Category Archives: NZ poetry book

Poetry Shelf archives: an interview with our new Poet Laureate David Eggleton

To celebrate the announcement of our new Poet Laureate, David Eggleton, I have scoured the Poetry Shelf archives and rediscovered this interview. I welcome David as Poet Laureate: he is a charismatic poet and performer, and a longtime ambassador for poetry in Aotearoa. It is good to have a Dunedin-based Laureate.

I posted this interview in 2015 on the publication of The Conch Shell (OUP). Since then The Conch Trumpet won the Poetry Award at the 2016 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. He has held the Fulbright-Creative New Zealand Pacific Writer’s Residency at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, received the Prime Minister’s Award for Poetry (2016) and published edgeland and other poems (OUP, 2018).

 

An interview with David Egggleton

 

Screen Shot 2019-08-26 at 8.50.28 AM.pngPhoto credit: F. J. Neuman

 

David Eggleton is a poet, reviewer and non fiction writer. His books include: Here on Earth: the Landscape in New Zealand Literature, (Craig Potton Publishing, 1999); Seasons: Four Essays on the New Zealand Year, (Craig Potton Publishing, 2001); Ready to Fly: the Story of New Zealand Rock Music, (Craig Potton Publishing, 2003); Into the Light: a History of New Zealand Photography, (Craig Potton Publishing, 2006); and Towards Aotearoa: A Short History of Twentieth Century New Zealand Art (Reed/Raupo, 2008). His poetry collections include: Rhyming Planet, (Steele Roberts, 2001); Fast Talker, (Auckland University Press, 2006); Time of the Icebergs, (Otago University Press, 2010); and The Conch Trumpet (Otago University Press, 2015). He is the current Editor of Landfall  and of Landfall Review Online (now Emma Neale). He lives in Dunedin.

To celebrate the arrival of his new poetry collection, The Conch Shell, David kindly agreed to answer some questions for Poetry Shelf.

 

‘Stone clacks on stone

so creek lizards slither,

runnels slip through claws,

each cloud’s a silver feather.’

from ‘Raukura’ in The Conch Trumpet

 

Did your childhood shape you as a poet? What did you like to read? Did you write as a child? What else did you like to do?

I had very little to do with books as a child, apart from prolonged weekly exposure to the King James Bible. However, it was a rich, sensual and even privileged environment, with wide exposure to a variety of cultures and a strong sense of the carnivalesque about everyday life. My father at that time was a soldier ant, when the last Pacific colonies were gaining independence, and then there were my mother’s ancestral voices and her extended family. This idyll was abruptly terminated when our family relocated permanently from Fiji to New Zealand. It was a bit like the post-Edenic Fall, though gradually I became aware of a different kind of richness, including eventually the world of the library.

In early adolescence my options veered between seminary school and reform school, though neither eventuated. I began to understand that truth, social truth at least, is not absolute but institutional and class-bound, and you need a ticket to get in — but if you are a poet you can construct your own truth. ‘I am the shadows my words cast’, as Octavio Paz wrote.

My early literary influences, besides the Bible, included Phantom comics, church music, gospel choirs and listening to pop music on the radio: an auditory riot. The Bible contained fascinating and troubling verses: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe…’

Meantime, living in South Auckland there were not the quiescent, somnolent afternoons of lawn tennis such as you might have found in the leafy avenues of the inner suburbs, but rather the lingering smell of tanneries and abattoirs — offal being boiled down at the freezing works, corned beef being cooked for shipment to the Islands. This became partly associated in my mind with the lives of saints and martyrs I had already spent time reading about: believers being boiled in oil by non-believers, and so forth. There was also much bellowing in the streets and the roar of motorcycles.

 

When you started writing poems as a young adult, were there any poets in particular that you were drawn to (poems/poets as surrogate mentors)?

I got interested in writing at high school, my first published efforts appearing in the Aorere College literary magazine. Around the same time, I was discovering Dylan Thomas, Gerard Manley Hopkins, T. S. Eliot, Gunter Grass — some of these were on the school curriculum.

Then I got immersed in the American Beats and their ‘action writing’: Go! Howl! On the Road! I heeded the call; I dropped out of school and tried to get a job on a cargo ship. I wasn’t taken on, so I got a job in a South Auckland carpet warehouse instead. Kerouac’s road novels were a word-spattered canvas wide as America and seemed related to the Ab-Ex canvases of the artist Jackson Pollock, whose paintings I also got interested in.

Energised, I sought to emulate the yackety-yak spoken word rhythms of Jack Kerouac, the biting wisecracks of William Burroughs and the vatic yawp of Allen Ginsberg in my own screeds of verse. And then there was the one-man typographical liberation front of e.e. cummings: ‘anyone lived in a pretty how town and down they forgot as up they grew…’

I was pretty much unaware of New Zealand writing, apart from the plummy-voiced Bruce Mason, who had visited our school out in the sticks with his one-man theatrical show.

 

I remember when you were awarded London Time Out’s Street Entertainer of the Year in 1985. From that time you have gained a solid reputation as a performance poet. Do you still see yourself as a performance poet? Did the award alter the path of poet for you at all?

Well, 1985 was New Zealand’s special moment in the sun, with David Lange roaming the globe as a kind of No Nukes! ambassador, and Keri Hulme winning the Booker Prize. There was a big travelling Maori art exhibition, plus the Rainbow Warrior bombing, the Flying Nun catalogue. All that kind of created a climate where things New Zild were of interest in the UK, and I was able to get on and stay on the cabaret circuit at the time.

Performance for me became a poetry vehicle and there was a national consciousness locally it tapped into: grass roots, flax roots, ground up, underground, public assemblies to hear, watch, attend to, what poets and other performers were saying — and maybe have all this on at a variety night down at the community hall.

Things have changed, become more sophisticated, more ironic, more knowing. Perhaps there is less of a communal thing now and more of a tightly-organised, clearly-defined niche market, maybe even a gentrification of poetry scenes — where the confessional genre and the misery memoir have top billing, everyone competing to prove that they have the tiniest violin in the world and they know how to play it. I enjoyed, and still enjoy, the Dadaist nature of the wilder poetry performance. The novelist Henry James said about a poetry reading by Robert Browning that, if the audience didn’t understand his poems he seemed to understand them even less: ‘He reads them as if he hated them and would like to bite them to pieces.’ That sounds like my kind of event.

 

I love the way your poems absorb and replay the world in a dazzling eruption of detail, hallucinogenic at times. It is like standing in the street or bush just after it has rained. Luminous. Invigorating. Yet as much as each poem is an aural feast, there is an engagement with the world on multiple levels. What are key things for you when you write a poem?

Incantation, cadence, rhythm, pacing, matter more to me than formal metre stress and scansion. I like overgrown gardens and rainforest: that which is lush. I like absurdity and contradiction as closer to real experience rendered more accurately. In poetry, arguably, lexical meaning is less important than rhythm and emotionally-charged sound, which have their own echo-chamber allusiveness.

All that said, I also like psychedelic dream-fever imagery, and teasing evocations of mythical ancestors and invented traditions: invented traditions which engage with canonical poems, the poems which begin, as Yeats put it, in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart, but then become marble, monumental.

Poems are generated in many different ways, of course. Sometimes a poem might begin as a psychotherapeutic notion, as automatic writing, where as long as you keep writing you eventually find the solution to whatever it is that ails you, psychosomatically or existentially. Other poems may be less fluent; instead they are painstakingly assembled, built up like a movie in an editing suite from many separate images in order to create a mood, an atmosphere, a climate.

What one does not want is what Yeats (again!) described as ‘the stale odour of spilt poetry’: we want the fresh bouquet of wild flowers — or of hothouse blooms transfigured. Poetry remains in the service of the subversive. That’s its power. The magical thinking of the ancient gods has been replaced by a future of junk science, which explains that emotions are only neuropeptides attaching to receptors and stimulating an electrical charge on neurons. Easy-peasy. How might a poet extract a poem from this revised reality? That’s the challenge.

 

Do you see yourself as a political poet? Overtly so or in more subtle ways?

Poetry is politics by other means; anthologies prove this. But I think what you are getting at is the idea of poets on the barricades leading the revolution. OK, the revolution may not be televised, as Gil Scott-Heron prophesied in his debut album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox back in the 1970s, but these days it’s corporatised and monetised. As Arundhati Roy has pointed out, in the era of the free market, ‘free speech’ has become a valuable commodity, too valuable to be wasted on the underclass. Poetry must find ways to remain anarchic, not for sale. As the Zen poem has it: ‘Sitting quietly doing nothing/ Spring comes and the grass grows by itself.’

My favourite poets include the Nightingale and the Skylark: Keats and Shelley — not yet Pixar characters — and Shelley undoubtedly was a revolutionary bard who believed that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Likewise, William Blake was a revolutionary, but he wasn’t arrested and beheaded because they considered him mad. Nowadays we consider him a visionary.

I am inspired by the poetry of witness: that of Osip Mandelstam, Marina Tsvetaeva, Georg Trakl, John Clare, Pablo Neruda. These poets spoke truth to power and sometimes paid with their lives.

New Zealand is a relatively lucky country, but it also means, I think, that we have an obligation to speak out against injustice, though not necessarily through simple polemics. Poetry, said Auden, makes nothing happen — well, many poets would disagree. Poetry can help generate social earthquakes — or be part of them in subtle ways. Globalisation is all subtle interconnections.

One poem in my new book was inspired by the sight of a superyacht belonging to a Russian oligarch in Auckland’s Viaduct Basin, an impressive white vessel designed by Philippe Starck. I stayed on the wharf for a while, and revisited, watching the comings and goings on this superyacht, and then researched the background — or rather added to what I already knew. That’s the starting point for a poem, which is not so much about Putin’s Russia as about the approved neo-liberal narratives of today and the warped truths which seem to accompany unbridled power. Yet nothing is spelt out — the reader must surmise, or suspect.

Pablo Neruda said that a poem is a net, and in a net it’s not just the strings that count but also the air, or the ocean, that escapes through them. To which I might add about my poem that while ‘knowledge’ is steady and cumulative and a satisfying form of story-telling, ‘information’ is random and miscellaneous and frustrating. My poetry sometime plays around with these twinned perceptions. For, as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: ‘the poet knows he speaks adequately only when he speaks somewhat wildly, not with the intellect alone, but with the intellect inebriated by nectar.’

The fact is that the black rain of tragic images is unending. The poet must put out his bucket and collect enough, and then endeavour to make sense of them; find a way to transform the surplus into poetry. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry said Auden of Yeats, rather contradicting his other statement that poetry makes nothing happen. The ambitious poet is a voyant, a seer still, despite the scoffers, disdainful of rolling up their sleeves, spitting on their hands and going to work. Delmore Schwarz was right: in dreams begin responsibilities.

From the frantic antics of the nuclear meltdown to the shirtfronting of the financial meltdown, there’s plenty happening politically that cries out for poems. Then, too, as New Zealanders we need to constantly catechise our past in poetry so as to attest to our grasp of identity. Because this collective past, the stuff of song, ballad and pontificating political speech, is only approximately remembered, or else only partly told. Different people will tell, for example, the story of the Treaty of Waitangi in skewed fashion, laying emphasis on different details, and carry this away as poetic myth. The poet of conscience searches out social stigmas, personal stigmas, linguistic stigmas — the difficult subjects — and finds new ways to address them.

 

Do you think we have a history of thinking and writing about the process of poetry? Any examples that sparked you? Have you done this?

Yes, of course we have a tradition of thinking about what poetry is. Manifestos, prefaces, books and essays by Allen Curnow, A.R.D. Fairburn, Alan Brunton, Riemke Ensing, Kendrick Smithyman, Ian Wedde, Bill Manhire, Murray Edmond, C.K. Stead and Robert Sullivan are amongst those I value most. A writer is a descendent of other writers. I’ve written a lot in response to reading other poets; that is, to specific instances, but not manifestos or generalising, barrow-pushing commentaries.

New Zealand has its own quirky bicultural literary history. There’s also a strong puritanical tradition, nowhere so pronounced, I think, as in the repressed verses of Charles Brasch. He reminds me of what Anthony Burgess once said about himself: that he was so much of a puritan that he couldn’t describe a kiss without blushing. That said, there’s a value in circumspection, in euphemism, in artful disguise: telling by other means.

Actually, I think that all the theorising stacks up to mere post-rationalisation, to temperaments attempting to influence posterity, whereas, as John Steinbeck put it: ‘Time is the only critic without ambition’. Instead, I would argue that we learn most by example — the example of careful noticers, and for me one of the influential is Katherine Mansfield, still one of our best, perhaps our best, echo-locators: ‘All that day the heat was terrible. The wind blew close to the ground, it rooted among the tussock grass, slithered along the road, so that the white pumice dust swirled in our faces.’ So much menace, so close to home.

 

What poets have mattered to you over the past year? Some may have mattered as a reader and others may have been crucial in your development as a writer.

It would take a book to answer this question adequately. I’ve read the work of around 1000 poets over the past year, and all of them mattered at the time of reading. To read a poem properly is to engage with it, alertly. Listing names and poems that grabbed me would be counter-productive, because each would require an explanation of the encounter: what the sense and what the sensibility? Deconstruction at warp speed cannot happen in this format.

 

What New Zealand poets are you drawn to now?

Currently my favourite New Zealand poet, in the terms of the poet I am thinking most about, is Robin Hyde, followed by Ursula Bethell and A.R.D. Fairburn. So many clues, or soundings, to where we are now lie in the inter-war years. Other than that, I pretty much read everybody.

 

Do you think your writing has changed over time?

My own feelings about this are, necessarily, extremely subjective, but I would advance a cautious perhaps. According to Heraclitus, everything flows and all movement is history. William Blake said that without contraries there is no progression. In short: change is the only constant in life; one writes not as one was, but as one is.

Certainly the cultural climate has changed, and my corporeal self has changed. The typical New Zealand afternoon of the recent past had all the excitement of a damp tea towel and all the urgency of a dripping tea urn, with somewhere the smell of scones burning. Somehow this no longer seems applicable. Along with Denis Glover though, I do not dream of Sussex downs or quaint old English towns — I think of what may yet be seen in Johnsonville and Geraldine.

 

You write in a variety of genres (poetry, short fiction, non-fiction, critical writing). Do they seep into each other? Does one have a particular grip on you as a writer?

All of my writing is really just personal essays by other means — that is, if you consider the personal essay a form of self-correction, a form of self-contestation, an interior monologue conducted in solitude in preparation for being presented in public. Otherwise, the prescriptions of each genre apply, distinctly.

However, in my view, literature is or should be a site of struggle, no matter what the genre. Each mode is always inherently in a state of primal conflict about purpose and meaning. Otherwise it is moribund, mere cliché-recycling.

There are elements of hybridity, the mongrel, in my writing. The mixed bag, the medley, the odd job lot, the tall order; that’s what I’ve ended up doing. To pluck out just one continuity: I have an overarching interest in the iconoclastic — how might we tear all these false idols down. And aren’t they all false anyway? So there you go; we’re always casting about for the new, the next, supreme fiction.

 

 

The detail you collect makes place so vital — and that place emerging is particular, local, recognisable. For me, the poems transcend poetic exercise or form as they establish contact with what it might or might not mean to be human. These poems tick with humanity. Is a sense of home an important factor as you write? Or connections with humanity?

The Rumanian philosopher E.M. Cioran wrote that you don’t inhabit a country, you inhabit a language, and as Caribbean poet Derek Walcott pointed out, when you inhabit a language you enter into a relationship with its imperial width. A language is not a place of contemplative retreat or escape; it’s a site of struggle. Struggle for control, or, to use Kendrick Smithyman’s formulation, ‘a way of saying’. So, it starts with the language, which works on homegrown imagery. As Ian Wedde once neatly put it, my poetry is preoccupied with ‘growth into location’. Not just that, but this regionalism reflects the society’s obsession with where it is: Anne French’s one big waka, Robert Sullivan’s hundred small waka.

This, in a way, is ‘small country syndrome’ and Dylan Thomas wrote something eloquently pertinent to this sense of us against the world in a letter to his wife: ‘the world is unbalanced unless, in the very centre of it, we little mutts stand together all the time in a hairy, golden, more-or-less unintelligible haze of daftness.’

By not living in exile, by living here, the whole past stays in the pulsating present. Wherever I turn, I see reminders of things past, of ghost trails, phantoms. As I write this, autumn rains are bashing at the windows in silver-grey lights as the furthermost fringe of Cyclone Pam brushes past. That’s what being here means to me. That and folk memories: cow cockies used to tighten Number 8 wire with a strainer until it literally sang when it was flicked. Now whole rugby stadiums hum that same tune.

This is a land of miraculous icons, a poet’s task is to discover and celebrate them before the local version of the Taliban, often in the form of a property developer, moves in and breaks them up.

 

What irks you in poetry?

I’m not sure that any poem irks me. Rather, the challenge is: what is the poet doing? Has it been achieved? Sometimes poems feel hollow, or are expressed in sentiments that have a breathy earnestness, yet you know that they know that you know they haven’t got there and earned it. Kate Clanchy wrote recently in the UK Poetry Review about a new collection of poems by Ruth Padel that some poems took your assent, your acquiescence, for granted because these were poems about ‘the Holocaust’. In fact, poems should take nothing for granted but must make their case through genuinely felt details, line by scrupulous line, even when about a supposedly sacrosanct subject. Even when a poem’s a failure, it remains interesting, through falling short.

 

What delights you?

The achievement, the mastery of the thing. Or else it falls away sharply to hit the ground with a thump. That said, value judgements are complex things, governed by notions of taste, knowledge of context, histories of contestation. A poem that appears to fly high to you — an ode to the west wind, a hymn at heaven’s gate — may not seem that way to another reader or listener.

 

Name three NZ poetry books that you have loved.

Just quickly. Runes (1977), by James K. Baxter. He was, at one time, both my spice paladin and my herb goblin. No Ordinary Sun (1977), by Hone Tuwhare. He could use his diaphragm like a sounding board, a sea chest. Inside Us the Dead (1976), by Albert Wendt. I was delighted by his witty reportage in the immediate post-colonial moment in the newly emergent Pasifika.

 

I love the title of your new collection (The Conch Shell). The blurb suggests that this collection ‘calls to the scattered tribes of contemporary New Zealand.’ What tribes do you belong to? What literary tribes? How does the word ‘contemporary’ modify things?

Yes, I’m blowing my own (conch) trumpet at sunrise. That title refers to tide-lines of life, to surf-like sounds, to gathering good vibrations, to gods of the sea who, clarion-like, lull the waves, and to the summer of shakes, the year of quakes. And so on, to the final burnout of the run-ragged consumer. The rest is the tribal outcast, and everything you cannot pin down, or ascribe a bar code to.

In fact, the word ‘tribe’ is fraught. I think James K. Baxter brought it into the literary realm. My own tribal background is distinctly heterogeneous rather than Fonterra-homogenous, but if I look around at my contemporaries, poets and otherwise, I see most of them making it up as they go along. A poem tests a proposition; it doesn’t always prove it.

 

These new poems offer shifting tones, preoccupations, rhythms. What discoveries did you make about poetry as you wrote? The world? Interior or external?

My poems like to dwell on the silver wake of a container ship, or the wet sand beneath the upturned hull of a dinghy, or the half-seen, the overheard. Poets re-arrange, but they have duties of care. X.J. Kennedy has pointed out that: ‘The world is full of poets with languid wrenches who don’t bother to take the last six turns on their bolts.’

It’s been five years since my last poetry collection Time of the Icebergs appeared, and one reason my collections have been regularly spaced that far apart is the need for more elbow-grease and line-tightening to get the burnish just so.

The poet’s mind, like anyone else’s is made up of reptilian substrate, limbic empathy and neo-cortical rationality. These shape your reveries and hopefully together lift them out of banality. Our ideas are dreams, styles, superstitions. We rationalise our temperaments, draw curtains over our windows, but poems carry an anarchic charge that reveals the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.

A poet is in the business of the unsayable being said, showing you fear in a handful of dust. A poet is amanuensis to the subconscious ceaselessly murmuring, and indeed to the planetary hum, the gravitational pull of the earth, the wobble of placental jellyfish in the womb — anything alive, mindless and gooey.

 

Is there a single poem or two in the collection that particularly resonates with you?

Every poem resonates on its own wavelength, but I found constructing an immediate elegiac response to my father’s death one of the most turbulent. A bit like getting to grips with a storm, with a howling wind that has shape and substance.

 

Returning to the notion of detail, I see the accumulation of things in your poems as an overlay of highways to elsewhere whether heart, issues, ideas, fancy, memory. Yet the things also pulsate as things in their own right. What draws you to ‘the thisness of things’ (the blurb)?

Things accumulate in my poems in almost haptic fashion, wrestled there like sculptural ingredients. They accumulate, as in the random haphazard assemblages of the Dadaist Kurt Schwitters, built out of found objects in the streets. Yes, I want to acknowledge the ‘thisness’ of things, but not in the sense of ‘property’. Rather, in the sense of: he who kisses the joy as it flies, lives in eternity’s sunrise.

 

Is doubt a key part of the writing process along with an elusive horizon of where you are satisfied with a poem?

I can’t get no satisfaction. Actually, poets need to be their own sophisticated antagonists. After all, why write? There’s always a struggle going on between self-revelation and self-concealment. Poetry is a kind of verbal tic; it runs in parallel with consciousness. To be conscious and verbal are vital signs, as Les Murray has pointed out. Then comes the self-questioning: are these fifty poems, fifty varieties of same-same? Is this what the thunder truly said? Is this poem really language dancing, and is it top of the poppermost — that is, is it the best you can do? All this nervous self-doubt surrounds the birth of a successful poem, I think.

 

The constant mantra to be a better writer is to write, write, write and read read read. You also need to live! What activities enrich your writing life?

Much time is taken up by arts-related stuff: gallery-going, movie-going, theatre-going, concert-going, poetry recitals, beer-sampling, weekend dabbling in arty-crafty matters. And then also I like to get out and about in the landscape: tramping through national parks, exploring West Coast walkways, cycling around Waiheke Island, or across the Mackenzie Country, climbing the lower slopes of the Southern Alps, and on and on. Typical Kiwi pastimes that keep one modestly prepared for the long sedentary hours ahead.

 

Some poets argue that there are no rules in poetry and all rules are to be broken. Do you agree? Do you have cardinal rules?

Poets are actually not their own creatures. They imitate their forebears. In her diaries, Susan Sontag wrote: ‘Poetry must be exact, intense, concrete, significant, honed, complex.’ She wrote this sentence as a high Modernist priestess when that kind of poetic faith was at its apogee, nevertheless I’d go along with that as an aspirational motto. Yeats again: ‘How but in custom and ceremony are beauty and innocence born?’

There are always rules. A poem — even one generated by a computer — follows rules. But these rules vary poem to poem, and the end result is not about the rules but about organic coherence and meaningfulness.

Here’s another Katherine Mansfield sentence (she’s endlessly quotable), and one William Burroughs would surely have applauded. The reasons why she wrote this don’t matter. What matters is the imagery and the pacing, the rhythm: ‘I took the revolver into the garden today and practised with it, how to load and unload and fire.’ A great New Zealand sentence.

 

Do you find social media an entertaining and useful tool or white noise?

Hyperreal, hyperventilating, hyper-opinionated, it’s the new centre of gravity — or else a black hole that will swallow the sun, and take all the time you have. I try to minimise my involvement. As for poetry, the internet works well as an events noticeboard, but actual poems feel anaemic on it, drained and destabilised, apt to float away into cyberspace, never to be seen again.

 

Finally if you were to be trapped for hours (in a waiting room, on a mountain, inside on a rainy day) what poetry book would you read?

Well, today, a big compendium that includes Auden’s ‘ 1 September 1939’, Owen’s ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ and ‘The Road to Mandalay’, ‘The Waste Land’, Christina Rossetti, and bits of Don Juan, the Sonnets of Shakespeare… ‘But I think my head is burning and in a way I’m yearning to be done with all this measuring of proof…’

 

 

Otago University Press page

New Zealand Book Council author page

New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre page

Poetry Shelf on Poetry Day: On launching Wild Honey

 

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Last week I launched Wild Honey in Auckland and Wellington and I have never experienced anything like it. It was a long time in the making – four years writing and researching – and several decades reading New Zealand poetry and germinating ideas. I faced all kinds of hurdles – notably a string of accidents and illnesses – that made the project tougher. But ever since I was a young girl words have been a primary love. Writing gives me energy, it makes me feel good, it connects me with the world when I am primarily drawn to a quiet, private life. Through my schooling years you would have to say I was misfit – for all kinds of reasons – and I had little confidence in what I could do. To be an awkward teenager and have my Y12 English teacher tell me in front of the whole class I would never get anywhere in the world writing as I did was a cruel blow. I pretty much failed school and all my writing was stored in secret notebooks.

A turning point for me was going to university in my thirties and studying Italian. I first thought I would do one paper but I ended up doing full degrees until there were no more to do. Moving into another language was the best thing I could have done. I loved reading Italian literature, watching Italian movies, spending time with the ideas and art of the Renaissance, and the women poets, but the language itself was an essential joy. To speak in different rhythms and musicalities (always rhyme) was an epiphany.  To read Dante, Calvino, Ramondino, Durante and copious women poets and novelists refreshed my relationship with English. I just had to write poetry. I still didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere but writing was both my anchor and my sails. I discovered the poetry of Dinah Hawken (Small Stories of Devotion in particular), Fiona Farrell and Michele Leggott, and so began my personal quest to read as much New Zealand poetry as possible. I read poems regardless of gender but I was committed to reading poetry by women because poetry by women had been served so badly throughout the twentieth century.

I want to thank my extraordinary Italian lecturers with whom I studied, wrote theses and taught – Bernadette Luciano, Mike Hanne and Laurence Simmonds – who allowed an awkward nonconforming student to find her way and excel. Wild Honey is in such debt to you. My Italian years shaped me as a writer unlike any other.

And now Wild Honey is out in the world. I have created events to celebrate its arrival,  done interviews with attentive reviewers and am watching the book find its way into the hands of readers. It is both wonderful and overwhelming. Nerve wracking. Exciting. Exhausting. Energising.

I don’t know how to explain it but there is still a bit of that shy awkward girl in me – who favours staying at home with family and having one-on-one conversations with friends rather than big social / public occasions.

At my launches I invited around twelve poets to read one of their own poems and a poem they love by a local woman. In the middle I had a brief conversation with Selina Tusitala Marsh (Akld) and Helen Heath (Wtn). In both cities the poets reading offered a kōrero: for me, for the book, but most importantly for women. And they were all speaking from the heart; starting with the book but going beyond the book. Helen suggested that Wild Honey was just the beginning. More books would be written. More houses built. I love the prospect of different perspectives, different houses, different structures, different voices.

Dinah picked out the word ‘household’ and talked about the way Wild Honey was ‘holding’ women together. To me it felt like the whole room was ‘held’. In Wellington the readers crossed generations: from Fiona Kidman, Rachel McAlpine and Dinah Hawken to Sugar Magnolia Wilson, Tayi Tibble and Gregory Kan (reading one of his magnificent Robin Hyde poems). I can’t underestimate how significant this was: to have our poetry elders embracing our young voices and to have our young poets blown away by women who have paved the way. The audience too was a terrific gathering of poets of multiple generations.

It made me want to do more – to bring poets together across generations, cultures, styles, schools, cities and so on. To pay attention to the way poetry is multiple conversations, connections, communities.

In Wellington, mid event, Anahera Gildea got on her phone and asked Hinemoana Baker to send her Ihumātao poem from Berlin. Hinemoana was now in the room. We loved that. We were crossing oceans and then being carried to the whenua where poets are gathering. A similar thing happened when Grace Iwashita Taylor read in Auckland.

A key point with Wild Honey is that poetry establishes many resistances, homages, repetitions, discoveries, existences, differences, residencies. It is ‘an open home’ to borrow a phrase from Sally Blundell’s terrifically attentive Listener review.

At my Wellington launch I confessed I had deleted all the toxic anecdotes from Wild Honey – the scenes where men have muted or sideswiped me or other women – because I wanted my book to work differently. I wanted my book to lay down a challenge, not through toxic attack and deconstruction, but by writing out of love and connection. Is it possible? Can you write a book that challenges authority and injustice by writing out of kindness? Can you refresh the academic page by creating hybrid books that call upon scholarship, research, autobiography, biography, history, close reading, a resistance to vapid jargon and women-deleting theory? My time with Italian women writers and philosophers showed me you can think and write outside the academy as well inside it.

That night, the night of my Wellington event, I was awake pretty much until dawn, overwhelmed by the aroha in the room and musing on my book and its intentions. I started crying without knowing why. I was thinking that sometimes we do have to challenge authority and injustice in strident voices. I should have said that out loud. I was also mourning the exceptional women who aren’t in my book – the rooms and objects I had to leave behind. In the middle of the night it feels unbearable.

In the light of day when I am still overwhelmed and astonished at what I have written, I keep returning to the idea that Wild Honey comes out of the awkward girl and the love she felt for words and their power to restore and energise and connect.

In Auckland we were running over time (not excessively!); everyone was saying things that needed to be said but, because we were in Auckland Central Library with an 8pm closing time, I felt I needed to ditch my conversation with Selina. The kōrero to that point was heartlifting. Young Pasifika women acknowledging their place in the room, in Wild Honey and in poetry communities. Courtney Sina Meredith began the event by reading a  poem by her favourite poet, her mother Kim who was in the room. Johanna Emeney concluded the event by reading a poem that pays tribute to her mother, no longer with her, and Elizabeth Smither’s ‘My mother’s house’. A maternal full circle. Breathtaking, evocative, moving. Each poet invited another woman into the room through the poems they picked (Tusiata Avia, Lauris Edmond, J C Sturm, Robin Hyde, for example).

At the mid point, when I told Selina we needed to ditch our conversation, she stood up, pulled me next to her heart and said we were going to talk. She said, however, before we talked, she and I would stand in silence for 30 seconds and then invited everyone to send me their love. I have never experienced anything like it. A packed room looking back at me with warm, loving faces. People I didn’t know. People I did. I was reminded that when I was in the radiotherapy machine I had imagined a cocoon of light spinning around me and I attached each hug I had received to the spinning light and the cocoon became one of love and when I left the room I felt light and enlivened.

Wild Honey is bigger than me. On the day of my Auckland launch I baked a loaf of bread as I usually do each day (I bake grainy seedy breads in a bread maker and sour dough loaves).  But I had forgotten to put in yeast, sugar and salt so I baked a hard brick! I began musing on how Wild Honey was like a sour dough loaf. l gathered flour, salt and water but it was activated by the wild yeast in the air. There is something in the air – I’d say globally – voices that are insisting women are brought into the light: in politics, sports, comedy, music, literature, film, law, human rights, equity, equality, education, positions of power, on airspace and so on.

Wild Honey is not just a matter of what, as Selina said, but a matter of how. If we are trying to govern out of kindness, we can also critique out of kindness. There is a woman holding the pen and her ink is imbued with her story, her imagination, her vision of what a poem might do, of what the world can be. I want to move closer to that woman. I don’t like all the poetry I read, I might not understand all the poetry I read, but I will slow down and  find ways to move through a poem. I refuse the position of authority – I am an author minus the ‘ity’ bit.

That reviewers such as Kiran Dass (The Herald) and Sally Blundell (New Zealand Listener) have slowed down and read Wild Honey on its own terms has moved me profoundly.

Soon I hope to sleep through the night again – but today on Phantom Billstickers National Poetry Day I want to acknowledge everyone who made Wild Honey possible. Massey University Press and Nicola Legat who worked with such passion and patience to make the best book possible. My friends and family who got me through all manner of hurdles with enduring support. I hit rock bottom writing this book as my friends know and the end result would not be possible without their aroha and backing.

But most importantly, on this day when we celebrate poets and poetry in Aotearoa, I raise a glass of champagne to all the women who have written poems before me, all the women who write alongside me, and to the poets of the future, whatever their gender. My book is in debt to your wild honey. Today I toast you. Happy National Poetry Day!

Aroha nui

Paula

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf review: Kirsten Warner’s Mitochondrial Eve

 

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Kirsten Warner, Mitochondrial Eve, Compound Press, 2018

 

Kirsten’s Warner is a writer, poet, journalist and musician and former chair of the Auckland Society of Authors. She graduated with an MA in Creative Writing with Distinction from AUT and won the Landfall essay competition in 2008. She performs as a musician with partner Bernie Griffen in the folk-blues band Bernie Griffen and The Thin Men. Makāro Press published her debut novel The Sound of Breaking Glass in 2018. Her poetry has appeared in a number of journals and  anthologies. Her debut chapbook Mitochondrial Eve also came out in 2018. This slender collection is the kind of book you can spend ages with. I read it on the plane to Wellington and once I got to the end of the book I returned to the beginning and read it again. Goodness knows what the passengers either side of me thought. They wouldn’t have known I was poetry rich with a stack of books waiting to be read in my bag.

The six poem titles resemble a narrative framing device: beginning with heartbreak, then moving through dailiness and despair, to a degree of release:

 

The Location of Heartbreak

Plant a Red Hibiscus

Channel Surfing

S. O. S.

In a Nutshell

Off the Leash

 

Each poem is exquisitely layered as things are held at arm’s length, obstacles loom, the real world intrudes bright and harmonic, words are lithe on the line. Here is the first stanza of the first poem that pulls you into threat and challenge through the rhythm of walking with its pauses and asides:

 

I surface dismantled

heart-sore here in the area of the left breast,

certain the most meaningful part of life

is lived while dreaming

and that to awake is to fail to fall

into an abyss of light.

 

from ‘The Location of Heartbreak’

 

The heart-threatened core (of the poem, of self), unsettling and hard to reach, is like an insistent pulse that keeps me reading:

 

I step over cracks so I won’t marry a Jack

resist walking out into traffic

we don’t have a bath and I’d have to find blades

and it’s an end I want not intensification

someone to find me before I drift away.

 

The second poem, ‘Plant a Red Hibiscus’, returns to the rhythm of ‘feet on the pavement’, but changes pace as the speaker takes charge of a bulldozer. Always the incandescent  core, like a burning wound, enigmatic, exposing; the poet never still. Here is the musing speaker at the bulldozer’s helm; I am holding my breath as I read:

 

Things that also might be worth living for are

small dark orphan babies who need arms to hold them

I would sit for hours.

Gathering fallen leaves,

we are all compost exchanging molecules and air.

Plant a red hibiscus.

 

Spread good dark soil, pick up dry leaves, hold a baby.

 

I don’t make assumptions about the speaker in the six poems. She might be the ‘Egyptian Goddess stalking the town!’ She might be part poet, part invention, part delight in different voices. The poem ‘In a Nutshell’ samples role hopping from Eve with mitochondrial disorder (misbehaving cells that can’t burn food and convert oxygen to energy) to Katherine Mansfield in her German pension, Suzie Wong getting STDs, Carmen Miranda breaking into song, Mata Hari watching time flying over rooftops, until the final glorious, puzzling stanza that hooks the stitches of everyday into the whip and pain of existence:

 

When I eat nuts

I am Nut

the whole shebang

born of ululation

moisture and fire crackers.

I have no consort

he’s outside

drinking

fagging

shooting up

hocking my starry dress

trying to get back up me.

I bear down

without drugs

swallow the night

virgin again

every morning

to make school lunches

and hold up the sky.

 

This hallucinogenic, rollercoaster, gut punch of book runs through me like fire. I love it.

 

 

Kirsten Warner WordPress page

Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: Brian Turner – an unpublished poem and a new book

 

In the Middle of Nowhere

 

On a late winter morning when driving east towards Ranfurly

pale grey fog’s smothering most of the land from Wedderburn

to Naseby, Kyeburn, Kokonga, Waipiata, Hamilton’s, Patearoa

and beyond. And I’m thinking how often we’re told we live

in the middle of nowhere: that nowadays people everywhere

are categorised, seen as somewheres, anywheres, or nowheres,

and that, in particular, this place is empty, needs more people.

So it goes. In ‘Furl’ I shop at the corner Four Square, pluck

some cash from a money machine, buy a long black and two

thick egg and chive sandwiches at the E-Café, fill up with gas

at the garage and set off homewards. Then, when re-entering

the Ida Valley and emerging into sharp sunlight, and wondering,

yet again, whether what is ever present always feels burdened

by the past, everywhere one looks – north south east and west –

bulky hills and shining mountains glisten with heavy snow.

And, oddly perhaps, so-called nowhere’s nowhere to be found.

 

Brian Turner

 

Brian Turner was born in Dunedin in 1944. His debut collection Ladders of Rain (1978) won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize. He has published a number of collections including Just This which won the NZ Post Book Award for Poetry in 2010. He has received the Prime Minister’s Award for Poetry (2009) and was NZ Poet Laureate (2003-5).  He lives in Central Otago.

In April Victoria University Press published Brian’s Selected Poems, a hardback treasury of poetry that gains life from southern skies and soil, and so much more. When I am longing to retreat to the beauty of the south, I find refuge in one of Brian’s poems. The economy on the line, the exquisite images, the braided rhythms. Read a poem and your feet are in the current of a gleaming river, your eyes fixed on a purple gold horizon line.

 

Once in a while

you may come across a place

where everything

seems as close to perfection

as you will ever need.

from ‘Place’

 

Yet the joy of reading the Selected Poems is also in the diverse subject matter: the acerbic political bite when he considers a world under threat, the love poems, poems of his mother and his father, the elegies, the humour, the storms, the seasons. In ‘The mixing bowl’ the mother is kneading, she feeds her son cakes and scones, along with ‘a rough and tart / unstinting love’. The final stanzas catch my heart:

 

But I did not know

it would be so hard

to watch her grow,

enfeebled, toward oblivion,

her hands and face

yellow as floury

butter, her arms

white as gentled flour.

 

I love ‘In Ladbroke Grove’: a woman in a London cafe is surprised he is writer because she didn’t ‘know there were any in New Zealand.’ When she asked where New Zealand was ‘he refused to answer that because too many know anyway’. Ha!

I emailed Brain earlier in the year to see if had any new poems -and he said he had hundreds. ‘In the middle of nowhere’ is one of them – a Turner taste before you read the glorious Selected Poems. His poetry might carry you to the middle of nowhere (a fiction of course!) but his poems are rich in the sumptuous experience of somewhere. His poetry somewhere is vital, humane, illuminating. His Selected Poems is an essential volume for me and I want to keep quoting poems to you because they are so rewarding. Instead I  recommend you pack the book in your bag and take time out for a Turner retreat.

 

The dead do

sing in us, in

us and through

us, and to themselves

under their mounds of earth

swelling  in the sun, or in their

ashes that shine

as they depart on the wind.

from ‘After’ for Grahame

 

Victoria University Press page

 

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Poetry Shelf noticeboard: Anna Jackson’s launch speech for Helen Rickerby’s How to Live

 

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Helen Rickerby, How to Live

 Helen Rickerby’s ‘Notes on the Unsilent Woman, Note 2’: ‘Perhaps the first thing you need to know is that women in ancient Athens didn’t get out much. No dinner parties, no debate, no public life. Unless you were already ruined. Or unless you were Hipparchia.’

Times have changed – and here we all are – to launch Helen Rickerby’s How to Live alongside AUP New Poets 5.

Before I talk about How to Live, I want to thank Sam Elworthy for supporting my wish to see the AUP New Poets series relaunched, for sharing my enthusiasm for poetry and projects generally, and for all he does for New Zealand poetry. I’d also like to acknowledge Elizabeth Caffin’s role in launching the series of AUP New Poets in 1999, and Anna Hodge’s support of the series under her editorship, and I’d like to thank the whole AUP team for everything they have done to support this beautiful collection of poems I love so much from Rebecca Hawkes, Sophie van Waardenberg and Carolyn DeCarlo. Most of all I want to thank the poets themselves for the extraordinary poetry which is setting this series back in motion.

I first knew Helen Rickerby when we were both fairly new poets ourselves, and I knew her poetry before I met her. I was very taken by her Theodora character in her first collection Abstract Internal Furniture, and the way the whole collection glitters with dark comedy, rapid shifts of scene, and exuberant detail. ‘I think I’ll edit out those long   silences’, she writes in one poem from that book, though even back then she was deciding to ‘leave in some of the shorter ones for effect.’

Now – several books of poetry and many years later – we have the book-length considered take on silence – and outspokenness – of How to Live: book-length because the ‘Notes on the Unsilent Woman’ which opens the book sets up questions and ideas that resonate all through the collection.

Notes on the Unsilent Woman, Note 53:

Hipparchia wrote treatises such as Philosophical Hypotheses, Epicheremas and Questions to Theodorus. Letters, jokes, philosophical refutations. All are lost. (Crates wrote Knapsack and Praise of the Lentil.)

A small note can say a lot, and it is a characteristic Rickerby move to pair the loss of intellectual history represented by Hipparchia’s lost treatises with the pointed addition of the titles of the work of Hipparchia’s more famous philosopher husband, to whose life she typically appears as a footnote, at best. His place in this note, in parentheses, after the main point is made, is just one of the many lightly undertaken total overhauls of intellectual history this book of poetry offers.

Its own title – How to Live – indicates its philosophical reach: this is a book that asks the biggest questions. The title poem references Susan Sontag, Helen Keller, Empedocles, Adorno and other philosophers and writers, alongside friends discussing the big questions in person and on facebook – ‘I am forever putting my friends in’, Helen confesses, and her friends are forever finding themselves caught up in extended conversations that take in the details, big and small, of their own lives.

The collection as a whole takes in questions such as how to choose a good fork or how to choose a house; how to read and how to listen; when we choose to suffer – ‘It all depends on / what the other choice is’ – and the question of what poetry is for, what is poetry? It is an urgent question for a poet constantly questioning her own practice, constantly experimenting with form: about the prose-like appearance of some of these poems on the page, she says, ‘I have long struggled against the tyranny of the line break. Am I afraid that if I let the words leak out, they’ll mix with oxygen and become prose?’

What happens in fact is a collection which rewrites the boundaries of poetry and prose to dazzling effect, as, for instance, the interest in portraiture that goes right back to the Theodora character of her first book now gives rise to entirely new forms of biography – the sharply comic, occasionally personal, often poignant and brilliantly illuminating verse essay on George Eliot, in thirteen numbered sections (with sub-sections); the ‘poem for three voices’ moving between the perspectives of Mary Shelley, Victor Frankenstein and the monster himself; the meditation on the life of Ban Zhao as palimpsest, pillow book and personal essay.

If Helen Rickerby is New Zealand’s most intellectually exciting writer (and I think she is), it is not although but because she writes always as a poet, with a poet’s interest always in form.  And it works just as well to turn the equation around to say she is one of the most formally innovative poets in New Zealand, because her interest in formal innovation is always driven by the intellectual ideas she grapples with.

And she’s funny. For all its formal interest and intellectual brilliance, what I really most love about the book is the voice – but for that, I can do no better than to hand over to Helen herself.

 

– Anna Jackson, 7 August 2019

 

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Poetry Shelf review: Gail Ingram’s Contents Under Pressure

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Gail Ingram, Contents Under Pressure, Pūkeko Publications, 2019

 

Gail Ingram has published poetry and flash fiction both in New Zealand and internationally. She lives in Christchurch where she is part of a writing/ critiquing group of poets. Contents Under Pressure is her debut poetry collection and includes illustrations by her daughter, Rata Ingram.

Contents Under Pressure is in debt to a city; the poems navigate post-earthquake Christchurch. When I first held the book and flicked through the pages, I was reminded of flicking through a book to watch the drawings on the bottom corners move. Flick the pages of this book and it is poetry in disrupted movement: you get spiky angles, walls of text, bold against light, steps against missing bits, changing fonts.

The title is perfect: everything is under pressure – the fractured city and the contents of the book. This is the story of a city filtered through that of a mother / graffiti artist and her son, and both have different ways of coping with a city in pieces.

The opening poem ‘Definition: mother / graffiti / artist’ introduces just that: a mother who goes tagging in the city that continues to break. At times the pages of the book stand in for the tagged walls:

 

she sprays

airport walls in zen

tangles so strangers

trace poke-leaves

in sesquipedalian mazes

 

from ‘From below, the graffiti artist is’

 

I love this book because it shakes up what poetry can do while simultaneously bringing us in close, so searingly close, to human trauma.

An early poem returns us to solid ground: the mother and her sons are looking at a photo of the family tobogganing at Round Hill. It is a white hot shard in the collection that makes the rest of the poetry even more poignant:

 

Mum took the photo. I’ve got this picture of Dad resting his

arm across her shoulders —

Yeah, like a security blanket.

Yeah.

But now when I look at it, I don’t see us. I don’t know who

that family is, but …

I know the mountains —

The mountains are capable of moving.

 

from ‘She overhears the boys talking about the photo in the hall’

 

The portrait of the woman feels like a woman behaving out of character in order to relocate herself (her new character) in the new and shattered terrain. She leaves her familiar/unfamiliar daylight routines. She becomes someone other in the pitch dark night. At times the writing is in shards and spiky while at times it is lyrical:

 

She hasn’t gone out into the ink

of the night street yet. Here,

she exists, safe as a thief

in the stoma of their sheets

before she will slink through the open window,

creep along the dark passages of local streets,

and tap her own tune

on the city’s leaping drum.

 

from ‘The graffiti artist waits for the world to sleep’

 

The graffiti artist shows us the power of art to make both public and personal both ideas and feelings. And we can engage with this. We can be moved and we can be challenged. In ‘The graffiti artist as a teenager’, her art teacher had showed the class the ‘Cubist strokes of “Guernica””. She is learning what art can do:

 

At fourteen she learned the power of dots. That a

cluster could create a river pebble’s shadow, a

crease in a smile or the trail of cupped hooves on

farm soil. Forty pencils pattering in the class, and

the hexagon-window left free, high in the streaked

pupil, made the picture come alive as if it was her

paper skin under the shrapnel of sharp lead. (…)

 

There are many threads to track through the book. Equally captivating is the thread of the son thrown off kilter, with drugs, anxiety, physic textbooks. In ‘Expedition to the New World’ the mother and son are traipsing through the vegetable aisles where the poem’s punning supermarket title confirms everything is made strange and off-centre:

 

(…)  She can’t find what they need. He

brushes past tins of spaghetti. Root-like tendrils on the

labels seem to take an interest in his passing, as though to

grasp for arm or ankle. He half-stumbles into the bags of

stalky cereal and utters a guttural sound, an earthquake

rumble that shudders up through his body to settle there.

 

On the back of the book Sue Wootton, Bernadette Hall and Bryan Walpert underline what a gift this book is. I agree. The poetry represents the way the shattering of familiar terrain shakes up everything: family, body, heart, faith, everyday routines, solid attachments. It shakes you as you read. It is intimate and it is wide reaching. It also shows the way art, language and a deep love of family carry you as you discover ways to resettle. A gift of a book.

 

Pūkeko Publications page