I have talked so much over the past month about poetry, about writing and researching a big book on women’s poetry in Aotearoa, about writing my own poems, writing for children and about championing local poetry. I have talked about the way I constructed a provisional house for women with rooms and open windows. I mourned the fact I could not bring all the poets I love with me as I wrote – that I had built a selective version and that I refused to be an authority or to create hierarchies.
I have talked about the way I write out of love, and I have used the word kindness, yet this is only one facet of my writing prism. Wild Honey is also written out of inquiry. My doctoral thesis considered the pen held by Italian women novelists and whether it made a difference that she was a woman writing. I read copious theoretical texts alongside the novels but I could never drift far from the word ‘connection’. I was fascinated and compelled by hinges, constructive tools, abstract and physical links.
Poetry Shelf aims to make connections and to make local poetry visible; to provide a forum for voices, to develop a small sound archive, to draw bridges across generations, cultures, styles, voices and to host interviews and reviews. I decided a long time ago to only review books I love (knowing I wouldn’t have enough time to review all the poetry books that have given me pleasure as it is). The more I think about it, the more the word ‘review’ feels like the wrong word. I am currently drawn to the word ‘fascinations’. To review is to re-see as much it is to build opinions, but when I write about poetry I am hooked on fascinations rather than failures and failings. Both are utterly subjective and both have a different effect upon me as reader and writer.
I have loved reading and writing since I was a young child. I was an awkward misfit at school as I confessed to Wallace Chapman on Radio NZ Afternoons and that state of being has endured. I feel like an awkward misfit of an adult, an outsider most of the time. Reading and writing are my form of nourishment, survival even – of boosting energy and a gaining sense of well being as if writing is a miracle vitamin pack. Writing can be challenging and painful and fierce but that sense of body enhancement never leaves me.
Perhaps having a cancer history has affected my trajectory as a reader and writer. Does the production and consumption of words affect the reader/writer on a cellular level? I don’t know but I do know cancer changes everything. It places what is important in view. It changes your relationship with the world and the choices you make.
And this includes reading and writing. When I navigate someone’s poem I want to discover what a poem is doing – to follow pathways both above ground and below. I want to open windows and doors for other readers to pursue rather than cast judgement upon how a poem might fall over through its alleged weak points. Perhaps this is not the norm. We are trained in school and at university to balance the good with the bad: to critique rigorously. But at times the identification of flaws represents an impoverished imagination on the part of the critic. I am immensely irritated by this and it puts me off reading reviews. Or the way there is an investment in models and inherited expectations: a poem ought to do this, a poem ought not do that. I have cited this before. Poetry can do anything.
That said not all poetry hooks me, not all poetry gives me goosebumps. I could analyse why I fail to engage with such books but if I find such reviews loathsome to read (this is just me!) I find them equally loathsome to write.
In contrast I get so much pleasure reading a review that opens a book for me – that shows movement and new lights I had not considered. I am loving all the reviews of Elizabeth Knox’s extraordinary The Absolute Book. I am invigorated by these reviews!
I said at the start of Wild Honey I wanted to draw closer to the woman writing because she is so often dissolved in theory. Who is she? Where is she? How is she? Do such questions still matter when we urgently need to expand the scope and function of our pronouns.
When I write I will always remember there is real-life person with both heart and mind who produced the book that I am writing about. But I am not censoring what I say because I am not critiquing the person. I am puzzling and musing and riffing on what poetry can do. I am not filtering my writing out of fear that my position in the writing world will be damaged. When AUP published the be-all-and-end-all volume of New Zealand literature I wrote a hard-hitting review for Metro because I felt the anthology let down our writing communities. Yes there was a toxic back lash against me on social media. Perhaps it affected my writing career. I don’t know. And I don’t care. Writing is what matters -more than getting published or appearing at festivals or winning things.
So if the occasion demands it – if books maintain the hierarchies and omissions of the past in terms of gender, ethnicity, culture, sexuality and even age, in view of either selection or content – I will speak out. Fiercely. This is part of fighting for a better and more embracing world. A world more tolerant and attentive to the fact we are diverse in myriad ways.
Why do I feel so strongly about this? Why do I feel like the awkward misfit me is real and exists in secret at home in the wild of Auckland’s West Coast and a fictional version of me goes out in public, keeps a blog going, wants to champion Aotearoa poetry. I actually don’t know how to explain the way kindness is important as I write and listen. And to underline the need for connections, and an ongoing fascination with what poems can do and the diverse responses they provoke in readers.
Elizabeth Knox’s new novel underlines the power of words, language, stories and knowledge to sustain and connect us. Poetry is part of this vital experience. I can’t imagine not loving it.