An interview with this year's Curnow Reader: Emma Neale

Emma Neale 600px Emma Neale is a poet, novelist and editor, and this year’s Curnow Reader. Vincent O’Sullivan described Emma as having an “eager, informed, needle-eyed engagement with the contemporary world”. Her 2015 collection of poetry, ‘Tender Machines’ was widely admired, and her latest novel, ‘Billy Bird’, is a moving, insightful and lyrical exploration of parenthood that is both funny and disarmingly frank.

Tell me about your novel-writing process - do you start writing with a notion or do you have your plot mapped out?

The process differs slightly from book to book: sometimes I know the outcome but i don’t know how to arrive there; sometimes I know the starting premise and not what the destination will be. Each time, however, there are years of false turns and misdirections before I get a final draft. I often write an outline after the first few drafts, to see where the main events fall. I often wonder if I were more orderly, and did have a plot outline or use a storyboard technique first, whether the process would be quicker. But I suspect that even if I reformed and became less scatty, the characters would come in and dismantle the initial structure anyway. If they’re realistic enough, the characters put their own music on the stereo, use the wrong glasses for the wine, and start throwing the party their way.

Can you talk about how your latest novel came about?

There were several seeds. I seem to need more than one; maybe it’s like scattering a handful of crumbs on the water to coax up the fish underneath. The first seed was when struggling a bit with getting my eldest child to do homework (they were only 7 at the time), and trying to calm myself down by thinking, ‘Well, maybe it could be worse. Imagine having a child who you couldn’t stop doing their homework! That’d be awful, right?’ That only ended up giving me about 2 lines in the novel, though. The other impulse was reading a collection of poetry by the American poet Alicia Suskin Ostriker, The Old Woman, The Tulip and the Dog - which uses the trio of voices in the title to vacillate between complex angles on all kinds of subjects: fear, spring, war, sex, deer, rape, snow… I wanted to aim that high: to achieve complexity within compression, and write a verse novel about a family, and initially thought I could have many more perspectives. However, I soon realised that I couldn’t do the deeper psychological mining of character, and work out the dynamics between them, without ‘thinking it in prose’. There are still several traces of the verse novel, though; as if the current novel shares a few family features with its ancestor.

How do you go about writing a poem?

A poem usually begins with a musical phrase, or a bit of word play, or an intense visual image, and the first draft will take an hour or two. That is the joy of it: very quickly, I have a complete artefact to refine and refine. The first draft is usually handwritten: somehow that helps me to get the rhythm of the thought or event-slip more closely. The refining and refining can take years, though. I have poems in draft at the moment that I wrote at least 3 years ago, but I’m still not ready to give up on them entirely yet. I rewrite them by hand, I type them up, print them out, read them aloud; sometimes I’ve found that I hear the internal music better if I go back to writing something by hand if it’s started to wither on screen. It’s something to do with a deep body listening.

How do you feel like your novelist and poet identities inform each other?

In the novels generally I have to rein in the sound-hedonist; but the image-lingerer can still inform the prose. Some poems of mine I think do use narrative pace as well as metrical echoes; I think I learnt the sense of timing, pacing, from my early amateur theatre days as well as my voracious reading as a young person. (I read far less now than I want to, simply because parenthood gives me fewer quiet lulls. I used to read so much it was probably a diagnosable obsession.)

You have written a lot about motherhood and have edited an anthology of poems on parenthood - why is this?

Because parenthood is where it all begins. I was very struck by something a social worker said to me in London, once, about all the different countries she’d worked in, and all the different people she’d helped - including people with long term addictions, chronic illness, and people who lived on the streets. She said they’d invariably seen any manner of appalling things; lived through a raft of trauma; were very often as a result embittered and hard - hard often out of necessity, as a self defence. Yet she said the thing that she’d seen reduce every single one of them to tears was when they were asked about their parents. That’s a punch to the guts. Family love is so complex - part of me thinks, well, what other subject is there? Every character has to have a family background, right? Family is the crucible of identity formation.

What other themes do you find yourself returning to in your writing?

Memory; the difficulty in reading people accurately; a fascination with the human-animal divide; child development; love; loss; the environment; sexual politics.

You work with your mother and stepfather on your manuscripts - what is that like?

Total Fiction Services are hard task masters but they have to be. I suppose keeping it in the family means less risk of public humiliation over bad early drafts. I know they genuinely care about whether the work is good or not; at a deeper level than ‘we can make money from this’. I know they are reading the work out of a commitment to the art form, and they understand the vulnerability of any author trying to separate from a draft - I like to think they go even more gently with me when something is crap at first! But one thing they’ve learnt is that my stepfather is definitely more objective about my work than my mother is. She often gets to a point where she realises herself that she just wants it to be good, because I’m her daughter, and she might not be seeing flaws that Chris can. So she’ll pass on the, errrr, 7th draft to him to prevent mollycottonwooling. They don’t read my poetry in draft; hardly anybody does. That seems to be a battle I need to do privately - with the occasional foray into letting my students see a poem I’m stuck on - as that reminds me what it’s like to be in their shoes, and I think it’s important I don’t get too cocky and throwaway with my feedback on their early drafts.

Do you feel like you’re a different writer now that when you first started out?

Yes, I do think I’m different. I have more conviction that the suffering of the early drafts might actually pay off. I’m a bit more adventurous. I’m less devastated by criticism - not because my self-esteem has swollen, or I think I’ve finally got ‘the knack’, but because it is easier to keep the odd supercilious review in perspective when I’ve faced down all kinds of larger tragedies and challenges outside my own career; and also, I think being older now means I’ve had longer to experience how evanescent both the hype and rotten tomatoes are. You learn that there are readers who love your work, and readers who don’t - just the way there are people who find you fascinating, and people who can’t keep the sneer off their faces when they catch sight of the whole package of you. What really matters is the knowledge that the shared acts of reading and writing bring.

Photo by Graham Warman

Doug Poole on the Poetry Slam

Doug Pooleweb Tell me a little bit about your involvement in the Going West Poetry Slam over the years.

This is the third year I have been the director of the Going West Poetry Slam. Over this time I have had the pleasure to work with Murray Gray, Naomi McLeary and Anna Fomison. With their support they allowed myself and our MC Zane Sacrborough to rework the format of the slam to create an audience focussed event of 2 ½ hours of poetry, music and commentary. The event has over sold for the last 2 years (so yeah no pressure this year haha).

This year we have the pleasure of working with Penny Howard as our new producer, who brings her experience and artistic flare to the team (now formally as she has been assisting us for the last two years).

What are some of the high points of the poetry slam you’ve witnessed?

From the heats right through to the finals over the last two years, it has been the depth of talent and variety of voices who create, recite or perform poetry in the wider Auckland region. That has been the highlight for me as the director.

It is encouraging to see the range of ages, cultures and styles of poetry being shared during the heats and finals each year. The last two years winners highlight these points, we had Amber Esau a young graduate of MIT's creative writing program take out the Slam in 2014 with powerful and emotive works and last years winner Ila Selwyn a seasoned performer and poet, take out the slam with humorous and technically brilliant work. There is a real depth of talent in the Auckland poetry scene and this event brings some of the very best to the stage on the night of the Grand Final.

What do you think makes a good slam poem?

A confident, well read and believable poem makes a good slam poem. It is the poem that is the star of the event – as much as the poet reciting, reading or performing it.

This event allows the poem to be read from the page, recited from memory or expressed and performed as many spoken word artists bring to a stage. Whatever the mechanism, it is the Poem that must stand up and stand out with confident and believable expression.

So what makes a good slam poem? You tell me – it is an eccentric and dynamic artform.

Do you write poetry specifically to perform, or for the page, or both?

I have written for the page as all poets do – it is when you are writing a poem that is begins to speak and tell you what it wants to be. So I believe all poets write for an audience and whether the work has formed for the page – working from line breaks and formations that work best for it to be read. Or works which are more prosaic/ conversational which work for the poet best to be read aloud. Works I create are written for an audience to read off a page and other works I write work well for me to recite to an audience. Often it is the poem that tells you what it wants.

Who are some of your favourite performers?

Some of my favorite performers are Sam Hunt, David Eggleton, Tusiata Avia, Albert Wendt, Serie Barford, Grace Taylor, Selina Tusitala Marsh, Courtney Sina Meredith, Mua Strickson Pua, Zane Scarborough, Daren Kamali, Karlo Mila, Raewyn Alexander, Ben Kemp, Ila Selwyn, Amber Esau, Tulia Thomson, Ria Masae to name just a few! (phew)

How do you fit poetry into your busy life?

I have started a full on management role this year so writing has not fit at all this year. However I have performed at “Stars of Pacific Poetry” this year and really looking forward to directing this years poetry slam.

When things settle down I will make time to write and take back up my works revolving around my life and also hope to collaborate again with my partner Penny Howard later this year or next. Sometimes life takes precedence over writing and you just have to go with it until things subside enough to create.

I find I can't write around people I need to be in a space where I have isolation or at least a sense of solitude, that's when I write best. When life gets busy writing becomes more difficult to attain.

What would you say to a first timer who was thinking of entering the competition?

Here's my mantra – Let each word stand – let the poem be the star – stand behind your poem let it guide you in the recital – performance.

Lastly my green room pep talk ends - Remember before you start – breathe in and out deeply three times,  – look at the faces in the crowd and then begin.


Doug Poole - 23 August 2016

In Small Places

Paula Green and Sue Orr share some questions and answers


Paula Green and sue orr

Paula: The title of our session is ‘In Small Places.’ You grew up in the Hauraki Plains and your new novel, The Party Line, is set there. When you picture the place of your childhood what stands out?

Sue: The absolute flatness of the land and huge skies - those are the things that immediately come to mind when I think about my childhood landscape. To the east, the Coromandel Ranges (and beyond them, alluring beaches) and to the north, south and west, nothing. In between, rolling tsunamis of black clouds or, in summertime, endless blue. And long, very straight roads with power poles disappearing into the space where a horizon should be.

Sue: New York Pocket Book is located a world away from the New Zealand landscape. Do you think it’s possible to feel homesick - or at least emotionally connected - to a place in which you’ve only ever been a visitor? A tourist? And if the answer is yes, in regards to New York, can you explain how this is?

Paula: I felt such a connection with New York on my first visit a few years ago but I think I had a lifetime of New Yorks in my head like a little fantasy park made up of scavenged bits from television, poetry, movies and fiction. The New York I carry in my head has changed and now the pull of return is even greater. It’s slower and not so garrulous. It has quiet spots, like on a street corner or in front of a painting.

Paula: When you go back home now - what seems just the same and what seems different?

Sue: I can drive down on to the Hauraki Plains now and appreciate a kind of lowland exoticism in the landscape, perhaps as a result of watching television set in similar landscapes such as the first series of True Detective (set in and around the swamplands of Louisiana) and the Spanish movie Marshland. I can see that the landscape evokes a certain atmosphere; heavy, brooding, menacing: all perfect for a novel. So that’s what seems different.  But the actual landscape feels the same as it always did. It occurred to me recently that such a flat landscape means there’s nowhere to hide. Houses sit close to the roads; they’re not tucked behind hills in little private valleys.

Sue: Does that happen to you too, Paula? Do certain places get under your skin, in the way a person might? Why, for example, did you choose New York to write about and not another of the big cities you’ve spent time in?

Paula: Oh I love the idea of nowhere to hide in the plains. I grew up with hills about me. First Parihaka in Whangarei, then the hills of Wellington, and my constant returns to Auckland. Maybe that is why I only leave hints of private things in my poems and don’t share personal stuff on the internet. Hmm! I lived in London for years and can’t image a Pocket Book about that city. New York was so complex and beautiful and fun. Every day I felt poems taking off in my head.


Sue: Could you ever write about Auckland in the same way that you’ve written about New York?

Paula: That is very tempting! I have a draft manuscript that is set elsewhere and place is important in that. For Auckland, I wouldn’t have that tension between the unfamiliar and the intrinsically recognized. Something very different would happen. What have you done Sue?!? I am very tempted by this idea.

Paula:  Your book starts with a woman on the road to the plains which made me think about how much driving you do both in the city and beyond. I was wondering about the space in the car and whether it boosts your writing - you do a lot of it!

Sue: It’s funny, the car journey that opens and closes the book - and  breaks up the narrative in between from time to time - came very late in the process of writing the novel. I like the challenge of writing under some sort of imposed constraint. Limiting that particular part of the story to the interiority of the character’s mind, and the physical interior of her car, was a lot of fun. I also enjoyed setting these scenes in an enclosed space after setting the rest of the story in such wide open places. And yes, I spend a lot of time driving at the moment, and writing is always on my mind when I’m not negotiating the terror of the southern motorway.

Sue: Your daughter is now living on the other side of the world, as is mine. Decades ago, this would have meant long gaps between communication, and probably enormous anxiety about their well-being in places unknown. Nowadays, we can contact our children daily, wherever they might be in the world. Their backyards become as familiar to us as our own. How do you think this has affected us as writers, in terms of perceived exoticism of other places?

Paula: Some days I just want a trap door at the bottom of the garden so we can visit even though we chat frequently. It makes a difference that I have spent time where she is. But for me as a writer, this global mobility means we still depend upon imagined communities as much those our senses have experienced. The allure of other places is almost like the allure of new shoes—of testing out a new personality, eating different food, speaking another language. That can be what it’s like writing a poem. You can test out New York in a poem knowing there are myriad constellations of New Yorks in people’s heads.

Paula: Your new book is full of secrets. As a friend you a very good at keeping secrets—what about as a writer? Were there some things you just couldn’t tell?

Sue: As a writer, I could tell everything in regards to “what” - but “who” was another matter entirely. I was really careful to create characters rather than recreate real people I knew. The Party Line is a work of fiction, of course, and none of the events in the book actually happened as they were portrayed. But they represent a true wider world, and the strengths and failings of people inhabiting that world.

Paula: What discoveries did you make when writing the book?

The most profound discovery was that painting a character as purely evil was a cop-out in terms of character development, and ultimately unsatisfying in regards to the writing process. The first draft of the book featured a purely evil character. Early readers of that draft challenged me to flesh him out and make him if not likeable, at least more complicated: someone whose dreadful behaviours might be understood in a small way. He - and the whole book - became more complex and I hope more satisfying as a result.

Sue: Paula, you’ve been writing for much longer than me. What overall developments in your own writing have you observed? How do you feel now about your first poetry collection, when you pick it up and look at the poems? What has changed in your poetry?

Paula: I am very fond of it but I think my writing has got a lot simpler. I have also found the courage to write as I want to write whereas with my first book I wrote in the shadows of poets I admired. I acknowledged some of them in my afternoon-tea poems in the book.

Paula: What do you get out of literary festivals?

Sue: I love the way festivals bring readers and writers together. It’s a wonderful feeling to have readers want to discuss your book with you. Festivals remind us that without readers, there would be no books.  I also love that the festivals bring writers and writers together. We’re often isolationist by nature, so when someone like the terrific Nicola Strawbridge herds us into a pen, it’s a fun time!

Paula: I agree. I especially love connections with writers I have never heard of or not read. Going West is like New Zealand’s family festival where as readers and writers we not only share good stories and poetry but excellent food and a glass of wine with a backdrop of bush and birds. Heaven!

An interview with Mark Easterbrook

MarkE 1. Tell me about your background - how did you come to be the joint programme director of Going West?

I’ve been on the Going West Trust for a couple of years. I’d never been involved in something like Going West. When I was asked, I saw it as a chance to give a bit of time and love to something with an arts and community focus. When we began discussing how we might carry on Going West without founder Murray Gray, who was hanging up his programmer’s boots after 20 years, I volunteered in a moment of possible madness - on the condition that someone do it with me. Nicola Strawbridge had worked on the programme with Murray in the past, and we agreed to tackle it together for 2016.

2. What do you do when you’re not programming a literary festival?

I’m a writer and creative director in the advertising and design world. I recently left my full time job for life as a freelancer, which has been both exciting and terrifying in equal measure. I have two sons, aged 7 and 12, and a wonderful wife. I’m also on the Trust of the Titirangi Rudolf Steiner School.

3. What are the big challenges of programming a festival out west?

Balancing out what you want to programme with what you can. There are a couple of sessions that I really wanted to make happen but couldn’t. Luckily, equally wonderful things appeared to fill the void. Also, realising you can’t fit everything. There are some fantastic writers and books that we just couldn’t squeeze in.

4. What local book have you read lately that you particularly enjoyed?

Everything that’s in the festival lineup, of course, but also Gregory O’Brien’s See What I Can See. It’s aimed at young people but helps anyone learn to better appreciate photography as an art form.

5. We are really looking forward to Roger Shepherd. Do you have a favourite Flying Nun band or gig experience?

I moved to Auckland as a fairly naive farm boy in 1993. That year, I saw Straitjacket Fits live at The Powerstation. The gig was amazing but even more mind-blowing was the people watching. I watched a man slice his own hand open with a beer can and let the girls he was with play with his blood. A defining moment in my growing awareness of a bigger, weirder world.

6. We are also looking forward to the Craft Beer session with Te Radar and Jules Van Cruysen. Are you craft beer drinkers? What’s your favourite brew?

I am a big fan of craft beer. Panhead Supercharger and Garage Project Garagista are high on my list, but the crown goes to Renaissance Brewing Company’s Stonecutter Scotch Ale. A waiter once told me it would change my life. He was right. The perfect accompaniment to a good book, with some vintage Flying Nun on the stereo.

Maurice and Maurice.

Two writers of an age and place. Postwar andWaitakere. One explores the darker secrets of life in the late 1900's and other one, the processes that colonise indigenous people. We are lucky to have the support of Maurice Gee at Going West,'one of our most loved and revered writers'. His biographer is Rachel Barrowman and she will talk with Geoff Chapple, a cousin of Gee whose stories are mostly about family and growing up in the West. Shadbolt has a need to explore and spent time on his portrayal of the New Zealand Wars and New Zealand wars. He stayed in one place for 40 years watched Muddy Creek breath all that time. This session will enlighten everyone as to the future of that very house. Expect a lively conversation as Maurice's son, his publisher and biographer talk with the project initiator and director about homes and house, stories and remembering.