Ideas for my blog drop into my head like golden peaches. The next thing I know I am sending out invitations, poets are getting on board, and the Poetry Shelf community is engaged. I recently adored Tracey Slaughter’s editorial to Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2022. Rather than introduce the poets, she spoke to the idea of breakage in poetry. More than that, she offered a vital plea for us to bring everything when we enter the issue. I felt galvanised,on so many levels, by her piece. I compiled a list of words with links to writing and reading poetry, and invited a few poets to pick a word and write a paragraph in response. I am hoping to do one more Paragraph Room before early June. You can read the first Paragraph Room here.
With thanks to all the contributors, and to the ongoing supporters of Poetry Shelf. It means a lot.
I’ve been thinking about writing as a refuge, as a place of safety and freedom, which means thinking about my poetry’s relationship to me and to the world. I’ve recently written what I used to disparagingly call poetry-as-therapy, a neighbour of poetry-as-refuge. There are lots of contradictions. I like to think of poetry as a place of freedom, somewhere you can write about anything in whatever way you like. But of course it isn’t. For example, I believe you should be careful how you use people who might recognise themselves in your poems. And although I like using personas because I like to imagine what it might be like to be somebody else, I’m not entitled to take on any voice I like. So can you write about what you don’t know or only about what you know? And where is the imagination in all this?
There are no easy answers, but there is a solution. You have the absolute freedom of your head. You can dream, try things, be someone else, make a mess, bore yourself, shock yourself, disgrace yourself at the keyboard. It’s what I like most about writing … the act of writing. When it comes to publishing, however, you leave your refuge and enter the world.
it begins with a bird, one that claps its beak together, another that seems about to vomit, a shriek that is countermanded by a note so pure Mozart might have approved. It’s Radio NZ concert and it’s how I feel about writing. There is music and there are preambles: Handel’s first performance of ‘Messiah’ was dangerously short of seats so gentlemen were instructed to leave their swords at home and ladies to jettison their hoop petticoats. On which side does a sword go; what if a gentleman encountered a brigand on the way home; would love be less encumbered minus a hoop? The bird and then imagination and then the music. I used to admire those who scorned a room of one’s own and could write with children galloping around the dining room table, but now I realise I need music. Perhaps I am thinking of the music in poetry – not the obvious end rhymes – but the mysterious, not-quite rhymes that surprise you and lead you on like notes in pursuit of a theme. There is so much to think about, so much humour. Rachmaninoff’s big hands (another preamble) or the way some composers (Rachmaninoff is one) pummel and pulverise the end of a symphony as if they are beating it to death. Sometimes, thinking of music and poetry together, I say to myself my favourite rhyme from ‘The Owl and the Pussy-Cat’.
“Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?” Said the Piggy, “I will.”
It’s that willing and shilling and will and the subtler pig and ring that never fail to enchant me.
I haven’t written much poetry in the last five years, but what I have written has been suffused with grief. Every creative practitioner goes through ebbs and flows, and I have been going through a poetic ebb. Poetry has been a place where I have been spending time alone, working through grief. The grief of losing family members, the grief of relationship breakups, the grief of dealing with trauma. Old griefs surface amongst the more recent ones and it feels like walking through a weird forest or a very biodiverse swamp. After pursuing a writing career for over 20 years I am only just getting to a point where I feel comfortable in this space. I have found poetic forms useful for providing emotional distance but also as a kind of packaging or container I can put things into and observe them. I don’t know when and how this work will find a home in the world – dark formalism is a very acquired taste – but for now it is enough that it functions as reflective practice.
I love the idea of poetry as time travel. How amazing that we can sing our words onto a page and a minute or a day or a century later someone can read it and the song will flow into them. The song will sound subtly different to each listener, but it will still spark and ignite and fizz and I as the writer will speak directly to you, the reader. That’s the magic of poetry. In a time when seemingly it’s harder for us to listen to others, here is a room – a space – where two consenting people can touch, across space and time. That is something to hold on to.
I went past the word ‘grief’ near the top of the list and got stuck on it, I couldn’t concentrate on the other words and kept going back to it. I have been writing a lot of grief-ridden poems lately, trying to process ‘losing’ my father to dementia, as well as this communal grief we are all experiencing to some extent, for the way of living and connecting we used to have, and the way covid has put a stop to a lot of that life. At first that stop felt temporary, but now, two years on, it does not seem to be leaving. Poems are a sort of beacon in that darkness. I often think of a poem by James Brown called ‘Beyond Repair’, that I read as a young writer and loved. Although the poem was about a broken umbrella, there was a sadness sitting underneath it that I felt moved by. There are plenty of great celebratory poems, or f-you poems, or / or / or, but poems about grief seem to come from a deep and obviously painful place in the physical body. By writing poems about grief, I hope to reach people grieving. And as someone grieving, I want to read poems to see that I’m not alone. Poems are a place of kinship that you don’t have to be in the same room (or even the same time) as someone else to experience.
In a way, all poems are made of fragments. Each line is created by a sort of breaking, making the poem a form fissured with cracks. Some poetry is literally fragmented; only sections survive. Lots of ancient poetry is like this; it is as if we possess a handful of sea glass rather than a complete bottle. I like the mystery of never quite knowing the whole. Because, I think, mystery is important to poetry, too. Good poetry is about what you know and can read, sure, but it is also about what is hidden, implied, unknown. What is lurking outside the text and exerting pressure on it. Poetry, to me, is always about what we know and what we cannot simultaneously. At once complementary and oppositional. So give me sea glass over a bottle any day; give me a fragment; give me a poem.
I am fascinated by the presence of knots in both corporeal bodies and bodies of words. The innumerable ways knots are tied and undone in/through people and poetry constantly impresses me. I often catch myself chewing over everyday reversals/oppositions and getting quite furious at how quickly I diagnose their nature or belonging as ‘oppositional’. Every bit of me doesn’t want to arrive at these conclusions but I do, but I am always ready to interrogate my arrivals and departures. Humans seem to have some chronic compulsion—some biological compulsion—to disentangle, to cling to the asynchronous over the synchronous, but unless this compulsion is actually going to save our lives, I believe we ought to reassess it. There is a blend about almost everything: it is possible to be dreaming and not dreaming, truly overjoyed and truly miserable at once. Perhaps Maggie Nelson’s keen awareness of mutual inclusivity in The Argonauts best articulates how I feel about the responsibility of people, and the page, to examine a chronically loose knot: “I had spent a lifetime devoted to Wittgenstein’s idea that the inexpressible is contained—inexpressibly!—in the expressed.” Poetry is special for the way it knits so intricately together the forces and feelings we aren’t sure how to make sense of (and often we still don’t know how to make sense of them after the poem, only feel we know them better) but for poetry to do such work it requires first a person to acknowledge this work as necessary, and more, to need this work to be necessary. I am thinking now of essa may ranapiri’s ransack. I am thinking of Anna Jackson’s Actions and Travels. I am thinking about the way I want my writing to always be honest about the knot: the deep-rooted (I accidentally typed deep-rotted, hmm) drive to disentangle, and the desire, the urgency, to keep the braid. My current MA project aspires to gallop through and around the knot. I wonder where I will arrive, where I will depart, and why, and why not?
I find it essential to be on time for everything (including the present assignment). If I’m invited anywhere, I count backwards to find the latest moment I can leave in order to be at my destination punctually. Occasionally I try to factor in a bit of fashionable lateness, but mostly in vain. Time in poetry, though, is a horse of a different colour. I wrote a poem while travelling in the Lake District with my family in 1981. The first two lines ran:
We built a man of slates, and after years,
revisited, the rock had grown a face.
I liked them, but I wasn’t really sure what they meant. Perhaps for that reason, what came next was less satisfactory – to me, and to others. The poem stayed with me, though, and fifteen or so years later I made a concerted attempt to complete it with some entirely new lines. And in that form it appeared in my first book, City of Strange Brunettes (1998), under the title “First Love.” But I didn’t entirely like that version either, so later on I had a go at changing the second stanza. Just now, in 2022, I had a look at the poem again and decided to change it back to the way it’d been in the book. Even as I read it, though, I can still hear the original 1981 version of the last four lines going round and round in my head. My point is not so much that the poem is still alive for me, after forty-odd years (though it is); rather, the thing that fascinates me is the number of different moments over those four decades that are somehow miraculously preserved in this one six-line poem. Writing a poem is the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to that Proustian idea of recovering lost time – not just as it was, but with the added patina of what has come in between then and now. It’s a snapshot of a buried past, but with the advantage that the people in the picture are still able to live and breathe. Going back to old poems to rewrite and reshape them is not so much about improving them as asserting their ongoing vitality – and, I suppose, my own.
One of the things I value most about poetry is its ability to put me into contact with the feel of language, to allow me to hold language in my mouth, to taste language anew, to slow and savour. I have been immensely lucky to be lead in my writing and reading life by Tracey Slaughter, who encourages her students to encounter language in the limbic system, to practice out the sounds and shapes of words in our mouths like babies learning to talk, like kids crowing the same word over and over just to hear it echo. The rush of poetic lines are only liberated when the tongue is loosed, when those pursed lips of self-censor are softened. That’s the thing I’ve been holding onto most about writing and reading poetry lately: the invitation to slow and notice where words come from, where they live in the body, and what they do there. I’m really interested in the power of ink and tongues, of words and bodies—in language and the way it moves us, for better and worse. Poetry is maybe the lab where I go to tune my ear into the layers of inheritance and learning that lace our tongues, where I begin to untangle these shouting, baffling seasons that seem to just keep unfurling.
Aimee Jane Anderson-O’Connor
‘All poetry is political’ is one of the most abused adages in the game. What people want it to mean is that their 16-line sonnets about urban ennui are quite radical, politically. What it really means is that most bodies of non-revolutionary poetry implicitly rubber-stamp the status quo. Being mindful of the difference between those two very different kinds of writing has been helpful to me as I consider what I really need to say and how I want to say it. (And don’t get me wrong: I love a good ennui poem!)
With each line-break I take a breath in, and in the out breath there is often a protest where I question what I’ve left unspoken.
I wince at the constriction of my tongue.
What does poetry mean for the environment we have created?
There is uncertainty around what constitutes freedom of speech for humanity nowadays. Who listens to the wild voices, of all ages, who press us with an acute urgency to look deeply at our foundations?
Is there space for another vernacular?
I imagine, if our collective can move forwards with aroha, that the external/internal/existential chaos might have less power.
And while I may wish in secret, for outdated oppressive systems to collapse, so that we might find stillness inside a new landscape, I know ultimately that the answers lie inside ourselves.
Am I a poet utilising line-breaks as moments to reflect? I sure hope so.
In Game of Thrones season 3 episode 6, Lord Petyr Baelish famously says to Master of Whispers Varys ‘chaos is a ladder’. I can only assume he was referring to employing chaos as a poetic device. Chaos in a poem can be a powerful tool, able to cut through a poem straight to the reader or audience. It can act as a sort of shortcut to an emotional evocation or provocation. But it can also be fool’s gold, an enticing siren seducing you on your poetry voyage, you hear its gorgeous call, then before you know it, you’ve crashed, and your poem has been obliterated into something unrecognisable. My personal philosophy is that more young poets should experiment with chaos. Sure, we’re following you through a golden field, eating pomegranate seeds, in a soothing state of cottagecore bliss, but where’s the chaos? Where’s the amplified effects of climate change setting the field immediately ablaze? Where’s the sudden ennui that leads to the speaker choking on the pomengranate? Where’s the local elderly occult devotees performing sacrifices in the neighbouring field? Maybe it’s all terrible and should never make it in the poem, but what’s the harm in trying? My favourite poets are those who have realised the secret to chaos is restraint, who can control it with ease and employ it when it is most effective, it raises the ceiling on the effect their poetry can have on their audience.
Perhaps more than prose, poetry always has the potential to slip into something else, which is part of what makes the writing process so challenging. You’re often drawing on influences both ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ the poem — there’s the content of the poem itself, but then there are all the poems you’ve read and loved before it; that live in your mind while you construct this one. A poem can be a séance: you’re never quite sure what you’re summoning; but what you let in can change it forever. A poem might slip into different places. It can slip wholly into memory or a vision of the future. The reality of the poem can slip. So can the language itself; it might shift into another language, or entirely into incoherence. The form of a poem can unwind and fray. It can slip into something no longer resembling a poem. The poet’s relationship with the reader can change. And you can change too.
When I’m writing, what I’m really doing is chasing a feeling. That’s why I love poetry so much because it does what no other genre of writing seems to do: it allows for the creation of emotional landscapes, to build these microcosms of feelings with as many or as few words as you like. You can put someone in the middle of the dining room, your childhood home, the eye of a mental breakdown, taking and giving, being honest, telling lies. Part of me really likes that challenge, likes trying to use a small number of words to put my reader inside a certain perspective. It’s one of the first things I notice about a poem I read and the thing I’m always reaching for in the dark of my draft work. That little world that pulls me in and sinks me to the core, where you look up from the page like you’ve just been somewhere far away, and now the light is seeping back in, and you can go about your day again.
For poetry, loathing is recommended. I am only being half-facetious. It’s important I think, the loathing. The loathing of poetry. One’s own, sure. A bit. But the poetry of others. Particular poets. Some in far-off cities and some that you fraternise with and find charming. You may choose not to announce it out loud, and you’ll certainly deny it. Consider the opposite, that you loved all poems, that you applauded every line. You would surely be an idiot. Or at least undiscriminating. Liking everything would dilute your love of poetry. If you love it, you’ve got to loathe it. Right? What you love and what you loathe defines your aesthetic. I think it’s common to disagree with the list of poets and poems that others loathe. But I see the loathing itself as a good sign. It shows they care. And the lens of that loathing focuses a poet’s own writing. If you loathe every Nick Ascroft poem I applaud you. You have the good sense to loathe. Me, I like everything and everyone.
When I write a poem, one thing has never changed: the thrill is in the process, which is bristlingly private. If I’m writing, I’m smiling. So what could possibly add to that? A live audience. These days, something else adds value to my poems: findability. My tired short-term memory abandons any lines scribbled on envelopes, no matter how fascinating. If they’re not in the file named “2022-half-baked-poems” they don’t exist. They have plopped out of my fingers like tadpoles. From the poems I read, I ask nothing. They may add or they may do mysterious things with a slide rule. If I could analyse this, would it be poetry?
I don’t want much really. I just want to learn what another person knows about the human condition. I want to hear this experience in language that is mine and also not mine, with cadence that draws me up hills and through valleys. I want the poem to penetrate my body and leave me both weaker and stronger. That’s all.
To me, line breaks are one of the most important tools in poetry. People joke that anyone can write a poem by spamming the enter key lots of times, but I think that knowing when to break up a sentence is very important. It can feel very intuitive or extremely calculated, depending on the poem. When I first started reading poetry, I found it confusing when a poem would break suddenly, seemingly against the natural rhythm of its structure, against what my brain wanted to do. But now I understand that this is often the art of poetry – to highlight something that normally might go unnoticed in the grinding rhythm of things. By changing the emphasis to fall on a certain word, you can create whole new worlds of meaning. It’s exciting, when you fall into a rhythm only to have it thwarted by where the words sit on the page. Like you can’t predict where the poem will fall next.
Whether or not you consider non-binary people trans depends on so many things both internal and external to the individual thinking about it. I, personally, live outside the binary and across it. Sometimes seen. Sometimes not. In general extremely hidden. I find these days eventually things boil down to pronouns. Things are revealed by pronouns. For better, for worse. Sometimes they are something good. Regularly, they are an uncomfortable choice between uncomfortable choices layered with further uncomfortable choices. I’m not drawn to any of the pronouns in regular circulation, poetically, they just exist. The pronoun I am most obsessed with when it comes to my writing is you. It’s me, it’s you, it’s a different you, it’s all of us in general. It’s a flexible cover for a multitude of people. It’s a flexible cover for a multitude of selves. I sometimes feel it’s the central working theme in my work to obscure and reveal who is speaking and spoken of. Who is the object and who is the subject. I love what I can do with you. I love what you, the reader, can do with you. I love who I can be with you. I love you.