Monthly Archives: November 2013

On Poetry: Emma Neale pushes against the glass walls of form

Emma at Ross Creek

Photo credit: Graham Warman

Emma Neale has contributed this piece as part of an occasional series (On Poetry) from New Zealand writers. Emma is a Dunedin-based poet (four collections published), novelist (The Fosterling is a terrific read), teacher, mentor and anthologist. She has a PhD in English Literature from London’s University College, received the inaugural Janet Frame Memorial Award for Literature (2008), the Kathleen Grattan Award for Poetry (2011) and was the 2012 Robert Burns Fellow at the University of Otago. Her poetry is steered by a deft pen, a pen that embraces family as much ideas, and music as much tropes. She writes out of empathy for the world (both universal and particular) and her poems divert the intellect and hook the heart. Her poetry to date cannot be aligned solely with family preoccupations, but her family poems are some of the best I have read. This line from ‘No Time Like the Present’ could also be a cue to her poetry writing: ‘No present like time/ to follow thought’s curving rivers.’

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On writing a villanelle

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When I teach a second-year poetry workshop at the University of Otago, I try to set the students at least two exercises each semester that are new to me, too, to keep my teaching fresh, and to put myself back in the hot-seat: a writer is only as experienced as the new form they’re trying, and I think it’s important to remind myself just how daunting composing-to-deadline can be – not to mention the process of having a first draft read in public.

This year, one of the classic forms I set was the villanelle. I’ve read dozens, but had never tried to write one. The students turned up some good examples, ranging from comic commentaries on poetry itself (Nicola Thorstensen) to whimsically lovelorn (David Cooper). For many of them, it seemed as if writing within these strict constraints actually altered their work for the rest of the semester: it clarified and tautened even their attempts at free verse and/or concrete and in one case, digital, form. It was a prime example of the way form and structure actually give energy to the ideas and words, rather than binding them too tightly. As we might hear the drives of the wasp trapped in the jar more clearly than if the jar weren’t there: the force of the emotion or argument pushes hard against the glass walls of form.

When I started to tackle a villanelle, I initially wanted to write about a fictional character with OCD, based on a young girl I saw in a documentary years ago. I thought the repetitive structure would be useful to capture that stuckness, that inescapable treadmill of obsession. There’s only a skerrick of that in the poem still. It very quickly took on a real world anxiety, about a specific event, rather than being about a psychiatric disorder as such. (Although I’d like to try it again for that purpose.)

Initially I found it hard not to try to work in a kind of narrative progression: but soon saw that the stasis — even in the closure — would be a much better expression of anxiety than writing in a point of release, relief, uplift, psychological shift (even worst-fears-realised) would have been.

The technicalities of finding rhyme or half-rhyme gave the process an unexpected buoyancy: it’s like a kind of verbal orienteering, a happy, almost spatial problem solving. I knew I was meant to repeat two refrains and really wanted to stick with ‘one last check, one last time’ – only to belatedly realise that ‘time’ has a very limited range of potential rhymes. It also meant I had to cheat a little, and use assonance instead of perfect end rhyme, or even half rhyme, for the first and third lines… can we call assonance quarter rhyme?!

The title was a bugbear. I’ve already published a poem called ‘Traveller Overdue’ which is about separation, fear of loss, and a loved one at risk, although it’s in open form and uses mimetic typography — rather than refrains and rhyme — as its way of trying to embed presence into the white void of the page. ‘Overdue’ kept coming back, like an unpaid fine addressed to the wrong person, and I had to keep sending it away again. I tried about 8 different options: all yuck yuck yucketty yuck. Finally, hooray, when imagination’s account is in the red, along come the rich funds of Roget’s Thesaurus – and the phrase ‘Hold the Line’ seemed to arrive with a slap to the forehead. The reference to the phone line, the life line, the poetic line, all seemed perfect: but then I realised that friend and colleague Sarah Broom’s posthumous collection Gleam contained a sparse, moving lyric called ‘Holding the Line’. The loss of Sarah to poetry, and the publication of her collection, both seemed too recent for me to have a similar title, even as a tribute to her. I needed a title that would still evoke a sense of expectation, suspense: without falling either way. Although ‘Any News?’ loses the reflexivity of the other choice, perhaps the fact that it’s also more demotic helps to get that sense of visceral dread more, once you’re into the cyclical doubts of the poem.

I think when I try the form again, I’ll work harder at getting that separate aphoristic quality into the two refrains. When they repeat so often, it would seem logical to make them rich, complex, mysterious, perhaps, so that revisiting them is endlessly compelling. (Although monotony may sometimes be the mood the poet wants, of course, if the subject matter is about endurance.) There’s a much closer relationship to song than the sestina and pantoum, the other closed forms I’ve most enjoyed writing before. Even though I knew that intellectually, from reading other villanelles and reading about the villanelle, there is nothing like moving the mind around within the architecture of a poetic form for us to really know the possibilities of its psychological space and aesthetic effects.

Emma Neale’s blog

New Zealand Book Council page

University of Otago Press page

Steele Roberts page

New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre page

Interview with Emma Neale published in The Listener, April 26-May 2 2008 Vol 213

Emma Neale’s Random House profile

Feature in Otago Daily Times

Selina Tusitala Marsh talks to Poetry Shelf (Part 1): It is my voice as woman, kickboxer, and Pacifican


Selina Tusitala Marsh is of Samoan, Tuvaluan, English and French descent. The first Pacific Islander to graduate from the University of Auckland with a PhD in English, she now lectures in the Department. Her debut collection, Fast Talkin’ PI (Auckland University Press, 2009), won the Jessie MacKay Award for Best First Book of Poetry at the NZ Post Book Awards. Selina represented Tuvalu at the London Olympics Poetry Parnassus event. Her second collection, Dark Sparring (Auckland University Press, 2013), is to be launched in Auckland tonight. Selina is a strong role model for emerging poets and writers in our Pacific communities, through the poetry she pens, the courses she teaches, the ideas she circulates, the writers she mentors and the schools she visits.

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Selina’s first book has two lives — on the page and in performance. For some poets, one is a dilute form of the other, but with Selina the strength in one is the strength in the other. Her voice is, as her poetry underlines, a voice in a long line of women writing, and in particular Pacific-Island women writing. She acknowledges her literary forbears. Her voice is sweetened with musical honey, but it is also unafraid to bite as she questions her place in the world. The long poem, ‘Fast Talkin’ PI,’ has captured the ears and hearts of festival goers around the world as she pulls us into the thick of what it means to be human. This list of what a woman can be and do (in debt to Anne Waldman) is a song in the ear, an infectious beat and rhyme momentum and an act of liberation from straightened stereotypes —  and it gets under your skin. Selina has the courage to speak out, and her ideas are not veiled beneath hint and allusion, but as she speaks, you get the textured delights of poetry. Like several New Zealand women, Selina is showing that Performance Poetry (or Spoken Word Poetry) is a vital part of our poetry culture. It exists in a spectrum of subtly, passion, politics, heartbreak, musical chords, love, connections, word play, autobiography, body dance, tradition and experimentation.

In celebration of her new book, Selina kindly agreed to be interviewed by Poetry Shelf. I will post a review of Dark Sparring next week. The Photo Credit is Emma Hughes Photography. Thanks to Auckland University Press, I have giveaway copy of Selina’s new book for someone who likes or comments on this post or the review I will post next week.

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The Interview:

Did your childhood shape you as a poet? What did you like to read? Did you write as a child? What else did you like to do?

I’ve never mentioned this before but when I was young my dad, who worked in a stainless steel factory, made us kids a stainless steel slide. My favourite past time was to lie, tummy down, on the slide and peer into the warped face staring back.  I’d also stare at the reflected warped sky, birds, trees, other people, but mostly this face that was mine and not mine.  Then I’d sing and chant to this other self. I think, without getting too psychoanalytical,  that those endless hours went some way to being conscious of me as other, and of my words as potentially independent of myself. Something that exists beyond my body and is emitted through another body that looks somewhat like me but isn’t me.  That duality continues through life.  I’m an incredibly social person and yet, need time alone, and enjoy deep one-to-one friendships.  I also used to while away entire Saturdays reading books in bed, pretending the backyard fence was a horse (and riding it), and got really good at Galaga at the corner takeaways.

Did university life (as a student) transform your poetry writing? Theoretical impulses, research discoveries, peers?

Undoubtedly yes.  Because it gave me books, books from all over the globe and introduced me to the world of post colonial theory where marginalised voices were recognised and given space to flourish. It gave me a lens with which to view the gaping absence of voices like mine – Pacific, political, raw, performative. In terms of being exposed to New Zealand poetry, it was Hone Tuwhare’s gutsy voice and concrete grindings of the line that got me excited, as well as Sam Hunt’s embodied lyricism and bardish behaviours!  These poets thrilled me because they made poetry relevant to my way of being.  Yet, I didn’t write in response to anyone else’s poetry, that is, it didn’t feel as if poetry with a capital ‘p’ belonged to me until I met the words of black American women poets like Maya Angelou and Audrey Lorde. And coming across the black feminist theory of bell hooks was also a game changer.  Suddenly the right to write and claim space was not only an option, it was a responsibility, not only to one’s perceived community, but one’s self.

When you started writing poems as a young adult, were there any poets in particular that you were drawn to (poems/poets as surrogate mentors)?

The earliest poem I can remember being enamoured with was ‘The Highwayman’.  It simply stunned me and I became obsessed with its drama, sacrifice, violence, and redemption, along with its haunting clip clopping rhythms.  I had an illustrated book of poems and its picture also haunted me.  All the other poems in the book were babyish in comparison.  This was adult and therefore, a real poem!

Your poems are as alive on the page as they are when you perform them. They draw upon a passionate engagement with life (there is heart at work), but they also have a political edge. Plus of course there is the vitality of sound — from repetition to rhythm to rhyme. What are key things for you when you write a poem?

I guess it begins with movement, like, something has to move me emotionally, intellectually, spiritually.  And then it has to fit right in my mouth, which doesn’t necessarily mean it must rhyme, but that the words must be able to mill about together on the tongue. Fitting in the mouth and on the tongue often means that the words dance with each other, shadowing each other’s rhythms.  Juxtapositions are important in order to disrupt expectation and widen the reading audience.  For example, what happens when Muay Thai kickboxing, a traditional Tuvalu dance, and grief move together in the same space, on the same page?  And then a poem has to move someone else.  The most gratifying response to a poem I’ve received lately was when I penned the long poem ‘Kickboxing Cancer’ on the walls of the old Waiheke Police Station holding cell (converted into the Waikare Maori Art Gallery).  It’s four walls became the four sides of a boxing ring.  Janine, the curator, told me about a couple of tourists who came to see the exhibition.  The husband couldn’t get his wife to leave.  For a good half hour she sat in the cell  reading and weeping. That’s gratifying.

What PI poets might not have come to our attention that you would recommend?

Grace Teuila Taylor launches her first collection, ‘Afakasi Speaks’, published by *, in Hawai’i. She is a stunning Niu poet able to bridge the page with the stage and back again. She co-founded the South Auckland Poets Collective, gives back to the community, is sensitive, strong and humble.  I love Grace and her work.  She really demonstrates how poetry can be an emancipatory vehicle in so many ways.

Do you think your writing has changed since your startling debut with Fast Talking PI? For example, how does your new collection link back to that? And then move away from it?

The signature poem in Dark Sparring is ‘Kickboxing Cancer’ and is a distant cousin to ‘Fast Talking PI’.  They both echo Anne Waldeman’s ‘Fast Speaking Woman’ – the bones are there in both.  End line repetition, its chant aesthetic, the reclaiming ‘I’ – it’s all related and ‘Kickboxing Cancer’ is a return to the woman- centred focus Waldeman began with.  Its Pacificness is less overt, which isn’t a bad thing.  It’s more implicit in the tone, mood, and empowering politics of the piece. Subtle references to Tangaroa (Maori God of the Sea) and Tagaloa (Samoan Supreme Being) are made but a Pacificness pervades the entire piece – it is the centre, not the margin – it is my voice as woman, kickboxer, and Pacifican!


Auckland University Press page

nzepc page

New Zealand Book Council page

Radio NZ interview

Best New Zealand Poems here

Blackmail Press page