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Mark Stephenson is a Wellington writer whose first novel No Second Chance has just been published by Steele Roberts.  No Second Chance is the story of Anna, who arrives in Wellington in 1947 as a survivor of the holocaust.  As well as being a story of survival, courage and betrayal, it’s also a story of love and hope.  Anna forges a new life in a new place, but the past is always with her.

Mark grew up in the United Kingdom but moved to New Zealand in 1985 to work as a junior doctor in Invercargill.  He has lived in Wellington since 1989 where he works as a GP and writes part time. He lives with his partner, a daughter and two dogs.  Mark’s short stories have been published in JAAM, Takahe, New Idea, Viola Beadleton’s Compendium of Seriously Silly and Astoundingly Amazing Stories and Washington Square.

Recently I interviewed Mark about his beautifully written new novel, and about writing generally.

Mark, when I first met you, you were writing short stories.  What led you to write a longer work? 

Yeah, this novel started life as a short story, which was published in Takahe way back yonks ago. For some reason I just kept thinking about the characters and the reasons behind their actions. I gradually filled in the details of their lives and fitted them into a historical context, which wasn’t there in the original story, or not so much of it. Then I started thinking about the next generation, and the next one after that, and the consequences for them as well. So it became a story of how historical events can break apart a life, and a family, and eventually how the characters might come back together again.

What was different about writing a novel, compared to writing short stories?

It took a lot longer…!

But seriously, it’s easier in a way as long as you can stick to the task. You can develop characters and themes and plot along the way whereas in a short story it all has to be done in a few sentences, or words even. A short story is way easier to finish though.

You’ve chosen a very challenging subject.  What made you decide to write Anna’s story?  Is she based on a real person?

She is not based on a real person but some of the events I’ve written about have certainly happened to people. The situation and conditions in the camps are real but the characters and the way they interact in the novel are imaginary. I’ve been interested in those stories of survival since I was a teenager for some reason and have read some historical accounts. Many survivors keep their stories to themselves till they are much older, and some things probably go with them to the grave. I have often wondered what it would be like to survive, come back to a ‘normal’ life and how your mind would deal with it.

One of the most dramatic events in the book occurs in New Zealand, late in Anna’s life. This is based on an actual happening that occurred not far from here. It set me thinking… why would anybody do that? That’s really where the story came from – I started to fill in the gaps.

Do you have a regular writing routine?  How do you juggle writing with your work as a GP?

Well, kind of. I have a regular bit of time off in the week when I write. Sometimes I spend most of it staring at the blank screen.

You held an NZSA mentorship while you were writing No Second Chance.  How do you think that helped you?

It helped me a lot, basically by getting a lot of feedback on the text and how I was writing, seeing the recurring faults in my writing. I realised I had still a lot of work to do on the manuscript even though I thought it was already well drafted. I learnt a great deal. My mentor was encouraging while being honest about the bad bits, and there always are bad bits. She also praised the good bits, which I enjoyed more, strangely enough.

What are your writing plans now?  Will you stick to novels?

At the moment I’m sticking to novels. I’ve written a draft of another one, possibly a second draft. It’s very different, though also historical, this one is set in sixteenth century Aotearoa before European contact and has a teenage boy as protagonist.

Finally, do you have any advice for first-time novellists?

I tend to think a lot and write little. I advise them to do the opposite.

No Second Chance  can be bought from  Steele Roberts and Unity Books, or any bookseller will order it for you if you ask.

You can read a sample of the writing at http://www.nosecondchancenovel.com

 

Exciting news that Cilla McQueen is NZ’s new poet laureate!  The National Library function to announce the appointment was very well attended this evening, which just goes to show what a huge level of support there is for poetry in this country (and I do think Sam Hunt, Hone Tuwhare, Alistair Campbell and Jan Kemp can take some credit for that, given their wonderful touring poetry show of NZ schools back in 1979?  which even National Library Minister Nathan Guy mentioned tonight.)

Cheers to Cilla, and of course to outgoing poet laureate Michele Leggott, who’s done a fine job of promoting poetry all over the country during her “reign”.  (I did think that Michele should have selected the next laureate by lining up all the poets and chucking the specially carved laureate tokotoko over her shoulder and seeing who caught it – maybe next time…)

Cilla McQueen, based in Bluff, has a long commitment to NZ poetry.  More about her here http://www.bookcouncil.org.nz/writers/mcqueencilla.html

She’s an interesting choice, given she’s one of the more “popular” poets and a frequent user of humour.  Let’s hope Cilla hits the schools and the streets and continues to bring poetry alive!

For Wellingtonians of a poetic bent, this coming week is going to be busy! Monday 20 July has ‘Best NZ Poems’ at Te Papa at 12:15 http://tepapa.govt.nz/WhatsOn/allevents/Pages/WritersonMondaysBestNewZealandPoems2008.aspx and the regular NZ Poetry Society meeting at 7:30pm at the Thistle Inn, featuring Lynn Davidson http://www.poetrysociety.org.nz/poetrynews#nzps

Friday 24 July is, of course, Montana Poetry Day (yay!) and there are poetry treats all over New Zealand. Check out details at http://www.booksellers.co.nz/mpd_local.htm Unity Books has a great line-up of local poets reading at lunchtime – unfortunately I can’t make it, but I’m hoping to get along to the Newtown Public Library’s Open Mic session at 6:30pm. (oops – if you read this earlier, you would have seen an incorrect time – I’m told it really is 6:30pm) Unity also has a launch of Diana Bridge’s new book at 6pm.

Also, look out for Mary Cresswell’s virtual book tour later this month. I will be interviewing Mary on this blog about her latest publication Nearest and Dearest.

Poetic forms have a particular advantage. Using the restrictions imposed by a sonnet (14 lines, using a particular rhyming scheme if you like) or a sestina (6 stanzas of six lines + 1 of three with a set pattern to the end words in each line) can make a good poem better.

It makes me think of Gerard Manly Hopkins’ poem, Windhover, about a falcon (or perhaps a kestrel), where he says: “AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!” There are many ways of interpreting this, but the one I remember from school is that it referred to the falcon as a trained hunting bird, under the control of a falconer. The ‘chevalier’ also represented Hopkins’ Christ – made lovelier by his sacrifice. Hopkins himself, as a Jesuit priest, was under the control of his religion, which, while repressing him in some ways, perhaps gave him freedom in others.  (For the record, I am suspicious of organised religion and think it has a lot to answer for, but that’s another story).

This is only one interpretation of the poem (and it’s just my recollection of it), but the point remains. By using the constraints of a poetic form, we can bring an extra dimension to poetry. And it’s fun, like working out a crossword puzzle. The challenge is for the form to fit the poem and not to try to force words into fitting the form. It works best when you can read a poem through, enjoy it, and only then notice that it’s a sonnet or has a set number of syllables to each line or that there is some subtle rhyming scheme at work.

Another way of looking at it, is discipline – the forces of order and control vs the forces of wildness. If you can get both into some sort of balance, it’s better than one or the other – to write, you need both wild inspiration and the discipline of sitting down and capturing it on paper/ flashdisk.

More on poetic forms here: poetic forms

The masters and mistresses of constraints are perhaps the Oulipo poets (“Ouvroir de littérature potentielle”), who use mathematical formulae in poetry or extreme constraints such as Georges Perec’s novel, La disparition, written without using the letter “e”. The wonderful Christian Bök, a Canadian poet who was here for the last Writers & Readers Festival in Wellington, uses some amazing constraints – his book Eunoia comprises five poem sequences, each using only one of the vowels. And speaking of discipline – the book took seven years to write.

Do try this at home.

Where a new year starts and ends is always a little arbitrary.  I’m very happy to celebrate anyone’s idea of where that point is – be it Matariki, Chinese New Year, one’s own birthday or whenever.  And it does give a great opportunity to reflect on what’s happened over the past twelve months and think about what we want out of the next.

 

I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions so much as compile a sort of “Statement of Intent” ie a (fairly short and simple) plan for the year with a set of realistic goals.  Things like “finish third draft of novel” or “spend more time playing the ukulele*”.  The key I think is to give yourself something to aim for – a challenge – without making it too unlikely (“win Booker prize” is only going lead to disappointment…)

 

Goals are, of course, reviewable over the year as circumstances change.  And I like to have longer term plans: three year or five year plans, that can be a bit more aspirational (“learn to play ‘Stairway to Heaven’ on ukulele” perhaps.  Or perhaps not.)

 

I love to make lists (not shopping lists, though – I don’t like to feel constrained at the supermarket, preferring the freedom of putting things that take my fancy into the basket and forgetting whatever it was I went in for in the first place).  One of the best things about a list is that sense of achievement and satisfaction you can get from crossing things off when you’ve done them.  This is where I find it helpful to break goals down into small, manageable chunks.  “Finish third draft of novel” can become “read the whole thing out loud to myself again”, “rewrite second half of chapter twelve”, “consider whether I really need character A” and so forth (“learn chords to ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’…”).

 

Friday is (generally) my writing day and usually I will make myself a list during the week so that when I get to Friday, I’m not sitting there wondering what to work on.  It will have things like “finish goldfish poem” and “find a book about amphibians” on it.  If I get to Friday and end up writing something for this blog instead, that’s fine.  My list will still be there for Saturday or can be incorporated into next Friday’s or I can abandon it altogether if I think of something better.  The point is, it’s good to have a plan.  Knowing what you want to achieve is the first step towards achieving it.

 

This is my favourite time of the year: between summer solstice (winter, if you’re in the northern hemisphere) and my birthday in mid January.  It feels like a sort of limbo time, tidying up last year’s leftovers and getting ready for the next great adventure.  It feels full of promise and opportunity.  And satisfaction that I can tick off a considerable portion of what was on last year’s list.  Hey. Ho. Let’s Go!

 

* Peter bought me a new ukulele for Christmas – my old one has been inoperable for some years now, but I’d just like to point out that I was playing it (badly) many years before it became fashionable…

Recently someone asked me what a prose poem was and I answered something along the lines of it being a poem that’s made up of whole sentences, like prose, but differing from prose in that it doesn’t rely on a plot, but uses an idea or language as the most important thing.  But some prose emphasises language over plot and some regular poems have full sentences.  So what is the difference?  Length? (but a prose poem can be short and a regular poem can go on for pages.  And what about flash fiction?)  Layout? (does it stop being a prose poem the moment you introduce line breaks or write it out in couplets?) 

 

I see there being a continuum, with prose at one end and poetry at the other and a whole grey area in the middle.  I spend quite a bit of time splashing about in this grey area.  Sometimes I’m not sure whether I’ve written a story or a prose poem or a poem.  Sometimes I’ve submitted a short story to one journal only to resubmit it as poetry to another.  One of my prose poem sequences was first published as fiction and subsequently as poetry.  Often, I’ll submit this kind of a work as “a short piece” to get around the thorny issue of definition.  Does it matter either way?  Personally, I think not.  One person’s poem is another’s short story.  It’s more important to me whether it’s any good, whether it works, whether anyone likes it (all very subjective, too).

So what do the experts say?  Encyclopaedia Britannica tells us a prose poem is:

“a work in prose that has some of the technical or literary qualities of a poem (such as regular rhythm, definitely patterned structure, or emotional or imaginative heightening) but that is set on a page as prose.”

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/479355/prose-poem

Wikipedia has this to say:

“Most critics argue that prose poetry belongs in the genre of poetry because of its use of metaphorical language and attention to language.

Other critics argue that prose poetry falls into the genre of prose because prose poetry relies on prose’s association with narrative and its reliance on readers’ expectation of an objective presentation of truth in prose.

Yet others argue that the prose poem gains its subversiveness through its fusion of poetic and prosaic elements.”

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prose_poetry

Peter Johnson, quoting himself on Webdelsol, says:

“Just as black humor straddles the fine line between comedy and tragedy, so the prose poem plants one foot in prose, the other in poetry, both heels resting precariously on banana peels”

http://www.webdelsol.com/tpp/tpp5/tpp5_johnsonintro.html

 

Bring on the banana peels!

 

(i)

There’s a small garden behind the kitchen, fringed with ceramic cows.  The earth is rich with characters and concepts.  You can dig them up with a trowel, like potatoes.

 

Poems, on the other hand, are plucked from the branches of a tall tree in the front yard.  You need a ladder for the best ones (or a giraffe).

 

 

 

(ii)

Mostly they sneak up from behind and tap you on the shoulder when you’re thinking about something else.

 

 

 

(iii)

At the top of the rickety stairs, the dusty attic is filled with papers, tended by a solemn man.  When you need an idea, he’ll hand you one wordlessly.

 

 

 

(iv)

There’s a service you can subscribe to – based in Estonia and recommended by Andres Ehin.  Ideas are delivered weekly – dropped down the chimney by carrier pigeon.

 

 

 

(v)

You need the skill of holding your breath under water – dive down deep into the still lake.  A wooden chest sits on the silty bottom.  If you can open it (and only the chosen can), every idea you’ll ever need will be inside.

 

 

 

                                  Janis Freegard

If you didn’t get a chance to attend this year’s Janet Frame Memorial Lecture at Te Papa, you can read it here http://www.authors.org.nz/images/JanetFrameLecture08.pdf   There was also an extract in the Listener and it’s being discussed on Leafsalon here http://www.leafsalon.co.nz/archives/001172literature_for_the_literary.html#more

Greg O’Brien had some very interesting things to say about the difference between a writer (someone who writes) and an author (someone whose work is published) and cited Janet Frame as someone who retired at 65 from being an author (ie from being published) but continued throughout her life to be a writer.  I like this distinction.  I’ve always thought of writing as a verb: something I do, rather than an identity: “being a writer” (a noun, something a person is).  It is the process or activity of writing that’s important.  You only stop being a writer if you stop writing.

Greg also talked about the marketplace – he prefers to see literature as a laboratory.  I particularly liked the following:

“Literature is not a track event. Everyone is not running in the same direction—nor should they be. If literature is a race then it is one where, when the starting gun is fired, the participants run off each in their own direction. It is only arts funders and prize-givers who line writers up on some invented racetrack, facing the same ribbon.”

This reminds me of the philosophers’ football match in a Monty Python sketch, where, as soon as the whistle blows, the philosophers wander off away from the ball, to contemplate it all. 

A couple of days ago, at my poetry group, we were lamenting the limited range of poetry publishers in New Zealand relative to the seemingly vast numbers of poets seeking publication and the fact that some of our few publishers are booked up several years in advance or buried under huge piles of unread manuscripts (with frustratingly long response rates as a result).  More small presses would be lovely, but poetry is hardly going to pay the mortgage.  In the meantime, that track event continues, each of us meandering off in our own little directions, atomising our verbal structures (I was very chuffed to get a passing mention in Greg’s lecture).  Here’s to the laboratory!

 

1. They don’t suit everyone, but workshops and writing groups can be a brilliant way to spark ideas and an invaluable opportunity to get critical feedback on your writing.  (Don’t go until you’re ready for this.  If you just want to be told how great your latest masterpiece is, show it to your partner/best friend/goldfish).

2. The title of your poem is more than a convenient reference point to help you locate it in your overstuffed electronic filing system; it is an integral part.  You’re missing out on an opporutnity if you don’t make the most of it.  (I learned this at a workshop.)

3. When you start submitting work to journals, you need to send a decent selection of your work: five poems, not just the one.

4. That poem you have just scribbled down is not the most amazing thing you have ever written.  Not yet, anyway.  Whatever you do, don’t send it off.  Put it in your virtual bottom drawer for a week or so to marinate among your other festering poems.  Then read it again.  See?  It still needs work.

5. Don’t worry about rejection. (I’m going to bang on about this because a couple of people have raised it with me lately).  If you send your work out to a journal, unless you’re already an established poet, there’s a good chance it’s going to be rejected.  75% of my poems are rejected.  (I can demonstrate this by means of a large elaborate spreadsheet I have used to track my output for some years now -some people find this sad; I find it invaluable).

You can minimise rejection by checking out the journal carefully beforehand to see if your work fits and only sending your very best work.  But the faceless editor(s) on the end of the email/letter still might not want it.  Why not?  What’s the matter with them?

A.  It might not fit with their current theme (which might only have emerged as the editors went through the selection process).  Your interpretation of an advertised theme might not match with theirs.

B. It might be too similar to something that’s already been chosen for the issue or recently published.

C. The ediotr might not like your particular style of writing. (That’s OK, they’re allowed).

D. (Brace yourself)  Your work might not be as good as the other things that have been submitted for that issue.

Every time a poem is rejected, I have another close look at it to see whether D might apply.  Is there any way I can improve it?  What’s missing?  Is it fresh and original?  Does it have anything interesting to add to the vast array of poetry that’s already sloshing about out there?

The way I deal with rejection is:

– life’s too short to fret about it

– it’s a prompt to have another good look at a poem and maybe make it better (see above)

– it might have saved me from having mediocre work published that will haunt me in years to come

-I always have a range of work out in the submission-land ether waiting to be considered; that way I always have hope.

– I don’t take it personally.  One poem (or five) has been turned down by one editor.  There are other poems, other editors.  This time, it wasn’t to be.

– There are plenty of other things in life that make me happy, so I get on with them

– If I’m lucky, the rejection letter might contain some useful feedback from an editor that will help my writing (Alistair Paterson from Poetry NZ springs to mind).

One of my favourite writing quotes is this, attributed to Ray Bradbury

“If you write a hundred short stories and they’re all bad, that doesn’t mean you’ve failed. You only fail if you stop writing.”

My exciting news is the imminent arrival of AUP New Poets 3 in all good NZ and online bookstores.  I’m one of three poets featured – the others are Katherine Liddy and Reihana Robinson. 

Here’s a synopsis:

“This is the third book in AUP’s New Poets series, which began in 1999 and has launched an oustanding range of poets. The new poets in this third volume, Janis Freegard, Katherine Liddy and Reihana Robinson, all have vastly different yet complementary styles. Freegard writes quirky and often surreal poems about a Wellington inhabited with strange animals, art and people; the humorous prose poem is a favourite vehicle but there are also serious, luminous moments in this selection, called ‘The Continuing Adventures of Alice Spider and Other Tales. Liddy is a promising young poet with an unusual interest in and ear for rhyme and rhythm. While some of her poems are texturally dense she has an impressive range and there is a pleasing variety in her selection, ‘Artefacts Exhibiting Love’, which is ordered chronologically from the Bronze Age to the space age. Finally, Robinson’s poems are tropical but gritty, set as many of them are on Pitcairn Island ‘A Hum for Pitkern’ is her strong centrepiece – and elsewhere in the Pacific. She intersperses touching lyrics about family and identity with sharper poems written in a fractured English. ”

and here’s a picture:

 

AUP New Poets 3

AUP New Poets 3

Now I’ve just got to sort out a launch…

Wordle

Wordle: janisfreegard.com

Tuesday Poem

Tuesday Poem

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