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 clichés.” 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.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016


Ariane Sherine writes in the Spectator about the women taking the “we” out of wedding:
As far as the bride was concerned, the wedding was perfect. Her dress was beautiful, the vows were traditional and she changed her name after the ceremony. The clifftop scenery was breathtaking, the seven bridesmaids were encouraging and supportive: move over Princess Di. There was only one thing missing: the groom. Like a growing number of single women, Sara Starkström had decided to marry herself.
Well, you would, wouldn’t you.
‘I thought about people marrying other people without loving themselves first,’ says Starkström, a writer, explaining what many would call a bizarre overreaction to finding herself single at the age of 29. ‘How could they pledge to do all this stuff for another person when they couldn’t promise themselves the same thing? I decided to marry myself to celebrate my independence and strength. I did it to promise to be my own best friend.’
She is a writer! Of course she is. Last week my sister celebrated her 45th wedding anniversary and my first wife and I celebrated our 18th. I am pleased to report that Ms Starkström likewise is still together:
Though it wasn’t a legally binding ceremony (Starkström changed her surname using the Swedish equivalent of deed poll), the 36-year-old takes her married status seriously and, nearly seven years on from the wedding, still celebrates her anniversary: ‘Every year on the 9th of September I have to honour my vows, and really try to live up to the promises I made.’
But while this may all sound mad, narcissistic or completely pointless. . .
Or as James Brown puts it in his 1970 song “Super Bad”:
I love, I love to do my thing,
And I, and I don’t need, no one else
Sometimes I feels so nice, good God
I jump back, I want to kiss myself.
So here he is performing “Super Bad” in 1971:

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Peter Feeney on theatre critics

The 93rd in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the March 1996 issue and marks the departure of Peter Calder from the NZ Herald as film reviewer. He will be missed. As Brian McDonnell (he came second in Mastermind in 1991) writes in the Herald:

I met Peter for the first time a few weeks after this QUQ article about theatre critics appeared, at a function at the Auckland City Art Gallery. He upbraided me for leaving in all his swearing. I was a) unapologetic and b) amused. How wonderful, I thought, to have a journalist a theatre reviewer complain about being quoted accurately by an actor working as a journalist.  

The article was titled “Opening Night Nerves” and the intro read:
The relationship between those who make theatre and those who review the results seldom runs smooth. Publicists pray for good notices, while actors disdain reviewers, fear them, love them and hate them. PETER FEENEY talks to four leading reviewers about the power they wield.
Meet the reviewers
Donald Hope Evans, leading theatre reviewer for the Otago Daily Times, is himself an opera singer and actor with an extensive background in television and journalism, including 10 years’ reviewing for the New Zealand Herald. Theatre to him is a national treasure, “an integral part of the development of any society because it holds a mirror onto the society itself”. He sees the role of the critic as supporting theatre, and believes there should be more high-quality drama teaching in schools. “Quite apart from its educational and therapeutic value, that’s where tomorrow’s audience will come from.”
Peter Calder was until recently the Herald’s theatre reviewer. His opening salvo is to quote Bemard Levin: “The truth is that the theatre demands praise as its right, and genuinely believes that favourable reviews are only its due, while unfavourable ones are a kind of treachery.”
“Constructive criticism is not the critic’s business,” says Calder. “The critic does not exist to make life better for the theatre. Criticism is a branch of journalism, not the arts. People think critics should be supportive of the theatre. Well, I think they are, because they praise what is good and excoriate what is bad, which is equally supportive in my view.”
Linda Herrick has been a journalist with what is now the Sunday Star-Times (national readership: 220,000) for 11 years, reviewing for the last four. Her interest in drama was set alight when she studied drama under James Bertram at Victoria University.
“Reviewing theatre and writing feature stories on the arts are just aspects of a wide-ranging job for a journalist, where every hour is full — I do arts stories, theatre stories, news stories, general feature stories, focus stories — and that’s in a five-day week. I try to approach my review from an audience point of view and with a completely open mind. I try to take the ‘precious’ out of theatre — I often feel that reviewers write incomprehensibly.”
Imogen de la Bere, the chief theatre reviewer for the Christchurch Press, also aims to go along as if new to the experience, although she will have done some research before. She is a part-time reviewer, fulltime computer professional and mother of three.
“I regard myself as a member of the public who is slightly better informed than most, and someone who is passionate about theatre. I certainly don’t see myself as an expert or a professional.”
Denis Welch is senior writer and reviewer for the Listener in Wellington, widely acknowledged as New Zealand’s theatre capital. His devotion to theatre, on top of his regular full-time journalistic work and other commitments, is impressive. He sees one show a week, more than 270 in his six years of doing the job, though he doesn’t review everything he sees. Last year he finished writing a play, The Star Of The Sea, his first.

A thankless task
After many years reviewing theatre for Auckland’s Herald, Peter Calder has stopped. “I found it a thankless and stressful task in which you were saying things about people who you personally quite liked. Actors are usually very attractive individuals and I admire them enormously, and even if you didn’t particularly like them you knew that they believed wholeheartedly in what they’d done, devoting themselves to it, bleeding their guts out.
“And you had to say something about it which you knew would really hurt them and upset them and may in fact — to a much lesser extent than I think they pretend — damage the commercial viability of their show, which will have downstream effects on whether they can pay their mortgage or send their kids to school.”
For these reasons it is often a job, says Herrick, that journalists don’t want to do. When Donald Hope Evans got his break into reviewing theatre at the Herald in 1959 it was for “shows no one
else wanted to review”. For de la Bere, the most important qualification for a theatre critic is “passion for theatre as an ideal, and the ability to be objective about that”. But the passion can be blunted over time.
De la Bere’s editorial brief must be typical: “Report the show as an event — describe what is happening, try to imagine what it’s like to be an audience member, don’t be rude and controversial.”
Hope Evans explains the murky origins of the current editorial stance to theatre reviews: “In the 1960s at the Herald my brief was restricted to reporting any show as a news event and recording the audience’s response to it. I was not allowed to go into any depth. Then, as now, we never used the word ‘critic’. But I did have two columns and more flexible deadlines. I could do a lot more. For example, if I felt on further reflection that I hadn’t done justice to a performance or production I would write a second review.
“An informed or profound analysis is just not possible, given the deadline of completing the review that night, and the limitations of space. The logic of the deadline is that the play is a news event that will go stale if you sit on it. So of course it’s all coming off the top of your head. And the review has to be short because people read less these days, and their attention spans are shorter — eight minutes for children, I’m told; the space between commercials. I can give a general impression of the play up the top, and then do my best to convince people to go if I’ve enjoyed it — and by then they’ve turned to the sports page.”

What turns them on?
I asked each reviewer: What do you look for in a play? What do you like? What turns you on? And what kills it for you?
Herrick: “If a production can touch me emotionally I think it has succeeded. Such shows are a great achievement, and are of course, rare.”
Welch agrees: “In 270 or so performances I’ve seen there have been 60 or 70 very powerful and impressive plays, but of these about nine or 10 have totally electrified me. It’s worth it all for those shows; these are the ones I live for. And it could happen just as much with a cheap, thinly resourced production in a minor theatre as it could at a major theatre with a glamorous cast.”
Herrick cautions that Auckland does not have a stable professional theatre. We need that; a school where learning actors come through a certain process that only a professional theatre can offer. In Auckland we seem to have lost the plot. Where is the nurturing of upcoming acting, crew, and directing talent? Shortland Street is not a great training ground for actors.” She’d like to see more time devoted to rehearsals. “Theatrical tricks and pushing all the right populist buttons are not a substitute for getting the basics right.”
Calder is more positive: “Auckland theatre’s getting more sexy and more upmarket, and trying to sell itself, and become more accessible to a wider audience — I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think it’s great. The old model of a kind of a teaching theatre was sustainable in the level of support people gave to theatre in the 1960s, but Auckland has become a much more cosmopolitan city, and also kind of American in its outlook to entertainment, with a much wider range of things to do, with theatre being just one item on the menu. Title for title, though, we’ve probably seen better theatre, since the Mercury died, from the Auckland Theatre Company and the Watershed.”
Hope Evans: “A friend new to theatre said to me recently, ‘I hate it when I go to the theatre and they try to make me think.’ And yet this is just what a seasoned theatregoer demands.
“Given that actors are highly intelligent — they’ve got to be, just to survive — and that the public are often not very discerning, a remove can develop between them and theatre practitioners. If this gap widens too far, theatre becomes inaccessible. People only come to be entertained, but theatre must strive to move and challenge people, so theatre practitioners try to push the envelope a little, intrude on peoples’ comfort zones. The Fortune has been successful because its playbill has tread the middle road between these contradictory demands.”
Like Hope, de la Bere works in a largely one-company town Christchurch is dominated theatrically by the Court Theatre, widely regarded as New Zealand’s leading theatre, certainly of the traditional model. “We get touring shows, but altemative theatre companies die within a few productions. The Court sets itself apart from this, protects itself, by catering assiduously for its own clientele. So it’s difficult to be a critic here — hard to keep your perspective when just one company is offering up one style of theatre.”
She believes there is a hunger in Christchurch for more innovative and alternative theatre. “We’ve seen the narrowing of the theatregoing audience to a distinct social sub-group, that part of the middle class that are regular Court supporters. Since the Court holds the theatrical monopoly here, I’d like to see them sponsor or in some way support altemative theatrical events.”
She views our most successful professional theatre as being too elitist: “Wide social popularity in theatre is in the end the best guarantee of its overall quality. Fortunately Shakespeare existed, or we wouldn’t know that. But to be truly popular you have to take risks. When theatres just focus on surviving, they stop taking risks — and that is the riskiest policy of all.”
Welch: “My real excitement and enthusiasm is for New Zealand work. We need to have faith in our own material. The least we owe to our country is to develop and take pride in our own culture. Why not pour some money into your own arts, your own culture? The thing will become self-perpetuating after a while and develop its own momentum: it just needs a kick start. One’s reminded of the tremendous boost given the arts by the brief Kirk administration.
“I’m seeing a drop in some basic crafts — diction and projection notably in younger actors. It’s tempting to attribute this to different habits of speech picked up doing TV. I love theatre, and I think anyone reviewing theatre should be able to say those words and mean them. I would like to see theatre up on a par with TV, but many actors are lost to TV or film. TV has its place, but the chances of being galvanised by something in theatre are so much greater.”

A flash in the pan
Orson Welles once wrote: “Every actor believes every bad thing that has ever been written about him.”
“It pains me the hurt I can cause,” affirms Welch, “although I have talked to actors who, while they didn’t like the review, admitted that I was right. Fortunately for me — and not the Wellington dailies, who have to review everything if something is awful I can choose not to review it. The corollary to this is that sometimes when a really good play comes out my review is published too late to pull people to it.”
But doesn’t the critic have a duty to “hound out incompetence”, as Peter Brook puts it? “Of course, and my recent review of Moonlight was one of those cases where I felt it was important to
state the emperor had no clothes.”
Herrick’s 1995 review of Othello at the Watershed was essentially disapproving in tone. “It was not an -easy review to write,” she says. “You are aware of the comeback to the director, crew and those associated with the production. But you have to reach into your heart and gut feeling and say quite truthfully what you feel about it. In this case I felt that the neglect of some basics in this production, in particular its neglect of voice and the language were, for a Shakespearean play, irresponsible.”
Hope Evans winces when I mention negative reviews: “Fortunately for me the standard here has been consistently high in presentation and standard of craft.” But he. grimaces as he recalls his most spectacular pan, of Kiss Me Kate at the Regent. The show went bust and a great deal of money was lost; but the next show was about 200 percent better and did good business.
“I’m very reluctant to give a poor notice, as often you are unable to put a satisfactory explanation in a short review. I’m mindful also that there is only one daily paper in Dunedin while there were two when I was writing in Auckland. And it is too easy to get into a critical vein. Yet,” he sighs, “it is a responsibility of the critic and in the long-term interests of the actors that they are reminded of standards.”
“It’s very rare that I’ll be openly critical of a particular performance,” says de la Bere. “This is dangerous territory: it’s too ‘easy to criticise, to go for the cheap laughs. And you have to be very sure of your ground to criticise. If you step out of line, actors will call and tell you so.” What about directors? “It’s beneath Elrich [Hooper, the Court’s artistic director] to call me.” (Herrick, on the other hand, gets calls only from directors.)
“I was probably ruder when I was the Listener critic here, but I had a longer time lag and so more of a chance to think. Theatre is an experience and it is what sticks to you emotionally for weeks or months afterwards which is important, so I preferred that space, which I don’t have now, to have time to consider. I have only 300 words, and in that short space I want to have some kind of dialogue about the play. I’ll praise good work, but why waste space on the poor performances? They get the best actors they can. I focus on describing the event.
“I will make an exception if the actor is from overseas, expensive and dreadful, because I find that promotion of an imported ‘name’ objectionable if we might have done it better with a local talent.”
Says Calder: “So much of the theatre I saw in Auckland was second-rate. Not from lack of skill or craft — some of the best things I have seen here will stay with me forever. It’s because actors here operate under huge pressures of time and budget, usually rehearsal schedules that are three weeks long or ‘a maximum of four, which is f—ing outrageous. The stuff’s inadequately workshopped and not really hammered out as well as it could be, there’s not the market here to run four or five cut-price previews to iron out bugs.
 “So there were a lot of plays I’ve written about where I really felt there was a good idea just starting to get up and run, but that hadn’t really hit its stride — it really needed another week.
“But I also take issue with the whole question of to what extent a critic influences a play’s fortunes, anyway. I just don’t accept that critics can deal a death blow to a play. What they can do is give a little nudge to something that might otherwise not have legs and get it going. I could go through the Mercury playbill and show you plays that I shat all over yet went like nobody’s business, and other plays that I praised hugely and passionately and ridiculously Stuart Hoar’s Squatter springs to mind — which died horrible deaths.”
As Hope Evans says: “A pan can have the curious effect of making people want to go more — they want to judge the show for themselves.”
Adds Calder: “People aren’t stupid — they will generally follow a reviewer only if he’s right more than he’s wrong. I often say to actors, I don’t know why you read the reviews ~ they’re nothing to do with you. They’re like a private communication between me and the theatregoers. It’s like someone overhearing something about themselves in a private conversation. The one group the review is not being written for is the people involved in the play. But they think it is.”
Actor David Baldwin has a policy of never reading any of his reviews until after the season when “they no longer have any power over me”.
“I admire that view,” was Calder’s response, “because it shows he has some faith, some sense of himself, that this is the way I’m playing this part come hell or high water, and I’11 certainly take feedback from my colleagues and my director, these are people that I’ve worked with, that I trust, but fundamentally this is what I’m trying to do here, whatever some scribbler in a musty old newspaper office, who’s probably half-cut on scotch, has got to say.”
Nevertheless, most actors lack Baldwin’s iron nerves and read what’s written about them. Sighs Calder: “They can’t resist opening it up and seeing what the prick wrote about me this time.”

A bunch of amateurs
“The thing you have to realise about theatre critics in this country,” says Denis Welch, “is that while we have professional actors, professional directors and so on, still we don’t have professional critics. All of us have day jobs. This does make it hard to keep up with what‘s going on in theatre.
“Film has the great advantage of being at the same time local, national and global. The same film is being shown in Wellington and Invercargill as in LA. Theatre is by definition much more localised, but generally the great problem for theatre in New Zealand is that it is only regionalised.
“I’m not arguing for the creation of a national theatre — which may create new problems — but it frustrates me that we are all into our own little cultural laagers and we can’t” communicate one between the other. I would love, for instance, to be the country’s first national critic if,” he suggests wistfully, “the Listener had the budget to let me go around the whole country and see everything, bind theatre together with an overview.”
But Calder rejects the allegation of amateurism: “We are part-time. No one can make a living in criticism in this country. But I would vociferously reject the allegation, however, that I am not a professional. I am a professional writer.
“It’s all very well to have a week to write a review. But the most important qualification for being a theatre critic at the Herald is that you can get something coherent with a reasonable sort of attitude that is exactly 350 words long on the news editor’s desk by midnight of opening night. Now I reckon there’s probably only about 20 people in the country that can do it, so it’s a small group. That is not easy, and it’s hard to wake up in the morning and say ‘Oh, f—, I wish I’d said that.’”
A symptom of the part-time condition is reviewers’ outsider status. While Welch accepts that the outsider mindset has some strengths (“I do approach my reviews from that innocent perspective of an ordinary theatregoer”), on balance he’s distinctly uneasy about it. “It irks me that there are some people in theatre in Wellington who treat the critics as shit, actively snub them in the lobbies, look at them as a lower form of life.
“And most actors would consider critics a necessary evil rather than a positive force. I really have come to think that there is something fundamentally wrong with this antagonism between critic on the one hand and production on the other. Ultimately any work of art is a co-production between the creators of it and the audience, and the critics as well.”
He cites Bruce Mason as a man of the theatre who was a critic as well, a New Zealand Kenneth Tynan. In Mason’ s day, reviews and commentaries were much longer and there was a real intellectual dialogue around the theatre. Where is that dialogue today? -
“There should be more seminars, more analysis and criticism, more give and take,” says Welch. “I would love to be the kind of person who could give my life to theatre, to be involved in it in various ways. If I were full-time, I’d love to know more about the developing of a production. Would it be so terrible for a critic to sit in on a rehearsal, for instance?”
Is there a danger that you could sacrifice objectivity on the altar of deeper involvement? Calder thinks so. To get around the risk of theatrical corruption, the Herald has often used two reviewers and works it so that one writes a preview of a play and the issues it brings up while the other would review it. “That reviewer should — and I’ll go to the grave believing this — walk in off the street, open up the programme, browse through it, close it, lights go down, let’s have a look... The alternative is that you’ve gone along previously and chatted to the director and found out that his daughter has whooping cough and his house is mortgaged up for the play — and you have your feet laced together before you even start punching.”
“It is a very hard balancing act,” concedes Welch. “We have to get closer to theatre without being compromised by those who practise it. You must somehow be sympathetic. towards what is trying to be achieved, but at the end of the day have the courage to say that it hasn’t worked, if that’s the case.”
He finds it significant that Maori theatre practitioners in Wellington have found it hard to accept the idea of the critic, usually Pakeha, coming in as an outsider, passing a judgment and then leaving again.
For example, Hone Kouka, director of Wellington’s Taki Rua Theatre, says that any reviewer would do their job better if they had “a greater understanding of the text, was well versed in taha Maori and had conversed at length with the writer and or director”.
In 1992 Taki Rua held a hui about whether Pakehas should review work by Maoris, especially in view of the increasing Maori language component in Taki Rua’s plays. Welch felt that the hui was “a positive step, one we could all do with more of”. But he felt at the time that Maoris producing theatre were entering into a western tradition, making reviews by informed Pakehas admissible.
Kouka is articulating the view of a significant section of the theatre community when he calls for reviewers to “take more responsibility for what they write”.
Echoes Caroline Hutchinson, managing director of Auckland’s Watershed: “Reviewers should not go into a description of why something might not have worked. They should just review the product they see but they should do that from a basis of a really good understanding of the business, of the industry. We respect the reviewers who take that trouble.”
Calder disagrees: “There is a feeling among actors that somehow we should be initiated into the craft of the theatre. Actors basically believe that they are a misunderstood species, and that if critics don’t appreciate what they are doing it’s because we don’t know what we are talking about. But I believe that the critic must write from the point of view of the theatregoer, most of whom wouldn’t understand the Aristotelian unities if they f—-ing fell over them.
“Therefore, while I don’t consider myself hugely knowledgeable about theatre, I think I can pick what’s good, what works, what makes my hair stand on end, what seems inauthentic or shallow or pretentious.”
He smiles. “But now I am an ex-critic I know the luxury of leisurely finishing my interval drink and then deciding, do I see this through — or saunter out into the night air?”

Our theatre has matured and grown since the 1960s. New Zealand now possesses a substantial body of full-time theatre professionals with strong links to a thriving multi-million-dollar film and television industry. Our reviewers remain, as they have always been, part-time.
They are bound by the editorial constraints of a parish-pump newsletter. Not surprisingly, their reviews are all too often not long enough, deep enough or even informed enough.
So the theatre community misses out on the intelligent commentary which, given its achievements in recent decades, is surely its right.
Reviewers can be much more than punters. They can be critics. Some of them want to be. It’s time they were given the chance. 

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Ruth Nichol on Jenny Bornholdt

The 92nd in this increasingly occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the March 1995 issue. The portrait above of Jenny Bornholdt is by Annelies van der Poel. The poem below, which ran alongside the story and is from the collection How We Met, is reproduced by permission of Victoria University Press.

The intro read:
Jenny Bornholdt writes poems that are instantly accessible but can be read in a number of ways. “l like telling stories,” she tells RUTH NICHOL. 
For most of us, the portable typewriter has taken on the status, of a relic. It’s a quaint reminder of simpler times, something to drag out to entertain the kids — providing the ribbon hasn’t
dried up. But as to actually using one, forget it. We’d be lost without the delete button.
For Wellington poet Jenny Bornholdt, though, the portable typewriter is an integral part of the writing process. She uses her little Brother machine (a 21st-birthday present) to type up the final copies of her poems, having written them in longhand first. And the whole, time-consuming ritual of typing — inserting a new page, ripping it out to start again, getting out the Twink — often helps her to refine a poem in ways she hadn’t thought of.
“Because I want to get a clean copy I often have to type them over and over again,” she says. “It’s often when I’m correcting a mistake that I realise I should do something else. I really can’t imagine writing onto a computer. Using the typewriter is really part of the process.”
The method may be a little old-fashioned in these days of CD-Rom and RAM, but the results are refreshingly accessible. Bornholdt’s work is a tonic for all those poetryphobes who were force-fed fields of golden daffodils at an early age. It’s user-friendly and popular. So popular that her first three collections, This Big Face, Moving House and Waiting Shelter have sold out.
That accessibility comes to a large extent from the subject matter. Bornholdt tends to write about the familiar, the everyday, in some cases the positively prosaic. “Then Murray Came”, from her new collection How We Met, for example, is about selling a car. The dramatis personae include Ray, the man from the AA (summoned, yet again, to start the car), and the prospective buyer, Murray. Bornholdt’s husband, fellow poet Gregory O’Brien, makes a cameo appearance, biking off to buy petrol:
. . . Ray came down and took over
holding up the bonnet of the car.
Whats your name? he asked Murray.
Murray, said Murray. Well I’m
Ray, this is Greg and this is
Jen. Hello Murray, we said.
And then the car started.
It’s a far cry from golden daffodils.
“I love narrative,” says Bornholdt. “I know it’s not really fashionable any more, but I like stories, and I’m interested in telling stories.”
However, she is far more than an intellectual Pam Ayers. Her work may be readable and unthreatening, but it is more than that. “People say it’s accessible, and I like that. I also like the fact that it works on a number of different levels.”
Bornholdt doesn’t know why she started writing poetry. In fact, she’s not really sure why she started writing at all. It began tentatively; the teenager who “loved English” took up journalism because it seemed a way to write. However, a year as a reporter on the Waimate Daily Advertiser turned out to be not quite what she had in mind.
But she did start writing poems, just a few. Not that she ever thought that she might become a “writer”: “When you’re young you have this idea of writers being romantic creatures who are in no way related to anyone you might know.”
However, several years later, and by now armed with most of a degree in English literature, she felt confident enough to apply — and be accepted — for Bill Manhire’s writing course at Victoria University. That was the turning point.
“It definitely started something. The course is terrific, it’s started lots of people off. It gave me the confidence to keep writing, and put me in contact with other people who were doing the same thing, and all of them were just like you.”
She soon realised that she wanted to do more than just write poetry; she wanted it to be read by other people, and she began sending her work to publications such as Landfall and Islands. “You do get to the point where you want to do that. If you think something’s good enough, you want people to read it.”
Eventually her first collection, This Big Face, was published by Victoria University Press in 1988, followed the next year by Moving House and Waiting Shelter in 1991.
Both have now sold out, no mean feat in the poetry publishing business. However, the print runs were small — just 750 each — and Bornholdt knows she will never make her fortune from writing poetry. She currently works fulltime as a copywriter with a Wellington recruitment agency, and is also working, along with Gregory O’Brien and Canterbury University academic Mark Williams on editing the Oxford Anthology Of New Zealand Poetry.
Those two jobs leave her with little time or energy for writing poetry, but she tries to get up early every morning, so that she can spend several hours writing. “That’s just enough to keep something going. It really helps to keep writing every day. The times that I actually get things done are the times when I write regularly.”
She admits that writing poetry takes less sustained creative energy than writing prose. However, it is far from the easy process that many people seem to think. “People have this idea that writing poetry is really easy, that you can just fit it in between having breakfast and doing the dishes. It probably does need less time than writing prose, but I think with poetry it is not so much the time that you’re actually sitting down writing it that’s important, it’s the time that you spend thinking about things.”
Often by the time she actually sits down to write a poem, much of it is already formed in her head — or jotted down on scraps of paper. She’s leamed that it pays to write down ideas as they come to her, rather than relying on .her memory: “If you don’t write it down you can spend ages trying to think what on earth it was.”
Inevitably she goes through periods when she stops writing. The 18 poems which make up Estonian Songs in her latest collection, for example, came after just such a period.‘ She was looking for something to get her started again, and was intrigued by the song titles on the cover of a CD she was listening to — such as “Sang The Mother, Sang Her Daughter” and “My Mouth Was Singing, My Heart Was Worrying”.
She decided to use them as a way of getting back into writing again. “They just seemed to be incredibly suggestive. But it turned into more than just an exercise — it kind of fed off itself. The titles suggested things to me, and I found that things I’d written down over the last year or so actually fitted themselves into it.”
Bornholdt is rather pleased with the title of her latest collection, How We Met. It came to her after all the poems were finished, and it wasn’t until later that she realised it was also the title of a column she very much enjoys in the Independent On Sunday magazine. She thinks it’s very apt: “The book is about relationships, relationships between people, and between people and things, about meetings.”
Like her previous collections it will have a small print run. The poetry-reading public is small, but Bornholdt believes it is getting bigger. She points to England, where poetry festivals are now becoming popular. And while writing prose — short stories or a novel — might bring her  a bigger readership, she has no intention of ‘switching allegiances. Poetry offers all the freedom she needs. 
“I’ve written really short poems, I’ve written longer poems, I have written prose poems which are somewhere between poetry and prose. I don’t feel constrained at all. That’s what’s so wonderful about it, it’s really liberating.”  
A son or a daughter
On a night when the
moon moved solemnly
about the sky
a third daughter was born.
The unhappy doctor
went to the father
I’m sorry, he said,
it’s another girl.
Girls are good luck
said the father.
If you don’t have a daughter
you only know you’re alive
because your shoes move.

Friday, August 19, 2016

In praise of: Nico

This photo of Nico popped up in my Twitter feed because I follow @oldpicsarchive on Twitter. It shows the doomy chaunteuse in 1956, aged 18 or 19, before her roles in La Dolce Vita (1960) and the Velvet Underground (1966-7). Then came heroin. What a difference a decade makes.

Her second solo album The Marble Index was produced by John Cale and released in 1969. I bought it because nobody else did and so within months it was $1.99. And I thought, maybe you can judge an LP by its cover. I was right – it is one of my all-time favourites. Harmonium, viola, doom and gloom. Ben Tweddell thinks so too. Quote unquote:
The shimmering collage of sound imposed across the canvas of her songs by John Cale plunge the listener into a sonic journey, “a voyage through strange seas, alone,” sometimes disconcerting, but never, as often described, harrowing — always contemplative and always beautiful. The songs seem suspended in time, detached from the tumultuous years of its creation, the last years of the 1960s.
So here is The Marble Index, complete:

Monday, August 15, 2016

What I’m reading #136

Danyl McLauchlan reports for the Listener on New Zealand’s literary magazines, having read all the current issues. He finds:
The poets seem especially promiscuous.
No surprises there.

Jason Guriel complains about excessive personal content in literary and other reviews/essays. Quote unquote:
There were always alternatives, of course, running parallel to the more imperious critics. Dorothy Parker deployed a chatty, engaging avatar in her book and theatre pieces. Randall Jarrell’s poetry criticism, Pauline Kael’s film reviews, and Lester Bangs’s music writing all seemed fired by irrefutable furnaces: living, breathing personalities.
Although many of these critics weren’t strangers to the first-person pronoun, they often only appeared to write in a personal voice; their reviews and critical essays revealed little about themselves. If anything, they tended to favor a hollow I, a handy prop like the cardboard tube that girds a few yards of giftwrap. It’s the sort of pronoun I’ve employed here, meant to give voice to an argument as opposed to a person. An I that’s a close, less clinical cousin of “one.” A convention, a convenience.
Thinking of selling your new book at a farmer’s market? Alex Marsh, who tried it with his excellent in every way novel The Resurrection of Frédéric Bebreu, has some tips. Quote unquote:
Giving away a sausage roll with every book will eat into your margins.
And these words of hard-won wisdom:
Appreciate that – far more so than in bookshops – people will pick up and examine your book even if they have no intention of purchasing. It is a curiosity: a book! They are just being polite, in the way that you say nice things about the house that the Estate Agents are showing you round, despite the fact that the bathroom is avocado and the M6 runs through the front garden. Put an already-thumbed book right at the front. This is your sacrificial book.
Sarah Forster interviews three people who know about Yeah Noir, aka New Zealand crime fiction, for Booksellers NZ. (Trigger warning: contains a photo of me.)

Chad Taylor ponders the eternal dilemma: does digital beat paper? Does paper beat digital? Quote unquote:
I wanted to find a passage I remembered from a novel I’d read in 1993. I had…
You won’t believe what happened next.

Crimsoning the Eagle’s Claw is a new collection of Viking poems translated by Ian Crockatt. The poems are all by Rögnvald Kali Kolsson, Earl of Orkney from 1129 to 1158. A sample:
How our blood-stained standards
stream! Erlingr – extreme
in terror, blade bristler –
bombards the doomed dromond.
Our spears cause suffering,
spread Saracen-gore. Red-
drenched blades clinch bone boldly.
We stack slain black sailors.
Much as I admire the work of Ashleigh Young and Jenny Bornholdt, this has perhaps a little more vigour.

So here is the first part of Peter Maxwell Davies’ opera The Lighthouse, which was written in the Orkneys and first performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 1980. It is a cracker – and a kind of Marie Celeste story:
In December 1900 the lighthouse and harbour supply ship Hesperus based in Stromness, Orkney, went on its routine tour of duty to the Flannan Isles light in the Outer Hebrides. The lighthouse was empty – all three beds and the table looked as if they had been left in a hurry, and the lamp, though out, was in perfect working order, but the men had disappeared into thin air.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

In praise of: Bernard Brown

The 91st in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is a double-decker from the September 1996 issue: Diane Brown’s review of a poetry collection by Auckland University law professor Bernard Brown (no relation), and an interview with him by Janet Tyler who, I think, was a former student of Bernard’s. As I was. And as were David Lange (see below) and Winston Peters. Richard Prebble too, I’m pretty sure. Can’t blame Bernard for any of what any of his former students did.

It was hard to find a photo of Bernard that didn’t include a wine glass. Impossible, actually. So the photo above is of Bernard with a wine glass, at lunch in Auckland’s Mai Thai restaurant with Kevin Ireland, Graeme Lay, Peter Bland and others. The shirt and arm to the left is mine. [Photo credit: Graeme Lay.] 

Diane Brown
Bernard Brown
Cape Catley, $17.95, ISBN 0908561504
Reading the poem “Sufficient Pussy” from Surprising The Slug to my creative writing class in Paremoremo Prison could perhaps be described as a provocative act. There was a sharp intake of breath and then delighted laughter (from the non-cat lovers anyway) as they got the joke. “All cats can go to hell/ and save me worry;/ the only cat I ever loved/ was one in Bradford in a curry.” Compared to most of the poems here, “Sufficient Pussy” is slightly throwaway, but has the same irreverent, sly quality.
Brown takes a keen interest in animals, usually unfavourably comparing the behaviour of humans as in “Who’s Who”, where a monkey observes a scratching man and asks, “I wonder if/ I am my keeper’s brother.”
“Best Friend” tells of the day that the narrator’s dog Frederika, spoke. He claims to have been so shocked that he couldn’t remember the words spoken: “It was like/ tuming on the tele/ and finding a former lover on it/ growling.” Like all the best comedians, Brown reserves the best lines to the end. It would be unfair to quote too many, because for all their apparent casualness these poems have been carefully set up with verbal agility to catch a laugh.
Essentially Bernard Brown is a storyteller. There are some lyric poems, but most of the collection is narrative-based. Some poets maintain that the narrative no longer has a place in contemporary poetry, but this stance ignores potential readers who crave meaning and accessibility. In our busy lives what could be better than a well-crafted story read in less than a minute? And when the writer has led such an interesting life as Brown’s, it’s a real bonus. There are narratives telling of the discovery of the drowned Mrs Soam’s legs sticking out of a rain-drum, arrow wounds in New Guinea and eating “one of our number” in North Borneo.
Childhood poems skilfully reveal a rich fantasy life. In “Canal Knowledge” the local kids fight the Jewish refugees (“When I was Gary Cooper,/ way back West of Ipswich”; “Love Suite Love” explores sexual awakening, “Like someone in a movie/ (R6 l)/ scored by Tchaikovsky,/ starring me”.
Some hint of Brown’s influences are found in “Waterways”. A small boy walking along the Ipswich canal with a grandfather telling of “crocodiles, palpitating drums and things/ unspeakable befalling whites (a dark/ and oily swan once bit his boot)”. The family poems are poignant and moving and all the more so for the wry humour: “Aunt Maud,/ who’d acquired him straight/ from the trenches (and preferred him/ shell-shocked)”.
The poems cover a wide geographical space and time from 16th-century Suffolk to Moruroa 1995, but Brown has grouped them into three heads, “Solitary Trails”, “Supping in Quiet Company” and “Later Perils, which tie in neatly with the title. Overall cohesion is in the voice, which is learned and articulate but never takes itself too seriously. Puns feature often. The last poem, “To Light Applause”, advises aging comedians and others, “so be/ your age before/ they shut you down.”
In a country where poetry publishing is dominated by the academic presses and a lack of humour, Surprising the Slug is wonderfully refreshing. I do hope Bernard Brown defies his own advice and returns with more witty acts.

Janet Tyler
Bernard Brown wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He didn’t need one he was born instead with a pun upon his tongue and his tongue lodged firmly in his cheek. “Partly hit and partly myth,” he says of the poems in his third poetry collection, Surprising The Slug. Not that he would describe himself as a poet. “I really am a versifier,” he says, casting himself with the likes of Pam Ayres, only without the accent and royalties. “I really want to record and entertain, rather than convert anybody to anything. A poet is a message carrier to society. If I do say something, it’s incidental. I’m the kind of versifier who sees himself as carrying the bad news and getting his head cut off.” Nor does he consider himself a performer, at least, not in the Hunt or Eggleton sense: “For God’s sake, they remember their poetry.” He writes poetry and claims promptly to forget it. A reticent performer, he will only read his poetry if thrashed to do so.
By profession, Brown is a legal academic. As a rustic lad far away from his Suffolk village he joined the shortest queue on enrolment day at Leeds University, only to discover he had signed on for law instead of English. The move to academia was inevitable after, as a reluctant RAF officer in Singapore, he defended 37 accused in court, attaining 37 convictions. He moved smoothly into the newly created Singapore University law faculty. It was an exciting time, he says, mixing with mostly literary people like D] Enright, settling into a bar for two or three days, talking great talk and not getting inebriated. Eventually he was cabled a job offer for a lectureship at Auckland University where he has remained, teaching the likes of Jim McLay and Doug Graham. He also taught David Lange, who can recite from memory his favourite poem, “Requiem. North Borneo Coast. December 1947”, included in Surprising the Slug.
Brown has few ambitions for his “evacuees”: “I write a lot of poems, but I reach a point where I need, every decade, to evacuate them.” He sums up his mission as merely to provide the spark for some other artist to create a more memorable piece of work — as Fiona Samuels did from his poem “Best Friend”. She phoned him at work one morning, “the only morning I’d been to work at a respectable hour”, said she’d seen the poem in Quote Unquote and asked if he would mind her basing a short film on it (Bitch, in which the principal character’s Airedale reveals the name of the woman her partner is sleeping with: “Ruth! Ruth!”) The moment was “bloody exciting”.
His wildly understated manner is encapsulated in a speech he gave at a Bar Dinner given in his honour by the Auckland District Law Society and Criminal Bar Association. “The very nice things said about me tonight put me in mind of the much-vaunted Olympic. [She] was launched in 1910, and paid off in 1934. In l911 she almost sank a tug on arrival at New York and went on to hit a naval cruiser. She lost a propeller blade in 1912, accidentally rammed a U-boat in 1919 — wrong year! — got infected with the plague two or three years later and then crushed the Nantucket Lightship, killing its crew of seven. . . No one was quite sure how she came by her nickname, ‘Old Reliable’. Tonight I face a similar problem.” 

Thursday, August 4, 2016

In praise of: Malaysia

The Prime Minister may be a crook, but I love Malaysia. For my third visit we spent a few days in an apartment in central Kuala Lumpur, then a week in central Langkawi, high on a hill overlooking paddy fields, with a rubber plantation beside us full of squabbling monkeys. All around us were butterflies, geckoes, birds. We ate mostly in the nearest village, Ulu Melaka. This is the man the children called “The Roti Guy”:
We also ate at roadside places, for example Nasi Dagang Pak Malau which looked out to the same paddy fields:  

Everywhere we went, Miss 12 (left, above) and Miss 14 (right) ate the food without complaint. This does not always happen at home, where I make their dinner. Cendol helped.

One local I talked with was surprised that I was interested in Malay food, astonished that I often make Nasi Lemak for my lunch, and amazed that I make the sambal from my own chillies. Which was nice, but even better was that Tiger beer was 70 NZ cents.

And at the Kuala Lumpur Bird Park, we saw this Great Hornbill. We named it Donald:

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Leaps into the void: Bob Dylan and Yves Klein

Top photo is of the singer Bob Dylan, date and photographer unknown; lower photo is of the painter Yves Klein in 1960, by Harry Shunk and Janos Kender. It was a famous photograph: Dylan might have been doing a cover version.