NZ at Frankfurt: Days 3-5

By Guy Somerset In Books, Listening In

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Actually, that’s a lie: this isn’t so much days three to five as a final mop-up of bits and pieces from the Frankfurt Book Fair and some quotes I wasn’t able to use in my feature for the print edition of the Listener – available from this Friday (it’ll change your life).

  • First up, some audio for you: my interview with poet Kate Camp and tape artists Erica Duthie and Struan Ashby outside the central library in Frankfurt, where each day for the duration of the book fair they were drawing on passers-by and each other to create tape artworks on the side of the library and poems to be read inside. If you listen here, you can hear how they set about this. You will have to forgive the traffic noise in the background. But then Saturday’s Kim Hill show has raised (or lowered) the bar on what constitutes acceptable background noise.


And here are a couple of photographs of the day’s work.

  • More photos here – from the New Zealand Writers Walk along Frankfurt’s River Main.

 

  • Having listened back to my tape of it, I think I was unfair not to say something aboiut Deputy Prime Minister Bill English’s speech. I admit to being a bit nervous after his early remark “We New Zealanders regard ourselves as practical people, pragmatic, sports-loving, but we are also dreamers, writers and prolific readers” – which seemed to skirt perilously close to that John Key speech. (How nice it would have been to have no mention of sport at all.) But then he went on: “There is nowhere else where Polynesian, Asian and European cultures sit together in quite the same way and already for long enough to be creating a new identity for New Zealand. And this has, by German standards, all happened so fast. Our environment has been transformed in just 200 years. Our history and identity are fresh and evolving as we speak – expressed in ongoing constitutional innovation, burgeoning artistic variety, and fresh and unpredictable literature. Increasingly, the artforms you will see express our understanding of our particular experience, influenced by the landscape and our place in the Pacific. But also developed and remixed from the original sources from which our cultures draws. Each wave of migrants has been adjusting to this new raw land and have had to rethink their place in the world, disorientated by distance, hungry for community, inspired by opportunity. Our writers and artists are still fashioning this mindscape. Fifty years ago, the poet James K Baxter captured their task when he said, ‘These unshaped islands on the sawyer’s bench await for the chisel of the mind.’ New Zealand’s offering in this book fair are the chiselled filings of those works of art.”

 

  • The comparative youth of New Zealand was also captured in these comments from Glenn Colquhoun during a Transit of Venus poetry event: “Look, this is a stunning city and you can feel layer after layer after layer after layer of thought and movement and sorrow and joy and attempts to understand what it is that drives us. And it’s magnificent. And there’s nothing like this in New Zealand. There’s a human landscape and human imaginary landscape. In New Zealand, we don’t have that. We are 14-year old-boys in short pants when it comes to culture. And that makes us a pain in the arse sometimes. We are 14-year-old boys and you are 150-year-old men. And sometimes that makes you a pain in the arse. But what you have here is something urgent, black, light, gorgeous, painful, sorrowful, and it’s in your people and their exchanges with each other. It’s enormously regenerative. What we have in my country that counterpoints this is a big dark angry brooding landcape that kills people. We enter it, we don’t understand it, we lightly populate its surfaces. Maori have an image for the land being the body of a woman, the sky being the body of a man lying over her in an embrace. One of our painters, Colin McCahon, famously painted the New Zealand landscape as the body of Christ hung on a cross. And so I think this is different: your landscape is historical and human and ours, I think there is an energy, a danger and a joy in our landscape. But one day we will be 150 years old. And you will be 250 years old. So I think those are important differences.”

 

  • Given John Key’s willingness to tout New Zealand in Hollywood, I asked Arts Minister Christopher Finlayson why he wasn’t in Frankfurt. He said: “The Prime Minister has been overseas quite a bit recently and I was very pleased the Deputy Prime Minister was able to do it. I would have been happy to give the speech myself. I think it was good the representation was at the highest levels of Government.” So he didn’t think it would have sent a stronger signal if Key himself had been in Frankfurt? “Oh, I don’t think that’s particularly relevant at all.”

 

  • Tui Allen, one of the writers on the New Zealand Society of Authors stand, on Joy Cowley’s opening ceremony speech: “Joy Cowley made me cry. When she was nice to New Zealand teachers. It really made me feel happy. We get a lot of rap.”

 

  • Publishers Association of New Zealand president Kevin Chapman: “One of the main reasons for putting so much effort into this thing was to increase our profile and have publishers from other countries take us more seriously. Because world publishing’s like a waterfall, and at the top of the waterfall are the US and the UK, and if you’re small and foreign language and non-English then you’re at the bottom of the waterfall, and if you’re small and English then you’re pretty close to the bottom. So you’re always trying to swim upstream. So credibility and profile are bloody important.”

 

  • Also: “We have put an awful lot of our writers into this market and made them better known. And in the process we have given them relationships with German literary festivals, who know them now and they have a chance to be invited back; we’ve enhanced their relationship with German publishers, so some of them are going off and doing author tours with their publishers. Those literary festivals and those publishers know that New Zealanders can command an audience, so as a result they take other New Zealand books more seriously.”

 

  • And: “We have put an awful lot of our writers into this market and made them better known. And in the process we have given them relationships with German literary festivals, who know them now and they have a chance to be invited back; we’ve enhanced their relationship with German publishers, so some of them are going off and doing author tours with their publishers. Those literary festivals and those publishers know that New Zealanders can command an audience, so as a result they take other New Zealand books more seriously.”

 

  • And: “What we did is we said how are we going to select authors, and we thought we had two choices. We could either take what we thought were the authors who somehow represented New Zealand and bring them and put on a festival, or we could say which authors have we got a chance to actually actively engage with the German public, and bring those. We made the second decision. We decided that if we brought authors who weren’t translated, mostly what would happen is there would be no engagement. There would be no product, there would be no knowledge there, and as well as that there would be no local partners who would work with us … The criteria was three-fold. It said first and most importantly they should be published in Germany, or they should have an invitation from a German publisher or cultural institution. One or the other, preferably both. The third possibility was that the cultural programme would find a reason they wanted an author here … There are authors we would have liked to bring but their German publishers said no, we’re not going to do anything with them. And we had plenty who were going to, so those people dropped down the list.”

 

  • And finally, on having a head in the cloud: “I think digital publishing is one of the most exciting bloody things that can happen. We love books, we love the feel, we love the smell, we love the look. But anything that actually gives people another chance to read our stories to me is a good thing. And whether we like it or not, some people are intimidated by physical books. That’s sad but it’s true. Some people are intimidated by book stores. … Bookstores are community assets and they should be engaging with their public and one of the ways they need to engage with their public is by offering digital product.”

 

  • Brigitte Oeschinski, one of the Transit of Venus poets, had a nice, possibly unintended, echo of Allan Curnow’s “trick of standing upright here” with her comment about visiting New Zealand: “I had a feeling of walking on my head – standing upside down.”

 

  • The Transit of Venus project was in large part about translation. BBC presenter Rosie Goldsmith, introducing Greg McGee, put an interesting translation challenge out to the audience. Foreskin’s Lament, anyone? There were no takers. But if any of you speak German …

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