Author Archives: Paula Green

Poetry Shelf update

up the road: the top paddock

Dear Poetry fans

It’s almost a month since I celebrated the arrival of glorious poet, editor and mentor Chris Tse as our National Poet Laureate.

Time then to give a blog update. I feel like, as I just said on Twitter, I have emerged from the stables after the past months, and my mind is like a horse galloping cantering dancing around the paddock before settling in for a long nap. Glorious. A bone marrow transplant is such a refresher for the mind.

I have read so much this year – and in my time back home pretty much a sublime book per day. It got me musing on how I had to hunt hard for good children’s titles as so few of them had been reviewed in New Zealand. I was musing on how I love our local children’s book communities, what they are producing, and how in my experience children still love books: reading and writing, stories and poems! Against my better judgement, with my energy tank far from full, still coping with physical challenges, I decided to transform Poetry Box into a celebration hub for children’s books, for adults and for the young, all book categories. To challenge children to write poems. To challenge adults to share children’s books. To make as many connections as I can.

I am motivated to support our young readers and writers, to support our wonderful local children’s authors, and to showcase our fabulous librarians, booksellers, and publishers.

I am also doing my own secret writing projects because words are what hold me on an even keel at the moment – writing and reading make my heart sing and allow zero room for negativity or ‘if only’ or ‘why me?’ or glumness in my head. No matter what challenges I face.

But crazily madly a part of me also wants to wake up Poetry Shelf. And yes madness as this blog has always taken such a big bite of me. Not just the posts I assemble and write but all the communications and responses to requests – and even at times, aggressive emails. I can’t cope with demands at the moment, or deadlines, or even feeling like I am failing. When I don’t get to celebrate all your magnificent books, even when I have loved reading something, or when I have loved a book a little less, I feel bad. That becomes a form of failing for me. Not good.

So I am trying to make a plan where I can wake up Poetry Shelf just a tiny bit. What I want to do is occasionally review a poetry book I have loved or post a poem I have loved – or even post a notice now and then. Without rigid commitment or tight schedules or comprehensive coverage or worrying about what I don’t do.

So this is what I am thinking. I might never answer your emails or the phone. But slowly, step by step, I will start to shine little lights again on our fabulous poets and what they are doing. To share the way poetry is a source of joy and challenge, is balm and solace, refreshment – is re-engagement with our fickle and vulnerable and beloved world.

Watch this space!

Oh and keep an eye out for Roar Squeak Purr (my big anthology of animal poems by adults and children, out mid October thanks to the wonderful team at Penguin).

Love

Paula

PS I can’t tell you how much your cards and poem choices and the books (and chocolate!) you popped in the post have meant to me. I still have three envelopes to open for days when I feel fatigue and pain and glumness settling in. A thousand times thank you for your support and care and generosity. It has mattered so much.

Poetry Shelf celebrates our new Poet Laureate: Chris Tse – a reading, a conversation

What great news to hear Chris Tse will be our next Poet Laureate. His poetry is remarkable, he is a sublime anthologist, an excellent reviewer and is doing a stellar job editing the Friday Poem at The Spinoff. I am excited by the prospect of new poetry produced during his tenure and how he will inspire us with whatever he chooses to do in the public arenas. And that is what I love about the Poet Laureate role – how individual poets can ignite a passion for poetry across communities, ages, locations, ways of writing. Each poet makes the role their own, and each leaves us with a gift of words, the power of poetry to illuminate who and how and where we are.

So I raise my glass and toast Chris Tse – a supremely good choice! I wish him all the best over his two years.

To celebrate I am re-posting a conversation we had earlier this year to acknowledge the arrival of his terrific new collection, Super Model Minority (Auckland University Press, 2022). Plus two readings from the book.

“The Poet Laureate Award celebrates outstanding contributions to New Zealand poetry. The Laureate is an accomplished and highly regarded poet who can advocate for New Zealand poetry and inspire current and future readers.” NZ Poet Laureate website

A reading

‘BOY OH BOY OH BOY OH BOY’ from Super Model Minority

‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’ from Super Model Minority

The conversation

Paula: In 2022 I am running a few email conversations with poets whose work has affected me over time.  I have loved your poetry since your appearance in AUP New Poets 4 (2004). Your new book, Super Model Minority, strengthens my enduring relationship with your writing. The collection is an explosion inside me, but first I want to touch upon the spiky times we live in. What helps you? I am finding books keep repairing me, sending me on extraordinary package holidays, depositing me in the sky to drift and dream, to think. All genres. What are books doing for you at the moment?

Chris: Books have been such a comfort for me these past few years. Emma Barnes and I were still up to our necks in reading for Out Here when we went into lockdown in March 2020, so there was plenty to keep me busy and distracted. Things did get a bit more difficult when we couldn’t access some older and out-of-print books, but we made it work. I’m not a very fast reader so I do tend to take my time with several books on the go at any given time. Books have always made me happy – I was always happiest hunched over a book while my family watched rugby or played mahjong in the background. These days a big part of that happiness is the thrill I get seeing friends getting published and receiving well-earned praise for their amazing work. It’s such an exciting time to be a reader and a writer – to be able to experience the world through the poetry of essa may ranapiri and Rebecca Hawkes, or to have your brain recharged by the essays of Megan Dunn and Lana Lopesi. Aside from a few small projects I have no plans to start writing a new book, so I’m just hungry for stories and ideas right now to see where that might take me next. I want to read as much as I can for pleasure while I can.

Paula: Out Here gripped me on every human level imaginable, yet I never considered how Covid might prevent access to the archives. That was such a joy for me researching for Wild Honey. With Emma, you have gathered something special. Wide ranging and vital. It is how I feel about the younger generation of poets. I fall upon brittle, vulnerable, edgy, risky, exposed heart, potent – and I am grateful to Starling and The Spinoff’s Friday Poems for representing these wide-ranging voices. I am decades older than you, but how is the new generation affecting you?

Chris: For me, it’s such an exciting time to be a poetry reader right now with so many young poets producing ground-breaking and challenging work. Also, they’re voices and perspectives that we’ve been sorely lacking for such a long time – poets like Cadence Chung, Khadro Mohamed, Lily Holloway and Ruby Solly are all redefining what ‘New Zealand poetry’ means in their own ways. If I look back at what it was like to be a poet at their age, the playing field has shifted a lot because of journals like Starling and Stasis, and publishers like We Are Babies Press. I find their energy so infectious and inspiring – it certainly makes me want to keep pushing myself as a writer.

Paula: Exactly how I feel! But I also have poets I have carried across the decades since my debut collection in the 1990s. Bill Manhire, Michele Leggot, Bernadette Hall, Dinah Hawken, JC Sturm, Hone Tuwhare. Poets that helped me become a writer in so many ways. Particularly as I didn’t do any creative writing courses. Were there poets from the past or the present that were writing aides for you? In person or on paper?

Chris: My exposure to New Zealand poetry was sorely lacking as a high school student, so I’m really grateful that the papers and creative writing workshops I did at university introduced me to the canon and more contemporary writers. Jenny Bornholdt, Stephanie de Montalk, Bill Manhire and Alison Wong are poets whose work played a huge role in shaping my fumblings as a young poet. My poetry world was further expanded when I started to stumble across contemporary US poets like D.A. Powell, Frank Bidart, Cole Swensen and Richard Siken, whose first collection Crush I have written and spoken a lot about. It really is one of those life-changing books that set me on my current path. For Super Model Minority specifically, I turned to Chen Chen, Ocean Vuong, Danez Smith, Tusiata Avia, Nina Mingya Powles and Sam Duckor-Jones for comfort and inspiration. Their work feels so vital during these times of change and uncertainty.

Super Model Minority, Chris Tse, Auckland University Press, 2022

Paula: Inspired and comforted seem crucial for both readers and writers. Your new collection is body shattering and heart repairing. And yes, both inspiring and of comfort. The book includes the best endorsements ever (Nina Mingya Powles, Helen Rickerby, Rose Lu). They catch how the reading experience affected me perfectly. Would you couch the writing experience in similar terms?

Chris: Writing this book caught me off-guard, in a number of ways. First, I didn’t think I’d have a manuscript ready so soon after HE’S SO MASC – I was happy to take my time with the next book. Then a few things happened that set off something in me – an urgency to write and respond: the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, the aftermath of the Christchurch mosque attacks, and the rise of anti-Asian sentiment as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. These events all triggered powerful emotions, but the overriding frustration I felt was that things seem to stay the same no matter how much we push for societal change and equality. I was overcome by anger, sadness, and helplessness, so I decided to write myself out of that state and turn it into energy. The poems kept coming and I found myself confronting a lot that I’ve left unspoken for so long­ – some of it out of guilt, some of it out of fear. Overall, the writing process taught me a lot about myself because of these responses and the realisation that it’s important to hold on to hope throughout the dark times – I’m not as nihilistic as I thought I once was, even if that’s how it may come across in the book!

Paula: I am coming across a number of poets who are re-examining a drive to write poetry in a world that is overwhelming, disheartening. Gregory O’Brien muses on poetry expectations: ‘If the times are dark, oppressive, tunnel-like – as they seem presently – maybe poetry can be a lantern?’ For me it’s Covid and impinging greedy powers. Shattered everyday lives in Hong Kong, Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine. And it’s like you say – despite waves of resistance, critique, standing up and speaking out – a world free of sexism, racism, poverty, classism, homophobia can feel impossible. And yet … poetry can be essential at an individual level. It seems so, for you and I, as both readers and writers.

I will use my tongue for good.                    I say I will
because this book needs to start with the future    even though the future
has always scared me         with its metallic fingernails poking through
the metaphysical portal     come-hithering.           Aspiration—and the threat
of what we have awakened from the salty ashes of a world gone mad—
aspiration will bolster my stretch goals.        I will       use my tongue to taste
utopia, and share its delights with my minority brothers and sisters
before the unmarked vans arrive to usher me back in time.

from ‘Utopia? BIG MOOD!’

The first poem ‘Utopia? BIG MOOD!’ is an inspired entry to the book. The opening line gives me goose bumps. I want it tattooed on my skin. Heck just reading it make me want to cry, stand up and getting going. It implicates the writing of poetry in the world and the world in the writing of poetry. It gives me hope reading this. You say it all in the poem but do you carry utopia in your heart? Despite your sadness and anger and helplessness?

Chris: That’s such a lovely quote from Greg – it sums up exactly how I feel as a poet and when I’m reading submissions for the Friday Poem. I’ve definitely noticed that recently poets are using poetry to light the way, even if we’re not sure where a particular path is leading us. Better to walk in light than stumble in darkness I suppose. I’m so glad that the first line resonates for you in that way. Here’s the thing – the first lines of all three of my books are a thread that ties them together. (I won’t presume that anyone is reading my work that closely to spot it!) All three books open with a reference to speech or being heard. In Snakes, it’s “No one asked me to speak…”; in HE’S SO MASC I wanted the flipside so the first line is “Shut the fuck up”. I knew I wanted the first line in Super Model Minority to echo the first two books – “I will use my tongue for good” felt like the best way to open this book about confrontation and working towards a brighter future. So, to answer your question, I do carry some form of utopia in my heart because without it I’d be resigning myself to a future that is ruled by sadness and anger. If there’s a conclusion that I come to in the book, it’s that utopia will always be out of reach because we’ll never agree on a singular utopia – the version we carry in each of us is built upon our own desires and subjective perspectives of the world around us.

Paula: Ah it gives me hope to imagine our world no longer governed by despair and anger. I loved your review of Janet Charman’s new collection with Kathryn Ryan on RNZ National ((The Pistils, OUP). I haven’t read the book yet but I got the sense it was personal, intricate, political. The same words apply to your collection. Each poem opens up in the process of reading, and then lingers long after you put the book down. It feels so deeply personal. The way you reassess vital things: the past, the importance of names (your name), speaking more than one language, your parents, relationships, being gay. And in this personal exposure and self-navigation, there are the politics that feed and shape who you are. Inseparable. It feels like a landmark book to me. Is that placing too much on its shoulders?

Chris: It feels like a landmark book for me personally in terms how far I’ve come as a writer over the last decade. I look at my three books side by side and  even though there are things I would change in the first two (and I’m sure I may have similar feelings about some of the poems in Super Model Minority in a few years!) I’m really proud of this body of work I’ve created. HE’S SO MASC has those early flourishes of the personal and the political, and I remember being so worried about how it would be received because it was so different in tone and outlook than Snakes. All of my books to date have required a lot of self-reflection and self-critique to get to a place where I’m not only comfortable writing about these topics, but also to be able to share them. Even though the work is personal I hope people can see themselves in it too, or can see why some of the things I write about are a big deal for me and the queer and POC communities.

Paula: Would you see yourself then as a hermit poet, a social poet where you share what you are writing along the way, or something in between?

Chris: I’ve got a small group of trusted writers who I send works in progress to if I’m stuck on something, but this time around I did hold a lot back until it was ready in manuscript form because I wanted to work on trusting my own instincts. However, when it comes to sending work out into the world for publication, I’d say I’m more on the social side, although there were a few poems from Super Model Minority that I chose not to submit anywhere because I felt like they needed to be read in the context of the collection as a whole. 

Paula: Is there a poem (or two) that really hits the mark. Whatever that mark might be! That surprised you even.

when asked to explain the lines that lead to now, you describe /

the shape of your body as it hits water / the shape of cold water

shocking muscle / the shape of fleshy chambers forced to loosen

and acquiesce / the shape of your grandparents in their coffins /

the shape of coffins that are too small to contain entire lifetimes /

the soft and hard moments we can’t forget no matter how often we

turn our backs to the light / [you write this poem out of love / but

even love can be a blindfold] / the shape of you and your parents

standing in your grandparents’ driveway / after being kicked out

for talking to your aunty’s white boyfriend / your hand reaching

out to someone you don’t recognise in a dream /

from ‘Identikit’

Chris: I’m really proud of ‘Identikit’ in this collection – finishing that one felt like a fist-in-the-air moment. I think it’s because it covers a lot of historical and emotional terrain that I’ve wanted to write about but had struggled to find a way to balance the pain with moments of joy. Same with ‘Love theme for the end of the world’, which is the slightly more optimistic and hopeful sibling to ‘Identikit’. In fact, the way the “…for the end of the world” poems revealed themselves as I wrote them was surprising to me, because they felt like a valve had ruptured and all this pent up pressure was being spilled out onto the page.

Paula: I wrote down ‘a bath bomb effect’ in my notebook as I was reading. The whole book really. A slow release of effervescence. The kind of poetry that you think and feel. That inspires and comforts! This comes through when you perform or record your poetry. The poems you recorded from the book for Poetry Shelf. Your performances with the Show Ponies. Your readings have got a whole lot of love on the blog. Mesmerising! Does it affect the writing? The future performances in the air? 

Chris: Sometimes I’ll have a feeling as I’m writing as to whether or not a poem will be one suited for performances. ‘The Magician’, ‘What’s fun until it gets weird?’ and ‘Poetry to make boys cry’ were written to be performed at particular events so I was conscious about how they flow and build during a performance. Having that embedded into the poem really helps me when it comes to performing it, and hopefully that effect comes across on the page when others are reading it. Reading my work out loud, either at home or to a crowd, has become a much more integral part of my writing and revision process in recent years, even if it isn’t necessarily a poem that I think will make it into high rotation as a ‘live’ poem. This wasn’t really a major consideration when I was writing Snakes because the thought of sharing my work in that way wasn’t really front of mind, although I do love the opportunities that book presents when I’m asked to do a long set and have the chance to read a substantial selection from it.

Paula: I agree that what you write must be a big deal for the queer and POC communities. I am heartened by an increased visibility of Asian writers not just as poets but as editors. But at times I am also disheartened. How do you feel?

Chris: It really is heartening to see so many POC and queer writers getting published and stepping into editing and leadership roles, but there’s still a long way to go to undo decades of erasure and disengagement with the industry, and to not feel like we exist only to be a tick in the diversity box. When it feels like we’re not getting anywhere, I hold on to as many moments of joy as I can and celebrate our achievements. I’ll never forget being on the bus home after the last event at Verb 2019 and being overwhelmed with emotion after spending the weekend attending events featuring so many Asian authors. It felt like such a turning point to have so many writers I could consider contemporaries, and to be graced by the presence of US poet Chen Chen, who has been a major inspiration. The other time I’ve had the same feeling was while rehearsing for a staged reading of Nathan Joe’s play Scenes from a Yellow Peril – the entire cast and crew were Asian. It’s the dual power of being seen and finding your people! When I started writing, the concept of ‘a Chinese New Zealand writer’ felt so murky and out of reach, and I also wasn’t even sure if it was a role I particularly wanted to inhabit. The word ‘whakama’ comes to mind when I think about who I was at that time, and it’s taken me literally decades to push back against that shame and unpack the effect of racism on my life to understand why I need to be loud and proud about who I am.

Paula: Your epigraphs signpost both past and future. This is important. Both in view of poetry and life. Like I have already said, many poets are examining the place and practice of poetry in our overwhelming and uncertain world. Are you writing poems? What do you hope for poetry, as either reader or writer, as editor of The Friday Poem?

Chris: It’s been wonderful seeing more people read and engage with poetry over the last few years both on the page or in person. I think a lot of this is a result of people not relying on old structures and established means of production, and just getting on with getting their work out there through new channels, or putting on innovative events and festivals and mixing poetry with other artforms. It’s proof that we can continue to challenge people’s perceptions of poetry and to find ways to introduce it into people’s everyday lives. But it’s more than just poetry being ‘cool’ again – a lot of work still needs to be done to address diversity, equity and accessibility. From my perspective as a writer, reader and editor, the future looks bright – and isn’t that what we want poetry to do? To show us the power of possibility and give us reasons to be hopeful.

I guess there’s always the pull of more to do—flags to fly and
words to scratch into the world’s longest stretch of concrete.

I guess what I’m saying is—I am not done with snakes and wolves;
I am not done with feathers or glitter on the roof of my mouth.

This is me begging for a fountain to taker all my wishes.
This is me speaking a storm into my every day.

from ‘Wish list—Permadeath’

Chris Tse was born and raised in Lower Hutt. He studied English literature and film at Victoria University of Wellington, where he also completed an MA in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters. Tse was one of three poets featured in AUP New Poets 4 (2011), and his work has appeared in publications in New Zealand and overseas. His first collection How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes (2014) won the Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poetry, and his second book HE’S SO MASC was published to critical acclaim in 2018. He is co-editor of AUP’s Out Here: An Anthology of Takatāpui and LGBTQIA+ Writers from Aotearoa, published in 2021. 

Poetry Shelf: Chris Tse reads from Super Model Minority

Poetry Shelf: Chris Tse’s ‘Identikit

Auckland University Press page

Chris Tse website

Standing Room Only interview RNZ National

Naomii Seah review at The Spin Off

Interview at NZBook Lovers

Poetry Shelf noticeboard: National Schools Poetry Award 2022 winner

Tsunami poem wins National Schools Poetry Award 2022

Joshua Toumu’a, a Year 12 student from Wellington High School, has won the 2022 International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML) National Schools Poetry Award with a poem that creates a vivid snapshot of the aftermath of the Hunga-Tonga Hunga-Ha’apai eruption and the ensuing tsunami.

Joshua, who is of Tongan, Papua New Guinean, and Palangi descent, lived in Tonga for six years as a kid. The day of the eruption, he was messaging his friend just before communications were cut off. “My concern for family and friends, combined with memories of childhood years in Tonga manifested as this poem.”

The announcement comes as Aotearoa New Zealand celebrates the 25th iteration of National Poetry Day             

Judge Ash Davida Jane says, “After I first read the winning poem ‘Veitongo’, it stayed with me for days.” She adds, “The range of images and sensations in Joshua Toumu’a’s poem creates a vivid snapshot of Tonga. The real context of the poem is withheld until we reach the final two lines—at this point, we rethink the previous lines altogether.”

The 2022 National Schools Poetry Award is organised by Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington’s IIML with funding from Creative New Zealand, and sponsorship and promotional support from Wonderlab.

Joshua, who happens to be the first male poet to win this award, receives a prize of $500 and his school library receives a book grant of $500. He also receives a package of literary prizes provided by Read NZ Te Pou Muramura, Te Herenga Waka University Press, Landfall, and the New Zealand Society of Authors. As part of the prize, Joshua will attend a poetry masterclass on Saturday 27 August with Ash Davida Jane and Stacey Teague, along with the nine other poets shortlisted for their entries.

Joshua says it is both exciting and validating to win this award. “I love to write and experiment with poetry and having a piece of mine recognised by an acclaimed poet like Ash Davida Jane made me feel proud of my work. I am looking forward to getting professional tips and feedback on my writing and having the chance to hear some of the other pieces students have created.”

There were more than 190 entries this year from senior high school students. “The writing we do when we’re young is powerful because it’s the things we feel we have to say,” says Ash.


“One thing that stood out was how much emotion these poems carry. I was also thrilled by how many of the entries dealt with the impacts of colonisation and the climate crisis. It shows how conversations about these issues, and how they intertwine, are present and thriving. It suggests these students are being encouraged to push back against colonial, capitalist structures. I love to see it.”

Ms. Chris Price, senior lecturer at the IIML, says, “I was blown away by the winning and shortlisted poems. The intensity and depth of thought shown by these young poets makes me confident the future of poetry in Aotearoa is in good hands.”

The other nine finalists are: Sofia Drew (Takapuna Grammar School, Auckland), Ivy Evaaliyah Lyden-Hancy (Papakura High School, Auckland), Natalya Newman (Huanui College, Whangarei), Louie Feltham (Samuel Marsden Collegiate, Wellington), Hannah Wilson (Raphael House Rudolf Steiner School, Wellington), Bella Laban (Michael Park School, Auckland), Ella Sage (Westland High School, Hokitika), Cassia Song (Otumoetai College, Tauranga), and Lucas Te Rangi (St Andrew’s College, Christchurch).  

All finalists will join Joshua at the poetry masterclass and will receive prizes from Read NZ Te Pou Muramura and Te Herenga Waka University Press, and $100 cash each.

The winning poem, the complete judge’s report, and all the shortlisted poems will be available on the National Schools Poetry Award website. Joshua will join other poets to read his winning poem in an event marking National Poetry Day at 12.30 pm at Vic Books in Wellington.

Poetry Shelf health update

Home sweet home! After five weeks and three days in Auckland Hospital’s wonderful Motutapu Ward, I am back in the quiet and pitch dark night of home, with the bush birds singing and the expanse of shifting skies beguiling. I am back in the loving care of family.

As a bone marrow transplant patient, I had my own room and I made it home with pictures on the wall (including the beautiful bouquet envelopes containing a couple of flower poems and pictures Westmere School children sent me every few days). I bought books and scrabble, a Frida Khalo colouring book and 48 colouring pencils. I had crossword puzzles and children’s picture books and novels lining the window ledge. I could see the harbour, the islands, a pocket of the domain, the sky tower, the clouds streaming fascinating tableau. It became a calm and happy place, and that was how my head and heart were.

Yes, it has been the toughest experience but it has also filled me with unbelievable joy and awe. The staff nurses and Drs were extraordinary. There I was dependent on their care, and no matter how long their shift, no matter when they came in on leave weeks to assist an understaffed and stretched ward, they were attentive, diligent, warm, empathetic.

And now to the next stage: to the long cobblestone undulating recovery road with its high risks and high rewards, as I take one single day at a time, keeping my head free of clutter, letting the outside world in, in strange smidgeons. It was good I laid boundaries for myself at the start with public, friends and family, not reading emails or social media, having my darling daughter act as go-between. Keeping the rooms in my head clear of demands and thoughts that are not helpful.

Back home I can measure my extreme fatigue and how I need to keep tending the rooms in my head and heart to maintain my state of calm and equilibrium. To take each day as it comes and take baby steps eating and walking, doing and being. I am going into Day Stay several times a week for awhile, where the staff are equally sublime.

I miss you. I miss my dear friends and extended family. I miss you sublime poets, I miss my connections with poetry communities who have fed me so well over the past decades. I am way off posting on my blog but it will come (I will sleep after this post!).

More than anything I thank you for the beautiful cards and messages and poems you sent me. It felt like a crazy invite but to have those images line the window shelf and to hold a Cilla McQueen, Emily Dickinson, Joy Harjo or Claire Orchard poem to my heart (among so many more) was such a balm. I saved them, and opened one by one, as I most needed them. It kept me in touch with a world that is humane and kind and generous. Our small gestures matter.

love

Paula

PO Box 95078 Swanson, Waitākere, 0653

the sunlight faded images to green (family artwork and home)!

Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: Ruby Solly’s ‘Black Swim’

Black Swim

A life is a cycle of swimming;
we go from ahurumowai
out into the bright lights
with earthquakes and house shatters
we are born brown and breathing
yet again.

The center spent on land pulls us down
hard
            as leafy things learn
            to grow beyond our reach.
            This whānau never had ladder
            in one season we’d wait
            for pecked fruit to fall
            rotten at our feet,
            soft speckled butter
            in the mouth.

            In the other season
            we could fly
            we could climb
            we could breathe
            as unripe fruit
            from the highest boughs
            stung our tongues.

I learnt to see my body as a house
from the way you cut down those trees to build me.
I am soft wood and hard work.
I am the family dream of four children per family
      –       absoloute minimum.

I am girl surrounded
by ghosts of elder dreams.
They taught me with hand games,
ring-a-ring-a-rosie showing you how many could fall
to invisible soldiers,
foreign bodies in the water,
intruders in the rivers breathing through reeds
                                    just waiting to cut us down.

They taught me with be careful,
They taught me with be quiet
when known strangers asked us
about how we flew one season
then gifted the river a flooding the next.
              Now I tell them that I come from a long line
              of flood and draught.

Before you I am your young reflection,
shaped like softness,
dark eyes blue rimmed,
sitting here so far from your lands
knowing you will return only through me.
Only through your dreaming
of the dark water
that connects you to a past felt
but never seen.

Once you called me to your side to hold me
               “It is my job now to dream”, you said
               “It is my job to dream good dreams for you
               
until the dreams come and take me away”
And I knew then
that we both came from that dark water
that only we could see.

You close your eyes to me
and see me better that way;
both of our outlines
             a flickering
             in the black.

Ruby Solly

Ruby Solly (Kāi Tahu, Waitaha, Kāti Māmoe) is a writer, musician and taonga pūoro practitioner living in Pōneke. She has been published in journals such as LandfallStarling and Sport, among others. In 2020 she released her debut album, Pōneke, which looks at the soundscapes of Wellington’s past, present and future through the use of taonga pūoro, cello, and environmental sounds. She is currently completing a PhD in public health, focusing on the use of taonga pūoro in hauora Māori. Tōku Pāpā, published in Februrary 2021, is her first book.

Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: Bill Manhire’s ‘Topping’

Topping 

The weight of the world continues to be exhausting for some of us, especially if you try to load it on to your shoulders. You need a lot of help with that sort of thing, several strong men and – obviously – a highly experienced person to direct them. This might explain why the weight of the world is not for everyone. I myself prefer the weight of a handkerchief, one you can keep in your pocket; or maybe the weight of a flower (I would choose a zinnia, the first flower to be successfully grown in outer space – I wonder how many of you knew that); or hang on, maybe best of all now I think of it a slice of thin-crust pizza from that small neighbourhood place whose name always slips my mind. It is not important to me which flavour if flavour can even be, where pizzas are concerned, anything like the right word. Well, I can see it is not the right word. Topping would be better but in this particular context it sounds far too heavy. 

Bill Manhire

Bill Manhire founded the creative writing programme at Victoria University of Wellington, which a little over 20 years ago became the International Institute of Modern Letters. His most recent book Wow is published by Victoria University Press in New Zealand and Carcanet in the UK.

Poetry Shelf: Emma Neale’s ‘Threat’

Threat

The school bell shrieks its chalk
down the daylight’s spine.
Is this a drill, can you smell smoke?
No need to.
It already clouds the teachers’ faces.
The silence around the alarm’s
frantic hammer and anvil
says this is no rehearsal.
The staff are a paradox,
gentle riot squad
barely exchanging glances.
 ‘Move, girls. Now. Move.’

We’re quick; we’re orderly,
we ditch our bags and books,
soon gather in the quadrangle,
fish for shooting in a barrel.

The sunshine knows how to do surreal.
It touches each one of us on the crown:
black and blonde and red and brown
all gilded. It lifts a blue blur like aura
around even the bitches’ shoulders;
gives their white school shirts
the Persil elegance of swans.
Every one of us is illuminated
into something brighter
more urgent than beautiful:
for now we catch the acrid rumor
that spurts like flame along fuse-wire

bomb threat

we swallow with tongues like flour
we breathe through throats like paper
we shift on our cattle-truck haunches
as like jet fighters in formation
all the dread and sadness roar over;

someone mentions Libya,
someone mentions their father
who thins with terminal cancer,
another mentions their mother
who night-walks too young in dementia,
another says a boy has molested her
so now she can’t keep down what she eats
another’s dreams of nuclear fallout
mean she hardly ever sleeps.

As we stand there the winch
of patience winds higher
tense with expectation
of thunder
shatter
sirens
fire

yet there is no bomb

and still we could never call this hoax:
for even now we carry
the solid strop of time
the knife that whets and whets;
and gripped inside our chests
a red grenade of fear.

Emma Neale

Emma Neale, a Dunedin based writer and editor, is the author of six novels and six collections of poetry. Her most recent collection is To the Occupant (Otago University Press). In 2020 she received the Lauris Edmond Memorial Award for a Distinguished Contribution to New Zealand Poetry.

Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: Sue Wootton’s ‘The bare patch’

The bare patch

I walk past it daily on my way
to work, and mostly I forget my promise

to remember. The inward eye is lazy,
defers at once to eyeball, retina 

and light. The fact of tree can’t be defied:
it is; it fills the field. It towers above

our offices. Yet even this, at times
I do not see. It’s after rain, the tang

of eucalyptus in the air, and gumnuts
strewn across the footpath, it’s then (sometimes)

I blink and search the ground, recall
the lattice bones that swiftly, unexpected, 

rose, as swiftly withered, sank. Ever-present, busy, 
usually unseen: tutae kehua, ghost 

that comes up after thunder. All year
I’ve tried and mostly failed to hold in mind 

the basket fungus. There is a moving mesh 
beneath my feet. There is that fact.

Sue Wootton

Sue Wootton is a poet and novelist who lives in Ōtepoti Dunedin. Her most recent poetry collection is The Yield (OUP), which was a finalist in the 2018 Ockham NZ Book Awards.

Poetry Shelf update: the blog and health

The brand new information kiosk at Te Henga Bethells Beach

On Saturday June 11th I am due to be admitted to Auckland Hospital for a stem cell transplant (the date can change, especially if I get a cold!). For the past months I have been having millions of tests and scans to make sure I am match fit. It is a high-risk high-reward procedure that can save lives. I am feeling immeasurable gratitude to an an anonymous stem cell donor. Beyond the words a poem might hold for example.

I will be in hospital for four to six weeks all going well, and then have multiple weekly visits. My Covid vaccines will be back to zero and I will be steering clear of people and shops for the rest of the year (and book launches and writers festivals!). I have no idea how things will go, and there are loads of forks in the road, but I will take and love each day as it comes.

Writing and reading have been my go-to place since childhood. I find strength and happiness when I write, devour books, and do both my blogs. I cannot imagine what it will be like ahead of me, but I have created a clearing in the bush. I am taking two beautiful notebooks to hospital and I may or may nor write a word on a page, or string five together, or leave a sequence of pages silence (Sarah Scott).

My blogs will both go on hold – bar four poems I have lined up to post automatically. And this is a very strange feeling, after all this time, after all this glorious Aotearoa poetry blog time. It’s never a chore, never hard work creating a space for poetry communities. But for now, I will be ignoring requests to do this or post that or read this (unless you are recommending the perfect book to read in body battering conditions – or movie, or tv show, or podcast, or puzzle).

I liken this adventure to climbing Mt Everest and I am currently at base camp in training. I am packing my emotional and physical bags with things to help me through. And that includes lines from the Paragraph Room 3. Your kindest messages.

Some of you have asked me what you can do to help. I know that what is ahead of me is unspeakably tough – some people hate to remember it in fact – but having such supportive poetry communities matters so much.

I came up with an idea (you know me!). Write a card, put a poem you love in it by you or someone else, and mail it to me with a stamp. I can only have two named visitors, as the ward is ultra filtered from outside bugs – not even flowers get in! So Michael can deliver cards that I can open when I need a poem lift.

PO Box 95078 Swanson Waitākere 0653

My stem cell transplant team at Auckland Hospital, my heaven-sent transplant nurse Mia, my Doctor, and the rest of the staff on Motutapu and Rangitoto wards are extraordinary. Think warmth, compassion, empathy, diligence. If I had the words, they would get the best thank you poem ever. A bouquet of better pay and extra staff, and some divine pastries.

Finally thank you: Poetry Shelf has been around a long time now and it wouldn’t be what it is without you. A special thank you to essa may ranapiri and Jordan Hamel who recently told me to put myself first – and that new poetry books could wait. Your kindness moved me to tears. We are astonishing, vibrant, eclectic, connecting communities and we thrive on aroha as much as mahi. On the listening and sharing and that means so much. Your poetry is a gift. I am packing it in my bags. I am carrying poetry with me as I climb the steep mountain – along with children’s books, picture books, novels, puzzles, beautiful teas and juices.

Just writing this – fills me warmth and strength, happiness and light.

with love

Paula x

Poetry Shelf Paragraph Room 3: No ideas but in

I have always played around with the William Carlos Williams notion no ideas but in things in my head. Sure no ideas in things but what about in music or mountains or sky or line breaks or on blank paper or silence or heaven forbid feeling? 

Or what about: No words but in music. No politics but in the personal. No silence but in noise. No noise but in silence.  No heart but in mountains. No poetry but in movement. No anarchy but in order. No order but in protest. No poetry but in yes. 

For my final paragraph room in this current series, I invited poets to play around with this notion. Grateful thanks to everyone who participated. I have so loved spending time in this room.

No life but in stillness

‘… here and there the rocks shining and glittering– / It’s this stillness we both love.’
– Louise Glück, Celestial Music

Lately I’ve been thinking about stillness. My family and I have been isolating, so that probably helps! I’m writing poems about still life paintings and considering the relationship between the words ‘still’ and ‘life’ – about all the life that burgeons there in stillness. About what it might mean to live a more still life, everything able to be heard, or ‘marrying a kind of spaciousness’ as poet Cyril Wong so beautifully articulates it. One of the amazing things about poetry is that it can create that still space for the poet and reader, and what shimmers in that space is intimacy – the ability to hear and be heard. I was in a poetry workshop once which was totally silent for what felt like ages, until finally a poem was read out. I remember thinking, oh, it’s a bit like being in a church – the silence and stillness create what can feel like an almost sacred space, in which to properly hear whatever it is that wants to be heard, whatever it is you need to hear. That was a revelation to me, as someone who had struggled to let stillness in.

Sarah Scott

No energy but in rest, no writing but in waiting

I’ve been thinking about the times when work doesn’t progress, words don’t come, or only the wrong words come. I have a quotation from Ursula K. Le Guin pinned up on a cork-board in the kitchen, the room where I often felt most disconnected from my writing, particularly when my children were very small — because the urgencies of feeding them were one of the demands I couldn’t timetable or procrastinate on! The line is  ‘Waiting, of course, is a very large part of writing.’ It comes from Le Guin’s collection The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination. It’s been pinned there for so long now that I’ve forgotten the exact, richer context it came from: I just remember its simplicity hitting me like a lightening bolt, as in, a bolt that made me feel lighter and less burdened by the struggle both to carve time out of family and work life to write, and the struggle to lift things to a good enough standard. It helped me – still helps me – to trust that even when I feel defeated by a project that seems to be failing, or a line of thought is disrupted by the realities of the daily (chores, family needs, work, personal flaws!), even that apparently ‘lost’ time is still part of the same current. It’s time to reflect, to rest, to get distance and perspective; it’s still part of the stream of experience that one day will run into the catchment of the poem, the story, the novel.

Emma Neale

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about poetry as both a singular and communal act. I’ve been thinking about the shifting relationship that poetry can have to identity. I’ve been thinking about how curation can transform journals and anthologies into something greater than the sum of its parts. I think this applies on a more macro scale too. We have so much interesting and vibrant poetry floating around right now, and I like the way it talks to each other. Whether it’s book to book, poem to poem, even performance to performance, the small moments of connection bring unexpected joy. I like poetry that bumps and shifts like tectonic plates, I like to stick my ear to the ground and wait for rumblings.

Jordan Hamel

No poems but in linen

Linen is special the salesgirl at Farmers tells me when I buy a linen shirt. Nurses wrap newborns in linen; linen allows airflow and restricts abrasion; it wrinkles and doesn’t need ironing; it has almost zero fluff. Just like a poem, I think. A poet may have wrinkles but a poem needs airflow and who wants fluff? Abrasion might mean the wrong word or a grating rhythm. When I get home and iron the shirt it seems to want to revert to wrinkles. It prefers to be warmed by the heat of the body. After scribbling feverishly I have managed to iron a poem. My head feels hot as if I have been sitting an exam but the linen shirt stays cool against my skin. It is so strong it was once used for bowstrings and even a type of body armour. And were Yeats’s Cloths of Heaven, despite heavy embroidery and various shades of blue, plain linen underneath? There’s no better fabric for writing about dreams. I think I’ll buy another linen shirt so I can always have one to write poems in.

Elizabeth Smither

No worries but in reality. No reality but in worries. No promise but in time. No data but in range? No range but in the-far-north. No excuses but in Whenua. No trees but in water. No harm but in danger. No relics but in time-liqueur. No remedy but instinct. No plotting but investing. No premise but interest. No guesses but informal. No-nonsense but in time. No quiet but in process. No cutting but in diamond. No diamond but in cutting. No promise but in time.

Courtney Sina Meredith

No self but in slips 

Poetry has always felt like a collaborative process; for me, the poem is only truly written when it is shared (no matter the reach) and defined by the truths that a reader might also bring to the work. Obviously, there’s something a bit too trusting in this, too naïve, but the more and more I explore the world of words, the deeper I want to wade nonsensically through the world of image and for others to find space too, in the intangibles. In the slips of meaning that might only ever come through by feeling your way between the words yourself. I definitely have my interpretation of the poems I write but these are still very much tied up into my “self” of the poem. I like the possibilities of other selves of the poems more. It makes a poem live and breathe as a separate entity. At the moment, something I’m interested in is: how do we subvert the limitations of language in order to get closer to whatever a poem wants to do rather than what we expect it to do. As a poet, I’m not sure I’m all that interested in whether someone sees me in a poem, only that they might see something of/for themselves within the slips of the poem. 

Amber Esau

 

I’ve been reading lots about Janet Frame lately, so I couldn’t help doing this exercise with the great novelist in mind: ‘No fantasy but in childhood / No tragedy but in family / No shyness but in silence / No madness but in metaphor.’

Frame voluntarily readmitted herself to Seacliff Hospital, a mental asylum, in 1954. Hospital notes show she wrote her ‘reason for admission’ that December in the form of a poem:

As I was walking on the stair
            I met a thing that wasn’t there
            It wasn’t there again today
            I wish the thing would go away

Back then, such abstractions were dangerous in New Zealand’s mental health system. Frame often spoke of literary characters—in Shakespeare and Tolstoy, for example—as if they were real people. Her child-like, nonchalant way of moving between fantasy and reality was one of the many reasons she was misunderstood (and, more gravely, misdiagnosed) as someone who couldn’t lead an ‘ordinary’ life. This got me thinking about how, as we get older and adapt to the ways of the world, we forget how it feels to be imaginative. There’s nothing strange about a five-year-old having an imaginary friend. But Frame’s adult imaginary friends of Prospero and Pierre Bezukhov (who she viewed as real people), were seen as further signs of a serious affliction. Not only does poetry lend itself to imagination, it’s perhaps the only written form that doesn’t have to make sense. Poetry allows us to step into that childhood space. We can forget about what’s rational for a moment and appreciate an image or feeling without necessarily understanding it.

Tim Grgec

No ideas but in

no ideas but in things / no iris but in garden eyes / no brusqueness but in telegrams / no symbol but in low parkway bridge / no lion but in yellow mop hair / no skin but in water / no happiness but in your snore-nings / no gaps but in peering through hair gaps / no patience except in delays / no appetite but for pattern / no generosity softer but in tree shade / or home-cooked meals / no pitchers but in the mountain-poured night / no slip but in information / in dress over hips / in jealous flashes / in cash deposits / no silkiness but in vodka pasta / no raised voice but in bad dreams / no willpower but in deadlines / no horsepower but in physics classes / no person is a poem but in your own tinted eyes / no fish but in surplus bread baskets / no laces but in fingers beside pillow-head / no recoiling but in coughs / no harsh categories but in people / no freedom but in people / no priorities weighed but in dog-eared book / small damage / life-changing quotes / no communion but in sitting together / at the level of the floor / or projects together / after the train ride / no waiting but in those news-bearing rooms / no light but in all of the sky / no fleetness but in climbers’ feet / no firn but in crampons / no decisions but in averseness to making them / no harm but in dissatisfaction / no relief but in pain / confirmed in a monitor / a machine / nothing buried in yourself / but in good moments / and the many others / radiating opposite / or just beside

Modi Deng

No grounding but in leaves

Second to the moon—another thing that always changes its shape I suppose—one of the most harped-on-about things in poetry must be leaves. But it’s true they’re a constant source of interest and hope to me as they perish and reappear and move; abundant and intricate, noisy and silent, singular and mass. There’s a Matthew Zapruder line I remember about the endless origami made by their light and shadows. My mum has always pointed them out to me, and for a long time I’d roll my eyes and tell her we were going to be late, but I guess I’m turning into her. Their lacy afterlives are around the place at the moment, white skeletons where you can trace the routes rain once took after it had fallen. In lockdown last year I’d sometimes walk late at night and look up through the huge banana palm leaves on my street. Illuminated by the street lights above, I could see the silhouettes of the insects perched on top of them like an x-ray. It’s one of the few things I remember from that blurry time.

Manon Revuelta

No poem (yet) but in preparation


As someone who is short on time for writing poems, I’m often wondering if it’s possible to leapfrog the distracted-by-the-dishes sort of warm-up that seems necessary for the stillness to emerge that’s required to write a poem-with-potential. But some things I’ve read lately have encouraged me to be more accepting of this process. Helen Garner writes that through all the ‘wandering about pointlessly … you have to believe you’re preparing the ground for something to manifest out of the darkness’. Rebecca Solnit says ‘so much of the work of writing happens when you are seemingly not working, made by that part of yourself you may not know and do not control’, and Elizabeth Bishop reflected that unproductive writing time is not wasted time because it’s all going towards creating an ‘atmosphere’ in your brain that will produce a good poem. I think Teju Cole captures the kind of writing experience we’re all hoping for when he describes Tomas Tranströmer’s poetry: ‘the sense is of the sudden arrival of what was already there, as when a whale comes up for air.’

Frances Samuel

No hope but in metaphor  

Hope exists in the metaphor of possibility, always pegged some place onwards. Greener grass, silver linings, lights at the end of tunnels. Poetry is the playfulness of counterfactuals, the hope of extending a concept beyond its brute reality. Hope happens in metaphor, the outstretching of a thing ad absurdum. What is hope but a prising away from the prospect of pain and boredom? Sometimes we hope for the best but expect the worst – and that kind of hope is equipped to meet the End Times with a twelve-pack of toilet paper, Wattie’s spaghetti, a buoyancy vest and a whistle. Hope summons nouns even where the adjectives are feeble, summons escalators even when the malls are on fire. Emily Dickinson said “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers”. It is the ‘little bird’ in as much as metaphor breathes animal into abstraction. Metaphor is the celebrating of the outer-most reaches of human creativity in the face of the white noise that issues from a vehicle set to autopilot. When I’m desolate, when the engine cuts and I’m left in the loneliest circumstance, I find my ray, kernel, or shred, of hope in the poems of other voyagers. Which is not to say, for me at least, the poem needs to be sunny-side-up. At its core, there is hope in the audacity of pegging life’s agonies to words. Sometimes it is enough for a poet to wink at you from a line break, and for a poem to mouth I know this. I know this pain too.

Elizabeth Morton

No Seeing but in Closeness

Parked at the window, hunkered down in his streamlined self, I missed his face but even in my mask he knew me. His sight was on the blink, form was unravelling. He was blind to the Autumn wither of sun; I recited the view. Poached blue of sky, Opoho rise of trees positioned like cut-outs to define a transition. Happy Easter he said, reading a sticker on the window. Are you taking the piss Mr Olds? No. No. Not that he replied, pulling me back into usual conversation. Our last conversation? The last blessing of language? No. No. Not that. It was the gift of the window. Just as it is.

Jenny Powell

No lift but in laughter. No laughter but in joy. No joy but in tears. No tears but in knowledge. No knowledge but in mind. No mind but in mountains. No mountains but in fall. No fall but in blankness. No blankness but in lift. No lift but in the words. No words but in poetry. No poetry but in the lift and the fall.

Harry Ricketts

No perception but in action

I recently had lens replacement surgery for developing cataracts. When I entered the operating theatre––this alien space lit with bright lights, filled with smooth, clean, empty surfaces, where the floor, walls and ceiling are white––I saw the surgeon in his grey scrubs wheeling himself on an office chair from a table to a screen. He turned to face me, didn’t say anything, gave me a wave. I was reminded of my dad waving from the cowshed each school morning after I stopped my bike beside the yard and rang the bell until he looked up from an udder or turned from the cow he was walking towards the bail. As I readied myself, prepared to put myself in the surgeon’s hands, this momentary notion of familiarily embued me with a sense of trust.

The next thing, I am writing a poem. I am “fixing a fleeting emotion about an ephemerical vision,” as Anna Jackson says in Actions & Travels: How Poetry Works  (p. 49). Or, as George Saunders says in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: “What we turn to art for is precisely this moment, when we ‘know’ something (we feel it) but can’t articulate it because it’s too complex and multiple. But the ‘knowing’ at such moments, though happening without language, is real. I’d say this is what art is for: to remind us that this other sort of knowing is not only real, it’s superior to our usual (conceptual, reductive) way” (p. 100).

Janet Newman

No Existence But In Chance

While walking, I exchange greetings and smiles with other walkers, their acknowledgement a validation for my place in the world, and vice versa. As I turn to cross playing fields, I notice how each blade of grass hugs its own tiny rainbow. In front of me as I walk, a multitude of rainbows spark like the disco lights on the soles of my granddaughter’s sneakers. Being able to witness this minor phenomenon is simply a matter of being here at the right time, the angle of the sun over my right shoulder perfectly positioned for refraction to occur in a single dewdrop on a blade of grass. Trajectories of self, place and time crossing paths. I arrive home with a head full of loose thoughts that may be grist for poetry, or may not be. It’s up to me to knit together the intersecting threads. It’s up to me to acknowledge my own experience and the role that chance plays.

Kay McKenzie Cooke

No thoughts but in feelings

I’ve heard a lot recently about the need to say something, to have something to say if you’re going to write. As there is so much to want to say, so many problems to address, don’t writers have the responsibility to do so? I think about this a lot, but in the end I wonder about the wisdom of that sort of approach. If writing a poem is discovery, I worry that having something that desperately needs to be said will detract from the saying. That is, such well-intentioned efforts risk producing work whose main thrust is argument, whose emotional heft is at the mercy of persuasion, whose poetics will be subsumed by rhetoric. Not that ideas shouldn’t arise in poetry, but arise from seems about right—the pleasure for me as a writer is in the surprising discovery of what it is that might be said. I go into a poem with a feeling in my gut or a phrase in my ears. The ideas take care of themselves.

Bryan Walpert

No wars but in words

When I was at school, my friends and I used to have long philosophical arguments about whether or not it was possible to have a thought which wasn’t initially in words. I was a strong believer in the idea that a thought could precede the words which expressed it: that it often had to be translated – imperfectly – into words, after being conceived in musical or architectural or simply relational terms. Of course I couldn’t prove it, as our discussions were conducted entirely in words. We were also very concerned about the status of mathematics. Was it really a language? Did its axioms constitute words, or were they somehow superior to those slippery entities (as the budding scientists among us tended to argue)? Now that I’m older, my trust in words has not grown greater – but I think I love them more. In fact, “words are windows” was the first phrase that came to mind for this paragraph, until I realised it lacked a “no” and a “but”. Words are windows. They show us things. But they don’t do so clearly. And when you read – as I did in the online news today – that in Russia now you can “speculate freely and quite calmly on the prospects of nuclear war,” I’m again terrified at what treacherous little disease-laden free radicals words can be. I’d like to set against that the opening of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms: “I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain … There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.” That is to say, choose your words wisely, or they may blow up in your face.

Jack Ross

No words but in corners. No scarlet but in red. No sunsets but in sunsets. No right word but in accidents. No cumulus but in another cloudy day. No beauty but in breakfast. No moment but in meandering. No grace but in my clomping shoes. No parenthesis but in trying to fit inside them. No alchemy but in dirt. No pa rum pa pum pum but in conundrums. Nothing to say but in two hours, all on your own.

Susanna Gendall

No comedy but in sadness

A comic moment in a modern poem is not the same thing as a joke or a gag, even if the form is superficially similar. When comedy is deployed in poetry, it is inevitably seen in the long context of that art form, with its moral obligations, self-serious canons, and futile bids for immortality. Even if we don’t realise it, this casts a shadow over the comedy. The comic moment in contemporary poetry is a pantomime horse at a funeral, a squirting flower at a presidential debate. We can still laugh at the incongruity and absurdity of it all—perhaps we laugh harder because the incongruity is especially great—but always a little ruefully.

Erik Kennedy

I’m almost embarrassed to admit it, but the thing I like most about WCW’s line is its certainty of tone. I’m an uncertain person (I think) and usually suspicious of certainty (or secretly drawn to it) – those poems that batter you with their messages. Good poetry is always more about the how than the what. WCW’s line is clever and simple, but it’s the structure that seduces. No [whatever] but in [whatever]. Yes sir. Sign me up.

James Brown

william  carlos williams goes swimming

no ports but in storms/ no movement but in gulls/ no peace but in surrender/ no surrender but in ferrymen/ no coins but in paper boats/ no power but in horses/ no herrings but in court/ no soldiers but in slippers / no flags but in wings/ no boundaries but in cliff faces/ no heart but in swimming /no strokes but in dog-paddling/ no pause but in breath/ no breath but in small litanies/ no faith but in the three hearts of octopus/ no clasp but in floating/ no children but in drowning/ no dreams but in nightmares/ no nightmares but in anchors/ no anchors but in the turning of the tide  

Frankie McMillan

No abandon but in design

With writing specifically intended for the page, I’m very invested in the status of poems as visual documents. The words that make up a poem are only one part of the equation; we also owe a great deal of our reading experience to the format of the thing. I think the container a poem arrives to us in (left-aligned cascade; pseudo-pinball machine) can massively shape how we receive it, how we understand it, even the pace at which we read. It does for us what the melody accompanying a lyric, or the nonverbal performance of an actor, might. The form of a poem is, quite literally, its body language. So it’s important to be conscious, both as a reader and as a writer, that nothing simply falls onto a page. Just as the words have to be conjured up, so, too, does the shape they take. Whether the poem reads as chaotic or even untouched, its indents and line breaks—its pillars of seemingly-disembodied punctuation—have all been placed there by the poet’s own hand, and ought to inform how we consume the work. It reveals to us something essential about the poem, or about the poet themselves(!): is this an aesthetic inclination? Why does this stress me out? How’s there so much blank space? Are these common alignments clues to something bigger? What’s manufacturing a pause for me? How is this so visually beautiful that I love it before I’ve even got to the words? I am obsessed with form (and formatting), both as a reader and as a writer. Everything in a poem is a choice! And I love it. I love seeing exercises of restraint; I love seeing how far people extend when experimenting. The margins (and HTML) are the limit! And sometimes, even then, there’s farther to go.

Tate Fountain

Poems occupy stanzas, which is to say ‘rooms’, which is to say contained spaces that together make up something greater than the sum. Poems need space: the spaces between words, the spaces between stanzas, the things left unsaid. The space is where the poetic alchemy happens, where readers bring experiences and ideas to the poem and a new poem forms. No poems but in space. We might find solace; we might find rage. The poem is a building where we wander from one room to the next, passing a series of images as though in a gallery, lingering where something grabs us. The rooms may be small and dense, or expansive and airy. Perhaps a stanza might also be a forest clearing or a star in a distant constellation. Perhaps a stanza is a rock in a river and leaping from stone to slippery stone gets you to the other side. Because poems must take you somewhere, move you from one state to another, one idea to the next. It may be a steady journey or a rocky one. You may fall in. No poems but in journeys. A poem might leave you on a railway platform without your luggage. It might take you to marvel at a distant galaxy. It might lead you through the electron microscope to the intimate workings of atoms. It might dredge the bottom of your sea floor and show you things you thought you’d long forgotten.

Janis Freegard

No rage but in poetry. No rage outside this paper room.
No rage if not articulate. No grief if not correctly punctuated.
No terror but in em-dash. Nothing broken but in stanza.
No abuse unless poetic. No rage-poem without resolution.
No rage-poem but in PSA. No anger I can’t put a bookmark in.
No rage-poem here, but you are so brave! Great rage-poem
but have you considered a happier ending? These new poets
are all oversharers. These sad poems are selling like hotcakes.
These new poets are self-victimising. These self-victims
are making folks anxious. These anxiety-inducers stir up
the silt. These silt-stirrers get all the clicks.
No rage if not urgent. No rage if not necessary.
No rage if you expect action. No rage but in full-stop.
No rage without pity. Yes rage about pity. Love the rage poem
but I am remaining impartial. No rage but in blood. No blood-poem
without apology. My blood-poem will make everyone apologise.
Not a rage-poem but a horse. A fucking wild biting horse.
Not a rage-poem but something rotting. No rot but in the body.
No body-poem bleeding. No rot-poem paid for. No rot-poem
where the harm is too sharp. No harm-poem if you are too harsh.
Do not hate those who have harmed you. No poem but in forgiveness.
No rage but in quiet. No poem but in the after. All quiet after the rage.
After the rage.

Lily Holloway

no ending but in the title
no wholeness but in the spaces
no fulfilment but in what you have drawn in from your paper straw, sucking minerals and a chain of fatty acids
no season finale but in the early morning sky
no perfection but in our imagination
no ticking off the to do list but in fantasy
no neatly wrapped Christmas parcel with ribbons and bows and folded edges but at the mall
no meaning but in what we
see / create / perceive
no meaning but in what we
connect / absorb / supply
no meaning but in what we
apply / imagine / create

no blessings but in actions
no prayers but in actions
no reverence but in action
no ritual but in spirit
no meaning but in what we stitch together
no meaning but in choices.

Many of us strive for fulfillment, completion, perfection, the perfect ending. We seek that magical feeling of a blank sheet of paper in front of us unmarred by scribbles or mistakes. But life doesn’t always allow us the chance of a proper ending, a final farewell or a perfect celebration. Poetry offers a way to make sense of a lack of closure, a lack of the ideal, often through unexpected means – the juxtaposition of objects or ideas, the sour taste of anxiety, the bumpy or satin smooth feel of hands running along a railing, a moment of connection between two people, a demeaning or humiliating experience. Poetry has the power to bring about meaning to these things and to draw out a sense of peace or fulfilment. Poetry can be described as imperfect – there are line breaks, there are fragments of images, there are characters that we don’t fully understand, there may not be a definitive ending, there are questions. Despite these imperfections, or rather because of these imperfections, poetry opens up possibilities and a diversity of understanding – there are so many ways that poems can offer meaning both for the writer and the reader or listener. My poetry captures family, religious and cultural rituals, often ordinary and daily occurrences such as lighting a lamp, making chai, going to school. Poetry allows me to pull these experiences out of their preserves of myth and memory and pull them out of their preserve of the sacred. No meaning but in choices. No meaning but in what we stitch together.

Neema Singh