Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Academic as Hero

Bronwyn told me that the irritating woman who buttonholed her yesterday in the Airport Departure Lounge was especially scornful when she heard what I did for a living.

"Who on earth would want to study Creative Writing? What can you possibly do with that?"

What indeed? It put me in mind of having to apply for some documents from tne New Zealand embassy in Brussels. When the man behind the desk heard what I'd been studying abroad (Comparative Literature - especially the creation of imaginary countries in fiction), his remark was: "You'll be a real asset to the country when you go home ..."

Well, maybe so. But then, I don't have any quarrel with people who want to study and specialise in more practical subjects. Why do they feel the need to express an opinion on what us Bohemians are getting up to? What is it that so gets up their noses?

Granted, our interests don't sound that useful sometimes. But when I turn on the TV and listen to a bunch of absolute morons discussing the absolute necessity of starting a war with Iran in order to (get this!) "avoid World War III," I begin to wonder if their time mightn't have been better employed in GETTING AN EDUCATION, rather than attending endless thinktank sessions on counter-terrorism.

Thinking outside the box, that's what I mean - seeing the other guy's point-of-view. Having the flexibility, above all, to observe the contradictions in your own position.

Those are all skills that any aspiring fiction-writer has to master - not to mention philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, and all the rest of us frivolous egghead geeks.

It isn't that we can't fool ourselves just as easily as other members of the population. The sign of the true intellectual, I often think, is someone with the ability to rationalise any intellectual position, however absurd or abhorrent (Sartre as apologist for Stalin's show trials; Bertrand Russell advocating a unilateral nuclear strike on Russia in 1948 ...) The point is rather that our disciplines do at least encourage us to see more perspectives and take up less kneejerk stances. Whether we end up actually doing that or not is down to our own individual proclivities.

So, yes, I'm an advocate of the traditional university education. I have no problem at all with vocational degrees and departments, but I still think that they need us at least as much as we need them - possibly more.

One of my colleagues in the School of Social and Cultural Studies at Massey, Eleanor Rimoldi, is trying to put together an anthology of responses to this whole question of the beleaguered Academy (assaulted from within as well as without - witness the horrific debacle of the new PBRF [Performance Based Research Fund] system: a bureaucrat's wet dream and a teacher / researcher's nightmare).

She's given it the rather provocative title of The Academic as Hero, since (as she explains):

The title is from William Clark’s (Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University, 2006) account of medieval Bolognese jurist Bartolus and his pupil Baldus who referred to the Roman law code of the Emperor Justinian that defined “an athletic hero as one who had withstood at least three trials of courage in competition” (74).

Bartolus claimed a scholar also underwent three trials of courage at the university, firstly as a student tested by masters and doctors, second in private examination tested by representatives of the faculty, and thirdly “in the public examination and disputation one was tried under the auspices of the university and academic public generally” (74). And thus became a hero, entitled to a hero’s rewards.

Clark traces the development of the academic from medieval forms up to modern incarnations. The latter inhabit the research university, the origins of which this book seeks to illuminate:

A German Protestant academic had to pass muster with bureaucratic or rationalized criteria for appointment, which included productivity in publication, diligence in teaching, and acceptable political views and lifestyle. But to achieve success, one also had to acquire fame, be in fashion, and display ‘originality’, a spark of genius, in writings. This became a new sort of academic charisma tied to ‘applause’ and ‘recognition’. The modern academic emerged ... from the cultivation of this new legible charisma. But, despite the dominion of writing in modern academia, aspects of traditional oral culture persisted and, among other things, played an important role in fabricating reputation” (2006:3-4).
As players in the continuing history of the university, how do we see ourselves as academics, and what is the university to us, to our disciplines, and to society at large?
My own reply to the invitation is contained in the following three poems, which I've grouped under the collective title:

Let me know what you think.


(for Bronwyn Lloyd)

“Out of the box is where I live …”
Battlestar Galactica

i – Conshie

Would you walk barefoot?
rather than work
in a rubber factory
said Rita Angus

ii – Jean

Don’t write to me again
from a launderette
she told her sister
The prison blocks
of your modernity

Kickstarting Your Research Career

(for Cluny Macpherson)

“Her heart was in perfect condition – in fact I have it over here …”

i – Spreading Yourself Around

I started to get involved
in cruising

How is it
Filipino boys

work in the laundry

on the bridge?

Ships plying

the Pacific
as the sun goes down

my page

ii – Entertaining the Visiting Professor

I took him to the zoo
he was bored

I took him to the museum
he was bored

we all took bets
as he nodded off

on whether his cigar ash
would set fire

to his crimpoline suit


(for Lisa Clements)

“I like to ambush my brain before fear and reason can kick in …”
Joan of Arcadia

the wine-shop sign

I watch Gaston

joshing with his buds
Out in the sun

all day - poor you!


married to a Japanese
(Yuko, was it?)

does he recognise me?

I him

Are you getting popcorn
all of us?

the kids shrill
I stand queuing

right behind them
harassed father

has no answer
I make sure

that I get served
no matter what

the upshot

It’s always already

that sharp blow
to the back of the head

throwing the pen
in the language student’s

He’s having trouble at home

Lisa explained

The redness
of red trousers

in a shop

tried on


tried out
in the park

holding hands
– with whom?

gossamer smile


I always think the ideas behind my poems are crystal clear, but (as a young Zen-Buddhist hippie of my acquaintance once complained): “You put in only about 70% of the meaning.”

Anyway, with that in mind, I’m going to have a go at contextualising these three poems I’ve written in response to Eleanor’s challenge to consider the “Academic as Hero” – as the simple protagonist in a drama (one meaning), or as the individual who surmounts great dangers and difficulties for his culture or community as a whole (Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces).

I begin with the model of the artist-as-hero: in this case, the feminist, pacifist, self-proclaimed High Priestess of New Zealand painting, Rita Angus. These two poems record two anecdotes which I heard from my wife Bronwyn, who’s writing a PhD thesis on Rita. The first is her defiant reply to a tribunal which questioned her right to refuse to do war-work in a rubber factory. The second is from a letter she wrote to her younger sister Jean, also a talented artist, but one who (in Rita’s eyes) had chosen domesticity and children over the pure monastic calling of High Art.

The second exhibit is a similarly “found” pair of poems – taken from Cluny MacPherson’s talk, at our School research day last year, on how best to start your career in this area. I guess my point here is the contrast between the feisty, irrepressible grandstanding of the (admittedly personally rather insufferable) Rita, with the rather apologetic tone of Cluny’s talk – the lack of inspiration to be gleaned from many of one’s intellectual heroes when one meets them in the flesh. Also, the fact that one so seldom sees perceptible amelioration in the lives of one’s research subjects as a result of one’s efforts. What exactly are we in it for? is, I guess, the question I’m posing here.

I suppose one is entitled to expect this dialectic paralleling of thesis and antithesis to produce a synthesis, at any rate within the world of the poem. In part three I do my best to provide an (admittedly personal) solution which I can more-or-less imagine living up to. I hate the fact that I didn’t greet my old language-school colleague Gaston, but I doubt that he felt the same fervour about his failure to greet me. It’s just the way things go. Colleagues slip off the radar as time goes by. Nor do I respect the way I tend to guarantee my own interests first before worrying about those of others (as in the cinema queue). I lose it sometimes, too – as in the incidents referred to in the third section of the poem. Nevertheless, there can be a kind of transcendent boldness in small things – the wearing of a daring pair of trousers, half-proud, half-anxious, as I saw a girl doing in Western Park one day. If that’s all the heroic gesture can come down to in my case, too, then so be it.

Perhaps that’s also my main motivation for presenting you with a set of poems when you might have (not unreasonably) preferred me to stick to the world of analytical prose …

[14 May, 2008]

Friday, October 12, 2007


I have an announcement, and I have a question.

The announcement is that Michael Steven at Soapbox Press has just published my sequence of versions from Sappho in a limited edition of seventy signed chapbooks. It's called Papyri, and it's the second in a series which already includes his own first book of poems, Homage to Robert Creeley.

Further titles are promised later in the year ...

If you'd like to buy a copy, they're available in Parsons, Jason Books and Moa-hunter books, but they can also be ordered directly from the publisher at:

The question is, what's your opinion of single-author collections of essays?

Bronwyn says she thinks essays are better off jostling with other kinds of writing in a magazine or anthology.

Scott Hamilton, on the other hand, claims that unless our critical statements, manifestoes, reviews etc. are collected in some kind of permanent form, then literary discourse remains entirely in the hands - or between the covers - of the establishment.

I'd like to agree with him. I 've read plenty of interesting books of that sort by the likes of Leslie Fiedler (No! In Thunder) and George Steiner (Bluebeard's Castle), not to mention collections of tarted-up reviews by writers I admired for their poetry or fiction.

However, I do wonder how many essays can really survive transplantation from their original contexts? This especially applies to reviews, of course, but also to pieces written for a particular magazine at a particular time, to combat some particular injustice or misapprehension.

Anyway, what do you think? Do you think it would be useful if more essay collections came out in New Zealand? At the moment it's mainly Victoria University Press that issues them, and their list is generally reserved for big guns such as Wedde, Manhire and O'Brien ...

Monday, October 08, 2007

Pania Strikes Again

So Pania Press's Opus 3 is now out and ready for purchase.

This time we've branched out from poetry chapbooks, and are offering a sumptuous handmade art catalogue instead.

The book is THE ETERNALS. It's designed to accompany Graham Fletcher's show of the same name, on display in the Anna Bibby Gallery, Newmarket, between 2 and 26 October.

The book includes an essay on Graham's work by Bronwyn Lloyd, "Tar-Babies & Taboos," a full chronology of his work to date, and - most excitingly of all - a unique, original drawing by the artist.

Each of these drawings records one of the sculptures in his show, so (as you can imagine) some collectors of Graham's work have already gone to considerable trouble to try and hunt down the drawing that matches their sculpture ...

That's why we've had to limit this edition to 45 signed, individually-numbered copies. There won't be a reprint, so if you're interested, it might be advisable to get in quickly.

Details of how to order the book are available on the Pania Press website here.

The price is $75, payable either by cheque or bank transfer.