This is a must-read interview that takes you deep into a frevent poetry discussion and that generates countless ideas. Wonderful! Poetry gold! Poet Joan Fleming is in conversation with Steven Toussaint and Lee Posna. Just one point: I would argue that there are a number of local poets writing against the mainstream grain here (the extraordinary Jack Ross, for a start! Alan Loney, Michele Leggott, Sam Sampson, Murray Edmond, Wystan Curnow as did Leigh Davis ). There is a thread of difficulty and/or counteraction that you can fruitfully trace in New Zealand poetry, and once you start following it, it sidetracks and takes you all manner of places and possibilities. The full interview can be found at The Lumière Reader here.
An interview with poets Steven Toussaint and Lee Posna.
Last month, Compound Press published an elegant pair of chapbooks by a pair of American expats living in New Zealand. Both Lee Posna’s Arboretum and Steven Toussaint’s Fiddlehead are book-length poems: the verse is rewarding and difficult, and the voices run counter to the habits and conventions of New Zealand Poetry. These are talented, deep-thinking writers who respond to the challenges of the artist’s life with intense feeling and unflinching self-analysis. I asked them the hard questions—about tradition, irresolution, poetic preoccupations, and whether joy is a choice.
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JOAN FLEMING: There’s heavy yearning in these poems. The language is beautiful, yet they weigh the reading body down, and when I finished them I felt a measure of relief that the chapbooks were as small as they were! Too much longer in those depths felt dangerous (although I did keep returning and re-reading). Is this an effect you feel glad to have on a reader?
LEE POSNA: Yes, and thank you. I’m glad you felt that way. I think that’s what I tend to want out of a longish poem, as well as ferocity, mystery, darkness, the dark country of revelatory speech, exerting all the gravity of a homeland. Maybe ‘longish’ poems—Carson’s ‘The Book of Isaiah’, Blake’s ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’, Tranströmer’s ‘Baltics’—are of a certain length especially suited to sustained tone and intensity, something like the 800-metre race in track, keeping in mind that form and content are co-inceptive and inextricable. The contract for this kind of poem between poet and reader is a serious but reasonable one.
I hope one day to write something really ferocious. From childhood I’ve tended to transmute ferocity into melancholy, with stoic lucidity as an upper limit—or so I can hypothesise. Maybe the heavy yearning is for the buried ruins of ferocity. It’s also an expression of the dissonance of the fait accompli of anonymity and death when one is still a youngish artist—how about these ishes, eh?
STEVEN TOUSSAINT: One of my preoccupations at the moment is poetic duration. That is, how does a poem spur you into awareness of its existence in time or, better, as a time? Repetition is the way I have tried to approach this question in Fiddlehead. I am interested in the way that the repeated elements—e.g. the refrain, rhyme and other sound patterning, recurring figures like birds or fern fronds—might strain against their own re-sounding. In other words, is there a tension between the thing said and the thing said again? For me, what prevents repetition from becoming ‘repetitious’ is that the replica wants to be utterly unique. This is what I believe Ezra Pound meant by what he called “developed expectancy,” the lively antagonism between a word and its own echo. I am enamored of repetition—the shapes it makes in time, its relentlessness, its obstinacy—but am also slightly frightened by its clout in the poem. I realise there is something potentially authoritarian about it. Does it make the poet into a Time-Lord? Do I risk monotony and exhaustion, as when something once fresh and generative becomes a habit, and when a habit becomes a compulsion? For me, these concerns are as much spiritual and ethical as they are aesthetic.