Every now and then I have another child, Diane Brown, Otago University Press, 2020
Sometimes you reach for memory,
an impossible task in this throw-away
world. What choice is there but to slip
on your new self as if you come clean
from ‘This Is How It Is for All of Us’ in Every now and then I have another child
Diane’s Brown previous book, a poetic memoir entitled Taking My Mother to the Opera, was ‘a rollercoasting, detail-clinging, self-catapulting, beautiful read’ (from my review ). I loved the book so was very interested to see how I engaged with Diane’s new one: Every now and then I have another child.
The new book is narrative poetry; a narrative comprising individual poems with a cast of characters that offer multiple viewpoints. For me it is a collection of border crossings, with notions and experiences of motherhood the key narrative propulsion. Everything blurs and overlaps as the fictional touches the surreal and brushes against the real.
I am reminded of Luigi Pirandello’s play, Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921), but in this case it is an author in search of characters and characters in search of each other. Joanna is a writer, poet, creative writing teacher and mother. Anna, her doppelgänger, is homeless and gatecrashes funerals. There is a mysterious baby, both phantom and pseudo-real. There are two sons, one a geek on the spectrum scale and one a sensitive surfer. There is a stepmother, a missing mother and an alcoholic father. Add in a detective, a former lover and a baby in the mural on the wall.
Life is dislocating; the borders are porous with movement between what is real and what is not real, what is present and what is missing, what is longed for and what is abandoned. Reading your way through the poetry thickets is reading symphonic psychological effects. It is reading deep into the shadows and discovering shards of light. Being mother and being daughter is complicated and complicating. There are cryptic clues, a dead body, another dead body, a crying baby, a need to imagine, a need to name and be named. Reading the list of characters underlines the way in which the narrative is also genre crossing: think fiction, memoir, poetry, detective fiction, flash fiction.
I can’t think of another book like it in Aotearoa. The spooky porcelain doll photographed by Judith White on the cover (my standard reaction to porcelain dolls) sets me up for various hauntings. Joanna is haunted by a phantom baby and her missing mother. Anna is haunted by Joanna, and by life itself. There is the way in which writing itself is a kind of haunting. How do you start? How do you keep going? How do words matter? And i would add reading. Reading this is a kind of haunting. I am thinking of the way the past – with its shadows and its light – has the ability to haunt.
Issues of creative writing are touched upon, and make you reflect back on the making of the narrative, on the author herself. If there are multiple border crossings, are there also ways in which ‘Diane’ hides in the thickets, leaves traces of herself in various characters, encounters, epiphanies? You cannot package this sequence within a neat and tidy story where everything makes sense and the real outweighs the dream or imaginary scape. Nor would you want to. We are reading poetry that draws upon rich genre possibilities, the slipperiness of writing when you try to pin it down, the evasiveness of memory, the multifaceted prongs of experience.
And that’s what makes the collection such a rewarding read. You will bump into the calamitous real world with the homeless, conspiracy theories, alternative facts, North Korean missiles. You will move from Dunedin to Auckland to Alice Springs and London, with Dunedin being the physical heart of the narrative. Geographic movement, temporal movement, emotional movement: with all roads leading to motherhood and creative processes. It is a sumptuous and haunting book that you need to experience for yourself without a reviewer ruining the startles, the surprises, the puzzles and the moving connections. I am going to do something I have never done before and leave you with the terrific last poem so you can read it, then get the book, open it at page one and find your own way to the ending. Listening hard along the way. Poetry is most definitely a way of listening. ‘Listen.’
Written on the Body
I’ve heard the narrator give
borrowed advice: writers
need to kill their ego.
Never easy to follow yourself,
harder still to coax children
from cocoons into the light,
tracing every inch of skin
and reading what is written
with indelible ink.
Word that may unearth
the buried and extinct,
can re-ice glaciers,
turn petrified trees back
into lush green leafiness,
repopulate the seas,
and extinguish fires
raging out of control
at the top of the world.
But to see such words,
you have to strip bare, hold
nothing back and listen. Listen.
DIANE BROWN is a novelist, memoirist and poet who runs her own creative writing school, Creative Writing Dunedin. Her publications include two collections of poetry (Before the Divorce We Go to Disneyland and Learning to Lie Together), a novel (If the Tongue Fits), a verse novel (Eight Stages of Grace), a travel memoir (Liars and Lovers), a prose/poetic memoir (Here Comes Another Vital Moment) and a poetic family memoir (Taking My Mother to the Opera). In 2013 she was made a Member of New Zealand Order of Merit for services to writing and education.
Vaughan Rapatahana has just a posted a terrific feature on Wild Honey on Jacket2. I am usually doing the reviewing and posting so felt nervous being on the other end of the critique. Especially when I am in a cycle of terrible doubt about what I do and write, the state of the planet, the covid issues, the political game playing at home and abroad, about whether people read things any more. I wake in the night and worry about this.
I felt incredibly moved and restored by Vaughan’s engagement with the book – by his acknowledgement that this was an important arrival in view of a history of women poets in the shadows, by his considered attention. I send a bouquet of thankfulness.
I am reminded that books are an important part of who we are – and that we must do everything in our power to create them, publish and circulate them, review them, celebrate them, even challenge them if needed. Read and talk about them. Gift them!
This paragraph in particular moved me so much – there are people in the world building houses of knowledge, peace, forging multiple connective links:
I am immediately reminded of the work of Hirini Melbourne and his concept of whare whakairo, or a carved meeting house, whereby everything in and about this construction fits into and lends support, stability and splendour to every other component. The parallels are manifest. Granted that I am transposing women poets into his words, however Melbourne’s description of te whare whakairo rings out as so similar to Green’s own kaupapa in Wild Honey, namely, “The whare whakairo is … a place of shelter and peace. It is a place where knowledge is stored and transmitted and where the links with one’s past are made tangible … [it] is a complex image of the essential continuity between the past and present …” (Melbourne, 1991).
I also answered a few questions for the feature, after a run of wakeful nights with world and local worry, so my self-filter wasn’t on – I was answering from that secret-self-core that is private and wakes in the dark to dream, worry, invent and somehow find the truth.
Last year I did Wild Honey events throughout Aotearoa where women came and read, and I have never experienced anything like it. Such a strong feeling as younger and older writers made connections, different kinds of voices were heard together. I felt like I was holding something enormous that I created but that it got bigger than me as so many women told me what the book meant to them. It was overwhelming and it was wonderful.
I am due to do a Wild Honey event at the Word festival in Christchurch with a stunning group of women poets and I can’t wait. Come and say hello!
Mohamed Hassan is an award-winning journalist and poet from Auckland and Cairo. He was the 2015 National Poetry Slam Champion, a TEDx fellow, and represented NZ at the Individual World Poetry Slam in 2016. In 2017 he was awarded the Gold Trophy at the New York Radio Awards for his RNZ podcast series ‘Public Enemy’. His new collection of poems ‘National Anthem’ will be released in October by Dead Bird Books, and is available for pre-order.
Carolyn McCurdie reads ‘When bright red was eclipsed by silver shoon’
Martha Morseth reads ‘On discovering your oncologist is a travel agent’
Jenny Powell reads ‘A spot on the map’
Maxine Alterio reads ‘The vein whisperer’
Claire Beynon reads ‘Poolburn’
Elizabeth Brooke-Carr (1940 – 2019) was a Dunedin poet, essayist, short story writer, teacher, counseller. Her writing appeared in newspapers, online journals and anthologies. She was awarded the New Zealand Society of Authors’ 75th Anniversary Competition and the Dunedin Public Libraries competition Changing Minds: Memories Lost and Found. She received a PhD from the University of Otago. Wanting to tell you everything was published by Caselberg Press in 2020.
Poetry Shelf review of Wanting to tell you everything
Maxine Alterio is a novelist, short story writer and academic mentor. She has published four works of fiction and co-authored a textbook about learning through reflective storytelling.
Claire Beynon lives in Broad Bay. An artist and writer, she works on a range of collaborative, interdisciplinary projects balancing group activities with the contemplative rhythms of her solo studio practice. She’s in the slow process of completing a second collection of poetry.
Carolyn McCurdie is a Dunedin writer of poetry and fiction, especially speculative fiction. Her poetry collection Bones in the Octagon was published by Makaro Press in 2015.
Martha Morseth has written articles for More Magazine and the NZ Woman’s Weekly since l982, and poems for The Listener, Landfall and other literary New Zealand magazines. She has published two collections of poetry, three collections of short stories and plays for high school English classrooms. She came to New Zealand in 1972 with her husband and two daughters.
Jenny Powell has published seven individual and two collaborative collections of poems. She is part of the touring poetry duo, J & K Rolling, and is the 2020 RAK Mason Writing Fellow.
Anna Jackson made her debut in AUP New Poets 1 before publishing six collections with Auckland University Press, including I, Clodia, and Other Portraits (2014). She has a DPhil from Oxford and is now an associate professor in English literature at Victoria University of Wellington. Jackson is the author of Diary Poetics: Form and Style in Writers’ Diaries 1915–1962 (Routledge, 2010) and, with Charles Ferrall, British Juvenile Fiction 1850–1950: The Age of Adolescence (Routledge, 2009).
How to Be Old: Poems Rachel McAlpine, The Cuba Press, 2020
Nobody knows your neck squeaks.
Nobody knows your heart
is a bowl of poems.
Everything you do is very very good
and very very good is good enough.
The past supports us
like a trampoline.
The future? Face it.
Unlace it. Embrace it.
At dusk I want to be with you and stay.
I love it when you ask about my day.
from ‘Fortune cookies’
Wellington writer Rachel McAlpine blogs and podcasts about old age. She has published novels, songs, plays, books about writing as well as a number of poetry collections. To celebrate her 80th birthday she has published a new book of poems, How to Be Old. She kindly agreed to answer some questions for Poetry Shelf.
Paula: Like me, you are a Minister’s daughter. I am wondering what you read as a child?
Rachel: Everything available! We (six girls) went to the library every Friday and came home fully loaded with books. But the Book of Common Prayer had the most irresistible and enduring influence on my language.
Paula: What books stood out in your teenage reading?
Rachel: Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Tess of the Durbervilles spring to mind.
Paula: Can you name a few poets that have really mattered to you across the decades?
Rachel: Across the decades? Well, Allen Curnow was at university with my parents and was even engaged to my mother for two weeks: thus I was aware that some poets were living humans. This mattered to me because at school we read dead poets and only dead poets. My mother read Whim Wham in the Saturday Press which reinforced my arcane insider knowledge. Poets who first took my breath away include Pablo Neruda, Gerard Manly Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, Federico Garcia Lorca, Erica Jong and Adrienne Rich. Then a wave of young male New Zealand poets in the 1970s got me thinking hmm, maybe I could do that too…
When we bang on about our trips
and our memoirs and our blogs
and our grandchildren (best of kind)
our ills and pills and volunteering
our hearing aids and hips—
pay attention, don’t switch off
is our first attempt at being old
and we’re wondering how to do it
not just for us but for you.
Paula: I was really struck by your reaction to Sam Hunt’s contention in the 1970s that women either wrote very good or very bad poems: ‘just women scribbling their little women’s nothings’. So rather than mimic his lyrical voice–you wrote from life, and you wrote for women, and in doing so refused to see women’s writing (the how and the what) as mediocre. I love you for this. Your bolshiness. I see that inspirational bolshiness there in your new book! Am I right?
Rachel: Oh sure, I can’t help seeming bolshy even when I think I’m being most reasonable. Many of the poems in How To Be Old come from a bolshy approach to the clichés of old age. Come on now! What does that even mean, “age is just a number”? What is old age really, specifically, cold-bloodedly like—not to the observer but to the old person?
Paula: Do you think things have changed for women writers? I just checked out the latest Starling issue and its nearly all women (under 25s). Women poets are writing anything and everything, and are most definitely in the spotlights.
Rachel: Agree! Was it Arthur Baysting’s 1973 anthology The Young New Zealand Poets that included 19 men and one woman, Jan Kemp? With International Women’s year looming that was a red rag to a bull. Hard to imagine now.
Paula: Yes – although there is still a way to go. I talk about it in Wild Honey. I just love the energy and output from the current wave of young poets.
Your new book How to Be Old is a glorious evocation of old age. Such captivating self-exposure. Was this also a feature of your first collections? What angst made its way into your poetry then?
Rachel: Hey thanks, Paula! My first collection was basically shouting “I feel sad!” (as you need to sometimes). After that I jumped feet first into other issues, mainly feminist ones. My own experience is a good starting point for making a larger point digestible. Not much angst in How To Be Old, although some sadness tempers the joy.
In the seventies and eighties
as a mournful poet
and strident feminist
(there was no other sort)
I shouted loud and rude
mean and bold
waking up my sisters
with the stories of their lives.
from ‘Growing my brand’
Paula: You were a significant voice for me in the 1970s – did you feel part of a writing community, particularly women? What about now?
Rachel: In the 1970s and 80s I totally felt part of a community, a world of women who were busting to write about our own experience and women who needed to hear our voices, which were also theirs. Then I dipped out of the literary world for a couple of decades: I was very absorbed in my work with digital content until 2015. I did keep writing poems but didn’t publish. So as a poet I’ve been a bit of a loner since then, except for those who have followed my blog and podcast.
The bravest are millions
Out there living the bravest days
are the very old, the frail old
using every scrunch of the soul
for the next impossible chore.
The very old must win and win
on multiple fronts
day after trembling day.
Out there building the bravest lives
are the young
knowing what we knew
and did not do.
Paula: I think Wild Honey has really made me feel part of communities of women writing and supporting each other. Like you I am a loner poet but so many possibilities for connection these days.
Your new collection refreshes the way old age can be both viewed and lived. The poems are tender, vulnerable, provocative, entertaining. What prompted to you to publish a collection after a bit of a gap?
Rachel: Two things. A, I sold my business and had time on my hands. B, I turned 75 and abruptly realized that I might live another 25 years. So I needed a little hobby to keep me busy (joke). I went late and went hard at old age. Obsessed about it, researched it, decided to do at least one thing per month for a year to improve my chances of having a healthy old-old age. That project, my boot camp for the bonus years, shone a light on my own barmy ageism and society’s odd way of talking about old age. A year later, I started processing this strange interlude and the product was this book, How To Be Old. (Which of course is not a manual.)
I gave myself one year
to understudy for the role
of someone old.
I was confused but I was committed.
Month by month I tackled
housing and eating and exercise
finance and hobbies and friends and voice
happiness and brain and mind
and lastly, nervously
the existential bit.
from ‘My boot camp bonus years’
Paula: Let’s go back to old age. Just as there are continued pressures on young women to achieve ridiculous ideals there are equally ridiculous notions about old age: on ‘how to be old’. Your collection navigates this so beautifully – but can you comment on what delights and what bugs you about ‘how to be old’?
Rachel: That’s the nitty gritty, isn’t it? Well, no doubt about it, my own old age so far offers many delights. I’m alive, for one thing. At dawn I’m inclined to say, Good morning world! Thank you for having me! (I’m deeply privileged to have superannuation and a roof over my head and to live in this beautiful place.) I’m interested in my brain workings: my short-term memory is crap but the rest is working better and faster than ever… until too soon I get tired and it goes on strike. So in dance rehearsals I learn choreography at a perfectly acceptable rate—then instantly forget it. Puzzling, isn’t it? I like the So what? attitude that many old people report: that is rather obvious in my poems, I hope. What bugs me? Nothing so far except when I get a whiff of condescension from someone younger—but then that was me until I was 75, so I do understand.
A cold teabag on a sore eye feels good.
A cold mermaid on the eye
feels good too.
Tell you what, Granny.
What say I write a prescription
to stop you forgetting
that your friend is dead
because that makes you sad.
from ‘Alternative therapy’
Paula: Love love love this age attitude, and I love the tips for well-being in the last section of poems. Can you comment on this section?
Rachel: My lovely granddaughter Elsie was my life coach when she was little. I recorded her wise words for future reference and tickled them into poems. So the book ends with some of her tips. You could use them, Paula: then you would know how to breathe, what to do when zombies come up the toilet, and how to think.
Paula: Thank you! What did you hope for the poetry as you wrote? In terms of the ‘poemness’ and the poems’ reception?
Rachel: Every now and then I let myself slip into something lyrical or mysterious. But the poems are intended to be read aloud by anyone and talked about over coffee (not studied at university) so I guess I wanted most of them to be clear, funny, challenging and sort of comforting. I’ve had great feedback from readers, who always bring so much to the table. An occupational therapist tells me she has been reading my poems to all her client groups. That is absolutely perfect: I couldn’t wish for more.
You are tourists in our land.
We are prisoners of slow.
That said, we’d rather be quick than slow
and we’d rather be slow than dead.
Paula: I love the way you open pronouns wide – to embrace versions of you and welcome in the reader. Do you have no-go areas as a writer?
Rachel: I think in my old age I don’t judge people so much. (Or do I?) When it comes to aging, we’re all doing own best thing. And I have been many different people.
Paula: Do you bring autobiography and fiction together or did you navigate forms of truth?
Rachel: There’s no way I can control the way people read my poems so I might as well use myself as my own lab rat. My confidence is based on the certainty that I’m not a one-off. With How To Be Old I think I express ideas about aging that many others also think or have half-thought. That’s my wee gift to the world.
Paula: Indeed! What words fit you as poet? I think of provocative, personal, poetic fluency.
Rachel: I love hearing that, of course. Actually I mainly write for the joy of it so maybe that comes through?
Paula: Ah, my favourite poetry guide too – I write for love and joy! Do you have doubt tagging along? Is there a particular poem that was hard to write?
Rachel: I have a well of black muck inside me which converts to self-doubt if stirred. I’m human.
We take anecdotes and turn them to the light.
We polish them in private.
They are touchstones. So it goes.
from ‘How older people talk’
Paula: What else do you love to do apart from writing?
Rachel: Dance, sing, draw, read, think, do Pilates, tai ch’i, walk on Mt Victoria, watch Netflix and hang out with my friends and family.
Is teething at the river mouth. Burrowing down. Between the dirt and wild things. Frozen breathing, rain, this place, is smoking from the mountainside. Is setting bush on fire. Is suspended by wire pins. Browning alpine sunshine slunk onto muck. Sky and the sailing moors, all bright descended pictures, falling on the roof. Is passing under cars. Is passerby. Non-belonging. Beating trails where the road hitches and pulls from snow, matted scrubland, country laid in bird formation. Is burnt-out with believing. Festering. Splintered. Usually self-inflicted.
Pippi Jean is seventeen and has yet to decide on a music taste. Her work has appeared in Signals, Starling, Poetry NZ Yearbook, Overcommunicate and Toitoi. Last year she was a finalist in the National Schools Poetry Award.
Vanessa Mei Crofskey reads ‘”Something in the Water” by Brooke Fraser’
This poem was published in the latest issue of Starling (Starling 10).
Vanessa Mei Crofskey is an artist and writer based in Tāmaki Makaurau. They are a staff writer at The Pantograph Punch, have a collection of poems out in AUP New Poets 6, and often write about the water.
‘And I think it is this sense of connection, in all Kate’s poems, which sent me scrambling for a word like spiritual. Because what I feel when I read Kate’s work is that the great mysteries of the world, the omnipresent magnificence, the unexplainable and the truly awesome, rest in being human among humans. Take your ley lines and chakras and give me the oesophagus and the eyeball, the memory of a dusty school hall, that night, that party, remember the small blasts of happiness, our bloody painful hearts.’
Maria McMillan, launch speech for Kate Camp’s How to Be Happy Though Human
Poet, essayist and literary commentator, Kate Camp has published six previous poetry collections. Her debut collection, Unfamiliar Legends of the Stars, won the NZSA Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poetry at the 1999 Montana NZ Book Awards. Her fourth, The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls, won the 2011 NZ Post Book Awards Best Book of Poetry. Her poems have appeared in magazines and journals in New Zealand and internationally. For a number of years she has discussed classic literature – Kate’s Klassics – on with Kim Hill’s Saturday spot on Radio NZ.
To mark Victoria University Press’s publication of Kate’s How to Be Happy Though Human, Kate answered a few questions for Poetry Shelf.
So many things can go wrong
inside a human life, it’s almost comical.
You find yourself in a house,
in a night, with everyone you love
breathing in and out somewhere
and if you thought about it properly
you’d just throw up in terror.
from ‘Panic button’
Paula: Have you always been an avid reader and writer?
Kate: Family legend is that I came home from my first day of school and told my mother I could read. She said, oh ok read this. I replied, well I don’t know any words yet.
I didn’t learn to read particularly early, but once I did I quickly became obsessive about it, all the usual reading under the covers, walking down the street with a book on my way to school, re-reading books over and over again.
Paula: Can you name a few poets that have caught your attention across the decades?
Kate: Lauris Edmond is a key one for me among New Zealand poets. I’m reading Fleur Adcock’s selected poems at the moment and remembering what an important influence she was for me early on. And Jenny Bornholdt, her work and mine are so different, and yet I always feel such an affinity with her poems.
In more recent years / decades I’ve got into a lot of poetry in translation. Czesław Miłosz is one I come back to again and again, and Wisława Szymborska. Like Bornholdt, Mary Oliver is a poet I feel is very different from me, but I love her.
Paula: You acknowledge your writing group. How important is it to be part of this as a poet?
Kate: My whole career I’ve had a writing group. When I first started writing seriously I was on the creative writing course at Victoria in 1995, so I was in a weekly workshop. After that finished, around half the course members formed a group together and we met for years. Then in 2003 I joined my current group and it’s been going that whole time.
They are my first readers, my best readers, my greatest motivators. We follow the “Iowa workshop” style where we read our poem aloud, the others talk about it, and the poet just listens and says nothing. It’s such a brilliant, powerful way to understand how a poem is landing.
A liquorice cable
wires hand to mouth.
raced the dawn home.
Asphalt remains lively
weeks after its laying.
from ‘Unfamiliar Legends of the Stars’
Paula: Your debut collection Unfamiliar Legend of the Stars came out in 1998. Were you writing poetry much before this?
Kate: I’d always written poems in a notebook but never really shown them to anyone or thought I’d do anything with them. I knew about the creative writing course at Victoria, I was a student there studying English and I knew that Emily Perkins, who was the older sister of a school friend, had done the course and become a published author.
I thought, I’ll apply for the course three times, if I don’t get in I’ll just give up on it. I got in the first time I applied and it was really only then that I started writing with any focus or seriousness.
Paula: That first book really caught my attention – it felt fresh and rendered the world alive with possibilities. Can you remember what motivated you as a poet then, what mattered when you shaped a poem?
Kate: I think what motivated me then was a sense that I saw the world in a certain way and I wanted to share that way of seeing with others. And I guess I felt the power of poetry, and I wanted to wield that power myself.
What mattered to me then was to write a poem that was clever, surprising, and made you feel something.
Having said that, when I’m actually writing a poem I try not to think at all. About anything. I find that gets in the way. The Canadian poet Christian Bok said “take care of the sound and the sense will take care of itself.” That’s how I’ve always written, just going with what comes up and trying not to switch my thinking brain on until I’ve finished the draft, and it’s time to edit.
Violin was out the back of my flat when I was nineteen.
I would put the speakers in the garden
and play ‘Be Mine Tonight’ again and again
running inside to rewind the tape.
He’s shocked to find I am middle aged.
I’m not shocked. Inside me are Russian dolls
of the women and girls I’ve been before
each more beautiful and unhappy than the current.
from ‘One train may hide another’
Paula: Your new collection How to Be Happy Though Human (you have a deft hand with titles!) is a gathering of new and selected poems. I like the way you have placed the new poems first and then we move through your books from the debut to the most recent. Often the new poems go at the end. I love this choice! Any comments?
Kate: I read a lot of selected poems and I tend to read them backwards, in chunks, so that I’m reading the poet’s most recent poems first. Otherwise with a poet like Milosz you’re starting in the 1940s and the poems can feel really dated. But if you start with the new ones, by the time you get back there you’re kind of in the zone.
That doesn’t really apply to my selected though as my career hasn’t been that long, at least not by Milosz standards! I just wanted to start with new poems because, you know, new poems are always the ones you love the most. The best poem is the next one.
And I go back to Saturday
we dance with other people
other people’s children,
create community with physics.
Memory is a kind of mourning.
We take each other’s hands
as if they were made for that
and we form a circle.
from ‘How to be happy though human’
Paula: Your new book offers perfect routes through the rewards of your poetry. The physical world is refreshed, relationships between things and people are made visible, there are surprising connections, and always a glorious poetic fluency. Did you encounter any poetry stumbling blocks or epiphanies across the decades?
Kate: There was a fairly big gap between Beauty Sleep and The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls. I was having a crap time in my personal life, and I felt really stuck creatively. I was scared to write about my failures, my despair, my loneliness, my fucked up life. And I was scared to write about “the human condition” like a Milosz or a Mary Oliver, I felt – who am I to write about the meaning of life? On both fronts my ego and my vulnerability was in the way.
But then I realised, the artists I most admired were writing poems and songs of utter devastation and heartbreak and disaster. And I didn’t think they were losers, I thought they were magnificent.
And I realised that I was never going to be anything other than a middle class New Zealand woman who grew up on Timbacryl adverts and 70s singer songwriters, and that I had just as much right as the next poet to plumb the depths of the human psyche.
I think that book marked a “fuck it” point for me where I decided just to write the poems that are in me, however depressing, distasteful or megalomaniacal they may be.
I take the last few turns in darkness
steep, short of breath
these legs have been mine all my life.
Hot hands. Small nights within my lungs.
We are fortunate to live in a world.
We are fortunate to live in a world
where some person, some man
is painting railings on the zig zag
and when he finished
he could have raised his eyes
and seen, beyond the black-tree hills
some ragged and fast-moving clouds.
from ‘Walking up the zig zag’
Paula: I just adore the new poems housed under the title ‘How to Be Happy Though Human’. Now and then I post a poem that has really haunted me in a new collection – and this whole section haunts me. The poems stick to me – I think the title is a key. These poems are intimate and revelatory, physical and movement-rich. Again the surprising juxtapositions: hanging out the washing, Watergate, your mother. Scenes become luminous. Family matters. There is a poetic heartbeat. Would you see any changes in the poetry process?
Kate: Almost all of these poems have been written since I came back from the Menton fellowship, where I was writing prose – a collection of memoir essays. I can definitely see the influence of that. These poems are looser, more prosy in style, and in many cases are straightforwardly autobiographical. They’re also long. Pulling together this book made me realise that my poems have got very long lately!
Paula: Do you have doubt tagging along? Is there a particular poem that was hard to write?
Kate: Most poems I try to write either don’t happen at all, or turn out to be not that good and get abandoned. But every poem I write that turns out good, I write in one go, in an hour or so. I will revise it later but usually not a huge amount. That’s just my process, it’s kind of scattershot but when it’s working, it’s easy, so I don’t really find any poem hard to write. I just throw away a lot of attempted poems.
My main doubt is whether I will ever write a good poem again. The first sensation when I write something I like is relief.
Tom Waits records the sound of frying chicken
that’s how he achieves his pops and crackles
Our old unit had a crooked arm,
it was a trunk of wood with woven speakers.
As I child I worried about forgetting:
the hexagonal handle, a creamy honey cell,
that flaw in the lino resembling Donald Duck
while the others of its kind looked like grey bells.
sometimes life would seem too big, even then
an empty Sunday when you drifted as a ghost.
I saw Bonnie and Clyde on such a day,
as I recall, in black and white
from ‘Snow White’s coffin’
Paula: What poem really works or matters to you?
Kate: The poem “Snow White’s Coffin” is an important poem for me. It covers a lot of abiding interests for me – found facts, childhood memories, what makes life meaningful when you’re an atheist. It draws on something I thought on a lot when I was living in Berlin, the tension between intellect as the most human thing of all and the intellect as dehumanising. There’s also a tone of anger and despair in it which is quite primal – the word “howling” is in it, which is not a word anyone puts in a poem lightly.
In my last few books, the title poem is a poem that is really important to me – one that functions as a kind of tuning fork for the whole collection.
Paula: Do you have any tips for emerging poets?
Kate: Read poetry by other people. If you don’t like reading poetry, you’re not a poet, you’re just a bit of a dick.
Paula: What else do you love to do apart from writing?
Kate: Conversations and laughing are my favourite things. I love to sing with my choir. I love to watch Netflix. I love to dance. I love to drink to excess, rarely but with gusto. I love doing escape rooms with my nephew. I love looking out the window while drinking tea and listing to podcasts about American politics.
By the end of the decade the song is said to have lost most of its charm. This did not diminish the vogue for delicate compositions, likened to albums of fragrant leaves or to finger bowls in which reveries drifted among the reflections.
A preference for ornament over direction led to a confusion of jewellery boxes. The greatest treasures mingled with trinkets of lesser value, or were lost against the velvet lining.
The expressed aim of the cantilena was to drown the world in night.
The enigmatic nature of beauty is said to have inspired his phrasing of the portamento. At its most lucid moments a slight staccato, almost a stammer, conveyed the vague sensation of a serenade.
The belief that the action of the wrist was a form of respiration gave rise to experiments with breathlessness. Audiences likened the experience to diving into a deep lake, or being smothered in song.
Each charmed moment coaxed a new loop of melody from the shadows. Also her hair, which he compared to a curtain made of silk and embroidered with tiny stars.
Although the modulations were described as ‘tormenting’, this did not diminish the rapture that greeted the appearance of the sub-clause.
She compared the delicate figurations in the left hand to an attempt to conceive of a vaporous machine. Also a pattering of raindrops, or the sound of a bird tapping its beak against a shell.
By wandering into less dominant keys, he hoped to reveal a gender that slipped through minor modulations like water, and had no name.
Likened to a failure of the symbolic code due to an exhaustion of available resources. For example, the disappearance of the object, or the composer burying himself in a large white handkerchief.
Alison Glenny’s Antarctic-themed collection of prose poems and fragments, The Farewell Tourist, was published by Otago University Press in 2018. She lives on the Kāpiti Coast.