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
is our first attempt at being old
and we’re wondering how to do it
not just for us but for you.
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.
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 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.
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.