Category Archives: NZ poetry

Poetry Shelf Monday poem: Rachel Lockwood’s ‘Water Ways’

Water Ways

I have bloodied and been bloodied,

I have been rivered and streamed away,

I have been forest, honey, and I have

been dirt drawn beetle, honey, and

I have been mud. I have been

lung smoke, throat clearing,

menthol rasp, honey.

I have been liar and bullshitter,

I have been the round pot of tallow, honey,

and I have scraped. I have been

oceaned and rivered away.

I have been deep ravine, baby,

I have been gully, I have been fog.

I have been mirage darling,

I have been cowboy antithesis.

I have been shadow hungry, honey,

I have been fern, and salmon, and bird.

I have been runt of the litter, honey,

I have been fed fat on cream.

I have been love lettered, been Dear John lettered,

I have been written to ask to leave

and leave and come back again

like some migratory sea bird

to the winter. I have been soft-held,

honey, I have been soft-held by you.

Rachel Lockwood

Rachel Lockwood is Hawke’s Bay born and bred but now living in Wellington and studying a BA at VUW. She was a 2019 National Schools Poetry Award finalist, and has previously been published in Starling.

You can hear Rachel read her poem in Starling 10 here

Rachel muses on essa may ranapiri’s poem ‘she cut her face shaving’

Poetry Shelf Video Lounge: Simon Sweetman reads from his debut poetry collection, The Death of Music Journalism

Simon Sweetman reads poems from his debut poetry collection, The Death of Music Journalism (The Cuba Press, 2020)

Simon Sweetman is a Wellington-based writer of poems, stories, blogs and reviews. He grew up in Hawke’s Bay where sport was the thing. Now it’s music, horror movies, dog walks and family time. The Death of Music Journalism is his second book (after 2012’s On Song) and his first book of poetry. He blogs, everyday, at offthetracks.co.nz and is the host of Sweetman Podcast. Sometimes he appears on RNZ talking about music. And would like to do that more often.

The Cuba Press author page

Poetry Shelf review: Jess Fiebig’s My Honest Poem

Jess Fiebig My Honest Poem Auckland University Press 2020

When I was a scrap of blonde hair, pink cheeks

and jam-smeared hands, my grandma would say

‘that girl always needs a pen in her hand’

and at twenty-eight, I think she called it,

right from the start.

from ‘My Honest Poem’

I first picked up Jess Fiegbig’s book when we were in lockdown and I held the book at arm’s length as I was navigating my own dark thoughts. It wasn’t the time to cross poetry bridges into difficult subject matter. Yes this is a book of darkness, of anxiety, family violence, sex, drug addiction but it is also a book of hope, grit, grace. Jess’s poems navigate a woman coming into being along a rocky road, but the book is also a revelation of poems coming to life.

The title suggests the writing is an opening up, the poems frank, holding out for truth. And truth is a hot coal to handle. Prismatic. Shining this light here and that light there. For Jess it is also the heat (and ice) of writing from the searing embers of personal experience. Yet when she writes though tough subjects, her love of writing pulsates, and the words are agile on the line:

I slide two fingers

down my throat

to ease out the knots

I have folded myself into

starting gently at the bottom

and working my way up

just like

when I sat on his knee

at six years old

and he carefully combed

my tangled blonde curls

from ‘Knots’

The middle section of the book, ‘I get lost in lovers’, is both an emptying out and a replenishing. There is the physical vomiting that brings up both bile and the internal weights. ‘Kitchen Sink’ ends with the image of the grandmother and her handbag (‘the kitchen sink’) that carries ‘so much that is heavy, unnecessary’. The poet’s kitchen sink is internal, we infer: ‘I lug my own kitchen sink with me’. This swing between shedding and reclaiming finds the sharp-edged things as well as love, friendship, desire.

You need to add the crafting of poems, the hints at how poems arrive, the way certain words shimmer or blaze on the line. Yes these poems are linguistic treat. Lithe, fluent, musical, economical, image rich. Poetic choices are amplifying the subject matter. Take a stanza from ‘Hypnic Jerk’ for example. You get a murmur of ‘mms’, the tantalising hit of ‘dream souvenirs’. The image of the apple in the throat conjures voice, growth, presence, absence, the memory scaffolding maintained by a go-to image. The very fickle and hard-to-articulate business of memory:

     I have kept

           dream souvenirs

     for a time when remembering you

     wouldn’t grow an apple

                                in my throat

 

     from ‘Hypnic Jerk’

I find this stanza in ‘Party After Riccarton Races’ equally gripping:

     Sunday, without sleep,

     I seek out the beach, hope

     that sand on skin might release

     the brine in my head.

The poem describes a party in a multi-storied swimming-pooled home, where white powder is offered in lines on platters rather than canapes – but it is the ‘brine’ in her head that catches me, the salty agent of preservation that is holding things the speaker wants to discharge and dissolve.

People feature. Lovers, yes. Friends. In the beginning an achingly honest depiction of a mother with various addiction and distances, the abusive boyfriend of her mother. It is particularly moving to read in the acknowledgements Jess’s mention of her mother: ‘whose support of me telling these story shows real grace’. The grandmother is a recurring figure and she is a magnet of warmth and wisdom.

When we say grace,

she declares that I have cold hands, and

a warm heart; don’t go giving it all away.

My grandmother has perfect fingernails

her lined palms are soft, fleshy,

as they rest tenderly

on my arm; her touch

feels like home.

from ‘Palmistry’

The land also becomes a grounding. A way of locating a scene, a relationship, an outing, a mood shifter, an epiphany. Again the poet’s craft, the exquisite movement of word on the line, both aurally and visually, assists the story being told, the personal story being laid down:

     the yolk yellow leaves,

     brash and unashamedly golden

     in this lilac light,

     are shocking in their defiance

     of the gentle pastel landscape

 

     they stir something inside me

     that has lain still

                                    for so long.

 

     from ‘Dead Man’s Point’

My Honest Poem is a move towards new beginnings. The poetry is fresh, succulent and lyrical. Perhaps the most moving collection I have read this year; it might be difficult for some readers, but this is a poetry arrival to celebrate. It took courage to write this book, and it took a finely-tuned ear and eye to achieve such a poetry gleam.

Auckland University Press page.

Jess Fiebig is a Christchurch-based poet whose work has featured in Best New Zealand Poems 2018, Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2018 and 2019, Landfall, Turbine | Kapohau and takahē. She was runner-up in the 2019 Sarah Broom Poetry Prize.

Jess is reading in my Wild Honey session at Word in Christchurch.

Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: Tusiata Avia’s ‘Covid in the time of Primeminiscinda’

Covid in the time of Primeminiscinda

I’m not listening to Jacinda

I’m going to my friend’s party and all the herbalists are there

listing all the things:

Thieves Oil, whiteywood, kānuka, honeysuckle, pōhutukawa,

horopito, elderberry syrup.

It’s really easy, they say, all you have to do is go for many

miles into the wilds, recognise the right things, pick them,

dry them in a confusing and special way, boil them, decant

them, strain them into pure glass bottles and seal them.

You’ll be lucky to find them for sale anymore.

This freaks me out so I go home.

Level 1

I’m listening to Jacinda

I’m telling myself that I’m staying the hell away from herbalists

and Facebook

I’m sitting in cafés with the panickers, the terrified and the lonely.

I know there is plenty to panic about.

I’m staying six feet away

chatting to the old man with the stroke in his arm and his leg.

How are you? he asks. I’m good, I answer.

I’m watching the surprise in his droopy eye

and his lopsided smile.

I’m talking to the German Hare Krishna, who owns the café,

and asking her how she copes with everyone coming in

and eating their anxiety and leaving saliva on the plates.

They’re just stimulated by all of this, she says, but I have Krishna

and I will be all right.

Level 2

I’m waking up at five in the morning and I’m thinking maybe

Jacinda has become my Krishna

Hare Jacinda

Rama Primeminiscinda

I take her picture down and light my incense to nothing at all.

I’m asking my eighty-six-year-old mother to ring me half

an hour before she comes into the same room as

me and my daughter, so I can disinfect:

the light switches and the door knobs and the cupboard handles

and the fridge door and the microwave door and the knife-

drawer handle and the taps and the dishwasher door and the

bench and the tabletop and her dining-room chair and the

back of her chair and the landline phone and the TV remote

and the heat-pump remote

and then I walk quickly to the other end of the house

and disinfect the toilet and the flush button and all the light

switches and the taps and the empty towel rail.

I keep reminding my daughter:

Imagine Uncle is lying on the floor with his feet here and

his head there, that’s how far you have to stay away from Granny.

I speak loudly to Mum (cos she’s pretty deaf):

Stay away Mum, stay away.

Before my brother and my niece arrive for the last time,

my daughter is deep-frying panikeke

I say the word dangerous more than fifteen times

then I’m standing under the shower and forcing myself to

breathe

just leaving her with the boiling oil and standing under

the water and trying to breathe. I am just having a shower I am just

having a shower I am just having a shower.

I’m listening to Jacinda and clicking on her message to the nation

and the full media briefing she does afterwards

and the science woman with bright pink hair who shows us how

to wash our hands.

I am calling a briefing for my mother and daughter.

I am Jacinda

I’m plugging myself in to the TV and turning the volume up

loud enough that my daughter

has to cover her ears

and my mum can hear.

Are you ready, I ask them? Are you ready?

Level 3

Jacinda is saying tomorrow is lockdown

I know my daughter is out of sanitary pads and I’m not sure

if the taxis will keep running, so, I’m going to Wainoni

Pak’nSave with six zillion other people.

Jacinda told us to shop normally.

I’m telling myself: Shop normally shop normally shop normally

I’m forcing myself to buy one packet of toilet paper

and four cans of baby beetroot. A woman is taking photos of all

the different kinds of sanitary pads to send to her daughter.

She steps back and bumps into me. I’m trying not to freak out,

I’m forcing myself to walk slowly around the supermarket

walk slowly walk slowly walk slowly.

I’m going back to the health and beauty aisle and searching for

Rescue Remedy and not finding it

I see a guy I met on Tinder ages ago and didn’t sleep with

and he says, Well, how do you tell the story?

and gives me a look as if it is a thing that neither of us

could know, as if it is a thing perhaps no one could know.

In the carpark a couple of young bogans

stick their heads out of the car window

and cough as loud as they can, laugh and drive off.

I’m reading what the microbiologist has said about

disinfecting.

You have to let it sit for ten minutes

or you’re just moving the bacteria around.

I thought I was doing a good job keeping my mum safe.

I thought I was keeping her safe, so if she does die,

at least I will know I did all the right things

but I’ve just been moving it around.

Level 4

I’m listening to the bugle call in the kitchen.

Jesus isn’t coming back or Armageddon

or even the end of Level 4

but here is the moment of silence, so I stop

whatever ten-minute meal I am making

and remember those who have fallen: the Anzacs and the Covid

cluster down the road at the Rosewood Rest Home.

Tusiata Avia from The Savage Coloniser Book Victoria University Press, 2020

Tusiata Avia is an acclaimed poet, performer and children’s writer. Her previous poetry collections are Wild Dogs Under My Skirt (2004; also staged as a theatre show, most recently Off-Broadway, winning the 2019 Outstanding Production of the Year), Bloodclot (2009) and the Ockham-shortlisted Fale Aitu | Spirit House (2016). Tusiata has held the Fulbright Pacific Writer’s Fellowship at the University of Hawai‘i in 2005 and the Ursula Bethell Writer in Residence at University of Canterbury in 2010. She was the 2013 recipient of the Janet Frame Literary Trust Award, and in 2020 was appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to poetry and the arts. Her latest collection, The Savage Coloniser Book, has just been published by Victoria University Press.

Victoria University Press page

Poetry Shelf Lounge: Richard Langston reads from his new collection, Five O’Clock Shadows

Richard Langston reads three poems from his new collection, Five O’Clock Shadows (The Cuba Press, 2020)

Richard Langston is a poet, television director, and writer. Five O’Clock Shadows is his sixth book of poems. His previous books are Things Lay in Pieces (2012), The Trouble Lamp (2009), The Newspaper Poems (2007), Henry, Come See the Blue (2005), and Boy (2003). He also writes about NZ music and posts interviews with musicians on the Phantom Billstickers website.

The Cuba Press author page

Poetry Shelf review: Diane Brown’s Every now and then I have another child

Every now and then I have another child, Diane Brown, Otago University Press, 2020

Sometimes you reach for memory,

an impossible task in this throw-away

world. What choice is there but to slip

on your new self as if you come clean

without story

from ‘This Is How It Is for All of Us’ in Every now and then I have another child

Diane’s Brown previous book, a poetic memoir entitled Taking My Mother to the Opera, was ‘a rollercoasting, detail-clinging, self-catapulting, beautiful read’ (from my review ). I loved the book so was very interested to see how I engaged with Diane’s new one: Every now and then I have another child.

The new book is narrative poetry; a narrative comprising individual poems with a cast of characters that offer multiple viewpoints. For me it is a collection of border crossings, with notions and experiences of motherhood the key narrative propulsion. Everything blurs and overlaps as the fictional touches the surreal and brushes against the real.

I am reminded of Luigi Pirandello’s play, Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921), but in this case it is an author in search of characters and characters in search of each other. Joanna is a writer, poet, creative writing teacher and mother. Anna, her doppelgänger, is homeless and gatecrashes funerals. There is a mysterious baby, both phantom and pseudo-real. There are two sons, one a geek on the spectrum scale and one a sensitive surfer. There is a stepmother, a missing mother and an alcoholic father. Add in a detective, a former lover and a baby in the mural on the wall.

Life is dislocating; the borders are porous with movement between what is real and what is not real, what is present and what is missing, what is longed for and what is abandoned. Reading your way through the poetry thickets is reading symphonic psychological effects. It is reading deep into the shadows and discovering shards of light. Being mother and being daughter is complicated and complicating. There are cryptic clues, a dead body, another dead body, a crying baby, a need to imagine, a need to name and be named. Reading the list of characters underlines the way in which the narrative is also genre crossing: think fiction, memoir, poetry, detective fiction, flash fiction.

I can’t think of another book like it in Aotearoa. The spooky porcelain doll photographed by Judith White on the cover (my standard reaction to porcelain dolls) sets me up for various hauntings. Joanna is haunted by a phantom baby and her missing mother. Anna is haunted by Joanna, and by life itself. There is the way in which writing itself is a kind of haunting. How do you start? How do you keep going? How do words matter? And i would add reading. Reading this is a kind of haunting. I am thinking of the way the past – with its shadows and its light – has the ability to haunt.

Issues of creative writing are touched upon, and make you reflect back on the making of the narrative, on the author herself. If there are multiple border crossings, are there also ways in which ‘Diane’ hides in the thickets, leaves traces of herself in various characters, encounters, epiphanies? You cannot package this sequence within a neat and tidy story where everything makes sense and the real outweighs the dream or imaginary scape. Nor would you want to. We are reading poetry that draws upon rich genre possibilities, the slipperiness of writing when you try to pin it down, the evasiveness of memory, the multifaceted prongs of experience.

And that’s what makes the collection such a rewarding read. You will bump into the calamitous real world with the homeless, conspiracy theories, alternative facts, North Korean missiles. You will move from Dunedin to Auckland to Alice Springs and London, with Dunedin being the physical heart of the narrative. Geographic movement, temporal movement, emotional movement: with all roads leading to motherhood and creative processes. It is a sumptuous and haunting book that you need to experience for yourself without a reviewer ruining the startles, the surprises, the puzzles and the moving connections. I am going to do something I have never done before and leave you with the terrific last poem so you can read it, then get the book, open it at page one and find your own way to the ending. Listening hard along the way. Poetry is most definitely a way of listening. ‘Listen.’

Written on the Body

The Baby

I’ve heard the narrator give

borrowed advice: writers

need to kill their ego.

Never easy to follow yourself,

harder still to coax children

from cocoons into the light,

tracing every inch of skin

and reading what is written

with indelible ink.

Word that may unearth

the buried and extinct,

can re-ice glaciers,

turn petrified trees back

 into lush green leafiness,

repopulate the seas,

and extinguish fires

raging out of control

at the top of the world.

But to see such words,

you have to strip bare, hold

nothing back and listen. Listen.

Diane Brown

DIANE BROWN is a novelist, memoirist and poet who runs her own creative writing school, Creative Writing Dunedin. Her publications include two collections of poetry (Before the Divorce We Go to Disneyland and Learning to Lie Together), a novel (If the Tongue Fits), a verse novel (Eight Stages of Grace), a travel memoir (Liars and Lovers), a prose/poetic memoir (Here Comes Another Vital Moment) and a poetic family memoir (Taking My Mother to the Opera). In 2013 she was made a Member of New Zealand Order of Merit for services to writing and education.

Otago University Press page

Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: Mohamed Hassan’s ‘Heaven is a window you can climb through’

Heaven is a window you can climb through

From the top of the sky-

tower we watch lovers

uncouple against

the sunset, red and screaming

light across faces of buildings

unbent by time, everyone belts

romance and the band plays over-

produced pop songs, a girl weeps

in disbelief, a boyfriend begs her

to calm down, two strangers long

for each other’s bones, a boy made

of scruff dances for every lost

night of wild, his heart unnerved, a hurt

like a heaven on his chest, we eat burgers

by the wharf, I make conversation

with people I’d rather not, practice my best

fake smile, the train smells like the morning

after, the earth is a flat plane, an endless reel

spinning on a loop, what if I never leave?

Mohamed Hassan

Mohamed Hassan is an award-winning journalist and poet from Auckland and Cairo. He was the 2015 National Poetry Slam Champion, a TEDx fellow, and represented NZ at the Individual World Poetry Slam in 2016. In 2017 he was awarded the Gold Trophy at the New York Radio Awards for his RNZ podcast series ‘Public Enemy’. His new collection of poems ‘National Anthem’ will be released in October by Dead Bird Books, and is available for pre-order.

A Poetry Shelf audio gathering: Dunedin poets celebrate Elizabeth Brooke-Carr (1940 – 2019)

Carolyn McCurdie introduces the reading

Carolyn McCurdie reads ‘When bright red was eclipsed by silver shoon’

Martha Morseth reads ‘On discovering your oncologist is a travel agent’

Jenny Powell reads ‘A spot on the map’

Maxine Alterio reads ‘The vein whisperer’

Claire Beynon reads ‘Poolburn’

Elizabeth Brooke-Carr (1940 – 2019) was a Dunedin poet, essayist, short story writer, teacher, counseller. Her writing appeared in newspapers, online journals and anthologies. She was awarded the New Zealand Society of Authors’ 75th Anniversary Competition and the Dunedin Public Libraries competition Changing Minds: Memories Lost and Found. She received a PhD from the University of Otago. Wanting to tell you everything was published by Caselberg Press in 2020.

Poetry Shelf review of Wanting to tell you everything

The readers

Jenny Powell, Martha Morseth, Maxine Alterio, Carolyn McCurdie, Claire Beynon

Maxine Alterio is a novelist, short story writer and academic mentor. She has published four works of fiction and co-authored a textbook about learning through reflective storytelling.

Claire Beynon lives in Broad Bay. An artist and writer, she works on a range of collaborative, interdisciplinary projects balancing group activities with the contemplative rhythms of her solo studio practice. She’s in the slow process of completing a second collection of poetry.

Carolyn McCurdie is a Dunedin writer of poetry and fiction, especially speculative fiction. Her poetry collection Bones in the Octagon was published by Makaro Press in 2015.

Martha Morseth has written articles for More Magazine and the NZ Woman’s Weekly since l982, and poems for The Listener, Landfall and other literary New Zealand magazines. She has published two collections of poetry, three collections of short stories and plays for high school English classrooms. She came to New Zealand in 1972 with her husband and two daughters.

Jenny Powell has published seven individual and two collaborative collections of poems. She is part of the touring poetry duo, J & K Rolling, and is the 2020 RAK Mason Writing Fellow.

Poetry Shelf: Anna Jackson’s equinox sonnet

Untitled spring equinox sonnet.  

I will not ever leave this winter

mood and be a winner,

I refuse, I insist on being wanner

than anyone, wander

where I will, past warder

and hoarder, walking harder

and faster, still harping on, harper

that I am, about my cold hands and damper

feet, my hair, too, damped

and darkened in the rain. Dammed

up I’ll remain like a gutter full of dimmed

autumn leaves, washed white but not dimmer

than I insist of remaining as I simmer

about your supposedly approaching summer.

Anna Jackson

Anna Jackson made her debut in AUP New Poets 1 before publishing six collections with Auckland University Press, including I, Clodia, and Other Portraits (2014). She has a DPhil from Oxford and is now an associate professor in English literature at Victoria University of Wellington. Jackson is the author of Diary Poetics: Form and Style in Writers’ Diaries 1915–1962 (Routledge, 2010) and, with Charles Ferrall, British Juvenile Fiction 1850–1950: The Age of Adolescence (Routledge, 2009).

Poetry Shelf interviews Rachel McAlpine

How to Be Old: Poems Rachel McAlpine, The Cuba Press, 2020

Nobody knows your neck squeaks.

Nobody knows your heart

is a bowl of poems.

 

Everything you do is very very good

and very very good is good enough.

 

The past supports us

like a trampoline.

The future? Face it.

Unlace it. Embrace it.

 

At dusk I want to be with you and stay.

I love it when you ask about my day.

 

from ‘Fortune  cookies’

 

 

 

Wellington writer Rachel McAlpine blogs and podcasts about old age. She has published novels, songs, plays, books about writing as well as a number of poetry collections. To celebrate her 80th birthday she has published a new book of poems, How to Be Old. She kindly agreed to answer some questions for Poetry Shelf.

The Cuba Press page

Rachel’s blog Write into Life

 

Paula: Like me, you are a Minister’s daughter. I am wondering what you read as a child?

Rachel: Everything available! We (six girls) went to the library every Friday and came home fully loaded with books. But the Book of Common Prayer had the most irresistible and enduring influence on my language.

Paula: What books stood out in your teenage reading?

Rachel: Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Tess of the Durbervilles spring to mind.

Paula: Can you name a few poets that have really mattered to you across the decades?

Rachel: Across the decades? Well, Allen Curnow was at university with my parents and was even engaged to my mother for two weeks: thus I was aware that some poets were living humans. This mattered to me because at school we read dead poets and only dead poets. My mother read Whim Wham in the Saturday Press which reinforced my arcane insider knowledge. Poets who first took my breath away include Pablo Neruda, Gerard Manly Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, Federico Garcia Lorca, Erica Jong and Adrienne Rich. Then a wave of young male New Zealand poets in the 1970s got me thinking hmm, maybe I could do that too…

When we bang on about our trips

and our memoirs and our blogs

and our grandchildren (best of kind)

our ills and pills and volunteering

our hearing aids and hips—

pay attention, don’t switch off

because this

is our first attempt at being old

and we’re wondering how to do it

not just for us but for you.

 

from ‘Templates’

 

Paula: I was really struck by your reaction to Sam Hunt’s contention in the 1970s that women either wrote very good or very bad poems: ‘just women scribbling their little women’s nothings’. So rather than mimic his lyrical voice–you wrote from life, and you wrote for women, and in doing so refused to see women’s writing (the how and the what) as mediocre. I love you for this. Your bolshiness. I see that inspirational bolshiness there in your new book! Am I right?

Rachel: Oh sure, I can’t help seeming bolshy even when I think I’m being most reasonable. Many of the poems in How To Be Old come from a bolshy approach to the clichés of old age. Come on now! What does that even mean, “age is just a number”? What is old age really, specifically, cold-bloodedly like—not to the observer but to the old person?

Paula: Do you think things have changed for women writers? I just checked out the latest Starling issue and its nearly all women (under 25s). Women poets are writing anything and everything, and are most definitely in the spotlights.

Rachel: Agree! Was it Arthur Baysting’s 1973 anthology The Young New Zealand Poets that included 19 men and one woman, Jan Kemp? With International Women’s year looming that was a red rag to a bull. Hard to imagine now.

Paula: Yes – although there is still a way to go. I talk about it in Wild Honey. I just love the energy and output from the current wave of young poets.

Your new book How to Be Old is a glorious evocation of old age. Such captivating self-exposure. Was this also a feature of your first collections? What angst made its way into your poetry then?

Rachel: Hey thanks, Paula! My first collection was basically shouting “I feel sad!” (as you need to sometimes). After that I jumped feet first into other issues, mainly feminist ones. My own experience is a good starting point for making a larger point digestible. Not much angst in How To Be Old, although some sadness tempers the joy.

In the seventies and eighties

as a mournful poet

and strident feminist

(there was no other sort)

I shouted loud and rude

mean and bold

waking up my sisters

with the stories of their lives.

 

from ‘Growing my brand’

 

Paula: You were a significant voice for me in the 1970s – did you feel part of a writing community, particularly women? What about now?

Rachel: In the 1970s and 80s I totally felt part of a community, a world of women who were busting to write about our own experience and women who needed to hear our voices, which were also theirs. Then I dipped out of the literary world for a couple of decades: I was very absorbed in my work with digital content until 2015. I did keep writing poems but didn’t publish. So as a poet I’ve been a bit of a loner since then, except for those who have followed my blog and podcast.

The bravest are millions

 

Out there living the bravest days

are the very old, the frail old

using every scrunch of the soul

for the next impossible chore.

The very old must win and win

on multiple fronts

day after trembling day.

 

Out there building the bravest lives

are the young

knowing what we knew

and did not do.

 

Rachel McAlpine

 

Paula: I think Wild Honey has really made me feel part of communities of women writing and supporting each other. Like you I am a loner poet but so many possibilities for connection these days.

Your new collection refreshes the way old age can be both viewed and lived. The poems are tender, vulnerable, provocative, entertaining. What prompted to you to publish a collection after a bit of a gap?

Rachel: Two things. A, I sold my business and had time on my hands. B, I turned 75 and abruptly realized that I might live another 25 years. So I needed a little hobby to keep me busy (joke). I went late and went hard at old age. Obsessed about it, researched it, decided to do at least one thing per month for a year to improve my chances of having a healthy old-old age. That project, my boot camp for the bonus years, shone a light on my own barmy ageism and society’s odd way of talking about old age. A year later, I started processing this strange interlude and the product was this book, How To Be Old. (Which of course is not a manual.)

I gave myself one year

to understudy for the role

of someone old.

I was confused but I was committed.

Month by month I tackled

housing and eating and exercise

finance and hobbies and friends and voice

happiness and brain and mind

and identity

and lastly, nervously

the existential bit.

 

from ‘My boot camp bonus years’

 

Paula: Let’s go back to old age. Just as there are continued pressures on young women to achieve ridiculous ideals there are equally ridiculous notions about old age: on ‘how to be old’. Your collection navigates this so beautifully – but can you comment on what delights and what bugs you about ‘how to be old’?

Rachel: That’s the nitty gritty, isn’t it? Well, no doubt about it, my own old age so far offers many delights. I’m alive, for one thing. At dawn I’m inclined to say, Good morning world! Thank you for having me! (I’m deeply privileged to have superannuation and a roof over my head and to live in this beautiful place.) I’m interested in my brain workings: my short-term memory is crap but the rest is working better and faster than ever… until too soon I get tired and it goes on strike. So in dance rehearsals I learn choreography at a perfectly acceptable rate—then instantly forget it. Puzzling, isn’t it? I like the So what? attitude that many old people report: that is rather obvious in my poems, I hope. What bugs me? Nothing so far except when I get a whiff of condescension from someone younger—but then that was me until I was 75, so I do understand.

A cold teabag on a sore eye feels good.

A cold mermaid on the eye

feels good too.

 

Tell you what, Granny.

What say I write a prescription

to stop you forgetting

that your friend is dead

because that makes you sad.

 

from ‘Alternative therapy’

Paula: Love love love this age attitude, and I love the tips for well-being in the last section of poems. Can you comment on this section?

Rachel: My lovely granddaughter Elsie was my life coach when she was little. I recorded her wise words for future reference and tickled them into poems. So the book ends with some of her tips. You could use them, Paula: then you would know how to breathe, what to do when zombies come up the toilet, and how to think. 

Paula: Thank you! What did you hope for the poetry as you wrote? In terms of the ‘poemness’ and the poems’ reception?

Rachel: Every now and then I let myself slip into something lyrical or mysterious. But the poems are intended to be read aloud by anyone and talked about over coffee (not studied at university) so I guess I wanted most of them to be clear, funny, challenging and sort of comforting. I’ve had great feedback from readers, who always bring so much to the table. An occupational therapist tells me she has been reading my poems to all her client groups. That is absolutely perfect: I couldn’t wish for more.

You are tourists in our land.

We are prisoners of slow.

That said, we’d rather be quick than slow

and we’d rather be slow than dead.

 

from ‘Slow’

 

Paula: I love the way you open pronouns wide – to embrace versions of you and welcome in the reader. Do you have no-go areas as a writer?

Rachel: I think in my old age I don’t judge people so much. (Or do I?) When it comes to aging, we’re all doing own best thing. And I have been many different people.

Paula: Do you bring autobiography and fiction together or did you navigate forms of truth?

Rachel: There’s no way I can control the way people read my poems so I might as well use myself as my own lab rat. My confidence is based on the certainty that I’m not a one-off. With How To Be Old I think I express ideas about aging that many others also think or have half-thought. That’s my wee gift to the world.

Paula: Indeed! What words fit you as poet? I think of provocative, personal, poetic fluency.

Rachel: I love hearing that, of course. Actually I mainly write for the joy of it so maybe that comes through?

Paula: Ah, my favourite poetry guide too – I write for love and joy! Do you have doubt tagging along? Is there a particular poem that was hard to write?

Rachel: I have a well of black muck inside me which converts to self-doubt if stirred. I’m human.

We take anecdotes and turn them to the light.

We polish them in private.

They are touchstones. So it goes.

 

from ‘How older people talk’

 

Paula: What else do you love to do apart from writing?

Rachel: Dance, sing, draw, read, think, do Pilates, tai ch’i, walk on Mt Victoria, watch Netflix and hang out with my friends and family.