Breaking the silence

Breaking the silence


I walk about with ideas in my head, a vague imperative to Leave My Mark On The World, and little to show for it. Until the Ghost of Authorship Past gives me a glimpse of what being a dead famous author might be like.

It’s a shock to me how long this blog has gone without an update. So long, in fact, that the WordPress dashboard has changed, and I can’t even remember what the two drafts sitting here were ever supposed to turn into.

I’ve spent the past few months settling into a new job, which takes a lot of energy even if it’s a good one (which it is).  The past year involved a lot of change – a pay rise followed rapidly by redundancy,  a short stint of teaching, literal bones-of-the-arse panicking, and an employment reprieve – and some new habits.  Kick-starting myself back into a schedule of writing practice has not been one of them.  I walk about, as always, with ideas in my head, a vague imperative to Leave My Mark On The World, and little to show for it.

Late last year the poet David Howard contacted me with an idea for a retrospective look at some of the poetry I used to write 20-odd years ago. It was a intriguing exercise, and also a bit like being dead. You never know what kind of old rubbish might end up being your legacy.  You can read the poems, my commentary, some scene-setting from James Norcliffe and the analysis by Orchid Tierney and David here.

It was enormously humbling, and heartening, to be included in this series.  It’s an odd experience, seeing yourself through strangers’ eyes.

An aspect of the analysis that startled me was the emphasis on sound; I never thought of myself as a spoken-word poet. Like everyone else, I just read the pieces aloud. To be considered a spoken-word artist is particularly weird, because throughout much of my childhood I struggled with speech. I could talk, all right, but far too fast. If I had a dollar for every time a teacher “wittily” told me to slow down, “it’s not a race, you’re not a train”, I’d have – well, nothing, because I’d have spent the kernel of a house deposit on Sante bars and vintage fashion magazines, but you get the idea. I wrote all the time, but I never read aloud. I didn’t think about sound. At least, I didn’t THINK I did.

Somewhere along the line I must have started thinking about cadence. I’ve recommended reading essays and articles aloud for a long time. It’s a great way to pick up awkward transitions and wordy chunks. In retrospect I realise that, up till about 10 years ago, I spent most of my life in jobs where I had to talk to strangers. Something I once hated and feared became pretty easy. Especially when I was writing radio ad copy – the fastest route to client approval is an enthusiastic, rapid read-through over the phone while approximating a radio voice. It sounds like a real ad so they think it must be all right.

It didn’t happen overnight, but it did happen. I don’t have much desire to revisit poetry in any serious way, but I do want to start producing words. Time to get back into the daily practice, I think.




Christchurch, remixed

Christchurch, remixed
 I don’t need statistics to tell me Christchurch is not monocultural. I see evidence to the contrary every day, and it fills me with hope for the future.

When a city is rebuilt, the wanderer’s eye is particularly drawn to artists’ renderings of what will stand where now, there is bare land or rising steel. Onsite billboards present an idealised vision of what to expect; a permanently cloudless summer sky, gleaming glass, pristine walls untouched by tags or lichen. Little clusters of people hang around these perfect buildings, often a little translucent, like future ghosts.  As we walk through patches of wilderness to reach these little islands of growth, we search, sometimes hopelessly, for the familiar, and examine the new.

I started paying particular attention to who populated artists’ renderings – spoiler: white folks – not long after an outcry over a campaign designed to promote living in the CBD, which featured almost exclusively white or white-appearing professional people.  Some time before that, my then-employers had released a series of posters that sought to depict the exciting variety of typical local newspaper readers: several white people and a dog.  Between the two of these events – which I found people generally responded to with some variation on “but Christchurch really is super white and monocultural, it’s just reality”-  I began counting obviously non-white faces as I went about my day in the CBD.  I’d usually hit between nine and 15 in a 10-minute walk, before I got bored with counting and started thinking about something else.

When I say “CBD”, mind you, I’m not talking about a bustling metropolis, or even the moderately active small city that Christchurch used to be before the 2011 earthquake. I’m talking about a still fairly sparsely populated part of town. It’s a place tourists visit, and it’s a place where international students and new migrants gather to study English. Many of them, it’s true, may not live within the Four Avenues.  But they work or study here. And many would live here, given the option.

I am a white person from a largely white family. Growing up, I really did live in a largely white town. It’s not any more. It hasn’t been particularly homogenous for at least 20 years. Not if you look around. Christchurch may statistically remain overwhelmingly “European” – 83.9 percent of Christchurch city residents surveyed in the 2013 census identified as such, though some of them probably also identified as something else – but it is changing. More of us are Maori. More of us are Chinese, or Indian, or come from the Philippines. More of us are a mixture of all kinds of things. There have always been Kiwis whose ancestry traced to neither the British Isles nor Hawaiki. They’re just more noticeable now.

I don’t need statistics to tell me Christchurch is not monocultural. I see evidence to the contrary every day. Hazara women in sludgy greens and browns examine bargains at the Warehouse. Sweet-faced young Sikh men sporting winter-weight turbans step back to let me on the bus ahead of them. Taxi drivers come from Africa or Afghanistan. People whose origins I can’t readily identify are everywhere, speaking languages I don’t know, and some that I do. The homeless guys who line the streets behind cardboard signs – most of them aren’t white.  While it makes me sad and frustrated to see the latter, and while I fear the rebuilt city will exclude the non-monied majority, I love the rising diversity of my town.

The streets, the map, even the land beneath them have changed. When the ghostly figures who stride around the fantasy version of our future take flesh, they’ll be Kiwis with many lines of ancestry. And that’s a good thing.

In which I Smash up my free time

I had a plan. I was going to sit down and write a bunch of thoughtful, sometimes elegiac, sometimes funny, sometimes just plain useful things, and post them on this blog while I had the time. Instead I sat down, opened up Lightbox and started watching ALL THE TV I have missed in the past few years of night work and no cable.

I’m still not free. I may never be free. The worst part of it is, I keep having awesome thoughts about shows nobody cares about any more.

I started by watching the breathtakingly good Breaking Bad, in as near to a single sitting as was physically possible, and then went out and bought the first two seasons on DVD even though I’m supposed to be watching my budget. I may share my thoughts about that some time, but not today. No. You see, the thing is, I like brilliant, brainy, complex television. But I love trash more.

Tread the boards – lightly. Breaking Bad fanart: Jens K Styve

So my next binge was Smash. An all-singing, all-dancing, cameo-encrusted story of Broadway and the battle between two would-be stars for a career-creating leading role in Bombshell, a musical about Marilyn Monroe. One, Ivy: a theatre-seasoned triple threat with a decade of hard graft behind her, but inexplicably, no big break. Played by Megan Hilty, an actual theatre person who is pretty amazing. The other, Karen: that one really pretty girl who was on American Idol  a few years back. No, wait – I mean, a bland ingenue from Iowa whose raw talent and fine cheekbones inexplicably captivate all who see her. Played by that one really pretty girl who was on American Idol a few years back.

Why do I care about these people? SMASH — Season:1 — Pictured: (l-r) Jaime Cepero as depraved assistant Ellis, Anjelica Huston as sassy producer Eileen, Jack Davenport as snide director Derek, Katharine McPhee as Mary Sue Karen, Megan Hilty as Ivy, Debra Messing as housewife show writer Julia, Christian Borle as Julia’s BFF and writing partner  Tom. — Photo by: Mark Seliger/NBC

Smash was by all accounts a critical failure, which I learned after watching two episodes then succumbing to the urge to Google. I could see why. I could see the dropped and overstuffed storylines, the irritating Mary Sueishness of Karen, the increasingly wacky and at times straight-up embarrassing nature of the non-stage musical numbers. The overuse of quirky woodwind. The awkward cameo appearances by Real Theatre People. But there is plenty to love. The singing! The dancing! The Marilyn impersonations! The tiny insights into how musicals are made, and how much of what ends up on a stage is about commerce and making things work, rather than some pure and lofty vision. There’s Debra Messing, who I’ll watch in anything. Anjelica Houston! Bernadette Peters! Jack Davenport! Pretty much all of the cast, even Katharine McPhee, are enjoyable. The  numerous gay characters are just there being humans, instead of providing Teaching Moments (although it would be hard to have  a show about Broadway without them, let’s face it.)

And there are so many more things about Smash that are terrible, and yet somehow glorious. Things like  Anjelica Houston’s over-soignee Broadway producer falling for rugged, martini-making crim-with-a-heart-of-gold Thorsten Kaye, who more importantly is also New Ridge on The Bold and the Beautiful. Kaye is so radically different in look to Original Ridge (Ronn Moss, who looks like a waxwork Paul Stanley in 80s fashion drawing form) that there is no way one can accept him as the same character. Now, in my mind, when Ridge left Forrester Creations for a year or so he worked in NYC, moonlighting as a bartender and gaining criminal connections. And was murderered and replaced by a guy whose $7 martinis, when thrown in people’s faces by Anjelica Houston, have the power to  alter perception. (Houston throws martinis a lot.In one episode alone she does it three times.By season 2, she’s doing it in the opening credits.)

Megan Hilty: nothing like Marilyn at all. Image: Shutterstock

And there are things like how people bizarrely decide that tall, thin, brunette Katharine McPhee could be better at pretending to be Marilyn Monroe, in a Broadway musical, than Megan Hilty. “She’s got something …. like TV audience recognition.” And, that a Rent-lite musical made up largely of what sound like Shania Twain songs, with a Lady Gaga-style “Diva” added to create something resembling dramatic tension, will end up a) being described as “edgy”, b) playing on Broadway ten times faster than Bombshell did, and c) both sweeping the Tonys AND being a “cult hit” because its book writer conveniently got hit by a car while bemoaning the songwriter’s betrayals. In song. And, that the “bad boy” songwriter From The Streets™ composes on a piano. For musical theatre. Because when you are On The Run® from your abusive family and gritty drug-dealing past, you can count on there at least being a piano lying round the place on which you can Expunge Your Angst In Song™ and think about staging.

Yes, there’s a lot to mock about Smash, and it was cancelled after two seasons, but everyone can sing (OK except Huston), most can dance, and who doesn’t adore a bit of theatrical escapism of a winter’s night? Like [spoiler] poor, deceased season 2 Kyle, I’ve got a soft spot for a flop. Roll on my next trashy binge!