Poetry Shelf in the city: Breakfast with secondary-school English teachers

This morning I had breakfast and conversation with five fabulous secondary-school English teachers (Bronwyn, Susan, Terri, Tom and Christine) in Mt Eden and it was such a treat (here for the NZATE conference). I say no to pretty much everything at the moment, because I am focusing on my own writing, and keeping my two blogs going. It’s a rare occasion I get to have a cafe breakfast and talk poetry, and I just loved it! And yes poetry was the main topic of conversation. I gave each teacher a one-off offer to invite one standout young poet to send me a few poems – and I would write back to them, and perhaps post a poem on the blog. I tried starting an ongoing spot for secondary-school students awhile ago but it fizzled. But I love the idea of finding a way of posting poems by secondary-school students. Hmm. I need to muse on this.

I was talking off the cuff this morning but one thing I kept returning to was how we can take our whole body into a poem, whether we read or write it. Ears might come into play first because so often we pay attention to the sound of the poem. The way it makes music. Eyes are a way of hunting for the detail that moves a poem from the general to the specific. The look of the poem on the page. Its form. Its page space. Heart might be the essential pulse of a poem, the way we feel the world. And lungs, because poetry is also breath. Mind, because ideas can matter. Poem can be a form of inquiry, curiosity, experimentation. How does this all work when you are exploring a poem as a set of language features? You might think of a poem as a set of rhymes. Yes various sound rhymes, but also visual rhymes, feeling rhymes. Near rhymes, off rhymes. Ideas that rhyme. Recognition rhymes. A rhyme between you as reader or writer and the poem itself. I say rhyme but I could say chord or I could say connection. I often picture a bridge between myself and the poem, and sometimes I just can’t cross it. So I ask, why not? That instantly fascinates me, and I hunt for new entry points, a backdoor, a portal, a keyhole. Poetry for me is a way of opening up not closing down. Poetry, even at my age, is all about play, no matter how serious I get.

Afterwards, on my drive back to the coast, I mused on the ways poetry can spark students into finding their voice, into exposing diverse engagements with themselves and the world, with people, things, feelings, places, experiences and ideas that matter to them. I got to wondering to what degree our students read New Zealand fiction and poetry? I know there is an exciting groundswell of young poets from teens through to 20s. The work appearing on Starling underlines that. It seems so very important and is no doubt one reason we have Ben Brown as our inaugural Te Awhi Rito Reading Ambassador.

I got to read a poem from my New York Pocket Book (Seraph Press) that is so dear to me, the poetry prompted by the time Michael and our then teenage girls had ten nights in New York. Such an experience seems like a foreign country to us at the moment. And here I was today, reading a New York poem in a Mt Eden cafe to five English teachers, and it felt so unbelievably special I felt like crying. But I held up my latest collection The Track and got talking about creating a whole book in my head in a storm. Which is kinda how I feel now – writing and blogging in a storm to keep going. To keep one foot going after the next. To keep holding out the warmth and sustenance that poetry can offer.

Thank you NZATE for the breakfast invite. I am so grateful.

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