Friday, May 16, 2008

Poetry Session 3: Graham Lindsay

[Photograph: Bill Lindsay (nzepc)]

If you've read the interview with Graham Lindsay which I included in your course anthology, you'll remember that he talks about his "notebook process":

"I started writing and publishing when I was in my late teens, and that’s twenty, twenty-five years ago [the interview was conducted in 1997]. Over that period of time I’ve been using a kind of notebook process. When something occurs to you, you have a notebook handy so that you can actually put down some approximation of that idea or thought or feeling at the time, whilst you’re hot, whilst you’re familiar with it. So, having adopted that approach, I’ve found that I don’t really know at the time that I’m writing something, whether or not I’m going to be able to do anything more with it. I’ve got to go through it, perhaps months, years later, to see what is of interest there, what I can do something more with.

At this point Graham got up to show me the notebooks in his desk. The bottom drawer was packed full of red, hard-backed 4B1 notebooks. Above was another drawer, perhaps slightly less full. There were, he told me, 132 of them.

During their third birthday symposium in July 2004, Graham was presented with one of the nzepc's special Tapa notebooks. He returned it to Auckland University Library's Special collections for archiving in July 2005. Here's one of the pages:


she said they get some
weird people off the street
during the writing courses
I said I'm one of those people
pretty soon she made a gesture to the effect
'the purpose of my visit had been met'
maybe she shifted in her chair

Yeah, Graham! I fear I'm one of those people, too ...

only two or three weeks ago we said to each other,
How long has she got? and agreed
two, maybe three years at the most.
The following week she was dead. That last night,

following her up the stairs (my job in case she fell -
he daughter pulling her by wrists) I said the usual
encouraging things like Shake a leg, Granny, and
Go Granny, you're doing well (she had lost the ability to retort).

She put everything into it,
as if it were the last leg to the summit.

Graham also provided an introduction to the notebook:

I felt really honoured to be presented with my tapa notebook. Stephen Innes's choice for me turned out to be a good one too. The cover looks to me to suggest a cosmological scene or one to do with navigation, a dark star seen over the shoulder of a solar flare or above an outrigger sail.

I decided to use my notebook to present a selection of notes from my time as the 2004 Ursula Bethell / Creative New Zealand Resident in Creative Writing at the University of Canterbury. Michele indicated some graphic elements would also be welcome so I began sketching signs on roads and pathways on my cycle route to and from the university.

I've been keeping notebooks for ages, but I've never tried to develop a handwriting style. Occasionally, I've been impressed when a 't' makes a sort of mast or the looping tail on a 'g' looks pretty wild. But I've always considered notebooks as places to catch thoughts and language rather than aesthetic objects or places where thoughts are completed. I usually go back to see what still interests me to see if I can do anything more to it to make it publishable.

So the idea of making a selection from my notebooks, even though it seemed straightforward, caused various performance anxieties, like having my teaching inspected, or replicating a 'spontaneous' conversation.

Which is why I thought Murray Edmond was onto it when he used a ringbinder for his 'tapa': if he made a mistake, he would be able to have another go. I'm not saying he did, just that he could.

In fact I was given two tapa notebooks, I used the other one to do dummy runs in. (It has a cover that vaguely looks like a handmirror with a pixie face in it.)

I did some drafting on my computer too. Though I often went back to the original wordings and constructions because of not having an open-ended amount of time. In the interim I came across this quote from Toss Woollaston: 'Smoothing over work you have just done is going backwards. Tidying up is the devil—you don't touch that in painting. If relations are wrong you make huge alterations, you don't tidy up—you repaint the whole thing every time you touch it.' (From Gregory O'Brien's book Lands & Deeds). I think that's relevant? Also I roughed out a layout on my computer.

I had thought about making my own 'tapa' notebook using locally made paper and learning how to bookbind. I had thought about learning calligraphy. I've always admired my father's handwriting, he used to transcribe his favourite poems by Chinese poets onto a newsprint block. He had a beautiful hand. I've hankered for years to have a go at painting my poems. These thoughts were all part of that. When I accepted Michele's invitation to meet a deadline though I had to get on with it and so the originally intended format was retained.

The title The Priests of Nothingness comes from a quote, which I have included in the notebook, about these Japanese monks called Fuke monks who used the flute as a meditation tool. As the quote says, 'They would walk through the streets . . . trying to play the one note that would enlighten the world.' That's partly what I think poets try to do. I think poets are priests of nothingness.

curtains shifting in light air

shaft like a lift well
on its side:

at the near end
blue light playing along its edges

the far opening on smokey-grey
star clouds


It's this "notebook process" I'd like to start off with at our session on Monday. You'll note that the tapa notebook process was far more elaborate - almost staged, in fact. The spontaneity of a notebook can hardly be evident when you've done "dummy runs" in another notebook first, and even done some drafting on the computer first.

I guess that's the reason why Graham had provided that semi-apologetic introduction to "The Priests of Nothingness," as he ended up calling the collection as a whole.

I guess I'd like to talk about the Beats (Ginsberg, Kerouac et al.) and their cult of spontaneity in word in deed. Then go on to Black Mountain (Olson & Creeley) and the "open form" they introduced to NZ poetry in the 70s, when Lindsay first started writing and publishing. I'd also like to talk about Zen, domesticity, George Oppen, and a host of other subjects -- but we'll see hwo far we get.

In any case, this conversation can segue over into the discussion of Peter Reading and Paul Muldoon we're timetabled to have after mid-year break (note the change in the timetable: two poetry sessions in a row, sandwiching the holidays, and then two fiction sessions in a row).

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