(excuse my photos but I have managed an eerie poetry light on everyone!)
Going to the Sarah Broom Award is always a sad-glad occasion for me as I get to remember a wonderful poet and to celebrate the vitality of New Zealand poetry.
This year was no exception. The award is a gift from Sarah’s husband, Michael Gleissner. His dedicated drive to support NZ poetry offers an award for a poet at any stage of their career. For the past two occasions, an overseas judge has selected the shortlist and winner. This year, acclaimed Irish poet, Paul Muldoon, was judge. He had no idea who wrote the poems and insisted on reading all the entries (over 250) because he wanted to find the entries that ‘judge you, that read you and impress themselves upon you.’
Paul’s short list: Airini Beautrais, Elizabeth Smither and Amanda Hunt
Paul began with a moving tribute to Sarah, Sarah’s family and her poetry. He read her poem (among others) ‘Holding the Line’ and said: ‘We’re all trying to hold the line of poetry which seems a little perilous, but that’s what we’re all trying to do.’
Each poet read a handful of poems.
The winner, Elizabeth Smither read the poem about her mother that she read at the Laureate Circle event in Wellington. Kate Camp and I were in a frenzy to read it again. Elizabeth so kindly gave Kate her copy and signed it and emailed me one. It is the kind of a poem that has built a room of its own in my head. The sort of poem that rises and pierces your heart with the acute depiction of a moment. Elizabeth is outside in her car in the street seeing her mother move through her house without realising her daughter is watching. Elizabeth followed it with a poem, ‘The name in the fridge’ that made me laugh out loud. She and friend had put the name of someone they wished ill of in the freezer but nothing bad happened (see poem below). As Paul said, Elizabeth has the skill to blend humour with seriousness. Yes, her poems can handle that and so much more. The stillness, insight and deep connection to humanity makes Elizabeth a poet writing at her very best.
Elizabeth is a former NZ Poet Laureate, has published numerous poetry collections that have garnered awards and high praise, along with short stories and novels. She lives in New Plymouth.
The name in the fridge
Someone we both disliked: you wrote
his name on a slip of paper
folded it, and inserted it in the freezer
under a tray of ice cubes, next to
a frozen chicken, frozen vegetables
a casserole sectioned into cartons.
You’d read about it. Nothing too serious
would happen. Perhaps he’d lose his job
or his dog would need taking to the vet.
The dog would recover, the bill be huge.
His wife might flirt with someone at a party
and be noticed: notice was a big part of it.
When nothing happened after six months:
his dog had puppies, he got promoted
we took out the paper, ice-encrusted
and brushed it against our jerseys. Soft
powder fell into the sink. You said
you’d take it with you when you went to England
as if it would be more potent there.
A huge fridge near an Aga
stuffed with grouse and pheasants and wild boar.
Airini Beautrais read from a sequence of poems that forge links with the Whanganui River. As a poet she bends the line and then makes it glow with luminous detail so that as you listen to the contours of voice you are both skimming the slopes of every day living and doing little side jumps to out-of-the-everyday. It all comes down to voice. To human beings finding their way in different circumstances. As I listened I felt like I want to read the river, to read the whole sequence, and follow people as much as river currents.
Airini has published three collections of poetry and is a graduate of IIML. Her most recent collection, Dear Neil Roberts, was longlisted for the Ockham NZ Book Awards in the Poetry Category. Like Amanda she studied ecological science at university. Her debut collection was named Best First Book of Poetry at the Montana NZ Book Awards 2007. She lives in Whanganui.
Airini acknowledged the significance of Sarah’s poetry: ‘As a mother and writer I find Sarah’s poetry particularly moving, and also inspirational. I am inspired by her bravery and strength. She has left us an important legacy.’
Kids, who wants to look up through the telescope?
This is the largest unmodified refractor telescope in use
in New Zealand. Birthday girl, you first. I hope
you’ll see a planet up there, with rings. That might come loose
if you fiddle with it, be careful. It looks like smoke?
That would be a cloud. Is that really a planet? Yes.
Nah, I stuck a picture up on the end. That was a joke.
Could an asteroid destroy humanity? Well, I guess
there’s a chance. No object we know of threatens us any time soon.
Is there life like ours, out there? Keep looking up, wave a little.
Parents, bring your kids back one Friday night, maybe the moon
will be visible. Who hasn’t had a turn yet? Look there, and it’ll
be right in the middle. Ha, that’s what everyone says. You know how
they called this planet Saturn? They really should have named it Oh wow.
Amanda Hunt read a bunch of native bird poems that were glorious renditions of birds but offered so much more in terms of life and living. Like Elizabeth she had the ability to make us laugh and pause. There was the joy of hearing a poet for the first time that you know absolutely nothing about and have no idea what effect her poems will have on you. I loved the static between visual detail and people doing things.
Amanda is a poet and ecologist based in Rotorua and, while she has been writing poems for awhile, is beginning to seek increased publishing opportunities. She studied medicine and environmental science at the University of Auckland. She has worked in environmental and resource management throughout New Zealand and Australia, but returned to her home town a few years ago.
Amanda said that she ‘felt the award helps to keep Sarah’s amazing work very much alive and it was a real honour to be reading at this event in her name.’
the grey warbler sounds
like the beginning of a Bizet aria
a small pale bird
ruffling its feathers
inside a red dress
one wing outstretched
as its sings the same song
over and over
all our birds have
funny names and
our voices are strange so
he has to ask us to repeat
what we say
over and over
the cold is on the border
of being worth dressing for
he came without gloves
it’s still winter and the
wind blitzes us from the south
but in the morning he’s not sure
if it’s snow he sees on the hills or
the sun in his eyes
we drive on the wrong side of the road
there are no newspapers in his language
and he still wakes late with jet lag
in the kowhai tree behind his house
the first notes of a song
he already knows.
(Elizabeth with her AUP editor, Anna Hodge)
When Elizabeth was announced as winner she was a little shocked (I do think the finalists could be told back stage so they don’t have to sit on stage for an hour, with the the sizable store of nerves that build when you are about to read in public). She searched in her bag for a piece of paper while Paul supplied her with another poem to read.
I thought her thank-you speech was very moving. She said, ‘It feels like having your first poem accepted again. The chase is always on the for the next poem that might be better though it is always moving out of reach.’
Elizabeth was reminded of her short story where a young girl, notebook in arm, struggled to be a writer in Paris. Elizabeth had included this quote from Mavis Gallant in her story: ‘She was sustained by the French refusal to accept poverty as a sign of failure in an artist.’
Elizabeth said that poets would be familiar with this and ‘That is why the Sarah Broom Award is so marvelous. Sarah and Michael have exactly understood the position, the amount is perfect, the conditions are wonderful.’
Like Airini and Amanda, she paid moving tribute to Sarah’s poems: ‘I heard that a whole new cluster of planets has just been discovered. That’s how I think of Sarah’s poems: flying through space, serene and beautiful, wrought from tragedy and beauty.’
Elizabeth also thanked the audience! She made us feel that as readers we matter: ‘And I want to thank the audience for being present. Poetry could not survive without you. The girl in the French cafe was counting on that: if she could write something, someone would read it and she then would be a writer.’
Thanks to AWF for hosting this event.
Thanks for a terrific occasion Michael. Three very special writers. One very special award.