We believe in the steps.
We tell our children and then our
grandchildren about the cool
pond at the top where sun-
carp clean our feet and where
we can sleep. The steps are one of
the beautiful mysteries of
life, like how did we get here,
fully clothed and so forgetful?
from ‘Higher ground’
Hannah Mettner is a Wellington-based poet from Gisborne. Her poems have appeared widely in literary journals, including Sport, Turbine and Cordite. She is co-editor with Morgan Bach and Sugar Magnolia Wilson of Sweet Mammalian, an online poetry journal launched in 2014.
I first heard Hannah read at the Ruapehu Writers Festival last year and I was immediately hooked. To celebrate the arrival of her debut poetry collection, Fully clothed and so forgetful (Victoria University Press), Hannah agreed to do this interview. As you will see from my comments in the interview, this collection has struck a chord with me on a number of levels. I absolutely adore it.
The book is launched tonight: 16 March 2017 from 6.00 pm – 7.30 pm
PG: You include two quotations at the start of the book—one by Eileen Myles and one by Adrienne Rich—that underline your status as reader, while the book itself is infused with your reading life. Can you name three non-poetry books that have sparked you any time from zero until now? And three poetry books, from any point in your reading timeline, that have also affected you?
HM: Ah yes, I mean, it wasn’t meant as any kind of political statement, choosing two gay poets to front the book, although it definitely can be, I just love their writing, and those particular poems. And then those parts of those poems stuck out as handy things to highlight at the outset of the book. As to my reading, well, I’ve always liked reading, and I wonder if it’s partly a control thing: I find people quite hard work, they’re so fascinating and unpredictable and needy, with a book you can just shut it when you get to satiety, and come back to it when you’re ready. Then I studied English Lit at uni, and I work at the Turnbull Library now, so books are very thoroughly part of my comfort zone, and I get a bit panicked if I don’t have one nearby, to serve as a social safety blanket. I remember being completely transported by a Margaret Mahy book The Door in the Air and Other Stories, as a young person. Strange little vignettes into other possible lives: very like one of the stories in that book about a girl who meets a wizard with a house full of different windows depicting different worlds. Obviously all of Mahy’s books are fantastic, and that magical realism has definitely been a thing that has kept my interest over the years, both as a reader and a writer, she’s so good at combining the very mundane with the extraordinary. Another book I’ve come back to again and again (a big deal when you’re a bit blind and reading is a pleasure/pain situation like it is for me) is Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body, which is scorchingly personal and profound. Those two books are really my sun and moon, there are heaps of other books I’ve read and loved, but nothing quite like those. Poetry books are perhaps too numerable to mention? Though I distinctly remember that James Brown’s first book Go Round Power Please was the book that got me reading and eventually writing poetry. I checked it out from the public library in Gisborne not long after having my first baby, and discovered that poetry was a great way to ‘get more bang from my buck’ when I was too tired and busy to make much headway with novels. Those poems are so humble and personable, and so varied, so I could read a couple, then turn them over in my head until I could get to the next couple (which is a great way to read poetry in my opinion).
PG: Your debut collection, Fully Clothed and So Forgetful, gave me goose bumps as I read and took me beyond words to that state where you stand somewhere wild and beautiful and just stall beyond language to absorb the world. My initial reaction is simply to tell the reader to read your book. But then I start accumulating a list of what I think your poetry is doing: the poems are inventive, unpredictable, melodic, on the move, strange, love-soaked. What key things matter when you write a poem?
HM: Thank you! That is a lovely thing to have someone say about my writing, and quite strange because these poems have become so familiar to me now that I’ve almost become disenchanted by them: you know, the feeling of old outfits you’ve worn too many times and are giving way at the knees or something. The key thing that matters to me in a poem (whether one I’m writing or reading) is that it gets me in the gut. I get very frustrated by poetry that feels empty, or emotionally disengaged or distant, or is teasing the reader or holding them at arm’s length. I just find it boring, I mean, I know that different poems and poets have all sorts of intellectual fare to offer, but I want to be emotionally moved by a poem, and nothing less.
PG: I feel the same way. Your book generated strong emotional engagement for me, which is why it mattered so much. I am particularly excited by the way you create poetic movement. Is this something organic and unconscious or deliberate and cultivated?
HM: I guess it must be unconscious, because it’s not something I’ve gone in thinking about or worked at. Maybe it’s because I’m a chronic fidgeter? Or maybe because lots of my poems come to me when I’m walking. Or maybe it’s because I have a terrible attention span?
PG: The first poem, ‘Higher ground,’ is memorable, resonant and fablesque. I fill to the brim with it and don’t want to undercut the way I absorb its magical effects—the poetic side lanes and underpasses and overbridges—by explaining what I think it is doing. But I would say, as a tiny hinge into the poem, it reminds me how we can so easily become immune to what we see and hear. How do you feel about talking about the poetry you write?
HM: Ah yes, well this poem is an example of one that came to me while walking! In Wellington, as you know, there are lots of hills, and my old house was up one of them, and then up ninety steps. This made walking home from school with my kids kind of a drag, and so this poem, with its promise of glories to come, is really just an exaggeration of the daily bribery of walking home from school up what is basically a mountain. We totally become immune to life, it’s kind of tragic eh? One of the things that was promised to me when I had kids was that “they’d make me see the world with fresh eyes” and more parental romanticisations like that, and I really don’t know if that’s been true or not. But I do spend a lot of time trying to look at things like that anyway. I used to think I was going to be an artist, so maybe it comes from that? Experiencing the world, then deconstructing it in order to be able to reconstruct it on the page?
PG: I loved the oblique appearance of Gertrude Stein and her Tender Buttons in your ‘Gender buttons.’ While your poetry does not replicate the anarchic and playful syntax of a Stein poem, your phrasing is deliciously agile and surprising (‘I wake to you nuzzling into my bed/ complaining of the quick-sand carpet in the hallway’). Do you feel Stein influenced your language in any way or your inventive links between object-self-word-love?
HM: Well actually I’m not a huge Stein fan, I find her poetry difficult to engage with, and I suspect she was kind of a horrible person. In fact, this poem came about because I told the person I was in love with at the time that I thought she looked like Stein (who she also hated), and then I felt so bad that I wrote a love poem by way of apology. But I am interested in Stein’s idea of ‘Cubist writing’, which I guess in my poems isn’t even close to the exaggerated effect she achieves, but I like the idea of multiple things going on, multiple ways to access a work, multiple planes of understanding, gaps in meaning which the mind auto-fills. And I like the idea of language constructing a world, rather than merely referencing it, you know, then I can say each of my lil poems is its own world, like one of the windows in the wizard’s house. I would love it if that’s how they were read, like objects to be picked up and transported by, either a snow-globe or a portkey.
PG: Another reason the collection affected me so much is that is deeply yet originally personal. I felt like making a caption to go over my desk: poetry is personal. Your poems demonstrate that you can dig deep into personal experience and self-scrutiny in ways that are inventive and quiet. There are some big things faced: a teenage pregnancy and not meeting expectations to marry a man. So many of the poems, with strong personal origins, are effervescent with possibilities. I am thinking of ‘In the Forest of the night,’ inspired by William Blake’s ‘The Tyger,’ but hovers like a miniature, fully-formed autobiography (the fearful child, the maternal embrace, the maternal anxiety, the supressed feelings, the broken relationship). Did you have lines you would not cross in order to protect those close to you?
HM: Well yes, poetry is personal. Very personal. I do hope no one reads these and recognises (a part of) themself, and is upset. The relationship poems are unnamed for this exact reason, but the family ones are probably more problematic. Funnily enough the ones about my parents are pretty tidily summed up by saying they’re about miscommunication (or lack of communication), and I hope they’re grown-up enough to understand that everyone sees things differently, and that this is my version of events, so to speak. The kid-ones are the most worrying, as I don’t want them to be like some shameful or burdensome photo brought out at a 21st party. But there aren’t many of them, and I’ve tested them out on Lucia and Jethro, who seem ok with them. We talked about this a lot in Hera’s TMI course last year: what is too personal, what sorts of things make you a ‘bad person’ for disclosing about someone else in a poem, etc etc. I try to think ‘how would I feel if someone said this about me?’ and bear that in mind, and there are lots of excruciatingly personal disclosures about myself in here, so maybe that balances it out? But also, that responsibility can be a bit crippling and sometimes you think ‘well fuck it’ and just write.
PG: I love the way you place a personal revelation within intriguing and inventive contexts and layer it like an artichoke so that is exquisitely simple yet flavoursome on the tongue. I am thinking of ‘Trip with Mum,’ where you go to Disneyland and take rides with your aging mother—real or imagined—and have difficult conversations until you spin away from probing questions to a far-off planet: ‘I’d try shouting things like, What do you know about pain?! and I’m afraid! and finally, I love you! as I grew smaller and smaller and she grew older and older and everything just kept spinning.’ Is the autobiographical thread a significant part of how you write?
HM: Well I guess so, erm. I don’t know if that’s just narcissistic and unimaginative or what, but I guess I just don’t want to speak for anyone else, or tread on any toes, and other people are better qualified than me to tell their own stories. But also it’s a by-product of the way I think and experience the world: by relating information and experience directly to my personal history and developing self. I remember our MA class having a near-fight early in the year when Chris presented us with a reading which basically posited that people assume poetry is autobiographical, and that the narrator is the writer. We, mostly, railed against this on principle, wanting perhaps to protect our right to mystery, but I think we all secretly knew that the ‘I’ is the I. I’ve been emboldened by the opening poem in Hera’s book, which gives the reader permission to read it as a book about her (and the title), and Greg’s book which is openly autobiographical while looking outward at people and events to hang his history on in the complicated and beautiful way that true life does.
PG: Are you after some kind of autobiographical truth when you write, however elusive that might be? I am wondering if this is why the book has so intricately hooked me.
HM: Autobiographical truth? I guess so, in the sense that I’m prone to self-reflection. I’m quite a socially anxious person, and a major introvert, and one of those people who analyse social interactions excessively as they’re happening and potentially going on for days afterward just in the normal course of things. Looking at your actions in the world so closely is perhaps not healthy, but it is interesting, especially the way different people work in given situations and relations.
PG: Feminism is such a complicated, multifaceted, highly contested set of ideas and practices. It always has been and is especially so today. I think your collection is in debt to a feminist engagement with the world that is mobile and probing. Do you think it makes a difference to your poetry that you are a woman? Does feminism matter?
HM: Of course I’m a feminist, though I tend to think in essence feminism is very simple, actually, which is not to say women and womanhood aren’t complicated and gloriously multi-faceted, or that femininity as an identity within feminism (particular for lesbian, bi and trans women) isn’t highly contested. And yes, for sure feminism matters, and I think it needs to keep on mattering, more loudly and insistently than it has to date, for quite a while yet. I think it’s (perhaps too) clear that it matters to my writing that I’m a woman, it matters that I’m a feminist women, that I’m a mother, that I’m a teenage pregnancy statistic, that I’m bisexual, that I grew up in a working-class Christian family etc etc. Those large facts, plus all the more messy detail of just living—that’s my subject matter. I think every writer’s personal history matters to them in their writing to some extent, whether as information or bias, but not all writers are keen to share that information, or maybe they don’t think it’s interesting enough? But the feminist in me wants it to be enough! I want women to write their stories and for them to be enough! I get the sense that it’s sometimes considered not tasteful to be a bit political in poetry, that poetry should be a respite from the real world, but I want to read more poetry about the intricacies of other people’s lives.
PG: Are you a solitude poet (you keep poems to yourself) or a community poet (you exchange poems with friends for feedback)? Have you had any poetry mentors?
HM: I’m definitely not a solitary poet! If I was, I don’t think I’d get anything done. I’ve been lucky enough to be part of multiple communities of writers at different times: first my Masters class, then “poetry club” as we fondly call it, and Hera’s TMI school last year. All of those places have been so wonderful for being peopled with other humans who want to think and read and write, and I’m so grateful and in love with and in awe of all those humans! My longest-standing ‘community’ are definitely Sugar Magnolia Wilson and Morgan Bach, who are also my co-editors for Sweet Mammalian. Magnolia’s poems are like crystals, each with special powers, which you can pick up and feel humming through your skin, and which leave you altered and fumbling about on the astral plane. Morgan has this incredible gift for knitting centuries’ worth of narrative weight and detail into small and exacting visions which seep into your subconscious and trick you into thinking they’re your own memories. Those two, phoar, I’m so goddamn lucky to know them, to read their things when they’re vulnerable and new, and to have them do the same for me!
I’ve never had an official ‘mentor’, but do you think Anna would be too embarrassed if I claimed her? I think a significant portion of young writers in New Zealand, particularly women, wouldn’t be writing the way that they are if it wasn’t for her. Her writing is so smart, with such a dry sense of humour and openness to silliness too, such a unique voice, such clever observations, but they’re also unashamedly ‘womanly’ poems: they’re about friends and family, they’re domestic and comfortable and they still give you such feels. SO good!
Sometimes in your sleep I hear you roar
and it echoes in the back of my jaw, child,
in the forest of the night.
from ‘In the forest of the night’
Victoria University Press page
Radio NZ National: Harry Ricketts reviews the book with Kathryn Ryan