Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 17, 2019

Auckland Writers Festival: In conversation with Anne Michaels

The Canadian writer Anne Michaels is renowned as a poet, novelist and essayist, best known for her award-winning debut novel Fugitive Pieces (1996, see my review here) but also for The Winter Vault (2009) and seven collections of poems.  In 2015 she was the poet laureate for Toronto, seeking as she said, language for the inexpressible, exploring the difference between silence and muteness, and she began the session by reading a couple of poems that she said were written in the wake of the loss of people she loved best.

In conversation, she chooses her words carefully.  Writing is a rigorous discipline, and she doesn’t agree with manipulating language to suit an agenda.  Certainty, she thinks, usually leads to something false.  It’s what you want to say that determines how you write it, and that’s part of the relationship between the reader and the writer. 

Mysteries like the mystery of death needs language restrained and chaste enough to express the ineffable.  Loss is desire pared down to its potency, and it important to cleanse language with brevity and simplicity to give it power.  In a world drowning in noisy input, how quiet does a voice need to be in order to be heard?  She can’t outshout it, she says, so it’s a search to find the right tone that might be heard above the tumult.

Writing, says Michaels, is not self-expression, it’s writing beyond the self, and writing of personal grief and loss is distilled as a gift to the reader. She doesn’t want to bring the reader to her life, she wants to offer a place for whatever they need to feel.

She made a very interesting remark which unfortunately wasn’t followed up by the interviewer:  in a world where optimism can be elusive, she said we need to care about our ideas and our laws… and a little later she said something about needing structures that support the instinct to do good.

I wondered what Michaels meant by ‘our laws’ and supporting ‘the instinct to do good’.  She could perhaps have been alluding to Jacinda Arden’s current international campaign in Paris to rein in the abuses of social media which have been uncontrolled for too long?  But to me her comment also implies a responsibility for all citizens to sit up and pay attention to the laws governments make and—just as importantly—the ones they don’t make when they should.  I don’t know if that’s what Michaels meant, but I’m sure it must mean that you need to know about our laws to care about them.  When we let ourselves get too distracted by popular culture and entertainment, and when those of us lucky enough to live in democracies become cynical about the political process, that’s when the future looks bleak…

What I really liked was how she concluded by saying that she wants her readers to feel some sense of redemption.  Her books aren’t about a political agenda: they begin with facts but she’s interested in discerning the meaning of those facts, and she doesn’t leave her reader in a state of helplessness.  She really does care about her readers…

For another report on this session, see Marcus Hobson at Booksellers NZ.

I went to two really good sessions after this: Paula Morris in conversation with the very droll Patrick Dewitt (The Sisters Brothers), and then the King Memorial Lecture presented by Vincent O’Malley talking about the New Zealand Wars.  But for reasons best known to themselves, the organisers turned all the lights off in the auditorium and I couldn’t see to take any notes at all! Suffice to say, therefore, that I really should get round to reading Dewitt’s book when I get home, and that O’Malley seems to be New Zealand’s equivalent of Henry Reynolds, making a deeply felt argument that mature nations need to own up to the dark side of their history.  The picture he presented about the wars of Maori dispossession and massacre here in NZ are very different to the impression we Australians have that New Zealand’s Treaty of Waitangi was a more ethical colonisation than what happened in Australia…

Update 10/6/19: Booksellers NZ somehow managed to capture what O’Malley said despite the darkness, see their report here

Asia's ReckoningUpdate at about 6.30pm I’ve just been to a really brilliant session with Australian Richard McGregor on the topic of his book, Asia’s Reckoning, China, Japan and the Fate of US Power in the Pacific Century. They did this annoying thing with turning all the lights off again in the auditorium so I (and every journalist reporting on this important session?) couldn’t see to take notes.

However, it doesn’t really matter because I am going to buy the book when I get back to Australia and will write a proper review then…


  1. Reblogged this on Travels with Tim and Lisa.


  2. Interesting talk from Anne Michaels, that comment that intrigued reminds me of something Ahern said about the need for govts and politicians to focus on societal well-being and not just economic well-being, she was talking about kindness, empathy and emotional intelligence, but it also makes me think of the work of Diane Eisler who has a book coming out in July Nurturing our Humanity, her previous work having explored two societal models, the dominator model which we currently live under and the partnership model, which existed prior to the era we are in, it’s values of which we could certainly benefit from today, collaboration, affiliation, empowerment, creativity etc. For sure we need a shift, but it’s likely to something born into a new generation than coming from the old, too much of politics seems entrenched in that dominator model to ever be capable of genuinely embracing the opposite, but individuals certainly can and do.
    Jealous that your attending this!


    • Oh yes, and I find this new kind of dialogue very attractive. But the session I’ve just been to which was about the pressures caused by the rise of China and its competition with the US, makes we wonder if we’re going to be able to be able to set our priorities the way we want to in the future…


  3. She sounds interesting Lisa. I still have Fugitive pieces on my TBR. I like your teasing out of that statement that you wish the interviewer followed up. I wasn’t there of course but when I read the statement I was thinking along the lines of what you suggest in the second half of your musings.

    I also like the idea that “Certainty … usually leads to something false.” I think we should be wary of certainty, even our own.

    I loved Claire’s reference to Adern’s comment on societal well-being not just economic well-being, because I was just thinking this evening as the electioneering draws to a close that all we seem to be hearing in talk of money, money, money.

    Finally, I know what you mean about darkness stopping you taking notes. Very frustrating – though maybe it’s good for us! However, I now take notes on my iPad so it’s not an issue. I turn the brightness down to barely illuminated which I think shouldn’t bother people around me, and use a handwriting app to take notes. It’s not perfect – the handwriting app under that sort of pressure can leave me with nonsensical words – I just have to let those go through to the keeper.


    • Hi Sue, with all the talk around Hawke’s death, (which BTW rated one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it column para on p 17 of the Auckland newspaper, it’s just like Europe here, Australia doesn’t exist!) the contrast between the kind of leadership we used to have – that cared about *us*- and what we have now is very stark. I’ve read talk before about the way it’s only the economic health of a country gets measured because that’s all, they say, that matters. But I don’t actually think that’s true: we in Australia do measure and value things like health and education and so on. I think it’s more that we’re not clear about the values we have: fairness, honesty, basic principles that (should) guide us in foreign relations and so on. And the political discourse isn’t around that.
      I don’t blame politicians for that, though. We, the polity, are responsible for it. If the polity prefers gotcha moments and trivia and the wallet, then that’s what the media dishes up, and so that’s the sandpit that politicians play in.

      I hear what you say about phones – though I have to say it would drive me mad to sit beside an iPad flashing, even turned down (and someone complained to me when I did it myself with my laptop so I’ve never done it since) – but this is a writers’ festival and the organisers (should) know that the audience comprises many wannabee writers. (Only the very political sessions like the McGregor one would attract journos making notes for the news). At other festivals I’ve been to, there have been many people making notes about what the writers say about the craft. Sometimes (because I usually attend festivals on my own) I get chatting to these young writers, and they’ll enthuse about the words the speaker used, and quote them back to me from their (handwritten) notes.

      Anyway, whatever, it’s disappointing. I’ve never encountered it before and I’m disappointed that I can’t share what I’ve enjoyed. By the end of four sessions at the end of the day I just don’t remember it well enough to report on it here for the blog.


      • Great reply, thanks, Lisa. I’m with you. There’s no way I can remember things if I don’t take notes – I was at a book launch the other day and I don’t usually write up straight launches, but I was kicking myself because a couple of really interesting things were said – but can I remember them to tell you? Nope. All I can tell you is that I head something very interesting. That’s useful isn’t it!!

        I actually don’t think my iPad flashes. With the brightness down very low so that I can just see, and the handwriting app’s grey background with blue for the writing, it’s pretty unobtrusive. I noticed that it does flash if I decide to go to another app (eg Wikipedia to check a fact!!) so I don’t do that anymore. However, unless I’m with someone, I do my best to sit with a gap on either side of me which is usually possible.

        As for politics. Yes, agree with you that it’s as much out fault as the politicians and the media, but we are in this together and I see the politicians and media as having not just “give them what they want” and “reflect back to them” roles, but “let’s lead some thinking” roles as well. And, as we know, when it comes to climate change and indigenous people’s issues like the Uluru Statement (as two examples) the polls show that the Coalition was (is) out of step with the majority. We have just voted, and the cynicism in the line was palpable – but then, I do think Aussies have always been somewhat cynical. We’re not, compared with, say, the USA, great respecters of authority. You have to prove yourself.


  4. Journalists take notes on iPhones these days so it wouldn’t have affected them 🤣


    • Maybe they were all corralled into the reserved seats…


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