Thursday, April 9, 2009

Once upon a girl...

I have just read Johanna Aitchison's book, A long girl ago (VUP, 2007. ISBN 9780864736590) mainly because Chris recommended it. I was talking to a friend of mine who helps edit a magazine called Hue and Cry because they had selected some of her stuff for it and I mentioned that she was on my reading list. He said he wasn't really a fan (I presume the other editor was and he lost that particular battle). For some reason I didn't ask him why or maybe I did and have forgotten what he said. Anyway, it obviously didn't stop me reading it, but maybe lowered my expectations a little. I was curious though, as to why my tutor, who knows the kind of things that tick my boxes and a friend whose opinion I also deeply respect had such different recommendations.

After reading the whole thing from cover to cover I think I am beginning to see why. It seems Johanna has (at least) two modes of, or approaches to, poetry and at one point she shows that explicity by writing about the same topic the same scene in two different poems right next to each other on the page! One mode seems to be more accesible narrative driven work like at home:
The rain comes in sheets
across the perfect view.
The ocean's slab

of slate. There's the smell
of roast pumpkin,
potatoes. Your mother

is pulling the legs off
a chicken, arranging
stuffing on a plate.
The only poeticising there, comes from the line breaks really. Other than that it is a pretty straight up account of going home for Christmas. A poem straight out of the tradition on NZ domestic poetry. I didn't really get a sense of deeper meaning from this poem. Other than dislocation and maybe that the journey home may have been across the world. But yeah.

The other ones she writes are like miss red meets novel-in-a-box:

She, like this place.
was almost too beautiful to be real.


'What a lovely place,' said Miss Red.
'I never knew there was such places.'


'I thought you were dead,' she whispered.
He cast an amused look.
It goes on like this with section headings of key points in the story 'at cross-purposes with mr nakagawa', 'strange dream' and ends with 'the bad news'. It is a lovely, strange take on story telling and a bit like a Raymond Carver story in it's brevity and humour. I loved this one so much more. It had questions, obtuseness, humour, self-awareness. I wonder why she writes in both modes or is this book a map of her progression as a writer? Which way is she going?

Other ones I liked are if you're going (for its beautiful expanding ending and strange form) and japanese princess (for the way she has used the language of ESOL students). I also liked the smell calls out hot. This one is the one I mentioned earlier with it's much more realist sister on the preceding page, called bread shed. Even the titles seem to point this out. They both describe the scene in a bakery shop where it sounds like the narrotor is working. She works through this scene in the first poem like this:
Outside light creeps in gradually.
'It's time to put your toasties on!'
Doreen sings. Jack Johnson's singing,
'Where'd all the good people go-
o-oh?' on More FM All-nighter.
And in the second one the same stuff happens, but all mixed up, in a fragmentary almost non-sensical stream of images and language:
lost cream licks back
lip-tipped finger catches
on the bag of he he

GOOD morning whips
into road workers'
fluorescent torsos

new zealand post lady
rushes in red and black
sugar of a scatter bun
Strange that she put both of these in. I wonder if it is to point out that she is only a writer and we are the readers, so we should get both, love both, hate both, love one/hate the other and it's not up to her to decide, it's up to us? I suspect though she thought they both stood on their own and perhaps the second one needed the first to explain it or something? I'll have to ask her if I ever meet her. I don't agree with that last point though, I think the smell calls out hot is slightly undercut by having read bread shed first. I felt a bit cheated. I would have cut bread shed even though it is a well written poem.

I wrote something this morning by writing down some Charles Simic poems as he read them out on the recording of a radio interview he did. They aren't really found poems. I am not a fast typer (and not a fast absorber of performed poetry) so the output is fragmented, non-sensical in some places in others taking on new meanings, some words are heard wrong, some words are spelt wrong. I guess the question is, are they something new, are they worth publishing? What is worth publishing? Is Charles Simic the creative force in this poem? Am I? Is the reader? I'll show it to someone and find out hopefully.

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