Titus turns twenty-one
Last Friday night Titus Books launched its twenty-first and twenty-second volumes, though whether the publisher Claudia Westmoreland once described as 'the naughty infant of New Zealand literature' has reached the maturity often signified by the number twenty-one is surely a matter for debate. Titus' founder owner Brett Cross has made it his mission to 'shake up' and 'subvert' the small world of Kiwi letters, so he may like to think of his enterprise as having some of the spirit of a rebellious child.
As a writer and a person, Richard von Sturmer is a fascinating mixture of rebellious energy and mature calm. In the late '70s and early '80s, when he fronted legendary avant-punk outfits The Plague and The Humanimals, von Sturmer thought nothing of tearing off his clothes on stage and painting his entire body bright blue. After he discovered Zen Buddhism in the mid-80s, von Sturmer learned new, quieter ways of expressing himself, but the calm that is a feature of the string of books he has published since then has not come at the expense of punkish energy.
Richard may have kept his clothes on last Friday night, but he read passages from his new prose memoir On the Eve of Never Departing which mixed plain statement up with surreal imagery, and moved suddenly between calm and incantatory rhythms. Richard began by treating the eighty-odd punters who had filled Fordes Bar to a story about a night in the late '70s when he and a bunch of teenage cronies broke in to the Auckland zoo and went from cage to cage greeting the animals in the moonlit quiet. After impressing his listeners with the tranquility of the scene, von Sturmer suddenly recounted the decision of a beefy ape to reach out through the bars of its cage and put one of the teenagers in a choker hold. Rapture had given way to terror, and things got even stranger before Richard's story was over.
On the Eve of Never Departing ranges widely in time and space, and von Sturmer read other passages from the book which took readers out to the American desert, where a rattlesnake in a cave reminded the author of the nature of infinity, and into a Renaissance painting of the Annunciation, where he got up close and personal with an angel. Intense without being histrionic, and ever-alert to the shifting moods and rhythms of his texts, von Sturmer must be one of the finest performers in New Zealand's literary community. If you missed last Friday's gig, though, don't despair - the man is just as good on the page. Rogalia Guedea couldn't attend last Friday night's launch, but the acclaimed Dunedin-based Mexican poet will be taking Free Fall with him when he tours the United States later this year. In Guedea's absence Brett Cross found the perfect vehicle for the fastidious, querulous, faintly neurotic prose poems of Free Fall , in the form of that permanently querulous, faintly neurotic long-time scholar of Spanish-language and Lusophone literatures, Hamish Dewe. Otis Mace bookended both von Sturmer and Dewe's performances with his fingerpicking.
Titus Books may be in rude good health, as it celebrates passing twenty-one, but some other, older New Zealand publishers are feeling distinctly queasy right now. During the booze-up that followed the formal part of last Friday's launch, I chatted with a very senior Kiwi writer about the decision of the new owners of the Whitcoulls chain of bookstores to cancel many of the block orders the company had previously placed for the work of local novelists. Large prepaid orders from Whitcoulls have often underwritten the costs of the print runs of some of New Zealand's bigger literary publishers. Whitcoulls' decision compounds the misery caused to Kiwi publishers by this country's deregulated book market and by the increase in online reading and book downloads.
My interlocutor suggested that, in the dangerous conditions of twenty-first century publishing, Titus was employing the right set of tactics. The company's emphasis on producing small first editions, covering costs through sales at launches, and mobilising the paraphenalia of the digital age to get around the hostility of some large booksellers may yet become a model for publishers with more financial resources, he said. Will the rebellious child end up teaching the old heads of New Zealand publishing a trick or two?