In the winter I planted flaxes
& they’ve taken
tall & muscular
now it’s spring
so I sleep naked
& when that suckerpunch
wind comes down
it makes those hard shafts slap
slide like lovers legs in showers
Go step outside go feel it
go stand naked in the flaxes
to get one physical fix
from ‘5 … romance’ in ‘People from the Pit Stand Up’
Photo credit: Ebony Lamb
Sam Duckor Jones is both a poet and sculptor living in Featherston. He won the Biggs Poetry Prize from the International Institute of Modern Letters in 2017. Victoria University Press recently released his first collection: People From the Pit Stand Up. I got goosebumps when I saw the book – generous in size, font choice and layout. Sam’s enigmatic black & white cover drawing perfectly fits poetry that floats ideas, syncopates both feelings and hungers, relishes life and never relinquishes the whole business of making art. White space is as gorgeous as the lines that drift and stall, with agility and sweet bite, for both ear and eye. This a poetry collection to enthuse about. As you will see from the photos below, my copy is well thumbed – it has been a perfect diversion in a month of waiting rooms.
Sam and I recently embarked upon a slow-paced email conversation.
Paula: Were you an avid reader as a child? Did you ever read poetry? Or had poetry read to you?
Sam: I don’t know about avid…I read a lot of Nature books… or any fiction with an animal: Redwall, Rats of Nimh, Beak of the Moon, Animal Farm. I was a soft version of smart, smarter than I am now. We were a bookish house. Books were just there, like baths or siblings, inevitable, and we all read to each other. As for poetry, how as-a-child are we talking? Goodnight Moon, Dr Seuss, I loved them I guess. Edward Gorey, Terry Jones: dark verse for sensitive boys. I have other things on my mind besides breasts: / Australia – for example – Australia. / To tell you the truth, I think a great deal about Australia. Paul Durcan. I might have been a kid when I read that.
Paula: Gosh I am getting all nostalgic for those animal books, especially The Rats of NIMH.
On the plane home I sat behind a man who was
reading poems & I was also reading poems!
I hoped the flight attendant would notice & say out loud
something like hey
two people reading poems
so that other people might hear & say
My heart’s aflutter!
from ‘Nudes on Loan’
I love the scene on a plane, in ’Nudes on Loan’, where the speaker in the poem is reading poetry. Poetry readers sometimes feel like an endangered species but then you see the turnout at readings, get feedback from readers or spot someone with a poetry book in hand.
If you were to pen a short biography of yourself, from a poetry book that made an early impression to a more recent astonishment, what books would feature?
Sam: I wrote poems before I read poems, I think. Freely as a kid, gloomily as a teenager, and then with relative *wisdom* as an adult, which can be problematic.
There are poems and poets that have made impressions, from Paul Durcan’s moment with breasts/Australia to John Dickson’s moment with a slaughterman/Australia. Really though, I am a lover of picture books, usually ones with a poetic sensibility, probably.
So who do I treasure the most, for the longest? Shel Silverstein: Different Dances. We called it the Rude Book, and it was. Kept on the top shelf out of reach, but we’d climb on top of an armchair, get it down, thumb wide eyed through pages of pen and ink penises being thrown like javelins, spectacular. And this from the same gentle man who brought us The Giving Tree! A revelation! To inhabit both worlds so easily, fearlessly. That’s a poetry of a kind. William Steig’s The Amazing Bone I adore for it’s unhurried absurdity: ….the warm air touched her so tenderly, she could almost feel herself changing into a flower. Her light dress felt like petals. “I love everything,” she heard herself say. Gushy! And then of course she makes friends with a talking bone who, after rescuing her from a creep abductor, goes on to become a part of the family. I mean, why not? Adults sometimes forget to be playful.
These books keep me connected to some essential childhood dreaminess, loose and unquestioned, important to channel when putting down one’s own lines. Maurice Sendak with Ruth Krauss: All I want is / sugar off a button Or this, from A Girl at a Party: …her face was beautiful. / Her dress was beautiful. / Her feet were beautiful. / Everybody said, “How beautiful!” / And she was rich too. / But the other girls at the party didn’t care / because they all had warm bathrobes. Maybe this is where my taste for repetition began. Later, just before I turned to face poetry front on, I read Schoolmaster by Yevtushenko, another gorgeous exercise in repetition: The window gives onto the white trees. / The master looks out of it at the trees, / for a long time, he looks for a long time / out through the window at the trees, / breaking his chalk slowly in one hand … Snow falling on him softly through silence / turns him to white under the white trees. / He whitens into white like the trees. / A little longer will make him so white / we shall no longer be able to see him in the whitened trees.
Then for a while I went in for broody American male fiction: Hemmingway, Salinger, Cheever, Carver. They’re still among my favourites. In fact I think they’re most front of my mind when I sit down to write. Funny then, that what comes out are poems about birds, art, gay love.
Eventually, cos I was writing poetry, I figured I better read some poetry. Jenny Bornholdt: And when the nice young woman tells the young man he has left his / parking lights on we are overjoyed with the drama of it all, crane / our necks, follow him down the road with our eyes, want to clap a / little, say what grace what style. (from Bus Stop) Around the same time, a poem by Edward Field about a man crying on a train (from A Journey): He hid his head behind a newspaper / No longer able to hold back the sobs, and willed his eyes / To follow the rational weavings of the seat fabric. / He didn’t do anything violent as he had imagined. / He cried for a long time, but when he finally quieted down / A place in him that had been closed like a fist was open, / And at the end of the ride he stood up and got off that train: / And through the streets and in all the places he lived later on / He walked, himself at last, a man among men, / With such radiance that everyone looked up and wondered. Hmm, if I was employed as his editor I’d suggest cutting ‘man among men’, (who do I think I am!!!?) but otherwise this poem devastates me in all good ways.
Then one day Frank O’Hara popped up (from Meditation in an Emergency): … I am the least difficult of men. All I want is boundless love. / Even the trees understand me! Good heavens, I lie under them, too, don’t I? I’m just / like a pile of leaves. These lines became an amulet that I carry always, hold up to the light now and then. Other gays like David Trinidad, his pop obsessions making legit poem fodder, inspired. And the elegant decrepitude of Geoff Cochrane. In a way he’s taken up the space where those boozy American heavyweights sat. And Geoff C lives in Wellington, so perhaps he’s more appropriate. I still like a sloshy dated American, but I get my fix now from, hmm, Anne Sexton… I tried Bukowski for a while but soon became exhausted. England doesn’t interest me, except for wicked old Ted Hughes. I know there are new young things making important searing poetry all over town, but I’m a slow reader ok? I did read this line from Chris Tse, clutched my pearls and sighed loudly in the kitchen:
‘It’s a toy for girls’, its makers said / like how some boys are for girls / and the rest fall into beds with each other (from Still – the boys)
In the mean time I’ll continue to read A Sign on Rosie’s Door aloud to prospective boyfriends.
Paula: I read in your bio you are both sculptor and poet. I was really struck by how sculpting is a thematic current in the poetry. A long central poem, ‘Blood Work’, explores the way man (men) is (are) shaped from clay and I was reminded of Christina Beer’s poetry collection, this fig tree has no thorns published in 1974. She is both poet and sculptor with words and clay, and at that point in time, was shaping woman when women were finding voice. Her book felt deeply personal and completely outside what all the visible men were doing.
but who needs sport anyway
in order to compete
go stand in a room full of artists
bet the round
when nerves will be shattered
& it’s physical too
to wield the tools
to make an eight-foot man
to make him look like he’d sweat
from ‘…muscles’ in ‘Blood Work’
How important was the book as a partner to clay? As a way of shaping man? Yourself?
Sam: For this book, important, but:
Clay is my safe space. And safe….is a cop-out. Writing poems is daunting and bare. Writing poems that share the same breath as clay feels…..less fledgling, feels manageable. Clay as poetic training wheel, steadying hand, mentor. Also: love, but everyone does that. …..Post book, I would like to look less internally. Cos I think I’m fairly spent. I think I’m fairly desp to start looking outwards. It’s probably time to let my pursuits become independent. I’m bored of write-what-you-know.
Impossible! To the 2nd and 3rd parts of your question: it’s gonna be an ongoing engagement. Sexuality, intimacy, I want to understand it & I just want it, but it scares me & I run from it. There are loads of writers and artists exploring such things… #solidarity. But I’m a #loner by default, bit blue, bit obsessive & cos I’m not rich enough for a therapist, I will continue to work things out on the page & in the studio. I’m braver in clay and in print. One day I’ll go check out Pride. Pride terrifies the shit outta me. Even though my house, my work, my aspirations are camp as all hell x o x
Paula: Perhaps that was what gripped me on one level: the sharp edge of heart, exposure, exploration. On the other hand I get caught in the gorgeous lyricism. I jotted down ‘radio static of the world, of life’. It is as though the poems catch fragments of things and there are gaps in hearing and seeing.
(third image: from ‘Blood Work’)
The white space is magnificent – both for eye and ear. I am thinking these are like broken poems, like stutters and offbeat moments, but there are such delicious currents flowing through. The space becomes the silent beat, the important beat that resonates and connects. Could say so much about this but what about you? Why is the white space such a necessary element in the poems?
Sam: I’m pleased you like the white spaces. And you’ve pretty much described to a T my intentions with them! Breath, rhythm, pace, music ……at school, when my classmates were crying beautifully over Kurt Cobain, I was melting in a corner to Satie. I was an eleven year old secret dandy and a scaredy-cat to boot. But when I heard Debussy’s famous quote that music is the space between the notes, that was like a powerful permission slip to go soak in hesitations, a silent beat is still a beat. It means that when you do pack words in, you get to be really really loud. Dynamics etcetera….. It’s how we talk, right? Plus, it’s sculptural. Spaces as fingerprints, workings, like a gestural painting or wax sculpture – I like to see the artists hand. The spaces keep that searching/looking-around/wondering alive on the page. It offers a sort of transparency or malleability.
Have you ever seen ancient Hebrew? There are no vowels! It can be daunting. But there are other sound clues in the text. Some words are stretc—————ched across half a column (that might just be to fill a line, but I imagine a ritardando). Some letters have little crowns to denote a trill or appoggiatura. It’s quite beautiful to look at and when people read it, they can choose to sing.
Paula: Yes! the vowels in languages are fascinating! When I speak Italian it feels like I am constantly rhyming.
Some poets say once they pick up pen or keyboard a poem just flows while others speak of doubt and struggle. Did you have a poem that was particularly difficult to get down or one that just slipped out near perfect?
Sam: I picked up a copy of The Fig Tree Has Thorns this morning – I love how she turns round recurring sounds and lines like a chant…it really does feel like wedging clay. And how she tires of herself, but can’t quite see a way around the mirror. The repetition, the loose dreamy autobiographic meanderings, childlike/primordial/a sort of hacking, damp creation. Thanks for the suggestion!
To your question: I think I’m alright at beginning poems. I think I can begin a dozen poems without too much fuss. I think finishing poems in another story. I think this might be true for many people. Maybe bunching poems together into sequences is a sneaky way around having to tie anything up much… You will have noticed that I have a lot of sequences. Sometimes though, sure, a poem does just slide right out fully formed, hello! Life Model might be an example of that. There are others that still feel bruised from all the deep tissue manipulation required to keep them alive…. Poems I could have worked on forever. Someone else had to just say stop. I’m too ashamed to point these out. Perhaps you can still spot a tremor? A restlessness? Or make out their soft skeletons? I suppose there is a kind of thrill to reading a poem that is barely holding on…..like it was taken to print just in time oh my god. Adds to the dynamism and hand-built element. Robust adaptability of the flawed. Bullshit? Maybe. Talking about its scaffolding is hard, I just blank and blather, I will never be an English teacher.
A writer I really admire is Ken Bolton. His verse is sometimes raggy and fragmented. How much should a writer fiddle with such things in post? Maybe sometimes not too much. I like his unrefined spread…. It’s rough and classy, like a five o’clock shadow.
Paula: I am glad you managed to find a copy of Cristina’s book! I have tried editing a poem as I read it in public because it has suddenly felt unbearably flawed. Madness! Then there are the poems that stay in the hedge groves of a collection and that I have never shared in public. I seem to grow fond of these.
I am reading and conversing with Tayi Tibble at the same time as I am reading you! And both books demand second readings, not because they are hard to make sense of but because, as I said on Twitter, electrifyingly good. Both collections are multi-toned and surprising and utterly original.
I move from your slithering sizzle of spring detail in ‘Daffodil Day’ to ‘Two Ways of Going to Sleep’ which it practical, poetic and downright funny. I will try this: ‘Think about the seaweed/ & how nobody works harder than the seaweed/ Seaweed tosses out its hair gathers it up in a towel tosses it out again’. ‘Years Passed, Just Like That’ offers poetry as dialogue; keen edged and utterly human. The longer sequences, such as ‘People from the Pit Stand Up’ and ‘Blood Work’ are sumptuous labyrinths of self exposure, attentiveness and an eye/I that casts about in multiple surprising directions. For the reader there are a thousand ways through and I love that!
I was wondering what these poems sound like when you read them aloud? Is this important? How do you read the white space? And whether you introduce them with little anecdotes? (can’t make the launch!) Are there a couple of poems where knowing the origin might fascinate the audience?
Sam: I think if the origin is fascinating enough, it will probably be there in the poem! But yep sometimes some context might be required, like if one poem is being lifted from a sequence. I’m getting better at banter. I guess for a reading I’d look to choose a poem that can stand fairly competently on its own.
I love to read aloud. Reading a poem aloud I feel like the truest, most fully realised version of myself and I feel like the poem is living in its purest form then, too. The white space is the muscle shimmer, the little energy shock: breathing, sighing, shifting of weight. And the word is the miracle that follows.
Tayi Tibble is so powerful, I am in awe of her wise and confident, glittering song. I am very proud to have had my book launched alongside such a talent.
see you tomorrow
quite happy in the end
saw two dotterels at
don’t want to get
Paula: Thanks Sam – this was an absolute pleasure, especially at our snail’s pace. And I got to hear you read, courtesy of NZBC (see below).
Victoria University Press page
Book launch reading via NZ Book Council