Last year a report from the NZ Book Council and an article in The Spinoff ignited a debate about elitism and exclusiveness in the New Zealand literary community. Inclusiveness has been a driving passion for me – how to include people who otherwise don’t get opportunities, in education, in writing, in many parts of life, so I wanted to contribute to this debate. I wrote an article for the New Zealand Author, the journal of the New Zealand Society of Authors, and I’ve included it here.
Poetry is alive and well in all sorts of places – at the Fringe Bar in Wellington where Mary-Jane Duffy and I read poems in April and the audience helped us along, and at Featherston Booktown. Escalator Press authors had a series of sessions, and Landing Press sneaked in on one of them, where Rob Hack and I read a bunch of poems together. Featherston Booktown brought together an amazing range of workshops and readings – I’d absolutely recommend it.
I’ve been writing two articles for educational publishing company Lift Education. One is on a climate-change initiative in a village in Samoa, for the science series Connected; the other is about an Assyrian family who have been in New Zealand for 18 months now, for the School Journal. One of the best parts about writing is getting to talk to a wide range of people, in this case a NIWA scientist, a Wellington architect, a Samoan matai in Samoa, and an Assyrian family. Very lucky to have these opportunities.
Michael Wilson of Access Radio in Masterton (formerly Radio NZ) is working on a documentary about migrant taxi drivers, and is interviewing some of the drivers from Migrant Journeys. It’s a great initiative to support – the more ways in which we hear these stories the better. Immigration is a much-debated topic at the moment, and it’s not only about the larger issues, it’s also about the ways we live together and understand each other.
I was really delighted, and very surprised, to find Keel and Drift in the NZ Herald best books of 2016. I was surprised, because I’d deliberately made it a broader-appeal collection of poetry, rather than a literary collection – a bit risky, I thought, when I thought about reviewers (which I don’t usually think about much at all). So I was very pleased that one reviewer thought well enough of it to include it in the best books of 2016.
And equally pleased that a tiny new press, with one book to its name, was noticed. A great endorsement of small presses!
I’ve just had the launch of Keel & Drift, a new collection of poetry. Grace, who is four, (who features in one of the poems) was asking her mother if I actually made this book. Then she said, “Did she cut out all the poems and stick them into a book with glue stick?” That’s the best way to make a book! Anyway, we’ve launched this glue stick collection, which I hope will be a collection for people who love poetry and those who don’t.
October was also a month for speaking about Migrant Journeys, both at the Kapiti Literary Festival, and with Liz Grant at the national oral history conference in Christchurch. Each time, it’s a chance to revisit these powerful stories, which I think can shift our heads a little, make us see things just a little differently.
In October Keel and Drift, my third collection of poetry, is being published. Emily Fletcher is the cover designer. She’s provided about 6 different designs, and there are opinions about all of them! The discussion around covers is interesting: what cover will make a person pick up the book in a bookstore, how does it reflect the nature of the book, will it appeal to a range of readers (important for this book), and which cover do I love? The problem is that I love several. Emily is a great designer. Wait and see which cover makes it through!
I’ve just had a few weeks in Europe, and took a couple of days in Bulgaria to research a character in a new novel (which is a kind of sequel to The Score). With the help of a small tour company, a pre-arranged itinerary, a driver, and a guide, I created the imaginary life of a boy growing up on Sofia and returning there as an adult. I spent a couple of hours with a very eminent violin professor at the National Academy of Music, visited a small monastery, and spent time in various neighbourhoods in Sofia. This new novel is primarily based in New Zealand, but understanding where characters come from is so fundamental. Now I just have to finish the novel!
Here’s a postscript to Migrant Journeys, the stories of migrant taxi drivers in NZ. Helmi Al Khattat, one of the drivers in the book, was interviewed on Radio NZ. His story is particularly moving and poignant. When he came to New Zealand as a refugee from Iraq, he did everything a country might want him to do. He was a fluent English speaker, but he studied more. He was an experienced mechanic, but he did a mechanic’s qualification. But he could not get a job. He loves New Zealand, he wants his kids to grow up here. I always had an idea that if Helmi could be interviewed when the book was published, maybe someone would offer him a job. And it happened. After the interview someone contacted me about a mechanic’s job. But it was too late. Helmi had already moved to Australia – where he got a job straight away. New Zealand welcomed him generously, then shut its door on him. A lot to think about..
Over the last few months I’ve been working on a collection of poetry, to publish later this year. I’m so dependent on the help of others – Michael Keith, who helped me out of my confusion over the selection and order of poems, and James Brown who has done a great editing job. I’ve resurrected The Landing Press, which just had a couple of e-books to its name, as the publisher, and the Publishing Course at Whitireia are doing the production. I’m always interested in ways to make poetry more accessible, so here’s a real opportunity! (By the way, The Landing Press takes its name from the place where my Hayward ancestors first arrived in NZ, in the Catlins area)