29 July 2009

An Interview with Joanna Preston

Joanna Preston's first solo poetry collection, The Summer King: Poems, has just been published by Otago University Press. The manuscript won the 2008 Kathleen Grattan Award.

Joanna Preston was born in Sydney and spent her childhood in outback New South Wales. In 1994, she migrated to New Zealand, although from 2003 to 2006 she lived in the UK, where she gained an MPhil in Creative Writing from the University of Glamorgan. Her poems have been widely published, and won awards, in New Zealand and internationally. She has had work published in The Best Australian Poems 2005, edited by Les Murray, and in the prestigious 2007 Carcanet anthology New Poetries IV, edited by Eleanor Crawforth.

Joanna, The Summer King was launched on Montana Poetry Day, 24 July. How did the launch go?

It was a great night – the weather that day was horrible, but cleared up just in time. We had a full house, and the atmosphere was really buzzing. A real party feeling.

I am very impressed by the production quality of The Summer King – it's a credit to the designer, Sarah Maxey, and to the publishers, Otago University Press. Are the physical qualities of a book important to you, or are you a person for whom it's mainly about the words?

The words, every time. If the book is rubbish, then no amount of gorgeous presentation will save it. But … it’s a bit like the question from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. “Don't you know that a boy being rich is like a girl being pretty? You wouldn't marry a girl just because she's pretty, but my goodness, doesn't it help?”

There are some books that you just can’t help picking up. You hope that the cover design will make people want to look at the book, and that the contents will make them want to keep it. I think Sarah and Wendy have delivered exactly that, and I am so incredibly grateful to them.

In her preview of The Summer King on Beattie's Book Blog, Helen Lowe described you as a narrative poet. 'Narrative poetry' makes me think of Sir Patrick Spens and the Border Ballads. Do you think of yourself as a narrative poet, and if so, in what sense? How is that manifested in the collection?

I grew up with the Australian poetic narrative tradition, so I’ve got those sorts of inclinations fairly deeply ingrained. As much as anything, I call myself a narrative poet because I’m not really a lyric poet. There’s almost always a story behind the poem. It’s most obvious in persona poems like "Lighthouse-keeper", but it’s there in most of them. I guess it comes down to how you define “narrative” and “lyric” poetry, and it may be that the distinction is no longer useful.

You are a poetry reviewer yourself. Does that make you more, or less, or not at all nervous about the critical reception The Summer King may receive?

Tim, I’m absolutely terrified. I am a complete and utter coward. Of course I want everyone to love the book, but I know that there will be plenty of people who don’t.

My intention is to try to not read the reviews. If there’s something that needs to be addressed, I’m sure I’ll be told and will try to address it. But ultimately the reviews have nothing to do with me. You don’t review a book for the author – you do it for other readers.

(That sounds impressively adult, doesn’t it? I suspect the truth will involve a lot more cringing, but we’ll see.)

You lived in the UK for three years, where you completed a Master of Philosophy in Creative Writing at the University of Glamorgan. Do you still have a strong connection to the poetry scene in the UK in general, and to your tutors and peers at the University of Glamorgan in particular?

Once a Glam Girl, always a Glam Girl! There’s a private mailing list for alumni, so we all keep in touch and up to date with each other’s successes. It’s a fantastic resource – no matter what the literary question, one or other of us will have an answer. We actually form a surprisingly extensive international network. It’s a little bit skewed by the fact that I was the only survivor of my cohort …

"The only survivor of my cohort" sounds distinctly ominous. Please explain!

Well that’s a slight exaggeration. Two of us (out of eight) made it to the final residency, but so far I’m the only one to have gone through submission and viva. I think Barbara is planning to submit everything in the next few months, so I’ll be sitting on the (virtual) sidelines cheering for her when viva time comes.

The course is pretty highly thought of, and they fill the eight places a good six to eight months in advance. There’s usually two or three who drop out over the course of the two years (putting your life on hold for a one year full time course is one thing: much harder to juggle the same amount of work over a two year period while trying to maintain a normal life), but we ended up losing everyone except the two of us. Nothing sinister, just life getting in the way. Job promotions; illness; personal upheavals.

We started second year with three people deferring for another twelve months, and ended up with only two of us there for the last two residencies. It made for the most intense critical focus I’ve ever experienced – terrifying, exhausting, and quite exhilarating by the end. I think it ended up being about an hour and a half per session, just on one person’s poems. Then it’d be the other person’s turn. Then a change in the tutors, repeat, repeat again, and come back tomorrow to do the same again. Two residencies in a row! I don’t know how we survived it.

From what you've written on your blog, and from reading The Summer King itself, I've formed the impression that the craft of poetry is very important to you: that is, that a concern for the technical aspects of poetry is very strong in both your own work and your reaction to other poets' work. Is that a fair assessment?

Absolutely. I’m a formalist by inclination, and that was only strengthened by my time in the UK. Welsh poetry in particular is incredibly musical. (And much loved by ordinary people – surely not a coincidence?) It’s not ornamentation: it’s an integral part of poetry. There are too many tin-eared poets. The Irish poet, Michael Longley, summed it up beautifully: “if many of the folk who call themselves poets were tightrope walkers, they would be dead.” Without craft, what do you have? Chopped up prose? Meaning is important, but it’s at least 50% in the hands (mind, rather) of the reader. Craft is the poet’s business.

Where's the line between "poetry" and "chopped up prose", and how do you determine what side of the line a particular piece of writing falls?

Good question! I’m sure there will be plenty of disagreement, but for me it comes down to music. If there’s no music, no rhythm, if the linebreaks don’t seem to be doing anything other than acting as airbags against the right hand margin … that’s prose, surely? The music doesn’t have to be pretty – it can jangle and be ugly, as long as it’s doing that for some sort of reason. I tell my students that poetry is, above all else, patterned language. There’s plenty of grey areas on the margins, and that’s what margins are for – to be the zone of “still awaiting classification”, or “other/pending review” or “mixed source, parentage uncertain”. Craft, craft, technique and craft.

But as I said, that’s my personal view. Not universally held, and subject to revision on a case-by-case basis.

Which poets have been most influential on your own work, and which poets do you most enjoy reading?

Oo, a long list, and it varies wildly. I’d have to start with Shakespeare, Donne, Coleridge, some Wordsworth. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti. Lorca I fell in love with when I was little, and he still makes me tingle. Of recent years – Kate Llewellyn, Geoffrey Lehmann, Les Murray (of course), Hughes and Heaney (ditto), Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage, Selima Hill, Pascale Petit, Louise Glück, Carolyn Forché, Mary Oliver, Mark Doty, Li-Young Lee … if I add the NZ contingent we’ll be here all night.

Influences – Les Murray and Ted Hughes are fairly obvious. (I was given a copy of Lupercal when I was ten or eleven, and I still find his shamanistic poems utterly compelling.) And I’m trying to absorb some of the wildness of Pascale Petit’s work – she’s an criminally underrated poet. I can spend hours pouring over her poems, trying to see what makes them tick and how I can use that myself. Same with Louise Glück. And I have to work hard to not pick up Duffy-isms if I’ve been reading her.

What writing projects are you currently working on?

Trying to get back into the flow of writing properly! One of the downsides from the MPhil was that I burnt myself out a bit, getting everything completed and ready to hand in before we left the UK. It’s a little over three years since I finished, and I’ve really only written a handful of decent poems since then. It’s taken me quite a while to come to terms with that. But I’ve started to feel them again.

Finally, my favourite poem of the many fine poems in The Summer King is "Phlogiston", and you've been kind enough to let me reproduce it below. I'm not going to ask you "what it's about", because its air of mystery is one of the things I like best about it. But I'm interested in the way its two-line stanzas (and single one-line stanza) work together. How do you decide the length of stanza to use for each poem you write?

You break lines for all sorts of reasons to do with rhythm and pattern and sound and emphasis, but a stanza break is a bigger thing. The best explanation I’ve come across is something that Stephen Knight worked hard to drum into my skull: there should be some sort of payoff to reward the reader for trusting you and crossing that white space into a new stanza. It sounds extreme, but it’s a good mental check. Maybe it’s a rhythm choice; maybe you’re following the logic of new thought: new paragraph. And those reasons work well. But … I like the idea of “little dramatic moments” (another Stephen Knight-ism – he was a very good tutor!), of the poem being like riding a cross-country jumping course – logs and fences and ditches, and the need to position the reader so that the flow through the poem is as true and exhilarating as possible. It’s not a bad aim to start with.


by Joanna Preston

It glowered from its box
growling and hissing,

a beautiful thing, caged
behind a brass screen.

I hugged myself, stared
back at it for hours,

its scent draped
around me like fox-furs.

was just a word

until it escaped one night
and the neighbours came home

to nothing.

The calcined skull
of their yap-dog

crunched under my heel
like frozen grass.

"Phlogiston" was first published in Magma 35.

28 July 2009

We All Have To Eat: Anarya's Secret Moves Home

My Earthdawn novel Anarya's Secret, published in December 2007, now has a new home page on the revamped site of RedBrick, which has just released the Earthdawn 3rd edition. You can now find Anarya's Secret here:


Here's the first few paragraphs of Anarya's Secret, to give you an idea of what the book, and Earthdawn, are about:

Anarya's Secret - Prologue

We all have to eat.

Anarya grew up in a community sliding down the long slope to extinction. She played with toys handed down through the generations, and followed her parents from plaza to farm, from farm to market stall, from market stall to plaza, without wondering why there were so few other children, or why the lights were dim, or why so much of her world was shadow and silence. And as for the sun and the sky, she never thought of them, for she had never seen them.

Fifteen generations ago, the ancestors of her ancestors lived in the fertile valley of the river then known as the Volost, which rose on the northern flanks of the Tylon Mountains. There they farmed, and sometimes fought. They traded with the human communities of the Tylon and the t‘skrang of the Serpent River, and did not give undue thought to the future.

Then emissaries from the Theran Empire came among them and told them of the coming Scourge: the time when the magical potential of the world would be so great that Horrors from other dimensions would be able to enter and ravage it, devouring bodies, devouring minds. The people of the Volost took a lot of persuasion, but the Therans were persistent; and as the years went by, even farmers who never stirred from their soil could no longer deny the reports that reached them from north and south, of terrible things gathering at the margins of the inhabited lands, and breaking through to wreak havoc on the innocent and the ill prepared.

So the elders of the villages along the Volost swallowed their pride and began the construction of Kaer Volost within the mountains at the valley‘s head. They paid a high price in coin and freedom, but they built well, hewing as closely as possible to the Theran plan; and when the time came, they retreated behind their orichalcum doors and prepared to wait out the Scourge deep within the rock.

The doors and the barriers, both magical and physical, held against the worst that came to their world. Even as their valley was turned from fertile earth to Horror-haunted wasteland, its people survived deep within the kaer, and recounted their history in the plaza at night, comforting themselves with the hope that, though they would never again see the sun themselves, their far, far descendants would once more walk free on the surface.

But if Kaer Volost was a refuge, it was also a prison: a prison for the souls of the old, living out their days in a growing darkness, and a greater prison for the souls of the young, trapped in a cage they could not escape.

For the first ten generations after the doors were sealed it was, at least, a well-lit and well-provisioned prison. Using natural water and magical light, the people could grow all the food they needed, and though their skins became deathly pale from the absence of sunlight, and their bones were unduly prone to breaking, in most respects they were healthy enough in body.

Then the magic began to fade. Who can say why? It may be that a little knowledge was lost as each generation of magicians and adepts passed on its learning to its successors, until some irrecoverable threshold was crossed. It may be that the loss of magic within the kaer was connected with the loss of magic in the world outside, for it was at this time that the kaer‘s elemental clock first showed movement. The ball of True earth, suspended above its dish of True water, began, infinitesimally, to fall. The closer it got to the water, the less the level of magic was in the world outside; and when it reached the water and dissolved, then the magic in the world outside would have gone too, and with it the Horrors. Then all could rejoice, and throw open the doors of the kaer.

Eventually, the doors do get thrown open. It doesn't prove to be such a good decision, because we all have to eat ...

You can buy Anarya's Secret online as a hardback, paperback, or e-book (via RPGNow or DriveThru).

26 July 2009

The Government Says 40% Greenhouse Gas Reductions Can't Be Achieved By 2020. I Say They Can.

The New Zealand Government has just announced that it has ruled out New Zealand adopting a 40% target for greenhouse gas reductions on 1990 levels by 2020. Countries are required to go to this year's Copenhagen climate negotiations with a target on the table, and the New Zealand Government has recently been consulting on what target New Zealand should go in with.

Climate science says that we need developed countries to take on a 40% reduction target, but the New Zealand Government has rejected this as too expensive and unworkable. I think they're wrong, and in the paper I submitted to the consultation process, I outlined how we could meet a 40% target. I wasn't going to post this here, feeling it was too long and too specialised, but I've changed my mind.

The struggle isn't over: New Zealand's final target will be set during the negotiations. The 40% target isn't going to go away, whether the Government likes it or not. A lot of people will be watching to see what target they do adopt, and whether it reflects the needs of the biosphere and of future generations, or the lobbying of those who have most to love from the change away from a high-emissions economy.

A Pathway Towards Achieving a 40% Responsibility Target for Emissions Reductions on 1990 Levels by 2020
by Tim Jones


The recent Government-initiated consultation process on New Zealand's interim greenhouse gas reductions responsibility target for 2020 has seen a strong push by environmental and development NGOs for the Government to adopt a target of a 40% reduction on 1990 levels by 2020, in line with what climate science indicates is the overall minimum level of reductions necessary by 2020 to significantly lessen the risk of runaway climate change, and with New Zealand's responsibilities as a developed country. Meanwhile, major greenhouse gas emitter interests have argued for a minimal reduction target. The Government has responded to the 40% call by NGOs by asking them to demonstrate how this target could be achieved.

This briefing note outlines a pathway towards a 40% responsibility target. It is neither a comprehensive analysis, nor a detailed set of policy recommendations. (As Greenpeace has noted, the NGO community does not have the resources to perform such an analysis in the time allowed by the Government's 2020 target consultation schedule.)

The nature of the target

A responsibility target:
The public discussion of the 2020 target has often appeared to assume that all of the required reduction on 1990 levels must be met onshore. This is incorrect. The 2020 target is a responsibility target, which means that New Zealand can pay for some of the required reductions to be made offshore by credible means, e.g. by means of green CDMs or their post-2012 equivalent. For both diplomatic and equity reasons, however, it is preferable to make the greater part of these reductions within New Zealand.

The raw numbers: The discussion below is based on a 1990 emissions baseline of 61.9 Mt CO2 equivalent (CO2-e), compared with 2006 emissions of 77.9 Mt CO2 equivalent (CO2-e). To achieve a 40% target by 2020 entirely onshore would require domestic emissions to be reduced to 37.1 Mt CO2 equivalent (CO2-e).

The rules: The discussion of how to reach a 2020 emissions reduction target tends to be framed in terms of how such a target could be reached under the current Kyoto Protocol greenhouse gas accounting rules. It is almost certain that these rules will be different in a post-2012 greenhouse gas accounting regime. In particular, changes to the rules affecting land use, land use change, forestry and the use of forest products, agriculture, and soil carbon could have a major impact on the best methods open to New Zealand to make emissions reductions that qualify towards the target.

A negotiating position: Finally, New Zealand will not be able to set its own target. While we will enter the process of negotiations with an initial offer, we will end up being assigned a target as part of any agreement reached.

Where can domestic emissions reductions be made?

The three biggest contributors to New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions are agriculture (currently 48%), stationary energy, including household and industrial energy use (24%) and transport (20%). These percentages are round figures and are based on 2006 emissions. The notes below focus on these three sectors, and on native and exotic forests, the biggest potential sources of increased biological carbon storage (excluding soil carbon, which I have not considered in this discussion.)


48% of New Zealand's current greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture. It is a common misperception that there is no method available to reduce emissions in this sector.

In fact, work done by the Sustainability Council shows that 13% of total agricultural emissions (which would to equate to about 6% of total emissions) could be reduced at a profit to farmers, by methods including the use of nitrification inhibitors, biodigestion, stand-off pads, and changes in grassing policies. These options have generally been successful where used, but, in part because the farming sector's lobbyists prefer to claim that emissions reductions are not possible within agriculture, they have so far suffered from a lack of promotion.

Beyond this 13% of total emissions, further gains would chiefly come from land-use changes within agriculture, particularly the decline in sheep and beef farming and the conversion of land marginal for pastoral farming into "carbon farming". A further 8% reduction in agricultural emissions can be achieved by these means, meaning a total reduction of 21% in agricultural emissions on 2006 levels by 2020, thus contributing a reduction of 7.6 Mt in overall emissions.

Stationary Energy (including household and industrial energy use)

Across the household and industrial sectors, there are many opportunities to reduce emissions. In the household sector, opportunities to reduce emissions have been available for some time, but are only now starting to be implemented.

Key opportunities include a further expansion of the household insulation programme (which will have emissions reductions as well as health benefits); the installation of genuine smart meters (as opposed to the pseudo-smart meters being installed at present) and a moratorium on the installation of "dumb" meters; the much wider uptake of solar water heating; the use of efficient wood burners; and the full uptake of energy-efficient lighting and heating. These individual measures should be backed up by a major revision and modernisation of the Building Code.

It is the falling percentage of renewable energy generation which has been the leading factor in increasing emissions in the stationary energy sector. A commitment to a minimum of 90% renewable generation in the electricity sector needs to be not only made but acted upon, with fossil thermal limited to peaking generation only.

With a firm commitment to baseload renewable generation, aggressive energy efficiency measures in the household sector, and fuel switching in the industrial sector, a 35% reduction on 2006 emissions can be made within this sector, contributing a reduction of 6.4 Mt.


99% of New Zealand domestic transport is powered by fossil fuels. The biggest long-term emission reductions (and gains in efficiency) come from replacing fossil fuels by renewable sources, primarily electricity but with a contribution from biofuels. Such fuel and vehicle substitution has the potential to make a very significant impact by 2050, but will have comparatively little impact by 2020.

By 2020, two main areas can lead to significant emissions reductions:

1) Transport policy changes. A major switch in transport policy, from the current emphasis on roading (in particular state highways) and the private motor vehicle, is needed. In freight, the emphasis should be on substituting sea and rail freight for road freight wherever possible. In passenger transport, the present emphasis on building new state highways needs to be abandoned, and the investment instead put into the development of public transport systems, incentives from carpooling and for working from home, and new rules on urban forms designed to minimise travel times.

2) Fossil fuel pricing/availability. The high fuel prices, and especially the periods of rapid fuel price rises, during 2007 and 2008 resulted in increased uptake of public transport and decreased motor vehicle use where the option of public transport was available to transport users. In its most recent report, the International Energy Agency forecasts that the oil supply crunch that they had previously predicted for 2010 onwards will be delayed to 2013-2014 due to reduced demand caused by the recession. Since a supply-driven sustained rise in fuel prices may not occur soon enough to make a sizeable differences to transport emissions by 2020, the Government should consider implementing either an increasing fuel tax, or a tradeable individual fossil fuel quota which reduces over time, to drive further reductions in fossil fuel use.

By aggressive use of transport policy options excluding fuel pricing and/or quotas, transport emissions can be returned to 1990 levels, a contribution of 5.3 Mt of emissions reductions.

Fuel pricing or quotas can be set to provide a desired level of reduction: for example, a 5% per year reducing quota beginning in 1990 would by itself return transport emissions to 1990 levels, while a 9% per year reducing quota beginning in 1990 would by itself take transport emissions to 40% below 1990 levels in 2020.

Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF)

In this area, the potential gains are in increased carbon storage and retention in natural systems. Though this debate tends to focus on exotic plantation forestry – which clearly has an important role to play in biological carbon sequestration – the greatest and most cost-effective opportunities for reducing net emissions may lie in the area of pest control and the associated regrowth and expansion of indigenous forests.

The greenhouse gas accounting rules in this area are the subject of active negotiation, and it is difficult at this stage to predict what will and will not be included in a post-2012 agreement. However, the overall trend is towards complete carbon accounting, which means that LULUCF rules will become more encompassing over time.

A strong argument in terms of policy action in this area is that it is usually win-win: for example, indigenous forest restoration not only stores carbon, but mitigates the effect of the greater number of extreme weather events, and consequent flooding, expected as the climate changes; control of possums not only benefits forests and reduces the risks of bovine TB, but also generates substantial numbers of jobs.

The key message here is that New Zealand should work to ensure that the major carbon storage opportunities open to us in plantation forestry; improving the health of existing native forests; and regenerating native scrub and forests are brought within the scope of the post-2012 agreement. Furthermore, all forestry and land use incentives must be properly accounted for domestically, to ensure that perverse incentives do not result in, for example, clearing regenerating native bush to plant pines. Under the right set of rules, major progress can be made in this area at a lower cost than in any other area.

Until the post-2012 LULUCF rules are known, it is difficult to know the scale of net emissions reductions possible to New Zealand in this area, but I have estimated that changes under the current rules could result in 3Gg of net reductions by 2020.


The emissions reductions outlined above do not take into account post-2012 changes in greenhouse gas accounting rules, and do not include additional sectoral price or quota-based measures beyond the ETS (such as a tradeable personal fossil fuel quota). Nevertheless, even with these limitations, the following sectoral emissions reductions can be made by 2020:

Agriculture 7.6 Mt
Stationary energy 6.4 Mt
Transport 5.3 Mt

TOTAL 22.3 Mt

In other words, the measures outlined above can contribute 22.3 of the 38.5 Mt reduction needed by 2020 to reach 40% below 1990 levels. The remaining 16.2 Mt reductions required can be achieved by a mixture of purchase of appropriate reductions offshore, enhanced net reductions made possible by changes to the LULUCF rules, greater shifts in agricultural production, and pricing or quota measures in transport.

The purpose of this briefing note is not to provide a formula for reaching the 40% target. It is to show that reaching such a target is possible, and that there are methods available to New Zealand to do so.

23 July 2009

An Interview with Mary Cresswell

This is the first of three interviews I will be running over the next few weeks with New Zealand poets whose first solo books of poetry are being launched on or near Montana Poetry Day on Friday 24 July.

Mary Cresswell is a Wellington poet who lives on the Kapiti Coast. She came to New Zealand from Los Angeles in 1970, after having lived in various parts of the US, in Germany, and in Japan. She graduated from Stanford University in California with a degree in history and English literature. She is a freelance science editor and proofreader and has spent at least one lifetime in the Wellington workplace.

Her first book appearance was with Mary-Jane Duffy, Mary Macpherson, and Kerry Hines as co-authors of Millionaire’s Shortbread, published by the University of Otago Press in 2003. This book is illustrated with collages by Brendan O’Brien, has an afterword by Greg O’Brien, and introduced these four poets to the Wellington scene.

Mary, your first solo book of poetry, Nearest & Dearest (Steele Roberts, 2009, NZ RRP $19.95, illustrated by Nikki Slade Robinson) is a book of humorous poetry, which is a side of your work I've not seen before. Have you always written humorous poetry alongside your serious poetry, or has that been a recent development?

The opposite, actually. I stopped writing serious poetry when I was about 17 and only took it up again the year I turned 60. All the years I didn’t write serious poetry, I’ve frequently come up with silly stuff for friends, for occasions in the office, or for family. That’s been a constant. I just wish I’d kept copies!

How did you become involved in writing poetry? Which poets have been most influential on your writing?

I was raised in a family where capping verses (usually limericks) was a standard indoor sport, so I have emitted poetry as long as I remember. Important poets? My sense of rhythm owes a lot to Anon. and to Cole Porter. My parents lived on folk songs and cabaret songs, hence my need for accentual (rather than accentual-syllabic or free) verse. Individual poets: Lewis Carroll, Auden, Eliot, Poe, Dorothy Parker, Donne, Walter Scott, Byron, Longfellow, Ogden Nash, Sidney Lanier... for starters. These days I’m reading Kay Ryan, Marie Ponsot, Robert Alter’s new translation of the Book of Psalms, among others.

"Humour" and "playfulness" are not words often used to characterise the literary scene in New Zealand. Indeed, there seems to be a view here that purse-lipped seriousness is the only acceptable literary stance. Have you run foul of such attitudes, or is this just me being paranoid?

I think “literary” is the operative word here, and no, you’re not paranoid. But this isn’t poetry’s fault: A lot of people last thought seriously about poetry in the fifth form and settle for genteel obeisance to Beauty and Nature when they think of it at all; light verse is for greeting cards, and they can’t imagine a serious message coming via humour. — And there’s also literary fashion. Humour is difficult in personal-experience poetry written in free verse, with no formal aspect. In New Zealand, we have to go back a generation to, say, Denis Glover to find a top poet writing humour, especially black humour, with a sting in it. Was Glover ever considered literary? I don’t know; I wonder if his contemporaries kept him in a category of his own.

Not many Americans write poems that feature cricket, such as "Willow Green Willow" in Nearest & Dearest. Do you now feel thoroughly 'acclimatised', if I may use the term, as a New Zealand poet?

After forty years in New Zealand, I’m about as acclimatised as I’ll ever be. I switched to correct [sic] spelling early on, though my spoken accent will never change much. I’m not sure, though, if any poet can or should aim for the mainstream. I know that both Americans and Kiwis think I don’t really belong, and the discomfort that comes from this seems to keep my satiric side alive and healthy.

Several of the poems that I most enjoyed in Nearest & Dearest are parodies of or based on other poems, several from the Victorian era. I know I like reading these – what attracts you to writing them?

They’re easiest to get started. Many of them (like the office manager’s Shakespeare sonnet (see below) or playing games with Wordsworth in the ‘Pass at Grasmere’) are based on poetry I read years ago, and they’re part of my sensibility in a way more recent poems aren’t. So a phrase—a few lines—perhaps a rhyme for ‘schadenfreude’— will pop into my mind by surprise; then I spend hours and hours trying to polish a humorous poem that also is a credit to the original.

Your poem "Metastasis" appears in Voyagers: Science Fiction Poetry from New Zealand, and you work as an editor of science publications. How much of an influence has science had on your poetry? Would you describe yourself as a "science poet"?

Not a “science poet” in that I rarely take scientific principles into account; “Metastasis” is a bit aberrant. I take notes of and am definitely influenced by goofy-sounding phrases I run across in the course of proofreading fearsomely technical material. (Who would be a “ring-based indole”, I ask you?) The US magazine Umbrella publishes an annual light supplement, Bumbershoot. This poem: http://www.umbrellajournal.com/summer2009/bumbershoot/light_verse/LabNote.html reflects a temporary passion for technical terms beginning with “Sq”.

Are copies of Nearest & Dearest available in bookshops yet? If so, where can people find it?

Absolutely. In Wellington, try Unity Books; Moby Dickens and Paper Plus in Paraparaumu; Bruce Mackenzie’s in Palmerston have it for sure. Books a’ Plenty in Tauranga. If you don’t see it on the shelf, ask for it. Supporting your local bookseller is admirable, virtuous, and a sign of high intelligence. If all else fails, the book’s available from the publisher and from Fishpond.

Finally, what's next for Mary Cresswell as a poet?

Write more. Read more. Read more. Write more.

Watch this space.

by Mary Cresswell

Shall I wear the Gucci scarf today?
It’s far more lovely and more corporate
than what sleek young managers affect
in all the offices up and down the way.

It gives an air of strength, they always say,
classic looks for classic power dressed,
Look and feel and act as though you’re best
and the rest will follow, as the night the day.

No dangly earrings! What women call
postmenopausal zest, in other places
gives a bad impression overall.
I will notice all their airs and graces,
a quiet woman, not looking to outwit them…
I shall run the show before they know what hit them.

This interview is the first stop in Mary's "virtual book tour" for Nearest & Dearest. The next stop is on Janis Freegard's blog.

21 July 2009

Lovelace and Babbage vs The Economy

I had no intention of posting tonight, but this, from artist Sydney Padua, is so brilliant - and so timely - I could not resist.

Lovelace and Babbage vs The Economy: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

You can read Lovelace's origin story (which has slightly more relationship to consensus reality) as well.

Literature, mathematics, computing, Byron. What more could you want? (But if you do want more Ada Augusta, Countess of Lovelace and George Gordon, Lord Byron, check out Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land by the brilliant John Crowley.)

20 July 2009

Broken, Beat & Scarred: Is Traditional Publishing Really On Its Last Legs?

Influential tech blog ReadWriteWeb (headed by Wellingtonian Richard MacManus - well made New Zealand!) has posted a lengthy two-part article, "Bits Of Destruction Hit The Book Publishing Business" (Part 1, Part 2). The basic thesis is contained in author Bernard Lunn's introduction to the first article:

"Bits of destruction" is a phrase Fred Wilson uses to describe the destructive part of "creative destruction" brought on by digitization. We hear a lot about the destruction wrought on the newspaper business. A more interesting and nuanced wave is now hitting the book publishing business... However this plays out, a lot of people will be affected, but the way in which it will play out is not at all obvious.

On top of the current recession, the three "Waves of destruction" affecting the traditional publishing industry identified by Bernard Lunn are (1) Google Book Search Archive Digitization; (2) Ebooks (especially those available on the Amazon Kindle, such as Voyagers); (3) Print on Demand. Bernard Lunn argues that, as they mature, these three technologies will radically change the relationship between authors, publishers, printers, bookshops and readers.

This is my very short summary of a long and complex argument that it is well worth reading in full. I have to say, however, that I don't find all of it entirely convincing, although I agree with his general premise that many aspects of the traditional publishing model are being stretched if not broken by a combination of technological and financial factors. In particular, I take issue with his assumption that authors can effectively take on responsibility for the marketing and distribution of their own books.

I have had books published by large and small publishing companies, and in conventional print, POD and e-book formats (the latter two being the formats for Anarya's Secret). I have been very happy with the production quality of all these books, but what small publishing companies and authors themselves find it hard to replicate is the ability of large conventional publishers to market and distribute books. These tasks take detailed, specialised knowledge, and authors do not usually have much success in taking them over completely. Like editing, such tasks can be sub-contracted to professionals in those respective fields, but that won't be cheap for authors.

So I think that, despite some of the anachronistic elements of the present book marketing and distribution arrangements, it won't be anything like as easy to replace the functions of traditional publishing companies as Bernard Lunn claims. On the other hand, I agree with him that, when and if the recession ends, the book publishing industry will not return to the shape it held pre-recession. I'm keen to follow developments, and will look to blogs like The Quiet World Project and How Publishing Really Works, as well as ReadWriteWeb, to see what is happening, and what will happen, to publishing.

Thanks to Jane Harris for alerting me to the RWW articles. And thanks to Metallica for the title of this post!

15 July 2009

Book Review: Tom, by Mark Pirie (Sudden Valley Press, 2009, RRP $29.99)


There is probably no author in the world I am less well qualified to review objectively than Mark Pirie. Mark and I have known each other since the summer of 1996-1997. At that stage, I was working as the Course Materials Editor for the Department of Library and Information Studies at Victoria University, and Mark came to help me out with that job over the summer. At that stage, I was a budding short story writer with a few publications under my belt who wrote the occasional poem, while Mark was a published poet and one of the members of the collective that put together JAAM magazine.

I submitted some poems to JAAM, and had one published in JAAM 6 in February 1997 - I think this was due to its literary merits, rather than to Marks' employment situation! After that, I was published several more times in JAAM, and subsequently, Mark's publishing company HeadworX has published my two poetry collections, Boat People and All Blacks' Kitchen Gardens as part of its extensive and excellent poetry list. My first short story collection, Extreme Weather Events, was published as part of HeadworX's comparatively short-lived Pocket Fiction Series.

Most recently, we've collaborated on editing the recently-released anthology Voyagers: Science Fiction Poetry from New Zealand.

So, when Mark asked if I would like a review copy of Tom, I was hesitant - not because I thought I wouldn't enjoy it, but because I wondered whether I could maintain enough distance to write a worthwhile review.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed it, and I've reviewed it. So, caveats and forewarnings aside, here is my review!


Tom is a verse novel, set in Wellington during the mid-1990s. "Tom" is Tom Grant, a student and budding writer whom Mark Pirie identifies, and who self-identifies, as a member of "Generation X". The verse novel proceeds by a mixture of Tom's poems, prose poems, and the occasional mock essay. Only a couple of the 70 entries are long, and the book as a whole is an easy, enjoyable read.

Mark Pirie famously identified himself as a member of Generation X, and crystallised Generation X writing in New Zealand, when he edited the Gen X anthology New Zealand Writing: The NeXt Wave (still controversial, and still worth checking out) in 1998. Now, having gone through the whole GenX-student-in-Wellington experience, he is aware of what it has all added up to. His character Tom Grant, living through similar experiences as the book progresses, does not have this awareness. This distance lends the delicious ironies that are especially prevalent in the first 2/3 of the book.

These sections, in particular, are often very funny, as Tom tries and generally fails at love, life and literature. Tom writes an essay on Gerald Manley Hopkins in which draws more comparisons than might be thought humanly possible between Hopkins' poetry and mid-90s music, most memorably that of Guns'n'Roses; he itemises his wardrobe; he tries his hand at a protest poem. There's a knowing wink to all this which frequently had me chuckling.

Tom grows up a bit towards the end of the book. He finally gets it on with Kate, the object of his desire; in a memorable "answer poem", she dissects Tom's true motives in eight pitiless lines. At last, he has a poem accepted for publication (by an older poet called Jimmy O'Toole, who ... well, let's just say Jimmy reminds me of someone whose name has a similar form). He tries his hand at a long poem, a version of Ginsberg's "Howl" which doesn't outshine the original.

The final poem in the book is Tom's contributor's note to accompany his first published poem. It ends with the line "but still it's early days ...". It would be good to see another volume of Tom's adventures, but the humour and freshness of Tom's early encounters with the big wide world will be hard to beat.

You should be able to find a copy of Tom in independent bookshops. There was a handsome pile of them in Unity Books, Wellington, the last time I visited.

12 July 2009

Chapter and Verse: Podcast Discussion on New Zealand Science Fiction and Fantasy

This afternoon I took part in a live discussion on science fiction and fantasy writing in New Zealand. Chaired by Radio New Zealand's Lynn Freeman, it featured writers Helen Lowe, Russell Kirkpatrick and myself, and publisher Larain Day - see below for further details.

The podcast of this 13-minute discussion is now available in MP3 format at http://podcast.radionz.co.nz/art/art-20090712-1430-Chapter_and_Verse-048.mp3

I enjoyed taking part - and thanks for inviting me, Lynn - but I felt we were just getting started on the discussion when we ran out of time. All the same, we covered some interesting territory, including whether New Zealand SF&F readers are willing to read SF&F written by New Zealand authors and published in New Zealand, and where these genres may go in future. Worth a listen, I think!

09 July 2009

Ain't No Stopping Us Now

Hard on the heels of the news that a short story collection by science fiction writer Chris Beckett has won the prestigious Edge Hill Short Story Prize, beating collections by Anne Enright, Shena Mackay, Ali Smith and Gerard Donovan, comes the slightly less big - but still welcome - news that Radio New Zealand (National Radio) is holding a panel discussion this coming Sunday afternoon (the 11th) on writing science fiction and fantasy. Here's the official announcement:

2:30 Chapter and Verse

A panel of New Zealand Sci-Fi writers and publishers, on the on-going fascination with the future, and what the future holds for our Sci-Fi. On the panel are writers Tim Jones, Helen Lowe and Russell Kirkpatrick, and publisher Lorain Day from Harper Collins.

(Ooh, I do dislike that term "Sci-Fi"! It always sounds patronising to me - but I'll learn to cope...)

Two of the panelists, Helen Lowe and Russell Kirkpatrick, are best known for their fantasy novels (though Helen is also an excellent short story writer and poet), so I expect to be holding the fort for science fiction and for short fiction.

If you live in Wellington, keep your eyes peeled for another writing event in September featuring Helen Lowe and myself - more details to follow!

Details of how to access Radio New Zealand broadcasts are available on their site (see "Ways to Listen" on the bottom left of the home page) and, if a podcast is made of the panel, I will put the link up here as soon as it's available.

06 July 2009

Consult and Survive: The First Session

I've just come back from the first session of the New Zealand Government's consultation meetings on New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions reduction target for 2020.

Climate Change Minister Nick Smith was faced with an audience of between 300 and 400 people. After his twenty-minute presentation, doing its best to send a message of "we'll sign up to a target, but don't expect it to be substantial", members of the audience had the chance to speak — and, one after another, they implicitly or explicitly supported New Zealand taking on a strong reduction target in Copenhagen, with most of them plumping for the target to be a 40% cut in 1990-level emissions by 2020.

The Minister's response was interesting. He stayed in his seat after most of the speakers, and when he did take the stage, he claimed that a 40% cut was too difficult because the fact that agriculture is responsible for 50% of New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions meant that no emissions would be allowable in all other sectors if we adopted a 40% by 2020 target.

There was a glaring hole in this response: it assumed that no emissions reductions were possible in agriculture. This is patently untrue: in fact, many farmers can make a profit while reducing emissions by using nitrification inhibitors, as revealed by the Sustainability Council.

So why don't they? Part of the answer is that they are under the sway of their leadership, Federated Farmers, who are so opposed to taking responsibility for farming's share of greenhouse gas emissions that they have called for agriculture to be completely excluded from New Zealand's Emissions Trading Scheme.

Fed Farmers are only one of a number of powerful lobby groups - others include the Major Electricity Users' Group and the Greenhouse Policy Coalition - which have spent a lot of time and money trying to prevent New Zealand taking any effective action on climate change. These groups are too clever to deny the science of climate change - instead, they argue that it would cost New Zealanders too much to take action. What they really mean, of course, is that it is their members who are responsible for the bulk of New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore their members who would have to start paying.

I was forcibly reminded of this, because I happened to sit behind the the main lobbyists from two of these groups at tonight's meeting. They didn't get up to speak. They didn't state their real views. But they were listening, carefully, and no doubt working out the arguments they will use behind closed doors to try, yet again, to prevent the New Zealand government getting serious about climate change.

When I left the meeting, the speeches from the floor were still continuing, speaker after speaker making passionate, well-informed calls for action. And the lobbyists were still sitting quietly, saying nothing and taking in a lot. The constrast symbolised why these meetings are so important. For most of the time, the well-funded lobbyists have the Minister's ear. But tonight, and for the next twelve nights, it's the public turn.

Find out when the meeting is in your town
. Get along and call for serious action on climate change. Challenge the Minister when he tries to leave agriculture out. And don't let the lobbyists have it all their own way.

UPDATE: Joshua Vail has posted a full report of the meeting, with video links to Nick Smith's presentation and people's responses. It's at http://www.joshuavial.com/wellington-consultation-for-2020-emissions-target/

UPDATE 2: 350.org.nz is posting summaries of the consultation sessions on their home page - scroll down to see them. I'm pleased to see Dunedin went so well!

05 July 2009

Consult and Survive

Twelve days. That's how long the Government has allocated to the public consultation process to decide what greenhouse gas emissions reduction target for 2020 New Zealand will take to the Copenhagen climate change negotiations at the end of 2009.

There have been many international climate change negotiations down through the years, but the Copenhagen negotiations are shaping up as the most significant since the Kyoto negotiations that led to the much-debated Kyoto Protocol. The prognosis for the global climate and for sea-level rise has got much, much worse since the Kyoto Protocol was signed - but the world's knowledge of that predicament has also grown much greater.

I could write a lengthy explanation of what these consultation meetings are about, and why it's so important that many voices call for steep reductions in New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 - to be precise, a 40% reduction on 1990 levels by 2020. But Greenpeace have done that already, so, with due thanks and acknowledgement to their Sign On site, here are the key things to know about the consultation sessions, including the schedule.

From http://www.signon.org.nz/blog/government-s-copenhagen-target-consultation-starting-next-week-have-your-say:

In December governments will converge at Copenhagen aiming to reach a new climate agreement and urgent and ambitious reductions are being encouraged by climate scientists.

The Government hasn’t given the NZ people much time to have their say on this crucial issue. But we still see it as a good opportunity for people to get vocal about the target that New Zealand needs to set – 40 percent by 2020. Government Ministers will take just two weeks to visit only nine centres in New Zealand to hear what the public think, starting Monday!

We need to mobilise as many people as possible to attend the meetings and show their support for 40 by 2020 targets.

Sign On supporters will be out front of the meetings beforehand each night signing people on and also distributing stickers that people can wear into the meeting showing their support for the needed 40 percent by 2020 target.

Times and venues:

* Mon July 6 – Wellington – 7.30pm – 9pm, Oceania Room, Te Papa.
* Tues July 7 – Auckland – 7.30pm – 9pm, Princes Ballroom B and C. Hotel Hyatt Regency, Corner of Princes Street and Waterloo Quadrant, Auckland Central.
* Wed July 8 – Christchurch – 7.30pm – 9pm, Hall C, Convention Centre, Kilmore Street,
* Thur July 9 – Dunedin – 7.30pm – 9pm, Clifford Skeggs Gallery, Dunedin Centre, 1 Harrop Street, Dunedin
* Friday July 10, Queenstown – 7.30pm – 9pm, Icon Room, Heritage Hotel, 91 Fernhill Drive.
* Monday July 13 – Hamilton – 7.30pm – 9pm, Waikato Room, Sky City Hamilton, 346 Victoria Street, Hamilton
* Tuesday 14 July – New Plymouth – 7.30pm – 9pm, Conference Room Plymouth International, Corner Courtenay and Leach Streets, New Plymouth
* Wednesday 15 July – Napier - 7.30pm – 9pm, Ocean Suite East Pier, Hardinge Road Ahuriri, Napier
* Friday 17 July – Nelson – 7.30pm – 9pm, Waimea Room Rutherford Hotel, Trafalgar Square, Nelson.

The consultation won’t be the final word on the target. This is simply to find New Zealand’s opening offer at the international negotiations. Let’s make it as strong as possible. We’ll be campaigning for 40 by 2020 right up to the last second of the last day because the future of the planet isn’t up for negotiation.

Internet based consultation for those who can’t attend

You can submit questions for the Minister for Climate Change Issues' online video conference to be held from 7.30pm on Monday 20 July at www.r2.co.nz/20090720. Questions can be submitted in advance by email to 2020target(at) mfe.govt.nz

You can also email the Minister with your views to nick.smith (at) ministers.govt.nz

Tim adds: If you're not closely involved in climate change issues, the parade of meetings and negotiations can soon become mind-numbing - in fact, it confuses me, and I am involved. But this meeting, and this target, really are important. Time is running out for a liveable global climate. The Government, after initially believing it could sideline the issue, has now discovered it can't. Elements within the Government want to take meaningful action on climate change, and other elements want to block meaningful action. As many people as possible need to get along, call for deep cuts, and stiffen the Government's sinews so that it opts to become a part of the solution rather than remaining part of the problem.

02 July 2009

The Stars Their Destination: Wellington, Palmerston North, The Edge of the Universe

2009 is the International Year of Astronomy, and so it's fitting that there's an astronomical theme to several forthcoming writing events. (If you know of more astropoetry events, please tell us about them in the comments.)

If the combination of poetry and astronomy interests you, then I recommend Emily Gaskin's Astropoetica, not only a fine online magazine of astronomical poetry, but a paying poetry market!


Montana Poetry Day events in Wellington on 24 July include an all-day open mike poetry event in Cuba Mall, by the Bucket Fountain. But I'm especially interested in the lunchtime event:

There will also be an Astropoetry Lunch Hour celebrating the International Year of Astronomy during which poets can read any ‘astronomy’ themed poems.

Open to all; free entry. Contact Graham Wolf on graham.w.wolf (at) gmail.com

Palmerston North

Helen Lehndorf and the other organisers of the Stand Up Poetry series in Palmerston North are also involved in this exciting event:

Eyes in the Skies: Poetry and art for Matariki

"Eyes in the Skies" is both an exhibition and an event. The exhibition runs from 3 July (launch at 7.30pm) to 4 August at the Square Edge Gallery, 47 The Square, Palmerston North. It features poetry by Helen Lehndorf, Margi Mitcalfe, Karlo Mila, Johanna Aitchison, Felicity Yates, Philippa Elphick and Elizabeth Coleman, and art by printmaker Virginia Jamieson and sculptor Warren Warbrick.

The Poetry Day event is from 5.30 pm onwards, Friday 24th July 2009 at Square Edge:

Using nga taongapuoro and voice, HAUnt Wind Stories presents an evening of music showcasing new poems by seven Manawatu poets including Karlo Mila and Johanna Aitchison. The poems will be made into prints by Virginia Jamieson and unveiled during this event. The poems and prints will also be sold in book form at the event.

Open to all. Email HAUnt (at) inspire.net.nz for further information.

Tim Upperton's Book Launch

I don't know of an astronomy connection to Tim Upperton'sbook, although there may well be one - but Tim's a fine poet (and a gracious host), and his first collection of poetry, A House On Fire, is being launched, also on Poetry Day in Palmerston North: it's happening at 7pm on Friday 24 July at the Palmerston North City Library, also in The Square. A House On Fire will be introduced by Roger Steele of Steele Roberts, who are publishing the book.

Another commitment will prevent me from going to this launch, but if you can make it, you should!

The Edge of the Universe

The Royal Society's Manhire Prize for Creative Science Writing is awarded each year in two categories, fiction and nonfiction. Here is this year's announcement:

"I live at the edge of the universe, like everybody else."
--Bill Manhire

This year we are celebrating the International Year of Astronomy. Ever since Galileo first aimed his telescope at Jupiter's moons, technology has been enlarging our knowledge of the universe.

We now know our own insignificance and isolation and yet we have immense power to communicate as never before. The race of humans is isolated in space and time and yet where, as individuals, do we go to be alone?

A cash prize of $2500 will be awarded to the winner of each category. The closing date for entries is Tuesday 22 September 2009.

The Manhire Prize for Creative Science Writing is organised by the Royal Society of New Zealand in association with the New Zealand Listener magazine and the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington.

For more information, terms and conditions and entry forms visit http://www.royalsociety.org.nz or contact: Danae Staples-Moon, ph 04 470 5770 or email danae (at) royalsociety.org.nz