This morning when I looked out my window

they were the first thing I noticed.

I saw them flocking outside my house.

I like to look at them from the back window.

I get the sun there. Yes, I wondered

why we were having hens but now I see.

Some people don’t have much to say

but if you put a hen on their knee it brings them to life.

I’m not fast on me feet. I have bother with me eyes.

Everything seems to go downhill.

I’ve got friends that can’t get out.

I would go back to when I was younger.

I try not to think about dying.

I’ve made no plans for dying. I haven’t paid for anything.

I’d be terrified if they made a mistake.

I do love everything about living though.

I love being able to hear even though I wear hearing aids.

I like to look out me window and see the leaves

like a blanket on the ground. I love the autumn.

I love the hens.

They’re beautiful.

I couldn’t imagine life without them.

They’re everything to me.


A found poem from HenPower, a project run by Equal Arts to brings together older people and hen-keeping, to combat loneliness and depression.
Posted in Poetry, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

On holding one’s head

Some use an egg shape; others a cube or block. Some even start with one feature and start building the form out around it until the whole head is encompassed. However, all these involve many chances for error. Only the front view of the head looks like an egg, and even that gives no line of the jawbone. In profile the head is not like an egg. As for the cube, there is no accurate way of setting the head into it. The head is totally unlike a cube from any angle.
– Andrew Loomis, Drawing the Head and Hands (1956)
Michael Owen, his Liverpool teammates and the crowd holding their heads after Manchester United goalkeeper Massimo Taibi saved a shot during a 1999 match between the two rivals (Phil Noble/PA Archive/Press Association Images)
Michael Owen, his Liverpool teammates and the crowd holding their heads, 1999  (Phil Noble/PA Archive/Press Association Images, via)

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week in New Zealand! This is a short ode to holding your head in your hands.

My preferred settings in which to hold my head in my hands are while sitting at a desk and while sitting in the shower first thing in the morning.

I also like to walk along a street, remember something embarrassing I did ten years ago or ten minutes ago, and then clap my hands to my head.

Part of the humanity of the gesture is that it doesn’t require any tools or preparation. There is no app. At any time, the quiet, dark refuge of our own hands is available to us. A desk can be useful for propping the elbows, but the knees work equally well. It can also be done with no props at all, stretching the arms up and then seizing the head from above. It can be done in very small spaces, like in a toilet stall on a train, or bigger spaces like on a stage or a sportsfield or in a meeting room or on the side of a mountain.

The head! Why does it do this to us? The best we can do is clutch it and try to keep it from running away or disappearing down a hole.

While I was thinking about meanings of this gesture I wondered if it held a suggestion of ‘dampening the flames’. In the photo above of mass head-holding, it’s almost like the disastrous deflected goal has caused everyone’s head to burst into flames. The action is one of self-preservation, of holding on tight, to stop the head from exploding into pieces. But, studying it a bit more closely, I think it’s more that we’re trying to shield ourselves from a sky which seems to be falling. The hands become a little helmet, a little hut. Maybe all of our gestures are like this, in the end – they help us navigate each moment, they’re a comfort, but they’re ultimately useless at defending us against the massive thing plummeting towards us.

Holding your head in your hands is also like stemming the flow of an open wound. It feels like you’re containing the spillage.

The truth is dark under your eyelids.
What are you going to do about it?

—from ‘Against Winter’ by Charles Simic

My fourth form English teacher was gentle and brilliant but too soft-spoken to control the class. Chaos would regularly break out and sometimes he would lose it and start yelling, and you always got the sense that it wounded him to yell at us. There was one day when our teacher sat at the desk at the front of the class and put his head in his hands. Silence gathered in the classroom. It was an awful sight. What had we done to cause this? I don’t remember what happened in the rest of the lesson, only that the head-holding seemed to continue for a long time. It was sort of the opposite of what happens at the end of Dead Poets’ Society when all the students stand triumphantly on their desks. We all just sat there gormlessly. Maybe some part of us always sits there slack-jawed when we see someone put their head in their hands.

I’ve been searching all over the place and it seems that no one really knows why we hold our head in our hands. There are some theories. The body language expert Allan Pease thinks cradling the head in the hands is a way of recreating a moment from infancy when our mothers cradled our heads, which our necks were too weak to hold up. (Maybe there’s something in this. Under stress, the body can feel frail and rubbery – which is maybe why we see despairing or triumphant sportspeople drop to their knees – and the momentary displacement of the head’s heavy weight into the more resilient hands brings relief, like offloading a heavy, smelly backpack.) Numerous body language manuals tell us that clasping your head is like creating ‘a barrier against some disaster or problem’ or that we do it essentially because we want to shut out the world and disappear. And there is the school of thought that the head is the location of various acupressure points, and when we clutch it we soothe ourselves.

I guess I should mention the ‘bridge of the nose pinch’. This manoeuvre was popularised by Ally McBeal in the 1990s. All the characters did it, usually to express exasperation, sometimes in unison. Their heads would bend to their finger tips as if drawn by magnets. The nose-pinch is a cleaner, more professional self-soothing technique. The nose-pincher is still thinking, still evaluating, whereas the head-holder has left the scene. The nose-pincher is vigilant at the surface; the head-holder has burrowed underground.

Unfortunately the head-in-hands gesture has become a stock photo cliché. It’s shorthand, in news items about mental health, for ‘person in crisis’. We know that people who are sad aren’t all holding their heads from moment to moment. Instead they’re going around unhelmeted, with their hands nowhere near their heads. Maybe their heads are upright, the eyes open and looking straight ahead. Maybe they’re smiling. Maybe their hands are engaged in ordinary everyday tasks. Like turning pages, or brushing a dog. So the head-in-hands photo is not a particularly useful signifier of ‘sad person’. Just as Andrew Loomis says in his guide for drawing a head, starting with just one shape – an egg, a cube – is dangerous; it involves so many chances for error.

The problem with clichés is that they always start out as truth. The gesture is still a useful one. There are moments when we need our heads to be cradled and when we are the only ones to cradle them.

Disappointed Homer

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Bicycle diary

Pascale Petit, via

Pascale Petit, via


The gross and net result of it is that people who spent most of their natural lives riding iron bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycle as a result of the interchanging of the atoms of each of them and you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who are nearly half people and half bicycles.
– Flann O’Brien


I just cycled home from work in the rain. The rain felt nice, although I still haven’t got myself some of those waterproof shoe covers, so my feet got soaked. James Brown tells me to tie plastic bread bags around my feet when it’s raining. But I just can’t do it. I can’t ride around with bread bags on my feet. At least, not yet.

Today was one of those days where, cycling, it feels like no matter how small you try to make yourself, you are taking up too much room. No matter how far over to the left I tried to go, I was taking up too much room on the road and also subjecting other people to the terrible sight and the nuisance of my body. Cycling up Washington Avenue in Brooklyn is my least favourite part of my ride home; not only is it steep as hell, but cars go really fast up the hill and a lot of them pass me too close. One time, going up Washington, a guy in a SKY installation van overtook me super closely at speed. Then he pulled into a driveway, talking on his phone. I said to myself, Right. I cycled up to the van, trying to suppress the flaring of my nostrils, to tell the guy that he had passed me too close. He seemed to stare straight through me. Then he looked away and kept talking on his phone. It is important to not to take things like this personally. Maybe I will master the art of not taking things personally at the same time as I begin to ride around with bread bags on my feet.

This week, cycling has somehow been churning things up inside me. As I ride, I am filled with grief and rage and sadness. It’s like someone is blasting a leafblower around inside my heart. I could just walk I suppose.


I did a short ride into town to go for a swim. Waved at my friend Pip at an intersection. Then rode home in the rain.

There is a new cycle lane on Victoria Street. The cycle lane is pretty good. But at times it is not like really a cycle lane. Most times when I go up there, I have to pull out to dodge cars that are driving across the cycle lane so that they can turn left. It’s not the drivers’ fault. It’s the design of the cycle lane. David Byrne has a nice rant about this kind of thing in his book Bicycle Diaries. ‘A driver would never think of riding up on a sidewalk. Most drivers, anyway. Hell, there are strollers and little old ladies up there! It would be unthinkable, except in action movies. A driver would get a serious fine or maybe even get locked up. Everyone around would wonder who that asshole was. Well, bike lanes should be treated the same way.’ It’s funny how getting stuck in traffic essentially turns me into an cartoonish aggressive driver. ‘Bloody traffic!’ I want to hiss as I lean on a horn.


This morning the sun was out. I got up and rode down Happy Valley Road. I rode to Island Bay, to Lyall Bay, through Kilbirnie, around Evans Bay, to Oriental Bay, then back up Brooklyn Hill and home. There was a strong southerly but for the first time all week I felt pretty good. Part of it was not needing to be anywhere in much of a hurry. Not being in a hurry is one of my favourite things to do. I ate some toast then I rode back down the hill to meet my editor friends Simon and Bryony for coffee before they head off overseas for two months. Then I rode back up Brooklyn Hill. For once my brain was quiet. Sometimes I have this strange thing while I’m riding: I imagine that all the roads are branches of one giant tree, and I’m riding around on the tree like an insect. I imagine what it would be like if everything in the world turned to empty sky except for the road.


I did a big ride home. I went around Evans Bay and to Kilbirnie then up to Newtown then through the Pukeahu National War Memorial Park, then up Brooklyn Hill. Pukeahu still feels like an odd space to me. Maybe it just hasn’t grown into itself yet. It seems to strain for tranquillity. Yet it hurtles past it.

For a few weeks after it opened, cyclists were complaining because the kerbs were hard to see, and people kept crashing. (I, too, crashed. It was one of those embarrassing minor crashes where if your reflexes were sharper you could have prevented it from happening.) There was a photo in the paper of a man lying grimly on the ground across the kerb: the fallen. The comments on the online article were deeply aggrieved at the prospect of making the kerb safer. ‘Clearly they have taken the training wheels off to soon!!’ ‘How about you keep out of parks, you want the roads to yourselves now you want the parks.’ ‘Open your blimmin eyes when your cycling or buy some glasses if you can’t see.’ ‘Cyclists are like boy racers.’

This belligerence reminds me of my nephew’s toy keyboard – one of those keyboards that emits various animal noises, like donkey yells, elephant blasts etc. There were only about five keys on the keyboard, so it was always the same animal noises. But he’d keep playing it, almost as though he expected it to make different animal noises. It was funny at first. And after a while it made you feel crazed. The same shrieks, over and over.

Anyway, the kerbs have been quietly fixed, and so, that is good.


I wasn’t going to ride home the long way again, but when I set off there was something  about the late-afternoon murk that made me want to keep on going. The light in the sky kept almost, almost emerging as pink, then dropping back to grey again. I was feeling good, and I felt like I was going fast. Then I conked out in Newtown. My hands were shaking and my legs were trembling. I stopped at my old local Four Square – I used to live in Newtown – and bought a Powerade. I hadn’t been in there for years. The woman behind the counter said, ‘I haven’t seen you in ages! Have you been on holiday?’ I had to tell her I’d moved to Brooklyn and I was going to the mini-mart there now.

I wobbled up Brooklyn Hill very slowly, thinking about food.


I left my bike at the bike shop this morning, to get a new chain put on, so I walked up the hill to uni. I had this strange altercation with an older man on the way. I was walking on the left of a wide footpath. The man, wearing a coat and scarf, was coming straight towards me quite quickly. I thought he would move over to his left, which is the usual footpath etiquette, I guess. But he didn’t. It was cold and drizzling and the man looked like the sort of man who you only ever see walking when it is cold and drizzling. He barrelled towards me, staring grimly ahead. I felt like I was lucid dreaming and that it would be interesting to see what would happen if I stayed where I was. I had to edge along the kerb to let him go past. As he went by, the man said, ‘Freak’.

That is interesting because a) why do we make life harder for ourselves than it has to be; I include myself in this, and b) it is very close to what my inner voice has been saying to me lately. It keeps calling me a ‘hideous monster’. Always those exact words, just over and over, compulsively, among other terrible things. It is a voice I can hear quite clearly and I worry that I am going crazy. What if one day I start saying the words aloud? Maybe writing the words down here will defuse them. I wonder if it would be possible to repurpose these words and turn the whole concept of a hideous monster into something completely magnificent.


A man on an electric bike whizzed past me on my way home up the hill. Somehow this seamless whizzing compounded my exhaustion, and it also made me annoyed, and I conked out again. I had to push my bike up Washington Ave.


There is talk of the 1.5m rule: that it might soon be the law, rather than a guideline. Drivers would need to leave 1.5m of space when overtaking on roads where the speed limit is over 60 km/h, with a 1m passing distance on slower roads. It would be hard to enforce sometimes, and there are parts of Wellington where even 1-metre would be difficult. On the narrow roads I use each day, many drivers leave less than 1 metre between me and them. For more resilient cyclists this isn’t a problem; for me, it’s stressful and scary. But the fact that the law is being discussed, even if nothing further comes of it, is a good thing. It is recognition that other people are vulnerable human beings. It is true that we need to be reminded of this all the time, that our own experience closes in around us and our imagination of other lives fails. A few months back there were cycle awareness ads on the backs of buses, with people pictured standing next to their bikes, with a word that described some part of their identity. ‘Son.’ ‘Auntie.’ ‘Mother.’ ‘Nephew.’ I liked the ads. I also felt that the ads should be unnecessary. But we’re human: faces and names give statistics a life and a story, make them realer to us.

‘Get these 2 wheeled anarchists off roads intended for far faster machines.’ ‘I’d be super annoyed if I hit one of these guys playing chicken on a bike, imagine the dint it would leave on the car.’ ‘Don’t want to get hit? Either go 100kph or get out of the way.’

This isn’t so much about cycling anymore, but something that has been interesting and frightening to me this week has been the need some people have to complicate and intellectualise matters that at heart are simple. These aren’t emotional, bleeding-heart matters, as some people accuse; they’re human matters. Some of us are really good at finding words to defend the indefensible, in order to make ourselves feel better about not changing, not moving from the very deep groove they have worn.

Made it up Washington Ave in one piece.


‘Get the fuck out of my way,’ said a man driving past me earlier.

This bicycle diary has taken a dark turn.

I have this urge to do something with this hostility – make something out of it. Like people posting messages in trees, but better. My granddad would probably have suggested writing these things down and them digging a hole and burying them, just as he had me and my brother write the word ‘um’ on a piece of paper and then bury it in the garden, to no avail.

This is the end of the bicycle diary for this week.

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This is the second part in a two-part post about criticism. You can read Part I here.

I had a lot of fun putting this little thing together. Well. Is fun the right word? Maybe not. More that it was useful, personally. It was even sort of soothing. It was like having cups of tea with lots of wise people. I hope it might be useful and soothing to other people too.

I am really grateful to everyone who responded.

Sean Donnelly, musician

I write songs. Sometimes good ones. Mostly bad or indifferent ones.

I think that scar tissue tends to build up around criticism. When the time comes, and there always comes a time, I will take a secret gulp and put on my best ‘couldn’t give a shit’ face.

Not too early though. Hide the little ones away. The spidery constructions that start out barely there . . . ‘Shut up, I’m trying to listen to the still small voice of god.’ I alone must protect them as I’m the only one who can see them. If somebody opens my door at the wrong time they tend to collapse and crumple as reality blows in . . .

Criticism. Most of the time, if it’s from a friend, it tends to smart a little. A bit like an acupuncture needle going in – you don’t know if it’s going to do you any good, but you’ve got to go through it on the off-chance it will make you better.

So many songs made better, though . . . and so many casualties.

I tend to think there’s always a better version of something floating around in the ether. Criticism can be that very necessary provocation – a little zap when energy is flagging – to renew one’s resolve to find that better version. Generally speaking it’s hard for people to criticise another’s work – and that hard-won honesty can potentially bring work to life again. It’s heartening to know that they believe in you enough to inflict a little pain.

Some folks are always critical, though. I don’t have too much to say about them. If they’re not dead to me, then they’re, at least, a little transparent around the edges.

But by far the worst critics tend to be the unconscious ones.

Firstly, the blurters. The pricks that pop your bubble with an unguarded remark or comparison. Bang. Gone in a flash. How can you hold it against them though? Doesn’t that innocent honesty encapsulate all that you want your art to be? To puncture pomposity and pretension with an easy profundity. Just smile through the pain. Revel in that perfect humiliating moment of clarity.

Secondly. Worstly. Those who just go silent, wander off, change the subject or politely ignore the growing stench of desperation. Was it just OK? Was it an abomination? Was it cheesy, sloppy, unresolved?? Too arcane? Or merely not to their taste? The silent critic has put a hex on you. Sometimes the only way for that hex to lose its power is to beg for its removal – then, just maybe, the truth might set you free….but quite often too late for that song, melody, lyric or whatever . . .

The song you loved despite itself dies a painful death . . .

. . . nothing to do but write another in its honour.

Rosabel Tan, writer and editor

Good criticism is an act of empathy. I think our capacity to absorb negative feedback is huge if it’s coming from people we trust: people who understand what we’re striving for and who speak with that in mind. I remember working on this short story for weeks and weeks before nervously showing a friend. Problem is, there wasn’t any plot. It was recognisably autobiographical and it whimpered with self-pity. The term he used was ‘fleeting and underdeveloped’. Those words stung like hell. I was working near the hospital at the time, and I remember walking over to the domain and sitting on the grass for an hour, staring glumly at a group of people doing lunchtime aerobics. Being told your fiction isn’t working inevitably feels like an attack of some essential part of your character, and there are all sorts of decisions – not least of all why we make things in the first place – that make this true. I’m not sure I would have taken the comment seriously if it’d been anyone else, but ultimately I knew he was right. I’d been serving my own aching ego more than I’d been serving the story I was trying to write, and I hadn’t developed the distance to see that. Some stories need to be written so they can be thrown away.

We sometimes get criticised for work that’s been published (or not published) on The Pantograph Punch. Sometimes it’s totally warranted, and the conversations and changes it sparks are essential to becoming a better publication. Sometimes it’s more mean-spirited, and it’s impossible not to feel anxious and bruised. But it also comes back to intent: only some elements of a nasty review are ever truly for you. The rest of it’s for the readers, for the clicks, or it’s ego-building stuff (I’ve certainly been guilty of the latter two in the past). All that being said:  it doesn’t get easier. So you learn what you can, you remind myself why you do what you do, you try to be decent and you have a pizza in bed.

Pip Adam, short story writer and novelist

I think my brain, like that rational part of me, can process criticism pretty well, like I can read it and think, ‘Oh yeah, fair enough.’ Especially when I’m getting criticism from people I trust and respect – like in a workshop or conversation, I often feel a strong sense of, ‘These people know what this needs to be and they are helping me make it the best it can be at that.’ But I often get this real, um, physical response to public criticism, like I feel it really acutely in my body. It feels like shame. Like that hardcore shame that feels like it stems from a moment in prehistory when if your herd thought you’d done something wrong you’d die. I also often feel quite sick, like physically ill. I can be thinking, ‘Okay, this is cool,’ but my body is freaking out. I remember the first reviews I got of my short stories, like public reviews, and I was so ashamed and I felt really guilty – like I’d brought this horrendous, upsetting thing with not much value into the world, and was parading it round. It’s such an odd feeling, like you get undressed at home – take off all your clothes, and you think ‘I know this doesn’t look great but hey, it’s okay, right? Everyone has all these bits in some kind of order,’ so you go to the shops, and then, like only a couple of metres from your house, someone starts shouting from the other side of the street – ‘Argh! That’s hideous! That is so NOT okay!’

I know the healthy thing is detachment – the work is not me, like I know that logically but I think it’s always tricky because I often write very close to my own experience. So when people say things like ‘depressive’ or ‘cheerless’ or ‘bleak’ or ‘Do Catherine and her friend really have to be as degraded as Pip Adam makes them?’, I’m often forced to think about my own life choices again and relive some of my own baggage and feel slightly at odds or not quite welcome in society again until I re-orientate myself. I guess I often write to make sense of things in my life. Public reviews feed into that sense-making process even though, again, I know logically I shouldn’t let them. So yeah, I do know I’m super-sensitive but I try to deny it and I’m probably cultivating a stomach ulcer in the process – baha.

Last year I got what I think was the harshest review I’ve ever had from a writer who I thought very highly of and yeah, it was sort of the first time I’d had trouble starting to write again. Most of what someone says is in my head already: ‘No one else would publish this work’ brings up ‘You think you’re smart, but you’re not’, which invites ‘You’re crazy if you think the world is like this’ to the party. It was all put there a long time ago and over the years I’ve found strategies to ignore these thoughts so I can just carry on in spite of them, but there was something about this one review that really stopped me. To be honest I think it was the last thing in a long line of things that were slowly wearing me down. I got this intense feeling every time I went to write that someone, well quite a few people, were shouting ‘SHUT UP! STOP WRITING! WE DON’T WANT TO HEAR IT ANYMORE!’ I couldn’t quite hear myself or any of my strategies or any of my friends or any of the supportive things people have said over the top of this very loud shouting.

And then there was this really odd moment when  I suddenly realised I was by myself, in my house in front of my computer and no matter how loud they shouted they couldn’t stop me from writing. Maybe they could stop me from being read, but they couldn’t stop me from writing and suddenly the writing felt a bit like a subversive act, like it always does really, like everyone is saying, ‘BE QUIET!’ ‘WE DON’T WANT TO LOOK AT THAT!’ and I’m like, ‘Um. No.’ And I think that is how I ‘shrug it off’, by remembering – and I say this a lot – all that other shit, that takes place in another room. I get to write in this room and what happens in that other room I don’t even have to go into. I can invite the people I want into this room, and I have so many people who I trust and who are supportive and often when I invite them into this room they bring some of their work and we celebrate and get excited about the work, and it’s great. I can shut the door and just get that weird kind of fulfilment that I get out of writing.

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A THICK SKIN (part 1)

‘The covers of this book are too far apart.’
– Ambrose Bierce

In terms of how well I weather criticism, I have a very thin skin. I have the skin of an Antarctic krill. An Antarctic krill doesn’t have skin exactly; it has a chitinous shell from which it sometimes ejects itself to use as a decoy against predators. The krill leaves this tiny ghost self behind while it makes a getaway. This is a way of saying, um, that when someone (clearly a predator) criticises something I’ve done, I will usually fire off a decoy reaction – ‘Oh yes, good point, you are right, everything is fine’ – and then I hastily retreat, naked and small and bereft, into the depths. There, I wait for my dainty shell to re-grow.

Criticism can be very good for a person. It can be a gift. We know this. And useful criticism of creative work (and of anything, really) – whether it’s in a published review, a workshop, a conversation or email with a friend or family member, whatever – nearly always grows out of respect: respect for what someone’s work is trying to do, respect for the person who made it and how hard it might have been.

So that’s great. But also, criticism can really hurt, can lodge itself like a cursed stone in your shoe in a way that praise never really does. It can feed our worst insecurities and replay horribly in our minds, usually when we are just about to give an important presentation or go to a party. It replays even more furiously once we have made a shambles of the presentation and have fled the party at 9 o’clock, weeping. I think criticism is felt especially keenly by those of us who don’t have healthy self-esteem. Self-esteem is a tedious responsibility that we are lumbered with from birth – like owning a pet, we are duty-bound to feed this thing, keep it healthy; we can’t go anywhere happily unless it’s taken care of. I recently listened to a podcast that more aptly described self-esteem as your armour in the world: the healthier your self-esteem, the more resilient you are. Words have to be particularly sharp to break through the armour into the soft innards beneath. When we say someone has a thick skin, I think we just mean they have good self-esteem.

None of us is exempt from occasionally being told that our work is just no good and that, by extension, we are no good. None of us is exempt from being told that we should be grateful for receiving any feedback at all. But maybe we can learn something from one another in how to deal with this. Or, if not that, then find some small comfort in one another’s responses. I decided to ask some people whose work I really like – mostly they are writers, and some are performers – whether criticism is easy for them to take. I am especially interested in how they move on from it, or not.

This is the first of a two-part post.

Eamonn Marra, comedian

Most the reviews and criticism I have had have been positive. I’m not sure if this is because I deserved it, or if it’s because I come across as quite vulnerable when performing and people feel the need to protect me from bad criticism. So most the time criticism has been a positive experience.

Except for one review from comedy festival show from last year ‘Man on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’. The opening night was a mess, I was underprepared and had not rehearsed the show enough. I lost my place constantly and ended up essentially reading the show off a piece of paper. The next day I got two reviews: one was nice enough but said I needed to work on it, the other was very harsh and made me feel like the show was unworkable and I was a bad comedian, rather than underprepared and messy. I think the harsh review was more accurate of the show to be honest. The first night was not good at all but it hit me pretty hard. I spent the next day in bed feeling sad then did the show again that night and it was even worse than the first night. Then the next day I spent all day rehearsing and practising and rewriting and for the last two nights it went really well. And luckily I got a really good review and won an award from the last two nights which mostly cancelled out the shitty feeling from the first two nights.

I think if it wasn’t for the bad review I would have worked on it a day earlier rather than wallowing in sadness for a day, but then maybe I wouldn’t have worked as hard as I did to make the show better. And I don’t even really hold anything against the reviewer who gave me a bad review in the end, because I think I did deserve it because my show was shit on the first night, and he was being honest rather than trying to protect me. The only thing which I got annoyed at was in the review he compared me to Woody Allen which I would rather not be because he is a paedophile.

Morgan Bach, poet

One of my early experiences of criticism of the negative kind was in an undergraduate writing class, where something I was trying to pass off as a short story (but was really of no defined genre, though it made some kind of thematic sense as a ‘piece’, to me) got savaged. At first it was hard to take, but then I got a kind of sick pleasure out of it. The masochist in me started relishing it, and wanting more. By the time I got to an MA workshop, I was asking them to get the knives out and really hack into my work, though I feel I’ve still been treated gently to this point. Having just published a first collection, I must be slightly dreading what’s coming (in terms of reviews, etc), as the prospect of reading them from the other side of the world has held enough appeal for me to book my flight there. It’s not a particularly sustainable tactic for a writer, though, with all our cash for plane tickets.

John-Paul Young, musician and music therapist

When I had just about finished recording my second album, I sent off a rough copy to my older brother – whose opinions about music I have valued enormously since about the age of 14.

Neil responded with a very thorough and thoughtful email, going through the album track by track and dismantling each of the songs. He correctly assessed that many of the songs were half-baked and would benefit from further reworking. I should stress that this was not done in a mean or belittling way, but really trying to make the songs better.

Unfortunately the email arrived after I’d already spent hundreds of dollars and many weeks recording these apparently unfinished songs, so it was rather discouraging.

The best way to have responded would have been to follow Neil’s advice and whittle away the weaker songs until I was left with a (smallish) EP of good songs. Instead, I set about bowdlerising and butchering the songs that he had taken particular exception to – obliterating and/or replacing lyrics with bursts of feedback and guitar solos, re-recording and changing parts of songs, etc. The end result was that I lost all confidence and perspective on the songs, and turned in one of my patchiest efforts to date.

Although it was chastening experience, I am grateful that I had some honest feedback about the album. I learnt from this episode, and spent a lot more time writing and planning the songs for my third album. I didn’t go near a studio until I felt that they were as good as I could make them. This meant I felt a lot more confident during the recording process and then afterwards, when it came time to foist the album on the public.

Harry Ricketts, poet, biographer, academic

What to do about negative criticism, a bad review? Ideally, you should try to see whether the person has a point which you can learn from. Maybe that poem, novel, painting, play or song really wasn’t as wonderful as it seemed in the heat of making it. Or it is, but this reviewer or friend or whoever has quite different preferences and tastes. In practice, of course, it’s almost impossible to turn the resentment, hurt, sense of being squelched, misunderstood, under-appreciated etc. into such productive channels; the misery gnaws away. But trying to direct the misery somewhere else, to use it, is a good idea, if you can. I’ve sometimes written a lampoon or clerihew about the person. Two other things I do are talk to a sympathetic friend who knows what it’s like, and I go back to poems or pieces of writing of mine that I’m as sure as I can be are fairly good. I did it before; I can do it again (perhaps).

Tim Upperton, poet

I haven’t had many reviews, so I should be grateful for the ones I get, I suppose. But I’m not. I remember a sentence from a review of my first poetry collection: ‘Heavy poems can leave a reader with an intense grimy experience.’ I guess that means something, but what? What’s a ‘heavy poem’? Are my poems insufficiently uplifting, for his taste? I quite like ‘an intense grimy experience’, but I don’t think the reviewer does. Fuck him.

Martyn Pepperell, DJ and music writer

A few years ago I interviewed Flying Lotus. He told me that he felt like ‘Everything was on the line, all of the time.’ As someone who leans towards expecting the worst, I related to the sentiment. The flipside of expecting the worst is you tend to be pleasantly surprised by how things actually play out. Sure, while I might have a micro freak-out after clicking ‘send’ or ‘post’, the feedback that comes back is never as bad as the scenarios I can nightmare up inside my mind.

It’s nowhere nearly as easy as this sounds, but it’s just a case of objectively looking your feedback or critique over and asking yourself if any of it is worth taking on board. If it is, you’ve just been given the opportunity to develop yourself, which is pretty great really. If not, it is what it is. No matter how crushing the feedback or criticism is, it doesn’t compare to how good it feels when everything lines up smoothly. But you’re just not going to get to that place without critique, internal or external (preferably both).

Hinemoana Baker, poet and musician

I used to think of myself as quite sensitive about my writing, but 12 years in a writing group has disabused me of pretty much all vestiges of that. Now I kind of crave it. There’s very little more satisfying to me nowadays than someone telling me they don’t think a poem is working, and here’s why . . . Of course it’s way more fun if they say unequivocally that they love it and I’m a genius. But I wouldn’t believe them, anyway, if not for the fact that they can critique effectively.

It was harder earlier on. When I was doing the MA in Creative Writing I got a couple of stinging critiques, and one of them was from someone I totally idolised. It was personal, nasty and not terribly useful to me as a writer. I think if I got it nowadays I would just assume that the person had been particularly out of sorts that day. But back then, I went to bed for a couple of weeks, until Bill Manhire rang me and was kind to me down the phone. Then I got up again.

In terms of shrugging things off – well, my catch-phrase of the last few weeks is (it changes regularly) Grow the Fuck Up. Mean, I know. But there are a few areas in my life where it’s proving quite useful at the moment.

Rhodri Marsden, journalist, member of many bands

I find it quite hard to deal with the idea of having disappointed people. Whether I subsequently experience insecure misery or indignant fury depends on how good the original piece of work was, I guess, and whether the criticism was justified. Often it is; in journalism I’ll get facts wrong or write clumsily, in bands I’ll do shit gigs or make distinctly average records. And if I know I’ve not done something that’s up to scratch I think I sometimes try and hide from criticism; I won’t read the comments or the reviews and just resolve to just do better next time.

But if the criticism is based upon lazy, judgemental thinking then I’ll want to confront it – but these days I rarely bother. There was an incident a few years ago when I wrote something for The Independent about Apple’s launch of the App Store, and someone in the comments section got the wrong end of the stick (mainly due to poor phrasing on my part) and gave me a hard time. I responded in a sarcastic fashion and had a rant about it on Facebook. Next thing I know I’m featured in Private Eye; they reported the facts wrongly and it made me look not only touchy but also completely ignorant.

I think I realised at that point that you have to either swallow the criticism or, if you’re going to react at all, react politely and humbly. Otherwise bad feeling just explodes, with geyser-like force. For example, I got some stick on Twitter last year for something I wrote about Walthamstow. One bloke was being particularly vicious, and I really don’t understand that behaviour; it IS possible to criticise without being abusive, and yet abusive mode seems to be the default. Anyway, I was just persistently nice back, and after an hour or two he calmed down and invited me out for a pint to chat about it. (I didn’t go, though.)

Given that there’ll always be someone who thinks that your work is a heap of shit, and that you’re fairly likely to hear about it, you’ve got to adopt the attitude that it doesn’t really matter. Otherwise your self esteem will spiral downwards in a vortex of your own making. But at the same time, you’ve got to be attuned to the criticism that’s justified in order to improve your own work. Striking that balance isn’t easy. But I’m finding it easier. Maybe it’s to do with getting older. Or just my brain adapting to the realities of life online.

James McNaughton, novelist, poet in a former life

I find reviews incredibly distracting when I’m working. For me, writing involves a kind of balancing act – if anything breaks my focus I fall off the high wire, or can’t climb up to it. I appreciate warnings: ‘Incoming!’ so I can steel myself and keep dreaming.

But there comes a time when you have to wake up and run away from the circus. Strangely relieved, you wander with tumbleweeds. An old newspaper cartwheels past.  You grab it, because you’ll read anything. Incredibly, there’s a review of your novel! Touched and full of gratitude you read it with your utmost attention. And then you read it again. 

Read Part II

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On a long-haul flight, time stretches, warps, balloons. As we fly across time zones, in and out of days and nights, time becomes a tangible substance that we move through, like dense fog, or like water. It seems to exist only in the space outside the plane. Inside the plane there is no real time, and there is no real sleep and no real waking. The air conditioning circulates the same brittle air. People communicate in nudges and murmurs. We try to sleep, lopsided in our seats, like crushed cans. It’s a strange static dimension – at first enjoyable, because there’s nothing to do but read, eat, drink, sit, and it feels like a little holiday, but soon those actions begin to wear and we long to walk into another room and talk to somebody or open a door and walk outside. On this flight, between Auckland and Los Angeles before flying on to London, I was sitting next to two young rugby players in their uniforms, and I was reading Alan Lightman’s book The Accidental Universe. It’s a collection of essays in which – very broadly – Lightman, a physicist, explores discoveries about the universe from a philosophical and emotional perspective as well as a scientific one. It’s a book I’ve read before, but I was reading it differently this time, paying closer attention, hoping that my semi-wakeness might lower my defences and help me notice more. Lightman is an unusual physicist in that he’s intensely interested in religion – particularly Buddhism – and literature and art, and in how these things widen a scientific perspective, and vice versa. He has that kind of restless, search-beaming mind that, as you follow it, seems to open up possibilities for understanding the universe, and the tiny accidental blip of human life within it, even as he arrives at more questions rather than answers. Reading this book reminds me of my first memories of flying in a plane, with my parents and my brothers JP and Neil – looking out the window and down at the town below, seeing the cars on the tiny roads, the rivers, the sheep. I was thrilled and haunted by how small all our busy-ness had become.

On my flight I read one of the essays, ‘The Temporary Universe’, a number of times. There was something in it I wanted to grasp but couldn’t. It opens with Lightman describing his daughter’s wedding, and his feeling that it’s a sort of tragedy – he wishes that she could have stayed the same, that he could have his younger daughter back, as she was at ten or twenty. (She’s only thirty in this essay, but, alright, fair enough, Lightman.) He has this irrational wish, he explains, for permanence, despite his scientific understanding that everything around us – the universe, the earth, our own bodies – is relentlessly shifting and evaporating. Nature shows us that time is constantly wearing away at what we know in this moment, and that to hope for lasting stability is futile. But in a profound contradiction, people still cling: to knackered old shoes, to photographs, to products that might make us look more like our younger selves, to a house perched on a clifftop that’s falling into the sea. This clinging is ridiculous in the face of the second law of thermodynamics – otherwise known as the arrow of time – and yet many of us can’t relinquish a desire for the people and the things that we love to never change and never leave us. ‘The universe has an infinite supply of time and can outlast any player,’ says Lightman. I was expecting him to leave it there: to tell us with a shrug and a smile, like the cobbler who can’t fix his falling-apart shoes anymore, that we have to accept this and get on with things. But then he suggests that, maybe, nature is not yet complete. Maybe it’s nature, not us, that can be found wanting. ‘Perhaps this immortal thing that we wish for exists beyond time and space.’

A few short days earlier, my brother Neil’s partner of nearly ten years, and the mother of their two small children Kiwa and Ngaire, took her own life. When I spoke to Neil on the day that it happened, a Saturday morning on the other side of the world, when paramedics and police were still in his home in Brixton, I heard a roaring sound in my ears and my whole body seemed to go numb. Then it felt like time stopped. The next morning, when it was night in London and the end of Neil’s first day living with what had happened, I walked outside. I saw a young woman pushing a pram with a toddler inside it, and a dog on a leash trotting beside them. A few cars hissed past, and a cyclist. These were indications that time was continuing to continue. Each indication felt piercing, acute, like the harshest glare of sunlight.

Neil was the one who found Jeng on the morning she died. On the first few days afterwards, in deep trauma, when numbness set in, he said that he became like a sea anemone, responding only to the environment around him in each moment. I keep picturing a sea anemone, attached to the sea bottom, its skeletonless body triggered by the slightest touch. Beneath the weight of miles of water above it, it moves around very slowly in the dark.

Lightman quickly – but with empathy, letting us down gently – dismisses the notion that a magnificent immortal substance exists in nature. It’s too preposterous to believe. And yet, like so many of us, he can’t force his mind to the dark place where he might truly accept that ‘in a few short years, my atoms will be scattered in wind and soil, my mind and thoughts gone, my pleasures and joys vanished’. In the essay’s uplifting final paragraphs, he writes that perhaps mortality grants a sort of grandeur on its own; perhaps there is something majestic in the brevity of our lives. And he writes, of course, about the night-blooming cereus, the leathery plant that blooms for only one night a year.

It is very hard to see the grandeur of brevity when a person’s life is cut short, and perhaps particularly hard when it is the person herself who cuts it short. Instead of beauty, the far stronger impression is of cruelty. When Lightman writes so vividly of the wearing effects of time, I think instead of the wearing effects of depression, with bitterness, because, whereas time outlasts us all, it’s not inevitable that depression will outlast the depressive. When he writes of the way the universe falls apart and constantly yields to disorder, and the way that the genes of some living things are subjected to random chemical storms so that, in time, they become degraded, like ‘forks with missing tines’, I think of these processes as the turmoil of depression, of what happened to Jeng in a space where nobody else could reach. In one way, this kind of thinking helps: Jeng was ill, and what happened may have been the result of a random storm of her illness, or perhaps the storm had been building for some time. In another way, it does not: if only she could have held on through this last storm. At this moment, the wish to reach into the past and hold on to someone is an even more profound futility than the futility of trying to stop time.

My seven-year-old nephew Kiwa likes to play Minecraft. The other day, my brother Neil says, Kiwa found himself stuck inside a dimension of Minecraft that he couldn’t get out of. He felt very alarmed by this and Neil had to help get him out of there, though it took some time and some trial and error. The FAQ boards providing advice on how to escape such dimensions say things like: ‘You need to set up a temporary shop by collecting leather, feather and sugarcanes, and go myst-hopping forth and back until you find one with a star fissure symbol. Temporary home, if you will.’ ‘Create a portal to the twilight forest. Once on the other side if you jump through the portal to go back home, it seems to drop you in the overworld.’ ‘Die, then escape limbo by finding the void.’

Maybe the place where his mum has gone, he said to Neil, is like the dimension in Minecraft. She has got lost, got stuck.

When I walked through Brixton the morning after I landed, on my way to Neil’s, through the morning rush to the tube, nearly every face I saw was squinting, grimacing, into bright grey sunlight, pressing forwards.

I don’t believe that we can ever consider the brevity of Jeng’s life to be in itself beautiful, to be majestic. Just over a week later, accepting that she is no longer here and will not come back is to force our minds into a dark place. Coming to terms with the inevitability of the past rather than that of the future is the impossible thing; learning to live in the reality that one terrible decision has made seems like the impossible thing. But we can consider many, many moments of her life to be beautiful, each of these accidental, shining blips within a life, within a universe: Jeng walking through the Brixton markets with shopping bags over her shoulder, Jeng riding her bike to work, Jeng making dumplings, Jeng in the countryside holding Ngaire’s hand. We can also consider the pressing-forward of those left behind to be beautiful. As my brother paces himself through the coming days, not only trying to process a deep trauma but also working his way through many grim administrative tasks, such as speaking to a coroner and closing bank accounts and explaining to many people what has happened, he moves around a little bit more, begins to make the very first movements, very slowly, upwards through the weight.


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Your coat

A woman smiles out of a plastic coat,

its yellow turning rain to torches.


Light rests on a man waiting to cross,

touches the small face inside his stroller.


The hills pull fog around them

and push on to the sea

carrying all our houses.


The boat folds around you today

carrying away our silence.


When you ride home tomorrow around the bay

see how flowers cloak just one tree

and leave all the rest green.


[for Jeng, 23 May 2015]

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