Monthly Archives: September 2020

A Poetry Shelf audio gathering: Dunedin poets celebrate Elizabeth Brooke-Carr (1940 – 2019)

Carolyn McCurdie introduces the reading

Carolyn McCurdie reads ‘When bright red was eclipsed by silver shoon’

Martha Morseth reads ‘On discovering your oncologist is a travel agent’

Jenny Powell reads ‘A spot on the map’

Maxine Alterio reads ‘The vein whisperer’

Claire Beynon reads ‘Poolburn’

Elizabeth Brooke-Carr (1940 – 2019) was a Dunedin poet, essayist, short story writer, teacher, counseller. Her writing appeared in newspapers, online journals and anthologies. She was awarded the New Zealand Society of Authors’ 75th Anniversary Competition and the Dunedin Public Libraries competition Changing Minds: Memories Lost and Found. She received a PhD from the University of Otago. Wanting to tell you everything was published by Caselberg Press in 2020.

Poetry Shelf review of Wanting to tell you everything

The readers

Jenny Powell, Martha Morseth, Maxine Alterio, Carolyn McCurdie, Claire Beynon

Maxine Alterio is a novelist, short story writer and academic mentor. She has published four works of fiction and co-authored a textbook about learning through reflective storytelling.

Claire Beynon lives in Broad Bay. An artist and writer, she works on a range of collaborative, interdisciplinary projects balancing group activities with the contemplative rhythms of her solo studio practice. She’s in the slow process of completing a second collection of poetry.

Carolyn McCurdie is a Dunedin writer of poetry and fiction, especially speculative fiction. Her poetry collection Bones in the Octagon was published by Makaro Press in 2015.

Martha Morseth has written articles for More Magazine and the NZ Woman’s Weekly since l982, and poems for The Listener, Landfall and other literary New Zealand magazines. She has published two collections of poetry, three collections of short stories and plays for high school English classrooms. She came to New Zealand in 1972 with her husband and two daughters.

Jenny Powell has published seven individual and two collaborative collections of poems. She is part of the touring poetry duo, J & K Rolling, and is the 2020 RAK Mason Writing Fellow.

Poetry Shelf noticeboard: submissions now open for Oscen

‘Or do they? Humanity seeks purpose. We seek order, truth, belonging. In times past, we looked to myths and gods in order to explain the world to ourselves and to understand why we should continue to endure. In Joseph Campbell’s words: It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward. Myths and religion are often seen in the western world today as something that only irrational fools would believe in — we have now science, empiricism, the provable world. We cast off the narratives that hindered us. What more could be left? Yet we make new gods to fill their places even though we don’t label them as such. We look to ideologies and technologies and new narratives that are meant to hand down to us the irrevocable truth, meant to build for us strong social structures, meant to take us into the next era of greatness. There’s a tight feedback loop between the gods we believe in and the societies we create, writes Aaron Z. Lewis of his 2019 pantheon of gods, which is why we must take seriously the metaphors we believe by. 

So we want to know: what are the myths of today? How are they propelling us forward or holding us back? Have they changed from old, or is it that we’ve strayed from some true essence our ancestors knew? What purpose do they serve? What of the monsters, the supposed villains? Do they hold a clue in dismantling the binaries that our present narratives bind us to? What is the relationship between myth, reality, and subjectivity, and how do we tell? How do we retell? What are the personal stories that have saved you? What should the myths of tomorrow be? ‘

Full submission details for forthcoming issue of Oscen here

Poetry Shelf: Anna Jackson’s equinox sonnet

Untitled spring equinox sonnet.  

I will not ever leave this winter

mood and be a winner,

I refuse, I insist on being wanner

than anyone, wander

where I will, past warder

and hoarder, walking harder

and faster, still harping on, harper

that I am, about my cold hands and damper

feet, my hair, too, damped

and darkened in the rain. Dammed

up I’ll remain like a gutter full of dimmed

autumn leaves, washed white but not dimmer

than I insist of remaining as I simmer

about your supposedly approaching summer.

Anna Jackson

Anna Jackson made her debut in AUP New Poets 1 before publishing six collections with Auckland University Press, including I, Clodia, and Other Portraits (2014). She has a DPhil from Oxford and is now an associate professor in English literature at Victoria University of Wellington. Jackson is the author of Diary Poetics: Form and Style in Writers’ Diaries 1915–1962 (Routledge, 2010) and, with Charles Ferrall, British Juvenile Fiction 1850–1950: The Age of Adolescence (Routledge, 2009).

Poetry Shelf interviews Rachel McAlpine

How to Be Old: Poems Rachel McAlpine, The Cuba Press, 2020

Nobody knows your neck squeaks.

Nobody knows your heart

is a bowl of poems.

 

Everything you do is very very good

and very very good is good enough.

 

The past supports us

like a trampoline.

The future? Face it.

Unlace it. Embrace it.

 

At dusk I want to be with you and stay.

I love it when you ask about my day.

 

from ‘Fortune  cookies’

 

 

 

Wellington writer Rachel McAlpine blogs and podcasts about old age. She has published novels, songs, plays, books about writing as well as a number of poetry collections. To celebrate her 80th birthday she has published a new book of poems, How to Be Old. She kindly agreed to answer some questions for Poetry Shelf.

The Cuba Press page

Rachel’s blog Write into Life

 

Paula: Like me, you are a Minister’s daughter. I am wondering what you read as a child?

Rachel: Everything available! We (six girls) went to the library every Friday and came home fully loaded with books. But the Book of Common Prayer had the most irresistible and enduring influence on my language.

Paula: What books stood out in your teenage reading?

Rachel: Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Tess of the Durbervilles spring to mind.

Paula: Can you name a few poets that have really mattered to you across the decades?

Rachel: Across the decades? Well, Allen Curnow was at university with my parents and was even engaged to my mother for two weeks: thus I was aware that some poets were living humans. This mattered to me because at school we read dead poets and only dead poets. My mother read Whim Wham in the Saturday Press which reinforced my arcane insider knowledge. Poets who first took my breath away include Pablo Neruda, Gerard Manly Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, Federico Garcia Lorca, Erica Jong and Adrienne Rich. Then a wave of young male New Zealand poets in the 1970s got me thinking hmm, maybe I could do that too…

When we bang on about our trips

and our memoirs and our blogs

and our grandchildren (best of kind)

our ills and pills and volunteering

our hearing aids and hips—

pay attention, don’t switch off

because this

is our first attempt at being old

and we’re wondering how to do it

not just for us but for you.

 

from ‘Templates’

 

Paula: I was really struck by your reaction to Sam Hunt’s contention in the 1970s that women either wrote very good or very bad poems: ‘just women scribbling their little women’s nothings’. So rather than mimic his lyrical voice–you wrote from life, and you wrote for women, and in doing so refused to see women’s writing (the how and the what) as mediocre. I love you for this. Your bolshiness. I see that inspirational bolshiness there in your new book! Am I right?

Rachel: Oh sure, I can’t help seeming bolshy even when I think I’m being most reasonable. Many of the poems in How To Be Old come from a bolshy approach to the clichés of old age. Come on now! What does that even mean, “age is just a number”? What is old age really, specifically, cold-bloodedly like—not to the observer but to the old person?

Paula: Do you think things have changed for women writers? I just checked out the latest Starling issue and its nearly all women (under 25s). Women poets are writing anything and everything, and are most definitely in the spotlights.

Rachel: Agree! Was it Arthur Baysting’s 1973 anthology The Young New Zealand Poets that included 19 men and one woman, Jan Kemp? With International Women’s year looming that was a red rag to a bull. Hard to imagine now.

Paula: Yes – although there is still a way to go. I talk about it in Wild Honey. I just love the energy and output from the current wave of young poets.

Your new book How to Be Old is a glorious evocation of old age. Such captivating self-exposure. Was this also a feature of your first collections? What angst made its way into your poetry then?

Rachel: Hey thanks, Paula! My first collection was basically shouting “I feel sad!” (as you need to sometimes). After that I jumped feet first into other issues, mainly feminist ones. My own experience is a good starting point for making a larger point digestible. Not much angst in How To Be Old, although some sadness tempers the joy.

In the seventies and eighties

as a mournful poet

and strident feminist

(there was no other sort)

I shouted loud and rude

mean and bold

waking up my sisters

with the stories of their lives.

 

from ‘Growing my brand’

 

Paula: You were a significant voice for me in the 1970s – did you feel part of a writing community, particularly women? What about now?

Rachel: In the 1970s and 80s I totally felt part of a community, a world of women who were busting to write about our own experience and women who needed to hear our voices, which were also theirs. Then I dipped out of the literary world for a couple of decades: I was very absorbed in my work with digital content until 2015. I did keep writing poems but didn’t publish. So as a poet I’ve been a bit of a loner since then, except for those who have followed my blog and podcast.

The bravest are millions

 

Out there living the bravest days

are the very old, the frail old

using every scrunch of the soul

for the next impossible chore.

The very old must win and win

on multiple fronts

day after trembling day.

 

Out there building the bravest lives

are the young

knowing what we knew

and did not do.

 

Rachel McAlpine

 

Paula: I think Wild Honey has really made me feel part of communities of women writing and supporting each other. Like you I am a loner poet but so many possibilities for connection these days.

Your new collection refreshes the way old age can be both viewed and lived. The poems are tender, vulnerable, provocative, entertaining. What prompted to you to publish a collection after a bit of a gap?

Rachel: Two things. A, I sold my business and had time on my hands. B, I turned 75 and abruptly realized that I might live another 25 years. So I needed a little hobby to keep me busy (joke). I went late and went hard at old age. Obsessed about it, researched it, decided to do at least one thing per month for a year to improve my chances of having a healthy old-old age. That project, my boot camp for the bonus years, shone a light on my own barmy ageism and society’s odd way of talking about old age. A year later, I started processing this strange interlude and the product was this book, How To Be Old. (Which of course is not a manual.)

I gave myself one year

to understudy for the role

of someone old.

I was confused but I was committed.

Month by month I tackled

housing and eating and exercise

finance and hobbies and friends and voice

happiness and brain and mind

and identity

and lastly, nervously

the existential bit.

 

from ‘My boot camp bonus years’

 

Paula: Let’s go back to old age. Just as there are continued pressures on young women to achieve ridiculous ideals there are equally ridiculous notions about old age: on ‘how to be old’. Your collection navigates this so beautifully – but can you comment on what delights and what bugs you about ‘how to be old’?

Rachel: That’s the nitty gritty, isn’t it? Well, no doubt about it, my own old age so far offers many delights. I’m alive, for one thing. At dawn I’m inclined to say, Good morning world! Thank you for having me! (I’m deeply privileged to have superannuation and a roof over my head and to live in this beautiful place.) I’m interested in my brain workings: my short-term memory is crap but the rest is working better and faster than ever… until too soon I get tired and it goes on strike. So in dance rehearsals I learn choreography at a perfectly acceptable rate—then instantly forget it. Puzzling, isn’t it? I like the So what? attitude that many old people report: that is rather obvious in my poems, I hope. What bugs me? Nothing so far except when I get a whiff of condescension from someone younger—but then that was me until I was 75, so I do understand.

A cold teabag on a sore eye feels good.

A cold mermaid on the eye

feels good too.

 

Tell you what, Granny.

What say I write a prescription

to stop you forgetting

that your friend is dead

because that makes you sad.

 

from ‘Alternative therapy’

Paula: Love love love this age attitude, and I love the tips for well-being in the last section of poems. Can you comment on this section?

Rachel: My lovely granddaughter Elsie was my life coach when she was little. I recorded her wise words for future reference and tickled them into poems. So the book ends with some of her tips. You could use them, Paula: then you would know how to breathe, what to do when zombies come up the toilet, and how to think. 

Paula: Thank you! What did you hope for the poetry as you wrote? In terms of the ‘poemness’ and the poems’ reception?

Rachel: Every now and then I let myself slip into something lyrical or mysterious. But the poems are intended to be read aloud by anyone and talked about over coffee (not studied at university) so I guess I wanted most of them to be clear, funny, challenging and sort of comforting. I’ve had great feedback from readers, who always bring so much to the table. An occupational therapist tells me she has been reading my poems to all her client groups. That is absolutely perfect: I couldn’t wish for more.

You are tourists in our land.

We are prisoners of slow.

That said, we’d rather be quick than slow

and we’d rather be slow than dead.

 

from ‘Slow’

 

Paula: I love the way you open pronouns wide – to embrace versions of you and welcome in the reader. Do you have no-go areas as a writer?

Rachel: I think in my old age I don’t judge people so much. (Or do I?) When it comes to aging, we’re all doing own best thing. And I have been many different people.

Paula: Do you bring autobiography and fiction together or did you navigate forms of truth?

Rachel: There’s no way I can control the way people read my poems so I might as well use myself as my own lab rat. My confidence is based on the certainty that I’m not a one-off. With How To Be Old I think I express ideas about aging that many others also think or have half-thought. That’s my wee gift to the world.

Paula: Indeed! What words fit you as poet? I think of provocative, personal, poetic fluency.

Rachel: I love hearing that, of course. Actually I mainly write for the joy of it so maybe that comes through?

Paula: Ah, my favourite poetry guide too – I write for love and joy! Do you have doubt tagging along? Is there a particular poem that was hard to write?

Rachel: I have a well of black muck inside me which converts to self-doubt if stirred. I’m human.

We take anecdotes and turn them to the light.

We polish them in private.

They are touchstones. So it goes.

 

from ‘How older people talk’

 

Paula: What else do you love to do apart from writing?

Rachel: Dance, sing, draw, read, think, do Pilates, tai ch’i, walk on Mt Victoria, watch Netflix and hang out with my friends and family.

Poetry Shelf noticeboard: the launch of Ko Aotearoa Tātou/We Are New Zealand.

Otago University Press warmly invites you to celebrate the launch of Ko Aotearoa Tātou/We Are New Zealand.
This is a free event but requires registration, which can be done here


We apologise if this system has caused any distress. We have been advised there are now limited numbers of tickets available and sincerely hope you are able to secure a place at what promises to be a very special event.
When: Friday 30 October, 5pm to 6pm, followed by a reception from 6pm to 7pm
Where: TBS Space, Tūranga, 60 Cathedral Square, Christchurch

  • This free event is part of WORD Christchurch Spring Festival 2020. Registration is required

Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: Pippi Jean’s ‘What We Owe to Each Other’

WHAT WE OWE TO EACH OTHER

Is teething at the river mouth. Burrowing down.
Between the dirt and wild things. Frozen breathing, rain,
this place, is smoking from the mountainside.
Is setting bush on fire.
Is suspended by wire pins. Browning alpine sunshine
slunk onto muck. Sky and the sailing moors,
all bright descended pictures,
falling on the roof.
Is passing under cars.
Is passerby. Non-belonging. Beating trails
where the road hitches and pulls from
snow, matted scrubland, country laid
in bird formation. Is burnt-out
with believing. Festering.
Splintered. Usually
self-inflicted.

Pippi Jean

Pippi Jean is seventeen and has yet to decide on a music taste. Her work has appeared in Signals, Starling, Poetry NZ Yearbook, Overcommunicate and Toitoi. Last year she was a finalist in the National Schools Poetry Award.

Poetry Shelf video Starling spot: Vanessa Mei Crofskey reads ‘”Something in the Water” by Brooke Fraser’

Vanessa Mei Crofskey reads ‘”Something in the Water” by Brooke Fraser’

This poem was published in the latest issue of Starling (Starling 10).

Vanessa Mei Crofskey is an artist and writer based in Tāmaki Makaurau. They are a staff writer at The Pantograph Punch, have a collection of poems out in AUP New Poets 6, and often write about the water.

Poetry Shelf celebrates te reo Māori

Te Henga, Waitākere

This week many of us have celebrated te reo Māori – I have listened and read and, as I listen and read, I try to imagine an Aotearoa where every child becomes fluent, where we hear and see and read te reo Māori everywhere, where we honour the whakapapa of Māori place names and pronounce them correctly. I support te reo Māori as essential learning in all schools.

When I failed school and left without UE I had no idea who and how I wanted to be, but I went to night school to learn te reo Māori. It was Whangārei. It was the 1970s. It was ban the bomb badges and women’s liberation groups. It was vegetarian food and Joni Mitchell retuning her guitar. It was discovering Hone Tuwhare in the high school library. But as much as I thought learning te reo Māori was important, it felt even more important to step back and give space and time to Māori to grow their language again.

A week celebrating te reo Māori is a wonderful thing. A year boosting it even more so. A decade, a lifetime. Language is so important. We are what we speak. Just as our multiple stories are important. That 17 year old young woman is carried inside me, now that I am an older woman, and it feels like I am being invited into the language nest. With small steps, without wanting to speak over or take over, I feel this warm and encouraging embrace. I will make mistakes, I will hear the rōreka, the kõrero. I feel my way as the seeds of a language are planted. Tēnã koutou.

Kia kaha te reo Māori.

I am learning to grow kūmara and potatoes

in my Waitākere garden,

learning to listen

learning to speak

learning to feel

learning to be

Poetry Shelf poets on their own poems: Marty Smith on Agnus Dei

Agnus Dei

 

I carried the lamb in a sack on my horse
the tongue hanging grey and limp.
It’s buggered, said Dad, throw it in the creek.
The creek leaped, dimpled. Small bubbles
whirled, it rumpled where I was looking
the water shadowed half-blue-black

deep just there with duckweed floating out
the yards behind all noise, the cattle swirling
up air swelled with dust and bellowing.
Flies lighted on and off the rails.
I took the lamb and kneeled in the pudgy mud
both hands under it, under the water,

laid it carefully into the shocked cold.
It hardly struggled, there was so little left.
Put the bloody thing out of its misery
I heard in my head as I pushed it under
and the water shuddered.
Get the hell out of that he yelled at my back

you macabre little bastard!
It might have been ghoulish, he was good with words.
The yards were sweating hot
Dad wiped his hatband, the sack smelling
of dry stiff flax, I wiped my nose
my hand all mud and numb.

The birds hummed. In rain, in wind
I go out all hours on my lambing beat
he’s the shadow of me, always riding beside me.
Let it go he said, quietly. I let it go floating
it bobbed and the sun caught the eye, closing.
Shush, shush, said the creek.

Marty Smith from Horse with hat, Victoria University Press, 2014

Agnus Dei

I used to think some of the connections and references I made for this poem were so obscure that the only people who would ever know (or care) about them were me and my Dad, and he was dead the whole time I was writing my book to him. 

But when I read it at Wardini Books, Erice Fairbrother was there, and she told the audience that every year when she takes the Easter Service in the Napier Cathedral, she reads Agnus Dei to her congregation. And I had the kind of reaction that comes straight from the subconcious where it was – Whoa! The poem is against religion! – but I also remembered that the poem walks away from me as soon as it’s written, and it’s Erice’s poem when she reads it and wants to use it at Easter. Besides, Agnus Dei still has a dollar each way, like all of the poems in the book that question faith. Dad never went to church and we hardly ever did, but his mother was very religious. His maternal grandfather was a Lutheran minister who had to give up running the Lake Ferry Hotel because he couldn’t square it with being a tee-totaller and a minister. I lay off some bets, just in case.  

I think I can see why Erice would choose to read Agnus Dei at Easter, and if we hadn’t been in lockdown this year, I would have snuck into her service. It’s a brilliant thing to do, to read a poem in a cathedral —accoustics! – and I knew for a fact she’d get it perfect because she’s a really fine poet and a beautiful reader. I imagine it’s the line, ‘He’s the shadow of me, always riding beside me.’ I’ve always been very pleased with that image, but I was not meaning that kind of father, I was meaning my actual father. He was so huge in my life that when I was riding my pony, it was not my shadow I cast, but his. I wondered what Erice sees– is it casting the shadow of God beside people when they walk? (What kind of shadow would he cast?) (Does he have weapons?)

When I say I’m having a shot at religion, I’m only giving it the side eye in this poem. By using a religious reference as a title, though, it talks to other poems in the book which question faith. Some of the poems have what I think of as mirror lines – when you read the mirror line, you get the reflection of the other poem. (See why I say I’m probably the only person who ever will read Horse with hat like this? )

The mirror line is ‘Put the bloody thing out of its misery’, which is in Emphysema for Aunty Gwen. Dad’s sister Gwen contemplates him in his final coma and remembers the pact they made after he came back from the war: that if ever one of them was helpless in hospital, at the mercy of stangers, the  other was to ‘put them out of their misery’.  

When Dad says, ‘Put the bloody thing out of its misery’, there’s the shadow of the idea that sometimes soldiers had to shoot their own men if they couldn’t survive their injuries but would lie alive in agony for days. To use the Latin for The Lamb of God, Agnus Dei, is to suggest that servicemen were lambs to the slaughter. In another poem, Aunty Gwen is looking back, and she says, They were so innocent. They didn’t know anything. They’d led such sheltered lives on the farm.

On the farm level, we were never to let animals suffer. They were always to be put down if they couldn’t be saved, and if it sounds shocking now to throw the lamb in the creek, but in the fifties, as my aunty puts it, it was just what people did.

The poem didn’t start out as anything other than an exercise I was doing for the International Writers’ Programme at Iowa, where we were asked to write like US poet Lyn Hijinian – not so much write like her, but to have a go at using the tools she uses – really dense, really packed layering up of tiny details. The exercise required you to pick out a tiny detail and write every small detail you could about that detail, building outwards and outwards and for some reason the detail that threw up was the duckweed floating out on the creek – that was all it was, but when you start a memory like that the details roll out until they turn into what it really is—how deep and cold the water was. Then the lamb came floating up. The lamb was always there. Then it was about innocence.

The tiny details became heat and dust and the noise of the cattle bellowing, and it was always going to Dad in the cattleyards. It was surprising to me how those details came out as sound. It made me think of my Iowa tutor Shannon Welch, who said, The language is older than you. Let the language take you. (She also said, The water is deep, don’t snorkel.)

The other voice on the audio for Agnus Dei is Maude Morris, who was about 15 at the time. Maude is now the band LEXXA, with her twin sister Julia.  It was Maude’s idea to loop the child’s voice, and make the heartbeat sound with the mic. Which stops. I asked her if she could make a sound that was recognisably birdsong, but with something wrong with it. An unnatural sound for an unnatural act, to go over the lamb going into the creek. Maude got a tui song and stretched it out, then played it backwards and chopped it off. You know it’s a tui, and you know there’s something wrong with it, but you don’t know what. Jeff Boyle from Jakob very kindly recorded it for us.

My father and uncles never talked about the war, because their gift to their families was for them not to have to know. Aunty Gwen said you never knew what they carried around with them. This poem has redemption at the end, because it’s all I can do, but they didn’t allow redemption for themselves.

Marty Smith’s Horse with hat won the 2014 Jesse Mackay award for Best First Book of Poetry, and was a finalist for the Poetry Award. One of the strands in the book is the cost to her father of carrying the war with him; another strand is the question of faith. Agnus Dei crosses religion over into war, although it looks like farming.
Marty grew up riding beside her father, hence the horse strand in Horse with hat, hence the book she is writing about the obsession of people who risk their lives to ride racehorses. She would risk her life right now to ride a racehorse, if she were allowed.

‘Agnus Dei’ was short-listed for the 2013 Bridport Prize (UK) and was a place getter in the 2013 Joy Harjo Poetry Award (US)

Marty is currently working on poems to go alongside the lockdown essay she wrote for her friend, Paul Davis, whose plans for the end of his life were ruined by lockdown.