Monthly Archives: August 2019

Poetry Shelf classic poem: Bill Manhire picks Denis Glover

 

HERE IS THE NEWS

 

When the BBC announced
The end of the world,
It was done without haste,
It was neutrally, gentlemanly done,
It was untinged with distaste,
It was almost as if the BBC had won.

 

Denis Glover

From Selected Poems, edited by Bill Manhire, Victoria University Press, 1995 (reissued 2019)

 

 

Note from Bill Manhire

When Denis Glover wrote this poem you could still hear the BBC News on New Zealand radio. “This is London calling,” said the seemingly bored male newsreader, “here is the news.” Glover’s little poem brilliantly skewered the affectless complacency of that old Imperial voice. How could you possibly talk about, say, the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, or even the latest Soviet satellite launch, in a tone so much at odds with actual events?

The poem first appeared in the New Zealand Listener in 1961, the year that New Zealand’s first television broadcasts began. Twenty years later in 1981 Glover omitted it from his self-edited Selected Poems, presumably because the BBC news bulletins had long vanished from our airwaves. Would people any longer get the joke? Local voices were also making their way on to TV and radio. Maybe the poet felt his poem now lacked point and punch.

I think Glover’s poem is still full of punch. “Here is the News” asks us to consider the dangers of impartiality, especially in publicly funded media. When a really contentious subject comes along, broadcasters too often race to the fraudulent safety of balance. “Both sides of the debate” must be made available. Hence climate-change deniers are still given space alongside the credible voices of scientific research. Language, too, tends to be neutral and gentlemanly. Words like “emergency” or “crisis” are kept well out of earshot. When I read Denis Glover’s poem in 2019 – at a time when the end of the world really looks possible – I’m reminded that impartiality might be the biggest joke of all.

 

Aside from publishing his own widely acclaimed poetry, Bill Manhire has edited a number of anthologies and written extensively on New Zealand literature. His most recent collections include Tell Me My Name and Things to Place in a Coffin.

Denis Glover (1912 – 1980) was a printer, typographer, publisher, boxer, sailor, scholar, satirist, wit and poet. He wrote New Zealand’s most famous poem, yet his work has fallen in and out of print over the years. First published in 1995, Bill Manhire’s selection is based on Glover’s own 1981 Selected Poems, and includes ‘The Magpies’ along with a wide variety of other poems, lyrical and satirical. He founded the Caxton Press in 1936.

 

Glover VUP page

Manhire VUP page

 

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Poetry Shelf noticeboard: Grimshaw Sargeson Fellowship open for applications

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Words Change Lives – Coveted Literary Fellowship Opens Applications

Winning a writing fellowship changes the course of a writer’s life, opening doors and allowing writers to think and apply their craft. Applications for the 2020 Grimshaw Sargeson Fellowship are now open. Virginia Woolf advocated for a room of one’s own – and the Grimshaw Sargeson provides a historic environment to write in, along with financial support and network opportunities.

The Fellowship, now in its 33rd year, is a national literary award offering published New Zealand writers, based both locally and internationally, the opportunity to focus on their craft full-time by providing an annual stipend of $20,000 and tenure at the Sargeson Centre in Auckland.

Acclaimed New Zealand-American poet Chloe Honum and Kiwi-Asian playwright-actor-director Chye-Ling Huang were the recipients of last year’s fellowship. Honum, a Pushcart Prize winner and Ruth Lilly Fellow has just finished up her half of the tenure and is now living back in Texas, leaving Chye-Ling with the remainder of the year to complete her placement.

“This fellowship has been running for over two decades now and I am so grateful to have been a part of it,” says Chloe Honum.

“I found writing at the Sargeson Centre very inspiring, both because of the location and of the fellows who had been there in the past. Overlooking Albert Park gave me a sense of solitude, while only being a short walk from the rhythms of Auckland city. At the same time, working in that space made me feel a part of the Fellowship’s legacy. I was honoured to be sitting at the same desk as other great New Zealand writers.”

Chye-Ling has just begun her four-month residency but is enjoying it so far. “The monetary support has freed up more time to concentrate on just writing, which is a huge luxury, and the location means that there’s always something going on. Aside from the gallery activity downstairs, the quirks of the city are endless and have inspired some new and unexpected material.

“There’s a romantic image I had in mind of a writer holed up in an exposed brick walled apartment sipping whisky and torturously scribbling into the night. My experience is more blasting music and dancing until inspiration strikes, too much coffee and wandering the city, and I’m excited to see where the next three months take me.

“It’s great that we are able to offer these well deserving authors and creatives the opportunity to focus solely on their literary work for a few months. It gives them the opportunity to delve deeper and explore ideas they might not otherwise be able to,” says Frank Sargeson Trust Chair Elizabeth Aitken-Rose.

“The aim of this Fellowship is to enhance and foster New Zealand’s literary landscape. It’s always exciting to see the work that our recipients create during their tenure, and we look forward to seeing what new ideas are put forward by this year’s talent.”

Aitken-Rose also says that it is wonderful to see a diverse range of authors apply for the Fellowship across all genres and encourages all established writers to consider applying, whether they are poets, biographers, playwrights or novelists.

“The contribution that they make to New Zealand’s culture is invaluable,” says Paul Grimshaw, Partner of Grimshaw & Co, “that’s why we continue to support New Zealand’s literary talent.”

Applications close on Friday 27 September 2019, with the tenure due to start on 1 April 2019.

Further information on the Fellowship is available here. Any queries can be directed to Elizabeth Bennie at elizabeth.bennie@grimshaw.co.nz or on +64 9 375 2393.

Poetry Shelf noticeboard: National Schools Poetry Award winners

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National Schools Poetry Award celebrates New Zealand’s poets of the future

A year 13 student at Auckland’s Westlake Girls High School has won first place in the 2019 International Institute of Modern Letters’ (IIML) National Schools Poetry Award, with her poem ‘Mammalian’.

Xiaole Zhan receives a prize of $500 and the opportunity to attend a poetry masterclass with poet Chris Tse and Starling editor Francis Cooke at the IIML, home of Victoria University of Wellington’s prestigious creative writing programme. Xiaole’s school library also receives a $500 book grant. Nine others were shortlisted in the awards and they will also attend the masterclass.

“This is very exciting news—I feel encouraged and supported as a young poet,” says Xiaole. “Opportunities like this are crucial in the development of young writers like myself, and help us to gain confidence, have the rare opportunity of extending our skills with established writers, and connect with like-minded students across New Zealand.”

Judge Chris Tse—whose poetry has been widely published and performed in New Zealand and overseas—says the young poets who entered the competition are writing about topics that reflect the interests and concerns of young people today, from the frustration of wanting to grow up faster, to the desire for the world to slow down.

“Xiaole Zhan’s evocative poem, ‘Mammalian’ triggers a multi-sensory response in the reader. From its bold, imagistic opening to the breathless desperation of its final lines, ‘Mammalian’ reeled me in and refused to let me go until the final word.”

The nine shortlisted poets are: Maia Armistead, Waikato Diocesan School for Girls; Charlotte Boyle, Cashmere High School; Sebastian Macaulay, Wellington High School; Claudia Snow, Wakatipu High School; Pippi Duncan, Takapuna Grammar School; Rachel Lockwood, Taradale High School; E Wen Wong, Burnside High School; Emily Blennerhassett, Cashmere High School; Elizabeth Nahu, Onslow College.

IIML Senior Lecturer and poet Chris Price says, “From compelling responses to the Christchurch mosque shooting to an intimate portrait of a father-son relationship, the shortlisted poems are alert to the big issues and the small moments of connection in human relationships. If this shortlist is anything to go by, the future of New Zealand poetry is in good hands.”

The winner also receives an additional package of literary prizes provided by the New Zealand Book Council, Victoria University Press, Sport, Landfall and the New Zealand Society of Authors. The nine finalists receive prizes from the New Zealand Book Council and Sport, as well as $100. Flights and accommodation costs are covered for students outside of Wellington to attend the masterclass at the IIML.

The 2019 National Schools Poetry Award is organised by the IIML with the support of Creative New Zealand and advertising agency Ogilvy (formerly Ogilvy & Mather), with promotional support from Wonderlab.

The winning poem, the judge’s report and all the shortlisted poems are available on the National Schools Poetry Award website.

Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: Arihia Latham’s ‘Elephant/ your room’

 

Elephant/ your room

 

An elephant walks in

 

I harp on

 

You pull your hood over your eyes

 

Why do I think you are going to talk about feelings

 

I still sit here shivering

In the part of the night like cellophane;

See through and crackly on my eyes.

 

The punishment was normal you said.

Just a bit of old piping

Quick whack on the legs

 

No words for it

 

Tar your mouth shut

A roady and his signs

Quiet guffaws and boots tack.

 

You’ve got no ears just a talking disorder.

 

Your last words echo.  I want to leave you.

 

But is that fair when you are asleep.

 

Arihia Latham

 

 

Arihia Latham is of Ngai Tahu Māori, English, Irish and Dutch descent and lives in Wellington. She is a facilitator, writer, rongoā practitioner and mother. Her writing has featured in Huia short story collections, RNZ, Landfall and Oranui journals.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf archives: an interview with our new Poet Laureate David Eggleton

To celebrate the announcement of our new Poet Laureate, David Eggleton, I have scoured the Poetry Shelf archives and rediscovered this interview. I welcome David as Poet Laureate: he is a charismatic poet and performer, and a longtime ambassador for poetry in Aotearoa. It is good to have a Dunedin-based Laureate.

I posted this interview in 2015 on the publication of The Conch Shell (OUP). Since then The Conch Trumpet won the Poetry Award at the 2016 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. He has held the Fulbright-Creative New Zealand Pacific Writer’s Residency at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, received the Prime Minister’s Award for Poetry (2016) and published edgeland and other poems (OUP, 2018).

 

An interview with David Egggleton

 

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David Eggleton is a poet, reviewer and non fiction writer. His books include: Here on Earth: the Landscape in New Zealand Literature, (Craig Potton Publishing, 1999); Seasons: Four Essays on the New Zealand Year, (Craig Potton Publishing, 2001); Ready to Fly: the Story of New Zealand Rock Music, (Craig Potton Publishing, 2003); Into the Light: a History of New Zealand Photography, (Craig Potton Publishing, 2006); and Towards Aotearoa: A Short History of Twentieth Century New Zealand Art (Reed/Raupo, 2008). His poetry collections include: Rhyming Planet, (Steele Roberts, 2001); Fast Talker, (Auckland University Press, 2006); Time of the Icebergs, (Otago University Press, 2010); and The Conch Trumpet (Otago University Press, 2015). He is the current Editor of Landfall  and of Landfall Review Online (now Emma Neale). He lives in Dunedin.

To celebrate the arrival of his new poetry collection, The Conch Shell, David kindly agreed to answer some questions for Poetry Shelf.

 

‘Stone clacks on stone

so creek lizards slither,

runnels slip through claws,

each cloud’s a silver feather.’

from ‘Raukura’ in The Conch Trumpet

 

Did your childhood shape you as a poet? What did you like to read? Did you write as a child? What else did you like to do?

I had very little to do with books as a child, apart from prolonged weekly exposure to the King James Bible. However, it was a rich, sensual and even privileged environment, with wide exposure to a variety of cultures and a strong sense of the carnivalesque about everyday life. My father at that time was a soldier ant, when the last Pacific colonies were gaining independence, and then there were my mother’s ancestral voices and her extended family. This idyll was abruptly terminated when our family relocated permanently from Fiji to New Zealand. It was a bit like the post-Edenic Fall, though gradually I became aware of a different kind of richness, including eventually the world of the library.

In early adolescence my options veered between seminary school and reform school, though neither eventuated. I began to understand that truth, social truth at least, is not absolute but institutional and class-bound, and you need a ticket to get in — but if you are a poet you can construct your own truth. ‘I am the shadows my words cast’, as Octavio Paz wrote.

My early literary influences, besides the Bible, included Phantom comics, church music, gospel choirs and listening to pop music on the radio: an auditory riot. The Bible contained fascinating and troubling verses: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe…’

Meantime, living in South Auckland there were not the quiescent, somnolent afternoons of lawn tennis such as you might have found in the leafy avenues of the inner suburbs, but rather the lingering smell of tanneries and abattoirs — offal being boiled down at the freezing works, corned beef being cooked for shipment to the Islands. This became partly associated in my mind with the lives of saints and martyrs I had already spent time reading about: believers being boiled in oil by non-believers, and so forth. There was also much bellowing in the streets and the roar of motorcycles.

 

When you started writing poems as a young adult, were there any poets in particular that you were drawn to (poems/poets as surrogate mentors)?

I got interested in writing at high school, my first published efforts appearing in the Aorere College literary magazine. Around the same time, I was discovering Dylan Thomas, Gerard Manley Hopkins, T. S. Eliot, Gunter Grass — some of these were on the school curriculum.

Then I got immersed in the American Beats and their ‘action writing’: Go! Howl! On the Road! I heeded the call; I dropped out of school and tried to get a job on a cargo ship. I wasn’t taken on, so I got a job in a South Auckland carpet warehouse instead. Kerouac’s road novels were a word-spattered canvas wide as America and seemed related to the Ab-Ex canvases of the artist Jackson Pollock, whose paintings I also got interested in.

Energised, I sought to emulate the yackety-yak spoken word rhythms of Jack Kerouac, the biting wisecracks of William Burroughs and the vatic yawp of Allen Ginsberg in my own screeds of verse. And then there was the one-man typographical liberation front of e.e. cummings: ‘anyone lived in a pretty how town and down they forgot as up they grew…’

I was pretty much unaware of New Zealand writing, apart from the plummy-voiced Bruce Mason, who had visited our school out in the sticks with his one-man theatrical show.

 

I remember when you were awarded London Time Out’s Street Entertainer of the Year in 1985. From that time you have gained a solid reputation as a performance poet. Do you still see yourself as a performance poet? Did the award alter the path of poet for you at all?

Well, 1985 was New Zealand’s special moment in the sun, with David Lange roaming the globe as a kind of No Nukes! ambassador, and Keri Hulme winning the Booker Prize. There was a big travelling Maori art exhibition, plus the Rainbow Warrior bombing, the Flying Nun catalogue. All that kind of created a climate where things New Zild were of interest in the UK, and I was able to get on and stay on the cabaret circuit at the time.

Performance for me became a poetry vehicle and there was a national consciousness locally it tapped into: grass roots, flax roots, ground up, underground, public assemblies to hear, watch, attend to, what poets and other performers were saying — and maybe have all this on at a variety night down at the community hall.

Things have changed, become more sophisticated, more ironic, more knowing. Perhaps there is less of a communal thing now and more of a tightly-organised, clearly-defined niche market, maybe even a gentrification of poetry scenes — where the confessional genre and the misery memoir have top billing, everyone competing to prove that they have the tiniest violin in the world and they know how to play it. I enjoyed, and still enjoy, the Dadaist nature of the wilder poetry performance. The novelist Henry James said about a poetry reading by Robert Browning that, if the audience didn’t understand his poems he seemed to understand them even less: ‘He reads them as if he hated them and would like to bite them to pieces.’ That sounds like my kind of event.

 

I love the way your poems absorb and replay the world in a dazzling eruption of detail, hallucinogenic at times. It is like standing in the street or bush just after it has rained. Luminous. Invigorating. Yet as much as each poem is an aural feast, there is an engagement with the world on multiple levels. What are key things for you when you write a poem?

Incantation, cadence, rhythm, pacing, matter more to me than formal metre stress and scansion. I like overgrown gardens and rainforest: that which is lush. I like absurdity and contradiction as closer to real experience rendered more accurately. In poetry, arguably, lexical meaning is less important than rhythm and emotionally-charged sound, which have their own echo-chamber allusiveness.

All that said, I also like psychedelic dream-fever imagery, and teasing evocations of mythical ancestors and invented traditions: invented traditions which engage with canonical poems, the poems which begin, as Yeats put it, in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart, but then become marble, monumental.

Poems are generated in many different ways, of course. Sometimes a poem might begin as a psychotherapeutic notion, as automatic writing, where as long as you keep writing you eventually find the solution to whatever it is that ails you, psychosomatically or existentially. Other poems may be less fluent; instead they are painstakingly assembled, built up like a movie in an editing suite from many separate images in order to create a mood, an atmosphere, a climate.

What one does not want is what Yeats (again!) described as ‘the stale odour of spilt poetry’: we want the fresh bouquet of wild flowers — or of hothouse blooms transfigured. Poetry remains in the service of the subversive. That’s its power. The magical thinking of the ancient gods has been replaced by a future of junk science, which explains that emotions are only neuropeptides attaching to receptors and stimulating an electrical charge on neurons. Easy-peasy. How might a poet extract a poem from this revised reality? That’s the challenge.

 

Do you see yourself as a political poet? Overtly so or in more subtle ways?

Poetry is politics by other means; anthologies prove this. But I think what you are getting at is the idea of poets on the barricades leading the revolution. OK, the revolution may not be televised, as Gil Scott-Heron prophesied in his debut album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox back in the 1970s, but these days it’s corporatised and monetised. As Arundhati Roy has pointed out, in the era of the free market, ‘free speech’ has become a valuable commodity, too valuable to be wasted on the underclass. Poetry must find ways to remain anarchic, not for sale. As the Zen poem has it: ‘Sitting quietly doing nothing/ Spring comes and the grass grows by itself.’

My favourite poets include the Nightingale and the Skylark: Keats and Shelley — not yet Pixar characters — and Shelley undoubtedly was a revolutionary bard who believed that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Likewise, William Blake was a revolutionary, but he wasn’t arrested and beheaded because they considered him mad. Nowadays we consider him a visionary.

I am inspired by the poetry of witness: that of Osip Mandelstam, Marina Tsvetaeva, Georg Trakl, John Clare, Pablo Neruda. These poets spoke truth to power and sometimes paid with their lives.

New Zealand is a relatively lucky country, but it also means, I think, that we have an obligation to speak out against injustice, though not necessarily through simple polemics. Poetry, said Auden, makes nothing happen — well, many poets would disagree. Poetry can help generate social earthquakes — or be part of them in subtle ways. Globalisation is all subtle interconnections.

One poem in my new book was inspired by the sight of a superyacht belonging to a Russian oligarch in Auckland’s Viaduct Basin, an impressive white vessel designed by Philippe Starck. I stayed on the wharf for a while, and revisited, watching the comings and goings on this superyacht, and then researched the background — or rather added to what I already knew. That’s the starting point for a poem, which is not so much about Putin’s Russia as about the approved neo-liberal narratives of today and the warped truths which seem to accompany unbridled power. Yet nothing is spelt out — the reader must surmise, or suspect.

Pablo Neruda said that a poem is a net, and in a net it’s not just the strings that count but also the air, or the ocean, that escapes through them. To which I might add about my poem that while ‘knowledge’ is steady and cumulative and a satisfying form of story-telling, ‘information’ is random and miscellaneous and frustrating. My poetry sometime plays around with these twinned perceptions. For, as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: ‘the poet knows he speaks adequately only when he speaks somewhat wildly, not with the intellect alone, but with the intellect inebriated by nectar.’

The fact is that the black rain of tragic images is unending. The poet must put out his bucket and collect enough, and then endeavour to make sense of them; find a way to transform the surplus into poetry. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry said Auden of Yeats, rather contradicting his other statement that poetry makes nothing happen. The ambitious poet is a voyant, a seer still, despite the scoffers, disdainful of rolling up their sleeves, spitting on their hands and going to work. Delmore Schwarz was right: in dreams begin responsibilities.

From the frantic antics of the nuclear meltdown to the shirtfronting of the financial meltdown, there’s plenty happening politically that cries out for poems. Then, too, as New Zealanders we need to constantly catechise our past in poetry so as to attest to our grasp of identity. Because this collective past, the stuff of song, ballad and pontificating political speech, is only approximately remembered, or else only partly told. Different people will tell, for example, the story of the Treaty of Waitangi in skewed fashion, laying emphasis on different details, and carry this away as poetic myth. The poet of conscience searches out social stigmas, personal stigmas, linguistic stigmas — the difficult subjects — and finds new ways to address them.

 

Do you think we have a history of thinking and writing about the process of poetry? Any examples that sparked you? Have you done this?

Yes, of course we have a tradition of thinking about what poetry is. Manifestos, prefaces, books and essays by Allen Curnow, A.R.D. Fairburn, Alan Brunton, Riemke Ensing, Kendrick Smithyman, Ian Wedde, Bill Manhire, Murray Edmond, C.K. Stead and Robert Sullivan are amongst those I value most. A writer is a descendent of other writers. I’ve written a lot in response to reading other poets; that is, to specific instances, but not manifestos or generalising, barrow-pushing commentaries.

New Zealand has its own quirky bicultural literary history. There’s also a strong puritanical tradition, nowhere so pronounced, I think, as in the repressed verses of Charles Brasch. He reminds me of what Anthony Burgess once said about himself: that he was so much of a puritan that he couldn’t describe a kiss without blushing. That said, there’s a value in circumspection, in euphemism, in artful disguise: telling by other means.

Actually, I think that all the theorising stacks up to mere post-rationalisation, to temperaments attempting to influence posterity, whereas, as John Steinbeck put it: ‘Time is the only critic without ambition’. Instead, I would argue that we learn most by example — the example of careful noticers, and for me one of the influential is Katherine Mansfield, still one of our best, perhaps our best, echo-locators: ‘All that day the heat was terrible. The wind blew close to the ground, it rooted among the tussock grass, slithered along the road, so that the white pumice dust swirled in our faces.’ So much menace, so close to home.

 

What poets have mattered to you over the past year? Some may have mattered as a reader and others may have been crucial in your development as a writer.

It would take a book to answer this question adequately. I’ve read the work of around 1000 poets over the past year, and all of them mattered at the time of reading. To read a poem properly is to engage with it, alertly. Listing names and poems that grabbed me would be counter-productive, because each would require an explanation of the encounter: what the sense and what the sensibility? Deconstruction at warp speed cannot happen in this format.

 

What New Zealand poets are you drawn to now?

Currently my favourite New Zealand poet, in the terms of the poet I am thinking most about, is Robin Hyde, followed by Ursula Bethell and A.R.D. Fairburn. So many clues, or soundings, to where we are now lie in the inter-war years. Other than that, I pretty much read everybody.

 

Do you think your writing has changed over time?

My own feelings about this are, necessarily, extremely subjective, but I would advance a cautious perhaps. According to Heraclitus, everything flows and all movement is history. William Blake said that without contraries there is no progression. In short: change is the only constant in life; one writes not as one was, but as one is.

Certainly the cultural climate has changed, and my corporeal self has changed. The typical New Zealand afternoon of the recent past had all the excitement of a damp tea towel and all the urgency of a dripping tea urn, with somewhere the smell of scones burning. Somehow this no longer seems applicable. Along with Denis Glover though, I do not dream of Sussex downs or quaint old English towns — I think of what may yet be seen in Johnsonville and Geraldine.

 

You write in a variety of genres (poetry, short fiction, non-fiction, critical writing). Do they seep into each other? Does one have a particular grip on you as a writer?

All of my writing is really just personal essays by other means — that is, if you consider the personal essay a form of self-correction, a form of self-contestation, an interior monologue conducted in solitude in preparation for being presented in public. Otherwise, the prescriptions of each genre apply, distinctly.

However, in my view, literature is or should be a site of struggle, no matter what the genre. Each mode is always inherently in a state of primal conflict about purpose and meaning. Otherwise it is moribund, mere cliché-recycling.

There are elements of hybridity, the mongrel, in my writing. The mixed bag, the medley, the odd job lot, the tall order; that’s what I’ve ended up doing. To pluck out just one continuity: I have an overarching interest in the iconoclastic — how might we tear all these false idols down. And aren’t they all false anyway? So there you go; we’re always casting about for the new, the next, supreme fiction.

 

 

The detail you collect makes place so vital — and that place emerging is particular, local, recognisable. For me, the poems transcend poetic exercise or form as they establish contact with what it might or might not mean to be human. These poems tick with humanity. Is a sense of home an important factor as you write? Or connections with humanity?

The Rumanian philosopher E.M. Cioran wrote that you don’t inhabit a country, you inhabit a language, and as Caribbean poet Derek Walcott pointed out, when you inhabit a language you enter into a relationship with its imperial width. A language is not a place of contemplative retreat or escape; it’s a site of struggle. Struggle for control, or, to use Kendrick Smithyman’s formulation, ‘a way of saying’. So, it starts with the language, which works on homegrown imagery. As Ian Wedde once neatly put it, my poetry is preoccupied with ‘growth into location’. Not just that, but this regionalism reflects the society’s obsession with where it is: Anne French’s one big waka, Robert Sullivan’s hundred small waka.

This, in a way, is ‘small country syndrome’ and Dylan Thomas wrote something eloquently pertinent to this sense of us against the world in a letter to his wife: ‘the world is unbalanced unless, in the very centre of it, we little mutts stand together all the time in a hairy, golden, more-or-less unintelligible haze of daftness.’

By not living in exile, by living here, the whole past stays in the pulsating present. Wherever I turn, I see reminders of things past, of ghost trails, phantoms. As I write this, autumn rains are bashing at the windows in silver-grey lights as the furthermost fringe of Cyclone Pam brushes past. That’s what being here means to me. That and folk memories: cow cockies used to tighten Number 8 wire with a strainer until it literally sang when it was flicked. Now whole rugby stadiums hum that same tune.

This is a land of miraculous icons, a poet’s task is to discover and celebrate them before the local version of the Taliban, often in the form of a property developer, moves in and breaks them up.

 

What irks you in poetry?

I’m not sure that any poem irks me. Rather, the challenge is: what is the poet doing? Has it been achieved? Sometimes poems feel hollow, or are expressed in sentiments that have a breathy earnestness, yet you know that they know that you know they haven’t got there and earned it. Kate Clanchy wrote recently in the UK Poetry Review about a new collection of poems by Ruth Padel that some poems took your assent, your acquiescence, for granted because these were poems about ‘the Holocaust’. In fact, poems should take nothing for granted but must make their case through genuinely felt details, line by scrupulous line, even when about a supposedly sacrosanct subject. Even when a poem’s a failure, it remains interesting, through falling short.

 

What delights you?

The achievement, the mastery of the thing. Or else it falls away sharply to hit the ground with a thump. That said, value judgements are complex things, governed by notions of taste, knowledge of context, histories of contestation. A poem that appears to fly high to you — an ode to the west wind, a hymn at heaven’s gate — may not seem that way to another reader or listener.

 

Name three NZ poetry books that you have loved.

Just quickly. Runes (1977), by James K. Baxter. He was, at one time, both my spice paladin and my herb goblin. No Ordinary Sun (1977), by Hone Tuwhare. He could use his diaphragm like a sounding board, a sea chest. Inside Us the Dead (1976), by Albert Wendt. I was delighted by his witty reportage in the immediate post-colonial moment in the newly emergent Pasifika.

 

I love the title of your new collection (The Conch Shell). The blurb suggests that this collection ‘calls to the scattered tribes of contemporary New Zealand.’ What tribes do you belong to? What literary tribes? How does the word ‘contemporary’ modify things?

Yes, I’m blowing my own (conch) trumpet at sunrise. That title refers to tide-lines of life, to surf-like sounds, to gathering good vibrations, to gods of the sea who, clarion-like, lull the waves, and to the summer of shakes, the year of quakes. And so on, to the final burnout of the run-ragged consumer. The rest is the tribal outcast, and everything you cannot pin down, or ascribe a bar code to.

In fact, the word ‘tribe’ is fraught. I think James K. Baxter brought it into the literary realm. My own tribal background is distinctly heterogeneous rather than Fonterra-homogenous, but if I look around at my contemporaries, poets and otherwise, I see most of them making it up as they go along. A poem tests a proposition; it doesn’t always prove it.

 

These new poems offer shifting tones, preoccupations, rhythms. What discoveries did you make about poetry as you wrote? The world? Interior or external?

My poems like to dwell on the silver wake of a container ship, or the wet sand beneath the upturned hull of a dinghy, or the half-seen, the overheard. Poets re-arrange, but they have duties of care. X.J. Kennedy has pointed out that: ‘The world is full of poets with languid wrenches who don’t bother to take the last six turns on their bolts.’

It’s been five years since my last poetry collection Time of the Icebergs appeared, and one reason my collections have been regularly spaced that far apart is the need for more elbow-grease and line-tightening to get the burnish just so.

The poet’s mind, like anyone else’s is made up of reptilian substrate, limbic empathy and neo-cortical rationality. These shape your reveries and hopefully together lift them out of banality. Our ideas are dreams, styles, superstitions. We rationalise our temperaments, draw curtains over our windows, but poems carry an anarchic charge that reveals the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.

A poet is in the business of the unsayable being said, showing you fear in a handful of dust. A poet is amanuensis to the subconscious ceaselessly murmuring, and indeed to the planetary hum, the gravitational pull of the earth, the wobble of placental jellyfish in the womb — anything alive, mindless and gooey.

 

Is there a single poem or two in the collection that particularly resonates with you?

Every poem resonates on its own wavelength, but I found constructing an immediate elegiac response to my father’s death one of the most turbulent. A bit like getting to grips with a storm, with a howling wind that has shape and substance.

 

Returning to the notion of detail, I see the accumulation of things in your poems as an overlay of highways to elsewhere whether heart, issues, ideas, fancy, memory. Yet the things also pulsate as things in their own right. What draws you to ‘the thisness of things’ (the blurb)?

Things accumulate in my poems in almost haptic fashion, wrestled there like sculptural ingredients. They accumulate, as in the random haphazard assemblages of the Dadaist Kurt Schwitters, built out of found objects in the streets. Yes, I want to acknowledge the ‘thisness’ of things, but not in the sense of ‘property’. Rather, in the sense of: he who kisses the joy as it flies, lives in eternity’s sunrise.

 

Is doubt a key part of the writing process along with an elusive horizon of where you are satisfied with a poem?

I can’t get no satisfaction. Actually, poets need to be their own sophisticated antagonists. After all, why write? There’s always a struggle going on between self-revelation and self-concealment. Poetry is a kind of verbal tic; it runs in parallel with consciousness. To be conscious and verbal are vital signs, as Les Murray has pointed out. Then comes the self-questioning: are these fifty poems, fifty varieties of same-same? Is this what the thunder truly said? Is this poem really language dancing, and is it top of the poppermost — that is, is it the best you can do? All this nervous self-doubt surrounds the birth of a successful poem, I think.

 

The constant mantra to be a better writer is to write, write, write and read read read. You also need to live! What activities enrich your writing life?

Much time is taken up by arts-related stuff: gallery-going, movie-going, theatre-going, concert-going, poetry recitals, beer-sampling, weekend dabbling in arty-crafty matters. And then also I like to get out and about in the landscape: tramping through national parks, exploring West Coast walkways, cycling around Waiheke Island, or across the Mackenzie Country, climbing the lower slopes of the Southern Alps, and on and on. Typical Kiwi pastimes that keep one modestly prepared for the long sedentary hours ahead.

 

Some poets argue that there are no rules in poetry and all rules are to be broken. Do you agree? Do you have cardinal rules?

Poets are actually not their own creatures. They imitate their forebears. In her diaries, Susan Sontag wrote: ‘Poetry must be exact, intense, concrete, significant, honed, complex.’ She wrote this sentence as a high Modernist priestess when that kind of poetic faith was at its apogee, nevertheless I’d go along with that as an aspirational motto. Yeats again: ‘How but in custom and ceremony are beauty and innocence born?’

There are always rules. A poem — even one generated by a computer — follows rules. But these rules vary poem to poem, and the end result is not about the rules but about organic coherence and meaningfulness.

Here’s another Katherine Mansfield sentence (she’s endlessly quotable), and one William Burroughs would surely have applauded. The reasons why she wrote this don’t matter. What matters is the imagery and the pacing, the rhythm: ‘I took the revolver into the garden today and practised with it, how to load and unload and fire.’ A great New Zealand sentence.

 

Do you find social media an entertaining and useful tool or white noise?

Hyperreal, hyperventilating, hyper-opinionated, it’s the new centre of gravity — or else a black hole that will swallow the sun, and take all the time you have. I try to minimise my involvement. As for poetry, the internet works well as an events noticeboard, but actual poems feel anaemic on it, drained and destabilised, apt to float away into cyberspace, never to be seen again.

 

Finally if you were to be trapped for hours (in a waiting room, on a mountain, inside on a rainy day) what poetry book would you read?

Well, today, a big compendium that includes Auden’s ‘ 1 September 1939’, Owen’s ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ and ‘The Road to Mandalay’, ‘The Waste Land’, Christina Rossetti, and bits of Don Juan, the Sonnets of Shakespeare… ‘But I think my head is burning and in a way I’m yearning to be done with all this measuring of proof…’

 

 

Otago University Press page

New Zealand Book Council author page

New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre page

Poetry Shelf on Poetry Day: On launching Wild Honey

 

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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!

Aroha nui

Paula

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf on Poetry Day: essa may ranapiri’s ‘it’s 2019 and things like this are still happening’

it’s 2019 and things like this are still happening

pull the rock wall down in large chunks
the calendar didn’t make
that which hangs over the whenua
just disappear did it?
this nation state of
white-is-right
of slash-and-burn of
divide-and-conquer

New fucking Zealand
in all its truest colours

five years of struggle
or is it two-hundred-and-fifty-five years
without end without end without
a single word from the mouth of power
that can be trusted

(Jacinda I hope you didn’t think you could escape the poem unscathed)

fighting against a company that keeps a name of an honest job
to mask the fact they’re colonisers chasing a profit motive
scaffolding a claim out of iwi-consultation
gone gold-panning for the first race traitor they can find

on this land?!

where the sky has come down to hide our whereabouts
in the fog
Ranginui weeps at the sight
we have always belonged
in the āke ake ake! that pushes solidarity through the mist
we are connected to so much more than a margin

the pigs have some nerve to suggest
we’re trespassing here

and the drums

and the drums
are going and they’re standing crisp in blue uniform
all ordered to be here
just doing their jobs
what is the labour value of guarding a paddock
what is the bonus you get from terrifying our tamariki?

and the drums are going
and we’re singing
mana motuhake
we’re standing arms locked together
in the spirit of Parihaka
the pole of a flag to hold onto
our independence
in the disappointment it’s still happening here
on the land
we are kaitiaki
and we will not let you exchange Her mauri for a paycheque
in 2019 and every year after that
until you fucking stop
until you understand
where we stand is where we will always
stand
on the whenua that we are
and are one with

 

essa may ranapiri

 

essa may ranapiri is a river full of run-off and a mountain that is money-gated, tangata takatāpui trapped in a colonised world. Their first book ransack is out from VUP now., please buy it they’re so poor. They write these poems to honour their tūpuna, they will write until they’re dead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf audio spot: Paula Green reads four Eileen Duggan poems

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I read Eileen Duggan’s:

‘When in Still Air’, ‘The Solitary’, ‘The Song of the Kingfisher’ and ‘The Tides Run up the Wairau’

from Selected Poems, Victoria University Press, 1994 -reprinted this year in VUP’s Classic Series

 

Victoria University Press has recently reissued Eileen Duggan’s (Selected Poems edited by Peter Whiteford. Eileen was one of my three foundation stones in Wild Honey: Reading NZ Women’s Poetry (Massey University Press, 2019) and this was a go-to book for me, along with the extensive reading I did in the archives. I am delighted to see it back in print. Eileen also has boxes of unpublished writing – poems, letters, essays – lovingly stored at Catholic Archdiocese of Wellington Archives.

 

Here is an extract from my Duggan chapter:

It hurt Duggan deeply that her primary aim to write New Zealand, rather than her ancestral home of Ireland, was undervalued if not overlooked. In an undated letter to Alexander, she wrote: ‘I think Jessie and I were not of the past. New Zealand was our dream; it still is mine. Whatever they take from us we had the joy of the work and of the ideal and we knew the countryside — which, not the cities, is the real New Zealand.’[i] When a critic claimed that no real New Zealand poem existed, Duggan was cut to the bone: ‘My depression was generic as well as personal. I remembered that some of us had worn our bodies out and lived on the crust-line for the ideal of a national poetry.’[ii]

One of Duggan’s most anthologised poems, ‘The Tides Run Up the Wairau’, exemplifies her need for poems to be simple, musical and layered. Heart is entwined with the river of her birth; the poem represents the ebb of salt and snow, the river origins that stick with her in the Wellington streets.

The tides run up the Wairau
That fights against their flow.
My heart and it together
Are running salt and snow.

The poem, though, is also a veiled confession where love, like the childhood attachment to river and paddock, is hinted at. The lines are open to interpretation, but Duggan’s rebuttal of love as a young woman came to mind as I read.

[i] Duggan letter to W. F. Alexander, undated, ATL MS-Papers-0423-6.

[ii] Ibid.

 

Eileen Duggan (1894–1972), of Irish ancestry, was born in Marlborough and grew up in Tuamarina, near Blenheim. Duggan graduated from Victoria University of Wellington with an MA First Class Honours in History in 1918. She briely taught as a secondary-school teacher, and as an assistant lecturer, before devoting herself to writing full-time. She wrote essays, reviews, articles, a weekly column for the New Zealand Tablet (from 1927) and published five collections of poetry. Three collections were published in the United States and Britain to international acclaim. She left a substantial body of unpublished material, which Peter Whiteford drew upon for Eileen Duggan: Selected Poems (Victoria University Press, 1994). Duggan was awarded an OBE in 1937 and was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1943. She lived most of her adult life with her sister, in Wellington.