Kirsti Whalen is a poet and disability advocate currently studying Creative Writing at Manukau Institute with Robert Sullivan and Eleanor Catton. She has written and read poetry since she was a child, and has won both the Katherine Mansfield Young Writers Award and the Bell Gully National Secondary Schools Poetry Award. She has published poems in various journals.
My reaction to Kirsti’s poems: ‘Kirsti is a fresh young voice on the poetry horizon line. Her submission indicates she has an astonishing ear for the way sounds soar on a line, the way they dip and fall. Her syntax is bold and on the move, but she is unafraid of neither simplicity nor silent beats. The poems take you into the heart of family from a mother’s x-rays to kitchen dinners to a grandmother’s quince trees. Each poem is brought alive to a startling degree with sensual detail, electric connections, canny ellipsis, judicious repetition. It is a voice that feels original, that is willing to take risks and that exudes a love of writing in every nook and cranny.’
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 was lucky enough to be part of a writing group from primary school, run first by my principal and then, after he left the school, my mum, who was a teacher. So I was taught from the start that writing is important, and a valid way to be spending one’s time. My parents always emphasized the value of creativity and never questioned my whims, for which I am very thankful.
My grandparents lived on a farm in the King Country, and this was my haven. I spent all the time I possibly could there, even catching the bus on weekends and holidays when Mum wouldn’t drive me. I am, in fact, a prize winning chicken breeder, taking out the pet category at nine years old! I think poetry is the opportunity to study life and the intricate world in one’s own time; I spent many hours a day with the baby chicks, and many more hours with dying cattle, parched with drought, trying to ease them out of this world. I gardened beside my grandmother and ran with the dog pack, rode my horse bareback and swam with eels so old they turned into legends. I baked bread with my grandfather. I made paper and scrapbooked with my mum. I went for pre-dawn walks with my brother, and cracked the ice over the chickens’ water bowls. I picked wild mushrooms and stewed them and I mustered cattle all day with my uncle, who taught me that girls are strong too. A good education in poetry.
And yes, I read. I was a bookish little thing, and started primary school with few friends except those I found in books. The first book I truly obsessed over was Starbright and the Dream Eater, by Joy Cowley, which Mum ended up confiscating so I would read something else, after my twentieth re-read. And from my fifth birthday my parents would buy me a hefty poetry anthology, from which I read my bedtime stories. Poetry was always fiction’s equal, to me.
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)?
I fell in love with Janet Frame from an early age, who was introduced to me by my creative writing teacher at high school, Ros Ali. I have always loved her poem ‘Rain on the Roof’ above all others, except maybe ‘High Country Weather’ by James K. Baxter. The first book of poetry I bought with my own money was The Adulterer’s Bible, by Cliff Fell. Probably an odd choice for a young teenager, but I think it taught me a lot about language, risk and experimental work. I have always been fed a healthy diet of New Zealand poets and writers, so my influences tend to be local, though I was also a pretty hard-core Keats fan, and my cat was called Shakespeare.
I love the way your poems take risks. Your syntax is fidgety, your poems have an electric pulse, there is a deep-seated feeling but it is not over-baked, you don’t give everything away. What are key things for you when you write a poem?
Thank you! A key part of my writing process is having just the right song on repeat, to lend consistency to the tone. And I read each work aloud, over and over again, and then examine the structure to see if the punctuation offers the same rhythm. But the most important thing is making sure that the imagery pinpoints my intentions precisely, in a way I’ve never read before. I try to surprise myself. And if I get sick of the poem, I ditch it. A good poem should last forever. And it has to open a door to something bigger, even if it’s only about something small. I imagine poems like rooms, and if I can’t walk through that poem and into an adventure, it’s not working.
What poets have mattered to you over the past year? Some may have mattered as a reader and others may have been crucial in your development as a writer.
The last year has been a big one for my writing as I moved back to New Zealand, with the intention of giving myself the chance to really focus on my work. So the main influences have been my tutors and lecturers, Robert Sullivan, Ellie Catton, Witi Ihimaera and Anne Kennedy. Despite my contention with his politics I’ve read a lot of Ezra Pound of late and have also had a renaissance of my love of Kerouac, who is a heavy, though possibly invisible, influence.
You are studying Creative Writing at Manukau Institute of Technology with Robert Sullivan and Eleanor Catton. What do you take from this experience? Has it changed your writing in any way?
I think the biggest lesson I’ve been taught is that I cannot rest on my strengths. Ellie is a highly perceptive and her influence has forced me to examine what is self-indulgent, and what is necessary for the reader’s experience. I have learnt that fortes must be challenged, and that pushing oneself and being pushed by others can uncover new fortes, which would remain hidden if friends and family continued to tell you how great you are.
I’ve also changed in my approach to my work, treating it as a profession, rather than a hobby. And I am grateful for the highly instructive workshop format of the programme, as well as the gift of such excellent mentors.
What irks you in poetry?
When poetry exists to serve the poet’s ego. Appropriation of stories that don’t belong to the poet. The presence of pity. The presence of the patriarchy. Cliché. Collections that haven’t been edited well.
What delights you?
When poetry exists to serve the reader’s experience of the world. Stories being told by voices that haven’t previously held a platform. The presence of empowerment. The presence of the strength of women and their stories. Originality. Collections so sleekly edited that they hold a better narrative that a young adult novel.
Name three NZ poetry books that you have loved.
There are so many! I love Brown Girls in Bright Red Lipstick by Courtney Sina Meredith, anything by Lauris Edmond and 99 Ways into New Zealand Poetry, which I have found incredibly instructive. I also really love New New Zealand Poets in Performance, which is a spectacular anthology. It really captures the voice of New Zealand’s contemporary poetic scene.
The constant mantra to be a better writer is to write, write, write and read read read. You also need to live! What activities enrich your writing life?
I’ve travelled a lot and lived in Scotland and Australia, as well as working as a camel farmer in Austria, a nudist laughing yoga instructor in the south of France and living with families in Tahiti, Nepal and India. I think being exposed to all kinds of lifestyles and engaging with things that take my breath away for both their beauty and their humanity is extremely important. I also work in the disability world, and am lucky to spend time with kids who see things in a very fresh way. One of my little boys told me my arms were like peaches and his tummy was made of lemonade, because he loved me. That’s poetry!
Some poets argue that there are no rules in poetry and all rules are to be broken. Do you agree? Do you have cardinal rules?
My mentor Robert Sullivan, in the words of Ezra Pound, has drilled my cardinal rule into me, by way of a bright poster on our workshop room’s wall. Make it new! And in the works of Katherine Mansfield: Risk. Risk anything. If I’m doing these two things, and not appropriating anyone else’s story in a way I consider disrespectful, then every other rule is there to be challenged. I don’t really draw a line between poetry and prose, either. I like to think that poetry is more a feeling that a set of rules, though I do like to honour the tradition of poetry, and the challenge of structure, metre and various other devices.
Do you find social media an entertaining and useful tool or white noise?
I find it very distracting! And I think social media has taught us to expect quite instant feedback and gratification, which is somewhat demoralising when working on a project which requires a private, long-term investment, like a book. I wish I was brave enough to leave social media, to be honest, but I also see its importance in terms of engaging with an audience, and building a network of like-minded people. I try to be very careful, however, to promote my work, rather than myself. Social media’s influence can shift this balance to a more ego-based place, so I try to be very careful. I am also careful not to underestimate social media’s influence and infiltration of our collective conscience.
How do you envision your debut book?
I like beautiful things, so I’d like to have a book that someone could hold in their hands, feeing like what they’re clutching is special. I think I have one story I need to tell before I am free to tell other stories. I was my mum’s carer for years during her battle with cancer, and I want to write something that other young carers can read, and feel less alone than I did. And if there’s one line in there that makes someone gasp, as if something has changed for him or her… well, that’s the dream!
That seems to me like an important book to write. I see that commitment to life and to humanity in your writing. What were some key influences in your submitted poems?
The women of my family are the crux of my submission, particularly their strength, and their absence. I’m a feminist, and I hope that my work has subtle echoes of the influence of Marilyn French; Eve Ensler; Kate Millett. I have also spend the last few years engaging with spoken word, and I do write my poetry to be voiced by the reader, so I am influenced by the musicality of poets like Ursula Rucker, and the idea of voice and resonance.
Brava! With overt and covert misogyny still at work, and a culture of bullying still entrenched in our society, it is refreshing to hear young women speak out (like Lorde for example).
Are you happy to talk about what you are currently writing and what you hope to write soon, or do you prefer not to?
I try to keep things close to my chest but I’m a pretty open book and tend to dish too quickly about the things I’m excited about! While I’m an atheist I also have this romantic notion of the universe, and that some things need to be released into the world to be realised. Sometimes speaking to something makes it real. I’m also very lucky to have two best friends, one of whom is a poet in Melbourne and the other completing her MFA at the Michener Center in Austin, Texas, so we talk work a lot!
Do you like performing your work?
I used to. I like reading my work, but I have recently ‘retired’ (at 25!) from performance poetry as a vocation, so to speak. I think that for me, personally, it encouraged complacency. There is something quite dangerous about the immediacy of feedback and the tendency towards cliché that large audiences inspire. I enjoy elements of performance but I’m trying to let the page be the stage, and the words hold the spotlight.
What gives you pleasure when you write and read poetry?
I think all good writing is in pursuit of a definition of what it means to be human. When I can understand that, read that, or write something that makes me feel like maybe we’re all the same, and maybe that’s beautiful, that’s where I find the pleasure in it all.
Do you write in any other genre? Why poetry?
I have a particular penchant for creative non-fiction (which any fiction I ostensibly write actually also is, if I’m honest). I’ve had a lot of strange and challenging things happen to me or around me, sometimes by accident, sometimes by choice. I think as a writer it’s almost a good thing to have a rather difficult life, because it fuels your work. It gives you stories to tell. And I enjoy the intellectual aspect of creative non-fiction, as it allows me to incorporate my readings and discussions into less of an experience, and more of a comment. It challenges me to be a little more perceptive and to think deeply, which I value.
But poetry, to me, is the closest thing I have to prayer. I wish I could say something profound about why I write poetry, but I do it because it doesn’t feel right not to. It’s a discipline: I have to put my poetry hat on daily to ensure that I am training my brain into accessing that other place that some people call a muse. But it comes, and I let it come, because it’s who I am. I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t been introduced to poetry at such an early age, and instructed in it all through my schooling. I like to think I would have written poetry anyway.
Finally if you were to be trapped for hours (in a waiting room, on a mountain, inside on a rainy day) what poetry book would you read?
Probably Peter Bland’s Collected Poems. It’s a fairly hefty book, so it would keep me occupied, and his writing is so hopeful, somehow, that whatever drab place I might be trapped in would become gently infused with the magic of the every day.
Kirsti on YouTube