Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Hera Lindsay Bird at the Wintec Press Club

The Wintec Press Club lunch is staged by the Wintec School of Media Arts three times a year on behalf of the journalism students. The star-studded guest list always features big names in politics, media, entertainment, sport, business, law and the arts. And me.

Most tables have one or two students who get to meet industry veterans. It’s a brilliant idea and I have always enjoyed talking with the students and doing my best to discourage them from entering the profession, suggesting they instead do something useful or lucrative. The speakers at these events are usually eminent media types – last year’s speakers included Paula Penfold from TV3 and Mihi Forbes from Maori TV (now National Radio) – but once it was Pam Corkery and the time before that Rachel Glucina. The food is good; the wine flows.

This time, on Friday 19 August, the female literary luminaries in the audience included Paula Morris, Ashleigh Young, Charlotte Grimshaw and Tracey Slaughter. Also present was AUP poet Sonja Yelich, whom I met at a raucous writers’ lunch in Auckland a few years ago. I spotted on the seating plan that Sonja had brought her daughter Ella. “That’s nice,” I thought. “I wonder what she’s like.” D’oh. Ella, it turned out, is quite famous under the name of Lorde.

Journalism stars included Rachel Stewart (2016 Canon Media Award Opinion Writer of the Year), Diana Wichtel (current Grimshaw Sargeson fellow), Jonathan McKenzie (editor of the Waikato Times), Jono Milne (editor of the Sunday Star-Times), NZ Herald columnist Toby Manhire, Paula Penfold and what seemed to be the entire staff of the Spin-off media website.

There was a meat raffle: half a dozen pork and fennel sausages, plus five books. The winner was Isobel Ewing of Newshub, not me: clearly the fix was in.

In his introduction our host Steve Braunias said that proceedings were being recorded for a German “provider of content” to European radio, because of the great interest there in the guest speaker, poet Hera Lindsay Bird. So his introduction included even more swear words than usual (only one c— but so many f—s that I stopped counting). For the benefit of European listeners he worked in many explanations, Dan Brown-style, e.g. “X is from Christchurch, a city on the braided river plains of…” and “here on the banks of the Waikato which at 425 kilometres is New Zealand’s longest river”.

He celebrated the success of those graduates of the Wintec journalism course who, despite the travails of the industry, have found paying jobs: one is now “one of Patrick Gower’s highly trained cyber news robots”.

There were 14 students out of the 103 guests on the seating plan. That seems well down on previous years. I wonder if many were away with a cold, or if journalism isn’t such an appealing career option these days. I suspect the latter. Kids today may be annoying, but they aren’t stupid. (I know the numbers because I lifted the seating plan after the event: gonzo journalism! I have form here: when I wrote a story for the Listener about the anti-semitic League of Rights I stole its membership list from their office.)

For some reason the secret phrase of the day was “I’m just fucking getting on with it.” Braunias invited Rachel Stewart to tell the room “I’m just fucking getting on with it.” Which she did, vigorously. Next it was the turn of Duncan Grieve (impresario of the Spin-off) and Paula Penfold. Then it was the entire room’s turn. The first attempt was deemed inadequate: “They can’t fucking hear you in Europe!” Braunias bellowed. Another take was ordered.

Braunias introduced the speaker by asking, “What are you doing here, Hera Lindsay Bird? You aren’t a journalist.”

This, he explained to the room, was the point: “Let’s leave journalism to its Pak’n Save English, its cut-price bin of clich├ęs.” Oh, well played. But then: “I’ve learned more from reading poetry than I have from reading journalism – the weight of a line, the. . .” He continued in this vein for about 51 minutes. I thought: God almighty, when will this end?

It was odd because Braunias is on record complaining about introductions going on too long:
It was chaired by Stephen Stratford. The session was 60 minutes. His introduction, which featured a history of satire, seemed to go on for about 50 minutes. I thought: God almighty, when will this end?
Bird started speaking at 1.40 p.m. and spoke until 2.02 p.m. Very astutely timed. She said, “The theme of this talk is: how do we make poetry cool again?”

A couple of questions begged there. One, when was poetry ever cool? Between 1962 and 1979 Penguin published 27 books in its cheap and cheerful Modern Poets series with three poets per book (my favourite was the one with Gavin Ewart, Zulfikar Ghose and BS Johnson) but the only one that sold big-time was The Mersey Sound with the Liverpudlian popsters Roger McGough, Brian Patten and Adrian Henri, which says it all. Two, why would you want poetry to be cool? That would mean people writing and reading it for the wrong reason – to be seen to be writing and reading it.

Bird complained about people not liking poetry. She complained about people liking the wrong sort of poetry: “People are like, fuck poetry, but they’re willing to bust out some Philip Larkin for their mother’s funeral.”

She complained about poetry readings accompanied by jazz. To quote Marianne Moore, I too dislike it – but I wonder if that was a sly dig at Bill Manhire, who has collaborated with jazz composer/pianist Norman Meehan on a couple of CDs.

She had a few cracks at other poets: there was a dream about Vincent O’Sullivan having dementia and getting off the bus at the wrong stop; also something about Brian Turner in a reversed baseball cap at a primary school. I could not see the point of any of this.

After the Spin-off published a poem of hers there was an article in the Guardian praising it. Good for her. But down in the comments there were cavils. Not every reader was enthusiastic about the work. Some comments were even in Latin. She dwelled at length on various criticisms by Christchurch curator and writer Andrew Paul Wood (known to his followers as @AndrewPaulWood) about her poem “Monica” and her replies. She spent at least five minutes of a 20-minute talk on the Guardian article and the responses to it. (So thrilling: distance looks our way! You would think that this generation had got over that, but no.) It was, frankly, all about her. The title of Hera Lindsay Bird’s book gives a clue: it is called Hera Lindsay Bird. Perhaps this is what is meant by the term “vanity publishing”. Self-absorption is to be expected in the young, but Bird is 28.

Next she articulated her real theme: “How do we keep old people out of poetry?”

And then, more threateningly, “Let’s pass the torch to the younger generation by turning out the torches of the older generation.”

Then came the anti-sales pitch: “Everyone in the room over the age of 55 who cares about the arts – please don’t buy my book.”

She said, bafflingly, “I don’t want to be one of those people who are just a career poet.”

She made the usual criticism of Creative NZ’s funding decisions but conceded that she had been given a grant to go to “this really cool poetry festival” in Newcastle, Australia. She works “as a bookseller and it’s not a very well-paid job” so she would like “heaps more”. Wouldn’t we all, dear.

Bird was, to be fair, very amusing but I am not sure what the journalism students gained from the experience. Actually, probably about the same as a previous class got from Paul Holmes when he spoke here in August 2010.

Peter Bland, 82, has a new poetry collection out soon, his 22nd by my count, following 2015’s Hunting Elephants. Another one has been commissioned – commissioned! – by a UK publisher following the success there of 2014’s Remembering England (good sales plus rave reviews in the TLS, Poetry London and more). At lunch in Auckland the Friday after Bird’s address, I asked Peter what he thought of her desire for older writers to keep out of poetry.

He rolled his eyes and said, “Whatevs.”

Steve Braunias claims that he said “one of Patrick Gower’s highly trained psycho news robots”, not “one of Patrick Gower’s highly trained cyber news robots”. Not sure which version I prefer.


michael byrne said...

Got it pretty right Stephen. Would have liked to chat. Hera's talk was much better than that. Something happening with new writing now. Result of lay offs due to digital. Could be good. Ashleigh Young is good. Have here 'Don't Dream it's Over', and will persue/persevere but suspect part of problem is what the thing looks like! But what would a bookseller know. You're a cynical bastard but I like you. Mike Byrne.

APW said...

I can’t be arsed with writer feuds, my dear,
Please fill your boots, and rant your little say,
No invite to my mentions given here,
And just as freely you may go away,
I shall not chase you; bye Felicia, bye!
And blissfully forget you, even though,
You stoke your PR pile on, broad and high,
Yet fucksakes, Elsa says to “let it go”!
You need not my approval; you do you,
And I’ll do me, and as we like, be sour,
For while I think your poetry is poo
My poor opinion has so little power.
Drop petals in a canyon, as you may
Most people don’t read poems anyway.