Bernadette Hall talks to Poetry Shelf: All I know is that I’m more in love with poetry, whatever it is, than ever


Bernadette Hall is an award-winning poet, editor and teacher living at a beach north of Christchurch. She has published numerous collections of poetry, but is one of those poets who gives more to the community than just her marvelous poems. Bernadette co-founded the Hagley Writers’ Institute in Christchurch and has continued to mentor young writers. As editor she has placed two New Zealand women poets under a welcome spotlight. She edited Like Love Poems: Selected Poems of Joanna Margaret Paul (2006) and The Judas Tree: Poems by Lorna Staveley Anker (2013). Both are terrific additions to the local, poetry landscape.

With a new collection about to be launched by Victoria University Press on November 1st, it seemed the perfect time to interview Bernadette. I will post a review of Life & Customs at the beginning of November.

Bernadette’s poems are lyrical havens, where musical chords are words that chime and where rhythms shift in undercurrents of beat. As you read, your body unwittingly absorbs the music, the delicious flecks of assonance, alliteration and rhyme. Her poems lead you back out into the world, to the detail that makes the poet’s experience shine not just at a physical level but at a level where things less easily put into words take root (beauty, love, grief, despair, doubt, intuition, compassion, kindness, thought). She is not afraid to use similes and when she uses them they refresh the poem (‘The rain is like mice scrabbling in the ceiling’ and ‘It’s like walking into a room that’s full/ of McCahons, you know, the way the air changes’). Sometimes a poem is a home for anecdote (much came from her six-month residency in Ireland for The Lustre Jug). Sometimes it is a home for sights and sounds and information that the poet with her eyes and ears open to the world has gleaned (a little like a poet-magpie). If you haven’t yet discovered the luminous attractions of Bernadette’s poems, her collection The Lustre Jug (VUP, 2009) is the perfect place to start (find a hammock, add The Ponies (VUP, 2007) and The Merino Princess: Selected Poems (VUP, 2004) and you will be set!).

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The interview:

Dear Paula

Here’s a little something, a sort of reply to your questions.

I haven’t really got a lot to say about poetry at the moment. I think the teaching gene has finally been extinguished in me.  I’m not so sure about things that I used to be sure of a year or so ago.  I have to think that this is a healthy state of affairs.

All I know is that I’m more in love with poetry, whatever it is, than ever.


My mother loved language.

Her conversation sparkled with word play and old sayings from Central Otago and from her Irish family. These sayings were rich and dangerous, they had everyone laughing. There was a sharp wit and scathing irony in them. If we complained about a petticoat that hung down a little or a spot that had turned up on our chins just before we went up town with our friends, she’d say ‘A blind man on a galloping horse wouldn’t see that.’ An expression of high praise from her sister, my aunt, was ‘Why you’re the girl your mother forgot to drown.’ Haha, it was outrageous and dangerous  and full of affection.  Heehee, saying one thing and meaning another, isn’t that supposed to be a definition of poetry?

My mother’s mother had a few words of the Irish. My two sisters and I have inherited an affection for what we call the Irish gift of charming, scurrilous repartee. ‘My arse to you and that’s behind me’ my grandmother would say, apparently.  But never to her grand-children.  My mother would quote her if we were playing up, digging our heels in.  ‘Oh, bum through the letterbox,’ she’d say. And that was that. It might have been an acknowledgement of being rendered speechless but it was also a declaration of authority. There were to be no more arguments or protestations. We’d have to laugh but we’d also have to do what we were told.  Even more so after my father died, felled by a heart attack, right in front of me, I’d just arrived home from school and I was sixteen.

To be grief-stricken. To speak to no-one in my family, not my mother or my sisters, for a year                 ( something I’d ‘forgotten’ until one of my sisters reminded me and then I was amazed that something in my own inexplicable private life as I had experienced it, had had an impact on someone else, that it had been visible when all that time I had thought I was invisible.)  To be so angry.

At Holy Name School in Dunedin ( site now of the Students Union, only a huge walnut tree remains)  I learnt language as mystery in the Latin Mass. I learnt musical rhythms in the repetitions of the Litany of the Saints many of whom had the most remarkable names, Cosmas and Chrosogynus for example.  Ora pro nobis, we’d chorus, ‘pray for us.’  And if two saints were invoked in the same breath, we’d use the plural orate pro nobis. Not one word of Maori passed our lips but plenty of the language of the Roman Empire, of civilisation and theological sureties.

We performed poems in a poetry choir conducted by Miss Molly Randall.  ‘I must go down to the sea again / to the lonely sea and the sky’ and ‘one of them two of them three of them four of them / seabirds on the shore.’ We copied out poems by Rupert Brooke, Scottish ballads (so marvellously tragic), Milton on his blindness and Elizabeth Barrett Browning on love.  Eileen Duggan was a Catholic so of course we learnt her poems. I loved especially her lines about the little silver consecration bell ringing in the untamed darkness of the New Zealand bush. Now it’s her doubting poems that I admire.

Belief and unbelief, the tension between them being a virtue, I have been told, in the poems I wrote in response to the sculptures by Llew Summers,  the Stations of the Cross, which remain sound but imprisoned in the destructed Catholic Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Christchurch. Anthony Ritchie has written a symphony for full orchestra and solo soprano in which he uses words from these poems. The work will be premiered in Christchurch on February 22, 2014.

As a child, I wrote poems for my friend Annette. She set me a topic and paid me a penny and I gave her a poem.  On things like Dogs ( I was passionately in love with dogs, desperate to have one but I don’t think we could have afforded one) and Spring and The Circus.  I wrote a long essay on The Sea.  It delighted Mother St Joan and got me a straight A. But the real pleasure was in sitting at the little table in the window of the spare room, looking out at the poplars and the willows and the river, the Leith.  Being solitary and absorbed. Silent, lost to myself and fully alive. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-forties that the desire for this kind of internal ‘room of my own’ awoke in me again.

I always loved the sea. My dad and I were the bravest when it came to swimming. He’d float on his back, going up and down on the waves. I played tennis. I played the cello, in the King Edward Tech orchestra conducted by Mr Waldon Mills. Later on I was in the Otago University orchestra led by Bill Southgate. Music and Latin and freedom.  I climbed trees with my friend Nicki. I ran wild along the track to the Gardens, I spent hours puddling around in the Leith, catching cockabullies and tiny weedy lobsters. I planted flower seeds – I was born to do manual work, to be a gardener, digging, pruning, lugging, mulching, turning the compost heap, raking the little pebble paths that go for grass out here in the droughty Hurunui. I can remember my Dad’s mother, a little Northern Irish migrant, a farmer, a prohibitionist, running out onto the road in Leith Valley behind the milkman’s cart.  I helped her shovel up the horse’s droppings to feed the pansies in the garden.

I have spent a lifetime immersed in the language of poetry and plays as a high school teacher, specialising in English, Latin and Classical Studies. The poet, Iain Lonie, tried to teach me Greek. His poetry and he himself, transfigured by his love for Judith, were more successful in teaching me ‘to prize what is of value’ than anything else.  John Dickson’s presence, the way he reads his poems, the fact that like Geoff Cochrane, he makes poetry visible and desirable in his very being, the fact that in conversation with these two and with Joanna Margaret Paul, I felt/feel myself getting nourishment for that sometimes hidden part of my life, the way, by my given nature, I tend to hide what I treasure the most.

When I read essays by Adrienne Rich, Seamus Heaney and Nuala Ni Dhomnhaill, poems by Wallace Stevens and Michele Leggott, John Berryman and  Hone Tuwhare, I am often going around the same traps but each time I find something new, something that I need, something that changes the work I am doing at the time.

I admire the poems that Tusiata Avia is writing at the moment. ‘The beauty of the husband’ by Anne Carson and The Big Music by Kirsty Gunn.  Novels by John Coetzee, Nigel Cox and Janet Frame. The Bath Fugues by Brian Castro. I have just started on Jorge Luis Borges, better late than never.  Max Gate by Damien Wilkins and The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton are on my to be read list. Time and again I read Dia by Michele Leggott,  The Rocky Shore by Jenny Bornholdt and The Palm at the End of the Mind by Wallace Stevens.  This week I’m in love with some wonderful, edgy poems written by a student I’m currently mentoring, they make me laugh out loud. And with a few lines from Thomas Merton’s ‘Book of Hours’ – a book which was given to me as a rather surprising gift :

‘No matter how simple discourse may be

     it is never simple enough.

     No matter how simple thought may be,

     it is never simple enough.

     No matter how simple love may be,

     it is never simple enough.’

That’s how I want to write this week, with simplicitas. Next week it might be all about elaborations.

When I was a teenager I worked in the school holidays in Buntings Brush Factory, operating machines that made toilet brushes and hair-curlers. I was very happy working there.  The mix of people was a real eye-opener   For some of the workers, Buntings offered the safety and respect of a sheltered workshop.  On my last day in the December just before I turned eighteen, before I headed off to university in the following year because I didn’t want to work in a bank as the Career Adviser who visited our school had advised, a gentle older man called Bruce gave me a copy of Allen Curnow’s The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (1960) as a farewell present. I still have it. There’s a poem there that said everything I could have imagined at the time about love and sex and longing.

‘Beloved your love is poured to enchant all the land

         the great bull falls still the opossum turns from his chatter

         and the thin nervous cats pause and the strong oak-trees stand

         entranced and the gum’s restless bark-strip is stilled from its clatter.

from ‘Flow at Full Moon’ by R. A. K. Mason.

The poem spoke to me and for me. It was like a voice from another planet.

When I write a poem, I want to break through. To be completely lost. So that the words aren’t mine, so that the flow is automatic. It’s like flying if it’s going well and that’s just the first flush of it. That’s when the best, the strangest lines make their appearance. But the whole usually takes more time and patience, allowing everything and then letting it all settle and find itself.  The aim being to make something that’s truthful and brave and beautiful. I like to give myself a bit of a fright, to push out beyond what I’d thought was possible. Poetry is the ground on which I can let myself go.  I can throw myself away and hope in a mad kind of way that I’ll be found and how liberating is that.

Victoria University Press page

New Zealand Book Council page

New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre page

Canterbury University Press page

Best NZ Poems edited by Bernadette Hall here

My review of The Lustre Jug in The NZ Herald

4 thoughts on “Bernadette Hall talks to Poetry Shelf: All I know is that I’m more in love with poetry, whatever it is, than ever

  1. Pingback: Bernadette Hall’s Life & Customs– such readerly movement is a like a breath of fresh air | NZ Poetry Shelf

  2. Pingback: Bernadette Hall talks to Poetry Shelf: All I know is that I’m more in love with poetry, whatever it is, than ever | themoonlitdoor

  3. Pingback: Back home and I discover Bernadette Hall receives Prime Minister’s Award for Poetry – I am doing a little poetry jig of joy | NZ Poetry Shelf

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