Saturday, April 13, 2013

Of poetry, blogging and death

On 4 April 2013, my friend Diana Neutze died, after defying multiple sclerosis for well over 40 years.
Diana Neutze (center) with friends on her 70th birthday, 9 March 2009

She had survived for decades by micro-managing every minute of her life, training and instructing a team of dedicated, hand-picked angels (known as carers). 

Inevitably Diana also planned every detail of her death, funeral and burial. The funeral was just right and left me feeling downright happy. 

I was one of those she asked to give a short talk. Others gave a full picture of her life and personality—both of which were vivid and triumphant. I decided to talk about just two things, her poetry and her blog. These reflected my role in her life, which was highly specific: I published her last two poetry books (Furthermore and Reflect); set up a web site for her when requested; set up a blog for her, against her will; and communicated with 53 of her friends and relatives each time her carers posted another blog entry—which, as it turned out, was quite often!

To me these were light burdens because my daily work is all about online communication, accessible web content and the social web. My purpose was to keep the creative part of Diana alive and active and goal-orientated. 

We are lucky if we find a way to be useful that returns more than we invest. My reward came from the "Blog Alert" group—they were hugely appreciative of this simple way of keeping in touch with Diana, and I felt plenty of love coming my way.

The text of my talk follows. I was trying to convey in very few words how writing and social media combined to enrich Diana's life, both inwardly and socially. And I wanted to share snippets from some of her 53 blog-alert supporters.

Farewell to Diana

She did warn us:
… as I have lived, so I will die: fiercely and with full intent.
I want to talk about two features of Diana’s life: her poetry (an individual activity) and her blog (a group activity).

Writing is not just recording a feeling or thought or other experience. Writing is a dynamic process that sculpts and illuminates and transforms experience. As Diana wrote:
my poetry is a good listener, 
and even a teacher,  
skewing my words sideways 
to create a different pattern, 
a wake-up call. 
Writing a poem can make sense of the incomprehensible, and it can help to make the intolerable tolerable. It is a spiritual exercise. Diana wrote:
there is no escape. All journeying must be inward.
But writing became more and more difficult, until everything had to be “written” in her mind and then transcribed by her carers.

Unlike most of you, I am one of the few people who managed to make Diana do certain things against her will—mainly remove the odd semi-colon, and above all, to start a blog. She was vehemently opposed to the blog. She despised the very word blogging. But miraculously, she obeyed me. After that, she could share her poems instantaneously with a large audience.

Diana’s blog gave us all an extraordinary opportunity.  She looked death in the face and invited us to look over her shoulder. This was terrifying, but it was also a privilege.

Strangers also read her blog. For example, she has never met any of the Otaki Ukulele Group.  But last Thursday, when they heard about her death, they played two songs in her honour.

The end of poetry coincided with the end of life.
Dead End
The particularity of pain   
takes over the mind  
right to the very edges, 
an amorphous sludge  
which leaves no space for poetry.
Some of the Blog Alert community wrote valedictions in advance, and I'd like to read some of their words.

Vivienne Stone: All the way through her life’s journey, Diana has actively chosen how she wants to live.
Miriam Frances: Meditation has enriched Diana’s life, and poetry has illuminated it.
Abie Horrocks: She has such an amazing capacity to listen and be cheeky and wise and honest and realistic and prophetic and a little scandalous—sometimes all at once!
Diony Young: Her words and poems always open doors to new places.
Jacquie Pryor: In her poetry, she doesn't avoid the difficult issues, especially the one that is hardest of all: death.
Maureen Eppstein: The clarity of her vision shines through her poems like the light through her walnut tree.

And finally John Chambers speaks for us all about Diana's legacy.

John Chambers: Every time I'm at a difficult juncture, I spontaneously think of her, I hear her words in my heart, I feel the courage and the caring and the power—and I will always think of her, and I will always hear her words.

9 April 2013

These web sites and Diana's publications will be managed by her literary executor, Gabrielle Faith, in future:

Do you really love those old books you have kept?

Shelves of dusty yellow books of some significance.

Lurking in the hallway are a bunch of old books that have been important to me for one reason or another. And this morning Kim Hill interviewed poet Mary Fuefle, poet, who lavishes white-out on old books to reveal a morsel of poetry on each page. The concept of erasure art appealed to me. I immediately invested in a bottle of liquid paper: not something one would normally use in this digital age.
Papermate liquid paper

Surely among those Harlequin romances, Proust, Japanese novels, books on sumo and and other miscellany were plenty of candidates for erasure art?

I picked up one at random—Time on our Side: Growing in wisdom, not growing old by the distinguished psychologist Dorothy Rowe. And inevitably began reading it.

I remember loving this book in 1994 and nodding over insights that lived up to the title. Yet today I could barely be bothered skimming a few chapters.

One interesting chapter is "Fearing to grow old", describing how our concepts of young, middle-aged and old vary wildly according to our own age. Even this chapter I could barely read, because the benchmark has shifted so radically since the date of publication. Reading about people in their 60s being treated as geriatrics (and regarding themselves that way) was more than I could stomach.

Life expectancy rose dramatically last century. That is truly wondrous, a miracle. But it makes this book, doubtless profound in its time, irrelevant to my impatient mind today.

The irony doesn't escape me: I am applying ageist prejudices to a book published 20 years ago.

Will I use this book for erasure art? Couldn't bear to. 

Monday, April 1, 2013

From scanned PDF to OCR to Word to ebook: not so fast, mate

I have been trying to explain to a friend why she can't just take a scanned PDF of a book, get it converted into a Word document with Optical Character Recognition (OCR), and send it straight to Smashwords.

Now, Smashwords is fantastic, and every author should check it out. Starting with your Word document, the Smashwords software (which bears the splendid name of Meatgrinder) converts a single source manuscript into every popular form of ebook, including epub, iBook, Kindle and of course the familiar PDF.

And OCR is fantastic. Who would have imagined  that software could virtually read photographs of the pages of a novel and translate the squiggles into pages of words.

However, OCR has its limitations.

Every few months when I have a spare minute, I puddle away at preparing my backlist for distribution as e-books. My plan is to put the old novels up for free—no hurry, though.

Yesterday The Limits of Green had my attention. That was my first novel, published by Penguin in 1985. Below is a sample of how it emerged from the OCR treatment. Characters were indeed recognised, but not always correctly. OCR is more like willing puppy than an expert.

I see at least 13 errors in 16 lines, not counting the formatting. Yes, a human hand is needed—and I am happy about that. I'm thoroughly enjoying my copyediting chore because this involves re-reading a novel I wrote in my youth. Such exuberance! Such reckless confidence! Such mobile-phone-less ingenuity! I look forward to releasing this baby into the wild.