Oscar Upperton New Transgender Blockbusters Victoria University Press, 2020
Optimism is the idea that it not always will rain.
Leave home as soon as you are free,
for everyone comes back again—
just never board a train
without a member of family.
Optimism is the idea that it will not always rain,
that between sea and plain
will always sprout a city.
For everyone comes back again.
from ‘Dutch instruction’
Oscar Upperton was born in Christchurch in 1991, grew up in Whāngarei and Palmerston North, and now lives in Wellington. In 2019 he was awarded the Creative New Zealand Louis Johnson New Writer’s Bursary. His work has appeared in Sport, The Spinoff, Metro and Best New Zealand Poems. His debut collection New Transgender Blockbusters was one of two go-to poetry books for me in lockdown (Elizabeth Morton the other). It is fresh, witty, offbeat, surprising yet never loses sight of a lived-in world. As it says on the blurb: These poems are vitally human and consoling: they reframe the ordinary as something to yearn for’. This is the kind of book that I want to talk about with someone, the way the city and rural settings are both present, the way there is a degree of incantation at times, a sense of song, a jubilant relationship with words that might involve rhyme or repetition or silence. I am out of lockdown now but the world is still wobbly, I am still wobbly as both reader and writer, and I find this book the perfect retreat. Glorious is the word for it.
In conversation with Oscar Upperton
Paula: What poets, both here and overseas, have hooked your attention?
Oscar: I only really read Kiwi poets. I love Tayi Tibble’s writing. Also Jane Arthur and Ashleigh Young. My younger sibling Katrina Upperton is my favourite read at the moment though.
Paula: Poetry performers?
Oscar: I went on a road trip with my dad before the lockdown and read in Palmerston North, Whangārei and Kerikeri. I was lucky to see some awesome, awesome performers on that trip. I can’t name everyone (and some of the readings were private anyway) but I will single out Vera Hua Dong, who gave an amazing performance in Kerikeri. I’m looking forward to seeing her writing on the page in Ko Aotearoa Tātou when it comes out in August.
Years aren’t to blame. I was always old.
The garden gathers rain. I grew and grew
and broke the mould. I sat there in the rain.
from Garden beds’
Paula: Your book is like a breath of fresh air. I am drawn to the economy, the richness, the quirkiness, the surprise. What are key things when you write a poem?
Oscar: Thank you for all the compliments! I like to think I’m quirky. Sort of the manic pixie dream boy of New Zealand poetry.
Usually I start with a line or a sound I like, and just follow that. Or I start with an idea, like writing a poem with footnotes. I like to make up rules for myself, like this poem has to have every fourth line written backwards or in this poem the first word of every line rhymes. And I like to use prompts, like Pip Adam’s exercises from her podcast Better Off Read.
The dog is a book read over and over
The dog is a river that’s stopping for no one
The dog is a child who thinks hot is a colour
The book is a dog that’s waiting for water
The book is a river that cannot be forded
The book is a child who’s made out of silence
from ‘Song abut a child’
Paula: I like the appearance of lists in your poems, whether subtle or overt. What attracts you to poetry list making?
Oscar: It’s easy! Also I like repetition. Also I like juxtaposition. Like if you put one image beside another, unrelated image, what happens? Lists are useful for that.
Paula: Yes- I love the connections between things on a line and in the poem. That is where surprise and quirkiness can take root. I also like the musicality – the rhyme. Sometimes I am reminded of Bill Manhire’s poetry palette as I read your poems (final word in book might be referencing his poem ‘Kevin’). Any poets that feel like close writing relations?
Oscar: This is a funny question to me because some of my closest relations are poets (my dad Tim and my sibling Katrina) and they are probably the writers that I am the most similar to, for obvious genetic and environmental reasons. I definitely am very influenced by Bill Manhire. I like his relaxed approach to sound and rhythm, and how a lot of his poems are jokes or riddles. He seems to be having a lot of fun when he writes, and it’s infectious. I aspire to be like that.
Paula: I so see that in your writing! Your poetry seems assured to me, crafted with a deft hand, but do you suffer doubt as you write?
Oscar: Yes, all the time! But I chuck out poems or lines I don’t like, so I am usually happy with a poem by the time it is published. There are some lines in my poems I really don’t like. For example, I think the ending of ‘Child’s First Dictionary’ is really bad. And I even dedicated that poem to my sister! How rude.
We like mushrooms best when they taste of thieving.
At home we turn the Beatles up to eleven.
This bag of mushrooms was not a given.
We don’t like Kevin but we both like ‘Kevin’.
from ‘Two thieves’
Paula: Some poets currently favour massive self-exposure in poems – there are heart-punching examples I adore. I find your collection a complex weave of human experience that might be invented or real, intimate or restrained. How do you feel about revealing your private life in a poem?
Oscar: I have a lot of childhood poems in my book that I guess you could say are autobiographical, but they are more about mood or tone than describing a particular thing that happened. Although ‘Two thieves’ is entirely truthful.
I don’t think I’m interesting enough to merit too much self-exposure – all the poets I love who write about themselves, they seem to get out of the house much more often than I manage to. I’d much rather write about something I haven’t done or haven’t experienced, and I don’t tend to write in my own voice. The only poems I have written that I consider to be in my voice are ‘New transgender blockbusters’ and ‘Carmen’. I wrote them because I had two very specific emotional experiences (one after watching a terrible movie, one after listening to people talk about Carmen Rupe) and I was interested in the challenge of recording those experiences accurately. I like both those poems but I wouldn’t want to write a whole book like that.
A juggernaut is anything sour, sour cabbage.
Why do you hide your head beneath the bedclothes?
A juggernaut is anything at all, air and beans.
Why do you keen? Why throw yourself against the porch light?
A juggernaut is anything sitting on a rooftop not a bird.
Paula: Ha! Poetry is a way of writing yourself out of the house in any way or voice you care to invent. The blurb lists questions. ‘Juggernaut’ is a sequence of questions. I began musing on the idea of questions shadowing poems, like furtive ghosts that help bring something into being. What’s your take on poetry and questions?
Oscar: I like questions because they invite the reader in and suggest an answer without me actually having to come up with one. I don’t like being too definite or conclusive when I write, and questions are useful for that.
Paula: That is another plus about your poetry. In fact I could have used the word ‘openness’. Porous poetry that is like an open home for the reader. Was there a poem that was particularly tough to write?
Oscar: ‘Caroline’ was hard to write because it contains a lot of repetition. The same lines had to make sense in six different contexts, over six stanzas. I wrote it in Excel with formulas set up so that if I changed a line in one place the change would flow through the rest of the poem. It took ages and was a weird time but I really like that poem now.
‘Prudence’ was hard to write because it’s about a cat and therefore ran the risk of becoming too cute.
Last year’s trees are dropping.
They drop like sticky fruit.
They drop as the flies rise.
Last year I woke up differently.
This year is the same old mess.
Paula: Is there a particular poem – or two – where you feel you have nailed it?
Oscar: ‘Atlas’ is the first poem in the book because it’s my favourite. I wrote it about ten years ago, when I was at my peak.
Paula: Hmm! More peaks on the horizon please! Slowly we return to live poetry events. If you were to curate a session with poets from any time or place who would you invite?
Oscar: I would like to see Bashō and Sappho read. Also Robbie Burns. I wonder if they would be baffled by the experience of a modern poetry reading or if they would just go with it.
Paula: Wow. What a combination. I have no idea how Sappho would deliver a poem and we could get to see gaps filled if she moved beyond fragments. Finally there is more to life than writing poems. What else feeds you?
Oscar: Right now I’m helping out with an online writing workshop run by InsideOUT. Being the ‘teacher’ is super weird but has given me a new perspective on writing. And it is so cool to see what the writers are coming up with.
Victoria University Press page
Oscar in conversation with Karyn Hay RNZ