Last week I launched Wild Honey in Auckland and Wellington and I have never experienced anything like it. It was a long time in the making – four years writing and researching – and several decades reading New Zealand poetry and germinating ideas. I faced all kinds of hurdles – notably a string of accidents and illnesses – that made the project tougher. But ever since I was a young girl words have been a primary love. Writing gives me energy, it makes me feel good, it connects me with the world when I am primarily drawn to a quiet, private life. Through my schooling years you would have to say I was misfit – for all kinds of reasons – and I had little confidence in what I could do. To be an awkward teenager and have my Y12 English teacher tell me in front of the whole class I would never get anywhere in the world writing as I did was a cruel blow. I pretty much failed school and all my writing was stored in secret notebooks.
A turning point for me was going to university in my thirties and studying Italian. I first thought I would do one paper but I ended up doing full degrees until there were no more to do. Moving into another language was the best thing I could have done. I loved reading Italian literature, watching Italian movies, spending time with the ideas and art of the Renaissance, and the women poets, but the language itself was an essential joy. To speak in different rhythms and musicalities (always rhyme) was an epiphany. To read Dante, Calvino, Ramondino, Durante and copious women poets and novelists refreshed my relationship with English. I just had to write poetry. I still didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere but writing was both my anchor and my sails. I discovered the poetry of Dinah Hawken (Small Stories of Devotion in particular), Fiona Farrell and Michele Leggott, and so began my personal quest to read as much New Zealand poetry as possible. I read poems regardless of gender but I was committed to reading poetry by women because poetry by women had been served so badly throughout the twentieth century.
I want to thank my extraordinary Italian lecturers with whom I studied, wrote theses and taught – Bernadette Luciano, Mike Hanne and Laurence Simmonds – who allowed an awkward nonconforming student to find her way and excel. Wild Honey is in such debt to you. My Italian years shaped me as a writer unlike any other.
And now Wild Honey is out in the world. I have created events to celebrate its arrival, done interviews with attentive reviewers and am watching the book find its way into the hands of readers. It is both wonderful and overwhelming. Nerve wracking. Exciting. Exhausting. Energising.
I don’t know how to explain it but there is still a bit of that shy awkward girl in me – who favours staying at home with family and having one-on-one conversations with friends rather than big social / public occasions.
At my launches I invited around twelve poets to read one of their own poems and a poem they love by a local woman. In the middle I had a brief conversation with Selina Tusitala Marsh (Akld) and Helen Heath (Wtn). In both cities the poets reading offered a kōrero: for me, for the book, but most importantly for women. And they were all speaking from the heart; starting with the book but going beyond the book. Helen suggested that Wild Honey was just the beginning. More books would be written. More houses built. I love the prospect of different perspectives, different houses, different structures, different voices.
Dinah picked out the word ‘household’ and talked about the way Wild Honey was ‘holding’ women together. To me it felt like the whole room was ‘held’. In Wellington the readers crossed generations: from Fiona Kidman, Rachel McAlpine and Dinah Hawken to Sugar Magnolia Wilson, Tayi Tibble and Gregory Kan (reading one of his magnificent Robin Hyde poems). I can’t underestimate how significant this was: to have our poetry elders embracing our young voices and to have our young poets blown away by women who have paved the way. The audience too was a terrific gathering of poets of multiple generations.
It made me want to do more – to bring poets together across generations, cultures, styles, schools, cities and so on. To pay attention to the way poetry is multiple conversations, connections, communities.
In Wellington, mid event, Anahera Gildea got on her phone and asked Hinemoana Baker to send her Ihumātao poem from Berlin. Hinemoana was now in the room. We loved that. We were crossing oceans and then being carried to the whenua where poets are gathering. A similar thing happened when Grace Iwashita Taylor read in Auckland.
A key point with Wild Honey is that poetry establishes many resistances, homages, repetitions, discoveries, existences, differences, residencies. It is ‘an open home’ to borrow a phrase from Sally Blundell’s terrifically attentive Listener review.
At my Wellington launch I confessed I had deleted all the toxic anecdotes from Wild Honey – the scenes where men have muted or sideswiped me or other women – because I wanted my book to work differently. I wanted my book to lay down a challenge, not through toxic attack and deconstruction, but by writing out of love and connection. Is it possible? Can you write a book that challenges authority and injustice by writing out of kindness? Can you refresh the academic page by creating hybrid books that call upon scholarship, research, autobiography, biography, history, close reading, a resistance to vapid jargon and women-deleting theory? My time with Italian women writers and philosophers showed me you can think and write outside the academy as well inside it.
That night, the night of my Wellington event, I was awake pretty much until dawn, overwhelmed by the aroha in the room and musing on my book and its intentions. I started crying without knowing why. I was thinking that sometimes we do have to challenge authority and injustice in strident voices. I should have said that out loud. I was also mourning the exceptional women who aren’t in my book – the rooms and objects I had to leave behind. In the middle of the night it feels unbearable.
In the light of day when I am still overwhelmed and astonished at what I have written, I keep returning to the idea that Wild Honey comes out of the awkward girl and the love she felt for words and their power to restore and energise and connect.
In Auckland we were running over time (not excessively!); everyone was saying things that needed to be said but, because we were in Auckland Central Library with an 8pm closing time, I felt I needed to ditch my conversation with Selina. The kōrero to that point was heartlifting. Young Pasifika women acknowledging their place in the room, in Wild Honey and in poetry communities. Courtney Sina Meredith began the event by reading a poem by her favourite poet, her mother Kim who was in the room. Johanna Emeney concluded the event by reading a poem that pays tribute to her mother, no longer with her, and Elizabeth Smither’s ‘My mother’s house’. A maternal full circle. Breathtaking, evocative, moving. Each poet invited another woman into the room through the poems they picked (Tusiata Avia, Lauris Edmond, J C Sturm, Robin Hyde, for example).
At the mid point, when I told Selina we needed to ditch our conversation, she stood up, pulled me next to her heart and said we were going to talk. She said, however, before we talked, she and I would stand in silence for 30 seconds and then invited everyone to send me their love. I have never experienced anything like it. A packed room looking back at me with warm, loving faces. People I didn’t know. People I did. I was reminded that when I was in the radiotherapy machine I had imagined a cocoon of light spinning around me and I attached each hug I had received to the spinning light and the cocoon became one of love and when I left the room I felt light and enlivened.
Wild Honey is bigger than me. On the day of my Auckland launch I baked a loaf of bread as I usually do each day (I bake grainy seedy breads in a bread maker and sour dough loaves). But I had forgotten to put in yeast, sugar and salt so I baked a hard brick! I began musing on how Wild Honey was like a sour dough loaf. l gathered flour, salt and water but it was activated by the wild yeast in the air. There is something in the air – I’d say globally – voices that are insisting women are brought into the light: in politics, sports, comedy, music, literature, film, law, human rights, equity, equality, education, positions of power, on airspace and so on.
Wild Honey is not just a matter of what, as Selina said, but a matter of how. If we are trying to govern out of kindness, we can also critique out of kindness. There is a woman holding the pen and her ink is imbued with her story, her imagination, her vision of what a poem might do, of what the world can be. I want to move closer to that woman. I don’t like all the poetry I read, I might not understand all the poetry I read, but I will slow down and find ways to move through a poem. I refuse the position of authority – I am an author minus the ‘ity’ bit.
That reviewers such as Kiran Dass (The Herald) and Sally Blundell (New Zealand Listener) have slowed down and read Wild Honey on its own terms has moved me profoundly.
Soon I hope to sleep through the night again – but today on Phantom Billstickers National Poetry Day I want to acknowledge everyone who made Wild Honey possible. Massey University Press and Nicola Legat who worked with such passion and patience to make the best book possible. My friends and family who got me through all manner of hurdles with enduring support. I hit rock bottom writing this book as my friends know and the end result would not be possible without their aroha and backing.
But most importantly, on this day when we celebrate poets and poetry in Aotearoa, I raise a glass of champagne to all the women who have written poems before me, all the women who write alongside me, and to the poets of the future, whatever their gender. My book is in debt to your wild honey. Today I toast you. Happy National Poetry Day!