Tuesday, November 22, 2011

I am the 1%

I am the 1%. I am the daughter of a doctor. I grew up in Remuera, the suburb many of our leaders, industry heads and politicians choose to live; I went to a private girl's school. I had access to the best education money can buy, my parents ensured I had the space and energy to study. I got into medical school on my own merits, but all the good role modelling and encouragement must have helped.

At university, I was encouraged to question accepted truths, to look for evidence with my own eyes, and to read and think widely. I was taught how to identify if someone was sick and how to look after them. I was taught about risk factors, pathology, microbes and the doctor's role in society.

But this training did not prepare me for when I entered the real world, with real people. People who were not in hospital because of a simple 1+1 =2 equation, but a far more complex sequence of events which sometimes started before they were born. People whose health was almost nothing to do with pathology and microbes but much more to do with where they lived and how much education they'd had. In my first year dealing with real patients, I learnt more about being a doctor than in 6 years of medical school.

I've since learnt many more things. How health is determined by the manner in which our society looks after its members. How a small intervention early on, such as support for a struggling parent, or a good education, can save lives and money down the track. How the most valuable interventions come from the community itself, working together in cooperation. How much we know now compared to twenty years ago and how much we still have to learn.

I am the 1%. But please don't look down on me for it. I am trying to learn. I know there are others, too, who don't automatically accept what our colleagues in power tell us. After all, we received the best education money can buy. So please accept our help. Talk to us. Teach us. Tell us how we can cooperate together to make things the best they can be for our society. Then there doesn't need to be a 1% and a 99%; there will only be the 100%.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Tuesday Poem: The Problem of Descendants by Tim Jones

They reassort your genes
and sort through your things when you're gone.
They ask: why did he keep that ridiculous hat, those
palaeolithic music magazines?

Half to the tip, half to the Sallies,
plus a small urn on the mantelpiece,
three photos, the fading diaries
they can't quite bear to throw away.

They remember you at birthdays, Christmas.
You recede into scrapbooks,
the photos growing faint, your children's children
forgetting why they know your name.

File formats are rendered obsolete.
Anthologies go out of print.
In a provincial library, behind a rack of shelves,
your last book battles silverfish.

Ashes, vanity. The years
scroll past like autocues. Yet,
scavenging the ruins, or terraforming Mars,
still someone somewhere has your nose.

I love this poem - funny, poignant and sad, it taps into our small hidden fears and anxieties. It's just one of the many wonderful poems published in Tim's recently launched collection "Men briefly explained". i was lucky enough to attend the Auckland leg of the book tour and to hear Tim read. I also interviewed him for The Big Idea: http://www.thebigidea.co.nz/news/blogs/talkwrite/2011/oct/105031-cultural-storytellers-tim-jones

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Bone Feeder trailer (behind the scenes)

Us in rehearsal last week! The singing is now much better ;)

Monday, November 7, 2011

Radio NZ panel discussion on Asians in the arts

This is only the second time Roseanne and I have been in a panel discussion together, although I think more and more people are twigging onto the idea of 'the sisters in the arts'. We've never properly worked together, but we do bounce ideas off each other and swap contacts. In this panel discussion, our friend Sonia Sly interviews us, along with a discussion with visual artist Liyen Chong.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Tuesday poem: Coming Home by He Zhizhang




少小離家老大回, 鄉音無改鬢毛衰;
兒童相見不相識, 笑問客從何處來。


I left home young. I return old;
Speaking as then, but with hair grown thin;
And my children, meeting me, do not know me.
They smile and say: "Stranger, where do you come from?"

From "300 Poems of the Tang Dynasty" http://etext.virginia.edu/chinese/frame.htm
This is a poem I quote in my play The Bone Feeder. Yesterday over lunchtime, in order to give my actor something to practise with, I recorded my Dad reading this in his native Cantonese (with my mum in the background exhorting him to read it with 'more feeling'!) It was pretty emotional to me to hear my dad reading this, as I cannot read Chinese but understand it at a basic conversational level. The play, as might be suggested by the poem, deals with the migrant experience but is based on Chinese-NZ history.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Bone Feeder : Press release

Play brings to life ghosts of Chinese immigrants

20th Nov – for immediate release

In 1902, the SS Ventnor sank in the Hokianga Harbour with the bones of 499 Chinese miners bound for ancestral graves in Canton. A century later Ben, a young man, arrives in the Far North to try to find some link with his past. A new NZ play which draws on the traditions of Asian storytelling, The Bone Feeder is a sumptuous professional theatre production which uses a cast of 19 performers, live music, high-wire martial arts, dance, drama and comedy to tell this story of one of the first times of contact between NZ Chinese and Maori.

The Bone Feeder is a fictional exploration of what is for many Chinese New Zealanders a very real and significant piece of their history. The story of the SS Ventnor, chartered in 1902 by the Shin Tong Association to carry the exhumed bodies of immigrant Chinese back to their home villages, is one which carries emotional weight for the many NZ Chinese who lost family members in the shipwreck, and for the local Maori families who found bones washed up on the coast.

“Back in the 1900s, it was considered important for Chinese to return to their home villages,” playwright Renee Liang (The First Asian AB, Lantern) explains. “So the Chinese which had migrated to New Zealand to work, mainly in the gold fields, considered themselves only temporary visitors. They always intended to return home once they had made enough money. Of course, life being harsh at that time, many of them didn’t make it."

Those who died were buried in temporary graves, and the then-vast sum of four thousand pounds raised by subscription among the local Chinese community to charter a ship, the SS Ventnor, to carry the exhumed bones home. It was believed that people needed to return to their home villages in order to watch over their descendants and in return, have their graves looked after and spirits nourished.

Unfortunately, the Ventnor struck a rock and subsequently sank near the Hokianga Harbour. The coffins and bones were lost, along with 13 lives of crewmen. But some of the coffins and bones were washed ashore where, local stories reveal, they were found by local Maori and buried in family urupa.

The Bone Feeder follows the fictional Ben, a young fifth-generation Chinese New Zealander who travels to the present-day Hokianga to look for the bones of his great great grandfather. Driven by his father's dying wish, he encounters some unusual ‘locals’ – who may or may not be cheeky ghosts. It’s also the story of Kwan, a man who emigrates to NZ in the 1800s and has to decide where he belongs.

Liang says, “The story has evolved from a simple hero-quest to a much more layered consideration of what it means to be an immigrant or to inherit an immigrant story. I delve into history and intergenerational relationships, and hopefully make it funny and dramatic along the way. Because it is set in the Hokianga and involves 'ghosts', there's also a fair amount of magic which we use theatrical techniques to bring to life - high-wire flying, live music with traditional Maori and Chinese instruments, light and shadow play, puppetry and dance.”

It is believed to be the first time in NZ that martial arts with high-wire flying have been used for a professional play. Dragon Origin, NZ’s first martial arts stunts company, are providing the technical expertise and muscle power. Stunt choreographer and actor Willie Ying is excited about the show. “It is a chance for us to tell the real Chinese stories, stories that mean something to us.”

Significantly, many of the cast have family history intertwined with the real history explored in The Bone Feeder. Lead actors Gary Young (Apron Strings, Underbelly) and Rob Mokoraka (Strange Resting Places, Tama Tu), have both drawn on their heritage while developing their characters. Young’s family immigrated to NZ during the turbulent post-WWII era, and Mokoraka, who is of Ngapuhi ancestry, spent part of his childhood in the Hokianga. Even director Lauren Jackson (Passage, Exchange) has Chinese ‘ancestry’ – through her young daughter, who is one-eighth Chinese and whose great-great grandmother was one of only six Chinese women living in NZ at the start of the 20th century.

With set design by Jessica Verryt (Young and Hungry Festival 2011, Yours Truly), The Bone Feeder is heavily influenced by both Asian and Western theatre techniques.
Liang’s brief of “creating a magical environment where anything can and does happen” is explored to its fullest potential, with poetic touches and references to Chinese paper cuts and shadow play – with a distinctly NZ feel.

Talented composer Andrew Corrêa leads a group of musicians playing traditional Chinese and Maori instruments, who provide all the sound effects and music for the play. As in Asian theatre, the arrival of the musicians on stage will herald the start of the play.

Liang says that she hopes the story will have universal resonance. “ I can imagine what it’s like to have a foot in two worlds, torn between what is left behind and what is hoped for in the new country. New Zealand is a nation of immigrants – even Maori have their immigration stories. Ultimately it is the people we love – our whanau– that bring us home. And that to me is the most important thing.”

Website: www.bonefeeder.com

Season dates: 10-20 November 2011 (Preview 9 Nov)
Venue: TAPAC, 100 Motions Rd, Western Springs
Times: Tuesday – Saturday @ 7.30pm (Sunday at 4pm)
No performance Monday 14 November
Tuesday 15 November matinee @ 12pm
Cost: Tickets $15-$30, concessions for seniors, students, children and groups

75 mins. Parental guidance recommended for children under 10. In English with phrases in Cantonese and Maori.
Bookings phone (09) 8450295 from 10am – 5pm or online at http://tapac.org.nz


Full cast and crew:

Creative Team

Director - Lauren Jackson
Writer /Producer - Renee Liang
Dramaturg - Fiona Samuel
Production mentor - Andrew Malmo
Set design/props - Jessika Verryt
Design Mentor- John Verryt
Master craftsman/design - Ronald Andreassend
Lighting design - Nik Janiurek
Costume design - Estelle Macdonald
Martial arts choreographer - Willie Ying
Dance choreographers - Philippa Pidgeon, Su Ka
Animateur consultant - Felicity Horsley
Production consultant - Margaret-Mary Hollins
Production manager/Stage Manager - Theresa Hanaray and Jamie Blackburn

Kwan - Gary Young
The Ferryman - Rob Mokoraka
Ben - Kevin Ng
Wang - Charles Chan
Dan- Llanyon Eli Joe
Sam - Willie Ying


Henry Cheng
Monica Mu
Benjamin Teh
Ally Xue


Musical director/percussion - Andrew Corrêa
Composer/Ghuzheng - Jessica Wu
Composer/Taonga puoro - Riki Bennett
Composer/Chinese flute - TBA

Dragon Origin martial arts stunt operating team
Willie Ying
Salman Haider
David Mei
Walid Hossaini
Beyond Wen
Benjamin Teh
Henry Cheng

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Tuesday poem: And what remains

blinded he watches the play
words falling like tears

tracing the salt line
of frozen memories

last year’s hunk of lamb
still stiff in the freezer

outside, cloud gathers in
an upside-down mountain


one night she came to him
in white polyester pyjamas

traced her shadow
beside his on wallpaper

his fingers thrummed
against her cold skin

when the heart fails
blood pools in the peripheries


her glass music box
contained a Russian spring

yellow plastic daffodils
humming with melody

in her carved wood box
she keeps a single earring

false pearls lost in surf
at Karekare beach


his door frames the sea
when he holds it wide

a candle in an old bucket
makes a fluttering beacon

her feet squeaks among pebbles
finds the cracks in his mind

he paints her pink bike blue
so she can find the sky


feathers; a sea of bedded feathers
from snow-white geese

the slash of wounded duvet
gapes in surprise

the two of them laughing
in sudden snowdrift

kissing him was like
finding her lost tooth


a golden O swinging new
on both their fingers

a surprised mouth an O
the entrance to a cave

pushing in head first
O, he slips and she laughs

licks the blood on her lips
where love has kicked


his sweat stains
the stainless steel sink

the sodden whiff
of filled nappies

so this is house of dreams
this is the picket line

cracking the roses
of his mother’s last teacup


she’s made love to a man
on a white lawn chair at midnight

danced tango in Buenos Aires
with a man in an old silk suit

now she’s home to winter
the smell of rain on asphalt

bitter homemade lemonade
squeezes her tastebuds


chalk letters blow from asphalt
like children getting lost

crossing the road
the rain makes jewels in her hair

her umbrella makes
an upside-down mushroom

she finds herself wishing
for the burnt taste of his coffee


in Bangkok he sleeps
on beds without love

in Italy he sleeps on the road
while waiting for a ride

in Izmir stoned half-men
take his passport

in Kyoto his payment for sleep
is early-morning prayer


he sees his abuelo touching
a young lady’s knee

good touch bad touch
soft touch hard touch

the old man says
you saw it the wrong way

he feels his face melt
his ears and his soul


she looks like a frozen rose
petals held cold and stiff

her hands are ice crystals
melting in his cracks

her mouth like soft soap
fragrancing his shower

in the morning he wakes
to find her a puddle.

This is the full text of the series of interlinked couplets written for mine and Gaby Montejo's Metonymy collaboration this year. It has just won the 'best writing' award at Metonymy. Gaby is a Cuban-American artist living in Christchurch, and he and I met to collaborate during my locum there in July. As we navigated the red zone fences to find each other, wandered around the ruins and explored new areas sprouting with life and people away from the ruined CBD, we were struck by the very personal debris on display - torn from or lost, abandoned, cherished or forgotten by their owners.

We started emailing each other memories - small childhood moments, love stories, moments of loss, betrayal, intimate tales we wouldn't normally tell a stranger.
Couplets were constructed from those emails, put together in small narratives, then separated again. Strips of paper containing a couplet each were stuffed into small baby socks and buried, toe-up, in a baby bath containing 67 kg of Christchurch liquefaction soil which had been transported to Auckland for the installation. Viewers were invited to fish a sock out, find their own couplet and keep, swap or recombine the couplets to make new stories.

And what remains of stories after we lose them or give them away....

Monday, October 3, 2011

My work's been mixed and mashed!!

Just clicked on the winners of the Great NZ mix and mashup competition, and found out that the winning piece uses my poem "Crossed Cultures" and Dylan Horrocks' images from Siso! Allan Tia does a wonderful job (a few of his own drawings also feature). For his explanation of process, the judges' comments and a clickable link, go here. As my husband observed, "Comics make everything look cool".

Allan uses my poem in full, but a number of other entries combine lines from my poem with those of other poems - fascinating for me to see, and a rare insight into how others might see my words. Click here for all the entries to the 'literature' category.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The First Asian AB - Trailer

Here's some of the quotes from reviews for our Auckland season, finishing tonight:

"Plenty of laughs and a whole lot of honesty...The First Asian AB proves that rugby in this country is about heart." - Theatreview

"a sensitive and wide-ranging meditation on the immigrant experience....exuberant physical humour." - NZ Herald

"The comical dialogue had the audience in stitches for a large portion of the evening." - Theatrescenes

And we're on our way to Wellington now!!

Introducing The First Asian AB, a hilarious new comedy from Kiwi-Chinese writer Renee Liang...

What would you do to represent?

Willy’s a homestay Asian student. Mook’s Samoan and he’s been here for ages. They’re best mates at Timaru Boys High. But when Willy decides his dream is to try out for the All Blacks, mateship — and everything else — is up for grabs.

A warm feel-good comedy with serious undertones, The First Asian AB examines the question ‘what makes someone Kiwi?’ Is it rugby, racing and beer – or being true to oneself and one’s friends?

At breakneck pace, Benjamin Teh (The Bone Feeder, Odd Socks) and Paul Fagamalo (Rent, Where We Once Belonged) capture multiple characters – a Samoan aiga, a bored class of thirteen year olds, two entire rugby teams playing each other, and one sassy girl called George.

Directed by Edward Peni (Samoa Mo Samoa, The West Auckland Cardigan Appreciation Society) with live music by Andrew Correa, and dramaturgy by Oscar Kightley (Brotown, Sione's Wedding), The First Asian AB debuts as part of the Real NZ Festival (the 'arty' side of the Rugby World Cup!).

tickets $18 full, $13 concession (seniors/students), $15 groups 6+

BATS Theatre, Wellington, 6pm, 22 Sep-1 Oct 2011
http://www.bats.co.nz/content/first-asian-ab, (04) 802 4175
Q+A after the show on the 23rd

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Magical ipods

"Art is the greatest deception of all"

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Tuesday Poem: Men are like pebbles (After Wendy Cope)

Men are like pebbles

you know the type
lying in wait
on the sand

winking at passing ladies
bodies glistening with salt.

You know you shouldn’t
(what would you do
with another pebble?
the last one turned out
to be useless)

but another beckons
and another
and before you know
you’re picking one up.

And this is where it gets
really difficult –

how do you choose
the perfect pebble?

Some come round
some cornered
one looks like a small mountain
another like swirled chocolate
this one’s shaped like a shark’s tooth
and this looks like moonlight in your palm

You hold them, feel the weight of them.
You can’t decide
yet to take all of them home
would be greedy at best.

You start to see their imperfections
blemishes and strange angles
realise they are not as rounded
as they claim
suspect their charms
are only surface.

You want to fling them away.
You want to fling away the whole damn beach.
But just as you’re about
to push away the last one
you take another look.

This one is speckled
nice curves but nothing special
you can’t even remember why you picked him up
but there’s a nice heft to him,
an answering weight. He’s solid
imperfect yes,
but then
so are you. His body feels warm and sleepy in your hand. Slowly

you slip him into your pocket
and keep walking.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Tuesday Poem: No ordinary son

For years now
the piwakawaka has laughed
in your gnarled branches,
and you, bro, have laughed right back
into its fanned arse
gone on circling the earth
with smoke rings,
fingers stained from a lifetime of
roll-your-own words.

I remember finding your old place. Didn't even know
what poetry was then,
only that I could break in through your back door
wobble along drunken fence posts, steal your milk.
You would have laughed eh
to see this skinny oriental kid
with flat black fringe swaying on a stage
in Devonport. A kid with the words
of an old Maori in her mouth.

Later you tried to
sow your words at my school
casting your voice over thick absorbent carpet,
harvesting a sparse crop
of blue and green tartan chests.
You looked like you thought
the ground was too hard
maybe it was. You didn't see me smuggle
the wriggling seedling back home with me.

When I won the world and lost it again
my sister found your words
growing wild through the house
posted me a piece
packaged with a beeswax candle
and a can of Watties' baked beans.
I remember washing the tears off my body
with your river water. I remember the cool feel
of your words in my crevices.

Last month, I finally
waved my thanks out the window
as the wind blew us
past Te Kaka Point.
I'm glad I had the chance to say thanks, bro.
A mighty tree has fallen,
his seedlings still stand tall.
Tihei mauri ora, tihei mauru ora.

I found this a few nights ago when I was looking for poems to read tonight - I am guest poet at Poetry Live - 8 pm, Thirsty Dog on K Rd, for those of you in Auckland. I'll be doing mostly 'unheard' pieces, including some from my upcoming chapbook-that's-been-a-year-in-the-publishing, Toward the Cyclone, poems I wrote while on a study tour of Fiji last year. My friend Andrew Correa is guest musician, and we'll be jamming together on some pieces.

I wrote this poem a few years ago when Hone Tuwhare died - every time I read his poetry I'm reminded of how much he has influenced the way I approach poetry. Hone was someone who went for the 'heart' of an idea - there was a bit of 'head' in there too, but never at the expense of connecting with the real feeling behind it, the 'why' of writing that poem in the first place. That's why most of his poetry doesn't feel 'academic' (a good thing in my opinion) - even though Hone's poetry is now very much studied at a scholarly level.

Poetry to me has always been about speaking my personal stories and viewpoints. Even the 'character' or 'story' poems are written by channeling someone else's viewpoint through my writerly alter ego - the words I choose are the ones which make me respond a certain way about that story.

Anyway, back to prepping for the reading - please visit Tuesday Poem for more awesome poetry!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Talkwrite - Starting with ABC

(crossposted from The Big Idea)
During the last six weeks, I’ve watched the skyline change as skyscrapers are gently, almost lovingly reduced to twisted piles of metal and rubble. I’ve listened as people passed their stories to me, over cups of tea or sitting side by side in a bus. I’ve walked around the streets, marvelling at snow, marvelling at mist. Mostly marvelling at how this city creeps up on your affections. I think I understand why against the advice of their ‘away’ friends, people are determined to stay here.

There’s no doubt that Christchurch is still hurting. At night, my apartment in the CBD becomes an island – there’s few shops within walking distance, and even fewer places to find food. Like a body whose heart has ceased to pump, the blood is pooling in the peripheries – places like Addington and Riccarton, formerly unknown for night life. Through a simple combination of geography and seismic luck, tiny office units, outdated buildings and cold garages in these areas have suddenly become the ultimate in real estate. There are stories of people putting down huge deposits, sight unseen, for 4-5 year business leases in buildings that previously would have stayed empty.

The squeeze on available buildings has meant even less space is available for those who can’t pay commercial rates. So theatre groups are finding it hard to get venues, poets have nowhere to hold readings as their favoured bookshop shuts down and artists can’t find cheap studios. But oddly enough, the destruction of traditional arts venues has allowed smaller spaces to flourish, and the cultural blossoming of the most unlikely suburbs.

Gaby Montejo has been my guide to the local visual arts scene. I met Gaby through Metonymy, a two month collaboration project in which artists and writers who don’t know each other are paired to work on a project. Over the last month, Gaby’s been guiding me around the city, enabling such finds as the local Buddhist vegetarian restaurant (super tasty) and street art flowering on walls beside demolished spaces. He’s also shown me two of the remaining ‘galleries’ in town: the working studio space in the School of Fine Arts at the University of Canterbury, and ABC gallery, a tiny gallery consisting of two rooms adjoining studio space in the industrial suburb of Addington.

more here

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Tuesday Poem: One night a leopard came for her

One night
a leopard came for her
spots soft over snow
singing rrrrr in her ear

She felt
the slow draw
of claw on her neck
sweet milk breath

her feet purling
the sheets
her heart drumming,
drumming the wall

In the morning
she shows her husband:
“See? there.”

In the mirror, a scratch
of blood. Red on snow.

It's true. One night last week, a leopard did come for me.

Friday, July 29, 2011

what they don’t know about snow

snow in the morning tastes like sugar
and it’s warm if you snort it.

ducks. ducks hate snow
because it blindfolds the grass.

snow grows giants. you walk over it
and your prints get bigger through the day.

roses in snow look like
ladies in furs.

snow doesn’t hide the cracks,
it cushions them.

when snow gets sick, it gets angry
and hard, like ice.

angry snow hurts. it makes
going for a walk scary.

the men in orange jackets take scary snow away.
maybe it goes to prison, maybe they kill it.

the snow that’s left gets old and tired, even the snowmen.
eventually they shrivel up to look just like rocks. And that’s the end of the snow.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Rugby fanaticism

This weekend I had off in Christchurch, so after checking out the excellent Farmer's market in Riccarton we indulged in a spot of compulsory earthquake tourism in Sumner. While driving along looking for cracks and boulders, Mark and I heard on the radio that one of the provincial cup matches was on at Rugby Park, so on a whim we decided to check it out. (I'm writing a play titled The First Asian A*B*, so am experiencing an uncharacteristic interest in rugby).

It turned out to be an excellent match to attend. Rugby Park, in the central suburb of St Albans, is a smallish local ground, called into service now that the AMI stadium is out of action for the forseeable future. It's much smaller, but also much less "commercial" feeling and therefore much closer to the feel of a homeground match in the 1990s, when the opening of the play is set.

The local heroes Canterbury were playing national underdogs Southland for the ITM Cup, and to up the stakes, the Ranfurly Shield was being challenged for. The region's rugby fans were confident ( and much more diehard and ubiquitous than in Auckland, from what I can gather). They had just come out of the Crusaders almost winning the Super 15 and the local Canterbury team winning their recent matches in a very convincing way. Also, as it was a home game the crowd was out in force, decked out in various warm combinations of red and black.

So it was all looking pretty grim for the Southlanders, especially as Canterbury scored two tries while I was still in the queue for tickets (I could tell by the response from over the wall). But then, amazingly, the Southlanders put their heads down and outrun, out defended and out possessed the ball. Their ball handling wasn't was good as Canterbury's, but they made less mistakes and had a great goal kicker and this meant they scored the crucial penalty which won them the match. (By the way, if any of what I am writing sounds wrong it probably is - I'm still pretty junior in terms of rugby watching!)

Anyway, I spent quite a bit of my time paying attention to the crowd around me rather than the action on the field. When the ball neared our end of the field (the tryline for the home team in the second half) people could be heard calling to their favourite players, rather like you'd call for a cat at dinnertime: "Here Robbie! this way!". There were lots of kids in the crowd waving their homemade "TRY!" placards, ditto posh looking old ladies - it seems everyone in Chch comes to the rugby. Particularly rich as soundbite sources were the two grumpy old buggers sitting just to the left and behind us. Throughout the game they could be heard muttering comments like, "what an idiot, can't he pass", "look at that, now the ball's back to where it started," "how did he get that? for goodness' sake." Another man, on the phone to a mate with the teams tied at 19-19 and with 12 minutes to go on the clock: "Never you mind, venison's still on the menu at Rugby Park" (Southland mascot is a deer).

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Tuesday Poem: 102 Armagh St

a window open
curtain an upflung arm
in the morning
the sky's
wide blue eyes

in the street
bricks kneel
among tiny lilies
a wrecking machine
nose upturned
waiting for biscuits.

I'm currently living on the fifth floor of an apartment on Armagh St, Christchurch CBD. From the balcony, one can look out towards the red zone and the rows of wobbly condemned buildings - 'death row'. I'm only here for 6 weeks working, but admit to being a bit of a woose about being on the fifth floor. In my first night here I was shaken awake by an aftershock, but have mellowed so much that three weeks on, I slept peacefully through two aftershocks while my husband was kept awake - or maybe that was just the busy on-call ensuring I passed out successfully at night...

Not surprisingly, it's odd walking around the CBD, staring at the fences everywhere (they migrate frequently along with the wrecking machines, like grazing beasts). The CBD is eerily quiet and almost devoid of people, except on sunny weekends when the local populace comes in with their dogs, strollers and bikes and strolls along the fenceline pointing out the new holes in the cityscape and catching up with the latest earthquake gossip. I've taken to walking different routes to and from work, noticing the changes each day and the small details - rosemary bushes left undisturbed at the periphery of a demolition site, a fur hat perched perkily on top of a letterbox beside a red stickered property, the way the houses crouch at odd angles, almost as if they were people surprised at a party. The few people I do meet smile at me. Are they locals pleased to see that someone is enjoying the city, or are they fellow long term visitors? There are so many new people in town at the moment. On the corner of the Botanic Gardens, the same man in cravat and tails plays "La Vie En Rose" for hours, day after day. It's like groundhog day with a slightly melancholy European air.

There are the stories too. Everyone has them - small anecdotes about what's happened, more poignant than the dramatic news clips and the footage recorded on yet more helicopter flights over the damaged city. I've been recording them in my head, intending to write them down. I feel they need to be remembered, kept before they too are demolished by the passage of time.

I'm delighted to be this week's Tuesday Poetry editor - head on over to the main page to see what I've chosen - three poems, one from each of the shortlisted books for the poetry section of the National Book Awards. Winner will be announced this coming Friday, also the day when the country will explode in a riotous celebration of poetry - hurray!!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Rethinking Creativity with Sir Paul Callaghan

(crossposted from The Big Idea)

Sir Paul is a physicist, teacher and communicator who has won many scientific accolades for his work in nano-technology and magnetic resonance. His experience and vision allow him to apply great depth of perception to his work in science and entrepreneurialism. He’s also the 2011 New Zealander of the Year, in part for his ability to bridge disciplines, and communicate how we need to work together to move this country forward.

Over the years, Sir Paul has written and broadcast widely, aiming to make science more accessible for all. He advocates the use of the arts to explain and explore science and find the human connection. To paraphrase, the arts helps to seek out that sense of wonder in science - to translate the ‘cold’ mathematical language of science (properties, dimensions) into something which speaks to people (emotions, colours, senses). He’s also spoken on how science is influenced by art and vice versa, observing that scientists ‘borrow’ the words used by the arts to connect with other parts of human creativity. (Unsurprisingly, many scientists – Sir Paul among them – are also artistic).

Sir Paul is also a firm believer in the future of New Zealand, although he says that significant changes need to be made in order to unleash our full potential. His recent address to StrategyNZ: Mapping our Future 2011 makes some very strong points.

His message is simple: NZ has limited natural resources, despite our blind belief in the ‘clean green 100% Pure’ image. We are behind in the world in terms of ‘smart’ industries, those which rely on good ideas cleverly executed rather than our traditional primary industries (farming, tourism) which are resource-heavy with a low relative return. He offers the staggering idea that 100 inspired entrepreneurs could double our present exports - around $4 billion of exports a year is currently earned by the high-tech and creative sector. And how would we do that? The answer is deceptively easy: grow our ‘smart’ industries.

read the rest here.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Tuesday Poem: 10 days, one night

I wrote this some time ago, overwhelmed by a theatre show I'd just watched. But with 10 days to go until the Lifewise Big Sleepout, where I'll be "sleeping rough" in the Auckland CBD, it seems amazingly to fit.

Homeless for a night

In 10 days, I'll be spending a night out in the open - in the middle of Auckland's CBD. The reason? It's all part of a fund (and issue) raising campaign, to sleep 'rough' for a night. I'll be sharing my patch - but hopefully not my piece of cardboard - with other "business and community" leaders - among them ex mayors, rugby players and banking (well they should come in handy!) staff. We've each pledged to raise $1000 or more to support Lifewise, which provides support services to the homeless.

In my work, I often deal with kids who have been affected in some way by poverty. It astounds me that people (especially politicians) don't realise, or pretend not to realise, that poverty is inherited in the same way that wealth is. In other words, if your parents can't pay for decent shelter, or feed you enough, or keep you warm - then it's pretty obvious that your health is going to be affected, along with your sense of self, your ability to attend education and to learn, and your resilience. There's many other things besides, but it all pretty much comes down to poverty being a root cause, with symptoms like drug abuse, poor mental health, and social dysfunction feeding into a vicious positive feedback cycle. And all too often it's something perpetuated through generations. This is when sticking a drip in a kid who's got pneumonia from living in a drafty garage starts to feel quite a bit like waiting at the bottom of a cliff with an ambulance.

But anyway, enough of me ranting tonight... if you want to help, either donate directly to Lifewise or (please!) sponsor me here.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Do writers need social media? Part 2

(crossposted from The Big Idea)
In my previous blog post, I discussed how blogs, Facebook and Twitter (ie social media) can be used by a writer to hook a readership and publisher. But are they worth the time away from ‘real writing’? In this blog, I explore how social media could enhance the writing itself.

As Musk and others say, exploring inner worlds in order to share them is what writers do anyway. I’m sure I’m not alone in experiencing that sense of vague fear and dread before starting a new scene or chapter. The fear might be linked to the worry that this time, we might not be clear enough thinkers or complex enough psychologically to pull it off this time, and then our lack of depth would be exposed. So writing is also a quest to become a better, wiser person, a person with something to say (you see how cleverly I’m circling here?)

If this quest for self-betterment is what you would do anyway, then the only question remaining is whether you would feel comfortable sharing it. For some the answer is no – it would endanger their inner world and disturb their writing process. That’s OK. Having a blog doesn’t mean you have to bare all – you can choose to bare only some (although sincerity and truth are important, and readers make smart lovers.) For others though, discussion and dissection of issues are exactly what they crave, the thing that feeds their writing and fires off further ideas. They actively seek to connect, to graze ideas, to converse, to follow links until they hit one which might be the key to understanding their character or anchor a plot point. Reading, watching and linking to good writers, readers and thinkers is not a side activity – it is part of the process of writing.

read more here

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Tuesday Poem: Appetite: or, an Allegorical journey

o come to where the Fat Dog wags
its nimble backside, where you’ll be glad
you rolled your rotund form on
in through the door, the
rolling slippy slidy wooden floors
where waitstaff glide
waists pinched and arms long
with heavy jowled food, warm lumpy cups
of coffee, plates indigestive
with chocolate cake.

Come to where the cream is piled high as an iceberg,
swerve to avoid creaking chairs
as schoolgirls sail upon
their swooning love affairs.
For your own chair sits
beside the potbellied stove
which has swallowed a fire
much too big for it. Stay, guest;
but not too long – for they say
we make our own nests; and then we must lie in them.

Slipping sliding, the hippy trippy
waitress slides along olive oiled
avenues towards you. You consume her
as you have already consumed the grape painted walls,
the twisted chandeliers, the candles, the poetry painted above the toilet. You consume
her, whole, in her tight black T-shirt with the Fat Dog wagging its brisk tail until the
end. You lick the fat globs of cream off his backside and belch wholeheartedly, for
your heart is not yet in its last convulsions. You drip silver drooled coins through
the hands of the man at the coffee machine and then you jangle merrily on your way
through the door.

The Fat Dog Cafe is probably one of the best cafes in the country and my favourite place to eat in Rotorua. In my first year as a doctor, I worked at Rotorua Hospital - one of the defining periods of my life and a year when I really grew up. With my flatmates, we were "regulars" at the Fat Dog - going there once a week, as a treat or when we couldn't be bothered cooking and just wanted to lounge around in front of the fire and eat chunky lasagne and garden-crisp salad with gobs of mayonnaise....

Monday, June 13, 2011

talkwrite blog: Do writers need social media? Part 1

(crossposted from The Big Idea)

This weekend, as a way of procrastinating about getting in the right frame of mind for writing, I’ve spent hours reading Justine Musk’s fabulous blog, Tribal Writer. Justine is a YA and fantasy writer, a mum of twins and triplets. (She’s also the ex-wife of billionaire entrepreneur and founder of Paypal, Elon Musk, whose high-profile divorce has had journalists and lawyers slavering for the last few years.*)

The quality and frequency of her blog posts has me wondering how she ever finds time for writing, unless she gets another talented writer to pretend to be her. (I know, I’m supposed to be writing right now, and what am I doing...?) Basically, Justine practices what she preaches: the engagement of a writer with their community of other writers and thinkers, and with their ‘audience’, two groups which should necessarily intersect. She does this through several blogs in which she collects her own and others' thoughts about the business of writing, which necessarily contains a large amount of candid self-reflection. She says that the tools of social media are just as important tools for the writer as paper and pen.

This fits with what I heard at the publisher’s event at the recent Auckland Readers and Writers Festival, in which an international panel agreed that in the current environment, publishers are looking for a writer who is not only ‘marketable’, but also comes with the social savvies to allow them connect with and grow a readership. Having a good manuscript is still the baseline condition, mind you. But on top of that, a potential new publishee will be asked if they have a blog on which they post frequently, are on Facebook and Twitter, and have skills and experience in appearing friendly, personable and accessible. As one publisher said, “They need to be stand-up comedians.”

for more, click here.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Talkwrite blog: One Day Moko

(crossposted from The Big Idea)

* * *

As a writer, I’m intrigued and a little threatened by devised theatre. (What use is a playwright if plays can be made without a script?!) Yes, I’m playing devil’s advocate – I’ve since learnt that writing is actually integral to the process of devising, it’s just that often the writing happens after the story or scene has been found by the actors’ bodies. Following the “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” philosophy, I recently took part in a couple of devising workshops, which were great fun (if a little painful for those who had to watch me ‘act’).

I met Tim Carlsen and Sophie Roberts at John Bolton’s excellent one-weekend course, run by The Actors Laboratory. By then Tim’s play One Day Moko, which Sophie directs, was well advanced. Tim is a recent Toi Whakaari graduate and met Sophie (also a recent graduate) as she was tutoring the graduate Solo shows. One Day Moko gives the one man show a surprising twist as Tim, embodying a homeless man (and his dog), interacts with other characters via a TV set, which he takes with him on his travels.

(more here)

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Transformance - comment on an exhibition at Pah Homestead

This afternoon, I went to A sense of dislocation, a dance/installation performance at Pah Homestead, an art gallery which is pretty much in my hood (Roskill/Hillsborough). I arrived late, but the performance, which featured music by Jed Town and movement by Elise Chan, Jeong Yeun Whang and Kristian Larsen, was earthy and quite discomforting, especially in the polished-wood surrounds of the Homestead.

The performance was related to an exhibition called Transformance, part of the just-started Auckland Festival of Photography.

The exhibition takes just two small rooms in the sprawling mansion. The works, by recent arts graduates from AUT, are linked by their exploration of the body/image as representations of self. Significantly for me, two of the artists in this exhibition are immigrants from Asia - part of the '1.5' generation (not born in NZ, but moved here early enough for NZ to have some impact on their worldview) which is increasingly gaining presence on the visual arts scene.

Jane Loo's video work is confrontational. She presents 'case studies' of Asian migrants (or children of migrants) - each character is presented staring face-on into the camera. Loo uses moving, scrolling and blurring text to give them their 'voice' - the tales, of an Anglo-Indian man who is not reemployed, he suspects, because he doesn't "look like a New Zealander"; a young woman who struggles to get an explanation of "adequacy" from her trusted tutor; and a young waitress who is chided by a "local woman" for her poor english - these are all familiar stories, but presented in a fresh format which is haunting in its spareness. There are touches of humour - misspellings which are hastily corrected - but overall this is a sad work, with no conclusions as to where to go from here. Perhaps it is enough for now to give the silent a voice, but I wonder where a follow up project might go.

Grace Chai, who moved to New Zealand from Taiwan at fifteen, shows off a series of manipulated digital prints of nude male bodies bonded together and augmented with machinery and natural materials. Beautiful, grotesque, and slightly erotic, she references classic myths in their titles. Unlike Loo, there is nothing directly "Asian" about her work, but perhaps her background pushes her to look more closely at the myths of "body" and "appearance"and how this limited view is restrictive, creating monsters of us all. Her work is more subliminal, challenging how we perceive, market and response to images of flesh: perhaps she is asking why we would judge one thing as beautiful and another as ugly? (or for that matter, how do we choose what is art and what is just artifact?)

Shekhar Kapur: We Are the Stories We Tell Ourselves

I like this guy!! Especially his assertion that "panic is the wellspring of creativity". (I thought I was doing the right thing.....) More importantly,I like how he sees stories as the very stuff we are made of.... we define it, it defines us. Although he discusses this in the context of film, he references many other art forms - we're all interconnected.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Asian writerly staunchness.

OK, a quick skite. Click here for a radio article that recently aired on Radio NZ on Asian writing on Aotearoa. Beautifully produced by the unflaggingly enthusiastic Sonya Sly!

And here's a link to a recent interview with my friend Chris Tse (no not the ex-boyfriend, the other one), who is also interviewed in this piece.

Joining the Twitterverse

Spent last weekend (when not saving lives) obsessively reading Justine Musk's blog on writing - she's so witty and engaging it seems unfair that she is also beautiful and exceptionally well connected. Despite this, she succesfully projects herself as "one of the plebs" when it comes to writing, and getting yourself noticed as a writer.

It's no longer enough to be a very good writer - that's just the baseline these days. Publishers are also looking for people with the ability to lift their own profile, connect to a loyal reader base and do some of their own promotion. How to do this? One clue: it begins with an "I".

After reading the article on how the internet's "three pillars" (Facebook, Twitter and blogging) can help bolster a writerly presence, I have bookmarked her article on Twittering for writers and am following it. I admit to being a little nervous, being already so much of an internet addict that even I can't deny its impact on my ability to finish drafts. But Justine's blog is just the latest persuasive tract on the power of Twitter as a social force. And apparently, it's good for research....Alright then. (reluctantly, deep breath): one, two , three, dive.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Tuesday Poem: Birth

I sit
in my dark office, see
shadowed spikes of exotic palm
against stone walls
by noon-drunk sun.

I am waiting for a baby. Not mine,
you understand, that is not part of my contract,
but the baby of the woman
who lies gasping
unheard, unseen, around the corner. Her baby
sits, cheeks cradled
in the basket of her pelvis, not knowing
which way to turn, not knowing
that the correct way to enter the world
is to look both ways, then go head first. Too late to turn now.
This baby listens to the pained panting
of its mother’s heart, feels the roof
of her diaphragm tapping
fast staccato beats onto
the small wet muff
of its hair, like urgent rain. Its feet are cold.

This baby, you understand, is not my
not yet.
I am not the midwife, my hands
do not slide slippery and slimy
up between the redness of thighs,
the warm something poured into
a metal bucket on the floor,
do not touch
the small white toes resting
in the perineum
as if waiting for a bus
which is late. I only watch,
do not move, do not clang together forceps
like giant tongs, lifting,
lifting the gray morsel
out, out
into the still world.

He (for now we can see
that it is a boy) lies naked
on my towel.
He is an unfolded nautilus
still dreaming under
the sea
listening to the slow
thud of his mother’s heart, the pulse
of the mask on his face,
the quickening beat of my heart,
of my breath
as I try to reach
his will to live. I push
each square digital second
into his waiting chest, time
clinging like mucus to my fingers.
At last he coughs and breathes.
His tiny eyes open and watch.
His heart flutters delicately
under the membrane
of my stethoscope.

Now I sit
in my dark office, pushing
words out
with patient contractions of my pen.
Somewhere in the hospital a mother
breastfeeds. I write.

I move between medicine, science and arts in my life. Often in one day I'll begin as a doctor and end as a poet; or break off from writing a play to attend a meeting on writing a research paper. I don't think it's all that unusual, in fact I think there's more or less a unifying theme to my three vocations - in all of them I'm dealing with stories, trying to understand and then re-express the things that underlie our lives.

Yet it's true that I have developed skillsets that are very different. Although I'm most at home in the consulting room, talking (those who know me will know I love talking!), I'm also well drilled in the protocols of resuscitation. Saving someone's life is more routine than you would think. There are flowcharts to follow, drugs laid out in order, and everyone has their role and even a kind of script.

(the baby is delivered and brought to the table)
(Someone vigorously rubs the baby in a warm towel.)
"No response? Stimulate."
"Wakey wakey."
(Someone tickles the baby and blows oxygen on their nose. The baby stirs and gives a weak cry.)
"Heartrate good. Resps established at - 1 minute."
"Are you the Dad? come over here and say hello to your daughter. Congratulations! Got a camera?"

For more Tuesday poems, click the link on the sidebar.

Monday, May 30, 2011

The power of many stories

After reading some inspirational stuff on the weekend about how a writer's blog is a window to themselves and a key means of "connecting" with community and readers, I've resolved to be more regular in updating this blog. So from now on I'll be good (promise!) and also cross-post from my blog on The Big Idea, Talkwrite, which comments on the arts scene in NZ from the point of view of an emerging artist (me). The Big Idea is an online hub for NZ's arts community, and very well trafficked. I'll continue to keep this blog as a storage place for my more personal thoughts, experiences, the odd family photo, and of course the Tuesday Poem.

(crossposted from The Big Idea)

I’ve been frolicking in foreign lands, but made sure I returned in time to catch the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival. As always, between sessions the foyer was packed (I later found out that attendance was up 21 percent from last year) and there were queues in front of the bookstore, the signing table and the coffee karts. Everywhere people were talking excitedly about what they’d just seen, or were about to see.

In an age where (some would believe) the more pyrotechnic the show the better, what makes people pay money to sit in a dark room and watch talking heads?
... read more here.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The danger of a single story - Chimamanda Adichie

I was cheering all the way through this. I love the way Chimamanda points out her views, with sly jibes but not an ounce of anger at the assumptions people make about others' cultures. I love her attitude at the end - that if someone makes an assumption, it's not necessarily their fault, but more that they haven't had the chance to access multiple stories. And I love the way she humbly admits that she too often makes assumptions because she buys into only one story. I think it's important to remind myself of that, despite - or perhaps especially because - I spend so much time trying to create alternate narratives. (I laughed and cried a little inside when she talked about the literary professor who rejected her story because it wasn't "authentically African".)

To bring this back to a NZ perspective, I'm going to link to another video. The South Auckland Poets Collective is run by youth for youth - and principal to their goals is to reverse the negative stories and images about their hood that have been ruling the media for years. This is just one of many videos on their website:

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Tuesday Poem: Umbilical Ode

Such small indentation, crinkled, folded
a sow’s ear – soft stroked
as the skin of a newborn
who screams on separation from its mother,
ridged, silently capturing years of dirt
thrown in accusation or merely
by accident –
an eye peering back in contemplation,
with lint in it.

For years you have sat squarely in my belly
a silent Buddha,
sometimes laughing
from within folds of my flesh,
poking a barefaced tongue out
as I strip in front of the mirror.
Once you were my lifeline, my pulsating bond,
the blood hurtling
from my mother’s warm ventricles
throbbing through coiled conduits
squeezing past the gut,
taking the hook turn past the ligamentum teres
of the liver and round the joyride of my heart
to arrive barefaced and breathless back
at you, the waystation,
the conductor,
the portal.

When I gaze at you nightly
for some hint of divine inspiration,
I see the flesh twisting beyond the skin,
the grip of a mother’s hand losing.
I see the skin spiraled into the line
that stretches between me and my mother,
between me and my unconceived child.
I see the flesh twisting tightly closed,
the mouth drawing tight,
the pursestrings

pulling tight.

This is a poem I wrote a while ago (it appears in my first chapbook, Chinglish). I'm posting it now because I've been doing a lot of navel-gazing lately, and watching others do the same thing. I mean, writing is sometimes an exercise in this, right? (Informed navel gazing, that is.) It's weird - whenever I write something that I consider to be exciting, and innovative, and saying new things, yet it's not in some way anchored in my own experience, people call me out on it. It's as if we all have this inbuilt antenna for authenticity when we read or listen to fiction. (Obviously, the same requirement for personal connection isn't needed in non fiction or research).

I'll be posting a few things that have been making me think, soon...

PS. For more Tuesday poems, click on the little feather on the sidebar!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Tuesday poem: Tuesday afternoon in the Domain

is a day of
scrunched-up ducklings
pushing tentative ripples
in tepid shallows

of grandmas
and grandsons
tracing leaf-patterns
with sticks

of crucifixion on a lawn
of close cropped daisies

of geese circling
like high white battleships
alert for dropped
icecream cones.

Tuesday is a day
to roll up in a ball
and hurtle down hillsides
after the sun.

Happy 1st Birthday, Tuesday poem! I've posted (a little late) something I wrote a few years ago after spending a sun drenched afternoon in one of my favourite writing spots in the Auckland Domain. A little spot of warmth to hold on to now the weather's started to turn cold and windy again (after five months of being able to wear skirts with bare legs - I'm not complaining). For more Tuesday birthday poems, click here.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Tuesday Poem: How I find the time to write

I collect
small droplets of silence
merge them on my tongue
plant small words like daisies
weave them into garlands
offer this to a woman
diving off a cliff
daisies falling before her
a half circle of nail polish
on her toes
as she turns
to look back.

More poems on Tuesday Poems, click on link at sidebar.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Tuesday Poem: on the birth of a film

for Roseanne

for five years
you have held it in your belly
felt it warm and growing
consulted experts
read books and played music to it

it kicked you awake at night

you fed it
with your own blood
felt its own heart
start to beat
traced the curving line
of your umbilicus

to where it all started

and now
it has arrived

and joy.

My sister's film, My Wedding and Other Secrets, had its world premiere on Sunday night, and my whole family was there. It was an emotional night. Not just because it's the end result of over 5 years of hard work, trust and hope by my sister, but also because the film deals with some very personal stories.

The film itself, although fictional, is a love letter from my sister to my parents. The fact that they came to watch the film, with no certainty of its content, is also a gesture of love from them. My mother started crying before the film started (a good sign), and at the end she thanked Cheung Pei Pei, who played the character of the mother in the film, for playing the part with such sympathy. My dad (at his first movie screening for 30 years), left his seat at the end - to rush down the front and take photos of my sister receiving applause. That's a gesture of approval on his part - he's always done this with us to commemorate proud occasions.

As for me, my story is told on screen through the character of Susan, who has to deal with tragedy (you'll have to watch the film to find out). I hasten to add she doesn't make all the same choices I did, but all the same it was a buzz to watch "myself" being played by the very gorgeous Katlyn Wong (I come up to her shoulders when we're both in heels)! I get a couple of seconds of screen time myself as a bitchy waitress (debut speaking line: "yao gei" (soy chicken)). The appearance was so quick my husband missed it. I also appeared in the (real) tapes of us as little kids, which formed part of the opening credits.

All in all, a wonderful, warm night. And yes, there was red carpet and paparazzi. Below, a pic of my proud parents on the red carpet (complete with lion dancers).

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Tuesday Poem: Christchurch to Greymouth

From the place of broken earth
to the place of burning earth
I fly, wings outstretched.
The mountains peer at me
like neighbours through curtains
I am naked. I am unconcerned.
Sunset burns my hands as I land.
You see, I am here to help.
I, by myself.
I have brought nothing but
my burnt hands
and broken mind.

This - rough, unformed - is all I've able to write in response to the earthquake. Pardon its self absorption - I think, in these times, we are all looking inside ourselves, wondering "what if it were me?", "how shall I respond?". There are those who have not paused to think at all, who have not paused at all, who do not pause even now. This little poem is dedicated to them.

On Thursday I flew to Greymouth (well, Hokitika, then by bus to Greymouth) to work in the hospital there for a few days. The tiny plane has not much lap room for computers, and so I read Kapka Kassabova (her book Someone Else's Life is full of poems that seem appropriate to this time - but I haven't asked her permission, so I won't post one). I also scribbled this in my notebook, reading it that night at Frank's cafe where some poets meet every month.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Returning home

It’s now nearly one week after the earthquake. The official death toll is still rising, as searchers systematically go through the rubble. No one has been found alive since Wednesday.

In the Air New Zealand magazine, an advertisement now has the ring of bitter irony: “What investment could be safer than houses?” Every plane leaving Christchurch is booked solid. Small children with their own little backpacks peer out from the aisle. The mood on board is surprisingly upbeat, although the newspaper reports suggest that some of those leaving Christchurch are leaving forever.

I don’t often watch TV, but this weekend I turned it on, drawn despite myself to the stories of disaster and eyewitness accounts. Every figure crossing the screen is labelled either “lucky survivor” or “brave rescuer” by the (usually breathlessly overwhelmed) presenter. I know they’re trying to do a good job, but it seems disingenuous. I don’t like being witness to a hyena feeding frenzy. My mental disturbance is not helped by watching footage of destruction sandwiched by ads trying to sell me maternal health supplements and hair care products. The most obscene ad I saw was one which tried to insinuate that eating McDonalds would help me lose weight (“Weight Watcher’s approved – so now you can feel good!”)

Luckily, the newspaper coverage from The Press is far better. Amazingly, it’s still being published and delivered – a much slimmer format than usual, but the writing in it is often pretty good. Many of the eyewitness accounts are from Press reporters whose building was one of those destroyed in the CBD. Writing as citizens and fellow survivors, their accounts are detailed, insightful and full of clarity, rather than swimming in emotion. There’s time enough for emotion later, now is the time for facts which can help people. I’m particularly impressed by the editor who is already thinking about the future of the city and whether this time, relocation (rather than repair) of the CBD is the best option.

Ditto with National Radio, on which I was briefly interviewed on Saturday afternoon. Conscious of the fact that radio is now the main information source for affected families, they’re doing their best to provide up to the minute advice about where to get clean water, food supplies, help. They’re also broadcasting messages of support and help on its way – I was asked to talk about what the arts community is doing to help (many fundraisers have either been held or are planned, as well as more practical measures to help professionals and businesses get back on their feet).

Online, there’s information flying around. Aside from a few messages still seeking people who haven’t made contact, you can now download information sheets about maintaining mental health and news items about what’s being done to support the disabled, refugees and the elderly. The trivialities have returned to facebook – there’s 20 replies to a post about what colour car to buy.

My weekend at Grey Hospital was civilised, although I did get more patients than usual. None of these were from Christchurch, but it does seem that there are going to be a lot of knock-on effects from the earthquake. Many patients outside Christchurch rely on services there being available when they need them, and many are trying to anticipate demand by getting seen earlier or moving to another centre. I communicated with other paediatricians – frequent phone meetings are taking place as units around NZ fill up. There’s a particular demand for Level 3 (the most intensive) baby care, and this could get worse with a number of premature births expected to be triggered by the earthquake. Midwives are among the professions being asked to volunteer to help. The situation is likely to last months and I’m worried about burnout of my colleagues.

As I step out of Auckland airport in search of a taxi home I'm greeted by a blast of warm air - it's 25 degrees and yet another scorcher. It feels as if I've been away for longer than three days. I'm happy to be home and on solid ground.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The weed mat of humanity

As I stepped off the plane into Christchurch yesterday I was surprised at first by the gentle hum of conversation, the clink of coffee spoons, by smiles even. I don’t know why but I expected silence and grim reality etched on the faces of those I passed. But the airport was in full swing, uniformed staff walking around as if it was just another day of departures and arrivals.

It took a while to spot the small things wrong with the picture. The small café where I like to pick up soup had shelves empty of nearly everything except, oddly, cake. There were a lot more uniforms than usual. I realised that the friendly chatter around me had a tone of enforced calm. And Gate 1, at the arse-end of the airport, which is usually empty except for the few who are scheduled to take small ‘cigar planes’ to exotic destinations like Hokitika or Timaru, was packed. There were people on the floor, kids cartwheeling in the aisles, luggage spread all over the carpet.

I realised as I arrived to wait for my plane that everyone had their faces turned to the window, watching as an air ambulance landed. Two land ambulances pulled up, policemen strolled around in casual conversation with a blonde airport attendant, there was some activity involving old ladies and wheelchairs. The ambulances loaded up and departed and everyone turned their attention back to the TV, which was showing a live feed from the CBD. The electronic board showed a roll of departures – suddenly places like Hamilton or Tauranga felt like another country. Even though there were no announcements about when the delayed flights would depart, no one bugged the service desk people, who had clearly been at work for a very long time. Not even when the scanner failed and they had to board everyone manually and slowly.

As my plane finally left the tarmac I remember feeling a great sense of relief, followed by a sense of irony that I would find a small plane often dubbed the “flying coffin” safer than being on the ground. Yet being in transit in Christchurch for just one hour felt stressful. I have no idea how the people who live there can cope, seeing as they’ve been dealing with this threat since September. Everyone on the plane glued their faces to the window, trying to see if they could spot the cracks in the earth. My co-passenger later said he could identify the Hotel Grand Chancellor, which even from that distance had a visible lean.

Ferrying us to Greymouth, the taxi driver cheerfully rattled off his experiences: everyone on the West Coast felt the quake, of course they did, and they were all dead scared. The supermarkets had been cleaned out of bread and milk the last few days. Some people had taken off over the Hill to look after their rellies; the rest didn’t want to go anywhere near. But they all felt it, oh yes they all felt it alright.

In the hospital today, it’s impossible to escape the reality, even though my patients are the usual stream of wheezers and coughers mixed in with the chronically unwell kids. The nurse unit manager tells me that several doctors from Christchurch were doing a clinic here, and when the quake was felt they said it was a small one, comparatively. Then as it became evident what the news was they loaded up, six doctors in a four person car, and set off over the infamous hill road through Arthur's Pass. Luckily there were no slips and the road was not damaged.

Later in the morning one of the Christchurch paediatricians rings me to check I’m ok and to hand over a few patients. They usually cover the Greymouth services, in person or by remote – I’m only covering for the weekend. He cheerily assures me that they are all fine, their families are fine and in fact they are still happy to take transfers should I need to. I think of the months of overtime and stress ahead of them.

The TV is on and once more we are transfixed, swallowing the stories of desperation, of despair, of hopes dashed, as if there is no other diet. But there isn’t. Everything else seems shallow by comparison. The whole world seems trivial compared to what we are going through. And yet we are the trivial ones – glued to the TV while at least half the people who the earthquake affects don’t have access to power, let alone a TV, and they probably wouldn’t be inclined to watch it anyway. For them, cellphones and radio are their link to the world. And while we gasp in guiltily perverted horror at the scenes of devastation rolling across our screens, for some it will be weeks before they see the full images.

It’s still sunny as I step outside to go back to the hotel. The ground feels solid under my feet, but I breathe in the smell of fresh grass, just to make sure. I’m alone this weekend – my husband is back in Auckland – but I don’t feel isolated. I feel part of this great weed mat of humanity which has been pulled up by its roots in the last few days and is still trying to find a place to anchor. Piece by small piece, we grab onto the familiar things. We are beginning to joke again. And – even though it feels a little bad – we are beginning to smile.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

On the edge of normality

I’m at Auckland airport, waiting for a plane to Christchurch. On my way to the departure gate I’ve walked past people in jackets saying things like Red Cross and Australian Civil Defence; I try not to stare as I walk past a small desk with a large sign saying American Consulate, with two men in suits sombrely wedged behind it. Every few minutes an announcement asks people arriving from Christchurch to contact police or emergency staff in the foyer if they need assistance. It’s clear that this is not a normal day. Outside is normality, the world getting on with itself; here I am at a portal, a place where people with the label Survivor emerge to be whisked to safety.

At the gate, I scan the faces of new arrivals. There’s an elderly gentleman holding his grandchild like she’s the most precious thing he’s ever seen. My eyes fix on the small bandage just by his left ear. Did he get grazed by falling bricks, or is it just one of the legion of small injuries the elderly get on a daily basis? Is it just my imagination or is there hope, fear and impatience etched on the faces of my fellow departing passengers?

Once before in my life, I’ve taken planes with sorrow as my luggage. That time I travelled alone. No one noticed my transparency or commented on how I floated because I didn’t belong to the earth any more. The world turned on without me, everyone laughed and made noise and I watched from the other side of a wall that I thought would be permanent. I know what it’s like to take a plane knowing that I’ll only find unimaginable pain at the other end, the loss of a loved one, and how I’m impatient for the plane to land anyway.

This time it’s different. I am merely an observer. Everyone sees the sorrow – how could we not, when it’s our own world which has suddenly been cracked open - and we’re talking openly about it. The digital stratosphere is full of messages of love, of relief, of people telling the world they’re ok, to only worry about those less fortunate. Everyone tells everyone else to hug loved ones. But soon the messages of loss will start coming through. There’s a sense that we’re standing on the edge of a black hole that has opened up. And true to being Kiwi, we feel slightly guilty that we’re ok while someone else is suffering.

And then my little artist brain pipes up, the little cruel artist brain that knows how suffering wrings you out and then pushes you on, harder than before. Maybe it’s good for us to feel this way, once in a while. It’s not at all good that this has happened, but a disaster on this scale reconnects Godzone to the harsh, real world. Despite the images and people coming from outside, and the national obsession with travel, there’s still sometimes a feeling that this is the last safe place on earth, a place that’s clean and green and wrapped in cotton wool. A disaster on this scale shows us that safety can turn to danger in an instant. A crack has opened up on these islands of ours and suddenly we know what it’s like to be without communication, without security, fearing for our very lives. We’re no longer distant from what we see on our screens.

Christchurch is being compared to a war zone: transport, water, power and communication are down or unreliable, there are still bodies lying on the streets and buildings burning. Yet despite this people can still get on a plane and escape. Their family can text them to make sure they’re fine, and their friends gather pledges on the internet. We’re still at heart a civilised nation which has not lost its humanity enough to help others, and to deeply feel for others. And for that we can be grateful, not guilty.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A foot story

After attending our friends' wedding on the weekend, and dancing the night away in my gold tango heels (I defy any woman not to develop a shoe fetish when in Buenos Aires), I now feel ready to write the story of the one glitch in our wedding day.

The day was perfect - weather, venue (Mark's grandparent's huge garden in Blockhouse Bay) and guests, even the small ones, all perfectly behaved...except of course I had to step on a needle a few hours before the ceremony. What's more, being only a paediatrician, I didn't notice it was a needle (it had gone in so deep there was only a puncture mark). So, I walked down the aisle, took photos around the gardens, went to the beach and even danced a tango, all the time with a worsening pain in my left foot. It did mean I had to abandon my glamorous gold tango heels for something a little kinder, though.

You can see the romantic results in the photos (a few posts below) when Mark had to pick me up and carry me around. Impromptu bedroom surgeries were performed to investigate the unseen "splinter", once by my bridesmaid (who also happened to be my sister and a surgeon, and very wisely refused my request of a radical dissection) and once by Mark's sister (who's a designer, and handy with a pair of sewing scissors). Finally, having hobbled home at 2 am to "rest and elevate" my offending limb, and woken with it no better, we went to Ascot A+E the next day where very luckily we hit a skilled orthopaedic surgeon who just happened to be doing a locum there. (It turned out he'd worked with my sister - she told me later he was known for his fine handiwork.) After some painstaking dissection he extracted a 1 cm long broken sewing needle from deep in my anaesthetised foot. Just goes to show that love + one panadol is a great analgesic.

After a single stitch and a course of Augmentin, I am now fully back to 100%. A fact I have now proved with my dancing - hurray!

Tuesday Poem: Notes for reading a poem

Preparation time:
The space between breaths.

Scissors, scalpel or chainsaw.
A pen (does not need to be expensive).
More paper.

Degree of difficulty:
A pebble’s throw.

1. Take a deep breath. Rise to the balls of your feet. Staying there, find the horizon.
2. Close your eyes and point to the open page of poetry.
3. Open your eyes and read on your exhaled breath.
4. Draw a line between the words you have read.
5. Repeat these steps, in any order.
6. If you like the poem, cut it up and rearrange. See if you like it any better.
7. If you don’t like the poem, write your own.

I wrote this poem a couple of years ago for a visual art exhibition, Little Rain. An experiment in the abstract and quirky.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Tuesday Poem - Aubade(1)

I have worn another groove in you
this one between the
clavicle and deltoid

carved a notch
under your sleeping chin
to fit my head

moulded an upright nipple
where my fingertips rest

as sunlight taps the window

your breath blows even
against my neck

my hands walk downwards
I haven’t
much time

This poem needs no explanation or introduction! I wrote it some weeks ago but post it today in honour of the season. Incidentally yesterday evening, Valentine's Day, was spent at a tango class where I practised "close embrace" - walking backwards in high heels with my face nestled against a stranger's chest, both of us learning to adjust our breathing, the lengths of our steps, so as not to cause any injury. It's more fun than it sounds. I danced with Mark too of course but talking about strangers makes it a better story.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


Just a note that I have received some comments on this blog from "anonymous". I welcome all comments, favourable or not (so long as they are not outright abusive, spam, or in a language I can't read), but since you know who I am, I'd like to know likewise! So "Anonymous", please repost with your real name - and thanks so much for your feedback. :)

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Tuesday Poem: Falls, by Edward Lowbury

Pulled by the sky's gravitation
Smoke falls upwards;
The monkey-spider floats, in perfect balance;
And a child on shaky limbs
Drops into its mother's arms,
Or falls light - no need to fear the fall
When earth is near and motherly.

But no maternal arms
Reach out to save those on shaky limbs
Who fall in second childhood.
The earth is hard and far away beneath them
The bones are brittle
And every fall brings pain or injury -
Until, at last, light
As smoke, they feel once more
The gravity of the sky
And learn to fall upwards.

- from Apollo, an anthology of poems by doctor poets (ed E. Lowbury, pub. 1990).
This is a book that's been in my possession for a while, but I wasn't until I went on my latest medical working trip to Greymouth that I took it out. Lowbury, a pathologist, includes two of his own poems in this anthology that samples widely from modern poets to the poet-physicians of antiquity (when indeed art and medicine were viewed as the same thing - Apollo was the winged god of poetry, medicine and music.)

What I love most of all about this poem is the surprise of the last line, a truly surprising and revelatory moment but one which the poem, with deceptive simplicity, builds up to. It's one finely poised between emotion and observation too - an edge which, as all doctors know, is a difficult one to walk. Although it's never mentioned, I have a sense that Lowbury is not just referring to his patients, but to some personal experience of the "shaky limbs" and the hardness of the world in a "second childhood".

In the introduction to his book, Lowbury observes: "With his wide experience of humanity a doctor should be able to view the world more objectively and with more empathy than most people; if he is poet this should broaden the scope of his writing, not only in the depiction of, or in imagery derived from, personal experience. Indeed, it is in their response to a wider range of human experience... that doctor poets have made their most widely valued contribution to poetic literature."

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Tuesday Poem: Will you dance with me

Will you dance with me
hold my hands lightly
as we learn to stand together,
learn to breathe and walk
as though we were doing it
the first time

Will you dance with me
work out each new step
laugh at our mistakes
find out how by pushing
at the spaces between us
we can find balance

Will you dance with me
through the long night
as violins fade
to something more real
as light cracks the sky
and dark becomes dawn

Dance with me when we’re at the beach.
Dance with me in front of family.
Dance with me and my friends.
Dance with me in the cobbled streets of Valparaiso,
wearing kimono in Tokushima, walking the Great Wall
at Badaling,
in Paris and in London

then come to dance with me at home.

Dance with me
again and again
dance through the tight places,
the hard places, the forbidden places
the soft places, the places
where we’ll find each other

Will you dance with me
this first dance til the last dance
the many dances in between,

will you dance with me.

This was the poem I read to Mark just before we stepped out for our first wedding dance, a tango.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Tuesday Poem: Blessing, by Greg O'Connell

Today when silver ferns uncoil

Today when dolphins polish their beaks on the sea

Today when the seal chaperones its pups

Today when palms put on their red beads

Today when waves keep their promise to return

Today when night keeps its oath to sleep

Today when someone you love has gone
and someone wombed has been safely born

Today when mountains listen to the silence of the broken
and sunlight whispers to the waiting seeds

Today when someone arranges old age, long as a cloud

Today when someone inhales the blossom of a first kiss

Today let this hour bless you

With the smiles of friends let it bless you

With ocean-tang and manuka bless you

Let the vow of this day arc wide and high

Let its freedom and shelter hold you

Let its truth be boundless as the sky

This poem was read ten days ago at our wedding. It's by Greymouth poet Greg O'Connell, and written for his own recent nuptials. It was very generous of Greg and his wife Zoe to let us use this lovely work and add our own meaning to his images. The poem spoke to me, and continues speaking to me, because it acknowledges the fact that marriage is just one step in a cycle, but a significant one. I love the juxtaposition of the images "when someone arranges old age, long as a cloud" and "when someone inhales the blossom of a first kiss". We got married in a garden that Mark's grandparents had sown and that many family members at the wedding could remember playing in as children - very apt.

PS. For more Tuesday poems (yes, some are up early!), click on the feather top right.