Category Archives: NZ poetry book

Louise Wallace’s Bad Things – There is a freshness and a daring at work here

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Bad Things, Louise Wallace, Victoria University Press, 2017

Some poetry collections depend upon a thread of similarity; connective subject matter, recurring motifs, a cohesion of form, tone and voice. Other collections resemble mosaics made of infinitely varied pieces that come together in surprising and satisfying ways. Louise Wallace’s new book, Bad Taste, exemplifies the latter. Turn the page and you have no idea what to expect – yet everything fits in the same animated package. There is a freshness and a daring at work here, because the poetry seems beholden only to its own choreography. I love that. I can’t think of another book quite like it. The cover, with the little patch of flame in the dark, and the boat waiting with its strange mix of birds, is the perfect entry into the poems.

Sometimes the poems relate little stories; condensed in prose paragraphs or strung with slashes to read in a single outbreath. Certain poems stop you in your tracks when you get to the last line and then tip you off the tracks of reading. ‘The hunt’ begins with a woman needing silence, yet it’s impossible to find when her voice rings out ‘like bells in the library’. She needs ‘to go church to pray’, but the poem does the twist and tilt and the ending becomes uneasy:

 

and without the silence she can’t pray / and if she doesn’t pray she will starve

 

Images also keep you on your reading toes: they might be strange, brightly-lit, smudged. There is, for example, a depiction of terrible things, ‘bad things’, that might fill a head:

 

They grow there—

a forest of tiny umbrellas.

They flourish—

a crown of terrible heads.

 

from ‘Bad things’

 

Or the sight and sound of a woman in a dump shop; ‘I’m amazed, she says’ over and over (‘Trash Palace’).

Or the sight and sound of a woman packing her husband and various assorted characters, including ‘the owner of the local chip shop’, into a row boat:

 

though it was extremely cramped

and they rowed

out to the open ocean

and sat quiet

and waited.

 

from ‘The body began to balance itself’

 

One poem may be densely packed and prose-like, while the next might offer short snappy lines that extend a poetic spine down the page:

 

resting shoulder

touching elbow

 

fingers to forehead

hand to cheek

 

from ‘Arrivals’

 

Strange poems, that may be hyper-real or surreal, hook with the element of surprise crouching somewhere:

 

7. You cannot take off the backpack.

8. You cannot just take off either.

9. You try to escape your own skin.

 

from ‘Right of return’

 

Sometimes it is a matter of taking three or four things (a man in a bus, the downhill, the light and the safety) and seeing what happens:

 

the light bounces

off the hill blindingly

bright and he’s saying

to himself

safety first

safety first

and he’s right, and all

through the bus

there is light.

 

from ‘Safety first’

 

Politics hue the mosaic pieces and slip in different directions, whether gender or ecological. Famous people glint the surface because their very presence is out-of-the-ordinary in the day-to-day ordinariness of what goes on. I especially like Meryl Streep, (but you also get Robert Redford and Reese Witherspoon): ‘Meryl Streep went nuts at me in the breakfast room, because I’d taken her table by mistake.’ I also like the arrival of Reeese, in ‘There are lots of ladies who have survived the desert’. The protagonist is walking in the desert, parched and desperate, when she hears wailing: ‘Reese Witherspoon emerges from behind a shrub, holding a plastic bowl full of oats and water.’ She cannot get her primus to work. Again Louise delivers the twist and tilt at the end of the poem, as though a shadow voice whispers to us to find perspective when we read of her neighbour: ‘Janet’s husband came home drunk one night and smashed a chair across her back.’

 

To understand the ability of the collection to travel and arc and shuffle, you need to juxtapose the offbeat with the achingly real. ‘Helping my father remember’ is the white hot searing heart of the collection. Communication is impaired: ‘Except something’s/ gone wrong with the wiring/ and he didn’t teach me/ how to fix it.’ The poem delivers such an emotional hit because of the way it lays little details alongside each other; the fact that the daughter is most like her father and his mother, and that sound might reactivate memory or that she is following him ‘through/ tall grasses, as high/ as my head.’  This time the ending is not a strange tilt but a poignant dive deeper below the poem’s surface:

 

We’re heading

to the river.

You find Nana,

and I’ll find you.

We won’t be lost

if we’re together.

 

If Louise’s new collection pulls you into a mosaic of dream, confession, anecdote or troublesome issues, it does so with a deft and darting accumulation of line. The overall effect works upon your ear, eye, heart and mind. There is stillness and movement, gaps and prickling images. I couldn’t ask for more – it’s a terrific read.

 

Louise Wallace is a poet and the founder and editor of The Starling, a literary journal for young NZ writers. She has published two previous collections: Since June (2009) and Enough(2013) . She was the 2015 Robert Burns Literary Fellow at Otago University.

 

Victoria University page

‘Reminders for December’ plus author note posted on Poetry Shelf

Louise in conversation with Pip Adam on Bad Things at Better Off Read

The Starling an online literary journal for young NZ writers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poets on Tour: Airini Beautrais and Maria McMillan take to the road, July 2017

Airini Beautrais and Maria McMillan have written up their poetry road trip. I am so hoping this becomes a thing – two poet friends on tour with new books.    

 

 

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both Victoria University Press, 2017

We’ve known each other since the early 2000s, and both of us have been writing poetry for even longer than that. Some common threads in our work include feminism, social justice, environmentalism, and an interest in the possibilities of form. Over a cup of tea one afternoon in Maria’s lounge we agreed that as we both had books coming out this year, we should go on tour. Maria had been working hard in non-poetry related paid gigs, Airini was battling some difficult personal circumstances, and some time on the road reading with other women poets seemed like just what the doctor (of creative writing) ordered.

Somehow the tour got planned amidst the mad mess of everyday life. Sarah Laing kindly agreed to let us use her drawings for promotional purposes. Airini made a DIY poster with the help of scissors, glue, wallpaper and blu-tack. The word went out. The car got packed.

 

On Friday 14 July Airini held a book launch for Flow: Whanganui River Poems, at the Whanganui regional museum. Maria was the main support act on the night, reading from her recently-released The Ski Flier (Airini had also read at Maria’s launch a month earlier). Jenny Bornholdt read a poem by Joanna Margaret Paul. Other local booklovers read some favourite Whanganui-linked poems. VUP publicist and talented novelist Kirsten McDougall gave a fantastic launch speech.

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Accidental ankh, Dannevirke

In the morning it was coffee, porridge and a quick trip to Whanganui’s famous SaveMart ‘The Mill’. Then onto the back roads of the Manawatu with a battered road atlas and smartphones which were largely ignored. We made it over the Pohangina Saddle, and lunched on launch leftovers in Dannevirke, where we discovered a church with a possibly accidental (we think maybe not) ankh – a perfect opportunity for posing with our books. On to Napier where it appeared we had entered a time warp. Airini’s dirty old Honda suddenly looked new alongside the vintage cars sweeping around the waterfront, driven by flappers and dapper gentlemen. The thought occurred to us that it was Deco weekend.

 

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Beattie and Forbes Booksellers with Marty and Emily

Beattie and Forbes Booksellers is a must-visit independent bookstore near the sea in Napier. They opened up on a Saturday evening so we could read, with Marty Smith and Emily Dobson. Old friends and new turned up, along with members of local poetry groups. It seems that anywhere you go in New Zealand, there’ll be a poetry group of some sort, and a reading will draw at least some of them out of the woodwork. A highlight of the evening was Emily reading a poem owing a debt to her young daughter, called ‘Thea’s ‘gina song,’ which ended ‘It’s a ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-BAGINA!’ Both Marty and Emily are accomplished poets and readers and it was a privilege to read alongside them.

 

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Maria at Waiomu Cafe

 

Sunday 16th we set off from Marty’s picturesque country house, on our big drive through to Thames. The roads had opened, but were still lined with snow.  We made it to our reading at Waiomu Beach Café with five minutes to spare. The café is in a beautiful spot and draws in regulars driving around the Coromandel coastal road. It’s run by Maria’s cousin Julie, who was an amazing host. Airini also met some extended family members at the reading. More FM were there, and interviewed us. We read in the outdoor courtyard, adjusting our volume according to the passing traffic. Over the road, a cop issued speeding tickets. A kereru landed in a tree alongside. We posed for more book photos under the pohutukawa, took Julie’s dog for a walk, and enjoyed the scenery.

 

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The Big House, Parnell with Tulia and Emma

Thames seems like the kind of place one could stay in forever, but on Monday morning we carried on to Auckland.  We parked the car and went to hear a reading at the Auckland Art Gallery with Steve Toussaint, Simone Kaho, Elizabeth Morton, Johanna Emeney and Michael Morrissey. Everyone read well, but a disgruntled audience member booed, hissed and heckled during question time at the end. Chair Siobhan Harvey did an excellent job of shouting him down. We looked at each other and wondered if this was how poetry readings always went in Auckland. But our reading that evening at the Big House in Parnell, with Simone Kaho and Tulia Thompson, was a very warm and homely affair. Many of the house’s 25 occupants joined us by the fire to listen and talk, and housemate Emma also read some of her poems with us.

 

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Airini at Poetry Live, Auckland

 

Tuesday night’s gig was Poetry Live, at the Thirsty Dog on K Road. Like the Big House, Poetry Live is an institution that’s been going for decades. We were lucky to be there for the farewell to regular MC Kiri Piahana-Wong. There was a great turnout and the venue and audience were friendly and welcoming. We read by turns in our guest poet slot, feeling like proper rockstars against the backdrop of a drum kit and stage lighting.

By Wednesday we were tired, and ready to head home. We stopped for tea and toasted sandwiches in the Pink Cadillac diner in Turangi. We parted ways at the Desert Road, after which Maria had some variable hitchhiking experiences, and Airini zig-zagged back and forth around the mountains navigating road closures. We’d had a great time and were looking forward to the second leg.

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Vic Books in Wellington with Pip and Freya

 

The next leg kicked off on Friday 28 July with a lunchtime reading at Vic Books. We were joined by superstars Pip Adam, reading from her brand spanking new The New Animals, and Freya Daly Sadgrove, whose poetry is performative and highly entertaining. Maria read her poem, inspired by Pip, ‘In which I attain unimaginable greatness,’ in which the narrator attains superhero powers, achieves amazing feats, and at the end declares ‘This is how I begin. This is my first day.’

 

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Palmerston North with Helen and Jo

Palmerston North City Library on Saturday evening was possibly the highlight of the tour. The library is a great place to read, hosting numerous literary events throughout the year. The big windows feature poems by local Leonel Alvarado, and pedestrians have a way of peering in through the letters, wondering what’s going on in there. We’d decided on a dress up theme of ‘80s trash with our fabulous co-readers Helen Lehndorf and Jo Aitchison, which got us some funny looks in New World, but definitely improved our performances. Helen’s hair was particularly spectacular. We had a small crowd but a great vibe. A kebab and whisky party kept us awake until the wee small hours.

 

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Maria at Hightide Cafe

Helen’s chickens laid us our breakfast, and we revived ourselves with bottomless pots of tea. Maria’s superpowers became evident when she managed to drive us safely to our last gig, Poets to the People at Hightide Café in Paraparaumu. The sun was setting over Kāpiti as we drank coffee and listened to the open mike. Again, this is an event that’s been running for years, and there’s a sense the regulars know and love one another. We went home to a beautiful roast cooked by Maria’s partner Joe. The tour was over, but the fight continues! We had some great conversations in the car over those two weeks, and some good catch-ups with family and friends along the way. There was a lot of fighting talk, a lot of laughter and also a few tears. A big part of the tour was affirming ourselves as poets, mothers and radical women, and by the end of it, our unimaginable greatness was hard to deny.

 

Airini Beautrais and Maria McMillan, September 2017

 

 

my conversation with Airini

my review of The Ski Flier

VUP page for Airini

VUP page for Maria

 

 

 

 

James Brown launching new collection

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Victoria University Press warmly invites you to the launch of
James Brown’s brand new poetry collection

Floods Another Chamber

on Wednesday 4 October, 6pm–7.30pm
at The Guest Room, Southern Cross Garden Bar,
39 Abel Smith St, Te Aro.

Greg O’Brien will launch Floods Another Chamber

Books will be for sale courtesy of Unity Books.
p/b, $25
About Floods Another Chamber

 

 

 

Going West was a hit with me

 

Going West is a festival that devotes itself 100 per cent to showcasing an eclectic range of New Zealand writers: local, ultra-local (Westies), from out of Auckland. It draws upon fiction, poetry and nonficton and never fails to delight.

Due to the fire in the roof of Titirangi hall the festival moved into the beautiful ex Waitakere council chambers – better parking, not so far to drive for me, excellent green room, cosy space for sessions but I missed the hall and the bush and the village. As a temporary last minute venue – which must have been such stress on the team – it worked just fine.

As usual the food and shared conversations were excellent. Usually I go the whole weekend – but this year, just the Friday night and Saturday was possible. It means I sadly miss out on a suite of sessions today.

On Friday night we got to see our new Poet Laureate, Selina Tusitala Marsh in performance and, just as she sparks the poetic hearts of students in South Auckland (and elsewhere), she sparked the poetic hearts of festival goers. She delivered her Laureate ‘thank you’ speech again, a speech which acknowledges the people that have supported her, in the form of a list poem.  She read her poem for the Queen with generous anecdotes to accompany it along with the revenge poem (he who shall not be named did not shake her hand), and the poem on three Queens, the last being Alice Walker.

The tokotoko was passed round for everyone to touch and imbue the stick with individual mana. Skin prickling for so many of us.

Every New Zealand Poet Laureate has gifted something to poetry fans. Selina, one of our beloved poetry icons, with the charisma of Sam Hunt, Hone Tuwhare and Glenn Colquhoun, is one of the most important Laureate choices to date. Those of us lucky enough to hear her on Friday night, will know just what treasures we have in store.  It matters, as she says, that she is a brown face. It matters to every brown poet, every fledgling brown poet, and every student white and brown, who has yet to discover the liberating power of poetry.

It matters because Selina’s poetry shows how words can make music in the air, build vital connections to heart and mind, and challenge how we view the world.

If you get a chance to see her over the next few years – take it!

 

In a perfect and unplanned arc, Bill Manhire, our first Poet Laureate, and another beloved poetry icon, was part of the final session of the night. With jazz musician Norman Meehan, vocalist Hannah Griffin and Blair Latham on sax, we got to hear tracks from their new collaboration: Small Holes in the Silence. I have heard them before but the magic intensifies if anything on a subsequent hearing. The alchemy of word, musical score and manuka-honey voice is simply exquisite. It is absolutely breathtaking.

The next day, in our session, I described how listening to their new album/book, Tell Me My Name, is like a flotation aid. You listen and you lift above domestic routine, chores, head clutter. So yes, I floated home, adrift still in the after-effects.

 

Saturday was a long day, a good day. I had only managed a few hours sleep for various reasons so felt  like I was in between here and there, wwhich is the theme of the festival. On the way I passed so many ALTERNAT ROUTE signs I wondered if I would find my way home through all the detours that might then be in place. I felt like I was entering a found-poem trap and I would get stuck in it.

Sitting on stage with Bill and Norman for our session was a bit like sitting in a cafe – I wanted Norman to hit the keyboard and play melodies here and there. I loved the idea of him playing something while we listened to see what word score unfolded in our heads.  The inverse of Norman taking Bill’s poem and seeing what melody surfaces. It was fun to talk – people just happened to be listening!

Sadly I missed Diana Witchel and Steve Braunias – but I am going to make up for that and read the book: Driving to Treblinka. The audience loved this session.

I did hear Dame Anne Salmond in conversation with Moana Maniapoto and it was for many of us, an extraordinary thing. The conversation just flowed – it felt unafraid of anything: wisdom, human warmth, tough stuff, vulnerabilities, empathy.

In 1960 Anne met Māori and asked herself: ‘How come I’ve grown up in this country and know nothing about these people and this world?’

Eruera Stirling advised her: ‘If you are really interested in Māori Studies then the marae is the university for you.’

Anne: ‘I am a scholar but there’s a lot of stuff you can’t learn with your mind – you have to learn through your skin.’

Anne: doesn’t necessarily agree with the idea of one world with different views but prefers perhaps the  idea of a ‘mulitverse with different realities.’

Anne: ‘You can’t be an expert on the Treaty if you can’t speak Māori.’ She said  it would be like someone who couldn’t speak French acting as an expert on the French constitution.

Anne: ‘If the river is dying I am too.’

This is why I am both a reader and writer and a festival attendee. Because someone like Anne in conversation with someone like Moana can blast apart my thinking and feeling.

I have a copy of Tears of Rangi by my bed to read.

 

I got to hear Sarah Laing and Johanna Emeney read and talk. I have to say I love both the books (Mansfield and Me and Family History) and have written about both.  I love the way they showed that poetry/memoir does not need to stick to facts (Airini Beautrais said the same thing in her interview with me). The gold of this session was hearing the multi-talented Sarah read an extract with an enviable array of accents. Wow!

Loved hearing tastes of Pip Adams and Kirsten McDougall’s new novels – and the way the unreal can unravel the real in such innovative ways. They worked double hard not to spoil the reading experience, for those of us who still have the treat in store, by giving too much away. Just little tempting clues.

Loved hearing the very articulate Linda Cassells talk about the genesis of the Allen Curnow biography she edited after the death of her husband, Terry Sturm, and the way Bill Manhire stepped into the gap, with CK Stead ill,  read us a few poems, and shared a few anecdotes.

Thanks Going West. This was one very good festival – I was delighted to participate as both reader and writer.

 

 

 

 

Flow: Whanganui River Poems – Paula Green in conversation with Airini Beautrais

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Flow: Whanganui River Poems, Airini Beautrais, Victoria University Press, 2017

 

Airini grew up in Auckland and Whanganui, studied both ecological science and creative writing at Victoria University and has worked as a science teacher. Her debut collection, Secret Heart, won Best First Book of Poetry at the Montana New Zealand Book Awards in 2007. She has also published North Western Line and Dear Neil Roberts.

To celebrate the arrival of Airini’s fourth poetry collection, we embarked on an email conversation over the course of a week.

 

Paula: After reading the first few pages of your new collection, Flow: Whanganui River Poems, I felt the kind of spark that travels like electricity through your body as you read: heart, mind, ear, eye, everything on alert. When I was doing my Masters in Italian I read the fragmented fiction of Gianni Gelati. His writing was poetic, strange, addictive. With Narratori delle pianure (Storytellers of the plains), he travelled the length of the River Po, collecting stories from people who lived there. His people, his river, yet while the river dictated the itinerary, it was less of a protagonist. Instead the people he met flourished on the page in their out-of-the-ordinary ordinariness.

I had the idea at page 24 of Flow to have an email conversation with you as I read. I wondered how my relations with the poems might change over the course of reading; the reading would act as my surrogate river with its various currents and tributaries. I wondered how I would shift in view of the poetics, the ideas, stories, characters and the river itself. The book fills me with curiosity and delight at what poems can do.

My first curiosity. How did you prepare for the river poems beyond the craft of writing? Did you travel the river, visit communities, trawl the archives or rely on memory and books?

 

Airini: It’s interesting to hear about Gelati’s writing. In my case, I couldn’t say ‘my people, my river’ because I’m Pākehā, and the Whanganui is definitely a Māori river. My connection with the river is different. I see it often – I drive over it at least twice a week – but it still has this sense of mystery about it. I’ve never travelled the middle reaches, although one day I hope I will.

When I began writing Flow I had two preschoolers. It was tricky to get out and about, and I was writing/ researching in short bursts while they slept, or during minimal crèche hours. I did do a little bit of travelling, which is depicted in places in the book (poems like ‘Confluence’, ‘Tributaries’ and so on). I read a lot of local histories. I read Waitangi Tribunal reports. I visited museums and galleries. I talked to a few people, but I generally feel quite uncomfortable about the prospect of interviewing someone for a poem. Also, some of the people I contacted never responded – the whole idea might have sounded too strange. There are some of my own memories in there too. When I was twelve I went on a trip with my family’s church (Quakers) and we visited a number of the marae along the river. We were guided by Morvin Simon, who passed away in 2014. That trip made a lasting impression on me. A few months later the occupation of Pākaitore happened, and we went down there to support it. There’s a villanelle in Flow called ‘Pākaitore’ about the day the police came to arrest the protestors and a group of people held hands in a circle around the park. At my book launch, local Quakers and Treaty workshop facilitators David James and Jillian Wychel told me that in fact there hadn’t been quite enough people to stretch right around, so the poem exaggerates things. I feel like that’s acceptable, in a poem. It goes for the sense of a story rather than the cold hard facts. I think all histories do this to some extent.

 

Paula: I was thinking about the fertile relationship between history and poetry when I read the first poem, ‘Confluence’. It seemed especially apt that the merging of two rivers also conjures the coming together of voices from the past in the poems to follow: Māori or Pākehā, a farmer, a surveyor, the surveyed.

 

Standing at the confluence

you can see the join in the rivers; either side

a different colour and speed.

Like standing at Cape Reinga watching two oceans

 

seam together.

 

from ‘Confluence’ (21)

 

Exaggeration can intensify a scene, but as I am reading, it also feels like I am reading some kind of truth. The representation of history produces multiple contesting truths, myriad confluences. Did you develop ‘how you represent history’ as you wrote? Did faithfulness or truth play a part?

 

Airini: I think we can only ever write an individual version of events, when it comes to history. We all come with our own interpretations. What happened happened, and there are things that are non-contestable. But how we approach these things in writing is something a little different.

I knew from the outset I couldn’t attempt anything like an authoritative history. It wasn’t my place to do that. I wanted to weave together lots of different threads, like the many tributary streams of the river. I also wanted to write something polyphonic, so I incorporated lots of different voices from different times and places. Some of these are inanimate objects talking – a fence, a shipwreck, a playground dinosaur. This is, of course, far from the ‘truth’ in the conventional sense. There are episodes I’ve narrated in the first person, from my imaginings of what it might have been like to be present. The Ongarue Rugby Club really did stage Antony and Cleopatra in the 1950s, and that just seemed so incongruous to me, but also so appropriate, that I wanted to imagine myself there. There are voices in the collection that are entirely made up, and most of them are female. The historical record is a record of privilege, and it’s largely male and largely Pākehā. Early on, another woman writer commented that most of my characters were male. I thought ‘shit, they really are,’ and the process of writing women in began. Some of them are based on real people and some of them aren’t. Some are myself and some are alter-egos.

 

 

Paula:  That we enter the voices of the river, and that those voices are no longer dominated by the authoritative status of mainly white men, is exactly what makes the collection so absorbing.  On the inside blurb, James Brown asks whether ‘verse is the future of history?’ For me, I got transported, as though on the river currents, by voice; not so much fact and not so much analysis but by way of immersion in time and place. I guess fictional narrative can also immerse you in an historical elsewhere, but poetry does it without plot momentum, character development.

In the first section of poems, ‘Catchment’, I got a strong sense of voice housed within poetic predilections of the past. I got an ‘air’ of Jessie Mackay and Blanche Baughan, with ballad-like rhythms and spine-like rhyme. Yet the poems are not exact replicas of early settler poetry; there is a different kind of economy, line length, degree of description and sentiment.

Did you read some of our early poets to infuse style of writing into place and voice? Particularly the women?

 

Airini: Yes, I did read some colonial poetry, including Australian poetry. Unfortunately for my purposes, a lot of it is also by, and about, men. Blanche Baughan’s poem ‘The old place’ was one that was floating around in my head. I knew I wanted to evoke the ballad tradition because I thought that if these pioneer ghosts talked in poetry, that would be the form they would choose, the form they’d be familiar with. I wanted there to be a sense of these ghosts in the book. Then again, there are some other four-line forms in the first section, ‘Catchment’, which aren’t traditionally associated with settler poetry – like the Sapphic stanza. I used that in a few poems with female narrators. It’s a very feminine and very emotive form. I’d read over and over that it was impossible to approximate classical quantitative metre in English, because English is a stress-timed language. But then I wrote these things and performed them and something strongly rhythmic came out and took me by surprise.

With the ballads and Tennysonian and Keatsian stanzas there’s an element of pastiche, but I also wanted to push beyond that. I think when traditional or inherited forms are mixed with more contemporary diction, points of view and so on, there’s tremendous potential for language to be stretched and to be weird, which is something I strive for in writing poetry.

 

Paula:

 

The first snow falls

like sugar, sown

breath-thin

on each blank mountain’s face.

The rock

pricked

apart by needling ice

like shattered bone

bears

down, and wears

down to fine scree.

 

from ‘Snow’ (80)

  

I think the playful pastiche of form and diction produces another hallmark of the book: its musicality. I was thinking this is history as music with various chords and keys, rhythms and aural densities. Did you listen to music as you wrote? When you perform the poems is the musicality significant?

 

Airini: I don’t listen to music when I write, because I find myself focusing on the music too much, and being distracted from what I’m trying to write, or having the emotion of the music trick me into thinking what I’m writing is moving or meaningful when it might not be. The ‘music’ in the poems is probably mostly due to the use of forms that derive from song lyrics. The poem you’ve quoted, ‘Snow,’ is modelled on a song by the troubadour Arnaut Daniel, called ‘L’aura amara’ (The bitter air). I owe a debt to Ezra Pound’s translation here. It’s a love song, but I felt the tone of loss and longing was suited to a poem about a damaged landscape. I’m really interested in complex and repetitive rhyming forms, and how the form shapes the material. The history of the lyric is a fascinating one – that poetry has its roots in music, but there’s been a divergence of the printed word and the song. In some ways it’s a great loss for poetry, but on the other hand there are different possibilities opened up by the page, and the lyric tradition can feed into these.

Some of the poems in Flow could probably be quite easily set to music, particularly the more rhythmic forms. There’s one in particular, ‘Surveyor’s grave,’ which I always hear in my head with a tune. But when I perform the poems, I just read them.

 

 

You couldn’t wield a pair of secateurs

to save yourself. And what use is a man

of unsure grip? But still, that soft hand-span

enters my thoughts, down where the ocean blurs

the land, repeatedly. The hot sand stirs

under our feet; we climb to where the tan

of pīngao, grey of marram holds what we can

be held. We’re silent, and the wind concurs.

 

from ‘Gathering the berries of Pimelea turakina’ (162)

 

 

Paula: Oh gosh I love the idea of Flow performed to music – the whole thing. I also love the idea of ghost forms hovering behind the poem as I read, and the way the musicality of form is like a set of lungs, stretching and receding, stretching and receding, with replenishing oxygen, over time.

 

I walk the baby to sleep along the bank,

among the disposable nappies, circles of bourbon bottles.

Tea from a thermos, talk of our grandparents.

I’ve bought Joe a kilo of frozen peas, to take a fish north.

 

from ‘Confluence’ (22)

 

At the start of the book a baby is being walked by the river, your baby perhaps. In my readings of New Zealand women’s poetry across the past century, for many women, but not all, writing poems fits into domestic spaces. Life intrudes and disrupts and nourishes writing. Do you think it makes a difference that you are a woman writing Flow, a woman with a family? You talked about gathering and inventing the voices of women as a counterpoint to the privileged men. How else might it matter? Or change things?

 

Airini: It makes a huge difference that I’m writing as a woman, and as a radical feminist woman. It makes a difference that my ‘domestic spaces’ during the writing of this book were not supportive or safe, and that by the time it was published I was re-negotiating life as a single parent and as a survivor of intimate partner violence. Writing was an act of resistance on a political level, on an artistic level, and on a personal level. I managed to write because I had a supportive extended family, particularly my mother, and I had a strong network of writing colleagues, many of whom were also women and mothers. It’s 2017 and amazing things have happened over the last century, but I still think there’s a battle involved in women’s creativity that men don’t experience in the same way. Children and child-rearing complicate this picture further.

Then there was the wonderful support of my two PhD supervisors, Harry Ricketts and James Brown, who nourished this collection from the first tentative drafts through to the final cut. I have immense respect for both of them. Our three-way conversations always felt friendly and collegial, and I feel lucky to have had this mentorship.

 

It’s hard for me to step back and look at the bigger picture when I’m working through the issues, but I feel that there’s so much work to do at every level, from global to individual. New Zealand women’s writing is flourishing, but there’s a way for us to go. It still feels to me like there’s a dominant maleness in our literature, which comes through in reviewing, in prizes, awards and grants, and in who we revere. What I would like to see are networks of supportive communities, where all the barriers of privilege are broken down. We live on islands and we have to find ways to work together.

 

Paula: It makes huge difference to me too. So far we have had five women out of fifteen Poet Laureates! The question, though, is why I am writing a whole book on New Zealand women’s poetry. I have just been writing a section on Robin Hyde and Joanna Margaret Paul – both produced poetry that was deemed too hysterical or too feeling-indulgent by men. I strongly disagreed. In fact I felt quite wrung out writing the piece, knowing that women’s writing still gets denigrated for domesticity or feelings or departure from a provisional (in my view) paradigm. I actually felt both women, and I am sticking my neck out here, wrote to counter the dark of their lives, not replicate the dark.

Reading Flow as I wrote about their poetry was so satisfying. The sumptuous choral effect produces so many layers, it is a book that demands multiple attentions. I love the fact I can’t leave this book yet. I need to spend longer with it.

Is there a book of New Zealand poetry that has had a profound effect upon you in the past year or so?

 

Airini: I’m happy you mentioned Joanna – she was a family friend and a great inspiration to me. Living in Whanganui, I often wish she was still around so I could drop in for a cup of tea. At the launch of Flow, Jenny Bornholdt read one of Joanna’s poems, ‘Blue Fleur.’ It meant a lot to me to acknowledge the work of those who’ve gone before. One of the things patriarchy does is pit younger women against older women or women of the past, like ‘You’re hip and sexy and we like you, but we don’t like her, she’s stuffy and old fashioned.’ This isn’t, of course, confined to poetry. But I think as women writers we have to find women role models as well as, or in place of, men. Joanna is someone I think of as a quiet trailblazer, an amazingly self-assured and independent woman, who lived her life, did her own thing and made the art she wanted to make, without being governed by the approval of the establishment. I think of Jenny as someone who has in part continued and extended Joanna’s poetic projects.

There have been lots of books that have affected me this year, in lots of different ways. One that stands out is Cilla McQueen’s In a Slant Light (Otago University Press). It made me laugh and cry. It’s written in a simple, often prose-like style, and the weight of it is absorbed almost subconsciously. I was moved by reading about Cilla’s journeys through motherhood, relationships, work and life, to creative success. It’s the story of a woman doing creative work against the odds. There’s a familiarity about a lot of the material, but also the differences that come with time, place and other circumstances. Reading her story gives me strength.

 

Paula: In my chapter on Joanna, I also said I would like to have tea with her and talk poetry! I think there is a strong community of women poets across New Zealand with different kinds of support. Michele Leggott, our first Poet Laureate under the National Library, continues to shine a light in the shadows so we may see women writing in the past. Sarah Jane Barnett, literary editor at Pantograph Punch, devotes significant attention to what women are doing. And I was delighted to see Selina Tusitala Marsh appointed as our new Poet Laureate. I see her becoming as beloved a national poetry icon as Sam Hunt and Hone Tuwhare.

I also loved Cilla’s memoir and was disappointed that a number of the reviews felt it missed the mark in terms of the life it revealed. I loved the way it showed, in poetic form, with as much white space as it desired, a woman coming into being as both poet and mother. Just as in Joanna’s poetry, the hints are there.

Were you tempted to use ‘Endnotes’ to signpost the layering of the poems? I can go go either way on this. I actually liked the fact there were none because it means the poem will linger and haunt me with possibilities for longer. On the other hand, a road map does satisfy curiosities and can send you in new and unexpected directions as reader.

 

Airini: I thought about notes, and I also thought about a timeline of events. In the end I decided against it because I thought it might over-explain things, or be something readers just skip. There’s a common idea that we have to explain ourselves in a notes section, or people might not know what the poems mean – I’ve done this before, I think most of us have done it. In this case, I wanted to let the poems stand alone, and retain a sense of mystery. I thought of them as being like objects washed up on a beach: some are identifiable, some not. I have included a selected bibliography of my main print sources so that anyone who happens to be interested in regional history can go and check it out for themselves.

The maps in the book give a visual indication of where things happened. These were kindly made for me by my brother Joe, who’s a geographer. While I was writing, I spent a lot of time looking at maps. I’d get an old topomap or a park map and spread it out on the floor and pinpoint the places I was writing about. I drew sketchmaps of the region and of where the poems fitted in.

I hope that each reader will bring their own interpretations to the work. I don’t think one always has to know exactly what’s going on, in order to enjoy a poem.

 

Paula: For me, that is one part of the pleasure in reading the collection. It is a bit like reading Bill Manhire’s glorious Tell Me My Name. I don’t know when I will ever check the answers to the riddles at the back. I love the mystery, the lure of the gap.

This collection formed part of your doctoral thesis. What did you navigate in the academic piece of writing?

 

Airini: I wrote about narrativity in long poems and poem sequences. By ‘narrativity’ I mean the extent to which a text is narrative, or, does it tell a story and how might that story satisfy conventions such as plot, character etc. I focused on how sequences are divided: into sections, poems, stanzas, lines, units of metre, and so on. I was looking at recent poetry by Australian and New Zealand writers, like Dorothy Porter, John Kinsella, and Tusiata Avia. I argued that the division into individual poems was the most significant in terms of narrative. This division allows the poet to make abrupt shifts in chronology, geography, between points of view, and so on. These shifts can support narrative or undermine it. There have been a lot of poem sequences written over the last century with a decidedly anti-narrative bent. Then in the last few decades we’ve seen a revival of the novel in verse, which often falls back on traditional narrative conventions (albeit juxtaposed with the departure from convention that comes from writing in verse). I think Flow falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum: it’s not a single plot-based narrative but there are strongly narrative elements in it. I’m not trying to be wilfully incoherent, but I’m also not trying to attempt an exhaustive history with a chronological structure.

 

Paula: Was there an anecdote or voice that particularly surprised you – either in the finding or the invention?

 

Airini: There were lots of surprises. There was material I wasn’t expecting to include that I couldn’t let go of. I wanted to write a poem about my children playing in the river mud – which they do reasonably often. Then I read accounts by elders of growing up at Kaiwhaiki and learning to swim in the river almost before they could walk. And I stumbled across a story about a pregnant woman who drowned her four-year-old child in a high flood. This particularly haunted me. The three stories are quite separate but they came together in a poem called ‘Three mothers.’ I probably won’t ever read this one aloud because I can’t read it without crying. I think every parent has had moments of utter desperation and darkness, and we respond to those times differently, but it’s possible to see how things can go wrong in difficult circumstances. I put these stories together to reinforce the idea of interconnectedness in our lives – past and present, in bad times and in good.

 

The pang, the push, the slide,

the stretch, the yawning wide,

 

your supple form uncurled

into the waiting world

 

and water was your guide.

 

from ‘Children in the mud’ (122)

 

 

Paula: I love that poem! I think there is river-like coherence and momentum in the collection which is built on story. What animates the reading, is the interlocking sense of a provisional whole, and the gleam of the small pieces.

I was thinking, as a way of concluding our conversation, we could each pick a poem from the book that particularly resonates.  Does this change when you pick a poem from the page and a poem you have favoured on your tour?

The book runs to almost 180 pages so there is such an array of poems to choose from. I have greedily decided to assemble a tasting plater of some of the poems I love.

 

In the first section, one poem, ‘Final whistle’, kept pulling me back, maybe because it doesn’t play with rhyme as the others do, so aurally it breaks the sound arc. But it is like a three-dimensional snapshot of emptiness: the landscape denuded along with the men, the weather taken over human activity. My partner spent part of his childhood at Te Wera, his father running a forest. We went back to visit and saw the the village was like a ghost village. As we walked up to the shop at noon, the owner was turning the sign to CLOSED. He said it was for the last time. Their stories then rang out across the valley. It seemed so melancholic.

 

(…) Well, I don’t know

why I am crying,

 

thinking of the bush and its eerie sadness,

rain collapsing all of the things we made here.

Still, I know they’ve sawn every dip and ridge, left

nothing of value.

 

from ‘Final Whistle’ (63)

 

I loved the rich, pungent detail in ‘Seed’, its list-like qualities and the way it also becomes song as you read.

 

You are in the wildness, wild with song and honey.

You are the beak and tongue and claw.

You are in the rock face, weathered by the freeze-thaw,

in the summit sulphurous and stony.

 

from ‘Seed’ (82)

 

Repetition is such a drawcard for me – it evokes the river current but also the currents of history, personal lives, stories being shared. I especially like it in the title poem, ‘Flow’, with its rippling rhyme.

 

To the stone, to the hill, to the heap, to the seep,

to the drip, to the weep, to the rock, to the rill,

to the fell, to the ash, to the splash, to the rush,

to the bush, to the creep, to the hush

 

from ‘Flow’ (84)

 

The river often finds its way into the poems aurally and visually. In ‘Map-making’, I love the white space that cleaves through the middle of two poems like the river.

 

The chain clanking,       the clouds closing

we waded through wetness.    Wastex is the word for it.

Feeling each footfall,    scenting the foetid

slurry of shrubbery     sliced with the slasher.

The fog had a freshness    I felt through the flannel

cloth of my shirt:    it clung to me, clammy.

 

from ‘Map-making’ (88)

 

 

‘Shingle beach’ is resembles a song two keys; it reminds me of the way the beach is always in a state of flux. When you visit every day you get to know those moving sands and lights. This is the second stanza:

 

To even out

to open space

the stone removed

its roundness cracked.

A straighter course

a blotted spill

a metalled road

a deeper hole.

 

‘Shingle beach’ (90)

 

Some poems are luminous with sensual detail; they are a bit like establishing shots for the narratives and voices the precede and follow.

 

Wet tang of sheep shit, mass of trees

releasing plant-scents in the angled sun,

those smells of summers been and gone,

bruised sap, ripe humus, rising to the nose.

 

from ‘Kauarapaoa’ (120)

 

 

If I had to pick one poem, though I would pick ‘Pour’, the penultimate poem in the collection. The poem tips out a list of similes that snap on the line; then when you get to the end there is that sweet echo, mysterious, ambiguous, gloriously fertile. Here are the last three stanzas:

 

like a steamer stack

like a sudden break

 

like an afterbirth

like the restless earth

 

let it all pour out.

Let it all pour out.

 

from ‘Pour’ (176)

 

Airini: The poem I’d like to pick is ‘Plotlines’, which is kind of meandering, but sums up the main preoccupations of the project. It also links to what I was thinking about in terms of narrativity. I’ll quote the last two stanzas:

 

My son always wants a story. Tell me a story about a T-rex

who was far away. Tell me a story about a spider

who was lonely. And if the plotline doesn’t develop:

‘That wasn’t a story! I want a proper story!’

 

Obstacle, obstacle, obstacle, solution.

Even a three-year-old knows the basic devices.

Obstacle, obstacle, obstacle, attempted solution, failure.

The greatest stories of all time are geological.

 

            from ‘Plotlines’ (23 -24)

 

 

Victoria University Press page

VUP interview with Airini

Emma Shi’s review of Flow

Flow‘ in Overland Journal

A booklet of Rhys Brookbanks’s poems (1985-2011) – The Space Between: To remember Rhys Brookbanks

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The young poet and journalist Rhys Brookbanks (1985-2011), has just had a booklet of his poetry and non-fiction work published by his family. The Space Between: To remember Rhys Brookbanks contains poetry, journalism, photos of the young Rhys, a short biography written by family, and a foreword by Emma Neale. There are still a few booklets available from the Brookbanks family. Any readers interested in purchasing a copy, can contact Emma Neale for more details, through her WordPress blog.

Emma Neale

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf reviews Liz Breslin’s Alzheimer’s and a Spoon – this collection cuts into your skin as reader

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Alzheimer’s and a Spoon, Liz Breslin, Otago University Press, 2017

 

‘You have measured out your life in online quizzes. You are

a meerkat, Hufflepuff, Janet Frame.’

 

from ‘Click HERE to start’

 

Reading Liz Breslin’s debut collection, Alzheimer’s and a Spoon, is a timely reminder that poetry is a scoop for missing things. I am thinking spoon-scoop not breaking news. Even the cup on the table as I write is as hollow as it is present. I cannot remember the details of each morning at breakfast when I sip green tea. I cannot remember the thoughts I had, the articles I read, or the things I said. The cup is my breakfast hollow that contains any number of fading secrets. When I write poetry I might be scooping physical details of the present in order to chart a drifting mind and feeling heart but life is a mis-en-abyme of hard-to-decipher hollows.

For Liz the hollow is so much more resonant and sharp when the hollow is her grandmother, her babcia. A devout Catholic and a soldier in Warsaw’s uprising, the grandmother had Alzheimer’s disease in the last years of her life. It meant for Liz, the past was missing in a missing present.

 

the glass with the frame in

with holes in for looking

the white thing that holds

the white liquid for tea

 

from ‘riddle me these’

 

The collection draws you into the hollow of remembering and borrowing and excavating a woman, a beloved grandmother, and in that gathering all manner of things assemble: spam mail, passport rules, spoons, more spoons:

 

(..) I spoon feed stories

of my own uprisings, lost

 

in the hurry to move on, away.

Surprised at how little I

remember of me.

 

from ‘Spoon theory’

 

The words twitch on the line and I want to hear them in the air to soak up the aural agility.

 

Hold it for hours

in the sink of the kitchen

in a day drowned

dark without wondering.

 

from ‘How to make a cup of tea’

 

Visually the book is also on the move with cut-out words on some pages reforming to make poetry on the page. The movement underlines the memory fracture, akin to radio static, so we won’t forget that this life is a life hard to pin down. In a poem that calls upon a physical thing, a set of amber beads, the hunger to make chains is striking.

 

I am threading amber beads

from your old unbroken chain.

Some I will string for Lauren Marie.

She has of you her gymlegs,

fat plaits, doilies, feist.

 

from ‘Eulogy at the Oxford Oratory’

 

The final stanza cuts through to why this collection cuts into your skin as reader:

 

Warm with memory, some will

spill. Some I’ll keep in corners,

hidden glimmers. Much has been lost.

 

Liz’s debut offers a poetry thicket that snares and scratches your skin. I have read it at least five times because I am still finding my way through the dark and the light patches. Wonderful!

 

I hear the whispers of your stalwart war

but never from your tongue, never for real

it’s just stories, right? black and grey, blurry

 

from ‘dichotomy’

 

Otago University Press page

Liz Breslin website

ODT feature

Listen to Liz read

 

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