27 April 2012

An Interview With Mark Pirie

Mark Pirie was born in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1974. He is a New Zealand poet, fiction writer, literary critic, publisher, editor and anthologist.

His poems have been published in India, New Zealand, Australia, Croatia, the US, Canada, Singapore, Iraq, Thailand, Germany, and the UK. In 1998 Otago University Press published his anthology of 'Generation X' New Zealand writing, The NeXt Wave.

He was managing editor of, and co-edited, JAAM literary journal (New Zealand) from 1995-2005, and is the current managing editor of HeadworX Publishers, and the editor of broadsheet: new new zealand poetry. In 2003, Salt Publishing, Cambridge, England, published his new and selected poems, Gallery: A Selection.

From 2003-2004 he helped co-organise the Wellington International Poetry Festival, with Ron Riddell and Saray Torres. HeadworX published the first two anthologies of the festival. From 2003-2008 he co-organised the popular Winter Readings poetry series in Wellington with Michael O'Leary.

Recently he co-edited (with Tim Jones) the prize-winning anthology of New Zealand Science Fiction poetry, Voyagers (Interactive Publications, Brisbane, 2009), and edited an anthology of railway poems, Rail Poems of New Zealand Aotearoa (Poetry Archive of New Zealand Aotearoa, 2010) and a cricket poetry anthology 'A Tingling Catch': A Century of New Zealand Cricket Poems 1864-2009 (HeadworX, 2010), with a foreword by Don Neely.

He helped co-organise the Poetry Archive of New Zealand Aotearoa (PANZA) in 2010.

(Biography condensed from http://markpirie.com/)

Mark, ever since I’ve known you, I’ve been impressed by the number of projects you are able to have on the go at one time. How do you manage to be so productive?

Well, I’m continually interested in poetry, and what others are writing - not just my own work. I edit journals as well as research historical poets. In between these activities, I write my own poems. I guess the reading and research feeds back on my own writing in some respects, so I am always finding new things to write on. This helps my production.

As well as your own writing, you’ve been involved in editing a number of anthologies that have made quite a mark on different areas of the literary scene – I’m thinking of The NeXt Wave, Voyagers: Science Fiction Poetry from New Zealand, Rail Poems of New Zealand Aotearoa and most recently ‘A Tingling Catch’: A Century of NZ Cricket Poems 1864-2009. Why do you enjoy editing anthologies?

It’s a good question. These anthologies you mention seem to be on specific things: Generation X writing in New Zealand, science fiction poetry in New Zealand (co-edited with yourself), rail poems in New Zealand and cricket poems in New Zealand. Their specialised subject matter draws in the anthologist. You become involved in a treasure hunt. Your gradual research slowly unearths and discovers hidden jewels and then you play sculptor by moulding the poems into the shape of an anthology. There’s an art and skill to it. The challenge for the anthologist is selecting and arranging them to make the subject more interesting to the reader and rewarding for them to encounter. In the case of The NeXt Wave, I proffered an essay on recent directions in young New Zealand writing, generational and controversial for some. The work gathered fitted with the essay. There’s a long history of those kinds of anthologies and generational groupings in New Zealand.

One of the best things about an anthology is you frequently present poems in a context others hadn’t thought of before. The cricket anthology is probably the best example of my abilities as an anthologist to date. Until the anthology appeared, few people believed we had enough cricket poems in New Zealand for such a book to happen. It must’ve surprised people.

I’ve noticed that ‘A Tingling Catch’ has been reviewed not only in poetry and literary magazines, but in the cricket media as well. Who’s reviewed it, and how’s the anthology been received?

Yes, A Tingling Catch received a brief review in The Wisden Cricketer, and it’s been featured on Sky Sport 1’s “Cricket Company” show and sports writer Joseph Romanos gave it a plug on Radio Sport and Radio New Zealand National. The New Zealand Cricket Museum Newsletter has also featured poems from the book and given it coverage over several issues now. Elsewhere, it’s been featured in the Wellingtonian newspaper and the Wellington College Old Boys’ magazine The Lampstand and reviewed in various newspapers and online sites such as Investigate, English in Aotearoa, Capital Times, Paekakariki Xpressed [Kakariki Bookshop’s Book of the Month], Takahe, Waikato Times, Otago Daily Times and Cordite Poetry Review in Australia. I received a 20-minute interview slot on Kathryn Ryan’s 9 to Noon. Generally it’s been very favourably received by the cricket fraternity as well as literary reviewers. I would say this is the biggest reception I’ve received since The NeXt Wave was published in 1998.

You have published a chapbook of your own cricket poems and I believe that you are now working on a cricket biography. How did that come about, and who is the subject of the biography?

In 2008, I published a cricket poetry book, Slips, in the ESAW Mini Series, a fabulous series of poetry booklets published by Michael O’Leary’s Earl of Seacliff Art Workshop. I think they’ve published 30 in the series. I guess that was the publication that made me look deeper into New Zealand cricket poetry as I got good feedback on the poems from the likes of Harry Ricketts, Mike Grimshaw, Brian Turner, Don Neely and yourself. My second cousin (on my mum’s side) Wellington writer Brian Johnson said after reading Slips, it needed to be longer, and so A Tingling Catch was born. (Harry Ricketts a few years earlier in a Sunday Star-Times cricket article said he was working on an international anthology of cricket poetry and I thought a New Zealand selection might also help him. I posted him a few overseas books by cricket poets like Nick Whittock who is in A Tingling Catch. He has since edited The Awa Book of New Zealand Sports Writing (2010) – and perhaps the cricket book is still in the pipeline?)

About the biography: This year I received an email from an Australian researcher Graeme Lindsay (no relation to the New Zealand poet Graham Lindsay) who had come across a cricket poem by a New Zealander in an early Tasmanian newspaper. The poem was by former Secretary of the New Zealand Cricket Council W H Winsor (1920s-1930s) written in 1904. I started to dig up information on Winsor who I knew because the Plunket Shield bowling trophy (the Winsor Cup) is named after him.

I found his life to be a fascinating subject worthy of a small monograph booklet, maybe only 40 pages. I’ll see what I can dig up on him. I’m not sure at this stage I intend to write a full biography on him but he does deserve some recognition for the services he gave to New Zealand cricket. There was no Wisden Obituary for Winsor and he isn’t a First Class cricketer but did play senior club cricket at a high level in Tasmania, Dunedin and Christchurch before becoming an important administrator to Canterbury and New Zealand cricket.

‘A Tingling Catch’ was published by HeadworX, which has done a sterling job in publishing New Zealand poetry over the years. But I see from the HeadworX website that “As of 2011, HeadworX is no longer receiving submissions and will be taking a short break until further notice.” Do you think this the end of the road for HeadworX?

At present I think the market is very tough for poetry. There aren’t many bookshops buying in poetry now. However, selling poetry has always been tough. It’s usually only the independent stores (Unity Books, Parsons etc) and university bookshops that buy it. If you are a small press, the major chains tend not to buy in your list. Libraries don’t have as big a budget as they may have had in the past so they are buying less poetry and there is now the rise of the e-book format. It’s difficult to see a market for book poetry at present. I decided to take a break from it. I have published 57 titles and I feel that’s quite a contribution for the time being.

This year since I stopped HeadworX I’ve been getting on with my own research on forgotten or neglected New Zealand poets. I’ve done work on Rex Hunter, John Barr (a Wellington writer), Ronald B Castle, H W Gretton, Marjory Nicholls, Bill O’Reilly, Kathleen Hawkins, Robert J Pope, Ernest L Eyre, S G August as well as The Spike group of Edwardian writers (1902-15). The information on Nicholls, Pope, Gretton, Hawkins and Hunter (found by Poetry Archive members) has led to Wikipedia entries on them, and some poets like Pope and Nicholls have been taken-up overseas. Pope appears on the worldwide Poetry Atlas site and Nicholls on the RPO (Representative Poetry Online) website in Toronto. Rex Hunter is also in the pipeline for RPO.

There is still poetry that seems to have been missed over the years because early New Zealand poets published mainly in newspapers and obscure journals or anthologies and not primarily in book form and there weren’t many biographies or obituaries available for them. The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature (1998) and the online Te Ara - Encyclopedia of New Zealand make a very good effort to cover some of these forgotten poets like Rex Hunter and Marjory Nicholls but even these are not comprehensive, nor is the Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English (1998, 2nd ed.) or Mark Williams and Jane Stafford’s timely Maoriland: New Zealand Literature 1872-1914 (2006). The recent 99 Ways into New Zealand Poetry (2010) misses many of these early poets too.

Still, we should be thankful for what we do have on New Zealand poets and poetry. These early poets’ poems in newspapers and journals remained scattered and lost but the National Library’s Papers Past, the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre at Victoria University of Wellington and the Australian Trove heritage projects have made newspaper and journal searches easier.

Jane Stafford wrote a good article in the Journal of New Zealand Literature recently on early poems in the New Zealand Gazette, one poem by English poet Thomas Campbell (‘Song of the Emigrants to New Zealand’) as early as 1839, though the Gazette was printed in England at that stage. It’s difficult to know whether New Zealand poetry anthologists since the 1940s knew of these early newspaper poets either. I don’t know how good library collections were back then. The late Harvey McQueen who edited the colonial verse anthology The New Place (1993) and did much fine work on early New Zealand poetry was continually finding poets that had slipped through the cracks in his anthologies since the 1980s. (I inherited his poetry book collection.)

There is a much fuller picture of New Zealand poetry still to be gathered and thoroughly researched. I hope the recently formed Poetry Archive can play a role in this. Australia has researched their poetry thoroughly and can now produce the heavy tome Australian Poetry Since 1788 recently reviewed by Ian Wedde in the New Zealand Listener. Perhaps New Zealand will be able to do the same in the future.

I know that a lot of your time and energy recently has gone into setting up the Poetry Archive of New Zealand Aotearoa. Who’s been involved in setting PANZA up with you, and what’s PANZA all about?

Michael O’Leary and Niel Wright had the idea for PANZA back in the 1990s. After a decade they built up a substantial collection stored in Niel’s back yard shed in Northland. As it happened Niel had built a new two-car garage at his place but had decided not to get a motor car, and I think we all agreed after Niel’s suggestion to use the garage for the Poetry Archive in the interim in the hopes we could find funding and a better venue in the future. It’s a good weatherproof garage with wooden slatted floor for ventilation and the books have been there for two years now with little deterioration.

PANZA (at the moment) is a Poetry Library for study and research purposes. We had thoughts to make it into a reading venue and tutorial place of learning but at present we’ve focused on building the collection. We now have over 5,000 titles. It’s an impressive collection, possibly bigger than the Wellington Public Library. The National Library has around 10,000 titles.

How can people can get involved with PANZA and find out about PANZA news?

PANZA news is made available on the PANZA website: http://poetryarchivenz.wordpress.com and through our Poetry Notes newsletter (that I’m currently editing) which is posted on Beattie’s Book Blog regularly. We have published eight newsletters so far. They contain scholarly articles and selections of classic New Zealand poets (some of them I’ve mentioned earlier) that we have unearthed through our work on the archive. The National Library was impressed by our work and has since indexed all our PANZA newsletters and articles in Index New Zealand. I also maintain the PANZA catalogue online pdfs.

PANZA can be used by anybody doing research on New Zealand poetry. Visits can be made by appointment only. The valuable books are not stored in the garage but at my place and if people are intending to look at specific books they’d have to check before arriving and request in advance the copies that are at my place. The contact is Niel Wright, and the number is on our website along with details for visiting the archive. He is usually home during the day and gratefully receives donations from people. Hundreds of books have been donated over the past two years since the archive began in 2010. Alistair Paterson, Roger Steele, myself, the late Harvey McQueen and Cecilia Johnson have given PANZA the largest donations.

Some of the books from Harvey’s collection given to us were duplicates so I contacted the Poetry Library in London and asked if they wanted them. They said they were keen to have any that weren’t duplicates in their collection and so around 200 New Zealand poetry books dating back to 1906 were posted to London. When Niel Wright was visiting London last year, he noted some of these books were part of a New Zealand display near their entrance way.

We haven’t yet asked people to be involved with PANZA other than ourselves. I guess if we find a venue, we might be interested in having volunteers working part-time for PANZA but at this stage, it remains a library that can be visited by people.

Let’s turn to your own poetry. You mentioned to me in a recent email that “It’s always a challenge to write in different forms so you don’t get pigeonholed”. What are some of the poetic forms that you are writing in, or keen to write in, at the moment?

This year I’ve mainly been writing triolets, a French form with repeated verse lines. It’s a tough form. You’ve got to come up with some good opening lines to keep the poem going and make it effective as the ending revolves around the start. Line 1 is repeated at Line 4 and Line 7. Line 2 is repeated at Line 8. Lines 3, 5 and 6 are not repeated usually. (Mark's triolet The White Stripes was my Tuesday Poem this week.)

I’m enjoying the challenge this involves. Two of my cricket triolets were published in The Wellingtonian newspaper recently, one on Martin Guptill and the other on the Basin Reserve’s Norwood Room that I visited for the New Zealand Cricket Museum’s Christmas party in December.

Triolets were popular in New Zealand between the late 1880s-late 1930s. Some very good writers of triolets have been Frank Morton, S G August, H W Gretton and Niel Wright. Wright is our most prolific trioleteer. The earliest triolet I’ve come across is H Peden Steel’s ‘Triolet’ in the Southland Times, 2 August 1889:

Dear love, if I were Night,
  And you were gentle Sleep,
I would, with mantle light,
  Cover your eyelids bright,
Far from the cold world’s sight,
  Lest you awake to weep.
Dear love, if I were Night,
  And you were gentle Sleep.

I’ve always been interested in traditional as well as more Modernist/post-modernist structures. My earliest school text was given to me in America at age 5 or 6 called The Lyric Potential: Arrangements and Techniques in Poetry (1974). (I was living in San Francisco between the ages of 3-6 as my father was a Consul-General for New Zealand there. Niel Wright has written on The Lyric Potential and its role in my development in one of his books. He has not found another copy of it in New Zealand libraries and thought to put it on record. Nice that he did that.) I didn’t properly read The Lyric Potential until I was starting to write poetry at 17 or 18. The book contained a useful cross-section from Shakespeare to the Beats and the post-moderns. It’s always influenced the way I see and do things.

Because of my wide interest, I don’t like to be known for one style, my voice is always evolving and changing over time, much like that book. I like to have a go at most forms and experiment. I was similarly influenced by James Fenton’s idea of ‘The New Recklessness’ as a young man at Victoria University, and used it as the introductory epigraph to my first book Shoot (1999):

There’s this  kind of attitude among poets  . . .  a kind of unacknowledg-ed attitude, that one poem must be like the next poem. It goes like this: if you’re producing a collection of poetry, if you are writing poems, one must be like the next. The next poem after that should be like that one and so on, because that proves you’ve got a certain style, that you are working in a certain period . . . what the poets are doing is a kind of repetition of what went on before, the repetition of things other people have done as well. You find a lot of very similar poems. Similar poems are not new recklessness.
  Now what we say is that if this poem isn’t the least bit like that poem, so what, who cares, we like all kinds of different poems, we like all kinds of forms, styles, and approaches . . . There is just the attitude that says, what the heck, so what, let’s write that, why not?

from Julie Nevitt’s ‘An Interview with James Fenton: The New Recklessness’ in Sport 5 (1990).

Fenton was on our reading list for Modern Poetry that Harry Ricketts taught. I kept Harry’s course anthology. Fenton’s poem included was about a man who tries to get rid of his life by discarding it on a skip. Fenton besides Wendy Cope was a favourite of mine; Fenton self-published his first book before Penguin Books took him up which is unusual. I was 19 when I took Harry’s course but it was a revelation to me at the time. Louis Johnson and New Zealand poets were also included in the course (an eye opener as I hadn’t heard of many New Zealand poets at secondary school besides James K Baxter and Sam Hunt) and I ended up writing my MA thesis on Johnson’s work as an editor and poet. Dinah Hawken and Ian Wedde came in to read to us that year along with Les Cleveland giving a talk on war verse. I responded to Cleveland with a poem ‘Lines on War Verse’; not very good, one good line about war being ‘the blood-soaked cabaret’. The only New Zealand poetry I would’ve read as a child at Wadestown School was in the New Zealand School Journal.

Do you have more books of poetry scheduled to appear?

There are always more books of poetry in the pipeline. I am thinking of collecting the 22 triolets I’ve written recently as a stand alone chapbook. Last year I put out a small book of epigrams as a freebie with the journal broadsheet I publish. There’s also a collection of my love poetry still to be published. I am one of those prolific writers that always have several manuscripts in their drawer awaiting publication. This year, I’ve also been thinking of collecting my cricket poetry into a bigger commercial edition - whether or not there’s any publisher interest is another matter. But it would be nice to collect them all for fellow cricket nuts out there.

There’s a fairly well-worn trail of places that Wellington poets read, but I hear that you have been stepping off the beaten path lately. Where have you been reading, and how have you been received? 

The past few years I’ve been reading in different places: in Auckland 2010 (Lopdell House Gallery, Titirangi, and a gig in Albany (with Madeleine Marie Slavick) for Oxfam as a friend who worked there asked me to do a poetry slot for them) and last November I was in Nelson for the Nelson Live Poets that Mark Raffills is an energetic promoter of.

The reading in Nelson (with Laura Solomon) was in a yurt (a Mongolian hut) out the back of The Freehouse pub. It was a nice reading to do, and a good, appreciative audience turned up that night. It’s great to get up and read to people who mostly don’t know you or your work. It’s important to get your work out to a wide audience and with poetry having a limited distribution network through bookshops, live readings are the best way to do that.

24 April 2012

Tuesday Poem: The White Stripes, by Mark Pirie


The White Stripes, man, they just come to play.
  No set list. Anything can happen.
They create, don’t need to fabricate.

Red, black and white; they come to play.
  Meg and Jack. Anything can happen
With Jack's old guitars; hard to tune in.

The White Stripes, man, they just come to play.
  They create, don’t need to fabricate.

(After watching the film, Under Great White Northern Lights, dir. Emmett Malloy, 2010)

Credit note: "The White Stripes" is a new poem by Mark Pirie, and is published here by permission of the author.

Tim says: Ever since I've known Mark - and that has been 15 years now - music has been a big part of his life, and that's been reflected in his poetry. His impressive list of publications includes a number of books and broadsheets on or inspired by music and musicians, so I thought this triolet in honour of Meg and Jack White made a nice appetiser for my interview with Mark, which will run later this week.

The Tuesday Poem: You can check out all the Tuesday Poems on the Tuesday Poem blog - the hub poem in the middle of the page, and all the other poems in the sidebar on the right.

19 April 2012

Three Questions With Elena Bossi

I'm a fan of recently-established Dunedin ebook publisher Rosa Mira Books, for several reasons:

- I like the publisher, Penelope Todd
- I like the idea of a New Zealand publisher tackling ebooks head-on, rather than side-stepping nervously around them, and I want to see that effort succeed
- They publish good books.

But there is a fragment of self-interest in there as well. Rosa Mira Books launched with the short story collection Slightly Peculiar Love Stories, which includes my story "Said Sheree" and lots of fine stories from New Zealand and international authors.

One of my favourite stories in the collection is "The Ache", by Argentine writer Elena Bossi, translated into English by Georgia Birnie. It distils romantic yearning down into two lovely pages.

I recently asked Elena three questions about her writing, and here are her answers. English is not Elena's first language, and so she asked me to tidy up her answers for an audience of predominantly native English speakers. I have tried to do so without losing the flavour of her replies.

Three Questions For Elena Bossi

1. Besides the quality of the fiction, one of the things I like the most about "Slightly Peculiar Love Stories" is the wide range of countries the authors come from. How did a writer from Argentina become involved in an anthology of love stories edited by a New Zealander?

I knew Penelope, and many of the other "Peculiar" writers, from the International Writing Program in Iowa in 2007. Of course, all of them read me in English translations. That’s it. Penelope and Kavery Nambisan (from India) helped me a lot with translations. As did two different students from the Translation Workshop of the University of Iowa.

2. Your story "The Ache", which is one of my favourites in the anthology, was translated from the original Spanish into English by Georgia Birnie. Do you enjoy the process of having your work translated?

I really do like the process of translation, it is actually like reading another story again and now I can read it as other. It is very “peculiar” to see our own words as the words of others and this make me think that our words are always strange in some way. We have some strange insight which is a little scary too.

3. In New Zealand at least, the publishing industry is changing rapidly, and all but the best-established writers have to be adaptable to keep getting their work published. Is now a good time to be a writer in Argentina?

I think a better time to be a writer in Argentina was during the ’60s and the ’70s. After this time, and also because of the military government, a commercial change began which concentrated all the little publishers we had into big ones and began to be more interested in selling than in literature. The figure of the publisher/editor disappeared and a regular manager took the place.

Now, little by little, big international publishers are losing space and a lot of more or less familiar publishing houses are coming again. So I hope things are going to change a little but the volume in our bookstores is too big (more than 10,000 books) to allow authors who are not very best sellers to stay on tables enough time. So, we can say it is quite difficult to live like a writer. A little easier, to make a living writing children's literature.

17 April 2012

Tuesday Poem: The Poets' Birthday, by the Tuesday Poets, plus Coming Attractions

No Tuesday Poem of my own today, but I did contribute a line to The Poets' Birthday, the collaborative Tuesday Poem composed jointly by the Tuesday Poets. You can check it out on the Tuesday Poem blog, plus a note by Tuesday Poem coordinator Mary McCallum explaining how it came about.

Coming Attractions

Later this week, I'll be asking Elena Bossi, one of my fellow authors in the anthology Slightly Peculiar Love Stories, three questions about herself and her writing.

Next week, I'll be posting a poem by, and interviewing, poet, editor, anthologist, publisher, and (increasingly) historian of New Zealand poetry, Mark Pirie.

About the Tuesday Poem: You can check out all the Tuesday Poems on the Tuesday Poem blog - the hub poem in the middle of the page, and all the other poems in the sidebar on the right.

12 April 2012

An Interview With Mary Victoria

So far, Mary Victoria has lived in seven countries and settled permanently in none. This is becoming problematic for customs officials trying to make sense of her passport. She has been at various times in her life a nanny, an animator, and a writer of fantasy. She is currently employed as a domestic servant to four cats, and has delusions of adequacy.

Mary, I recently finished reading Oracle’s Fire, the third volume in your Chronicles of the Tree trilogy, and I’m happy to say that I enjoyed the trilogy very much. What was the seed (pun intended) of the massive Tree which is the setting for most of the trilogy?

I’m happy you enjoyed it! I become quite nervous when other writers read my stuff… I keep feeling I have to go extra lengths to please them, because they know better. The idea that I’m a fraud and that fellow authors are going to see straight through me persists, even after three books. Maybe it’ll still be there when I’ve written twenty…

The genesis of the Tree was a complex affair, a result of many influences. I love the work of Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki. If you’re familiar with his films, you’ll know he made one named ‘Laputa,’ which figures a large tree floating through the sky, entwined with a fabled city. The image was so odd and fantastical and it moved me. Another direct source of inspiration was of course the Norse myth of Yggdrasil, the original world tree that holds Midgard, the world of men in its branches.

I honestly can’t remember the point at which I thought, “I’m going to write a story which takes place in the branches of a gigantic tree the size of a mountain range.” But I do know that once I had the world, the story was a natural – forgive me – outgrowth.

The action, and the resolution, of the trilogy are closely tied up with the philosophical and religious issues that you explore in considerable depth in these novels. To what extent did these themes emerge as your wrote the books, and to what extent to they derive from your own prior thought and experience?

Many emerged as I wrote. I did approach these books in an organic way, allowing themes to develop from the inside out. But I also have a lifelong fascination with philosophy, religion and belief systems of all kinds. I find religions can bring out both the best and worst in us, and as such they are brilliant tools for story… From genuine altruism to the most horrific crimes and prejudices, you can lay it all at the door of belief.

I was interested in the relationship between fantasy, particularly End Times fantasies, and religion. It seems to me both tap into a very peculiar quirk in the human psyche – that need for a messiah, a saviour who will judge between the righteous and the wicked, and bring all nastiness to an end with a big full stop. I’ve tried to gently unravel this idea through my stories, starting with the usual trumpeting prophecies and ending with what I hope is something more ‘real’. It’s still a magical ‘real’, of course!

The books also show a clear concern for the environment and a dislike of war and its effects - both on those who wage it and their victims. I like the way that you wove these issues in without the books coming across as at all “preachy” – a balance I sometimes find difficult. How did you manage it?

You’ve brought up an interesting point. I imagine I must have put some readers off with my refusal to resolve everything through a big fat war. But I’ve read so many stories where a hero’s strength is measured by external conflict… It’s fine. It works. But I wanted to see what happened when my protagonists were tested in other ways. The most powerful characters in my books appear to ‘give up’ in order to achieve a more long-term victory. I like that inversion of expected norms.

I don’t know if I managed to stay away from the preachy. I certainly tried, mainly by allowing characters to come to realisations in their own time and way, or fail to come to realisations altogether. I didn’t know who would come through until the very end.

Do you, and does your publisher, regard these as Young Adult novels? I ask because a number of the leading characters suffer severe physical punishment over the course of the books, especially in Samiha’s Song, including rape and some savage beatings. Why was it important to include these scenes, and were they a problem for your publisher?

Actually, Voyager let me know they’d decided to pitch the books to an adult market after I’d finished writing the first book and was starting on the second. I sold what I thought was going to be a YA trilogy and found I was being asked to write sequels aimed at an older audience… hence the darker tone in the last two books.

But it does makes sense. Tymon’s Flight was always at the older end of YA, anyway. I wouldn’t give it to anyone under twelve. And as the action progresses, the characters pit themselves against some powerful forces. Considering the reality of religious persecution, I think they get off fairly lightly.

I know from talking to you during the writing of the trilogy that you had to meet some very tight deadlines to produce the second and third books, both of which feature long journeys under adverse conditions. Do you think the travails of the writing process affected the narrative, or were the plots of Samiha’s Song and Oracle’s Fire in place long before you wrote them?

Oh God, this question made me laugh. Yes! The process had an effect. As a matter of fact I wrote the scene you refer to above, in which a character receives a beating, with my arms on ice packs due to tendonitis. Something like method acting for writers…

Seriously, I wouldn’t do that again. I’m not that sort of writer!

Changing tack a little, writers are usually keen to hear about the path other writers take to getting an agent and to publication. How did these milestones come about in your case?

It took a while for me. Basically five years from the time I first sent an incomplete draft to my then-prospective agent, to the point at which she felt she could take me on and sell the trilogy. I started the first book in 2004. I finally signed with my agent and sold Tymon’s Flight to Harper Voyager in 2009.

I was, and still am, very lucky to have a supportive agent interested in my development as a writer. She guided me through that period of apprenticeship, patiently waiting until there was something there she could sell. People are quite vocal at the moment about self-publishing and bypassing the agent process. I know that personally, I need the mentoring and editorial input.

I think I’m right in saying that your poem Rapunzel, which I selected for inclusion in Issue 2 of the online speculative poetry magazine Eye to the Telescope, was your first published poem. Is there more Mary Victoria poetry on the way?

Now, where did I put my black beret…

You may see more poetry. But if you do, it’ll be written in the context of my next project. So the poetry is moved by a surrounding story, rather than existing in its own right… does that make sense? Some of the pieces will work on their own, some won’t. Some of them will be pure doggerel! I’m not sure that’s a great advertisement.

If you are willing to tell us, what else are you working on at the moment?

I can say a few things without being obliged to kill you. The new work isn’t epic fantasy, though it doesn’t qualify as straight realism, either. It’s contemporary fiction, or almost-contemporary fiction, being set in the island of Cyprus where I grew up. There is a slight magical realist twist. Like everything I do it is inspired by myth, but here the myth is buried deep. You won’t see any light sabres.

It’s fun to discover a new way of writing, and a challenge. The going is slow but I’m enjoying myself tremendously.

Thanks, Mary! It's been great to find out some more about the sources of your writing.

Thanks so much for having me over, Tim!

Book availability details

You can find out more about Mary Victoria and her books on www.maryvictoria.net

10 April 2012

Tuesday Poem: Rapunzel, by Mary Victoria

Rapunzel, let down your hair!
Each careful tress a mark of grace: two chains of gold
to hold your head in place.
What a pretty prisoner.
Your tower is unshakable — the winds and hours cannot
reach so high
to weather life into your movements.
You are as wooden as the Virgin in your corner icon
(but not as sweet).

You keep the world outside
and dust the window with the same attention
as you check your features, in the mirror, every morning,
to make sure they still exist.
And if a stray hair escapes your vigilance
(as more and more will do, as time goes on)
you smooth it back, with a dab of genteel saliva.

Well Rapunzel, my dear
that prince of yours had best be coming soon.
Your tower is high, but the years are piling higher.
Perfection hasn’t saved you from the tax collector;
the world below invented what they call democracy,
and cut the electricity.
They can’t take away the tower — that is yours to keep
or sell.
But no one gives a damn about a damsel in distress,
and braids went out of fashion years ago.

And if, one day, you can no longer tame
the mass of silver hairs that slips between your fingers —
If the skin on your white arms, no longer plump,
sags and wrinkles with ungrateful age —
If on that day, you look into the mirror
and find you have become the witch, your mother —
                  Then, Rapunzel, will you leave your tower
and walk the free earth once again?

Credit note: "Rapunzel" is Mary Victoria's first published poem. It was first published in Eye to the Telescope 2.

Tim says: In 2011, I edited Issue 2 of Eye to the Telescope, the Science Fiction Poetry Association's online magazine. This issue focused on Australian and New Zealand speculative poetry. I knew Mary Victoria as the author of the Chronicles of the Tree fantasy trilogy, but I didn't know she was also a poet. I was delighted to select this fine fantasy poem for inclusion in Eye to the Telescope 2 - and even more impressed when I heard it was her first published poem!

I will be interviewing Mary about her fiction, her writing career - and her poetry - on this blog on Thursday. She has some very interesting things to say, so watch out for that one.

The Tuesday Poem: You can check out all the Tuesday Poems on the Tuesday Poem blog - the hub poem in the middle of the page, and all the other poems in the sidebar on the right.

05 April 2012

An Interview With Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson is best known in his native New Zealand for his poetry (his seventh collection, Being of Two Minds, has recently been published by Steele Roberts, Wellington), though he is internationally renowned as an ethnographer, having done fieldwork in Sierra Leone, West Africa, and in Aboriginal Australia (among the Warlpiri of the Tanami Desert and Kuku-Yalanji speaking people on Cape York) over a forty year period.

He has taught anthropology at Massey University, Victoria University of Wellington, the University of Sydney, the Australian National University, Indiana University, the University of Copenhagen, and is currently a Distinguished Visiting Professor of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School. He is the author of 27 books of poetry, fiction, memoir, and ethnography.

Michael's poem Hit and Run was my Tuesday Poem this week.

Michael, would it be fair to call Road Markings an anthropological memoir?

There are elements of memoir in it, but I think of it more as a road book – a journey in present time, focused on conversations with people in the here and now, but with inevitable digressions into the past.

Can you explain the concept of ‘firstness’ as it refers in Road Markings, and why is it so important both to the book and to you?

The book’s perspective is that of an expatriate who, despite having remained faithful to his natal country and returned home every year like a migratory bird, has never ceased wondering what kind of life he might have led had he stayed put. Inevitably, this leads to the question of whether the way New Zealand shaped me as a child still determines the way I think and the way I see the world. In my case, New Zealand has never ceased to haunt me. Much as I have needed radically different places to enlarge my horizons, to challenge me as a person and as a writer, I have needed to sustain a relationship with the place that first nurtured me.

Yet every expatriate knows the dilemma of trying to keep the home fires burning, yet watching them gutter and gradually go out. There is a Maori saying that for as long as you live on the land, a fire burns there (ahi ka), signaling that you have the right to be there. But if you abandon the land, the fires die (ahi mataotao) and you forfeit that right. As we say, occupation is nine tenths of the law. In 2008 I decided that the time had come for me to explore this quandary in more depth, so I hired a car, and hit the road, determined to engage these issues through conversations with old friends and visits to old haunts.

Road Markings emerged as a series of meditations on the power of first experiences in our lives – first love, first landfall, first home, first loss. It touches on the ways that personal stories are interwoven with social and historical events, and explores Maori invocations of toi whenua in making claims for recognition and social justice, the search of adopted children for their birth parents, the notion of childhood as ‘the formative years’, our current preoccupation with genealogical, geographical or genetic backgrounds, and the allure of myths and models of cause and effect.

Road Markings is structured around a series of meetings with old friends, meaning that their narratives are intertwined with yours in the book. Did you encounter any resistance, or feel any constraint, in including their stories and experiences in this book?

Most people I spoke to agreed to have our conversations included in the book, though there were several instances when sensitive or potentially compromising material was edited out. In a couple of cases, names were changed to protect the identity of my interlocutors.

I don’t think I’d call Road Markings a particularly happy book. Many of the life stories you recount are filled with sadness and loss. Would you describe your return to New Zealand, as described in the book, as a happy one on the whole? Are you glad you made the journey?

All my returns home have been happy. But no human life is without its moments of sadness and loss. What struck me constantly as I made this particular journey was the resilience of the people I spoke to, the creative ways in which they had responded to adversity, and the good humour with which they embraced twists of fate and reverses of fortune. True happiness comes not from avoiding the hardships of life but knowing how to affirm life in even the hardest times. This has been borne home to me in every place I have done ethnographic fieldwork, whether in Africa, Aboriginal Australia or Aotearoa New Zealand.

A question that may be related: Do you regret spending so many years of your life away from New Zealand?

I regret nothing. But as I said before, there are dilemmas in life one cannot really resolve – such as maintaining relationships with all the places and people one has met in the course of an itinerant life. The question is how to accept, rather than regret.

One of your chapters, “Distance looks our way”, takes its title from Charles Brasch’s 1948 poem “The Islands”:

Everywhere in light and calm murmuring
Shadow of departure; distance looks our way
And none knows where he will lie down at night.

Brasch was writing during the period in which some New Zealand writers – opposed to a greater or lesser degree by others – developed a (predominantly white, predominantly masculine) New Zealand literary nationalism, and Road Markings revisits both these debates over national identity and the challenging of that constructed identity by Maori and feminists from the 1970s onwards. How important do you think this debate over national identity continues to be in the New Zealand of the 2010s?

Questions of identity – personal, ethnic, national, literary, gendered – have never been of much concern to me. My anthropological work has been far more oriented toward the ways in which identities can be negotiated, blurred, disregarded or transcended, and how it is possible, as a person or an ethnographer, to cross boundaries and develop meaningful relationships with people who, on the face of it, have nothing in common with oneself. I have always striven to realise the truth of Terence’s famous dictum: nothing human is alien to me.

Road Markings is an ebook. Is this your first venture into being published in this format, and how have you found it?

Had I not placed my manuscript in the capable hands of Penelope Todd, who also edited the manuscript of my memoir (The Accidental Anthropologist), I might have found e-publishing less satisfying than traditional publication. And though this is my first e-book, I’m gratified to say that word is getting around, and my fears that the book would disappear like a stone dropped into the sea have been allayed.

Road Markings has received good reviews in New Zealand. Have your friends and colleagues overseas read the book, and if so, how have they reacted?

A lot of my students have read the book, and like it. It helps them see where I am coming from. It helps them understand some of my un-American traits, for which I have my New Zealand upbringing to thank – my aversion to hierarchy and formality, my insistence on being called by my first name, my egalitarianism, my naïve curiosity, and a veneer of rustic innocence that, I am happy to say, has never worn off.

How To Buy Road Markings

Road Markings can be purchased from Rosamirabooks.com. It is available in epub, PDF and Kindle formats, meaning that it can be read on most mobile devices, on a PC or Mac, and on a Kindle.

02 April 2012

Tuesday Poem: Hit and Run, by Michael Jackson


That absolute
and unfeigned stillness
I can’t get used to
even when it’s only the family cat
that’s dead
hit on the road
carried to the bathroom
on a green towel
lying there now
with a set grimace
a smear of blood
a broken leg
freeze-framed against the curtains
moving in the wind, my own reflection
moving in the mirror,
gone – or what we knew of her –
and that evaporation
of what we know as life
impossible to comprehend
so instantaneous
and irreversible
as in the beginning
a child is suddenly
as if from nowhere
and no way back
alive where there was nothing
such passages, so abrupt,
there is no cancelling
as there is with words,
no taking back
a remark that hurt
no revising the manuscript;
these events cannot be
there is no as if
or only if
it has happened
nothing more
and so you leave
a space on the page, a gap
as the only way of alluding
to this emptiness,
the day that began with
a cat going through a door
and ended with clay
spaded into a hole in the yard
and me trudging back to the shed
kicking earth from the sole
of my shoes
and washing my hands
as if that was the end of it.

Credit note: From Michael Jackson's new poetry collection Being of Two Minds (Wellington: Steele Roberts, 2012) - please follow that link for sales information.

Tim says: On Thursday, I will be posting my interview with the distinguished New Zealand anthropologist and poet Michael Jackson.

That interview focuses on Road Markings, his memoir of a recent return visit to New Zealand, published by Rosa Mira Books. But since Michael Jackson is also a well-published poet, I asked if I could feature one of the poems from his latest collection as my Tuesday Poem this week - and Michael sent this fine poem in answer to that request.

One of the many good things about Road Markings is that, though mostly prose, it also contains a number of Michael's poems, included where they fit the narrative. Stand by for lots more about Road Markings on Thursday!

You can check out all the Tuesday Poems on the Tuesday Poem blog - the hub poem in the middle of the page, and all the other poems in the sidebar on the right.