Poetry Shelf conversations: Bernadette Hall

Like thumbprints, the moulding of the mountains
made by light and shade, the long spine
like folded paper, the crane of peace perhaps
but we are a long long way from that.

from ‘Tears and Wounds’ in The Lustre Jug (VUP, 2007)

Some poets you carry with you. Every new book is a significant arrival. The poetry of Bernadette Hall has been like that for me. Her writing touches so many levels, from heart to ear to eye to cheek. Her writing relishes warmth, connection, observation, experience. Living. Reading. Questioning. Ideas. As I travelled through Bernadette’s books again, looking for poem extracts to add to our conversation, I realised what a tough job I had set myself. I wanted to quote everything.

Needing a word
for the little jumps
on the surface of things

(that certain
blurring of the edges
like the sea’s turning back
or the gulls hitched up on elastic)

I’m still hanging around

My sleeves ripple like flags

from ‘the persistent levitator’ in The Persistent Levitator (VUP, 1994)

Paula: Thank you so much for agreeing to an email conversation with me. I have been fan of your poetry for a long time, so this feels like a much needed outing. I have no idea how it will unfold but I am picturing the two of us sitting down on the beach watching the waves roll in as we talk about books and poetry, about reading and writing. With a flask of tea. The sky is blue and the sun is shining but there’s a nip in the air because, after all, it is autumn.

It is so long since we have seen each other, such corrugated and challenging times for everyone. Books and writing have been an essential part of my day. Have you read anything, any genre, in the past year that has lifted you? Anchored you? Taken you apart and reassembled you?

Bernadette: A gorgeous afternoon here today, dear Paula. A slight tremor in the leaves of the trees that crowd around my little writing room. I like being backed into a small, dimmed space like this. As if I’m underground. I’ve spent much of the last few weeks way up on a high ladder, pruning dead wood out of olive and plum trees and a peach. And a hedge which I think is called taupata. I’m much in love with all this, being way up there in the air. My body knowing what it has to do. Shifting, balancing, rebalancing. No thinking. No talking. No words.

And then of course I do come back. To this place. To the big white desk. To the walls that are covered with books and paintings. The door open to the gravel path that goes one way to the front of the cottage and the other way to the street. And the world is full of suffering and outrage and there are words, words, words, and there are screams and there’s weeping and there’s the ripping shrieks of missiles.  And all the while the glaciers are melting. I’m not writing much at the moment. I haven’t got words for it. But I am reading. Voraciously, hungrily, reading and rereading. Mostly non-fiction. Some fiction. Not so much poetry. For poetry hurts. And I can’t say why.

Paula: To picture you pruning and then in your writing space is a welcome image in my head. I agonised over whether to reboot my blogs in 2022, but it came down to a love of words, books and writing connections. I have been thinking about the poets who have mattered so much to me since my debut collection in 1997. The way the lines of certain poets sung to me: This is what poetry can do. Were there poets important to you in your poetry beginnings?

Bernadette: I am so grateful to you, dear Paula, as a poetry connector. Every time you set me a little task, I feel the jolt of a writing impulse and am grateful. In the late 1970’s, not long after the birth of my third child, I joined a writing group run by John Dickson in Dunedin. That’s where I met the Americans, most memorably, John Berryman:

My daughter’s heavier. Light leaves are flying.
Everywhere in enormous numbers turkeys will be dying 
and other birds, all their wings.

from ‘Dream Song 385’

So, the scene is Thanksgiving. And the little child recurs. What resonates with me in Berryman’s work is not the whole but fleeting lines like these. The final stanza in this particular poem is one I go back to again and again. It reassures me that poetry is my place.

My house is made of wood and it’s made well,
unlike us. My house is older than Henry;
that’s fairly old.
If there were a middle       ground between things and the soul
or if the sky resembled more the sea,
I wouldn’t have to scold
                                             my heavy daughter.

When it comes to New Zealand poetry, my hand reaches time and time again to DIA by Michele Leggott (AUP, 1994), where the unsayable is said and gorgeously:

the heart in its cage stands up
desiring fine instruments     what shall we play?
laughter startles the sublime lyric c’est
le pays du desire
and I its best gesture
wake in tears

from ‘CIRCLE’ in DIA (AUP, 1994)

I’m currently reading, and re-reading as I go because it’s difficult, a substantial piece of non-fiction, On Equilibrium by John Ralston Saul, published in 2001. When it comes to imagination, he describes it as ‘a rhythm of the body.’ So it’s something that’s there, ‘in our intellect, our perception, our body as a whole, our relationship to others, to what we create, to rooms, to atmospheres.’  What do you reckon? Thrilling, eh?

Paula: I love that! Imagination as a body rhythm. This week, I posted a review of Janet Charman’s fabulous new collection, The Pistils, and found myself navigating its ideas, heart and physicality through rhythm. I find both head and heart reactions, body reactions to the world, to a poem. Body music. You got me thinking how a poem is a set of rooms and corridors, atmospheres and relationships. How essential rhythm is as you write (and read).

I can remember analysing one of your poems (‘Rathcoola rain’) at Hagley Institute with a group of students. In your company! I opened the music of the poem as a way of walking through its ‘rooms and corridors, its atmospheres and relationships’. Its ideas, its physical reach. Your poems have always struck me in this way. What was important to you when you were writing poems at that time?

The rain is like mice scrabbling in the ceiling.
It’s like the crackling of plastic,
the first licking of flames in a handful of wood shavings,
the complicit turning of pages in hundreds of Mass books

It is slight and light and insistent.

from ‘Rathcoola rain’ from The Lustre Jug (VUP, 2009)

Bernadette: Survival! I needed an ‘island’ where I could just be. A secret place where words which I didn’t know were inside me might find their way out. A place, I guess, of instinct and intuition. A private, solitary space. For truth-telling. As far as I could feel it.  

Paula: I think it’s how I work. A secret island where I’ve no idea what paths I will track and what will fall upon the notebook page. Especially now when writing is a survival aide. Are you able to write at the moment?

Bernadette: More prose than poetry at the moment. Bits and pieces. Though there is one new one, a love poem in precarious times.

On adding up the loves of our lives  

When I walked into the room
my garden walked in with me.

When he walked into the room
his cat walked in with him.

I heard them whispering in the night.

‘Don’t worry, little man,’ I heard him say.
‘I’m sure the sea-wall will hold.’

 

Paula: Ah so lovely! I am writing both poetry and prose but not sure how I feel about publication. Do I want or need this? I am on my third draft of a children’s novel and love having this place of retreat. I also write a tiny poem each day to go with my Wordle result. It is automatic writing that taps into an autobiography of the everyday, found poetry, surreal tracks, the imagined, the felt. What draws you to prose? A patchwork quilt of prose?

Bernadette: Or a rag-bag! Prose is often something I’ve been invited to do. It’s like a job that makes sense before I begin. I think the poems come from a deeper, more unpredictable place. Or rather, the ordinary, lived experiences that are at the base of a poem shift of their own accord into a darker, less rationally controlled space. It doesn’t always happen, of course. So you learn to be patient, don’t you. You sort of despair yet over the years you begin to understand that that emptiness is actually part of the process. ‘You go back and back to the same leaping off place.’ When a poem fills itself up, you feel amazed and jubilant. I don’t write all the time. I come and go. I’m a Sagittarian, I have enthusiasms.

Tell me about your love of children. The way you have celebrated their poetry in beautiful books. Year after year you have exerted yourself encouraging, teaching, travelling round the country, all for the sake of young writers. In the same way, your Poetry Shelf has been essential and much loved as a connector and an instigator nation-wide for years. How did you find the time? Could you share with us one of your tiny poems and a children’s poem?

A man with two shopping bags
and a dog on the lead
makes it down the street

A kererū sleeps
on the telephone wire
at the top of our long drive

A tiger reads War and Peace 
to a family of little giraffes
under our carpet

Paula Green, April 24 (WORDLE poem)

The Glass Door

Open the glass door
and the whole world changes

after the splatter splatter rain
and the tiger tiger wind
and the pepper pepper hail
and the nose biting cold

the grounds steams like little dumplings
the birds sing like my warbling aunt
the cat rolls over on her tummy
and I hide in the shiny grass.

from Groovy Fish and other poems (Scholastic, 2019)

Paula: I have always loved writing for children. Walk into a classroom and poetry can liberate the most reluctant writer through word play. You don’t need rules or models. Imagination sets sail. The real world counts. It’s fun but you also navigate important ideas such as friendship, difference, what we want and need in the world. The joy of engaging with children, as they make poems matter, is beyond words.

 And yes, poetry comes out of a deep unpredictable place. So private, so intimate, so vulnerable. It’s an energy source. It fits into little and larger pockets of time.

I have connected with your writing, but also in the way you have mentored younger writers. How they hold you in such deserved esteem. Did your teaching/mentoring and writing feed each other? How did you find the time? I am thinking poetry time finds us!

Under Erebus

A woman is standing under Erebus
She has wrapped all her gifts around her,
including caritas.

A bulky mammal able to feed her young.

See the red flag with its purple shadow,
the flagged road curving towards tomorrow.

There is shelter here, off to the right,
a bunch of metal rods and a cloth.

You wonder if it’s going to be enough.

Bernadette Hall, from The Ponies (VUP, 2007)

Bernadette: You’ve hit the nail on the head when it comes to the dual highway of exhilaration when that liberation of words happens between like minds. So often it’s been blissful, talking up a storm, one on one, with someone who’s on the track, as it were. In love with language, compelled to make something out of that desire. Gifted yet unsure. Open, honest, trusting. It’s a huge honour to be trusted in that way. By someone giving some part of themselves away. So the creative intimacy, the vulnerability you refer to is somehow shared. Hopefully along with laughter. And cake and good coffee!

Do you remember the little poem I sent you for your birthday book a few years ago? It’s so slight and mysterious. Yet somehow it seems to pull together all I want to say about writing poetry. Maybe the very word emporium is along the lines of Janet Frame’s Mirror City. And our job is to entrust ourselves to it. Daniella Bagozzi, a fabulous Christchurch teacher, translated the little poem into Italian for you. That’s another string to your bow, isn’t it. That lovely operatic language. 

On entering the emporium

I understand now why the children fuss and stir
looking for some light relief.

Even a little bird will do, hopping oddly along a bench.

Paula: Well that was a special arrival – turning my laptop on when I turned 60 and falling upon a suite of poems as a birthday gift. Helen Rickerby made it into a beautiful book. These gestures seem even more important now.

And the idea of an emporium hooks. Michele Leggott used it on the flap of Mirabile Dictu (Auckland University Press, 2009): ‘If the effect is a kind of poetic emporium I would be very pleased, having learned that the word reached us through the Greek emporos, traveller or merchant, from poros, a journey, a prosperity, passing from one thing to another.’

Italian! We both spent time in another language. I enrolled at the University of Auckland for one year, but I loved Italian so much, I kept going back until there were no more degrees left. It was the beauty of the language, it was stepping into a wondrous literature from the Renaissance through to contemporary times. Above all, it was admiration for what the women were doing with pens and paintbrushes across the centuries. It has shaped me as a poet, an anthologist and a blogger!


Bernadette: Many moons ago, dear Paula, you asked me what I’d found enthralling in my recent reading. We’ve covered quite a lot of ground between then and now. And somehow you took me back in time. I’m thinking how lucky I was to spend four years within the Classics haven at Otago University, starting in 1964. The poet Iain Lonie was my tutor. Hearing him and Judith read their poems in a performance was breath-taking. Having Prof. Kenneth Quinn share with a couple of us the manuscript of his emerging translation of the lyrics of Catullus was challenging, as people say today. He asked for our opinions, this English phrase or word or another, and he repeated over and over that we had to be ‘sensitive’ to language.  He clearly thought we weren’t. It certainly got me thinking. Vincent’s ‘The Dark is Light Enough’, his brilliant portrait of Ralph Hotere, published in 2020, fills up so many gaps for me. I gobbled it up eagerly, twice through. So this is what was going on under my nose in Dunedin at that time. I played cello in the uni. orchestra conducted by Bill Southgate. I went to plays at the Globe Theatre. But I was shy, my sphere sequestered. I didn’t get to know the movers and shakers.

A month ago I was enthralled by Jane Campion’s film, The Power of the Dog.  Enthralled even more when I went on to read Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel republished in 2001 with an afterword by Annie Proux. My edition dated 2021. Thank goodness I entered the story this way, film then text with room for so much richness and complexity fully realised on the page.

Bernadette: I have two other current enthralments. Conversātiō – in the company of bees by Anne Noble with Zara Stanhope and Anna Brown (Massey University Press, 2021). It’s exquisite, a life-changer, rich in language and in image. It’s majorly desirable, it reignites in me a passion for making, poetry along with my beloved bee-garden.

You have linked my writing with music, Paula. I’m not conscious of that myself, but here’s a quotation from Zara’s essay: ‘ Music is a language of its own that touches nerves and ignites our sensory imaginary. Sound is felt.’  And I’m thinking ah yes, the sound of words. But what about ideas, what are the words saying?

Paula: Absolutely! Music leads to ideas, feeling, the physical world, sensations. Maybe music enhances the other effects and arrivals in a poem. I too loved Anne’s book. So beautifully crafted at the level of image, word and book production.

Bernadette: And finally there’s The Lobster’s Tale, text by Chris Price and photos by Bruce Foster (Massey University Press, 2021). I’ve just got my hands on it. I’ve not read it yet, just dipped in a little, stroked the paper, turned the beautiful pages. ‘Look to the life that goes on in your blind spot, the light that will eat you alive. Ahead remains a narrowing gap no creature can thread solo, by exercise of will or control, but only in collaboration: you might choose to carry each other as the kōura in berry carries eggs below her tail…..’ Already I know that this is something I need, it’s come at the perfect time, it will fill me up. And I am really grateful.

ii

Slowly the place takes shape. We are homeless
and dissolving in the silky water-laden air.
The dream was of my mouth full of crushed
glass, quite different from that other one
of stealing envelopes and being pursued by a monkey,
by a donkey, by a monkeydonkey and to be honest,
who cares. I met Joanna at 6.00pm
and we went to see SMOKE. Now that’s a film
and a half. My stars say you must abandon
complexity
as if to have more than one word
in your mouth at a time is a vice. ‘You have to make
a choice,’ says the gum tree, pushing itself
up out of the lumpy asphalted playground.
‘Otherwise there’s nothing but bird noise in the aviary.’

 

Bernadette Hall, from ‘Fancy Dancing’, in Fancy Dancing (VUP, 2020)

Bernadette Hall is Otago born and bred. She gained an MA in Latin at Otago University She taught at high schools in Dunedin and Christchurch, and for the last eighteen years has lived in a renovated bach at Amberley Beach in the Hurunui, North Canterbury, where she has built up a beautiful garden. In 2008 Bernadette co-founded the Hagley Writers’ Institute in Christchurch. She was involved with the Institute as a tutor, a supervisor, and eventually the Patron, retiring from that role a couple of years ago. She has written eleven collections of poetry, including Fancy Dancing: New and Selected Poems 2004 – 2020 (VUP). She edited Like Love Poems (VUP), a gorgeous edition of poems by Joanna Margaret Paul and brought the poetry of Lorna Staveley Anker our attention in The Judas Tree (CUP). In 2015 she collaborated with Robyn Webster on Matakaea, Shag Point, an art /text installation exhibited at the Ashburton Art Gallery. She received the Prime Minister’s Award for literary achievement in poetry (2015) and was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature in Aotearoa New Zealand (2017).

Te Herenga Waka University Press page
Poetry Shelf review: Fancy Dancing

1 thought on “Poetry Shelf conversations: Bernadette Hall

  1. Bruce Goodman

    Thank you Paula for sharing this interview with Bernadette Hall – possibly my favourite contemporary NZ poet! (My all-time NZ poet possibly being RAK Mason but I won’t hold that against Bernadette!)

    Like

    Reply

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