Photo credit: Ebony Lamb
Natalie Morrison has an MA in Creative Writing from the Institute of Modern Letters, where she received the Biggs Family Prize for Poetry in 2016. She lives and works in Wellington. Victoria University Press recently published Pins, Natalie’s debut collection. The book is most definitely poetry, the kind of poetry that affects your breathing patterns because it is so good, so original, so addictive. But it also resembles a letter, as the speaker addresses her missing sister, and a catalogue of fascinations, as she tracks an obsession with pins. The collective result is book that centres upon family, and then radiates out into pocket-book narratives of loss, curiosity, yearnings, attachment. The title itself ‘pins’ sends me in multiple directions before I even open the book, and then vital movement continues as I read. This is a book to treasure.
I can just about trace the birth of your fascination.
We were cordoned off from the fireplace with a moveable
copper façade. Nana was stitching one of Grandad’s
socks. We didn’t have any clothes on,
were still dripping slightly from the bath.
You picked up a pinch of metal
and in the dim light tried to see what it was
you were holding. I continued reading Beatrix Potter
with a damp index finger. Nana told you to be careful:
What you have in your hand is very sharp.
Caution: where there is a pin
there will be puns.
One must love a sister in the same way one must love
jabbing oneself in the foot halfway up a flight of carpeted stairs.
Our parents told you I would be a nice surprise.
Paula What were the first poetry books that mattered to you?
Natalie Not a whole book really, but I remember my mum reading us ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and being really taken with it. Gotta love the drama.
Then in high school ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ by T.S. Eliot really resonated with me for some reason, and I still get parts of it stuck in my head. A few memorable books a bit later on were Kate Camp’s The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls (I always think of the owls on the cover) and a collection of W.S. Merwin’s, both of which I became attached to and didn’t want to return to the library. But don’t worry, I did.
Paula What poetry books are catching your attention now?
Natalie Freya Daly Sadgrove’s Head Girl was super kick-ass. I adored Sugar Magnolia Wilson’s Because a Woman’s Heart if Like a Needle at the Bottom of the Ocean, particularly the epistolary sequence. I’m very in awe of Gregory O’Brien at the moment – something just snaps into place. Also looking forward to reading Second Person by Rata Gordon. I’m a hopeless sucker for a good cover and I had a peep at the first few pages the other day…intrigued!
Drop one pin into a glass of clear
cold water for several minutes.
Then immerse your hand in the language
of the water until you find it.
Paula Your debut collection is exquisite, both melodious and tactile, economical and rich. What do you hope from a poem or a book-length sequence such as this?
Natalie Thank you! Mostly I hope it behaves itself. Or that I can keep it in line with the shape of itself, being so long and fragmented. It’s nice when the pieces start interacting with each other and when they move through moods/sounds/scenes.
Paula Does this change for you as reader? What attracts you in poems by others?
Natalie I’m attracted to the usual things; the sounds a poem creates, the voice(s) it uses and the way the words fall together. But I love love love it when the poem is also kinda mischievously fun and cracks that sly-sideways smile at you. Quirky also does it for me, and a bit of classic sass.
Paula Your book does just that! Wit is a vital ingredient. James Brown likened Pins to Anne Kennedy’s 100 Traditional Smiles, and I see the connections. There is both a quirkiness and a crafted musicality, yet perhaps a key link is that of narrative. Narrative is such a fertile option for the poet. What drew you to it?
Natalie I’m not sure exactly. A bit to do with what I was reading at the time? I was also lucky to be surrounded by such beautiful narrative-making from my classmates that year, it was relatively contagious.
Paula Would you ever want to write a novel?
Natalie So tempted to go for the pun… Well, that would be pretty cool. People who are able to sustain a whole novel have my absolute admiration. It would take a gazillion years though; I’m fairly distractable, which is why I think Pins is so bitsy.
Paula I love the degree of white space in the collection – resonant for me on so many levels. It is both a visual and aural pause, a silent beat for eye and ear, a place to savour what you have just read. It also acknowledges the missing sister. Can you comment on the white space?
Natalie That’s a really awesome way of looking at it. For sure, I think the in-between spaces echo the little gaps the missing sister leaves in the narrative.
With poetry in general, I enjoy the blanks that we draw tiny conclusions about. It’s like staring at old floral wallpaper – you start to see all sorts of faces and figures.
But I will always have you in the back of my mind,
unwinding like the coil pin in the body of a bright,
jittery, copper toy.
Paula Staring at anything! I also love the way the missing sister is the family hub, but you don’t explain and you don’t resolve. Although I do feel like I am moving through fictions – what is true? – as though I am playing with a set of Russian dolls. If I had written this, I would want to leave it in the hands of the reader. No explanations. Do you agree?
Natalie Sort of? I would say there needed to be just enough to nudge the narrative along, but I’m not into overloading a piece with the whys and wherefores either. Especially this piece; it felt right for there to be spaces left. For me personally, the poem orbits around the longing created by the little absences. Maybe a part of longing is piecing together what we can from hints, and hints of hints? That’s how it is in my mind anyway – but yes, very onboard with leaving some of the work with the reader. Partly because I really enjoy the hugely varying assumptions people make about it, or is that too wicked of me? I’ve confounded at least one uncle….whoops!
walking into a downpour of a thousand brisk pins.
Paula I agree – the poetry is a lace-like arrival of longing around the white space – actual and implied. So much to adore about the book – especially the pivotal presence of pins. You catch them in so many surprising ways. I love nana and the sunsets, the barcode pin, acupuncture and voodoo, the downpour. Do you have a few favourites?
Natalie Thanks so much, Paula. Trying to dredge for ‘pins’ around the place morphed into an obsession in itself. I still have pin-themed dreams which is pretty ouch!
As to favourites, hmmm… the futuristic surgical pin for the brain, the bobby pin trail, the pin-filled swimming pool and the pigeons are probably my faves. The pin sonnet was quite satisfying too.
Because of your early attachment with fairy stories,
I wasn’t surprised to pick up your trail of bobby pins
along the footpaths of Wellington’s suburbs. I imagined
finally arriving at your gingerbread destination.
Paula I was filled with joy as I read this book, so it felt like you filled with joy as you wrote it. But that might be far from the truth of writing it. Was it joyful? Did you struggle and were plagued with doubt?
Natalie Yay, I love that it’s had that effect on you reading it.
All of the above! Plagued by doubt is definitely my resting state in most of what I do, and I’m probably not alone there? It was certainly joyous at times, especially when something falls into place – that’s quite exhilarating.
If all the pins in the world were gathered together
you would be very much pleased.
But all the pins in the world
cannot be gathered
Paula My Wild Honey research exposed a catalogue of doubt – my doubts in my ability to create the book but, more importantly, across a century of woman writing and doubting and finding their way into a public spotlight. Some women were kneecapped and roadblocked by the attitudes of the men in charge to their work.
Has Covid 19 affected you as either reader or writer? Did you write any poems in lockdown?
Natalie I don’t think any of us get away without being affected by Covid 19 and everything that’s happening right now. I imagine it having all sorts of impacts on writing and art-making that we might only notice after the fact maybe? When we were in lockdown, I finished up reading a few of the books I had started and then it was quite nice to return to some old comforting favourites around the flat. I didn’t write as much as I had hoped. It seemed like everyone had lofty goals for their lockdown which didn’t necessarily get realised. My grandma says ‘you can only do what you can do.’
Paula Wise grandmothers! What do you like to do apart from writing?
Natalie Anything to do with making odds and ends. At the moment, I’m knitting like a fiend in a race to finish a sleep sack for my nephew before he gets too big. I have a bad habit of thinking of new projects before the old ones are finished, ah! Overall, it’s a comforting thing to do.
When the stars align, I really love going tramping with friends, usually in the Tararua ranges. It doesn’t happen as often as I’d like, but it’s really special to me.
Pigeons know nothing about pins.
Victoria University Press page