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August 16, 2012

By Steve Whitehouse

Shock Resignation Shakes NZ's Literary Scene

New Zealand's world of books is reeling today after the manager of the national literary team announced he was stepping down after the failure of any of the squad to make the Booker Prize long list.

At a packed press conference in Cambridge, C.K.Stratford said the development was "more than disappointing." He believes "it is time to make way for new ideas to rejuvenate the team" which has received $2.3 million in lottery, Arts Council and government funding since 2009.

"The days when entries had to have correct grammar and make sense have passed," said Mr Stratford. "What we need is new blood -- possibly a post modernist. Also, we're not quite sure where the money has gone"

New Zealand's literary team has been surrounded with controversy in recent months. The national entry to the International Improvised Conversation Competition in Lausanne, Switzerland, was last week stripped of his gold medal following the results of blood tests. These showed that Aucklander Kevin Mitchell had no alcohol in his blood immediately before and after the event, giving him what the event's Supreme Council described as "an unfair advantage".

The gold medal was subsequently awarded to the Belorussian haiku artist, Natasha Shovepushko, who collapsed immediately after performing.

"There is clearly something wrong with the testing process," said Mr Stratford. "Kevin had won silver in the World Championships last year and was banned from driving for two years."

Mr Stratford said that before leaving his post he will be attending the meeting of the governing body of World Poetry in Paris. "There are a number of contentious issues of importance to New Zealand -- most particularly the proposal to exclude entries that do not rhyme."

"This would be a devastating blow to us because New Zealand poets gave up rhyming years ago. We expect support from a number of countries, including Mongolia where the language is technically incapable of rhyming."

Some funding to continue

It is not all bad news for New Zealand literary competitors, however. Funding of $550,000 annually will continue for participants in the World Writing Pentathlon Games, where the gold medal winner in 2010 was Paekakariki author Stephen McGill who wrote and published two novels, a memoir, a travel book and a volume of history within the allocated three month period.

"McGill has being putting in some astounding times during practice this year," said his coach Graeme Stead. "He has completed a dictionary, a list of every pop song he has ever heard, a bibliography of pamphlets on North Island railways and a biography of Arnold Nordmeyer. He looks unstoppable."

There is also optimism that some funding will remain for the Montreal Books Games next year. Wellington publisher Vandra Varnham, who will be reading out loud her entry "How to Watch Dressage Without Falling Asleep", says competitions have raised the profile of New Zealand in global literary circles. "Why, only the other day I received an email from a Finnish critic who is a fan of the Vampire novels of Graeme Ireland which won bronze in Bucharest two years ago."

Michael Lay will continue to receive support for his three year project "Bicycling Around Micronesia".


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