Friday, December 26, 2008

Readwritepoem: Going Ancestral

Those who read my blog regularly will know that this week's topic at readwritepoem - to explore our ancestry - isn't much of a stretch for me. It seems that genealogy is a popular obsession. Recently, I've been reading Fleur Adcock's collection, Looking Back. the first half of the book is a series of poems about her ancestors. She writes of the hardships they experienced in Victorian times, in the industrial town of Manchester, and goes back earlier to discover some notable traitors and villains.

I enjoyed the poems very much. Even though these belong to someone else's story, there is enough that is universal in their lives to resonate with me. She writes not only of their lives but of her search for their lives:

What are you loving me with? I'm dead
What glad of tenderness throbs in you,
yearning back through the silt of ages
to a face and a voice you never knew?

(Ancestor to Devotee)

They don't know that we know,
or that we're standing here, in possession
of some really quite intimate information
about the causes of their deaths

(Where they Lived)

Some things, it seems, never change: she writes of escaping into research at the time of the Gulf War, and finding a will in which two of her long dead relations were left a sum of money annually, "so long as they follow the warres"

I've had to return my borrowed library copy. It seems it is now out of print, but you can buy it used at Amazon (rather pricey)
Alternatively the poems are included in the substantial collection Fleur Adcock: Poems 1960-2000
New Zealand readers might like to try Fishpond instead for a better price.

And now, one of my own poems - this is a fairly early one, included in our poetry group's first collection. It was written after a summer of fairly intensive genealogical research. It doesn't refer so much to a particular ancestor but to the social history of the times and place (Scotland) that they came from, and their imagined stories.

Songs and Dances of Death

What they did not know was that the curious fertility of the soil came about because they stood on an ancient battlefield. Sometimes they would turn up old bones and once, a skull. They took it to the priest for burial and returned to their ploughing. At night they told the old stories. If you had asked “Can’t you hear the dead crying out?” they would say “It’s only the wind in the wheat”


All summer I read of these things.
In my garden the weeds grew lank.
It rained often. On the path
I could barely make out a small bundle of feathers
and bones


In the museum there is a dark blue velvet
cloth. It has covered many at their burials.
As well seek them in the night sky as here
their trace as faint


It is because of their deaths that we have come


this poem is not a sarcophagus
this poem is not a mausoleum
this poem is a brown cardboard box
sufficient to bury one dead blackbird
found on my garden path

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas

A few random Christmas observations (with photos, at the bottom):

1) The nice thing about having two jobs is that I have the "last day of work before Christmas" twice. Which meant being let off early, one day, and having a big staff Christmas barbeque the next day.

2) I had a strange e-mail a couple of days ago telling me not to come in to work because of the bad weather conditions in Portland, Oregon. Which would all have made perfect sense if I actually lived in Portland, Oregon. I don't think my boss would have appreciated me phoning up and saying "I can't come into work because it's snowing in Portland."

3) For last minute shopping I decided to avoid the malls and went into the centre of town, where it was surprisingly uncrowded. Although I'm told that the malls weren't as crowded as usual, either. I saw an item on TV on the recession in the US, where one "woman in the street" said she was only spending $2000 last year (as opposed to $7000 last year). Somehow I felt strangely unsympathetic. A spare $2000 would be very nice, thank you.

4) Having said that, apparently the spending in New Zealand is also down to about 75% of last year.

While I was in town I stopped to look at the Ballantynes Christmas windows. Some pictures for your enjoyment (mostly close up , because the only way I could avoid reflections was to put the camera right up to the glass)

Friday, December 19, 2008

My Favourite Poet

New Zealand poet Bernadette Hall featured at the Scottish Poetry Library

I'm always willing to give a plug to Bernadette who is not only a wonderful poet but also a gracious mentor. She willingly gave her time to edit our group's last book and has agreed to edit the next one (see my previous post)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Hot off the Press

The latest issue of Takahe magazine, which has three of my poems in it.

Yes, I see it first because I am on the staff. But only on the administration side ie finances, subscriber database etc. I do have faith in the ability of the editors to select work on merit.

Now, I just have to make time to write more poems, and send out more submissions. I have gathered a fat folder of possible publications to submit to. Just haven't done it yet.

In other news, the small poetry group I belong to (the Poetry Chooks) were successful in obtaining a grant towards publication of a second collection of our work - to include paying an established poet for editing and workshopping. So, 2009 should be a good year for writing.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

It's Thursday, Time for a Poem

Over at readwritepoem, the theme this week is panegyrics - poems in praise of a person.

This poem is not exactly a panegyric, but it does include affectionate references to several local poets. That's about as close as I usually get to high-flown praise. I've had this one gestating for a couple of weeks or so, since my recent road trip to Dunedin. It's still very much a first draft.

Driving South in the Company of Poets

Every small town and village labelled,
every trickle of water, as if
the land is a map of itself.
Dogleg Stream, Muddy Creek,
Flagswamp Culvert. All these words
begging to be harvested
some of them claimed already
Rhian at Saltwater Creek
Jim at Blueksin Bay,
Bernadette and Joanna at Seacliff,
the old asylum nearby
greataunt Jane unvisited
for quarter of a century
babbling like a Chinaman
and if she had poems in her
no one could tell.


The poets/poems referred to are as follows:
Rhian Gallagher and "Saltwater Creek"
James Norcliffe and "Along Blueskin Road"
Bernadette Hall and her poem "Shaddai" which is set at Seacliff, and includes a conversation with her friend, painter and poet Joanna Margaret Paul.
Seacliff is the site of a former lunatic asylum. My greataunt Jane who was developmentally disabled lived at home for 30 years until her mother died and her sisters could no longer cope, she was then admitted to Seacliff where she died nearly 25 years later. The phrase "babbling like a Chinaman" comes from her hospital file which makes rather sad reading.

She had fallen into a fire and been severely burned as a child, and also had diptheria at the age of five. I can't help feeling that with modern medical treatment she would have fared a great deal better, perhaps been educated at least to a degree, and certainly would not have been classed as a "lunatic".

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Thematic Photographic: Shadow

For more shadow photos, go here

(And if you are inspired to take part, please tell Carmi I sent you).

Friday, December 05, 2008

Oamaru Again

Oamaru is a town that takes its Victorian heritage very seriously. Not only do they have a festival in November every year, but in the historic precinct of town, there are a number of businesses where you can get the flavour of Victorian life all year round.

Most of the action at the Victorian fete was in the street stalls and entertainment, but I also ventured inside some of the shops - we bought lunch at the bakery, visited this traditional bookbinder

(beautiful handbound journals at rather high prices)

the Grainstore Art Gallery, which is like no other art gallery I have ever seen

and the secondhand bookstore.

The proprietor is wrapping my purchase (a book of Scottish poetry) with brown paper and string, after entering the details by hand in a large leather bound ledger. She wears Victorian dress all year round. The business does, however, make one concession to modern life - an EFTPOS machine.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008


I came across this tiny installation on the floor of Oamaru's Grainstore Art Gallery, during the Victorian Heritage Festival. I was too busy absorbing all the events of the day to come back for the Edward Lear readings, but I think it would have been fun. And I thought this was a delightful way to advertise it.

"Koha" is a Maori word meaning I think gift, in other words a donation.

This is another photo for Carmi's Thematic Photographic theme, sweet.

Monday, December 01, 2008


December already! One of the tasks I got done at the weekend was to bake our Christmas cake - a rich fruit cake with a glass full of brandy poured over as it cools. Later it will be iced with almond paste and royal icing.

Traditional Christmas food doesn't really fit well with the New Zealand climate - traditional British Christmas fare, that is. The whole roast dinner, plum pudding with coins in it, brandy sauce blazing full-on midday meal on a day that is quite likely to be hot and sunny (but not always!). I don't care. Every year, recipe supplements in newspapers and magazines offer all sorts of suggestions for festive summer Christmas menus. The problem is that nothing about them says Christmas to me. If it's not the same meal every year, with something about it that we just don't have on any other day of the year, then it's just a festive meal that we could equally well serve on any other special occasion - a birthday, say, or wedding anniversary.

I think my children feel the same about tradition. One of our family traditions is to put out Christmas stockings. When the children were small, it was our way of keeping them busy with little treats while Mum and Dad enjoyed a lie-in. Then the bigger presents came later. Also, I felt that if Father Christmas filled the stockings, and the bigger presents came from Mum and Dad, it was easier to understand "we can't afford that".

Now they are grown up but they won't give up their Christmas stockings. So last year with budgets tighter, I suggested that everyone buy one item for each other person's stocking. That seemed to add to the fun.

When they were small, they could be filled very cheaply with crayons, balloons, children's scissors, and the like. I grew tired of running out of sellotape, so I started putting a reel of sellotape in each child's stocking, then they all had their own. Eventually we had such ample supplies of sellotape that I left it out one year. My daughter complained. "It's tradition", she said.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thematic Photographic: Sweet

This is one of the photos I took in Oamaru (see my last-but-two post for the background). I'm repeating it here for ease of linking, for Carmi's "Thematic Photographic" this week. As soon as I saw that his topic was sweet I thought of this one. For more sweet photographs, visit Carmi here

Political Rant

So, the UK has decided to impose a new tax on airline travel, with the furthest destinations attracting the highest taxes ie South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.

At first, I thought that this meant that if we manage to return to the UK (which I would dearly love to do, to see all the places associated with my ancestors that I didn't manage to fit in the first time around), that we would pay a hefty departure tax for leaving Britain. After mulling over all the news reports, I realised that the UK actually plan to tax airline tickets bought there, so that those buying a return fare from New Zealand to the UK and back won't pay the tax. (At least, that's what I thought. At least one newspaper article I looked at suggests otherwise. Maybe if I return I'll fly to Paris and travel from there by train).

Why does this still bother me? First, I think it is a revenue-gathering exercise. There is no sign that the government actually plans to use the money to put into measures to combat environmental problems - unlike airlines and tour companies that give travellers the option to buy carbon offsets, which are invested in environmentally helpful projects.

Secondly, I don't think it is entirely Britain's problem. Travellers from Britain don't fly to Australia or New Zealand. They fly to Singapore, or Dubai, or Hong Kong, or Los Angeles, and from there, after a short or longer stopover, they continue. So - what happens if these countries also decide to tax air travel, and they do it by slapping on an airport departure tax? Double taxation is what happens.

Thirdly, it affects our economy in a rather large way. Tourism is a big earner here. Many of our young people spend a couple of years living and working in the UK, and will be hit when they buy a ticket to come back. There will be other effects.

None of these are the real reason for my upset . Emotionally, it bothers me for several more reasons.

Firstly, because I feel as if I have done the responsible thing - worked, saved, bought the house, raised the family, looked forward to travelling when they were grown, and suddenly I am being told that it is a Bad Thing to enjoy the pleasure of travel. Every tax on air travel is another government trying to make me feel guilty. (I'm pretty good at the guilt thing all by myself).

Secondly, because in New Zealand we feel small and isolated. It feels as if we are being told "none of the popular kids want to play with you any more, because you are too far away." Or "our mummy says we are not allowed to play with you any more."

And thirdly, because after all, we are here because Britain put us here. Not all New Zealanders of course, but a large proportion of New Zealanders, and Australians, are here because of British colonisation. We have strong emotional ties to Britain. Though I don't think they really remember that, any more - not as much as we do, anyway.

Here's a link to a piece in the Melbourne Age
and a New Zealand reaction

(I wonder if they would help the environment more by taxing the short haul flights the most. After all, these are the ones where the tax might actually encourage people to take land-based options such as rail. For New Zealand and Australia, there are no options.)

Monday, November 24, 2008

Congratulations Joanna

Good to see in our newspaper this morning that local poet Joanna Preston has won the inaugural Kathleen Grattan award for poetry. This brings with it $16000 and publication of her collection, which I am eagerly looking forward to.

(OK, it's a rather pathetic headline. But at least there is some poetry news in the paper).

And here is Joanna's blog. (And she keeps chickens, too. I have to respect a poet who keeps chickens.)

Sunday, November 23, 2008


Our trip was timed to coincide with the Oamaru Victorian Heritage Festival - a week of celebrations held annually. There are various events such as a garden party, ball, street parade, penny farthing races etc, culminating in a Victorian fete on the Sunday. This is held in the historic precinct by the harbour, an area containing 19th century whitestone buildings which were once used as grain stores - rather more elaborate than such buildings would be today.

Oamaru was at the height of its prosperity around 1880 and had the same population as San Francisco. One town flourished, the other stagnated. Because of this, the old buildings didn't get pulled down in the cause of "development" and Oamaru has been proposed for World Heritage status.

Here's Harbour St the night before, bedecked with flags but rather empty

and here it is at the height of the festivities, complete with Morris dancers


a trick cyclist

Traditional crafts were on display

The locals really put a lot of effort into their costumes each year. I was talking to the first of these women, who told me that she has a new costume nearly every year, often making them herself. This one she had made, and may keep it for another year as she will be having a ballgown made for next year.

This girl's parents were running a street stall, and she was perched up on the windowsill just behind enjoying the festivities

More to come

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Great Wildlife Search

The Otago peninsula (just out of Dunedin) is known for its wildlife experiences, many of course, packaged and priced for tourists. I've been wanting for years to see the albatrosses, however Kay (who worked there last summer) had told me that the observatory there is closed from September to November for nesting season.

In the end I decided to take a drive out on the peninsula anyway, just to see what we could see. After all, we checked out of our accommodation in Dunedin at 10 a.m. and check in time in Oamaru (just over an hour away) wasn't till four.

I wasn't sorry. At Taiaroa Head

we arrived just in time to see a magnificent albatross soaring over the carpark - and it was entirely free to view. Just to underscore the size of this amazing bird, on one pass, it was followed by a seagull madly flapping its wings trying to keep up, while the albatross, many times its size, travelled in an effortless glide.

This is my best photo of the albatross.

Yes, I missed it. (That's a duck in the previous photograph). I guess my bird photography skills aren't what I thought they were, the one in the post a couple of days ago being a lucky fluke.

We also spotted a sealion basking on the beach below. I hoped to get a "head up" photo but it wasn't cooperating. In the end we decided that it just wanted to bask in the sun, and we started to walk away, at which point it made a dash for the sea, which it had reached by the time I had my camera pointed.

This beach had a sign up saying that penguins come ashore here at dusk, (from 8.30 at this time of year). If I had known that, I might have come out the night before instead of lounging on my bunk.

However we were headed to Oamaru which is known for penguins. Upon enquiry, we were told where we might see hoiho (yellow-eyed penguins) from about 5 pm on, at no cost, or little blue penguins from dusk, at a charge. So we tried for the yellow-eyed penguins first. The public viewing hide has been constructed on cliffs above the beach. These are not very social birds so they come ashore in ones and twos, their nests well apart. The pair we spotted were well down the beach. Can you see them? (This is maximum zoom - 12x - on my camera).

Perhaps this heavily cropped photo will help.

The little blue penguins are much more social and live in a colony. They have been protected by the fencing off of an area and predator proofing it, which has allowed for the building of a tourist facility and viewing stand rather like one at a sports arena. So, of course, a charge to view. The advantage though is the orange lights installed for easier viewing. Apparently the penguins don't see orange light and think it is dark. Strictly no photographs though, because the flash will put them off. (If I had been bolder, I would have taken a few shots of the early arrivals, before the flash was necessary. But I'm good and play by the rules, mostly). It was quite fascinating to see the rafts of penguins arriving (that's what each group is called), surfing up on the rocks on a breaking wave, and clambering over the rocks to get to their burrows.

Having paid the entry fee, I was a bit miffed the next morning when a young Japanese woman at the backpackers told me she had gone to see penguins on the beach behind the Whisky Company, at no cost at all (but of course, no orange light).

Thursday, November 20, 2008

More Dunedin Photos

Dunedin was a prosperous city in the 19th century due to the discovery of gold in the region. Later, however, industry and the population moved north. This means that the old buildings weren't pulled down for development as much as in some other cities, and it has a fine collection of Victorian and Edwardian architecture.

This is the wonderfully ornate railway station:

A detail of an old house near the archives building:

About a fifth of the population are university students. Since exams are over, many of the students have left town, but not without leaving their mark:

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Road Trip

I took a few days off work, since it was over a year since my last holiday, and went on a road trip. My youngest daughter came along for the ride.

We drove down to Dunedin last Thursday, where I spent the afternoon doing family history research in the Presbyterian Church archives, before checking into our motor camp. Then Kay came to pick us up and we went to an Indian vegan cafe for a meal, followed by a poetry reading. Photos on Kay's blog here. (Scroll down, it is quite a long post).

The next day I went for an early walk along St Kilda and St Clair beach (they merge together), which is familiar to me from the photos Kay has posted on her blog from time to time.

These children were part of a school group who had been staying at the motor camp.

Then research in the Dunedin branch of the National Archives while daughter C browsed in the museum, followed by a visit to the Early Settlers Museum.

We were planning to drive round the Otago Peninsula but I realised I had left the sunblock at the motor camp. So I headed back to put some on, on the way I decided to stop in at Anderson's Bay cemetery to visit a few relatives.

This is the amazing view from the cemetery - I believe the beach is called Tomahawk Beach.

It was a very hot day and by the time we returned to the motor camp I had a nasty headache so there was a change of plans and I spent the rest of the day being very lazy resting on my bunk.

Lots more photos to come.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

That Other Election

Yes, the one in New Zealand - not as newsworthy or exciting as the one in the US, but every twelve years they coincide.

Here is an Australian doing what the Australians do best - mocking New Zealand.

That's OK, we give as good as we get. It was a former New Zealand Prime Minister who once made a famous comment that New Zealanders leaving for Australia raised the average IQ of both countries...

We have a complicated electoral system here, though not as complicated as some, which means that we get two votes - one for the candidate to represent our electorate, and one for the party which is to govern the country. So, of course, in the twelve years since MMP began, we have never had a majority government, they always have to form a coalition with one or more smaller parties. There are a long list of these contesting each election, but most fall under one of the three r's: the radical, the reactionary, or the ridiculous.

In the latter category is the Bill and Ben party, to whom we owe the best quote of the election night coverage:
"We can't be voted off, we found the hidden immunity idol".

New Zealanders thought otherwise. The minor parties that did make it into Parliament were the Green Party, the Maori Party, the right wing ACT, centrist United Future, and left wing Progressive Party (one seat each for the last two). So now we are waiting to see how our rather centrist new right wing Prime Minister will hold off the more right wings demand from the ACT party, possibly by playing them off against the Maori Party.

One thing about outgoing Prime Minister Helen Clark is that she was superb at holding together unlikely coalitions.

John Key on the other hand promised in his victory speech to make New Zealand safer, more prosperous, reward (or was that encourage?) ambition, and help those who can't help themselves. He didn't quite promise to do it in six days...

Another newspaper article suggested that New Zealanders are quite realistic and that what they expected of Helen Clark is more of the same, and what they expect of John Key is more of the same, with tax cuts. He could well be right.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Poetry and the Listener

There are two mainstream publications in New Zealand that make quality poetry more accessible to the general reader - the Listener and North and South. The only other journals that regularly publish poetry are the small circulation literary magazines.
North and South being monthly publishes twelve poems a year. The Listener is a weekly which publishes television listings, but also articles, reviews etc of general interest and therefore by publishing a poem an issue, brings us fifty two poems a year. Except that sometimes it leaves them out. And recently it has been suggested that they will stop publishing poetry because of the economic recession. For more on this see Beatties Book Blog here.

As a reader, the first thing I look for when I get my weekly copy of the Listener is the poem. I'm always disappointed if they've missed it out. It is one way of getting exposure to a wide range of New Zealand poets. If all I wanted was the TV listings, I could get them from much cheaper rival publications, or from the newspaper.

Writers of novels don't rely on magazines. It may be hard to get a first novel published, but the only real way is to write it and send it out to publishers, directly or through an agent. Poetry is different. I've been surprised at some of the names I've heard nominated for "best first book of poetry" in our book awards, because often they are poets who have been publishing in magazines for year. The market for poetry books is so small, that publishers want to see a good publication history in magazines before they will consider a book deal. There are few enough magazines out there that the loss of even one is - well, I won't say tragic, when there are real tragedies in which people lose their lives - but it is very disappointing.

Doubly so because the Listener apparently pays quite well, from what I've heard.

New Zealanders - if you want to contact the Listener, the arts editor concerned is Guy Somerset, and the website has contact details.

Monday, November 03, 2008


Well, not actually bookless - my shelves are quite crowded and there's always the library. However, I signed up for the e-mail list at our local branch of Borders. This week's coupon was for 50% of a full-price book which seemed well worth the effort of a special trip.

I don't browse at Borders nearly as much as I used to. It is right beside one of the myriad of routes that I can take between home and one of my two jobs. However, if I go there on the way home I am faced with a very tricky right-hand turn into peak hour traffic to get out of there again, so I tend to avoid it. Instead, I tried to make a quick visit in the middle of the day while travelling between the two jobs (meaning a left turn, much easier as we drive on the left here).

I quickly remembered the other reason I've been avoiding the place. The mall is building a new multi-storey parking building on the convenient car park that I used to use. By the time I found a car park that wasn't rendered useless by construction activity, I had a long walk to get to the books.

And when I got there, I really couldn't find a special book that called to me - that said "I am the book you have to have, one to be part of your life forever, one for which four weeks loan from the library just won't do." There was one, which I won't name, which I had wanted to buy a couple of months back when I had a book token, but the paper quality turned out to be so poor that I just couldn't bring myself to do it.

Of course, in about three days, after my voucher runs out, I will probably remember several books that I really, really want, but for now my mind is blank.

Friday, October 31, 2008

What's That Again?

I was looking for Carcanet's New Poetries IV at Fishpond (New Zealand online bookstore) and I got the question popping up - the one search engines use when they think you have misspelled something...
"Did you mean...?"

What did they think I meant?

The question was "Did you mean New Poe tries IV?"

What was that? Why on earth would I want a space in the middle of the word?
And then I looked again and figured it out. Visions of Edgar Allen's descendant hooked up to a drip, in a graveyard with bats and ravens flying around. Hmmm...

Thursday, October 30, 2008


I don't seem to be writing many posts lately, my last few posts have been photos for Carmi's Thematic Photographic.
My mind is turning towards writing new poems, and editing old poems, which seems to divert my energies away from writing blog posts, but images are another matter.

This week's theme is night.

The first photo is the Bridge of Remembrance here in Christchurch, lit up at dusk. The time of year was midwinter (about June or July), as I was on my way home from work and in summer it is of course still bright daylight at that time.

The second photo was taken in December 2006 at Carols by Candlelight. The event had in fact been cancelled. But some of us didn't know that and turned up anyway. Someone decided to conduct, some had brought their own carol books from previous years, and candles, and someone else dashed home and fetched a trumpet. It's amazing what a great event we had without the celebrity comperes, brass bands etc.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Monday, October 20, 2008

In a Blur

This week's theme at Carmi's Thematic Photographic is blur

It brought to mind the photos I took last year when we drove through the small village of Freshford near Bath, in England. My greatgreatgreatgrandfather was born here. Unfortunately English country lanes are very narrow and unlike New Zealand roads, places to pull over and stop to take a photo seem to be sadly lacking. Furthermore, twilight was rapidly approaching. So even though we were getting quite practiced at clicking the camera on the move, the long exposure time dictated by the low light meant my photos of the village came out rather blurry.

There's a poem to go with this one (although the bridge described in the poem was actually in a different photo). The italics are a quote from another poem that was on Poetry Daily, I need to look it up to find the author and title.


Yes, yes, you can’t step into the same
river twice
, and I can’t cross
the same bridge as my ancestors,
but all the same, this bridge is one of the things
that has changed least since you lived here,
linking the village with the quarry, on narrow roads
meant for horses. On both sides now
the stone houses, clean and prosperous looking,
country retreats for the middle classes,
and cars pulling up at the inn, in the twilight.
There were weavers and washerwomen once.
Where are their rough cottages? Pulled down,
or renovated, made large enough for small families
to sleep one to a bedroom. Your seventeen children
one by one left their shared beds
to trudge over this bridge to distant cities
in the hope of work. Look, here are photos
I took from the car window. Have I captured
your ghosts? I see only a blur. We are moving
too fast.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Simple Pleasures #3

After I posted the photo of the girl on the swing I started to think about childhood pleasures. Parents these days seem to be inundated with advice on the importance of a rich environment for children. Unfortunately this often seems to be interpreted to me lots of educational toys and "baby Mozart" DVDs.

I believe that when I was growing up I had a very rich environment. Lots of time at the beach and outdoors, climbing trees, sliding down flax bushes and making tunnels through the daisy bushes. Many, many books borrowed from the library, which had far more books than my parents could have ever bought me. Time spent with adults who could respond individually - my parents, and my grandparents just up the road. A grandfather who believed in learning enough that he was still learning himself (Esperanto and chess were his two big retirement pastimes). Nature, of course, can do something that no "educational" plastic toy can ever do - it can change from day to day, all by itself.

This child is spending time in just the sort of environment I loved as a child (even though I was totally unathletic, as you will see from my sidebar, I loved the outdoors). I don't know who he (or she?) is - I snapped this during the "farewell to the godwits" ceremony held here a couple of years ago. They do it every year when the birds are about to set off on the long journey from New Zealand to Siberia - a miracle of nature that impressed this child far less than the miracle of sand and water.

For more photos of children, visit Thematic Photographic at Carmi's blog.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

More Simple Pleasures

This one is my brother and myself, with my Dad pushing the cart, outside my grandmother's place here in Christchurch. We must have been on holiday - we lived in Wellington at the time.

Probably about Christmas 1952

For Thematic Photographic - kids

Friday, October 03, 2008

Endangered Species

Recently this rope swing appeared on the riverbank near our house. While driving home, I spotted it and pondered the possibilities of photographing it for Carmi's Thematic Photographic this week - kids. Almost nothing says "kids" as well as a rope swing, even if there are no actual kids in the photo.

Just as I pulled over, however, the young girl appeared to play on it. So I used my zoom to get a few photos from a discreet distance. I rather like that it is a little blurred - it speaks of movement - and it makes it more anonymous, too.

I don't think the swing will last very long. Apparently city council workers cut them down whenever they come across them. I'm not sure if it's the trees or the children they think they are protecting. I think it's a shame that modern play choice come down to artificial playgrounds, carefully designed to remove all danger (and hence fun), and Playstations and Gameboys.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Thematic Photographic - Kids

Carmi has invited us to post photos of kids this week.
My own children are all well grown up and show no signs of producing the next generation. While we do have lots of photos of them when they were younger, they were mostly taken by my husband, and it feels a bit odd to post someone else's photos on my blog.

So, I hunted to see what else I had. Mostly, my shots of children aren't particularly great as photos, but since most children are adorable anyway, whether the photographer is skilled or not, I decided to share a few.

This is a wee girl I spotted in the street one day. Since I have a daughter who loves zebras, I asked her mother very nicely if she would mind my taking a photo, and the girl posed very nicely for me.

More "kid" photos here

Four Types of Sentence

Some years back I took an evening course led by a poet who is also a Steiner teacher - in fact the classes took place at the local Rudolf Steiner school. It was at least partly based on a book by Paul Matthews called Sing Me the Creation, which is centred around four types of sentences.

Of course poets don't always use sentences at all. We can write in fragments, or lists. But it is hard to think of any sorts of sentences other than the four that Matthews describes - the statement, the command, the exclamation, and the question.

I started thinking about these four again while reading the poetry of Olena Kalytiak Davis recently. Most poems that I read, if they are written in sentences, rely heavily on statements. (Sometimes fairly strange statements, but statements nevertheless). In Davis's poetry, I found many many examples of commands, questions, and even exclamations, and I think it is one of the reasons I find her poetry so powerful.

For instance, "In Defense of Marriage" consists mostly of commands:
Marry the white fences;
marry the fenceless
Moon and the defenceless sky


Promise to forsake.
Give in
to the cistern full of asters

The final statement seems stronger for its position at the end of a string of commands:

I married the way moths marry.
I married hard.

And then there are her questions, like this one from "The Panic of Birds"

What was it
I understood so well last night, so well it kissed me,
Sweetly, on the forehead?

The exclamation is the hardest, I think, to use effectively. Nineteenth century poems are full of them, of course - the word "Oh!" is a give away. It's one word that some beginners use misguidedly to make their work seem more "poetic" and one word that puts editors off enormously. (See the introduction by Billy Collins to Best American Poems 2006)

Davis makes very effective use of "O'" in her poem "In the Clear Long After" (which is included in the first Poetry Daily anthology. The last two lines are

O, to be stung by an errant bee. O, to sting.
O, to see you again. Covered in spring.

There are poems by Davis that I love, and poems that leave me mystified, although I am decreasing the number of those as I get to know them better. She's a little known poet but one I believe is worth becoming acquainted with. The Paul Matthews book is well worth a read, too.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Poets and Day Jobs

Since it's confession time over at January's blog (or perhaps not, time differences between continents always confuse me) - anyway, Tuesday there or not, I thought it was time to confess what a terrible procrastinator I am. I have little bits of paper stored up for months on which I have ideas for poems and blog posts.

This week though, I thought I would try to have a catch up and get some of those blog posts (and maybe even poems) written. So there will be lots of posts from me this week.

One of the news items over at Poetry Daily is this one about poets and their day jobs. Not many poets, of course, make a living from writing poetry. Some have jobs in universities and make a living from teaching poetry, but I don't think it's the same thing at all. Robert Saxton says in the article, "the price I pay for a salaried job is lack of collegiate empathy" - where does he think the collegiate empathy would come from if he didn't have a salaried job? Wouldn't he be rather isolated from other poets - unless he was in a university - and then he'd have a salaried job, in which he would spend quite a bit of time teaching rather than writing.

I found myself thinking about poets and their day jobs - in most cases, I can't tell from the poetry what the day jobs are. There are exceptions, of course. In New Zealand, Glen Colquhoun is well known as a doctor poet, and one of his collections, "Playing God" is full of poems that arise from his experience of medicine. Ted Kooser worked for years as an insurance executive, but you don't see that much in his poetry. The Czech poet, Miroslav Holub, was an immunologist, but the poems I remember most from reading his work are his "Minotaur" series. I've read a poem about the work of engineers, and another great poet about a manager having to make men redundant, but whether the poets were in that line of work or not, I have no idea.

I found the article interesting, but wondered about the comment from Jane Routh. She's a farmer. I think that's a great day job for a poet (despite being rather time consuming) but then, I'm rather partial to nature poems, myself. Much more interesting than "office" poems. However, she said "the worst 'day job' would be poetry: what would there be to write about?"

Well, of course, all those things we write about when we are not writing about our jobs. Families, nature, friends, history, ideas, science, childhood memories, and on and on.

I found myself wondering what I write about most. Not my day job, that's for sure. I don't find a lot of poetic stimulation in accounting, although a spreadsheet did make an appearance in one of my poems once. I've written a fair few poems based on my family history research - both about specific ancestors, and about the lives of people of earlier times in general, the immigrant experience, and so on. I've written about the colour white, the letter Z, simple kitchen ingredients like eggs and honey, I've written about scenes from my trip to the UK last year (though much less than I expected), mythology, missing my parents, incidents from my childrens' childhood. Currently, I'm obsessing about birds. It started with a discussion about how poetic crows are, and then I began wondering why there are no crows in New Zealand - why the English didn't introduce crows, even though they did introduce starlings, blackbirds, sparrows and many others. Whooops! I thought I was on to a new topic there, but it seems to have come back to social history, and the immigrant experience again. But with another layer.

So, I don't think it would be a hindrance at all for your "day job" to be poetry - you would still be able to find things to write about. But you probably do need some sort of obsession that isn't poetry. What Natalie Goldberg calls "the third thing". There is you, and writing, but what is the third thing that informs your writing?

What do you write about?

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

You Wouldn't, Would You?

Suppose you, the reader, were to plan on submitting poems to a literary magazine. You surely wouldn't do any of these things:

1) Fail to read the submission guidelines.
2) Having read the guidelines, fail to follow them.
3) Fail to check the current postage rates, so that your submission arrives marked "insufficient postage" with penalty postage for the recipient to pay.
4) Fail to send a stamped addressed envelope when requested.
5) If submitting from overseas, fail to send the requested IRC (International Reply Coupon), and instead, send a stamped addressed envelope using stamps of your own country. (Strangely, the New Zealand Post Office takes exception to Australian or American stamps on envelopes posted here. Or perhaps not so strangely!)
6) Fail not only to enclose a stamped addressed envelope but also fail to put any identifying marks, ie name and address, on your submission.
7) Submit your "inspirational" true life story to a magazine that clearly publishes only fiction and poetry.
8) Submit your work by e-mail to the magazine administrator (not the editor whose e-mail has not been advertised), when the guidelines clearly say no e-mail submissions.
9) Follow all the guidelines, have your work accepted and published, move house after your work has been accepted and fail to inform the magazine. And then complain when you don't receive your payment or contributor's copies.

You wouldn't, would you? So who are all these people who do all of the above? (Yes, I'm a bit frustrated at the moment).

Monday, September 29, 2008

An Overdue Review

"Unleash the Poem Within" by Wendy Nyemaster published by Source Books.

I received a review copy of this book a while ago, just about the time that Juliet posted her review on her blog Crafty Green Poet and then again on readwritepoem.

I enjoyed reading the book, but found myself wondering what I could say about it that Juliet hadn't said already. It is, as Juliet has said, aimed at beginning poets. As a cross between a writing book and a self-help book, I would say that it definitely leans towards the self-help end of the spectrum. (It is listed on the publisher's website under "health and wellness" rather than under "poetry").

I found that my thoughts clarified a little after I picked up a copy of Sheila Bender's book "Writing Personal Poetry" in our public library, and compared the two books, which are both aimed at beginners. Bender's book however, is definitely more focussed on writing than on self-help.

Wendy believes in writing poetry in form, and presents a number of different forms, one in each chapter. She believes that the restraints of form mean that the poet has to work harder to find the right word. This may be so (and I find it absorbing to try to write in traditional forms, myself), but she doesn't really address the factors that determine the "right word". The danger in writing rhyming metrical verse can be that a word which may be wrong in other ways is chosen merely to fit the rhyme and meter, and Wendy doesn't address this problem.

It can be true, of course, that beginning poets don't always understand that so-called "free verse" may also have restraints, and they may not work so hard to find the right word or musical turn of phrase, thinking that "prose with line breaks" is free verse. Sheila Bender firmly favours free verse, but she makes it clear that it is something more than prose with line breaks, and that it has rhythm and phrasing of its own.

The forms that Wendy presents start with the sonnet, the sestina and the ghazal, but she also includes a number of "forms" which are actually types of poems, such as odes, letter poems and "epiphanies". So in fact although she encourages rhyme and meter, these chapters also encompass freer poetic forms. Wendy suggests occasions when each form may be used. These certainly had me thinking, and would be a good starting point for many beginners. I would hope that they would go on to expand their horizons. To me, it's a bit like being given a tall skinny jar and wondering what you could use it for. You might be told, "well, you could keep your spaghetti in it" and realise that yes, it's a perfect jar for spaghetti. But you might also choose to put buttons in it, or layers of coloured sand, or herb-flavoured oils. To be told that a sonnet is the ideal form for writing about emotions is interesting, but there are many sonnets which express ideas in a rational and unemotional way. Her idea of using the villanelle to write about the repetitive phrases that crop up in our lives is a good one. For me though, I've written several villanelles and none of them fit this pattern. (Strangely, none of my close relatives - parents etc - seem to have been addicted to using stock phrases, so I don't really seem to have a repertoire to use for prompts like this).

Wendy illustrates her book with examples drawn from the work of her Poet Posse group. She also names, but does not publish, examples of the forms from well-known women poets. Her idea I believe is to encourage the reader to believe that she (it is aimed at women), too, can write - that it doesn't take special talent. There is an upside and a downside to this. Will the reader be encouraged to try something by setting lower standards, or not? First, you have to believe you can do it, or at least that you have enough chance of success to make the attempt worth it. Secondly, you have to believe that it is an endeavour worth attempting. Consider ice skating, for example. Are you the sort of person more likely to be drawn by the stumbling attempts of beginners, or by watching the artistry of Olympic champions? If it is the latter, it is well worth seeking out the named examples by more famous poets - the internet will turn up most of them, or your local library.

Sheila Bender's book also uses examples from poets in beginning classes. The difference is that she shows both the poems in the very early drafts, from initial free writing exercises, and in progressive revisions, giving ideas on how to improve the work. Wendy I suspect is not so interested in revision. In fact at one point she says that a poem about an emotional event shouldn't be revised later on when your feelings change - you should write a new poem. There is some validity in this, although I feel that revision can be done that is sensitive to the initial feelings - that expresses them more clearly, rather than denying and changing them.

I believe that Wendy's book would be of interest to those who are interested in writing most of all to clarify their lives to themselves. There is also the pleasure of writing in form, which to me is a similar pleasure to the pleasure I get from crossword puzzles or sudoku - the pleasure of "making it fit". It would be a good starting point, too, for those who are interested in sharing their poems with others. However at some point many may want more, in which case Sheila Bender may well show you how to continue. Her book is a much more substantial one (in richness of information if not in actual length). Strangely though, I found Wendy's more enjoyable to read.

(Sheila Bender's book is out of print but is listed at Amazon as available used. It may well be in your library also).

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Angles #3

As I was driving home in the late afternoon, I noticed the railings of the footbridge over the river casting long shadows. I thought I might get an interesting photo, so walked down there with my camera.

As it turned out I didn't really like the composition of any of the shots I took. But then I looked down and noticed the tree stump I was standing out. Apparently it had been cut up in sections with a chain saw, because there were lines and grooves going in all directions.

For more interesting angles, visit Carmi's Thematic Photographic for this week

Friday, September 26, 2008

Angles #2

A couple more "angle" photos, taken in the city a few weeks ago.

I've always been intrigued by the way buildings reflect each other, in the city.

This shadow of a rather heavily pruned tree intrigued me, but the photo seemed to lack something, until I spotted a pedestrian about to walk into the picture, so I waited for him and took another shot.

For more photos on the theme of angles, hop over to Carmi's blog, here

Word Fishing

For readwritepoem


Along the esplanade moths make cursive loops
around the lampposts. Do not think
that self-immolation is part of their design.
Nor that the red that pools beneath
these pohutukawas - pruned, regimented -
is blood. Around the headland
others of their kind sprawl across the cliffs,
a tangle of roots like knotted veins.

There we lie lazy on the sand a while
while frayed blossoms drift across our bodies
and moths fly straight and true
by the light of the singular moon.

The prompt was to take five words from other poems, and use them in a poem of our own. My five words were moths, pohutukawa, cursive, lazy, frayed.

Pohutukawa is a New Zealand tree which bears red blossoms like little brushes in summer - generally around Christmas time, so it is known as the "New Zealand Christmas tree". It often grows on coastal cliffs.

I took the word from this poem by Bob Orr.
"Moths" came from a poem by Olena Kalytiak Davis
"Cursive" and "lazy" came from two poems in "Made for weather" by Kaye McKenzie Cooke
"Frayed" came from a poem in "Waterlight" by Kathleen Jamie

It was an interesting exericse - while looking for words, I came to the conclusion that most poets don't use remarkable words - they just put words together in remarkable ways. I don't feel that my effort did the originals justice, but it's time I started to write regularly again, and this seemed as good a place to start as any.

Thursday, September 25, 2008


For Thematic Photographic - this week's theme is "angles"
This building - part of our public hospital - is full of interesting angles, and I haven't yet quite found the view that does it justice, but this is the best of the one's I've taken so far. (I love the colour, too - it has one yellow wall and the rest is white)