Auckland, Amazement, and why a Red Coat is a Good Thing

Back from my trip to the 2011 Auckland Writers & Readers Festival. I had a great time, and was utterly amazed by the scale of the organisation. I knew it was big, but according to one of my drivers (yes, they even have a team of drivers who whisk authors from airport to hotel to venue) (and apparently didn’t manage to lose any!) (although a couple of authors apparently temporarily misplaced themselves) there are 70 official volunteers. I was installed in a very fancy room at The Langham Hotel – if you saw the last few programs in this year’s NZ MasterChef, The Langham is where they did the Room Service challenge. Über-luxurious, and the sort of place where you really want to be there for a good three or four days in order to make the most of all the facilities. And because most of the writers were staying there, I kept sharing elevators with Famous People. I even sat across from Madhur Jaffrey – didn’t quite have the nerve to go and introduce myself to her, but still.

My two gigs were pretty much at opposite ends of the scale. The Open Mike session on Sunday was fun, and quite informal. I was one of the later “featured poets”, and by my session there were some gaps in the program (not enough people wanting to get up and read just then), so I ended up reading longer than originally planned. Well, reading, and waffling on. But I had fun, and people weren’t leaving in droves, so that counts as a win. MC Penny Ashton kept everyone in stitches. She’s got a touring show – Hot Pink Teeth ’n’ Tits – which I am going to make damn sure I get to, if only so I can hear more of her improv limericks.

But the main reason for my presence at the Festival was actually my first gig – the This One’s For Christchurch reading, with Tusiata Avia, Fiona Farrell, Carl Nixon, Sarah Quigley, and Charlotte Randall. We had to report to the stage door, then were led away into the bowels of the Aotea Centre to our very own Green Room. After a wee while they took us out through the lobby and past everyone to the backstage area, where we had the microphones sorted out and agreed on a running order. Then it was showtime! Fiona, Tusiata and I read poems; Carl read a short story from “the Christchurch of before the earthquake”, Charlotte talked a little about a new novel that she’s working on which has been shaped by the quake(s), and Sarah finished by talking about her experience of finding out about the quake (she now lives in Berlin) and the column she wrote for The Press as it was all unfolding. We had five or so minutes left (and a big digital clock, counting down, on a monitor screen in front of us) so there were a couple of questions/comments from the audience, with the chance for us to respond.

Sounds a bit dry, reported like that, doesn’t it? But it wasn’t. If you’ve been a performer you’ll know what I mean when I talk about reading the audience – those situations where you can feel their emotional response/s, and feel them change. (If you’re a really good performer, you can even mould them a bit, like a potter shaping clay, or a conductor shaping the mood and sound of an orchestra.) And it was so warm! And gentle, really gentle. I don’t quite know what I expected, but that wasn’t it. Curiosity, yes. But it felt like … being in a room-sized hug. It was a humbling experience – I just wish I could bring some of it back for everyone else to feel too.

But … I lost-it. On stage. Didn’t quite get to tears-streaming-down-cheeks, but my vocal chords got tight and distinctly wobbly, and I only just made it through my final poem. My usual trick if I feel over-emotional is to push on the bridge of my glasses – the little pads sit just over my tear-ducts, and the increase in pressure does a good job of holding things back. But the angle of the lectern and the proximity of the mic meant I couldn’t move my hands without the sound of it being amplified, and so I had to grip the lectern with my fingertips instead. I blame the four who spoke before me. Oh, and Elizabeth Bishop – I was quoting the line from “One Art” which triggered my final poem (yes, it’s below, you can read it in a minute): I lost two cities, lovely ones. And as I was saying it, I heard it again, really heard it, just like I did when the poem first kicked my shins and demanded my attention. I don’t know how obvious it was – my losing-it, I mean. Going back to my seat I felt like slapping myself. Oh well, it was an emotional session.

On the plus side, I had people coming up to me throughout the rest of my time at the festival (and when just walking around the city) thanking me for my reading, and saying that it had moved them. I’m pretty sure they were recognising my coat, rather than me – one of the reasons why I love doing readings in autumn and winter is because I get to wear my gorgeous red coat. I think of it as my Poet Performing uniform …

The City and the City

The city I love, the city has fallen,
brought to its knees amid wreckage and mud.
Across the four avenues sirens are calling.

A rumbling shattering roar, and the yawning
gap in the sky where a building once stood.
A rupture in summer: a city has fallen.

Smoke rises and hangs in a thickening pall
over mothers and businessmen clawing at rubble.
Across the four avenues sirens are calling.

A sheared-off shop front. A bright painted wall
translated into a coffin lid.
Bones of the city, cradle the fallen.

Who do you pray to when churches are falling?
What sanctuary when stone splinters like wood?
Across the four avenues sirens are calling.

A grey summer midday, without any warning
brought us to our knees amid rubble and mud.
The city, my city, the city has fallen.
Across the four avenues voices are calling.

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2 thoughts on “Auckland, Amazement, and why a Red Coat is a Good Thing

  1. As I happened to be sitting here early at work in my own gorgeous red coat (wool cashmere, bought secondhand for 10 euros from the Gouda Market in The Netherlands), I salute you across the Tasman. Love vicariously sharing your experiences. Loved the poem also. My trick for staving off unwanted tears? Digging my elbows in my ribs! Don’t know why it works, but it does!

    • I think I’ve seen your red coat Liana, and it is indeed magnificent.
      And thanks for the elbows tip – shall try it next time I’m in need. Which, sadly, is likely to be sooner rather than later. I seem to tear up much more easily now than I ever used to. Very frustrating, because people pay attention to the weeping rather than the words. I need a sign to flash that says ‘No! Pay attention! My eyes may be running, but my brain is not!’
      Sigh …

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