By Scott Hamilton
These are strange times for publishers. Now that geeks have wired the world to the internet, anyone with a computer and a connection has an almost limitless range of reading options. King Lear and Paris Hilton’s Prison Diary are just a google search away, along with millions of other texts. And it’s not only the rules of readership that have changed – in the age of blogging and online book publishing, anyone can be an author.
In the brave new online era, any book publisher risks looking old-fashioned, but independent publishers of avant-garde poetry and novels must seem positively prehistoric. Over the past three and a half years, though, Auckland-based publisher Titus Books has carved itself a readership and a reputation by giving the world a series of beautifully designed, defiantly unconventional volumes of literature. Reviewing the first three Titus volumes in the venerable literary journal Landfall, Katherine Liddy declared that ‘New Zealand literature just got a whole lot more interesting’. Not everyone has shared Liddy’s enthusiasm, of course – the New Zealand Review of Books condemned Titus for publishing irresponsibly obscure books, and a kickboxer named Todd challenged one of the company’s editors to a couple of rounds in the ring, after hearing that the book of light verse he had submitted to Titus had been rejected.
Last Thursday ninety tipsy punters turned up to the launch of three new Titus volumes at Karangahape Road’s Alleluya Cafe. Jack Ross’ EMO is the last instalment in a trilogy of novels; Bill Direen’s Enclosures is a collection of five interlinking stories; and Jen Crawford’s bad appendix is her debut volume of poetry.
Like its predecessors, Nights with Giordano Bruno and The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis, Ross’ EMO is a sprawling, delightfully bewildering work. Ross sets several stories in motion, as he moves between Mars, Nazi Germany, and the dream-like version of Auckland’s North Shore that recurs almost obsessively in his writing. At the heart of EMO is the tale of a recently blinded writer and his servant, a very human android named Eva. The embittered writer tries to impose his will upon Eva, but she subtly resists his whims. The story of Eva and her faltering master has the simple power of a fable, and Ross finds parallels for it in Arabian Nights, as well as in the relationship between Hitler and his secretary-cum-wife, Eva Braun. At last Thursday’s launch, Jack and his wife Bronwyn, who was dressed as an android, performed one of the eerie dialogues between Eva and her ‘master’ which punctuate EMO.
Ross is a lapidarian scholar, fluent in half a dozen languages, but he is also a passionate fan of America’s Next Top Model, and his writing has always refused to distinguish between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. The very look of EMO mocks the conventions of both literature and academic scholarship – texts are artfully layered on its outsize pages, alongside photographs, cartoons, and cryptic diagrams. Ross’ prose is full of dirty jokes, as well as learned asides and sad observations. EMO could keep you busy for years on a desert island, but it can also entertain you during that hour between the end of Shortland St and the beginning of Desperate Housewives.
Jen Crawford’s bad appendix may be the most daring book of poetry published anywhere this year. Crawford often writes about everyday, apparently uncomplicated subjects – a walk down the road, a kiss, a patch of grass with sun on it – but her language is dense and mysterious. Reading bad appendix is like walking through a formal garden that gradually becomes a tangled forest. The well-prepared path that opened so invitingly between banks of roses and well-drilled conifers soon disappears, and the reader must fetch a stick from the undergrowth and hack a way forward.
The difficulty of Crawford’s poems is never unnecessary. She is not a trendy postmodernist, playing pretentious games with words she half-understands, but a Romantic, with a decidedly old-fashioned belief in the power of poetry to touch on parts of human experience which are off- limits to cooler, more linear methods on inquiry. In ‘sunday, hollow seed’, one of the most ambitious poems in bad appendix, Crawford explores the thoughts and feelings of a couple who have lost two young children in a house fire. With each new image, Crawford scrapes off another layer of scar-tissue:
Emptiness is a privilege which collapsed –
the roof of a burning dollhouse.
We were surprised. Our eyes were wet.
In the days of clarity I saw
the density of ash, the value of fibre.
When he introduced Enclosures at last Thursday’s launch, Donald Lawrie likened Bill Direen to Len Lye. The comparison is apt: like Lye, Direen is a restlessly creative man, who has moved from medium to medium and country to country with unusual boldness. Direen made his name as the leader of The Builders, one of the brightest stars in the firmament of 1980s New Zealand alternative music. He spent most of the nineties in various parts of Europe, where he wrote a series of novels, and has in recent years divided his time between Paris and Dunedin. Last year Direen undertook a national tour with a new incarnation of The Builders, and released a new album through Powertool Records.
Enclosures is infused with Direen’s restlessness: its interlocking stories move between France, Iraq, Wellington, and some of the wilder sections of the South Island coast. Direen is not averse to a little time travel, either – the story he read at the Alleluya Cafe covered several thousand years of Iraqi history in a few pages. Like Direen’s 2006 novel Song of the Brakeman, which was full of frightening allusions to Guantanamo Bay, Enclosures is unified by the theme of imprisonment. Like Direen himself, the characters of Enclosures are shiftless figures, determined to escape the oppressive governments and obsolete and encumbering codes of behavior that threaten to overwhelm them.
Direen rounded off last Thursday’s launch by performing most of Songs for Mickey Joe, the mini-album he has just released on Powertool Records as a tribute to the late and much-lamented poet and playwright Alan Brunton. Direen co-wrote the songs with Brunton nearly two decades ago; some of them were performed in Comrade Savage, the sad and angry look at the history of the New Zealand left that Brunton’s Red Mole theatre company staged during the dying days of the fourth Labour government.
It is appropriate that a Titus Books launch should pay tribute to Alan Brunton, because Brunton was a long-time champion of the tradition of quality independent book publishing that Titus continues today. In the years before his untimely death in 2002 Brunton created his own publishing company, Bumper Books, which quickly gained a reputation for bringing exciting new work into print. It was Bumper Books which had the nerve to publish Jack Ross’ Nights with Giordano Bruno, the first instalment of the trilogy of novels that ends with EMO. The rules of publishing may be changing, but the successes of Titus over the past three and a half years show that there is still a place on the Kiwi literary scene for an adventurous independent publisher.
Scott Hamilton is an Auckland writer.