Dear Bob Cunis

One of the things I did when up was up in Auckland for the writers’  festival was meet my friend Donald for breakfast one morning, on K Road, just after I had fallen over while walking to meet him. It was raining and those little raised metal dots that announce a pedestrian crossing were slippery. Both of my legs shot out from underneath me like they were on model train tracks, then I was lying down on the road. It almost felt good. It’s better to be unambiguous about falling over. A wave of pedestrians came towards me with concerned faces, and that made me feel good too, in the midst of shame. Anyway, Donald was my high school music teacher in the late 90s. We’ve stayed in touch off and on, and he still plays clarinet in various orchestras and teaches music. He is a tall man with a large smiling face and he has a lot to say. He says things like: ‘Wait – I have just remembered an anecdote from my past.’ In my mind he always wears a mustard-coloured corduroy jacket – this was the jacket he always wore as my music teacher – even though he’s been wearing other sorts of jackets for the last few years.

‘I’ve been thinking about getting rid of my TV,’ said Donald. We were sitting in a cafe where rumpled, writerly-looking types were dotted around the tables. I noticed a man I had danced at aggressively at Bar Bodega, like some kind of dancing bully, about ten years ago and I took care not to catch his eye. I remember him reciprocating but reluctantly.

I can’t remember word for word what Donald said, but I have an approximation. I was lamenting the fact that I don’t give myself much time to write these days – I am always doing something else at the same time, or thinking about things I have to do, or feeling worried about spending time on it at all; this is always a banal thing to say but it also seems like an inevitable thing to say, it just comes up as soon as people start talking about their art. Donald said: ‘I’ve been thinking about getting rid of my TV. But the thing is I’ve taken to practising my clarinet in front of the TV while watching movies. This is actually how I watched the entirety of Frozen.’

I haven’t seen Donald play for a few years but I remember him being an expressive player. He sways around and bobs at the knees, and wears a deep frown on his face. I pictured Donald standing up in front of the telly while playing his clarinet. It struck me as a version of shouting at the TV. ‘But can you take in anything of what’s going on in the movie while you’re playing?’

‘Well, every now and then I’ll stop so that I can catch a bit of dialogue or something, but it’s amazing how much you can follow just by watching the action and playing the clarinet.’ Then he said: ‘I’ve just remembered something from my past. My friend once told me about the cricketer Bob Cunis, and how there was this radio commentator who was rambling nonsensically about Bob Cunis when nothing was going on in the match. He said something like, “Ah yes, there goes Cunis … Cunis, a funny sort of name; neither one thing nor the other.” And my friend said that when I’m playing my clarinet in front of the TV, I’m pulling a Bob Cunis, because it’s neither here nor there, it’s neither one thing nor the other. So that’s why I’m thinking about getting rid of my TV, because it would be better for my clarinet practise; I wouldn’t be pulling a Bob Cunis, I would just be doing one thing instead of two things.’

This story came back to me later, because I realised that I myself pulled a Bob Cunis over the weekend. On Sunday afternoon I had to read at the Sarah Broom Poetry Prize. Along with Alice Miller and Diana Bridge, I was a finalist to win twelve thousand dollars, an amount of money that seems almost limitless to me – ‘I would be set for life!’ I cried to myself derangedly – as it is vastly, vastly more money than I have ever had in my bank account, and although I told myself that I wouldn’t win, and although I knew in my heart that I wouldn’t win (it’s funny how you can ‘know in your heart’, but all of your other organs wrestle the heart to the ground to get it to shut up), there was clearly a small but stubborn part of me that was hoping I would. This part of me was losing control. It had got on a plane with the money and flown to the other side of the world. There is a lesson here. Hope is inevitable. But you can keep the hope under control by keeping it to yourself. My mistake was to talk to other people about what I might do with the money. What good literary cause should I donate some of the money to? What charity? Should I start up a fund for something? (I became obsessed with doing something very worthy with this money.) But also: should I get a new bike, and what sort? What kind of nice winter coat? All of these questions were mistakes, because when people responded, their answers gave the possibility a sharper form, and hopefulness, with its deadly bulk, began to overshadow pragmatism. From time to time I would give myself a stern talking-to. ‘You know that this is not how prizes work; you don’t win them just from hoping.’ This worked for a while, and then this other voice would say: ‘Obviously that’s true, but, you never know …’ I imagined one outcome and then the other, over and over; the two began to overlap and blur together. I was pulling a Bob Cunis, doing and believing neither one thing nor the other, and I wandered around like that for ages; like an actual cricket match it went on painfully for days and days.

The oddest – and, alright, the most pitiful – thing is looking back at the acceptance speech that I scribbled in my notebook on Sunday morning. Writing this speech, too, was a mistake, but a hard one to avoid. You tell yourself: I’m just being sensible, I must be prepared for all outcomes. But mostly what you are doing is exercising a catastrophic hope. I share a snippet of this speech here in an effort to defuse some of its woefulness. (I would like to make an anthology of unused acceptance speeches. Little unmade futures.)

Doomed acceptance speech

But, ridiculously, when all three finalists were quietly told an hour or so before the reading who had won (it was Diana Bridge, congratulations Diana), I felt extreme relief. Thank fuck! There would be no expectations. I could continue to write in the margins and no one would accuse me of being ungrateful. And I wouldn’t have to decide what to do with the money. I would not have to be responsible. I could wallow in the strange comfort of my debt once more. But I still felt disappointed, and I noticed that my hands were shaking and I felt sick. It was like experiencing a physical withdrawal from hope; and becoming, again, just one thing, instead of two things.

Just before the reading, I bumped into Greg O’Brien and said that I didn’t know where the green room was – the place where all the writers had to meet before the event. Greg linked my arm in his and cried, ‘Look, I’ll take you there!’ and escorted me down the stairs. At the bottom, he said, ‘I’m putting my money on you!’ This conviction, even if it was off-the-cuff, something to be said in between places, suddenly felt like it was enough for me. I didn’t need anything else. I said, ‘I have reservations, but I’m definitely feeling hopeful.’

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Five rides

1. The blogger Whale Oil calls cyclists ‘road maggots’. I can’t help but find this quite funny. Sometimes I think about it when I’m riding along. Does this analogy make cars blowflies?

2. On Friday, the day before Anzac Day, I rode past Memorial Park, and sidled my way past some coned-off army tanks – some of the ‘vintage World War I vehicles’  from Peter Jackson’s collection – which were to be used in the Anzac parade later that day. As I waited at the lights, I imagined one of the tanks clanking into life and nonchalantly rolling over me.

3. On my ride home at night recently, I’d stopped at a red light when four young guys came straggling across the road, all loose arms and rubbery lips, with beer cans in their hands. I thought, here we go. I looked straight ahead. I believe I looked mildly threatening.

‘HEY!’ one of the guys said. I looked at him and he said, ‘You wanna ride a different bike?’ He gestured at his crotch in case I hadn’t got it.

I told him that yes, I would like to ride a mountain bike. He ignored this, and one of the other guys shouted at me, ‘He wants to take you for a ride.’

I said loudly that I wanted a bike with disc brakes.

The first guy made a sort of confused screeching noise. Then the other guys shouted some stuff and then they straggled off, like a many-armed resurrection plant scuttling across the desert. I hope they had a nice night.

4. When I’m biking into a strong headwind, a silent space opens out in front of me. It’s a small bubble that moves with me, perched between my legs and face. I breathe into it as I would into an oxygen mask. Outside of the bubble, the wind is roaring in my ears, and no matter how many times I’ve cycled through a strong headwind, the ride is always frightening, like spadefuls of air are falling onto me, burying me and my bike. Sometimes they hit me sideways, so I swerve, or they hit me from the back so that I go surging forwards. But it feels like as long as I keep this silent bubble balanced on my lap, I’ll be alright. Like a viewfinder, it puts the world at a distance. Even as I heft my bike up onto my shoulder to walk down the steps to the flat, and wind is still squalling around and the white tail of Jerry is flagging my way, the bubble of silence seems to bob along with me.

5. Last night I dreamed that I was cycling up the hill home when I saw my boss cycling down on the other side of the road. The first thing I noticed was that he wasn’t wearing a helmet, and his hair was streaming out behind him. He was spinning the pedals furiously and he had an anxious look on his face. In the dream I thought to myself, ‘He’s making a getaway! What’s he running from?!’ Later I discovered that he was involved in some kind of illegal whaling operation, and the police had arrived and he’d been fleeing the scene.


Unknown photographer for the Daily Herald, via

c. 1940s, unknown photographer for the Daily Herald, via

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Lunch poem

These men are walking slowly.
They have angled their heads so they are not
looking at one another. They are wearing plum-coloured
jerseys with fresh, oxygenated shirts
pointing out their collars.
Their pants are rolling tyres.
They are moving very slowly now.
Their shoes are lead-bearing ores.
The napes of their necks, little flags.
Now their heads are lowered, forcing the men
to stare at the leaf-blowered path.
A rumble is coming. It is the rumble of large
submerged propellers
beginning to churn inside the men.
They are walking very slowly.
They are assembling a conversation.
We shall not pass them. There is no room.
One of us tries and is sucked into their propellers.
Should we call the police to make them walk faster?
‘Walk slower, walk slower,’ says the path they walk over.
‘A bit slower,’ say the windows
the men fill with plums and greys, as they go by.
The men are walking very slowly.
They are walking to the university.

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I met my friend to talk about work. But what we ended up talking about instead was friendship. He said he was thinking of writing a book about friendship. I told him about an essay by Vivian Gornick that I recently read and that maybe he would like. It’s mostly about Gornick’s friendship with a difficult man named Leonard. It’s a sad essay. There is a moment when Gornick has farewelled Leonard and, going up the elevator into her apartment, she starts to ‘feel on my skin the sensory effect of an eveningful of irony and negative judgement. Nothing serious, just surface damage – a thousand tiny pinpricks dotting arms, neck, chest – but somewhere within me, in a place I cannot even name, I begin to shrink from the prospect of feeling it again soon.’ I told my friend that I had recently had a falling out with another friend and that I wasn’t sure what to do about it. He said that a lot of his friends are starting to die now and he wasn’t sure what to do about that either.

I got a text from my mother to say that my aunt, my dad’s sister, died. I remember very little about her, but I do remember her face well. She had a chin-length greyish bob and drooping eyes and a quick walk. Maybe she wore soft skirts and long cardigans. The last time I saw her I was maybe eight. My father sent me a message on Facebook (that is, he wrote it on my Facebook wall) to say that at the funeral he’d sung a tribute to his sister, and his singing was very off-key, but it went down very well. ‘In fact I was mobbed like a pop star.’

I sent a book of poems to a friend who lives in Nelson. Five days later he emailed me to tell me he had received the book. ‘This morning I had a huge list. So many things undone. I considered resurrecting a Hot Cross Bun recipe for the family influx this Easter,’ he wrote. ‘But then the mailman saved me from corporeal ambitions.’

I woke up feeling angry because somehow, while sleeping, I remembered that a while back I wrote a long, enthusiastic email to answer an acquaintance’s questions to help with a project they were working on, and they never replied to say thank you. I was angry all morning, and I cleaned things furiously. Maybe there were other things feeding into the anger, but that was definitely the main thing, and it seemed to me that the lack of response represented the whole world’s general absent-mindedness in the face of all of my efforts. My many great efforts, I said to myself as I was on my hands and knees scrubbing the cat’s door. Then I remembered that, actually, the person did reply. But briefly, and not for two months after my email. Somehow, this made me angrier.

Sometimes I have a thought: ‘Other people my age have lots of friends. Why don’t I have more friends? Why don’t I have a group of friends who I see all the time?’ At first I’ll decide that it is not because I am shy, but because I am lazy. Then I begin to argue with myself. Am I truly lazy, or am I genuinely shy? Perhaps the shyness has turned into laziness, over the years. It is important to be honest with myself about this.

I decided I would stop putting friends and family into poems anymore, even though I still wanted to. It seemed selfish, in the end. I wasn’t sure whether I could stop putting them into other sorts of writing, though. Whenever I started writing anything, it was as if they all just walked in and made themselves comfortable. Sometimes the entrance was more forceful, as if they abseiled into the room or crashed through a skylight. Then stood up and dusted themselves off. Then I had no choice.

A poet came in to my work, the author of the book of poems that I sent to my friend. He said, ‘Now, here’s something I know about you – you’re a swimmer. I saw you standing outside the pool the other day, with a girlfriend. Was that you?’ I do swim, but I don’t stand around outside the pool with a girlfriend. I go to the pool by myself and when I am done I leave immediately. Suddenly this was too complicated to explain, so I said, ‘Yes.’ Then the poet said that he had three unpublished novels and that he would be quite satisfied if they all vanished so that they wouldn’t be unearthed after his death, to retrospectively destroy his career. But, these three novels. Perhaps something could be done.

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On breathing noisily, when puffed

I have decided to begin breathing noisily again when I am puffed, rather than trying to conceal the breathing.

In the past, I must have decided that breathing noisily when puffed was a sign of weakness, and that anyone who noticed the noisy breathing would say to themselves, ‘That woman is unfit.’ I can’t remember how or why I decided this, but it might have been something to do with climbing a mountain while on a school trip, and a boy was lagging up the mountain behind everyone else, breathing noisily, and the person beside me muttered, ‘John is unfit.’ As we waited, John crept very slowly towards us, crablike with his huge pack, and his eyes were lowered as he breathed noisily.

It might have been that, or it might have been something else, such as climbing some steps with my mother, or a combination of things.

For years now I have tried to quiet my breathing, when puffed, by letting the breath out thinly, like a slow leak from a puncture, or even pretending that it was a sigh, as if I had just remembered an important task. So whenever I was riding my bike up one of the many hills that I ride up each day, I tried not to move my mouth too much, because this would betray my noisy breathing. I also tried to maintain an unflustered, slightly bored expression, as if I was making so little effort that I could mentally absent myself from the scene. I didn’t want to attract the attention of any of the people walking up and down alongside the road, especially not anyone who would recognise me, and who might say to themselves, ‘Ashleigh Young is unfit.’ One of my bigger fears, and one that I thought about every day, was that an old boyfriend of mine, who I know goes to the university, would be passing in a bus and would look out the window and see me there at the roadside, breathing noisily. ‘She has got unfit,’ he would think to himself. I suppose this might still happen sometime in the future.

I am slightly puffed after walking the three flights of steps from my flat to the street with my bike over my shoulder. I am averagely puffed when I begin the climb towards the university. I am very puffed when I get to the top of The Terrace, and I am extremely puffed by the time I am creeping through the roundabout at the top of the parade beside the university; I use a last bit of energy to throw my arm sideways to signal the turn. When I am locking up my bike, I am so puffed that it feels like my lungs have turned into a pair of excited dogs and they are jumping up and down, trying to get at the air. My lungs paw and salivate at the air, tearing bits out of it like stuffing. By now I am defeated. Anyone who walks down the path behind me will see a woman untangling a bike lock while breathing not just noisily but extravagantly, on a breathing spree, and the thought will probably come to them, even just for a second before it is gulped up by a stream of other thoughts: ‘That woman is unfit.’

Sometimes I have been stuck behind slower-moving male cyclists who I could tell were breathing noisily, but I still have not been moved to allow myself to do the same.

Once I had a slow crash when a woman in a parked car opened her door into my path. But even that didn’t remind me that there were more important things to worry about than my breathing.

Last week a couple of teenage boys shouted abuse at me when I was just at the steepest, most difficult part of the hill, and I didn’t have enough air in my lungs to shout abuse back, but even that didn’t make me think I should let myself breathe noisily, as required.

Today, nothing in particular happened to make me decide to breathe noisily again when I am puffed. So, just as I am not sure why I decided that I had to breathe quietly, I am now not sure why I have decided that I don’t have to. I pushed my bike through the gate and my cat Jerry immediately came running out from under a tree, screeching at me. He screeched loudly and continuously as he ran down the steps just in front of my feet. I leaned my bike against the fence and put its special bicycle raincoat on, which is always more difficult than I think it will be, like putting a pair of pants on a car. Then I came inside and lay down on the floor and breathed noisily until I was no longer puffed. All this time, Jerry was prancing around me, screeching for food and maybe, I hope, because he was glad to see me. Maybe it just felt like enough time had passed and that I could breathe now.

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Which way Half Moon Bay?

Last year I wrote a short essay called ‘Sea of Trees’ that mentioned a Japanese woman, Keiko Agatsuma, who in the late 1970s came to New Zealand and lived alone on Stewart Island for a short time, in a cave in Doughbay Bay. She was eventually deported back to Japan because she had overstayed the time she was allowed to be in New Zealand, and she became something of a legend: Peter Wells wrote a short story based on her, which in turn provided the inspiration for a film by Niki Caro, and later the playwright Eileen Philipp wrote a Noh play about her. Anyway, the other day I got this little email from writer Matt Vance (author of How to Sail a Boat):

I have just re-read your essay ‘Sea of Trees’ from the Griffith Review.

In one of those short loops that can only happen in a place the size of NZ I recognised Keiko Agastuma.

I was eight years old and on holiday with my family on Stewart Island.

We were walking on the beach somewhere west of Oban when what turned out to be Keiko wandered out onto the beach from the bush.

This was something different in 1978 so my sister and I just stared at her. She smiled and said ‘Which way Half Moon Bay?’

We continued staring and just pointed the way.

Her quote became part of the family vernacular for decades.

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Bad, but not damned: On Tim Upperton

Would you eat your family?


Tim Upperton is the kind of poet who tends to have his poems shared without people asking his permission or paying him money. They’re the kind of poems that you want to share with another person immediately. So you do, which I can’t help but feel is a kind of stealing. I have done it often. I tell people they should buy the book, but how can you be sure they’ll follow through? When it comes to poetry, people don’t follow through. I need to repay my debt to Tim Upperton somehow, and rather than giving him money like a decent human being, I am going to write about his book The Night We Ate the Baby, like a writer. His book has been reviewed in only one place, briefly. Why hasn’t it been reviewed elsewhere? Probably because of shrinking arts review coverage on all fronts, or maybe because it was published by a small press, but a more interesting theory is: because it’s too good.

This isn’t a review. If it was, it would be effusive and dull. I actually just wanted to talk about the book. The first time I read these poems I thought of Larry David saying to Jeff Garlin that the Larry of Curb Your Enthusiasm is a fantasy – an embodiment of the things the real Larry would like to say. ‘I cannot tell you the pleasure, the pleasure that it gives me to have a moment of honesty in my life, albeit fictional. There is nothing that feels better to me!’ I’ve always thought there’s beauty in the way this honesty is delivered on the show, and watching it feels cathartic at the same time as it feels slightly unbearable. Because outside of that moment of honesty, ‘We’re full of shit all the time! It can’t be helped, you have to get along in this world, that’s the way to do it.’ In the end it’s always Larry against the world, holding his small triumphs close and being swallowed by a mob of Michael J. Fox fans. Anyway, my point is, it sometimes feels a bit like that in a Tim Upperton poem, especially when he’s not going easy.






(The poems aren’t all like that. This one, ‘Fonnet’, has the most swearing in it.) Like Larry, the speaker of this book is alone with his convictions, which take some poems to brutal places and others to very poignant places. Even his own body is against him, like the insolent lazy eye that looks at him stonily: ‘Who do you think you’re looking at, who the fuck do you think you are?’ (You can hear Tim read the lazy eye poem here.) The speaker looks back at himself and at others just as stonily. He never shrinks away from seeing. I think the best kind of poetry doesn’t shrink away. Like in ‘Drive’, where each line builds in weird, cold intensity, the kind where you’re asking, ‘Is this funny or is it menacing?’

I’ve got a new car.
It goes better than my old one.

The places it takes me to
aren’t better.

It just gets me to them
in a better way.

The places are the same,
only worse

for being looked at again.

It seems like the narrator of these poems (and I’ll be honest, I can’t help but read the narrator as an idealised version of Tim, just as Curb‘s Larry is an idealised version of non-Curb Larry) is often speaking from inside some awful predicament or entrapment. But because he has nothing left to lose and no sensibilities left to offend, he can speak bluntly. I’ve heard Tim say before that he is interested in the idea of ugliness in poetry – a poetry that resists lyricism, sentimentality, pleasing rhyme and metre, the epiphany easily reached. I think it’s through this resistance that these poems arrive at something else, something that feels real and hard-won, a language that feels new because it never falls back, always reaches. (The obvious irony is that in resisting poetic beauty these poems often arrive at another sort of beauty. Sorry Tim.) It’s not always easy to read a poem that clunks along where we might expect it to hum, that insults where it would usually placate, that speaks of death with relief not regret, that’s harsh where you’d expect kindness.


There is no sense of gratuity in these utterances, just directness. I think these hard edges are why I like this book a lot.

At the cemetery the gravestones
are hilarious. This woman died
aged one hundred and two.
We sit on her tomb for an hour.
You kiss me. I kiss you.

The more I read these poems, the less the Larry David analogy is quite right. In Curb, I feel like Larry never realises the futility of his predicaments. He cares so much about being right and his frustration with other people eats him alive. Whereas in many of these poems, many of which are indeed bleakly hilarious, the speaker doesn’t particularly care. He has stopped railing. He exists in a kind of Purgatory, a place that Tim talked about once on a blog post on evil as ‘a kind of waiting room where those who were bad but not damned sat around’. This speaker is bad, but not damned. His acceptance of his lot is not without sadness and sometimes rage, but it is an acceptance that frees him to acknowledge what is true. And sometimes he turns bleakness inside out and shows its sweetness, like the precious items ticked off, one by one, in ‘Valediction’:





The most alarming poem in this book is probably the prose poem ‘Would you eat your family?’ a brutally reasoned argument on why, in a plane crash, you should eat your family. By the end of the poem, I am seriously considering eating my family.

You are alive now. I want you to live.

My dad is a pilot, so it’s a question I should have really thought about before. Thank you, Tim, for leading me sure-footedly through this decision-making process.

This is an important book because it turns upside down notions of how poetry should behave, and especially the notion that a poet’s voice should be likeable and relatable. After reading it I was questioning my own writing voice and wishing I could be as brave. The patron saint of disagreeable poetry is probably Frederick Seidel, but I would argue that, despite his greatness, Seidel’s poetry sometimes crosses over into being gratuitously, absurdly disagreeable. In poems like The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri, he becomes a caricature of himself. With Tim, and this may not be a compliment, I never feel I’m being wilfully provoked. Each poem begins from somewhere new.

The last thing I will say is that the book contains the most unbearably sad poem that I read last year and will probably read for some time. The poem is ‘Late Valentine’ and it contains the lines:

I don’t cook you breakfast
on Saturday morning,
and this makes me perpetually hungry.

I don’t run out of patience,
or shampoo, and this makes me wait
for you with clean hair.

There are many other sad details in this poem but the saddest of them all is the clean hair. Tim is the master of the detail that shouldn’t be particularly significant but that somehow is: a hardwood floor in rain, a coathook, a speckled hen, an upturned bucket that at first looks like a white cat. But, the clean hair! The purgatory of the clean hair.

Buy The Night We Ate the Baby.

Follow Tim on twitter.

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