I have recently had an unfolding email conversation with Chris Tse, prompted by the arrival of his sublime new collection Minority Super Model. It got me musing on why and how we write poetry. On what the point of poetry is in a world so fragile, so out of step, so overwhelming at times. Chris’s poems, and his contribution to our conversation, underline how poetry can matter so very much. Poetry can get to the heart and lungs of being, of existence.
I also read and loved Gregory O’Brien’s endnote in his new collection House & Contents where he says:
And I listened to Anna Jackson ‘s terrific conversation with Kim Hill where she says: ‘Poetry is an urgent medium of conversation that takes place not only on the page and between readers and at readings, but on social media as well.’
Kim said Anna’s book reminded her of reading George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. I agree. Plus George raises some crucial questions that resonate (before he considers some Russian short stories): ‘How can we feel any peace when some people have everything and others have nothing?’
How can we feel at home, I am asking myself, when we are divided by what we want for the good of the world, for our neighbour, our children, our parents, ourselves? How do we keep safe and keep our loved ones safe? How do we cope with the misuse of the concept of ‘freedom’? War, poverty, climate change.
How do we write, read and share poetry?
No matter how dark everything feels, poetry is a light, an energy force, significant connections, a transcendental moment (think uplift), necessary communities.
And so out of a love of reading and writing, I have created this paragraph room for other writers to share what poetry means to them.
I want poetry to be the missing link in the evolution of my soul. I want poetry to be the lover who decides every day he wants to be with me. I want poetry to be the mega-stacked megaphone the kid down Avondale road ties to his BMX to blare K-pop tunes at 11pm. I want poetry to be the thin patch of cotton on the shoulder of Granny’s cardy, the place I’d lay my head. I want poetry to be my AA meeting with its 12 steps to freedom. I want poetry to be the pōhutukawa tree in my own back yard, the tree that walks its roots in cliff edge, sea rock and deep earth.
Selina Tusitala Marsh
I always want something that gives me that feeling that I’m learning something new or seeing something in language in a new way be it a word being used strangely, or the integration of te reo Māori into poetry. I want something that I can read out loud and in doing so it slows time and everything down into the words before and after each other. I have been reading a lot of older poetry by takatāpui writers including Cathy Dunsford, Marewa Glover, Keri Hulme, and Robert Sullivan (am so excited for his new book Tūnui|Comet!). These are writers that form a crucial part of the whakapapa of takatāpui poetry. So I guess what I want in 2022 are words that slow this world and give us takatāpui a sense of our place in it.
essa may ranapiri
2022 has brought me back to writing poetry again. It’s such a frantic, bleak, weirdly interminable year that the pockets of time I have for processing and expression are perfectly suited to drafting a poem; or, sometimes, they successfully get my head out of 2022. Reading poetry does the same thing: I can’t meditate, but I can focus intensely on reading a poem so everything else dissolves for a few good minutes. Lately, that’s more than enough to ask of poetry or anything.
When we were kids, we had a bad habit of leaving the last couple of inches of cereal in the Weetbix package uneaten. No amount of persuasion would convince us that this unwholesome looking mess was as good as the perfectly formed biscuits we’d started off with. That is, until my father came up with the term chocolate weetbix. All of a sudden, we were competing to have a bowl of chocolate weetbix scraps rather than those boringly predictable rectangles. I’m still not sure why those two words made such a great difference to us – the mystique of chocolate transforms all it touches, I suppose. But it was more than that. It was my first experience, not so much of the power of advertising, as of the inherent magic of putting the right words in the right place. My father was a clever and eloquent man, but even he must have felt some slight disquiet at manipulating us with such ease. Since then, as a writer and a teacher, I’ve become increasingly aware of the extent to which one can transform other people’s experience of the world simply by describing it in a particular way. It’s a fearsome responsibility, and not to be taken lightly. This year, as so many of our assumptions about the society we live in crumble around us, I’m more conscious than ever of the power of poetry – ‘language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree’ – and its ability to affect reality. We can, quite literally, change lives with our words: but what is it, exactly, we want to say?
I wasn’t reading or writing very much at the beginning of the year. I was actually quite frightened by words and their certain power; my head seemed full enough of things (brimming, even) of significant emotional valence, and I was too familiar with the repercussions of emotional burnout to consider overloading the already dizzying load. I was furious with myself for not being able to read or write, especially with my MA approaching, and especially given the ways poetry has previously been there for me in moments of deep grief. But I am grateful now for that break, and for being frightened, as painful as it was. It is necessary to honour your body and your brain that is so much part of your body. It is necessary to honour a present moment and present feeling. Now and going forward into the rest of 2022, I stand by this. Now I am reading and writing poetry again, and having lovely conversations about reading and writing poetry again, and reading (no, inhaling) Anna Jackson’s splendid writing on reading and writing poetry. I am slowly but surely—like condensation trickling down a shower wall—relearning how to welcome all that poetry brings, all that poetry is. I want to read more and more poetry that stirs me, that resonates like a dream dreamed and recalled, that takes me out of myself and delivers me a new, mysterious ground. I want to write more and more poetry that does all of these things for other people, and perhaps most crucially, I want to write poetry that can be there for people when their world isn’t. Poetry should be there for you, even if it isn’t touched, even if it is resisted, it should be there like a shoulder, or a spine.
When I was a student, we were made to paraphrase patches of poetry. When Hamlet said, “Oh that this too, too solid flesh would melt” etc, you had to reduce his inner thought-process to simple, sensible modern English – to what you believed was its meaning. In this way you learned the limits of paraphrase. It turned out that Hamlet’s soliloquy only made sense as itself! What do I want from poetry in 2022? I still want the poem itself. I want the thing that can’t be paraphrased.
In my life the purpose of poetry is varied. I haven’t always had a good relationship with poetry. I have written a lot of it. I have published a fair amount of it. I have written a PhD about it. I have argued with people about it. I have had poetry and poetic language mansplained to me. I have struggled with misogyny in the canon and in contemporary poetry by cis straight men. I’ve realised that my education in poetry has been very white and that poetry in Aotearoa is still on the whole, disproportionately white. For me, as a Pākehā cis woman writer, it feels important that I continue to write, but it feels more important that I help to change the status quo by listening more, buying and reading the work of BIPOC writers, trans and non binary writers, and going to events that involve these writers. It’s also important that I don’t turn this into a performative act about what a good reader and audience member I am. I think it is the responsibility of people with privilege to actively dismantle that privilege and to make space for less privileged people to have a voice. This could include checking our own work for bad attitudes and stereotypes, giving constructive feedback to editors of publications if those publications are not representative, and making sure we are including diverse voices if we are in a position of editing, reviewing, curating or organising events. So I think the question is not just what I want from poetry but how am I able to help? I don’t think the poetry I write, however political, is ever going to change the world. Alongside writing we need to continue to develop our toolkits for enacting change.
As Seneca wrote centuries ago, fate leads the willing and drags the unwilling. Somewhere between the breathless hush and the blinding light, the pulled pin of the Covid-19 hand grenade and the mists of mellow fruitfulness, there will come a time for the prophetic sonnet, with its hopes and deliriums. Poetry in 2022 is the music of the everyday, a waving of poetical palms and a singing of hosannahs, as always. Poetry is incorrigibly plural, wrote Louis MacNeice; the world is too much with us late and soon, said Wordsworth, William; while William C. Williams anticipated another container-load of red wheelbarrows arriving from China, as clapped-out ironies groan in their supply-chains. We poets, those Hart Crane called the visionary company of love, make world-order from word-order, as unacknowledged legislators, legends in our own minds; and so poetry advances one poem at a time, all at once and everywhere, just like that.
But what makes a poem stand out, to engage us, challenge us, delight us, speak to us? Word salads are a matter of taste for non-conformists and formalists alike. Sometimes it’s alright for poems to sound unruly and awkward, as they reach for connection. Will they last forever, as Shakespeare promised a lover in a sonnet, or will they last as long as an April shower, freshening the air for a moment, then be gone? Some poems encourage us to unpack possibilities endlessly; other poems can’t wait to be rid of us and retreat into the catacombs of the forgotten. What is the core business of a poem, was the question the Sphinx asked, and Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ answers it as a prophetic sonnet: ‘Nothing beside remains.’ As we each reach for a poem, for a favourite stanza, for a remembered lyrical line or terse phrase, may we all be stuck fast in the happy and glorious moment of that poem, long to reign over us — that slice of heaven, that heaven in a wild flower.
I have considered this question in relation to Sir Mason Durie’s health model, Te Whare Tapa Whā, and the legacy of Dr Moana Jackson. The correlation between health and wellbeing has been accentuated by the coronavirus pandemic which still grips the world. The four pillars of the model are 1. Taha tinana (physical health), 2. Taha wāirua (spiritual health), 3. Taha whānau (family health) and 4. Taha hinengaro (mental health). We are into the third year of the pandemic; my mother has turned 90 and my father has been diagnosed with lung cancer. I need these pillars to remain strong as I negotiate yet another year impacted by a virus likened to a crown. Poetry is my Psalm 23. What I lean on, clutch, attach to like a limpet when my world wavers and implodes. Poetry is a portal. The transit lounge, the journey, and the destination. It has become my waka, the vehicle that supports and transports me through life changing events as both a reader and writer of verse. Moana Jackson loved poetry. And he deftly challenged the Crown and its associated institutions. I gifted him a copy of my Tapa Talk collection after I was deeply moved by his presentation at a literacy conference many years ago. It was a way I could say ‘Kia ora’. Give something of myself in return. A bespoke (mainly poetry) anthology was gifted to Moana during a 2020 Koha Aroha ceremony that the bulk of the audience attended via Zoom, due to coronavirus pandemic restrictions. Moana was ill. We gifted him our stories. The essence of who we are. Poetry is our souls revealed and transmitted in stories pared to the quick. If you want to know someone – explore their poetry.
I feel that poetry is in a way, an essential thing in making sense of the world when we have so much information constantly being blasted at us. While in many ways, it is a good thing that we now have access to so much media, news, and knowledge, it gives us a huge sense of urgency. We feel we need to be doing something about every bad thing we’re hearing about, which is obviously an impossible task and only drains us emotionally. The reason I particularly love poetry as an art form is that it condenses everything down into a tiny micro point, a little anchor to understand a certain emotion, issue, or even moment in time. It’s a way to make very large concepts small enough to fit into a few lines on the page, lines that still pack as much punch as a paragraph. As a reader I’m always after poems that pack some sort of gut-punch, a poem that I just viscerally get even if I can’t articulate it – a poem that condenses complex ideas into a wash of feeling. As a writer of poetry, I never really consciously think about what I’m writing, but I often find that after I’ve written it, the poem seems to make sense of something I didn’t even know I was feeling. Poetry is a sort of divination, a form to render our complexities into bite-sized verses.
At fifteen, poetry meant John Keats; at twenty-five, Sylvia Plath and C.P. Cavafy; at thirty-five, Elizabeth Bishop and Hugo Williams; at forty-five, W.H. Auden and Horace. Since then, poetry has meant the work of any poet from any time or culture whose inner world I feel I can enter and which enlarges my own. Starting a poem is usually an involuntary act: a phrase, a rhythm, a lurch in the mind. Then it’s trying to make something that didn’t exist before, also bringing to light something inside that I didn’t know was there. Sex is great, but poetry is better.
Reading (and maybe writing) in uncertain times
About 15 years ago I was invited to be part of a small group of friends who meet to read poems to each other. Not our own poems, poems we have discovered to share. People in the group have come and gone over the years but we have continued meeting for an hour once a fortnight – with a few chosen poems and water only as refreshment. Until this year. 2022 is my 79th year, the virus is evident around me and the poetry group has become another loss. A by-product of the 15 years, however, is a poetry shelf full of little paper strips marking and recording where I have been, where I’ve found the poems that have done ‘poetry’s job’ – as Greg O’ Brien puts it – to ‘flicker’ or ‘glow’. For me the chosen poem might give consolation, insight, laughter, clarity, fellow-feeling, delight. In a group the ‘luminescence’ can create a little lift, a gasp or sigh, or a conversation. Even occasionally a stunned silence. On my poetry shelf I have a small anthology of poems that a student once gave me: Poems to Live by in Uncertain Times and I see it has 5 little tags. The first tag is for a Billy Collins poem called ‘Passengers’ where he manages a fear of flying with his familiar humour. The second is by Bertolt Brecht, who says ‘Truly, I live in dark times!’ …‘The man who laughs/ Has simply not yet had/ The terrible news.’ ‘Northern Pike’ by James Wright is the third tag. It tells us that that we are all going ‘to die in a loneliness/ I can’t imagine and a pain/ I don’t know’ and that to go on living and let the living go on living he will prepare and eat the fish. It is a lovely poem ending with: ‘There must be something very beautiful in my body,/ I am so happy.’ Sharon Olds writes of a mother fare-welling a son on the Summer Camp Bus. ‘What ever he needs, he has or doesn’t/ have by now./ Whatever the world is going to do to him/ it has started to do.’ The last poem is ‘On Prayer’ by Czeslaw Milosz. It reminds me that sometimes in dark times prayer ‘to someone who is not’ is all that we can do.
‘All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge/ And walking it we are aloft, as on a springboard….’
As a reader, I think I want poetry to be a place of reflection, illumination, celebration and repair. It can’t be all those things at once, but different poets can offer these things in different ways. I want it to offer music, surprise, and if it can’t offer narrative tension, I want it to offer structural intrigue. Books and reading feel ever more essential to me as we hunker down and avoid crowded indoors or social venues. They’re a chance to experience a form of contact and connection with other people where the only contagion is of ideas and inspiration. As a writer, I want poetry to help me untangle some difficult psychological terrain, to capture an atmosphere of thought the way music might if I could compose. I’ve realised the past few years how much I still need poetry as a way of understanding and recording experience (not only my own), even when I don’t feel a strong impulse to publish individual pieces.
I think what has really stuck with me over the lockdowns and in the aftermath of Covid-19 is the sense of community within the poetry sphere and the generosity of the people within it. It’s always felt particularly special, but I think it is particularly obvious now that other aspects, like in-person launches and readings, are few and far between and we have had to find new ways to support each other. There is this reciprocal relationship wherein you often read and actively engage (through reviews, book buying, or plain ol’ compliments) with the work of people who also actively engage with your work. I feel real pride being able to share work with poets whose work I admire and great excitement when someone in the community publishes something new. This close-knit feeling is something I am really grateful for. It’s so refreshing that it isn’t an environment that emphasises competition. So, yeah, poetry has really come to signify connection for me, and a particularly crucial one to stave off the lockdown blues. The generous support, mentorship, and encouragement from other poets (given so freely, too) has changed my life. I read something a while ago from Nathan Joe (or maybe I heard him say it somewhere) about the importance of having others believe in your work at the beginning of your practice, particularly from those with more experience. Other poets have certainly done and continue to do that for me and I hope I can one day do that for others.
Something I’m realising more and more is how delicious poetry is to me as a kind of construction and/or documentary exercise. The poems I’m most interested in are those that feel they could have only been written by one person—that there is a specific voice, or viewpoint, or a distinct craftsmanship, that might be inspired by the same thing as hundreds of other poems, but could have only been expressed this way once. Part of it, I think, comes down to the fact that no matter what form a poem takes (and sometimes form itself is the thing), writing reveals us. It reveals what we see as important, whether it’s witty, or loving, or pastoral, or political—or all of the above. Poetry reveals what we want to devote space and time to, whether we intend for it to or not. And I think there’s something so lovely in that; you know, “in times like these, what do you love? What are you reaching for? What do you feel is, or isn’t, reaching back for you?”. To feel you’ve been plunged into someone’s perspective, and exposed to their priorities, and to how the world might be viewed through the combined lens of both (regardless of whether the poet and the speaker are one and the same), is an absolute gift. It’s an exchange I’ve always valued but one I especially cherish now, when it’s so easy to feel removed from everything. Predictably, I suppose my approach as a writer is similar; it’s very much a “here is a text I have built; here is how I see it (whatever ‘it’ is); here is what matters to me.” And I’ll certainly never capture every single thing I care about in poetry—nor do I have the desire to, frankly!—but with circumstances as they are, while I have the choice, I don’t know why I would write about anything else.
In 2022 I am trialing some of the ways that I can make poetry my bread and butter. One of my goals for the year is to read more of the collections of poetry that I already own, and to prioritise the reading of poetry over the other forms of writing which I find more accessible. In other words, to challenge myself to read poems even when I may not be in the mood. It’s a bit like physical exercise, isn’t it? You know it’s good for you, yet sometimes it slips out of your routine, and getting back on the horse feels like a huge ask and then you realise- actually, I like this and it makes me feel good. As a writer, I’m about to stop editing my first manuscript. I hope to send it away soon and clear the decks. But also, this year I’m having a go at teaching people about poetry! I tutored some school students in the summer and now I’m tutoring tertiary students. It’s a complex position at times, I frequently feel the need to remind my students that I’m not the poetry police and their readings are just as valid and true as mine. My goal is to guide them to an attitude of curiosity about what words can do. What I want from poetry is a means to grow our community of appreciative readers and writers.
Gah!!! Poetry. At the moment poetry means to me lots of boring hard admin, which is obviously wrong and bad. All I want is to be swallowed by it (as both a reader and a writer) and feel something, but at the moment I have to skate across the top of it while I make my attempts to put it in front of people, and I hate skating across the top of anything, emotionally speaking. But I’m doing it cos what I really want from poetry is for it to move big audiences. I know that poetry can have this exceptional power on a stage, and having seen it, felt it, that’s what I want more and more of. Unfortunately it’s also harder and harder to make it happen, and the longer I go without having people in a room together getting moved, the less… substantial I feel. What I want from poetry is to be in a crowd, watching artists make language transcend itself, feeling the room – and myself – totally alive with it.
Freya Daly Sadgrove
2021 on the internet felt like the Hundred Years’ war of those who proclaimed poetry is a vital life force and those who pronounced it deeply pointless. As the self-appointed arbiter of taste I have decided poetry is both and that’s ok. In 2022 we have declared the year of discourse dead and rung in the new flesh, 2022 is the year of New Zealand poetry, don’t forget that. I just read ‘Poetry to make boys cry’ in Super Model Minority and fulfilled the Chris Tse prophecy, I devoured Meat Lovers with the salt of my enemies, I pre-order collections, I sit at the window and wait for the new word from Michael Steven/essa may ranapiri/Erik Kennedy/50 other NZ poets like a war widow. I briefly forget I have my own book coming out, for a minute I shamefully wish everyone else just chilled and put out their career-defining works next year instead. I swallow humble pills until the feeling passes, the feeling passes, I pre-order more collections. 2022 is a fence post year in the vast paddocks of NZ poetry history, it will not be forgotten. As for writing poetry, in the early hours of Thursday morning, high on sleep deprivation, I wrote my first poem of 2022, it is deeply weird, a slick, writhing thing you wouldn’t want to hold for long, but I like it, maybe there’s some blood left in the engine.
Poetry has always been a lifeline to me. As a teen, the reading and writing of it felt like it saved me over and over again. I could figure out how I felt by piecing together words and phrases. I had access to people and experiences that did not exist around me. As an adult, in this time, poetry is a pause in my afternoon, it’s something I read with breakfast and coffee, it’s what I read before I sleep. It reminds me that I am alive, that there are so many things I don’t understand, but that I don’t have to understand. I just have to live and keep on living.
‘Poetry is not a means to an end, but a continuing engagement with being alive.’ Kim Addonizio
The last couple of years have caught me at my most vulnerable: favouring Netflix, staying in my dressing gown, and with little demarcation between days. My mind’s been elsewhere, preoccupied with Covid instead of what’s happening in contemporary poetry. I needed to read things that were recognisable, so I found myself turning to old classics of the canon: Milton, Barrett Browning, Yeats, and Eliot among others. These are the same poets I naively dismissed as an undergraduate for being irrelevant. But reading them now, on my own terms, their verse feels structured and orderly. Their voices feel assured, helping me make sense of how we ended up here in the first place. It’s comforting to think of people having adored and laboured over them for centuries, and how their words still felt immediate after all this time.
Anna Jackson’s new book Action & Travels, has been a welcome introduction back to contemporary voices, and a reminder that the past and present can be read together. I’m thrilled to see Becca Hawkes and Hera Lindsay Bird, for example, in conversation with Keats and Coleridge. On Kim Hill’s Saturday Morning, Jackson explains poetry’s magnetic ability to capture that “intensity of feeling” we often can’t make sense of. Poetry is last night’s dream we don’t understand, an unearthly Bill Hammond painting, or the mental rehearsal of a conversation we never have. I write poetry to try and make sense of that resonance, of that something that seems important, that something that’s too big to carry my head.
I just had a pepi so writing has been a challenge so far this year. I have been trying to find moments to read and have been re-reading Strands and Lost Possessions by Keri Humle. I don’t think there will ever be another Keri Hulme. Hulme was special because she could be many people, many places and many things. She also stylistically never wrote in a very linear way, for instance some of her poetry could be seen like short stories or dialogue or pūrākau. I want to read more poetry that transgresses form.
Hana Pera Aoake
Being someone who writes toikupu in 2022 has, to date, been unsettling. I’m seriously wondering if I’ve lost my mojo. Let’s face it, who actually wants to read about suicide bereavement during a pandemic? It’s not light and fluffy, which is possibly what people are after as a means of escape. I don’t blame them, but I’m exhausted from trying to figure it out. The serious lack of funding, in an equitable spread, within our literary sector is concerning, and probably contributes to creatives feeling isolated and hōhā. I’ve noticed my skin has become thinner, in that I’m less able to slough off multiple rejections in the ways I did before. There’s some fantastic new mahi coming out which I’m excited to read, and I’d love to see NZ libraries buying LOADS MORE copies of NZ pukapuka, and making them accessible to readers who can’t afford to buy them.
The biggest thing poetry means for me is a community. The people it’s brought into my life and the time I spend with them is something I’m so grateful for. Getting together with other poets to write, or sing karaoke, or just talk shit, is a balm. I used to think people who write just for their friends were too exclusive, but if you do it well, anyone who reads your poems can feel like they’re your friend—like it’s for them. I read poems by people I don’t know and I get that feeling. Poetry is so fluid that it can do something different every second, but that human connection is always there. These past couple years, that’s mattered so much.
Ash Davida Jane
Poetry means making to me. The making new in the face of tearing down, and cutting down, and Faustian pacts and costs. Since the start of this year I’ve been poeting with poetry students and every day they make new rooms for us to walk into and look out from. They assemble kit for kōrero, connecting ropes, magic tricks, leaps of faith, wild dances, wild gardens in the badlands. Our workshops see poetry splashed against the walls and bounced against the windows. But it’s resilient stuff and carbon footprint friendly. I read that the carbon impact of an average Marvel movie is the equivalent to 11 trips to the moon – poetry can get us to multiple other moons whenever, however, and – this is miraculous – without the terrible toll.