Octopus v.2

I’m over in the States for the Windham-Campbell festival at Yale (Knausgaard!) and the Brooklyn Book Festival (Philip Lopate! Elif Batuman! Ann Powers! (whose Good Booty I’ve just started reading, on Fergus B’s recommendation, and it’s GREAT)). I’m here a few days early, so I’ve been wandering around mostly failing to get my bearings so am just looking at things: the beautiful buildings (some of which look incredibly like decorative hats), streets that look like healthy green salads, a variety of small dogs, slow-moving professor-types, young men with lustrous hair walking with their hands held behind their backs. My overwhelming impression is: many people here are very, very clean and ironed-looking, like they’ve just hopped down off a clothes hanger. Even the air feels tumble-dried. I’m conscious that I’m kinda scruffy, still bloodshot-eyed and shiny-foreheaded from jetlag, and alternately I’m dripping with sweat or the sweat is drying out into a thin, salty crust. (It’s not massively hot, it’s a kind of close warmth: but also I’m a stress sweater. When I feel it coming on, there’s nothing to do but brace for the wave.) In an effort to tidy myself up a bit I went into a cosmetics store today and the lovely woman at the counter tried to put some makeup on me but like the octopus vanishing in a smokescreen of ink my face abruptly disappeared in a cloud of sweat. So. All of the Windham-Campbell writers are having our photos taken on Wednesday, in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (!!) and I’m not sure how that will go.

One of the side effects of the long-haul flight was this freakish auditory hallucination: I could swear I was hearing death metal all through the flight, and for a long while afterwards. It was very detailed death metal: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge; backing vocals, intricate riffs, drum solos, guttural screaming. I’ve never had this before. It’s pretty much faded out now, but every so often I’ll hear it trying to resurrect itself again. Could it just be tinnitus? Could this just be what tinnitus sounds like in the United States? I’ve heard of people having ‘musical ear syndrome’ but they hear opera or classical music. Not death metal.

I have a bunch of public events to do this week – here is one of them. And others here. And, I mean, holy heck: I’m tired of hearing myself complain about this, but I’m kind of terrified. The past couple of days have reminded me of my deep-set shyness and flailing nervousness – I’d thought they were somewhat under control, but they’d been lying there dormant this whole time! It’s like I’ve woken up into a room full of ancient cicadas that have dug themselves up and are now rasping their heads off to make up for lost time. And it’s funny how every time I go out to explore some new bit of the city – East Rock, today, which looked completely like somewhere I’d expect Dean Koontz’s Outsider (half ape, half bear) to come blasting out of some bushes – I feel immensely pleased with myself for gathering up the courage. The courage just to WALK AROUND. (Regular readers of this blog will know that the Outsider is my preferred childhood monster.)

But: one of the other writers here will be the poet Ali Cobby Eckermann, who was profiled in the NYT this weekend in a terrific piece by Charlotte Graham. I can’t wait to meet her.

Some inconsequential pics (they will hopefully get more interesting over the next few days, when I’ll be actually, y’know, meeting more people and forcing myself to go to parties.)

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Outsider country.

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THIS BLOG POST WAS INITIALLY CALLED ‘MY NECK, MY BACK’ because of THIS graffiti I saw. I didn’t know the next two lines of the damn song. Shame. Thanks Holly Hunter!!!! Millennials, saving us from ourselves since 1985

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(I got lost in the woods but saw this fawn so it all worked out fine.)

 

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The milks here are just incredible. I’m very happy about the milks situation.

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Octopus

it’s like genitals
I want to show you all these tiny parts

but I’m public public public

(from a poem called ‘Rewriting’ by Eileen Myles, in Sorry, Tree (2007)

 

I was walking to work the other day in heavy rain. It was one of those rains that seems to be triggered by people walking into it, like an alarm sensor. So as soon as I left my flat it kicked into action. I had on my proper raincoat and I had the hood up, which I never do unless it’s a serious rain. (The truth is: several people in my life have teased me about having a disproportionately small head – have I written about this before? probably – and I suspect that a hood just draws attention to it, kind of like an egg coddler.) It’s a good raincoat because the rain seems to just bounce off it.

I had this strange feeling, when I was walking along, that my head, inside its hood, was utterly safe. It felt tiny (. . . it is), and warm and cushioned inside its house. I was able to let the rest of my body drift about, exploring the rain. I thought of myself as a sort of octopus. A small head, two large round staring eyes. My body would move in such a way that it seemed to be everywhere and nowhere. If I accidentally lost a limb while my body was out in the water, it would swiftly regenerate. And just like a severed octopus limb, anything broken from me would be able to carry on operating, of its own volition, for a little while – maybe it would try to pick up food to try to feed a phantom mouth, or uncoil to beckon a cat, or squirt water at my enemies. Meanwhile, my eyes would follow everything.

I don’t mean to really compare myself to a literal octopus – the octopus is after all one of the most cognitively complex animals of our time! Its intelligence exists on a whole other and unknown scale to ours. It’s the basic structure of the octopus I was really interested in, as a metaphor. I thought: maybe there’s a way to replicate this feeling of having a control centre, deep inside this hood where I can shelter but still see everything, and I can let the rest of me flail about in the weather and have bits broken off or eaten every so often, depending on the day’s luck. There must be a way to have this feeling without putting my hood up.

There’s this essay by James Brown in The Fuse Box (yes it’s a Victoria University Press book, but THIS IS NOT SPONSORED CONTENT) where he mentions that for poets at poetry readings, you can think of the poem you’re going to read as your ‘safe house’. That’s the place you can always go back to, where everything is familiar and known. There will certainly be places where you’d prefer not to look – like a tiny cupboard that a cold musty breeze blows out of, or behind the pinecones in the fake fireplace where you once saw a rat go – but basically you understand the furniture and how to work the locks and the stove. You don’t have to leave at all. Venturing out of the safe house – as in, doing some impromptu banter, maybe telling a joke – can be worthwhile, but it is definitely risky. You’re out in the open now and death is possible.

As a teenager I was often told that I should be getting out of my ‘comfort zone’. The nineties were a golden age for comfort zone talk, as they were for that book Being Happy!: A Handbook for Greater Confidence and Security, with a picture of some guy with a heart for a tongue bouncing through a field of weeds, screaming. He was out of his comfort zone, and I needed to get out of mine, too, in order to ‘grow’. I now hate the whole concept of the comfort zone and the supposed necessity of leaving it and actively putting oneself into places of discomfort for the purpose of personal growth and a less boring life. I always wanted to be a houseplant, growing happily inside a warm greenhouse. I’m not sure I even believe in ‘zones’. I like better the idea of a person simply having different layers. Sometimes a certain layer is exposed all raw to the day; sometimes your layers are braced strong; perhaps more often you’re a messy overlapping weave of layers, like a big peeling heel.

Maybe all this is too obvious to be written about. If so, picture me like an octopus rocketing away under jet propulsion.

When I think about a safe house, I’m not thinking about a comfort zone. I’m wondering if it could be a place you take everywhere with you. It doesn’t recede just because you’re in a different country where you don’t know how the trains work or you’re sitting on a stage about to try to answer a question and sound like you know what you’re talking about. Even as various limbs are being lopped off all around you, you can be warm inside, safe in the knowledge that everything will grow back and that they can’t touch you in here. I don’t really think it’s possible. I think it’s a fantasy. I’m going to carry it around anyway.

 

what the fuck was that

‘Library 2101’ by personalmessageblog

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Let the eagles go

A thing that drives me disproportionately crazy is the ‘bald eagle screaming’ sound effect in pop songs. I don’t know what is going on with this screaming eagle, and why people keep sampling it, but I’m sure I’ve been hearing it more and more often. What is going on with all these eagles? Are they targeting me? Tonight I was at a spin class at the gym, and the instructor had the volume up high. The song finished, we all dripped and panted in the darkened room, and after a brief silence there was this sudden godforsaken scream of outrage. Eagle! Eagle in the room! We were meant to imagine it, majestic shark of the sky, swooping down on a scurrying rodent and tearing it to pieces! This heralded the start of some shitty techno that we all had to pretend to cycle uphill to. The eagle screamed its head off once more halfway through the song. Wild and free!

I should note something though. The scream that we’re supposed to think is the bald eagle’s scream is actually a red-tailed hawk’s scream. I guess someone decided they had to dub over the real bald eagle’s call, thus setting this lie snowballing, because the true call of the bald eagle is quite timid. It’s a tiny cackle more than anything, or a little ‘heh heh’ laugh. (Listen here.)

I’m glad that New Zealand’s national bird has such a bizarre call. The male brown kiwi sounds a bit peeved, like it’s discovered a huge mess someone else has left behind that it has to clean up. Aaaaaaaghhh! I’m at my wits’ end! It’s difficult to project patriotic sentiment on to that sort of racket. And the female sounds like Marge Simpson’s mum.

The thing that bothers me about these screaming eagles, though, is that it’s just another reminder that people are no good at letting animals be animals. We have to project our own nonsenses on to them, for all of history and all over the internet forever. The bald eagle has to be wild and free and eternal (although Benjamin Franklin disagreed, labelling it ‘a bird of bad moral character’, ‘generally poor and often very lousy’ and also ‘a rank coward’). The tiger has to let us gawk into its eye, and see the thrill of the fight so we can rise up to the challenge of our rival. Dolphins are always smiling. Snakes are either evil or symbols of penises, usually both. Doves bring peace. Slow lorises have to be almost unbearably adorable as they raise their arms to be tickled, in what is actually a gesture of total panic. It is just so annoying to us when animals don’t mean what they look like they mean.

I’m really looking forward to reading Gef! The Strange Tale of an Extra Special Talking Mongoose by Christopher Josiffe (here’s an amazing long review by Bee Wilson). The tale sounds literally incredible. Gef the Manx mongoose, who made his home with a rural family in the Isle of Man in the 1930s, was said to speak in a number of languages, and could also sing, whistle, cough, swear, dance, laugh satanically, and attend political meetings. Basically he was a benevolent but sometimes irritating presence. The family fed him bananas and oranges, chocolate and biscuits, sausage and bacon (he rejected the bread and milk they tried him on at first). Now, this is the sort of animal story I can get behind. Bee Wilson: ‘Over the months … the Irvings warmed to some of Gef’s ways, and he became a pet of sorts, who amused the family with his gossip and jokes. He was less eager to share these witticisms with outsiders who came to the house to check him out. He didn’t like to speak to people who doubted him and punished them with silence and insults or threatened to blast them away with a shotgun.’

gef-the-mongoose

Mongoose. via

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The Carp

I went to hear Catherine Chidgey talk about her novel The Wish Child on Monday. I edited Catherine’s book, and a weird thing you have to do when you’re editing someone’s book is become quite calculating about the emotional intensity of certain scenes. You have to fence a certain part of yourself off from the story so that you can see your way clearly to whether it’s ‘working’ – to answering questions like, what’s this scene is doing in the book? is that line ‘earned’? is this reference paying its way? This fencing off is similar to what you have to do when you’re editing a friend’s book, I think. You have to keep the friendship safely contained, even quarantined, so that you can deal professionally with the work. I know the way I’m describing it makes it sound like hiding a dead body. And, in a way…. it totally is. But, once it’s done, this almost magical thing happens where you can open the book as a book, all its possibility restored to it. As you step away from that magnified focus, all the book’s lovely unruliness grows back.

Anyway: Catherine read an extended passage from The Wish Child. The passage centred on one of the main characters, Erich, an only child living with his mother – his father hasn’t been heard from for months – near Leipzig, Germany. Erich and his mother go to the market and they choose, from a big barrel at the fishmonger’s, a live carp to take home with them. (‘That one’s nice and fat,’ said Mama. ‘What about him?’) Once home, Erich’s mother fills the bathtub with water for the carp. They won’t feed him anything, she says when Erich asks, because they need him to be nice and clean on the inside. Over the next few days Erich kneels beside the tub to watch the carp swim around, and while the carp is uncertain of him at first, it starts to swim closer to his outstretched hand.

It did not touch him but he could feel the water shifting against his palm, rearranging itself. Erich knew what the world looked like from beneath the water; how everything wavered and blurred. He could hold his breath for over a minute, lying quite motionless, eyes open, tiny bubbles catching on his arms and legs, his ears, his lashes. One day his mother had come in when he was submerged, but she did not look like his mother, and although he could see her mouth moving, all he could hear were distant notes; a bird trapped in the eaves.

I had this totally peculiar feeling while listening to Catherine read. The full force of the passage hit me, even though I’d read it many times. It was almost unbearable. It felt like being underwater, or like pushing through the weeds underwater, as Erich seems to imagine later, when he is burying his face into soft, cool, dark cushions. These moments between Erich and the ill-fated carp suddenly seemed so strange and fragile, I could hardly breathe. I thought I’d already registered everything that the novel was expressing, but here was something that had somehow been hidden before, and all it took to find it was a different day, different mood, and maybe, too, the stillness of the marae where Catherine was reading. Every so often you’d hear the echoes of people outside talking, or kids on school trips yelling, and somehow that exterior noise made the reading feel even more like a delicate thing suspended in space.

I thought I would go home that night and try to write something about it, but days kept passing and I kept thinking about it and wondering if maybe it would be better to talk less about things that really move us. Like, maybe – as desperate as we are to show how sensitive and perceptive we supposedly are – we undo possibility for others’ readings when we do that all the time. But, since I’m still thinking about Erich and the carp, and becoming kind of haunted by it, I thought I’d try to say something about it anyway. Mainly, I’m grateful that a book I read and worked on for quite a while is still unpredictable and unruly.

Well, I don’t like an animal story that ends badly, so: I’ve just read a news story about a dog named Jack that was rescued from a house fire in Bakersfield, California, and revived by firefighters. I’m going to focus on that now.

 

I just found some notes I wrote in March this year – the day after I’d been told I won this insane prize, the Windham-Campbell. I never wrote about the prize on this blog, because I got sick of the sound of my own voice and decided to seize any opportunity to not talk. You could’ve asked me about anything at all, and I would’ve immediately had something to effusively not say about it. But anyway, it was such a ridiculously intense time, and I’m going to revisit it mostly for my own entertainment.

I got this email from someone who said I’d won something and that it was important that we speak right away. Naturally I assumed it was a scam. I’m coming around to the idea that it might not be a scam, now. I’m still a little bit suspicious though. I’m about 10% suspicious.

That thing about knees turning to jelly. My knees did actually turn to jelly, then sugary water, then a light dust, and then an odourless gas. My knees are in the atmosphere now. That light drizzle earlier today – that was my knees. That fog up on hill – that was actually particles of my knees! You’re probably breathing my knees in right now.

This doesn’t happen to me. This doesn’t happen. I keep looking around wondering what other impossible things are happening right now. I walked up to the Brooklyn wind turbine and there was something even more unsettling than usual about the turbine. That huge, endless scything. It made the sky around it look sort of alien too – like it was still figuring out how to accommodate this freakish bit of furniture.

There was someone who won one of these prizes last year, a playwright named Brandon Jacob-Jenkins, who said, ‘I only wish everyone alive could get a phone call like the one I just received. I’ve never ever felt this confident, joyful, relieved, or encouraged on a Wednesday morning.’ That’s it exactly. The joy kind of felt like for a second I was transformed into this sort of half-bird, half-fish, human-creature. It was an otherworldly joy. It felt like it could carry me through the world. And my fear of what the future might hold – that lifted up and went away! I felt it lift.

I still don’t know what the future is, but it feels like the greatest luxury to just not be worrying about it for a change. I am feeling the beginnings of guilt about it, though, and the thought that it’s not something that should have happened to me, but I figure those thoughts are always going to be there, no matter what good things happen.

At the end of the day I went home and lay on the floor while my cat Jerry dribbled into my face. It was peaceful. I like how I can hear the upstairs neighbours’ cat, Mungo, trotting about through the ceiling.

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frgmnts

I miss writing on this blog but I’ve felt unable to for ages. It’s felt hard to string much of anything together. So as a way of making a small start, again – fragments, like cards on a string hung across a wall. Some hardly approaching fragments. But: a start. Small start.

I was carrying a long heavy box down the steps when it got caught on a large fern frond. I stood there pushing against the frond, trying to free the box. The box contained a bookshelf in parts that needed to be put together.

Kerry lifting up his feet to show me his bright new shoelaces.

I got a new lamp that has an over-sized round bulb with exposed filaments. The filaments criss-cross each other, like a tiny game of elastics.

Thinking about that kid Gordon. The seventh-form hockey player from Tauranga. We billeted him. 1997. His laugh was a sudden booming sound, like his normal speaking voice had been plugged into an amplifier and then unplugged again. His favourite computer game was Duke Nukem, which he played at the little white desk in the hallway of our house. He emailed me when he had returned to Tauranga. Gordon’s email was all in caps and it came to our family email address and it professed his love for me. The email was passionate yet barely coherent. AGE DOESN’T MATTER. MY GRANDFATHER IS MANY YEARS OLDER THAN MY GRANDMOTHER. And how, afterward, sleeplessness for being so cruel, so mocking to him in my reply.

The poster that I see every day of that unbearably beautiful woman, advertising haircuts, with her hair made of tendrils of different colours, and the look in her eyes that says – I don’t know, I think it says – you wanna get out of here?

The future as a physical shape, with heft. Enormous high funnelling cloud. Air, its traffic, uncontrolled.

None of us have known a silence like this silence, wearing its notes down like the grey warbler.

The contributor has gone awol.

The contributor flowers only once every seven years and emits a terrible stench but is a cause of great scientific excitement.

The contributor has assumed the form of a hundred double happies going off in the gloaming of your childhood.

The contributor was banned long ago.

What is that bird? Where from and why that shade of blue?

Digging a crisis around yourself like a moat. Flying yourself like a small pennant from the tower.

Amenable. Are you amenable? To this? What about, to this? Are you able, at least?

Wrapping the security light in duct tape. To stop it disturbing my sleep by shining through the curtain. But – in the morning, its long face of bandages.

Are you able?

If your week has not snowballed. If you have a small window. If somewhere you are free. If you are flexible.

Jenny’s soft voice rising up the stairwell, wishing a happy new year.

I met someone who has only one spoon and refuses to own another. He can’t find another one beautiful enough. I think this is obtuse. He thinks I am a philistine. Why can’t I seek and treasure beauty, in small functional things that, like the bees, the frogs, shape our lived experience? I spit out: I can. I do. I just believe, I know, that in this world you need two spoons. At least. You’ll see. You’ll see.

Moving truck full of young men, four in a row, waving from the high windscreen, waiting to turn.

Sunday, I shared a punching bag with a man. The bag hung from a beam running along the ceiling and was big enough that each of us was almost completely obscured from the other. Sometimes I saw his leg – hairy, muscular – appear around one side of the bag as he high-kicked it, or I saw an elbow jabbing out. And his feet, moving expertly as he approached and backed away. I took care to also stay obscured as I attacked the bag. The bag twisted and bucked violently and at one point the instructor came over and repositioned it. Then we carried on. My hands weakening inside my gloves, my punches slackening, until the bag barely moved for me.

How amenable? How able?

Matt bringing me huge, new, soft, grey socks, which I unfold and put on immediately.

 

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The difficult second cover

A few years back I wrote about what I wanted for the cover of my first book. I ended up with more than I could ever have hoped for: a skull floating in a sky, with dogs (copulating, if you look closely) in one eyehole, trees in the other, and whales floating around. It was beautiful. My friend Rowan Heap drew it. He also illustrated the cover of a first poetry collection by Morgan Bach last year; it’s also beautiful. In a review of Morgan’s book on the radio, Kim Hill said she didn’t like it. Rowan was driving along with his radio on when he heard her say emphatically ‘I hate the cover!’ and he was so disconcerted he had to pull over to the side of the road for a while to get his bearings.

Well, for my second book, I asked Elliot Elam to draw me a picture, though I didn’t know what the picture should be. Elliot’s an illustrator who lives in London. I met him a few years back, after I wrote on this blog about his drawings of people on buses and trains – drawings which are still some of my favourite drawings of people – and he’s since become a good friend. After a lull he’s started drawing people on public transport again. You can see some on his blog. Each figure is so different from the last – their clothes, their facial expression, the sort of day it looks like they’ve had – but what they have in common is that we see very little of their immediate surroundings. Elliot’s people look suspended; they seem to hover, the seat beneath them an abbreviation. They’re not in place. There’s a feeling of haste about it, too – the artist scratching an impression (in Elliot’s case a sharp impression) as he’s rocketed along towards somewhere else. Maybe more importantly, a stranger is picked out of the anonymous crowd and made knowable. Without getting too lofty… in a way that’s what I wanted to do with this book of essays: attempt an impression of things that otherwise would have rushed by.

Even though the title of the book (Can You Tolerate This?) is kind of confrontational, the sort of thing a psychologist would ask you while administering a series of increasingly painful electric shocks, I wanted to avoid an image that plainly signified urgency or panic or a loss of control. The book draws on all of those states in one way or another, but the cover had to be unexpected. I didn’t want anyone holding their head and screaming, or anything. So I started throwing around a few ideas. Some of the ideas that I considered and discarded include ‘sweatband on a big sweaty forehead’, ‘pair of folded arms; arms are extremely hairy’; ‘back view of a pilot sitting at the controls; pilot’s neck is clearly tensed, muscles/sinew protruding’, ‘person in Balancing Stick posture, about to fall over’. I concede that all of these seem very bad but I maintain that any of them could have been good.

Finally I realised what had to be on the cover. One of the pieces is about my brother JP, and an important part of that piece is a red bomber jacket that he used to wear, which became known as Big Red. There are no photographs of Big Red. At least, not that any of us have found. But I do remember the jacket well. I remember its colour, its feel, its smell. A drawing of Big Red – rendered from my description of my memory, with all its own inaccuracies, fed through someone else’s head and filtered onto a page – was the right thing to be on the cover. And, because there is a scene in which I imagine the jacket sailing through the air, it also needed to be flying, or perhaps flailing. (All of my book covers must have a picture of an airborne object. They don’t; I made that up. But… it’s a rule from now on.)

So we started figuring out how it would go.

Below is a little progression of ideas.

Napkin cover

This is a napkin that Elliot drew on in a pub in Clerkenwell when I was last in London. (‘© Bloomsbury’ is a hilarious joke, by the way. My book is not being picked up by Bloomsbury.)

Next I sent Elliot a few terrible stock photos that were in the basic vicinity of the jacket. I’d said that the jacket had to be aloft in some way.

early rough of Big Red

This was promising. There are more ambitious things going on in the following (with a different title due to momentary lapse in translation):

 

‘I like it but it must be flying,’ I said to Elliot.

AY cover rough

I liked this scene a lot. But I wondered if the jetpack-like red jacket in the image above had too much volition and decisiveness. A lot of the pieces in the book were more about uncertainty, that razor edge in perception between floundering and flying, drowning and waving. So, we went back to the previous option.

It had to be caught in a storm, I decided.

Big Red cover rough

I liked how you couldn’t tell whether it was rising or falling, whether it had just been caught off guard right then or if it was drawing itself up against the wind.

Finally there had to be trees and leaves (and words). I sent Elliot some old photographs from the house where I grew up where you could see trees in the background. Like your classic difficult author, fixating on tiny details, I made a massive pain of myself, going on and on and on about leaves. In the end I was really happy with the leaves. And with the whole thing. It’s an image I find both strangely funny and a bit sad. And for some reason I imagine the jacket making a melancholic wheezing ‘hooooooo’ sound.

Final cover by Elliot Elam

Here’s the full thing, with the blurb, on the VUP website.

I’m still not sure what to say when someone asks what this book is about. I’ll need to come up with something soon. No matter how much anyone tries to fight it, people want to know what things are about. I do know that it’s an odd book; I didn’t know how else to write it. It leaps from subject to subject and its point of view skates around. I’d like to say that this skating was finely choreographed, but often it felt uncontrolled, on the verge of face-planting. And now, even though it’s the exact same crisis that I’ve tried to help authors through when getting their books ready to send out into the world, I’m overthinking things and feeling convinced that the book fails on every count. But that’s all part of the great publishing process. I know the feeling will pass, giving way to the soothing, almost feverish optimism of thinking about the next one.

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Balcony

‘You need to think, and thinking well is the hardest thing in the world to do.’
—Vivian Gornick

Paradise

‘Paradise’ by Cecilia Parades; image via Lens Culture

 

I was sitting on a balcony above a sea of heads, close to the edge, looking down on a lit stage. The speakers were going to come on soon, one after the other, to tell stories without notes or prompts. Good storytelling means being unguarded now. Audiences want to witness people unfurling all of their vulnerabilities so that they seem to bloom right there on the stage. Sitting beside me were two women – I think a mother and daughter – who were making each other laugh so hard they were rocking back and forth and sometimes the knee of the woman sitting directly beside me touched mine. Even though they were sitting right there and speaking English I couldn’t grasp what they were saying. I felt far away, and getting farther. Something wasn’t right. I felt as though my brain had sprung a leak and sense was draining out; I was draining out. I remembered how, the previous week when I was over in London, I was at my brother’s flat, and a plumber was there trying to find where a leak was in the water pipes. He started prying up floor tiles in a corner of the house, uncovering dirt and metal bits underneath, and as he was crouching there the back of his pants slid down and exposed this amazing, picture-perfect view of his butt crack. At the exact same moment there was a flood in the kitchen, water bubbling up, rippling brazenly all over the floor. The plumber, James, leapt up and hitched up his pants, and shouted with delight, ‘There it is.’ (He’d been here for hours, searching, and talking to me, and just before he finally left he shook my hand and said, ‘Come back to England!’) Anyway – I wished I, or someone, could find where the leak was in my head, let it bubble dramatically for a moment so that we could shout about the volume of stuff coming out, and then plug it, even temporarily, at least until I got off this balcony and wove my way through the crowd, out of this event, towards a benzo and bed.

When someone came onto the stage and started introducing the speakers, I couldn’t understand what it meant whenever the audience laughed. The speaker said something like, ‘And they will discuss whether the South Island is, in fact, another country,’ and there was a laugh that sounded weirdly geological, like a hunk of cliff falling into sea. Maybe I was still just jetlagged. That was likely. Nothing bulldozes your sense of humour, nothing hollows out social niceties like jetlag. But maybe the joke was unfunny, actually, and what was I doing back here?

Every place is a bad place to get depressed but an arts festival seems to me like an especially bad place, because all around you people are making a deeper, better sense of things while your basic comprehension is curdling and souring. Most other people are appreciating truths. They are being stroked by wit, story, grace. But you’ve lost the sensitivity to feel these strokes. In some sessions at a literary festival it’s like the audience is having a collective, slowly gathering orgasm all around you while you lie there cold. I remember a friend telling me about a yoga class she went to once, where the instructor got annoyed at her for apparently not following instructions, so made her sit on the floor for the remainder of the class. ‘So I just had to sit there motionless while all these beautiful people did yoga around me for an hour.’ A literary festival can feel quite a bit like that sometimes, I think.

When I fall off the balcony, I thought, I’ll fall through the air and then onto the people underneath, and I’ll feel their bodies against mine, their clothes, their hairdos. Thinking this, I wasn’t afraid, just resigned. It seemed to me like something that would happen in one simple motion, like a kid losing a scoop of ice cream off their ice cream cone. I knew I wouldn’t jump off the balcony, because I didn’t feel like I had any volition in me, but I thought I would soon lose control of my body and it would tilt slowly towards the edge, without my willing it, and then like a cicada husk it would let go and drop. I was drawn to the simplicity of such an event, though writing it down now really disturbs me.

On the stage the writers were speaking about – and it’s daft, how appropriate this is – ‘altered states’. Vivian Gornick spoke about the blinding power of infatuation. ‘In essence, Daniel was something of a sociopath,’ she said of one of her husbands, ‘to whom I nonetheless remained married for four of the most dramatically confusing years of my life.’ Carmen Aguirre spoke about a play in which she was acting, and in which she encountered a ghost – formerly a lighting technician, they thought – who turned the house lights up, blinding her. Jeanette Winterson’s mother, horrified at her daughter’s reading habit, said, ‘The trouble with a book is that you never know what’s in it until its too late,’ and later built a roaring fire from Winterson’s books. Tusiata Avia spoke about the cherry-sized brain tumour that sometimes makes her feel as though a sparkling gauze has dropped over her eyes. And then, after telling us about that, she seemed lost, and admitted she didn’t know how to put all of the strands of her story together. ‘I don’t have an ending,’ she said, ‘so I’m going to leave you with the mystery.’ She just stood there, and that was enough. Something was starting to happen as I was listening. I didn’t feel the jubilance that other people in the crowd clearly were feeling; I wasn’t as moved as some of them were; but I felt less far away, or at least that I had stopped moving away, that a warmth was clotting the gap. It wasn’t that any of the stories were really dazzling. It was that hearing a single, strong voice was quieting the bad ones in my head. The full sentences were slowing the sense of fragmentation I had been experiencing. Maybe I should say something about the ‘healing power of the arts’, but it was much more basic than that. I think I just needed someone to talk to, and listening to stories tricked me into thinking that I was.

Over and over again, the next few days, that happened. The feeling of being about to let go would overcome me. Then some small thing would pull me back. When I passed someone in the crowd who used to be a close friend but who no longer is, I slunk away feeling awful; but later I heard Vivian Gornick speak about the first time she experienced joy while writing, and I felt better. I watched Ann Goldstein, who seemed so anxious, her hands in a small nervous bundle in her lap, gradually becoming more open and fluid as she spoke about translation, as though the conversation was strengthening her a little.

Through some rare privilege I was able to meet Vivian Gornick herself. I didn’t think I should go, being in an altered state, but I went anyway. Elizabeth Knox and I met her to take her to dinner with some others. I said how much I had enjoyed her talk earlier that day, and that she was the reason I had come up to the festival, and she touched my arm and called me sweetheart, and she would disapprove of this cliché, but my heart sang. During dinner, at one point she said, trying to decipher Elizabeth’s accent, ‘I don’t understand what you just said.’ She turned to Jolisa Gracewood who was sitting next to her, to translate; Jolisa duly did. ‘But,’ Vivian said, bewildered, ‘why would you say “e” when you mean “i”? I mean – you’re educated people, right?’ She was joking but I loved her openness about her confusion, and her resolve that, actually, our accents didn’t make sense. None of our explanations seemed to touch her; she just accepted that she was on the outside here. The night culminated with us singing the New Zealand national anthem at her, across the table – I was so embarrassed I had to pinch the bridge of my nose while I sang – while she looked at us all with this deep, almost beautiful confusion.

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