Photo credit: Deborah Smith
‘The moon came up
and all our thinking
from ‘Full Moon’
Jenny Bornholdt is one of my favourite New Zealand poets, so a new Selected Poems is an occasion worth marking. Her poetry traverses decades; her poems never lose sight of the world at hand, are unafraid of the personal or little ripples of strangeness, and underscore a mind both roving and attentive. There is an ease of writing that might belie slow craft but Jenny’s poetry is exquisitely shaped from line to form. Returning to the early poems, I was taken once again by their enduring freshness. A lightness of touch, honeyed lines. As poet, Jenny harvests little patches of the world and transforms them into poems. Patches that might be ordinary or everyday, offbeat or linked to feeling something – patches that stall me as reader. I love that. When I read the poems, I get access to a glorious poetry flow yet there are these luminous pauses. If I were writing an essay, it might explore the poetics of pause and currents.
When I was editing Dear Heart, I pictured a little chapbook of Jenny Bornholdt love poems because she has written some of my favourites whether for husband, father or child (‘A love poem has very long sentences,’ ‘Poem,’ ‘Pastoral,’ ‘Mrs Winter’s Jump,’ ‘The inner life’ ‘Full Moon’ for starters).
To have this new book is a gift. Thanks Jenny for the interview.
Selected Poems Jenny Bornholdt, Victoria University Press, 2016
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?
Yes, I think it did. I was one of those kids who read a lot – anything that was going. I loved the Readers Digest. My mother took us to the library every week and I got out four books, which was the limit then. I also spent a lot of time outside – we had kids our age next door and over the road and we spent most of our time with them.
When you started writing poems as a young adult, were there any poets in particular that you were drawn to?
I didn’t write any poems til I was about 18. I read a lot of novels and if I thought about being any kind of writer it’d would’ve been a novelist, or journalist, which is the direction I headed in. I’d read some of the Mersey poets when I was younger and I remember liking Roger McGough’s casual, ‘talky’ style.
Did university life transform your poetry writing? New discoveries or directions?
University was where I discovered poetry. I really had no idea about anything before I went there. Everything was exciting – from Middle English to contemporary American poetry. And I did the ‘Original Composition’ course, which changed everything.
‘So careless the trees—
having remembered their leaves
they forget them again
so they fall on us, big
from ‘ Autumn’
Your poetry reflects a quiet absorption of the world that surprises, moves and astonishes. Sometimes it feels as though you tilt the world slightly for us to see. What are key things for you when you write a poem?
Each poem is different, but there’s always a feeling, a kind of charge, when a poem is making itself known. It’s a matter of trusting yourself and following the direction of the poem.
Reading your new Selected Poems sent me back to the original collections with admiration and delight. It is fascinating reading across the arc of decades—gathering echoes, favoured motifs, shifting melodies. Do you think your poetry has changed over time? Did you spot points of return such as leaves, the garden, or baking?
There are many points of return. One thing that surprised me was the number of tea towels in my poems.
It was really interesting making the selection for this book – there seemed to be such a strong sense of continuity. I can see changes, though, and that’s good. I think I’m writing better poems – they seem stronger to me. Over time I think I’ve let myself get a bit weirder.
Ha! I love the idea of tea towels. I never spotted them. I think I need to send you a poetry tea towel to celebrate. I am always drawn to the conversational tone that is both of the everyday and rises beyond it in your poems. How do you see your poems working as conversation?
They’re probably a conversation with myself. Me saying things out loud to see what happens.
Some of your most moving poems document illness. Do you think illness made your writing life more difficult or did writing give you solace and energy? Or something altogether different?
Illness definitely made my writing life difficult. I was out of action for a year with bad hip pain and didn’t write anything. I could barely get out of bed. Then, after surgery, I spent a year recovering and during that time my writing life began to surface and I found enormous solace in it. Writing gave me a way of processing what had happened – of making it into something else. It was like turning the awfulness around and sending it off in another direction.
‘For six weeks now I’ve been outside of weather
and of reading. Outside of myself.’
from ‘Along way from home’
The result for the reader is a cluster of poems that draw you into that experience of illness, then lead you in so many other directions. You have never been afraid of a longer poem, of longer lines and and a slow unfolding of subject matter like a storyteller holding a listener in the delicious grip of attention. Do you have one that particularly resonates for you?
I love all the poems in The Rocky Shore. You’re probably not meant to say that about your own work, but there you are. Those poems resonate because they’re so much about my life and what’s important in it. Those poems really found their form.
I love the Rocky Shore too. I agree they have found just the right form and within that form a perfect alchemy of ingredients. It is on my shelf of classic NZ poetry books. When you were putting the selection together was there an older poem that surprised you – like coming across a long-lost friend?
I was surprised by ‘Waiting Shelter.’ I think that one’s still got something.
‘How you remember people. To remember
them as well as they remember you.
To remember them with abandon. To
abandon remembering them. Which is
better? or worse? Rooms and rooms
and always people moving in
and out of them. Love,
love, a knock on the door. A
heart murmur to remember you by.’
from ‘Waiting shelter’
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.
I’ve read and re-read Mary Ruefle’s book of essays Madness, Rack, and Honey – it makes me want to write. I find prose writers often affect me strongly – I’ve just read by Elizabeth Strout, for the third time this year. It’s one of the most affecting books I’ve ever read. Alice Oswald’s new book of poems Falling Awake is a marvellous, strange thing.
What New Zealand poets have you been drawn to over time?
Dinah Hawken, Bill Manhire, Andrew Johnston, James Brown, Mary Ursula Bethell, Geoff Cochrane.
Michele Leggott has talked about a matrix of early women poets in New Zealand who supported each other. Have you sustained a vital conversation with poet friends on your own work and on the whole business of writing poetry?
Greg (O’Brien) and I talk about poetry a lot – it helps to live with someone who does the same thing you do. And I often talk to friends (some of them writers) about writing and reading. It’s so much a part of my life that I can’t imagine not talking about it.
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 think it’s more that there are conventions and, as in any art form, these can be done away with as long as what happens ‘works’. Poems are strange things – they have their own logic and find their own forms.
‘This poem was always going to end there, with Frankie
and the toast. That image has been the engine
of the poem, but then
from ‘Big minty nose’
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?
Most things, except doing my tax return.
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 Compete Poems.
Victoria University Press author page