Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Mexican girls on Angel's Landing

I'm on my Mountain West adventure with six of the people from the International Writing Program. You can picture excitement here ... and also weariness.

I'm actually feeling a bit knackered. I know that's a slightly rude word to use, but it's the only one that accurately describes my physical state. I completed the most strenuous of hikes in the Zion National Park yesterday - Angel's Landing. Try googling it and see what the place looks like. Marius, Vicente, Hagar and I climbed all the way to the top, even though the last half-mile involved rock-climbing and chains. Sounds exciting, huh? We finally emerged on the top platform where the view was phenomenal. Coming back down was even worse for those who were tall or who had dodgy knees. I have neither of those impediments, so I have no excuse for slowness.

After that we drove to Las Vegas for the night. Yes, we're nuts. Two hours there, two hours back. But it WAS fascinating. We walked the Boulevard with all its flashing lights, peep shows and men flicking you cards on every street corner. I wouldn't have known what this meant if Joe hadn't warned us. Their t-shirts say Girls direct to you in less than 20 minutes. Sex is everywhere in LV. They'll sell you their daughter, their sister, their mother, on a street corner. I got so used to seeing signs advertising sex, that when I saw a flashing sign outside a restaurant, I thought it said 'Mexican Girls' when actually it was a 'Mexican Grill.'

But the trashy flashiness didn't put me off. We had our photos taken in front of the fountain spectacular at the Bellagio. Remember the scene from Oceans 11 or was it Oceans 13?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Scenes from Fflur's music video

Fflur Dafydd, the singer-songwriter-novelist who took part in the IWP 2009, has now returned to Carmarthen, Wales. However before she left, she shared the news that she is producing a new compact disc of  music and we had the opportunity of helping her make a music video for one of her new tracks. As soon as the video is ready, I'll provide a link, but in the meantime you can just look at the photos we took on the day or you can have a listen to her voice here.

Have a look at Fflur's website and MySpace site if you want to know more about her books and music. Thanks Alice for the photos! And Azeem for directing the video!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Addicted to Java

I'm in the Java House, drinking a filter coffee called Giant of the Earth. Giant what, I'm not sure. It IS very earthy, but not in a good way. Giant bone, maybe, but I'm drinking it anyway.

It's a bit quiet in here. I came in mid-afternoon on Sunday and the place was jam-packed with people studying and playing games like chess and scrabble. I struggled to find a seat. Someone in Auckland needs to replicate this cafe environment - sort of laid-back Bohemian student, coffee-swilling, flavour. Mind you, last week, I was sitting behind a couple who were talking in loud voices about very personal things, and it made me wish I had a recorder. Truth is weirder than fiction sometimes, and I'd never be able to dream up the sort of things they were discussing, with his South American accent giving it a slightly exotic twist. In the end I swapped tables because I couldn't concentrate on my own story.

Anyway, I made an error of judgement this morning. It was cooler last night. I almost needed a blanket. So I wore my Kathmandu top this morning, thinking it was going to be the beginning of Fall weather ... and I'm bloody boiling sitting here. I can't peel it off because I stupidly didn't wear a singlet underneath.

I forgot to tell you that I was reading the brochure about the Effigy Mounds that are in the shape of animals, and it talked about white-tailed deer and elk being staple foods of the indians in the northeastern part of Iowa. There are no photos of them in the brochure though so I don't know if it's the same as what Hanaa and Maxine photographed near Lake Macbride.

I can't wait to see one so I can find out.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Deer in the cemetery

On Sunday, I went to inspirational poetry readings at the Prairie Lights bookstore by two of our group - Milos (Croatian) and Jan-Willem (Dutch). Afterwards we were taken out to Amy and Lindsay’s house near Lake Macbride, and treated to a barbecue, apple pie and wine, while sitting watching the sunset. Two women took off for a walk and when they returned they said they had seen deer (even had photos) so I was off in a flash to look for them. I only had 15 minutes before it was dark, which wasn’t enough time, so my wildlife-spotting was postponed.

Hugh, one of the IWP staff said there will be lots of opportunities to see deer because there are so many of them. He reckons they even wander through the cemetery near his house, and hunters are paid to shoot them with silencers so they don't disturb the dead (only joking about the last bit). They really do shoot with silencers, but people care more about the sensibilities of the living than the dead.

Chris Merrill, the director of the program told me he had sent my Cane Toads and Underpants pocket guide on writing for boys to a number of people, including some kids that he knows, and they have written a book already based on my suggestions. Anyway, he's going to forward me the email if he can find it. Please comment here if you have read it and it helps you. I’d really like to know.

Thanks Azeem, for letting me use your photo.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Effigy Mounds in north-east Iowa

Gees, the trip in the van was squashed and hot. There were four of us squeezed in the back seat where it felt like there was no air, and the sun was streaming in the window. We girls had to strip off to our skimpy singlets, which was probably offensive to some, but when you're that hot and feeling nauseous, you really don't care who you offend.

It was about six hours total travelling time to and from the northeast corner of Iowa near the Wisconsin border, and looking out over the Mississippi River. We had a picnic lunch (this was a highlight - I adore surprise boxed lunches) and walked to see the Effigy Mounds, which are Native American Indian burial sites and ceremonial grounds (made up to 2,500 years ago). Many of them are in the shape of animals from their tribal stories, like bears and birds. There are 206 of these prehistoric mounds in the National Park. We only had time to see a handful of them in a few hours. You would think that looking at mounds of dirt wouldn’t be that exciting, but knowing what they really are, and feeling momentarily part of that history – that’s priceless.

The only disappointment was that we went specifically this weekend because we had been told the autumn colours were spectacular right now - but whoever said this was misinformed. The trees are all still green, so we missed seeing the yellows, oranges and browns of autumn.

This treat is yet to come!

Thanks to Alice for the photo (doesn't the ranger look like a wax model?)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Food Inc

Yesterday I did some productive writing. Picture fireworks and champagne corks popping here.
I came to The Java House and spent two good focused hours here (which isn't bad considering they have a time limit of one hour). Anyway, I got up early and made it here again today by 8.30. Almost all of the tables are taken now, with students tapping away on their laptops. I might have to move soon though, because I have a table near a man who not only sniffs, but who also reads aloud what he's typing. And when he's thinking but not typing, he taps his fingers on the table. There is an invisible expletive here.

This place is really cool AND their coffee isn't bad. It's the closest I've come to coffee like we have in NZ, but the weird thing is that I think my taste is changing. I'm getting used to having coffee without a lot of milk now so having a latte feels a bit rich. This is frightening. Not only will I come home with an American accent but also a hankering for filter coffee.

I've just got home. What a movie!!!!! Man, you have to get that movie out on DVD to watch. It's called Food Inc and I think it's an important documentary for everyone to see. I was fascinated by the degree to which large corporations control the agricultural industry in the United States - the frightening way in which animals and workers are treated in the biggest intensive farming system in the world, and companies patenting and controlling seed and suing people who gather it - it's all scary. God it's changed the way I think about food. Alice and I have even signed up to get involved in working on the roof garden - organic veggie growing here at the university.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Banned Books

I'm back at The Java House. I was standing in line waiting to order a Java House organic blend brew (yes, filter coffee) and someone comes up behind me and gives me the sort of squeeze that could crush ribs. It's Dragica, the Swiss Croatian who thinks I'm going home with her to marry her son. She's here writing, like me. It's a good place to write.

It's only 10.30, and already I've had two people chat to me about the International Writing Program (because of my bag) and one woman tell me she likes my skirt. I like this overt friendliness. It makes a person bubble first thing in the morning. Apart from that, I've been making faces with a little girl at the table next to me. Yes, I'm supposed to be writing!!!!!!!

But there's so much to look at. Like, the fascinating artworks on the wall, and the banned books brewed coffee line-up. You wait for your coffee to filter under a banned book number. It's like a mild form of political protest. Let's pour coffee on the powers that be that try to control what we read. Mine was number 7 today - Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (which I have read). Number 8 is Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, which I just returned to the library.

In America, the religious order is very strong and controlling and has caused many books to be banned in libraries and schools - books which question and provoke thought like 1984 by George Orwell and The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton which is about poverty and gangs, and how good kids get caught up in it because of where they are born and what becomes their community. Thank goodness, book-banning doesn't happen so much in New Zealand. Although I do remember Lockwood Smith trying to get The Color Purple by Alice Walker banned as a studied text at secondary school level. Did he succeed? I can't remember.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Cane Toads and Underpants: A Pocket Guide to Writing for Boys

I gave a speech at my panel presentation on Friday. There were five of us talking about Teaching Writing, so I wrote the Dingbat's Guide to Writing a Boys' Bestseller (you know, in the same vein as the Dummies guides and Idiots guides for adults). None of the other panelists were children's writers so I thought it was a good niche to exploit. It also allowed for some humour, and little chance of me slipping into academic-speak. I rounded it off by reading out the beginning of Morris Gleitzman's Bumface, which demonstrated so many of the things I had included in my 'pocket guide.' Thank goodness everyone laughed in all the right places. It shows that New Zealand humour isn't completely unlike the rest of the world.

On the same day I read aloud from my own work at Shambaugh House - from my published work A Hairy Tale (Kiwi Bites series) and an excerpt from Sausage Sizzle (which isn't finished yet but can be read by following the link). I absolutely loved both the panel presentation and the reading. People are so supportive in the IWP and they enjoy hearing you share your work.

People like Osman from Sierra Leone (picture above) confirmed for me that my writing is funny and that I manage to capture the essence of children in my characters. That was hugely reassuring.

Deer Tick and Corndawg

Now this was a treat! I love this music. Even more amazing was that the IWP people were given free tickets to hear this music live at The Mill on the corner of Burlington anc Clinton on Friday 11 September. I'm going to have to buy some CDs, bring it home and torture you with it. Have a listen and a read below.

Deer Tick on myspace
Jonny Corndawg on myspace
Shame Train on myspace

Deer Tick with Jonny Corndawg, Shame Train:

When Deer Tick first played the Mill back in 2006 it was just young John McCauley on his lonesome, toting his acoustic guitar around the club, leaping from table to table serenading us with his heartfelt folk rock -- songs that pulled from the depths of a sharp and poetic heart. In between tunes, McCauley would tell jokes while pulling long drags from his tall glass of Makers. Now, three years later Deer Tick is a full-fledged band, a rock n' roll machine that spits out the spirit Hank Williams, the middle finger of Johnny Cash, and the charm of Mr. McCauley himself, a rare and remarkable songwriter who shines with a voice of his own. He ain't Dylan, he ain't Neil Young, he's his goddammed self. With rave reviews from the likes of Rolling Stone, SPIN Magazine, and even NBC's Brian Williams, Deer Tick is one of the best acts around. With Jonny Corndawg in tow, this is bound to be the country-rock shakedown of the year. So dust off your Makers. 9PM

It was everything that was promised.

Friday, September 11, 2009

How's this for a big deck?

In order to be understood here, I have discovered I need to open my mouth wide and scrunch my face and say 'ass' not 'arse' (not that I have needed to say either of those words - just demonstrating the letter 'a', you understand). So I found myself saying pathway, not parthway yesterday. And ah-some, not oar-some. And apparently a New Zealander's 'i' and 'e' sound very similar, which can be problematic.

Pam, my landlady at the College Green House, suggested I might like to talk about a balcony or a porch rather than use the New Zealand term 'deck', especially when referring to someone having a big one because there may be some confusion over my pronunciation (I'll pause here to allow you to think about this carefully).

I told this story in the van on the way back from a dinner function at the Levitt Centre and all of the other IWP participants rolled around laughing. Now they keep prompting me to say 'deck'. Our driver and coordinator of all sorts of vital activites, Joe, was very quiet during this conversation. However, after everyone else had been dropped home, he said very calmly, 'To the right is the home of another IWP person who will probably host a party soon. He has a very big deck on his ute. I think you should ask him about it, Kathy.'

Ha, ha, ha. When hell freezes over.

I suspect I'm going to americanise my vowels quite quickly. But I'm sure all of you will set me right when I return.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Crab rangoon, square dancing and Slaughterhouse-Five

My Aussie friend Alice came to the market with me on the way home tonight and we ate crab rangoon and fresh raspberries in the grass picnic area, while listening to the band and watching people dance something that looks like a cross between slow ceroc and a square dance. Alice tells me there was a square dance on the uni campus at the weekend and she'll keep an eye out for another one - I love square dances. I went to one with my schoolfriend Dinah in Taupo when I was about 14. They had hay bales for seats, a fiddler and a caller - "Step to the right and do-si-do." It was a hell of a lot of fun, so Alice and I are going to go to the next one here. They're not exactly common in Auckland or Melbourne.

I'm reading a book by Kurt Vonnegut called Slaughterhouse-Five because Pam, my landlady, took me on the Summit District Heritage Walk, and showed me where Kurt Vonnegut lived here in Iowa City while on the Writer's Program. There are some great quotes so far in this book:

"And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep."

"It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds."

I'm sure even the birds are quiet.

On the back of the book it says it is one of the world's great anti-war books. Centering on the infamous firebombing of Dresden, Billy Pilgrim's odyssey through time reflects the mythic journey of our own fractured lives as we search for meaning in what we are afraid to know.

I find myself saying 'And so it goes' after talking about anything sad and significant. It's one of the repeated phrases that lingers with me after finishing the book.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Literature of Desire

The first IWP (International Writing Program) panel discussion called 'Literature of Desire' began at the Iowa City Public Library on Friday. This was one that I said I was prepared to be involved in but they chose five others so maybe they thought a children's writer would be less knowledgeable on the subject of sex and desire. They're probably right.

Millicent from Jamaica read out a Shakespearean sonnet:

Being your slave what should I do but tend
Upon the hours, and times of your desire?
I have no precious time at all to spend;
Nor services to do, till you require.
Nor dare I chide the world without end hour,
Whilst I, my sovereign, watch the clock for you,
Nor think the bitterness of absence sour,
When you have bid your servant once adieu.

Isn't it beautiful?

And this one by Tony McNeil, which is called The Catherine Letter. She read it with pauses where there are spaces and the way it appears on the page has significance, so I hope it replicates okay here.

my writing to you
Can I say a cliche

Never thought I would see the day when you would cut me
glimpsed you in
should have said at
should have said near
a bank one day; smiled; waved; and you cut me

name from the north
there's a mystery to women of frost
the young men stride to the woods and snip them dark lilacs
a wren wheels in the distance
the sun shells east of the lake

Couples kiss in the field across the wild cherries
In the dream the woman is sitting under a cotton
a man kneels on the slope
the pair meet in the mist, stuttering prayers

Have you seen lilies tilt in the wind
Do banks stretch shadows on people so that when they see the familiar they turn away

It reached in and touched my soul when she read it. I used to read and write poetry. I stopped. But I think I'm going to start again. These people are doing me good. Stretching me, opening me up, making me feel things unexpectedly. So much about a person is revealed in their writing - or it can be.

I felt closer to Hanaa from Saudi Arabia after hearing her choked up voice as she read her short story about walking in the street, in her white jeans, hair loose and blowing in the breeze. What a tortured twist to find at the end that it is not real and never will be. It's a freedom I take for granted.

Two more people in the group do readings at the Prairie Lights Bookstore this afternoon - a Tamil Indian woman called Meena and a Lithuanian playwright and scriptwriter called Marius. I believe it's broadcast on radio. Did you know that in rural parts of India, they still lynch people who have relationships outside of their own caste?

The struggles we face are different by culture, by gender, by religion, and by individual. But we also have so much in common. The more I listen, the more I like these people who write from their hearts.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

You're so exciting, little brown frog

Our first week was full-on. On our first day together all of the IWP participants went on an excursion through the rural outskirts of Iowa City to the Redbird Farms Wildlife Area, which featured prairie grasslands and woodland. This was where I spotted my first wildlife specimen - a little brown frog. Since then, I have seen rabbits, chipmunks and squirrels, but no bears or deer yet. Do you think I need to get out of the city more?

Our official orientation began with a welcome party and Mexican dinner at the home of IWP director Christopher Merrill, where we introduced ourselves in front of 300 people. What a night! These people seem to think we're superstars. It's really quite bizarre. There was a congressman there giving a speech, and a representative from the Iowan Dept of Foreign Relations. I was speaking quite casually with both of them before I knew who they were.

The foreign relations man, in a very Iowan checked shirt, chatted to me for quite a while and said he was looking for a writer who is politically motivated to speak at a function. I didn't click into gear straight away, but I went back to him later and told him I'm politically-motivated about the use of a deadly poison called 1080 which is manufactured in Alabama, that 85% of the world's production is being used in pest control operations in clean green 100% pure New Zealand, and that I'm prepared to talk about it (deep breath). I get the feeling it isn't quite what he had in mind, but we'll see what comes out of it.

I must have talked about it to a few more people than that because I'm now scheduled to introduce and show the documentary Poisoning Paradise at the Cinematheque in early October. The Cinematheque features a fabulous line-up of films and documentaries from around the world. It also showcases the work of some of the scriptwriters in the writing program - their short films, features and docos.