Category Archives: NZ poetry

Poetry Shelf conversations: Helen Rickerby

How to live through this

We will make sure we get a good night’s sleep. We will eat a decent breakfast, probably involving eggs and bacon. We will make sure we drink enough water. We will go for a walk, preferably in the sunshine. We will gently inhale lungsful of air. We will try to not gulp in the lungsful of air. We will go to the sea. We will watch the waves. We will phone our mothers. We will phone our fathers. We will phone our friends. We will sit on the couch with our friends. We will hold hands with our friends while sitting on the couch. We will cry on the couch with our friends. We will watch movies without tension – comedies or concert movies – on the couch with our friends while holding hands and crying. We will think about running away and hiding. We will think about fighting, both metaphorically and actually. We will consider bricks. We will buy a sturdy padlock. We will lock the gate with the sturdy padlock, even though the gate isn’t really high enough. We will lock our doors. We will screen our calls. We will unlist our phone numbers. We will wait. We will make appointments with our doctors. We will make sure to eat our vegetables. We will read comforting books before bedtime. We will make sure our sheets are clean. We will make sure our room is aired. We will make plans. We will talk around it and talk through it and talk it out. We will try to be grateful. We will be grateful. We will make sure we get a good night’s sleep.

Helen Rickerby, from How to Live

I am stuck at home, not doing author trips, not catching up with friends in person, never hanging out in cafes, so I’ve been doing email conversations with poets whose work I have loved. A couple have sublime new books out, but with others it was an excuse to revisit writing I have carried with me.

Last up in this series is Helen Rickerby. Helen is a writer, editor and publisher. She has published a number of poetry collections, including Cinema (Mākaro Press, 2014) and How to Live, which won the 2020 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards – Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry (Auckland University Press, 2019). Helen was co-managing editor of the literary journal JAAM from 2005–2015 and single-handedly runs Seraph Press, the boutique poetry press.

I have been a fan of Helen’s poetry for a long time, but she has also published a number of my own collections (The Baker’s Thumbprint 2013, New York Pocket Book 2016 and The Track 2019). I have loved working on each book with her.

Seraph Press’s list of publications include some of my favourite poets in Aotearoa: Anna Jackson, Bernadette Hall, Nina Mingya Powles, Anahera Gildea, Vana Manasiadis, Helen Llendorf, Maria McMillan, Johanna Aitchison, Vivienne Plumb – plus the terrific anthology, Tātai Whetū: Seven Māori Poets in Translation (2018).

It has been such a pleasure to touch base with books and poetry in email conversations..

Paula: In these tilted and jagged times diversions are so important. For me, reading and secret writing projects are essential. So many sublime books are being published in Aotearoa and around the world at the moment, of all genres. What has helped you? Any books that have lifted or anchored or transported you? I can so identify with your words in Chris Tse’s new Auckland University Press book, Super Model Minority (‘these poems cut my heart before warming it’).

Helen: Yes, I’m also sticking pretty close to home just now, and while I am still seeing my friends, mostly in our own homes, I am also needing to find my joys near at hand. Over the last week while I’ve been finding a lot of comfort and joy, and also a bit of challenge, in creative non-fiction – particularly in books that could loosely be described as memoir, but which are much more. There’s something about the mixture of narrative, life, ideas and poetic writing (if not actual poetry) that’s my thing right now. Recent highlights include Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, Daniel Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic, Patricia Grace’s From the Centre and especially Deborah Levy’s autobiographical trilogy.

During last year’s lockdown a friend left a care package of books in my letterbox. One of the books was Real Estate, the third (red) volume in Deborah Levy’s trilogy. It’s kind of about her making a new life for herself after her daughters leave home, but it’s so much more than a memoir, as are the other two books in the trilogy. It’s poetic and philosophical and, collage-like, full of quotes from other works of literature that she’s having conversations with – I felt an affinity, it felt allied with what I’ve been doing in poetry in recent years. I read my way backwards through the trilogy, borrowing the second (yellow) volume, The Cost of Living, from a friend who lives downstairs and, as soon as we got to Level 3, buying the first (blue) book, Things I Don’t Want to Know, from the lovely Volume bookshop in Nelson (because no Wellington bookshops had it and I knew Volume could get it to me quickly, and I needed it immediately). And then when I finished that, I started reading them all again, forwards this time. I found them so calming, like the eye of a storm. I was finding everything a bit hard at the time, mainly in my head, and I would just take a little bit of time with these books and I could feel myself calming down. Even though her experiences were very different to mine, I loved the way in these books she kind of rises up above her life and looks down on it, and writes about it, from a calm height. It made me feel like I could do the same.

I confess to being someone who is looking for quite a lot of comfort in life and literature, but I also know that growth doesn’t usually come from comfort, and a bit of discomfort is really important. Super Model Minority is a fabulous book, and one that did at times make me feel uncomfortable. Some of the things he’s writing about are uncomfortable and even painful, and there’s definitely anger. But the poems make you think, and make you see and appreciate, and in the midst of it all there’s humour and hope and beauty. I’m always keen on some humour and hope and beauty.

Paula: Ah – now I am dead keen to read the Levy trilogy. And yes! That’s exactly what Chris’s collection does. And you do come away with the word hope.

I want to talk about how I love your poetry, but first, which poets would you choose to have conversations with (let’s say dead or alive, home or abroad). Poets who have affected your travels and engagements as a writer and a reader.

Helen: Hmmm, that’s a tricky question. I have a bit of a fear of meeting my heroes, in case it’s terribly disappointing, or they don’t like me (or I don’t like them), or we had a mediocre conversation. So much pressure! Also, quite a few of my heroes are women I don’t think I would get along with very well: Katherine Mansfield, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, etc… I also feel that if I really love someone’s work, I don’t necessarily want to talk to them about it, I wouldn’t want to break the magic. So I would be very nervous to talk to Anne Carson, for example, even though her work has been very important and inspiring to me in showing the breadth of what poetry can do. I was reminded today of the wonderful book-length poem Memorial by Alice Oswald today, and I would be interested in talking to her about that. While it was Heather Cristle’s The Crying Book, which is not strictly speaking poetry, that really got me, she is a poet I might risk talking to. I have had great conversations about poetry with poets who are my actual friends, perhaps particularly with Anna Jackson, who I’ve run a few conferences with, though we talk about other things too. From the past, Sappho would be very interesting to converse with, though we’d need to use some kind of translator. I would be intrigued to meet Byron, but it might not be poetry we’d talk about.

Paula: Ha! I never thought of that. Yes, I feel nervous when I review a book as that feels like a conversation that could go terribly wrong on my part. I want to navigate the paths, corridors, alcoves, wide open windows of a book and make discoveries. No interest in listing all the things a poetry collection doesn’t do.

What matters to you when you write a poem? What do you want your poem to do or be or feel or activate (I keep coming up with more and more verbs)?

Helen: I probably have as many answers to that question as poems I’ve written  possibly more! And what matters to me changes over time, and maybe changes back. But some things that come to mind are to capture something   a thought, a feeling, an experience, the thinking through of an idea, an image, a memory. I want to communicate, but not too clearly or simply, I want to create layers and textures and possibly contradictions. I want the reader to get something out of my poem, but I don’t want them to necessarily be able to decode the whole poem. I don’t want to be able to decode the whole poem. I want the sound and language to feel right for the poem, and I want the words to be beautiful, even if only ugly beautiful. I want it to feel fresh to me and/or the reader, but I want it to feel true to them in some way, which is not the same thing as factual. I want the poem to be more than the sum of its parts, and I want the poem to be a bit bigger than me, maybe wiser?  I want to open some doors or windows in my own head, and the heads of at least some of my readers. I want to feel like the poem doesn’t have too much, or too little – I have a bit of a thing for a long, spacious poem, when appropriate. I want to feel that it’s a bit worthwhile, in some or other way. I don’t want to reread it and think ‘Yeah, and so?’ I want to have learned something, through writing the poem, even if only about myself. I’m not sure I can do all of these things at once!

from ‘How to Live’, in How to Live

Paula: How to Live (Auckland University Press, 2019) is one of my all time favourite poetry collections. It is a book I am taking to hospital with me. I so loved reviewing it on Poetry Shelf. Like many contemporary poets you are cracking open poetic forms – widening what a poem can do – as though taking a cue from art and its ability both to make art from anything and in any way imaginable. So richly layered. In fact everything you say above!

‘How to live’ is a question open to interpretation as it ripples through the poems; and it makes poetry a significant part of the myriad answers. I haven’t read a book quite like this and I love that. The writing is lucid, uplifting, provocative, revealing, acidic, groundbreaking. The subject matter offers breadth and depth, illuminations, little anchors, liberations, shadows. I am all the better for having read this book. I just love it. (Poetry Shelf)

If windows and doors open in your head as you write a poem they open in mine as I read the collection. Particularly in view of the presence of women. What did you discover writing this book?

Helen: Aww, thank you Paula! I learned a lot while writing this book, though I finished it more than three years ago, and so have forgotten a lot! It was definitely a book of thinking through –  and feeling through – and making connections. So there’s a lot of me in there, and my own thoughts and experiences and attempts at figuring things out, but there’s also a lot of research. I learned quite a bit about philosophy and about philosophers, and that got me thinking about why I didn’t really know of many, if any, women philosophers. Turns out the main reason is the same reason we don’t know about a lot of women from the past: because they’ve been erased and forgotten. I am always quite delighted to discover women from the past who have done cool things – there are lots of them. It was also while writing this book that I started thinking about the way my poetry, and the work of other poets that I’d been noticing, was crossing over with essay, and I got quite excited about that. I’m really interested in poetry that explores and thinks through ideas – that journey – I’m probably less interested in the destination. I love the way poetry can leap over gaps and fragments, happily hold contradictions and layers and non-binaries. Both/And.

Palimpsest is a word I have to look up every time
A palimpsest is a parchment from which the words have been scraped off so it could be used again
but the old words still show through

Earth / late summer

This is the place of intersection your life
my life
my time
and the little I know about yours the little I know about mine
the little I know

from ‘Ban Zhao’

Paula: I so love the title and the poem it references. I am wondering if poetry so often responds to this question, overtly or opaquely. It made me want to write my own version, borrowing your title. Did anything in particular prompt the poem?

Helen: It’s a question I think we all need to keep asking ourselves all the time, for our whole lives. There’s no one answer, and the answer for each of us keeps changing, but in order to be a good person in society and a happy person in our own lives, I think we need to think about this, and also to act. Everyone could write a book of this title, and I would love to read yours! Multiple books probably – I have continued developing my ideas about how to live since I finished writing this book. They now involve more fun and dancing.

My original idea for this book was quite different, but with the same title. About a decade ago Sean, my husband, was diagnosed with cancer. It turned out to be of a very treatable kind, which was very fortunate, but the whole dealing with the medical system, let alone mortality, was a bit of a thing. I was also becoming increasingly aware that I was no longer a youth, and of the finiteness of time, and wanting to make the most of that time. During all of this, especially during Sean’s treatment and recovery, I was writing poems about this experience and exploring the idea of living as in not dying, and living as in really living. These poems weren’t entirely successful, but they had something in them, and I ended up cutting them up and using them as the basis of the long title poem, which explores these same ideas, as well considering ideas about what poetry is, and, you know, everything!

Paula: Is there a poem (or two) which has fallen into charismatic place for you? Two longer poems are particularly magnetic: ‘Notes on the unsilent woman’ and ‘George Eliot: a life’. Both function as fascination assemblages. They allow the reader to absorb lyrical phrases, humour, biography, autobiography, insistent questions. Biography is enlivened by such an approach, as is poetry. Ah, really the whole collection, magnetic, eclectic, electrifying.

Helen: I’m not quite sure what you mean by this question. Of my own work? This might not be what you mean, but I had a similar experience with both the first poem in the book ‘Notes on the unsilent woman’ (which was the last poem I wrote for the book) and the last poem in the book ‘How to live’, where I had this idea of what I wanted to do in the poem, and I had all these fragments, but I didn’t know how to make the poem I wanted it to be. But with each, while feeling like I would NEVER get there, I had a kind of epiphany about the form, which gave me the tone, which made everything else fall into place. I have found this encouraging since – that you can feel completely hopeless, but if you keep on going you might be quite close to creating the thing you want to. I think this recent tweet by Heather Cristle evokes this beautifully: ‘I love it when form writes the book for you. It is like you are trying to screw something together and form is watching you impatiently until it says ‘just give it to me’ and you do and form puts everything together so fast while you lie down admiring its movement and shape.’

from ‘Notes on the unsilent woman‘ Hipparchia of Maroneia c. 350–c. 280 BC

Paula: I was over the moon when it won the 2020 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards – Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry. Did the judges recognise something in the book you hadn’t seen? I love it when that happens – when you look through the open windows of a poem and things surprise you. And how was it winning the award?

Helen: It was all a bit of a blur! Google photos tells me it was two years ago this week. It was also at the end of the first lockdown – quite a nice way to end it. I was in complete shock – I was pretty certain that Anne Kennedy would win, and when they said my name there was quite a lot of screaming (and a little bit of swearing) at my house. Book awards are weird things. I’m fully aware that they’re never an objective ranking, which isn’t even possible, but are just what those three judges managed to agree on at that time, but it was still very lovely that it was my book they agreed on. I don’t think there was anything the judges said about my book that surprised me, but I appreciated that they got what I was exploring. And winning meant that more people sought out my book, which was also lovely.

Paula: I find myself drawn to poems of all lengths – for a while I favoured the long poem as I could carry it in my pocket and keep adding to it as I mothered and worked and cooked. Now I quite like small poems, sweet mouthfuls that are verging on stream of consciousness. What do you like about the long poem?

Helen: There is something nice about a little gem of a poem, but I do love a good long poem the most. I love the way it has space to breathe and move and meander and be a bit messy. To look at things from a bunch of angles and maybe not favour any of them. I have come to accept that I’m a digressive conversationalist, perhaps a digressive person in pretty much everything except my day job (I’m an editor/technical writer, which is all about plain-language, clear structure, unambiguity – basically the opposite of poetry), and I really enjoy interesting digression in what I’m reading, and what I’m writing. Though, it won’t be entirely a digression, because it will almost certainly connect to everything else in some kind of way. A long poem has enough time to set up resonances within itself, it can tell stories rather than just capture moments. Not that I don’t love a great poem that just captures a moment! And because I’ve been interested in the essay poem, longer poems have more space for the essaying, the thinking through, the exploration. And I guess they have the space to be about several things at once, and about the connections between those things. Probably I should give some examples, but I’m immediately struck by everything I would miss out! Possibly my all-time favourite long poem, and all-time favourite poem, is ‘The Glass Essay’ by Anne Carson, which isn’t quite book length (it comes in at 45 pages), but which manages to be about the end of a relationship, Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights, a visit to the narrator’s mother, and the decline of a father with dementia, and some other stuff, and is all beautifully written.

Paula: I am delighted to see so many boutique presses springing up – bringing us such a wider range of voices. You have published a number of my poetry collections though Seraph Press, and it has been a special relationship. I have loved the look of each book, am grateful for your editing. The collections are all so different. I love that! And I discovered Nina Mingya Powles through you! How does publishing the work of poetry impact on your own writing? You put so much love in to the books you published. What matters to you when you make the book of someone else?  [do you think publishing is something you are moving away from now to give more time to your own work?] 

Helen: I do love making books, both as collections of words and ideas, and also as physical objects. And I have loved working with different writers to get their words out into the world. Some of them, like you, were fully formed poets when I started working with you, while others – such as Nina, who was only 21 when I published her first chapbook containing some of the very first poems she’d written – were just beginning and I’ve got to see them bloom in close quarters. I have made some great connections and am really proud of making books that I think are beautiful and worthwhile. I try to work with each author so we’re both happy with what we’re putting out, and happy with how it looks. Because it’s something that I do in my own time and almost entirely with my own money, I have had to basically be in love with the books to make it worthwhile. It has taken a bit of a toll on my own writing sometimes, because when I’m working on someone else’s book, that has obligations and deadlines, whereas my own writing doesn’t and gets pushed back. Especially as I’m not an especially great multi-tasker, am usually also working a day job or two, and am by nature quite lazy and so my inclination is generally to just muck around instead. As much as I love publishing, or rather some aspects of publishing (because I do pretty much everything, there are definitely things I’m less interested in and less skilled at – like marketing, for example), after getting a bit burned out I am having a hiatus on the publishing front, and focusing on my own writing, and my own life, for a while. I’m sure I haven’t published my last book though!

Meanwhile, I’m really excited to see the new publishers coming through, doing things their own way, getting important work out there, and increasingly being noticed by mainstream awards. This not at all an exhaustive list, but I’m thinking right now of Anahera Press, Compound Press, We Are Babies and new kid on the block Taraheke | Bushlawyer. Exciting times!

Paula: Indeed – so exciting to see the new presses supporting terrific new voices. I feel like we have had a very long lunch, with the most delicious food and roving conversation. It means a lot, to be part of wide stretching poetry communities.

Helen reads ‘How to Live Through This’

Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: Helen Rickerby’s ‘Mr Anderson, you heartbreaker you’

Poem ‘How to die’ at the Spin Off

Seraph Press

Auckland University Press page

Mākaro Press page

Poetry Shelf review: Robert Sullivan’s Tūnui | Comet

Tūnui | Comet, Robert Sullivan, Auckland University Press, 2022

6.

I’d written ‘Decolonisation Wiki Entries’
because it reminded me of buses in Honolulu

at the airport and Waikiki. The open-air buses
aren’t like decolonisation though. Decolonisation

is not worrying about cultural identity,
and not translating and not having to explain

things like a family and hapū do such as wānanga
because the wānanga is the explanation

or learning mōteatea by our ancestors,
or prophecies of our spiritual tūpuna, or sadness

at the fighting on the other side. These
decolonisations make up life.

 

from ‘Te Tāhuhu Nui’

Robert Sullivan belongs to the iwi Ngāpuhi Nui Tonu and Kāi Tahu. His debut collection, Star Waka (Auckland University Press, 1999), marked the arrival of a significant poet, and has been numerously reprinted. Robert has published a number of collections since, and with Reina Whaitiri edited Puna wai Kōrero, an anthology of Māori poetry, and with Reina and Albert Wendt, Whetu Moana and Mauri Ola, anthologies of Polynesian poetry in English.

Robert’s new collection, Tūnui | Comet, stands on the shoulders (hearts, lungs, mind) of everything he has written and edited to date. Voice has carried his poetry, his family, his whakapapa. Voice is the weave that remembers the touchstones of his previous collections: Tāmaki Makaura, the Far North, colonisation, Cook, family. I have never forgotten his premise that voice carries us. And voices carries this collection, all that it holds close, all that it challenges. It is there in ‘Kawe Reo / Voices Carry’:

Voice carries us from the foot of Rangipuke / Sky Hill / Albert Park
to the Wai Horotiu stream chuckling down Queen Street carrying
a hii-haa-hii story—from prams and seats with names and rhymes,
words from books and kitchen tables.

In writing poetry, Robert is speaking to for with from. He is conversing and he is voyaging, and his writing is the river flowing, the currency of water and air vital. Each poem sits in generous space on the page, each poem given ample room in which to breathe, in an open font, allowing space for the reader to pause and reflect.

The collection weaves in past, present, and future – who he is, was and will be – mythologies, histories. There is the drive to write in te reo Māori, to nourish the language’s roots, to write poems without English translations, to insist upon a need to speak and grow with his own language.

Robert acknowledges he writes within a community of poets who have shaped him. He carries a history of reading, of considering the work of others, particularly Māori and Pasifika poets. There’s a homage to Alistair Te Ariki Campbell. An imagined barbecue with Hone Tuwhare. A reminder the notDeclaration of Independence was actually yes, an assertion of mana by the rangatira (for Moana Jackson). There’s walking on Moeraki sand to remember Keri Hulme’s place names.

Voicing: colonisation decolonisation. The poem ‘Decolonisation Wiki Entries’ reminded me of the caution I bring to facts and figures, to encyclopaedic entries, to the way statistics can be hijacked, research findings manipulated. I am reminded of the hidden narratives, the misrepresented experiences, the sidelined voices.

2. Ruapekapeka

I have visited once and seen a hilly field
from memory—hard to take the scene in
without props. There was a church service
and worshippers fled out beyond. Never
swarmed the bunkers and trenches.
Flicked between ancestor Wynyard
and out neighbouring great chief Kawiti.
I do not know the buried knives. We gathered
in this hill of ash, dead bees and pollen.
We left carvings in the earth and flowers there.

 

from ‘Decolonisation Wiki Entries’

Tūnui | Comet is poetry of acknowledgement. It is poetry of challenge. And it is profoundly moving. In ‘A.O.U’, the poem sings a mihi for Ihumātao. In ‘Feather’s’, the speaker is wearing blood and mud splattered trousers at Parihaka (‘we’re a little band of brothers /marching hundreds strong’) and the feather is in flight:

Whiteness
of the mountain
the ploughs
and feathers
the children’s
singing
witness

I say challenge, do I mean voice? Voicing different versions. Wanting to wrap Old Government House in Treaty pages and lavalavas and knock on the door and ‘say open sesame’. Or stepping back into the sailing boots of Captain James Cook and twisting the eyeglass to imagine afresh the what if.

Or what if I stayed in Aotearoa
and shared our science,
our medical knowledge,
our carpentry and animal husbandry,
our love of books
and conservation values?
What if we had gained the friendship,
love and trust of the Natives,
and returned that equally
at the time, not needing
to constantly gaslight
and to make amends?

 

from ‘Cooking with Gas’

Reading Robert’s intricate, sweetly crafted poetry affects me on so many levels. There is aroha in the pen’s ink, there is fortitude and insight, there is history and there is future. There is uplift, and the need to refresh the eyeglass, the mouthpiece. Read the excellent reviews of Anton Blank and David Eggleton (links below); they celebrate the arrival of a new book by a significant poet in multiple ways, and how it inspires on so many levels. My head is all over the show now, and reviews are getting harder and harder to write, but I hold this book out to you. It is a beacon of light on the horizon, and I am grateful for its presence.

Auckland University Press page
Anton Blank review at ANZL
David Eggleton review at Kete Books

Poetry Shelf review: Cadence Chung’s Anomalia

anomalia, Cadence Chung, We Are Babies Press, 2022

scrapes and yellow bruises on her knees, she
is learning the terrain, learning that some things
cut and some things stain, she is learning
that the sky above is full of balls of light
that you can’t touch or feel or taste
she is getting used to the injustice of it all.

 

from ‘specimen ‘332: the astronomer’

anomalia is Cadence Chung’s debut collection, and was written during her final year of secondary school in Wellington. She has been writing since she was young, and began publishing in her teens. Cadence has made two demo albums and her musical Blind Faith was staged at her secondary school in 2021. She hit the poetry headlines with ‘Shadows / shades’, a poem she wrote in response to NZQA using a poem by white supremacist and murderer Lionel Terry in a Level 2 History exam.

The collection’s opening poem, ‘abstract’, underlines how anomalia heightens a sense of the imprecise, the irregular. Stare at a word long enough, say it often enough, and it slips into the unfamiliar, the unpredictable, the unsteady. The word ‘abstract’ may reference a summary that acts as prelude or doorway. It may be ideas that stand as theoretical window. Or the removal that signals a clearance from expected settings. The word/idea/flashpoint bounces me back to the title of the book, and I am musing on how a word wobbles on the line, how this thought or that gesture, this appearance or that choice, deviates from expectation.

Poetry is a perfect place to contest everyday anomalies. The word may wobble on the line, but the word on the line can emit light, can resist subjugation. And Cadence’s poetry demonstrates this.

Poetry is a perfect place to celebrate the present tense, to make use of the gerund, the present participle, in order to keep moving: to keep searching, collecting, surrendering, dissecting, loving, pretending, existing, recurring.

Cadence’s collection is a curious curiosity cabinet with its recurring motifs and themes: cicada, vivisect, blood, science, anxiety, specimens, antique shops, milk(y), love. But it is more than that. It is more than physicality. Cadence has probed into the tender flesh of being human, with scalpel and penetrating lens, and laid the seeping wounds and insights into the clearing that is poem.

There is the insistent and constant need to classify, sort, catalogue or vivisect the specimen. The specimen may be a gathered object, a body’s organ, but I also see it as self. The poet is driven to sort, classify, catalogue, vivisect self. It is the beating heart, the fragile state. It is elusive and unknowable. Self is placed in display cabinet. Self becomes cabinet. Self becomes poem. And if the specimen is dismembered, split open, if the self is vivisected, this is poetry of pain, hurt, danger, vulnerability.

The floating and ambiguous ‘me’ is more than body parts. It is astonishing to peer into the glass cabinet of the poem and hit the sharp edge of anomaly. Where the most important things (I love you) are incommunicable. Where sorrow is easily categorised but matches no category. Where uncertainty is a certainty. Where life is sonnets and getting tender about mushrooms, a flirting moon. And life is ‘patching together / every scrap and semblance i know of’. Also from the poem ‘that’s why they call me missus fahrenheit’: ‘Because everything’s too bitter / to not suck on the sweet bits’.

Oh and scientist poet, poet scientist, becomes dissident. They long to subvert the results, the order – and gore becomes glitter cluster. From ‘anatomy’: ‘keep trying to understand the strange strange anatomy / of existence’.

The collection has hooked onto my skin, down my breathing passages. The poetry is provisional anchor. Searchlight. Distress signal. Gritty field. Self reflection.

anomalia is a breathtaking debut.

like i have admired
everything in my life
with recklessness
and without hesitation

how could i not?
when there are
drawers full of herbs
pictures of distant towns

ripped waistcoats
long-gone family crests
love letters to dispense
from heart-covered machines

for a penny each
how could i not?
when i am so used
to being collected

like dust between pages
like sludge in a gutter
like eyeliner on skin
left to sit

how could i not?
when i am lonely so
everything reminds me
of love

 

from ‘tuesday afternoon, my beloved’

We Are Babies page

Rebecca Hawkes launch speech

We Are Babies pick ‘anatomy’ on Poetry Shelf

Poetry Shelf review: Oscar Upperton’s The Surgeon’s Brain

The Surgeon’s Brain, Oscar Upperton, Te Herenga Waka University Press, 202B

A life needs rinsing out, once in awhile.

from ‘Code name’

Oscar Upperton has followed New Transgender Blockbusters, his terrific debut poetry collection, with a book that is equally sublime.

The Surgeon’s Brain is the story of Dr James Barry, a biography say, that is in debt to research, imagining, poetry, more imagining. According to the collection’s blurb, Dr Barry was “a pistol toting dueller, an irascible grudge holder, a vegetarian, an obsessive cleaner – and a brilliant military surgeon who served throughout the British empire, travelled the world with a small menagerie of animals, and advocated for public health reform. Barry was also a transgender man living in the Victorian era when ‘transgender’ was unknown in Western thought.”

Oscar’s new book is essential reading. Marvellous, startling, heart-jolting reading. Poetry, in my view, is a perfect process in which to take risks, to step into the shoes of another, to challenge historical misconceptions and regulations, to enable words to sing. The Surgeon’s Brain does all this and more. It strikes a mark, and then another, and lights up on so many levels. The story is divided into three sections: ‘Dura Mater | Tough Mother’, ‘Arachnoid Mother | Spider Mother’, ‘Pia Mater | Tender Mother’. A baby born, a life lived, a life goes missing. At one point, the doctor admits:

I am not a writer. I am a soldier. I am a surgeon.

Sometimes I write reports. I write in straight lines and use straight
language. I would never dream of writing a poem.

from ‘Well’

And here is the doctor speaking from the straight lines of a poem. He is infused in the ink of the excavating poet. And the straight lines of poetry are judder bars, potholes, side roads, scenic views, the unforeseen, the exhilarating downhill cycle ride. And if the doctor only ever wrote reports, would never dream of writing poems, the young girl dreamed of busting apart the straight lines of a girl’s future. She sews herself into another gender. She makes the physical garment and codpiece that renders her man, and he steps into a different set of expectations and outcomes. He studies, passes exams and practices as a surgeon. Dr Barry, for example, is the first surgeon to perform a caesarean where both mother and baby survive.

The rules are different now. I travel unchaperoned;
I enter public houses; I attend a university.
Once I hid my hair and people would talk to me differently,
but now they listen differently too. Before they didn’t listen
but now their ears are opened. I am worth teaching now.
I can be of use beyond myself. There is no question
of my right to board a ship, or take a room.
It is as though I were a ghost and I have now been give form.

from ‘The rules’

It is joy reading this as story, moving through beginnings middles and endings, but it is not pure delight. It is discomfort, corrugated musings, because the world has not yet dismantled the structures and behaviours that denigrate and deny women. That perpetrate blind ignorance of all genders as opposed to equity and openness. I carry a degree of mourning as I read, thinking of heart-numbing dichotomies: men women slave master rich poor literate illiterate hungry full. Yes Victorian times, yes 21st century.

It is joy reading The Surgeon’s Brain as poetry, moving through the lilt and economy of voice. And yes, it is voice, think speaking voice: confessing, exploring, refining. It is the musicality of conversation that is poetry. It is images and it is wisdoms. Fluidity and fluencies. Tenderness. It is the arrival along the plainness of line that forms another stitching of self. The poem as self-dress. Precious buttons and warm threads. Lines stand out and it is like you are gut-winded. Here I am falling in to a hole in the world, like we might fall into a hole in the poem, into a life. And I am imagining the floor of the poem. And it is this:

Mamma fell ill; an ill wind blasted; a will drawn up; the trapdoor
    swung down:
a rope ladder descending into darkness;
a hole in the floor of the world—

from ‘The idea’

So much to say about The Surgeon’s Brain. I wish we were in a cafe, having invented a poetry bookclub so we could share espresso and our favourite lines. Quoting this bit, and warm musing on that bit. I want to share how the doctor builds a room in his head with a bookshelf and chair, dust in the air and London light. We could talk hesitantly about the rooms we build in our own heads, for whatever reasons, that help keep us safe and on track, strengthened.

I want to tell you as you sip your coffee about a particular poem (‘Journey to the university’) that has a shadow version in the footnotes, little refinements, because we cannot take a face or an action or a statement for granted. Because behind this poem is another shadow poem, and behind that another.

Or the forest. I am thinking of the power of metaphor to get us along the straight line. Through the living of the life, the reading of the poem. How this life and this book is effervescent with metaphor.

Some things I keep secret even from myself.
I’ve never seen a forest but sometimes I walk in one
in my dreams, great black trees with twisted branches
and underfoot wet earth and spiders’ nests.
This is a forest that covers the world,

and in it live three things: the red foxes that dislike rain,
the innumerable silver spiders, and me, numerable
I think, but when I turn to regard the path behind me
I am there. Each step of me is frozen in place,
curls of earth sticking to the soles of my feet.

Some things I keep secret even from myself.
I didn’t want done to me the things that were done to me.
But the sun rises and you say, well.
Only you don’t say it. You never say it

from ‘Into the forest’

But most of all I want to share the well. The well that ends ‘Well’, the straight line poem I have already mentioned (aside from the appearance/echo in ‘Into the forest’ above). I will leave you with the well, leave this metaphor for you to become entangled in, and say as an opener, how Oscar’s quiet and extraordinary poetry collection taps into another life, and how in doing so, it also taps into your life, my life. You and me and poetry are in this upheavalled world together. And know that as you read thorough marvel and wonder, mourning and wound, poetry is the lamp we can hold high and share.

I am a well. Or there is a well in my mind, clean stones, broad
wooden bucket, rope. The water at the bottom of this well is so
clear and cold it makes men drunk. It is black, because it takes the
darkness with it when it is pulled from the well.

I would like to intoxicate. I would like to be a well-frequented well.

from ‘Well’

Oscar Upperton’s first poetry collection was New Transgender Blockbusters (VUP, 2020). In 2019 he was awarded the Creative New Zealand Louis Johnson New Writer’s Bursary. His work has been featured in Sport, The Spinoff, Metro and Best New Zealand Poems.

Te Herenga Waka University Press page

Conversation with Lynn Freeman, Standing Room Only, RNZ National

David Kert review Kete Books

‘Code name’ The Friday Poem at The Spin Off

‘The surgeon’s brain’ Poetry Shelf

Poetry Shelf conversations: Bernadette Hall

Like thumbprints, the moulding of the mountains
made by light and shade, the long spine
like folded paper, the crane of peace perhaps
but we are a long long way from that.

from ‘Tears and Wounds’ in The Lustre Jug (VUP, 2007)

Some poets you carry with you. Every new book is a significant arrival. The poetry of Bernadette Hall has been like that for me. Her writing touches so many levels, from heart to ear to eye to cheek. Her writing relishes warmth, connection, observation, experience. Living. Reading. Questioning. Ideas. As I travelled through Bernadette’s books again, looking for poem extracts to add to our conversation, I realised what a tough job I had set myself. I wanted to quote everything.

Needing a word
for the little jumps
on the surface of things

(that certain
blurring of the edges
like the sea’s turning back
or the gulls hitched up on elastic)

I’m still hanging around

My sleeves ripple like flags

from ‘the persistent levitator’ in The Persistent Levitator (VUP, 1994)

Paula: Thank you so much for agreeing to an email conversation with me. I have been fan of your poetry for a long time, so this feels like a much needed outing. I have no idea how it will unfold but I am picturing the two of us sitting down on the beach watching the waves roll in as we talk about books and poetry, about reading and writing. With a flask of tea. The sky is blue and the sun is shining but there’s a nip in the air because, after all, it is autumn.

It is so long since we have seen each other, such corrugated and challenging times for everyone. Books and writing have been an essential part of my day. Have you read anything, any genre, in the past year that has lifted you? Anchored you? Taken you apart and reassembled you?

Bernadette: A gorgeous afternoon here today, dear Paula. A slight tremor in the leaves of the trees that crowd around my little writing room. I like being backed into a small, dimmed space like this. As if I’m underground. I’ve spent much of the last few weeks way up on a high ladder, pruning dead wood out of olive and plum trees and a peach. And a hedge which I think is called taupata. I’m much in love with all this, being way up there in the air. My body knowing what it has to do. Shifting, balancing, rebalancing. No thinking. No talking. No words.

And then of course I do come back. To this place. To the big white desk. To the walls that are covered with books and paintings. The door open to the gravel path that goes one way to the front of the cottage and the other way to the street. And the world is full of suffering and outrage and there are words, words, words, and there are screams and there’s weeping and there’s the ripping shrieks of missiles.  And all the while the glaciers are melting. I’m not writing much at the moment. I haven’t got words for it. But I am reading. Voraciously, hungrily, reading and rereading. Mostly non-fiction. Some fiction. Not so much poetry. For poetry hurts. And I can’t say why.

Paula: To picture you pruning and then in your writing space is a welcome image in my head. I agonised over whether to reboot my blogs in 2022, but it came down to a love of words, books and writing connections. I have been thinking about the poets who have mattered so much to me since my debut collection in 1997. The way the lines of certain poets sung to me: This is what poetry can do. Were there poets important to you in your poetry beginnings?

Bernadette: I am so grateful to you, dear Paula, as a poetry connector. Every time you set me a little task, I feel the jolt of a writing impulse and am grateful. In the late 1970’s, not long after the birth of my third child, I joined a writing group run by John Dickson in Dunedin. That’s where I met the Americans, most memorably, John Berryman:

My daughter’s heavier. Light leaves are flying.
Everywhere in enormous numbers turkeys will be dying 
and other birds, all their wings.

from ‘Dream Song 385’

So, the scene is Thanksgiving. And the little child recurs. What resonates with me in Berryman’s work is not the whole but fleeting lines like these. The final stanza in this particular poem is one I go back to again and again. It reassures me that poetry is my place.

My house is made of wood and it’s made well,
unlike us. My house is older than Henry;
that’s fairly old.
If there were a middle       ground between things and the soul
or if the sky resembled more the sea,
I wouldn’t have to scold
                                             my heavy daughter.

When it comes to New Zealand poetry, my hand reaches time and time again to DIA by Michele Leggott (AUP, 1994), where the unsayable is said and gorgeously:

the heart in its cage stands up
desiring fine instruments     what shall we play?
laughter startles the sublime lyric c’est
le pays du desire
and I its best gesture
wake in tears

from ‘CIRCLE’ in DIA (AUP, 1994)

I’m currently reading, and re-reading as I go because it’s difficult, a substantial piece of non-fiction, On Equilibrium by John Ralston Saul, published in 2001. When it comes to imagination, he describes it as ‘a rhythm of the body.’ So it’s something that’s there, ‘in our intellect, our perception, our body as a whole, our relationship to others, to what we create, to rooms, to atmospheres.’  What do you reckon? Thrilling, eh?

Paula: I love that! Imagination as a body rhythm. This week, I posted a review of Janet Charman’s fabulous new collection, The Pistils, and found myself navigating its ideas, heart and physicality through rhythm. I find both head and heart reactions, body reactions to the world, to a poem. Body music. You got me thinking how a poem is a set of rooms and corridors, atmospheres and relationships. How essential rhythm is as you write (and read).

I can remember analysing one of your poems (‘Rathcoola rain’) at Hagley Institute with a group of students. In your company! I opened the music of the poem as a way of walking through its ‘rooms and corridors, its atmospheres and relationships’. Its ideas, its physical reach. Your poems have always struck me in this way. What was important to you when you were writing poems at that time?

The rain is like mice scrabbling in the ceiling.
It’s like the crackling of plastic,
the first licking of flames in a handful of wood shavings,
the complicit turning of pages in hundreds of Mass books

It is slight and light and insistent.

from ‘Rathcoola rain’ from The Lustre Jug (VUP, 2009)

Bernadette: Survival! I needed an ‘island’ where I could just be. A secret place where words which I didn’t know were inside me might find their way out. A place, I guess, of instinct and intuition. A private, solitary space. For truth-telling. As far as I could feel it.  

Paula: I think it’s how I work. A secret island where I’ve no idea what paths I will track and what will fall upon the notebook page. Especially now when writing is a survival aide. Are you able to write at the moment?

Bernadette: More prose than poetry at the moment. Bits and pieces. Though there is one new one, a love poem in precarious times.

On adding up the loves of our lives  

When I walked into the room
my garden walked in with me.

When he walked into the room
his cat walked in with him.

I heard them whispering in the night.

‘Don’t worry, little man,’ I heard him say.
‘I’m sure the sea-wall will hold.’

 

Paula: Ah so lovely! I am writing both poetry and prose but not sure how I feel about publication. Do I want or need this? I am on my third draft of a children’s novel and love having this place of retreat. I also write a tiny poem each day to go with my Wordle result. It is automatic writing that taps into an autobiography of the everyday, found poetry, surreal tracks, the imagined, the felt. What draws you to prose? A patchwork quilt of prose?

Bernadette: Or a rag-bag! Prose is often something I’ve been invited to do. It’s like a job that makes sense before I begin. I think the poems come from a deeper, more unpredictable place. Or rather, the ordinary, lived experiences that are at the base of a poem shift of their own accord into a darker, less rationally controlled space. It doesn’t always happen, of course. So you learn to be patient, don’t you. You sort of despair yet over the years you begin to understand that that emptiness is actually part of the process. ‘You go back and back to the same leaping off place.’ When a poem fills itself up, you feel amazed and jubilant. I don’t write all the time. I come and go. I’m a Sagittarian, I have enthusiasms.

Tell me about your love of children. The way you have celebrated their poetry in beautiful books. Year after year you have exerted yourself encouraging, teaching, travelling round the country, all for the sake of young writers. In the same way, your Poetry Shelf has been essential and much loved as a connector and an instigator nation-wide for years. How did you find the time? Could you share with us one of your tiny poems and a children’s poem?

A man with two shopping bags
and a dog on the lead
makes it down the street

A kererū sleeps
on the telephone wire
at the top of our long drive

A tiger reads War and Peace 
to a family of little giraffes
under our carpet

Paula Green, April 24 (WORDLE poem)

The Glass Door

Open the glass door
and the whole world changes

after the splatter splatter rain
and the tiger tiger wind
and the pepper pepper hail
and the nose biting cold

the grounds steams like little dumplings
the birds sing like my warbling aunt
the cat rolls over on her tummy
and I hide in the shiny grass.

from Groovy Fish and other poems (Scholastic, 2019)

Paula: I have always loved writing for children. Walk into a classroom and poetry can liberate the most reluctant writer through word play. You don’t need rules or models. Imagination sets sail. The real world counts. It’s fun but you also navigate important ideas such as friendship, difference, what we want and need in the world. The joy of engaging with children, as they make poems matter, is beyond words.

 And yes, poetry comes out of a deep unpredictable place. So private, so intimate, so vulnerable. It’s an energy source. It fits into little and larger pockets of time.

I have connected with your writing, but also in the way you have mentored younger writers. How they hold you in such deserved esteem. Did your teaching/mentoring and writing feed each other? How did you find the time? I am thinking poetry time finds us!

Under Erebus

A woman is standing under Erebus
She has wrapped all her gifts around her,
including caritas.

A bulky mammal able to feed her young.

See the red flag with its purple shadow,
the flagged road curving towards tomorrow.

There is shelter here, off to the right,
a bunch of metal rods and a cloth.

You wonder if it’s going to be enough.

Bernadette Hall, from The Ponies (VUP, 2007)

Bernadette: You’ve hit the nail on the head when it comes to the dual highway of exhilaration when that liberation of words happens between like minds. So often it’s been blissful, talking up a storm, one on one, with someone who’s on the track, as it were. In love with language, compelled to make something out of that desire. Gifted yet unsure. Open, honest, trusting. It’s a huge honour to be trusted in that way. By someone giving some part of themselves away. So the creative intimacy, the vulnerability you refer to is somehow shared. Hopefully along with laughter. And cake and good coffee!

Do you remember the little poem I sent you for your birthday book a few years ago? It’s so slight and mysterious. Yet somehow it seems to pull together all I want to say about writing poetry. Maybe the very word emporium is along the lines of Janet Frame’s Mirror City. And our job is to entrust ourselves to it. Daniella Bagozzi, a fabulous Christchurch teacher, translated the little poem into Italian for you. That’s another string to your bow, isn’t it. That lovely operatic language. 

On entering the emporium

I understand now why the children fuss and stir
looking for some light relief.

Even a little bird will do, hopping oddly along a bench.

Paula: Well that was a special arrival – turning my laptop on when I turned 60 and falling upon a suite of poems as a birthday gift. Helen Rickerby made it into a beautiful book. These gestures seem even more important now.

And the idea of an emporium hooks. Michele Leggott used it on the flap of Mirabile Dictu (Auckland University Press, 2009): ‘If the effect is a kind of poetic emporium I would be very pleased, having learned that the word reached us through the Greek emporos, traveller or merchant, from poros, a journey, a prosperity, passing from one thing to another.’

Italian! We both spent time in another language. I enrolled at the University of Auckland for one year, but I loved Italian so much, I kept going back until there were no more degrees left. It was the beauty of the language, it was stepping into a wondrous literature from the Renaissance through to contemporary times. Above all, it was admiration for what the women were doing with pens and paintbrushes across the centuries. It has shaped me as a poet, an anthologist and a blogger!


Bernadette: Many moons ago, dear Paula, you asked me what I’d found enthralling in my recent reading. We’ve covered quite a lot of ground between then and now. And somehow you took me back in time. I’m thinking how lucky I was to spend four years within the Classics haven at Otago University, starting in 1964. The poet Iain Lonie was my tutor. Hearing him and Judith read their poems in a performance was breath-taking. Having Prof. Kenneth Quinn share with a couple of us the manuscript of his emerging translation of the lyrics of Catullus was challenging, as people say today. He asked for our opinions, this English phrase or word or another, and he repeated over and over that we had to be ‘sensitive’ to language.  He clearly thought we weren’t. It certainly got me thinking. Vincent’s ‘The Dark is Light Enough’, his brilliant portrait of Ralph Hotere, published in 2020, fills up so many gaps for me. I gobbled it up eagerly, twice through. So this is what was going on under my nose in Dunedin at that time. I played cello in the uni. orchestra conducted by Bill Southgate. I went to plays at the Globe Theatre. But I was shy, my sphere sequestered. I didn’t get to know the movers and shakers.

A month ago I was enthralled by Jane Campion’s film, The Power of the Dog.  Enthralled even more when I went on to read Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel republished in 2001 with an afterword by Annie Proux. My edition dated 2021. Thank goodness I entered the story this way, film then text with room for so much richness and complexity fully realised on the page.

Bernadette: I have two other current enthralments. Conversātiō – in the company of bees by Anne Noble with Zara Stanhope and Anna Brown (Massey University Press, 2021). It’s exquisite, a life-changer, rich in language and in image. It’s majorly desirable, it reignites in me a passion for making, poetry along with my beloved bee-garden.

You have linked my writing with music, Paula. I’m not conscious of that myself, but here’s a quotation from Zara’s essay: ‘ Music is a language of its own that touches nerves and ignites our sensory imaginary. Sound is felt.’  And I’m thinking ah yes, the sound of words. But what about ideas, what are the words saying?

Paula: Absolutely! Music leads to ideas, feeling, the physical world, sensations. Maybe music enhances the other effects and arrivals in a poem. I too loved Anne’s book. So beautifully crafted at the level of image, word and book production.

Bernadette: And finally there’s The Lobster’s Tale, text by Chris Price and photos by Bruce Foster (Massey University Press, 2021). I’ve just got my hands on it. I’ve not read it yet, just dipped in a little, stroked the paper, turned the beautiful pages. ‘Look to the life that goes on in your blind spot, the light that will eat you alive. Ahead remains a narrowing gap no creature can thread solo, by exercise of will or control, but only in collaboration: you might choose to carry each other as the kōura in berry carries eggs below her tail…..’ Already I know that this is something I need, it’s come at the perfect time, it will fill me up. And I am really grateful.

ii

Slowly the place takes shape. We are homeless
and dissolving in the silky water-laden air.
The dream was of my mouth full of crushed
glass, quite different from that other one
of stealing envelopes and being pursued by a monkey,
by a donkey, by a monkeydonkey and to be honest,
who cares. I met Joanna at 6.00pm
and we went to see SMOKE. Now that’s a film
and a half. My stars say you must abandon
complexity
as if to have more than one word
in your mouth at a time is a vice. ‘You have to make
a choice,’ says the gum tree, pushing itself
up out of the lumpy asphalted playground.
‘Otherwise there’s nothing but bird noise in the aviary.’

 

Bernadette Hall, from ‘Fancy Dancing’, in Fancy Dancing (VUP, 2020)

Bernadette Hall is Otago born and bred. She gained an MA in Latin at Otago University She taught at high schools in Dunedin and Christchurch, and for the last eighteen years has lived in a renovated bach at Amberley Beach in the Hurunui, North Canterbury, where she has built up a beautiful garden. In 2008 Bernadette co-founded the Hagley Writers’ Institute in Christchurch. She was involved with the Institute as a tutor, a supervisor, and eventually the Patron, retiring from that role a couple of years ago. She has written eleven collections of poetry, including Fancy Dancing: New and Selected Poems 2004 – 2020 (VUP). She edited Like Love Poems (VUP), a gorgeous edition of poems by Joanna Margaret Paul and brought the poetry of Lorna Staveley Anker our attention in The Judas Tree (CUP). In 2015 she collaborated with Robyn Webster on Matakaea, Shag Point, an art /text installation exhibited at the Ashburton Art Gallery. She received the Prime Minister’s Award for literary achievement in poetry (2015) and was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature in Aotearoa New Zealand (2017).

Te Herenga Waka University Press page
Poetry Shelf review: Fancy Dancing

Poetry Shelf: Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2022

Poetry New Zealand Yearbook is now edited by Tracey Slaughter, supported by the University of Waikato and published by Massey University Press. The latest issue continues to showcase poetry, essays, reviews and a feature poet. It also runs an annual poetry competition for secondary students.

Tracey Slaughter’s introduction sidesteps the traditional literary journal’s editorial ‘opening’ and riffs on the theme of breakage. I adore it! The end of a line provides infinite fascinations: either as a rest stop or an open valve, but Tracey draws us to the way the line itself may be punctured with white space. It is not just the visual hit, prolonged breath or a shift in rhythm, it’s ‘Switch your senses on’. Tracey’s editorial is an invigorating piece on reading and writing poetry. It’s a rush to the senses, and inspired me to to create my second Paragraph Room (coming up soon!).

As an electrified proposition on reading poetry, it also applies to our entry into Poetry New Zealand 2022:

‘Bring it all. Waste nothing. Use everything you are to open the poems in this book.’

Celebration time: there is a succulent and diverse wave of young poets in Aotearoa New Zealand. You meet them on Starling, on social media, in the IIML secondary school poetry competition, and through publishers such as We Are Babies. Holding an annual competition for secondary school students in Aotearoa, PNZYB adds to the increased visibility of emerging voices.

The four First Prize winners (from Y11 to Y13) are nestled in the alphabetical order of the contributors. Good to see them sit alongside the selected poets rather than as a competition adjunct. Unlike most writing competitions, there is no judge’s report. Were there common themes, styles? Leanings towards politics or the personal or both? What the four published poems underline is these new writers are an unmissable destination. You get heart, you get garden-fresh, breathtaking music, thunderbolt surprise, word nimbleness. The names to watch: Ocean Jade, Caitlin Jenkins, Sarah-Kate Simons and Jade Wilson. I am lost for words … these poets are so darn good.

get some air. the haze of summer is ripe and all i could ever want
is to rest my head into its shoulder, rendered to its shallow fever
until i can find a warmth to keep safe. for now,
my head is tilted north through your slack-jawed window
with patient wind threading into my skin

Ocean Jade from ‘Route Back Home’

when the world wants our faces to kiss the concrete
we’ll still be safe in the arms of papatūānuku
cause when things go south —
we’ll deal with them like south —
with the love our roots nourish us in …
bronze skin mona lisa

Caitlin Jenkins from ‘South’

Wes Lee is the featured poet. Her most recent collection is By the Lapels (Steele Roberts, 2019). She was a finalist for the Sarah Broom Poetry Prize (2018) and was awarded the Poetry New Zealand Prize the following year. Tracey provides two terrific paragraphs as entry points into both the poems and an interview she has with Wes. Wes’s poems leave her in awe: ‘accosted, exhilarated, struck’. Tracey writes: ‘The scenes glimpsed within a Wes Lee poem are often low-key, incidental, domestic, yet under the surreal pressure of the poet’s eye the ordinary detonates and homely details seethe and seize.’ Indeed. The poems walk on a precarious edge of living. They scratch and lash, they tilt you as read. You body surf on currents of memory, trauma, the personal.

A highlight for me is reading the essay of poet and journalist, Maryana Garcia’s ‘A Clearer Dawning”. Maryana writes of being selected for the AUP antholgy A Clear Dawn: New Asian Voices from Aotearoa New Zealand, and on standing in the wings about to read at the book launch at the Auckland Writers Festival. The essay is sorting buttons, reciting vowels and diphthongs, a moving ledger of plus and minuses in the family’s move to New Zealand several decades ago (bomb checks v Lola’s cloth cupboard, smog v the best mangoes in the world). It is self doubt as a poet. We should all have a folder marked ‘Dietritus’! It is the way memory is hooked when you least expect it (by the fabric feel of the anthology’s cover). More than anything, it is in keeping with A Clear Dawn‘s stated aim: that Asian poets, like all poets, write about anything in a thousand inspiring ways.

I stared at my poetry folder, asked myself which poems I felt at home with. The answer was: none. Tabs closed. Tabs opened. I blinked again. Then I clicked on a folder I’d called, in a fit of creative frustration, Dietritus.

Maryana Garcia from ‘A Clearer Dawning’

Derek Schulz’s essay steps off from a brilliant Alice Oswald quotation (‘poetry is the great unsettler’) to opening windows on Emily Dickinson’s poetry. I kept arguing and agreeing with the essay which is far more satisfying than skim reading and moving onto the next page.

Sometimes you fall upon a piece of writing at exactly the right time. Sue Wootton’s extraordinary ‘This Damned Helplessness’ chimes so deeply when I am currently equating 2022 to climbing Mt Everest, when I am in training for a high risk adventure and not at all sure what views I will see. Caught in the gap between so many things. Sue considers climbing a first mountain and a second mountain, each with different views, and then perhaps imaginary mountains (Dream, Day, Night, Fact, fiction, Science, Culture, Body, Soul). More importantly, she traverses (connects with) how to exist, survive, flourish in the space between disparate things. Say Science and Culture. The first mountain view and the second mountain view. What is said and what is misheard. She uses her past experience as a physiotherapist to consider storytelling, gap navigation, treating pain, broken self narratives, bridges, patient involvement, re-composition. I am barely scratching the surface of this intricate tapestry of thought. It’s a satisfying neighbourhood of quotations and responses to other writers, physicians, thinkers, patients. Beautifully written, supremely thought provoking, it’s an empathetic plea to speak from both mountains. Yes, extraordinary, humble writing.

My issue of Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2022 is already well thumbed as I lily-pad hop the poems (one poem per poet) along with the continued solid devotion to reviewing poetry books published in Aotearoa. This is a journal I am drawing out over months not days. To savour and sidestoke in. There are unfamiliar names and recognisable favourites. Under Tracey’s inspired editorship, Poetry New Zealand Yearbook is something I look forward to. Rejuvenating. Rejuvenating. Rejuvenating.

take this night
quickly like a pill / the pull
of space cracking / ankle joints
from the stretch up
in its dark belly
gurgling acid starlight

Hebe Kearney from ‘night comes on’

she lay on the pavement
squinting at clouds
and never made out
my father roosting
in cranes and carillons
even her dress    pressed
with paintings of the domes
of Budapest  made
her giddy sun downing
giddy      this way
                               and that

Kerrin P. Sharpe from ‘the scaffolding of wings’

didn’t matter that our Chinese faces
spoke white/all of us knew the routineness
of string/mā má mǎ  mà/knotted our xīn
into snake bites/left our tongues parched/
dead nailed until the bell rang three.

Wen-Juenn Lee from ‘chinese class’

Massey University Press page
10 Questions with Tracey Slaughter

Tracey Slaughter teaches creative writing at the University of Waikato, where she edits the journals Mayhem and Poetry New Zealand Yearbook.

Poetry Shelf review: Janet Charman’s The Pistils

The Pistils Janet Charman, Otago University Press, 2022

little lapping waves
to inundate
the shoes of makers
whose texts
i’ve addressed
and assessed
in the dark inland towns
of my imagination
the large waves of the fire siren
call me out
in the middle of the night

from ‘welling’

I started reading Janet Charman’s poetry when I emerged from my poetry cocoon with Cookhouse, my debut collection, and she knocked my socks off. First up it was Janet’s musical ear: an elasticity with words, linguistic play, surprising syntax. And then, so essential when my academic research focused on women and writing, her feminist core. Not an adjunct, nor a side track, but an essential feminist core. When I walked across the university threshold onto Simmonds Street, with my PhD and carton of books, I walked out of the academy into life as a poet. And a hunger to immerse myself in an Aotearoa New Zealand context. To discover the women who had written before me, who were writing alongside me, and who would write ahead of me. Janet Charman was busting out of the men’s canon and opening up notions of ‘she’, ‘i’, ‘we’, ‘you’, ‘they’. The ink in her pen and her preferences were placed centre stage, whether in trousers or skirts, folding nappies or building houses.

Janet’s new collection The Pistils opens with a terrific sequence, ‘High days and holy days’. Twelve poems that mark holidays or significant occasions (Waitangi Day, Parihaka Day Guy Fawkes Night, Wahine Day, Matariki, Picnic Days). Each poem contributes to a life – within a sequence of panels. Bare bones. Ample white space. A miniature narrative of excavation. Remember when. Remember how. Remember why. The sequence opens scenes, moments, places – and we enter the collection grounded.

winds drain to the horizon
tides
lap below the wrought-iron railing

here
we are sheltered in the hollow of the year
the hollow of the day

blowflies
loll and bang the afternoon to a close
the windows

from ‘1. Northland Panels‘ from ‘high days and holy days’

Move into the heart of the book, and the mind leaps and bounds along the rhythm of the line. Exquisitely crafted. Scored. Composed. In ‘Mrs Valentine’s instructions’, the rhythm of revelation shapes memory. On the next page, in ‘hometime’, attention to the sound of the line is equally arresting. Memory is translated into music and image. It is a portrait of the child but it is also a portrait of the mother. In parings and traces. Surprising arrivals. It is religion and Freud, a mother lost in a novel, it is fingers worn to the bone, the news on the radio, family dinners, walking home. Life and death. It is home.

and the mother weighting at the top of the hill
her red roof tile her front windows
black blank shine
her white two-storeyed weatherboard authority of home time
—untangle the latch race the path
hunt through the house to find her where she sits
adrift in a novel
or conducting her day in some regimen of intellectual longing
with Freud and Jung in the sunroom
—on three sides light pulses in
Father Son and the Holy Ghost
summer on summer through glass the great gum nods

from ‘hometime’

Rhythm is so important. It renders Janet’s poetry fully charged, and accumulates life, detail, confession, insight, opinion, grief, reflection. It feels real, it feels personal, it feels political. The mother is a constant presence, in the shadows and in the light, a vital connection. Rhythm accommodates the feminist spotlight on life. The stamen and the pistil, the difficulty of childbirth and a baby in an incubator, a war memorial, waste management, Pakehā privilege, an aging body image, a breast removed, James K Baxter’s rape boast, literary criticism, sex, grief, having breakfast while watching John Campbell rather than listening to National Radio because your beloved has gone. It is the rhythm of mourning. Ah. So many layers.

i waited into the summer for my diagnosis
saw how a benign White Island
only became Whakaari
for the pakehā
after an eruption with deaths

from ‘bra dollars’

I speak of rhythm in such glowing terms but it is of course part of a sonic festival. Janet’s poetry strikes the ear (as Rebecca Hawke’s debut collection does). This leaning in to listen is rewarding: the leapfrogging alliteration, assonance, short lines, slightly longer lines, punctuating breath, free flowing currents. Again Janet’s agile music enhances my engagement with her roving subject matter. With the sharp edges and the necessary subterranean questions. How to live? How to live and love on planet Earth? How to speak against subjugation based on gender or skin colour? How to see your parents? How to go on when your beloved is no longer there? How to continue probing and resisting? How to be yourself? Ah. Such layerings.

Reading Pistil is exhilarating. I am loving this book because it is vulnerable and open, it is edgy and crafted, and because it shines a light on how it is for women. We still need that persistent light. We still need poetry that misbehaves as much as it makes music on the line. The poems call out and call for, stand out and stand for. It is a stunning collection.

Janet Charman is one of New Zealand’s sharpest and most subversive writers. In 2008 she won the Montana Book Award for Poetry for her sixth collection, Cold Snack. In 2009 she was a Visiting Fellow at the International Writers’ Workshop of Hong Kong Baptist University. In 2014 she appeared as a Guest Reader at the Taipei International Poetry Forum. Her collection 仁 Surrender (2017, OUP) chronicles her writing residencies in Hong Kong and Taiwan. This is her ninth collection of poetry.

Otago University Press page

Interview: Janet Charman on Standing Room Only with Lynn Freeman Listen

Review: Sophie van Waardenberg for Academy of New Zealand Literature Read

Review: Chris Tse for Nine to Noon Listen

Poetry Shelf conversations: Chris Tse

The arrival of a new Chris Tse poetry collection is always a moment to celebrate.

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

The Friday Poem at The Spin Off (April 8 2022, Majella Cullinane)

Poetry Shelf review: Gregory O’Brien’s House & Contents

House & Contents Gregory O’Brien, Auckland University Press, 2022

What is this particular brightness we expect of poetry? And on what or whose account? If the times are dark, oppressive, tunnel-like – as they seem presently – maybe poetry can be a lantern. Or a firefly, or the glowing bud of a cigarette on a dark night. But for poetry to be these things it can’t simply reflect its times – it has to radiate on its own terms, within and beyond that darkness. It is poetry’s job to flicker and glow and, with luck, emit some mysterious luminescence. At times I feel those are its only real criteria.


Gregory O’Brien ‘Notes to Accompany the Poems and Paintings’

I love coming to a new book with no idea what the book is about. And here am I about to share some responses to Gregory O’Brien’s magnificent collection House & Contents with you. I have had the book sitting on my desk for a month and every time I walk past, I stall on the title and the cover. The skeletal tree, the blocks of cloud, sky, hill and roof. The nod to insurance policies, and an expectation the collection might transform ‘house’ into home, ‘contents’ into Gregory’s ability to amass fascinating detail.

In the endnote, Gregory talks about how in the past he has used paintings to shed light on the poetry, and poetry to converse with the artwork. In this collection however, where there is a substantial presence of both image and word, he wanted the artwork and the poem to have a ‘co-equal’ relationship.

One poem, ‘House & contents’, acts as a fractured faultline of the collection. It records experiencing an earthquake in Wellington Te Whanganui-a-Tara – a poem in pieces over the course of a day, over the course of the book, little interruptions. It lays a thread of uncertainty, a stave of different sounds, and shifts how I view the title and cover.

The artwork, with motifs repeating like embers on the canvas, like lamplight, like mysterious tugs and echos, is magnetic. No question. You bend in and become hooked on the light and dark. Full of questions. Breathing in the mysterious because there is anchor but there is also instability. Hill might be corrugated boat might be corrugated house might be hill. The echo of chimney smoke might be that from a volcano. I think of the cigarette butt glowing in the dark. Bend down into these paintings and you are wrapped in mystery – the bed outside might be resting on the hills or in the sky or driving a dreamscape. Words loom small not large, and might be bookshelf or textured wall or miniature poem. There is a brick red burnt umber hue signalling earth, and there are the infinite possibilities of blue.

The poetry is an equal compendium of fascinations, an accumulation of rich motifs and hues, knots and splices. The wading birds by a Canterbury river are the poet’s acupuncture. The world is an open book, where streets and mountains, sky and weather, are busy reading each other. Nothing exists in isolation. A library floor might catch a waterfall or flood of books. The poet tracks an interior world and then stitches it to a physical realm, whether present or mourned. The intensely real might collide with the surreal – ‘coins dance / in an upturned hat’. At times I am reading like a chant – both hidden and out-in-the-open lists that make music, that beckon heart and drifting mind. You can’t skim read, you need to enter the alleyways with a flask of tea, and set up camp for ages.

A poem that particularly stuck with my heart is ‘For Jen at Three O’Clock’, the final poem in the collection, a love poem, a luminous list, an ember glow upon the stretching canvas of life. Here are the opening lines:

With us, ice melt and low land
fog, creaking thornbush,

sandarac and walnut lawn. With us
towers and minarets

of the asparagus field, each blink
and muffled cough, each

recitation and
resuscitation, mountain

torrent and gasping stream.

 

Glorious. That is the word for House & Contents. No question. The light will flicker and gleam in artworks and poetry. Reading this collection is retreat and vacation and epiphany.

Gregory O’Brien is an independent writer, painter and art curator. He has written many books of poetry, fiction, essays and commentary. His books include A Micronaut in the Wide World: The Imaginative Life and Times of Graham Percy (Auckland University Press, 2011) and the multi-award-winning introductions to art for the young and curious: Welcome to the South Seas (Auckland University Press, 2004) and Back and Beyond (Auckland University Press, 2008), which both won the Non-Fiction Prize at the New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. His book Always Song in the Water: An Oceanic Sketchbook was published in 2019, and a major work on the artist Don Binney will appear in 2023. Gregory O’Brien became an Arts Foundation Laureate and won the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in 2012, and in 2017 became a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit and received an honorary doctorate from Victoria University of Wellington.

Auckland University Press page

Poetry Shelf: ‘Streets and mountains’

Conversation with Lynne Freeman on Standing Room Only, RNZ National

NZ Booklovers interview

Poetry Shelf review: Frances Samuel’s Museum

Museum, Frances Samuel, Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2022

Up here in the thin green air,
I’m feeling the wind on my face
with the joy of a dog on a family car trip,
head out of the window.

from ‘Exhibition (DNA)’

Frances Samuel worked in a museum writing texts for exhibitions for many years. For me, museums are an endless source of fascination and marvel. I wrote about the intoxicating thrill of museums in New York Pocketbook. Standing, for example, before a pair of child’s boots in Ellis Island’s Immigration Centre or moving with the wonders of the Natural History Museum. Or the roll call of museums that fed my Italian degrees. There are the hungry gaps of the past that you seek to fill by studying scuffed toes, wrinkled leather, the uncanny emptiness, the child that once ran or skipped or hid. In my self-imposed lockdown, picking up Frances’s new collection felt like a trip to a museum and, as happens on the threshold of any museum space, I felt a heady mix of anticipation, joy, curiosity. Where would this book take me?

I pass through the book’s opening poem, ‘Exhibition (Security)’, and then move through three exhibitions: ‘SUPER(NATURAL) WORLD’, ‘(IM)MATERIAL WORLD’ and ‘OBJECT LESSONS’. I am following the poet, the museum maker, but the museum on offer is porous. It reaches out beyond walls and still life into the air we breathe, and with each poem I track twist unfold pursue peruse fold untwist. Just like I do on Ellis Island. Or in Roma. It is discovery and it is magical.

The poem ‘Climate Change’ proposes a change in perspective. Inventive in its start:

Since we are all made up of atoms and vibrations,
let’s rearrange ourselves.
You be a bird and I’ll be a buffalo,
stand on my back and off we go, carefully
stepping over our discard clothes

And utterly moving, when you reach the final stanza. I keep bouncing back to the poem’s title, just as I might switch and flick between museum diorama, museum label and someone else’s shoes:

From above, we watch travellers on the trails
tying and retying their loads to donkeys’ backs.
They take a few steps and the load slips again.
Over and over again, agreement can only come
when the bird in me bleats
to the buffalo in you.

Frances writes lightfootedly. It’s not just a matter of weight but a matter of luminosity. If the poems were written in ink, the ink would be imbued with a wonder that slips in and out of view. You need to read each poem whole to get the effect of fitting together, but certain lines stand out and settle on you, little talismans, little points of fascinations.

‘Rain is hole-punching its way in.’ from ‘Moonhopppers’

‘My friend wears a grass jumpsuit / teeming with ants and worms.’ from ‘Fashion’

‘A poet explodes at a kitchen table / taking everything else with her.’ from ‘Pottery’

‘The words are falling from him like seeds.’ from ‘Fast Forest’

‘If one hundred thousand leaves / can make a clean break every day / then what are you waiting for?’ from ‘Seed/Leaf/Tree’

In the first section/exhibition, you enter forests, mountains, deserts, fields, physical exhibition spaces. In the second section/exhibition space, the immaterial shifts my view on existence. Ghosts and trees jangle eyes. Things leap off the page, the canvas, out of the shadows, or from the anecdote, to gain provisional flesh, and you are back in the invigorating and mysterious air of the world.

And suddenly it’s a good thing
you extinguished your shoes
because now you are walking on air.
And when you are walking on air
you can go anywhere.

from ‘Exhibition (Shoes)

And then poet becomes mother, and the maternal role, reframed time and fatigue, chores and the tendering, are made visible. The mother is still of course poet, and the third section/exhibition refuses to keep the world confined in glass cases. The domestic enters and still the writing mind roves and creates and muses. In such an airy space, the wonder and discovery expands. For both reader and writer. In ‘Coin Rubbings’, the speaker finds buried civilisations and buried self elusive, so she tries this:

(…) So maybe it’s as easy
as placing the paper over your own face
and rubbing to see what impression
you are making on the world.

In each section/exhibition space, you turn upon notions of perspective, ways of absorbing and reacting, seeing and feeling. Your place(s) in the world comes into question, or into view, or dissolves, and you turn the page and keep reading. This sublime stanza appears in ‘The Kindness of Giants’ and appears in other guises or translations throughout the book.

Your feet are shod in cruise ships, and your eyes
look though spectacles made of frozen lakes.
Trapped fish obscure your vision.

When I first visited foreign museums in my twenties, I found them dead. Nothing jumped out and poked me in the eye or heart. Yet all these decades later, both poetry and museums are alive to me. I get to carry bits of humanity, song, epiphany, storytelling, dread, mystery, roadmaps, possibility atlases, the real, the unreal. The power of words, in both locations, along with the power of objects, get to sing in heart and mind. I finished France’s new collection and, how can I explain it, I was bursting with gladness and sadness. Maybe because instead of listening to the 11 am announcement on Covid changes yesterday, I read the book. I reread the collection today, writing this on one breath, on the wire of living, on the lightning rod of uncertain times, and as I put the book on my shelf, I am busting up with joy. That is what poetry can do. Read this book.

Inside your heart, a museum
and not the free-entry kind,
not the kind with a rollercoaster
and a cafe and a shop.

from ‘Museum Without an End’

Frances Samuel‘s first book was Sleeping on Horseback (VUP, 2014). Her poems have appeared in many print and online publications, including Sport, Best New Zealand Poems, Short Poems of New Zealand, and the National Library exhibition The Next Word: Contemporary New Zealand Poetry.

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