By Scott Hamilton
Book festivals will always be poor relations to gatherings of film and music lovers. It takes about ninety minutes to watch a film, and half an hour or so to see a band, but books can’t be consumed at such speed. Where film buffs and music fans use their festivals to watch movies and sing along to bands, gatherings of bibliophiles are necessarily dominated by talk about books.
Authors are accustomed to working in the cluttered solitude of their studies, and to expressing themselves through a pen or a keyboard, but at a book festival they are forced onto a stage, handed a mike, and asked to become, for an hour or so at a time, raconteurs, comics, and lecturers. Because some of the best scribblers are indifferent talkers, and some wretched writers do a good stand-up act or give a good lecture, festivals tend to offer a somewhat distorted picture of the literary world.
When it offered its readers a guide to ‘must-see sessions‘ of the Readers and Writers Festival last week, the New Zealand Herald predicted that the ‘firecracker wit and brash personality’ of Kathy Lette would make her appearance memorable. The Herald neglected to mention that Lette’s new novel The Boy who Fell to Earth has underwhelmed many reviewers. The Independent’s Nicholas Tucker, for instance, considers the book little more than a ‘succession of scabrous one-liners’.
Reservations about Lette’s work are not new. In 2008 the deathless sentence ‘Sebastian’s erect member was so big I mistook it for some sort of monument in the centre of a town’ earned her book To Love, Honour & Betray (Till Divorce Us Do Part) a nomination for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. Lette has had so many bad reviews over the years that she wrote a ‘Review of reviewers’, where she complained about critics who have the temerity to hold her to literary standards. In a revealing passage near the end of her self-defence, Lette suggested that a successful literary career has to involve ‘the honing of cheerfulness to chatshow perfection’.
Lette’s penchant for one-liners and disdain for subtlety may make her books unpopular with critics, but they help make her a star of the book festival circuit. In the same sort of way, many other awful writers become festival favourites. There is the occasional writer who can excel on the page and on the stage – Roddy Doyle, another star attraction at the Auckland festival, is an example – but these creatures are few and far between.
On Sunday morning I was a guest at the Readers and Writers Festival event called Poetry Pleasures, where a series of ‘published poets’ read from their work, and members of the audience were able to jump up and perform their own material.
It is easy to see why poetry readings are part of many book festivals. Because poems tend to be relatively short compared to other types of literary production, they can be performed within the confines of a book festival session. An audience doesn’t have to hear poets talk about their work – they can, seemingly, be given the work itself.
I’m not sure, though, whether a poem is as easy to consume as festival organisers might think. A poem might take as long to read as a typical pop song, but it is made, or should be made, of denser, more recalcitrant, stuff than the offerings of Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga.
I’ve always liked Anthony Burgess’ definition of poetry as ‘the maximum exploitation of words’. In works of non-fiction, language tends to be subordinated to facts, and in novels plot or character are often of paramount importance; in poetry, though, the materiality of words – their complex history, their many shades of meaning and infinite associations, their shape and their sound – is both honoured and exploited. For many non-fiction writers and for more than a few novelists, language is a clear pane of glass through which we gaze at facts and events; for poets – good poets, anyway – it is something like the strata of the earth, layered by time and encrusted with recondite significances and antique treasures. In an era when digital technology, tabloid newspapers, corporate nomenclature, soundbite-centred politics, and television infotainment disguised as news are all helping dumb down language and restrict the scope of our thoughts, poetry can have a heady, subversive quality, not despite but because of the demands that it makes on readers.
A great poem like TS Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi‘ or Kendrick Smithyman’s ‘Waitomo‘ can be read in the time it takes Justin Bieber to perform one of his songs, but its richness means it can be reread again and again, and can deliver up new revelations with each new reading.
Whenever I read a poem aloud, either alone or to an audience, I feel a well-nigh irresistable urge to pause over certain words, and to repeat certain phrases again and again. I read the word ‘epiphyte’, and see how its elegantly hanging ps and y simulate the way that vines and aerial roots hang off rimu and rata in the bush at the top of a gravel road near my home; I encounter the word ‘orotund’ and see its middle syllable as a jolly round belly. I spot the word ‘heaven’ in one line, and the word ‘pheasants’ in the next, and hear vowels chiming, and want to make them chime over and over by repeating the lines again and again. I see the word ‘rude’, remember that centuries ago, on the other side of the world, it was part of a derogatory term for small farmers used by those determined to throw them off their land, and want to make a sort of auditory footnote about the early history of capitalism. I want to make any poem I’m reading last as long as a novel.
Eccentricities like these mean that I’m ill-suited to, and try hard to avoid, the contemporary ‘live poetry’ scene, which revolves around ‘poetry slams’ where young hipsters belt out their verses and then get marks out of ten from whooping or jeering audiences. Because there is so little time for them to make an impression on their audiences, poetry slammers tend to favour simple meanings, and to shun ambiguity. Language becomes, for them, a clear pane of glass through which some amusing story or political slogan or witty insult can be delivered.
I arrived at Aotea Centre last Sunday to discover that the Poetry Pleasures session was being held in an isolated corner of the third floor, rather than in one of the theatres where VIP guests were scheduled to perform. As I sat down in one of the chairs that had been laid in rows on frayed carpet and tried to hear the MC, who stood on a portable stage a little larger than a soapbox, great waves of laughter rolled out of the opened door of a theatre downstairs. I wondered if Kathy Lette was in action.
As part of our increasingly demented work on a documentary about the Great South Road, Paul Janman and I have been experimenting with the layering of images and sounds. In an effort to try to communicate the complicated and contradictory history of Auckland’s most famous road, which began as a series of Maori tracks, became a colonist’s bridle path and then a military highway, and is now a congested and confused route through the most diverse and rapidly changing part of Auckland, we’ve been superimposing images – of a pa, a horse and coach, a Chinese takeaways – on top of one another, and mixing up different sounds, so that our imaginary audience can hear, at one and the same time, the hoarse orders of a British general, the wheeze of a musket shell, a delivery truck backfiring outside an Otahuhu bakery, and the poetry of Kendrick Smithyman, anonymous soldiers, and your good self. I’d asked Paul to perform with me at Poetry Pleasures, in the hope of bringing some of the chaos of our experiments to the Aotea Centre. We were planning to read fragments of poems and historical texts over a cacophanous soundtrack, but Paul was forced at the last moment to withdraw from the event, and I had to ask my long-suffering wife to join me onstage. While Skyler read a few sentences about the history of the Great South Road and the Waikato War, I performed a sort of mash-up of poems from my 2011 book Feeding the Gods. Luckily, there were no poetry slam judges waiting to give my performance zero out of ten.
After the reading I went downstairs, looked longingly in the direction of the Aotea Centre’s absurdly expensive bar, chatted with a couple of people about their memories of growing up on the Great South Road, and inspected the festival’s vast literature table, where I found a few copies of Feeding the Gods in an obscure corner, far from towering stacks of Nancy Lette’s masterpieces. As I wandered back into the Poetry Pleasures session, hoping to see David Eggleton and Gregory O’Brien perform, a middle-aged woman in the audience turned around in her chair so she faced me, sniggered rather loudly, waved a page from the festival programme at me, and then turned away again.
I was puzzled, until I remembered the photo.
The Readers and Writers Festival might express, in its choice of event venues and the arrangement of its literature table, a clear preference for some scribblers over others, but its programme is rigorously democratic. Each of the authors appearing at the festival gets a paragraph-long profile in the little book, along with a small photograph. Most of the photographs in the programme show their subjects at a kind angle, striking poses which make them look either admirably jolly or admirably serious. The portrait of yours truly is an exception.
Even before I lost my hair and gained a paunch a decade ago, I was not the most photogenic of men. But the image in the Readers and Writers Festival programme made me look like a cross between Benny Hill and Gerry Brownlee. After encountering a copy of the programme in my local library a few weeks before the festival, I e mailed Brett Cross, whose Titus Books published Feeding the Gods as well as my earlier poetry book To the Moon, in Seven Easy Steps, and asked him how such an unflattering image had escaped into the world. Here’s Brett’s reply:
What’s the problem? It looks great ;) The festival organisers were being very pushy, needed a photo in 2 hrs to go to print or something, and then I thought of facebook. And consider it some small recompense for all the unflattering photos you’ve put of folk on your blog.
With my incomprehensible poetry reading and that downright creepy portrait, I think I failed to challenge the hegemony of the star performers at the Auckland Readers and Writers Festival. Kathy Lette can rest easy.