Category Archives: NZ poetry

Poetry Shelf in conversation with Oscar Upperton

 

Screen Shot 2020-05-28 at 10.30.51 AM

 

Oscar Upperton New Transgender Blockbusters Victoria University Press, 2020

 

 

Optimism is the idea that it not always will rain.

Leave home as soon as you are free,

for everyone comes back again—

 

just never board a train

without a member of family.

Optimism is the idea that it will not always rain,

 

that between sea and plain

will always sprout a city.

For everyone comes back again.

 

from ‘Dutch instruction’

 

 

Oscar Upperton was born in Christchurch in 1991, grew up in Whāngarei and Palmerston North, and now lives in Wellington. In 2019 he was awarded the Creative New Zealand Louis Johnson New Writer’s Bursary. His work has appeared in Sport, The Spinoff, Metro and Best New Zealand Poems. His debut collection New Transgender Blockbusters was one of two go-to poetry books for me in lockdown (Elizabeth Morton the other). It is fresh, witty, offbeat, surprising yet never loses sight of a lived-in world. As it says on the blurb: These poems are vitally human and consoling: they reframe the ordinary as something to yearn for’. This is the kind of book that I want to talk about with someone, the way the city and rural settings are both present, the way there is a degree of incantation at times, a sense of song, a jubilant relationship with words that might involve rhyme or repetition or silence. I am out of lockdown now but the world is still wobbly, I am still wobbly as both reader and writer, and I find this book the perfect retreat. Glorious is the word for it.

 

In conversation with Oscar Upperton

 

Paula: What poets, both here and overseas, have hooked your attention?

Oscar: I only really read Kiwi poets. I love Tayi Tibble’s writing. Also Jane Arthur and Ashleigh Young. My younger sibling Katrina Upperton is my favourite read at the moment though.

 

Paula: Poetry performers?

Oscar: I went on a road trip with my dad before the lockdown and read in Palmerston North, Whangārei and Kerikeri. I was lucky to see some awesome, awesome performers on that trip. I can’t name everyone (and some of the readings were private anyway) but I will single out Vera Hua Dong, who gave an amazing performance in Kerikeri. I’m looking forward to seeing her writing on the page in Ko Aotearoa Tātou when it comes out in August.

 

Years aren’t to blame. I was always old.

The garden gathers rain. I grew and grew

and broke the mould. I sat there in the rain.

 

from Garden beds’

 

Paula: Your book is like a breath of fresh air. I am drawn to the economy, the richness, the quirkiness, the surprise. What are key things when you write a poem?

Oscar: Thank you for all the compliments! I like to think I’m quirky. Sort of the manic pixie dream boy of New Zealand poetry.

Usually I start with a line or a sound I like, and just follow that. Or I start with an idea, like writing a poem with footnotes. I like to make up rules for myself, like this poem has to have every fourth line written backwards or in this poem the first word of every line rhymes. And I like to use prompts, like Pip Adam’s exercises from her podcast Better Off Read.

 

The dog is a book read over and over

The dog is a river that’s stopping for no one

The dog is a child who thinks hot is a colour

 

The book is a dog that’s waiting for water

The book is a river that cannot be forded

The book is a child who’s made out of silence

 

from ‘Song abut a child’

 

Paula: I like the appearance of lists in your poems, whether subtle or overt. What attracts you to poetry list making?

Oscar: It’s easy! Also I like repetition. Also I like juxtaposition. Like if you put one image beside another, unrelated image, what happens? Lists are useful for that.

 

Paula: Yes- I love the connections between things on a line and in the poem. That is where surprise and quirkiness can take root. I also like the musicality – the rhyme. Sometimes I am reminded of Bill Manhire’s poetry palette as I read your poems (final word in book might be referencing his poem ‘Kevin’). Any poets that feel like close writing relations?

Oscar: This is a funny question to me because some of my closest relations are poets (my dad Tim and my sibling Katrina) and they are probably the writers that I am the most similar to, for obvious genetic and environmental reasons. I definitely am very influenced by Bill Manhire. I like his relaxed approach to sound and rhythm, and how a lot of his poems are jokes or riddles. He seems to be having a lot of fun when he writes, and it’s infectious. I aspire to be like that.

 

Paula: I so see that in your writing! Your poetry seems assured to me, crafted with a deft hand, but do you suffer doubt as you write?

Oscar: Yes, all the time! But I chuck out poems or lines I don’t like, so I am usually happy with a poem by the time it is published. There are some lines in my poems I really don’t like. For example, I think the ending of ‘Child’s First Dictionary’ is really bad. And I even dedicated that poem to my sister! How rude.

 

 

We like mushrooms best when they taste of thieving.

At home we turn the Beatles up to eleven.

This bag of mushrooms was not a given.

We don’t like Kevin but we both like ‘Kevin’.

 

from ‘Two thieves’

 

Paula: Some poets currently favour massive self-exposure in poems – there are heart-punching examples I adore. I find your collection a complex weave of human experience that might be invented or real, intimate or restrained. How do you feel about revealing your private life in a poem?

Oscar: I have a lot of childhood poems in my book that I guess you could say are autobiographical, but they are more about mood or tone than describing a particular thing that happened. Although ‘Two thieves’ is entirely truthful.

I don’t think I’m interesting enough to merit too much self-exposure – all the poets I love who write about themselves, they seem to get out of the house much more often than I manage to. I’d much rather write about something I haven’t done or haven’t experienced, and I don’t tend to write in my own voice. The only poems I have written that I consider to be in my voice are ‘New transgender blockbusters’ and ‘Carmen’. I wrote them because I had two very specific emotional experiences (one after watching a terrible movie, one after listening to people talk about Carmen Rupe) and I was interested in the challenge of recording those experiences accurately. I like both those poems but I wouldn’t want to write a whole book like that.

 

A juggernaut is anything sour, sour cabbage.

Why do you hide your head beneath the bedclothes?

A juggernaut is anything at all, air and beans.

Why do you keen? Why throw yourself against the porch light?

A juggernaut is anything sitting on a rooftop not a bird.

 

from ‘Juggernaut’

 

Paula: Ha! Poetry is a way of writing yourself out of the house in any way or voice you care to invent. The blurb lists questions. ‘Juggernaut’ is a sequence of questions. I began musing on the idea of questions shadowing poems, like furtive ghosts that help bring something into being. What’s your take on poetry and questions?

Oscar: I like questions because they invite the reader in and suggest an answer without me actually having to come up with one. I don’t like being too definite or conclusive when I write, and questions are useful for that.

 

Paula: That is another plus about your poetry. In fact I could have used the word ‘openness’. Porous poetry that is like an open home for the reader. Was there a poem that was particularly tough to write?

Oscar: ‘Caroline’ was hard to write because it contains a lot of repetition. The same lines had to make sense in six different contexts, over six stanzas. I wrote it in Excel with formulas set up so that if I changed a line in one place the change would flow through the rest of the poem. It took ages and was a weird time but I really like that poem now.

‘Prudence’ was hard to write because it’s about a cat and therefore ran the risk of becoming too cute.

 

 

Last year’s trees are dropping.

They drop like sticky fruit.

They drop as the flies rise.

Last year I woke up differently.

This year is the same old mess.

 

from ‘Atlas’

 

Paula: Is there a particular poem – or two – where you feel you have nailed it?

Oscar: ‘Atlas’ is the first poem in the book because it’s my favourite. I wrote it about ten years ago, when I was at my peak.

 

Paula: Hmm! More peaks on the horizon please! Slowly we return to live poetry events. If you were to curate a session with poets from any time or place who would you invite?

Oscar: I would like to see Bashō and Sappho read. Also Robbie Burns. I wonder if they would be baffled by the experience of a modern poetry reading or if they would just go with it.

 

Paula: Wow. What a combination. I have no idea how Sappho would deliver a poem and we could get to see gaps filled if she moved beyond fragments. Finally there is more to life than writing poems. What else feeds you?

Oscar: Right now I’m helping out with an online writing workshop run by InsideOUT. Being the ‘teacher’ is super weird but has given me a new perspective on writing. And it is so cool to see what the writers are coming up with.

 

Victoria University Press page

Oscar in conversation with Karyn Hay RNZ

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf review: Elizabeth Morton’s This is your real name

 

Screen Shot 2020-05-27 at 12.47.57 PM

 

This is your real name, Elizabeth Morton, Otago University Press, 2020

 

There were days I spent gulping sky,

picking every star off the plate

with the stub of a thumb.

 

from ‘The eating of sorrow’

 

 

Elizabeth Morton grew up in Auckland. Her poetry has been published in various journals, both in New Zealand and internationally, and has achieved a number of award placements, including the 2015 Kathleen Grattan Award. Her terrific debut collection, Wolf, was published by Mākaro Press. She recently finished an MLitt in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow with Distinction.

This book was one of two poetry collections that I kept returning to during lockdown (plus Oscar Upperton’s). I found I could drift in and out of a poem, I could write phrases on sheets of paper, but I couldn’t string sentences together, let alone articulate a reaction to a book. What I could say was I loved it.

The epigraph felt uncannily fitting: ‘For people who wait and people who are alone.’

I had written down the word ‘detail’. Elizabeth’s deft handling of detail forms the visible stitching of a poem. It offers hue and texture to the multiple poem threads. The detail is a gateway to threads that are personal, universal, engaged in storytelling, recollection, contemplation, association, inquiry.

There are reading footholds and there are wobbly boards, especially in poems that are a mix of real life, memory, fable, fiction, enigma.  The real is often elusive, but lands in shards, both striking and evocative. In ‘After’, two lines in particular catch this movement, and echo throughout the collection as a whole (and with me during lockdown):

 

Night comes apart, like everything else.

We know the landmarks for their hardness.

 

At the poem’s start, the speaker suggests closing one’s eyes is enough. Shutting one’s eyes is contemplative, an escape device, a pause. This is me in lockdown. I keep shutting my eyes and waiting. The poem features the last polar bear cage-pacing at Auckland Zoo and a butterfly caught on a truck’s windscreen. Two sad notes that alter the way we view the ‘you’ whom the poem addresses. It is the kind of poem you keep reading to absorb the dislocation, the absences, the mournings, the complexities. The ending catapults you back to the beginning which then returns to the eyes closing at the start. The ending:

 

When I open my eyes I’m in the same cage I was in yesterday.

I am the same yellow bear driving the same haulage truck

over ice sheets, thin as a prince’s hairline.

What night is this? We talk about the butterfly like it got away.

We talk abut you, like you are here. Like you never left.

 

Every poem works its magic on me – and the breathtaking effects are now heightened by lockdown. I am musing on how I have read this book before, during and after levels 3 and 4. I am writing this review in level 2, and I am wondering when everything I read and write won’t be touched by my Covid experiences. Yet this was the book that held my fuzzy attention.

Most of the poems are dense thickets, interconnected threads, offbeatness and misty bits to get lost in. The beginnings of poems are exquisite hooks:

 

You might make it, if you sprint.

 

from ‘Gap’

 

 

I’m not going to cry. All winter the television

sulks in the corner of our love. You put the lentils

in a colander to flush the ugly bits.

 

from ‘You can’t, always’

 

Here I am turning the pages of the book, writing a review with my thoughts and feelings close up, because I stall on every poem and want to set up a coffee club in a cafe so we can talk about how we move through the poem thickets. Take ‘Aubade with hold music’ for example. You start with the image of a phone booth: ‘The phone booth was skull-cracked, / and caulked with soggy directories.’ Again the uncanny link. The reference to all the people we never know reverberates acutely in lockdown because that’s how I feel about the global Covid statistics. And how I have often felt when I drive down streets and wonder at the lives of the people I see.

The poem moves about a phone call to a mother, but then a central cluster of lines ‘shake’ the phone booth and you wonder what is going on behind the scenes of the poem:

 

The morning smelled like fire,

like the sun projecting simple stories

against the warehouse brickwork

and I wonder whether you know

you are melting.

 

Yes I could say this poem is about a phone call, a phone call about to be made; there is a small boy with coins, there are the White Pages, but then there is this: ‘This poem sets you apart, and / you are a small forest pressed against the city’. So mysterious. So ripe with meaning and possibilities. Each poem is like a little forest. Each poem is like a little forest pressed against us. How can we not stall and wonder. These lines stand out.

 

Writing a poem is a political act.

I want you to know, what you feel

is more than politics.

 

This is the joy of poetry: you think a poem and you feel a poem. It might be political or personal or a dense thicket, with multiple pathways and myriad connections to a peopled world. Elizabeth’s subject matter is wide ranging. Stories appear like neon lights or fleeting shadows or veiled self exposures. Sometimes it feels like the sun is out and sometimes like pitch-black night. The reading rewards are glorious. Find the book, make a coffee, and then let me know what you think. I am ever so grateful for the arrival of this book.

 

Otago University Press page

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf Monday poem: John Gallas’s ‘Sarah Elizabeth Jones’

Screen Shot 2020-05-21 at 11.41.45 AM

 

 

 

John Gallas is a NZ poet published by Carcanet. His 20 collections include The Song Atlas, Star City, The Little Sublime Comedy and 52 Euros. The Extasie (60 love poems) and Rhapsodies 1831 (translation of French poet Petrus Borel) to be published January and March 2021. He presently lives in Leicestershire. His a librettist, St Magnus Festival Orkney poet, Saxon Ship Project poet, Fellow of the English Association, tramper, biker and merry ruralist. Presently working on two sets of poem-prints (’18 Paper Resurrections’ and ‘Wasted by Whitemen’). ‘Unscythed’ written in Sefton, near Rangiora: home of bro.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf video spot: Frankie McMillan reads ‘ The Winter Swimming of my Grandmother’

 

 

 

Frankie reads ‘The Winter Swimming of my Grandmother’  (first published by New Flash Fiction Review, 2019)

 

 

 

 

Frankie McMillan is the author of five books, the most recent of which, The Father of Octopus Wrestling and other small fictions was listed by Spinoff as one of the 10 best New Zealand fiction books of 2019. Her previous book, My Mother and the Hungarians and other small fictions was long listed for the NZ Ockham Book Awards, 2017. She was awarded the NZSA Peter and Dianne Beatson Fellowship in 2019. Frankie currently teaches at the Hagley Writers’ Institute in Christchurch.

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: Fleur Adcock’s ‘Island Bay’

 

Island Bay

 

Bright specks of neverlastingness

float at me out of the blue air,

perhaps constructed by my retina

 

which these days constructs so much else,

or by the air itself, the limpid sky,

the sea drenched in its turquoise liquors

 

like the paua shells we used to pick up

seventy years ago, two bays

along from here, under the whale’s great jaw.

 

Fleur Adcock

 

 

Fleur Adcock was born in New Zealand but has lived in England since 1963, with regular visits to NZ. She lives in London, and has dual British and New Zealand citizenship. She was awarded an OBE in 1996, a CNZM in 2008 and the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 2006. Her poetry is published in Britain by Bloodaxe Books and in New Zealand by Victoria University Press. In 2019 her Collected Poems appeared from Victoria University Press, and later that year she received the Prime Minister’s award for Literary Achievement in Poetry.

Fleur: I wrote this poem when I was in New Zealand late last year. It feels unbelievable that I should have been able to walk freely along the coast of Island Bay basking in the sunshine and the wind, just because I felt like it; things are not like that here, and may never be again for someone of my age. But at least it’s spring, and I have my garden, and am allowed to go for walks in the local woods as long as I don’t travel on a bus to get there, or risk doing anything so audacious as my own shopping.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf noticeboard: Emma Neale awarded 2020 Lauris Edmond Memorial Award

Screen Shot 2020-05-17 at 9.11.09 AM

Warm congratulations to award winner, Emma Neale.

 

Verb Wellington is proudly supporting the Friends of Lauris Edmond. Below is a Press Release announcing the 2020 Lauris Edmond Memorial Award for Poetry. Read on to discover three new poems by the 2020 winner, Emma Neale.

 

A Birthday Celebration: Dunedin poet honoured in biennial poetry award

Dunedin poet Emma Neale is the 2020 recipient of the Lauris Edmond Memorial Award for Poetry, a prize given biennially in recognition of a distinguished contribution to New Zealand poetry.

 

Emma Neale is the author of six novels and six collections of poetry. Her most recent novel, Billy Bird (2016) was short-listed for the Acorn Prize at the Ockham NZ Book Awards and long-listed for the Dublin International Literary Award. Her new book of poems is To the Occupant which was published in 2019 by Otago University Press. Emma is currently editor of the iconic Aotearoa literary journal, Landfall.

 

On receiving the award, Emma says:

“I’m incredulous, happy and stunned in my tracks, as if someone has thrown a surprise party – the way friends did when I was nine, and they waited to jump out at me until I was standing near the host’s swimming pool. All the other nine-year-olds were hoping I’d fall into the water with shock. I didn’t. So here I am, dry, a bit disoriented and also delighted again, and remembering that Lauris Edmond was the first poet I ever heard give a public reading. When I was 16, I caught the bus alone to a Book Council lunchtime lecture during school holidays in Wellington, and went to hear her talk about her writing career. I have a feeling I’d sneaked out of the house to do it – as if my interest in poetry and my aspirations to write it were somehow going to get me into trouble, and my parents and friends shouldn’t know. I sat and listened on the edge of my seat, as the poems and the talk opened a portal that meant I could glimpse the green and shifting light of hidden things. The portal was still a long way off, but I was convinced that poetry and literature were going to carry me into an understanding of intimacy, identity, time, ethics, deeper metaphysical questions.

I still think of Lauris Edmond as a kind of poet laureate of family relationships; her work was immensely important to me as the work of a local woman poet I could not only read on the page but also hear in person. I am just sorry that I can’t thank her face to face for what her work has meant to me, and I’m enormously grateful to the Friends for reading my own poetry and giving me this generous award. I’ve pinched myself sore. I actually feel like leaping into a pool.”

 

Established in 2002, the Award is named after New Zealand writer Lauris Edmond who published many volumes of poetry, a novel, a number of plays and an autobiography. Her Selected Poems (1984) won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize.

The 2020 award was announced on 2 April the date of Lauris Edmond’s birthday. A ceremony and birthday celebration was due to take place at National Library of New Zealand in Wellington on 3 April to honour Emma, however due to COVID-19 the event is postponed and will take place in collaboration with Verb Wellington later in the year.

 

 

Piece in ODT

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf connections: Hana Pera Aoake’s video – ‘a eulogy to love’

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hana Pera Aoake (Ngaati Raukawa, Ngaati Mahuta, Tainui/Waikato) is an INFP, Gemini heartthrob living on Kai Tahu land in Te wai pounamu. They are a writer, editor and artist in a stupid amount of debt (Liv, Laff, Luv), having completed an MFA in Fine Arts (first class) in 2018 from Massey University. They are a current participant in the Independent study program at the Maumaus des escola artes via a screen and an editor at both Tupuranga journal and Kei te pai press.