Three things

Here are three totally inconsequential things, going backwards in time.

1. Eventually I’ll write a full post about this, but on the weekend I went to a continuing education course called ‘Speak With Presence’. It was the first of a three-parter. You can guess what it’s about. You can guess how awkward it was. Here are a couple of things that happened.

There was this moment when the group (there were twelve people, including me) were supposed to imagine that our feet were connected to roots that extended far into the earth. We had to allow our legs to sway gently from side to side, then the pelvis, and slowly up until our whole bodies were engaged in a sort of rippling figure-8 movement – all this with eyes closed. Surprisingly enough, I was getting into it. It was quite relaxing, and knowing that everybody’s eyes were closed was freeing. I imagined myself swaying around like a reed in the wind. But, when my focus momentarily lapsed, I felt a sudden overpowering impulse to open my eyes. I couldn’t resist – I opened my eyes. I saw everyone in the room lurching weirdly around. Someone else had his eyes open and was staring feverishly into the middle distance, swaying. I quickly closed my eyes again. The whole course was like this: seeing unsettling things, and seeing myself momentarily reflected – and turning immediately away in wilful blindness.

At the end of the session, we stood in a circle. A few volunteers went up, one at a time, to the head of the group, where they stepped into an imaginary circle in front of them. The circle was supposed to represent the quality that they hoped to embody, for instance confidence, charisma, or ‘ease’. Once in their imagined circle, they had to slowly, fluidly, sweep their gaze around the room, looking into every person’s face, silently, while ‘projecting’ their chosen quality. That was hard work. When an everyday human behaviour, like looking and smiling into a person’s face, becomes the central occasion, rather than a peripheral one, well, that is a special and intense kind of human awkwardness there. Again, I couldn’t meet anyone’s eyes. There were only a few minutes left to go, so I gave up and sank into my old, comforting, delicious, evasion – and it felt good, and right.

2. A couple of weeks ago I did a poetry reading at Te Papa, part of the annual Writers on Mondays series. Before the reading, I was nervous. I was walking down the street towards the museum, thinking about the reading and hoping I wouldn’t botch it.

One of the reasons I was nervous was because one of the poems I would be reading, ‘Avoid’ by Tim Upperton, had the name Federico García Lorca in it. (The line in question is: ‘Federico García Lorca, that all-night talker.’ The poem is essentially a list of things you should avoid.) I was worried that in the heat of the moment I would pronounce the name badly. So, as I was walking along, on a quiet stretch of street, I started softly chanting to myself, ‘Federico García Lorca. Federico García Lorca. Federico García Lorca.’ Saying the name repeatedly calmed me, and I realised it really wasn’t that difficult to pronounce.

Then, as I was mid-Federico García Lorca, out of nowhere, a man appeared. He was sort of hunkered down reading his phone, behind some sort of wooden post, and he looked up sharply and stared at me. I nodded and continued walking, which was a big effort, because I was so embarrassed. But in the midst of the embarrassment I realised I wasn’t nervous any more. It was as if the nerves been burnt off by the heat of the embarrassment. I thought, ‘Oh, who cares.’

It reminded me of one evening the previous week, when I was walking home, and I had passed a woman who was striding in the opposite direction. She was wearing a fluoro pink jacket that stood out in the dusk, and she was saying loudly, ‘Pink Floyd. Pink Floyd. Pink Floyd’ as she strode along.

Anyway, later that day, after my poetry reading, Tim Upperton wrote to me to tell me something strange had happened. His neighbour down the road was having some trouble with his son, and he had had to barricade himself in his room, so Tim went around to help out and to cook him some dinner. He set off into the night.

As I walked down the dark street I was muttering idiotically, “Federico García Lorca, Federico García Lorca,” over and over – and this other pedestrian appeared out of nowhere! It was your scenario all over again. God knows what she thought, and I tried to make out I’d been addressing her all along, with a hearty “Good evening!”


3. A few months ago, there was a Cliff Fell poem called ‘Once’ on the NZ Poetry Shelf blog, and while the poem was great, the author photo was incredible. And while there was this thorough, searching analysis of the poem, there was no mention of the author photo, which, in a way, made the photo even better, as if it was a thing so unthinkable it must not be spoken of, especially in the presence of poetry. Basically, in the photo, Cliff Fell’s face is protruding through a head-in-the-hole painting of a freakishly muscled Fabio-type who is grasping the shoulders of a swooning woman. There’s clearly a strong headwind because the woman’s dress is flying up and their hair is swished back from their faces. There are palm trees behind them, so they’re on some kind of tropical island. The expression on Cliff’s face is benevolent, maybe slightly cranky. He looks a bit like Madril from Lord of the Rings. The whole thing could be the cover of a novel you’d give your slapstick uncle. It’s sort of awful, but it’s not boring, and for that reason I like it a lot; I like the gumption of it.

I emailed Cliff Fell to ask him what was going on in that photo. He said, ‘It was very liberating, actually, sending Paula that shot. I felt like I’d run away and really joined the circus.’

The photo came from an art show, a 2012 exhibition called Love For Sale at the Refinery in Nelson by two Nelson artists, Claire Ellery and Kirsty Keen. It was a great, funny show – and clever. The only downer was I got a $150 ticket on the way home for failing to stop at a stop sign. … [Cliff then went on to detail a mud-slinging argument with a police officer.] Author photos – ah yes, so much to be said about them. In theory, how wonderful to be asked for one. In practice, so stressful deciding which to go for. Obviously there are key things to consider, like: smiling/not smiling; hat/no hat; look like Bob or Tom or Leonard and so on. Here’s another good one: looking at the camera, or 3/4 profile looking like you’re studiously actually doing some writing. What a joke! I have a photo file called “author photos” but I don’t like any of them. Hence this latest. Here’s another choice: full body or full-face close-up. …
Actually, last night, reading Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Abandoned, I came across a brilliant passage on Osip Mandelstam’s author photo, done for a Soviet magazine in 1927, the photo of him in a sweater.

Mandelstam sweater

The gist of the passage is that the photo appeared in the same issue, ironically, as the first portrait of Stalin as Soviet leader, and Nadezhda’s point is that photos of politicians have to be theatrical – look like and offer the promise of something that they’re not really, whereas the photo of a poet should offer exactly what and who they are, at some deep and true level. Of course, things may have changed since then, as I suspect we’re now to some extent into presenting a constructed image of ourselves, albeit (generally, though not in the case of my Love for Sale image) a subtle rephrasing of one’s “self” . . . but I think she’s right.

About ashleighlou

Person, usually on bike
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1 Response to Three things

  1. Magical Lorca. There is a wonderful scan to his name. Lovely piece! Made me chuckle greatly.


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