a retreat into writing and resting

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Recently I took occupation of the Beatson’s Foxton house, which is generously rented out to writers at an inexpensive rate so that even people on a poet’s wage (cough cough) can afford a retreat, for a weekend with three writer friends.

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It’s a beautiful house overlooking the Manawatu Estuary, it has all the things you need for a retreat – a nice view, hundreds of books, a fire…(I don’t have a fire at my place. I do miss having a fire!)

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While I’ve been working away at my writing when I can, the year began with the daunting task of helping to run a Yoga Studio for ten weeks while our head teacher was away in India, plus my freelance work has been good and busy….so this retreat weekend fell just after the studio-sit finished (whew! we kept the place afloat with no major mishaps) so was a lovely opportunity to celebrate that work and to sink into my writing.

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I took a bundle of new poems to share with my retreat-mates, and they most generously workshopped ALL OF THEM which was very helpful indeed.  I also printed out (for the first time!) my manuscript which I began during last year’s Massey Visiting Artist residency. I have been working away at that, without looking too much over what has come before – just focussing on generating new work. It printed out to be a solid bundle of pages, but I have to admit…I didn’t end up cracking open the blue folder I took it along in. I thought I was ready and that the weekend would be a good space to read over what I have so far, but nope. It’s still sitting on my desk, un-peeked at. I take that to mean I’m not ready and so I will just keep writing for now, but I have given myself the deadline of the end of June and THEN I have to print everything out, read it in one go and start the bit of the writing process where the real work begins….editing. All I know at the moment, is that I have written a big pile of material. Whether any of it is any good – well, I’ll let you know in July.

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Even though I didn’t do that, it was great to have some new poems workshopped and I did some new writing and lots of yummy reading – Louise Erdrich poetry, Gary Snyder prose and lots of incidental reading of poetry books on the shelves in the Foxton house.

((We cracked ourselves up reading aloud and miming a poem from the 1980s by a NZ poet in which he described doing a ‘naked plie’ and admiring in the bathroom mirror the plum line of his penis. I know, super-mature, right? (Maybe you had to be there…))

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We also walked along the estuary, ate several very good meals, took one jaunt into Foxton to cruise the junk-shops and generally had a great, restful time. I do love going away with evolved, fully-realised women – there is an organic, seamless way in meals occurring, fires being lit, cups of tea being made, outings suggested…somehow everyone contributed enough and yet everyone was looked after by the others enough. Very lovely. I also like going away with people who aren’t afraid of silence.

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This year has been PACKED with good, rich stuff. Feeling very blessed, right now.

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recent reading, ongoing thinking

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I haven’t been writing about my writing much lately because a) I’m not sure it’s that interesting to anyone but me and b) I try to save all my energy for the actual writing project but anyhoo…a small update…

This year for me feels like a year of withdrawal, processing and deep thought.  I decided to focus inward on the current writing project. It’s a bit scary because I am writing prose rather than poetry, so I’m kind of in unchartered territory for me. (I am also feeling sad that poetry has left me for while, but I have been doing this for long enough to know that it will return. Lately when I try to write a poem, I feel like I keep writing versions of poems I’ve written before. When you are boring yourself, chances are no one else is going to be that excited either!) I have no idea of the ‘market’ for this meandering, tangential stuff I’m writing but I try to flush out those kind of concerns and focus on getting on with it! Over the winter, I had the Massey Residency and that was a wonderfully immersive and productive few months. Things have been a bit more hotch-potch since then as freelance work and Life have to be negotiated, but I plod on!

I noticed a theme in my reading recently – lots of books with ‘Wild’ in the title! I am reading and writing about nature/bioregionalism/ecology/contemporary spirituality….so I guess ‘wildness’ is a thread through all of these things.

The Wild Places, by Robert McFarlane

Wild, by Jay Griffiths (This book remains my favourite book IN THE WORLD EVER.) 

Wild, by Cheryl Strayed

Wild Mind, by Natalie Goldberg

Coincidence? Or maybe it’s just that I would read anything with WILD in the title? Ha ha.

Robert McFarlane’s book led me to…

Waterlog, by Roger Deakin – a remarkable account of Deakin’s desire to swim in as many wild waterways as he could across the UK. (Roger Deakin was an incredible person who seemed to live almost in an alternate universe where he was part-tree himself. What an amazing man.)

In fact, this is the trajectory so much of contemporary nature writing takes – a person leaves the urban environment and takes off to the waterways or the wilds, the forests, the mountains and then experiences the edges of their pathetic humanity and learns a pile of stuff about themselves. It’s compelling stuff! Escape, edge-dwelling, deep nature….

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As inspiring and firing as these books are, though, I cannot write this kind of book. I am a mother of two children, tethered by family to a small suburban piece of land in a medium-sized, unsensational city. So my challenge is how to extrapolate a compelling narrative from my own situation.

To my rescue (to some extent) comes bioregionalism, Urban Resilience movements and Transition Towns giving me a steadfast political framework to staying put in the urban environment and making the best of it, or making it better more to the point.

I am on the hunt for any books which address the URBAN ‘wilds’, or ‘domestic’ nature narratives, so please do suggest some if you know of any.

One I read and thoroughly loved recently was ‘Feeding Orchids to The Slugs’, a book about a woman becoming a Zen Retreat cook.

I’d love to know if there are more New Zealand books in this vein. I read THIS ONE by Harvey McQueen recently, it was charming, but a little too restrained for my taste.

How do you write a compelling nature-based narrative when you live in suburbia and can’t stray very far? This question is at the heart of my project.

So far, I’m finding it’s all about ATTENTION, rather than literal travel. That the ‘wild’ is as much within as without. I cringe a bit writing that, but what the hell, it’s what I’m experiencing as true.

‘To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.’ -Mary Oliver

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I would gratefully receive any book suggestions around any of the above stuff. I feel like I need to devour another few hundred books to get to the bottom of my thinking around this stuff, and it all feeds the creative fire!

(If you got to the bottom of this, you are a trooper and I thank you over a million times for your attention.)

 

same same, but different

The residency is over. I’m all moved out of the flat and I handed the keys back in. I’ve been feeling a little flat this week – since I found out I got the residency last November, it was the thing I was looking forward to about this year….then suddenly I was there and doing it, and it has been so wonderful, rich, busy, a true gift! Then just as quickly, it’s all done.

Here is the first photograph I took of the All Saint’s steeple I could see from the flat window:

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I started taking a photograph of the steeple, not every time I went to the flat, but many times. Same view, different day. Same steeple, different sky.

I got married in that church, so I have a special affection for it. It’s now obsolete because of earthquake risk. I hope it doesn’t get knocked down.

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Apart from the writing time (which was amazing) here are some things about the residency:

I loved having a cave up in the sky to hide in. It was like a retreat in many ways. (Admittedly a 9.30-2.30 retreat, with parenting and housework at both ends…but that’s the closest to a retreat I’m likely to get at this stage in my life, so I ain’t complainin’.)

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I re-learned focus, and pro-longed attention, and diligence. After a decade of snatching writing time around work and children, it was incredible to have the gift of TIME. It took me about three weeks to sink into it, at first I had major ants-in-my-pants after the first few hours each day…but boy, am I used to it now.

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I read 27 challenging, brain-stretching books, from Thoreau to Dillard to Liberty Hyde Bailey to Terry Tempest Williams….

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I stayed off the internet during the days. It was peaceful. It was spacious. I sank into the quiet.

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I ate a lot of toast and drank a lot of tea.

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I enjoyed reading and thinking nearly as much as writing. I was happy to discover how much…that if I never publish another book, I don’t really mind. I’ll always have reading and thinking! I like my brain!

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I really like my own company. I always suspected I did, but I haven’t had the space since I had kids to confirm it.

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I listened to student radio and discovered lots of new (to me) music.

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I thought I was going to write about the end of the world but instead I wrote about the beginning of a new one.

Pigeons roost in the steeple. They fly in late morning and out late afternoon.

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I think that’s all I have to say…

This week after moving out of the flat I’ve been working in the public library which is:

a) noisier

b) much warmer

c) full of people with snotty noses and hacking coughs

d) not as good as the flat

e) perfectly fine

I don’t know what the point of this post is. Except I wanted to share some of my steeple photographs, and to mark the end of the residency somehow.

I had a cuppa and an almond croissant with a dear friend to ‘celebrate’ (?) The End and she gave me celery seedlings and chocolate and lent me a lovely book and…life romps on.

Thank you, All Saints steeple for being my companion through all of the weather this winter.  I will miss you! x

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what you hold on to

On Sunday the sun came out after two days of heavy rain. Various plants were doing a beautiful job of holding water on their surface…jewel-like, shining in the sun.

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I have just two weeks to go of the residency! It’s gone SO FAST. BACK HERE I said I was going to write about it here on the blog. Well, looks like I didn’t. I’ve been too busy in it, living it, doing it to reflect on it much. You can take it as a good sign that I didn’t write about it much – all the writing was happening within the residency! It’s been so rich and rewarding and I’ve gotten lots of work done. It’s been a real gift and I feel so lucky!

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There are various duties I have to do in my last couple of weeks as artist-in-residence, so I can see the last fortnight is going to romp by. The time of it being deep, contemplative, solo and quiet is over. Consequently, I’ve been a bit sad about that this week…ah well, time passes. Fact of life.

I hope to hold on to the routine I’ve established during the residency going, which is: drop M at school, nice brisk walk, make tea, write write write….and while I won’t be able to justify spending whole days at it post-residency, my aim is to do two hours each day in the morning. I don’t want to lose the momentum I’ve achieved!

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As part of my residency, I’m running a workshop soon – there are still five places if you’d like to come…. (it’s in Palmerston North, of course) Poster below. Maybe see you there…

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a portrait of the (visiting) artist as a middle-aged woman

Actually this is mainly photos of the Massey Visiting Artist apartment where I am working during the day, for the curious. (I am always super-nosey about where people work and what residencies are like, so I’m sharing this stuff for those that share my curiousity…) I really enjoyed Sarah Laing’s comics about her residency in 2010. I think perhaps something common to residencies, is that they are cold. The apartment is FREEZING. Thank goodness for tea – the instant hand-warmer.

Here is the view from the living room – I can see the steeple of All Saint’s Church from the sofa where I sit to work.

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And out of the bathroom window I can see the steeple again, reflected in a big blue skyscraper.

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There is hideous stained green nylon carpet in the living area and fantastic black and white lino in the kitchen which reminds me of mountain topography…

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If I’m looking down, I should look up, too… the ceiling is classic 70s pegboard…

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Teacups on the kitchen shelf…I wonder which visiting artist contributed these? Johanna Aitchison? Vivienne Plumb? Jennifer Compton?

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The flat’s only reading material…

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I put some things on the wall to gaze at when I’m thinking…

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Here is the coffee table I am using as a desk….

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Here’s what I got out from the Massey Library this week. So many yummy books!

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Here is where I sit to read and write….usually covered in blankets because of the cold.

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Wonderfully retro dressing table in the bedroom I’m not using.

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Inside cover of my residency notebook…

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Finally, me. Still slightly in shock (and extremely grateful) that I get to come here every day and write for three whole months!  Lucky, lucky life.

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gardening and visiting artist-ing

Here’s a recent ‘shop the garden’ haul – most days ‘shop the garden’ is not all that photogenic – silverbeet, spring onions, herbs…but this was a prettier day…

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I dropped some nasturtium seed around in late January and it’s really going for it now. It will die back when the first frosts come. Nasturtiums are my favourite plant.

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My two readings with Maria McMillan are all done now. Thank you so much if you came to listen. It was a lovely experience working with a close friend to create a (hopefully entertaining) reading.

My Massey visiting-artist residency officially begins on Monday, although after this afternoon I would have already met five obligations as visiting artist! I got my temporary library card on Wednesday, which is the thing I am most excited about. The City Library just doesn’t cut it for the kind of esoteric and nerdy reading I like to do. I can’t wait to get in there and borrow a heap of stuff.

Next week is also the second week of the school holidays, so probably the only ‘visiting artist’ thing I will be doing is looking up book titles on the university library catalogue….but after that – yay! I can get stuck in.

This is the first time I have ever received substantial funding/a residency so I don’t really know what I’m doing…..except that I guess the point of it is I get sanctioned time to write, and I know how to do that….so I guess I will just do that. I have had moments of freaking out thinking I have to produce a book in the three months of the residency, then I remember I don’t. Whew. (However I hope I will get a substantial chunk of work done, of course!)

Right now I am reading (among a dozen other things) Jeanette Winterson’s ‘Why be happy when you could be normal?’ – it’s very good….I keep stopping to scrawl quotations down in my journal. Read it if you like gritty, courageous, sparse, beautifully-crafted memoir.

celebrating a long apprenticeship

Next Wednesday, 12.30pm, Theatre Lab 5D14, Massey University Wellington my dear friend Maria McMillan and I are giving a talk/poetry reading. It’s my first duty as visiting artist at Massey. We’ll be repeating it the following Wednesday 24 April, 6pm, at the Palmerston North City Library.

I invited Maria to share the reading with me because we have been friends for almost twenty years and it has been a friendship with our shared love of writing at the core. Indulge me while I tell you a little bit about our history.

We met just after finishing university, and quicky bonded over our love for poetry. We both took it very seriously, sharing books, discussing poetry, sharing our own writing with each other, even sitting and writing together. Our relationship was intense at it’s beginning and we were soon devoted friends.

A couple of years into our friendship, Maria left for her OE and a year later, I followed (with my husband Fraser) and we lived with Maria in Brixton, London.

Our time in London was wonderful – we called ourselves ‘Girl Germs’ and we wrote a lot, went on geeky literary pilgrimages (I actually cried when I sat in Virginia Woolf’s writing shed in Rodmell, Sussex), joined the Poetry Library on the South Bank, went to poetry readings (most notably Carol Ann Duffy and (for me) two of the ‘Liverpool Poets’: Brian Patten and Roger McGough who I adored as a teenager) and read at Open Mike Nights – all over London, but the best ones were always at The Poetry Place in Covent Garden. You were limited to read just one poem (always a good idea for Open Mike nights!) and the famous read with alongside the newbies. You never knew who might appear. Once John Cooper Clark popped up! For a while Maria interned with Michael Horowitz. Exciting times for poetry nerds.

Here is Maria outside the Poetry Cafe with our friend, American poet Debbie Urbanski. (These days Debbie owns a Letter Press Studio – the Box Car Press.) 

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Anyway – like most friendships in your twenties (when you have no kids or mortgage) we had many great nights out together…

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We danced together…

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We played a lot of hacky sack together…(in London we lived in overcrowded flats where people were sleeping in the living room or sharing bedrooms, so we made trips to nearby parks for hacky-sack compulsory for all flatmates. Hacky sack is both great for letting off steam and for discussions about stuff going on in the flat that cannot get tense because…dude, you are playing hacky-sack – it’s a collaborative game! Hacky sack stopped us all killing each other many a time.)

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We went on adventures together….

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Maria was a very patient model for my try-hard arty photo shoots:

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We wore each other’s clothes. (Particular old men’s jerseys from op-shops were in hot demand. The kind that was old and worn enough to have lost all stretch around the bands. Holes were desirable, too, for scruffy street-cred.)

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But the thing that means the most to me, looking back, is how we shared writing. We both had an unassailable passion for writing, we were doing it by ourselves – outside of any academic institutions – we learned a lot together. The bed-rock of peer support we gave each other was a great ground for growth and experimentation. 

Anyway, neither of us found particular success (in terms of traditional writing institutions and publications) during our twenties and it wasn’t until we hit our thirties+ that we moved from underground to the more expected terrain (publication in literary journals, anthologies and finally, publication of our own books.) We were not wunderkinds. But I am really grateful for our long apprenticeship and for the opportunity we had in our twenties to be zealots for poetry! To be poetry fundamentalists! To be so passionate and nerdy without the self-consciousness and self-doubt that academic creative writing programmes often breed. We were not cool or understated or moderate or measured or even particularly talented but we were passionate and dedicated and optimistic and eager to teach ourselves and each other. I love that about us-as-we-were.

Anyway, when we were ready, we DID study creative writing – I did the Writing Programme at Whitireia Polytechnic and it was invaluable beyond words. Maria did courses at the International Institute of Modern Letters which I know she feels really helped her develop her work.

This winter Maria has her first book coming out with Seraph Press (who are my wonderful publisher also) ‘The Rope Walk’, and next year she has a book coming out with Victoria University Press, ‘Tree Space’. As you may know, my first book ‘The Comforter’ came out in December 2011.

So, yes, this talk is something of a celebration for me of our long apprenticeship, and a long and wonderful friendship, too. Girl Germs Forever!

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