9 May 2021

Five writers read their letters to Katherine Mansfield at Word Christchurch 2020

From Smart Talk, 4:05 pm on 9 May 2021

To celebrate 50 years of the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship, five New Zealand writers read their letters to our most famous author. 

Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield Photo: Courtesy of Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision

Now administered by the Arts Foundation, the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship has just celebrated fifty years’ existence.

Set up to provide a haven for New Zealand writers in the grounds of the Villa Isola Bella, the house in Menton on the French Riviera where Mansfield lived during her final years, the fellowship has attracted many big names in our literary scene over the decades.

One of those names was the historian Michael King, and his daughter Rachel (the director of Word Christchurch) is also in the chair for this session which was the climax of the 2020 Word Christchurch Writers Spring Festival.

Five letters to Katherine Mansfield are read aloud by their authors. The letters are as varied as the writers – some funny, some reflective, some about the experience of the Côte d'Azur, some about the business of writing – and all found an appreciative audience in Christchurch.

The first author to read is Bill Manhire, who recalled his months in Menton in 2004:

Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield Photo: Archives New Zealand

Dear Katherine,

It was a remarkable time for me. The first time I’d worked as a proper full-time writer. I wrote most of the poems in a collection called Lifted. Work that benefited from memory. I’d thought of course that I’d produce Mediterranean sunshine and olive trees, but I wrote work full of New Zealand.

Which is something that you might find familiar.

I’m going to read you the first poem I wrote, and it’s in the memory of Michael King the historian. When my wife and I were flying up to Auckland to make our connection to Europe, we were puzzled for a moment by the number of people on the plane who we knew.

Then we quickly realised they were all heading north for a memorial service for Michael, who had died very suddenly. The poem I write is called Opoutere, and Opoutere in the Coromandel is where Michael and his partner Maria lived.

And where Michael always seemed to me most contented and relaxed.

But he and Maria died in a most terrible car crash. Anyway, what I wanted to do is give Michael a more gentle and peaceful departure.

Opoutere beach

Opoutere beach Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Pete Ashton

Opoutere (abridged here)

This is the place of posts.

A man in a boat is checking his lines.

...While behind him the estuary fills

with its acres of shine.

...January nineteen-ninety-something,
Michael himself pouring the drinks

...history and music talking together,
the vast entertainment of learning…

And do you remember...

Everything consoles, and nothing.

Everything goes under the earth,
the old timber, and the new.

What is memory but all of us listening?

...And now I suppose he cuts the motor.
Let the tide do the work!

And now there is only the sound of water…

Here in the place of posts
I think I can just make him out

a man in a boat
rowing across the last half-mile of twilight

—So that’s my poem, Katherine.

The first piece of writing I did in Menton. And it set a tone for much of the work I would produce there. I led a happy life, but I wrote sad poems.

To hear more remarkable writing and varied perspectives on Mansfield, Menton and what it’s like to live and write nearly a hundred years after her death, listen to the audio.

Paula Morris, Vincent O’Sullivan, Fiona Farrell, Carl Nixon and Bill Manhire with Rachel King.

Paula Morris, Vincent O’Sullivan, Fiona Farrell, Carl Nixon and Bill Manhire with Rachel King. Photo: WORD Christchurch

About the speakers

Bill Manhire

Bill Manhire was born in 1946 and grew up in small hotels in Otago and Southland. He was the founding director of the IIML, which is home to Victoria University’s well-known creative writing programme. His first book, The Elaboration, with illustrations by Ralph Hotere, was published in 1972. His latest volume of poetry, Wow, has just appeared from Victoria University Press in New Zealand and Carcanet in the UK. He has received a number of literary awards, including the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship to Menton, in 1994.

Carl Nixon 

Carl Nixon is an award-winning short story writer, novelist and playwright. He has twice won the Sunday Star Times Short Story Competition, and won the BNZ Katherine Mansfield Short Story Competition in 2007. In 2018 he was awarded the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship in France where he worked on his fourth novel, The Tally Stick. His stage plays have been produced in every professional theatre in New Zealand and he was awarded the 2020 Howard McNaughton Prize at the Adam New Zealand Play Awards, recognising excellence in an unproduced script. He lives in Christchurch.

Fiona Farrell 

Fiona Farrell has won writing awards for her poetry, fiction, drama and non-fiction, including the Creative New Zealand Michael King Fellowship for works prompted by Christchurch’s earthquakes and reconstruction. She has also received the Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction and the ONZM for Services to Literature.

Vincent O’Sullivan

Vincent O’Sullivan (DCNZM) is one of New Zealand’s best-known writers. He is a poet, short story writer, novelist, playwright, critic, editor, biographer, and librettist. A former Poet Laureate, he jointly edited the five-volume Letters of Katherine Mansfield (Oxford University Press) and has won national book awards, three times for fiction and three times for poetry. He lives in Dunedin.

Paula Morris 

Paula Morris MNZM (Ngāti Wai, Ngāti Manuhiri, Ngāti Whatua) is the author of the collections Forbidden Cities (2008) and False River (2017); the essay On Coming Home (2015); and seven novels, including Rangatira (2011), winner of best work of fiction at both the 2012 New Zealand Post Book Awards and Ngā Kupu Ora Māori Book Awards, and four YA supernatural mysteries. She teaches creative writing at the University of Auckland and is the founder of the Academy of New Zealand Literature www.anzliterature.com. Her book Shining Land, explores the life of writer Robin Hyde. Paula is a co-editor of the anthology Ko Aotearoa Tātou.

This session was recorded in partnership with WORD Christchurch

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