Sunday, June 26, 2011

Red Hot Pokers, Pretenders and Peka (worksheet #93)

Advice to Listeners
[Cynthia Ozick on Steven Millhauser’s ‘In The Reign of Harad IV’, here]

They should be thinking about art, all art.
They should be thinking about making things.
They should be thinking about craft.
They should be thinking about the first time
When they were very small and they held a crayon
And drew a house or a child.
They should be thinking about their fingers.

Reading wrap #1

King Solomon's MinesIn addition to listening to a lot of The New Yorker Fiction Podcasts and reading 'Blue Collar White Collar No Collar' which I'm reviewing for The Listener (so you'll just have to wait till it's printed to see what I think), I recently finished King Soloman's Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard, which I consumed as an audiobook.

I enjoyed it. For something written in the 1880s and set in Africa, it wasn't as bad with the racial stereotyping as I had expected. Especially it being what we know might consider genre fiction, though of course it was sui generis when it was published and spawned the whole Lost World genre.

Playlist: June 2011, or "I don't seem obvious, do I?"

1. 'Cavorting' by The Courteneers
2. 'Lewis' by Yo La Tengo
3. 'Your Love' by The Outfield [token song from slowly growing post-wedding boogie playlist]
4. 'Cruel to be Kind' by Nick Lowe
5. 'Back of the Van' by Ladyhawke
6. 'You're Everywhere' by The Tragically Hip
7. 'Mannequin' by Katy Perry [token thematic link to novel in progress; NB: this acoustic version is actually okay, the album version: not-so-much]
8. 'Tightrope' by Janelle Monae (feat. Big Boi)
9a) 'Authority Song' by John Mellencamp
9b) 'Authority Song' by Jimmy Eat World (not a cover of Mellencamp's song, but it is about it)
10 'What Goes On' by The Velvet Underground
11. 'I Will Follow You Into the Dark' by Death Cab For Cutie
12. 'Lowdown' by Wire
13. 'Overfloater' by Soundgarden
14. 'NW Apt.' by Band of Horses

Reading Wrap #2

South: The Before King Solomon's Mines I listened to South by Ernest Shackleton which details his famous (failed) expedition to cross the Antarctic continent and the subsequent efforts to "self-rescue" as Bear Grylls and his Discovery Channel doppelgangers call it these days.  There's a lot of details in Shackleton's account, some of which is especially tedious in an audiobook format, but there's a compelling narrative there. And Shackleton is often quite funny. He clearly hated killer whales and had a soft spot for penguins (despite eating quite a few, including emperor penguins [poor Peka!] I remember correctly).

The Ever Opening Eye

Back in November 2010 I wrote about how flowering trees... "But flowers — big-ass flowers at that — growing on trees? It seemed like I had been missing something to this point in my life."

"The days of the kowhai bloom are already gone for another year and the cabbage trees will shake off their flowery ways soon enough. But I feel as if, in taking note of these process of nature around me, I have welcomed another set of companions to my life. Like an extended family, one or other will always step forward at significant times."

Kniphofia uvariaPhoto from
This past month my botanical revelation has been red hot pokers.  We had a clump at the base of a gum tree when we were growing up, and there must have been others around Palmy too. Back then, I never took note of what season it was when they flowered, or even from what sort of plant these red hot pokers (such an evocative name; when I started Googling this topic I wasn't even sure if this was a common term or just something my family had made up) came from.

Heck, this time last year these pokers didn't even register (there was a dearth of botanical blogging last winter...).

The revelation for me has been that in my neighbourhood there are in fact two very different types of plants producing very similar, red-hot-pokery flowers.

The first is the true red hot poker, Kniphofia uvaria, also known as the torch lily. This was the sort we had at my childhood home and around Palmerston North, though it is less common on Wellington's South Coast.

Aloe arborescens
My photo, top of Houghton Tce
Kniphofias are from the Asphodeloideae sub-family of the Xanthorrhoeaceae family.  Also in the Asphodeloideae sub-family are the Aloes, which supplies the South Coast with most of its pokery flowers...

Aloe arborescens, also known as the Krantz Aloe (if wikipedia is to be believed), a close cousin of the more famous, but less-dramatically flowered Aloe vera.

The Aloe's pokers are a more conical than the Kniphofias, but the real difference comes lower down. As you can see from the photo on the right, the Aloe has thick, succulent leaves with sawtoothed edges, whereas the Kniphofia looks like more of a grass, or *makes sign of the cross and hisses* an agapanthus (booo!).

For those of you who are flummoxed whenever I get my botanical geek on, discoveries like this -- that there are actually two different plants producing very similar flowers -- are analogous to similar discoveries during childhood: that the sun stays up longer in summer than winter, that the moon controls the tides, that potatoes grow under the ground and tomatoes above it.  Pieces of knowledge you got along okay without knowing, but now that you know it, things make a lot more sense. So that's why potatoes and kumara and even onions are more alike than tomatoes and beans and peas (and why they might ready at different times of the year).  And more than that. Now that you have entered into this new knowledge, you are part of an exclusive club. Your little brother doesn't know about tides yet. Ha! What a sucker!

So, having figured out the difference between the two hot pokers in my neighbourhood, I am a little more worldly and I'm proceeding to bore acquaintances (and internet passersby) with this useless trivia.

Reading Wrap #3

I've now read three of the four regional winners of the Commonwealth Writers Prize Best Book category. I'd read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet prior to Sydney, and on return I've read Room by Emma Donoghue and That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott.

Room is a simple read, by virtue of its five year old narrator who is being raised by his captive mother in a tiny  garden shed. The story verges on harrowing, but I was often distracted by issues of the voice (moments when the author shows through the muslin veil of Jack the narrator in order to push home a point or drop in important details.  It's definitely a good book; it just may have suffered in comparison with Kim Scott's The Deadman Dance, which won the 2011 Miles Franklin Award this week as well.  Scott's book is rich and poetic. It centres on the interaction between Europeans and the indigenous Nungar people on Australia's west coast in the early 1800s - a facinating time and place. The issues are at once handled with a light hand (there are lots of gaps and sudden shifts due to the short chapters, themselves made up of fragments of narrative) while also laying on the message thick at the level of language. It's a delectable read.

Peka watch

I knew it had to happen. There was no way the emperor penguin that appeared on Peka Peka Beach on Monday could hang around without getting named.  Sadly, my suggestion of Peka was beaten to the punch by Chris Wilton, who first spotted it and chose the moniker Happy Feet.

Note: Happy Feet was the name of the movie, the main character was called Mumble.  I didn't want to air my sour grapes about my perfectly alliterated, historically consistent, New Zealand-sounding name being ignored in favour of a nonsensical nod to corporate America... so, um, yeah.

Anywho... I just wanted to say that I think the decision making thus far by DOC and the other players has been correct. At first they were hands off. No one knew what was going to happen (and clearly neither did Peka, I mean Hap-- no, I mean Peka). He looked happy and healthy on Tuesday, but clearly the whole sand is not ice thing led the wee man down a path when human compassion led to human intervention.

As of yesterday, it looked like Peka had the option of a birth aboard a Russia icebreaker headed for the great southern land in February, if he pulls through from the operations to clear out the sand in his system.  Here's hoping he recovers and we humans continue to make the best, most considered and compassionate decisions for the metre high adventurer.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Once in a lifetime encounter with an emperor penguin

Yesterday afternoon I caught the news that an emperor penguin had appeared on Peka Peka Beach just north of Waikanae. I was at work and had to resist the urge to drop everything and drive there right then.

On the bus ride home from work my mind was awash with competing thoughts. Wednesday is a "Writing Day" which means I make my own hours and could easily drive the hour and ten minutes north and back and still have a solid afternoon of writing.  But what about the crowds of people that would surely be there? And what if the penguin had already buggered off back into the sea? But, as readers of this blog will know by the number of bird photos I've been posting lately, I'm mad about birds. But this poor lost penguin must be sick, and it's probably a really sad sight. And what if this is some terrible consequence of global warming? Or problems with its penguin parents? But how often will this opportunity come up? etc. etc.

Another thing: earlier this month I got up at 5am and spent 2 hours in the dark and one hour after daybreak at Tarakena Bay trying to spot Little Blue Penguins.  June is probably the least likely month of the year to see one around Wellington, and I didn't have any luck (though I may have heard nesting penguins squawking in the dark... not sure). But I resolved to have another vigil later on in the year in the hopes of observing the world's smallest penguin species that just so happens to live on my back door.

Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd have the chance of seeing the world's largest penguin species on the mainland of New Zealand, let alone this very same month!

So damn it, I got up early this morning and increased my carbon footprint, bunked off writing, and became one of nature's rubberneckers.

And it was TOTALLY worth it.

The penguin was still there.  When I arrived just after 8.30am, there was a crowd of about 15 people a couple of hundred metres down the beach from the car park.  They were all quiet and slow moving and respectful of, and probably awed by, the stocky penguin that lay on its belly a considerate distance away.  Seeing these people in their gumboots and polar fleeces, some with primary school aged children, I felt a lot better about coming. We weren't a bunch of trouble makers. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity, something we'll all remember for a long long time, and we were behaving like it. (There's nothing worse than sharing an awesome experience with someone who doesn't get it. I put a hex on a woman I overheard at the Grand Canyon saying, "Well that was the biggest let down of my entire life, Earl").

I didn't see anyone obviously from DOC while I was there: it was all very up-standing citizens managing their own behaviour. I hope it continued that way and that if anyone is considering a visit in the coming days (no one is sure how like it'll stick around), can I please ask that you use your common sense (no huge groups) and treat the moment with the reverence it deserves.

At one point the penguin, who I am taking the liberty of naming Peka (in the spirit of Opo the Dolphin and countless other unoriginal but entirely perfect names for wild animals that capture our imaginations), stood up and I heard a lady exclaim, "Oh you majestic creature, you."  Okay, so she was a bit weird, but it was entirely in keeping with the mood on the beach.

Peka looked plump and calm. Maybe a little thirsty, but that's to be expected.  I can't imagine the new things he's seen the last 48 hours, but he seemed to be lapping up the attention.  He/she (they're not sure if it's a boy or a girl yet; it's only around 10 months old) wasn't phased by the welcome swallows that were swooping around the driftwood and cutty grass (they weren't dive bombing the penguin or anything), or even when a yellowhammer landed a metre away from it.

I've made a wee video which I've set to The Tragically Hip's 'Emperor Penguin' (of course!).  Beyond the title and the one verse that discusses emperor penguins, the refrain about "physical impossibility" seems to sum up my morning.  An emperor penguin standing nearly a metre high, 4,000 - 7,000kms from home (depending on which report you read). Not impossible, clearly. But pretty improbable, I'd say (the only other emperor penguin sighting in New Zealand was in Southland in 1967).

Kia ora, Peka. I hope you have a long and happy life, wherever that may be.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Worksheet #88, or 'One more for the pool room'

The last last New Zealand review?

I finally have my hands on a copy of the latest New Zealand Books (I know, I know: it's time I subscribed, but it's taken me two years in the one place to get accustomed to the idea that I can subscribe to things and not have to change the address or pay international postage).

There's a triple-down review of A Man Melting and Pip Adam's Everything We Hoped For and Tina Makereti's Once Upon a Time in Aotearoa (aka the three surfers on New Zealand's New Wave) by Nicholas Reid.

The review leads off with a quote from my story, 'Manawatu'. It's always nice when reviews have the luxury of a chunk of text (and it's nice when your book gets to supply that chunk).

And the review of AMM itself? Well, the pull-quote used is a pretty good indication:
"A Man Melting is simply the best new collection of short stories I've read in an age."
Here's a wedge of text for some more flavour:
"Possibly this all makes Cliff sound a heavy-handed person gazing at his navel. Not a bit of it. Among the chief delights of this collection are Cliff's deft way with narrative and his keen wit. Sometimes the stories are postmodern enough to be self-referential, with the narrator directly drawing our attention to the story's form. But Cliff can also come up with an honest-to-God old-fashioned sting-in-the-tail ('Facing Galapagos'), and with goofy surreal humour ('The Spirit of Rainbow Gorge'). The intentions are always serious, but the author is never dire about it."
In all, Reid references 11 of the 18 stories by name in the review, and a couple more are referred to but not named. That's an impressive strike rate and it was pleasing (in my perverse way) to read the following:
"My only gripe is with the longest story in the collection, 'Fat Camp', which somehow seems to lose its focus. That, however, is the limit of my negatives."
As I've said before, I'm always curious which stories people don't take to.  With 18 stories that cover a range of modes, it's bound to happen that one or two fall short. And I'm at the stage now where have liked and not liked most of the stories, so I know there are people out there who dug 'Fat Camp' - but I can also see how it might be perceived as going of the boil in at a certain point.

So yeah, another good'n.

Alternative Bio
New Zealand writer author Craig Cliff High cliff won received the the actual Commonwealth Earth Best Finest Greatest Very best First Initial Very first 1st Book Guide prize reward for with regard to his their short brief story tale collection assortment "A Man Guy Gentleman Melting Burning".
Here's the source for that bio.  Warning: it's a spam blog trying to sell Birkenstocks.

Stick to the covers, guys

Several months ago I linked to Mumford & Sons doing a combo-cover of The Kinks' 'Days/This Time Tomorrow' with Ray Davies himself. That song was awesome. Pity the rest of the cover/collaborations on Davies' See My Friends ranged from car crashes to bad karaoke.

But I did buy Mumford & Sons' own album, Sigh No More, which ranges from catchy nowtro to less catchy bandwagoning. Okay, so they swear in a song with banjos. I get it. I guess I just want more.

Anyway, I saw Mumford & Sons had covered 'England' by The National (now there's a band I can get behind) recently.  And you know what? I loved it.

So what do you like? #1

I resisted listening to Band of Horses for the last two years because they just seemed so meh.  Like a weak-tea My Morning Jacket or something. I'm not sure how I drew this conclusion without listening to their music, but last week I got their 2010 album, Infinite Arms, out of the library.

And yeah, on first listen, it was very My Morning Jacket (especially album opener 'Factory').  But on second and third and forth listen I found myself singing along ('NW Apartment' in particular).  Turns out, Infinite Arms is the only album in the last 12 months that I've listened to ten times in the first week.

I'm tough enough to admit when I was wrong, and Band of Horses: I was wrong. I do like you.

So what do you like? #2

'Tamping Down'  by James Norcliffe from Sport 10 (Autumn 1993).  A short story (or an autobiographical vignette).

Chinese Twitters

For those of you too lazy to get your own copy of New Zealand Books  (shame) and curious how the other two short story collections faired in my shared review, well, there's a bit of a story there.

Subscribers received their copies last week and on Tuesday I noticed this tweet from Kiwi poet Emma Barnes:

Now, I'd seen the website for NZ Books, so I knew Nicholas Reid (a dude) had reviewed books by me (a dude) and Pip and Tina (2 ladies). But the day before I'd also seen this tweet from Modern Letters, which suggested there wasn't any gender-based poopooing:

So I wrote it off as yet another Twitter in-joke of which I was on the outer.  But then, on the 15th, there was a confirmation (of sorts) that this (mostly tongue-in-cheek) comment did refer to Reid's review:

Some context is needed for those of you who may be reading this blog in a couple of months' time (Q: what Google search brought you here? Was it "How to fix a broken antler"? Ha!): Emma's tweet came on the same day that Keri Hulme's retort to V.S. Naipaul's massively sexist and retarded comments about how he didn't not consider any female writer his equal. So I read said tweet as a tongue-in-cheek comment in reference to the Naipul stuff being batted about the internet.

Reid says some positive stuff about Everything We Hoped For, and while he does bemoan the unrelenting bleakness, he's not alone in this view. If Louise O'Brien's slightly stink review from The Listener is good for anything, it's proving that this too serious/bleak view is not the exclusive domain of male readers/writers. 

And while Reid does start out sounding like he hated Once Upon A Time (he uses words like commonplace, tweeness, queasy) he actually says, "I have to admit I really enjoyed this collection, " and, "My nit-picking retires before the pleasure of reading these things."  It's also worth nothing that Reid seems to have a thing about stories based on other stories/models (see his way off-base review of Sue Orr's killer From Under The Overcoat in The Listener... if you're looking for perceived sexism, here's where you might want to waste your energy).

I'm verging on territory I've tried to blog about before and abandoned (perceived gender bias on the NZ book scene), and I'm going to pull back from the precipice once more.

I guess I just wanted to capture this moment in time because I know stuff gets lost on Twitter and I enjoy being my own archivist.

One of these days I'll gnash my teeth and get involved in a proper literary feud. And it'll probably be about misconceptions about gender bias. Or the fact that short stories get pissed on by publishers because 'they don't sell'.  Or the fact the Dom Post insists on writing "education ministry" rather than "Ministry of Education", even in my own columns, making me look like I don't actually work there.

Come to think of it, I'm spoiling for a fight...

Fun with the dictionary

poopoo (third-person singular simple present poopoospresent participle poopooingsimple past and past participle poopooed)

The boss

They ran another story about me on the Ministry of Education's intranet on Friday. This one specifically about the Commonwealth Writers Prize.  I wasn't consulted (heck, I wasn't even at work the preceding three days), but my manager supplied a quotation:
“We knew from the various reports Craig writes that he was incredibly creative and able to turn his hand to a wide range of subjects."
Classic. (If your image of public service managers is still walk shorts, sandals and no sense of humour, you might have missed the jab my boss just took at me. Though mostly it was a jab at some of the stuff we have to write.)

So what do you like #3

Sweet dreams 

And finally today, the ultimate sin. I'm going to tell you about a dream I had the other night!! (Multiple exclamation points is the penultimate sin (and brackets within brackets the hemi-demi-penultimate sin)).

Okay, so it was less of a dream than a full blown, megabucks JJ Abrams-style movie, with twists and turns. In the tres dramatic ending we see one of those hardback annuals from the 1950s with the femme fatale (who tried to seduce both father and son earlier in the movie/dream) on cover, looking the same age as she does in 2011 (just with 1950s haircut and bathing suit), then we get a quick succession of other fashion shoots and ads from the past, then cut to her with two men (another father and son) dressed in Mad Men-era clothes, and she's telling them not to worry and to have another [convincing but fake brand name] cigarette. Wham!

And then the movie does that thing that dreams do and you're able to revisit something that you saw earlier (but most likely you haven't dreamed yet and your subconscious is working hard and fast with the logic of your dream) and we see the son from 2011 who's obsessed with flying saucers. And the dream/movie plays a UFO sighting from earlier in movie "again" but this time in slow motion, zooming in and in, getting clearer and clearer, but "it" is always just a blue light, no mater how close and how clear it gets.  Wham!

Then (I've clearly slept too long and should have woken up at the second Wham!) there are workers in green overalls pulling apart the movie set and one of them has Guy Smiley's head (you know, from Sesame Street), and one of the other workers who has a normal human head someone says Dick Clark's name (you know, the guy from TV Bloopers and Practical Jokes) and Guy Smiley says, "I can't believe you said his name," and the "his" is this terrible, serpentine hiss, and it's clear that Dick Clark is behind it all: the immortal femme fatales, the tabacco companies, Area 51 and the indivisible blue lights. AND IT ALL MAKES SO MUCH SENSE!!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Abandoned Blog Posts (and other detritus)

After Ashleigh Young after Bill Manhire    (provenance explained here)

A post on Gender Bias


I feel I must tread very carefully here. Still. I know that whatever I say, people will read self-interest into it. Some may even think I'm trying to court controversy. I'm not, I don't think.

But this is all supposition. How about some facts...

A post about abandonment using photos by my brother

Photographic excerpt:

A blog post titled "The Future Seeps"


Someone once told me that research and development firms give TV shows like CSI and NCIS information about machines and processes they are working on so they can be included in shows. The logic being that you don't know you want something until you've seen it, and real life forensic people wake up the next morning with a dire need for a programme that can convert the grooves on a piece of pottery to a sound wave… This drives up the demand and ensures a market if the R&D firm ever get that technology off the ground.

Fair's fair, but it does mean these shows have a strange relationship with reality. They are ostensibly set in the present, yet the technology is from the future (even the technology that does exist works at fantasy speed). And in a strange way, it's diminishing the wonder the future will hold before we get there.

Not for us the sudden techno-shock of previous cultures. A couple of hundred years ago, a white man could rock up on a beach and blow the minds of an Inca or Zulu with a firearm. Wow. They never saw that coming. And the world changed overnight.

These days the future does not arrive with a fanfare. The fanfare does sound, for sure, be it a dancing robot at a Tokyo electronics expo or some whiz-bang facial recognition database on C.S.I. But then it's silence. The advance is still coming, though it will not bust down your door. It seeps through the gap beneath...

A list called "Words I always mistype"


A post on Balanced Self-Determinism


I try to live by what I have come to call "balanced self-determinism". Key aspects of the credo are: patience, drive, and self-belief...

Balanced self-determinism is not just believing, "if you build it, they will come", but "if you build it in your spare time you can also save for a wedding, a house and a family."

At times, balanced self-determinism looks (and feels) like: being a chicken-shit too afraid to take a risk. In order to follow the credo you must be able to withstand these moments of heroic self-doubt. To write fiction does not require any wantonness (beyond the possible waste of your evenings and weekends). One needn't be manic, poor, drunk, high, or politically extreme to write and write well. There are famous examples of destitute, extremist addicts who have penned masterpieces, but it is easier to mete out the energy required to write comprehensible fiction when on an even keel...

A story called Tinakori Hill

He is found to the side of the track, face down in his work clothes. His wife does not come to the scene that day, but is shown photos. The white of his shirt shines out from beneath a litter of fallen leaves. The police inspector says he'd been there three days. She knows it was three days - she wants to yell at this man, this officer of the law with no idea what she went through, the not knowing, and what she's going through now, the still-finding-out.

A post called "On Aging"


What is it to feel old? To be old? It is to live in a constant state of simile. That awkwardness of movement, the utter lack of nimbleness; a reminder of times in car parks juggling keys, shopping bags and toddlers...

A (wretched) poem called "Tracking Number 456-08900-9267"

My Canon is coming
My Canon is coming

On the eighth it left Hong Kong
For a night on the mainland.
Yesterday it was in Singapore;
Today it is "in transit".
Perhaps Jakarta's next, or Denpasar,
island-hopping like Kingsford Smith:
Darwin, Cairns, Rockhampton.

Oh the photos my 550D could take -
A herd of water buffalo strolling through the spinifex;
The antiseptic pink of a coral atoll -
If it wasn't snugly packed in polystyrene
And alone, userless, in the cargohold,
A box with a barcode, another harmless x-ray,
Sydney, Auckland, Wellington.

When it arrives I'll introduce it
to the tauhou in my neighbour’s pine,
the gull that rocks my TV antennae,
the strands of Maui's rope, from the sun
down to the Orongorongos,
the cabbage trees in farmer's fields,
Sanson, Bulls and Marton...

A post without a title


Why write a novel? I spend my working day surrounded by cost/benefit analyses and yet when I get home I spend two, three hours (sometimes more) working on a novel. I have not, until now performed a cost benefit analysis on whether or not I should be working on this novel in the first place. So let's do that now.

I'm going to set the bar low. Let's say I spend 20 hours a week on my novel. There are plenty of things I could be doing instead, but to make it easy to put a dollar figure on this, let's say my alternative is working a second job for minimum wage ($12.75 an hour). Assuming a tax rate of 33 cents in the dollar, I'd take home $170.85 a week from my second job...

A story idea

A writer has a day job in an office. One day, he goes into the men’s room and sees a panel in the wall is actually a door through to the hot water tanks and heating/ventilation system. He overhears two technician’s conversation, and is delighted by the earthiness of it (“I tell you what, Brian, I bloody fuckin hope this works”). The writer shuts the door on the technicians, and stays to listen to their conversation. When someone else comes in the men's room, he has to let the men out, pretending he too just came in and figured out what had happened...

A post about the shoot for my author photo which involved me replicating a Norman Mailer shot

A post before my book launch


Can I take it all back? The blogposts, the twitter updates, the phone interviews, the stories themselves? They're not that great, honestly. Is it too late to put a halt to things and stay anonymous? If I try, I can keep my head screwed on and make a damn good policy analyst. I've been through the fun stuff: the seeing the cover designs, taking my author's photo, receiving the first book. Do I really need to go through the bad reviews from people I don't know and the awkwardness at work wondering if the people have read the book (and knowing they didn't rate it)?

Yes. It's too late...

Unused Q&A's for my website

You grew up in Palmerston North. What was that like?
Weatherwise, it prepared me for Wellington.

Do you ever resent your day job? Don't you want to be a full time writer?
Of course there are times when I get annoyed with the amount of time I spend in town not writing, but then every two weeks I get paid.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?
Surrounded by characters.

A story called "The Wishing Cave"

At primary school, my neighbour Greta and I would walk home together. Everyday we'd pass this garage which was carved into the hillside - the house itself was up a zigzag concrete path and obscured by punga fronds and karo branches - and everyday the garage door would be open, the garage itself empty. It was only big enough to fit a single car; no room for shelves or storage boxes or bicycles. Perhaps that's why, when the car was out, there was no need to shut the door: there was nothing to steal.

Without a car inside, it was no stretch of our six, seven, eight-year-old imaginations to believe this was in fact a cave. It sure echoed like a cave, our thin voices pinging off the hard, flat surfaces of the garage and returning to our ears a little deeper, a little more ominous.

I don't remember quite how it evolved, but Greta and I fell into the habit of speaking into the empty garage as we passed each afternoon.

What did we say? We told it our most fervent wishes. Greta wished for a hockey stick. I wished my mother would stop putting whole pickles in my lunchbox. Our wishes bounced back to us, deeper and more serious. Sometimes the wishing cave would deliver - Greta got that hockey stick - and sometimes the results were less complete - my mother still gave me pickles, but began wrapping them in gladwrap. I remember us standing side by side one time and both asking for the wishing cave to wipe the school bully, Jonathan Wu, from the face of the earth. I'm pleased now that the wishing cave did not pander to our every desire…

A post called "How to get a poem published, part one"

1. Write a poem.

(Excuse me while I open a blank word document…)

Check back tomorrow for part two.


Her fascination with natural disasters
Her yelling that the sea was going out and a tsunami was coming
She was beside herself
He was swept into the surging water
He was engulfed in the first wave
He clung on to vines
I was underwater for a while, it was full of debris
I saw four-wheel-drives tumbling through the water
Fales coming up then crashing into the shore
I just went loose and floppy
Abby and her mother clambered up a cliff
We could see him floating
Mr Wutzler, scratched but otherwise unhurt
If we had tails, they would have got wet
It was like the sea had gone up to the sky
Many of the tourists who had been woken by Abby's screams thanked her
They were left barefoot, but alive.

Caption: The Wutzlers, lucky to survive.


A post called "How to get a poem published, part two"

2. Revise the poem.

("I may be some time…")

Check back soon for part three.

A post from 2008 called "Troubling"


I was googling myself this afternoon (I think we’re past the point where one has to feign embarrassment about doing this, aren’t we?), and found a new poem by Craig Cliff called ‘Life’. [Sorry, link is now broken, but I swear it was real.]

This poem is not by me. (I believe in the use of apostrophes and spell-checkers.)

For the last few years I have been keeping tabs on my other namesakes. They seem a nice lot. One owns a Steak Restaurant. Another is a buyer for Macy’s. Not too outgoing or creative, though. So a poet amongst our ranks came as quite a surprise.

It is a bit of a pain that someone other than me may stumble across this other Craig Cliff’s poems and think I wrote the (fully sic) lines:
sothing kisses when we cry
born to live
only to die
rime without reason

The struggle to be the only Craig Cliff on the top ten Google results always reminds me of The One (2001) staring Jet Li. Except we’re not talking about the same person in multiple universes, just people with the same name in this one. But still, if you went around eliminating the competition, it would certainly seem like your own power and importance is increasing.

Hold on. This sounds like I am contemplating homicide. Homonomicide perhaps? I have too much in common with the other Craig Cliffs to hold anything but the most trivial beef...

A post/winge about Editors


The thing that made me uneasy was this: every one time my narrator used the word "like", it was replaced by "as if."

It would have been worse if these red as ifs were constant doubts about the plausibility of my story:
Craig writes: "he jumps from the roof top, through the helicopter blades, and lands on the galloping steed unscathed"
Editor writes: “As if”.

A post on Colours Rhymes

It’s a bit of an urban myth, but I have read that orange, purple and silver are the only English words without rhymes. There are, in fact lots of words which don’t have full rhymes (film, vacuum, pint…), but there seems to be something compelling about orange, purple and silver. Why are colours so notoriously hard to rhyme with?

The thing we should never forget is that we all have the ability to create new words, and thus the power to give wallflower words more dance partners.

I have taken it upon myself to create the following words to rhyme with Orange, Purple and Silver.
  • Chorange – N – the light switch in your house that does not seem to operate anything.
  • Herple – N – an angry-looking but ultimately benign rash around the nipple,
  • Quilver – V – to shudder at the thought of being tickled.

And for completeness, here are some rhymes for Film, Vacuum and Pint
  • Slilm – V – the act of walking on icy concrete by half-steps and half-slides.
  • Achuum – N – a sneeze where air is sucked in rather than expelled.
  • Yeighnt – N – the sound of an item falling from a bookcase onto the head of an unsuspecting person.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Worksheet #80.1, or Going to my head

Another Tuesday, another TV appearance

This time it was a six minute interview on TV1's Good Morning (screened at about 9.50am). I spoke with Sarah Bradley about my book, winning Best First Book in the Commonwealth, my day job with the Ministry of Education... Maybe some other things. It was my first time on live TV, so I had a lot on my mind...

It doesn't look like they've posted my segment online via TVNZ's On Demand service yet, but they are sending me a DVD so if you're patient (and if, upon review, I deem it "not totally cringeworthy") it may pop up on YouTube one of these days.

Good & Plenty

For those of you counting on your fingers at home, after my 2 minute slot on The Good Word last week, that's 8 of my 15 minutes of fame swallowed up.

The fact both shows have "Good" in their name is purely incidental.

I think.

But, if it is not, I could use my remaining 7 minutes of fame by appearing on Haydn's Good Sorts (though I'm probably 40 years too young and don't knit beanies for the kids in Eritrea), or The Good Wife (a show I've never watched, but after a quick YouTube I've decided a cameo as another love interest for poor confused Kalinda would be acceptable) or something called Good Luck Charlie (a Disney Channel sitcom - yikes!).

Diversifying my portfolio #1: Fiction reviewer

Diversifying my portfolio #2: Travel Writer


(Okay, so I sold my soul to Jetstar... I never said I had scruples!)

Diversifying my portfolio #3: Visual puns

Titles in need of a short story

Aid for Lily Archer
The Calumny of Apples
Fair Dinkum Outta Control
Faucets of Wonder
Tuesday is Baking Day

And finally, a moment of appreciation for Mark Lanegan

(I actually wanted a clip of Lanegan singing 'Walkin' on the sidewalks', and there are some on YouTube, but nothing compared to the version I remember from 2003 in Auckland...)

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Worksheet #79, or A Classical Education

In the ether

An eBook version of A Man Melting has been available worldwide for a month or two now. I haven't made a big deal about it yet because, well, I didn't know.  My manager at work told me two weeks ago that he'd downloaded my book for his kindle, but I assumed that it would, like the physical copy, be only available in New Zealand and Australia. But no. Folks in the UK, Canada, the US, India, Kiribati, San Marino and Madagascar can get a copy of A Man Melting for their digital device (internet access permitting).

The best places to try and nab a copy are Amazon and

The Mahler's wooden mallet

M. and I went to the NZSO's performance of Mahler's Sixth Symphony last night at the Michael Fowler Centre. It was the first time either of us has been to a classical music concert. Back in March 2008 I vowed to "get into classical music": I bought the 2CD Greatest Classical Album Ever and apart from the random appearance of Elgar's 'Nimrod' or Rachmaninov's 'Paganini Rhapsody (Var.18)'* on iTunes DJ over the past three years , that was the extent of my foray into classical music.

I really enjoyed Mahler 6. At times, it felt a bit like watching the dramatic part of a movie with my eyes closed.  And I kept thinking about the goblins Helen Schlegel  imagines when she listens to Beethoven's Fifth in Howard's End. Those are about the only cultural touchstones I have when it comes to orchestral stuff...

But it was fascinating to watch the conductor flail his arms and largely go ignored by the musicians, the piccolo player sit through the first hour patiently until she finally had a part to play in the Finale, and the all-male troupe of percussionists do their thing with cowbells, massive drums, massive cymbals, and a massive wooden mallet. And despite all the interesting things to observe, I was still quite moved at times.

*I can't distinguish between many of the tracks, including these two...

Another sort of music

I have a bone to pick with Alice in Chains. Specifically the line, 'Let me sleep so my teeth won't grind,' in their 1995 song, 'Grind'.

You see, when I'm stressed I grind my teeth, but only when I'm alseep. I wake the next morning with a sore jaw from clenching it all night and after a few nights of it my teeth have this constant dull ache.  Often the sound will wake M. and she'll wake me to make me stop, but I usually go back to it as soon as I fall asleep.

The worst part of it is the fact I can't control what I do when I'm asleep. I know it's stress related, but only a specific kind of slow boil stress that's easy to rationalise and dismiss when I'm awake but my subconscious seems determined not to kick.

I ground my teeth often when I did my MA in 2006 because I had a deadline in which to submit my manuscript/thesis. It didn't matter that I was finally doing what I'd always wanted (taking time off from the day job to write; being surrounded by other writers; being taken seriously as a writer) and that everything was relatively under control... my sleep-self just went nutso at night.

I ground my teeth again for a patch last year when we had a month to get an important business case finished at work and there was a truckload of work to do.  I knew that it was manageable though, and even if we missed the deadline, it wouldn't be the end of the world and no blame could really fall on my head... but grind I did every night for a couple of weeks.

And now I'm doing it again. I have a soft deadline of 1 November to give my publisher a first draft of my novel. I've cut back my hours at work so I'm only doing two days a week. I've broken the back of the research and this past week I've moved the manuscript past 5,000 words (a small amount in the scheme of things, but it'll be at 10,000 shortly after which point there'll be a few roadblocks but hopefully nothing insurmoutable).  I have the time now to be able to write like stink and get a decent 80,000 - 100,000 word first draft by November. And even if it doesn't happen, if the novel needs to be written more slowly, then that's fine. Me and anyone else involved in this book agrees it's better to get it right than get it quick.

But that soft deadline and the 75,000 words as yet unwritten is enough to discombobulate my subconcious and set my teeth a'grinding.  If only it was like in the Alice and Chains song: that escaping this stupid affliction was as easy as going to sleep.

And now for something more zen...

Birds in flight (from the walk down to Lyall Bay):

Female chaffinch
Starling joining sparrows on powerlines
Blackbird and bottlebrush
Sparrows leaving a shed roof
 Ah, much better.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Man in The Mirror

You can watch the two minute "The Write Space" feature on me and my home office that featured on The Good Word on Tuesday night here (towards the end of part two).

Or, for a do-it-yourself version, you could:

1) watch this youtube clip of Michael Jackson:

2) read the first response in the Q&A published in Saturday's Dom Post:

(I did the interview with The Good Word and the newspaper 10 months apart and forgot I'd told that anecdote before. Also, I spoke for half an hour with The Good Word and had no idea how they'd cut it or what'd they'd have me say. In all, I think I sounded okay... coulda been a lot worse!)

3) look at this gallery of antique guns.

Et voila!

Funnily enough, that's exactly what I see all those hours I spend looking in the mirror: a gun-toting, GI Joe collecting, pop legend.

Loosely connected

I may be appearing on Good Morning this coming Tuesday (around 9.45am on TV1).  I'm being cagey because these things tend to change.  Good news: TVNZ does place some portions of the show online afterwards, so my huge international fanbase mightn't miss out either.

Poetry competition update

As per the comments in my previous post:

1. No, a yak is not a forest animal.
Venice: Pure City2. There's at least one other 'move' (besides forest animal references) I reckon I pulled in this old yak poem.
3. The prize to the first non-anonymous commenter to correctly cite a move from this list in the above poem wins their choice of A Man Melting, The Long and The Short of It or Venice: Pure City by Peter Ackroyd (a freebie from Random House when I went to the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival; it's a beautiful book but I won't read it because I have this hate-hate thing with Venice... long story, by me a drink some time and I'll tell you).
4. I've probably scared of any potential commenters/entrants by being a hard-ass.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Worksheet #77, or "Kay Fabian Phone Home"

Today's anxiety brought to you by the fact that... about an hour I'll be on a digital-only TV channel for two minutes. And when I say "I" I mean snippets of my face, interspersed with stuff in my office (Cuban cigar, Maasi warrior doll, pictures of antique guns?), while snippets of my voice ramble on about antique pictures of guns and writing on weekends. And by snippets of my face and office and voice, I mean the face and office and voice as it was one afternoon in September.  So it's my old laptop I'm pretending to type profound words on (but I'm just typing: "So, this is weird. Don't you think this is weird') in the body of a story I've long since put to bed (and roused for publication in January).

I don't like hearing my telephone voice on radio. Seeing my face-for-radio on TV at the same time... ugh.

You know you've made a small dent in the psyche when... #14

...when you are a dummy answer in the Stuff daily quiz:

Of all the books in all the world, I walk into this one?

Failed Radiohead covers #2

I don't plan on making a habit of this, but I came across another cover of a Radiohead song this week after Weezer's too-similar version of 'Paranoid Android' last week.

Today it's Sarah Jaroz doing another OK Computer track: 'The Tourist'. It passes the not-too-similar hurdle by virtue of it's jangly Americana feel (but do I hear ukuleles? aren't they Hawaiian? I guess that's part of America), but fails in my jaundiced (and slightly sick of Americana to begin with-) eyes because that very same jangling is far from euphonous.

Video I haven't watched yet but I will

The gala opening of the 2011 Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, which I missed because I was still in Wellington - but everyone who I spoke with up there said it was the bomb.

A long-ish poem that employs move #14 in the first line...

...and probably the title, but gets away with it. Jenny Bornholdt's 'Poem About A Horse'.  I am a sucker for poems featuring yaks!!

One day I'll have my own yak photos. This one's from 

Impulse competition corner

Here's my yakky poem from 2008. I'll give a free book to the first person to identify any moves from the 41 Moves in Contemporary Poetry which I've deployed (having not scoured it myself yet... so this may be an unwinnable prize).

Snippet from the internet that I came across while conducting legitimate research but have no idea how I got there or how it links to vaudeville tours in 1902-03, but continues to interest me both conceptually and linguistically

The origin of the term is uncertain. Pro wrestling can trace some of its stylistic origins back to carnivals and catch wrestling, where the term "kayfabe" is thought to have originated as carny slang for "protecting the secrets of the business". With money tight, a carny would call home collect, telling the operator their name was "Kay Fabian". This was code letting the people at home know they had made it safely to the next town. The family would then deny the call. This was a method of communicating without paying for the cost of a phone call or telegram.
However, another tradition holds that "kayfabe" was merely Pig Latin for "be fake", and thus an instruction by one carny to another not to break character at the moment a "rube" or "mark" was close by.

Asked and answered

My Q&A with Unity Books is up on their website, replete with terrible mixed mythological reference and questionable capitalisation ("up Mt Olympus to join the Pantheon").

The newly expanded Unity Books in Wellington is the only place right now you can buy a genuine signed and officially stickered "2011 Commonwealth Writers' Prize Best First Book winner") copy of A Man Melting.

Perfunctory wrap-up

I had other things to say/link to, but it's now 30 minutes till showtime and I think I might go play with the fusebox or something...

Friday, June 3, 2011

Friday Playlist: Low-lives, Bitches and Late Greats.

  1. Crawled Out Of The Sea by Laura Marling
  2. Laffitte Don't Fail Me Now by Spoon (one of the best takedown songs of all time)
  3. 2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten by Lucinda Williams
  4. 6th Avenue Heartache by The Wallflowers
  5. One Of Us Must Know / Hey Joe (Jam) by Blind Faith
  6. Bitches In Tokyo by Stars
  7. L.E.S. Artistes by Santogold
  8. Mannequin by Wire (token thematic link to novel-in-progress AND f-ing great song)
  9. Man With No Sisters by The Close Readers (aka Damien Wilkins' band; my fave song off the album 'Group Hug'... great first line; can you tell DW also writes fiction??)
  10. I Remember You by Skid Row
  11. New York is Killing Me by Gil Scott-Heron ft. Mos Def
  12. Back In The High Life by Warren Zevon

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Worksheet #74, or When I Grow Up To Be A Mannequin

Today's theme song


Examples of me getting around

  • I have a guest post over on the Rosa Mira Books blog to tie in with the impending release of slightly peculiar love stories, an e-book anthology for which you can probably guess the theme.
  • I'm the subject of the Q&A in this weekend's Dom Post. (It'll be a double dose of me, actually, as it's my week in the Your Weekend mag). A photographer just came and visited me at home and made me stare into the sun for twenty minutes.
  • You can scroll down here to see my Five Questions with the NZ Book Council.
  • I also had to help out my publisher write discussion questions on A Man Melting for book groups that'll pop up in the next issue of the Book Council's Booknotes.
  • And I have a stack of questions to answer for Unity Books' website...

It makes a change from all the FAQ documents about school buildings I write at work, and I know I'm going to miss talking about myself when it's all over (hey, there's always the blog...) but there's only so many interesting ways to talk about what is essentially a boring time-sponge (sitting alone in my home office writing about things that never happened).


Elsewhere in the Blogosphere

Ashley Young, an NZ writer in London who has taken to blogging like a NZer in London takes to proper Marmite, has posted 'Things I've Wanted To Write', following the lead of Bill Manhire's 'From an Imaginary Journal' in Sport 39 (which you can read if you click here and then click "preview").

I seriously considered writing "'Abandoned blog posts' after Ashley Young after Bill Manhire'" but I guess I'll have to add that to the list of abandoned blog posts.


Musical aside

Weezer has covered Radiohead's 'Paranoid Android'. It's inoffensive, perhaps even neat (a very Weezer-y word) but sadly falls into my first category of bad covers by not differing enough from the original.


All The Moves

This is ancient in internet terms (it's so 2010!), but I only came across it the other day when it was batted around on Twitter:

41 Moves in Contemporary (American) Poetry.

Calling them "moves" implies some sort of chicanery on the part of the poets who have employed these techniques. And it's a problem if a poet or a nation's poetry overuses any of these "moves", but there aren't many surveys out there that grapple with what a lot of contemp. poetry (especially on that published online) is up to.

I wonder what a similar list would look like for NZ poetry?  A good place to start would be Best NZ Poems, which has been going for 10 years and now has a best of the best print edition. You can listen to a heap of poets reading their BNZP work here.


Fun Fun Fun

Yesterday a bailiff snuck up our drive and put a sticker on the window of our car saying, "You have unpaid fines and I totally could have clamped your car, pay up now you dirty crim!" [Slightly paraphrased].

Turns out we had a speeding fine from 10pm on Christmas Eve near Pukerua Bay and they'd been leaving the "D" off our address on the infringement notices.  Thing is, M. and I were in Christchurch at 10pm on Christmas Eve.

My brother/flatmate has some 'splaining to do when he gets home!!

(He was only clocked at 105kmph in a 100k zone and he's getting a root canal tomorrow, so I'll think I'll go easy on him).


Snippets from Papers Past that prove I'm doing research but also that I'm easily distracted^

1. "R.B. Williams, Wellington's barrister-vocalist, doesn't believe in encores. He bows his acknowledgements but won't 'oblige again.'  Encores are a heavy tax on the good nature of public favourites." From the Observer, 2 June 1894.

2. "Another applicant [for the job] forwarded a testimonial which stated that he had nearly lost his life while rescuing sheep during a flood, but the Council did not consider this conspicuous act of bravery had any connection with the appointment of a caretaker for the reserves." From the Manawatu Times, 19 January, 1901.

3. "[A boy named Taupaki] missed the coach taking the team to Waitekauri, and walked and ran there, a distance of 14 miles, arriving as the first spell ended. He was allowed to play, and scored no less than three tries..." Reported in several papers, June 1902.

^I think this may become a regular feature!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

On the NZ Post Book Awards 2011 (but mostly just the best first book o' fiction)

Congratulations to Pip Adam, winner of the 2011 NZSA Hubert Church Best First Book Award for Fiction for her short story collection, Everything We Hoped For.

I interviewed Pip in July last year on this blog. It’s a good read, if I do say so myself.

Along with Pip and myself, there was another great new Kiwi short story writer surfing the New Wave in 2010: Tina Makereti (also interviewed here). The latest news is that Tina’s book, Once Upon a Time in Aotearoa is being studied at Harvard, so there are honours all round.

But back to the NZ Post Book Awards. In addition to the First Book Winners (fiction, poetry, non-fiction) being announced today (with no shortlists), the short-lists for the best books were also announced.

There’ll always be comments about the one’s that missed out, especially so with only three short-listed slots each for fiction and poetry. So there’s no Lloyd Jones or Patrick Evans (see my thoughts on Gifted here), but there is space for Laurence Fearnley’s The Hut Builder (which I wasn't mad about), Tim Wilson’s Their Faces Were Shining and Charlotte Grimshaw’s The Night Book.

The Listener’s Guy Somerset has a nice wrap up of the awards, in particular the sluggish/non-existent coverage in the media today.

Bookman Beattie also weighs in on the awards. Including this snippet:
And of course the title omitted that everyone is talking about is Craig Cliff's A Man Melting. It cleaned up tough international competition to win the Commonwealth Writers Prize for best first book and yet doesn't even get short-listed in our local awards?
What were the judges thinking about?
Well, I can’t speak for the judges but here are a few thoughts from me...

1) Who is this everyone that the Bookman hears talking? Was it my mum?

2) Just because one set of judges like one book, doesn’t mean all panels will agree with the choice.

3) Don’t blame the judges for the no shortlist for first books / 3 book shortlist for fiction set-up. That’s on booksellers NZ and the awards’ committee. And they have their reasons, however narrow-minded.

4) In the scheme of things, it’s probably a good thing to share the “first book” prize love around. It's hard to keep any buzz going for a first book 12 months after it was launched without an accolade like this and Pip is a great writer (and encouragingly her best stuff is her new stuff - I think ‘Featherston Street’ which was published in Turbine 2010 is better than anything in EWHF, and ‘This Year’ in Sport 39 raises the bar even higher).

5) Doesn’t it say something that the last two winners of the best first book (fiction) at the Posties have been short story collections (Anna Taylor won in 2010)? Yes. It says there’s some pretty exciting stuff happening in NZ writing, especially when it comes in small chunks of prose. Now if only Sue Orr's From Under The Overcoat can win the Best Book award next year, the short story's (re)ascendence will be complete!