To celebrate National Poetry Day I decided to do two things. Post a poem by the fabulous poet, Tusiata Avia, and run an interview with poetry benefactor extraordinaire, Jim Wilson.
Jim Wilson started Phantom Billstickers, a street-media company, in New Zealand in 1982. His aim was to draw audiences to music events and the wider arts. Since then he has started the Phantom Billstickers Poetry Project to ‘to use posters to share the hearts and minds of the Kiwi poet with people outside of New Zealand.’ Over the past five years the posters have gone up in cities across the world (Amsterdam, Barcelona, Chicago, Clarksdale (Mississippi), Glasgow, Hong Kong, London, NYC, Paris, Singapore, Sydney, and Vienna, among many others) and back home. They are pasted on walls, poles and in cafes and have featured an electric and vital feast of New Zealand poems and poets. He is an unsung hero of NZ poetry and it is time to sing his praises. I love the idea of poems appearing like glowing beacons in all kinds of surprising places. I love the idea that you can stand in a public place and stop in the midst of urban hubbub and get hooked it into a poetry gem. So thank you Jim Wilson. We salute you on National Poetry Day!
All photo credits: Jim and Kelly Wilson
In a video interview, you say you want ‘to play it by my heart.’ The picking of poems. The putting up of posters. ‘Heart’ seems like a vital word when it comes to poetry. I also like the way it hides the word ‘ear’ and the word ‘art.’ Even the generosity of sharing our poetry around resonates with heart. What made you decide to put poems on posters?
I was going through a difficult stage in my life having been through two courses of interferon (for Hepatitis C) and having lost some key people in my life. I became clinically depressed and was looking for something ‘real’. I began reading Janet Frame again and then poetry. Then I thought I should take something meaningful into the streets. Poetry was it.
Reading poetry is usually such a private, intimate thing. I love the way your poem posters bring reading out into the open. Does the public airing affect your choices of poems?
I always try and give people pause to reflect. I am very intrigued by the idea of ‘beauty’. We live in such a caustic world and I aim for beauty. Some of our poems may have an anguished twist to them but I try to stay away from venting poems.
I saw two men reading my poem on the pavement in Kitchener Street once. I hesitated and then told them I was the poet. They slapped their knees and whooped. Two Irish guys just off a ship. They thought Auckland was full of culture. Hilarious! ‘Get out of here!’ they kept saying. ‘Get out of here!’ Have you ever witnessed a stranger reading one of the poems?
I have seen lots of people stop and read the poem posters. I’ve seen groups of people gathering around lampposts in the USA reading our poem posters. Two separate places come immediately to mind, I saw a group gathered around a Michele Leggott poem poster in Northern Liberties in Philadelphia and then some people gathered around a pole in Lambertville, New Jersey. This is very gratifying.
Indeed. What kind of reactions are you after?
I like it when people look internally and feel something real. I imagine that’s what they do when they read poetry. I hope that’s the case at any rate.
Where is the most surprising place you have seen one of your poem posters?
You are asking me where I have been particularly happy to put a poem poster? I have been putting up posters for bands and the like since I was 16 years old. I am now 63 and I have heard the words ‘you can’t put that there’ more than anyone in New Zealand, I am sure. I was delighted to get a Hone Tuwhare poem poster right opposite the main gates of Parchman Farm (The Mississippi Federal Penitentiary) in Mississippi. You aren’t allowed to stop on that road for a mile or so either side of the main gates, but I did and the screws came running. The poem poster went up! Also I did a lot of Janet Frame poem posters in Baltimore and at Princeton University. I felt every single one I put up.
There are a thousand ways to write a poem (no rules, no recipes which is what is so appealing), yet poetry stalls each of us in different ways. What stops you in your tracks when you read a poem? Any examples?
I wouldn’t know what iambic pentameter is from a hole in the ground and I don’t know how poetry works, but I ‘feel’ it. In Tusiata Avia’s poems I feel every word (check out today’s Friday Poem I have posted by her!). I also feel everything Gerald Stern writes and Ben Brown too.
Yes! ironically words take you beyond words. On occasion you have launched a poster-poem series (for example in Christchurch, Auckland and New York). This brings the ‘ear’ of heart into play more. Hearing a poem read aloud means you get to play it in the poet’s voice from then on if you like. Have any poems had a new affect on you when you heard them performed?
Some of the best ‘readers’ I have seen are not the best poets. Reading is a ‘performance art’. Ben Brown combines both worlds I think. He sets the walls on fire.
Tusiata is like this. And Bill Manhire. When he reads a poem like ‘Hotel Emergencies’ time stops. Did you read poetry as a child (lay down rhymes and rhythms that stuck with you) or did you come to it later in life?
I probably read a lot of poetry when I was a kid but my dad read William Faulkner and he resonated in our house. Like I say, I don’t know iambic pentameter from a hole in the ground but I do think Bob Dylan liberated us all to be poets. I find more in poetry each and every day. I find my history in James K. Baxter.
Nice. I like that idea. Poetry has many functions. What American poets are in your memory banks that you love?
I love Mathew Dickman who has just signed with our project and a San Francisco poet called August Kleinzahler who is now also involved. I remember seeing the emails from Lawrence Ferlinghetti himself when he became involved and that was profoundly moving. I also spent a bit of time with Gerald Stern and he has read to me lots of times. That experience is gold in the bank. Also to have involved people like Robert Creeley (we had the ‘sign off’ from Penelope Creeley), Jim Harrison, C.K. Williams, Robert Pinsky and W.S. Merwin… All this has lead me to think we are doing something with real purpose.
What New Zealand poets are in your memory banks that you love?
Tusiata Avia, Hinemoana Baker, James K. Baxter, Ben Brown, Bill Direen, David Eggleton, Sam Hunt, Frankie McMillan, Dave Merritt, Elizabeth Smither, Marty Smith, Hone Tuwhare… There are just so many of them…We have produced poems by just over 100 different Kiwi poets (from memory). This country has some of the very best poets in the world and I don’t know exactly how you measure their work… But if you feel something on the reading then that is good enough for me. As I keep on saying, I scarcely know anything about ‘technique’ and this is probably my strong suit.
If you were to describe poetry written in New Zealand to an American poetry fan, what sorts of things might you say?
That it is of the earth. That it is on the ground. That it all comes from being in a natural country and stranded in paradise.
Are you drawn to write poems? Or anything else?
I do a lot of writing and feel daunted almost every time I see a fresh poem poster come to us.
Poetry has many functions: to tell miniature stories, to make music, to make connections, to move people, to challenge people, to show the world in new lights, to share ideas, to speak out in a political way to surprise people, to soothe people, to startle people, to make people laugh. For a start! What functions matter to you?
That it all takes your body before it takes your mind.
If you had a completely free day today (NZ Poetry Day), and you could sit and read poetry all day long, what would you read?
Ben Brown, Tusiata Avia… Mixed with P. Larkin, Gerard Manley Hopkins, E.E. Cummings… Not to be traitorous but even if they are not Kiwis they are still pretty good.
If you were trapped somewhere (in a lift, in a waiting room, in an airport,) what poetry book would you read?
Always had to pick one. James K. Baxter’s Oxford Press collection. That’ll stop you being annoyed and ‘bring you back to yourself’.
Thanks Jim Wilson!
The Story of the Poster Poem on YouTube
The Poetry Project