Writers off the page, Jane Stafford

New Zealand International Arts Festival Writers and Readers Week begins on 9 March in Wellington. It is an event which in the past has mixed an eclectic selection of novelists, poets and essayists – celebrated and little known – with local audiences, with results that have always been stimulating. This year’s list looks likely to repeat past successes.

The biggest name is undoubtedly the American novelist and short story writer Richard Ford, author of the acclaimed 20th century classics The Sportswriter and Independence Day. Ford is the master of the small detail, the nuances of the everyday, what one critic describes as “achy but bittersweet familial melancholy”. Ford’s leading character Frank Bascombe is a sportswriter turned real-estate agent, the latter being “a heady metaphor for the nature of attachment”. Ford is interested, he says in what Emerson calls “the infinite remoteness that separates people”, and he charts this through the minutiae of daily existence. “Language in a novel is action, it’s where the values reside,” he says. “You get to participate in people’s lives through the agency of language.” He interested not in the grand gesture or the melodramatic climax but “in what happens after someone walks out the door. I’m interested in what happens later. The most constructive impulse in my life is that I don’t ever walk out the door; I don’t do exits.” This credo seems to apply to his art and his life: “Writing is the only thing I’ve done with persistence except for being married.”

Mark Doty is one of the United States’ foremost poets, winner of most of the prestigious literary prizes. Critics praise his “efficient narrative of events, an elegant handling of free verse one wants to call ‘post-formal’ and a lyric intensity.” Doty is interested in the tension between art and nature, the real and false. He talks of the task of “figuring out how to be yourself in a poem … how your love of wigs and make-up, your sense of humour, your anger finds its way into the poem.” Now living in Provincetown, Cape Cod, Doty writes:

I’ve always been a poet who wrote about urban life largely because I love the layers and surprises and jangly complexities of cities. I feel at home in cities being a gay man. It’s a place of permissions and possibility …. In the marsh there’s no narrative. All that happens is a bird flies by and the tide goes in and out.


Doty’s two volumes of autobiography have particular force, straining experience through the craft of his writing. Heaven’s Coast describes his partner’s death from Aids. “By being open about his sexuality,” a critic has written, “by using it as a subject of his poems without it being the subject Doty created a new model for gay and lesbian poets and poetry.” There is a need as Doty sees it for “trying to talk about public life without resorting to public language”. Illness, and in particular Aids, does this: “Apocalypse is played out on a personal scale; it is not in the sky above us but in our bed.” Illness may be “demanding, punitive”, but “nonetheless reveals more of what things are”. Firebird, described as “a bittersweet portrait of the artist as a young homosexual” is an autobiography of his childhood from the ages of six to 16, and is he says “a sissy boy’s story, and thus an exile’s tale, a chronicle of a gradual process of coming to belong somewhere, to the world of art.” He writes:

                              I have for hours
believed, without judgment, without condemnation,
that in each body, however obscured and recast,

is the divine body, common, habitable.

Jenny Diski is the author of eight novels, including Then Again and Only Human: A Comedy, but has also pioneered the personalised travel account. Skating to Antarctica is described by a reviewer as “disquisitions on indolence, truth, inconsistency, ambiguousness, the elephant seal, Shackleton, boredom and, over and again, memory”. Her most recently foray into “travel writing degree zero” is Strangers on a Train: Daydreaming and Smoking Around America with Interruptions. Smokers in the US, she claims are modern day heretics, the equivalent of Shakers or Albigensians. In both works, the external journey and destination are less important than the often wry self-discovery gained along the way.

Local readers may also have encountered Diski’s literary journalism in the London Review of Books – her review of a very po-faced cultural history of the vagina in a recent issue was funny to the point of pain. Reflecting on the rhapsodic praise of the cunning of vagina, she observes that “vaginas are intelligent in much the same way as cards are smart and genes are selfish. That is, they aren’t.” Self-described as “Jewish, female and depressed”, Diski’s “habitually skeptical, helplessly humorous tone” unpicks the conventions of the normal, a kind of madness that lies low in the mind, half-buried in consciousness, which lives in parallel to sanity, and given the right circumstances or even just half a chance, creeps like a lick of flame or a growing tumour up and around ordinary perception.

Biographers have been good value at previous Writers and Readers Weeks, with their mix of historical imagination and philosophical and formal self-consciousness. Jenny Uglow is the author of the standard biography of the 19th century novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, and has recently published a group study, The Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made the Future 1730-1810. “There is universally something presumptuous in provincial genius” wrote Joseph Priestley, the Birmingham inventor (among many other things) of soda water, and he should have known, being one. Uglow’s book describes the lives of a group including James Watt, Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles) and Josiah Wedgewood from Birmingham. As one reviewer put it, “these were typical 18th century men and so they formed a club”, the Lunar Society because they met at full moon, not for any gothic reasons, but  to ease the return journey in the dark.

New Zealand readers tend not to read Canadians, and not to read poets other than their own. Which means that Sharon Thesen is probably not as well known as she should be, though one can see her influence on local poets. She lives in Vancouver and writes about the contrast between its spectacular natural and arid urban setting. “Thesen’s lyricism”, a critic warns, “is not unremittingly bright and fragrant, for it lives in and grows out of a world marked by limitation and loss.” She described her early volumes as her “mad”, “sad” and “bad” books. In ‘Being Lost, As Usual” she writes:

                          the roads
fool you or the rivers don’t make sense
& the heights are hard to imagine.
Only how fast you breathe
the thin air clues you in.


In “Getting On With It” she commands:

drag yr mouldy old bones
up these stairs & tell me
what you died of,
I think
I’ve got it


But Thesen’s voice has a wider range. Confabulations is a sequence addressed to the poet and novelist Malcolm Lowry, famous for his drunken progress through the bars of Vancouver in the 1940s, where she addresses both his personal darkness and its literary implications. “I wake up,” Thesen’s Lowry declaims, “weeping at the whole grief of the world/strangling my vocabulary.” More recently she has described The Beginning of the Long Dashmarks  as her “glad” period, where the languages of the ordinary and the transcendent are conjured with

                                   rain clouds
kitty litter little things that drive you crazy …
fallen dahlia petals white paper dots from the 3-
hole punch
waiting for him to come …
rain on my ornamental plum.


Jane Stafford is currently working with Mark Williams on a study of late 19th century colonial New Zealand literature.


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