Poetry Shelf Occasional Reviews: Roger Hickin and Peter Olds – A Town Trod by Poets

A Town Trod by Poets, by Roger Hickin, photographs and poetry by Peter Olds

On writing

That great ‘W’ of sparkling gulls
adrift in the blue heaven;
I wonder if they see me
down here in the dark yard
hanging out my washing,

and do they struggle too
for a descriptive line?

Peter Olds, from You fit the description, Cold Hub Press, 2014

This gorgeous wee book fits in the palm of your hand which is perfect because you could think of it as a miniature travel guide. A Town Trod by Poets is a map of Ōtepoti Dunedin in words and images. It is published by Ō He Puna Auaha Dunedin UNESCO City of Literature. Poet and publisher, Roger Hickin, gathers and comments upon poems with links to the city, while Peter Olds has supplied poems along with photographs of city graffiti he spotted in 1990s Ōtepoti. There is also a Rogelio Guedea poem, ‘Conversación con Peter Olds’, translated by Roger.

I love the chapbook’s title and I love the idea of different ways of mapping a city. I am keen to see other cities producing city palm guides with images and poems. I started jotting down names for Tāmaki Makaurau: CK Stead, Karlo Mila, Robert Sullivan, Michele Leggott, Serie Barford, Ian Wedde, Courtney Sina Meredith, Kiri Piahana Wong, Selina Tusitala Marsh, Allen Curnow. Walking and poetry is such a lure. Grounding poetry in place is such an anchor. The geography of place can be mapped in so many different and distinctive ways, so many town layers or hints within the lines of a poem.

Poetry forms the tread. The poem is walked into being.
The town forms the tread. The town is poemed into being.

Years ago I got to curate Poetry on the Pavement for Tamaki Mākaurau – poems painted on the footpath in the central city created a fascinating inner city walk. I once saw a couple of Irish tourists reading the poem I had picked for Kitchener Street (was one of mine), and when I told them I had written the poem, they slapped their knees, shrieked with glee, and said ‘What a city of culture!’

Poetry frees the personal stories!

Roger Hickin has assembled a stellar Ōtepoti-gathering of poets: Janet Frame, Ruth Dallas, David Howard, James K Baxter, Iain Lonie, Bill Sewell, Ian Wedde, Charles Brasch, Brian Turner, Hone Tuwhare. Some locals, some visiting guests. The town poems speak of weather, people, other writers, smashing seas, buildings – think houses, galleries, bookshops – land and sky, panoramic and microscopic views. It is documentary, it is description, it is confession. It is gap, it is presence.

Peter Olds captivates with poems that are as much about being as they lay down the co-ordinates of place. There is a vital present tense: I am exquisitely in the moment as reader, in the scene and the anecdote.

I am so inspired by this gift of a book, I want to get on down to Ōtepoti and walk the city, palm book in hand. Stand at the top of the steepest street, stand by the art gallery in the Octagon. But I am also tempted to host some city gatherings on the blog so watch this space. I can’t do physical travels yet, but I can definitely travel in the imagination and virtual zones. Gathering the way younger generation poets are treading the towns and cities is a drawcard. How we poem tread our towns will keep me musing all day. Glorious.

I am writing this from
the top of the world’s
steepest street:

There’s a cold wind
blowing, and all I can
see in the dark (apart
from this page) are

the receding tailights
of cautious cars

from ‘Nostalgic’ in Graffiti, Earl of Seacliffe Workshop, 2008

Dunedin City Library page and Ō He Puna Auaha UNESCO City of Literature book offer

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