deep south 2013

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2013 burns fellow interview

David Howard interviewd by Deep South

An Interview with the Year's Burns Fellow

David Howard (2013)

Nothing Ever Was, Anyway

What is your opinion of creative writing degrees, i.e. MAs and PhDs?

It's fair to say that, as an autodidact, mine is an unpopular opinion: I don't rate them. I do have regard for the process of mentoring, and necessarily there will be mentoring in any creative writing group. However, I don't view the process of writing a novel or a collection of poetry or a play as a degree-worthy activity, any more than I think you should study for a degree in dry-cleaning management. The institutional motivations for these are economic rather than literary.

Are these kinds of courses a recent addition to the writing landscape of New Zealand?

They're more recent and arguably more unfortunate than the introduction of the rabbit or the opossum to the physical landscape. Bill Manhire imported the Iowa model, trialing it despite initial resistance from Victoria University. His breakthrough, for which he deserves respect, was to secure private funding from philanthropist Glenn Schaeffer, an MFA alumni of Iowa. Universities love private funding, which is not contestable, just as much as artists do. My objection is not an objection to Bill, or to anyone else who is teaching creative writing—I'm not blind or deaf to the skills involved in teaching —but to the degree status of the programs and their excessive reliance on student peer-review in weekly meetings. Both are examples of the appeal to authority that can vitiate rather than develop personal vision. Authenticity is internal not external; like a spider, you spin out of yourself and your web is supported by the Tree of Knowledge. I regard the emphasis on peer validation as more dangerous for the poet than the prose writer. I don't think it's accidental that the most internationally successful graduates of the IIML – Eleanor Catton and Emily Perkins – are novelists. The social context of workshopping may accord with the more social forms of literature, the novel and play. Nonetheless, as former Burns Fellow Elspeth Sandys said to me recently, writing is not a profession, it is a vocation. And you don't select a vocation from a university calendar, nor do you timetable inspiration, which is something (a non-thing) that classes can't account for. Many careerists have waited all their lives for it and it still hasn't arrived. In the meantime they've amused themselves by writing books. I believe in inspiration but observe, sadly, that it often presents between the third and the fourth draft. Until then I treat craft as a listening-for rather than a series of pins on a workshop chart. Donald Hall is sharp:

The weekly meetings of the workshop serve the haste of our culture. When we bring a new poem to the workshop, anxious for praise, others' voices enter the poem's metabolism before it is mature, distorting possible growth and change. “It's only when you get far enough away from your work to begin to be critical of it yourself”—Robert Frost said—“that anyone else's criticism can be tolerable…” Bring to class only, he said, “old and cold things…” Nothing is old and cold until it has gone through months of drafts. Therefore workshopping is intrinsically impossible. (Poetry and Ambition)

And as a paper, say a creative writing workshop as part of a larger scholarly degree, such as the one that Emma Neale teaches here at Otago? Does it make sense to incorporate a paper into the degree programme?

Yes, it does, but only as a minor part. Language is the history of being human so writing is a vision of the self-in-world; it is incidentally, and not necessarily, a vehicle for professional advancement, a product for the market. No doubt the less experienced benefit from the more experienced; this neither requires nor precludes a formal teaching situation. The degree leads to—and this seems to be a necessary consequence of its economic model —the provider trying to leverage the news media. Manhire is a case in point: I have yet to see anyone be so modest so publicly so often during his stewardship of the International Institute of Modern Letters, an institution which is infamous for referring to itself as famous. Cultivate, judge, promote those who, in turn, will promote you.

Like accumulating fellowships? It seems that this is a hard thing to break into, in that the people that get them always get them.

I'm naturally sympathetic to the Burns Fellowship but, at 54, this is my only residency so far and possibly ever. I was astonished to be given this paradisal year. Yet there are dedicated careerists like former Burns Fellows Catherine Chidgey and Bernadette Hall who fly from one fellowship to the next – they are alert magpies who collect every shiny thing so that they appear to shine themselves. Sometimes this is liberating, sometimes a snare. Surrounded by colleagues who tell you how good you are, there's a likelihood your internal critical monitor will be drowned out by the babble. I think many New Zealand writers have an unacknowledged mid-career crisis, one where the work suffers under the ego's special pleading. Jenny Bornholdt, for example, has not been helped to correct a tendency for bathos by her circle's hyperbole: 'I don't think a better poetry collection will be published anywhere in the world this year.' (Bill Manhire, NZ Books, June 2003); 'Anyone can make jokes when things are going well, but to keep on smiling at life's ironies when you're feeling like shit, your legs aren't working properly and you're pining for a recently dead parent takes rare courage, poise and perspective. This, I think, is why The Rocky Shore draws such an emotional response from readers, who want to cheer Bornholdt on because they admire her as a human being as well as a poet.' (Iain Sharp, Landfall 218). Strike up the band – and the brand.

And so this success-breeding complacency allows for writers and artists to align themselves with the institution, rather than the working artist (or more often the starving artist). Do you see struggle as important to creativity?

Yes, I do. That doesn't mean that I go out with open arms and wait for the hail to hit me. I'm fond of having a roof and eating things other than rice. I think the poet's role is healthily peripheral to the wider society; the poet may be unacknowledged but he is not the legislator of the world. When I was eleven I took up a paper run. I would cycle around the eastern suburbs of Christchurch – already one of the poorest areas in New Zealand – and found I was invisible. People carried on conversations with me in ear-shot; they'd be in the garden arguing while I paused at the mailbox. I got to hear a lot of home truths. So? If you're not considered socially important, you hear more; neglect gives you a greater license to observe. The auditory imagination fosters an ocular rather than oracular revelation. Fine writing is instructive but not because of authorial intent; few poets are sages but most value precision in observation, delicacy in language and, above all, economy. Political status is not essential; moral stature is. I think of Samuel Beckett, whose responsible economy I admire. When told that he'd won the Nobel Prize he agreed with his partner's assessment, 'Quelle catastrophe!' This was neither irony nor false modesty; it was a shocked acknowledgement of the perils of celebrity, of its potential to deflect him from the task of making even as it afforded new opportunities to publish. He could no longer hover, invisible, by the mailboxes of his fellow citizens.

We've talked about marketing and the institution. How have you survived, economically and financially, working as a poet?

I side-stepped the literary machine while it was being recalibrated by and for the writing school.

Did you make a conscious effort to remain outside of this “machine”?

Yes, it is opposed to my way of making work. The idea that I would share a draft I was still exploring so that several ambitious self-absorbed strangers could comment on it is not only ridiculous it is repugnant. I had to find another way of being in literature. To do this I withdrew from the literary scene. Yet I kept making work, albeit with all of the compromises that any and everybody makes for family and finance. I trained as a pyrotechnician. I've always been interested in fire, most children are, and I've remained true to that inner child; the same inner child that makes poems. Pyrotechnics was helpful for three reasons. Firstly, you can earn serious money; secondly, it is seasonal, leaving a funded space to write in; thirdly, pyrotechnicians are petrol-heads rather than culture-vultures so they challenge the presumption that art is central to living. Throughout my thirties, when my literary peers were moving publicly to secure their work, I was rigging in fields or stadiums. Most of my poetry stayed in the drawer because I knew it needed reworking. Regrettably some undernourished poetry was published; I hope it is only taken off library shelves to be cancelled. Time is not money but it is opportunity, especially when you write slowly like I do. It wasn't until The Incomplete Poems (Cold Hub Press, 2011) that I was able to order my work in definitive versions. Everything earlier is suspect, a stuttering firework.

At that point in your career were you quite confident that you would come back to poetry and writing in a full-time capacity?

Apart from this last year as Burns Fellow I have never pursued 'writing in a full-time capacity'. The world is too various, too flagrant, to ignore for a piece of paper or a computer screen. As a young man I didn't—I still don't—see a ready home in New Zealand literature. And I wasn't alone in my sense of exile. The dazzling Julia Allen (Midas Touch, Nag's Head Press, 1991) stopped writing and Rob Allan (Karitane Postcards, Hazard Press 1991) did not publish another collection despite winning the PEN (NZSA) Best First Book of Poetry Award in 1992. Jeanne Bernhardt received the 1997 Louis Johnson New Writers Bursary but was disappointed at the lack of publishing interest. After Creative New Zealand turned her down for the umpteenth time she left for America. Kirsty Gunn is another who had to cross the world to find a publisher for the novels she wanted to write. Now she visits here to fanfare and her novel, The Big Music, won Book of the Year at the 2013 New Zealand Post Book Awards. She left home in order to arrive home. That's almost a template for our cultural activity. But I stayed put, as Jack Ross observed, 'a weird guy on a hill in the middle of nowhere'. There's an inner and an outer centre – they don't share co-ordinates.

Not enough of a population, or conservatism?

In 2012 there were 4.43 million people in New Zealand. That is roughly 200,000 less than the population of Sydney. Although size is only one indicator of significance (no bedroom jokes, please) our smallness leaves us insecure. And open to undue influence. Here is how to make a takeover bid on the national literature of an underpopulated country: You declare yourself an authority by setting up a certificating school within a tertiary institution. You enhance the existing reputation of the director and employees of said school. You ramp up, year by year, the graduates' reputations. You award internal prizes – no one outside the school is eligible for them – before publishing favoured graduates' portfolios as first books, with fulsome blurbs by their supervisors, through the university's press. You commission anthologies that are edited by associates; they showcase the work of employees and graduates alongside prominent outsiders. You throw around modifiers like top, leading and best as if they were knucklebones and literature was child's play. You call this a game-changer rather than a rort.

It's a recipe you've just given us…

It is a recipe. If you want to monopolise possession on the playing field, positioning yourself under the spotlight, this is how it's done. If you want to discover your voice, I suggest, you might withdraw from the team. I'm not saying that good work isn't made within this ambitious club. I'm saying that good work is made in spite of rather than because of the game plan.

What advice would you give the young writer?

Your ear is unique; you train it by reading widely, by attending public readings, by listening for what is not there. True, it might be useful to informally approach writers you admire—but this is a big ask for someone who hasn't published widely because shyness, feelings of inadequacy, fear of rejection are heavy metals and poisonous. Still, I don't know a writer who doesn't enjoy being told their work matters. There will be some writers whose work chimes with your ear. You should attend but also augment, testing your ear by reading outside of your preferences. I don't enjoy the Beats but that doesn't mean I won't read them. Realising that you're incapable of something is helpful; it clarifies what you can do.

How would you describe your poetry then, if you know what you don't usually write?

I write metaphysical poetry for a material age and value intellectual economy over ease of access. When I read Jeanne Bernhardt I'm reading her for syntax rather than subject matter. If I read Allen Ginsberg, who is often sloppy, I find he knows how to work the baggy long line. Like attracts like but we can also learn from unlike. My experience of reading strong poetry is that it increases empathy. I view writing as an act of compassion. It is a generous statement, even if the piece being drafted is satirical, bitter, political. I'm not interested in the poem as glorified diary entry. I'd rather read the diary entry, then I'd get a secret thrill. But I don't get that when someone doctors their diaries and publishes them as a collection of poetry.

Do you think that is lazy?

It may not be lazy. You can do the confessional well (W.D. Snodgrass, Heart's Needle, 1959) and you can do the confessional poorly (4 million poets and counting). You can also explore a personal register without being confessional. I wouldn't describe Sylvia Plath as lazy; I'd describe her as driven.

So, writing as therapy as well…?

I think it's exhibitionism rather than writing as therapy. I don't get the sense that the poet is working for a cure. I think Anne Sexton gets a kick out of showing how screwed up she is. There's that ghastly poem, Sylvia's Death, where she addresses Plath:

Thief –
how did you crawl into,

crawl down alone.
into the death I wanted so badly and for so long

Here a self-loathing adolescent view of potential thwarted is misrepresented as an achievement. Now I'm making an ethical judgment and this loops back to something that I should have made plainer earlier: I think that writing poetry is an inherently ethical activity. You cannot strip language of its ethical, moral and social context. Your role as a poet is to build skillfully, subtly, upon the associations that most people bring to a word and to either reinforce those or undercut them.

How did you know, when you were young, that you were going to write something? How did you know that it was even worth doing?

My father is the answer to that. Reginald William Howard was a cockney who grew up in the London of the Blitz. He was the eldest of 13 children and had to leave school early to help support his siblings. So he had little education, but what he did have was generosity and a love of song. After he'd finished at the factory he used to take my sister and I to the Canterbury Public Library. It was our Thursday ritual. That's where I began to read poetry in earnest. I adore my father but his relationship with my mother was not easy; most of the time they fought and there was this pinched yet pouty silence from my mother that I didn't understand. If you have a troubled home then books are attractive places to go. Eventually I tried to write a home for myself. I'm still trying.

For your writing, what do you go to? Poetry? Philosophy? X Factor?

To music. The way I hear line was determined by the jazz pianist Paul Bley in his solo piano recordings. In 1975 I bought his album Open, To Love (ECM, 1973). I heard someone who was not afraid to activate silence, who didn't feel the need to tumble through notes the way that pianists who play in more popular forms do. I'm not interested in most rock music. My flirtation with punk (my first poem borrows from The Ramones' Judy is a Punk) is about anger and performance-as-rebellion not the music. I've got no time for somebody who thinks that playing one chord quickly is interesting. Nor have I got time for the likes of 'Fuck the state. Fuck the state and fuck you.' That's not thought. I'm amazed by Bley's ability to let you hear the melody he's not playing and that's what I've brought over to my poetry. Under under each note there are those that aren't being played yet Bley makes you aware of them too. I want that complex song from my poems. The local poet who approaches this is Michael Harlow. The first editor to publish me, he has been supportive for decades – I suspect it's because we can hear beyond the words to the silence in one another's work. At twelve, prone to hero worship, I was also taken by Rimbaud's intelligent rebellion. When he felt that he didn't have anything more to say he stopped – I keep relearning the efficacy of that. From 1996 until 2000 I had little to say so I published nothing.

So, in that regard, having been given the Burns Fellowship, did you feel that that was quite timely, in that it came at a futile, um er, a fertile time for you?

I like the conflict between futile and fertile. The Burns has given me both the temptation to make too much work and the opportunity to resist. I've thrown away more than half of what I've drafted. I don't have a notebook or a save-for-later file. I discard the discards, whether they're abandoned poems or superseded drafts. I don't want a pile of debris to obscure my view of the new poem. So there are no papers to go to the Hocken, although I appreciate the invitation to lodge material and I have benefitted from the Lonie papers there. Yet I can't imagine anyone would want to wade through the dreck of my drafts. I have enough trouble writing something that's worth reading for me, let alone expecting someone to follow the false starts, the wrong turnings, the cul-de-sacs. The Burns has focused my aim not to make something publishable but to make something genuine, only then will I try to get it published because I know (to borrow Donald Hall's term) it's not a McPoem. There are already too many poets exercising their exercises in collections. Sestina, anyone?

So what have you been working on this year?

Before I applied I thought, David, there are two projects you haven't started because you don't have uninterrupted time. A head of steam is building up but the valve is still closed. The Burns will open that valve. Those projects were: The Mica Pavilion, which is set in the 1870s in the Otago goldfields. The primary characters are a Chinese gold miner and a Kai Tahu woman who have a love affair. It's framed as a four-act chamber opera but, so far, the only music is that of my language. I don't know many composers and those I know live from commission to commission. My piece will probably appear in a book before it's performed, if it's ever performed. I have hopes for radio.

The second project is an indirect homage to my father. Robert Louis Stevenson, whose Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes was my father's favourite book, is the first writer I pursued. There is a poised economy in his writing. His understanding of syntax as a logical unfolding to an inexorable end is flawless. He has none of the bloat of his Victorian contemporaries yet even minor characters are given the opportunity to act with integrity even if, as they often are, they're compromised by psychological quirks. For his last years Stevenson tried to ameliorate his tuberculosis by living in Samoa. I've written The Speak House (Cold Hub Press, forthcoming 2014). It considers the Victorian export of English, German and American mores – the violence they do to native tradition. But it also explores the way settlers focused native ambition. Of course it's not a political tract, it's a lyric poem that extends for over twenty pages. So there's intimacy in scale, just as there is in The Mica Pavilion.

I said that the inner and the outer rarely share co-ordinates. Yet alongside the poet there is an editor, the poet's probation officer, to whom he reports with awkward justifications for failures of judgement. This editor also mediates with a more mundane but no less essential world than the poet. After taking up the Burns an early invitation came from Harry Ricketts of Victoria University to read for The Selected Poems of Bill Sewell, who was Burns Fellow for 1981-82. I said yes then made emotional space by completing the apparatus for A Place To Go On From: the Collected Poems of Iain Lonie. I was often lost and found at the Hocken Library, checking the worrisome undated drafts of over 100 unpublished poems: mysteries within mysteries. Now that the book has been accepted by Otago University Press I'll spend much of 2014, aided by savings from my Burns' annus mirabilis, checking transcriptions of Lonie's erratic handwriting. It's slow and tiring work so I might ask the librarians for a sleeping bag. And I'll dream of my time as Burns Fellow.

We wonder if you might comment on Dunedin.

If you want to be a big noise in New Zealand literature, and that seems ridiculous given our population and cultural amnesia, then you're living in the North Island. Unless you are a larger-than-life character like my friend Brian Turner, an archetypal Southern Man and therefore a representative the North can invite up for a session of Speights in a tussock setting, then you're making a career error by settling in the Mainland. But if you want to develop your voice then the South offers the echo chamber of great valleys. And no one is going to interrupt you because most people from the North, including the culture brokers, barely remember the South. Consider this letter by former Burns Fellow Laurence Fearnley:

A hundred and fifty guests from around the world, including more than 80 writers from New Zealand, will be taking part in over 100 events at the 2013 Auckland Writers and Readers Festival — the “biggest line-up yet”. Of those 150 guests, four are writers from the South Island.

This raises several points. Attendance at international writers' festival enable writers to increase their profile, reach new audiences and make important contacts within the writing/publishing community at large. The benefit for audiences is that they are introduced to new writers, or have the opportunity to meet established writers from locations other than their hometown.

The South Island is struggling to provide festivals for writers. Dunedin does not have a writers' festival. Christchurch is doing a fantastic job, but faces difficulties post- earthquake. Invercargill, Nelson and Wanaka produce lively — but small —national festivals. Creative New Zealand funding is tight and smaller towns/venues cannot raise money to host events.

This is why festivals such as the international Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, which received $168,000 from Creative New Zealand for 2013/14, are so important in terms of promoting New Zealand literature. It is a great pity audiences in Auckland will be denied the opportunity to hear South Island voices. In fact, it is shameful. (The NZ Listener, 13 April 2013)

Let's look at the Frankfurt Book Fair (10-14 October 2012), when New Zealand was supposedly guest of honour. Wellington declared itself a suburb of Frankurt and transported its literati. How many writers went from the South Island? Based on figures from the official website it was that magic number 4 (out of 66). Did Brand New Zealand include former poet laureates Brian Turner and Cilla McQueen? No, even though the latter has worked in Germany and published Berlin Diary (John McIndoe, 1990). Apparently the southernmost tip of New Zealand is Mount Kelburn.

But Dunedin is lucky to have the current lorikeet Vincent O'Sullivan and international figures Rogelio Guedea (Mondadori) and Liam McIlvanney (Faber) alongside the likes of Philip Temple, Peter Olds, Rhian Gallagher and Richard Reeve. Happily the litany of impressive poets is too long to recite. This makes for an engaging scene with performances at Dunedin Public Libraries, Circadian Rhythm, the University Bookshop and Dead Souls (which is also the home of Dean Harvard's Kilmog Press). We have the University of Otago Division of Humanities Performing Arts Fund, the Centre for the Book, the Caselberg Trust, the Dunedin Burns Club, a revitalised Otago University Press under Rachel Scott, and a revamped University Bookshop under Phillippa Duffy. It's a good time to go swimming at Purakaunui Lagoon.

What do you worry about?

I worry about young writers seeking a seal of approval from others. You can only leap if you have faith in yourself. You need to be able to balance the voice inside that says 'you can't do this' with the voice that says 'you can do this better than anybody has ever done it'. Not even an attentive mentor can access the privileged information that is essential for you, the maker. Guess what? You are already and always will be the authority on your work and if you want to give that authority away, for someone else's opinion, for the possibility of acceptance, then you're a fool.

David Howard was the University of Otago 2013 Burns Fellow

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