Reviewing the very fabulous poetry books on the Ockham NZ Book Award short list

I have gained much pleasure from reading the books on the long list. Of course – how can it not be?! – excellent poetry books did not make the cut.  Take Chris Price’s glorious Beside Herself for example. I was transported by the uplift in Chris’s writing and celebrated it as one of her very best. I have said good things about all of the books because they gifted me reading experiences to savour. In my view, the long list was a go-to-point for the terrific writing that we are producing. I could not have picked four if I tried. I would have headed for the hills!

Boutique Presses are doing great things in New Zealand as are the University Presses, but in this showing, and with such noteworthy books appearing each year, and in quite staggering numbers, I am sendingsend a virtual bouquet of the sweetest roses to VUP. Three extraordinary books on the shortlist! Wonderful.

I adored the books shortlisted and will share my thoughts.

 

 

Tusiata Avia’s book is so rich and layered and essential. I have been reading and writing about this book in the past few months, and the more I read and write, the more I find to admire and move and challenge me. I wrote this after going to the launch:

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Fale Aitu / Spirit House Tusiata Avia, Victoria University Press, 2016 (VUP author page)

Last night I drove into the city into some kind of warm, semi-tropical wetness —like a season that no longer knew what it ought or wanted to be — to go to the launch of Tusiata Avia’s new poetry collection. Tautai, the Pacific Art Gallery, was a perfect space, and filled to the brim with friends, family, writers and strong publisher support. I loved the warmth and writerly connections in the room. I have been reading Tusiata’s book on planes as poetry now seems to be my activity of choice in the air. I adore this book and have so much to say about it but want to save that for another occasion. I was an early reader so have had a long-term relationship with it.

 

the launch

The room went dark and an MIT student, bedecked in swishes of red, performed a piece from a previous collection, Blood Clot. Mesmerising.

Tusiata’s cousin and current Burns Fellow, Victor Rodger, gave a terrific speech that included a potted biography. I loved the way he applauded Tusiata not just as a tremendous poet, but as a teacher and solo mother. Her names means artist in Samoan and he saw artist in the numerous roles Tusiata embodies. Writing comes out of so much. He identified her new poems as brave, startling, moving and political. Spiky. I totally agree.

Having dedicated her book to her parents, Tusiata said that it was hard to be the parent of a poet who wrote about family. When she told her mother what she was writing, her mother embraced it. She opened her arms wide. She said the skeletons need to come out. The atua. Tusiata’s speech underlined how important this book is. It is not simply an exercise in how you can play with language, it goes to the roots of that it means to be daughter, mother, poet.  It goes further than family into what it means to exist, to co-exist, in a global family. When a poet knows how to write what matters so much to her, when her words bring that alive with a such animation, poise and melody, it matters to you.

Four poems read. Lyrical, song-like, chant-like, that place feet on ground, that open the windows to let atua in and out, that cannot turn a blind eye, that hold tight to the love of a daughter, that come back to the body that is pulsing with life.

Yes I had goose bumps. You could hear a pin drop.

Fergus Barrowman, VUP publisher, made the important point that these poems face the dark but they also face an insistent life force.

Congratulations, this was a goosebump launch for a goosebump book.

 

Hera Lindsay Bird’s debut book broke me apart, gushed oceans of reaction through me and quite simply filled me with the joy of poetry. This is what I posted earlier on the blog:

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All I care about is looking at things and naming them’

‘I love life’

Hera Lindsay Bird Hera Lindsay Bird, Victoria University Press, 2016

 

For the past week or so, after visits to our key research libraries,  I have been writing about Jessie Mackay, a founding mother of New Zealand poetry. What I am writing is under wraps but my relationship with both the woman and her poetry is not clear cut. She moves me, she astonishes me, she irritates me, but I am always filled with admiration. One question bubbling away is: how different is it for women writing over a hundred years later?  Sure, contemporary poems are like a foreign country, we have changed so much. But what of our behaviour as poets? Our reception? What feeds us? What renders us vulnerable and what makes us strong?

I want to draw a pencil line from Jessie Mackay to Hera Lindsay Bird and see what I can peg on it. But I want to save these thoughts for my book.

Hera Lindsay Bird has attracted the biggest hoo-ha with a poetry book I can recall. It felt like I was witnessing the birth of a cult object. Images of the book cover on the side of a bus or a building (photoshopped?!?!) created a little Twitter buzz. Lorde tweeted. Anika Moa tweeted. Tim Upperton reviewed it on launch day on National Radio. Interviews flamed the fan base on The Spin Off, The Wireless and Pantograph Punch. The interviews promoted a debut poet that is hip and hot and essential reading. Poems posted have attracted long comment trails that apparently included downright vitriol (I haven’t read these and I think just applied to one poem). The Spin Off cites this as one of a number of factors in the shutting down of all comments on their site. The launch was jam packed, the book sold out, and took the number one spot on the bestseller list. Hera is a poet with attitude. Well, all poets have attitude, but there is a degree of provocation in what she says and writes. Maybe it’s a mix of bite and daring and vulnerability. Just like it is with JM, Hera’s poetry moves, astonishes and irritates me, but most importantly, it gets me thinking/feeling/reacting and prompts admiration.

 

A few thoughts on Hera Lindsay Bird by Hera Lindsay Bird  (VUP author page)

 

This book is like rebooting self. Each poem reloads Hera. Click click whirr.

At first you might think the book is like the mohawk of a rebellious punk who doesn’t mind hate or kicking stones at glass windows or saying fuck at the drop of a hat.

The word love is in at least two thirds of the poems. It catches you at times with the most surprising, perfect image:

‘when we first fell in love

the heart like a trick candle

on an ancient, moss-dark birthday cake’

 

‘it’s love that plummets you

back down the elevator shaft’

 

You could think of this book as a handbook to love because Hera doesn’t just write love poems, she riffs on notions of love:

‘It’s like falling in love for the first time for the last time’

or: ‘What is there to say about love that hasn’t already been’

 

Some lines are meant to shock you out of reading lethargy:

‘I feel a lot of hate for people’

or: ‘My friend says it’s bad poetry to write a book’

or: ‘Some people are meant to hate forever’

 

or:

‘It’s a bad crime to say poetry in poetry

It’s a bad, adorable crime

Like robbing a bank with a mini-hairdryer’

 

Hera reads other poets and uses them as springboards to write from: Mary Ruefle, Bernadette Mayer, Mary Oliver, Chelsey Minnis, Emily Dickinson.

Sometimes the book feels like a confessional board. Poetry as confession. It hurts. There is pain. There is always love.

This poetry is personal. Poems (like little characters) interrupt the personal or the chantlike list or the nettle opinion the honey opinion as though they want a say and need to reflect back on their own making, if not maker.

Love hate sex girlfriends life death: it is not what you write but how you write it that makes a difference, that is the flash in the pan, not to mention the pan itself.

Hera writes in a conversational tone, sometimes loud, sometimes quiet, as though we are in a cafe together and some things get drowned out but the words are electric and we all listen spellbound.

 

She uses excellent similes. On poetry:

‘This is like an encore to an empty auditorium

It’s a swarm of hornets rising out of the piano’

 

‘Neither our love nor our failures will save us

all our memories

like tin cans on a wedding car

throwing up sparks’

 

‘I can only look at you

Like you are a slow-burning planet

And I am pouring water through a telescope.’

 

Hera likes to talk about bad poems; like the wry punk attitude that says look at my bad style. I am not convinced that there is much in the way of bad poetry here unless you are talking about a vein of impoliteness. It kind of feels like a set of Russian dolls – inside the bad poetry good poetry and inside that the bad and then good and so on and so forth. There is always craft and the ears have been working without fail.

One favourite poem in the book is ‘Mirror Traps’ but I am saving that for the Jessie Mackay pencil line.

Hera’s sumptuous book comes out of a very long tradition of poets busting apart poetic decorum, ideals and displays of self. It’s a while since we have witnessed such provocation on our local poetry scene. What I like about this scintillating writing is that each poem manifests such a love of and agility with words — no matter how bad it tries to be. It is addictive reading. Yes there is a flash that half blinds you and spits searing fat along your forearms, but you get to taste the sizzling halloumi with peppery rocket and citrus dressing.

 

‘I love to feel this bad because it reminds me of being human

I love this life too

Every day something new happens and I think

so this the way things are now’

 

PS I adore the cover!

Hera Lindsay Bird has an MA in poetry from Victoria University where she won the 2011 Adam Prize for best folio. She was the 2009 winner of the Story! Inc. Prize for Poetry and the Maurice Gee Prize in Children’s Writing. She lives in Wellington with her girlfriend and collection of Agatha Christie video games.

 

 

In a spooky moment of synchronicity, I was walking along Bethells Beach this morning in the crisp gloom hoping Gregory Kan’s book made the shortlist, not realising the decision was out today. I loved the inventiveness, the heart, the attentiveness, the thrilling electricity of his language and so much more:

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Gregory Kan This Paper Boat Auckland University Press 2016 (AUP author page)

 

Gregory Kan’s debut poetry collection, This Paper Boat, is a joy to read on so many levels.

Kan’s poetry has featured in a number of literary journals and an early version of the book was shortlisted for the Kathleen Grattan Poetry Prize in 2013. He lives in Auckland.

Paper Boat traces ghosts. We hold onto Kan’s coat tails as he tracks family and the spirit of poet, Robin Hyde (Iris Wilkinson). The gateway to family becomes the gateway to Iris and the gateway to Iris becomes the gateway to family. There is overlap between family and missing poet but there is also a deep channel. The channel of difficulty, hard knocks, the tough to decipher. There is the creek of foreignness. The abrasiveness of the world when the world is not singular.

Kan enters the thicket of memory as he sets out to recover the family stories. He shows the father as son fishing in the drains, the mother as daughter obedient at school. Yet while he fills his pockets with parental anecdotes, there is too, the poignant way his parents remain other, mysterious, a gap that can never be completely filled:

 

In the past when I thought about people my parents

were somehow

not among them. But some wound stayed

 

wide in all of us, and now I see in their faces

strange rivers and waterfalls, tilted over with broom.

 

The familial stands are immensely moving, but so too is the search for Iris. Kan untangles Iris in the traces she has left – in her poems, her writings, her letters. He stands outside the gate to Wellington house, listening hard, or beside the rock pool. There is something that sets hairs on end when you stand in the footsteps of ghosts, the exact stone, the exact spot, and at times it is though they become both audible and visible. Hyde’s poems in Houses by the Sea, are sumptuous in detail. I think of this as Kan muses on the rock-pool bounty. When he stands at her gate:

 

I have to hear you to keep you

here, and I have to keep you

here to keep coming back.

 

I think too of Michele Leggott’s plea at the back of DIA to listen hard to the lost matrix of women poets, the early poets. To find ways to bring them close.

Kan brings Iris (Robin) close. His traces. Iris becomes woman as much as she does poet and the channel of difficulty fills with her darknesses as much as it does Kan’s. There is an aching core of confinement: her pregnancy, her loss of the baby, her second pregnancy, her placement of the baby elsewhere, her mental illness. His confinement in a jungle. His great-aunt’s abandonment as a baby.

 

The strands of love, foreignness and of difficulty are amplified by the look of the book. The way you aren’t reading a singular river of text that conforms to some kind of pattern. A singular narrative. It is like static, like hiccups, like stutters across the width of reading. I love this. Forms change. Forms make much of the white space. A page looks beautiful, but the white space becomes a transmission point for the voices barely heard.

At one point the blocks of text resemble the silhouettes of photographs in a family album. At another point, poems masquerade as censored Facebook entries.Later still, a fable-like poem tumbles across pages in italics.

The writing is understated, graceful, fluent, visually alive.

I want to pick up Hyde again. I want to stand by that Wellington rock pool and see what I can hear. I have read this book three times and it won’t be the last.

 

In the final pages, as part a ritual for The Hungry Ghost Festival, Kan sends a paper boat down the river ‘to ensure// that the ghosts find their way/ back.’

The book with its heartfelt offerings is like a paper boat, floating on an ethereal current so that poetry finds its way back to us all (or Hyde, or family).

 

Auckland University Press page

A terrific interview with Sarah Jane Barnett

Sequence in Sport

 

 

 

 

Finally Andrew Johnston’s book caught me in a prolonged trance of reading. This from my SST review:

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Andrew Johnston, Fits & Starts Victoria University Press (VUP author page)

Based in Paris, Andrew Johnston writes poetry with such grace, and directs his finely-tuned ear and eye to the world and all its marvels. The poems in his new collection, Fits& Starts, luxuriate in white space and they are all the better for it. You want to savour each set of couplets slowly.

The middle section filters Echo through the chapters of the Bible’s First Testament; the final section runs from Alpha through to Zulu and forms an alphabet of exquisite side tracks. With Echo coasting through the sequences, it is not surprising rhyme catches the deftness of Bill Manhire.

Ideas drift like little balloons in and out of poems, experience lies in gritty grains. What is off-real jolts what is real. A taste: ‘How I married distance/ and how close we are.’

This book replays the pulse of living, dream, myth. I am buying it for a poet friend.

 

 

 

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