Spiral Collectives
Published in

Spiral Collectives

Heather McPherson’s ‘i do not cede’

by Renée

Marian: On Sunday 5 June, Renée launched Spiral’s eBook i do not cede by Heather McPherson, edited and introduced by poet Emer Lyons and with a cover by Biz Hayman, a cover image by Jane Zusters and a title typeface derived from Heather’s own handwriting. It was almost exactly 40 years since Spiral published Heather’s first collection A Figurehead: A Face (1982).

The afternoon was also a celebration of 80 years since Heather was born. MCed by legend Tilly Lloyd of Unity Books, it began with Hilary King’s Jilted from the classic Out of the Corners LP (1982), some archival images and a recording of Heather speaking about her work. It continued with readings and talk from people who knew and loved her: photographer Adrienne Martyn; writer Aorewa McLeod; academic feminist Deborah Jones; writer Fiona Kidman (read by Emer); painter Fran Marno; activist Morrigan Severs, poet and activist Saj Gurney and poet Sue Fitchett. The event ended with conversations between Renée and Biz and Renée and Emer and a karakia from Ren. You can watch it all in the recording at the end of this post, followed by a recording of Heather at the Women’s Gallery in 1980, being interviewed and performing her ‘I am’ poem.

We were delighted and honoured that distinguished writer Renée (full bio below), someone Heather loved and admired, agreed to launch the book. And there’s more! Renée also coached me on how to structure the afternoon and I learned so much from that; and from Tilly’s spirited and professional approach. On behalf of this Spiral Collective, warm thanks to them both, to the contributors and to the audience, for a joyous afternoon that Heather would have loved.

Renée (centre), zooming with designer Biz Hayman (left) and fellow crime writer KIm Hunt (right)

Renée:

Kia ora koutou, it is a pleasure and an honour to be here to launch i do not cede, a collection of poems by Heather McPherson. Thank you to Marian Evans for her all her help, who made allowances for my failing eyesight and trusted me with an ecopy of the collection so I was able to read and reread these poems while writing these words. Thank you Marian and also thanks to Tilly, Emer and Biz. Sometimes, as Blanche says in Streetcar Named Desire, we depend on the kindness of strangers but I am luckier than Blanche, I depend on the kindness of whānau and friends.

When I came onto the scene in Auckland in 1980 Heather (in Christchurch) had already (with others) formed the collective, Spiral. I knew what spiral meant — or thought I did — something winding round and round like when I spun one of those pinecones we gathered for the wood and coal range because they burned fiercely and were free for the gathering. Sometimes as a kid I played with one trying to make it spin, mostly failing, but sometimes, once in a hundred tries perhaps, succeeding. A euphoric moment, a sweet success and the image of that little cone spinning round and round, stopping, teetering, falling, then being still, waiting for the next lot of fingers to make it spiral, has remained with me, a useful as well as enchanting object.

Spiral I mused, Spiral…then I thought…Collective?

Before 1972 when Broadsheet, the Feminist magazine, began to be published, I’d not come across that word, collective. Before the 70s I’d also not come across the feminist determination to discuss everything before acting. By the 80s when I came to Auckland, it was The Word. The idea that everyone’s point of view should be considered before taking action was totally new to me. Up until then I’d used the ‘do it because I say so’ approach. In a collective though, I discovered, it was essential to discuss every possible move before acting. I understood the principle which said that everyone’s point of view should be discovered, discussed, included — it was the practice I found a bit difficult. I’m not sure I ever got the hang of it.

It seems to me that Heather totally understood the concept and what is even better was happy to put it into practice. The collective support and work on behalf of Keri Hulme’s the bone people and Jacquie Sturm’s The House of the Talking Cat, among others, as well as the advising and encouragement of women writers makes clear. She understood that being a writer, an artist, is a solitary business at times, a group enterprise at others — and she knew with great certainty, that you’re in it for the long haul. If you write for theatre or group endeavours, writing can also become communal. Other workers, actors, singers, dancers, can comment and make suggestions during rehearsals which you either accept or not. Sometimes you ask for help like I did, when I said to the late great Jess Hawk Oakenstar, I want a song that starts with the words ‘Dear Gertrude Stein’, and next day there it was.

Poetry, said Heather, is political. She understood the value of words, she understood how important it was for people like me to see that that often despised, scary, wonderful word, lesbian, was also political. She said it, she wrote it and she also wrote about its sexuality, about its combination of frivolity, friendship and about its formidable purpose. We’re here and we’re not going away.

Sometimes writing goes round and round in a circle and other times you go like a rocket towards the target. There’s no such thing as inspiration, there is only working and reworking, working and reworking, and somehow a time comes when you know that piece of work is finished or as finished as its ever going to be.

While the 1980s was a freeing and fun decade for me and a lot of others, it was also a hard working time. You said you’d do something and although it might be scary standing on a corner yelling about the leniency shown to rapists by the courts, you did it. Other women, friends or mostly strangers, dependent on you, so you squared your shoulders and got on with it. I remember that first march up Queen Street in support of Homosexual Reform and the hatred and shouted slurs of those watching. It seems to me the 80s was a decade made up of a mixture of learning, hard work, being shouted at and going to parties with lots of wine and laughter. Heather did not rely on the male literary establishment for either approval or acceptance. It was unimportant, a noisy little squib quacking to itself out there somewhere. She was a shock and a surprise to their artificial and cosy beliefs. She was a mover and a shaker of old certainties, a friend to many, a lover to some, a loving and loved mother and grandmother, an artist and a writer, a star pointing the way for not only other lesbians but for writers everywhere.

In i do not cede (and who but Heather would use that fabulous four letter word, ‘cede’? A beautiful word, a powerful word) here is a words woman with a kete full of words, all sizes and shapes, some strong and hard, some fragile, some loving and full of passion, all lengths, all twists and softnesses, sometimes uncompromising and direct. She gathered words, harvested them, arranged and presented them for our future and always delight and illumination. She wrapped them around us as a shield and a haven.

sister, when you pick

Sapphic

fragments

out of my body

from under

your words

& my

words from

under your

body

& after

you shake out

Other assumptions

of sites & times

& ignorances

will you

recOllect

(me)

will you

dOcument

(me)

in y/Our

blOOming

Olivia

tree

Adrienne Rich wrote, ‘There must be those amongst whom we can sit down and weep and still be regarded as warriors’. Heather Avis McPherson was that kind of warrior. She knew our weaknesses, she knew our strengths and in i do not cede, her words are a shield and an arrow pointing towards the warmth and safety that is in ourselves, signal who we are — who we are.

I am very happy to declare i do not cede by Heather McPherson, published by Spiral, editor Emer Lyon, cover designer Biz Hayman, well and truly launched. Kia ora koutou…

Renée (Ngati Kahungunu/Scot) writer, reader and teacher.

Renée has written 1 collection of short stories, 8 novels and 18 plays. Her memoir, These Two Hands (Makaro Press 2017, 2d edition 2020), her first crime novel, The Wild Card, (The Cuba Press, 2017) and her second crime novel, Blood Matters, will be published 2022. Renée’s Panui for Te Pou Muramura ReadNZ was published November 2021. In 2006 Renée was awarded Officer New Zealand Order of Merit, 2013 Te Kingi Ihaka Award for services to Toi Maori and in 2018 the Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction.

You can buy a copy of i do not cede through most vendors, here. We recommend KOBO.

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@devt

@devt

Stories by & about women artists, writers and filmmakers. Global outlook, from Aotearoa New Zealand.