Victoria University Press: The write stuff

Straight Outta Te Kuiti: Ashleigh Young.

Straight Outta Te Kuiti: Ashleigh Young.

Over the past few months, three books from Wellington's Victoria University Press showed up in my mailbox for review, and all three left me smashed on the rocks of their brilliance.

The first came from Waikato-based writer Tracey Slaughter, whose magnificent third book Deleted Scenes For Lovers almost gave me Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Slaughter by name, slaughter by nature. It was a short story collection full of death: of people, hopes, dreams, simple decency. Many of the stories took place in a bleak bogan world as hard and sh**ty as the concrete pad under a Rottweiler's kennel.

Tracey Slaughter.
Catherine Chidgey

Tracey Slaughter.

The narratives were sad, tense, seething with violence. There were suicides, sexual predators, a cancer story that was really about friendship. There was a woman banging into a guy at the chip shop and remembering how he used to smack her around.

* Bright literary sparks on the rise
* Review: Deleted Scenes for Lovers, Tracey Slaughter
* The fearless poetry of Hera Lindsay Bird

The language sparked like a cut power line. I was shocked awake every time I picked this book up. A few times I read stories last thing at night, drowsy and drifting, then ended up wide-eyed, brain buzzing, unable to sleep.

Wellington poet, Hera Lindsay Bird.

Wellington poet, Hera Lindsay Bird.

I wondered how a book as potent as this could have occasioned so little fanfare. Go and get it, and tell your all friends to do the same, or at least- your more resilient friends.

The second book was the self-tiled debut from Wellington poet, Hera Lindsay Bird.

Much has been made of the sexual nature of her writing, but really, Bird's tendency to feed the reader mildly pornographic images and make the middle classes a little flushed and sweaty is the least interesting thing about her.

Her sexual references are often sly jokes, the punchlines delivering a sharp jolt that opens you up for lovelier lines that lie scattered all around. It's a cunning trick, giving the illusion of reckless intimacy, as if the reader's being dragged into the poet's very bedroom.

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But really, Bird is nowhere near the bed. She's over at her desk, scribbling furiously, thinking hard, quite possibly laughing to herself.

Or maybe she's out in the sitting room, watching sitcom reruns and shouting at her telly. Certainly, one poem reveals such a deep loathing for Monica from Friends, the writer imagines herself in a Ukrainian parking lot, screaming her name at a bunch of dead crows.

What's striking here is the way Bird bangs vivid images against one another and jump-cuts from the intensely intimate to the casually conversational. In this, she makes no secret of her debt to New York poet, Frank O'Hara.

Earlier this year, I bought a copy of O'Hara's Lunch Poems from City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, and wolfed it down in one gulp in the sunny alley next door.

I sat there in a cloud of salty fish smells blowing down the hill from Chinatown, and felt the world tilt on its axis as I was sucked into Frank's wild world.

Bird makes me feel like this, too. Behind all the shagging and peeing herself and the flaming haunted wheelbarrows, she is perhaps our own fledgling Frank: loose and sloppy and spirited and sincere, a gifted show-off who's plugged into the life-giving voltage of pop culture and blessed with a bloody good sense of humour.

Who the hell is Ashleigh Young? And why isn't she being carried through the streets of Wellington in a sedan chair, borne aloft by adoring young disciples from the Institute Of Modern Letters?

Better informed literary types tell me she's an editor, poet, essayist, critic, blogger, and winner of the 2009 Adam Prize for some of the very personal essays collected in her second book, Can You Tolerate This?

Like American writer Lydia Davis, Young sometimes sprints towards profundity via the most direct route possible; other times, she takes a convoluted bush track over hills and down into gullies, giving the impression that she's lost in the trees when she's really just diverting a little to show us the view. Either way, she always gets there in the end.

Mixing literary pooch lore with more personal canine tales, Black Dog made me whimper like a lonely hound at the SPCA. In Witches, we are party to the precise instant, after a childhood of happy nudity, that a young girl becomes physically self-conscious.

Big Red is a tender evocation of growing up alongside her two brothers, Neil and JP, as they deal with disappointment and depression, among other things. The story feels compassionate and sore and true.

My favourite piece here, The Te Kuiti Underground, is a marvellous mosaic of a thing, built from interlocking fragments that seem to have been smashed free from other, longer stories.

Paul McCartney walks down a road in rural Northland, stubbly and serene, holding the writer's hand; Young's dad ploughs a Piper Cherokee through inky storm clouds; the musically gifted and the tone-deaf raise their voices together in a kitchen over acoustic guitars, their flawed harmonies immortalised on a treasured cassette tape.

Deft associative leaps abound, and the effect is startling, like being shown an unexpectedly beautiful new vase that's been assembled using the best bits from half a dozen other pieces of broken crockery.

What can I say? If Ashleigh Young was a band, I'd wear the T-shirt.

All three of these books left me feeling moved, and thankful, and inadequate as a writer. Victoria University Press, I salute you.

 - Sunday Star Times

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