Verb festival director Claire Mabey. (Photo: Michelle Langstone)

Wellington, words and nuns: Meet Claire Mabey, festival maker

Until recently, it seemed the Verb literary festival was destined to go the same way as so many live events this Covid-cursed year. Now the festival is all go – and its director can finally breathe out, she tells Michelle Langstone.

Claire Mabey did a tarot reading every day during New Zealand’s first Covid-19 lockdown. She tells me this while sipping on a hot lemon and honey drink, in Wellington’s Loretta restaurant, her blue eyes wide behind spectacles that give her a pleasing owlish appearance. I’m not even remotely surprised when she tells me this, because in the short time I’ve been with her, it’s evident she’s more than a little kooky. She’s petite, with long, pale marmalade-coloured hair, and dressed in a striped sweater that is many sizes too big for her. It makes her look a bit like a child dressed in grown-ups clothes. When she speaks, her voice is high and sweet, and it adds to the feeling you’re speaking to someone much younger than 35. Then she starts talking about her work, and she’s direct, commanding, and thoughtful, and it’s such a great juxtaposition that I’m immediately along for the ride, and that’s before she’s even gotten onto tarot, and to nuns, with whom she has a special affinity.

Claire Mabey is the director of Wellington’s Verb festival and Lit Crawl, the annual literary event founded in 2014 that takes place over about a week each year, embracing both New Zealand and international writers. Mabey has been a programmer on the festival circuit for many years, and Verb has a partnership with the New Zealand Arts Festival, where she plans the writers programme. It was in March this year, during that writers week, when Mabey got the inkling that things were about to change. “It was starting to feel quite strange. I remember one of our Australian artists who came over that last weekend had been feeling really ill, and she was quite worried about that, and we went through a process of figuring out if she should even be allowed in the event in public.”

In all, Mabey had six authors pull out of the festival. Academic Kristen Ghodsee just snuck in and made it to the festival – her university banned international travel the day after she flew out of the United States. The writers programme ended on a Sunday, and the next day the rest of the festival was cancelled. Says Ghodsee, “It wasn’t until the week later when Covid had been in Wellington, and everything blew up really quickly and then lockdown happened, that I really could see that it was becoming a very serious situation.” Mabey realises how lucky she was to be able to see out the writers part of the festival. Originally feeling grim that she’d lost so many writers – “I thought oh my god this is the worst year ever!” – she then watched as the Auckland Writers Festival was cancelled, and how Christchurch’s WORD festival lost its biennial international programme (WORD has now been rescheduled to October 28 – November 1 with all New Zealand writers).

‘We were like: How are we going to survive? says Mabey of Covid-19 (Photo: Michelle Langstone)

For event programmers like Mabey, 2020 has been a brutal year. Covid-19 has destroyed public events, concerts and performance, and left the live arts industry floundering. Mabey and her partner Andrew Laking own an events company called Pirate and Queen, and together they programme Verb, as well as other events in Wellington. Verb runs November 5-8 this year, with a curtain-raiser event this Thursday, and it seems like they’ve just managed to sneak their festival in, albeit in an altered state, while New Zealand enjoys a reprieve from the more extensive lockdowns of earlier months. “We are doing a really focused New Zealand programme over a shorter amount of time. I feel really lucky, because I’ve gone in between the waves [of Covid] I guess.” She knocks on the wooden tabletop swiftly when she says this, and I whistle for good luck, and she laughs.

It’s easy to make light of it now that the end is in sight and the festival is poised to go ahead next week, but Mabey knows as well as anyone how quickly things can change. She was glued to the 1pm bulletins during both lockdowns, anxiously trying to predict which way the cards would fall for her festival, which is a standout favourite in Wellington’s annual calendar. “I was really scared, because we’re independent artists, and we lost all our contacts overnight. So we were like, ‘How are we going to survive?’” She’s pale when she tells me this. One of the ways she processed the unfolding situation was to lay three card spreads from her tarot deck, and look for meaning there. When she explains it to me, it’s in a practical, no nonsense way, as if this is part of her business model: “I guess it’s like any other external framework, on what can be a really muddled up brain. I found it quite freeing. I found it would tap into a different way of thinking. I use it to ask myself questions: ‘Oh well those cards are all quite clearly speaking to this aspect, so what in my current dilemma or fug do I need to ask myself?’”

This kind of introspection is part of Mabey’s nature. It’s part of an internal reflection you could categorise as mindfulness, if it didn’t sound like such a cliche. Mabey says she’s “so bad at self care. I’m trying to be better at it!” and groans when I ask her how she has looked after herself over a trying year. It turns out another of her self care techniques is nuns. When we speak she is about to go and stay for the weekend at the Home of Compassion in Island Bay, a space overseen by nuns, where people can go for “spiritual nourishment”. The blush creeps up Mabey’s cheeks again. “I’m going there to try and give myself no technology. I’m a bit lacking in inspiration and I need to start thinking about 2021 and 2022 programming. I think my brain is pretty full of this year. I just want to have some real serene time. I think one of the sisters will be my assigned nun.”

Mabey has had a thing for nuns since she completed an honours dissertation on Hildegard of Bingham, the 12th century German abbess, artist, scholar and brewer. She lights up like a Christmas display, barely pausing for breath as she tells me about Hildegard’s history, and how that led to Mabey working in a castle for a Belgian publishing company specialising in medieval literature, before WOOFing at a monastery in Greece. “The place was incredible! It was a very old monastery that was founded in maybe the 10th century, and now it’s this idyllic place at the top of a mountain where they grow literally everything you can imagine. They were amazing, amazing women and they were just — I felt like I had these epiphanies every day!”

Mabey spent time working in the gardens with people from all over the world, under the guidance of a group of nuns. I ask her if she ever had a moment when she thought she could be one of them. She starts giggling. “I don’t think I could do the rules! I’m not really religious in that way, but I’m definitely interested in the lifestyle.” Her forthcoming weekend at the Home of Compassion is time to look inwards, to look for answers in a space of quiet contemplation.

Writer Sam Duckor-Jones performs at Hunters & Collectors secondhand clothes shop during LitCrawl 2018 (Photo: Vanessa Rushton)

Mabey’s thoughtfulness served her well during the first lockdown. Losing all her work and having time to consider what next meant she could bring to fruition a support model for Verb that she had been considering for a while but hadn’t had any time to implement. “I developed the Verb Community, which is a membership programme. People pay ten bucks or whatever a year to support the organisation, but then get benefits. Psychologically it helped me keep going, because the reaction to it was really strong, and I was like ‘Oh, people do want this thing to keep going.’”

Mabey’s eyes fill with tears when she tells me this, and she looks so vulnerable sitting there I want to hug her. I can see how much it has meant to her to feel the support of a community around her in such a difficult time, even if it could only be in spirit, not in person. She wipes her eyes, laughing and sighing simultaneously. “I am a very emotional person, and I cry all the time! That [community] made me keep going, and that’s when we started publishing. I wanted a way to pay writers even if we weren’t doing events, and so the publishing was quite a natural thing, and it’s been amazing and really fun for me.” Aside from a degree in English and Art History, Mabey has a diploma in publishing from Whitireia Polytechnic, and she says getting to wear an editor’s hat again with Verb’s publishing division has brought her joy.

Since the arrival of Covid-19 in March, it’s been a waiting game for Mabey and Laking. When the country moved to level two they were straight out of the starting blocks, programming events like Politics in Pubs alongside The Spinoff, where politicians like Simon Bridges got the third degree in front of a live audience, and partnering with Field and Green, a local restaurant, to make The Supper Club, a monthly themed evening with food and art. Those events have been good practice for Mabey in making sure layers of contingency are set up for the coming Verb festival. “I have to say that once we got the hang of level two, we kind of got very comfortable with the planning, and we’ve got a great production manager who is very experienced and has kind of gone through level one to level two transition already, so she’s got very good methods in place.” Ticket sales for Verb have been terrific, and Mabey is certain it’s because audiences are craving human contact and connection.

Contingency plans mean if they have to, Verb can move online and only a few of the more technical performance-based events will have to go, but it’s not a situation she wants to face. “I really fundamentally believe that art, and particularly festivals, are of their place. It’s about the connection between the people and the physical place, and the magic that happens around that burst of energy. So for me the digital stuff is very removed from that.” If the country moves to level three before October 29, and Verb can’t happen in the physical, a plan is in place, though not in the same vein as, say, the Auckland Writers Festival, which hosted Zoom sessions with many of the grounded authors. “Our level three plans are quite different. We’d really be looking at more produced online content, so not live but really well produced video content and publishing content, so that’s probably what we would do. Publishing online work for readers — we’d lean into that more.” With a smile that’s more like a grimace, she adds  “I really hope we don’t have to do that!”

(Photo: Michelle Langstone)

It’s clear from talking to Mabey that the difficulties of this year have ended up yielding innovative ideas, forcing her to dig deep and re-examine her approach to events. It’s also given her time to reflect on Wellington city, and generate some ideas about how to show its real value to the world. Originally from Tauranga, and a nomad through much of her 20s, travelling the world on the festival circuit, she ended up in Wellington because of Laking, and she beams when she tells me this. Now she’s in love with the city, a place she says is one of the most literary in the world. “I think Wellington is very special, and I keep harping on about this to the city leaders, but I think Wellington is a leading literary city, globally. When you look at the history of book production and writing here, it’s amazing. Patricia Grace, Bill Manhire, Elizabeth Knox. There’s just a wealth of historical literary work here.”

Mabey says the depth of independent journals and bookshops and publishers as well as the IIML writers programme make for a city where readers and writers can really thrive together. Her gentle voice grows strident as she proclaims that Wellington is “not just about WOW every September! We’ve actually got amazing artists who live and work here every day, and whose works are available, not just to people who buy a ticket once in a while, but to a daily readership that is global.” Mabey is passionate about the work and lives of our women writers especially, and wants to make a digital campaign series about Elizabeth Knox, Renee and Patricia Grace, among others, who have both written extensively and raised children in the city.

Mabey is a mother herself, to a two-year-old boy named Charlie. In lockdown she and Laking took turns to care for him while the other worked; Mabey says it was a special time for their little family unit, despite the fact that she admits to a mild form of claustrophobia. She loves to travel and yearns for the freedom it brings, and during lockdown she had to make do with lots of beautiful walks in the quiet neighbourhoods. She misses that quiet now that life has returned, almost, to normal. She’s tired. You can feel it in the deep exhalations she makes, and see it in the way she lifts her arms to pull her hair back — as if they weigh a tonne. I ask how she refills the well when she devotes so much time advocating for the arts and for writers, and she’s shy when she tells me she’s been taking creative writing papers at Victoria University. “I never made time for it before, and I’d always do it at 11pm at night when you’ve got no brain left. So I’ve carved out time for that, and it’s really amazing, and I feel really sustained by that because it’s not anything to do with any other aspect of my work really. It’s strange because even though I work with writers it’s not the same, it’s very different.”

Mabey hopes to write a book one day. She loves creative nonfiction, and short stories, which are what she’s working on at the moment. One of the things she’ll do on her weekend with the nuns is look over her writing portfolio before she hands it at the end of term. Apart from that I get the sense she will let herself daydream, and imagine a 2021 where Covid-19 doesn’t loom so large, and where she can plan a festival that takes audiences in a new direction. She gives a secretive smile when I ask if she has an inkling of where the festival is going. “It will be a format change in part, a lot of the events will be a lot more intimate than normal.” She pauses and considers her words, and then it comes out in a rush of enthusiasm.

“I’ve been reading heaps about witches, and female knowledge systems. I’ve been reading heaps of new interpretations of old folk tales, where they take that really ‘strange woman’, or those magical elements, and how that knowledge is applied today.” Her eyes are the brightest blue behind her glasses and she adds, smiling, “I guess the nun thing is sort of coming into it, too … sort of like a coven.”




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