So I discovered the other week, quite by accident, that one of my poems (Shoved at Memorial Park) was used in this year’s NCEA English exam. Imagine that, an entire nation of fidgety, nervous students reading my work on the same day. Even if all I did was make enemies, that’s my largest audience ever!
It completes a grand loop which began for me in seventh form (Year 13 or whatever it’s called these days) when I was studying the poems of Seamus Heaney. Not saying I’m a poet comparable with Seamus Heaney, but I do recall wondering what it must be like to have people study your work. Not counting Spike Milligan when I was a kid, Seamus Heaney was the first ‘real’ poet who made me take serious notice of poetry. The other random link with Seamus Heaney is that my Shoved at Memorial Park poem was first published in an anthology that also included a poem by Seamus Heaney. Go Marcel and Seamus!
Anyway, I’ve reached the lofty literary pinnacle of being studied. It was an exam, under pressure, but still, it’s pretty damn cool. I’d love to see how the students answered. For example…
Describe what the poet is feeling
The poet is feeling the financial pinch of the recession, as reflected by the economical use of language. The ‘big kid’ in the poem represents the Inland Revenue Department who bully the innocent with unreasonable taxes.
Describe what the boy in the poem is feeling
The boy in the poem represents a teenager who doesn’t want to be an outcast, so he is hanging out in baggy pants “waiting for a quiet turn on things” which means he is thinking of trying drugs. The final line indicates the hard reality of what happens the day after you drink too much at a party when you were trying to be cool to impress a girl you like but have no hope of ever getting.
How does the poet use images in the poem?
There is no special imagery used in the poem as it all takes place under water in a submerged playground where there are loads of fish.
One morning in 2002 I took my brother-in-law’s mini disc recorder to the Otumoetai Baptist Church, sat down at the grand piano and played through a series of compositions I had been writing over a number of years.
For lack of a better title, the overall work is called ‘Songs About Jesus’. That’s because at the time I was trying to work out what I thought about Jesus, and part of this journey found me writing an entire work that followed Jesus from birth to death, using text from the gospels as lyrics. It was originally inspired by being bored listening to some of Bach’s four hour long Passion. I thought, this is great but we need something a bit more modern.
So to my little recording session in the baptist church. It was a hasty and imperfect effort. I subsequently abandoned my ‘Songs About Jesus’ and didn’t listen to the recordings again for another eight years, at which time I realised there’s some good stuff there that I don’t actually want to lose. So I’ve started cleaning them up, adding better vocals where needed (the vocals were the worst part of the day).
Here’s the first of those compositions. This one’s instrumental. I’ve thrown in a few subtle synth tracks here and there but mostly it’s all just piano.
Even though she sits at our meeting
commanding respect on the topic
of inter-agency forums for sustainable housing
if you listen
you can hear the rolling cushions of surf
echoing from her hair,
long and glorious,
an odyssey in itself,
which she flicks behind her shoulder
as if to remind it, no,
work now, play later.
There is salt and sunset in her smile.
When the meeting ends
she strolls with confidence to her next adventure.
We are left in the wake of her shagadelic hair.
I’ve decided that for my birthday this year I’m going to play one of Beethoven’s piano sonatas for my some of my friends. Since I’m a moderately respectable pianist – an enthusiastic amateur who once trained quite seriously – the guys at the Baycourt Theatre next door don’t mind if I test drive their $250,000 Steinway piano. So I’m going to give it a blast. I’ve been practising for a week, for not even eight hours in total since I decided to go ahead with it.
Those eight hours have been the most enjoyable few hours that I’ve had for a long time. It’s ages since I’ve lost myself in a piece of classical music. I came home from work last week all churned up over something and I sat at the piano and played all evening. It was like a magic carpet ride.
The piece I’m going to play is one that I’ve been playing on and off for over ten years. Every few years I dust it off and try to master it again. I love it and it beats me every time.
You’d think that ten years of fiddling around with the same 15 minute long score would uncover all of the possibilities yet I continue to find new nuances to explore, new ways of approaching it. Practicing this piece generates a relationship with the music, with the piano and even with Beethoven himself. How totally amazing that I get to engage with his thoughts at such an intimate level. I connect and wrestle with the music. I journey with it. Practicing music is like mining, drilling deeper and deeper into your own self. This is not anything that I can ever hope to share with anyone else.
Some of my best friends are going to hear me play, but only my wife has ever really, really heard me play classical music. (Usually while she’s pottering around the house in the background.) I can jam and mess around on the piano with casual flamboyance, but when I play classical music I am at my most private, much more personal than poetry, which I can recite with a smirk. With the piano there’s no tomfoolery. I am working at the very limits of my ability and my technique, and I am trying to reach beyond the technical demands to find the most perfect expression of emotion. Other people very rarely get to see me in that mode.
Of course, I desperately want them to get a sense of my passion for the music. They won’t, just as I can’t experience the deepest emotions my friend experiences when she catches a wave against the sunset. I can catch my own waves but at the end of the day it’s a personal journey for everyone. The best I can do is play the damn thing as well as I can on the day and hope my friends will catch a glimpse of something beautiful.
On your 13th wedding anniversary, if you’re a writer like me, the present you give your wife is a sneak preview of the first chapter of Lee Child’s forthcoming book called ‘Torture Room’. Well actually, it’s a tribute chapter that I wrote to celebrate my wife in the style of her favourite genre. She loves Lee Child (I don’t) and she loves the TV series 24 (I claim not to but always get sucked in).
So I presented her with this story, mocked up with advance praise cover blurbs and everything. She loved it. Best thing is that it only really means anything to her. I’m sharing it here anyway, just in case someone else enjoys it. It’s quite a sacrifice to write something for only one person!
Chapter One – from Lee Child’s Torture Room
Reacher pulled the dart from the back of his neck but it was too late. The sedative was already working. He looked at the dart, a 2ml casing, probably gave him 15 seconds. Not enough time. He would be out for at least two hours. He turned and saw a man walking towards him. About six foot, large build, carrying a 25 round glock pistol. Must’ve smuggled it into the country. Why here? His vision swarmed, he fell to the ground and darkness overtook him.
His wrists were strapped to the arms of a metal chair. His ankles were tied and there was a metal chain around his waist and chest. He tested the strength of the set up. Secure.
A man stepped into view, same guy. Reacher’s focus was returning. Jumper leads attached to his chair snaked along the floor to a bench with some kind of control panel on it. He was in a warehouse. Opposite Reacher, strapped to an identical chair, was a woman, late twenties-early thirties maybe. Blond pony tail, athletic body, a steely gaze watching him. She was tense but not terrified. Reacher liked her already.
The man was wearing a mask, a flimsy plastic clown face. “So!” said the clown, rubbing his hands together. “Allow me to explain the rules of the game.” He leaned in to Reacher’s face. “I will ask you a question. You will answer it correctly. A correct answer and the pretty lady does not suffer.”
“I’m no good at quizzes,” said Reacher. “Ask someone else.” The clown continued gazing at close proximity as though deciding whether or not to laugh. Then he said, “First question: New World or Pak ‘n’ Save, which is better value for money?”
“That’s your question?” said Reacher. “Why don’t you just read their junk mail?”
“It’s not for my benefit, it’s yours,” said the clown.
“I’m not that big on shopping,” said Reacher.
The clown nodded. “I don’t think you’re taking this seriously.” He walked over to the bench and put his hand on a lever. “I’m going to give you a small taste, just so you can see what the lady is in for if you continue on this path.” He plunged the switch. Reacher saw the jumper leads spasm. An electric buzz sizzled around his chair. His teeth clamped together, his muscles contracted and his chest felt like it was about to explode. Just when he thought he could take no more it stopped, leaving him gasping.
“That’s just little object lesson to help us get oriented,” said the clown. “The next lesson will be more … comprehensive.” He clapped his hands. “Right, question two, again for the gentleman,” said the clown. “When is the best time of year to plant broccoli?”
“What kind of question is that? What is this anyway, have you never heard of the internet?” said Reacher. The clown drummed his fingers together. “Still not taking this seriously? I can see this is going to be tough on the lady,” he said. The lever was pulled, the electricity roared. Her neck went taut, her mouth was wrenched open as though it were being cranked apart by hand. But then Reacher realized it was not the effects of the shock he was seeing; she was yawning. She was actually yawning.
“Is this supposed to be torture?” she said. “I’ve got three little boys at home, get on with it, I’ve got stuff to do!” The clown stared at her. “Intriguing,” he said. He swung a dial and watched as the electricity increased. “Seriously,” said the girl, apparently unaffected. “It’s been a long night. Our oldest boy’s got a cold and I had to help some American guy stop a international terrorist plot.”
Now the clown laughed. He walked across the floor and pulled away a tarpaulin to reveal a blond man, unconscious on a third electric chair. “You mean this American?”
The girl sighed. “Oh, Jack,” she said.
“How do you know my name?” said Reacher.
“Not you, I was talking to him,” said the girl. “Jack Bauer. The counter terrorism guy.” She turned to the clown. “What have you done to him?”
“Me? Nothing. He’s just really, really tired. He’s been up all night.” A snore came from the chair. The clown returned to the console. “I’m bored now, the rules just changed,” he announced. “I’m simply going to kill you all, maximum power, no questions. Mr Bauer too.”
Reacher struggled. He heard the clatter of chains, and when he looked up, to his surprise, the girl was standing. The chains and wrist straps lay broken and limp on the floor. “Enough mucking around,” said the girl. “I’ve got dinner to cook, washing to do, kids to bath, a vege garden to manage, a house to tidy, a half marathon to train for, friends to look after and a husband to pash.” She strolled over to Reacher, bent down in front of him and snapped his restraints with her hands. Reacher said, “husband?” She winked. “Sorry buddy. He could kick your arse any day. And so could I. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a clown problem to sort out before I go.” The clown was already backing away, a shotgun in his hands. She turned to face him. “Come on, motherfucker,” she said. “Let’s have a wee talk.” Reacher thought, whoever this girl’s husband is, he’s the luckiest guy in the world.