Saturday, November 18, 2017

Lost Bookshops of Auckland

Bloomsbury Books (Ashland, Oregon)
[the Auckland version did not serve coffee – but it's where I found
a complete set of Child's English and Scottish Ballads ...]

It’s hard for me to walk through the central city any more without seeing the ghosts of lost bookshops on every side.

In Elliott Street, there’s the memory of Vintage Books, a beautiful little second-hand bookshop one floor up, in a building which was torn down and then built up again in the same place: not so much thin air, then, as the shadow of thin air. And yet I can still work my way down its aisles in my mind: poetry on the left – that’s where I found a two-volume joint edition of the works of sixteenth-century poets Giles and Phineas Fletcher one day – the central table for new books – that’s where I picked up a six-volume Everyman’s edition of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire a few moments before a man came panting in off the street and begged to buy it off me, explaining that he’d been looking for it for years.

“So have I,” I replied curtly, planking down the $12 it cost on the counter. I’ve often thought how much better a person I’d be if I’d let him have the book that day. It was true, though. I had been looking for it for years. And I did start reading it as soon I got home. All the same, what a bastard! Not a bastard, perhaps: just a collector - with all the unscrupulous connotations that entails ...

Plato: Collected Dialogues (1961)

Further down, on Lorne Street, there’s the corner that used to be David Thomas’s Bookshop, where – among stacks of other tomes – I bought an old shop-soiled edition of Plato with a missing title page (which I still have) for $5. Opposite it, there are the second-floor rooms which housed Jason Books for a time. But the Jason Books I remember best was run by a man called Richard Poore, in a little cul-de-sac in High Street.

That’s where I found a facsimile edition of Shakespeare’s first folio lying face down on the floor, priced at $25 or so. It’s also where I discovered a scruffy old cardboard box full of large black books which turned out to be a complete set of Burton’s Arabian Nights, all sixteen volumes of it: ten devoted to the translation proper, six of the ‘Supplemental Nights.’ That one cost me $150, and even though I only really needed the last 6 volumes, I’ve always been grateful to the bookseller for not being willing to break up the set. It would have been complete madness to abandon the other ten volumes there in situ. I can see that now.

Richard Burton, trans.: The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night (n.d.: c.1940s)

What’s left? There was a time, not so long ago, when one could start off at Downtown, then travel up Queen Street veering from second-hand bookshop to second-hand bookshop, all the way up to K Rd – beyond that, even: to Symonds Street and Allphee Books. Now virtually all those treasured landmarks have gone. They survive in the form of old bookmarks, leaved into odd volumes of my book collection.

Rare Books (interior)

There are a couple of exceptions. Anah Dunsheath’s Rare Books still has its premises on High Street, for the specialty trade, but for the most part it does its business online. Back in the day, when it was open more often, that was an essential stop on the way: not least for the discount tray nearest the street. It was in there that I bought my first copies of the strange, erudite, yet somehow maddening works of Frances Yates.

Trevor C.: Rare Books (exterior)

And then, of course, there's the new-look Jason Books. Maud Cahill, who runs it, has transformed it from the chaotic, dusty treasure trove it used to be into a highly organised, beautifully arranged showroom for both the rare and the rank-and-file among books: both (after all) are essential to the true bibilophile.

Jason Books (interior)

It now lives behind Freyberg Square, in O’Connell Street. It’s well worth looking through. Perhaps my most dazzling find there in recent years was the three volume edition of Emily Dickinson’s collected letters I’d been longing to own for so many years: ever since I first used to browse through its pages in the stacks of Auckland University Library, in fact. Maud has an amazing eye for such things: almost every time I go in there seems to be some mouthwatering treasure waiting for me.

Some other examples? Let’s see – Jeffrey Masson’s own annotated copy of the ten-volume Ocean of the Streams of Story (a first edition); Maurice Duggan’s copy of W. H. Auden’s T. S. Eliot Lectures: Secondary Worlds; Vladimir Nabokov’s exhaustive, eccentric four-volume translation and commentary on Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin … plus all of those biographies and history books and novels and other (generally Mylar-covered) objects of desire.

I wish I could still spend my days wandering through those lost bookshops, squandering my money on their flotsam and jetsam, but I think that they’re still there somewhere: certainly in memory, but maybe, also, in the realm of the Platonic archetypes, waiting to lure me in again – Bloomsbury, Vintage, David Thomas: and all the 'new' bookshops that have gone, too: Borders, Dymocks, Parsons.

It’s best to be thankful for what you have, though. I feel very grateful for Jason Books - and, just down the street from it, for Unity Books, too. Long may they flourish.

Glenn M.: Jason Books (exterior)

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Paper Table Novellas Launch - 3/12/17

Brand design & images: Lisa Baudry

I'm pleased to announce the launch of a new series of single-volume novellas, in our own back garden in Mairangi Bay, on Sunday 3rd December, from 2 pm onwards:

Paper Table Novellas Launch:

When: Sunday 3rd December, 2-4 pm

Where: 6 Hastings Rd, Mairangi Bay, Auckland

What: Books by Leicester Kyle & Jack Ross

Who: All Welcome! (but please don't forget your wallet)

For a long time now Bronwyn and I have been lamenting the lack of attention paid to the novella form in New Zealand. Now, as the publisher of Paper Table Novellas, she's finally decided to do something about it.

The first of our titles, Letters to a Psychiatrist, is the strange tale of a West Coast spiritual odyssey by distinguished eco-poet Leicester Kyle.

The second, The Annotated Tree Worship, is a story told in two novella-length portions, relating the sordid adventures of a disgraced, self-pitying Academic, caught in the grip of his own psychic crisis:

  1. Letters to a Psychiatrist, by Leicester Kyle

    [$NZ 25]

  2. The Annotated Tree Worship, by Jack Ross

    [$NZ 40 the pair]
    (not available separately]

Stu Bagby (on the right, with his wife Sheila beside him)

Leicester's book will be launched by award-winning poet Stu Bagby. My book will be launched by award-winning fiction writer Tracey Slaughter.

There will also be a range of artworks on sale by our brilliant designer, Lisa Baudry.

The wine will flow and a range of culinary treats will be provided. Please do come and spend the afternoon with us.

If you have any further questions about either the books or the imprint, check out our new Paper Table website.

Brand design: Lisa Baudry

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Michele Leggott: Vanishing Points Launch

Michele Leggott: Vanishing Points (2017)

It’s an optical amusement, a punctured surface letting light pour through holes cut out of the picture. Moon, army tents and the windows of houses and St Mary’s church glow or flicker with luminance. Between them move women and children as well as soldiers. Steamers, a brig and a schooner ride on the moonlit sea. Part and not part of the scene is the artist’s son, who lies three days buried in the churchyard at the foot of the hill where his father sits sketching the arrival of imperial troops. Now walk away from the painting when it is lit up and see how light falls into the world on this side of the picture surface. Is this what the artist meant by his cut outs? Is this the meaning of every magic lantern slide?.

In all the excitement of Labour weekend, don’t miss the launch of Michele Leggot’s luminous new poetry collection on Tuesday evening!

7–8.30pm, Tuesday 24 October 2017
Devonport Library, 2 Victoria Road, Devonport, Auckland
Koha appreciated.

We had an excellent time on Tuesday night. The Devonport Library Associates once again gave us a rousing welcome: Jan Mason and Paul Beechman gave the opening speeches, and Ian Free presented Michele and myself with some lovely bottles of bubbly. Sam Ellworthy was there to represent Auckland University Press, her publisher, and closed off the evening with a few words.

Tim Page did his usual brilliant job as sound-master, as well as creating a wonderful animation of the book's cover image, Edwin Harris's 1860 painting 'New Plymouth under Siege.' The original has little holes in it which look like twinkling lights when illuminated from the other side. Tim got us as close to that as one can imagine with his screen projection of this strange, haunting, rather Gothic work:

Edwin Harris: ‘New Plymouth under Siege – 40th Regiment, Marsland Hill, Taranaki 1860’ (3 August 1860)

My job was twofold: first to introduce Michele and her book, and secondly to interview her about it. it's always a bit difficult to make these setpiece 'conversations' sound at all spontaneous, but various people told me afterwards that they thought we'd carried it off.

Michele really didn't know what I was going to ask in advance (I hardly did myself), but she certainly had a lot to say in response. My idea was to try and anticipate what questions people might have on looking into the book, and to try to cover as many as possible of those in advance. Here we are in full cry:

photograph: Bronwyn Lloyd

Of course there was also a reading. Michele read four sections from the closing sequence, 'Figures in the Distance,' immediately after my launch speech. Here she is reading, with the help of her ipod:

photograph: Bronwyn Lloyd

I was in two minds whether or not to include the text of my speech. It's hard to recover the spontaneity of a live event, but as long as you bear in mind that it is written to be spoken, not read, I don't suppose there's any harm in it:

Well, needless to say, I felt very flattered when Michele Leggott asked me to launch her latest book of poems, Vanishing Points. Flattered and somewhat terrified. It’s true that I’ve been reading and collecting her work for well over 20 years, and I’ve been teaching it at Massey University for almost a decade now, but I still felt quite a weight of responsibility pressing down on my shoulders!

One thing that Michele’s poetry is not, is simple. It’s hard to take anything in it precisely at face value: what seems like (and is) a beautiful lyrical phrase may be a borrowing from an unsung local poet – a tangle of Latin names can be a reference to an obsolete star-chart with pinpricks for the various constellations.

The first time I reviewed one of her books, as far as I can see, in 1999, I ended by saying “the reading has only begun.” At the time, I suspect I was just looking for a good line to finish on, but there was a truth there I didn’t yet suspect. Certainly, I’ve been reading in that book, and all her others, ever since.

But how should we read this particular book? “Read! Just keep reading. Understanding comes of itself,” was the answer German poet Paul Celan gave to critics who called his work obscure or difficult. With that in mind, I’ve chosen two touchstones from the volume I’m sure you’re all holding in your hands, or (if not) are planning to purchase presently.

The first is a phrase from the American poet Emily Dickinson, referred to in the notes at the back of the book: “If ever you need to say something … tell it slant.” [123] The second is a quote from the great, blind Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges: “I made a decision. I said to myself: since I have lost the beloved world of appearances, I must create something else.” [35]

With these two phrases in mind, I’d like you to look at the cover of Michele’s book. It’s a painting of the just-landed Imperial troops, camped near New Plymouth in August 1860. The wonderful thing about it is the way the light of the campfires shines through the painting: little holes cut in the canvas designed to give the illusion of life and movement.

“War feels to me an oblique place,” wrote the reclusive New England poet Emily Dickinson to Thomas Wentworth Higginson in February 1863, at one of the darkest points of the American Civil War. Higginson, a militant Abolitionist, was the Colonel of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, the first officially authorized black regiment in American history. He was, in short, a very important and admirable man in his own right. Perhaps it’s unfair of posterity to have largely forgotten him except as the recipient of these letters from one of America’s greatest poets.

New Zealand’s Land Wars of the 1860s may have been on a much smaller scale, but they were just as terrifying and devastating for the people of Taranaki – both Māori and Pakeha – in the early 1860s. In her sequence “The Fascicles,” Michele transforms a real distant relative into a poet in the Dickinson tradition. Just as Emily Dickinson left nearly 1800 poems behind her when she died in 1886, many collected in tidy sewn-up booklets or fascicles, so Dorcas (or Dorrie) Carrell “in Lyttelton, daughter of a soldier, wife of a gardener” [75] provides a pretext for “imagining a nineteenth-century woman writing on the outskirts of empire as bitter racial conflict erupts around her.” [123]

There’s an amazing corollary to this attempt to “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” (in Dickinson’s words). Having repurposed one of her family as a war poet, Michele was fortunate enough to discover the traces of a real poet, Emily Harris, the daughter of the Edwin Harris who painted the picture of Taranaki at war on the wall over there, whose collected works so far consist of copious letters and diaries, but also two very interesting poems. “Emily and her Sisters,” the seventh of the sequences collected here, tells certain aspects of that story.

It’s nothing but the strictest truth to say, then (as Michele does at the back of the book), that one should:
walk away from the painting when it is lit up and see how light falls into the world on this side of the picture surface. Is this what the artist meant by his cut-outs? Is this the meaning of every magic lantern slide? [124]
I despair of doing justice to the richness of this new collection of Michele’s – to my mind, her most daring and ambitious work since the NZ Book Award-winning DIA in 1994. There are eight sequences here, with a strong collective focus on the life and love-giving activities which go on alongside what Shakespeare calls in Othello “the big wars”: children, family, eating, painting, swimming. One of my favourites among them is the final sequence, “Figures in the Distance,” which offers a series of insights into the world of Michele’s guide-dog Olive – take a bow, Olive – amongst other family members, many of whom, I’m glad to see, have been able to come along here tonight.

This is a radiant, complex, yet very approachable book. It is, in its own way, I’m quite convinced, a masterpiece. We have a great poet among us. You’d be quite crazy to leave here tonight without a copy of Vanishing Points.

At this point, then, I’d like to hand over to Michele, who will read some pieces from the sequence “Figures in the Distance." After that the two of us will have a short conversation about the book, and I’ll try and ask, on your behalf, some of the questions I think you’d like to have answered about how it all connects and how the various parts of it came about.

photograph: Bronwyn Lloyd