– The Ockham New Zealand Book Awards, 11th May 2022
It’s a lovely night on Queen Street, downtown Auckland. But there are roadworks everywhere, and the Uber driver apologises. Do my best to get you there in time. I’ve lived here most of my life, but never been to the Q Theatre before. Is it nice inside? Don’t know, this is our first time too. And now I can see the pink lightbulbs, rows of them on the underside of the awning outside, like the world’s most flamboyant rivets. Miraculously, the traffic clears in both directions and he swings around in a circle, pulling up right at the door. Have a good night! And we’re here.
There are people milling everywhere. Someone swoops down on us with a sheaf of papers and I say I’m one of the finalists and we’re swept away inside. It’s a blur of masked faces and names and eyes. But I see my book at the table by the door, right at the front, a tall stack. Crispin’s figure looks so fearless in her red dress, and I breathe a bit deeper. Stewart squeezes my hand, and we join the others moving in to Rangitira for the rehearsal. Finalists on the left, in the order you’ll be reading please. Publishers or publishers representatives further right. We slide into our seats.
A woman with beautiful smiling eyes sits beside me. I’m Serie she says. I’m Joanna, I answer. Oh! You’re Joanna! We’ve already met by email, so we talk a little about the CPC readings in Christchurch later in the year, and how much I’m looking forward to hearing her read – then, and tonight. We talk about how strange it feels to be in a room with so many people, even wearing masks. But …
Some more shuffling of seats as people try to work out where they come in the running order. Alphabetical order, by book title. Book title? Oh. R, S, T … Ok. No change for me. A woman with an emerald green wrap, whose face I recognised even behind a mask, slips into the seat beside me. Hi, I’m Anne. Hi, I’m Joanna. Another acquaintance by email for the CPC reading later in the year. Serie and Anne, both. Oh! You too? Fun! We chat. Books, Covid, publishers. Risk. And hope. Tayi Tibble takes her seat at the end of the row, flashes a smile, introduces herself. Hi, I’m Tayi . Serie. Anne. Joanna. More chat. Then there’s an announcement from the stage, and the rehearsal starts.
Done. People file out, and back to the theatre foyer for nibbles and drinks and photographs. Waiters swirl past, offering canapes. I get a soft drink. Joanna! Have you met— names I recognise from articles, book covers, emails – organisers, literary figures. Mostly female, all purposeful, all smiling, all seeming to be effortlessly delighted to meet each of us. Both my inner event-manager and my inner hermit nod approvingly. What great hosting – making sure everyone is introduced, and no-one feels left out. Followed by Women like these should run the world. And Women like these do run the world. The bits of it that work, anyway. I decide that a single glass of bubbly will do me no harm. And it doesn’t.
The force of nature that is Paula Morris comes over again. We talk about the effort it has taken to pull the whole event together, severed from the festival, through multiple changes in the alert levels. Worth it, I hope? I ask. She smiles. Yes, I think so. I say something about how reassuring it was to have such clear instructions for everything – the run-sheets sent out beforehand, the rehearsal just before. Down to Jack Tame, the evening’s MC, telling us at the rehearsal not to worry if we forgot something, that it would be fine, he’d have our backs. I said it reminded me of theatre days, working with really good directors and producers. She smiled, but there was something else in her expression – I assumed it was amusement and a touch of puzzlement at my odd conversation. I know people always forget things in the moment, she said. So, if you win, like I said at the rehearsal, when you come up make sure you stand in the middle of the carpet centre stage, so that the photographers get a good angle. I nod and make a joke about needing to put an X Marks the Spot there in gaffer tape, thinking yes, it must be hard to make sure people do that sort of thing reliably. She smiles again, and I’m whisked away to have my photo taken, in front of the official Ockhams NZ Book Awards backdrop.
There’s still half an hour before anything much happens, and I’m feeling a bit hot and a bit flustered – the room, the people, the room, (menopause), the photographer (argh), the people, the people. Stewart suggests we go for a stroll outside, in the cool of evening.
We pass small groups of people, two or three at a time, laughing and talking and making their way up the street towards the doors we’d just left. There’s a sign saying Private Function on Tonight at the entrance, and I wonder how many of the people we pass are going to the ceremony, how many even know that it’s happening? Quite a few, it seems.
We stroll down towards Aotea Square – just a little way down the block, but it feels like a different world. Quiet. Few people. I lean on the railings while Stewart takes photos of the Sky Tower, lit up in the night. The moon, just starting to swell.
Only a little while now, and all this wonderful ride ends. I’m feeling a bit deflated, but philosophical. I think about the chat I’d had with Sue, my publisher, just before we left our hotel. She’d been here before, a finalist at the awards, and wanted to make sure I was realistic. I think I pre-empted her – it’s ok. Getting to the longlist was the validation. I didn’t expect to make the shortlist, so this is all gravy. Whatever happens, I’m ok. Being here is gravy. I’m playing our conversation back in my head, leaning against the concrete railings and looking up into the sky. Auckland feels very like Sydney right now, and that comforts me. I’m here; there are people who love my book, and no result can change that. I’m in my glorious me-made dress, I know my poem by heart, it’s a good one, and I’m ready to give a damn good two minute performance. Focus on that. Enjoy that. Drink it in, be brave, it’s ok, it’s more than enough. Stewart’s reading my mind. I try to put my conclusion into words. It’s a good book. I know that. But all the books that made the longlist were good. Just being good isn’t enough, is it. Is it? Ah, hope. That feathered creature beating its wings in my chest, in my throat.
Time to head back in.
There’s a bit more tension now. I know this feeling, pre-performance. I decide it would be sensible to head off to the loo before we all troop in to the theatre. I have my big handbag with makeup, emergency sewing repair supplies, my wrap, my purse, my copy of tumble with timings and performance notes pencilled in. Except somehow I’ve manage to ladder my brand new stockings – a damn great hole right on my thigh. Oh. Well, no-one will see, and if that’s the extent of wardrobe malfunctions, I’ll be happy.
At the basins is another face I know from publicity materials. The taps on the hand basin look like they have an automatic trigger thingy, but nothing happens. My new friend says Oh, yes! You actually have to press the centre bit. Ah. School for the gifted. At least I didn’t splash myself with a jet of water.
Outside, I take a seat against the wall while I wait for Stewart. Somewhere I can be quiet for just a moment longer. Make these notes on my phone, so I can hang on to this moment. There’s an expression in people’s eyes that I’ve started to recognise, in fellow finalists – shared pleasure in this moment, with a touch of heightened alertness as we hurtle closer to the point when it all ends, where most of us will not be winners. Athletes, walking together down to the starting blocks. Actors, in the green room at an audition. It takes a couple of glances around, but then I realise what’s different. I’m in a room full of people being social, where I’m sitting on my own, jotting down notes. And nobody is giving me the usual askance looks. Just little flashes of awareness, and comprehension. It takes a beat or two, but then I understand. We’re all writers! This is normal for them, too! – watching, noting, being part/not part of things. These are my people! I am among my people.
And now it’s time. The seats around us are filling up. Somewhere in the crowd is Janet Charman, fellow OUP poet, here to be part of Team tumble. I check my phone, make sure it’s set to silent. I pull it out again, and take a selfie of the two of us, to match the one from earlier. Tuck it back, smooth my dress, check I have the book mark in the right place in tumble, share a quick tense smile with my fellow poets. I’m ok. It’ll be ok.
I’ll give you an excerpt from the running sheet the organisers sent to all of us, to summarise:
MC introduces first category of finalists for the GENERAL NON-FICTION AWARD.
All four finalists (or representatives) to come up to the stage to read in alphabetical order or book’s title (tor two minutes each). Finalists: Patricia Grace (reader: Powhiri Ruka-Heke), Dave Lowe, Charlotte Grimshaw, Vincent O’Malley.
After 4th reading, finalists leave stage, MC calls GNF judging convenor Nicholas Reid and Chief Executive of Creative New Zealand Stephen Wainwright to the stage to announce and present the award. Judge makes briet remarks about judging process, and announces winner. As winner and publisher approach the stage and once applause has died down, MC reads citation, while judge joins presenter centres stage, to meet and congratulate winner and publisher.
Winner returns to stage, accompanied by their publisher, and proceeds to centre stage to receive trophy/certificate from presenter, along with judge. Photo. Winner then moves to left hand lectern to make brief thank you (one minute only), while others remain centre stage. Everyone then leaves stage.
Same process as above for author readings and presentation [in other categories.]
What you don’t get from that is a sense of how weird the time felt. Jack Tame announces the category, and names each person in turn as they come up the stairs and a take a seat on stage. Then you each get up, read for two minutes, sit down, next person, next person, and final person reads, but stays standing and leads everyone else back off the stage. Trying not to trip on your dress, or someone else’s dress. Or make too much noise clattering up or down the metal steps. Onstage you feel incredibly on display, especially while seated – lights aiming right at you, and every facial expression visible to the whole room as you listen to the others read. It feels as though time contracts on your way up – you want to get to your place smoothly, and not make people wait, but you also don’t want to rush. Then once the reading starts, time slows down again. Oh yeah, time stretched out because you were waiting for it to be your turn. But no, that’s not it. The best way I can explain it is that I was part of their reading – I felt the ebb and flow of their words as though I was speaking them too. And this was precious time. Eight minutes between us, and then we would be going back to our seats, and it would all be over for three of the four of us – all the hope, all the planning, all the dreaming. But for those eight minutes we were all part of the same thing. And it was precious.
When it came to my turn to stand up, I wasn’t nervous. I don’t think any of us were. It felt really good to be able to take my part. I read well, I think – no, I know I did. The part of me that always stands back commenting on what I’m doing wrong, stayed quiet for once. I just let the words flow, and tried to bring my poor, broken, devastated Lucifer into the light, and make sure I directed that energy into different parts of the room. Think of it as a two minute audition for the future was the theory behind it. It felt good. It felt good.
And then it was over. I waited for the other three to stand up, and we went back down the stairs and back to our seats. I’d wanted to suggest we do something like hold hands and take a stage bow, but the moment passed. And time was contracting again – I remember finishing my reading, I remember waiting for the others, but nothing else. Oh, no, one thing more – we were each given a finalist certificate as we made our way back. I can remember thinking oh, that’s nice. Something to take home. Then I was back in my seat, putting my mask back on.
I wanted it to freeze right there. With nothing lost, nothing won, just the being part of it all part. I remember Stewart squeezing my hand again – he does it well, and god knows I needed it – and I remember looking to my left and sharing a smile with Anne, Serie and Tayi. One of us. One of us. Only one of us. One. There was what felt like a collective sigh at that point, but maybe it was just me. Oh well. It’s been fun. Hold on to that. And be happy for whoever it is. That’s not so hard. Then Apirana Taylor got up, and began delivering his remarks on behalf of the judges.
Tena tatau katoa rau rangatira ma. Nau mai haere mai ki te whakanui i nga mahi o wenei kai tuhituhinga.
and still the wheels and cogs turn
in the machine to pump the springs of poetry
so the fountain of many voices
bursts forth from the heart, mind and wairua
of our poets
in such turbulent times
like the sea in all its moods
depths shallows and delightful rock pools
like the tides that come and go
poets have landed 33 waka,
poetry books on our shores
while sailing us across
Apirana Taylor, in that booming voice I remembered from all those years ago when he was writer in residence at Canterbury University, and would come along to the CPC readings to perform. How could you not be swept up? How could you not feel grateful, and happy, and ok about things?
Māori and Pacific Island poets
wear well the korowai of poetry with mana
as do all these fine poets who call and weave
a cloak of many worlds
to all those who entered
there was merit in every waka
Ah. So it’s going the way the rumours had suggested. Oh well. I can be happy with that. It’s deserved. Just being here is enough. More than enough. I’ll be ok.
Congratulations to those long listed and shortlisted. Your work demanded robust intricate and lengthy discussion from myself, Saradha Koirala and Jane Arthur. As judges in our discussions we listened to and learnt from each other.
I let go of the trailing ends of something then. There was a touch of sadness, because hope always leaves an imprint. Like bread dough, swelling up to fill the tin. The little dimple you make to see if it’s ready to go in the oven – a tiny hollow that the rising dough gently erases. Never mind. Be happy. Smile, turn, say congratulations, well done. Deep breath. Be happy. It’s ok. But I couldn’t resist one final little indulgence. That last little game we play with hope. Wouldn’t it be great if he said and the winner is Joanna Preston, for Tumble? Ah well, never mind.
And the winner of the Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry is …
Joanna Preston, for Tumble.
I know I sat there for a couple of centuries, blinking stupidly, thinking I said that. That can’t be what he said. He … what? I know I turned to look at Anne and Serie and Tayi, thinking one of them must be getting up to go get their award, and then it would make sense. Anne actually gave my shoulder a squeeze, or prodded me in the arm, something like that. I know I said I won? It’s real? I won? to them. And they were smiling and nodding and semi-shouting You won! You won! to me. I remember thinking I have to take off my mask again and taking off my mask and thinking I have to stand up and go up on to the stage and I’ve got things in my hands why do I have things in my hands? and dropping them onto my seat and standing up and trying to make my way past Anne and Serie and Tayi and knocking against everyone’s knees in turn and wondering how there were so many sets of knees and saying I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry as I went and partly meaning it about the knees, and getting to the bottom of the stairs and thinking Oh! I have to remember what I’m supposed to be doing, I have to stand up, I have to say something, I have to not fall over, with another part of my brain going omigod it’s me? it’s me! it’s me? it’s me! it’s me? it’s me! it’s me?, oscillating back and forth between question mark and exclamation mark. and my hand was over my mouth. And then I was there, and Mary Biggs was smiling at me with a lovely twinkle in her eyes, handing me a pink trophy and an envelope. Then I saw Peter Biggs, and my autopilot stuck out my hand to shake his hand, and he smiled at me too, and Jack Tame was smiling, and I knew Stewart was there behind me also shaking hands and I completely forgot about standing on the damn carpet and posing for the photographer and my mind was blank except for this fluttering sound like oh! oh! oh! oh!, but with feathers made out of tinsel. All I could think was I didn’t expect this and thank you thank you thank you thank you —come on, get it togeth— thank you thank you thank you and I was back at the lectern and had sixty seconds to try and do some sort of justice to it all.
Then I was back in my seat, and I found my mask to put back on, and Stewart was holding my hand, and there was an envelope on my lap and a pink trophy and the world was turning and none of it was real except it all was. And I didn’t quite know how to make sense of it. This enormous joy that was pouring through me. So much. I clapped and cheered for the other readers, for the other winners, for those who hadn’t won, for all of us because I was part of them and they were part of me and the whole room full of people sitting there where none of it was real except all of it was. And every now and then I’d bump up against I won? I won! in my head and have to turn to Stewart to check that it was real because none of it was real. Except it was.
And then it was over. Standing up, trying to collect things, find where on earth my poor copy of tumble had ended up (the lovely people behind me had scooped it up from where it had fallen, and were handing it back to me with kind eyes and gentle hands) and people were saying congratulations! Congratulations! which meant it was true.
I only have fragmentary memories of the rest of the night. Lots of bits of talking and laughing and saying thank you! and (badly) signing copies of the book and refilling my glass and being hugged and feeling a part of it all. I remember kindness. I remember aroha. And then it was much much later than the event was supposed to have finished and I had a stash of books that I’d bought as we were leaving and the copies of tumble wore gold stickers now and the person handing me my receipt was saying they’d enjoyed my reading and well done and here were my books and we were saying goodnight, goodnight.
Then I was outside in the cool and the quiet and it was just the two of us and the night and we were walking hand in hand back down Queen Street to the hotel and it was real except none of it was, and my beautiful dress was a matadora’s cape as I walked and I was dancing in my head and the certificate was nestled in my bag with my book my book my book and the love of my life was beside me and part of this joy and everything was shining and we walked and walked and walked and none of it was real.
And all of it was.