Poetry Shelf questions poets: Do poetry communities matter to you?

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Part of my aim with Poetry Shelf is to build bridges between diverse poetry communities and in doing so create a hub for sharing poems, interviews, news, anecdotes, ideas, interviews, audio, podcasts, reviews, new books, old books and so on. I want to engage with and showcase a diversity of voices.

I live on the outskirts of Auckland on the west coast, with dodgy internet, mobile reception and power, and at the moment scarce water (!) and I don’t get into the city that often. So I am dependent on the books I am sent, and my communications with as many poets as possible. I feel both inside and outside communities, belonging not-belonging.

Researching and writing Wild Honey took me into all manner of communities – past and present. Utterly fascinating. Always surpising. I found goodwill, bitchiness, support and aroha in the archives. Connections between women poets seemed vital, especially when women were writing in the shadows. The 2019 Wild Honey events were something special – and got me thinking about connectedness and bridges and how belonging to one community is not enough. Listening hard counts. I agree with Louise Wallace – kindness,  generosity and diversity – are crucial. I see this in what she is doing with The Starling.

Poetry Shelf is my made-up and constantly evolving community and includes best friends, people whose poetry I have admired for a long time, people whom I have never met, new discoveries. Why do I do this crazy thing that takes up so much time and operates outside the currency of money? Because no matter how tired or challenged or doubt-smashed I feel, in its drive to celebrate, question, and connect, Poetry Shelf is a necessary form of nourishment. It is like a huge loving poetry family with a truckload of goodwill and support. It constantly surprises and delights me. Do keep in touch. Do let me know of new discoveries.

 

Louise Wallace:
Poetry communities matter and have mattered to me immensely. Writing is of course a solitary act, but what’s the fun in doing the rest of it alone? A common misconception seems to be that the NZ poetry community is bitchy or competitive. I have found the opposite to be true. I am grateful for the opportunities I have received, often sent my way by other writers. Poetry communities can fulfil different needs at different times. As a young writer I really valued being surrounded by my peers who were on the same journey as me, and the help and guidance offered to me by senior writers. As a new mum last year I was physically isolated, unable to attend many literary events. Online communities filled that gap as a way to stay connected and still feel myself – I listened to poetry podcasts while out walking my son in his pram, I kept up with NZ poetry news on twitter whenever I could check my phone. Community to me means creating space for others. It means making sure there is room for as many different voices as we can imagine. It means generosity and kindness: lifting each other up. If there’s a window, fill it with someone else’s name.

 

Jordan Hamel:

I spent a long time figuring out how to answer this. Obviously the answer is yes, but I didn’t know how to articulate what poetry communities to me, ironically it took me to until last minute to ask other people for their opinions, my friend Sara gave me a great analogy. There’s an old classroom trust-building exercise where a bunch of kids sit in a circle and two kids in the middle are blindfolded and try to beat each other with rolled-up newspaper. They have to rely on the voices of the circle to tell them where to swing and gently push them in the right direction. What an apt metaphor, almost too on the nose. Sincerity is awful and I apologise in advance but strap yourself in because here we go.

When I first started writing, like most people I felt like the blindfolded kid swinging the newspaper, never sure if I was hitting anything. In the past couple of years I’ve found a circle, well circles plural, different, intersecting, amorphous circles, some occupy physical spaces like readings, writers groups and open mics, others digital and less tangible, all are so important to me and my poetry. I think the great thing about the metaphor is, in poetry communities you aren’t always the one in the middle wildly swinging, you’re also in the circle guiding others as they go through the same thing, sometimes you’re the one who created the circle in the first place, but as wholesome as this extended metaphor is, poetry communities in NZ aren’t perfect, we could all take a look at our circles and think how we can make them bigger, more inclusive, flexible, every so often we can turn around and try to see who’s outside the circle, blindly stumbling and swinging on their own, or who’s too nervous to even ask to join in. I’ve been lucky enough to find people who will let me play even though most of the time I still feel like a blindfolded kid swatting at darkness, but I think everyone feels that way and everyone needs those voices.

 

 

Sugar Magnolia Wilson:

This is such a good question for me right now. The answer is very much yes, poetry communities do matter to me, but also, no, not as much as they used to in the way that they used to.

Before 2012 my poetry community was just myself. I wrote and wrote, for years, in creative isolation and it was awesome, but I didn’t know any different so it wasn’t really anything. It was just the way it was. Come 2012 and I got accepted into the IIML masters course. It changed my life. My views were challenged, my writing grew, and I had such an amazing time being part of the Wellington writing community. The book launches. Amazing writer friends with the same writerly bullshit struggles. The support and lots of love and wine. So much creative generosity and oh boy is Wellington good at that. Without that kind of hothouse scenario, my book wouldn’t have happened, and I wouldn’t have turned my writing into a craft. But … like all good things, it needed to have its own little death.

I started, last year some time, to feel a bit sad about the whole thing. The launch of Wild Honey really defined what a poetry community should look like for me; big, wise, loving, many-voiced, multi-generational. I can’t really explain it, other than I felt like my IIML year had gone on for eight years instead of one, and that I was really and truly ready to graduate and throw my cap off and leave it in the rain. I realised that in order for my writing to survive beyond one book, that I needed to go it alone, to figuratively and literally move away, to let go of all the stuff and the scene and sort of competitive element than can start to creep in. I’m not interested in that stuff and I don’t want to be defined by my success on the Unity Books Bestsellers list. No shade to Unity wot wot.

Anyway, now I live in the bush and it’s nice, and I’m eternally grateful for poetry communities. I am hoping that over time a new kind of one will grow. Something wild and sweet that lets me grown in new ways.

 

Eliana Gray

Yes!!!! Where would I be, where would any of us be without community? Community to me is the bedrock and the impetus for everything. Why do we write if not to communicate with others? Why do we communicate if not to build community? I feel that almost every – if not all – human action has community building at its base.
We would be very little without community, isolated ghosts. I don’t think that sounds very fun. Other humans are one of the key ways we define our existence. I just can’t imagine life without it. Communities make me a happier person, a better writer, more accountable, more empathetic, a smarter person, harder, better, faster, stronger, all of it. Thank you to everyone in my poetry communities. I am still alive because you make life very appealing.

 

Vana Manasiadis:

I tried to answer this question before I fell down a metaphor hole grabbing at definitions all the way. What do I think a [poetry] community is, does, has? I like these community values: respect, agency, meaningful participation, collaboration, integrity, inclusion. When I’ve had poetry community experiences that have included lots of these things – kōrero, voices, tautoko – they are like blood transfusions. Like actual substance, and substantiveness. Like: I don’t have to long-walk/talk-listen-disagree-agree-eat-drink-stay late with my poetry community every day and night (though that’s the dream) but I do need more than brief SM broadcasts. (And clearly I’m saying this as a judgmental SM recluse who has swallowed the hard self-inflicted pill of not being part of a/the poetry community online; and who spends way too much time wondering whether it’s even possible to be in the same community as folks who’ve super-active-online-selves). But. Anyway. In my wider-panning poetry community (see above) – which really, really matters to me (see blood) – aside from curation there’s also accident, mess, aporía, and slow time. And now I think of it, I’m in a small but ecstatic community of poets who write long and languorous emails to each other. I should say epistles obviously.

 

 

Emer Lyons:

I was working on Heather McPherson’s poem ‘stein song for the blue house’ this month and I was drawn back to a quote from Starhawk’s book Spiral Dance: The Rebirth of The Ancient Religion of The Great Goddess:

And Goddess religion is lived in community. Its primary focus is not individual salvation or enlightenment or enrichment but the growth and transformation that comes through intimate interactions and common struggles. Community includes not only people but also the animals, plants, soil, air and water and energy systems that support our lives. Community is personal­—one’s closest friends, relatives, and lovers, those to whom we are accountable. But in a time of global communications, catastrophes, and potential violence, community must also be seen as reaching out to include all the earth (1999, 22).

Poetry communities are rife with nepotism, can become insular, and elitist, and benchmarks in people’s minds for what is deemed good or bad poetry, rather than the focus being on the sharing of “intimate interactions and common struggles.” The poet Fatimah Asghar says, “I work in the medium of community,” and I feel that, but only as far as community is a place from which I can question, include, and remain accountable.

 

 

Kiri Piahana-Wong:

Yes! Poetry communities matter, and they matter to me. I love how people who write in different styles and perform in different modes can find their poetry ‘home’ in different communities of poets. For many years my poetry community was Poetry Live. Attending the event every week somehow kept me grounded in poetry, and the friends I made there were endlessly encouraging of my poetry attempts. It made me feel strongly that poetry was not a niche hobby but rather an art form to take seriously. I’m grateful for the years that Poetry Live was my second home, and I’m also not the first person to meet their husband/future husband or wife/future wife there!

 

 

Olivia Macassey:

To begin my answer at the shallow end, writing poetry can feel like a bit of a strange compulsion, so there’s camaraderie involved in being with others who are just as crazy. I vividly remember my astonishment and joy when, as a teenager, I first encountered a bunch of poets en masse (in 90s Auckland at the Shakespeare tavern), and realized how not-alone I was. There’s a solidarity involved in this, which can be supportive and nurturing, and that matters to me. In recent years I’ve been involved in projects in the Northland community, led by Piet Nieuwland, and appreciate the wider perspective of seeing how poetry communities and other communities overlap and weave together and strengthen one another. Shared experiences, interests, kaupapa are essentially about similarity, but there’s also an important dimension that is about difference, mutual discovery and renewal: the way we encounter new ways of seeing and thinking and writing, spark off one another aesthetically, conceptually, politically, or in terms of practice.

Another important type of community is the kind of imagined communities we inhabit as writers. In a narrow sense I see this in, say, different people who may be connected through a particular publisher or publication (such as brief or this blog) – poets I may have read a lot, but not necessarily met or interacted with – but in a wider sense, it’s about ‘finding your people’ outside the constraints of time and place. An imagined community can centralize marginal poetics; social class, disability, sexuality. In my youth, I think without a sense of structures of feeling beyond the mainstream paradigms, or some connection to other poetic genealogies, I would have felt lost, and these communities continue to matter to me. At the deepest level though, for me, the act of writing always already anticipates community because a poem is a priori an act of communication, of reciprocity; its very existence implies a shared world. I write because I have found you: I write in order to find you.

 

James Norcliffe:

Writing poetry is a solitary act and in adolescence, when poetry began for me, it had a solitary audience as well. There was often an idealised, intended audience, but I was never brave enough to show my poems to her.

Later, though, craving a larger audience, it became apparent that other people wrote poetry too, and while the practice wasn’t as arcane as clog dancing or synchronised swimming (although it was up there) it  was clearly rarefied. Still, reading and submitting to magazines and attending the odd reading, made me aware that these people had names. Moreover some of them were local and, in time, I got to know them.

I’m not entirely sure what a ‘poetry community’ is. I’m pleased the question put community in the plural as it suggests a variety of communities of different sizes, purposes and flavours.

I belong to several. Firstly there is a small core of very close friends I’ve made through poetry and whom I number among my nearest and dearest. We meet regularly, eat together, occasionally holiday together and generally have a great time. We read and support each other’s work (and often launch it), but we’ve moved beyond the shallows of writing and into the warmer, deeper sea of friendship.

Secondly, there’s a closely-knit of poets of about half a dozen poets whom I meet with monthly, a group David Gregory once laughingly called the ‘poots’ groop’ and so the name remains. The p.g. has a shifting population with a fairly stable core and we meet to share and critique each other’s poems. It has been going probably about twenty years and one or two of the first group are part of this as well. I’m off to a meeting tonight feeling a little fraught as I need to find something to take. Even, if I don’t find anything I know I’ll have a great time and that among the laughs there’ll be a lot of close reading and penetrating thought. Just lovely.

Thirdly there’s the wider group of Christchurch writers I’ve been associated with for well over thirty years: the Canterbury Poets’ Collective. This highly active group organises an annual series of readings, bringing poets from beyond the city to a relatively large Christchurch audience. There are eight readings a season – now in Spring – involving over twenty four guest readers and large numbers of b.y.o. people. The CPC also occasionally organises one off readings and events, typically National Poetry Day celebrations. I suppose it involves two communities: the organising committee who are a dedicated set who mix a common goal with fellowship, and the wider collective who come along to support the readings, a large number of whom take part.

Finally, there’s the wider national poetry community of poets I’ve got to know over the years through the magazine and book editing I’ve done. A number of these I’ve only corresponded with, but most I’ve eventually met in real life and many have become firm friends.

All of these communities are hugely important to me. Writers are assumed to have monstrous egos and are supposed to be fiercely competitive. This has not been my experience. I’ve treasured the warmth, encouragement and critical support of people within all of these groups, particularly the more intimate ones. I have never been especially confident in my person or sure of my work although I pretend otherwise. It has been so good to have been nurtured by these communities and so satisfying to have nurtured others who are part of them

 

Hebe Kearney:

The Titirangi Poets group meets once every month in the Titirangi library, surrounded by bush and chickens, which roam the library car park in gangs. When poetry happens, it happens in a circle. Each person reads in turn like a set of dominoes, one following the other. A ‘round robin’ format.

Just knowing that they are there, in the clean and the library quiet, taking a few hours just for the sake of words, makes me feel better about waking and walking in this world. When I had the privilege of reading there I experienced it as a circle of support, everyone had a kind word to say, a suggestion to give me about honing the sound of my voice and words.

Poetry communities like this matter because everywhere there is poetry there are words living, words breathing and growing in power. Virginia Woolf once described poetry as ‘a voice answering a voice’ – poetry is always communal in that it is always a communication, a reaching of one person towards another and back. Poetry communities not only matter, but poetry communities are themselves part of the act of poetry.

Personally, I have tended to write quietly and hold my words close to myself. It is only recently I have begun learning to let my words free, and to really acknowledge the part of poetry that is the voice listening and the voice answering back. And it is through poetry communities that this interaction of voice and voice can be facilitated.

So I am bursting with appreciation and gratitude for poetry communities. They make space in a busy world for the simple beauty of words, and remind those of us with a penchant for hiding of the reciprocity at the heart of poetry. The way that, in essence, it is all about sharing.

 

 

The contributors:

 

Eliana Gray is a poet from Ōtepoti. They like queer subtext in teen comedies and not much else. They have had words in: SPORT, Mimicry, Minarets, Mayhem and others. Their debut collection, Eager to Break, was published by Girls On Key Press (2019) and they are the 2020 writer in residence at Villa Sarkia, Finland. It is very very snowy and they love it.

Jordan Hamel is a Pōneke-based poet and performer. He was the 2018 New Zealand Poetry Slam champion and competed at the World Poetry Slam Championships in 2019. He has poems published or forthcoming in Sport, takahē, Poetry NZ Yearbook 2020, Mimicry, Mayhem, Queen Mob’s Teahouse and elsewhere.

Hebe Kearney is from Christchurch but now calls Auckland her home. She currently studying to complete her Honours in Classics at the University of Auckland. Her work has appeared in Starling, The Three Lamps and Oscen.

Emer Lyons is an Irish, lesbian writer in her final year as a creative/critical PhD candidate in the English programme at the University of Otago, Dunedin.

Olivia Macassey’s poetry has appeared in Rabbit, Poetry New Zealand, Otoliths, Takahē, Landfall and other places. She is the author of two books, edits brief and co-edits Fast Fibres.

Vana Manasiadis is a Greek-New Zealand poet, translator and creative writing teacher who has been moving between Aotearoa and Greece, and is now living in Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland. She is the co-editor of the Seraph Press Translation Series, and was the editor and translator of Ναυάγια/Καταφύγια: Shipwrecks/Shelters: Six Contemporary Greek Poets (2016) and co-editor, with Maraea Rakuraku, of Tātai Whetū: Seven Māori Women Poets in Translation. Her second poetry collection The Grief Almanac: A Sequel appeared in 2019 (Seraph Press).

James Norcliffe is a poet, editor and children’s author. He has published ten collections of poetry, most recently Deadpan (OUP, 2019). In 2010 he took part in the XX International Poetry Festival in Medellin, Colombia and in 2011 the Trois Rivieres International Poetry Festival in Quebec. With Jo Preston he co-edited Leaving the Red Zone, a collection of poems prompted by the Canterbury earthquakes and, with Michelle Elvy and Frankie McMillan, Bonsai (CUP) New Zealand’s first major collection of flash and short fiction. A new anthology co-edited with Michelle Elvy and Paula Morris  Ko Tātou Aotearoa | We Are New Zealand celebrating Aotearoa / NZ diversity is to be published this year.

Kiri Piahana-Wong is a poet and editor, and she is the publisher at Anahera Press.

Louise Wallace is the author of three collections of poetry published by Victoria University Press, most recently Bad Things. She is the founder and editor of Starling. Louise lives in Dunedin with her husband and their young son, and is currently working on a PhD in Creative Writing, focussing on contemporary long-form narrative poetry by women.

Sugar Magnolia Wilson lives in Fern Flat, a valley in the far North. In 2012 she completed her MA in creative writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington. Her work has appeared in a number of journals, both in New Zealand and overseas, and she co-founded the journal, Sweet Mammalian, with Morgan Bach and Hannah Mettner, which is now run by poet, Rebecca Hawkes. Auckland University Press launched Magnolia’s debut collection, cecause a Woman’s Heart is Like a Needle at the Bottom of the Ocean in 2019; it is longlisted for the Ockham NZ Book Awards.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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