My First Time: LitCrawl 2016

To round out the year I thought I’d post some photographs from LitCrawl 2016. I was part of My First Time, an experiment in writing and theatre where three pieces of writing were adapted into live stage experiences by theatre directors. I was paired with director Claire Noble, and she worked with actors John and Jen to turn my poem ‘Ghosts’ (from WORK) into a theatre piece, which was shown at Double Denim HQ. The show was sold out and amazing! Thank you to Matt Bialostocki for these photographs.





Write to the Centre: A Conversation with Helen Lehndorf

Helen Lehndorf is a poet, creative writing teacher, and yoga teacher. Her debut poetry collection The Comforter (Seraph Press) was published in 2011 to excellent reviews. Her second book, Write to the Centre, was published by HauNui Press late this year. Write to the Centre is a ‘lo-fi guide to journaling in a hi-tech world.’ The book is filled with illustrations and pages from Helen’s own journals (which she has been keeping for decades!), which sit alongside her encouraging, warm, and honest prose. While the book provides many tips on how to journal, it’s more about why we journal and what that can bring to our lives.


Sarah Jane Barnett: I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed reading your book! It made me want to get out my own glue stick and collection of beautiful paper things and start journaling. Can you tell me how this book came into being? What is your favourite part of journaling?

Helen Lehndorf: My favourite part of journaling is using it as a tool to untangle my thinking and find some clarity, or at least space in my mind, around things which are troubling me. The book arose out of feedback from friends, and students from my journaling classes, that they would like to read something which featured excerpts from my journals. It took a long time for that seed to bloom because I had to get over a lot of angst about whether my journals were ‘interesting enough’ to warrant a book, but then I approached it from the perspective of ‘write a book you would like to read’ – I felt what was missing from journaling books was honesty about the mess, randomness and confusion that life can often be, and I set out to write something which was real about all that.

SJB: One of the aspects that stood out in Write to the Centre was the idea of permission. Permission to write what you want, to draw what you want, and to make it as beautiful or ugly or imperfect as you need. This is a liberating message, especially for women. In the book you talk about the influence of punk on your identity and the way you are in the world. Do you think this is where the permission stems from? Are you good at giving it to yourself?

HL: Yes, I absolutely credit an early exposure to punk culture (as it existed then, in the mid-1980s, pre-internet and the commodification of subcultures) as the thing which gave me creative courage and a belief in my own voice. I am good at giving myself permission within the confines of my journal and other modes of creativity (painting, craft) which I do for myself. I have more angst about my poetry and nonfiction intended for an audience. At times my fear of being misunderstood hampers my expression in those realms.

SJB: What feels like a few lifetimes ago I worked with the ephemera collection at Canterbury Museum, and since then I’ve loved the way things like postcards, ticket stubs, or flyers take me back to certain parts in my life, or into someone else’s life. It made me think that places like Pinterest or Tumblr are where people now put digital ephemera (if anything digital can be considered ephemeral). I often draw my emotions out in a journal, and it feels different to doing so on a screen. What do you see as the benefit or difference in journaling on paper, rather than on a computer?

HL: I love Pinterest! It’s such a useful and inspiring tool. But for me, something about the physicality of paper, scissor, glue…the connection of brain to hand, pen across paper…seems to sink in to my psyche and soothes me more than anything on screen.

SJB: Journaling helped you through big life changes such as becoming a parent. Most people don’t have access to these periods of change apart from photographs or maybe the odd email. What has being able to see and revisit yourself given you?

HL: So much compassion! Compassion for my younger self, compassion for myself now with everything I’ve been through. I see that I was always doing my best at the time, always hoping to do better, that I made lots of mistakes and wasted a lot of time obsessing about silly things, that I am spectacularly, clumsily HUMAN.

SJB: Last question. You have beautiful handwriting. Do you practise?!

HL: Ha ha! Thank you! and no, I don’t, unless you count years of scrawling in my journal as practise?

Thanks so much, Sarah, for this conversation.

Plucky Young Upstart: A Conversation with Holly Hunter about Mimicry

Mimicry is a new Wellington-based literary and arts journal with poetry, fiction, nonfiction, visual art, and even music. It’s the brainchild of Holly Hunter, Assistant Editor at Victoria University Press. This week I had the pleasure of talking to Hunter about the journal, editing her friends, and what she sees happening in young writers’ work.


Sarah Jane Barnett: The journal’s opening page states that ‘Mimicry 1 is an act of nepotism,’ and that your contributors are your ‘incredibly talented and creatively driven friends.’ Tell me where the idea for the journal came from, and about the process of putting Mimicry together. I think many creative people have late night ideas, but most don’t go ahead. I’m glad you made this one happen – it’s a great read. What inspired you to make it happen? Was it difficult to edit and select work from your friends?

Holly Hunter: The opening page is as much a joke as it is a disclaimer, because I think most New Zealand journals are cliquey and nepotistic. In fact the journal was almost called Nepotism, but I backtracked when I realised that poor, well-meaning contributors would forever have it on their record that they were ‘published in Nepotism’—which isn’t exactly an impressive addition to a bio. If nothing else, I want to make a habit of pretentious, grandiose and controversial opening pages that either make the reader laugh or slam the journal shut. Journals could do with more character, I reckon, to live and breathe in their own right alongside the work.

The drive behind Mimicry was less calculated than how I think it’s been received. More than anything it was born from a sappy place of admiration for the people I know who live and breathe their creative side-hustles and deserve a space to display their work. But Mimicry also partly comes from a place of frustration with what I sometimes worry is a vortex of a literary environment. I like reading things that feel raw and contemporary, like they could spin out of control and off the axis, or that don’t care how they’re read but, at the same time, are tight and controlled. Mimicry’s approach isn’t entirely new; the chapbooks, journals and zines of Jackson Nieuwland and Carolyn de Carlo have been doing edgy, fresh things for years. One of their chapbooks, Bound: an ode to falling in love (Compound Press), is a diary of love poems from the perspectives of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. Zines like theirs, and journals like The Lifted Brow, showed me what something like Mimicry could look like. It probably also helps that I’m a plucky young upstart with no sense of responsibility or consequence.

Editing my friends was a strange process. With some submissions, the edit was as light as applying a style and tidying a few misspellings, and with others it was more hands-on. The democratic ‘anyone can write and create’ attitude of Mimicry meant there was an element of back-and-forth development with newer writers. For that, I think it helps that I work full-time as an editor—I get to work with words all day, every day; most of the issues I encountered with Mimicry were ones I’ve come across. Being edited is probably more awkward for my friends than it is for me. I’m a little numb to the weirdness of it! (Friends lost through the editing process: 0, so far.)

SJB: I know that creative friends often share work and learn from each other. I can see the influence of my writing friends on my poetry. Are there echoes and connections between pieces in the journal? Did any of the contributors collaborate?

HH: Before we announced the journal setlist, only a few of the contributors knew who else would be in the journal, what it would look like, or what angle we were going for. I guess that’s a good reason to publish your friends in a first-issue journal: they’ll trust you even though your idea could be a colossal fuck-up. So there weren’t collaborations as such, but many of us went through university together and spent that time in the same young-writers’ echo chamber (a sewer-like place where undergraduates shout words at the walls until something sticks and they find their voice).

I think there are mannerisms emerging in young writers’ works, mainly that they don’t take themselves too seriously but at the same time, they say something honest—half a joke, half a generational cry for help. In that way, I think we all kind of feed off and gain fuel from one another. I’d actually like to see referential literature emerge in Mimicry; stuff that talks back to previous issues. There’s no way that writers can live in a vacuum and create some fabled ‘pure’ art, so why not be less ashamed of our influences? That’s where ‘mimicry’ comes in, I suppose. One echo I see in the journal, and across young writers’ work in general, is how the inevitable reproduction and repurposing of past literature and ideas to adapt to and exist in the cultural now gives off a kind of a hopeful nihilism. That sounds so pretentious and barely makes sense. Ah, well.

Hunter at the launch of Mimicry 1.
Hunter at the launch of Mimicry 1.

SJB: You work as the Assistant Editor at Victoria University Press. Tell me about how you ended up there and what makes you want to work in publishing. What do you see as the relationship between larger publishers such as VUP, and small indie publishers such as yourself (whether that be readership, purpose etc.)? Do you have plans for a Mimicry 2?

HH: It was a bit like an arranged marriage success story. My mother, the Whitireia publishing programme, put a call out for suitors, and local matchmaker the Publishing Association of New Zealand (PANZ) found me a beau in VUP. Basically there was an application process (on both our parts) to receive a six-month paid internship from PANZ, and following that I’ve been lucky enough to stay on as as a baby editor and help out with the packed 2016 and 2017 publication lists. It’s such a privilege to work with talented authors and a close-knit community of booklovers. The launch parties are pretty excellent, too.

I think indie publishers and journals are important both as playgrounds and platforms for writers to hone their craft and build a name for themselves. The main differences between indie and established publishers are probably quality, budget, and publicity and distribution power. I like to think Mimicry can put a check next to quality, but it takes long-term relationships in the industry and a lot of money to do the others properly.

There will definitely be a Mimicry 2 and it’s all starting very soon. I won’t say too much, but Todd Atticus (Mimicry’s designer) and I have been brainstorming some outlandish video and cover art ideas. We also have ambitious plans for a launch, which will be near the end of January 2017.

SJB: The journal features poetry, fiction, non-fiction, visual art and even a music download. I can tell that attention was also paid to the design. Did you have a specific intent to make Mimicry multi-form? How do you see these mediums working together?

HH: Thanks! In my mind Mimicry was always going to be like a cross-form gazette of what artists are up to. I want it to feel like a regular showcase or an ongoing gallery. Bringing together a range of mediums and genres feels to me like a realistic evolution for the traditional journal, knowing what the average 21st-century attention span can withstand. The way we read is changing, and there’s a growing expectation for literature to entertain. By breaking up the more traditional fiction and poetry pieces with art, design, comedy, photography or a redirection to a music download, Mimicry is almost more magazine than journal.

I also hope that having virtually no hard limits on the mediums makes people who don’t habitually read pick up the journal. The idea that these art forms have separate audiences—as though poetry lovers don’t know how to laugh, or prose readers are emotionally dead when faced with artwork—seems flawed. At least in my experiences of Wellington, these communities are tightly linked. Any given contributor in issue one is friends with a musician who’s friends with an artist who’s friends with a stand-up comedian. But for some reason, movement between ‘high literature’ and other forms of entertainment can feel like a one-way street: while poets and writers freely masquerade as TV binge-watchers or groupies, people from other artistic communities seem to be alienated by the local literature scene. So maybe the art, comedy and music are feathers on my fishing fly to get more people reading poetry and short fiction. And maybe it’s also true that I will unabashedly publish anything I think is cool.

SJB: Final question. How was the launch party in your living room?

HH: It was great! We had about 70 people come along, 50–50 friends and strangers. I’m also never doing it again—at least not with this landlord.

You can find Mimicry on their Facebook page and purchase the journal here.

‘Almost nobody I like is well rounded’: A Conversation with Hera Lindsay Bird

HLBHera Lindsay Bird by Hera Lindsay Bird has topped the New Zealand bestsellers list for the last four weeks (okay, one week it came second to Sam Hunt). Bird is self-deprecating and enigmatic. She’s smart and funny. She exhibits almost no self doubt. She has a heap of Twitter followers. Basically, she’s a poetry superhero, and like most superheroes she must have a cover day job; she works at Unity Books.

I reviewed her collection for The Pantograph Punch, but I also had some questions for Bird. Here’s our interview.

Sarah Jane Barnett: First, I appreciate talking to someone who also uses their middle name when publishing. It helps me feel less pretentious. Do you get people calling you ‘Hera Lindsay’ now? On names, apart from celebrities you don’t often name people in your poems, but the poems about ‘Anna’ are a notable exception. I found these more specific love poems worked well alongside the general and humourous poems (which are personal in a different way). In that interview you did with Steve Braunias, he suggested your work could be seen as ‘formulaic’ and lacking ‘depth.’ I can see how someone might accuse you of being one note, but I think that note has depth and variation. Tell me about the process of putting together this sort of collection.

Hera Lindsay Bird: Sorry to disappoint you, but Lindsay isn’t my middle name, it’s part of my last name, like a scared horse trying to escape an evil flower wagon, but if it makes you feel better I manage to find many other opportunities to be pretentious. I often think about what Dorothea Lasky says about choosing to include names of the people she loves, because names carry the residue of a person, but there are also some conspicuous absences in this book.

I’m not especially peeved to be called one note. I know it’s the fashion to make toy handcuffs of your doubt, attach yourself to the coffin of post-modernism and drag it slowly through the forest at midnight whispering ‘objective truth is a construct, man,’ but I unfortunately I am a person with many bad convictions and entrenched wrong ideas, and I find that to be an enjoyable way to live. I have a great private boredom for the contemporary literary imperative to be well-rounded. Almost nobody I like is well rounded.

I also love formulaic writing. Formula is just narrative convention or mental filing cabinets made explicit, and my favourite writing is always work that pushes up against narrative expectation. That tension can be generative or limiting, depending on how you use it. Detective fiction is formulaic. Sitcoms are formulaic. Jokes are formulaic. Formula is often used as shorthand for easily reproducible, but just because you can identify a writer’s structural or linguistic tics, it doesn’t give you 10+ XP literature points, bringing you closer and closer to finally understanding Ulysses.

SJB: My favourite poem of the collection is ‘Wild Geese by Mary Oliver by Hera Lindsay Bird.’ It reads as an argument for complexity; for the way the ‘heat’ and ‘hunger’ of life imprisons us, but also gives us beauty and pleasure. Personally, I’ve always liked the hopefulness of Oliver’s poetry, as though something as simple as looking at birds can help with the fact that, as you state, ‘Life is hard / and pain is hard.’ Your poems often trail off at the end or end on a joke; they resist neatness and the transformative lyrical moment. Do you think people crave simple answers? Do you? Is it lazy writing to lean on such imagery in a poem?

HLB: Listen, you can have as many geese in a poem as you like. You can have double the amount of geese that Mary Oliver had and there’s nothing she or the department of health can do about it. You could write a poem called ‘Even MORE Wild Geese’ or ‘Now That’s What I Call Wild Geese: Volume Two.’ You can have the world’s most picturesque arms race. There are a lot of geese around, and long may they continue to bestow aesthetic boners on poets and Bob Ross alike. I have no problem with geese. What I really have an issue with is the bad, new-age logic of the poem. Do geese ask forgiveness? Of course not, they’re fucking geese. Give me a break. Geese are wild birds and as such don’t have the emotional capacity to deal with the consequences of their inherently morally neutral behaviour. This is a very specific and petty grievance which has nothing to do with the transformative lyric moment, but if this poem makes you feel better about something nasty you’ve done, maybe try holding yourself accountable instead of projecting new-age fantasies of negative-culpability (lol) onto animals that regularly get sucked into jet engines.

Bob Ross.
Bob Ross and his aesthetic boner.

But to answer your question properly; I don’t actively resist the transformative moment, it’s just that I’m wary of forced epiphanies, or maybe it’s just that what’s emotionally transformative to me doesn’t lyrically register as being so. I don’t crave simple answers, because I don’t have a lot of questions these days. That’s not to say that life is simple, but demanding too much out of existence feels like staring at a painting by Monet like it were a magic eye puzzle & expecting a ship or a horse rise up out of the static.

I don’t think it’s lazy to use sublime imagery in a poem. I just think Mary Oliver is a pain in the ass. Compare her poem to ‘Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota’ by James Wright. They’re not profoundly aesthetically different (although let’s be real, Oliver can’t touch Wright) – but you can feel the difference in your blood.

SJB: Your poems make great use of figurative imagery. I’ve never seen so many similes and metaphors packed together, and all of them so bright, true, and original. For instance, ‘It’s like freezing containers of vomit to reheat and pour down the toilet,’ or ‘Love like Windows 95 / The greatest, most user-friendly Windows of them all.’ Reading your poems is like repeatedly banging my head against something beautiful and strange. Do you think, in the end, that love is indescribable?

HLB: Not to get too Phil101 about it, but language doesn’t just describe the world, it also builds it. The act of describing love changes love. I mean this in the most morally-neutral sense possible.

SJB: The first poem of the collection states, ‘I wrote this book, and it is sentimental / Because I don’t have a right-sized reaction to the world / To write a book is not a right-sized reaction.’ I read this and thought, sure thing, because writing often seems ridiculous to me, let alone that people read my work and sometimes even pay for it. Then I thought differently: I know reading and writing poetry makes me feel less alone. So writing a book seems like the perfect-sized reaction to the world! What do you think? Do you want to write another one?

HLB: There is no appropriate reaction to the world. Becoming an investment banker who recreates medieval battle scenes on the weekends doesn’t make sense either. But I suppose we all have to do something with our lives.

I don’t know if I will write another book. It’s too soon to think about it. It took me years to have enough material for one. Besides, I don’t want to write poetry books, I want to write poetry. I don’t want to make a career out of my bad feelings.

New York Pocket Book: A Conversation with Paula Green

pocket_bookPaula Green is a poet, reviewer, children’s author, NZ Book Award judge and anthologist. She has published six previous collections of poetry, plus three collections for children, most recently The Letterbox Cat & Other Poems (Scholastic, 2014). She edited the anthologies A Treasury of NZ Poems for Children (Random House, 2014) and Dear Heart: 150 New Zealand Love Poems (Random House, 2012), and co-authored 99 Ways into New Zealand Poetry (Random House, 2010) with Harry Ricketts. Paula also runs two popular poetry blogs: NZ Poetry Box for children and NZ Poetry Shelf for adults. She is currently working on a book about New Zealand women’s poetry. I interviewed Paula about her collection, New York Pocket Book, which was launched in June by Seraph Press. As always, she is eloquent and inspiring about what poetry and poets can do.

Sarah Jane Barnett: I was intrigued by the title of the collection and also the small size and square shape. It reminded me somewhat of a guide book! I imagined walking around New York and experiencing the Lower East Side or Ellis Island through these poems. First, what was the impetus for the collection, and second, do you see the collection as another way for people to experience New York?

Paula Green: My family and I spent ten nights in New York a few years ago (Michael and our two teenage daughters). Michael went when he was young and poor and lived off a pretzel a day, but it was my first time. New York had grown in my head out of the bricks and mortar of film and television. I am really fascinated with the way we carry different versions of a place whether we live there or not. My version blasted apart and then reformed in a way that surprised me. Partly it was the sense of neighbourhood, the way a big city can still relish a snail’s pace, the miniature physical containment, the explosion of ideas and connections in my head as I walked.

I like the idea of different kinds of guides to a city. I love the look of the book so much (thanks to my publisher, Helen Rickerby), I feel like doing a little series of poetry guide books. So yes, readers can follow my tourist itinerary that is as much a physical route as it is meandering through less tangible New Yorks. The idea of a tourist using this as a guidebook appeals; making their own notes in the margin. I agonised over whether to leave my tipping poem in for that very reason. A warning-about-tipping poem! Sadly it didn’t make my ruthless cut.

Paula Green at the launch of New York Pocket Book
Paula Green at the Wellington launch of New York Pocket Book

SJB: The poems in New York Pocket Book touch on the idea that the experience of being a tourist can give us a new way to see and experience ourselves. The collection’s main character, Josephine, closely observes her new experiences – the ‘American accent dipping and pausing,’ the ‘Manhattan sky.’ The idea works on two levels, with Josephine experiencing New York and with the reader experiencing Josephine. Can you speak to this idea in terms of your poetry? Do you see the poem as a way to provide a reader with a new experience of themselves?

PG: Perhaps any book refreshes our view of ourselves to varying degrees, but I really like the multiple reading experiences you have spotted. Learning another language for years, I always felt I wore my clothes slightly differently, that I had licence to be a slightly different person. I get that feeling when I stay in foreign cities. I am both myself and not myself. I eat things I might not normally eat. My daily routine goes out the window. So is it a stretch to say the reader in entering a book that is anchored in an iconic place, triggers different relations with the world and self? I don’t know but it’s a fascinating idea. One of the upshots of learning another language, is the way you learn more about your own language. Conversely, when someone speaks a foreign language they always leave clues about their mother tongue. When we experience a new city, we open windows on the familiar as much as we do the unfamiliar. So perhaps the poem is the surrogate new city, the surrogate new language.

Josephine is somewhat elusive. You are right in that you view her through a New York filter (and vice versa) and everything else lands in accidental traces. Some readers might crave more of her backstory but I resisted that. There are some red-hot traces though hiding away. This is a pocket book after all.

SJB: The poems set on Ellis Island explore issues of ‘freedom and nonfreedoms’ in terms of immigration, but also in terms of imagination. At one point Josephine imagines herself being a range of other people – ‘that person in the bright green suit / or this person slumped in the shade.’ She is moved to tears when seeing a list of ‘aliens’ who were ‘forbidden entry’ and asks, ‘but how to assess / that alien mind when English was a foreign / tongue.’ Do you think that literature is a vehicle for inhabiting an ‘alien mind’?

PG: Absolutely. I have drafted a chapter on how poets step into the shoes of others for my book on New Zealand women poets and I was surprised at the directions my thinking took. The significant word here, though, is ‘alien’ and it seems pertinent in view of the current fracas in the world about immigration and difference. I was utterly moved by my trip to Ellis Island and encountering thorny notions of the Great American Dream. In these poems, Josephine never lets go of the fact she is outside peering in. I felt like an alien. I felt like I was trespassing. I felt like my ink was imbued with a volatile mix of fact and imagination. Every which way you look is the magnetic tug of hope. When I think back to those poems and my trip to the island it makes the mishmash of British hope so unbearable. The ability to understand one another seems so rusted apart. That’s how I felt on the island. That’s what I wanted to translate.

Image: 'Drowning in thoughts,' Kathrin Honesta, 2015
Image: ‘Drowning in thoughts’ by Kathrin Honesta, 2015

SJB: A few years ago I read Robert Hass’s ‘Iowa, January,’ and since then I’ve been obsessed with the two-line poem. You have quite a few in the collection. Can you talk about the pressure of a two-line poem, and what you wanted them to achieve?

PG: I like the way a two-line poem changes the melody of a book as a whole. I think Bill Manhire is a local whizz at this –he delivers little couplets that sizzle on the tongue and leave an effervescent after-taste like a shot of vitamins. They are like little lozenges of wit and song. Gregory O’Brien achieves the same delicious result. When I write two-line poems, I want a shift in melodic effect. I guess I am drawn to the way small things hold larger things: complexity, narrative, memory, mystery, even seeds of magnitude, tantalising reserve. As a teenager I was really into Eastern philosophy. Sometime it is just a matter of pausing to look at a leaf and seeing the way it foxtrots rather than waltzes.

SJB: New York Pocket Book shows your love for New York, and also for American poetry. Your poems feature poets such as Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, Louise Glück (who grew up in New York), and Alan Ginsberg. Has American poetry influenced your own writing?

PG: I think my debut collection, Cookhouse, was enormously affected by American poetry because I was enormously affected by American poetry at the time. I wrote it while I was doing my Italian Masters so poetry felt like a necessary counterpoint to inhabiting another language. I was drawn to an eclectic range of poets from Gertrude Stein to Susan Howe, from Robert Creeley to Frank O’Hara, from Robert Hass to Emily Dickinson, from H. D. to Wallace Stevens. Oh Louise Glück and Lyn Hejinian. My first book got some pretty scathing reviews and I felt at the time they were attacking American poetry as much as they were attacking my book. Murray Edmond wrote an extraordinary counter letter for Landfall. It was a vital lesson for a poet starting out. I immediately constructed a mental venue for the white noise of writing. The reviews, award seasons and so on can never erode what matters: writing itself.

My love of American poetry never left me, but my counterpoint to my Italian Doctorate shifted to New Zealand poetry. I wanted an increased familiarity with the communities from which I wrote. What American poetry gifted me, with that delicious knot of writing threads and poetry rebellions, is the courage to write in ways that suit me.

On being cowardly & ‘LITANIES TO MY HEAVENLY BROWN BODY’ by Mark Aguhar

Most of us feel heartbroken for the people killed in Orlando, and for the families of those people. I was vacuuming and listening to Dan Savage talk about meeting his husband in a gay club, and his voice kept on cracking. This is a man who in over 500 podcasts I’ve never heard break. As well as sadness, I’ve felt personally shaken by the murders. As though someone has twiddled a dial and my own life has come into focus.

If you’ve read some of my poems, you’ll know I grew up with a transgender father. Dad hid her womanhood until both my sister and I had long left home. The result of Dad having to hide – in the most general terms – was my dysfunctional childhood. I’ve always carried anger about that childhood. I’ve always felt a sense of entitlement, rightly or wrongly, to the chocolate box childhood of white suburbia.

Image: Art Hoe
Image: Art Hoe

On an intellectual level I know that Dad, as a trans woman, wasn’t hiding from me, my sister, or my mother. She was hiding because her identity would not be accepted let alone celebrated. She was hiding because she wanted to lecture at the university, and to provide for her family, and because she’d been taught a deep shame for who she was. After Orlando I started to emotionally understand my Dad’s choices, and to understand they’d become my own choices. I wanted to stand in grief with the LGBT community, but I couldn’t because I was hiding. Over the years I’ve referred to myself as ‘subtly subversive,’ but Orlando has made me realise ‘subtly’ is another word for ‘cowardly.’ As a white woman who appears straight and gender-typical, I’ve never had to say, beyond my close friends and family: I am bisexual. I love both men and women.

As Owen Jones said, ‘This isn’t about me, so let’s just use it as a case study.’ This morning I was reading Olivia Laing’s piece on Orlando and erasure and she said:

You come out and you get pushed back in again. I summarised some of this in my last book, The Lonely City. Later, a journalist interviewing me asked if I’d had “trans pushback” for my comments. For a minute I didn’t know what she meant and then – that familiar, drenching rush of shame – I understood. She meant I wasn’t a real trans person because I wasn’t, as far as she could see, transitioning from one gender to another. We can’t see you, therefore you don’t exist. Straight people erasing queers for not fitting into their assumptions of how things should be. All of this came back to me when I watched the footage of Jones on TV. Forty-nine queer people dead, many of them Latinx, queer people of colour, their sexuality and race erased in an instant. Hardly any wonder Jones walked out. I can’t bear it any more, this arrogant, hateful refusal to see.

Unlike those who died in Orlando, no one tries to kill me. No one denies my existence. No one, that is, apart from myself. The one thing I can do for those who died in Orlando, and those of us who are straight appearing LGBT+ people, is to stop participating in LGBT+ erasure, and to stand up and be seen. It is an almost meaningless gesture in the liberal utopia that is Wellington, but it’s all that I’ve got. It’s what my Dad finally did, and continues to do each day. So this poem by Mark Aguhar, a trans poet of colour who committed suicide at the age of 24, this one’s for my Dad, and for all of those who won’t be erased.

Dad reading to my son over the holidays.
Dad reading to my son over the holidays.






The Abseiling Aunty: A Conversation with Ashleigh Young

Fits & StartsI like to read and review New Zealand poetry, and because I live in Wellington quite a few of these collections come from Victoria University Press. When Ashleigh Young began working as their editor, I began to notice her careful hand on the collections. I asked Ashleigh a few questions about being an editor.

Sarah Jane Barnett: I was watching the show Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee and Jerry Seinfeld asked Barack Obama, ‘If politics was a sport, what sport would it be?’ So, if editing was a sport, what sport would it be?

Ashleigh Young: I was about to say cricket – long bouts of brooding interrupted by sudden bouts of high-speed action and head-clutching – but you can say that about almost anything. About life. I wonder if maybe editing is a bit like tenpin bowling. Every bit of editorial interference is a small act of violence, essentially trying to knock things down – but there’s this attempt at elegance, at the graceful flourish. And then there’s the stubborn beauty of the pins that remain standing. Also, tenpin bowling is the sport of grudging office team-building that ends up being quite fun.

Just contradicting myself, though, I think there’s something intrinsically un-sporty about editing. The writer and the editor shouldn’t feel like they’re adversaries grappling for ultimate power. No one should be spraying champagne around if they ‘win’. They can do that at the book launch.

SJB: When I’m reviewing a collection of poetry I try to differentiate between my taste and poetic craft. The hardest to review are collections which are beautifully crafted, but are not the type of poetry I’m drawn to. Do you have a similar experience when editing? As in, how do you balance your own taste with what the writer is trying to achieve, or more so, with the vision of the publisher? How do you argue for a change that a writer may not want?

AY: I do have that experience sometimes. But even with a book that I wouldn’t ordinarily seek out, when I’m spending time with it I always discover something I like or admire or find funny. Editing is great for pushing you past your first impressions and limbering you up, testing your flexibility, as a reader.

As for how I’ll argue for an unwanted change, it depends what sort of change it is. If it’s a matter of style, like a decision to use macrons for te reo Māori or to spell out numbers one to ten, I’m not going to back down unless there’s a good reason for departing from an agreed rule (and, to be fair, in poetry there often is). But if the change is more a matter of content, such as rewriting a line because I think it’s too sentimental, that’s not something I can baldly insist on, no matter how much I’d like to. I can state my case once or twice, but if the writer doesn’t want it, you’re doing them a disservice by carrying on arguing. It’s the writer’s prerogative to not take your advice. There’s this phrase that comes up in publishing: ‘Sometimes you need to save an author from themselves.’ But you can’t every time. Who says they want saving, anyway? It’s a bit like giving someone advice on their dance routine. ‘Don’t do those jazz hands yet! It’s too soon! Do them at the end!’ Some writers will give you a withering look and do their jazz hands more energetically. I’ve had this experience when being edited myself.

As for the vision of the publisher, well. The publishing company I work for is interested, above all, in making vital contributions to people’s reading lives. That makes it easy for me because I want that too, and so does the writer. But I have been on jobs where I’ve had to compromise a writer’s work to meet a publisher’s or client’s demands, and that’s quite tough. Carol Fisher Saller, who wrote The Subversive Copy Editor and who runs a great blog with the same name, talks about ‘the most productive order of an editor’s loyalties’, and she believes that the writer should sit very close to the top of the list, and the publisher close to the bottom. Both of them are working together in the service of the reader, who sits at the very top. This might get me into trouble but I think that’s about right.

VUP Collections
Two VUP collections that Ashleigh’s edited.

SJB: I was having a conversation the other day about the difference between detail thinkers and big picture thinkers. I can imagine that line editing needs someone who can focus on detail, but the feel of a book must require big picture thinking. Can you talk to that idea?

AY: Technically this is the difference between substantive (or structural) editing, and copyediting. The substantive work is your big picture: which poems to keep and which to leave out, whether to have sections or no sections, whether the story (if a story is consciously being told) is coherent, and so on. And at the most basic level it’s what the book is ‘about’: its preoccupations and discoveries, its emotional register, its recurring images and characters, how the poems speak to one another. I see a lot of poetry collections where there’s no need for me to interfere greatly at that level, because the writer has already done a lot of deep thinking (… or unconscious thinking). Having said that, another collection might start out as a daunting morass that needs to be coaxed into a shape, and that’s a process of suggestion and refinement.

With both editing and writing poetry, the hard graft tends to happen inside the detail – I guess because that’s where the poetry is. As well as getting the mathematics of the work in place (spelling, spacing, quotations from other sources, etc.), I interrogate the language. The guiding question is always simply: is the language working hard? Other questions come from that. Could this image be sharper; is this abstraction too cryptic; is this adjective earning its keep; is this first line throat-clearing? A few days ago Bill Manhire tweeted this micro-poem:

The Weeping Poet

can’t see
the page
for the seepage

Sometimes the editor’s job is to get in there and clean up the seepage.

SJB: Writers often have funny routines to get themselves into the process of writing such as laying out snacks on the table, or making tea in a particular mug. Do you have routines to prepare yourself for editing? I suppose what I’m wondering is how does the emotional work of editing compare to that of writing?

AY: Getting my brain to wake up is my challenge. It’s like trying to get a cat off my lap – I just don’t want to disturb it. I was reading Sarah Bakewell’s biography of Michel de Montaigne recently, How To Live, and it was interesting how he perceived himself as sluggish, lax and forgetful at times. ‘I am nearly always in place, like heavy and inert bodies.’ I related strongly. I need a lot of exercise to wake my brain up before I settle in to work. After that, I need a lot of tea. Then I’m ready.

Editing tends to use different emotional muscles to those of writing. I get intensely caught up in other writers’ work, and I want the best for each and every one of them, but this feels different from living with my own stuff. It’s a bit like the difference between an aunty who abseils in and makes a fuss of everyone and then, satisfied, abseils out – and an actual parent, who, on top of the joy of creating something from nothing, gets all the sleeplessness and the vomit and the anxiety about the future.

Jerry, who often features on Ashleigh's Twitter feed.
Jerry, who often features on Ashleigh’s Twitter feed.

SJB: What already published work do you wish you’d been able to edit?

AY: This is tough! Honestly, I’ve never come across a book where I’ve thought I wish I could’ve got my hands on this. When I’m reading a book I’m just reading. There are certain authors I would love to work with, though. I would love to be one of their first readers, and to exchange emails with them and meet them for coffee and become their friends and be invited to their parties. I would’ve loved to work with Frederick Seidel on Ooga-Booga.

As well as being an editor Ashleigh also writes poetry and essays, and co-teaches science writing at the IIML. Her first book was Magnificent Moon (VUP, 2012) and she has a collection of essays, Can You Tolerate This? forthcoming in 2016. She also writes beautiful essay-like posts about ‘memory, mental health, cycling, and inconsequential things’ on her blog You can read a great interview with Ashleigh as part of the What Do People Do All Day? series.