Looking forward to the new issue of this vibrant new journal.
Looking forward to the new issue of this vibrant new journal.
You’ll take your grandfather roller skating,
watch from the edge of the rink.
For dinner you’ll make rabbit stew
and discuss the character of poultry.
Rose petals as a garnish, but also to eat.
Not many people know you can do that.
Sometimes it seems you’re the only two people
in an absorbing, character-based mystery.
You know this is all adding up to something—the roller skating, the rose petals, the rabbits.
©Bill Nelson 2016
from Bill Nelson’s newly released Memorandum of Understanding Victoria University Press 2016. Bill Nelson currently lives in Wellington. He was awarded the Biggs Family Prize in Poetry from International Institute of Modern Letters in 2009. He co-edits Up Country, an online journal devoted to outdoor pursuits. I did read elsewhere that he is a map maker! Lots of poems leapt out at me but I just love the ending of this poem and the electricity between those three things. This debut collection delivers clarity of voice along with tilts, kinks, uplifts and an essential dose of human warmth. Running along the beach yesterday, I was musing on how I am attracted to poems first through the ear, then through the heart, then through the tilting gaps and finally in the light of Ruth Padel’s chewy bits. I think this book delivers on all four in different ways. Worth adding to your shelf!
Another poem on The Spin Off
Photo credit: Robert Cross
How the song will wait
no matter how long,
how high the moon
or tower, however dry
the seed or flower —
the song will raise you.
from ‘Spell for a child to remember’
Chris Price is the author of two previous poetry collections (Husk, The Blind Singer) and a generically playful collection of biographical anecdotes ( Brief Lives). Her debut collection won the Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poetry (2002). She now teaches Creative Writing at the IIML at Victoria University. Previously, she had stints editing Landfall and coordinating The International Arts Festival’s Writers and Reader’s Week in Wellington. Her poetry pleasingly follows its own course, as though this poet is not beholden to passing trends. This originality cements her place as a unique and important voice in New Zealand poetry. I got to hear Chris read from her new collection, Beside Herself, at CK Stead’s recent Laureate events in Napier and I came away feeling these edgy poems that hit both shadows and light were her best yet. I could hear the audience appreciating the utterly satisfying pitch of the poems with their oohs and aahs.
Beside Herself Chris Price Auckland University Press 2016
To coincide with the release of the new collection, Chris agreed to an interview with Poetry Shelf.
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?
My family were great readers, and bedtime stories were big for me – eventually some of the stories were on LPs, which my parents would put on when I went to bed, to be summoned back with an imperious call of ‘Other side!’ when the LP needed to be turned over. The Count of Monte Cristo is one I remember. Because my brother and sisters were quite a bit older than me, I spent a lot of time as a kind of only child. When I had to go out with my parents on shopping trips or to visit their friends, I was always happy as long as I had a book. I wasn’t one of those who started writing early, though.
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 said my family were great readers, but that didn’t generally include poetry. I can remember two main strands that had a hold of me in my teenage years – one was Japanese and Chinese poetry, which I found in the public library, and the other was the poetry I was taught in school – Keats and Shakespeare, mainly. If we ever read New Zealand poems in the classroom, I don’t remember it – perhaps a bit of Denis Glover, which I didn’t really connect with at that age. But I did have a teacher in the fifth form who later published a book of poems himself – perhaps his enthusiasm was influential, although we also mocked his beard-stroking in the classroom. My sixth form teacher (Sandra Coney’s sister) encouraged me to enter a school poetry award judged by Lauris Edmond, in which I received a ‘highly commended’. Later, I read Lauris’s poem ‘The Pear Tree’ in the Listener, and wrote to her asking where I might find a copy of the book (that’s how clueless I was). She sent me a copy, which I still find quite extraordinary. Those small moments of encouragement or being taken seriously can be quite disproportionately important early on.
That is so lovely. My intermediate teacher was a poet who ended up in The Big Smoke anthology. They couldn’t trace him so I read his poem. It felt very spooky. He was like a little epiphany. Did university life transform your poetry writing? Discoveries, sidetracks, peers?
Oh, utterly. I hadn’t really encountered much contemporary poetry before university, so everything came as a revelation, and lectures on poems by Blake, Rilke, Stevens or Curnow or Rich must have taught me something about the intense pressure the best poets bring to bear on language. I do think everything you take in at that age becomes a kind of compost for your later writing life, so it’s important to take courses that involve direct encounters with great writing. I’m not a great believer in doing an undergraduate degree that consists of nothing but creative writing workshops. That said, having the peers and encouragement of a writing workshop (I was in the first writing workshop taught by Karl Stead) cemented the idea that poetry was something a person could do. It took quite some time, nonetheless, before I rediscovered the courage to give it a go after university. Somehow I hadn’t acquired enough belief in my capacity to do it well to keep going at the time, but the idea of writing hung around until it seemed necessary to put up or shut up.
The massive sidetrack of university life was music, but that’s another story.
Are there any theoretical or critical books on poetry that have sustained or shifted your approach to writing a poem?
On the whole, I am challenged, educated and sustained by great poems first, and criticism second. Theory and criticism can help move poetry along when it seems to be getting stuck or stale, but it can also generate flat writing. But I do find it exhilarating to watch a great reader unpack how a particular poem works. Poems thrive on a mix of conscious and unconscious knowledge and craft, I think.
What poets have mattered to you over the past year? Some may have mattered as a reader and others may have affected you as a writer.
Last year was prosaic. I forbade myself the pleasures of poetry in order to finish researching a book about a poet. So obedient was I to the ban that I didn’t write a single poem last year, and didn’t read a great deal of poetry either. It’s a pleasure to be return to reading it in 2016: it’s a great pleasure, for example, to have a new book from Andrew Johnston, and it’s looking like it will be a big year for NZ poetry.
What New Zealand poets have you been drawn to over time? What international poets?
I tend to admire poets and poems that have qualities I lack and envy: humour (James Tate, James Brown), surrealism and strangeness (Charles Simic, Greg O’Brien), or that sense of fundamental human decency that can’t be faked, and that emanates from poets such as Jenny Bornholdt and Rachel Bush. At various points in the past, Robert Hass, Anne Carson and Alice Oswald have been important to me. At the moment I am a little more interested in what I can learn from the poets in the generations after mine than those who come before, but Bill Manhire’s ability to leave room in his poems for the reader to roam around in offers a model I continually fall short of. I never quite get to the bottom of what they are doing.
Your poems always make delicious demands on the reader – the ideas borne along finely crafted lines, the well tended gaps, the dazzling sound. What are key things for you when you write a poem?
Listening for and being led by the music of the poem has always been central – to the extent that I now feel as if I may need to break the hold of that aspect of poetry to some degree, because it has begun to feel like my default setting. I started (affectionately) calling some of the poems in this book my ditties and jingles — meaning that they have had unabashed fun with quite strong rhyme or assonance. I don’t necessarily want to acquire the habit, though. I never went looking for rhymes, but it seems they came looking for me.
You spent 2011 in Menton as the Katherine Mansfield Fellow. Your new collection, Beside Myself, does not re-present physical traces of France to the degree I have spotted in some Mansfield Fellows. However, it does open out to the world, to the way the world is carried in one’s head. What difference did Menton make to your poetry, and to this book in particular?
Well, there is a whole journal of the time in Menton, written in poetry and short bursts of prose, that registers the physical traces experience in quite minute detail, as well as thinking about what I was reading there. It was my guilty pleasure to begin each day at the writing room – where I was working on the prose book I mentioned earlier – by warming up with some writing in this journal, which threatened to become a kind of pleasurable avoidance strategy, albeit one sanctioned by the terms of the Fellowship, or so I thought. But really I began it because I wanted to register the specialness of the experience on a granular level, and I knew that it would flee from me in future years if all I did was take photographs of where I was, while writing about elsewhere. In a way it’s the written equivalent of a photo album.
A number of the poems in Beside Herself are lifted from that journal. I spent a lot of time in the galleries up and down that coast that are the legacies of the Modernists who lived and painted there: Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Bonnard, Cocteau. And in some of the galleries in Paris and Rome and Oxford, which I also visited on that trip. The sequence ‘Museum Pieces’ is a record of encounters with some of the artworks I saw that year. And the little poem ‘Appreciation’ emerged at the end of my morning walk to the writing room in the Villa Isola Bella, on which I would often listen to podcasts. In this case it was a Poetry Foundation podcast that gave me the opening line of the poem.
In a short review of your book (forthcoming for Fairfax), I suggested reading your new book was like entering a poetry thicket and that I wasn’t quite sure what would emerge from the light and dark. It felt like all manner of characters inhabited these woods. I loved this playfulness. What did character and shifting personae mean to you in these poems?
Persona here has often meant a chance to unleash aspects of personality that don’t see daylight otherwise – a little dash of crazy, a pinch of furious, and a dash of self-loathing on the one hand, and a bit of song and dance and delight on the other. And then there are a few figures I think of as marionettes, or Punch and Judy figures, larger than life rather than realistic. I wanted to write poems that avoid the pretence of wisdom.
I love the way you can refresh a well-worn subject, such as you do in ‘Abandoned Hamlet.’ Again character seems crucial. This is such a kaleidoscopic book of people. What kind of characters are you drawn to?
I suppose I have always been interested in monsters. Also the ‘damaged goods’ of humankind: very early in my writing life I began writing people who could be described as outsiders with redeeming characteristics, or magnificent failures. I don’t know where that comes from. Some of the characters in this new book seem to be irredeemable, though, which may have something to do with a pessimism about human nature that has increased as I’ve got older. Others are more vulnerable beneath the surface.
Language choices are vital, but as I read your characters, empathy is close at hand. What matters in the how of writing them?
My interest is in trying to inhabit and understand rather than judge. The first person is perhaps a more troubling but vivid way of doing this.
For a time when I was in my teens I thought I would like to be an actor, and it’s true that, like many actors, I like to hide in other people’s clothing. I just do my acting on the page. There’s a recent poem by Will Kemp that expresses this impulse quite neatly.
I especially loved the sequence that features Churl. The detail is sumptuous. He gets under your skin.
Churl remembers every
curse and kick that sent him
on his way to this outskirts hut
where even his damp fire
wants to smoke him out.
from ‘The Book of Churl’
Where did the starting point for this poem come from?
I wanted to write a sequence featuring a single character, like Hughes’s Crow or Berryman’s Henry. I covet the fierce energy of language and attitude in those sequences, but of course I am no Hughes (and a good thing too), so the character who arrived was a much gentler, if still flawed, anti-hero. The poem’s language world is influenced by the Anglo-Saxon alliterative tradition, which probably goes back to hearing Seamus Heaney reading his translation of Beowulf on the radio in the late 90s and being entranced. To me the Anglo-Saxon part of the English language is a bit like raw protein – it does the most basic work of being human. (Although readers will find that the poem is not absolutely rigorous about excluding Latinate language, I decided not to fight it if the poem seemed to need it.)
The experience of writing Churl was a bit like what certain fiction writers talk about when they refer to hearing a voice and simply writing it down. I wrote most of it over a period of ten days or so when found I could sit down each morning and simply re-enter the voice world of the poem as if it was there waiting for me to step into it each day. About two-thirds of it flowed out quite easily this way – the final third was harder. I am fond of Churl, who despite his poor manners and outsider status has a rough kind of virtue that I find attractive. One of my redeemable outsiders.
Indeed. I am fond of this character too. There are so many poems that elevate this collection into something special. I particularly liked the poem that tweaks the title of the book. Here the pronouns are particularly slippery, but the magnetic core is a simmering fusion of revelation and invention.
Now look back
in your shoes.
is reduced to the size
of a bird’s-eye
chilli, hot and salty
staring back at that bonesack
that functions as yourself.
from ‘Beside Yourself’
Are you cautious about self-exposure as a poet?
If poems emerge, as the American poet Peter Gizzi suggests, from a combination of one’s autobiography and one’s bibliography, then my writing has probably leaned more heavily on the bibliographical. It has been said of my previous work that I am, to a considerable degree, not present in it.
I began writing with a conviction that my life doesn’t make for interesting reading, a position that has both disabling and enabling aspects for a writer, as I have gradually come to realise. I am still a believer in following the demands the poem makes, and I don’t often sit down with a desire to write about something that has happened to me. Writing and revising a poem is an act of listening for the possibilities the language offers, rather than a transcription of pre-existing experience, so fictions arrive fairly quickly.
That being said, ‘Beside Yourself’ (not strictly speaking the title poem, as the pronoun takes a sideways step between one and the other) deliberately entertains the confessional, and sets out to lose some composure, both formally and personally. I also had in mind Jenny Bornholdt’s infinitely calmer and more measured poem ‘Confessional’ and its remark, about the world not having had much time for personal poetry lately, along with my own sense that the first person had become profoundly unfashionable, even embarrassing, in certain quarters of American poetry.
On one hand all writing is, in a sense, autobiographical. On the other, if a poem does deploy autobiographical information, it had better be in the service of something larger than oneself. I have a t-shirt from American musical duo The Books with the slogan ‘Freedom from expression’, which is a slogan I march under in life and in the workshop.
Which poem really worked for you?
Aside from Churl, whose creation seems a little bit magical, I am still pleased with ‘Tango with Mute Button’, at least half of which was written in my head while the scene at the gym it describes was actually happening, so that I had to keep repeating it to myself then run off to write it down asap! It might be the most autobiographical poem in the book. And ‘Spell for a Child to Remember’, which is a kind of verbal antidote to the darker currents of the book.
Leo Bensemann’s drawings fit the book perfectly. What sort of connections do you see between them and your poems?
I was initially drawn to the fierceness of the mask on the cover, which seemed to catch the tone of some of the book. But when I went back to Peter Simpson’s book about Bensemann, to make a copy of the mask to send to AUP, I realised that some of the other images in the Fantastica series also caught different aspects of the book – the rather combative relationships, the impotent fist-shaking of Churl at the powerful, the broken gallows and hangman’s noose that register the destructive or self-destructive aspects of ego, and the contrasting freshness, self-possession and charm (in the magical sense) of the Little Witch.
I also love the way little (or bigger) lists make their way into your writing. What is the allure of a list?
A list is elaboration
It calls up devils or angels,
constructs clockwork mice or pavlovas.
It can be funny, or furious,
insouciant or obsessive,
and sometimes both
at once. It can underline
or undermine itself.
List lives on
The road of excess leads
to the palace of wisdom
except when it leads to A&E.
Tell me about the title. There are so many meanings. It suits the way you step into the poems and then step out of them to tilt everything. There is you, and then there is so much more. There is internal confusion, almost like a little fit, and then there is the holding at bay (alongside) of self.
The title points two ways. ‘Beside’ in the sense of ‘as well as’ or ‘in addition to’ celebrates the chance to be someone else on the page. But ‘beside herself’ in the more obvious sense of being out of control, and also conscious of that fact, which can be an almost out-of-body experience.
What irks you in poetry?
Lack of urgency. One question I have heard Fergus Barrowman ask of a poem sums it up: ‘Is your journey really necessary?’ Humourless experimentalism (as opposed to the playful kind, which I often love).
What delights you?
A poem that is like Dr Who’s Tardis – bigger on the inside than it appears from the outside, and likely to take me somewhere both strange and mysteriously familiar.
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? Do you have rules you particularly like to break?
I am reminded of something the poet Frederick Seidel said in his Paris Review interview: ‘I like to hear the sound of form, and I like to hear the sound of it breaking.’ For any given rule there’s probably a successful piece of writing that breaks it. But that’s different from saying anything goes and sanctioning lack of control. It’s handy to try playing by a fair number of the rules at first, to figure out why the ‘rules’ have become the ‘rules’ before you experiment with breaking them. As time goes by, a cardinal rule your poems have lived by might just stop being useful to you for a time. Compression might come to seem cramped and narrow, expansiveness may become saggy and lacking in energy. Music might become cage rather than liberation.
Do you find social media an entertaining and useful tool or white noise?
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?
Listening to music and making it, looking at paintings, photographs, modern dance: wordless art forms are the most enviable and the most soothing, but I also get poems out of the Film Festival. Conversations with people who are more psychologically acute, more generous and funnier than I am. Getting out into the natural world as a counterbalance to all that reading.
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?
That might be a good moment to fill in a gap in the classics. The list of things I ought to have read will always be too long, but Dante (who I’ve only read in part) would be near the top, despite the fact that I am a bit allergic to traditional religion. Or the epic of Gilgamesh, or the Icelandic sagas… So much to read, so little time.
Thank you Chris.
Auckland University Press page
My Fairfax review
Three cheers for Bill. It is so right that what he started lives on in the name (along with countless other things of course). Can’t think of many other poets that deserve a house named after them on a university campus.
News from VUW
The building at 16 Waiteata Road on Victoria University of Wellington’s Kelburn campus, which is home to the International Institute of Modern Letters, is to be named Bill Manhire House.
This is in recognition of the exceptional service Emeritus Professor Bill Manhire has given the University and to honour his contribution to the wider world of New Zealand writing.
Damien Wilkins, Director of the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML), is thrilled by the announcement.
“Bill’s name is synonymous with creative writing at Victoria. His students represent more than thirty years of teaching, and include so many of the stars of New Zealand poetry, prose and scriptwriting. He set the tone for an approach to teaching new writers that was beautifully intuitive and flexible, while also being rigorous and disciplined. Somehow you always came away from a class with Bill convinced that this was the most important thing in the world to be doing. It was like being inside a dream — but there was always a deadline too.”
Bill Manhire is recognised nationally and internationally for his pioneering work in establishing the discipline of creative writing at Victoria. His famous ‘Original Composition’ course, which he taught for more than 25 years, attracted new writers who would go on to become leading literary figures. These include Elizabeth Knox, Barbara Anderson, Jenny Bornholdt, Kirsty Gunn, Anthony McCarten and James Brown.
In 2001, he founded the IIML and led the flagship Master’s programme, which continues to produce award-winning authors such as Booker Prize winner Eleanor Catton, Catherine Chidgey, Hinemoana Baker, Tusiata Avia, Ashleigh Young, Laurence Fearnley and Lawrence Patchett. In 2008, he established New Zealand’s first PhD programme in creative writing. He retired from Victoria in 2013.
Bill Manhire has won every major writing award in New Zealand, including the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement, the Katherine Mansfield Award, the New Zealand Book Award, and the Montana Book Award. He was the inaugural New Zealand Poet Laureate and he is a New Zealand Arts Foundation Laureate. In 2005, he was awarded the Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature and he also received an Honorary Doctorate from Otago University. He continues to be strongly identified with creative writing at Victoria.
Professor Jennifer Windsor, Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences, says that the naming of the IIML building as Bill Manhire House honours that legacy.
“How we name something reflects our values and aspirations. This naming will create excitement and is part of the commitment to nurture the extraordinary creative writing that the IIML fosters. It also makes visible Victoria’s ongoing tradition of imaginative exploration and artistic achievement that helps mark Wellington as a creative capital.”
Photo credit: Ian Kidman (at Villa Isola, Menton)
Dame Fiona Kidman has gifted much to New Zealand literature — not just in the books she has published but also in her participation within our writing communities. She has written almost thirty books and over sixty scripts for radio, film and television. Her novels are published internationally and are well loved at home. Her latest novel, The Infinite Air, features Jean Batten, and is rich with thematic layerings. It was released in the UK in March and will appear in USA, France and Germany later this year. For many of us, whether readers or writers or both, Fiona has pioneered crucial pathways for women. Her books have galvanised our shelves and lives for decades. Poetry has always been a love, with her first collection appearing in the 1970s. As a followup to the exquisitely produced Where Your Left Hand Rests, Penguin Random House has just released a new collection under the Godwit imprint: This Change in the Light: A collection of poems. Again, it is a beautiful hard-cover book to hold in the palm of your hand.
To mark the occasion, of this new book, Fiona agreed to an interview and to include the following poem.
There are gaps in this story. She was not
always unhappy, she grew sunflowers
and hot-headed snapdragons, bowers
of colour, love-in-a-mist, and the hot
suns warmed her face. Money arrived
from the far-away aunts, the husband came
into his own, she could look without shame
at her sisters, still childless. ‘We survived,’
she would say with pride.
But she is restless
in the bed. A woman she knows (of course
she knows her) stands at the foot, a pause
in her voice, hesitating to confess
that she had the grandchildren to gather
from school. ‘It doesn’t matter. You’re here.’
from ‘How I saw her: 10 sonnets for my mother’
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 indeed a child who read and wrote from an early age. I was an only child and I grew up in isolated rural areas. As it happened, I learned to both read and write when I was in a country hospital for a lengthy period: I was six. My parents were not able to visit me, and I began to read everything in the hospital library, mostly adult books. Learning to write provided me with a way to keep in touch with my parents. This isn’t meant to sound tragic. Later, I had friends at school and some remain close to this day. One of them, at Waipu DHS, was the writer Jennifer Beck. Another friend is an artist, and we undertook the creation of annual summer ‘magazines’ together. I encountered people like myself in out of the way places. I think it is easy to overlook that the New Zealand countryside is home to an amazing and diverse number of people who love books and the arts in general.
That said, there were a lot of starry skies that I watched on my own, and fishing expeditions that I took by myself. I would often slip out of the house at around 3 a.m. and walk to the river. My mother owned Palgrave’s Golden Treasury and I started to draft poems when I was about nine or ten. It all sounds a bit, odd, I know, but times have changed. The short answer is books were my lifeline to the outside world, and writing for Anne Shirley’s children’s pages in the Herald gave me an early awareness of writing and its possibilities.
When you started writing poems, were there any poets in particular that you were drawn to (poems/poets as surrogate mentors)? You began publishing in the 1970s when not many women poets were visible. How did this affect you as a writer?
Well, as I said, I had begun to write poems as a child, although that dropped off while I led a pretty average teen age life in provincial towns, reflected in my poem “The Town”. I did still read poetry. I worked as a librarian so it was there for the taking. After I was married, and a young mother, I met some poets at a women writers’ workshop at Auckland University in the late 1960s and my interest was rekindled. Some of the North American women poets caught my attention. I loved, and continue to love, the work of Elizabeth Bishop and of Louise Bogan. Bishop evoked the natural world with such exquisite precision that I read and re-read her over and again. And of course, she was raised in Nova Scotia where I have connections and friends. I refer to carrying her Selected Poems on my first visit to NS in This change in the light. Bogan is less known in New Zealand, but her slightly tough sardonic attitude to relationships belie a tenderness that runs beneath the poems. The Blue Estuaries is among my favourite books.
Did the politics of the seventies and the renewed attention to women’s issues affect your poetry?
Oh yes, definitely. I was in it up to my neck. Of course I was reading Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, Maya Angelou, all those women who had cries of anguish of one kind or another. It’s hard to talk about those times now, because from this distance some of it reads like ‘sorry for myself’ poetry, and I fell into the way of writing like that myself. The difference was that writers like Plath and Angelou had great command of their craft. I’m not so sure about Sexton now, I don’t return to her work with particular pleasure. And, for sure, there were issues that we all wanted to address. There was a big group of women here in New Zealand writing poetry and it was great to have that solidarity among us. A lot of us read together at various venues over the space of some years – Lauris Edmond, of course, who was my great friend, Elizabeth Smither, Rachel McAlpine, Marilyn Duckworth, Meg Campbell and others. In 1975, International Women’s Year, nine of us had books of poetry published (there had been perhaps ten by women in the previous ten years), in 1977 Riemke Ensing collected our work in Private Gardens , a landmark publication. Lauris and I had a joint launch for our first books in Wellington, at the University Club. My book was Honey & Bitters (note the ampersand!) and Lauris’s was In Middle Air. Among the several remarkable features of that very crowded launch party was Denis Glover’s now famous –or infamous, as you might choose to see it- remark about “the menstrual school of poetry.”
Do you think it makes a difference when the pen is held by a woman?
Many women have different preoccupations to men. My poems tend towards the domestic – unashamedly.
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.
It’s really hard to specify poets within a time frame because there are poets who as a reader one returns to over and again. Robin Hyde was an early influence and I go back to her often. Her poem “Whangaroa Harbour” is one of the most gut wrenching New Zealand poems I know, and it’s set in the north, where I come from. “White irises” moves me in the same way:
Till single among stones I saw
The white, the ragged irises,
Cold on a sky of petals dead,
Their young cheeks roughened in the wind….
Just reading her makes me reach for my notebook.
I enjoy the work of Billy Collins – now there’s a male writer who sees a lot of the same things that I do. I like his openness to both sorrow and joy. His poems let me in to his world.
I go back to poets like Robert Frost, that quiet gravitas reminds me of where poetry can go – everywhere, really. And I’m immensely impressed by John Burnside, the British poet.
Apart from Hyde that’s a bloke’s line up, but really, I’m reading all over the place all the time, and perhaps it indicates that I’ve moved on from that exclusive world of female writing of the 1970s. There was so much I didn’t know then, and I’m still learning from people I consider to be masters of the craft.
What New Zealand poets are you drawn to now?
Vincent O’Sullivan, whose work just mines richer veins with each new book, Michael Harlow, with his singular exquisite lightness of touch, Cilla McQueen, Diana Bridges, Emma Neale. But this isn’t a talent quest, I’m drawn to a whole range of poets, and sometimes just to a particular poem. Some of the poems in Anne French’s new collection are gorgeous. Harry Ricketts read a new bracket of poems at the Wellington festival which moved me to tears. And at the Ruapehu Writers Festival which you and I have just attended, I read with some poets I’d never heard of, and I was simply bowled over: Magnolia Wilson and Hannah Mettner are poets whose work I can’t wait to experience in books. Vana Manasiadis read on that panel too, and I’ve admired the Greek influences in her work since she began writing. The poems in Elizabeth Smither’s recent collection Ruby Duby Du suggest some new direction in her work, a spontaneous combustion of grandmotherly affection, which I like very much. Mary McCallum has written some fine poems and I hope that now she is a publisher she will put modesty aside and collect some of her own work, rather than leaving them in blog form.
What about elsewhere?
Sharon Olds. Her linguistic range, her intensity and passion crunch my heart, end of story.
John Burnside, as I’ve mentioned is a favourite. Billy Collins again. Carol Anne Duffy. Jacky Kay. Anne Carson, sometimes but not always of late, she can be a bit fey for me.
Name three NZ poetry books that you have loved.
A Matter of Timing, by Lauris Edmond
Wild Honey, by Alistair Te Ariki Campbell
Cassandra’s Daughter, by Michael Harlow (well, I would say that, wouldn’t I, it’s dedicated to me, but I do indeed love it)
Any other reading areas that matter to you?
I read Maori and Polynesian work and I’m interested in the emergence of this different, more fluid and musical voice. Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, whose work I greatly admired, was one of the more influential of the earlier Polynesian voices to emerge in the 1960s and 1970s.
Your poems are written with grace, an eye for incandescent detail and an ear for the lilt of a line. As readers we are drawn into a vitality of place and human relations within each frame of the poem in ways that matter profoundly. What are some key things for you when you write a poem?
Thank you for the compliments. But that’s a hard question. Poems tend to pounce on me out of nowhere. No, that’s not strictly true, they arise out of my day-to-day life, my family, my garden – not a flash one, but bounded in a semi-circle by native trees we (Ian and I) planted more than 40 years ago, and the sea lying before us to the south. The poems are rarely planned, which is not to say that once they’re jotted down they don’t go through many re-workings. The poems actually went into hiding for something like 17 years, hard years that involved nursing others, and then in 2006 I went to Menton as the Katherine Mansfield fellow. That time of sheer joy, of rediscovering myself as a free and happy person, released some inner tension and holding back that had been going on for a long time. I started to write poems and wrote one nearly every day for the last months of my stay there.
Yes! I witnessed this joy and poetic return as I read Where Your Left Hand Rests. Do you think your poetry has changed across the decades?
Yes. I think I was a bit of a misery guts in the earlier work. I tend to write now out of a state of happiness. I’m also a lot more conscious of form than when I set out. That said, I look back and wish that I had some of the raw energy the early poems demonstrated.
Your new collection of poems, This Change in the Light, is a joy to hold: hardback, ribboned, with very fine paper stock. In some ways, it is a gift for the reader, and in other ways it is like a family heirloom. A beloved object. Do you see this collection as a gift to family?
Yes, as a matter of fact I do. In particular, it is a gift to my daughter Joanna. However, I am the real recipient of the gift, the gift of family.
As far as the book as an object is concerned, of course it wouldn’t exist were it not for Harriet Allan’s belief in my work, and the design team at Godwit she drew together to create such beautiful images. Anna Kidman’s photographs bring another dimension too. She is a granddaughter by marriage and although those pictures are black and white, she has a way of portraying light that captures the essence of the book’s title. In the opening shot she also captures our family, a country wedding, the glimmering dusk as the party begins, the figures unrecognizable unless you know who they are, my own lovely and beloved tribe.
I was particularly drawn to the mother sonnets. What were the joys and difficulties of writing this sequence (see poem above)?
Partly it comes back to these questions of craft. In my earlier work I didn’t pay as much attention to it as I should. I think one needs to know the rules before they go about breaking them. I had never written sonnets before, although I’d read them since childhood. I grew up in a fairly tightly disciplined environment – despite the freedom to explore the countryside. Although my parents and I lived in considerable hardship, table manners, proper speech, etiquette were all instilled in me on a daily basis and meals were served with the ritual of a banquet. When I came to write about my mother, it occurred to me that she needed quite a formal approach and I decided to set about this through sonnets. There were only meant to be one or two of them, but of course the life of a mother isn’t contained in just a couple of sonnets. Ten don’t do her justice, as it is. But I wanted to get as much of her down in them as I could, and that discipline of the Petrarchan sonnet was immensely challenging but satisfying as well. I must say that by the end of each one I felt as if I’d written a novel.
I’d like to add here, that in spite of the discipline, I had a very intense relationship with my mother throughout her life and she lived with us for several years towards the end, until she entered the Home of Compassion. My mother’s love for me was the nearest I will ever know to unconditional love and it has taken me many years to express that. It was important to me not to use the first person pronoun, so that she could be seen as an entity in herself
Some exquisite poems in the collection lead elsewhere. The poem that re-presents the house of Marguerite Duras gets under your skin. There is a tinge of melancholy in that emptiness. Something a little uncanny. Do you write of things immediately or let them simmer and review them across various distances?
It depends really. I keep a journal when I’m travelling and describe things to myself in fairly concrete detail. That’s where writing for television was handy training. I’m not much of a photographer, but I learned to describe what the person holding the camera should see. So there are these notes to refer back to later on. I am a long time admirer of Duras’s work and I identify with aspects of the solitude she embraced in her life. I’ve followed her footsteps in different places, including going down the Mekong River in a flat-bottomed barge in 1992, seeking the site of her Vietnamese childhood home. At Neauphle-le-Chateau I saw the abandoned house but I still had a very potent sense of her presence. I could see myself living in that house.
People are important in this collection. To me they are lovingly crafted into life. What matters to you when you draw real people into your poems?
Well, that’s hard to describe. Some of my work has been harsh towards people in the past. In this book, love, and love remembered are what count.
The collection comes out of age, out of an attentiveness to the world and the people that surround. Does your age make a difference as you write poems? I have to say I am drawn to the tender undercurrents and the thoughtful engagement.
Yes, age makes a difference. I see my immediate world in a different light, and with great gratitude for good fortune. I look, too, as in my poem “Malala Yousafzai: in tribute” to the next generation to take up the reins in the interests of our survival. I haven’t stopped battling for what I believe to be right, but I understand that we have to trust the young. I do. They are better than they are given credit for.
What satisfies you about poetry that perhaps you don’t get when writing a novel?
Each process is different, in the same way that writing a short story is different from writing a novel. There is the obvious satisfaction of being able to complete it in a relatively short time, although some of my poems have sat around for years until I’ve come back to them and decided whether there was something in them or not. There is joy in spontaneity of expression.
What do you want readers to take away from these new poems?
Oh. Hmm. A moment of recognition perhaps.
What irks you in poetry?
What delights you?
Openness. A sense of truthfulness.
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?
The garden where I live. Travelling if I can, and that includes travelling in New Zealand. Ian and I try to get to the Hokianga every year. My family life, the movies. A great pleasure is finding a quiet time at the Penthouse in Brooklyn, a nearly empty theatre with a great big screen in front of me, and a glass of pinot gris beside me. I’m on some committees, and the Randell Cottage Writers Trust has been a big focus of my energies in the past 15 years. We have a French writer and a New Zealand writer every year, each has 6 months occupancy of the Cottage. I like live music and theatre but getting out and about in the city at nights is more challenging than in the past, so I don’t go so often these days.
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?
Elizabeth Bishop’s Selected Poems . I always take the book on an overseas trip, planning for just such a contingency.
Thank you Fiona.
PenguinRandom House page
Fiona Kidman’s website
NZ Book Council author page
Radio NZ review of This Change in the Light with Harry Ricketts