Dusting of her words

Johanna Aitchison reading her work at Poet's Corner in New York
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Johanna Aitchison reading her work at Poet's Corner in New York



Johanna Aitchison has spark. Her mind is sharp and fast and her wit is dry and quick. She's a mum, she's a poet, writer, marathon runner, teacher and a qualified lawyer. Enter Miss Dust. Miss Dust is kick arse, quirky, playful and a tad dangerous. Miss Dust is made out of words, Aitchison's words. The two are linked by a line of ink and a string of sentences and together they have become the writer and the written in a set of punchy poems. 

Aitchison is a lot of things but she is not boring. Led by what she calls a whim, she quit her good and stable job as a lawyer to become a writer.

"It never occurred to me until then that I actually could be a writer. I went to school at Bay of Islands College, in the far north and no one's a writer there. I was always creative but I never thought to follow that as a path. It's probably a little strange to now have writing at the forefront."

She was bored and unfulfilled in her law firm job and her mind switched to thinking about what she really enjoyed.

"I thought why don't I just try this crazy idea and become a writer. As you do when you're 24."

Aitchison is a quirky mix of spontaneous and sensible, it's in her style, a mix of subtly wacky and brainy bold and it shows in her decisions; become a writer but do it academically and go back to university. 

"I did a masters in creative writing at Victoria University. It was the first year that it had run, in 1997. So it was very much a trial year. It was a steep learning curve for me. I was a complete beginner and I was surrounded by people who were about to publish or had been published. It was incredible for me really and that sort of set me up."

Her university-fuelled thesis became an energy-charged debut chapbook, Oh My God I'm Flying, and a stint in a remote fishing village in Hokkaido, Japan, saw her mould her experiences into her 2007 poetry collection Long Girl Ago. 

It's edgy and pouty and it kicks off the heralding-in of the idea of an alter ego. Her poem Miss Red in Japan expresses the intensity of experience encountered in Japan where the winters "last five months, requiring lashings of snow shovelling". Aitchison creates an imaginary family out of Moritz sticks, yellow plastic hard hats and frying pans. 

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It got her shortlisted onto the Montana New Zealand Book Awards for the best book of poetry in 2008 and pushed her on to become the Massey University Writer in Residence where Miss Dust really started to come to life.

"She was like a vehicle for exploring different things, she took on her own life and way of being. She is far more troublesome than I have ever been, she is a very adventurous, out-there character."

Miss Dust has an affair, tries online dating and she dreams. Miss Dust loses her key, has a baby, visits the Amazing Maze and she watches the moon. And during all that Aitchison starts teaching creative writing at the International Pacific College in Palmerston North.

She also runs many miles, often in her work lunch break and sometimes with her 6-yearold son Lennox tagging along on his bike, little legs pumping furiously. And she then lands a place at the prestigious writers programme at Iowa University for two months. Miss Dust tags along.

Aitchison says it was a great experience where she met an incredibly eclectic bunch of writers from all over the world.

"We all lived in a hotel together and it was quite social. The people were from all over, every continent really and lots of different cultures. A lot of them were working in their native language or a number of languages. There were lots of interesting people, some from countries where it was quite risky to write. It was a real eye-opener into other writers' situations."

Aitchison did readings, seminars and writing projects. Her stay coincided with the Iowa Book Fair and the city was jumping with writers, words and ideas. She read a lot, ran a lot and wrote a lot.

"One of the projects I started there was an autobiography of Dust, so I am looking further at the alter egos and getting Miss Dust to do interviews to explore them more. One of the best things about being there was being able to read freely and being able to follow my own lead for that."

A research project into the use of alter egos in poetry is on the cards and marrying up her love of writing and running in a memoir-style book is another work in progress fuelled by her trip away.

Aitchison went on running tours and formed the very grand sounding International Runners Group. Running is what she did everyday alongside the writing and while in Iowa she started to sew together a correlation between the two threads.

"I always think of poetry and writing as being very physical and that sounds odd because you do it sitting down but I have always sort of thought of it as something which involves your whole body and your soul and your spirit, all of you. Also, the whole philosophy of running is similar to writing. You have to log a lot of miles and you have to go through a lot of unpleasant toil and training in order to get your drafts and the final thing. It's a metaphor for running."

When Aitchison runs she says everything in her head "just comes out and there is a stream of stuff".

"It's not necessarily good ideas for writing but it sort of blows off all that steam and processes all of those daily frustrations or worries. It's like running through the junk and at the end of it you feel clearer. Running is an active meditation."

Miss Dust is probably there too, kicking up leaves on the way, running through puddles and knocking on Aitchison's brain asking if she can go faster, harder, crazier and perhaps higher. They pace in tandem, Aitchison and Miss Dust, a contrary collaboration of high heels and running shoes, a colour palette of big skies and deep dirt and words that come to rest in between a soft-backed book that rests coolly in the palm of a reader's hand. 

 - Stuff

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