Category Archives: NZ poetry book

Poetry Review: David Merrit’s Crisis & Duplication

 

 

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I am thinking of creating (private) lists of books to read in particular circumstances. For example what to read when you have no power or running water and can only read by candlelight after a day consumed with slow-paced domestic chores. Thrillers worked for me.

And David Merrit’s Crisis & Duplication. I sat on the couch in the grey gloom and read it three times in a row. It is a slender chapbook published by Compound Press last year.

The book is in two halves with a foldout centrepiece. The first half draws Frank Sargeson into the poet’s musing self-reflective quick-fire monologue. It is sharp, angular and surprising.

 

I always seem to be writing poems in Wellington

sunlight on  a cold but bright winter’s day. I will

be outside a cafe in reflected mirror glass, dodging

bullets, writing inbetween showers & dristy

mizzle.

 

David is musing on the mirror image: himself and Frank, the connections, the writing surges and space for improvement. It is audacious, spiky, riveting.

 

It’s an easy poem this, preordained, quick

off the tongue, one poet, very alive,

400 miles south for now, compares life

& times with another poet, 60 years

ago still alive & kicking, a Janet Frame

tucked away in a back shed, her glittering

far away eyes focused on her own escape,

‘cept you like me, we never escaped to

 the place they call overseas.

 

The second half navigates the stages of making a book – not a big press book but a grassroots number. A miniature history of desktop publishing. It is risograph printed and bound with premium banana box card. Excellent to look at and hold.

 

So what do I do in a mini crisis? Will I set up invented conversations with someone who has affected me (also in the garden? writing poems? reading books?)? Is the occasion of writing a poem a crisis for some? A tilt, a topple, a brief epiphany?

To what degree is a poem a duplication?

In the grey gloom with no idea when the lights would be on, the spaghetti effect of questions was extremely welcome. Then again so was the downright admiration of the words on the line.

Yes, I recommend this book highly. Power or no power.

 

Interview and book details at Compound Press page.

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf interviews Manon Revuelta

 

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girl teeth Manon Revuelta, Hard Press, 2017

 

Manon Revuelta’s chapbook, girl teeth, prompted me to track her down and do an email interview over about a month. It was such a pleasurable conversation I didn’t want it to end. 

 

Paula: A number of years ago I picked your poem as the winner of the New Zealand Post Secondary School Poetry Competition. While I had to ponder for ages on the shortlist, your poem lifted above the rest and stuck to me with its glorious intricacies. It was a clear winner. In my speech on the night I borrowed from Ruth Padel and talked about the poem’s ‘chewiness’. All these years later I discover your chapbook, girl teeth, and am once again caught in the luminous effects of your writing. Can you build a little portrait of your writing life in the intervening years?

Manon: Thank you Paula, these are such kind words. It was such a lift to win that prize. That was all the way back in 2008, a whole ten years ago and my final year of high school. Since then my writing life has continued as more of an undertow, as I think it does for many. I studied English and Film in Auckland, where I took some wonderful courses with Lisa Samuels and learned all about language poetry. I also met Greg Kan, who became a good friend and as a fellow poetry nerd introduced me to some tremendous writers like Ariana Reines and Aase Berg. After university, I worked as a bookseller at Time Out Bookstore for a couple of years. That was such a blessing; I got to read a lot and organise poetry events and work amongst the most loving and inspiring group of people. I moved to London a few years ago, and when that became too exhausting and I fell in love, I moved to Berlin, which is where I am now.

 

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It’s taking a very long and occasionally dispiriting time to sort out what I’d like to do to earn a living, as I don’t think poetry is that. I’ve worked in countless subsidiary post-graduate roles from check-out girl to nanny to unpaid intern, but writing seems to be a really comforting constant in my life and all these things in their own ways have come to inform what I write and allow freedom for it. I have had poems published here and there, and last year my dear friends Anna and Owen published girl teeth, my first chapbook, with Hard Press. That was the accumulation of a couple of years of writing, and a very special project to me.

 

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Paula: I can really identify with this! London was a significant struggle and turning point for me as a writer (there were more to come though!). I find poetry fits so beautifully in the gaps of living – for me doing my degrees, being a parent, earning a living – yet it is so essential that poetry is larger than a gap. When I read your collection I am immediately struck by the right-hand pages that are uniformly devoid of text like little white pauses. It is akin to the silence after a piece of orchestral music that allows what you have heard to reverberate. The poems themselves are a satsifying mix of silences and sumptuous detail. What matters as you write a poem?

Manon: Oh London! It’s a beast. Everyone you meet seems so driven and everything is moving at such a fast pace and sometimes that means you’re inspired to seriously think about what you want and other times it means you just drown in everything you don’t want. I agree, it is important for poetry to be larger than a gap… but it’s sometimes barely possible for it to exist at all and I’m impressed that it makes its way in.

I suppose what matters to me as I write a poem is just that it at some point causes that indescribable glint? And that I can feel attuned to what that is for me, not someone else, and most importantly, enjoy the process. Poetry is my only opportunity to do strange things with language; to turn it into something elastic. For a long time I was really interested in formalism, and then swung the other way entirely, and I guess I have wanted to reconcile those… Italo Calvino quoted Paul Valery (I only seem to have read him in quotes) who said “one should be light like a bird, not like a feather”. I think that’s a great and far too quotable way of putting it, this velocity we respond to and attempt. That being said, I wouldn’t want to ever apply a rule to anything. I don’t know! You always find new ways of achieving things.

 

Paula: Italo Calvino is great – he is what inspired me to study Italian until there were no degrees left. I love his Six Memos for the Next Millennium. He has a lecture in there called ‘Lightness’. There is also quickness, visibility, multiplicity, and exactitude. He died before he wrote the sixth (consistency) or delivered any of them. I love your quote and fits your writing. There is both economy and agility on the line.

 

are poems shells

bone caves

gentle blunt beaks

lived in and left

for others to crawl into

Your first poem, ‘Shells’, is a delight. It reminded me of what Hinemoana Baker wrote on the back of her book, waha | mouth: ‘I’d like to think that opening this book to read is like standing at a mouth of a cave, or a river, or a grave, with a candle in your hand.’  Your tropes pull in multiple directions. On the one hand a poem might be held to the ear like a shell and who knows what you will hear. On the hand there is the mysterious dark space that Hinemoana draws upon. Do you ever relinquish music and mystery?

 

Manon: Yes that’s exactly where I got it from! The ‘Lightness’ lecture. I really love that book.

I liked posing a sort of question in that poem; I feel uncertain sometimes what poems are, what they are for. There is this intense inhabiting when writing and then they can later feel like such foreign things. Not in the sense of being possessed by some genius that flows through you; just that writing is a thing you are present in and then the written thing feels almost like a by-product. Mary Ruefle writes about a friend of hers whose poems, after time has elapsed, “look like handkerchiefs. Something I needed to blow my nose in, wipe some tears with, with a little lace at the edges and my initials in the corner. Poetry is so weird.”

That’s an incredible quote from Hinemoana; I love that image of a flame held up to illuminate a tiny part of something immense. I think the last two pieces in the chapbook, the more essayistic ones, were an effort to cast a wider light on things, to relinquish some mystery. Poems can be quite ciphered and condensed, which I love, but it felt good to write something more sprawling.

 

Paula:  What poets feel close to the way you write? Are there poets who write so differently to you but whom you admire?

Manon: That’s tricky… I can only look at what I like, rather than see if my work is close to it. I know some poets I’ve been reading lately are Carl Phillips, Anne Carson, Jean Valentine, Dorothea Lasky. I have always carried a torch for Paul Celan. There are of course poets who write differently to me but whom I admire greatly- perhaps someone like Alice Notley- her poems are very long! Also Hera Lindsay Bird. She makes me laugh and weep, a rare combination, at least in poetry.

 

Paula: I am moved by the arrival of a mother (your mother?) in the poems.

 

as a girl i watch my mother’s earlobe

pulled down by an earring and

the tiny hole

i can see right though and

i plant the sea there

from ‘girl teeth’

 

A mother (your mother?) reappears in the more essay-like longer poem, ‘Duchess’. There is such tenderness at work here, surprising in detail and revelation, it refreshes how we as adult daughters can write (our) mothers. Your Louise Bourgeois quote sets up the poem: ‘She shows herself at the very moment/ she thinks she is hiding’. Elizabeth Smither has a breathtaking poem, ‘My mother’s house’, in her latest book, Night Horses, where she watches her mother move through the house from her car.

What drew the mother, her various visibilities and invisibilities, into your poems?

 

Manon: Perhaps as a starting point, I have always been close with my mother; she is an incredible woman and occupies a huge space in my heart. I also think mother/daughter relationships are always to some degree complex and fraught and intense. There are so many invisible histories that make up what is visible in ourselves, our lives… I think in recent years I became fascinated by tiny signs of my mother’s influence coming through in me, and started to think about the deeper roots of my behaviour habits. A sort of psychoanalysis, I guess, which in turn led to an analysis of my mother, and of her mother, and of the ripple effects trauma can have in generations; the inheritance and expression and rectifying of those effects in and on the (particularly female) body. I was reading a lot of women who were interested in these ideas too; Louise Bourgeois’s journals, Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. It’s also both disturbing and important to me to look at the way femininity is constructed, and so much of that for me has happened through my mother, and by her mother, and so on. It felt very right to try to map these things out in writing. Is motherhood/daughterhood something you’ve explored in your poetry?

 

Paula: Yes! My first book, Cookhouse was criticised for its domestic focus, as unworthy of poetic attention, but the key thread, the white-hot core, was maternal. My doctoral thesis explored the maternal as it asked whether it made a difference if the pen held by an Italian writer was a woman. I argue for hinges and connections and the power of ‘and’. I am also interested in the ripple effects that pass from mother to daughter (and daughter to mother) but that also pass through generations of women writing. We have inherited so many freedoms, as both daughters and writers, yet we still face a need to speak out on myriad issues that affect women detrimentally. I write about this in my new book within the context of reading New Zealand women’s poetry.

 

Breadcrumbs

What a rarity

to appear in my own map

like when

I’m watching my hands

wash each      other

or pulling a rope of my own hair

out of a drain

like its     pondweed

or even seeing the ham

chewed into something different

when I spit it into a napkin

 

Your poems are like lacework; they hook the personal along with intense visual detail and a delight in thought. Are you cautious about self revelation? About appearing in your own map? Do you have any taboo areas?

 

Manon: Well you can probably tell I like banality! I hope we are moving on from a hierarchy of ‘poetically worthy’ material … I know Lauris Edmond was really criticised for writing about domesticity and motherhood too, and she is still overlooked. I guess, I hope, all that fuels a fire and a revision. Your book sounds so wonderful.

I don’t feel cautious about self revelation, I think it would be strange to be writing poetry if that were the case. But it also isn’t really something I do on purpose. I think it feels very free and private, even though you kind of know it isn’t? It can be a bit unsettling (in a nice way) when that all gets turned inside out and you publish something, but I don’t think that makes me omit things. I love reading writing that is TMI, so that reassures me.

 

Paula:  Is there a poem in the collection where the stars aligned and it particularly resonates for you?

Manon: I think the essay about the week with my grandmother resonated a lot. We had only met once before and weren’t able to speak each other’s language, so it was quite an intense experience, observing the ways disconnected families connect, speaking in the absence of words, the shapes we make out of silence. There were all these things that seemed to slot in with it; going to see the ruins of a nearby castle, my reading surrounding rocks and this story of Pyrrha. It was initially conceived as a voiceover for a film – which is still in progress – so it feels like an ongoing project with things falling into place. It also resonates in the context of living in a place where I don’t speak the language properly.

 

Paula: I loved that poem. There is a poetic finesse that depends on fluidity, storytelling,

sharp images, slow-pitched discovery and absolute tenderness.

 

So: still alive. And so henceforth:

another cup of instant coffee and

toast, another bath, clothes put

on, cooked lunch, another long

afternoon nap while I go out

walking. We don’t know what to

do with each other: we sit together

at her table eating over-ripe

bananas, peeled grapes, carefully

de-pithed segments of mandarins.

The refrigerator humming. She

examines my hands in her hers.

from ‘Bec/Nid/ Vent/Rêves Beak/Nest/ Wind/Dreams’

 

PaulaWill Berlin slant your writing?

In my research for my book I have noticed New Zealand poets living overseas have such different relations with home in their writing (Katherine Mansfield, Fleur Adcock, Lola Ridge). Some are nostalgic and the poem becomes a surrogate home while others are almost patronising. I am intrigued to read what Hinemoana Baker produces in Berlin. Will poetry ever become a way of writing home?

Manon:  As far as writing from Berlin goes, I think I haven’t changed what I’m doing at all… at least as you say, the poem feels a surrogate home wherever one goes. The only thing is that living here allows a lot more time to write (cheaper living than NZ = working at a day job less, etc.) so I do feel I can have more of a balance.

 

Words open and close and open;

breathing through their sutures.

from ‘Bec/Nid/ Vent/Rêves Beak/Nest/ Wind/Dreams’

 

Your book is a joy to read Manon. Thank you so much for the conversation. I want everyone to race out and find a copy of the book. It is my chapbook of 2017.

Hard Press page

 

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Poetry Shelf Review: Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2018

 

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What I want from a poetry journal

More and more I witness clusters of poetry communities in New Zealand – families almost – that might be linked by geography, personal connections, associations with specific institutions or publishers. How often do we read reviews of, or poems by, people with whom we don’t share these links? Poetry families aren’t a bad thing, just the opposite, but I wonder whether the conversations that circulate across borders might grow less and less.

I want a poetry journal to offer diversity, whichever way you look, and we have been guilty of all manner of biases. This is slowly changing.

When I pick up a journal I am on alert for the poet that makes me hungry for more, that I want a whole book from.

I am also happy by a surprising little diversion, a poem that holds me for that extra reading. Ah, this is what a poem can do!

 

Editor Jack Ross has achieved degrees of diversity within the 2018 issue and I also see a poetry family evolving. How many of these poets have appeared in Landfall or Sport, for example? A number of the poets have a history of publication but few with the university presses.

This feels like a good thing. We need organic communities that are embracing different voices and resisting poetry hierarchies.

Poetry NZ Yearbook Annual offers a generous serving of poems (poets in alphabetical order so you get random juxtapositions), reviews and a featured poet (this time Alistair Paterson). It has stuck to this formula for decades and it works.

What I enjoyed about the latest issue is the list of poets I began to assemble that I want a book from. Some I have never heard of and some are old favourites.

 

Some poets I am keen to see a book from:

 

Our rented flat in Parnell

Those rooms of high ceilings and sash windows

Our second city

after Sydney

Robert Creeley trying to chat you up

at a Russell Haley party

when our marriage

was sweet

 

from Bob Orr’s ‘A Woman in Red Slacks’

 

Bob Orr’s heartbreak poem, with flair and economy, reminds me that we need a new book please.

There is ‘Distant Ophir’, a standout poem from David Eggleton that evokes time and place with characteristic detail. Yet the sumptuous rendering is slightly uncanny, ghostly almost, as past and present coincide in the imagined and the seen.  Gosh I love this poem.

The hard-edged portrait Johanna Emeney paints in ‘Favoured Exception’ demands a spot in book of its own.

I haven’t read anything by Fardowsa Mohamed but I want more. She is studying medicine at Otago and has written poetry since she was a child. Her poem’ Us’, dedicated to her sisters, catches the dislocation of moving to where trees are strange, : ‘This ground does not taste/ of the iron you once knew.’

Mark Young’s exquisite short poem, ‘Wittgenstein to Heidegger’, is a surprising loop between difficulty and easy. Again I hungered for another poem.

Alastair Clarke, another poet unfamiliar to me, shows the way poetry can catch the brightness of place (and travel) in ‘Wairarapa, Distance’. Landscape is never redundant in poetry –  like so many things that flit in and out of poem fashion. I would read a whole book of this.

Another unknown: Harold Coutt’s ‘there isn’t a manual on when you’re writing someone a love poem and they break up with you’ is as much about writing as it is breaking up and I love it. Yes, I want more!

Two poets that caught my attention at The Starling reading at the Wellington Writers Festival are here: Emma Shi and Essa Ranapiri. Their poems are as good on the page as they are in the ear. I have posted a poem from Essa on the blog.

I loved the audacity of Paula Harris filling in the gaps after seeing a photo of Michael Harlow in ‘The poet is bearded and wearing his watch around the wrong way’. Light footed, witty writing with sharp detail. More please!

I am a big fan of Jennifer Compton’s poetry and her ‘a rose, and then another’ is inventive, sound-exuberant play. I can’t wait for the next book.

I am also a fan of the linguistic agility of Lisa Samuels; ‘Let me be clear’ takes sheer delight in electric connections between words.

Finally, and on a sad note, there is Jill Chan’s poem, ‘Poetry’. I wrote about her on this blog to mark her untimely death. It is the perfect way to conclude this review. Poetry is everywhere – it is in all our poetry families.

 

Most poetry is unwritten,

denied and supposed.

Don’t go to write it.

Go where you’ve never been.

Go.

And it may come.

Behind you,

love rests.

And where is poetry?

What is it you seek?

 

Jill Chan, from ‘Poetry’

 

 

Poetry NZ Yearbook page

 

Poems from Ockham NZ Book Award poetry finalists: Briar Wood’s ‘Kuramārōtini’

 

 

Kuramārōtini

 

So the story goes

that trickster Kupe

cheated his friend

into diving overboard

to free the lines

then paddled rapidly away.

 

Some hoa.

Best to know that

legendary navigators take huge risks

and do not make the safest companions.

 

Ākuanei—

she asked herself—

what do I want—

home in Hawaiki

or the travelling years?

 

What does he want—

the waka my father gifted—

Matahourua and me?

 

Or maybe unhappiness

with the man she’d married

drove her to the coast.

It’s possible—

she was curious and Hoturapa wasn’t

the kind of man who liked a journey

so she chose Kupe.

 

Yet even an inveterate traveller

might become weary in a waka

on the open sea,

looking out for landfall.

 

Travelling direct to her destination—

as the future loomed towards her

she named that radiant land

on the horizon

Aotearoa.

 

 

Briar Wood from Rāwāhi (Anahera Press, 2017)

 

Briar Wood grew up in South Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand. Until 2012, she lived and worked as a lecturer in Britain. Welcome Beltane (Palores Press, 2012) made poetic links between family histories and contemporary places. The most recent collection Rāwāhi (Anahera Press, 2017) is focused through a return to Northland places where her Te Hikutū ki Hokianga, Ngāpuhi Nui whakapapa resonates with ecological concerns.

Poetry Shelf interviews Anna Jackson

 

On my way elsewhere. 

  

My shoulders are sore, and my feet.  But I have my vision.

I will look past the old man whose beard drips

down like a stalactite, to the light

at the end of the tunnel – it isn’t a cave

he sits in, but a tunnel, and out

the other side there is a path as white

as sand.  There is a break in the clouds to the East,

but the light falls from the West – it is later

than I thought.  I should have gone home long ago

and he, no doubt, has come a long way himself,

is no doubt just resting a moment, not living in a cave. 

Though it isn’t a cave, but the mouth of a tunnel, and I 

should be getting home, though I have no family

to go home to and the fireworks can be seen

from here, through the tunnel, which could

be seen as a frame, almost.  Would you rather

have twenty-twenty vision of the fireworks or be blind

with five children around you, five children

clamouring for fireworks that you cannot light? 

I would ask the old man this question, if

he were close enough to hear me – I don’t know

how well he can hear.  But what I thought

was the sound of the fireworks I think is the old man, light

catching his eyes suddenly so they shine in the dimness,

calling out from inside the tunnel to me:

“even if you lit them, you wouldn’t be able to see.”  

 

©Anna Jackson in Pasture and Flock

 

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Anna Jackson debuted in AUP New Poets 1 and has subsequently published 6 poetry collections with Auckland University Press. She has a DPhil from Oxford, and is an Associate Professor of English at Victoria University. She has organised several poetry related conferences with Helen Rickerby (most recently Poetry & the Essay) along with the Ruapehu Writers Festival (much loved by participants). In 2009, with Charles Ferrall, she published  British Juvenile Fiction 1850 – 1950: The Age of Adolescence, and in the following year, Diary Poetics: Form and Style in Writers’ Diaries 1915 -1962.

When Anna Jackson’s Pasture and Flock: New & selected poems arrived in my reading lap, I stalled on the perfect cover and the perfect title for curated travels across 25 years of poetry. There is new growth, myriad viewpoints, shelter and flight. My relationship with the poetry extends back to the first publication as does my friendship with Anna. Opening this book is like opening a poetry album where the ghosts above the line are our shared conversations, celebrations and confessions. Yet when I enter the poem, our interlinked history dissolves, and it is just the poem flaring and gliding in my mind.

 

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An unfolding email conversation with Anna

Paula: Right from the start your poetry has touched a chord with me. I am reading the early poems, and the litheness on the line, the measured wit, the roving curiosity are as captivating as when your debut poems appeared in AUP New Poets 1 and The Long Road to Teatime. Reading the poems from the early collections, I wondered what it is like musing back on the young woman who wrote them. Are you startled to see what you wrote? What do you love about these first outings? Was there difficulty?

Anna: It is more startling finding unpublished things I wrote at the time, when I really don’t know where they are going to go or what I was thinking.  Because these poems were published I have never forgotten them so completely, but I like returning to that sense of who I was, and who we were, when I was writing poetry for my friends at the age of 23 (“looking as young as the teenagers at the bar” – well of course I did, I was only 23!).  I wasn’t writing for publication except we found we could use the old printing press at the university, so we wrote some things to play around with the letterpress with, and then we got more ambitious and made little chapbook anthologies of our writing, with a photocopier and woodcuts, or maybe they were linocuts.

 

Paula: I am really drawn to the ‘friendships’ you set up with other writers and the way the poem becomes conversation or story, surprising in the paths taken.

 

The sun has taken to me.

It rarely comes out now

without stopping to talk.

I am expected to drop everything.

 

from ‘My friendship with Mayakovsky’

 

Often your family and friends are drawn into the other scenes. I especially love the Dante poems where you are all lost in a thicket of autobiography, musings and literary engagements.

 

In the middle of the journey

we found ourselves lost.

‘This is the jungle,’ said Johnny.

Roe asked if we had a map.

‘Not a road map,’ said Simon.

‘So what sort do you have?’

We looked for a life map.

 

from ‘The road to Karekare’ in ‘The long road to teatime’

 

 

Were these early literary friendships like a support crew as you started out, or a way to take risks and refresh the inherited page, or something in between or altogether different?

Anna: Yes and yes…In Dunedin, writing and publishing poetry was a way of taking part in an arts scene I wanted to be a part of.  There were empty warehouse buildings, scavenged equipment, all sorts of projects people were trying out, some of which never amounted to anything, some which were just one-off experiences.  One evening Alastair Galbraith, a musician, writer and artist, read through a Marguerite Duras script with me, I can’t remember why, but it was an extraordinarily powerful theatrical experience for me, except more intimate than theatrical because we were performing for no one.  And making friends with Mayakovsky, travelling with Dante, was part of this way of living in connection with other writers and artists, on and off the page.

  

Paula: Were there losses in not including the whole sequences? From my point of view there is a greater economy of travel, yet the underlying pulse of intersections is not diminished. So the family refreshes Dante and Dante refreshes the family—and that ‘would of selves’ hungry for ‘hot buttered toast’.

Anna: The collection includes six sequences, two from my first book, and I only edited them a little, for “economy of travel” as you say and also to cut out some lines or stanzas that still embarrass me.  I selected six whole sequences rather than fragments from more sequences, to tell whole stories as much as I could, and I think another story tells itself through the sequence of sequences too maybe.

 

Paula: I have edited earlier poems when performing them in public on the spot! There is the little nag hovering above a word or a line that I finally pay attention to. When an editor coincides with that nag, I sit up and listen.

It is fascinating how this new version of sequences retains the original chords yet makes the synchronicities between books sing with different intensities. I am thinking of the voice of the child (Johnny, Elvira, Rufus), relations with writing, the imagined and longed for, the lived.

With The Gas Leak you step into narrative, but family is still in acute focus. There is a humaneness at work, little wisdoms, a playful yet serious pushing at familial boundaries. What freedoms and advantages did you find in writing this book? How did the sonnet help?

 

Has someone broken in?

I wouldn’t know what was missing.

For years I have left

the door open

thinking even mud

from the break-in would be

a gain

 

from ‘A master key is easy to procure’

 

Anna:

The family in acute focus, I like that.  The sonnet form allowed for a very taut story-telling voice, the sonnets in the book being reduced sonnets, with fourteen lines but very short lines.  I would put as much as I could in each poem and then cut it back, and when I couldn’t cut it back any further, I would add an additional element and then cut again.  Perhaps I was doing something like that with the narrative too, with the rearrangement and fictionalization of elements of autobiography and elements of narrative I’d taken from Gerrit Achterberg’s Ballade of a Gas-fitter – a “ballad” that is also written in sonnet form.  It is a heightened, fraught version of a family that only incidentally resembles, sometimes, my own.  I wrote it very quickly, between classes, making use of whatever material was to hand, a discussion of Xeno’s arrow with a colleague, an attempt to use the barre around our office lifts for leg stretches, the children’s soccer game in the weekend, a song on the radio.  There isn’t a word I would change, but I’ve already found changes I would make to two of the poems in the new selection at the end of Pasture and Flock.

 

 

Paula: What draws you to poetry rather than narrative?

Anna: I went to a novel-writing workshop run by Curtis Sittenfeld once, and she said writers reveal a lot about themselves in fiction in details they don’t think are giving anything away – how much characters drink, or what they worry about, or how they respond to a telephone ringing.  I think poetry offers more secrecy, but maybe I am giving away more than I mean to.  I do think I am writing narrative though – sometimes little narratives in individual poems, sometimes a narrative sequence across a series of poems.  I like the possibility for different forms of narrative, shorter stories, or stories that leap across gaps and shifts in perspective.

 

 

Paula: Catullus is your point of return. What attracts you to his poetry? In meshing your voice and his, your preoccupations and his, again you freshen poetic possibilities. There is daring and there is conversation, particularly when you turn your attention to Clodia. The I, Clodia poems have always resonated for me.

 

I might cry over your verses –

tears of laughter

but these are real tears,

I’m grieving.

Look at what wax my little bird,

yesterday – this was

somebody, closer to me than …

you had better be leaving.

 

from ‘Pipiabat’

 

Anna: Yes, the Catullus for Children poems were a kind of translation game, domesticating Catullus not just into a contemporary New Zealand setting but revisiting his poetry in terms of the preoccupations of a seven-year-old child.  I liked how the excess and passion of his poetry translated into the different kinds of excesses of the playground, and also was interested to see what was left with the very adult themes of his poems taken away.  I, Clodia is a more serious engagement with the poetry, putting the love affair with Clodia (or Lesbia as he calls her), that several of his poems return to, right at the centre of a narrative I construct through a series of poems in her voice.  I was drawn to the narrative possibilities that the Catullus poems suggest but do not resolve, and I was also drawn to the romantic intensity of the poetry, and wondered what it would be like to be on the receiving end of it, and perhaps to match it.

 

Paula: I enthused wildly on the blog about your chapbook with Seraph Press (Dear Tombs, Dear Horizon). Much of these poems were written when you had the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship in Menton. You have included ‘Dear Tombs’ that comes out of that cluster of experience. On my blog I wrote:

The poem steps off from graffiti witnessed on rocks: ‘You are my most lovely horizon’. Each experience, thought, recalled page or vista steps off into the mysterious elsewhere of thinking, and from the elsewhere of thinking into the paradoxical here yet elsewhere of writing. The horizon is the translucent line where Mediterranean sky meets Mediterranean sea, a sensual hook of beauty that stalls the walker, but it is also the indefinable lure that poses a need to write, to think, to experience. It is Katherine Mansfield, the other authors, the conversations that stick, the not-home-ness that becomes a home-ness. (see here for review)

What prompted the ‘Dear Tombs’ narrative? I do think these poems lift from the page in glorious ways. Did your French writing sojourn make a difference?

 

Dear Tombs, I do not see anything here but dust.

Dust, dust, dust and beyond your hollows

and pillars, some trees still clinging to the dust

that gives them nothing, not a swallow

of water in it, a good winter one with rain,

a bad winter the one they have just had, and the one to follow.

 

from ‘Dear Tombs’

 

Anna: Yes, I was wonderfully home and not-home in France, and at home and not-at-home in my own writing as well.  Poetry is something I can write in between what I ought to be doing, as a form of procrastination or resistance, so it was both liberating and unnerving to feel an obligation to write, and to write something I couldn’t otherwise have written.  The Dear Tombs, Dear Horizon chapbook was made up of notes I wrote to myself, work towards writing rather than writing itself, not a way I usually work, but a way of writing I could do every day.  It did come to take on a kind of life and rhythm of its own and I was really pleased Helen Rickerby would publish it as a Seraph Press chapbook.  I feel it has a lightness and spaciousness like our life in France.  It wouldn’t really have worked to work up the notes into a different kind of poetry, except I did work up the dream at the very end of the chapbook about the tombs, exactly as I half-jokingly planned in those notes, in terza rima.  And then that set me off writing a few other poems in terza rima – but none of the others have the depth and glittery darkness of Dear Tombs.

 

Paula: The new poems continue this uplift. I love all of them, but especially ‘Flammable’, ‘On my way elsewhere’, ‘Bees, so many bees’, ‘Pasture and flock’. Really any page I land on becomes a favourite. There is a pulse of love that is always surprising and that is steered by shifting melodies. Which poems have particularly fallen into place for you? What mattered as you wrote these?

 

The world was flammable, we knew it was.

Our hair lit up with candle-light, we peeled off

the wax from the table and made it into

something beautiful, tender as the high voices

of the castrati, fine as smoke through the grain

of an old LP, a radiance through their song

like the flame of a wick slowly burning,

burning in its casing of wax. We all felt it.

 

from ‘Flammable’

 

Anna: ‘Flammable’ and ‘On my way elsewhere’ I think have something of that glittery darkness of Dear Tombs.  They both, in fact, have darkening skies and glittering lights, candlelight again in ‘Flammable’, and fireworks in ‘On my way elsewhere’, but I also mean a kind of coming from elsewhere, a sort of charged darkness.  They are about what we can’t see, can’t have, don’t know about ourselves, and I think they have something of an oracular quality about them, represented in ‘On my way elsewhere’ by the old man in the tunnel.  Maybe they are also a bit silly, a bit absurd, or at least a bit comic.  Most of the poems have been published in journals and I sent “On my way elsewhere” out to a few in turn but couldn’t place it anywhere, but it is one of my favourites.

 

Paula: I like the idea of glitter and darkness in a poem. You often draw real people into your poems, as we have already discussed. Does this ever make you uncomfortable?

Anna: I have written some I won’t publish because they draw too closely on real life, in ways that might be uncomfortable for the people I’ve written about. To make a poem work, often you want to push it as far as you can into discomfort.  And sometimes you will take risks for the work, at the risk of other people as well as yourself.  I mean, I have.  It is the same in fiction and essays – Brian Blanchfield’s brilliant, compelling book of essays, Proxies, was written with the method of keeping going from any starting point until he reached a point of personal discomfort or shame.  It makes for brilliant reading but it is very exposing, for himself and sometimes for other people he writes about.  I think he is extraordinarily brave.

 

Paula: Writing is the most important thing, but there are so many other aspects to a poet’s life: public readings, festivals, reviews, interviews, book awards, teaching. How do you feel about these extra demands?

Anna: I think most poets probably write because it is such a secret art, no one watches you do it.  You can be very controlled about what you release, no one has to see the early drafts or the work that goes nowhere, or goes somewhere you don’t want anyone to know about.  So public events are everything the poet has chosen against.  I love teaching and I have really brilliant, engaged students this year who constantly surprise me with new insights, but it is always still a little frightening standing at the front of the lecture hall, hoping the hour will go well.  There is a poem in Pasture and Flock, ‘The Cooking Show’, about the dread of lecturing, wishing I could lecture in secret, under a blanket with a torch.   You want people to read your work, and so the invitations to take part in events are very welcome, but I always wish I didn’t have to do them.  I don’t want to put people off inviting me by saying this, I’m grateful too to be asked.  I think it is the same for most writers.  And it isn’t as if publishing the work isn’t also an act of exposure you sometimes dread.  You still want to do it.

 

Paula: Why write poetry? Why read it?

 Anna: I read poetry almost every day.  It allows for a different kind of thinking and seeing.  I love fiction too and the way you can be immersed in a whole other world, but poetry allows for micro-immersions, intense unfinished experiences like dreams, that can have that same urgent resonance a dream can have.  Some poems I have held in my head for years, a poem is very portable.  I would like to think a poem of mine could have that kind of resonance for another reader.  Writing poetry is itself a micro-immersion in a developing dream, a dream you can partly control, even as it takes control of you.  It is like a more active form of reading.  And then you have written a poem, that wouldn’t be in the world if you hadn’t written it.

 

Pasture and flock

 

Staring up into the sky my feet

anchor me to the ground so hard

I’m almost drowning, drowning

in air, my hair falling upwards

around my shoulders, I think I’ll hug

my coat closer.  I’m standing

on hundreds of blades of grass, and 

still there are so many more

untrodden on.  Last night, in bed,

you said, “you are the sheet

of linen and I am the threads,” and

I wanted to know what you meant

but you wouldn’t wake up to tell me

and in the morning you didn’t

remember, and I had forgotten

till now when I think, who is

the blades of grass, who is the pasture?

It is awfully cold, and my coat

smells of something unusual.

It almost seems as if it is the stars

smelling, as if there were

an electrical fault in the sky,

and though it is almost too dark

to see I can see the sheep

moving closer, and the stars

falling. I feel like we are all

going to plunge into the sky

at once, the sheep and I,

and I am the sheep and I am

the flock, and you are the pasture

I fall from, the stars and the sky.

 

©Anna Jackson

 

Auckland University Press author page

‘Meet Viva la Novella shortlistee Anna Jackson’ – interview with Seizure Press includes her new project!

‘What are you working on now?

I am writing a book about poetry and at the moment I am finishing a chapter on sprawl in poetry, while thinking about a chapter on dead poets and what it means to write in anticipation of being dead.’

 

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Poetry Review: Heather McPherson’s This Joyous, Chaotic Place

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This Joyous, Chaotic Place, Heather McPherson, Spiral, 2018

(cover image by Joanna Margaret Paul with a portrait of Heather on the back by Allie Eagle)

 

 

Heather McPherson (1942 – 2017) published 4 poetry collections in her lifetime, with her first, A Figurehead: A Face, paving the way for future poets. It was the first poetry book by an out lesbian in Aotearoa/ New Zealand.  In 1974 she founded both the Christchurch Women Artists group and Spiral, a women’s literary and arts journal.

Before her death, Heather asked poet Janet Charman to edit her garden poems while Lynne Ciochetto and Marian Evans formed a Spiral collective to publish the volume.

When I think of garden poems, I think of Ursula Bethell and the decade she devoted to writing and gardening when she lived with her beloved companion, Effie Pollen. I have thought about these intensities a lot, and write about them in my forthcoming book.

To enter the glades of Heather’s final collection, lovingly tended by Janet, is to enter a garden rich in aroma, with diverse plantings and seasonal changes. As with Ursula, to view Heather’s writing through a garden lens is extremely productive.

 

This graveyard’s a bit like the one

where we buried my mum and dad. Oldish,

a small town Anglian acreage

 

from ‘At Rangiora’s Ashley Street Cemetery’

 

We begin at Ursula’s grave, and while the poem draws us in close, it also generates little waves that connect admired poet – mentor almost – to Heather’s parents: one grave seeking pilgrimage as much as the next. And herein lies the delight of the poetry, the way the visual piquancy (‘the bird droppings// and twigs’) interweaves with the many selves: daughter, poet, companion, political attendee.

Attendance is vital because this is a poet who paid attention to things, small and large, the one nestled in the other, crafted within the reflective surface of poems. At times it is the joy of the thing itself that matters:

 

but this shape-shifter tree blossoms

tight thick-skinned buds like thrusting rose-hips

 

from ‘fragment’

 

On other occasions the poem is a vehicle for story or anecdote, and a way of tending vital bonds, personal experience, inner movement. Age is a preoccupation as is the necessity of companionship.

 

No. No. See, it’s like old age, he says, eyeing my face.

Goes slack and perishes. Soon as I touched it, it gave way.

Dangerous. Gone holey. I’ll get you a tow.

 

from ‘Waiting for the breakdown truck’

 

I spend time in Heather’s poetic glades, because the senses are on alert, the description compounding, and it imbues my own contemplative state. I like that. I like the way my mind wanders through my open window to the kereru plundering the cabbage tree, and then I am back within an intensity of poppies:

 

Poppies poppies poppies … red-headed

black-bellied upright masses on light green

sea-milk stalks – surely such riotously

frilly leaves can’t be edible – can’t be

blanched – baked – boiled – toast …

 

from ‘Poppies’

 

In a poem for Fran, Heather responds to her friend’s paintings, and it seems to me, the astute observation might also be applied to the poems.

 

But I don’t have lots of things in

my work – like Anna does, you said;

ah, I said, but your painting traps

amazing movement in it – it moves,

it moves – whether or not your

subject does  – it moves internally

& moving, spills (…)

 

from ‘Things shift’

 

As much as stillness gifts Heather’s poetry a translucent layering, the internal movement – the links and arcs, the revelations, the richnesses and the reserve – offer an uplift along with countless movements. By paying attention to the garden in which she lived, and the people close to her, her poetry establishes contrasting intensities – from the joyful to the chaotic. It is a pleasure to read.

 

 

Until April 14th

‘This Joyous, Chaotic Place: He Waiata Tangi-ā-Tahu’ is a multi-media project to celebrate poet and lesbian activist Heather McPherson (1942-2017) and her peers in the Aotearoa New Zealand’s women’s art and literature movement of the 1970s and 1980s. It is a #suffrage125 project, funded by Creative New Zealand and includes an exhibition, a collection of Heather’s ‘garden poems’ and a shopfront cinema showing 70s and 80s short films and raw footage.

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12 Questions for the Ockham NZ Book Awards poetry finalists: Briar Wood

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Congratulations on your short-list placing!

Kia Ora.

 

What poetry books have you read in the past year?

 

Say Something Back – Denise Riley

The Bonniest Companie – Kathleen Jamie

Dark Sparring – Selina Tusitala Marsh

Citizen – Claudia Rankine

Deep River Talk Hone Tuwhare

 

What other reading attracts you?

 

Fiction – La Rose Louise Erdrich; Parable of the Sower Octavia Butler; A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing Eimear McBride; Sleeps Standing Moetu Witi Ihimaera with Hemi Kelly; Foreign Soil  Maxine Beneba Clarke

History  – Tuai Alison Jones and Kuni Kaa Jenkins; Inglorious Empire: What the British Did To India Shashi Tharoor

Journalism and Essays –   Feel Free Zadie Smith; False River Paula Morris; The Best and the Brightest David Halberstam

 

Name some key starting points (or themes) for your collection

wāhi, places, the ambience and etymology of words, kupu kōtuitui

 

Did anything surprise you as the poems come into being?

Yes, the thematic intensity and interconnections as the collection e-merged.

 

Find up to 5 individual words that pitch your book to a reader.

negotiating,  rerenga, ecoconscious, beò, karadow

 

Which poem particularly falls into place for you?

‘Kuramārōtini’

 

What matters most when you write a poem?

Aligning kupu

 

What do you loathe in poetry?

I don’t loathe anything or nothing in poetry.

 

Where do you like to write poems?

Near Maungatapere.

 

What are strengths and lacks in our poetry scenes?

Te reo writing and performance is a strength – there should be more promotion of it.

The performance and publishing scene is quite inclusive and can be more so.

More consistent newspaper reviews of poetry and media outlets paying to publish poems.

 

Have you seen a festival poetry session (anywhere) that has blown you off your seat (or had some other significant impact)?

 

Performances at hui for Te Hā ki Tāmaki – Contemporary Maori Writers by Whaitiri Mikaere and Te Kahu Rolleston pass on their energy and  aroha for te reo with an integrated intensity.

 

If you could curate a dream poetry session at The Auckland Writers Festival which poets would be there and who would mc or chair it?

 

Any of the poets could mc or chair it.

Kiri Piahana-Wong

Jacqs Carter

Te Kahu Rolleston

Paula Morris

David Eggleton

Brian Turner

 

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Anahera press page