Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Celanie Launch Sunday 25th November

[cover design: Ellen Portch / Cover image: Emma Smith]

This is the first Pania Press booklaunch since we put out the Orange Roughy anthology back in 2008.

So, once again, you are all most cordially invited to join us in the spacious back garden of:

No. 6 Hastings Rd,
Mairangi Bay
North Shore City

from 2 to 4 pm
on Sunday, 25th November

(refreshments and home baking provided)

The books being launched are:
Celanie: Poems & Drawings after Paul Celan. Poems by Jack Ross & Drawings by Emma Smith. Introduction by Jack Ross. Afterword by Bronwyn Lloyd (Auckland: Pania Press, 2012)
[RRP: $30 / special launch price: $25]


brief 46: the survival issue. Ed. Bronwyn Lloyd (Auckland: The Writers Group, 2012)
[RRP: $17 / special launch price: $15]


An exhibition of Emma Smith’s “Celanie” series will be on display, and framed drawings will be available for purchase
[special launch price: $250 each]

Once again Michele Leggott has kindly consented to come along and launch them for us.

You can find out more details about the book of Celan poems and drawings here, and more about brief magazine here.

So, just as a little sampler, here's one of my translations (from Celan's "Matière de Bretagne" [13/8/57]), accompanied by one of Emma Smith's beautiful, haunting images from the book:

Matter of Britain

Gorselight, yellow, slopes
against the skyThorn
disinfects your woundsRing
out, it’s eveningNothing
crosses the sea to pray
The bloodred sheet sets sail for you

Arid, dried-out, bed
behind youScar-
embossedmilky inlets
in the vaseDate
stones underneath, furred blue
tufts of forgetfulness
your memory

(Do you know me
hands? I went
by the forked route you showed
me, my mouth spat pebbles, I walked
through snowdrifts, shadow – do you know me?)

Hands, the thorn-
burnt wound rings out
Hands, nothing, the sea
Hands, in the gorse-light
the bloody sheet
sets sail for you

you teach
you teach your hands
you teach your hands, you teach
you teach your hands
to sleep

[first published in brief 41 (2010)]

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Two Writers (2): Michael Morrissey

[Michael Morrissey: Tropic of Skorpeo (2012)]

A couple of weeks ago I received a package in the mail at work. Funnily enough, it turned out to be a book: Michael Morrissey's latest, in fact. Tropic of Skorpeo, it's called, with a somewhat garish cover designed - I guess - to pull in the youth vote.

Being no stranger to garish covers myself - witness Nights with Giordano Bruno (2000) - I certainly didn't hold that against it. The contents, though, take a bit more getting used to.

Before I get onto that, though, perhaps I should explain why I'm juxtaposing Michael Morrissey with Salman Rushdie as the "two writers" of these two posts. Is it the extremity of the contrast? One world-famous, the other "famous in New Zealand"?

Well, yes, in a way. Mainly, though, it's because Morrissey too has published a memoir, Taming the Tiger, which must have been every bit as difficult to write as Rushdie's whale of a book.

While Rushdie has had to endure the assault of millions pouring execrations on his name around the globe, at least he had the satisfaction of knowing he was right: the cacophany came from outside him, and he was backed by a legion of friends and admirers. It's not that I mean to underestimate what he's been through, but being such a celebrated, virtually world-historical figure must have helped keep him afloat.

Michael Morrissey is mad. I know that's a blunt and insensitive way to put it. Most people would prefer to talk of his "struggle with bipolar disease" or (as the subtitle of his own book puts it) his "Personal Encounter with Manic Depression." Nor has the problem gone away as a result of writing about it.

Costa Botes' recent documentary about Morrissey recorded further manic outbreaks after the ones chronicled in his book (published in a greatly abridged form, he's told us, from the original immense typescript), and there seems little evidence that he can ever feel any assurance of being completely free of it.

So the appearance of a new book from him is not a neutral matter. Whatever one's opinion of it, or the new book of poems which accompanies it, his courage and perseverence must at the very least be saluted.

I guess, then, the point of the comparison with Rushdie is to emphasise that there are many ways to inhabit the title "writer" - but the value of what you do is certainly not determined solely by the number of your readers or the amount of fuss each new title causes.

[Michael Morrissey: Taming the Tiger (2011)]

Here's a mini-bibliography of Morrissey's works to date:

  1. Morrissey, Michael. Make Love in All the Rooms. Dunedin: Caveman Press, 1978.
  2. Morrissey, Michael. Closer to the Bone: Poems. Christchurch: Sword Press, 1981.
  3. Morrissey, Michael. She's Not the Child of Sylvia Plath. Christchurch: Sword Press, 1981.
  4. Morrissey, Michael. Dreams. Wellington: Sword Press, 1981.
  5. Morrissey, Michael. Taking in the View. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1986.
  6. Morrissey, Michael. New Zealand - What Went Wrong?. Auckland: Van Guard Xpress, 1988.
  7. Morrissey, Michael. Dr Strangelove's Prescription. Auckland: Van Guard Xpress, 1988.
  8. Morrissey, Michael. A Case of Briefs. Auckland: Van Guard Xpress, 1989.
  9. Morrissey, Michael. The American Hero Loosens His Tie. Auckland: Van Guard Xpress, 1989.
  10. Morrissey, Michael. From the Swimming Pool Question. New Plymouth: Zenith, 2005.
  11. Morrissey, Michael. Memory Gene Pool. Governor's Bay, Lyttelton: Cold Hub Press, 2012.

  1. Morrissey, Michael. The Fat Lady & The Astronomer: Some Persons, Persuasions, Paranoias, and Places You Ought to Encounter. Christchurch: Sword Press, 1981. [short stories]
  2. Morrissey, Michael. Octavio’s Last Invention. Auckland: Brick Row, 1991. [short stories]
  3. Morrissey, Michael. Paradise to Come. Auckland: Flamingo, 1997. [2 novellas]
  4. Morrissey, Michael. Heart of the Volcano. Auckland: Bookcaster Press, 2000. [novella]
  5. Morrissey, Michael. Tropic of Skorpeo. Wellington: Steam Press, 2012. [SF novel]
  1. Morrissey, Michael. Taming the Tiger: A Personal Encounter with Manic Depression. Auckland: Polygraphia Ltd., 2011. [memoir]
  1. Morrissey, Michael, Mike Johnson & Rosemary Menzies, ed. The Globe Tapes. Auckland: Hard Echo Press, 1985. [poetry]
  2. Morrissey, Michael, ed. The New Fiction. Auckland: Lindon Publishing, 1985. [edited, with a long critical introduction]
  3. Morrissey, Michael, ed. New Zealand's Top 10. Auckland: Moa Beckett, 1993. [a book of lists]
  4. Morrissey, Michael, ed. The Flamingo Anthology of New Zealand Short Stories. Auckland: Flamingo, 2000. [extended edition, 2004]

[Ian Wishart / Investigate: Michael Morrissey]

But what about Tropic of Skorpeo in particular, you ask? Is it any good? It's going to be launched - together with:


a chapbook of 28 pages

from Cold Hub Press
"who some say

[Morrissey remarks modestly]
is now NZ's leading poetry publisher"

this Thursday (25th October), from 5.30 on,
at the New Zealand Society of Authors offices,
4th Floor, Duthie Whyte Building, 120 Mayoral Drive
(cnr Mayoral Drive & Wakefield Street)

"Punkoids! Slutoids! Octopus!" proclaims the front cover of Morrissey's novel. His publisher, Steam Press of Wellington, quotes its author's description of it as a “sci-fi fantasy in satiric-thriller mode”, then adds that:
This book will blow your socks off – sexy, shocking, and hilarious, this is the story that Lewis Carroll would have written if he’d been into science fiction and consumed more than his fair share of LSD.

All this puts me in mind of a certain far-off occasion when I sent a copy of my own second novel, The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis (2006) to Michael to be "noticed" in the literary column he was then writing for Ian Wishart's Investigate magazine. This is what he came up with [Investigate 6 (69) (October 2006): 84]:
Tired of airport books? Bored by Tom Clancy and Dan Brown? Wearied by puerile web sites? Seeking a challenge? Try a “novel” by Dr Jack Ross. I use quotes here because rather than a novel with identifiable characters, a plot, realistic detail etc this is an assemblage, a collage of texts of the most extraordinary variation. Ross’s method variously reminded me of Borges, Eco and Nabokov though he pushes the boundaries of the avant garde further than any of the above — further also than the reviewer who enjoyed something of a reputation as an avant gardist back in the 80s.

... if you have the kind of mind that enjoys cryptic cross words, codes, and esoterica, this book can keep you busy for hours. Better make that days, weeks, years. Ross’s book won’t be for everyone but it’s more than challenging. You might think of it as The Atlantis Code — with footnotes.

I was a little horrified to find that this column appeared in the same issue of the magazine that "outed" Helen Clark's husband as a closet gay (complete with blurry pictures of him allegedly "kissing" men at various public events), but I've never had a problem with Morrissey's characterisation of my book. It seems pretty fair to me - especially the company he puts me in.

Tropic of Skorpeo is certainly every bit as bold in attempting to bend the laws of genre and probability to its author's own will. Morrissey dedicates the book to Lewis Carroll and Alfred Bester (author of Tiger, Tiger and other classic works of '50s sci-fi), so it's apparent that it's intended to inhabit the region of Fantasy and SF - though with a stronger-than-usual admixture of black humour.

Certain aspects of his plot put me in mind of Mike Johnson's recent "graphic novel" Travesty, reviewed by me here. There's the same interest in unstable virtual realities overlapping and contradicting one another. Where Mike's tone is dire and apocalyptic, though, Morrissey's is more buoyant, almost - at times - (dare one say it?) shrill.

The revelation that his heroine, Princess Juraletta, has no fewer than four breasts, on both sides of her body, in the very first chapter is succeeded by a number of prurient scenes where she is ogled at and seduced by a variety of real and not-so-real gallants.

What, then, is this book's intended audience? The original publicity material described it as ideal summer reading, light fiction for the beach. That can hardly be true, though. I'd say, myself, that the book was completely insane: that you would have to be mad to enjoy it, or to have conceived it in the first place. Which I guess is the point.

Its author, after all, is mad: has said as much himself. Where his earlier fictions ranged from the Barthelme-like fables of The Fat Lady & The Astronomer (1981) to the gentle postmodernism of Doctorow's Ragtime in his classic story "Jack Kerouac Sat Down beside the Wanganui River & Wept," it's hard to see this latest sally as an artistic advance, exactly. Paradise to Come (1997), his book of two novellas describing New Zealand's most distant and most recent waves of immigration, remains Morrissey's most accomplished and moving fiction to date, I feel.

Nor does it seem unapposite to my original comparison of Morrissey with Rushdie to recall the furore caused at the former's booklaunch when the dinghy full of Spanish conquistadors who'd been hired to reenact their original, mythic landing in New Zealand were set upon by a group of Maori protestors indignant at this European pre-emption of the landings of the great tribal canoes ... Literature certainly made the news that day, even in little ol' New Zealand.

Funnily enough, a few days before that event I'd been walking along the shore at Devonport with my father when we suddenly saw a boat-full of men in renaissance armour rowing towards the beach at - I think - Cheltenham. While it's obvious enough now that they were simply rehearsing their "official" landing a few days later at the launch, I have to say that that explanation did not occur to me at the time. It was a very surrealist moment - not least because nobody paid the least attention to them: all of us too embarrassed to admit the evidence of our own eyes, I suppose.

I do, then, have to admit that I prefer those earlier works of Morrissey's where a basic sense of Sargesonian realism underlies his taste for the extravagant and postmodern: most of the contents of his two books of short stories, in fact, as well as the three novellas. It remains to be seen if his latest, Tropic of Skorpeo, will succeed in attracting the virtual-reality-game-playing youth market it appears to be designed to allure. I certainly hope so.

What I do admire about it, though, is that determined, indefatigable spirit which keeps Morrissey writing, forever trying new things, long after literary fashion and his fifteen minutes of fame have moved on. This may not be the book that repairs his literary fortunes, but it certainly has its place as a companion volume to Taming the Tiger. One thing's for certain. He won't give up. He'll keep on writing, keep on experimenting, perpetually waiting for what Robert Lowell called "the blessèd break."

In that sense, then, Michael Morrissey embodies the "writer as hero" every bit as much as Salman Rushdie. Knowing that your worst opponents live in your own mind is, for me, an even more horrible fate than being burnt in effigy around the globe - "I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams," as Hamlet put it.

If Morrissey's dreams are anything like the shifting, self-undermining sub-realities of Tropic of Skorpeo then they must be pretty terrifying. His triumph is that he's dared to write them down.

[Michael Morrissey, ed.: The New Fiction (1985)]

Monday, October 08, 2012

Two Writers (1): Salman Rushdie

[Salman Rushdie: Joseph Anton (2012)]

Last Tuesday Bronwyn and I skived off work in the afternoon to go to the pictures. We hadn't been for weeks, and that's always the best time to go: it's cheaper, and the cinemas are mostly empty.

Afterwards she had some stuff she wanted to buy in Whitcoulls, so we popped in there for a bit. Into a bookshop. Always dangerous.

Up on the shelves, at a special "school holidays price" of five dollars off, was Salman Rushdie's memoir Joseph Anton. I looked at it, sniffed it (terribly ugly cover: waxy, showing every fingerprint and dint), walked away, came back, looked at it again, succumbed, bought it.

Since then it's occupied virtually every waking hour. I've been gulping it down like crack cocaine. Is it a good book? Who can say? It's certainly very readable ...

It put me in mind of another bookshop visit, in early 1989. I was living in Edinburgh at the time, and I went all the way into Princes St, to the biggest Waterstones in town, walked up to the counter, and asked for a book.

"Sorry, Sir, we don't stock that."

Then, as I turned to leave, in a conspiratorial whisper. "Do you really want to buy it?"


"In that case, that will be ..." [however many pounds it was - more than I could comfortably afford at the time, at any rate]

They took my money at the till, then, as I walked out the front door, another member of staff sidled up to me and passed me a plain, brown-paper-wrapped package. ("Like a copy of the Sheep-shagger's weekly," as a friend of mine remarked a few days later).

And that was that. I'd bought my copy of The Satanic Verses.

[Salman Rushdie: The Satanic Verses (1988)]

Unlike most of the other pundits who were waxing eloquent on the subject at the time (including various cabinet ministers and senior diplomats), I took the book home, sat down, and read it. From cover to cover. No "curse of page 15" - no "I've read in it" or "I've read parts of it, enough to know ..." I guess that's the trouble with studying literature, it does leave you with that settled predisposition to read a book before you start to spout on about it.

And I really liked it. I mean - don't get me wrong. I could see their point of view. A number of bookshops had already been bombed for having it on display in their windows. Now, increasingly, the mere fact of being known to stock it was regarded as an incitement to violence. In Britain, at any rate.

The best way of getting me to read a book, though, is to tell me it's forbidden. Sorry. I side with William S. Burroughs on that one: "Everything is permitted." It may not always turn out to be good for me, but I'm going to decide that one for myself, I'm afraid. What's the point of living in a (so-called) "free" society if you don't take advantage of it? It wasn't by chance that I compiled an entire website devoted to Banned Books. Check it out sometime.

No school committee, board of censors, council of churches, or other clutch of ignoramuses is going to tell me what I can and can't read.

Cops and Customs Officials, yes. They have the guns and the numbers. They can physically confiscate stuff. But until they actually do, there I'll be, happily reading away, ruining my eyes and my mind, and basically just checking it out for myself. In the Spirit of Crazy Horse!

Here's my own collection of Rushdie-ana:

Sir Ahmed Salman Rushdie (1947- )

  1. Rushdie, Salman. Grimus. 1975. Panther Books. Frogmore, St Albans: Granada Publishing Limited, 1977.
  2. Rushdie, Salman. Midnight's Children. 1981. London: Picador, 1982.
  3. Rushdie, Salman. Shame. 1983. A Picador Original. London: Pan Books / Jonathan Cape, 1983.
  4. Rushdie, Salman. The Satanic Verses. London: Viking, 1988.
  5. Rushdie, Salman. Haroun and the Sea of Stories. 1990. London: Granta Books, 1991.
  6. Rushdie, Salman. East, West. London: Jonathan Cape, 1994.
  7. Rushdie, Salman. The Moor's Last Sigh. London: Jonathan Cape, 1995.
  8. Rushdie, Salman. The Ground Beneath Her Feet: A Novel. London: Jonathan Cape, 1999.
  9. Rushdie, Salman. Fury: A Novel. 2001. London: Vintage Books, 2002.
  10. Rushdie, Salman. Shalimar the Clown: A Novel. 2005. London: Vintage Books, 2006.
  11. Rushdie, Salman. The Enchantress of Florence: A Novel. Jonathan Cape. London: Random House, 2008.
  12. Rushdie, Salman. Luka and the Fire of Life. Jonathan Cape. London: Random House, 2010.
  1. Rushdie, Salman. The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey. 1987. London: Picador, 1999.
  2. Rushdie, Salman. Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981-1991. 1991. London: Granta Books, 1992.
  3. Rushdie, Salman. Step Across This Line: Collected Non-Fiction 1992-2002. 2002. London: Vintage, 2003.
  4. Rushdie, Salman. Joseph Anton: A Memoir. London: Vintage, 2012.
  1. Rushdie, Salman, & Elizabeth West, ed. The Vintage Book of Indian Writing. London: Vintage Books, 1997.

[& the "Great Satan" himself]

Coming back to Joseph Anton, though, I guess the important thing about it, from my point of view, is that it fills in all the gaps of the story that we were unable to find out about at the time.

I must confess to having felt some curiosity as to how the famously "ugly" Satan-Rushdie (that hooded look was apparently the result of a medical condition, he tells us: once his eyelids were surgically corrected, he suddenly looked a whole lot less surly and "ungrateful") managed to get together with Padma Lakshmi, the stunningly gorgeous host of TV's Top Chef ... It's all here, along with brickbats (and occasional bouquets) for virtually everyone in English-language literary life over the last few decades:

[Rushdie with Padma / & with "Old friend of the family" Olivia Wilde]

And, yes, this is definitely a tell-all memoir. He softens nothing, pulls no punches - above all, won't apologise for anything. There are no attempts here to imply that all those ignorant chanting fanatics "might have had a point," or that he could have just cut a few pages out of his book and thus removed the "cause of offence," or that Thatcher and her minions really had his best interests at heart in trying so successfully to fudge the issue for years at a time ...

I do think that this is a must-read for other writers, in particular. It's downright inspiring to watch Rushdie in action. He's so convinced of his own importance, of the importance of liberty of thought and freedom of speech (and of the necessity of keeping on earning royalties in order to keep all those wives and kids in alimony and childcare payments ...) Anytime one's tempted to falter or temporise on anything, Salman Rushdie provides a useful wake-up call. The one thing he's genuinely apologetic for is for trying to reach a rapprochement with various Muslim clerics in the UK. The "apology" he then wrote sticks in his craw like nothing else in the whole saga.

Predictably (in retrospect), this text, dictated by people who had no real influence over the course of events, accomplished nothing. Nothing except alienating his real friends and supporters. It was human to try, though, and it's this humanity that is, finally, the most valuable thing in Rushdie's book. He's not in any way a humble man, but it's nice to know that even he can get scared and make stupid mistakes - just like anyone else in such an impossible position ...

Go on, give it a read - you know you want to ...