Poetry Shelf on WORD in Ōtautahi Christchurch

Scorpio Books

Having been in lockdown for much of the year, in our sweet haven on the west coast of Tāmaki Makaurau, it feels both strange and wonderful to be flying south to rooms full of people celebrating words. On the plane I wear my mask, listen to music, read Bill Manhire’s Wow, and all the time feel like dancing in the aisle, dancing some kind of gratitude salsa.

Rachael King has shaped a stunning and innovative programme with heart and soul and verve that celebrates books and words in Aotearoa. I pretty much want to go to everything, but that isn’t possible of course, when you are doing your own sessions, and there are several venues. I am very happy there will be key podcasts and some replays on Radio NZ .

The Ko Aotearoa Tātou: We Are New Zealand reading: editor Paula Morris invited the speakers, and other contributors to the book, to stand.

October 30th. One moment I am in our beautiful bush clearing and then, after several hours travel, I am in a festival room listening to writers read from the brand new anthology Ko Aotearoa Tātou: We Are New Zealand (Otago University Press). It is mesmerising, moving, uplifting. It seems both so very real and so very unreal to be there, like I am a sheet of tissue paper that has floated in from up north. Fragile. Unable to speak. See through. Brittle. But hearing these writers, hearing Mohamed Hassan read, hearing essa may ranapiri read, to hear them read from heart, with body sway and body music, along with a number of other authors, is extraordinary.

Later that night, Rachel King launches the festival with ‘Brave Worlds’, the Gala event. John Campbell, with his contagious literary and life enthusiasms, introduces six authors, multiple bravenesses, multiple vulnerabilities. Elizabeth Knox talks abut the courage you draw upon when someone beloved has not much time left, how courage eludes, how loss might go hand-in-hand with regret. I am sitting at the back, fragile tissue paper on the seat, and feel I will start crying. There’s a break in Elizabeth’s voice near the end, and I am thinking it took courage to agree to this public self exposure.

Poet Mohamed Hasan had launched his debut collection National Anthem the night before. Here he talks of his father coming to Aotearoa, of building a family life, of the grief at his aunty’s death, of the immeasurable grief after the March 15 terrorist attacks, of the shocking rise of Islamic abuse since that date. Not the unity. Not the we-are-one. And it is important to hear this. Painful. And I am sitting here in my dampness thinking of the power of poetry. I need to be shown we need to be better. To do better.

Becky Manawatu talks about the courage it takes to stand on this stage alongside the other writers. She talks a bridge from her near failures at secondary school, of the boy who had faith in her desire to write, who believed she would write a novel, the ‘streaming’ test she sat that she thought she would ace, in her passion for learning and knowledge. But she favoured quality over speed so was labelled ‘average’. Becky tells us she was sustained by the mana her sisters fed her, not by the education system that failed her. I am back in my teenage shoes, remembering my English teacher who told me I would never get anywhere in the world writing as I wrote, me believing her, me failing school.

I wanted to stay and hear Behrouz Boochani, Laura Jean McKay and Witi Ihimaera, but I have been awake since 3.30 am, I am full of dampness and grief. I am feeling John’s warmth and empathy as he responds to each speaker, but I am feeling this is a tough tough world. Yes there’s a pandemic, yet there are so many other layers and challenges that demand our courage and our strength. And sometimes it all feels too much. All I can do is put my adult shoes back on and take one step at a time.

I told you I was reading Bill Manhire’s Wow (Victoria University Press), on the plane down, so hearing Bill read a few poems from his new collection and have a conversation with John Campbell is a treat. Bill talks about achieving a particular kind of music, about the way poems drift between sound and sense, sometimes favouring one, sometimes the other. He refers to the idea a poem might be a prolonged hesitation between the two (idea courtesy of another poet whose name eludes me). Ah the joy of hearing Bill read – you hear word music and it takes you in multiple directions. I am still reading his book and slow musing before I write something for the blog so don’t want to say too much more here. But a downright treat to be at this session – and to hear John share Bill’s impact on him in his classes at university: ‘A light went on in my head and heart which has never gone out.’

And that’s it really – sitting in this session it’s a light on in your head and heart.

I feel so comfortable in this session, I keep forgetting I am in the audience and almost join in the conversation, making comments on Bill’s poems, asking questions. Thank heavens I don’t! Would be so embarrassing. Like I said the world feels awry. I feel off kilter.

Later in the day and I am sharing the stage with Morrin Rout and six other poets to celebrate Wild Honey (Massey University Press) and women’s poetry in Aotearoa (Cilla McQueen, Jess Fieberg, Bernadette Hall, Frankie McMillan, Freya Daly Sadgrove and Selina Tusitala Marsh -sadly my dear friend Tusiata Avia couldn’t make it but Selina read a poem of hers). I am still feeling discombobulated, not used to talking to other people in the flesh, but I am having a quick-fire conversation with Morrin and listening to women read whose work I admire. I introduce Cilla and quote from her: ‘Poetry leaves me in a state of never knowing what’s going to happen next.’

I quote from Selina on poetry: ‘I guess it begins with movement, like, something has to move me emotionally, intellectually, spiritually. And then it has to fit right in my mouth, which doesn’t necessarily mean it must rhyme, but that the words must be able to mill about together on the tongue. Ftting in the mouth and on the tongue often means that the words dance with each other, shadowing each other’s rhythms. Juxtapositions are important in order to disrupt expectation and widen the reading audience. For example, what happens when Muay Thai kickboxing, a traditional Tuvalu dance, and grief move together in the same space, on the same page? And then a poem has to move someone else.’

Freya, Selina, Frankie, Bernadette, Cilla and Jess (photo credit: WORD Christchurch)

Morrin asks why I called the book Wild Honey. I don’t say how an Australian academic nearly vomited on me when I told her the title and the book structure at a dinner once. I tell the audience maybe things work on you below the surface, as my partner is the painter Michael Hight, and I have lived with his magnificent beehive (and night) paintings for decades. And how we always have a pot of honey on the kitchen table. But more than that, women’s poetry is like honey, yes sweet, and yes textured and sharp, and yes full of shadow and light, like the transformative activity of the hive. And yes, women have a history of writing poetry in the wild.

I am asked to reflect back on the three women I picked as my foundation stones for the poetry house I built (Jessie Mckay, Blanche Baughan and Eileen Duggan), the first women with books published here. I want to say so much about these women, how I learnt to cross the bridge to their writing over time, how they were fierce and strong, overtly political, fighting for a better world, full of doubt, most especially full of doubt about their ability to write poems when the men knew better. I don’t say how some academics have used the poems of this trio to support theory, especially post-colonial theory, and how both the woman and the poem disappears. And how I want to bring them back to the light.

I love the fact the auditorium lights are up and I can see both familiar and unfamiliar faces in the audience and it feels like a warm and supportive poetry family. I am so grateful to have this chance to talk poetry with Morrin, such a champion of writers and writing in Aotearoa.

Me measuring a poem, or the gleams, or the pause at the end of the line (Photo credit: WORD Christchurch)

Dinner. Eating vegan dosa with humus and crispy chick peas at 27 Steps.

Off to the launch of Tusiata Avia’s The Savage Coloniser Book (Victoria University Press). A small room packed with dear friends and whanau, and conversation. I am sitting on a stool right at the back listening to Tusiata read, and it is beyond words in my head, it is open heart surgery, and it is skin ripping, bone marrow shifting, it is legs unsteady, it is can’t breathe, because this book, these poems, like those of Mohamed, are sitting me bolt upright. I am the white woman. I am the white woman crying at the world. I can’t help it this year. I can’t sleep. I can’t eat.

The arrival of this book is spoken into being with Tusiata’s inner strength and mana. This is need. This is need to speak. This is need to write. This is need to listen. This is need to stop still.

I get a taxi back to the hotel with Elizabeth Knox and I feel the strangeness of this Covid year as we sit in the lobby and and she holds my hand and I tell her something and I am crying. And then I forget to tell her I always call her book The Astonishing Book but I do tell that I wish it had won the book award and that I cried when it wasn’t even shortlisted.

I am lying on my hotel bed drinking camomile tea thinking this is the year of little openings, like the slow lift doors in the hotel, and how something painful unexpectedly and surprisingly spills. Especially at this festival. We writers are spilling our little beans and we are crying. It is strange. And I am listening.

Multiple moons from my hotel room

Breakfast at my favourite cafe in Christchurch, Little Poms. Such a heavenly plate of food (think homemade muesli, saffron-poached pear, sliced kiwi fruit, coconut yoghurt and the best honey drizzle ever) gets you ready for anything, especially making a poetry playground with children.

Carl Shuker in scintillating conversation with Pip Adam

I haven’t read Pip Adam’s Nothing to See yet (Victoria University Press), and maybe I got some spoilers, but this was a gold-mine conversation. Carl is a brilliant chair (best author intro ever!). Pip is hesitant and awkward and effusive and lets slip writing pearls and is utterly inspiring. Listening to Pip I want to get back home and write. She tells us she is interested in loss and grief, and the way we lose ourselves. She is obsessed with artifice and she is obsessed with fakery. She feels like she has been writing one book for ten years. She says she has this brain that thinks it can kill her and she can keep on living. I love the way everything fits and connects, and forges forward and back and side tracks. Wonderful!

And now for The Astonishing Book, The Absolute Book (Victoria University Press): Elizabeth Knox in conversation with Noelle McCarthy. I could only stay for a taster as I had to get ready for my poetry playground, but I am sure this will be available as a podcast or on Radio NZ. Elizabeth’s book is a book of our times: it offers solace, challenges, shifting feelings, essential ideas, underlines our absolute need for books of all shapes and sizes. Above all it will make you happy. This is the Happy Book. If you haven’t read it yet – put it on your must-read list now!

My poetry playground was like a family occasion with everyone joining in and feeling the warm glow of poems. It felt special to do this.

The almost-final session is Dear Katherine. It is a chance for Rachael King to say ‘thank you’ to her terrific team and to introduce the session writers (Menton Fellows: Bill Manhire, Carl Nixon, Fiona Farrell, Vincent O’Sullivan and Paula Morris). Some have written letters to Katherine Mansfield, some have used the Menton time as a springboard to an anecdote or an epiphany. I am completely exhausted, yet utterly riveted with each presentation. It is spell binding. When this comes out on a podcast have a listen.

So many sessions I wish I had been able to get into: sold out (Ray Shipley’s Late Night Poetry Hour darn it, the Curiosity Cabinet, and Witi Ihimaera and Kingsley Spargo), or clashed with my events (sadly Emma Espiner in conversation with Becky Manawatu and David Eggleton’s Poet Laureate picks) or I was too exhausted (Eileen Merriman’s YA session).

That is surely the sign of a magnificent festival, the hunger for more. I kept using the words gleam and glint and light when I introduced the poets in my Wild Honey session. And decided that is what I hunger for – it’s not that I don’t read the dark, the risky, the challenging, but glints of light in the stories and poems we share, in the books we make, feel utterly necessary at the moment.

I couldn’t commit to appearing at WORD until the last moment, feeling at risk travelling, but WORD festival is my highlight of the year. As a writer I was cared for, as a reader I was rewarded on so many levels. Everyone around me was glowing with festival warmth. So many little encounters, conversations, hugs and gleams to bring home. Next year, I want to book my hotel room, a flight and go to as many events as possible.

Home to the sweet embrace of family, sleeping cats, the bird song, the burgeoning garden, the bush smells, the wide open wild beach, so many books to read, and the urge to keep writing secret things. Thanks Ōtautahi. Thanks WORD.

3 thoughts on “Poetry Shelf on WORD in Ōtautahi Christchurch

  1. Pingback: Poetry Shelf review: Bill Manhire’s Wow | NZ Poetry Shelf

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