of Europe, Asia and America ...

    With the advent of the new wave, though, psychological factors began to become primary within a genre previously dominated by space opera and hard science (Ursula Le Guin’s “fiction for young engineers”).

    I’m not proposing to write a history of NZ’s involvement with Sf here - that would be a bit beyond my scope, but just to talk about some interesting (and otherwise almost inexplicable) texts which that tradition has thrown up.

.... And so on to talk about Mike Johnson's Lear, Phillip Mann's Pioneers, and a few other eccentric (and therefore strangely characteristic) NZ SF classics.

Well, that's as far as I got with the idea, anyway. It's interesting how many of these writers have been transplanted Brits, for one thing ... Anyway, over to you, John.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The 13 Book-launches of Dr J.

[Chris Cole Catley, Jack Ross & guest at Golden Weather launch, Takapuna Public Library]

"There's no such thing as a free launch"
-- Murray Edmond (attrib.)

I guess it's probably one of those old adages like "prise the gun from my cold, dead fingers" which endlessly migrates from speaker to speaker, but there's nevertheless a fair amount of truth in it.

As time goes by, you begin to learn the rules, however idealistic you were going in: always site the book-table near the exit (so that no-one can escape bookless without running the gauntlet of your reproachful gaze); never stint on food and drink (especially the latter-- you want to induce a false sense of euphoria in your guests); don't let the speeches go on too long; and (if possible) include a musician or a juggler or something novel to liven things up; only invite people who are likely to buy the book (that rules out the very rich and the very poor: too canny and too needy respectively).

It's with a certain amount of horror that I realise that the recent Classic Poets booklaunch was actually my thirteenth -- hence the melodramatic title of this post (I guess I was thinking of that old Dr Seuss film The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T; or else maybe The Nine Gates of the Land of Shadow, that Satanic tract in the Roman Polanski film The Ninth Gate, which damns everyone who looks at it to eternal perdition ...)

So here they are, in reverse order of occurrence:

  1. 2006 (20 July) -- Peter Simpson & Elizabeth Caffin launch Classic New Zealand Poets in Performance, edited by Jack Ross & Jan Kemp (Auckland: AUP), in the Hobson Room, Jubilee Hall, Parnell. MC: Jack Ross. Readers: Riemke Ensing, Anne Kennedy, Alistair Paterson, Jack Ross, C K Stead, Richard von Sturmer & Sonja Yelich.
  2. 2006 (15 June) -- Gabriel White, Scott Hamilton & Brett Cross launch The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis, by Jack Ross, & Bill Direen’s Song of the Brakeman (Auckland: Titus Books), at the University of Auckland English Department Common Room.MC: Michele Leggott. Readers: Jack Ross & Olwyn Stewart.
  3. 2005 (16 November) -- Mary Paul & Grant Duncan launch Where Will Massey Take You? Life Writing 2, edited by Jack Ross (Massey University: School of Social & Cultural Studies) in the Common Room, Atrium Building, Massey @ Albany.
  4. 2005 (21 May) -- Mike Johnson & Brett Cross launch Trouble in Mind , by Jack Ross, Olwyn Stewart’s Curriculum Vitae , & Bill Direen’s Coma (Auckland: Titus Books), at Shanghai Lil’s, corner of Anzac Rd & Customs St.
  5. 2004 (24 October) -- Roger Horrocks & Raewyn Alexander launch Monkey Miss Her Now, by Jack Ross (Auckland: Danger Publishing), at the George Fraser Gallery, University of Auckland.
  6. 2004 (19 September) -- George Wood, the Mayor of the North Shore, & Chris Cole Catley launch Golden Weather: North Shore Writers Past & Present, edited by Graeme Lay & Jack Ross (Auckland: Cape Catley), at the Takapuna Public Library.
  7. 2004 (12 September) -- Jan Kemp & Jack Ross launch the Aotearoa / New Zealand Poetry Sound Archive (Auckland University Library: Special Collections), at the Titirangi Pioneer Hall, Auckland. MC: Jack Ross. Readers: C K Stead, Janet Charman, Stu Bagby, Riemke Ensing, Mike Johnson, Paula Green, Bob Orr , & Sonja Yelich.
  8. 2003 (4 June) -- Tina Shaw & A/Prof Mike O’Brien launch [your name here]: Life Writing, edited by Jack Ross (Massey University: School of Social & Cultural Studies) in the Common Room, Atrium Building, Massey @ Albany.
  9. 2002 (10 November) -- Alistair Paterson launches Chantal's Book, by Jack Ross (Wellington: HeadworX) at the Birdcage Tavern, 133 Franklin Rd, Ponsonby.
  10. 2000 (14 December) -- Alan Brunton launches Nights with Giordano Bruno, by Jack Ross, & Sally Rodwell’s Gonne Strange Charity (Wellington: Bumper Books), at The Space, 146 Riddiford Street, Newtown, Wellington.
  11. 2000 (10 December) -- Professor D. I. B. Smith launches Nights with Giordano Bruno, by Jack Ross (Wellington: Bumper Books), at 6 Hastings Rd, Mairangi Bay.
  12. 2000 (1 October) -- Jack Ross & Gabriel White launch A Town Like Parataxis, text by Jack Ross, photos by Gabriel White (Auckland: Perdrix Press) at 23 Maxwell Ave, Westmere.
  13. 1998 (25 September) -- Theresia Marshall launches City of Strange Brunettes, by Jack Ross, & Lee Dowrick’s That was Then ((Auckland: Pohutukawa Press), at the Takapuna Public Library.

I guess my main impression, looking at this line-up, is to marvel at the number of people who've helped me and my collaborators out over the years. I mean, I have tried to do my bit to reciprocate, but it doesn't make nearly such an impressive list:

  1. 2005 (5 December) -- Launched Richard von Sturmer’s Suchness: Zen Poetry and Prose (Wellington: HeadworX), with music by Don McGlashan, at the St Columba Centre, 40 Vermont Street, Ponsonby.
  2. 2005 (20 October) -- MC, with Ahmed Esau, introducing Riemke Ensing, Deborah Manning, and Bill Manhire, at the launch of Ahmed Zaoui’s Migrant Birds: 24 Contemplations (Nelson: Craig Potton Books), in the Crypt of St. Benedict’s Church, Newton.
  3. 2005 (17 October) -- Launched Bill Direen’s New Sea Land and Stephen Oliver’s Either Side The Horizon , with Alistair Paterson, launching Olivia Macassey’s Love in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (Auckland: Titus Books) at Rakino’s, High Street, Auckland.
  4. 2004 (17 July) -- Launch, with Jan Kemp, Olivia Macassey, and Richard von Sturmer, of nzepc feature: 12 Taonga from the Aotearoa / New Zealand Poetry Sound Archive, at the Gus Fisher Gallery, Shortland St, Auckland.
  5. 2000 (21 July) -- Organised the book-launch of Leicester Kyle’s A Safe House for a Man (Auckland: Polygraphia Press) at the Takapuna Public Library.

I suppose they can be quite fun sometimes -- meeting your pals, scarfing bread & cheese, making sure you're next to the drinks table when the speeches begin ... next time you go to one, though, do remember that you are expected at least to consider buying the book. Otherwise it's a bit like spending all afternoon tasting fine vintages at the vineyard and then rolling off without having purchased a single bottle -- it can be done, but it is a little gauche.

Really, though, I just want to put on record my thanks to all of you excellent people who have taken the trouble to come along on these many, many occasions. I guess your true reward will have to be postponed till you reach the next world, because it's unlikely to come in this one. I hope you take some satisfaction in knowing that you truly are the salt of the earth ...