Elizabeth Smither, Night Horse – winner of the Best Poetry Book Award at the Ockham NZ Book Awards 2018
Paula: Your new collection is a delight to read and offers so many poetic treats. I was thinking as I read that your poems are like little jackets that can be worn inside out and outside in. In stillness there is movement and in movement there is stillness; in musicality there is plainness and in plainness there is musicality. In the strange there is the ordinary and in the ordinary there is the strange. What do you like your poems to do?
Elizabeth: I want them to do everything. Everything at once. I want them to feel and think (and feel the thinking in them as you read). I want them to be quick, in the old sense of the word: the opposite of dead. I want them to not know something and try to find it out – I would never write a poem with prior knowledge – I think ignorance can be bliss or at least start the motor. And as I write more I find out more and more about musicality. Isn’t one of the loveliest moments in music when harmony breaks through discord as though it is earned and you know that discord, instead of being a thicket or a dark wood, is part of it?
Paula: I especially love the ongoing friendship and granddaughter poems, but I particularly love the first poem, ‘My mother’s house.’ Kate Camp and I heard you read this at the National Library’s Circle of Laureates and were so moved and uplifted that we asked for copies! Unseen, you are observing your mother move through the house from the street (you gave us this introduction) and see her in shifting lights. The moment is extraordinary; are we are at our truest self when we are not observed? There is the characteristic Smither movement through the poem, slow and attentive, to the point of tilt or surprise. The final lines reverberate and alter the pitch of looking: ‘but she who made it/who would soon walk into the last room/of her life and go to sleep in it.’ Do you have a poem or two in the collection that particularly resonate with you?
Elizabeth: I’m fond of ‘The tablecloth’ after I observed my friend, Clay, scrubbing at a corner of a white damask tablecloth in the laundry after a dinner party. It reminded me of the old-fashioned way of washing linen in a river. It’s both a doll-sized tablecloth and something almost as large as the tablecloth for a royal banquet around which staff walk, measuring the placement of cutlery and the distance between each chair. ‘Ukulele for a dying child’ tumbles all over itself in an incoherent manner because the subject is so serious and no poet can do it justice. The grandmother poems will probably be ongoing because it is such an intense experience: something between a hovering angel and a lioness. Going back to your remark about ‘My mother’s house’ I agree with the truth that is available in our unobserved moments. Perhaps there is a balance between our social and our private moments which might comprise something Keats called ‘soul-making’.
from our interview
A tree in the centre of a corn field
the corn rising in its ranks like braided hair
to meet the lowest branches
a tree that has replaced at least twenty
corn stalks with their divided leaves
twenty golden cobs sweetly surrendered
for this lovely grace: leaf sweep touching
leaf sweep, the whole field given by
this rising trunk, a focus
the pattern drawn from the edge of the field
to the centre where the tree
delivers a blessing.
The forest planation blankets hills.
the dark pines descend
except on one little hilltop a ride
of grass begins and runs
with the trees which seem to bend
tenderly towards it: a bed from which
a child has risen and begun walking
the solicitousness of pine branches over grass.
©Elizabeth Smither from Night Horse
Paula: Have you seen a festival poetry session (anywhere) that has blown you off your seat (or had some other significant impact)?
Elizabeth: Margaret Atwood and Hans Magnus Enzensberger at the Aldeburgh festival. I read first and sat down between them, shivering.
Paula: If you could curate a dream poetry session at The Auckland Writers Festival which poets would be there and who would mc or chair it?
Elizabeth: I think I’d do a Dead Poets session. Keats and Shelley, Robert Lowell, William Empson, John Crowe Ransom, Tomas Tranströmer, Szymborska, of course… the possibilities are endless. It might have something of the bitchy tone of ‘The Real Housewives of Melbourne’. To chair it one of the Paulas: Green or Morris.
from Poetry Shelf ’12 Questions for the Ockham New Zealand Book Award Poetry finalists’
Elizabeth will appear at the Auckland Writers Festival
Sunday May 20 1.30 – 2.20 Disappearances (4 readings) Limelight Room, Aotea Centre
Booksellers review by Emma Shi
Radio NZ National review by Harry Ricketts with Kathryn Ryan