I am currently kick starting a new project that will take a fair chunk of my energy over the next couple of years. It is both scary and exciting because it is the book I have wanted to write for a very long time. It feels as though all roads (my poetry, my reviewing, my Masters and Doctoral theses) have led to this. So while I like to keep poetry collections close to my chest until they appear in book form, I will share this secret – I am writing a book on New Zealand women’s poetry. If you know the name of a woman poet who is not yet out of the shadows but whose work you admire let me know and I will go delving.
My first venture to The Alexander Turnball Library was to go hunting in the archives for Blanche Baughan (1870 – 1958). Looking at letters and manuscripts made the hairs on my arm stand on end. Really, I want the poems to speak to me as I write this book rather than peripheral material, but there is in some way a little rocket that goes off inside you when you step into archives.
Damien Love recently edited Selected Writings: Blanche Baughan (Erewhon Press, 2015) which brings together her poetry, prose and non-fiction (especially travel writing). While I have battered copies of a number of her works, it is terrific to have this selection readily available. Open this book and you enter the pages of a woman who stretches from the mystical to the political; who made writing a full time obsession rather than a Sunday afternoon hobby. At a certain point in her life she stopped writing poetry and short stories and devoted herself to a more political role (this fascinates me!). In particular, she sought reforms in the penal system (her pen tuned to writing that backed her aims).
Damien’s introduction gives a brief overview of her publications, her strengths and weakness as a writer, as a poet in particular. Blanche was ‘the first woman to write significant poetry in New Zealand.’ I agree with Damien that it is important to engage with her writing within the context in which was written. She is a woman who paved the way for me to write. Reading the selection is opening a window on colonial life, on a woman’s life at the time. She, like so many women was plagued with self doubt, yet writing poetry was a vital part of her existence for a number of years. How does her poetry reflect the form and poetic etiquette of the times? Does it make a difference she is a woman writing? Her writing leads you into the domestic but it also takes you beyond the domestic walls into sky and land. Land becomes a poetic anchor, a way of securing a sense of home.
The selections are drawn from: Verses, Reuben and Other Poems, Shingle-Short (poetry); Brown Bread from a Colonial Oven (stories); Studies in New Zealand Scenery and People in Prison. The poems include key examples (‘A Bush Section’ and ‘The Old Place,’ for example) that have been previously anthologised and praised as well others less known.
Damien writes: ‘We cannot choose our founding fathers, our founding mothers either. If we could, we would choose a more cogent author than Baughan. But she is what we have, and recognising the felicities in her minor verse may help save us from overestimating the minor verse of our own day. Appreciating the verve encased in her Edwardian journalism may help us discern the timebound limitations of our own journalistic output. And her sometimes critical patriotism may still shed light on a few of our own vanities.’
I applaud the arrival of this astutely edited book, a book that enables us to navigate the complex engagements of one of out writing pioneers.
from ‘A Bush Section’
Logs, at the door, by the fence; logs, broadcast over the paddock;
Sprawling in motionless thousands away down the green of the gully,
Logs, grey-black. And the opposite rampart of ridges
bristles against the sky, all the tawny, tumultuous landscape
Is stuck, and prickled, and spiked with the standing black and grey splinters
Strewn, all over its hollows and hills, with the long, prone, grey-black logs.