A Writing Exercise

1. in these hours i meet the translation students
and give them a creative writing exercise
which is to record in detail
everything they remember seeing
through an important window in their lives
not fiction i tell them
write only the facts
this is an entirely factual task
but if there is anything out there
about which you think we should know more
invent it
the whole to be completed in such a way
as to make this external view
a self-portrait

afterward their professor tells me he sees this task
as a metaphor
of how a piece of work from one language
gets translated into another

2. then a student at the Mainland recital
asked why i don’t use much in the way of punctuation or capitals
was i affected by e.e. cummings? and what made me take up a career as a poet
when she put her questions it was well past the finish of my performance
i had left the stage and was sitting in the audience
hearing my name mentioned i twisted around in my seat to pay attention
but the things she wanted to know seemed to go on for such a long time
that when i got to my feet and faced the packed room
i felt so astonished to be questioned about such matters
i forgot what she’d asked and had to get her to repeat herself
which she did
word for word

3. yes e.e. cummings affected me
i remember in the fifth form reading ‘Buffalo Bill ’s defunct’
and identifying wildly
with the lack of capitalism
and since the poem said Buffalo Bill was finished
that also suggested it could be the right moment for Annie Get Your Pen
and what i want to know is how do you like your hazel-eyed girl Mistress Birth?
but according to an article i read later in the New Yorker
using lower case marks me as a perennial teenager
and i see from her Grattan Prize judge’s notes that Fleur Adcock isn’t fussed on it either
grounds for instant dismissal
that New Yorker writer said something like e.e. cummings’ distinctive style
equates with the ‘cool’ kid in dark glasses determined to attract our stares
without letting us see his eyes
a look-at-me display which i would add
has a particular jurisdiction
in the phallic-feminine
since however longingly we gaze at her
she is bound not to let us in there
sluts show up in the spotlight
to escape contempt a good woman needs protective gods or power suits
preferably both
without them
i’ve adopted
to carry my lower case into middle age
but i’m no teenager
and as i said this
i looked around and saw i was the oldest woman in the room
was it my imagination? or did those young Mainlanders
seeing my body
experience a shudder of horror

4. so apart from looks
at my age
i require another reason
to carry on the lower-case first person
which is that for me it represents
the interrupted narratives of women’s lives
menstruation domestic celebration
rape pregnancy abortion
child birth and breast feeding
story telling
getting the shopping and doing the cleaning
keeping the fire and finding dinner
not omitting any of those private & public tasks and rituals
which must be accomplished before anything else is
even when beside ourselves
and from our mothers we inherit this mantra: me~no~pause
but now my daughters
are interrupting: ‘you never do any bloody cleaning’
excuse me for a moment
while we settle a family disagreement

5. whereas
to my mind
the upper-case first person
reads as the default generic setting
of uninterrupted male subjectivity
as neutral and universal in patriarchy
in relation to which
a woman artist
must perpetually distinguish herself

and since my reading of Bracha Ettinger
the lower-case first person
also speaks to me
of self-fragilisation
in any body

6. why did i choose a career as a poet?
career? that implies financial reward
i have been paid in many jobs
but practically speaking
despite spending the best part of my adult life writing
money comes to me from poetry only intermittently
and being invited to a writers’ workshop
is like winning the lottery
so even though here i am wearing a ‘poet’ label
the moment your backs are turned
it washes off
at present it is my partner far away on the other side of the world
who supports me
then i lifted up my arms and said: ‘thanks be to him’

7. why poems?
because the novel is harder
takes years longer
and apart from the Jane Austens among us
who can fit writing one in
around all the other things? i take my hat off
to these novelists
whereas if i get the gist of it noted
i can keep a poem to finish later
and once i sit down and start typing
i’ll look up after what seems like five minutes
to find that several hours have passed in the space of a heartbeat
which means this work goes on
aside from time
i like that
into a world of busynesse
my poems come
between the dot and the stroke

8. then i decided this piece was complete
so i got up from my screen
and seeing the dishes
took a walk on the racecourse
where i remembered something else
how after i spoke
you stood and talked in another one of those languages i haven’t learnt
beside me
there came a murmur ‘he’s saying
good things about you’
but what were they? i’ll never know
then we all went back onstage for the official photo
and when it was over five students mobbed me
for individual shots
and autographs
standing on the podium with them i thought
this is too conspicuous
what about the men? i better get off
but until those girls
and one boy
were finished
i didn’t

Janet Charman has published eight poetry collections: most recently, 仁Surrender (Otago University Press, 2017). This collection is a response to her experiences as a 2009 visiting fellow at the International Writers’ Workshop programme of Hong Kong Baptist University and her guest readership at the 2014 Taipei International Poetry Forum. Her previous collection, At the White Coast, (Auckland University Press, 2012), a memoir of a year working in London during the Thatcher era, was joint winner of the 2010 IWW (Auckland) Kathleen Grattan Prize for a Previously Unpublished Sequence of Poems. Her collection Cold Snack (AUP, 2007) won the 2008 Montana NZ poetry prize.

She has an MA First, in English, from the University of Auckland where she tutored New Zealand literature for several years and was their 1997 writer in residence. Her monograph: ‘Smoking: The Homoerotic Subtext of Man Alone—A Matrixial Reading’, is forthcoming in 2018 at Genrebooks. She lives with her partner and their two daughters, in Auckland.

Charman comments: ‘The poem “Buffalo Bill's Defunct” referred to in “a writing exercise” can be found here. The significance of “Lowercaseness” in E.E. Cummings’ poetics is also discussed here in an interview with his recent biographer Susan Cheever.’

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Janet's NZEPC page