Author Archives: Paula Green

Poetry Shelf reviews: Claire Orchard celebrates Jane Clarke’s When the Tree Falls

 

5b9ead6a2b0ca.jpg

 

When the Tree Falls by Jane Clarke (Bloodaxe Books, 2019)

 

I first came across the work of Irish poet Jane Clarke in October of last year, when her poem ‘When Winter Comes’ was published as The Guardian’s poem of the week. On the strength of this encounter I ordered a copy of her second collection, When the Tree Falls, and this slim volume quickly became a poetry highlight of my summer; I was not surprised to hear that this accomplished collection has been shortlisted for this year’s Irish Times Poetry Award. This is one of those books that I want to press upon all my friends, but also really don’t want to allow out of the house for fear it will not return.

This is a collection with family at its heart, with much of the book devoted to a sequence of poems about the final illness and death of the poet’s father. These poems are lyrically deft, poignant, moving, but also pragmatic in their depictions of decline and loss, and of the ways in which the speaker, her father, and other family members deal from day to day with the situation they find themselves in. The father is a farmer, and this is a family deeply rooted in the land, with the poems often set in or referencing locations around the farm. As a dyed-in-the-wool city dweller I sometimes struggle to engage with poetry that has a rural setting but in this collection the farm landscape feels like another character, moving through time alongside the family.

Other poems extend into the poet’s family history – her relationships with her parents and her brothers – and some of my favourite poems are these clear-eyed observations of situations and interactions. Grandparents and other ancestors also feature and yet, although the collection is clearly deeply personal, it succeeds in feeling universal. As Clarke writes in ‘Polling Station’: “every family has stories, left like ploughs / and harrows among thistles behind the sheds.” There are lines that blend quiet strength with sorrow, as in the opening of ‘Ryegrass’, the first poem in the book: “his time is precious as a dry spell / when there’s silage to be cut”, poems where the characters who populate the book are given vivid voice and form, as in ‘Cypress’:

 

he suddenly struggles

to sit up.

 

Will you open the curtains

so we’ll see the dawn when it comes?

He gazes out

at the cypress

that in his lifetime

grew higher than the house.

 

In others, the poet effectively sketches remembered scenes in the space of a few lines, as in “Camping at Bearna”:

 

The groundsheet rips, the milk

turns sour, someone drops the eggs

and more often than not

we wake to the pock, pock, pock

of raindrops.”

 

Other poems are devoted to Clarke’s friend and fellow poet Shirley McClure, who died in 2016.  One of these, “Metastasis”, employs “the way couch grass takes hold of a garden” as a metaphor for the insidious nature of cancer spreading in the body, the lines “slips silent under fences, colonises beds / and gets itself entangled through agapanthus” sending a chill of recognition and dread down my spine.

In this eloquent, reflective collection, Clarke wields language with enviable delicacy and a quiet intelligence, creating an immensely satisfying and ultimately uplifting book, one that tackles loss by celebrating love, that acknowledges pain and fear, but also points to the difference compassion and care for one another can make to the close of a good life.

 

Claire Orchard

 

 

Claire Orchard lives in Wellington and is the author of poetry collection Cold Water Cure (VUP, 2016). You can find out more about her at her website

Jane Clarke grew up on a farm in Co. Roscommon and now lives with her partner in Glenmalure in Co. Wicklow. Her first collection, The River, was published by Bloodaxe Books in 2015. Her second collection, When the Tree Falls, was published by Bloodaxe Books in September 2019. All the Way Home, an illustrated sequence of poems in response to a soldier’s letters from the Front during World War 1, was published by Smith|Doorstop in April 2019, in collaboration with the Mary Evans Picture Library, London.

Full biography at Jane Clarke’s website

Bloodaxe Books author page

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf Monday poem: Airini Beautrais’s ‘Soldier’s buttons’

 

 

Soldier’s buttons

 

Saw a man             supine on a bench

thought maybe needs help             recognised your shoes

thought maybe acute grief             or just resting

 

best left alone. Walked in the other direction.

How have I been so long out of sunlight,

how have I not known down here

 

there are these round yellow flowers

pushed up out of the river mud.

Or maybe I knew them and forgot.

 

Picked some, and daises, buttercups,

willow twigs, grass flowers, a madwoman’s posy.

So many ways to be out of one’s tree.

 

Walked back through the park. All year we’ve sat adjacent

in private losses                   individual lack of sleep

which has manifested as a shared engagement

 

in mutual insults                and off colour jokes

Oi what are these flowers               That’s no way to greet me

Like a common prostitute              (Me? Or you?)

 

You tell me soldier’s buttons. Makes sense,

dropped at the water’s edge. I look them up.

Cotula: little cup. Bachelor’s buttons, yellow buttons,

 

water buttons, brass buttons, buttonweed.

Gondwanan flower that’s scattered the world.

Makes sense, strewn                           like indiscriminate histories

 

coins shining on shut eyelids, minutes, millennia.

Anyway, we should treat sex workers with respect.

But don’t lift bullshit when under it’s

 

more shit and under that more painful

than can be looked at. Little cup, can’t fill it.

Goes on flowering like a useless need.

 

Airini Beautrais

 

 

Airini Beautrais is a writer and teacher based in Whanganui. She writes poetry, short fiction, essays and criticism. Her work has appeared in a range of journals and anthologies in NZ and elsewhere. Her first book Secret Heart was named Best First Book of Poetry in the Montana New Zealand Book Awards 2007; it was followed by Western Line (2001), Dear Neil Roberts (2013) and Flow: Whanganui River Poems (2017).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf noticeboard: Sarah Broom Poetry Prize

Screen Shot 2020-02-24 at 8.51.30 AM.png

 

I have had a number of queries about the Sarah Broom Poetry Prize. I am no longer involved with this (must get my photo taken down off site!). I do know that  it is not happening in conjunction with the Auckland Writers Festival 2020, but beyond that I have no up-to-date information. I recommend you get in touch with the Trust here. I will post any new information should I receive any.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf questions poets: Do poetry communities matter to you?

DSCN9858.jpg

 

Part of my aim with Poetry Shelf is to build bridges between diverse poetry communities and in doing so create a hub for sharing poems, interviews, news, anecdotes, ideas, interviews, audio, podcasts, reviews, new books, old books and so on. I want to engage with and showcase a diversity of voices.

I live on the outskirts of Auckland on the west coast, with dodgy internet, mobile reception and power, and at the moment scarce water (!) and I don’t get into the city that often. So I am dependent on the books I am sent, and my communications with as many poets as possible. I feel both inside and outside communities, belonging not-belonging.

Researching and writing Wild Honey took me into all manner of communities – past and present. Utterly fascinating. Always surpising. I found goodwill, bitchiness, support and aroha in the archives. Connections between women poets seemed vital, especially when women were writing in the shadows. The 2019 Wild Honey events were something special – and got me thinking about connectedness and bridges and how belonging to one community is not enough. Listening hard counts. I agree with Louise Wallace – kindness,  generosity and diversity – are crucial. I see this in what she is doing with The Starling.

Poetry Shelf is my made-up and constantly evolving community and includes best friends, people whose poetry I have admired for a long time, people whom I have never met, new discoveries. Why do I do this crazy thing that takes up so much time and operates outside the currency of money? Because no matter how tired or challenged or doubt-smashed I feel, in its drive to celebrate, question, and connect, Poetry Shelf is a necessary form of nourishment. It is like a huge loving poetry family with a truckload of goodwill and support. It constantly surprises and delights me. Do keep in touch. Do let me know of new discoveries.

 

Louise Wallace:
Poetry communities matter and have mattered to me immensely. Writing is of course a solitary act, but what’s the fun in doing the rest of it alone? A common misconception seems to be that the NZ poetry community is bitchy or competitive. I have found the opposite to be true. I am grateful for the opportunities I have received, often sent my way by other writers. Poetry communities can fulfil different needs at different times. As a young writer I really valued being surrounded by my peers who were on the same journey as me, and the help and guidance offered to me by senior writers. As a new mum last year I was physically isolated, unable to attend many literary events. Online communities filled that gap as a way to stay connected and still feel myself – I listened to poetry podcasts while out walking my son in his pram, I kept up with NZ poetry news on twitter whenever I could check my phone. Community to me means creating space for others. It means making sure there is room for as many different voices as we can imagine. It means generosity and kindness: lifting each other up. If there’s a window, fill it with someone else’s name.

 

Jordan Hamel:

I spent a long time figuring out how to answer this. Obviously the answer is yes, but I didn’t know how to articulate what poetry communities to me, ironically it took me to until last minute to ask other people for their opinions, my friend Sara gave me a great analogy. There’s an old classroom trust-building exercise where a bunch of kids sit in a circle and two kids in the middle are blindfolded and try to beat each other with rolled-up newspaper. They have to rely on the voices of the circle to tell them where to swing and gently push them in the right direction. What an apt metaphor, almost too on the nose. Sincerity is awful and I apologise in advance but strap yourself in because here we go.

When I first started writing, like most people I felt like the blindfolded kid swinging the newspaper, never sure if I was hitting anything. In the past couple of years I’ve found a circle, well circles plural, different, intersecting, amorphous circles, some occupy physical spaces like readings, writers groups and open mics, others digital and less tangible, all are so important to me and my poetry. I think the great thing about the metaphor is, in poetry communities you aren’t always the one in the middle wildly swinging, you’re also in the circle guiding others as they go through the same thing, sometimes you’re the one who created the circle in the first place, but as wholesome as this extended metaphor is, poetry communities in NZ aren’t perfect, we could all take a look at our circles and think how we can make them bigger, more inclusive, flexible, every so often we can turn around and try to see who’s outside the circle, blindly stumbling and swinging on their own, or who’s too nervous to even ask to join in. I’ve been lucky enough to find people who will let me play even though most of the time I still feel like a blindfolded kid swatting at darkness, but I think everyone feels that way and everyone needs those voices.

 

 

Sugar Magnolia Wilson:

This is such a good question for me right now. The answer is very much yes, poetry communities do matter to me, but also, no, not as much as they used to in the way that they used to.

Before 2012 my poetry community was just myself. I wrote and wrote, for years, in creative isolation and it was awesome, but I didn’t know any different so it wasn’t really anything. It was just the way it was. Come 2012 and I got accepted into the IIML masters course. It changed my life. My views were challenged, my writing grew, and I had such an amazing time being part of the Wellington writing community. The book launches. Amazing writer friends with the same writerly bullshit struggles. The support and lots of love and wine. So much creative generosity and oh boy is Wellington good at that. Without that kind of hothouse scenario, my book wouldn’t have happened, and I wouldn’t have turned my writing into a craft. But … like all good things, it needed to have its own little death.

I started, last year some time, to feel a bit sad about the whole thing. The launch of Wild Honey really defined what a poetry community should look like for me; big, wise, loving, many-voiced, multi-generational. I can’t really explain it, other than I felt like my IIML year had gone on for eight years instead of one, and that I was really and truly ready to graduate and throw my cap off and leave it in the rain. I realised that in order for my writing to survive beyond one book, that I needed to go it alone, to figuratively and literally move away, to let go of all the stuff and the scene and sort of competitive element than can start to creep in. I’m not interested in that stuff and I don’t want to be defined by my success on the Unity Books Bestsellers list. No shade to Unity wot wot.

Anyway, now I live in the bush and it’s nice, and I’m eternally grateful for poetry communities. I am hoping that over time a new kind of one will grow. Something wild and sweet that lets me grown in new ways.

 

Eliana Gray

Yes!!!! Where would I be, where would any of us be without community? Community to me is the bedrock and the impetus for everything. Why do we write if not to communicate with others? Why do we communicate if not to build community? I feel that almost every – if not all – human action has community building at its base.
We would be very little without community, isolated ghosts. I don’t think that sounds very fun. Other humans are one of the key ways we define our existence. I just can’t imagine life without it. Communities make me a happier person, a better writer, more accountable, more empathetic, a smarter person, harder, better, faster, stronger, all of it. Thank you to everyone in my poetry communities. I am still alive because you make life very appealing.

 

Vana Manasiadis:

I tried to answer this question before I fell down a metaphor hole grabbing at definitions all the way. What do I think a [poetry] community is, does, has? I like these community values: respect, agency, meaningful participation, collaboration, integrity, inclusion. When I’ve had poetry community experiences that have included lots of these things – kōrero, voices, tautoko – they are like blood transfusions. Like actual substance, and substantiveness. Like: I don’t have to long-walk/talk-listen-disagree-agree-eat-drink-stay late with my poetry community every day and night (though that’s the dream) but I do need more than brief SM broadcasts. (And clearly I’m saying this as a judgmental SM recluse who has swallowed the hard self-inflicted pill of not being part of a/the poetry community online; and who spends way too much time wondering whether it’s even possible to be in the same community as folks who’ve super-active-online-selves). But. Anyway. In my wider-panning poetry community (see above) – which really, really matters to me (see blood) – aside from curation there’s also accident, mess, aporía, and slow time. And now I think of it, I’m in a small but ecstatic community of poets who write long and languorous emails to each other. I should say epistles obviously.

 

 

Emer Lyons:

I was working on Heather McPherson’s poem ‘stein song for the blue house’ this month and I was drawn back to a quote from Starhawk’s book Spiral Dance: The Rebirth of The Ancient Religion of The Great Goddess:

And Goddess religion is lived in community. Its primary focus is not individual salvation or enlightenment or enrichment but the growth and transformation that comes through intimate interactions and common struggles. Community includes not only people but also the animals, plants, soil, air and water and energy systems that support our lives. Community is personal­—one’s closest friends, relatives, and lovers, those to whom we are accountable. But in a time of global communications, catastrophes, and potential violence, community must also be seen as reaching out to include all the earth (1999, 22).

Poetry communities are rife with nepotism, can become insular, and elitist, and benchmarks in people’s minds for what is deemed good or bad poetry, rather than the focus being on the sharing of “intimate interactions and common struggles.” The poet Fatimah Asghar says, “I work in the medium of community,” and I feel that, but only as far as community is a place from which I can question, include, and remain accountable.

 

 

Kiri Piahana-Wong:

Yes! Poetry communities matter, and they matter to me. I love how people who write in different styles and perform in different modes can find their poetry ‘home’ in different communities of poets. For many years my poetry community was Poetry Live. Attending the event every week somehow kept me grounded in poetry, and the friends I made there were endlessly encouraging of my poetry attempts. It made me feel strongly that poetry was not a niche hobby but rather an art form to take seriously. I’m grateful for the years that Poetry Live was my second home, and I’m also not the first person to meet their husband/future husband or wife/future wife there!

 

 

Olivia Macassey:

To begin my answer at the shallow end, writing poetry can feel like a bit of a strange compulsion, so there’s camaraderie involved in being with others who are just as crazy. I vividly remember my astonishment and joy when, as a teenager, I first encountered a bunch of poets en masse (in 90s Auckland at the Shakespeare tavern), and realized how not-alone I was. There’s a solidarity involved in this, which can be supportive and nurturing, and that matters to me. In recent years I’ve been involved in projects in the Northland community, led by Piet Nieuwland, and appreciate the wider perspective of seeing how poetry communities and other communities overlap and weave together and strengthen one another. Shared experiences, interests, kaupapa are essentially about similarity, but there’s also an important dimension that is about difference, mutual discovery and renewal: the way we encounter new ways of seeing and thinking and writing, spark off one another aesthetically, conceptually, politically, or in terms of practice.

Another important type of community is the kind of imagined communities we inhabit as writers. In a narrow sense I see this in, say, different people who may be connected through a particular publisher or publication (such as brief or this blog) – poets I may have read a lot, but not necessarily met or interacted with – but in a wider sense, it’s about ‘finding your people’ outside the constraints of time and place. An imagined community can centralize marginal poetics; social class, disability, sexuality. In my youth, I think without a sense of structures of feeling beyond the mainstream paradigms, or some connection to other poetic genealogies, I would have felt lost, and these communities continue to matter to me. At the deepest level though, for me, the act of writing always already anticipates community because a poem is a priori an act of communication, of reciprocity; its very existence implies a shared world. I write because I have found you: I write in order to find you.

 

James Norcliffe:

Writing poetry is a solitary act and in adolescence, when poetry began for me, it had a solitary audience as well. There was often an idealised, intended audience, but I was never brave enough to show my poems to her.

Later, though, craving a larger audience, it became apparent that other people wrote poetry too, and while the practice wasn’t as arcane as clog dancing or synchronised swimming (although it was up there) it  was clearly rarefied. Still, reading and submitting to magazines and attending the odd reading, made me aware that these people had names. Moreover some of them were local and, in time, I got to know them.

I’m not entirely sure what a ‘poetry community’ is. I’m pleased the question put community in the plural as it suggests a variety of communities of different sizes, purposes and flavours.

I belong to several. Firstly there is a small core of very close friends I’ve made through poetry and whom I number among my nearest and dearest. We meet regularly, eat together, occasionally holiday together and generally have a great time. We read and support each other’s work (and often launch it), but we’ve moved beyond the shallows of writing and into the warmer, deeper sea of friendship.

Secondly, there’s a closely-knit of poets of about half a dozen poets whom I meet with monthly, a group David Gregory once laughingly called the ‘poots’ groop’ and so the name remains. The p.g. has a shifting population with a fairly stable core and we meet to share and critique each other’s poems. It has been going probably about twenty years and one or two of the first group are part of this as well. I’m off to a meeting tonight feeling a little fraught as I need to find something to take. Even, if I don’t find anything I know I’ll have a great time and that among the laughs there’ll be a lot of close reading and penetrating thought. Just lovely.

Thirdly there’s the wider group of Christchurch writers I’ve been associated with for well over thirty years: the Canterbury Poets’ Collective. This highly active group organises an annual series of readings, bringing poets from beyond the city to a relatively large Christchurch audience. There are eight readings a season – now in Spring – involving over twenty four guest readers and large numbers of b.y.o. people. The CPC also occasionally organises one off readings and events, typically National Poetry Day celebrations. I suppose it involves two communities: the organising committee who are a dedicated set who mix a common goal with fellowship, and the wider collective who come along to support the readings, a large number of whom take part.

Finally, there’s the wider national poetry community of poets I’ve got to know over the years through the magazine and book editing I’ve done. A number of these I’ve only corresponded with, but most I’ve eventually met in real life and many have become firm friends.

All of these communities are hugely important to me. Writers are assumed to have monstrous egos and are supposed to be fiercely competitive. This has not been my experience. I’ve treasured the warmth, encouragement and critical support of people within all of these groups, particularly the more intimate ones. I have never been especially confident in my person or sure of my work although I pretend otherwise. It has been so good to have been nurtured by these communities and so satisfying to have nurtured others who are part of them

 

Hebe Kearney:

The Titirangi Poets group meets once every month in the Titirangi library, surrounded by bush and chickens, which roam the library car park in gangs. When poetry happens, it happens in a circle. Each person reads in turn like a set of dominoes, one following the other. A ‘round robin’ format.

Just knowing that they are there, in the clean and the library quiet, taking a few hours just for the sake of words, makes me feel better about waking and walking in this world. When I had the privilege of reading there I experienced it as a circle of support, everyone had a kind word to say, a suggestion to give me about honing the sound of my voice and words.

Poetry communities like this matter because everywhere there is poetry there are words living, words breathing and growing in power. Virginia Woolf once described poetry as ‘a voice answering a voice’ – poetry is always communal in that it is always a communication, a reaching of one person towards another and back. Poetry communities not only matter, but poetry communities are themselves part of the act of poetry.

Personally, I have tended to write quietly and hold my words close to myself. It is only recently I have begun learning to let my words free, and to really acknowledge the part of poetry that is the voice listening and the voice answering back. And it is through poetry communities that this interaction of voice and voice can be facilitated.

So I am bursting with appreciation and gratitude for poetry communities. They make space in a busy world for the simple beauty of words, and remind those of us with a penchant for hiding of the reciprocity at the heart of poetry. The way that, in essence, it is all about sharing.

 

 

The contributors:

 

Eliana Gray is a poet from Ōtepoti. They like queer subtext in teen comedies and not much else. They have had words in: SPORT, Mimicry, Minarets, Mayhem and others. Their debut collection, Eager to Break, was published by Girls On Key Press (2019) and they are the 2020 writer in residence at Villa Sarkia, Finland. It is very very snowy and they love it.

Jordan Hamel is a Pōneke-based poet and performer. He was the 2018 New Zealand Poetry Slam champion and competed at the World Poetry Slam Championships in 2019. He has poems published or forthcoming in Sport, takahē, Poetry NZ Yearbook 2020, Mimicry, Mayhem, Queen Mob’s Teahouse and elsewhere.

Hebe Kearney is from Christchurch but now calls Auckland her home. She currently studying to complete her Honours in Classics at the University of Auckland. Her work has appeared in Starling, The Three Lamps and Oscen.

Emer Lyons is an Irish, lesbian writer in her final year as a creative/critical PhD candidate in the English programme at the University of Otago, Dunedin.

Olivia Macassey’s poetry has appeared in Rabbit, Poetry New Zealand, Otoliths, Takahē, Landfall and other places. She is the author of two books, edits brief and co-edits Fast Fibres.

Vana Manasiadis is a Greek-New Zealand poet, translator and creative writing teacher who has been moving between Aotearoa and Greece, and is now living in Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland. She is the co-editor of the Seraph Press Translation Series, and was the editor and translator of Ναυάγια/Καταφύγια: Shipwrecks/Shelters: Six Contemporary Greek Poets (2016) and co-editor, with Maraea Rakuraku, of Tātai Whetū: Seven Māori Women Poets in Translation. Her second poetry collection The Grief Almanac: A Sequel appeared in 2019 (Seraph Press).

James Norcliffe is a poet, editor and children’s author. He has published ten collections of poetry, most recently Deadpan (OUP, 2019). In 2010 he took part in the XX International Poetry Festival in Medellin, Colombia and in 2011 the Trois Rivieres International Poetry Festival in Quebec. With Jo Preston he co-edited Leaving the Red Zone, a collection of poems prompted by the Canterbury earthquakes and, with Michelle Elvy and Frankie McMillan, Bonsai (CUP) New Zealand’s first major collection of flash and short fiction. A new anthology co-edited with Michelle Elvy and Paula Morris  Ko Tātou Aotearoa | We Are New Zealand celebrating Aotearoa / NZ diversity is to be published this year.

Kiri Piahana-Wong is a poet and editor, and she is the publisher at Anahera Press.

Louise Wallace is the author of three collections of poetry published by Victoria University Press, most recently Bad Things. She is the founder and editor of Starling. Louise lives in Dunedin with her husband and their young son, and is currently working on a PhD in Creative Writing, focussing on contemporary long-form narrative poetry by women.

Sugar Magnolia Wilson lives in Fern Flat, a valley in the far North. In 2012 she completed her MA in creative writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington. Her work has appeared in a number of journals, both in New Zealand and overseas, and she co-founded the journal, Sweet Mammalian, with Morgan Bach and Hannah Mettner, which is now run by poet, Rebecca Hawkes. Auckland University Press launched Magnolia’s debut collection, cecause a Woman’s Heart is Like a Needle at the Bottom of the Ocean in 2019; it is longlisted for the Ockham NZ Book Awards.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf poem archives: Liz Breslin celebrates Anne Kennedy’s ‘I was a feminist in the eighties’

 


I was a feminist in the eighties

 

To be a feminist you need to have
a good night’s sleep.

To be a feminist you need to
have your consciousness raised
and have a good night’s sleep.

To be a feminist you need to
have regard for your personal well-being
have your consciousness raised
and have a good night’s sleep.

To be a feminist you need to
have a crack at financial independence
have regard for your personal well-being
have your consciousness raised
and have a good night’s sleep.

To be a feminist you need to
champion women, have a crack at
financial independence, have regard
for your personal well-being
have your consciousness raised and
have a good night’s sleep.

To be a feminist you need to do the
childminding, washing, shopping, cooking and cleaning
while your mind is on higher matters
and champion women, have a crack
at financial independence, have regard
for your personal well-being
have your consciousness raised
and have a good
night’s sleep.

To be a feminist you need to button
your coat thoughtfully, do the childminding
washing, shopping, cooking and cleaning
while your mind is on higher matters
and champion women, have a crack at
financial independence, have regard for
your personal well-being, have your
consciousness raised and have
a good night’s
sleep.

To be a feminist you need to
engage in mature dialogue with
your spouse on matters of domestic
equality, button your coat thoughtfully
do the childminding, washing, shopping, cooking and cleaning
while your mind is on higher matters
and champion women, have a crack at
financial independence, have regard
for your personal well-being, have
your consciousness raised and
have a good
night’s
sleep.

Then a lion came prowling out of the jungle
and ate the feminist all up.

 

Anne Kennedy

from Sing-Song (Auckland University Press, 2003)

 

 

This poem comes from Anne Kennedy’s 2003 book Sing-Song, though I found it browsing Best New Zealand Poems when I was a feminist in the early 2000s and it totally called me on my shit-heaping of perfection on expectation on repeat. It made me laugh and then it got me thinking. All those aspirations. I love how the list builds seemingly statically, and then the subtle rejigging of the line breaks: how the washing, shopping, cooking and cleaning stick out uncomfortably, the unsettled promise of the good night’s sleep. I love the truth in it, and the futility. Serious grappling in a sing-song frame. And what a killer ending. Fucking lion. Also, fucking buttons. Just saying.

Liz Breslin

 

 

Liz Breslin is a feminist in the 2020s as well as other things including a writer and editor. She’s working on poems, a play and lyrics for The Vegan Karate Club Band.

Anne Kennedy is a poet, fiction writer, screenplay editor and teacher. Her latest book is Moth Hour (AUP), long-listed in the 2020 Ockham Book Awards. The Ice Shelf (VUP), a novel, appeared in 2018. Awards and residencies include the NZ Post Book Award for Poetry, the Montana Book Award for Poetry, the University of Iowa International Writers’ Program (2017), and the IIML Writers’ Residency (2016).

Auckland University Press page

 

singsong-kennedy__06504.1552609614.jpg

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf interviews Nikki-Lee Birdsey

 

 

Screen Shot 2020-02-15 at 9.56.09 AM.png

Night as Day, Nikki-Lee Birdsey, Victoria University Press, 2019

 

 

All the words I could write for you,

the darkness rising through darkness

the gleam-rich sea, a movie theatre

we went to.

 

from ‘The Long Nineteenth Century’

 

 

Nikki-Lee Birdsey’s poetry has appeared in a number of local and international journals, she holds a MFA from Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a BA from New York University. In 2015 she was a visiting faculty fellow at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington where she is now a PhD candidate. Victoria University Press published her debut collection Night as Day last year.

Night as Day struck multiple chords with me, particularly in the way poetry can inhabit the present tense, build sumptuous layers of feelings, ideas, things, relationships and buried secrets. Movement accumulates between places that both unsettles and anchors. Self exposure is tested, how we make poems is equally so. Pronouns are open homes: ‘you’ could be anyone. It is the kind of book that settles deep inside through its complexity, its quietness and its subterranean questions. I adore it.

We have spent perhaps a year conversing and I feel I have barely scraped the surface in what I want to talk about. And that is good – it shows the rich reading experience this poet offers.

 

(…)   As I drive

through the valleys, silky plumes of smoke rise

from the trees at random intervals, different rooms,

and I, frantic at the moment’s undoing.

 

The wind always working against us

and the scattered remainders, the past’s

shallow artefacts; somewhere whole cities

covered in ash, that legacy of fire and burning.

 

It just means someone’s home.

Your birthplace perhaps the only

kind of destiny. To know where you begin

and where you return.

 

from ‘The Great Western Hotel’

 

 

Screen Shot 2020-02-18 at 8.59.47 AM.png

 

 

Paula: As my introduction makes clear, your debut collection Night as Day was a rich reading experience for me. When did you first begin writing poetry? Was it as far back as childhood? What compelled you? Did any poets influence you?

 

Nikki-Lee: Thank you so much Paula. That’s a great question—compelled is a good way to describe writing.

I first began writing poetry in high school two years after I moved from Piha to a town thirty minutes outside of New York City. Growing up, I was moved around a lot and was never given a lot of information about what was happening to me. Reading was an escape, but also I can remember this early compulsion of note-taking, of trying to learn and order the information. I don’t remember reading or learning anything in schools in New Zealand. I’m not sure if it was because I moved a lot or was a terrible student or the schools were terrible. I remember being bored, nervous, and acting out because we didn’t seem to do anything. But I read on my own from books from the library. As a kid, and a girl-kid, I read monster and magic and fairy books in New Zealand. Like a lot of kids I read Harry Potter, and I would reread and reread to get lost in it. The idea that there was a magical world you couldn’t see that could choose you and take you away from what was happening to you. It was very appealing. I didn’t care about sentences, and I wasn’t taught any skills about identifying what’s a good sentence. I don’t have a lot of clear memories as a child because when you deal with instability, discontinuity, trauma you forget stuff out of necessity.

I was talking to a friend recently about this—the early love of fantasy. I remember as a girl I thought if I could just be a were-witch or a werewolf or a faerie-king or a freaking animorph! Anything to explain this incredible power I felt while reading—it felt like a hawk soaring if you can try to imagine what that feels like, and I did a lot—and this powerlessness I felt all the time as a child. I don’t read fantasy anymore but I think I should. I had to let that go in American high school to make room for algebra and bio and history. But dark, Victorian-like stories of the fallen still hold their sway.

When I got to a New Jersey public school I became conscious of the first thing: September 11 happened and the school was evacuated. I’m just now at the end of my twenties understanding how that affected me, not just moving countries with no explanation, but that sense of danger; words like terrorism, war, entering my vocabulary but not understanding really what they meant. The second thing I became conscious of in high school was the system of knowledge was completely different. I took all of these required subjects like American/ Colonial history, European/ Colonial history, Algebra, AP bio, AP physics, but the classes where I didn’t feel the burning anxiety of knowing nothing and feeling like a fraud, or an idiot, or an interloper were English classes. Books I were familiar with. So even though I was reading for the first time the very western canon, I was open to it: Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, Hawthorne, Hardy, August Wilson, Harper Lee, Milton, Melville. Stuff you would find in a high school English class. It was a lot of information but I was kind of learning my own world through those worlds in the books, i.e. making sense of what the mid-west is, this is what Dean Moriarty means by Colorado and here it is on the map and that is in the country I now live in, etc. And I had a teacher who taught a poetry class and that was it for me, I was off!

Poetry for me was fragmented in a way, like how I saw the world, in pieces, trying to make sense of it, and so I felt weirdly that it understood me and I understood it. It was also a way for me to not really express myself but express that I was there when I felt this sense of incoherence as my New Zealand past was disappearing. By the end of high school at 17 I had caught up, but while I closed this big gap in knowledge I knew there was so much more, and during this time too I figured out how to sit the SATs and applied to college and financial aid applications and buried a parent and so on.

I read a lot of Keats, Hardy, Brontes, Plath, as I would Animporphs. That sense of transformation. In university, I had to repeat the process of high school but with a lot more reading and working in bars to pay rent and then the Global Financial Crisis/ Great Recession happened by the time I graduated in New York in 2010. I think now, as I finish my PhD once again in the institution, the world in crisis, how much those big early events like 9/11, the Great Recession, really influenced my personality. Man, how child and teen years and your early self-becoming years are radioactive; they are so so crucial. It was like I was there but I was too close to it so I couldn’t see it, or if I looked at it directly it might swallow me up, as it did many people, and it was affecting me in all these ways physically and emotionally. How I handle stress and a sort of constant anxiety and nervousness, etc.

I’m just now getting more time to read separate from my doctorate, even though it’s not done yet but I have the sense of an ending, and for instance I’m writing this at 7:13 a.m. and I’ve been up since 3 a.m. reading Rilke for actually no reason other than I saw it on the bookshelf lit by the full moon, shadow journaling, thinking maybe this is who I am, this is who I’ve always been ha. It’s finally light enough to make a cup of tea without waking anyone.

 

Paula: Reading this is like reading a miniature and evocative biography where books and learning have shaped a life. I am full to the brim with questions! Your debut collection Night As Day embodies writing and subsequently reading as a way of existing, just for that provisional moment. As your title suggests: in the dark of night and light of day, and in the light of night and dark of day. What attracts you to writing? Does it make a difference if it is poetry, academic writing or something else altogether?

Nikki-Lee: What a lovely reading of Night as Day! Writing is a part of me, I think, one of the most consistent parts, my long-time companion. I came to writing as a teen in dark times, like many people. I’d write in diaries, which actually turned out to be long catalogues of what I was reading at the time. I don’t know why I did this. I also wrote these long “dictionary lists”. Oh man. But writing in diaries or in notebooks is very different to writing poems. When I first went to graduate school in Iowa I got really overwhelmed with composition. I was getting paid to write and learn but I was in a competitive environment, and younger than I am now and full of self-loathing and a lack of confidence. So I spent a lot of time burying my impulses with writing and then finding them again towards the end of my time there. And then I first came to Wellington shortly after Iowa and discovered another deep lack of confidence: not being New Zealander (for lack of a better word) enough.

So I wrote Night as Day in an academic environment, but then sort of just said fuck it. If people want to know what “Conedison” means or what I mean by “100s” I’m going to annotate these poems and I’m sure they won’t like that either. But readers responded to the biographical (poem-ographical?) end notes, and also the tone of them, I just tried to be as earnest as possible even if being earnest isn’t necessarily interesting. So in a way it does matter if it’s poetry or academic or something else but if it feels right to me then it is always me—contains that part of me that is shaped by writing continually, ever-changingly, through my life. The insistence on writing that for me says: I am here, I am new here, and tries to refuse that displaced self that is untethered to place.

Also, when I’m not writing I feel like shit. But I can’t force it. I’ve heard this is a common problem.

Is it ok to swear in this interview? Sorry.

 

I have no idea how you see me.

I think about this a lot tonight

in the purple-dark sky, the sun

falling suddenly, broken up

 by hills. I’m in the office

scrawling over the whiteboard

impossible notes and perambulations.

We never look at just one thing.

I throw my phone in the bin

too many images—

it’s just a piece of junk aglint

in the plastic folds of the liner.

 

from ‘Objects 7’

 

Paula: YES! And you can choose whether to read the annotations. I like the way they provide different illuminations and send me back rereading. Reading your collection, I felt like I was inhabiting a moment, a provisional glorious moment that was shaped by me and affected so deeply by the poems. Every time I inhabit the poem it is different. How does poetry affect as you reader and / or as writer?

Nikki-Lee: I love the idea of inhabiting a moment in a poem. What I love about poetry is that if you respond to it as the reader, you are shaping the poem. Poetry can make you give something of yourself to the poem, if just for a second. But that is such a gift. When you’re reading a poem, and you feel like it sees you, that’s the goal, the hope of the poet. One of the many reasons why it’s so vital to have different writers represented in literature.

 

Paula: Do you have key motifs, themes, symbols that you can’t get away from, that you simple love?

Nikki-Lee: I have always loved the colour of the sky and how it changes. The light of the day subsiding, the day rising. And a million other things.

 

Paula: Ah I love the appearance of sky in poems too for all kinds for reasons. Poetry is a form of wonder in all its connotations. I also love the way you take us outside the poem to the wider context of its own making. How important is this?

Nikki-Lee: I wanted to draw attention to the moment, or act, of writing the poem as a way to open the poem up. I think there should be multiple ways into a poem, why not? There are no rules. I spend so much time thinking about this. There are literally no rules, less is not more, more is not less. You just do everything you can to make connections, to reach a hand out, to make anything — maybe even especially the thing that is most painful — beautiful.

 

She said, ‘I believe in being a poet

in all moments of life.’ She wrote

of machine guns planted in courtyard gardens,

of the breaths of silk-tasselled acacias,

and she asked if she would dance

once more on wine glasses. Her repeated

phrase an echo, ‘Why should I stop?

Why should I stop?’

She divorced her husband,

she bore a bright son

and I think she loved her mother.

Is it obvious that she was beautiful?

Her books were banned

and she said, ‘Being a poet means

being human.’

 

from ‘Objects 9’

 

(a composite biography of Iranian poet, Forugh Farrokhzad, 1935 – 1967)

 

Paula: I totally agree. Poetry equals no rules. Multiple pathways. I find your poems to be pitch perfect on the line (I would love an audio version of the book), while the arrival of detail adds texture to feeling, ideas, storytelling. What matters when you write a poem?

Nikki-Lee: Wow thank you! What matters when I write a poem? I dunno. I left my life in New York City in my mid twenties to move back here and write this book Night as Day. Write a book about the place I’m from. Sometimes writing feels like the thing that keeps me going, keeps me alive. I know it sounds maybe over the top but this is a dramatic, consequential year. So I’m feeling it a lot.

 

Look, I’ll show you around

this condensed symbol of a place.

It’s true, its everything

and nothing specific,

and everything to me

and always specific.

It’s impossible to understand

how we got from there to here.

One place after another.

You come close

to a home.

 

from ‘Objects 12’

 

Paula: Do you have tension between reserve and admission?

Nikki-Lee: Yeah, considering the answer to the last question ha. I’m all tension. Constantly wondering if I’ll regret being open. People don’t like that always — I get that vibe here more than in other places I’ve lived. Hey Nikki-Lee how’s it going?

Me: Let me talk to you about how we have the highest homelessness rate in the OECD.

 

Paula: Yes! To what degree do we put the filter on when we write or go out in public. Is it something that keeps poets awake at night I wonder.

Is there a poem in the collection that particularly resonates with you? I am particularly drawn to the object poems, ‘The Blue Hour’, the notes at the back!

Nikki-Lee: They’re all a snapshot of me at a certain time. You gotta learn to love the past versions of yourself (I’m writing like I wrote this book years ago as opposed to finishing it last year and publishing it a few months later but it’s early and I have to catch the bus to work, sorry!). In Night as Day I’m working through a lot of difficult memories, things that were spurred by moving back here, and other stuff.

The poem ‘The Blue Hour’ is one people talk to me about. I’m proud because I was so afraid writing that poem and I want people who might read it to think it’s okay to have parents who can be toxic and that reject you. It’s nothing to do with you. There’s this really privileged tyrannical notion of upholding this family ideal when the people who are your parents, who are supposed to protect you, are, like, annihilating you with their generational greed.

 

You need a human to love in this awful

human endeavour. You look at all the

sad, dark things I can write long after his death.

 

You are reading this introduction

to my life now, I wish it were closer

to happiness, but then it wouldn’t be

 

close to me.

That light most

like New Zealand—

 

even I couldn’t tell the difference—

the blue hour lit up her piano

that she never played in front of us,

 

just as her mother never did, whom she

loathed and then nursed. I do not want

to loathe and then nurse.

 

Mum, please, don’t hate this,

 

I love you.

 

from ‘The Blue Hour’

 

 

 

Paula: Ah ‘The Blue Hour’ really affected me and seems connected to a maternal undercurrent hiding in the book. All the poems in this section map a life (and as you say in the whole book) and in this example the mother-daughter relationship is in the foreground. The poem’s larger indents on the first lines of stanzas are like breath intakes, the writer’s hiccups, hesitancies, with a filter at work and the fertility of pause.

You were born in Piha – I live near Te Henga on the West Coast and it anchors and lightens me in so many ways. How does your birthplace matter?

Nikki-Lee: It’s a place that both anchors and unmoors. It stands in for the flood of the past when you’re trying and failing and living a life where your past doesn’t have to define you. And then I go back there and I stand at the cliffs at the end of the road and I want to scream but I also know how that place is always a part of me. How honoured I am to be in that place. To have been taken so far away, and then to find my way back.

 

You craved the sea so long

but this is the first time you

look at it for a long time. You

wonder at the names of boats.

 

from ‘The Undergraduate’

 

Paula: What other activities enhance your life as writer?

Nikki-Lee: Occasionally crying while working out. Saunas. Skincare. Cardi B. Asking politicians at events about how’s it possible we have so many people living in poverty in a wealthy country with no tax on wealth.

 

 

The Blue Hour

  It’s the blue hour of an August

five o’clock, unlike any other I’ve seen.

I’ve made worse this worst time of year

 

for me, haven’t spoken to my mother

in a whole year. Longer? Words

compound, then run away from you.

 

That’s a cliché, but so is everything.

How many times I could barely

look to see the light streaming through

 

the windows of her New Jersey apartment.

No difference between the filmy curtains

and gauzy air. She’d bring me broccoli soup

 

from Panera Bread™, she’d say one can

never understand the sadness of you,

which explains not all, but some, of our problems.

 

From the rooftop garden

I would focus on the peak of the church

steeple across the street, and the early summer

 

moon just behind it, while the cat Lily,

deceased recently, slunk over to my deck chair

sunk in the faux-grass. My mother says

 

you need an animal to love,

but in that garden state I could see only

the ordered treetops, below the brown bees

 

swarming the dirt in the revolutionary war

cemetery. I walked through their hum once

and found four in my shoes; couldn’t tell the graves

 

from the broken headstones;

didn’t feel the sting till much later.

What do you put on bee stings? She asked,

 

I think vinegar, I said. She, beautiful

and smaller, somehow, walking out

of the bathroom wrapped in a purple sarong,

 

make-upless, wet hair made her

more definite; the light on her gold curls

a real halo, slight smile, curve of a tiny hand.

 

She was so beautiful I didn’t

think I could ever be beautiful because

some beautiful mothers never tell

 

            their daughters in time. I built myself

from the ground to that rooftop, waking in my spot

amongst the trees, the spotted leaves.

 

You need a human to love in this awful

human endeavour. You look at all the

sad, dark things I can write long after his death.

 

You are reading this introduction

to my life now, I wish it were closer

to happiness, but then it wouldn’t be

 

close to me.

That light most

like New Zealand—

 

even I couldn’t tell the difference—

the blue hour lit up her piano

that she never played in front of us,

 

just as her mother never did, whom she

loathed and then nursed. I do not want

to loathe and then nurse.

 

            Mum, please, don’t hate this,

 

I love you.

 

Nikki-Lee Birdsey

 

 

Victoria University Press author page

Poetry Shelf audio: Nikki-Lee reads ‘Foreign and Domestic’

Poetry Shelf poem festival (trees):  ‘Objects 4’

Best NZ Poems 2018: ‘Mutuwhenua