We continue our occasional – and occasionally insanely depressing – series which investigates whether literature exists in the provinces. Becky Manawatu looks for signs of bookish life in Westport.
The Buller Rural Education Activities Programme Hall on Henley Street in Westport smells like a church and is decked out with those wooden school chairs that force you to bow and straighten, bow and straighten your back like an accordion, lest it sieze. The hall also has a blackboard – an actual one. And I find my name chalked on it. My name is about number 20 down the list of tonight’s poetry readers.
Organiser Mary McGill, with dreadlocks to her knees, has pulled out all the stops: on a small table at the back of the room there is wine, beer, cheese and what might be chicken nuggets – but not from McDees. Westport doesn’t have McDees. But it does have an annual poetry reading evening, partly sponsored by the Buller District Council. This is what Mary does for her town. As a painter and writer herself she knows how important the platform is to the artist. She organises the Buller Arts Exhibition at the Clock Tower Chambers in April for visual artists. For the exhibitors –the painters, sculptors, photographers, and weavers – she ensures there are enough empty walls, floors, shelves for their art. She ensures there are enough nails for their art to be hung on. She ensures there is someone to greet the people who come to see the art. And for the poets she ensures there is a mic, a stage, an audience. She books the hall for an evening in wintry July. She turns on the heaters before the people arrive in their scarves and hats, poems in their pockets.
Every village needs a Mary.
The packed hall at the annual poetry night is evidence that literary or cultural stuff is going on under the grid-like surface of Westport. The town is flat, and there are no rounding bends in its streets. In Westport you can take either a perfectly perpendicular left or right turn, or you can go straight ahead. If you go to the beach you’ll be treated to a sweeping left, and on Easton’s Road a sweeping right. Westport has a photogenic hub – The Clock Tower. It has one bookstore, two supermarkets, three schools, and no less than seven pubs.
You can smell the people in this room – not in a bad way, more like in a life-less-sanitised way. In a straight-here-from-the-farm, or just-finished-a-shift-at-the-pub-way. I can see that some people selected the felt jacket or felt hat they are wearing tonight from the number of felt hats and jackets hanging in their oak wardrobe. I wish I’d worn something felt – or at least woolen. I’m in jeans, dirty converses and a white cotton jersey. Even in shoes which still have scum on them from my bar-tending stint last year, I feel like a bit of a stiff.
Westport has artists and writers and people who love books. And tonight, at the Reap Hall, a good number of people want to be poets, and a good number of people want to hear those poets.
Meanwhile I’m crapping my too-clean-jeans. My name is chalked up on that blackboard but truth be told, I ain’t no poet. I’m only here because I made a little deal with myself before I moved back home from Europe: I would never whine about what opportunities this seaside town offered. I would find what was up for grabs and I would just get amongst it. I love literature – and literature includes poetry, so fuck it. Tonight I’ll be a poet.
It’s not so bad. My hands shake as I read, as does my voice, and at one point I just stood there in awkward silence as I failed to read my own messy handwriting. I hope it came off as a dramatic pause. But it doesn’t matter really, people clapped for me when I finished my poem dedicated to Hera Lindsay Bird and the next poet came up and gave my back a light good-on-you tap, took the mic from me and then he read and we all clapped for him. After the readings, a group of us cuddled around the small table with wine and cheese for further back-patting. To ask intelligent questions about one another’s poetry and occasionally quote each other back to each other. “I like when you said…” “Really! Thanks and I liked it when you read…”
I nibble at – yes, what is definitely a chicken nugget – and a local writer, poet and former activist tells me there is a writing group if I’d like to come.
“It’s mornings,” she tells me.
“Oh, I can’t do mornings.”
“That’s ok. Maybe we can change it.”
And so they do. And I don’t even think of my participate-in-all-opportunities deal I have with myself; I’m looking forward to it. Tonight’s vibe has me buzzing more than the Frankfurt Book Fair ever could. Once upon a time ago I wandered around that over-sized, over-lit, over-priced book fair until me and the mate I was with ended up in a room where we were handed flutes of mock-champagne unlikely to have been intended for us. There was also various types of käse, bruschetta with fresh tomatoes, and oily olives in tiny bowls. No chicken nuggets, hardly anyone wearing felt. Not much fun. I’m happy to be back in the village that raised me.
One day I go to pick up my daughter from my Taua’s house where she goes to play dominoes after school sometimes. The pair of them are mid-game.
I watch. While they play I ask Taua if she would come to book club with me. I tell her I read about the meeting in The News, under the local events calendar. It is held every third Thursday in the month. My Taua and I have always shared a love of books. Though Taua is constantly harping on about how she misses the Nelson City Library.
She keeps her eyes on the domino game.
“The new librarian – Clenda, I think – has done a lot for that place though. I like it more these days. Sure I’ll come.”
“Good,” I say. She returns to the game.
“Hell’s teeth, she beat me again.”
My daughter smiles.
Book club is good. There is a little bit of passive aggression though. I am asked by the poet, writer and former activist I met at poetry night: “Why haven’t you made writers group? We changed the time especially for you.”
“We sent countless emails.”
“Sorry, but I haven’t seen them.”
“Oh, we must have got the email wrong. I suppose.”
“Look, I can’t apologise again. Sorry… I mean to say, I will be there next time.”
There are exactly five of us at book club. It is more like a readers’ support group which caters to all sorts of readers’ support needs. Need a better reason to read than all the ones there already are: join your local readers’ support group. Need to get out of the house to stop yourself reading and to relearn normal social behaviors: join your local readers’ support group. Need sticky-date slice and as many cups of tea as you like….
My Taua is thrilled to see there is sticky-date slice and she slurps both her tea and the datey-stickiness from her fingers while a woman in the group spoils the end of the novel she read in anticipation for this month’s meeting. The spoiler is an incredibly articulate 80-year-old who has had to repeat her name – Margaret – three times to my Taua already.
“But everyone in Westport knows me,” Margaret says, almost bewildered. Taua doesn’t hear her, she is too busy reaching for another serving of slice.
Another woman takes a turn to share thoughts about the novel she read over the month. She is just about to reveal something really, really beautiful and really, really insightful – I can tell by the shine in her eyes and the way she taps the page, just barely, with the tips of her fingers. But as she opens her mouth to speak, my Taua notices a book on a far shelf and nudges me, then points, flinging crumbs from her fingers. She says loudly: “That’s that book I have been wanting to read. Hell’s teeth! I thought I’d have to get it in Nelson, but there…” I elbow her lightly. I sort of make the shush shape with my mouth but don’t actually run air between my lips because I have never shushed my Taua before, and certainly never in front of other people. The other people seem to appreciate my effort though, and I give them a knowing smile, but I don’t like doing it, because I don’t mean it at all. All I want to know is what book Taua was pointing at.
Unfortunately for the woman whose turn to talk it actually was, the exquisite literary gem she was about to share escaped her in the excitement. The moment is gone, and she returns to revealing non-blurb pieces of the book’s plot. No matter, I’m still happy to be here, there are plenty more fish in the sea – or stories on the shelves. I mentally cross her book choice off my to-read list.
We leave the meeting happy. Our task at the end of it was to choose a book from the 600’s section, and as I am on a mission to read New Zealand authors only this year I pulled out the ones with kiwis stickered to their spines. Eventually I chose MaryJane Thomson’s Sarah Vaughan is Not My Mother: A Memoir of Madness, deciding I would use it as some light relief between my current read: Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. The book that one might say put The Coast on the world’s literary radar – even if it was Hokitika.
I work as a reporter and occasional columnist at the local newspaper. The News is the smallest independent newspaper in New Zealand. It has a 15-strong workforce, and every day we – myself, fellow reporter Teresa Smith, and chief reporter (and co-owner) Lee Scanlon – wait to hear the sound the print works make when it grunts to life. We talk about the books we are reading after deadline, or before 9am. Teresa lends me books I am forever endeavouring to get back to her.
This includes her copy of a book by local author Carolyn Hawes. Her murder/mystery novel, The Floating Basin, is set in Westport. She wrote it under trying circumstances: her husband was dying and she lugged her computer to write her book at his bedside. Hawes launched her book last year at the library. Buller mayor Garry Howard went to it and he presented her with a Buller District Council endorsed badge.
There are other local authors. Teresa and I went to the launch of Trevor Hayes’s book last year. He lives in Punakaiki, 50k south of Westport. The chapbook of poetry is called Two Lagoons and was published by Seraph Press. I bought one at the launch and asked Trevor to sign it for me. I walked away clutching the hand-stitched book like it was a treasure. When I finally got it home I found that it was exactly that – a treasure.
Westport and Buller is like a room full of people happy to pat each other on each other’s backs. And the flute of mock-champagne is, of course, meant for you, and the mayor is here to attend the launch of your self-published book and award you a badge. And you can wear your felt even though it is almost impossible to wash, and I forgot to mention this earlier but my colleague Teresa is not only a reporter, but if you live on the Coast Road then she will be the one who will deliver you your evening newspaper, The News. You can browse through the books at the lottery ticket store – but don’t worry, no one expects you to buy one. And would you like to join our writers group? Yes? Great! Can’t do mornings? Fuck it! Evenings it is! And everyone knows Margaret, you know Margaret, we know Margaret (just my Taua has trouble with names when sticky-date slice is on offer.)
Writing Group is next week. I won’t forget. I have countless emails to remind me.
The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.