Writers’ notebooks

I returned to Wellington yesterday from Auckland where, during the wonderful “Poetry Off the Page” course she co-teaches with Helen Sword, Michele Leggott presented me with a Tapa Notebook. This practice is a part of an ongoing nzepc project: visiting writers are presented with an empty, unlined spiral notebook and asked to fill up the pages and send it back at their convenience. It then becomes part of the library archive and scanned excerpts are posted on nzepc. Tapa is a cloth made in the Pacific from pounded bark; the tapa rectangle on my book’s cover is painted with black-lined, persimmon-red petals.

The instructions suggest inscribing it with “poetry or other notations of value.” Drawings and pasted-in items are fine, although I was told anecdotally that Helen’s inclusion of a French muffin-wrapper, buttery crumbs and all, was a bit traumatic for the librarians. I just toted mine to a staff seminar on Keats’ letters. Heidi Thomson argued that Keats is never unconscious of his interlocutors, in letters or poems, but what kind of audience do notebook-keepers imagine? I have been scrawling bits and pieces in little pads all through this trip, sometimes going back to pull out and type up some information I’ve been given or a poem I began to draft in an airport, but I can’t imagine some student poring over them in an archive one day. If that ever happens: Reader, I apologize abjectly.

From my notes on Auckland:

13 May, Laureate reading in the Aotea Centre: During Manhire’s “Hotel Emergencies,” Michele’s guide dog Olive, also up on stage, puts her head down on her paws & begins to look bored.

14 May, festival panel on publishing: one of the editors says that, historically, the invention of a cheaper format (steam-powered rotary printing press, the e-book) always catalyzes an explosion in reading & publishing. Another says that traditional books will continue to be published as “beautiful objects.” There will be fewer of them & they will increase in price. All agree mass market paperbacks are out: Kindle goes to the beach instead.

Best of the Best NZ Poems reading: Emma Neale gives an electric performance of “Spark,” about a child learning how to say “light.” Throughout, a little patch of brightness bobs across her cheek, a reflection from an earring. You can’t see it on the monitors.

My father John Keats eases a scalpel between the cork and the bottle.

My father Langston Hughes gives his camel jacket to the coat-check girl.

My father Allen Ginsberg insists I must eat my broccoli broccoli broccoli

15 May, Mauri Ola reading: Tusiata Avia: “It’s a big poem & this is a small stage so I’m going to read it in a contained way so I don’t fall off or burst into flames.” A tattoo keeps flashing out from the cuff of her blazer.

Kiwi expression from Richard: “to pack a sad.”

Love-dirty and almost bald, / the animals peer down from their high shelf.

17 May, Auckland University: Chris (student-blogger) is at the front of the room discussing Chinese dissident poetry with Helen & Michele. Michele is saying something like, “Well, we don’t want this assignment to instigate a crackdown on an artist by an authoritarian government.” Beautiful Olive is sprawled across the blue-beige carpet. I imagine she wants to go outside and smell things, but maybe that’s me.

6 Comments on “Writers’ notebooks

  1. What an interesting project! Do you become overly self-conscious, as if your diaries are about to be archived and open to the public (which, of course, they are), or is it more like a conversation or a disposable camera?


    • A little self-conscious. If I weren’t handing in the notebook to the archives I would feel free to jot down, “Poet X is reading badly tonight and wearing a seriously unflattering hat,” but I won’t put anything like that in the Tapa Notebook! I am feeling free to write bad lines, though, as you do when you’re thinking your way towards a new poem or essay, so in that sense I’ve decided to let it all hang out.


  2. Hi Lesley,
    Thank you once more for coming over to our class. So far this semester I’ve seen about 3 Tapa Notebooks being given out to people, I quite like the practice of it. I’ve had a chance to see what some of the notebooks end up as when they’re sent back to the library, and perhaps they say things about their authors’ personalities or just their stream of consciousness at the time. I’ve seen a Tapa notebook with poems and drafts and scribbles and clippings and all this interesting stuff packed in there. And then on the other side of the spectrum, in working on my anthology project for the class, I found a Tapa notebook with the author’s signature on one page, and one poem written in Chinese the next, addressed to Michele Leggott. There was also an A4 translation, but the rest of the notebook was blank, which I found peculiarly interesting. The little piece of paper that informs you how to take care of the tapa notebook was still there somewhere too.

    So take it as you will, I’m sure your records of your journeys or whatever else you will put in it will be of use, whether to you, or the you in everyone who gets to read it.

    I’ll be keeping an eye on your blog, to see where your journey takes you. The link to mine is http://hyphonowlet.blogspot.com/.



    • Thanks, Cris! I’ve only seen other Tapa Notebooks online, never in hand. I like your greenroom poem and hope your final project came out well.


  3. Pingback: Twitter as commonplace book – LESLEY WHEELER

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