Poetry Shelf interviews Anna Livesey – ‘Every time I have published a book I have felt a part of myself caught in amber’

 

Ordinary_Time__59860.1501624161

Ordinary Time Victoria University Press, 2017

 

‘I want a little quiet, a piece of the day

where the baby and I soak in our own silent language.’

 

from ‘Speech and Comprehension’

 

Anna Livesey has published two previous poetry collections, Good Luck (2003) and The Moonmen (2010). She graduated with an MA in Creative Writing from Victoria University and was the Schaeffer fellow at Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2003.  Her new collection, Ordinary Time has just been published by Victoria University Press. With these new poems, personal experience is paramount because this book, with its roots and wings in the miracles and challenges of parenting, is an intimate exposure. Lines are agile, things pulse, gaps pollinate, and the glorious, challenging, curvatures of motherhood are brought searingly close.

 

 The interview

 

Paula:

 

‘Having not been out for days I have very little to add—

save that the house is sweet and clean, the baby safe and fed.’

 

from ‘Synthetic Thinking’

 

Before I enter your new collection of poems, I stall on the title: Ordinary Time. Poets have often used ordinary things as a gateway to the less ordinary, as a way of refreshing little patches of the world about us, whether experience, sensation or physical object. Yet the title goes deeper for me, particularly having read the word ‘parenthood’ in Jenny Bornholdt’s quote on the back cover. It feels like you are boldly staking the domestic space and the mothering role as a necessary and fertile springboard for writing. How does the title resonate for you?

Anna: One of the things I think about a lot (for whatever use it is), is our moral responsibility to the world we live in – who we should care about, who we should care for. What events – horrors and wonders –  should we allow to get under our daily carapace and work on us? Especially in this world where the news of disaster is never far away. There’s that phrase about extreme weather events: “the new normal”. Hurricane Irma – the new normal. Degradation of democracy in the States, Spain, parts of Latin America where it was once thought it be bedded in – the new normal. The end of Francis Fukuyama’s “the end of history” – the new normal.

The book starts with Peter Singer, a moral philosopher who basically says – “we are all equally valuable so we are wrong to value ourselves, our families, our tribe above those who are ‘other’…”.  And I believe that, but I also believe it is an impossible and inhuman doctrine. To me this is the puzzle at the heart of this book and the title. My beautiful, blessed, mundane life of glorious domesticity and early motherhood with my children, husband, friends and family and warm dry house with full cupboards exists in the same reality as Syria. Where children as beautiful and as beloved as mine are dying. Both of these realities are “ordinary”.

To survive and function and care for those who are most immediately our responsibility we need (or at least I need) to take refuge in the shared human mendacity of closing up our carapace and giving an emotional shrug. And in fact I think this is not really the “new” normal, but just normal – the Hobbesian description of the human condition – “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” – continues to hold true. (And as I type this I think – and what is the point of poetry in all this anyway?)

And then on the other hand – the title poem talks about the late winter time when the magnolias all around Auckland are covered in their magical flowers. They look like aliens or supermodels, all lanky grace and outrageous decoration. Then the flowers fade and the “green leaves of ordinary time” appear and the magnolias just look like normal trees for another year. So yes, the title is also a nod to the magic and mania of those first early weeks with a new baby, and how they refine and change one, as a parent and inevitably as a writer.

 

‘(…) Across the road two magnolias, one pink, one white. In the days

since we came home I’ve watched their stark flower-spiked branches

soften and go pastoral—the green leaves of ordinary time climbing out

of the wood.’

 

from ‘Ordinary Time’

 

Paula: That nagging doubt about the value of writing poetry is a tough one. What difference does it make to the Syrian crisis, the ordinary families there that love their babies, eat, sleep, celebrate and mourn? Perhaps one response is that in translating your experience you contribute to a global poetry conversation that opens windows on how we live with our different hungers, failures, connections, kindnesses.

 

‘I am a person in love with nostalgia

and this unfits me for every moment of living but the one just past.’

 

from ‘I Am a Person in Love with Nostalgia’

 

You record the early weeks of motherhood and the poems undulate through fatigue and joy, routine and insistent questions. I love the way you pull things from the past into the patterns of the present. I particularly love ‘I Am a Person in Love with Nostalgia.’ It feels like there is nostalgia for former selves, but you also make a precious baby moment glow that might be a future nostalgic memory hub. What kind of returns does poetry represent for you?

 

Anna: The returns of poetry. Let me first be contrary and take returns in the sense of “what you get back”. In my previous book, The Moonmen, there is a poem called “Bonsense”. Bonsense means “good sense” – ‘bon’ as in the French “bonne”, for good (and indeed the Scots “Bonnie” – beautiful, cheerful – which is my daughter’s name). The poem is about the returns of poetry, and of art, the non-essential, in general. It is addressed to a dear poet friend who had a job caring for a very very small library in a small town in Montana, and ends:

 

“From the chest of your books

you enjoin belief

in outposts of minature sense or nonsense,

or going further, antonym, bonsense—

the elaborate folly of the heart and brain,

built curlicued, baroque.

 

What bonsense is this, a tiny horse, a tiny library?

The great iced cake of relationships,

the ornamental pony of compassion,

the perennial shout (SHOUT) of shared exclamation.”

 

The central idea here is that compassion and art spring from the same core impulse. Imagination/transportation/identification/recognition/the marvellous… these are human characteristics and lead to our greatest baroqueries – the welfare state, poetry, breeding horses too tiny for any purpose but to be admired. I don’t feel that poetry needs to “do” or “contribute to a conversation”. I think the return of poetry is merely for it to be.

And the returns in the sense of nostalgia. Every time I have published a book I have felt a part of myself caught in amber. And through my three books the amount of “me” that is there like an insect in the settled gum is greater than before. And in this book, as you observe, “me” has expanded out and encompasses my babies. As I am writing this to you, it is day one of Bonnie being fully weaned. Yesterday she had her last ever feed and five years of being pregnant, breastfeeding or both came to an end for me. So to have that moment at the early cusp of our relationship captured and kept in a way that I love, that moves me back into that moment perfectly, is infinitely precious. A memory outside myself. That is the personal return of poetry.

 

Paula: I loved that. For me, it is exactly why poems that venture into the domestic or the personal are utterly productive for reader and writer.

 

‘When my mother died she had spent

a long time in darkness.

 

When my grandmother died she had spent

a medium time in darkness.

 

When my daughter was born she had spent

a short time in darkness.’

 

from ‘Quotation’

 

That phrase ‘caught in amber’ really resonates, and that poems can be an intimate way of catching a present moment to savour the future. Is there a poem in the collection that particularly resonates with you? I found myself haunted and, as that word rightly implies, returning to ‘Quotation’. I was entranced by the generations of women and by the distinctive dark and light.

Anna: That’s like asking if I have a favourite child! I’m pleased you asked about “Quotation”. It’s a funny little poem – the opening lines include a quotation from William Calos Williams, of course — “Danse Russe”. In that poem, Williams is talking of himself, dancing naked, singing (go and read the poem now…! Such an image it is), waving his shirt around his head. His poem ends “Who shall say I am not/ the happy genius of my household?”.  My grandma was a brave woman (a WREN, among the first five WRENS to be choosen to go on a troop transport as decoders), but also a modest, genteel, English/Irish Catholic of her time. And so the image of her secretly dancing naked, admiring herself as Williams does, is part of the joy of that poem for me. And then there is the word “genius”. In my poem, as in Danse Russe, it means, essentially, “the soul of a place” – the genius loci, the ancient Roman concept that all places have a soul. So my poem is saying… who shall say that this modest woman, looking like a snuggly grandmother to me, her little grand-daughter, was not in fact a wild dancing creature, the secret, gleeful soul of the old farmhouse.

And then I just miss her so. And the farmhouse that had every aspect of a fairytale farm – my Grandpa made all the bread, there were hens and herbs and a sheepdog, a shy white cat, treasures from India (war service), a dressing table with mirrors that folded out and could be made to reflect themselves into infinity. Winegums in the pantry for story time. Easter in the garden. Woollen blankets. Grandpa’s blue farming overalls. Sunday roast – “from our own sheep”. I want every single part of it back, including and especially them.

(I should note here my family have a terrible weakness for writing books. My mother was a published historian with several books to her credit. My Grandpa wrote several local histories of the Wairarapa and a five volume self-published autobiography (Yes. Five volumes. And very interesting they are, at least to me). My grandma trained as a speech teacher in her 60s and then wrote plays which her students performed in the garden at Perrymead. She also wrote short stories for us, her grandchildren, and several of them were read on radio. So I am not just missing the rural idyll and the unstinting love of Grandparents, but also missing a formative place, where books and language and storytelling and performance were part of everyday life.)

In this poem, and in ‘Privacy’, and several other poems in the book, I was thinking about a passage from Simone de Beauvoir’s memoir of her mother’s death, A Very Easy Death. In the book she is looking for keepsakes for her mother’s friends, after her mother has died. She writes: “Everyone knows the power of things: life is solidified in them, more immediately present than in any one of its instants.” (C.f. Williams: “no ideas but in things”). So that’s the desire behind taking their house and putting it in my house — I want to “quote” their life in my life through their things.

The poem ends with another quotation, from Yeats, “John Kinsella’s Lament for Mrs Mary Moore”. Again, if you don’t know the poem, go and read it. It’s a song of grief for a witty, wise, sexy old woman (I have always loved this poem and it continues to appeal as I grow a little older myself and hope to be appreciated in the round, (even and despite my flaws), as John Kinsella appreciates Mrs Mary Moore). The repeated refrain is “What shall I do for pretty girls/ now my old bawd is dead?”. Mrs Mary Moore is, literally, a bawd. And so again this is a naughty joke on my part. My grandmother was a witty, wise, sexy older woman. She absolutely die to see that written down! But I love having that thought about her.

 

Paula:

‘is this how my mother felt

this fear, this,

bewilderment?

I want to mother better than I was mothered.

I can say this because she is dead.’

 

from ‘Bay Leaves’

 

I like the idea of a poem as keepsake. A way of preserving familial relations in the manner of a photograph album, a daily journal or a shoebox of mementos.

The collection offers myriad rewards for the reader. It is a bit like peeling back layers of living to expose the challenges along with the miracles or joys. I am drawn to the way the world rubs into the private life: the child washed up on the beach makes the mother hold her child that much closer. Perhaps the poems that struck deepest faced the mother, the mother no longer here, the mother who prompted the poet to look at her own mothering. Were these difficult poems to write?

Anna: No they weren’t. The difficulty was in the long years of decline. My mother was a writer, so writing feels like a very real way to honour her. Making art felt like salvaging something.

 

Paula: Do you think, in this move to the overtly personal, other things such as musicality, changed a little too?

Anna: I deliberately wanted some of these poems to be clumsy. Awkward subjects deserve an awkward sound. That’s not something I would have been comfortable with in my earlier work.

 

Paula: Were you tempted to include endnotes as some poets do? I can go either way. Endnotes open up poems in ways I don’t necessarily anticipate, adding avenues of delight, but conversely might limit my own freedom to explore and delve within the myriad possibilities of a poem.

Anna: My first book, Good Luck, had endnotes.  There was a lot of found poetry and I wanted to reference where it had come from.  With this book I thought about end notes, very briefly. And then I thought: who has the time??? And also I didn’t want to explain the poems – either they do their own work or they don’t.

 

Paula: Did you read any books while writing this that affect how and what you were writing?

Anna: Czeslaw Milsolz’s Roadside Dog – a little book of prose poems, limpid, narrative, engaged, straightforward, complicated, personal and full of the world. The best bits of Ordinary Time are really just a crib of Roadside Dog. Raymond Carver – again, the direct voice of his poetry. The beautiful poem, “The Haircut”, of his referenced in “Because I’m a Human”. Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life is the book that “Reading Books About the War” lifts off from. Tove Jannsen, the Moomintrolls – moments of recognition in literature affect me profoundly, especially when they are parent/child, and Tove Jannsen does these so beautifully. I am always reading Janet Frame’s poetry, and hoping for a little of her perfectly awkward insight to rub off. And then also the manuscript of my dear friend Lauren Levin. Her work is quoted in the last poem in the book. She has just had a truly wonderful book published – The Braid. If you care about poetry and about women and about the world and about justice and about beauty you should order it. And Heather Tone’s Likenesses. There are several poems for Heather in The Moonmen, and she and her luminous, curious, outsider-mind writing are a constant inspiration to me – how to live, how to write.

 

 

Victoria University Press page

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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