Do they have talent?: they sure have chutzpah, Anne French

Between these Hills
Vivienne Plumb (ed),
Between these Hills Collective, Wellington, 1991

White Feathers: An Anthology of New Zealand and Pacific Island Poetry on the Theme of Peace
Terry Locke, Peter Low and John Winslade (eds),
Hazard Press, Christchurch, 1991, $19.95

Giotto’s Elephant
Michael Harlow,
John McIndoe, Dunedin, 1991, $18.95

The kids certainly have chutzpah. Their press release tells the story: ‘Rather than wait around to be discovered by publishers, we decided to “discover” ourselves’. Several of them have already won prizes, most of them have been published already in magazines; now Victoria’s 1991 Creative Writing students demonstrate that they can market themselves. And don’t forget the illustrious predecessors. Former students, they point out, include Barbara Anderson, Elizabeth Knox, Jenny Bornholdt, Dinah Hawken and Anthony McCarten.

But do they have talent? In varying degree, as you might expect. The prose is on the whole better than the poetry, some of which is execrable, though that may simply reflect prevailing standards of taste. There’s surprisingly little evidence, for a creative writing class, of experiments with form: a pantoum, a mock-pantoum, some regular stanzas, and open form to the horizon. But one of the poets, Cathy Mulholland, uses Maori, and has written one poem in both Maori and English.

The prose writers are full of confidence. My favourite pieces were Vivienne Plumb’s surreal ‘The Wife who Spoke Japanese in her Sleep’, and Pat Quinn’s accomplished witty stories, but none of the others would look out of place in Sport, say. Way to go, guys!

It’s a pity the well-meaning folk who put together White Feathers didn’t run their introduction past Vivienne Plumb and her classmates before they went to press. Laboriously entitled ‘Feathers for Tohu and Te Whiti: Peace and Violence in the Poetry of New Zealand and Oceania’, it opens like, an exercise for trainee copy editors. A little later, under the heading ‘The Language Environment’, the editors tell us that ‘poets care about language’. (Just as well someone does.) Moreover, ‘they want their readers to care about language too’. By this stage I began to suspect that the readers Locke, Low and Winslade had in mind were secondary school students. Sure enough, the anthology is divided into six lessons – er – sections : Shock, Outrage, Acceptance, Understanding, Empowerment and Celebration, with notes.

And the poems? There’s a lot of Vivienne Joseph and James K Baxter, Hone Tuwhare and Hinewirangi, Barry Mitcalfe and Lauris Edmond. Basil Dowling, Charles Brasch and M K Joseph are surprise inclusions. The Pacific Island poets are angry and a bit rough around the edges, and there’s lots of Maori (see the notes for translations). Some poems seem to be out of place: Fiona Kidman’s ‘This Breaking’ opens the ‘Empowerment’ section, Fleur Adcock’s ‘For a Five Year Old’ is mysteriously included under ‘Celebration’. Still (the editors again) ‘your response to the poems may be different from ours. That’s as it should be’.

The title verso page acknowledges two grants, one of which was to ‘help offset editorial expenses’, though the cost of editing didn’t include checking the blurb for spelling mistakes. Buying the book, we are told, ‘is itself a contribution to the cause of peace’, though it’s not clear how. The poets’ (unsung) contribution was to waive their fees. Nice of them. I’ll bet the typesetter, printer, publisher and booksellers are all getting paid.

Michael Harlow has kindly provided notes to some of the poems in Giotto’s Elephant, although I’m sorry he hasn’t given us notes on the notes. Some of the poems have all the accessibility of a Zen koan (‘Not an answer/ is always/ a question’), but when I could dimly discern what was going on (dreams, death or lovemaking) I was enchanted. Harlow is elusive as well as allusive, but the poems are worth all that patient stalking.

 

Anne French is Publisher at Oxford University Press.

 

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