Saturday, August 23, 2008

A thousand apologies

With my friend Anna, I've been running a series of events called Winter Warmers at the Auckland Art Gallery. Every Saturday afternoon we invite a set of artists from different disciplines to talk about and demonstrate their work. For the last two months it's been a rolling feast of poets, writers, musicians, spoken word artists, theatre makers and arts organisers. And now, finally, I've invited my sister Roseanne in to talk about filmmaking, along with her friend and mentor, Shuchi.

Although Boz and I hang out at events together quite often, it's probably the first time we've appeared on stage together. It wasn't too hard asking her questions though - I know she's a confident speaker, and able to put a good argument together, and Shuchi of course is well known as an inspiring teacher.

The idea with Winter Warmers is to break down the barriers between artist and audience and talk about the creative process. Also, hopefully, people from different disciplines will mix during the breaks. I think it's been happening, which is cool - among the audience today we had poets, theatre makers, musicians, writers, and arts organisers, as well as a healthy turn out of independent film types.

It was weird interviewing my own sister at first, but I got used to it. Knowing what to ask was the easy part. We already have lots of conversations about things like what to write about, whether it's OK to put really personal things in our work (me: absolutely! she: a bit too close to home sometimes). I also knew she hated being asked questions around whether she felt she was representing the Asian community (the short answer: no, not really...she's just telling the stories she's interested in.) But really she'd prefer not to talk about it at all, it's been done to death.

Clearly though, Shuchi wanted to talk about the issue of Asian representation. We agreed it's a double edged sword: there seems to be a surge of interest in it right now, and it would be silly not to ride the wave and attract attention and audiences while the going's good. At the same time being "ethnic" can be more of a chain than wings, because of the way it can box you in with people's expectation. However, we can't escape it - we wear ethnicity on the outside, even if we forget others will remind us - so we might as well embrace it.

Shuchi said she was tired of being told scripts had to contain a victimised Asian woman or a cultural clash followed by suicide. Apparently if it doesn't contain enough of these cliches then it's not "Asian" enough and therefore doesn't fit funding criteria/audience profile rahrahrah. Huh?!! Who trains these programming people?? I think a lot of "ethnic" (don't get me started) writers have to deal with this kind of ignorance, and I think there are two approaches - the "softly softly" way where you use the cliches as a way in to get people listening before hitting them with the real stuff, or the "ok then, I'm going to wait until you're ready to listen" approach.

Shuchi said that she wanted to tell the ordinary, real stories, and to show the light along with the dark. She said that the thing that distinguished a good script for her was more whether it had something to say or got at the emotional truth of a character. We started talking about universality of themes, and whether it was possible to isolate or classify an audience. For example media executives are fond of using the term "middle New Zealand". Shuchi pointed out that no one would self define as "middle NZ". Everyone thinks they are a little bit different from everyone else, and with immigration and cultural drift "middle NZ" may not be white, Anglican and middle class anymore.

We moved from there into a discussion of the new Asian comedy skit show that Roseanne, Shuchi and a bunch of other Asian filmmakers have been working on. A Thousand Apologies looks at Pakeha attitudes to Asians, Asian attitudes to themselves and the hilarious misunderstandings that can result, and while this is lighthearted, underneath there are some fairly serious statements. It's also remarkable that although the series is written and made by people who, it is fair to say, are not "mainstream" media content makers (not really a label I would chase), it has scored itself a primetime slot on TV3 - 9.30 on Fridays. So although I'm unlikely to break my embargo on TV watching just to watch it, it's a great acheivement!


I love it when I discover things that are humorous, quirky or somehow wise, and enjoy it even more when I find out that lots of other people like it, too. In today's overhyped universe it's too easy to get cynical and think that people only look if the grey men have done their dirty work, and that nothing is based on talent or creativity anymore, only the power of the advertising dollar. I think it restores my faith in the power of wonder when I discover stuff like zefrank's site(something of a cult I understand, though I only found it today)or Jason Nelson's
poem cube(make your own if you dare), or explore the site for more interactive e-poetics.

Energy Recipe

This was written on the spur of the moment a few months ago when a poet-friend of mine asked where I get all my energy from. This was my cheeky reply.

For Riemke

Prep time: 42 minutes

Servings: Large recommended, but indigestion may result. Titrate serving size to situation.


one large white rabbit, hat optional
two mandrake roots - legs essential, choose those that are long and shapely
one elderly violinist playing love songs on a street corner in Soho
seven fine spring days with a red kite
one threadbare silk dressing gown belonging to your grandmother
a green candle in the shape of a leaf
one low stone wall


Heat two teaspoons of olive oil in a pan until spitting. Without hesitation tip the rabbit whole into the pan. When it has completely disappeared, stir with long even strokes of mandrake legs, add spring days, dressing gown (a fresh fire will come in handy if spring days are cold), low stone wall and candle and heat through. Season with songs from the violinist, according to taste. Serve warm with a glass of wine.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The role of poetry

Kay Ryan has just been named the sixteenth US Poet Laureate. It seems to be a busy job, according to the Time Magazine article, with everything from VIPs asking for personal poetry fixes to requests from schoolkids for sage advice on their assignments. In today's world a salary of $35,000 to have your writing life disrupted for a year doesn't sound like much of a deal.

Still, one of the cool things about being Poet Laureate is that you get to define your take on the role of poetry, and people will listen. And this is what Kay Ryan has to say:
"In a culture like ours, where language has been completely and utterly subordinated to the task of selling people things, how do you create a little freedom? Only in art that isn't designed to sell or convince or sermonize or cajole or urge. Maybe that's poetry, or at least some poetry."

Funnily enough we were talking about that point today, in Winter Warmers, a series of public talks I organise at the Auckland Art Gallery. Today we had Raewyn Alexander, whose poetry muses on the ordinary things and in so doing turns them extraordinary, and Iain Britton, whose poetry muses on the archetypal and iconic, turning everyday events into universal metaphors.

I asked both Raewyn and Iain to comment on the relevance of poetry, given that poetry is not regarded by most NZers as "mainstream" entertainment. In fact many poets I know spend time justifying their love for poetry to non-poet friends (the only people without this problem are those enlightened few who only have poets for friends). As for me, I gave up cajoling my friends a while ago - it wasn't worth the persuasive energy, though those who went tended to say with some surprise they had enjoyed it.

Anyway, back to the main discussion here, which I've labelled at the top so I don't go off on a tangent. Poetry (said Raewyn and Iain), should be more popular than it is. It is one of the oldest (read primal) and most instinctive forms of human expression, since it deals with rhythm, sound and meaning - like chanting, or its related form, music. It is also a "pure" art form - there is no obligation or need to do anything with poetry other than get personal satisfaction from it. Thus, in today's over corporate world, it has low value, unless it can be rejigged for commercial profit.

Which brings me to a discussion I had with some hairdressers on Montana Poetry Day. They were working in a swanky salon on the block of Ponsonby Rd which got chalked with poetry, and came up and asked for some chalk so they could write their own pavement poetry. Pleased, I handed them the piece in my hand, and later photographed them chalking dilligently away.

I went for a close-up, only to find an advertisement for their shop on the pavement. Along the lines of:

"Feel like a blowdry? come into our shop for luxury pampering. Style, cut and conditioning for a totally new you."

I said, as nicely and non-confrontationally as I could, that that wasn't a poem, not really. And they told me that they thought it was. Which left me with no answer except for a facial expression somewhere between pain and doubt. Because at the end of the day, where do you draw the line between poetry and advertising? And between good poetry and bad poetry? A lot of poetry has a message; in fact one could argue that poetry with no message is empty poetry. Maybe a message for commercial gain rules it out as poetry? But then having a message for commercial gain doesn't make it bad, or non-poetry. As a little experiment, let's try this rearrangement:

Feel like
a blowdry

the shop for



and conditioning

for a

Hmmm. Now there's a message, albeit ironic rather than commercial. I rather like it actually.

signature cocktail?

One of my short plays is going to be rehearsed and performed at the Aotea Centre next weekend, and the producer (who knows how to throw a good party) has talked the bartender at Crow Bar into creating a signature drink for the play. All without knowing what it is about, but I appreciate the effort. Even though due to my famous-among-my friends alcohol intolerance, I won't be able to drink it.

Lime, sugar and blackberries muddled, add vodka and ice, shaken and served in a rocks glass

The play is about father-daughter relationships in a Kiwi-Chinese society. I would have used kiwifruit, bananas and lychee liqueur, myself....