I'm pleased to ressurect the Quick Ten series with this interview. Chloe Lane (left) is a Wellington based writer and publisher of the excellent Hue & Cry magazine. Sarah Jane Barnett (right) was born in Christchurch but now calls Wellington home. She moved there in a 2005 to study for a Masters in Creative Writing, and is currently completing a creative writing PhD after being awarded a Massey Doctoral Scholarship. Sarah's debut book of poetry was also Hue & Cry's first book. Despite tough times for the arts, the acclaimed art and literary journal found an inventive new way to fund its start as a press. Sarah’s collection A Man Runs into a Woman set a record on crowdfunding site Pledge Me by meeting its donation target in less than 24 hours. You can buy the book or the journal at these places.
In A Man Runs into a Woman, Sarah looks at the different ways to tell a person’s story: two middle-aged men strike up an unlikely friendship, one couple reconnects after the war, while another couple leave the worst unsaid, and a cross-dressing man talks with his daughter. A series of nine distinctive poems explore the gap between the heartfelt last words of Texas death row inmates, and the grim police reports of their crimes.
I talk to them both about how they found each other, poetry and publishing.
First up, Sarah...
HH Can you tell us a little about how you came to write your death row sequence, it seems like a fascinating if not grisly subject.
SJB It is a grisly subject, which is why it took me a few years to write the poems. In 2006 I was researching another poem and came upon the Texas death row website. The last words and crime reports of death row inmates are available for anyone to read. It felt strange to read the details of someone's last moment, both the victims and the inmates. The story told in the criminal reports and the inmate's last words rarely matched. It made me wonder how someone who sounded so humane could do something as inhumane as, for example, killing two children. But I didn't want to write poems that were exploitative or that would sensationalise violence, so I think I waited until I felt confident I could do something meaningful with the idea.
HH How do the poems in this book differ from your earlier works, are you trying new things here?
SJB When I first started writing, I wrote about my own life and experiences. That switched a few years ago and I started to have characters in my poems, and to try and inhabit the lives of other people. It came from writing short stories—which I'm really not very good at—and I fell in love with narrative. Then someone put me onto Anne Kennedy's book-length narrative poem, The Time of the Giants, and I was hooked. Since then I've been experimenting with voice, narrative, and character in my poems. The final section of the book takes this to extremes with three long 'story' poems.
HH What are you writing at the moment? I hear you are working towards a PhD, do you want to tell us a bit about that?
SJB I'm halfway through a PhD at Massey University, under the supervision of Dr Bryan Walpert. My final submission will be a collection of poetry and a critical thesis of around 30,000 words. Both parts look at the same question, which is how can we write poetry about the natural world without being reductive? My research looks at the work of Robert Hass who tries to faithfully (even biologically) represent the natural world in his poems. This creates a tension in Hass's poems because he can see that language is an inherently reductive medium. One technique he uses to counteract this is naming. For example, instead of saying 'tree,' Hass names the species of a tree (yew, sycamore, oak etc.) and makes sure his details are biologically correct. This all sounds very academic, but what it results in (for Hass at least! I'm not quite there yet) are some beautiful poems that meditate on the relationship between language and nature.
HH Do you have a poetry hero or someone you’d like to be able to emulate?
SJB That's a long list! Robert Hass is definitely my favourite poet. I am not sure that I'd like to emulate him, but I would like my poems to seem as effortless as his. In terms of New Zealand poets, Jenny Bornholdt, Bernadette Hall, and Anne Kennedy inspire me. I am also inspired by fiction, especially David Vann and Ian McEwan.
HH What are you reading at the moment?
Most of my reading is for my PhD, but I did make a reading list for 2012. I know that sounds geeky, but some of these are books I've been meaning to read for ages! I just read Lawrence Patchett’s collection of short stories, I Got His Blood On Me. It was brilliant. Next up is the poetry collection Turtle Island by Garry Snyder, and then the non-fiction book, Why We Run: A Story of Obsession by Robin Harvie. I really enjoy reading about running.
HH What brought you to Sarah’s work and how did you decide to make it Hue & Cry’s first solo collection?
CL I met Sarah and her work back in 2007 when she joined the Tennyson Street Studio crew – a studio set up by an optimistic group of Wellington writers in the old YKK zipper factory. Which means I’ve had one of the best seats in the house for watching her poetry take shape over the last five or so years. I flat out admire Sarah’s poetry. Formally, she knows how to write and how to take risks. Plus I think she has a killer instinct for locating the emotional pip of a story, or relationship, and extracting it so expertly you don’t realise she’s doing it. Until you reach the end of the poem and try to stand but find you’ve been knocked down, kicked in the guts. There is one poem in the collection that catches me out of breath every time I read it. I’m almost a little afraid of it now.
So knowing Sarah had a finished manuscript, and being familiar with a lot of the poems in it, I thought the book deserved to be published. I always wanted to branch out from Hue & Cry Journal and publish full-length books, so when the manuscript didn’t straightaway find a home with another press, I took it as a sign to take matters into my own hands.
HH You had an amazing response to your request for crowd sourced funding for Sarah’s book, do you think this is the future for small presses?
CL I think that in an industry where it’s hard to break even, let alone dream of making a profit, crowd-funding is a sustainable way to turn manuscripts into books. The people pledging towards the book are more or less placing a pre-order, but what crowd-funding adds to this is a sense of community around the book. I was blown away by the support we got through PledgeMe. I knew we were on to a good thing, but to have so many others come out and say they thought it was a good thing too was very encouraging.
HH What is your creative vision for Hue & Cry Press?
CL Ultimately I want Hue & Cry Press to be a very real publishing option for new and emerging poets, fiction and non-fiction writers in New Zealand. I want to publish books that are good, risky, and have a strong unique voice. I want to publish books I want to read and re-read, and that I know deserve a wide audience. While we’re doing that, I also want them to look as good on the outside and inside as they are inside. Basically we’re going to take what we do with Hue & Cry Journal and translate it to full-length books. Whammo.
HH Are you considering EPublishing or are you happy to stick with print?
CL We’ve talked about EPublishing as an option for Hue & Cry – a future option. Our hearts are behind the printed object though, so this is always going to be our main focus. I think Ebooks are brilliant, but I want to make sure we’re doing our bit to keep the printed book alive and kicking and looking as healthy as ever.
HH What are you reading at the moment?
CL I’m currently reading The Ultimate Good Luck, one of Richard Ford’s early novels. Plus two short story collections (both for the second time): Edward P. Jones’ All Aunt Hagar’s Children and Larry Brown’s Big Bad Love. If I could write one story, half as compelling as the work of these writers, I would sleep much more soundly at night.