From the Shaky Isles

ISLANDS

O for God’s sake
they are connected
underneath

They look at each other
across the glittering sea
some keep a low profile

Some are cliffs
The bathers think
islands are separate like them

I feel so fortunate. I’ve heard gifted readers read the second draft of the Throat of These Hours radio play. And I know what I’d like to do and what I have to do, to ensure it’s ready to submit to Radio New Zealand at the beginning of October. This week, I’ll write the third draft. And up the coast composer Christine White will soon start work on her next composition, for Islands.

The readers kindly came to my place, one weekend afternoon. Lorae Parry and Madeline McNamara – both familiar with the stage play –  read ‘their’ parts again and Laura Daly joined them to read the ‘grand-daughter’ part. Christine listened from one end of the sofa and I listened from the big table, my back to them all, following the text, pencil in hand. Beside me, to check the length, the timer I use on mornings when I feel half-hearted. (When I set it to count down from forty minutes I always manage to go for it, however daunting the task.)

The reading took sixty-three minutes. Even if I allow for our brief discussions during the reading I have to shorten the script, to leave plenty of space for Christine to work in and to stay within the fifty-five minutes that Radio New Zealand assigns for radio dramas.

But there’s more than shortening to be done. Thanks to the reading and the discussion afterwards, I have insights I’d never reach on my own. I read lines to myself as I draft, but sometimes that isn’t enough and the continuity of Lorae and Madeline’s voices and responses now provides me with an invaluable baseline of shared experience. For instance, some lines from the stage play are also in the radio play. When I heard Madeline re-read them in this new context I identified where the lines sound awkward in both plays; I must re-write them.  And during the discussion after the reading, Madeline and Lorae  re-read one scene with a fresh interpretation – how I love what actors can do! – and one possible problem disappeared, so long as I signpost the tone required.

Laura used to manage the radio station where I learned to make radio programmes and Lorae writes for radio, so they also told me where the play required more or fewer or different sound cues. Exactly what I needed to know. And Laura asked whether there’s an archive of Muriel Rukeyser reading her own poems. She felt that the poet’s own voice could add a powerful layer of sound. As I wrote in the last post, I’ve been enriched by listening to the Muriel Rukeyser recordings on her Penn Sound page. But I hadn’t considered including her voice in the radio play or the stage play. So that’s a possibility I will explore.

Christine’s responses were inspiring too, and very useful, as always. She had ideas about the soundscape of course, but she also identified two places where her attention fell away because she had to think through what was happening. I love it when readers or listeners can identify where they lose their engagement.

I hope all these women come to a reading of this next draft, in mid-September. But in the meantime, I’m on my own.

Starting a re-write is always exciting and scary. As Jane Campion said recently, “A lot of time in writing is spent wondering if you’re hopeless.” And today an additional anxiety joins the writing fears and my ever-present funding anxieties. In the recent New Zealand International Film Festival I saw a magnificent film about backing singers, Twenty Feet From Stardom. Another film about women and voice, Lake Bell’s In A World, is screening in the United States. Then, by chance, because I don’t have a television, I saw an episode of a New Zealand comedy called Supercity. And there were two women meeting in a recording studio after years apart, and sniping at each other.  I love synchronicity, but by the time Throat of These Hours is finished, will feisty women in recording studios be a cliché?

On the plus side, in the last month we’ve had two severe earthquakes within 100km of Wellington. After the second, last Friday, there have been hundreds of aftershocks a day, now down from over 400 to about 100. We’ve been told to prepare for another severe earthquake and to remember that The Big One can occur anytime. On advice from Christchurch friends, whose city is still recovering from disastrous earthquakes, I keep my phone charged and take it everywhere, with a windup torch/radio and water. I wear my heavy boots and keep them by my bed, have a bag nearby with hard drives and essentials like passports. A thermette out, and refreshed earthquake food and water.

The physical experience of the earthquakes does something to our nervous systems I think. There’s the fear of course. And the joy of being alive after something dangerous has passed. But I’ve felt that the constant quakes stimulate some instinctive, subliminal and surprising responses within that are more than an adrenalin rush, maybe because the quakes cause subtle disturbances in our spinal fluid, on its journeys to and from our brain stems.

When the last severe quake hit, I’d just finished folding the washing.  I was about to mop the kitchen floor. The house torqued more than it ever has. As usual I didn’t drop, cover, hold, but I nearly did.

After a burst of Twitter activity I returned to my mop and bucket. And found that I cleaned the floor with an obsessiveness that reminded me of similar cleaning marathons just before I gave birth. Then I gathered my mobile quake equipment to walk around the waterfront to the library. Every road I saw was gridlocked,  the waterfront was crowded and the waterfront bars were full. And for the first time in years I wanted to get drunk and fuck a stranger. (I’ve experimented with euphemisms for this, but they’re gutless; I don’t dare wimp my language in Muriel Rukesyer’s presence.) These urges felt quite different from my parallel joy-to-be-alive delight in the beautiful early evening and the oystercatchers on the beach. And now, my dreams are unlike any dream I’ve ever had; they tremble on into the late morning.

So why are the quakes and my responses to them a plus? What have they got to do with Muriel Rukeyser and my rewrite? First, they make me treasure poets all over again. And treasure Muriel Rukeyser in particular. Fine poets like Muriel Rukeyser (as you know!) give us language to enhance our experience and help us to understand it.  Lots of fine poets here in Wellington; and the very first poem to refer to the quakes – ESTUARY – has already arrived, written by Hinemoana Baker and Christine (click on it for a larger image).

Regardless of those other recording studio works, my quake-inspired re-appreciation of poets affirms my decision to explore and to celebrate Muriel Rukeyser’s work as best I can.

Second, it’s possible that the subliminal quake effects I’m experiencing will fuel useful new directions for the play, where an earthquake kit’s been almost-a-character from the beginning.

The almost-spring-time is also a plus, not only because the days are longer and warmer. It’s brought camellias and a photograph. The white camellia (mine is in full flower) is a symbol of women’s suffrage in New Zealand, which has its 120th anniversary on 19 September. To celebrate this, there’s a National Library exhibition, Tirohia Mai| Look At Us Now. And it includes this photograph from The Women’s Gallery Opening Week (1980). It reminds me of small histories embedded in the subtext to Throat of These Hours. That’s very useful.

(l.-r.) Marian Evans, Allie Eagle, Nancy Peterson, Juliet Batten, Anna Keir, Heather McPherson, Bridie Lonie, Keri Hulme (in front) Brigid Eyley, Claudia Pond Eyley photographer Fiona Clark

I look at this group and remember collective members who weren’t there that evening: the late Joanna Paul, poet/filmmaker/artist , filmmaker Carole Stewart, printmaker Tiffany Thornley. Think again about the difficult futures in store for most of these women artists and writers and activists and how much women’s history is forgotten and how quickly that happens. Even the National Library, which holds the negative of the photograph and all relevant details, left one woman’s name off the label and described the photographer as only ‘probably’ Fiona Clark.  Back in 1980, these women were searching for cultural grandmothers like Muriel Rukeyser. It helps to acknowledge, with gratitude, that Throat of These Hours is part of a long conversation with them, in person and in spirit.

(They look at each other

across the glittering sea
some keep a low profile

Some are cliffs)

And I remember that just before the photograph was taken, J C (Jacquie) Sturm (1927-2009) reached under her bed for her short story collection, left there for many years because she was unable to find a publisher for it.  In the gallery, during that Opening Week, alongside other women writers – some of whom also wanted an audience for work that didn’t interest their publishers, or any publisher – Jacquie read two stories. Later, as publishers of last resort, a little group of us published her first collection, The House of The Talking Cat and Keri Hulme’s the bone people, which won the Booker Prize. This memory reminds me that there are always solutions. Keeping on keeping on works in the end. Reassuring.

Matariki Mural (detail) 1981

And sometimes the ‘solution’, or resolution, is unexpected. The Matariki Mural down one side of The Women’s Gallery is another element of the subtext. I made it – with lots of good help from other women – after state funders refused to contribute to a national tour by women poets, the Matariki Tour. Kohine Ponika, the elder poet in the group, named the tour after the Maori word for the Pleiades. The mural included six women’s poems (by Sappho and Eileen Duggan 1894-1972 – who both refer to the Pleiades – and by Heather McPherson, Keri Hulme and Merana Pitman, who were all in the Matariki group). The beginning of the dedication reads ‘A gift of love to the mother of Matariki’ (Kohine Ponika). The end plays with the word ‘tangi’ which can mean ‘bird song’ or ‘to weep’. When ‘all women poets/all women’ flew up against a patriarchal wall and were ‘bruised or broken, and sang or wept,  we were all part of that. Greetings’.

The Women’s Gallery building and the wall down its side are long gone – earthquake risks – but the mural was a satisfying end to that Matariki story. There’ll be a satisfying end to the Throat of These Hours story too.  For now, to end this post, Christine and Hinemoana’s tribute to Jacquie Sturm: Beautiful Thing.

Hinemoana Baker is a writer, musician, occasional broadcaster and teacher of creative writing. She traces her mixed ancestry from several North and South Island Mãori tribes, as well as from England and Bavaria. Her first poetry book, mãtuhi | needle (VUP/Perceval Press, 2004), was co-published in New Zealand and in the US. Her second collection is kõiwi kõiwi | bone bone (VUP 2010). Hinemoana’s recent awards and residencies include three months at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Programme in 2010. She was one of 60 writers who represented New Zealand at the 2012 Frankfurt Bookfair.

Christine and Hinemoana’s Taniwha album is available here.

2 Responses to From the Shaky Isles

  1. melissa says:

    Hi Marian,

    It was nice to catch up with your progress and process. Although unsolicited, I like the thought that you might appropriate MR’s voice within your play/drama even if affects the ‘presence of her absence’ – if that makes sense? I also had a technical question: why not record the readings so you can analyze and time the piece again (and again)? Oh, have you read Patti Smith’s JUST KIDS? I imagine you have? Merci.

    • Marian says:

      Thank you, Melissa. Wondering how you found this so fast?! It’s very useful to have your response re MR’s voice, especially as you’re familiar with the stage play. Know just what you mean by ‘the presence of her absence’ and think that may work well in the stage play but not so much on radio. Great idea to record the readings! And yes, I’ve read Just Kids. Big Patti Smith fan here!! :)

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