Going West: sex, poetry, rivers & art.

Spending the whole weekend up at my local community hall in Titirangi felt kind of like a warm bath lasting from Friday night till Sundary arvo, fully immersed in the words and ideas of people who make the effort to write them down.


Take aways. Memorable moment: sitting in the sun with Don’t Dream It’s Over in one hand, crafty in the other, poetry going in both ears.

Albert Wendt’s turn as the Sir Douglass Graham Orator was memorable. Drawing on his own life story, he spoke of the courage required of Pasifika people generally to survive and thrive amidst Palagi society with Palagi cultural tools; not just literature, but drama, music, film making, visual arts and more.

Over-representation of Pasifika in all the wrong stories makes it all the more remarkable. I looked at the sea of white faces staring back at him, and wondered to myself what the cultural inversion would look like. Gaugin? Yeah, right.

Most quoted line from Michelle A’Court: Ladies, don’t mistake sexual attention for flattery: men stick their dicks in anything. Mashed potato. The back of the couch (hey look! Two dollars!) … a stand-up history of feminism: that’s quite a Friday night.

I found myself confessing to several people that I’m somewhat malnourished when it comes to poetry. The first fast breaker came with Emma Neale’s biographical readings on Friday night, and then the full feeding frenzy at the poetry slam on Saturday.

These young rhyme busters saturate the room with honesty and energy. Mothers feature heavily in the mix. And lovers. But most of the content was about sex and violence, often together, and variously from the points of view of survivors, witnesses and perpetrators.

I kept thinking about the great tellers of folk stories, you know the ones: snake charmers who can weave a tale that keeps you hooked, not braced, and yet who never let go of the visceral emotions of experience, even for a second. Where are the heroes in all this, I found myself wondering.

Yves Harrison was my pick. His considered allegorical pieces contrasted starkly with the rhyme spitting, beatcentric vibe of the format, and the judges knew it, as well as the crowd.

Reckons: someone could clean up at one of these things simply by writing a rhyming story in the third person.

Back up to Saturday morning, I couldn’t concentrate properly on the two doctors David Galler and Glen Colquhoun, since I was up straight after. But I liked the bit towards the end where David Galler mentioned that minister of health Jonathan Coleman was, just the other day, trying to stop the World Health Organisation from restricting the sale of cheap, high sugar foods into third world economies. What on Earth would he do that for?

Galler said he’d seen a hospital in Samoa which wasn’t a hospital, but an amputation clinic. He thought regulating the flow of sugary foods into any country would be a good idea. Everyone clapped.

This became a bit of a subplot: the government encouraging the free flow of pollutants and poisons for the benefit of corporate shareholders, to the detriment of everyone else. Mike touched on it with the government subsidised dairy industry: everyone’s drinking milky fossil fuels. The other – correlated to the first – was the question of national identity. If we’re not sugar-peddling, river-polluting, nitrogen-leaching free marketeers, who are we? The art guys later in the day were well into it, too.

I felt I made a couple of great new friends in Marama Muru-Lanning and Mike Joy. I would gladly have interviewed them both for a lot longer. I’ve discussed Marama’s book Tupuna Awa: People and Politics of the Waikato before. And if you like rivers, then you should follow Mike on Facebook because there’s not much he doesn’t know about them.

I never thought about the upper limit of productivity before (why would I? I’m not a farmer). In Polluted Inheritance, Mike discusses how after a certain point, you can throw all the nutrients onto the land you like, but it won’t pump out any more milk. In fact, most dairy farmers could reduce their herd by a significant chunk and produce more milk, not less.

So, then why bother? Because – he said – it can make the land look more valuable, and that’s worth more than the milk. Any farmers out there (you know who you are!), I’d dearly love your take on this analysis.

The art set turned up in the afternoon. Andrew Clifford interviewed Anthony Byrt about his new book This Model World, with help from Judy Millar. They said it wasn’t about the canon, but rather, something else. I got confused, and said I welcome the end of the canon but I had to ask, if art critique doesn’t concern itself with a body of work, what does it do instead? I swear, someone near me gasped at that point. I don’t know why.

Byrt took it pretty well. He said he was interested in the constellations of influences that gather around an artist. That sounded ok, so I bought it. It’s like he’s hanging out with his mates. His life is there, alongside the artists, and in front of the art. It’s like a group show catalogue for an exhibition that can never be, because it’s dispersed through time and space.

Sometimes I wonder if art’s a bit like pop music: not quite as good as it used to be. Was that my younger self just now, punching me in the nose? Typical.

Penelope Jackson’s journey through a history of New Zealand art crime raised a good few laughs. The funny part is that it’s almost impossible to make any money out of it. People just seem to enjoy doing it. Sunday painters trying to go pro, botched heists: hilarious! It’s one part Antiques Roadshow on steroids, one part Outrageous Fortune on a slow day for smash’n’grabs.

I took it easy on the Sunday. I’d have liked to have caught Barbara Brookes on her History of New Zealand Women because it’s simply extraordinary and I’d like to know more about how she did it.

I turned up in time to catch the journalists. Giovanni Tiso interviewed Simon Wilson, Paula Penfold and Sara Vui-Talitu about that little known phenomenon called the future of journalism (here’s Giovanni’s blog on the fest). Just when it drew to a polite, tidy ending, Richard Pamatatau stood up in the crowd and started something with Simon Wilson. But they had to take it outside: it was lunchtime.

The subject, Journalism, is characterised by some mighty big problems, and there don’t yet seem to be enough solutions to go round. Every industry seems to have to go through this. Music’s starting to come out the other side of the digital revolution, although you can’t help wonder if there’s a lot more money going into the system, than coming out for artists.

Movies and TV also seem to at least be working their way towards something viable, although it’s a shame that the crusade for local content on the airwaves has all but coincided with the demise of the medium.

Now it’s journalists’ turn, but they will struggle more with the transition. Musicians and story tellers all know what it is to lurch around converting a free-lance passion to a full time career. Historically, journalists are salaried. Today, there are fewer of those than ever.

Will someone turn on a licensed, catch-all, news media service? Would you pay ten or fifteen bucks a month for the journalistic equivalent of Netflix or Spotify? Buggered if I know.

Anyway, when I asked Roger Shepherd of Flying Nun how things were looking now that records are a digital affair, he said “it’s not good.” So, there. You’re probably going to have to get your news from behind a pay wall. And since Google and Facebook have taken all the advertising revenue, that service will be less well equipped with journalists than it used to be.

Google and Facebook are creaming the money out of news media, without actually producing any, at all. None. Nada. Zilch. They have reached advertising nirvana: ads without content. Oh, your holiday pics? How quaint.

I thought long and hard about sticking around for the craft beer tasting. I’d come to enjoy the company of Jules van Cruysen, who wrote Crafted: a Guide to New Zealand Craft Beer, and Te Radar’s always fun. But I had some crafties in my own fridge just down the road, and – to be honest – I struggle a bit with tastings. I’d been in the word bath a long time.

5 thoughts on “Going West: sex, poetry, rivers & art.

  1. Hi James,
    I think the limit to productivity in farming is related to soil chemistry and the ability of the soil to manage nutrients. All sorts of factors influence the chemistry not just soil type but crucially management practices. High stocking numbers for eg. can lead to increased compaction with many negative flow on effects for nutrient retention.
    “How many head can you run per hectare?” is a general indication of the value of the land but I would say that “How many litres of milk do you produce per hectare?” should be equally valid.



    • Yes, I’d have thought the volume of whatever it is the farm is geared for would be the most relevant determinant of its value. Plus: I never thought of farms as very fast turnaround investments.


  2. Hi James,

    It is worth noting that the research noted by Dr Joy by Tom Phillips that was completed was delivered in a low payout year. The research says if you reduce intensification you will increase returns in a year when most farmers are losing money. This is no surprise to anyone. Many farmers have de-intensified, to reduce the loss. Many many cows have been killed.


    I doubt the same research done in a high payout would conclude the same result.

    Indeed, some research has shown that increasing cow numbers could reduce environmental impacts. (under certain circumstances)


    The point is ‘less cows = more profit = less pollution’ is far to simplistic. And may ultimately remove some opportunities to improve.

    My view is that currently water quality is by in large, stable or improving. There are areas where further improvement can be made, but people to understand the issue well to do this.

    To understand the issue clear messages must be given. Currently we have many pseudo experts making many claims many of them not helpful. As much as I like Dr Joy, he is a fresh water ecologist, not a farm systems expert. Recently he made claims that the solution was the removal of all runimants from the country.

    In my opinion such suggestions will only muddy the waters. They wont result in positive change.

    It is my view that progress will be only be made when clear, concise, accurate and reasoned messages are given by the right people.


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