Wednesday, May 13, 2015

OWLS DO CRY event @ Auckland Writers Festival

"her dark, elegant song captured my heart" - Jane Campion

Lots of OWLS activity ahead of the Auckland Writers Festival event next Sunday:

Sunday 17 May 2015
4.30pm - 5.30 pm
Upper NZI Room, Aotea Centre
Free admission, no ticket required

Damian Barr, Kate de Goldi, Anne Kennedy and Courtney Sina Meredith will lead the discussion.

Here are some Owls Do Cry Covers. There have been dozens of different editions.

Here is 'Janet Frame's Song of Survival' - Margaret Drabble's introduction to the most recent edition of Owls Do Cry (Text Publishing 2014).

The New Zealand Book Council has posted a Bluffer's Guide to Owls Do Cry

And in this podcast Kiwi writers Paula Morris and Iain Sharp discuss Owls D Cry with poet and academic Selina Tusitala Marsh.

Australian author and critic Angela Meyer reviewed Owls Do Cry (May 2014).

A review by Lisa Hill of the Bolinda Audio Book of Owls Do cry.


Tuesday, May 12, 2015

On the rock of herself

Image: front of a T-shirt produced for the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival 2005

"When the agent and publisher received the typescript of The Edge of the Alphabet, the agents suggested I omit one chapter, the publishers that I enlarge the same chapter; there were other conflicting suggestions some of which I diffidently tried to follow. When the book was published, some reviews said of the now diminished chapter, ‘It could have been longer,’ while others praised parts criticised adversely by the agent and publisher but which I had not changed, while yet others criticised parts that had been praised. This confusing experience reminded me of what I already knew, and strengthened my resolution never to forget that a writer must stand on the rock of her self and her judgment or be swept away by the tide or sink in the quaking earth: there must be an inviolate place where the choices and decisions, however imperfect, are the writer’s own, where the decision must be as individual and solitary as birth or death. What was the use of my having survived as a person if I could not maintain my own judgment? Only then could I have the confidence to try to shape a novel or story or poem the way I desired and needed it to be, with both the imperfections and the felicities bearing my own signature."

~ Janet Frame, from The Envoy From Mirror City

Gearing up for NZ Poetry Day

NZ Poetry Shelves
University Book Shop

New Zealand Poetry Day is a fine tradition and a moveable feast.
This year it will take place on Janet Frame's birthday - August the 28th.
We are having a special celebration in Dunedin:
A UNESCO City of Literature Event
Featured Poets:
Hinemoana Baker
Louise Wallace (2015 Burns Fellow)
David Eggleton
2015 Janet Frame Literary Trust Award
Dunedin Secondary Schools Poetry Competition
Diane Brown
Dunningham Suite
Dunedin Public Library
6pm - 8 pm
28 August 2015

In defence of Janet Frame and her executor

This wonderful letter in Janet's and my defence was written five years ago to the Editor of the New Zealand Listener by distinguished New Zealand author Dame Fiona Kidman.

The letter was published on the 28th of August 2010, two weeks after the Listener had run an opening gambit in a pre-emptive strike against the credibility and status of the Janet Frame estate. This attempt to discredit me personally was presumably intended to weaken any moral objections I might later have wanted to raise against the upcoming Victoria University Press publication of a 'revenge fantasy' novel about Janet Frame that was written by Frame's arch-foe Professor Patrick Evans. VUP editor Fergus Barrowman refused to let me see the novel before its publication and so I declined to comment when I was approached by the author of the article, journalist Margo White. Her report as published was slyly biased against me and against Janet Frame's own agency, although cleverly enough written that no doubt it did its dirty work well.

Another old enemy of Frame's was brought in to add to the character assassination: Professor CK Stead who had once been a good friend of Janet Frame's but who had fallen out with her after taking offence at a fictional character of hers - a portrait of a mediocre poet that he insisted was based on him. Frame consistently denied that she had based the character on Stead, and before long she and Stead had to all appearances patched up their quarrel and renewed their friendship. But after her death he changed his tune and seemed to renew his vendetta. Unfettered by slander laws, he then began to make unpleasant accusations against Frame now that she was not there to defend herself (including the fantastic claim that she had tried to seduce him and that he had spurned her.)

Janet Frame's friend and biographer Michael King would have made short work of the lies and the misrepresentations that these two old enemies of Janet's launched into seemingly moments after Frame breathed her last. But Michael himself died tragically not long after she did. As Frank Sargeson's biographer, Michael had been assiduous in correcting mistakes or misunderstandings concerning Sargeson and he was gearing up to take on this role on behalf of Frame, as a matter of principle and integrity and professional pride.

I have had time in the 11 years since Michael and Janet died to note the truth of the feminist observation that where a woman dares to make a criticism or a correction, she is a bitch or rants or delivers a tirade (she's bossy or controlling), but where a man makes a criticism, he is strong, and authoritative, uncompromising, or conscientious.

That sexism is very much alive in NZ Lit and kudos to Fiona Kidman for noticing the unfairness of the slant of the Listener article. And for having the courage to speak up about it. Fiona has also pinpointed the likely background to the attacks on my authority as Janet Frame's executor: a poor attitude to Janet Frame herself. She identifies a refusal to allow Janet Frame the status of rational human being with a will of her own and with human rights. In her lifetime Frame had her civil rights taken away from her and as a hospital patient she was declared to be subnormal. Something of this attitude seems to persist even today in those who speak of Frame as if she didn't know her own mind and was not deserving of human respect and decency.

Monday, May 11, 2015

When Janet Frame wrote Owls Do Cry

Sixty years ago:
Janet Frame outside Frank Sargeson's army hut
where she wrote Owls Do Cry.
In 1955 when Janet Frame wrote Owls Do Cry she lived during the weekdays in a hut out the back of Frank Sargeson's bach at Esmond Road Takapuna (Auckland) and every weekend she went to nearby Northcote to stay with her sister June and her brother-in-law Wilson Gordon and their three children.

June and her children outside 61 Gladstone Road, Northcote, in 1955.

Janet Frame in London

20 Fortess Road, Kentish Town, London
My niece Hannah Taylor was in London recently and sent me these photographs of the flat where Janet Frame had lived above a shop (which was earlier a hairdresser, then a dress shop, now a dry cleaner).

In 1958, "at 20 Fortess Road, she found a room to let in a second-floor flat above a shop. It was occupied already by three other women: a teacher, a librarian and an office worker. Frame’s room was small and looked out onto a brick wall. She shared the bathroom and kitchen with the other tenants. She told John Money that there were Italian children next door, whose chattering was audible, and that the landlord lived upstairs. The latter ‘listens, listens, in case someone is sneaking a sixpenny bath free, or switching on what should be switched off, or leaving things where the typewritten notice warns Please Remove . . . [He] has an electric meter for a heart; it is common in London.’  The flat was quiet when the other women were out at work, however, and Frame resumed writing, initially verse."

(Michael King, Wrestling with the Angel: A Life of Janet Frame, 2000)

Excerpt from Janet Frame's 3rd volume of autobiography The Envoy From Mirror City about her life when she lived in Kentish Town:
 I renewed acquaintance with the poet Ben who introduced me to a friend, Lawrence, recently returned from living for twelve years in the United States, and as both Ben and
Lawrence, like myself, had no regular work, and as they lived north of Kentish Town, they formed the habit of ‘dropping in’ to the flat in the early morning on their way to town, that is, to their haunts in Soho where they usually met other unemployed poets and painters and sat and talked in the French café where the customers always pointed with pride to the famous Ironfoot Jack, reputed to be a member, past or present, of the underworld. Often after giving Ben and Lawrence a cup of coffee, and feeling reluctant to face the Kentish Town brick wall, I’d go with them to Soho where we met an assortment of people whose ambition was to write or paint or compose, and I felt at home with them, yet saddened by their everlasting dreaming, their talking about what they hoped to produce when they knew clearly (as I knew) that while they talked and dreamed, their work stayed untouched in the loneliness of their bedsitters or their poky gasreeking flats with share bathroom share kitchen share everything. My Kentish Town wall wasn’t the only formidable opponent to my working – dreaming was easier, though I did not voice my dreams. I regularly bought the weekly literary magazines and the London Magazine that had begun a series entitled ‘Coming to London’ recording the experiences of famous writers in their early days. I read eagerly of their experience with editors, agents, publishers while mentally composing my own ‘Coming to London’ which I would write one day and which would be full of references to poets and novelists I had met, with casual references to ‘my publisher’ (preferably Faber and Faber). ‘Having lunch with my publisher one day . . .’
Indeed I dreamed.
When Lawrence began to look on me as his ‘girl’ I was agreeable but lukewarm, refusing to put myself again in danger of another pregnancy but willing to be comforted and to comfort, naked body to naked body. When Lawrence began arriving at the flat at half-past eight in the morning on too many mornings, Millicent expressed her disapproval, Jane also did not think I should entertain a man so early in the morning. Only Gloria, in the end room and apart from the others because she, too, had ‘entertained men’, understood, and she and I, like two sisters, had many confiding talks. During the day Lawrence and I would take the usual route to Soho followed by a ‘gallery crawl’ inspecting the new paintings in each gallery. This was his duty, he said. Someone must take the responsibility of looking at new paintings otherwise they hung there, with people perhaps glancing at them, but few getting to know them, and it was a dismal experience for a painter to realise that no one bothered to look at his work. The painting suffered too, Lawrence said. Just ten or fifteen minutes was enough to restore life and hope to an abandoned painting and through it, renewed life to the painter alone in front of his easel.
Through Ben and Lawrence I met many of the ‘outsiders’ of Soho. Following the publication and popularity of Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, there was some prestige in being ‘outside’, quite unlike my experience in New Zealand when the prestige lay in being ‘inside’, although when one has the prestige of being ‘outside’ one is then ‘inside’ the ‘outside’ . . . I visited sleazy clubs, becoming a member for the evening to gain admission. I met prostitutes, male and female, and I listened to their stories, gaping impolitely as I cherished my growing ‘experience of life’ and quoting to myself on many occasions,
‘I sit in one of the dives on Fifty-Second Street . . .’
The direction I had set myself, however, was too clear for me to be waylaid for long. Wasn’t it time I applied myself to my writing?

Kia Kaha e Hoa: The good will among literary trusts

 Poster for a fundraising celebration held in Dunedin by the Hone Tuwhare Charitable Trust (October 2014)

Kia kaha e hoa! is a common New Zealand expression from the Maori language, meaning "Stay strong, friend".

I have been blessed in my role as trustee of the charitable organisation Janet Frame founded, to have walked along my path with many friends from many other estates and trusts and organisations whose work in the literary 'gardens' of New Zealand enriches Kiwi culture and protects precious literary taonga (treasures) for society now and for the future generations.

Some of the friends I have made have been my mentors, and for others I have been able to offer support or just listen and understand the unique challenges we face. What luck to find myself in a de facto 'club' where we are all doing something so positive, so creative, so valuable for the literary heritage of our country and for posterity as well. I have worked particularly closely with the guardians caring for the legacy of Janet Frame's friends and contemporaries James K. Baxter, Charles Brasch, Allen Curnow, Hone Tuwhare and Frank Sargeson.

Times are hard for literary charities in New Zealand and for the arts in general, but there is a generosity and a camaraderie to be found among those working or volunteering for organisations that make it their business to promote and protect the legacy of their author or a specific literary goal and to inspire new generations to discover the wonder of reading good literature and maybe even writing it themselves.

Here are just some of those literary trusts (and individuals, couples and groups) who are working for the good of literature in a country where - as Janet Frame was wont to point out - the love of Mammon and sport take more than their share of the attention and resources:


Ashton Wylie Charitable Trust Awards
The New Zealand Book Awards Trust.


Literary Estates:
Allen Curnow Estate
Denis Glover Estate
James K Baxter Trust
Charles Brasch Estate

Also see: various Literary Festival Trusts

Literary fragments enhancing the built environment

'Typography in the Landscape'
A quote from a Janet Frame poem is included in the Trestle Leg Series under the Auckland Harbour Bridge, beautifully designed by Catherine Griffiths.
'A Social Sculpture'

A quote from Frame's first novel Owls Do Cry is fittingly found on the wall of a café in Napier (part of the Words on Walls project).

Another Book about John Money

Here is another recent academic work on the subject of John Money's career as a sexologist:

Fuckology: Critical Essays on John Money's Diagnostic Concepts
University of Chicago Press (2014)

See earlier post "A Study of John Money" for details about Terry Goldie's book. Goldie has an interesting chapter about the neologisms Janet Frame's friend John Money coined, and apparently 'fuckology' is one of them.

A snippet from the first page of Terry Goldie's chapter on John Money's word coinages.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

BWB Texts: 'Small books on big subjects'

New Zealand publisher Bridget Williams Books has been engaged in publishing a useful series (BWB Texts) of short non-fiction texts: "Small books on big subjects".

It's a widely varied series, reasonably priced (most available in a choice of ebooks or a small paperback). To date I have most enjoyed reading Barefoot Years, a memoir by Martin Edmond, one of my favourite contemporary writers.

To my knowledge at least four* of the BWB Texts either quote Janet Frame or discuss her influence. And the number is growing. Here they are (with blurbs copied from the publisher's web site):

Ruth, Roger and Me: Debts and Legacies
by Andrew Dean
BWB (2015)

‘Your words of “discomfort, loss, and disconnection” don’t resonate with me at all.’ Ruth Richardson to Andrew Dean, 16 December 2014.

A time of major upheaval now stands between young and old in New Zealand. In Ruth, Roger and Me, Andrew Dean explores the lives of the generation of young people brought up in the shadow of the economic reforms of the 1980s and 1990s, those whom he calls ‘the children of the Mother of All Budgets’. Drawing together memoir, history and interviews, he explores the experiences of ‘discomfort’ and ‘disconnection’ in modern Aotearoa New Zealand.

‘Andrew Dean reveals what life is like for many New Zealanders who grew up in the shadow of Douglas and Richardson's reforms. This is a refreshing and important contribution to the national conversation.’ Morgan Godfery

[Dean quotes from and discusses a Janet Frame short story that is relevant to his theme. It's great to see the huge resource of her writing being used to enhance a political and social analysis. It is time to  move beyond the facile myth that all Frame ever wrote about was her own childhood, as she made such piercing and wise observations about society and human nature.]

Tunes for Bears to Dance To: The Shaping of a New Zealand Writer
By Owen Marshall
BWB (2014)

I became aware of the fallibility of the real, that the splendidly detailed objective world of sound and colours, shapes and textures was not completely opaque, and that beneath it could be glimpsed the shimmer of things of great horror and ineffable joy.

He is one of New Zealand’s finest regional writers and a master of the short story, but despite his many accolades Owen Marshall continues to write under an assumed name.
In this BWB Text Marshall reflects at length on his writing career, on the forces that have shaped him as a writer, on his intense admiration for Janet Frame and on his decision to concentrate on the short story form.

The Quiet War on Asylum
 by Tracey Barnett
BWB (2013)

This eloquent and passionate work documents how we have strayed from a humane policy towards asylum seekers, following the same sad and discredited path as Australia.’ Joris de Bres, Race Relations Commissioner 2002-2013

Why would a country that has never had a boatload of asylum arrivals in modern history suddenly legislate for mass detention? Treading across the refugee camps of Burma and Thailand, to Australia’s detention centres and back to New Zealand, Tracey Barnett looks hard at this controversial new policy. She speaks to asylum seekers, refugees, NGO workers and migrants – people on the move and on the ground. Their lives and stories reveal a reality more complex than the political rhetoric, and one that questions how fair and ethical New Zealand really is on the world stage today.

[Barnett quotes from Janet Frame's Living in the Maniototo in which an immigrant to New Zealand describes the process of being considered as an acceptable future citizen.]

On Coming Home
by Paula Morris
BWB (2015)

The declamatory return; a homeland as a “wearying enigma”. This all makes sense to me. The New Zealand that’s home to me may be a place of sheep and rugby and number-eight wire, whatever that is, but it’s also none of those things. Am I still a New Zealander?’

Award-winning writer Paula Morris confronts long-standing fears of what it means to return home. Is ambition and adventure being traded for a ‘forever home’ of commitments and compromises? Will she still belong? And will the belonging impose its own restrictions? Morris seeks answers in the words of writer exiles as she narrates her own return to New Zealand. Now a settler not a visitor, she questions incisively the very idea of ‘belonging’.

[Paula Morris draws widely on other writers for her own meditation on themes of exile and return. Among those authors is of course Janet Frame who also lived 'overseas' as an expatriate but eventually felt the draw of her native land, a process she described in her 3rd volume of autobiography The Envoy From Mirror City.]

*UPDATE: Since I posted this notice I have become aware that a 4th BWB  title name checking Frame's work has just been published, the Paula Morris noted above.

A Study of John Money

by Terry Goldie
University of British Columbia Press (2014)
This sounds like an interesting and well-researched book about the controversial figure of John Money who was an intimate friend of Janet Frame's. He was influential on her early career trajectory and they remained close friends until her death.
From the publisher's web site:

In 1955, the controversial and innovative sexologist John Money first used the term "gender" in a way that we all now take for granted: to describe a human characteristic. Money’s work broke new ground, opening a new field of research in sexual science and giving currency to medical ideas about human sexuality. An ardent advocate for sexual liberation, he became something of a fixture in the popular imagination, giving expert testimony in court cases and being featured in Life and Playboy magazines.

Terry Goldie seeks to cut through Money’s talent for controversy and self-promotion by digging into the substance of Money’s theories and achievements. He offers, for the first time, a balanced and probing textual analysis of this pioneering scholar’s writing to assess Money’s profound impact on the debates and research on sexuality and gender that dominated the last half of the twentieth century. Goldie reconsiders Money’s work and influence, paying specific attention to his work on intersex, transsexuality, homosexuality, pornography, and sexual liberation. Through his analysis, Goldie recovers Money’s brilliance and insight from simplistic dismissals of his work due to his involvement in the tragic David Reimer case, while never losing sight of his flaws.

"I read every book in the Oamaru Library"

The Janet Frame Collection, Oamaru Library

In a 1975 TV interview Janet Frame said "I read every book in the Oamaru Library."

She was recalling the year in which she became the Dux of her primary school and won a free subscription to the Oamaru Athenaeum as it was called then.

This close Janet Frame connection with the Oamaru Library (and her continuing affection for it throughout the rest of her life), and the fact that enthusiastic librarians had already developed an impressive collection of books and other material by and about Janet Frame over the years, gave me the idea to develop the relationship further. Over the past years I have donated a large stock of Janet Frame's past published works from her own archive, consisting mostly of foreign translations and overseas English language editions of her work, many of which would be otherwise hard to acquire from within New Zealand. Where possible I have also offered the library copies of the newly published foreign editions and translations continually being received by the Janet Frame Literary Trust as we administer Frame's ongoing publications and translations.

The result is the Janet Frame Collection, housed in a handsome glass case and available to library visitors. The Collection can be searched on the library's database or consulted by visitors to the library. Library staff tell me the Collection is increasingly well used and is an eye opener to locals and tourists alike, many of whom had no idea of the extent of Janet Frame's international and local publishing achievements.

Here are a couple of my earlier blog posts about the Collection:

 Search the Oamaru Library Catalogue: Waitaki District Libraries

Ten Year Milestone for Janet Frame House

A Happy Anniversary!

Many sincere congratulations have been expressed lately to everyone associated with the Janet Frame House at 56 Eden Street, Oamaru, which has been open to the public for ten years now.

The 'Friends of the Janet Frame House' last week held a celebration in Oamaru to mark the occasion. Carol Berry, current chair of the Janet Frame House Trust (the charitable organisation that owns and cares for the house) took over the management of the house ten years ago and ably moved it through from the salvage and redevelopment stage to the significant literary tourism status that the house now enjoys. The house was originally rescued by the foresight and generosity of Oamaru resident Eris Servole who noticed it for sale and bought it with the intention of preserving it for the public good. The 'reframing' project was later initiated and carried out by Bill Tramposch and his wife Peggy Tramposch with the help of many other enthusiastic supporters and local stalwarts.

Huge amounts of hard work and loving dedication have been lavished on the Janet Frame house and all this good will is almost palpable as one stands within it in a thoughtfully presented space that is remarkably conducive to reflection.

The house is open to the public for two hours every afternoon during summer and by appointment at other times of the year. Visitors are attracted from all around the world and many state that one of their main reasons for visiting Oamaru - or even New Zealand, in some cases - is because of their interest in Janet Frame's writing. Reading the visitor books can be a moving and enlightening experience. As an author and as a survivor, Janet Frame clearly means a lot to countless people.

A touch of mistaken identity 

As Janet Frame's literary executor and chair of her charitable foundation the Janet Frame Literary Trust I have no formal connection with the unfortunately confusingly named Janet Frame Eden Street Trust that owns and cares for Janet's childhood home. The two 'Janet Frame' trusts do tend to get mistaken for each other on a regular basis. Janet Frame herself disapproved of the ambiguous naming of the house trust, which was presented to her as a fait accompli shortly before her death and without her permission. (Janet Frame had named her own trust 5 years earlier and bequeathed her copyright to it.) I have been unsuccessful in entreating the house trustees to accept that the names of the trusts are too similar - they refuse to budge on a name change (even though the Janet Frame estate offered to pay the legal fees) - and so we have, as natural friends and allies, had to learn to compromise and try to limit the occasional damage done by the intermittent cases of mistaken identity that arise. I myself am frequently thanked for the marvellous work I do to care for the Janet Frame house! More seriously, people seeking copyright or moral authority for some project or other that involves a Janet Frame component have been known to seek this permission from the wrong place, not realising that the Janet Frame House Trust does not have copyright ownership and in fact has no connection at all to Janet Frame's estate. Sometimes petitioners have even canvassed the Oamaru Information Centre, and an unwitting employee or volunteer has apparently cried "Oh that sounds lovely!" thus inadvertently giving the impression that Janet Frame's estate has encouraged or approved their idea. The trusts each receive mail and other approaches intended for the other, and journalists occasionally also make the mistake in print or on air.

Another misconception that frequently arises concerning the Oamaru house is that 56 Eden Street house is "still in the family" and that the 'Frame family' still owns it. Some people even think I live there myself! The Frame family never owned the house. My grandparents rented it. It is the Frame fans and philanthropists who are responsible for the house being saved and preserved.

Allies and friends

Despite these irritations and inconveniences the trustees of the Janet Frame Literary Trust have consistently supported the work of the Friends of the Janet Frame House over those ten years and long before. When Janet Frame was alive we used to accompany Janet on her trips to Oamaru to check on the progress of the house renovations. I've attended many a meeting in Oamaru to do with the house and have been happy and honoured to be associated with its success. The Janet Frame Literary Trust has always cooperated with copyright permissions where appropriate for the promotion of the house and fundraising for it, and giving support for grant applications and other projects. We have provided advice and information when required. The Janet Frame Literary Trust has also made gifts of thousands of dollars worth of Janet Frame's books to the house trust for their fundraising and for gifts to their many volunteers and supporters, and I have taken part in several media interviews relating to promoting the house and have also attended most of the literary and commemorative events held there. And blogged about many of them!

So, congratulations to all the current and past trustees and friends of the Janet Frame house. We wish you well for your attempt to raise a capital fund so that the house at 56 Eden Street can continue to get the maintenance and upkeep that it needs in order for it to be a suitable place for it to commemorate the life and work of Janet Frame.


Annette Isbey's portrait of Janet Frame

Another recent gift to the Janet Frame House at Oamaru is a portrait of Janet Frame painted by artist Annette Isbey.

The painting is now on display at Frame's former childhood home at 56 Eden Street, Oamaru where it hangs over the fireplace in the reception room.

Here's a link to some more info on Annette Isbey, which gives the context for the stylized nature of the portrait, much in keeping with Isbey's practice ("She is best known for her figurative paintings, works that are often stylized and heavily influenced by ancient Egyptian and Grecian imagery.")

My own opinion is that it is a fine portrait that captures much of Janet Frame as a person and it is also a recognisable likeness of her.

This was a generous gift and is an indication of the remarkable goodwill held by New Zealand's wider cultural and artistic community towards Janet Frame and her legacy and her firmly established position as one of New Zealand's heroes. 

Happy Writing!

This typewriter (pictured) is a recent gift to the Janet Frame house in Oamaru, made by Elizabeth Hopkins (formerly Judy Hopkins) , the niece of Janet Frame's friend John Money. Janet Frame had sent the 'Olympia Socialite' portable typewriter to the then teenaged Judy in the early 1970s with the inscription insider the cover: "Judy from Janet" and "Happy Writing". The typewriter is now on display at Frame's former childhood home at 56 Eden Street, Oamaru.

The Olympia Socialite was one of the smallest travel typewriters of its time. Janet Frame almost always carried a typewriter with her on long journeys. She composed her work exclusively on a typewriter and even preferred to type her private correspondence.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Chain Reaction

Last evening I attended the launch of the Dunedin Writers & Readers Festival 2015 at which, fittingly, several Dunedin-related publications were also launched. It was an entertaining and enlightening event with several excellent launch speeches and readings and some deep and fascinating interconnections were revealed between the authors and editors and publishers and the gathered literary tribe as well as Dunedin's gone-but-not-forgotten literary forebears whose memory and work are also very much alive.

David Eggleton and Vincent O'Sullivan (both present and very much alive) launched new poetry books. There were also two posthumous poetry collections launched of work by the legendary poet Charles Brasch and the not so well known but very fine Dunedin poet Iain Lonie who died in the 1980s.

The latest edition of New Zealand's major literary magazine Landfall was also launched as well as a new edition of an earlier translation by Brasch of work by the Russian poet Esenin.

Here is a preview of the event that appeared in the Otago Daily Times.

There is so much richness on offer among all these freshly printed pages that must be left for others to review and note and blog about. For the moment there is just one telling thread that I want to unravel here and now.

This sign or trace can be found in Landfall 229 where Denis Harold reviews Murray Edmond's volume Then It Was Now Again: Selected Critical Writing.

In an earlier post 'and then it was Now again' I noted that Edmond took the title of his book (and of a key essay within it) from a quote by Janet Frame.

On reading the collection, it turned out that one of the previously published pieces that Edmond collected in Then It Was Now Again was a letter to the editor of New Zealand Books (1994) in which Edmond addressed a rather startling review of his work - written by one Jane Stafford -  that had earlier appeared in that journal.

Followers of this blog may recall that the Frame estate was last year the target of an unwarranted attack made by that very same Stafford. We were intrigued to find that Murray Edmond had also experienced the poison of Jane Stafford's pen, and that he, like the Janet Frame estate, had also felt that Stafford's outpouring of vitriol deserved to be deconstructed.

We published our rebuttal here: 'Canon Fodder: a response to a paper by Jane Stafford'.

Edmond's summing up of Stafford was more succinct than ours but it sang to the same key:
Her demonstration of a lack of basic literary general knowledge, her inability to read tone, and her ignorance of and inattention to form and measure are in fact all to the point. Her review trumpets these things, they are badges she wears with pride.

As Denis Harold says in his Landfall 229 review:
Stafford had begun her review of Edmond’s The Switch [1994] by stating her position: ‘I teach a second year university course in modern poetry where one of the chief requirements of the lecturers is to prevent panic.’ With ‘tutelage, students whose experience of poetry is very limited – we don’t read poetry recreationally as a society – can relax’. She went on to say, ‘I feel angry’ about Edmond’s book, which to her smacked of ‘a smart-arse elitism that was one of the negative hallmarks of high modernism’.
I was personally interested to find that Stafford, who had unfairly accused me of being 'anti-academic' was revealing herself to have anti-intellectual leanings. And a tin ear when it came to poetry, which is possibly why she and her co-editor had chosen only one slight nonsense poem to represent Janet Frame's rich and varied poetic oeuvre in their so-called 'anthology' of New Zealand literature.

So we did some more research into Stafford's critical approach.
We found an archived review written by Stafford in the NZ Listener (September 25, 2004) of Book Book which is a work of fictional memoir by Fiona Farrell (a New Zealand author). In the review Stafford does not hesitate to praise Farrell at the expense of Frame: '[Farrell's] universe of words is funnier and more relaxed than Frame's, less weird'.

Subsequently we found a review of the Farrell Book Book by Stafford's partner and co-editor Mark Williams.

Williams also felt that Frame suffered in comparison with the funny and light-hearted Farrell: 'Farrell's Oamaru is more enticing than Frame's because it is less gloomy and threatening'. (New Zealand Books June 2004).

I need to say here that we at the Frame estate had no idea at the time we were unsuccessfully trying to negotiate a representative selection of Frame's work to appear in the ill-fated Auckland University anthology of  NZ literature, that the editors Stafford & Williams both had already declared Frame's work to be both weird and gloomy! It was obvious to us just from their selection that they weren't very familiar with her wider body of work.

And then we found a quite astonishing evaluation Stafford had made of William Blake in a piece published in the March 1995 issue of New Zealand Books (number 17):
Look at William Blake, possibly the greatest con-trick in the history of canonical literature. How could anyone think that his platitudinous rhymes and facile maxims were the signs of anything but the results of excess inhalation of printer’s ink.