C.K. Stead is many things—poet, novelist, writer of short stories, New Zealand’s current poet laureate, academic and critic. Before the Marlborough Book Festival I knew him primarily as a critic, connected through his poetry to some of the iconic New Zealand writers—Frank Sargeson and Janet Frame especially, though he’s also the foremost expert on Katherine Mansfield. I know that I read Stead’s writing on Mansfield as an undergraduate studying New Zealand literature, but not having any interest in poetry, I didn’t exactly go looking for his work.
Until the opening session of the festival, An Evening with C.K. Stead, I had no idea that he’d written fiction. The fact that in his career he has spanned so many different kinds of writing just astonished me. When we got the chance to ask questions at the end, I asked him why he placed the most importance on his poetry. He said that poetry is the most difficult form of writing because there are so many limitations on it in terms of length and form. While short stories and novels allow you a lot of words to tell the story, in a poem, you’re trying to capture a vision you have. Only you will know if you’ve succeeded. It’s very difficult to get it right, but when you do the reward is even greater.
This literally made me view poetry in an entirely new light. I’ve always thought of myself as a story teller, and poetry as something totally removed from the type of writing I want to do. But imposing a limit on yourself, forcing yourself to really sharpen your writing, pay attention to vocabulary choice and make every word count… That’s what fiction writers do with drabbles.
One of my biggest writing bad habits is my verbosity. I’m pretty much a Victorian novelist about a century and a half too late to the party, producing 120,000 word drafts with lumbering plots and overly complicated plots. (Think I’m exaggerating? The book that is now Life After Humanity has been separated into three separate novel-length stories.)
C.K.Stead didn’t just make me interested in poetry, he made me want to try it. I came away from the festival inspired to try writing something each day—whether a drabble or a poem, something that would work on my craft. I’ve only done this once, but here it is:
Frost makes a watercolour countryside,
the field a washed-out green,
faded grass on smooth plains.
Deeper colour at the edges,
where the earth is crinkled.
The other thing that really impressed me about Stead was his confidence in his work. He’s eighty-five years old, and has been writing in one form or another most of his adult life. When he speaks about his work, he’s really frank. He says when he reads his old work, some of it is terrible, some of it didn’t work, but occasionally he finds something that he thinks is rather special.
I consider myself a beginner writer, and I think the majority of my writing friends are in the same boat. We suffer frequent self-doubt, second-guess ourselves and our writing, and find it really hard to judge the quality of what we write. C.K. Stead’s confidence was really refreshing to me—as inspiring as anything he shared about his writing.