A few people in the audience at last night’s Circadian Rhythm poetry reading asked if I could post my scrappy MC notes online. Given I’ve been a neglectful blogger (there must be a word for that: I’ll ask Wordsworth at The Listener!) pinning them here seems a good way to make amends.
Last night was a double bill: Carolyn McCurdie and this year’s students from the University of Otago Creative Writing: Poetry Workshop.
Many of the audience already know Carolyn McCurdie as the mainstay of scheduling and publicity for these readings; but she has a past.
Carolyn has worked as a teacher and a librarian; mild-mannered, even-tempered and polite by day, so the archetype goes: yet she is also a steely, ethically driven force for good: someone who fights for truth, justice and the literary way on her own time. Actually, the Wonderwoman or Superman analogy quickly breaks down with Carolyn. Not only because there are so few phone-booths to use for quick changes into your star-sprinkled bustier, bullet proof bracelets, and Lasso of Truth these days, but because the split between super hero and alter ego doesn’t quite ring true. She’s the kind of writer and individual whose conscience permeates everything she does: no division, no concealment. For years she juggled work, writing, and acting as primary caregiver for her elderly mother, and she has long been active on behalf of NZSA Writers in Prisons scheme – helping to run readings and letter writing campaigns to defend writers here and internationally whose freedoms of speech and expression, and whose physical liberty, have been threatened or robbed.
Her work includes short stories, fiction for children, and poetry. Her short fiction won her the Lilian Ida Smith award in 1998. Her children’s novel The Unquiet was published in 2006. A fantasy adventure aimed at ages 10 to 14, it first came across my desk as an unsolicited manuscript at the former Longacre Press. After reading it, I had to take myself off for a walk around the block, to get myself to calm down and make sure I was acting with the hard-nosed acumen the job demanded. I knew Carolyn vaguely from the New Zealand Society of Authors, and I guess part of me was suspicious that my literary judgment might have been impaired by thinking Carolyn seemed a thoroughly decent individual; wouldn’t it be nice if a local publisher could support a local writer, and everybody just loved everybody and we could all make daisy chains as we tripped along through the sunset in our kaftans. So I went for that walk, made a stiff coffee, ate a substantial baguette from the old Indigo bakery, to make absolutely sure that it wasn’t just hunger making me giddy. I re-read the novel. It confirmed my initial reaction, which was that the air of fantasy and fable combined; the natural similes and metaphors; the gentle use of abstractions, and the empathy for the child’s eye perspective, were a little like the Janet Frame of Mona Minim and the Smell of the Sun, or the early short stories from collections like Snowman, Snowman. I felt that rush that gamblers surely feel when the other two editors in the office also backed the novel after I handed in a reader’s report. The Unquiet was published, and went on to be named in the Storylines Trust list of ‘Notable Books of 2007’. Carolyn’s pellucid imagery in that novel foreshadowed her subsequent success as a poet. She has had work ‘highly commended’ in the Caselberg Trust International Poetry Competition, judged by James Brown; she won the ‘D-Scene’ prize in the Poems-in-the-Waiting-Rooms competition 2012, judged by Kay McKenzie Cooke; and won first prize in the NZ Poetry Society 2013 International Poetry Competition, judged by Vincent O’Sullivan. She now also has a collection of short fiction due out from e-publisher Rosa Mira Books.
It’s high time Carolyn took the spotlight here at Circadian Rhythm and it’s a joy to give up the mike to her tonight.
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For newcomers, or those with memories as porous and tissue-thin as mine, I’ll just quickly explain a little about the poetry workshop that our next performers are emerging from. The English Department at Otago runs a one semester creative writing paper, where the students meet twice a week. It usually involves the participants tackling various set exercises: writing in traditional forms or responding to various prompts, such as digital poetry, natural objects; works of art; or spoken anecdotes borrowed from a workshop partner; either writing at white heat (‘hot-penning’), or taking away assignments to work on in their own time, then bringing their work back in for all of us to critique. The students are expected to do a lot of independent reading; they end up not just with a fat set text book, but also folders of additional poems, multiple online links (many generated by their own research this year) and articles on aspects of form or technique. This year we had a couple of field trips and some guest speakers, too, so the semester seemed very busy.
Sometimes students ask ‘why give us set exercises?’ It’s partly to offer starting points or challenges for students struggling with the blank screen or page; it’s also to force them to learn more about structure, and poetic technique. It also helps students break some of the habits they might have already formed: such as only composing haiku about what’s left in the fridge; or only ever writing about unrequited desire for the freckled boy on the hockey team in 2010. It can also help them shed the habit of using language which they think is appropriate to poetry, but which actually obfuscates; or writing syntactically contorted, heavily abstract lines which say little to the reader — other than here is someone still negotiating the tension between what they want to reveal, and what they can’t really, not just yet; here is someone still learning that once the work leaves the personal diary, the nature of an audience or a readership has to be actively considered.
I’ve already told the students themselves that this has been an exceptional year. Even so, it is still a diverse group. At least six of them are already publishing or being placed in competitions; others still use poetry as a private means to work out what they believe; some are still trying to decide whether poetry really is their form at all. Yet even with this range, it’s been exceptional in terms of the progress they’ve each made as writers, and as a group that began with some not insignificant tensions and abrasions, to a group that has become highly supportive, without ever letting poems off the hook if the language gets lazy, or unintentionally bigoted. It’s also a group that has sharpened its ability to offer practical critical advice. They’ve leapt from the kind of hollow, snack-food satisfactions of ‘That line is totally aaawwwwesome’ – to the more, I suppose, gourmet ‘Wouldn’t the ironic nuances of the word lie be released more powerfully if you left it poised on the fulcrum of the line break?’
They’ve extended my vocabulary and my general knowledge – I can now say, when my toast is burnt, that it is completely phlogisticated (thanks to Jonte Marshall). I was reminded that psychologists generally agree that sadomasochism isn’t necessarily the same as paraphilia; I’ve been introduced to the haibun, which I’d somehow never met even though we move in many of the same circles; and I deeply regret not having started a swear jar, as I would have earned more in cash from Eliana Gray than I would placing a poem in The Listener. I jest, I bluff, I tease, I play all hale and hearty, yet the thing that’s astonished me this year is how quickly students can become colleagues when they’re passionate about their work.
Some of them are scaring me tonight by reading completely new work that we haven’t discussed in class: but I’ve realised that’s actually got to be a good thing. They have the confidence now to test their own powers of judgment. It’s time for me to let go.