Thursday, September 30, 2010

'Reclusive' or 'exclusive'?

Janet Frame in good humour at one of several Mayoral Receptions she attended during her last years in Dunedin (Photo Reg Graham)

I've been astonished by seeing a particularly ignorant reference to Janet Frame's "reclusiveness" in an article in a New Zealand Sunday newspaper.

I know, I know. I shouldn't read the gutter presses. And I know, I know, you can't fight Myth.

But I can't help being outraged when people who should know better dish up this garbage, and dress it up in a pseudo-literary context. The report is by a journalist who introduced herself to the famous author at a public event, was perhaps rebuffed (unsurprisingly since there is reference to an at least two year previous history of what sounds from the other side of the shorthand pencil a little like stalking), yet within those few seconds managed to look deep into Frame's soul, enough time to realise "that her reclusiveness wasn't mythical, but essential to her survival. To survive in the world, she seemed to need to live on its fringes." Oh dear, and yet, we are also told that Frame was immediately "ushered away to meet local creative luminaries".

So make up your mind, was Frame able to rub shoulders with those luminaries or not? If she was, then doesn't that contradict your argument that she can't "function in the world"? And did it occur to you that many of the "local creative luminaries" were actually longterm friends or acquaintances of Frame's, and that she actually preferred to spend time with her friends rather than being harassed inappropriately at a civic celebration by a self-important journalist who considers her own career is more important than respecting the occasion?

How did someone acting so like a paparazzo get so close to a celebrity anyway? Would a journo expect to be able to approach Peter Jackson or Angelina Jolie or the Queen or Obama (to pick some extreme but relevant examples) and strike up a best friendship based on a moment's introduction?

What was it about Janet Frame that made so many people not realise she was a celebrity? That made them think her apparent inaccessibility was due to some pathology, rather than being a characteristic of the very famous? That made them assume she had nothing better to do with her time than apply herself to building up their career, answering their patronising queries, or reading their manuscripts? That she would be pleased to answer the door to unannounced visitors and invite them in and bare her soul to someone who had clearly prejudged her anyway?

That an awkward meeting was due more to the anxiety and clumsiness of the supplicant?

I suppose I was particularly angered by this stupid anecdote because I was named as one of the supposed gatekeepers guarding and "ushering" Frame. Hilariously, the usher/bouncer on the other side of Janet was named as her friend poet Ruth Dallas. Those in the know would immediately realise that when Janet and Ruth went arm-in-arm in public it was because of Ruth's near-blindness, and she was being guided, not because Janet was being guarded!

Anyway, how many friends and bouncers and gatekeepers and colleagues that you socialise with happily do you need to have before you cease being defined as "reclusive"?

Because at these mayoral receptions Janet mixed and joked and chatted with numerous people:

Mayor Sukhi Turner (they liked each other very much, I heard them both say), with Michael King, with Ruth and her niece Joan, with Cilla McQueen and her mum who sat next to Janet (elderly ladies not being so keen on bouncing around the room); with poets Peter Olds and David Eggleton, journalist John Gibb, with old friend Hone Tuwhare, with archivist Stuart Strachan and academic Jocelyn Harris, friend and photographer Reg Graham (who took the above photo) and his wife Judith, Ted Middleton and Cynthia, and these are just the people I recall chatting with Janet.

And of course Janet had her own entourage, as celebrities do (especially those who attract stalkers as she did) consisting of several family and close friends. But it's not just celebrities who go out and about with friends. Treasured elderly ladies, if they're lucky, usually have some family along with them.

If Frame was alone and spoke to nobody, I could get calling her "reclusive". If she didn't actually make an appearance, then reclusiviness could also could be an inference. But it's hard to imagine how Janet Frame could have been less "reclusive" in her last years in Dunedin. She frequently hosted gatherings at her favourite restaurants and cafes around town, the guests including family and friends and a constant stream of colleagues and out of town visitors. She attended launches and talks and art gallery openings, film festivals, concerts and dance performances. She made new friends in those years, and managed her many existing relationships, and renewed and deepened some of her former South Island contacts.

Myth is so powerful that it prevents some people from interpreting the evidence of their own eyes. They would rather ignore the truth in front of them, than lose the comfort of the story they have acquired culturally, especially because those legends are so internally consistent, so symmetrical, so unlike real life which is much more unpredictable and untidy, and which does allow for a real mystery, a mystery that cannot be glibly "unravelled".

More on the launch

A section of the crowd who came to the Gus Fisher Gallery, Auckland, to celebrate the launch of Dear Charles Dear Janet: Frame & Brasch in Correspondence.

Please click on this link to read poet Elizabeth Smither's thoughtful launch speech for Dear Charles Dear Janet:

Text of a speech by Elizabeth Smither

Dear Charles Dear Janet: Frame & Brasch in Correspondence

Holloway Press, University of Auckland, 2010

Limited edition, letterpress printed by Tara McLeod.

NZ $250

Order by contacting:

Or download the order form:

The volume includes facsimiles of an exchange of letters between Charles and Janet after the two friends had been to see Midnight Cowboy together in Dunedin on a Saturday night in June 1970.

These days we'd email or facebook or text our subsequent thoughts about such an encounter, but in the 60s and 70s it was not unusual to write to each other across town, putting a stamp on your letter and posting it! Charles wrote on the Sunday, thanking Janet for a gift she had given him, and mentioning that he was still thinking about the movie ("scenes from midnight Cowboy keep coming back to me"...) Janet replied the following day, giving her impressions of the movie (and of Dustin Hoffman).

(Facsimile images were provided courtesy of Hocken Collections, Uare Taoka a Hakena, University of Otago)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

NZ poetry in the Frame

A fascinating new survey and analysis of New Zealand poetry has just been published:

99 Ways into New Zealand Poetry, edited by Paula Green and Harry Ricketts (Random House NZ, 2010)

Reviewed by Elizabeth Smither in the Sunday Star-Times

It's a big, heavy book, full of marvellous essays and useful insights, thoughtful contributions from many of the poets, and a generous supply of photographs and book cover images, and dozens of full poems to accompany the explanatory text.

There is of course, a showing from Janet Frame in this book. One of her poems was chosen by the editors to illustrate "Sound" poetry. Also her commercial success as a poet is considered under the heading of "Popular Poets" (there is a statement - rather an understatement - that her posthumous collection The Goose Bath sold 3,000 copies which in New Zealand merits a "gold" sales status. In fact it sold many more). Because of the evidence for such strong sales, usually only connected with the populist and the pub bards, Frame must be grouped together with the other New Zealand commercially successful New Zealand poets. There's a suggestion that in Frame's case it's her fame as a novelist and a memoirist that attracts the reading public to her poetry publications, rather than any appeal - or compromise - on her part towards becoming a "people's poet."

I think that it's perhaps still too soon for Frame's contribution to NZ poetry, and her place in the hearts and minds of poetry readers here, to be fully recognised by the official discourses of academic commentators. In fact the academics tend to locate Frame's work as belonging to high culture and esoteric literary studies, and are often heard to claim her work is "difficult" - the inference being that only the highly educated can understand and engage with her; the popularity however, of her poetry, and the number of times her poems have been quoted over the years, for a range of popular culture purposes, would tend to contradict this proprietorial stance of the academy.

I was astonished once, while researching which poems from The Pocket Mirror had been adapted by musicians, or anthologised, or quoted in various contexts, to find that over half the poems from that book had found so much favour with the reading public and with other writers and artists that they had been moved to quote or adapt them. Often the "anthology" poem even of a major poet, is fairly easy to predict. Frame's extensive range of expression and subject matter makes her poetic oeuvre a rich and varied source of inspiration, and provides many choices from experimental, to lyrical, to ballads, to political protest, to the spare and perfect imagist poems, etc.

(The Frame oeuvre so far published, that is! As with many of the great poets, she has left a rich supply of poems for posterity to consider.)

Although Frame is frequently quoted for her self-deprecating comments about her own poetry, this angle is increasingly overdone, I feel. Poetry was central to her vision and to her practice, and she was adamant in declaiming her poems whenever she had the opportunity. Almost invariably when Frame gave an interview or a speech or a public reading (including at a prison!), attended a conference or festival, or did a recording, she chose to include a poetry reading as part of her contribution. Almost all her novels seamlessly interweave poetry with the prose. She wrote letters to the editor in poetry, and often included poems in letters to friends and acquaintances.

It's a little known fact that Janet Frame's first book of poetry, The Pocket Mirror (first published 1967) has sold over 10,000 copies across several editions in New Zealand alone.

Janet Frame's posthumous collection The Goose Bath (2006) has sold not 3,000, but nearly 5,000 copies in New Zealand, and the NZ paperback edition is still selling steadily after fresh reprints.

These above figures do not include the healthy international sales for Frame's poetry volumes published in the UK and the USA, and in Australia.

This indicates that there is more interest in Janet Frame's poetry than can be attributed to her fame as a novelist and memoirist.

As Listener reviewer Hugh Roberts said, prophetically, perhaps, about the The Goose Bath (The Stain of Words, 2006):

"This is a volume that alters the landscape of New Zealand poetry."

However there are not as many references to "Janet Frame" in the index at the end of 99 Ways, as there may seem at first sight. Unfortunately several of the index entries point merely to the prosaic word "frame" appearing in the text! Here are the phrases pointed to by the Frame, Janet index entry:

working class frame
a different frame
a regulated frame
the poetic frame
in this 'frame'
the frame of poetry
imposing a specific frame
the need to frame social issues

Now I call that "found poetry"...

Friday, September 17, 2010

Review of Dear Charles, Dear Janet

Portrait by Jane Ussher, NZ Listener

Dear Charles, Dear Janet: Frame & Brasch in Correspondence

edited by Pamela Gordon and Denis Harold
Holloway Press 2010

Reviewed by Gordon McLauchlan

"I enjoyed this engaging book for what it contained,
instructive as it is about both personalities,
and for the craftmanship of the people involved in making it."

Thursday, September 16, 2010

"Janet Frame ist göttlich und wird es bleiben." ~ Alice Sebold

German translation of Towards Another Summer

released tomorrow, 17 September 2010

Notes on the Limited Edition

A reminder that if you want to obtain the fine edition of the above book, order details are available on the HOLLOWAY PRESS website.

Prominent NZ author Elizabeth Smither gave a most beautiful address at the launch, and Holloway Press publisher Peter Simpson also spoke.

I gave a brief talk also, on behalf of the editors (myself and Denis Harold) and the Frame estate.

Here are some of the notes I wrote towards my short speech:

Congratulations to everyone involved in producing this work of art.

In this day of e-books, digital files, audio books and mass production, print on demand, pirated editions, institutional photocopies, how wonderful it is to celebrate the art of the handmade book.

To my knowledge, this is Janet Frame's shortest print run (at 150 copies) and her highest retail price (at $250).

I know that Janet often yearned to have one of these fine editions, but how could she ever have managed, because her readership was too vast and her career on too broad a canvas. Publishers were always eagerly awaiting the next manuscript.

As it turns out, she didn't always hand her manuscripts on to them, but that's another story!

It is true to say, that from very early in her career, Frame's commercial potential was recognised, and her agents and publishers would likely never have allowed such a gratuitously non-commercial project as this, conceived purely for the beauty of the work and as a gesture of support for the art of the fine press, and as a tribute to the literary relationship between Janet Frame and Charles Brasch.

All that work for little economic return, compared to a standard main stream publication, but we're so glad to have been able to take part in and support this project, just for the love of the content and the form of the book.

Some people have expressed surprise at the evidence in this book for the obvious tenderness of the friendship that developed between Janet and Charles - both are generally regarded as reserved and solitary people - and although it was known that Charles Brasch was Janet's wealthy "patron", it was not widely known that he was also her friend.

So another nice thing from my perspective, about releasing this text, is that it will run counter to the popular impression that Janet Frame had nothing but "mentors" and "patrons". Everyone else in New Zealand literature, it seems, is allowed "friends" - but the myth of Janet Frame does not easily allow for the recognition that Janet did in fact had many close friendships. So her friends are commonly defined as "patrons" and "mentors", or defined as somebody else's friend rather than hers.

Charles was Janet's patron, but he never patronised her.

In this book you can hear Janet and Charles in conversation, in their own words, speaking for themselves. Please enjoy.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Frames within frames

I recently visited Frank Sargeson's house at Takapuna, and took this photo of this photo pinned to the wall very near where the photo had been taken.

The photo, of course, is of the elderly but spry Janet Frame dancing on the floor of Frank's bach, on a return visit "to the scene of the crime" with her biographer Michael King, who took the photo.

Why do you think Janet is dancing? I wonder if Michael ever guessed?

OE (Ted) Middleton

I'm sad to report that another one of Janet Frame's contemporaries, Ted Middleton, passed away recently, at the age of 85 years.

Here's an item from Dunedin's TV Channel 9 in which the executors for Charles Brasch and Janet Frame pay their tribute to Ted Middleton, on the day of his funeral, by reading from the recently published book Dear Charles Dear Janet. Charles and Janet refer in the excerpt to a new publication by their mutual friend Ted, a book of stories illustrated by Ralph Hotere.

Ted first met Janet when she was boarding with Frank Sargeson at his Takapuna home, and was one of many observers and acquaintances from that time who did not dine out on bizarre anecdotes about her so-called "odd" behaviour - alas the public hasn't yet heard so much from the reasonable ones! - Ted simply noted that when he first met her, she was shy, but pleasant.

Perhaps his clear perception was due to the fact that like Janet, Ted was firmly rooted in his allegiance to working class "rules" and so he didn't patronise her from a judgmental middle class perspective, just because she didn't conform to the norms society expected of women in the 1950s.

Ted was also a free spirit and a yearner after social justice.

Ted and Janet came to know each other better when they were both living in Dunedin, through their mutual friend Charles Brasch.

Rest in peace, Ted.

French Symposium on Frame's Lagoon

On the 21st October 2010 some of the most prominent Frame scholars in Europe will gather at the University of Lyon to contribute to this session:

(click on the link above for more information)

Small but perfectly formed

An upcoming UK short story festival, held in Charleston, Sussex, is to include a session on Janet Frame's latest short story collection which was published in the UK and Australia as The Daylight and the Dust, and in the USA and New Zealand as Prizes.

The Daylight and the Dust

Sunday 26 September 6 pm

With Kerry Fox and Michele Roberts

Janet Frame, New Zealand's most famous writer, was a versatile novelist, poet, essayist and short story writer. Her autobiography An Angel at My Table inspired Jane Campion's acclaimed big screen version. Kerry Fox was born in New Zealand and came to prominence playing Janet Frame in the film. Michele Roberts is a novelist, poet and short story writer and provided the introduction to the Virago edition of Janet Frame's selected stories.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The pencil is mightier than the sword

I received some green pencils in the post today, with these words emblazoned in gold lettering:


I liked them at first, until I became aware of their potential to promote crass exploitations of Janet Frame's life rather than Janet Frame's own work.

One of my concerns about such a piece of merchandise, is that there is a danger, in sentimentalising a mythical "Janet Frame", of sidelining the real Janet Frame, who can only be known by reading her own work.

As Basho said: "If you want to know the pine, go to the pine, or if you want to know the bamboo, go to the bamboo."

So I'd rather have seen these words:


Wednesday, September 1, 2010

"good old immortal artists"

Follow this link to see a Channel 9 Dunedin Television news item filmed recently to mark the launch of DEAR CHARLES, DEAR JANET.

The clip features an interview with the literary executors for the estates of the late Charles Brasch and the late Janet Frame.

The phrase "good old immortal artists" comes from a comment Frame wrote to her friend Bill Brown 18 months after Charles Brasch died.

"I do find it so strange in New Zealand with Charles Brasch gone, as if a familiar city had disappeared, yet I should comfort myself by remembering he's still here - as he is when one takes his poems to read. Good old immortal artists."

To buy the book please visit the website of THE HOLLOWAY PRESS.