The Interview – Elizabeth Smither
Elizabeth Smither is one of New Zealand’s most acclaimed poets, the author of eighteen collections. Her latest include The Blue Coat, (AUP 2013) and Ruby Duby Du (Cold Hub Press 2014). A new book, Night Horse, will be published by AUP in 2017. She has also written five collections of short stories, five novels, and two volumes of journals, most recently The Commonplace Book (AUP, 2011). If this sounds like a literary shopping list, it’s more a recognition of her versatility and the depth of her achievement across multiple forms.
Elizabeth’s work has won numerous awards, including the NZ Book Award for Poetry (A pattern of marching, AUP, 1989) and the Montana NZ Book Award for Poetry (The Lark Quartet, AUP, 1999). Her fiction, non-fiction and poetry have been published in journals throughout NZ, Australia, the US, France and the UK.
She was the Te Mata Estate Poet Laureate from 2001 – 2003, received the MNZM for Services to Literature in 2004, and won the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in 2008. Also in 2008, Auckland University awarded her an Honorary D Litt. She has also won the 1987 Scholarship in Letters, the 2014 Janet Frame Award for Literature, and the 2016 Sarah Broom Poetry Prize.
Elizabeth lives just five kilometres from interviewer David Hill, a distance they regularly traverse for fish-and-chips and damaging cakes. So this email interview was supplemented by numerous telephone conversations, plus a session around the Hills’ dining table where the final format was achieved with a large pair of scissors.
The interviewer wants to thank his subject for her patience, her tolerance of his lumbering questions, and for the continued pleasure of receiving her rich, thoughtful, delightfully allusive and oblique replies.
The ways in which even the most mundane events or ideas move Elizabeth Smither to unexpected, rewarding analogies, plus the meticulous, multi-levelled quality of her spoken words on writing and writers wind through the printed words of this interview.
Shall we begin by looking forward? Next year, AUP will publish your new poetry collection, Night Horse. This puts us in the singular and privileged position of being able to ask for a sneak preview. Can you tell us anything about the content / structure / direction of Night Horse? Can you offer a trailer for the title work?
Though Alice is not the only animal in the collection, she is the most important. An amazingly dominant mare, liable to throw a rider or bite. I approach her gingerly, with a half-apple on my palm. One winter’s night, while I was turning my car beside her field, I saw something of her secret life. Mist was rising and Alice in her canvas coat and face mask with ghostly eye-holes was stepping through the field as if in a trance.
Another poem in the collection, ‘Blaming the horse’, debates Alice’s life now, compared to her life in Melbourne as part of a herd. Her present companion is a Shetland pony who waits devotedly on her like Juliet’s nurse in Romeo and Juliet.
Let’s talk about one of your most recent collections, The Blue Coat (AUP, 2013). One online reviewer admired your ability ‘to find something magical in what most people overlook’. It’s true that you show significance in a chipped plate, a pen, library issue slips, ‘the littlest gardens, small backyards’. A touch of Blake here, is there? ‘….a World in a grain of sand…..Infinity in the palm of your hand.’?
I’ve always thought that there are two parts to being alive: the self we all possess, in its physicality and inner life, and the world itself which has its own existence, its physical laws and endless variety. It’s the meeting of these two that is so fascinating. Rather like a painting that has a window with a receding view and, in the foreground, a domestic scene: someone sewing or writing a letter. The outer world regarding the inner world and vice-versa.
Often there is some irony involved or a comment is implied. ‘High wind in the garden’, for instance, contrasts the little tamed domestic garden which is undone and has its flowerpots bowled with the sweeping Capability Brown garden which positively embraces the magnificent storm.
Only the widest gardens can hold it.
The great vistas, the enormous fountain….
The Blue Coat also has poems which confront those much-trumpeted Big Issues: Birth, Leaving, Death. Actually, is ‘confront’ the right word? Anyway, there’s one word here, ‘Dying’, which makes my eyes brim whenever I read it, and not only because it includes people I know or knew. Throughout the collection you celebrate and / or farewell several friends – and a favourite dog. How does it feel to write such quietly cleaving lines? How does it feel after you’ve written them?
The big issues are always lurking, even in the smallest subjects. More important, I think, is to go as deep as you can. In writing about a funeral it might mean a wildness in the language to match the inchoate feelings of grief; another technique might be a detachment as cold and clear as winter light.
Afterwards I feel a mixture of things: the pleasure of writing, which applies even to unsuccessful writing, an exhausted, drained feeling. Followed shortly after by the image of a looming school inspector: ‘Is this the best you can do?’ And my feeble response: ‘So far.’
I realise this may be just a fatuous variation on “Where do you get your ideas from?” But I’m always intrigued by the genesis of works: the moment / awareness / shift which begins the process of making. You’ve recently written a series of poems for your American friend and author of art historical texts, Amy Reigle Newland. Can you tell us the narrative behind these?
I should hit you with a brick. ‘The moment / awareness / shift’ are all correct. You could add unease /false daring / a galvanising awareness of ignorance and the need to bluster.
In the case of the Amy poems they began with a Pilates class in which neither of us were exactly stars and led to Tuesday dinners at a Chinese restaurant, ‘The Laughing Buddha’. One evening in a heavy downpour I watched Amy approach carrying a bag of books she could hardly lift.
Amy strides across
the zebra crossing, a bulging bag of books
in each hand. Head bowed against the rain.
It ends in gratitude which is greater than any approach or difference in temperament…
… I will hold an umbrella over her
for her pristine devotion to scholarship
for her seeing in the heat of careless writing
a parallel longing for a jewelled fact.
from ‘Amy brings the thesaurus’: The Blue Coat (AUP, 2013)
The subject of Amy’s thesis was Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900), the Japanese woodblock artist, drunkard and womaniser, over whose grave Amy had the temerity to speak farewell words in Japanese.
Amy in hospital with broken wrists
The last time you were in Tokyo you told me
you stood at the grave of Toyohara Kunichika
the artist you loved so much and bowed
despite his paramours, despite his reputation
(we used to carouse a bit on Tuesday nights
gorging ourselves at the fish restaurant)
compared to Kunichika we were paper dolls
he would have laughed at the sauce running
down our chins, our modest two glasses of wine
and now, the day we’re due to feast again
in another city, with other friends, he strikes
at a crossing in the guise of a madwoman
knocking you to the ground and breaking both your wrists.
At your grave visit, under your breath, you’d given him
his marching orders: your thesis was complete and handed in.
In your hospital robe, in your curtained stall where
we all push in to commiserate, you seem
from your high bed to be holding court.
An orderly appears. The pain you say is 6.
The orderly is sceptical. I think you’re overjoyed your
lover’s risen from the tomb and eaten all the shrimps.
from Night Horse (AUP, 2017)
Long before the broken wrists, Amy and I were driving in her sporting MG with the top down, Amy in a stylish cotton dress she had just ironed and a straw hat with a black ribbon, worn at a rakish angle. It is one of those glancing poems that, thanks to cheap sunglasses, turned into white gum trees, fumbling hands and suspenders.
Driving with Amy in the MG
We sweep around corners in the Adelaide Hills
and red light flashes through my cheap sunglasses. ‘Do
you see red?’ I ask Amy but she shakes her head.
The gums are unclothing themselves. Mainly beige
are their undergarments. Soft grey the carpet
the undergarments fall on. Long stockinged legs.
I think I am in a red light district. My head
aches as we drive through red flashes, underwear
white stringy hands reaching for suspenders.
from Night Horse (AUP, 2017)
There’s a coda, after the broken wrists, because a poet or a scholar should not be broken by superstition. Paul Hetherington had asked me to contribute an ekphrastic poem to Cordite. I chose the less common meaning: ‘a vivid description of a scene’ (rather than a painting) though painterly qualities were present as well.
An extra oyster for the Doctors
Entrée: raw oysters on the shell. Price
on application but they will be raised high
on a bed of ice and lemon slices.
A dozen and a half is not available
so we take a dozen, abashed
that oyster eaters cannot have their number
which would have given us three each.
Who forks the first and slips it down his throat
would like to seize the rest and lick the platter
or hurl the oyster shells over one shoulder. An
alumna of the University of South Carolina proposes
the final three go to the most distinguished scholars
first to the one whose golden thesis sits beside her plate
another to a prodigal undeserving Hon D Litt., the last
to an unassailable Distinguished Professor. The moon
looks down on three tipped back throats
once tugged by gowns and Gaudeamus notes
processing stagewards to receive the precious oyster.
from: Night Horse (AUP, 2017)
Perhaps the real model for autobiographical poems involving friends is not words but music, the equivalent of Elgar’s ‘Enigma Variations’.
The eponymous young lady of Ruby Duby Do (Cold Hub Press, 2014) is your first grand-daughter. Any comments re writing on such a potent topic?
Grandchildren waken such a fierce love, it’s a wonder a poem can contain it. Everything gets re-examined and poetry as well.
We took Ruby to an Italian restraurant in Melbourne where she was remarkably well-behaved, apart from taking a bite out of a polystyrene Greek pillar. When we were leaving, I knelt down under her high chair to pick up the leftovers, and it felt like homage.
How do you know when a collection is ready to submit (apart from the publisher saying ‘Elizabeth, it’s time we….’)?
I like to have 60 poems, without sections or themes (though themes and connections appear between individual poems). Four years is a good gap; in that time a fair number of poems will have been published in journals or online, like children who have gone out into the world and got diplomas.
I have a folder labelled Next Collection, in which poems come and go; the evaluation of a poem can go through many stages: favourite one minute and then ‘Whatever did I see in this?’ the next. And sometimes a poem has something odd or new about it, and is favoured because of that.
You’ve been one of New Zealand’s Poets Laureate. What does the honour (and it is one) do for the recipients? What does it do for poetry in NZ?
I’ll list some of the pleasures. John Buck and family, top-shelf wine, the tokotoko with a whale’s tooth, the swelling company of fellow-laureates, a packed reading in the National Library where the audience formed a long avenue down which we walked later; the hush that poetry can produce; the amazing resurgence the laureateship has begun; the fun of sitting at the airport with Cilla McQueen and wondering if we should stand on one another’s shoulders to make one tall laureate.
Have the ways in which poems begin changed as you’ve written more? I’m asking because – forgive the interpolation – I find that I used to be able to trace the ideas behind a piece of work back to a single source, more or less. Now things seem to begin more from a nexus, a combination of ideas. Is it anything like this for you?
Definitely nexus or nexuses. I’ve always admired your vocabulary! I think memory can be a crucial element, something in the present that ties itself to the past, something vague and even disturbing, a taste, a scent, or something that does that E M Forster dance of ‘Only connect!’ Or it can come as an answer to something puzzled over and half-analysed to death: one day the last piece of the puzzle falls into place.
Of course it is always important to remember when writing poetry or prose that the answer is not quite there – we write to discover it and the relief and pleasure is so great we don’t quite close the door on it, there may be even more to find. I’ve always thought the Person from Porlock was not an enemy but a friend.
A pointless question, which of course is the point of my asking it. Your first poetry collection, Here Come the Clouds (Alister Taylor) appeared in 1975. If you had been able then to glimpse the poems you would be writing and publishing….. ahem….forty years on, how might you have felt?
I think I would have felt pleasure at being able to go on writing, at visualising the shadowy books that had not yet come into existence. I’m always interested in the next thing, the next poem. When a real school inspector bent over my exercise book at primary school and asked me to show him my best page, I turned automatically to the last page I had written on, and said ‘The best, so far’.
Have you been surprised / diappointed by which of your works receive most acclaim? There are certain poems and stories of yours that I always extol to people. Would you like me to change my list every so often?
You should definitely change your list from time to time. A much-anthologised poem can become a bit of a pariah. ‘A cortège of daughters’ (one poem I constantly praise – DH) has a very flat first stanza, but now I think it serves a purpose: an image arises out of a less-than-charming occasion, just as a melody can break out of discord (and is more rewarding when it does). Sometimes it takes only a word, like ‘queenliness’:
And in the midst of their queenliness
one in dark flowered silk, the corpse…
Some of the poems I feel most affection towards are nestled in quotations. ‘Engageants=detachable sleeves’; ‘A book of Louisiana Plantation Houses’; ‘Two adorable things about Mozart’, and from Night Horse ‘Ukelele for a dying child’, written for Stephanie Grace Voice (miraculous name!), my son’s music pupil, which was written in a whirl of almost incoherence whose underlying feeling was ‘What can I or anyone say about this?’
Tabloid, Paul Henry question. What would you like to see change most about attitudes to poetry in this country? I’m typing this question on the morning the nation descends into darkness because our Men’s Rugby Sevens team has just been knocked out of the Rio Olympics. Could poetry save us in such tragic circumstances?
We could do with a lot more Captain Benwicks: he has long conversations with Anne Eliott (in Persuasion) and clearly understands poetry’s deeper purpose. It’s also important that Benwick is very good at slaughtering rats which makes him a ‘real’ man in the eyes of Anne’s brother-in-law.
A poem before an All Black game? Something scrumlike by Byron – The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold….Paul Henry could emulate Garrison Keillor and read a poem every morning.
I’d like to talk now about The Commonplace Book (AUP, 2011). It comprises three separate collections of quotations and reflections which you complied over a period of ten years. They’re your thoughts, associations, ‘ponderings’ – to use one of your favourite words – on numerous topics. I’d actually like to call them ‘musings’, though I dislike the squeezed-out sound of that word, because they evoke the intimate, considered, meticulous nature of your responses to others’ words. ‘There is an art in using a commonplace book,’ you write. So what was your art / method in assembling this one?
The commonplace book(s) are firstly physical journals into which the entries are copied from scrawled writings in my customary 1AE exercise books. I dislike lined paper, and find writing neatly a torture. The paper is usually thick and the pen tends to stub on it.
The really important thing was not to feel compelled to write to any kind of schedule. Seasons might make good divisions.
I felt some thought – ‘pondering’ – should go before an entry: perhaps something long held and now reactivated by something in the present – the most satisfying poems often have that duality. But the essential thing was to go on pondering in the writing, so the reader, if it interested them, could share it. I didn’t want it to be all sobersides; there should be levity and silly juxtapositions because what attracts each one of us is different.
If there is an art in reading a commonplace book I think it would be ‘dipping in and out’, reading haphazardly, for as long or short a time as you please. It’s the way I like to read poetry. If I were writing a journal now I think I would go on a great deal about Jane Austen. I continue to discover things I’ve missed in her novels: repetitions and themes. For instance, I suspect her of being a geneticist before her time. Lady Catherine de Burgh and Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple, both with sickly enfeebled daughters. Inbreeding or the damage of over-bearing mothering?
In The Commonplace Book, you quote Rilke on enduring; a bogus graduation address; St Augustine on ‘the cloisters of memory’; Ian Conrich on Poems to Inspire the All Blacks; scores of other delightfully disparate sources. Their words move you to write (not in the same order) about the Tomb of the Venerable Bede; eye-gouging; your brother in the Luxembourg Gardens; even Shrek the Sheep and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in consecutive paragraphs. How soon were the others’ words followed by yours? Were you surprised / pleased by the associations they evoked? Do such associations make you feel reinforced, in the sense of being part of a community of writers and other humans?
How soon were the others’ words followed by mine? Immediately. Probably before I’d got to the end of the quote, a train of thought was beginning….Wallace Stevens in that profound and lovely poem, ‘Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour’, speaks of our interior thoughts as the ‘intensest rendezvous’.
It is in that thought that we collect ourselves,
Out of all the indifferences, into one thing:
But Stevens doesn’t end there: there is also the mysterious world lit by the ‘highest candle’ we possess: imagination. I might be related to the Walrus in ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’. (‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said,’ ‘To talk of many things’.)
It makes for a kind of leaping but not a reinforcement. How many juxtapositions have been missed? It might have been a low candle day. When I was a child and was taught ballet, I soon realised that perfection was out of reach.
Once, wearing a blue tutu, I was awarded a blue spotlight which moved whenever I moved: I could never escape the circle it made around me: there was no great leap I could make, though I sometimes tried. Master something, it seemed to say, and there is a further darkness beyond. Just recently – and this is probably as unconnected as any of my thoughts – I’ve been thinking about the layers of meaning that exist in even the simplest of conversations.
So tell me about those layers – and about your comment ‘juxtapositions always charm me’, from The Commonplace Book. And before I let you answer, in the same work you quote Henry James: ‘Try to become someone on whom nothing is wasted’. Those two comments seem to show your distinctive ability to find unexpected resonance and significance in all sorts of quotidian objects and events. You appear to be someone for whom Louis MacNeice’s phrase ‘the delight of things being various’ is particularly relevant. How wrong or right am I?
Henry James was very thrifty – didn’t he serve the same pie, re-heated, for lunch as well as dinner? I think he felt the same about life: not a particle of it should not be considered. Not only events but the tiniest details of landscape and furnishing, dress – he rather liked rustlings – the subtle signals of clenched hands or downcast looks. And that’s before he’d got to the main course: human relations and desires and subterfuges. The world is not only marvellously various, but it often seems to me to be making comments.
I’m constantly impressed by the precision and apparent pleasure with which you name objects – including human ones – in your work. An example is your recent short story ‘Baking night’. You don’t say ‘a novel’; you say ‘Nemesis’. You don’t mention ‘baking products’; you list ‘flour, sugar, raisins, coconut’. Your description of grating cheese would make a celebrity chef slaver. Why are you so meticulous? Do you hope readers will linger over the specifics as you seem to? Am I right in thinking it gives you pleasure to write in this manner?
I thought you were going to say ‘ardent’ pleasure. Because that’s how it feels. Clothing the story, plating the food, dressing the character. Partly it’s the love of writing but also respect for so-called inanimate objects that, if carefully preserved, will outlast us. The gloves wrapped in tissue in a drawer, the owner of the gloves drinking coffee at a table. The third part of this trilogy must be animals, the cat sitting at its mistress’s feet, the dog trained to drive a car which it does with a lugubrious expression as if it doesn’t trust the internal combustion engine.* The more I write the closer these elements become and the more mysterious.
*Porter, the dog taught to drive for an SPCA promotion.
One of your recent short stories, ‘Baking night’, appeared in the (damn prestigious) Harvard Review online. How do you feel about being published in this form, as opposed to print on paper? And while we’re at it, it’s typical of your fiction in the precision and apparent pleasure with which you render dialogue. Any comments on this?
Though I had previously published in the physical journal, this time Christina Thompson suggested I might like to be published in the Harvard Review online. ‘Some authors hate it,’ she wrote, but it offered the chance to work with an intern who was responsible for the appearance of the story and publicising it.
The intern wrote that she had read it several times and found something new each time. It was fun to write – and based partly on truth, partly on truthiness and partly on downright lies.
I had been reading Eudora Welty’s definition of dialogue being what characters do to one another. I haven’t reached any splendid levels of viciousness yet and probably never will but I have marvelled at the levels of meaning that exist in even the most banal and plain-seeming conversation. Some of the writers I admire most write dialogue that resembles sword fighting. Recently I re-read Hotel du Lac and marvelled at the many levels Anita Brookner operates on. Truly a serene swan furiously paddling below.
Let’s use Freddy of ‘Baking night’ to talk about WRITING THE OPPOSITE GENDER (portentous capitals). When I meet a male character in your fiction, I start looking forward to the ways I will see my sex, and especially its pretensions, skewered with mischievous, almost forensic accuracy. Does Writing The Opposite Gender present particular problems, issues, rewards?
I’m very fond of Freddy, despite his aborted attempt at seduction. It’s really a story of male and female stratagems. If the baking didn’t take so long perhaps Freddy could have gobbled up everything as it came out of the oven or stuffed some of it in his pockets.
You can tell it is not serious by the way Magdalena disposes of it, throwing it out to the birds, forgetting to put it in airtight tins. The truer stratagems are smearing flour on her face. Freddy wants to go faster and Magdalen wants to slow him down but she doesn’t want him to go away either. He sulks to regain his power but in the end he can venture a joke.
Perhaps what males and females most require are those half-hours of quiet reflection recommended by Jane Austen to quieten their racing hearts and confused emotions. Think of Anne Elliott and Captain Wentworth.
In 2012, you won the Landfall Essay Competition with ‘Reading a Bad Book is Like Getting Food Poisoning’ (enviable title). David Eggleton, who judged the competition, noted that your essay ‘read like a bit of personal literary journal’. In it, you look ironically yet intensely at reading, writing, publishing, marketing. ‘There is no sentimentality in publishing….I am prone to wild enthusiasms about books….the whole of literature might be considered a turning of various predicaments in a snow globe’. I know that the making and reading of books concerns you passionately – and I use that adverb very deliberately. I remember an uncle in my boyhood saying to me (not approvingly) ‘Got your nose stuck in a book again?’ What should I have answered?
‘There is no sentimentality in publishing,’ was said to me by Dennis McEldowney, decades before it became apparent.
Dennis was the most circumspect of editors: I never dared enquire about the fate of a manuscript while I was in his presence, drinking tea and eating a dry little cake like those served by Alice B Toklas. In the essay I wanted to turn several thoughts around in my head – the use of Spem in alium as a soundtrack and whether royalties can compensate for such bad writing?
What could you have said to your book-denigrating uncles? Perhaps: ‘Would you care to step outside?’
It was quite a hard essay to write and at times I wondered how to go on. Then an idea would come: the amusing furtiveness of bookstore patrons buying Fifty Shades of Grey, the tills ringing, even the Tallis Scholars benefitting. There’s a certain didacticism about essays which lingers in spite of its bold and often successful attempts to reinvent itself. Instead of preaching, I thought it could ruminate, even partly shape itself into the mind of the person doing the writing.
As for the making of books, how much I like marker ribbons (sometimes two instead of one), deckle edges and pages that don’t yellow, generous margins complementing the author’s care to find the right word, and my chief bugbear, covers too frail not to curl up before you’ve reached fifty pages or the end of the first chapter, whichever comes sooner. And although there have been cats and dogs that have sat under my desk while I have written, I am never going to name and thank them in the Acknowledgements, along with sixty friends and mentors.
David Eggleton also described your essay as ‘a memorable chunk’ (love that noun) ‘of prose, with the sparkle of rock crystal….astute and witty’. How does it affect your writing to receive such praise from another author? Before you answer, I’ll say how I’ve always liked David Copperfield’s comment as he starts to build a literary reputation: ‘The more praise I got, the more I tried to deserve it’. Do you react the same way? Does being praised bother you?
Leaving aside David Eggleton (astute critic and considerable sparkler himself) for a moment, I think praise must always be the element you can subtract. I tend to think of it as a hazard, like a High Riser sign or No Engine Brakes. Still, what a chunk of obtuseness one would be, unworthy of digging any spark out of the rock crystal, not to celebrate. It’s more a matter of equilibrium, that strange mystery sometimes resembling a malaise, that compels a writer to stop sharpening and lining up pencils or looking at a line of books on a shelf and get to it.
Secretly I find Margaret Thatcher very useful with her brutal interrogation of a complaining woman in a wheelchair and it all coming down to a simple replacement of a socket.
Recently I had an acceptance from an editorial team which said ‘We love this poem’. It was a poem I was thinking of putting into a collection (into a file marked ‘Possibles’). I was rather sick of it. But I opened the folder and shoved it in.
Another bizarre and speculative question. Is there a genre / form you haven’t written in, which you sometimes wish you had attempted? Do you harbour secret yearnings to write a 19th century trilogy, or a detective story in verse, like Dorothy Porter’s The Monkey’s Mask?
Not really. Perhaps a play with long soliloquies which would bore the audience to death, with different lighting for each character. Slashed sleeves, V-shaped necklines, ruffs and those ornate detachable sleeves called engageantes –
Why put such work by rush or candlelight
into tucks and pleats and slits that open like flowers
when the important shoulders inside fall to dust?
I am deeply fond of travel writing and thrillers, but not in verse.
And now a random tradecraft question. I’m pretty sure it was Zadie Smith who said that the best time to edit your work was two months after it’s been published and five minutes before you go on stage to read it for the first time. When and where and how do you edit?
Editing during a reading would be terrifying, though it’s a good time to check for musicality, to notice a loss of attention. I always think of audiences as rabbits – white rabbits with pink ear linings – you can sense when the ears go up. I’ve grown to like editing, thanks to Jane Parkin.
The state of publishing – something which all writers like to shake their heads over. Are you optimistic / pessimistic about outlets and markets for writers at the moment? What do you think has brought about the precariousness that so many of us seem to be feeling?
Oddly, I’m optimistic. We owe a lot to young writers who are determined not to be thwarted, who will find new channels and make new boats of walnut shells with paper sails to launch themselves. But I don’t think you can better a publisher with a ‘nose’ like a wine taster. New Zealand has had a few of those – Bert Hingley, Geoff Walker, Bridget Williams. Profit is not the most important thing.
We’ve talked on other occasions about reviewing – writing reviews and being reviewed. Iain Sharp feels that New Zealand reviewers are too pussy-footed (should that be pussy-pawed?) when it comes to assessing the works of local authors. I remember writing that I didn’t feel severe reviews were automatically beneficial or even honest. What do you feel about the state of reviewing in New Zealand? And have reviews of your work ever changed the way you write – as distinct from the way you feel?
A good review, I think, runs alongside the work that is being considered, like a horse running towards a train. (I have Alex Colville’s Horse and Train pinned on the wall.) The palette needs to be as clean as you can make it and, if there is a hint of prejudice (small country, everybody knowing everybody) you can have confidence that a good book always has the power to convert, to seduce. If that happens, the critic, like a reader, must go along with it. It’s helpful if he or she can tell us why.
As for criticism changing the work I think we write the only way we can and all we can do is try to improve on that.
What are you reading? How do you read? Why do you read? Can you identify the couple of books (we’ll allow you more than the customary single volume) that you’d take to the desert island / the fallout shelter?
I forgot to change my library books so I am re-reading Persuasion. I think I could write a thesis on it. I’ve noticed so many new angles, re-immersed myself in Jane’s worldly wisdom. How does she do it and still write such sentences as this: ‘Prettier musings of high-wrought love and eternal constancy could never have passed along the streets of Bath, than Anne was sporting from Camden place to West-gate buildings. It was almost enough to spread purification and perfume all the way.’
I’d take Patrick Leigh Fermor to a fallout shelter. And Mavis Gallant to a desert island.
Sorry, Elizabeth, but you’ve been writing and publishing long enough for me to ask you a few historical questions. First – writing schools. They’re a phenomenon of the last couple of decades. What do you see as their benefits and possible pitfalls?
I can’t make up my mind. I turn it around in my head, looking for angles. There are dangerous compromises, as if money = praise. Hemingway’s ‘the most essential gift for a writer is a built-in, shockproof shit detector’ still holds true. Perhaps if that is what a student leaves with as well as a diploma or a degree. For all that, some great work is being produced and a Creative Writing School can create its own revolution.
And now THE STATE OF NEW ZEALAND WRITING: a topic so portentous that it must be rendered in capitals. What impresses / pleases you most about our literature – in the broadest sense – at the moment? Are there aspects of our writing and writers that puzzle or concern you?
I liken it to travelling to the northernmost point of New Zealand where the landscape seems to unfold every known exemplar in a series of rapidly-succeeding tableaux. There’s rock and bush and barrenness and fertility and after the vista of the lighthouse the two oceans meeting, leaving a koru-like curl on the surface to mark the spot.
Our writing changes as we grow older. There – I’ve just written the century’s most fatuous observation. In what ways have your writing habits, your topics, your approaches, your techniques – anything about your writing – altered over your pretty terrific four-plus decades of being published? Are there ways in which you wish it had (or hadn’t) changed?
I think the word is ‘develops’. I don’t feel much has changed: the same erratic, never-quite-disciplined habits, the same desire to put energy and complexity in, to not know what’s going on and to end opening-up or -out. I think as you get older the desire to get wilder arrives. An interior wildness.
We often grouch, bitterly or ruefully, about a writer’s usually meagre and erratic income as opposed to other occupations. You’ve written in The Journal Box ‘It would be a fool who thought the position of the writer was improving … it’s so galling to be dealing with people on regular salaries.’ What would need to change for New Zealand writers to be paid a reasonable income? Should they /we be paid one?
I often have the pleasure of grouching with you. All professions have grouching; it’s a sort of lubricant. You sometimes hear a parent say to a child who is about to explode: ‘Use your words’. Do you think it is because we all have words and speak, that the written language is undervalued, regarded as common?
It is galling to be asked to write something for no fee when the administrators are being paid and the printers and designers. But we keep doing it anyway. What we need is the Prime Minister clutching a copy of Middlemarch as he hurries to a caucus.
I’ll push another phrase at you. In ‘Little Gidding’, Eliot talks of what he seems to see as consummate writing, ending with that wonderful phrase ‘The complete consort dancing together’. Are you happy with this as one image of the sort of felicity you hope to achieve?
‘The complete consort dancing together’: it sounds like a pavane, one of my favourite dances.
I also like ‘Rhymes may be so far apart, you cannot hear them, but they can hear each other, as if whispering on a toy telephone made of paper cups and a length of string.’
(A.E. Stallings – poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine)
A corollary to the previous question. I (sorry again about the first-person intrusion) wrote recently that the pleasure, the satisfaction, and….well, the virtue of writing meant I’d always choose this occupation over that of merchant banker. Do you feel the same way?
I’d be no good as a merchant banker.
Wasn’t there an ad once about a beer ‘that touches the places other beers can’t reach’? That’s how writing feels to me. It may be going badly – ‘Badly’ is a standard reply when someone asks ‘How’s the writing going?’ – but whatever state the writing is in, it always feels, while it’s happening, as though every part of me is alive and engaged. It teaches the wonder and danger of the unconscious that brings material to the surface; that organises a new plot direction while you sleep; that retrieves some deep-buried unexamined memory which has left a trace like Proust’s madeleine and clothes it in a poem. There’s a cost, of course: after feeling so fully alive and hot-wired, the downside is you feel a little dead.
David Hill is a New Plymouth fiction writer and reviewer. His novels and short stories for teenagers and children have been published in twelve countries, and he likes showing people the Croatian editions. He’s had the enormous pleasure of knowing Elizabeth Smither (who went to school with his wife Beth) for over half a century.