Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Adventure in Exphrasis

A couple of weeks ago I went to a brilliant poetry workshoprun by the charming Joan Fleming,  whose first collection 'The Same as Yes' was published by VUP last year.

Held at our avant garde Blue Oyster Gallery as an extension  of an exhibition entitled Caves Are Made of Rock But Not This Cave  featuring large pastel/pencil works by  Sian Torrington to which Joan and Rachel O'Neill  had collabortatively written repsonse poems to, the main focus of the 90-minute workshop was first Deletion poems and then Ekphrasic poems.
 Exphrasis poems are a poetic response to an existing image or artwork which was a new process for me which primarily involved being lead, closed-eyed, right up to the drawings, opening one's eyes and writing down the first visceral/emotional burst that came into your head.

In my case such phrases as 'dense and dark' , 'candied-striped river' and 'silver wonder-wall' sprang to mind.

 I then constructed into an actual poem by using, in my case, the linking word 'always'.  Here it is:

When we find ourselves in dense
dark places let us
always dream instead
of the dancers
at the Follies-Bergere

Their beak-like legs
tapping out questions
the twitchers know
the answers too

Always on time
always in a line
a glittering silver
of candy-striped

Cresting a wave
of skirts
always rising.

It was great fun and an energising new way to look at an exhibition.
Only next time I need to go in the first few days, so I can write and share a responsive poem in time for anyone that's interested to enjoy the artworks as well.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Dirty Linen

This is my rather cynical response to the media's insatiable appetite for gossip surrounding a 'fall from grace' by a [choose one] celebrity/sports star/business leader/politician ... but also how there is always money to be made when these things happen (on both sides of the white picket fence) BM

Dirty Linen

She stays away on business
but who is it that she meets?
None of us have secrets
from those who strip the sheets.

The baby wails welcome:
it’s not her papa that she greets.
Can secrets last a lifetime
when blood drips on the sheets?

Shareholders are our lifeblood
their fiscal terms we meet.
So we bury nasty secrets
to balance up the sheets.

‘Suck my toes, slave, suck!’
‘Yes, Mistress B,’
he bleats.
Secrets are so tiresome
to those who whip the sheets.

‘No comment. Give us peace!’
a full answer-phone entreats.
‘Your secrets are our duty,’
claim those who print the sheets.

‘Mea culpa. Mea culpa!’
the fallen one repeats.
More secrets in my tell-all book
—about to hit the streets.

© Beverly Martens
(various drafts)

Monday, April 27, 2009

Flying Lessons

In the air
above Lake Ellesmere
dark right-angled shelter belts
frame the parched paddocks
like dropped Allen keys

Rigid forms butting up
against the curving coastline

Solid and liquid separated
by a finger trail
of shaving crème

Dun, indigo, aqua, ash grey…

It that all it takes:
a flying visit -
For me to finally embrace
our national airlines
new corporate colours?

© Beverly Martens

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Pinus Envy

My friend Phil, a freelance writer working from home, firmly believes that happiness is a full fridge, But this far South, my friends, happiness is definitely….a full woodshed.

On a recent trip up to Christchurch I was struck by (and envious of) the huge mountainous woodpiles visible from State Highway 1. I peered longingly at them as we drove past envious of everything and anything as long as it was big - be it golden logs of pinus radiata neatly stacked against macrocarpa hedges, blue gum piled up against the side of houses or woodsheds, or seemingly neglected randomly placed mounds of who knows what type, cut, dumped and left to season and silver up in all weathers.

Back in my neighbourhood most of my fellow knowing , neighbours ordered (and stacked) their wood months ago but it takes the end of daylight saving for me to come out of denial that winter really is upon us now and so it’s a frantic last minute fight for me to get my hands on a few dry cubic metres.

My first winter here I was taken in by an ad in the local paper that promised ‘clean bone dry firewood’ at a good price. That turned out to be sawn-up stacker pellets. Yes, the wood was dry but burnt too fast and a left a sea of mangled nails in the grate like some sort of arty memorial sculpture from The Blitz that then had to be painstakingly sifted from the ashes...

Somehow, I then stumbled across ‘Chunky’ (aka Paul) a bona fide wood supplier who looked upon the other wood in my garage with a mixture of pity, scorn and pique.

In fact the draft of the subsequent poem I wrote about his (unspoken) reaction begins:

My regular supplier sniffed
when he saw another’s man
in my shed
slammed the ute door
and squealed away..’

When I contacted him again this year Chunky had mellowed somewhat although his side-line wood business has been so successful – distracting him from his day job and more worryingly beginning to attract the attention of the tax man - he’d all but hung up his chainsaw. Sighing to my pleas, he fessed up that still had just one lone 6 cubic metre load of dry pine left over from last year or so if I was interested? Interested? I'd be the envy of the neighbourhood!

It took me two full hours to stack (read fling 'willy nilly') into my dry concrete-floored garage, but I was warm and satisfied when I'd finished.

But that’s just stage one of the squirrelling process, next comes kindling.

In her book ‘The Writing Life’ Annie Dillard went to great lengths to finish a book (literally) by holing up in a cabin on an island in the Puget Sound, Washington State right across from the Canadian border. It was January, it was freezing and learning to split wood was not so much a pleasure (and welcome distraction from her writing) as a survival art. In a particularly funny passage she recounts her early attempts: … “ What I did was less like splitting wood than chipping flints,” she writes.” After a few whacks my alder chunk still stood serene and unmoved, its base untouched, its tip a thorn. And then I actually tired to turn the sorry thing over and balance it on its wee head while I tried to chip its feet off before it fell over. God save us.

There were many days the first winter here where I knew exactly how she felt but two years on I have learnt to cheat with woolsack’s full of offcuts from a local joinery factory. These offcuts are small, clean and dry and brilliant for building a fast base on which to throw the logs if I’m home all day or hot and fast just on their own if I just need heat for a couple of hours.

The only downside is the guilt I experience when I pull out small beautiful pieces of dressed native and exotic timbers that we do not sustainability grow here in New Zealand. At that stage I tell myself these tiddlers are of no use to anyone so its kind of okay to throw them into the flames almost in the same way that a sprat on the line gets thrown back into the water. It isn’t of course. Small can also be beautiful.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

What Sustains Me

Since moving to Dunedin three years ago I have been earnestly trying to live a writer’s life, sometimes succeeding, sometimes not.

As Ann Lamott says in her witty, self-deprecating, cynical and God-fearing tome, ‘Bird by Bird, “A writer’s life is really is a work in progress that you don’t really ever get it right, but the sublime moments when you do, sustain you.”

But there are no short-cuts. Trying to write for a set period everyday, as stressed by Natalie Goldberg in ‘Writing Down The Bones’ helps with discipline, just as going on ‘artist’s dates’ as advocated by Julia Cameron in ‘The Artists Way’, helps with inspiration.

But really it’s all about trying to find your own blind way as a disciple in an anarchic discipline. There is no ‘set formula’ when it comes to being a successful writer. The best one can hope for is a sustaining philosophy when it comes to ‘facing the page alone.’

For many great novelists this first means being a great and constant reader: “Writers learn their craft, above all, from the work of other writers… They do not learn it from classrooms, or workshops, or manuals – they learn it from immersing themselves in books,” advises Marie Arana, a former book editor in her introduction to THE WRITING LIFE, a collection from the Washington Post Book World, a sentiment echoed by many of her subjects.

Yet, personally, I have found that being an avid reader is not necessarily a remedial passion when it comes to my own project. For example, I deeply admire the craft of Northern American writers Joe Coomer and Richard Russo who, much like Annie Proulx, evoke landscape as character. That of small town America in Russo’s case (Mohawk, Empire Falls, The Risk Pool) and coastal Maine in Coomer’s (A Pocketful of Names and Beachcombing for a Shipwrecked God).Reading these richly-detailed and compelling novels has not really helped me develop my own ‘voice’ which is a snappier, dialogue-based style. I simply don’t have the patience for building up the narrative layers the way they do, although I have taken some confidence in the fact that Joe Coomer’s novels portray strong female lead characters (yet he’s a man) because manuscript is based on two male protagonists and I often wonder how ‘qualified’ I am to be writing about and through them.

Also, reading the seamless craft of astonishingly good writers can lead us wannabes straight down the path of crippling procrastination.

Perhaps I should heed Wendy Wasserstein’s prosaic advice when it comes to actually getting a manuscript finished: “Go to a far, secluded place; live in pyjamas.” And to be fair, I have moved to Dunedin where I knew almost no one, and where flannel pyjamas in winter are mandatory!

Procrastination is just one fear I have about writing. In fact the list is so long that the best I can hope to do is mitigate such fears down to workable levels. For example, doing a ‘Writing for Publication’ course this year is a significant step in trying to create a sustainable writing environment for myself (with tangible outcomes). And my fears around other people opinions of (or reactions to) my work – have been largely overcome when an extremely personal poem of mine was published in an anthology last year.

Sometimes my fears are just incredibly basic but external: like fears around being too cold or too broke. Because, let’s face it as zeitgeist novelist Erica Jong whose zippy (some would say ‘zipless’) style is more akin to my own quite rightly says, “There are plenty of easier ways to make money. Almost anything is less labour-intensive and better paid than writing, almost anything is safer. Reveal yourself on the page repeatedly, and you are likely to be rewarded with exile, prison or neglect. Ask Dante, or Oscar Wilde, or Emily Dickinson.”

Crikey! And yet it is precisely this melancholy (or masochism!) that drives me on in search of the ‘truth’ in my own writing. Despite frequently suffering at the hands of journalists who interchange the less likable traits of his characters with himself, novelist Michael Chabon (The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Wonder Boys) still urges all writers to strive for complete honesty in their work, regardless of consequences. “Telling the truth, when the truth matters most, is almost always a frightening prospect,” he says. “But if one doesn’t take this risk. If the writer submits his work to an internal censor long before anyone else can get their hands on it. The result is pallid, inanimate, a lump of earth.”

Writing is an emotional business and the gaping chasm between my story’s vividness in one’s mind (imagination) and ‘in-animation’ on the page is wider on some days than others. Which is why remembering the many challenges faced by well-known novelists helps me persevere.

Their wisdom and experience also help me ‘dial down’ the inner voices of family members and my own, closely-linked, inner critic both of whom, often ask me, whiningly, and repeatedly, as I struggle at the keyboard: ‘Just Who Do You Think You Are?’

Yet, ironically, the consummate appeal of writing for me, its tidal pull if you will, is by-and-large my way of trying to answer that very question: One never really fully knows who one is, but being immersed in the business of writing, serves me well as possibly the only way of finding out!

Even if, as E.L. Doctorow, the author of such classics as ‘Ragtime’, and ‘Billy Bathgate’ warns, “The work itself is hard and slow…you live enslaved in the book’s language, its diction, its universe of imagery, and there is no way out—except through the last sentence.”

© Beverly Martens
March 2009

Saturday, March 21, 2009



Our smooth-calved mailman
drives up our hill at ten.

His mail is now pre-sorted
by machine
so he gets to sleep-in
but also wait a round.

He doesn’t get to me
‘til after three
as I’m helping
my neighbour Caroline
the buggy-cum-bassinette
out of her car.

‘A few more cards today’ he says
stroking her newborn’s head
and then turns:
Nothing for you.’

© Beverly Martens
Published in Swings+Roundabouts
Poems on Parenthood
Random House, May 2008

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

White Tops

White Tops

From the 6th floor
I watch a windsurfer
slice across the bight

Tall, upright
and on speaking terms
with the wind

Free-loading for real
on a Friday afternoon
while all around me

air-conned co-workers
lean back too
on the bosses’ time

© Beverly Martens
Published in Otago Daily Times