Jess Fiebig My Honest Poem Auckland University Press 2020
When I was a scrap of blonde hair, pink cheeks
and jam-smeared hands, my grandma would say
‘that girl always needs a pen in her hand’
and at twenty-eight, I think she called it,
right from the start.
from ‘My Honest Poem’
I first picked up Jess Fiegbig’s book when we were in lockdown and I held the book at arm’s length as I was navigating my own dark thoughts. It wasn’t the time to cross poetry bridges into difficult subject matter. Yes this is a book of darkness, of anxiety, family violence, sex, drug addiction but it is also a book of hope, grit, grace. Jess’s poems navigate a woman coming into being along a rocky road, but the book is also a revelation of poems coming to life.
The title suggests the writing is an opening up, the poems frank, holding out for truth. And truth is a hot coal to handle. Prismatic. Shining this light here and that light there. For Jess it is also the heat (and ice) of writing from the searing embers of personal experience. Yet when she writes though tough subjects, her love of writing pulsates, and the words are agile on the line:
I slide two fingers
down my throat
to ease out the knots
I have folded myself into
starting gently at the bottom
and working my way up
when I sat on his knee
at six years old
and he carefully combed
my tangled blonde curls
The middle section of the book, ‘I get lost in lovers’, is both an emptying out and a replenishing. There is the physical vomiting that brings up both bile and the internal weights. ‘Kitchen Sink’ ends with the image of the grandmother and her handbag (‘the kitchen sink’) that carries ‘so much that is heavy, unnecessary’. The poet’s kitchen sink is internal, we infer: ‘I lug my own kitchen sink with me’. This swing between shedding and reclaiming finds the sharp-edged things as well as love, friendship, desire.
You need to add the crafting of poems, the hints at how poems arrive, the way certain words shimmer or blaze on the line. Yes these poems are linguistic treat. Lithe, fluent, musical, economical, image rich. Poetic choices are amplifying the subject matter. Take a stanza from ‘Hypnic Jerk’ for example. You get a murmur of ‘mms’, the tantalising hit of ‘dream souvenirs’. The image of the apple in the throat conjures voice, growth, presence, absence, the memory scaffolding maintained by a go-to image. The very fickle and hard-to-articulate business of memory:
I have kept
for a time when remembering you
wouldn’t grow an apple
in my throat
from ‘Hypnic Jerk’
I find this stanza in ‘Party After Riccarton Races’ equally gripping:
Sunday, without sleep,
I seek out the beach, hope
that sand on skin might release
the brine in my head.
The poem describes a party in a multi-storied swimming-pooled home, where white powder is offered in lines on platters rather than canapes – but it is the ‘brine’ in her head that catches me, the salty agent of preservation that is holding things the speaker wants to discharge and dissolve.
People feature. Lovers, yes. Friends. In the beginning an achingly honest depiction of a mother with various addiction and distances, the abusive boyfriend of her mother. It is particularly moving to read in the acknowledgements Jess’s mention of her mother: ‘whose support of me telling these story shows real grace’. The grandmother is a recurring figure and she is a magnet of warmth and wisdom.
When we say grace,
she declares that I have cold hands, and
a warm heart; don’t go giving it all away.
My grandmother has perfect fingernails
her lined palms are soft, fleshy,
as they rest tenderly
on my arm; her touch
feels like home.
The land also becomes a grounding. A way of locating a scene, a relationship, an outing, a mood shifter, an epiphany. Again the poet’s craft, the exquisite movement of word on the line, both aurally and visually, assists the story being told, the personal story being laid down:
the yolk yellow leaves,
brash and unashamedly golden
in this lilac light,
are shocking in their defiance
of the gentle pastel landscape
they stir something inside me
that has lain still
for so long.
from ‘Dead Man’s Point’
My Honest Poem is a move towards new beginnings. The poetry is fresh, succulent and lyrical. Perhaps the most moving collection I have read this year; it might be difficult for some readers, but this is a poetry arrival to celebrate. It took courage to write this book, and it took a finely-tuned ear and eye to achieve such a poetry gleam.
Jess Fiebig is a Christchurch-based poet whose work has featured in Best New Zealand Poems 2018, Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2018 and 2019, Landfall, Turbine | Kapohau and takahē. She was runner-up in the 2019 Sarah Broom Poetry Prize.
Jess is reading in my Wild Honey session at Word in Christchurch.
Richard Langston reads three poems from his new collection, Five O’Clock Shadows (The Cuba Press, 2020)
Richard Langston is a poet, television director, and writer. Five O’Clock Shadows is his sixth book of poems. His previous books are Things Lay in Pieces (2012), The Trouble Lamp (2009), The Newspaper Poems (2007), Henry, Come See the Blue (2005), and Boy (2003). He also writes about NZ music and posts interviews with musicians on the Phantom Billstickers website.
Every now and then I have another child, Diane Brown, Otago University Press, 2020
Sometimes you reach for memory,
an impossible task in this throw-away
world. What choice is there but to slip
on your new self as if you come clean
from ‘This Is How It Is for All of Us’ in Every now and then I have another child
Diane’s Brown previous book, a poetic memoir entitled Taking My Mother to the Opera, was ‘a rollercoasting, detail-clinging, self-catapulting, beautiful read’ (from my review ). I loved the book so was very interested to see how I engaged with Diane’s new one: Every now and then I have another child.
The new book is narrative poetry; a narrative comprising individual poems with a cast of characters that offer multiple viewpoints. For me it is a collection of border crossings, with notions and experiences of motherhood the key narrative propulsion. Everything blurs and overlaps as the fictional touches the surreal and brushes against the real.
I am reminded of Luigi Pirandello’s play, Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921), but in this case it is an author in search of characters and characters in search of each other. Joanna is a writer, poet, creative writing teacher and mother. Anna, her doppelgänger, is homeless and gatecrashes funerals. There is a mysterious baby, both phantom and pseudo-real. There are two sons, one a geek on the spectrum scale and one a sensitive surfer. There is a stepmother, a missing mother and an alcoholic father. Add in a detective, a former lover and a baby in the mural on the wall.
Life is dislocating; the borders are porous with movement between what is real and what is not real, what is present and what is missing, what is longed for and what is abandoned. Reading your way through the poetry thickets is reading symphonic psychological effects. It is reading deep into the shadows and discovering shards of light. Being mother and being daughter is complicated and complicating. There are cryptic clues, a dead body, another dead body, a crying baby, a need to imagine, a need to name and be named. Reading the list of characters underlines the way in which the narrative is also genre crossing: think fiction, memoir, poetry, detective fiction, flash fiction.
I can’t think of another book like it in Aotearoa. The spooky porcelain doll photographed by Judith White on the cover (my standard reaction to porcelain dolls) sets me up for various hauntings. Joanna is haunted by a phantom baby and her missing mother. Anna is haunted by Joanna, and by life itself. There is the way in which writing itself is a kind of haunting. How do you start? How do you keep going? How do words matter? And i would add reading. Reading this is a kind of haunting. I am thinking of the way the past – with its shadows and its light – has the ability to haunt.
Issues of creative writing are touched upon, and make you reflect back on the making of the narrative, on the author herself. If there are multiple border crossings, are there also ways in which ‘Diane’ hides in the thickets, leaves traces of herself in various characters, encounters, epiphanies? You cannot package this sequence within a neat and tidy story where everything makes sense and the real outweighs the dream or imaginary scape. Nor would you want to. We are reading poetry that draws upon rich genre possibilities, the slipperiness of writing when you try to pin it down, the evasiveness of memory, the multifaceted prongs of experience.
And that’s what makes the collection such a rewarding read. You will bump into the calamitous real world with the homeless, conspiracy theories, alternative facts, North Korean missiles. You will move from Dunedin to Auckland to Alice Springs and London, with Dunedin being the physical heart of the narrative. Geographic movement, temporal movement, emotional movement: with all roads leading to motherhood and creative processes. It is a sumptuous and haunting book that you need to experience for yourself without a reviewer ruining the startles, the surprises, the puzzles and the moving connections. I am going to do something I have never done before and leave you with the terrific last poem so you can read it, then get the book, open it at page one and find your own way to the ending. Listening hard along the way. Poetry is most definitely a way of listening. ‘Listen.’
Written on the Body
I’ve heard the narrator give
borrowed advice: writers
need to kill their ego.
Never easy to follow yourself,
harder still to coax children
from cocoons into the light,
tracing every inch of skin
and reading what is written
with indelible ink.
Word that may unearth
the buried and extinct,
can re-ice glaciers,
turn petrified trees back
into lush green leafiness,
repopulate the seas,
and extinguish fires
raging out of control
at the top of the world.
But to see such words,
you have to strip bare, hold
nothing back and listen. Listen.
DIANE BROWN is a novelist, memoirist and poet who runs her own creative writing school, Creative Writing Dunedin. Her publications include two collections of poetry (Before the Divorce We Go to Disneyland and Learning to Lie Together), a novel (If the Tongue Fits), a verse novel (Eight Stages of Grace), a travel memoir (Liars and Lovers), a prose/poetic memoir (Here Comes Another Vital Moment) and a poetic family memoir (Taking My Mother to the Opera). In 2013 she was made a Member of New Zealand Order of Merit for services to writing and education.
How to Be Old: Poems Rachel McAlpine, The Cuba Press, 2020
Nobody knows your neck squeaks.
Nobody knows your heart
is a bowl of poems.
Everything you do is very very good
and very very good is good enough.
The past supports us
like a trampoline.
The future? Face it.
Unlace it. Embrace it.
At dusk I want to be with you and stay.
I love it when you ask about my day.
from ‘Fortune cookies’
Wellington writer Rachel McAlpine blogs and podcasts about old age. She has published novels, songs, plays, books about writing as well as a number of poetry collections. To celebrate her 80th birthday she has published a new book of poems, How to Be Old. She kindly agreed to answer some questions for Poetry Shelf.
Paula: Like me, you are a Minister’s daughter. I am wondering what you read as a child?
Rachel: Everything available! We (six girls) went to the library every Friday and came home fully loaded with books. But the Book of Common Prayer had the most irresistible and enduring influence on my language.
Paula: What books stood out in your teenage reading?
Rachel: Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Tess of the Durbervilles spring to mind.
Paula: Can you name a few poets that have really mattered to you across the decades?
Rachel: Across the decades? Well, Allen Curnow was at university with my parents and was even engaged to my mother for two weeks: thus I was aware that some poets were living humans. This mattered to me because at school we read dead poets and only dead poets. My mother read Whim Wham in the Saturday Press which reinforced my arcane insider knowledge. Poets who first took my breath away include Pablo Neruda, Gerard Manly Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, Federico Garcia Lorca, Erica Jong and Adrienne Rich. Then a wave of young male New Zealand poets in the 1970s got me thinking hmm, maybe I could do that too…
When we bang on about our trips
and our memoirs and our blogs
and our grandchildren (best of kind)
our ills and pills and volunteering
our hearing aids and hips—
pay attention, don’t switch off
is our first attempt at being old
and we’re wondering how to do it
not just for us but for you.
Paula: I was really struck by your reaction to Sam Hunt’s contention in the 1970s that women either wrote very good or very bad poems: ‘just women scribbling their little women’s nothings’. So rather than mimic his lyrical voice–you wrote from life, and you wrote for women, and in doing so refused to see women’s writing (the how and the what) as mediocre. I love you for this. Your bolshiness. I see that inspirational bolshiness there in your new book! Am I right?
Rachel: Oh sure, I can’t help seeming bolshy even when I think I’m being most reasonable. Many of the poems in How To Be Old come from a bolshy approach to the clichés of old age. Come on now! What does that even mean, “age is just a number”? What is old age really, specifically, cold-bloodedly like—not to the observer but to the old person?
Paula: Do you think things have changed for women writers? I just checked out the latest Starling issue and its nearly all women (under 25s). Women poets are writing anything and everything, and are most definitely in the spotlights.
Rachel: Agree! Was it Arthur Baysting’s 1973 anthology The Young New Zealand Poets that included 19 men and one woman, Jan Kemp? With International Women’s year looming that was a red rag to a bull. Hard to imagine now.
Paula: Yes – although there is still a way to go. I talk about it in Wild Honey. I just love the energy and output from the current wave of young poets.
Your new book How to Be Old is a glorious evocation of old age. Such captivating self-exposure. Was this also a feature of your first collections? What angst made its way into your poetry then?
Rachel: Hey thanks, Paula! My first collection was basically shouting “I feel sad!” (as you need to sometimes). After that I jumped feet first into other issues, mainly feminist ones. My own experience is a good starting point for making a larger point digestible. Not much angst in How To Be Old, although some sadness tempers the joy.
In the seventies and eighties
as a mournful poet
and strident feminist
(there was no other sort)
I shouted loud and rude
mean and bold
waking up my sisters
with the stories of their lives.
from ‘Growing my brand’
Paula: You were a significant voice for me in the 1970s – did you feel part of a writing community, particularly women? What about now?
Rachel: In the 1970s and 80s I totally felt part of a community, a world of women who were busting to write about our own experience and women who needed to hear our voices, which were also theirs. Then I dipped out of the literary world for a couple of decades: I was very absorbed in my work with digital content until 2015. I did keep writing poems but didn’t publish. So as a poet I’ve been a bit of a loner since then, except for those who have followed my blog and podcast.
The bravest are millions
Out there living the bravest days
are the very old, the frail old
using every scrunch of the soul
for the next impossible chore.
The very old must win and win
on multiple fronts
day after trembling day.
Out there building the bravest lives
are the young
knowing what we knew
and did not do.
Paula: I think Wild Honey has really made me feel part of communities of women writing and supporting each other. Like you I am a loner poet but so many possibilities for connection these days.
Your new collection refreshes the way old age can be both viewed and lived. The poems are tender, vulnerable, provocative, entertaining. What prompted to you to publish a collection after a bit of a gap?
Rachel: Two things. A, I sold my business and had time on my hands. B, I turned 75 and abruptly realized that I might live another 25 years. So I needed a little hobby to keep me busy (joke). I went late and went hard at old age. Obsessed about it, researched it, decided to do at least one thing per month for a year to improve my chances of having a healthy old-old age. That project, my boot camp for the bonus years, shone a light on my own barmy ageism and society’s odd way of talking about old age. A year later, I started processing this strange interlude and the product was this book, How To Be Old. (Which of course is not a manual.)
I gave myself one year
to understudy for the role
of someone old.
I was confused but I was committed.
Month by month I tackled
housing and eating and exercise
finance and hobbies and friends and voice
happiness and brain and mind
and lastly, nervously
the existential bit.
from ‘My boot camp bonus years’
Paula: Let’s go back to old age. Just as there are continued pressures on young women to achieve ridiculous ideals there are equally ridiculous notions about old age: on ‘how to be old’. Your collection navigates this so beautifully – but can you comment on what delights and what bugs you about ‘how to be old’?
Rachel: That’s the nitty gritty, isn’t it? Well, no doubt about it, my own old age so far offers many delights. I’m alive, for one thing. At dawn I’m inclined to say, Good morning world! Thank you for having me! (I’m deeply privileged to have superannuation and a roof over my head and to live in this beautiful place.) I’m interested in my brain workings: my short-term memory is crap but the rest is working better and faster than ever… until too soon I get tired and it goes on strike. So in dance rehearsals I learn choreography at a perfectly acceptable rate—then instantly forget it. Puzzling, isn’t it? I like the So what? attitude that many old people report: that is rather obvious in my poems, I hope. What bugs me? Nothing so far except when I get a whiff of condescension from someone younger—but then that was me until I was 75, so I do understand.
A cold teabag on a sore eye feels good.
A cold mermaid on the eye
feels good too.
Tell you what, Granny.
What say I write a prescription
to stop you forgetting
that your friend is dead
because that makes you sad.
from ‘Alternative therapy’
Paula: Love love love this age attitude, and I love the tips for well-being in the last section of poems. Can you comment on this section?
Rachel: My lovely granddaughter Elsie was my life coach when she was little. I recorded her wise words for future reference and tickled them into poems. So the book ends with some of her tips. You could use them, Paula: then you would know how to breathe, what to do when zombies come up the toilet, and how to think.
Paula: Thank you! What did you hope for the poetry as you wrote? In terms of the ‘poemness’ and the poems’ reception?
Rachel: Every now and then I let myself slip into something lyrical or mysterious. But the poems are intended to be read aloud by anyone and talked about over coffee (not studied at university) so I guess I wanted most of them to be clear, funny, challenging and sort of comforting. I’ve had great feedback from readers, who always bring so much to the table. An occupational therapist tells me she has been reading my poems to all her client groups. That is absolutely perfect: I couldn’t wish for more.
You are tourists in our land.
We are prisoners of slow.
That said, we’d rather be quick than slow
and we’d rather be slow than dead.
Paula: I love the way you open pronouns wide – to embrace versions of you and welcome in the reader. Do you have no-go areas as a writer?
Rachel: I think in my old age I don’t judge people so much. (Or do I?) When it comes to aging, we’re all doing own best thing. And I have been many different people.
Paula: Do you bring autobiography and fiction together or did you navigate forms of truth?
Rachel: There’s no way I can control the way people read my poems so I might as well use myself as my own lab rat. My confidence is based on the certainty that I’m not a one-off. With How To Be Old I think I express ideas about aging that many others also think or have half-thought. That’s my wee gift to the world.
Paula: Indeed! What words fit you as poet? I think of provocative, personal, poetic fluency.
Rachel: I love hearing that, of course. Actually I mainly write for the joy of it so maybe that comes through?
Paula: Ah, my favourite poetry guide too – I write for love and joy! Do you have doubt tagging along? Is there a particular poem that was hard to write?
Rachel: I have a well of black muck inside me which converts to self-doubt if stirred. I’m human.
We take anecdotes and turn them to the light.
We polish them in private.
They are touchstones. So it goes.
from ‘How older people talk’
Paula: What else do you love to do apart from writing?
Rachel: Dance, sing, draw, read, think, do Pilates, tai ch’i, walk on Mt Victoria, watch Netflix and hang out with my friends and family.
‘And I think it is this sense of connection, in all Kate’s poems, which sent me scrambling for a word like spiritual. Because what I feel when I read Kate’s work is that the great mysteries of the world, the omnipresent magnificence, the unexplainable and the truly awesome, rest in being human among humans. Take your ley lines and chakras and give me the oesophagus and the eyeball, the memory of a dusty school hall, that night, that party, remember the small blasts of happiness, our bloody painful hearts.’
Maria McMillan, launch speech for Kate Camp’s How to Be Happy Though Human
Poet, essayist and literary commentator, Kate Camp has published six previous poetry collections. Her debut collection, Unfamiliar Legends of the Stars, won the NZSA Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poetry at the 1999 Montana NZ Book Awards. Her fourth, The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls, won the 2011 NZ Post Book Awards Best Book of Poetry. Her poems have appeared in magazines and journals in New Zealand and internationally. For a number of years she has discussed classic literature – Kate’s Klassics – on with Kim Hill’s Saturday spot on Radio NZ.
To mark Victoria University Press’s publication of Kate’s How to Be Happy Though Human, Kate answered a few questions for Poetry Shelf.
So many things can go wrong
inside a human life, it’s almost comical.
You find yourself in a house,
in a night, with everyone you love
breathing in and out somewhere
and if you thought about it properly
you’d just throw up in terror.
from ‘Panic button’
Paula: Have you always been an avid reader and writer?
Kate: Family legend is that I came home from my first day of school and told my mother I could read. She said, oh ok read this. I replied, well I don’t know any words yet.
I didn’t learn to read particularly early, but once I did I quickly became obsessive about it, all the usual reading under the covers, walking down the street with a book on my way to school, re-reading books over and over again.
Paula: Can you name a few poets that have caught your attention across the decades?
Kate: Lauris Edmond is a key one for me among New Zealand poets. I’m reading Fleur Adcock’s selected poems at the moment and remembering what an important influence she was for me early on. And Jenny Bornholdt, her work and mine are so different, and yet I always feel such an affinity with her poems.
In more recent years / decades I’ve got into a lot of poetry in translation. Czesław Miłosz is one I come back to again and again, and Wisława Szymborska. Like Bornholdt, Mary Oliver is a poet I feel is very different from me, but I love her.
Paula: You acknowledge your writing group. How important is it to be part of this as a poet?
Kate: My whole career I’ve had a writing group. When I first started writing seriously I was on the creative writing course at Victoria in 1995, so I was in a weekly workshop. After that finished, around half the course members formed a group together and we met for years. Then in 2003 I joined my current group and it’s been going that whole time.
They are my first readers, my best readers, my greatest motivators. We follow the “Iowa workshop” style where we read our poem aloud, the others talk about it, and the poet just listens and says nothing. It’s such a brilliant, powerful way to understand how a poem is landing.
A liquorice cable
wires hand to mouth.
raced the dawn home.
Asphalt remains lively
weeks after its laying.
from ‘Unfamiliar Legends of the Stars’
Paula: Your debut collection Unfamiliar Legend of the Stars came out in 1998. Were you writing poetry much before this?
Kate: I’d always written poems in a notebook but never really shown them to anyone or thought I’d do anything with them. I knew about the creative writing course at Victoria, I was a student there studying English and I knew that Emily Perkins, who was the older sister of a school friend, had done the course and become a published author.
I thought, I’ll apply for the course three times, if I don’t get in I’ll just give up on it. I got in the first time I applied and it was really only then that I started writing with any focus or seriousness.
Paula: That first book really caught my attention – it felt fresh and rendered the world alive with possibilities. Can you remember what motivated you as a poet then, what mattered when you shaped a poem?
Kate: I think what motivated me then was a sense that I saw the world in a certain way and I wanted to share that way of seeing with others. And I guess I felt the power of poetry, and I wanted to wield that power myself.
What mattered to me then was to write a poem that was clever, surprising, and made you feel something.
Having said that, when I’m actually writing a poem I try not to think at all. About anything. I find that gets in the way. The Canadian poet Christian Bok said “take care of the sound and the sense will take care of itself.” That’s how I’ve always written, just going with what comes up and trying not to switch my thinking brain on until I’ve finished the draft, and it’s time to edit.
Violin was out the back of my flat when I was nineteen.
I would put the speakers in the garden
and play ‘Be Mine Tonight’ again and again
running inside to rewind the tape.
He’s shocked to find I am middle aged.
I’m not shocked. Inside me are Russian dolls
of the women and girls I’ve been before
each more beautiful and unhappy than the current.
from ‘One train may hide another’
Paula: Your new collection How to Be Happy Though Human (you have a deft hand with titles!) is a gathering of new and selected poems. I like the way you have placed the new poems first and then we move through your books from the debut to the most recent. Often the new poems go at the end. I love this choice! Any comments?
Kate: I read a lot of selected poems and I tend to read them backwards, in chunks, so that I’m reading the poet’s most recent poems first. Otherwise with a poet like Milosz you’re starting in the 1940s and the poems can feel really dated. But if you start with the new ones, by the time you get back there you’re kind of in the zone.
That doesn’t really apply to my selected though as my career hasn’t been that long, at least not by Milosz standards! I just wanted to start with new poems because, you know, new poems are always the ones you love the most. The best poem is the next one.
And I go back to Saturday
we dance with other people
other people’s children,
create community with physics.
Memory is a kind of mourning.
We take each other’s hands
as if they were made for that
and we form a circle.
from ‘How to be happy though human’
Paula: Your new book offers perfect routes through the rewards of your poetry. The physical world is refreshed, relationships between things and people are made visible, there are surprising connections, and always a glorious poetic fluency. Did you encounter any poetry stumbling blocks or epiphanies across the decades?
Kate: There was a fairly big gap between Beauty Sleep and The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls. I was having a crap time in my personal life, and I felt really stuck creatively. I was scared to write about my failures, my despair, my loneliness, my fucked up life. And I was scared to write about “the human condition” like a Milosz or a Mary Oliver, I felt – who am I to write about the meaning of life? On both fronts my ego and my vulnerability was in the way.
But then I realised, the artists I most admired were writing poems and songs of utter devastation and heartbreak and disaster. And I didn’t think they were losers, I thought they were magnificent.
And I realised that I was never going to be anything other than a middle class New Zealand woman who grew up on Timbacryl adverts and 70s singer songwriters, and that I had just as much right as the next poet to plumb the depths of the human psyche.
I think that book marked a “fuck it” point for me where I decided just to write the poems that are in me, however depressing, distasteful or megalomaniacal they may be.
I take the last few turns in darkness
steep, short of breath
these legs have been mine all my life.
Hot hands. Small nights within my lungs.
We are fortunate to live in a world.
We are fortunate to live in a world
where some person, some man
is painting railings on the zig zag
and when he finished
he could have raised his eyes
and seen, beyond the black-tree hills
some ragged and fast-moving clouds.
from ‘Walking up the zig zag’
Paula: I just adore the new poems housed under the title ‘How to Be Happy Though Human’. Now and then I post a poem that has really haunted me in a new collection – and this whole section haunts me. The poems stick to me – I think the title is a key. These poems are intimate and revelatory, physical and movement-rich. Again the surprising juxtapositions: hanging out the washing, Watergate, your mother. Scenes become luminous. Family matters. There is a poetic heartbeat. Would you see any changes in the poetry process?
Kate: Almost all of these poems have been written since I came back from the Menton fellowship, where I was writing prose – a collection of memoir essays. I can definitely see the influence of that. These poems are looser, more prosy in style, and in many cases are straightforwardly autobiographical. They’re also long. Pulling together this book made me realise that my poems have got very long lately!
Paula: Do you have doubt tagging along? Is there a particular poem that was hard to write?
Kate: Most poems I try to write either don’t happen at all, or turn out to be not that good and get abandoned. But every poem I write that turns out good, I write in one go, in an hour or so. I will revise it later but usually not a huge amount. That’s just my process, it’s kind of scattershot but when it’s working, it’s easy, so I don’t really find any poem hard to write. I just throw away a lot of attempted poems.
My main doubt is whether I will ever write a good poem again. The first sensation when I write something I like is relief.
Tom Waits records the sound of frying chicken
that’s how he achieves his pops and crackles
Our old unit had a crooked arm,
it was a trunk of wood with woven speakers.
As I child I worried about forgetting:
the hexagonal handle, a creamy honey cell,
that flaw in the lino resembling Donald Duck
while the others of its kind looked like grey bells.
sometimes life would seem too big, even then
an empty Sunday when you drifted as a ghost.
I saw Bonnie and Clyde on such a day,
as I recall, in black and white
from ‘Snow White’s coffin’
Paula: What poem really works or matters to you?
Kate: The poem “Snow White’s Coffin” is an important poem for me. It covers a lot of abiding interests for me – found facts, childhood memories, what makes life meaningful when you’re an atheist. It draws on something I thought on a lot when I was living in Berlin, the tension between intellect as the most human thing of all and the intellect as dehumanising. There’s also a tone of anger and despair in it which is quite primal – the word “howling” is in it, which is not a word anyone puts in a poem lightly.
In my last few books, the title poem is a poem that is really important to me – one that functions as a kind of tuning fork for the whole collection.
Paula: Do you have any tips for emerging poets?
Kate: Read poetry by other people. If you don’t like reading poetry, you’re not a poet, you’re just a bit of a dick.
Paula: What else do you love to do apart from writing?
Kate: Conversations and laughing are my favourite things. I love to sing with my choir. I love to watch Netflix. I love to dance. I love to drink to excess, rarely but with gusto. I love doing escape rooms with my nephew. I love looking out the window while drinking tea and listing to podcasts about American politics.
AUP New Poets 7: Rhys Feeney, Ria Masae, Claudia Jardine, ed. Anna Jackson
Auckland University Press, 2020
Anna Jackson, editor of AUP New Poets 7, suggests the collection ‘presents three poets whose work is alert to contemporary anxieties, writing at a time when poetry is taking on an increasingly urgent as well as consolatory role role as it is shared on social media, read to friends and followers, and returned to again in print form’.
I agree. Poetry is an open house for us at the moment, a meeting ground, a comfort, a gift, an embrace. But poetry also holds fast to its ability to challenge, to provoke, to unsettle. In the past months I have read the spikiest of poems and have still found poetry solace.
It feels really important to maintain our poetry hubs – to listen to poets as well spend time with the book in hand. So many new books have missed launches. I haven’t been to a poetry reading since the Wellington Writers and Readers Festival. This is partly why I am compelled to create Friday gatherings so we can connect with poets across Aotearoa.
I am the lucky one. Each of these poets emailed me their readings and I felt I was at an intimate private preview. Just me and the poems, and the heart-moving discussions on poetry, poems and the book itself.
I will review this anthology at a later date, but in the meantime, settle back in a comfy spot and take a listen, and the support the poetry world and buy a copy! I love this gathering so much I am walking on air, boosted out of covid flatness into glorious activity.
Thank you so much Ria, Rhys and Claudia for the mahi, the poetry love. Thank you.
Ria Masae talks poetry and the book:
Ria reads poems:
Claudia Jardine reads and talks poetry:
Rhys Feeney reads two poems and talks about the book:
Rhys Feeney is a high school teacher, volunteer peer support worker and fledgeling doomsday prepper who lives in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. He writes with terrible grammar about things he is scared of. His work can be found in Starling, Sponge, Salty x Foodcourt, and forthcoming in The Spinoff. You can buy his debut chapbook ‘soyboy’ as part of AUP New Poets 7.
Claudia Jardine (she/her) is a poet and musician based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. Her most recent publication is AUP New Poets 7 which also contains collections by Ria Masae and Rhys Feeney. In recent months she has completed an MA thesis on intertextuality in Anna Komnene’s Alexiad, and now she is learning to groom dogs. Jardine’s writing can be found in Sport 47, Starling, The Spinoff, Stasis and Landfall 237.
Ria Masae is of Samoan descent, born and raised in Tāmaki Makaurau. She is a writer, poet, and spoken word artist whose work has appeared in various literary publications, as well as a handful of theatre productions. Her family includes an exasperating, but adorable dog who looks like a cow and neighs like a horse. Since her acceptance into the AUP New Poets 7 anthology, Ria has been working on a poetry collection for her first sole anthology.
Wanting to tell you everything Elizabeth Brooke-Carr, Caselberg Press, 2020
Our kitchen table was perfect for a family of four with Protestant
leanings. Solid and square, legs sturdy as posts, set between window
and woodstove, it kept the faith, never moved, wore no adornments
except for a gingham cloth laid before a meal, on the diagonal,
triangles of polished wood showing bare at the corners like our
father’s elbows through the worn wool of his gardening jersey.
Afterwards the cloth was shaken out over the back lawn, and if
unspotted, folded away on the same crease lines for next time,
chairs slid in, chaste, ribs against the unyielding edge so they
scarcely dared breathe. But if you sat there alone at night with your
homework, undisciplined thoughts wandering through your verbs,
there might be a sudden creak, a sly shift in the air around the table,
a loosening of values as chair legs brushed against each other and
laughter scraped the linoleum. And if you shut your eyes you might
hear flakes of gossip peeling off the cracked cream paint, history
you thought forever sealed in grainy wood, being whispered low like
bedtime prayers destined to be heard in heaven; a pair of Edwardian
spindlebacks, gifted from a well-married aunt careful with vowels,
exchanging memories of refinement and silver service in a designated
dining room, a ladderback, in darker patois, telling tales of neglect
in the cellar of a second-hand shop, and the bentwood, rescued
from the tip, singing our father’s praises for the number eight wire
he’d twisted around its legs to keep them from growing crooked,
as sure as God’s grace and the metal brace on my teeth.
Elizabeth Brooke-Carr (1940 – 2019) was a Dunedin poet, essayist, short story writer, teacher, counseller. Her writing appeared in newspapers, online journals and anthologies. She was awarded the New Zealand Society of Authors’ 75th Anniversary Cmpetition and the Dunedin Public Libraries competition Changing Minds: Memories Lost and Found. She received a PhD from the University of Otago.
Elizabeth’s posthumous debut collection has arrived in the world thanks to friends and her writing group,: Maxine Alterio, Claire Beynon, Martha Morseth, Carolyn McCurdie and Jenny Powell. The cover features Claire Beynon’s painting of Elizabeth’s favourite necklace. Mary McCallum provided editorial assistance, Paul McCallum production assistance. The book itself is published by the staunch supporter of poetry, Dunedin’s Caselberg Press. It is so heartwarming to see this group of poets and poetry fans bringing this book, and thus Elizabeth’s poetry, to our attention.
Last year, when I hosted my Wild Honey event in Dunedin, Elizabeth had just passed, and as much as the event was a celebration of women writing poetry in Aotearoa, it was the celebration of a particular woman. It felt both special and fitting. The more we shine the light on women writing, and the women who have written, the more we enrich our poetry communities, as both readers and writers.
The collection’s opening poem ‘Upright’ holds a kitchen table for our close attention. It is the place of family experience, a repository of history and anecdote, celebration and loss. The table is so present I want to reach out and stroke it. Maybe because the details are nostalgic; the gingham cloth set on the diagonal leaves wood patches reminiscent of ‘our / father’s elbows through the worn wool of his gardening jersey’. The table, like family history, is lacework in its prolific gaps. The speaker was once at the table with homework dreaming, and from that moment, I am carried across decades of secret musings that filled the writer holding the pen.
The joy in reading Elizabeth’s poetry is in part the way the poetry gifts you a joy in life: the joy you find in moments from the past, your kin, beloved places, friendship. More than anything her writing ink is fuelled with love. To read these poems, at this particular time, with such uncertainty and global loss, both global and local, is of the greatest comfort.
The poems are light-footed, with honey currents and patches of shade. I am reminded that close friends arranged the collection’s order. They have done a good job; we move from the kitchen-table hub through various scenes and connections to perhaps the last poems she wrote before she died. People and places are paramount: this is poetry that gathers together life, from the speckled past to the endangered present:
We arrived in the future, unpacked, folded the years
away into our own small histories. Now, my family
gone, I look back on the life-stained map
with the rusty pins that marked our meanderings,
my finger trails over mountaintop folds,
into valley creases, tracing the journey home
from ‘A spot on the map’
The movement that shapes the poems is so appealing; it builds mood, presence, absence, surprise. I find myself constantly moved as I read, drawn into the surprising notes that ring out in the endings. Moments are recovered and translated into poetry. I adore these. In ‘Out of the glare’, a couple go for a drive in the countryside and eat at the Wobbly Goat. The ending catches so exquisitely:
Dazzled by a low ray of sunshine on silver,
he slid the spoon sideways out of the glare,
laid it in the curve of hers.
Over the page a poem deposits me in the sensual shimmer of Bannockburn, and again it is the poem’s ending that grips:
At the base of the hill you leap from the stile
arms thrown wide like ropes tossed to my bollard.
Your mouth tastes of sunshine.
Your palms smell of bruised thyme.
from ‘Bannockburn sluicings’
Mood is such a potent ingredient – mood that is subtle and steady in growth. Poems reach towards beloved family and friends who have departed. Like a deep kernel, like an origami bud, this skillful handling of feeling is why I keep reading and why I will read this book again. The poem, ‘Gardening in the rain’, is a way of remembering, of recalling a goodbye kiss to a brow. In the opening lines the speaker is ‘digging deep / for the sound of your voice’, while in the last lines ‘My claggy spade / sticks to the soil’. So much unsaid. So much felt. The image of the claggy soil and the effort to dig so heart-breakingly sharp.
Love is equally significant in poetry that embraces both the economy and richness of everyday life, and why the personal can be so resonant. ‘Poolburn’ is written in old age (‘All the days of our youth are behind us / dust spiralling back along old roads traversed’) and again the couple is driving though beloved southern countryside. It is as though people don’t exist without place, and place is made vibrant and vital through the eyes of those in the scene. This is a love poem. A beautiful, slow pitched, breathtaking love poem. Again the layers, the scent, the texture is resonant. Like a piece of music, like a song perhaps by Nadia Reid or Reb Fountain you want on replay, this is a poem to read at intervals throughout the day. Here is the ending:
When the sun sinks and the light fades
purple shifts among the rocks, wild geese arc
in an amethyst sky, ruby veins line the face
of the lake. You come indoors, sit by the window.
Dusk has gathered you in.
The final section of poems were written from Elizabeth’s death bed. She is writing from terminal illness, nearby death, with her small revelations, her rage and her equilibrium. Perhaps writing is a way of living, of bearing treatment, a changing body, the changing future, a way of sharing what is difficult to decode. The final poem, ‘Wanting to tell you everything’, presents a phone call to a beloved, another moment, larger than life, urgent with feeling, subtle with the unsaid, using a moment of physical beauty (a rainbow stretching across the sky ’embracing everything that soars – light and sound and thistledown’) to summon so much more than the words on the page. The final lines – of the poem, of the book, of a life – unfold and refold, unfold and refold, and poetry is a way of breathing. Necessary. Exquisite. Blood boosting.
Your television in the background talks to itself.
While you turn the volume down, I wait.
Yes, I’m still here. I’m still here and wanting,
wanting to tell you everything.
Elizabeth’s poetry reminds me of the joy of reading Elizabeth Smither, Cilla McQueen, Ruth Dallas, Jenny Bornholdt, Bernadette Hall. I am drawing Elizabeth Brooke-Carr into the house of Wild Honey: she belongs there, with her honeyed currents, her uplifting translation of life into poetry, her wisdoms and her poetic finesse. Poetry can do so much. This book is a gift.
Back in Level Three lockdown, but this time I can read, despite the wide awake nights. Rata Gordon’s debut poetry collection Second Person is mesmerising. It held me in the grip of poetry from first page until last. Yes! I devoured this collection in one sitting and then went back to dawdle on the poems that pulled me back in.
I have been musing on the way poetry can offer the reader a chain reaction of poem joy (among many other things of course). But joy seems like a good thing to imbibe at the moment.
Reading Second Person filled me with poetry joy.
This is a book of birth, babies, death, the universe, love, motherhood, water, sky, wildlife. It is a book that celebrates the present tense, the way we can inhabit the now of being. My first joy is visual as the poems are brocaded with hues and gleams. It is as though an artist has animated poems with their colour palette: ‘I painted sonnets on the wallpaper’. I adore the way a smattering of colour words spike the poems to gorgeous new levels. It fills me with joy.
I’m dressed in yellow leaking
gorse seeds out my pockets like
crumbs I am dressed in white skin
drinking from the spout of a
from ‘The pregnant pioneer looks over her shoulder’
The second joy is the joy of sound. Many of the lines are short, the rhythm breathy with ample white space at the end of the line. These poems flow like a honey current. Again I am filled me with joy. At times it is the rhythm of walking. At time is is the rhythm of lying on the couch and looking out a wide window and breathing in and out, in and out. You inhale the poem.
As much as there is the physicality and a sensual present, there are also signposts to behind-the-scenes, to what is hinted at but not detailed. A taste from this poem for example:
In Delhi the dust
gets up your nose and into
your veins it swims
through the insides
of your bones
In April you want to hurt
yourself in the hotel room
but you don’t becuase a mango
will make it better
You walk through the streets
in the second person as if
watching yourself from behind
your backpack and your hands
are limp but your heart is
This is all you have
to look forward to
your heartbeat and a
everything else has dissolved:
There is an unspoken story signposted here, and it may be real or fictional. It is the mood of the speaker, the state of mind, that holds as you read. The speaker becomes second person, alive, that beating heart, that mango luminous. I am musing on the way, as we write poems, as we insert ourselves above, between, behind and in the lines, we always become second person, whether past present future. I am filled with joy at this thought: the peering into the self inserted into the poem that is close at hand and walking away. Ah.
A third joy is the poetry stitching that shows through at times. Little windows open onto the writing of a poem, its making doesn’t just appear out of thin air, but is something altogether more mysterious, complicated, self-sustaining. I especially love ‘I find slaters’ with its surprising curves and bridges. Here is the middle bit:
I am rifling through this poem
trying to find
its hidden meaning.
If I rifle through fallen leaves
I find slaters.
The leaves are being digested.
How much twiddling do trees do?
Do they doodle on the sky?
Do they do a little spiral?
Second Person is fresh, layered and utterly captivating. Just the ticket when you want to lie back on the couch and nestle into a welcome and very satisfying poetry retreat. I love this book.
Rata’s poetry has appeared in a number of Aotearoa journals. She works in the arts and mental health.
Mezzaluna: Selected Poems Michele leggott, Auckland University Press, 2020
people still go to cottages in moody seaside weather
to read for a week how will we do it now?
when I go for walks words stalk along too
I’ll be travelling mid-February and can’t guarantee a lucid mind
what about a big table in a room with windows
looking over the wild and wavy event?
from ‘Colloquy’ Swimmers and Dancers
Michele Leggott is continuing to make extraordinary contributions to poetry in Aotearoa. I rank her with Bill Manhire: two poets who have not only published astonishing poetry, but who have also been significant mentors and teachers in university programmes and introduced poetry initiatives, and edited vital anthologies. We are in debt to Bill for his vision for the IIML and offshoot projects, and the Poet Laureateship (now administered by The National Library but established with the efforts of Bill and Te Mata Estate). Michele was the first Poet Laureate under the National Library administration. She established the NZ Electronic Poetry Centre, set up the Lounge readings in Auckland, and has organised various gatherings of poets, including symposiums in Bluff, Christchurch and Auckland. Not forgetting her diverse contributions as Professor of English at the University of Auckland.
More than anything, we are in Michele’s debt for the light she has placed upon women poets from the past, especially Robin Hyde and Lola Ridge.
words come so slowly
it has been lonely
a phoenix palm
and behind it
another story, waving
plaintain paradisiaca a bird
musey with waves
Helicon a harbour cone
from ‘Withywind’ from Like This? (1998)
I have been reading Michele’s poetry since her debut collection, Like This? (1988) and have followed the thematic and lyrical contours ever since. The first word that springs to mind is heart. Michele has written within the academy, with her prodigious intellect flaring, but she is a heart poet beholden to neither theoretical trend nor poetic fad. Her poetry has always linked hands with the writing of other women, and over time has become increasingly personal and more accessible for readers.
Michele’s Mezzaluna: Selected Poems appeared mid March, just before we moved into lockdown. Its visibility suffered as our reading, writing, publishing and reviewing lives moved into upheaval. There is an excellent interview with Lynn Freeman on Standing Room Only and a short conversation with Paula Morris as part of The Auckland Writer’s Festival online series. The highlight of the latter is hearing Michele read an extract from her poem ‘The Fascicles’ from Vanishing Points (2017) (she is the last writer in the zoom session).
Fine ground darkness pours into the vessel
beans and flowers adorn the fall—
ichor! ichor! drink to the eyes locked on yours
the mouth that smiles and will speak for itself
I have always done the talking and she
put the words in my mouth saying do melisma
like sunlight be melisma like no sunlight pressed
redness before dark print an iris on her
from ‘Blue Irises’ in DIA (1994)
Difficulty has never been an issue for me as a reader of poetry – I love venturing into poetry thickets where meaning might appear in whiffs, and where enigma, evasion and multiplicity are active ingredients. Michele’s mid-career poetry collections, perhaps from DIA through to Mirabile Dictu, delivered various shades of difficulty and I loved them for that. Her lexicon has drawn upon the arcane, the archaic, slang, borrowed words, foreign languages. There were highways and byways to other poems, a history of research and reading. Intimacy was as likely as distance. And even though her poetry has become increasingly personal, self confessional in parts, it has always been so. Family appears, sons, food, beloved places, a shaping of home along with a profound engagement with other writing, other stories, myths, conversations.
The poems underline the way poetry threads ideas, memory, motifs, experience, opinion, reading history. The how of writing is as crucial as the what of writing.
imagine the world goes dark
a bowl of granite or a stone bird
incised by tools the nature of which
is unknown just that they are metal
and therefore from otherwhere
just that the weight of the bowl
precludes light and lightness
of thought my feet take a path
I can no longer see my eyes
won’t bring me the bird only now
has my hand found the stones
I could add to the smooth interior
of my despair the world goes dark
I look into the eyes of my stone bird
hammers before memory
silence and the world that is not
from ‘mirabile dictu’ in Mirabile Dictu
Along Mezzaluna’s reading tracks you will find honeysuckle, daffodils, roses, melons, breath, the wind, stars, here, there, light, dark, heart. Always heart. Always the interplay between light and dark. Michele has dedicated Mezzaluna to those who travel light and lift darkness’. Yes reading is a fertile way of travelling, life equally so; light and dark stick to us like biddybids, but our relations with and navigation of both are unique. What do we carry with us? What do we keep placing in our personal baggage? What do we do with the dark? For Michele, with her slow movement into blindness decades back, and all the challenges that have affected every aspect of her life, blindness has understandably also seeped into her writing. She has always been attuned to the sound of words, the mobility of language, words as sound dance in the ear, in harmony and discord. But the possibilities of sound, under Michele’s deft guidance, have become a glorious anchor for everything that has mattered and will matter.
The lush terrain of the visual is also a sumptuous part of Michele’s poetry. The recurring motifs I have already mentioned range from piquant to honeyed, visual bouquets in their own physicality but players in so much more. Participants in ideas, the mythological references, the recuperation of memory, family history, personal challenges.
It is equally rewarding to listen for the other women, particularly the poets who have captured Michele’s attention and diligent rescue work: I am thinking of the way Robin Hyde, Eileen Duggan and Ursula Bethell have become a visible part of the network. More recently Lola Ridge. Michele’s latest project is Emily Harris, a New Plymouth poet who died in 1925 and whose work has been located in Sappho-like traces. Michele response to the missing poet is to recreate versions in Vanishing Traces.
I have heard Michele perform poems from most of her collections and it has always affected me deeply. To listen to poems from As Far As I Can See – the poems that expose her move into blindness – these have been audience-affecting occasions. I have sat in a line of poetry fans and we have been utterly still, barely able to take breath at the daring exposure, the heartbreaking experience, the exquisite and utterly memorable poetry.
Ah, no matter what I write, no matter what I signal, I feel like I am shortchanging this rich and elegantly constructed volume. Michele told Paula Morris she had originally sent in a longer version but had cut it back and, in doing so, focused on the DNA of each book, on what was important. As she read and replayed, she carried a key question across the books: ‘What does a poem look like?’
This is such a good question to carry with you as you read – yes Michele’s poems do change, the lines shorten, the lexicon is more familiar, but there is common ground. Perhaps it comes down to a love of a sound, and how that love of sound is amplified when you can’t see the physical world. It is a rejuvenating, heart-engaging, thought-provoking read and it feels like this Michele’s poetry deserves a whole book of response. Michele Leggott warrants a whole book that navigates what her poetry does: its connections, its liberations, its epiphanies, its testings.
Mezzaluna showcases the work of one of our most inquisitive and sensual poets who ventures into the unknown, into an inhabited world, with an open heart and free-flowing mind. Glorious.
A grandson takes a stone
from a southern Pacific coast
carries it in his wallet
across the world
to place on a grave
His fingers feel for distant music
above this limestone pit
this morbid formation
Wearing a borrowed yarmulke
his hand sweeps the soil
his head is full of old notes
the blood maps of history
We are no relation
but every relation
here amongst this baby bowl
pelvis, these anonymous thigh bones
removed of salt, more beach wood
than bone, these splinters and knuckles of pumice
you might find floating at the sea’s edge
this scattered ancestry
Bone is what bone is
a composition of elements
like air, like music
but once we were naked
and I was a wife who lost her memory
Maybe you are my grandson
but I forget
Beside me a man
who clutched a satchel
of Stravinsky and Debussy
to cover his nakedness
A musician like you
that was his transport
clutched to his lungs
that was his oxygen
Hear our chorus
our bony percussion
our grandson, our grandson’s sons
hear us claim his future
and our escape
Do not be caught unarmed
bring your film, your press, your theatre
your manuscript, your piano, your pencils
bring your keepsake gift, your promise
bring your stone
Michele Amas from Walking Home, Victoria University Press, 2020
Michele Amas (1961 – 2016) was a poet and actor. In 2005 she completed an MA in Creative Writing at IIML and was awarded the Adam Prize. Her debut collection After the Dance appeared the following year and was shortlisted for the Jessie Mackay Best First Book of Poetry Award. Ken Duncum has edited a posthumous collection, Walking Home selecting poems from across the decade, including the final poem she wrote.
Paula: I am completely in the grip of this poem. Phrases roll about in my head – it is in debt to the private circumstances of the poet, but it is snug in this world-wobbly moment. The poem resembles a fable designed to keep both writer and reader going. It is song and it is anchor and it is ache. It is family. I am thinking – in these uncertain and unsettling days – of pinning the the final stanza to my wall, maybe my heart, because there is so much we can bring and create and connect with. It’s strange, but this poem both fills me with joy and makes me cry. Read the book – it is breathtakingly good.