Alison Glenny was born in Christchurch and now lives in Paekākāriki. She graduated with an MA in Creative Writing from Victoria University and she has a postgraduate certificate in Antarctic Studies from the University of Canterbury. She has taught creative writing at Whitireia New Zealand. Her poetry has appeared in print and online, in journals and anthologies. Bill Manhire selected her as the 2017 winner of the Kathleen Grattan Poetry Award and I can see why. The resulting book, The Farewell Tourist, recently published by Otago University Press, is poetry pleasure at every level. I utterly love it. It is so prismatic in its making and effect every time I pick it up to reread I feel like I am holding a new book.
To celebrate The Farewell Tourist Alison and I embarked on a slow-paced email conversation.
Each of his letters was a tiny museum, a footnote to an imaginary
novel. ‘I searched the box of negatives to discover the keepsakes,
but they had vanished in the silence of the crevasses.’
from ‘Footnotes to the Heroic Age’
Paula: Your new collection is a joy to read. It is so rich in silence, enigma and erasure I wondered how you would feel talking about it?
Alison: Kia ora Paula, thank you for those kind words. And yes, it’s probably true that I don’t find writing about myself the easiest thing. I can only promise to answer your questions as non-cryptically and with as little self-erasure as possible!
On the subject of form (implied I think by your reference to erasure), can I say that the form you have devised for these interviews seems very appealing to me – like a super-relaxed game of tennis, or a parlour game where you write something on a piece of paper, fold it and give it to the next person, and eventually discover you’ve generated a piece of writing.
She dreamed that winter was a little cabinet. When she unlocked
it, she discovered a small white dog.
from ‘Footnotes to the Heroic Age’
Paula: Oh you have caught exactly why I love doing this kind of conversation. Min-a-ret’s latest issue resembles the paper parlour game in that poets created poems by handing over the accruing poem with only the last line showing. There seems to be such delight in the surprising connections.
When did you first find delight in poetry? As a child? As a teenager?
Alison: I grew up in a bookish household. My father, whose childhood was marked by a certain amount of hardship and who left school very young, could probably be described as a first generation reader. As a child, my first encounters with poetry were through anthologies like Geoffrey Grigson’s The Cherry Tree, which combined extracts from Shakespeare or the Metaphysical poets with traditional counting rhymes or riddles. I remember it included his own free verse translation of an immensely sad and beautiful poem by Hölderlin. And at school there were the Voices anthologies, which mixed up short prose pieces, poems, and visual images, and which I recall as having a sort of modernist rigour that I found both alluring and slightly frightening. As a teenager I mainly read science fiction.
Paula: Can you pick a couple of poets (or poetry books) who really mattered to you between these early readings and recent times?
Alison: That’s a tough question! How much space do we have? Going right back, I would say Bill Manhire. My copy of Zoetropes has remained with me through shifts and relocations of home or country. As someone who leans towards prose, I am drawn to hybrid forms such as prose poetry or loosely narrative sequences. Charles Simic’s The World Doesn’t End, Dinah Hawkin’s Small Stories of Devotion, Rachel O’Neill’s One Human in Height. Tranströmer’s The Sorrow Gondola. This is a very partial list. Also I’m wary of lists, as they tend to exclude more than they include.
When I’m working on a project I feel a bit like I’m scrolling through radio stations, hoping to pick up something that resonates on a similar frequency. When I was writing The Farewell Tourist I was reading Bernadette Hall’s Antarctic poems, and I discovered poets like Jenny Boully and Kristina Marie Darling, who create entire books from prose fragments and found forms such as footnotes that refer to works that don’t exist. I am drawn to these works, which suggest the possibilities of constructing emotional landscapes from suggestion and from things that aren’t there.
The absence of daylight was partly compensated for by an
excellent little blubber lamp, which burned with a clear white
from ‘Footnotes for a Heroic Age’
Paula: Oh I love that book of Dinah’s. It showed me that poetry can feel and think and play with form and be acutely aware of how things are for women.
Your debut collection is so dependent on what is not there as much as what is there. But let’s go to Antarctica first. What drew you to Antarctic Studies at the University of Canterbury?
Alison: I’d been trying to write about Antarctica for a while, but wasn’t very satisfied with what I was writing. I felt as if my imagination kept coming up against the limits imposed by my lack of actual experience. The Antarctic Studies course is multidisciplinary, so it seemed like an opportunity to learn more about all aspects of Antarctica – ecology, governance, current debates around issues like climate, tourism, and resources. It also includes a field trip to the Ross Sea area, and for someone like me who isn’t a scientist, this was a rare opportunity to travel to Antarctica and experience the ice first-hand.
Some nights the staircase disappeared and was replaced by
an ice tongue. She improvised crampons using nails, spiked
boots to descend the slick surface. In the morning the
house was back to rights, although at moments the night
would impose itself unexpectedly. Gazing at the hinge of
her jewellery box, for example, she would be seized by a
sudden vertigo. Overtaken by a conviction that the dressing
table, room, and everything in it had detached from the house
and was floating away, calving new impossibilities as it drifted
from the dynamic boundary.
from ‘The Magnetic Process’
Paula: Before we move to the poetry what were some key astonishments and surprises when you stayed in Antarctica? What was it like to write in situ?
Alison: The moment of arriving felt very euphoric. After eight hours of noise and vibration in the belly of a Hercules you emerge from the aircraft into what feels almost like a bowl of dazzling whiteness and light, surrounded by mountains and filled with incredibly pure air. In that moment Antarctica feels like everything you ever dreamed it might be and more. Most of my time in Antarctica was spent ‘in the field’ (ie a tent) but at Scott Base I got to spend a bit of time in the library, which has windows on three sides. I’d look up from what I was working on and see the scenery with its views of Mt Erebus and other landmarks. It conveyed a powerful feeling of thereness. Being able to work at midnight in natural light was also a highlight. I did more drawing than writing while I was there.
Paula: Your glorious new collection is a book of parts – a sequence, a series of footnotes, an appendix or two – but each part is highly-charged poetry. The Antarctic is a thread that stitches the pieces together in patterns of disappearance, mystery and snow. What mattered to you as you wrote?
Alison: The direction it took was probably born out of a number of encounters. One was with a language of science and scientific concepts that was largely new to me. Because I didn’t understand it properly, it prompted other, improper or fictitious associations. Another was with the literature of Heroic Era exploration. As others have commented, it’s a body of work in which the project of Edwardian imperial exploration is pursued in an environment so extreme and inhospitable to human life, as to render its goals strangely futile, while infusing everyday experience with an almost surreal intensity. One of my essays was a review of autobiographical narratives by the first women to visit Antarctica, so acknowledging the specifically gendered nature of that early Antarctic experience was also at the front of my mind. But I also believe that we view history through a lens that reflects our present concerns. Heroic Era narratives of climate-related suffering and death irresistibly prompt associations with our current concerns about the effects of human-induced climate change. We are living during the greatest mass extinction since the dinosaurs, but it can be hard to know not only what to do about it, but even how to feel about it. While I don’t address the topic of extinction in the book directly, it has a displaced influence on both the form and subject-matter.
from ‘Footnotes to A History of the Honeymoon’
Paula: Thus the repeating motifs and concern with disappearance. I was really drawn to the footnote sequence where the page is mostly white space and the footnotes hug the bottom. I love the way the white space reverberates as snow, silence and missing material before you read the footnotes. The footnotes seem a perfect response to the foreign, the alien, the difficult to write. Would it be pushing it too far to think of the way some narratives are footnotes to history rather than the main argument? Perhaps those by the first women who wrote Antarctica autobiographies? I was musing on what it might be like to build a sequence of footnotes that unsettle an actual history or travel book written through a singular lens. Where do your musings on footnotes lead you?
Alison: I am very much in sympathy with your idea for that work, and I would love to read it!
Your comments suggest one of the things that appeals to me about the use of footnotes as primary text, which is the invitation this seems to offer to readers to imagine their versions of what that missing primary text might be. As a writer who tends to rely on found material, I find that the distinction between author and reader can be fluid. As a child I was drawn to works such as cookbooks that provided blank pages at the end for you to add your own notes, to personalise the book. The idea that as the given text runs out, your own begins. I agree with your suggestion that this idea is particularly appealing for those whose experiences are marginal or under-represented – a kind of footnote to the official narratives or histories, as you put it.
But to go back to your previous question about what it is like to write in Antarctica, most of the writing I did was limited to tiny notes or observations scribbled in pencil (because pens are less reliable in the cold). So the footnote form was probably partly an attempt to preserve a sense of that way of working. There also seems to be an observational quality to the footnote. Even though its function is to refer to something else, it can feel slightly self-contained, outside narrative. In contrast to more conventional narrative, writing in footnotes can be a way of slowing down one’s reading of a text, and focussing on single objects or moments. Temporal sequentiality is downplayed in favour of an emphasis on spatial arrangement. I also have a longtime interest in collage, and the way in which the placing of incongruous elements in proximity can disrupt conventional ways of viewing, and generate unexpected effects.
Paula: The poem as collage is interesting. I love the idea of slowing the reading process down. This happens when you define a single word ‘erasure’ and create a poem. I was reminded of the time I tried writing online poems where if you clicked on a word it would lead you to a definition or refinement of that word. And you could keep clicking and refining. I love the way ‘Erasure’ in ‘Appendix 1’ offers pleasure in itself but also stands as a sequence of doorways into reading the collection.
1.An act or instance of erasing. 2. The removal of all traces
of something: obliteration. 3. The state of having been
erased; total blankness. 4. The place or mark, as on a piece of
paper, where something has been erased. There were several
erasures on the paper. 5. Crossing out, striking out, blotting
out, effacement, expunging. 6. A tendency to ignore or
conceal an element of society. 7. Removal of something in
order to reveal another: for example, the discovery that the
beloved has been replaced by a set of measurements.
8. The practice of concealing part of a poem by covering it
Do you do this as reader? Do you stall on individual words? Or collect words as keepsakes?
Alison: I do get slightly obsessed with certain words, as if they might hold the key to a larger idea or work. In general, I am drawn to the way that entries in dictionaries that provide extensive etymologies, like the OED, tend to form small narratives of transformation and expansion, in which an early or primary meaning (usually imported from another language) accrues further applications or secondary meanings, or travels from one part of speech to another. There’s an interesting tension between repetition (reinstating a meaning in slightly different ways, makes it more emphatic) and slide – the tendency for meaning to wander into other contexts and nuances. The inclusion of historical examples of these usages makes these entries another kind of fragmented text or collage, where things brush up against each other in unexpected ways.
Interestingly it’s the most common, everyday words that tend to be richest in terms of this kind of multiplicity. A reminder of the kind of amnesia we routinely practice whenever we use language – partly, as you suggest, to save time. At the other end of the spectrum, glossaries focused on a particular subject can be productive places for word-hunting. I found The International Classification for Seasonal Snow on the Ground – which includes terms such as ‘snow penitents’ – particularly evocative.
Paula: I loved thumbing through dictionaries as a child, especially in bed when I should have been sleeping. I wonder how that would work on the internet?
The single word is like a single detail in a poem. Your collection savours the small, the slightly off beat as well as the boundless, the snow that stretches on and on.
She dreamed she was on a ship that was sinking. She could
see the gleaming surface of the iceberg, feel the cold water
rise above her ankles. But she was seated with the violins
and preoccupied by details; the amount of rosin on her bow,
a false note from the woodwind, and the frayed portion of
sleeve at her wrist – did it show?
from ‘X’ in ‘The Magnetic Process’
Often I am drawn to a different way of looking at the world as I read these poems. Our viewfinder is altered. What sort of things did you hope for in your use of detail?
Alison: First of all, let me say how impressed I am that you read dictionaries as a child!
I do agree that smallness is a focus of the collection, and that this is partly an attempt to convey a kind of inadequacy of the individual against larger forces. In the particular fragment you quote I was trying to describe that kind of disproportion in relation to the experience of anxiety. The strangeness of worrying about something relatively trivial, like a detail of one’s appearance, while ignoring the much larger problem of being on a sinking ship. It seemed fitting to portray this via a dream, given the tendency of dreams to reconfigure elements of everyday life in ways that often bring anxiety to the fore, while representing it in absurd ways.
Paula: A number of poets – Mary Ruefle and Selina Tusitala Marsh, for example – white or black out portions of texts to create new poems. I am fascinated by your ‘Correspondence’ sequence where you have taken fragments from The Shackleton Letters: Behind the scenes of the Nimrod Exhibition (edited by Regina W Daly). You create a poem with words crossed out that offers two readings: one that includes the crossed out words and one that doesn’t. Again you are generating glorious poetic movement. But perhaps also unsettling things. Can you tell me a little about what it was like reading Shackleton’s letters and then producing poetry from them?
from ‘Appendix 2 Correspondence’
Alison: Mary Ruefle’s ‘A Little White Shadow’ is one of my favourite erasure-based works, partly because of the way that her use of white-out to erase the original text (a ghost story) transforms it almost literally into a shadow or ghost. There is a tension between the contrary movements of embodiment and disembodiment. Similarly, Selina Tusitala Marsh’s dark ink erasures seem to pay homage to the title of the source text, Wendt’s novel ‘Pouliuli’. The form conveys or enacts the subject-matter of the work in an almost literal way.
I find collections of letters, or similar historical documents, an interesting way of telling a story. On the one hand there is the sense of intimacy and immediacy that comes from reading the words of the participants, written close to the moment they are describing. But there are also large gaps in the narrative and the reader has to work to connect the pieces. In the case of the Shackleton letters what interested me was less the behind the scenes view of the Nimrod Expedition –such as Shackleton’s conflict with Scott over where to locate his Antarctic base, or the fact that he was writing love letters to two women simultaneously – than the editor’s descriptions of the damage to the paper on which some of the letters are written. Again, these feel like a literal record of fragmentation and incompleteness that emphasises the distance, both spatial and temporal, that these messages sought to bridge.
Paula: I think therein lie the delights of your collection; as readers we navigate both intimacy and distance, visibility and absence, musicality and silence.
It has been such a pleasure moving into a close focus on your poems. To finish can you name five New Zealand poetry books you have utterly loved for different reasons?
Alison: Apart from those already mentioned earlier? Bill Manhire’s The Victims of Lightning for the exquisite melancholy of the title poem, which also shows the potential for found poetry to express the profoundly personal. Cliff Fell’s The Adulterer’s Bible for introducing Fidel Serif and his search for a missing word. Michele Leggott’s Vanishing Points for its wonderful poem about Erebus and Terror. John Newton’s Family Songbook for its entanglement of place and memory and seemingly effortless narrative. Rhian Gallagher’s Shift and Hannah Mettner’s Fully Clothed and So Forgetful for proving that lyric poetry can be both a passionate and precise account of lived experience, especially queer experience. Lynn Jenner’s work (in general) for its hybridity and experimentation with form. Therese Lloyd’s The Facts for creating a body of work in relation to another poet. Is that five already? More than five? OK, I’d better stop.
She would wait for him in the morning room, seated on a
velvet sofa. Each time he visited she was delighted when
he produced a bouquet of flowers, summoned out of thin
air. He spoke of his belief that materials absorb the
identity of those who handle them. Sometimes their
fingers would touch during the examination of an object.
The inevitable sparks were part of what he called the
from ‘The Magnetic Process’
Otago University Press page
Excerpts from The Farewell Tourist at the Fourth Floor