Brent Kininmont is originally from Christchurch. Except for a year in Wellington, he has lived for the past 16 years in Tokyo. He worked as a journalist at The Japan Times and Reuters news agency, and now teaches intercultural communication. His poems have appeared in JAAM, Landfall, Poetry NZ, The Press, Snorkel, Sport, Takahe, Trout, Turbine, and Best New Zealand Poems 2009 and 2011. His debut collection, Thuds Underneath, was recently published by Victoria University Press.
This is a terrific debut, and I am hard pressed to think of a New Zealand collection quite like this. At times there is a fablesque, dreamlike quality that fleetingly pitches camp in the surreal (whiffs of early Gregory O’Brien), while at other times the real is luminous. The effect is surprising, inventive, original. What sorts of things do you want your poems to do?
In Thuds Underneath I tried to not include poems that couldn’t stand alone, but there is always a danger that a poem will underwhelm, particularly if it’s composed of short lines and compact stanzas, as quite a few of mine are. In a collection, then, I would like the seemingly disparate poems to speak to each other. By conversing, they can help to justify each other’s inclusion.
It would be marvelous if readers noticed the intentional echoes in the book, especially those spaced quite a few pages apart. A blatant example is a title appearing at the start that is repeated towards the end of the collection, as the title of a different poem. That echo is significant, to me at least. Still, I don’t really mind if subtle reverberations do go undetected – it should be enough for me to know they are there, and hopefully a slight bonus for anybody who does notice. Besides, I’m not the ideal reader of my own book; I seldom read collections of poetry cover to cover in one sitting, so I can miss things. I can’t really expect more from the reader than I can actually offer as a reader myself.
Right from the start the poems demonstrate a curious mind at work, as though the collection is a cabinet of fascinating things, anecdotes, observations. What feeds your curiosity as a poet?
The strands running through the collection suggest a preoccupation with transport, particularly aircraft, as well as temples and plains, and gaps of various kinds. How my daughter is schooled in Japan interests me – when it’s not frustrating me; this crops up in the book’s final section. I’m also fascinated by the ancient Mediterranean, and that has found form in some of my poems. If I hadn’t ended up in Japan, which obviously has its own deep history of human occupation, I imagine pitching tent in Sicily or The Peloponnese. Recently I have been spending time with some of the key source texts from the classical world (Homer, Herodotus, etc.). Nothing may come of this in my future writing, though it would be nice if something did.
What I love about this debut is the way it offers such diverse and engaging reading routes. I also followed a vein of poetry of travel (not just via geography). The poems generate moments of stillness within the momentum of internal movement. And yes, the locations are global. How do the poems travel in your view?
There are routes I was conscious of while writing the book and others that revealed themselves during the long time spent arranging the poems. The collection is ordered into three locales: classical lands, the South Island, and Japan. I was quite alert to reversing the familiar narrative of leaving New Zealand then coming back; Thuds Underneath could be read as a coming home then departure again – the return is left open-ended. There is also a fairly standard transition from a sense of restlessness at the beginning to an embrace of some stability at the end (though somebody had to point that out to me). The arrival of a daughter seems to contrast with the passing of a mother; and a father keeps appearing, though he is somewhat detached. Among other threads are those related to ‘drifting’ and ‘sleeping’, and imposing structures with godlike attributes. It is those particular threads I was acknowledging with the two epigraphs I included at the beginning of the collection.
Does Japan have an effect upon how you write?
Probably the main effect is the objectivity that living there provides about my home culture and my own learned behavior. Differences seem magnified in a country like Japan, where the language is very dissimilar, but so are discussion styles, the nature of relationships, and the sense of formality. Silence also has a wider range of meanings, in verbal messages and on the written page. Japan, especially in the beginning, forced me to consider why I think and behave in certain ways, and that has likely seeped into how I write, though it is hard to cite specific examples. I have certainly embraced the opportunity that the physical distance from New Zealand has given me to step back and write about my upbringing and education, say, and their effects. Meanwhile, any sense of being culturally isolated from New Zealand is diminished quite a bit by yearly trips home and by the Internet, which allows me to plug into what is going on in local poetry.
One poem bears the epigraph, ‘after Maui and Manhire’. What New Zealand poets have influenced you?
Among the New Zealand books tagged on my poetry shelves, those by Andrew Johnston and David Beach literally stick out. Beach’s first book of prose sonnets, the drolly titled Abandoned Novel, sparked my interest in the form. Although the sonnets I have written probably differ in style to his, they likely wouldn’t have appeared so prominently in my collection if I hadn’t admired his unique and witty perspectives. Beach’s work was one of my paths to the weighty James K. Baxter. And I got through The Iliad (even weightier) with help from his second collection, The End of Atlantic City, in which 24 sonnets are smart abridgments of the 24 books of Homer’s epic poem. After finishing each book, I would read the corresponding sonnet. It was my small reward for slogging through numerous, and not always engaging, battle scenes. (The fall of Troy in The Iliad niftily contrasts with another 24 sonnets in Beach’s collection, about the survival – or slow ‘fall’ – of the Wellington suburb of Te Aro.)
I first came across Beach’s work in 2007, the same year I was fortunate to meet regularly with Andrew Johnston, while I was doing the creative writing Masters at Victoria University. Andrew lives in Paris and was only back in New Zealand for that year (like me). Quite a few years earlier his debut, How to Talk, was the first book of poetry I ever bought, and he was the first poet I wanted to write like. His sharp, shorter poems had given me permission to keep trying to write stanzas trimmed of excess. In our regular talks, among many superb insights, he encouraged me to not fret about borrowing ideas from other poets – a revelation to me at the time. That he is also a former journalist who lives away from New Zealand could be another reason why I still rely on his poetry for occasional counsel.
Name three poetry books you have loved in the past year.
They would be among those I kept returning to while Thuds Underneath was coming together. Other than volumes by the two poets I mention above, these three stand out (plus two more):
Night Light, by Donald Justice
After the Dance, by Michele Amas
The Street of Clocks, by Thomas Lux
Milky Way Bar, by Bill Manhire
Bell Tongue, by Paola Bilbrough
With kind permission from Brent and VUP a poem from the new collection:
after Maui and Manhire
It can be quite a stretch to haul
the north closer, given that great trench
in between. After lunch we
caught rides on a succession of
straights, a crooked thread line
of far peaks stitching our plains to sheets
of clouds. Only the closed mouth of
the evening vessel stalled us.
Now, among ponga overlooking
the sound, my torch shines on a slim
book she packed. It’s about our known
universe (her tutor said), how we all
live at its edge. In one poem
the word Coromandel really sticks out.
©Brent Kininmont 2015