Category Archives: NZ poetry book

Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: Jessie Mackay’s ‘Scotland Unfree’

 

 

Scotland Unfree

 

Two hundred long winters and thirty forbye

Have narrowed to nought since you first were unqueened, —

When cold, cunning usury made you the teind*

To Empery’s coffer, black treason unweened,

Undreamed of where yonder your mightiest lie,

Scotland unfree.

 

But they hear, but they heave, blessed mounds on the heath,

That house their true clay for you, mourner and mother,

Mounded for God and for you, not another,

Hear the moor-sloganing, brother to brother,

Hear it from Orkney to Tweed and to Leith,

Scotland unfree!

 

Mother of martyrs, now hear ye the living;

Mother of makers, world-marches away,

Who set your high mark, in their bold hodden gray,

On masterless wild and blue, bounteous bay, —

Palms for your honour, brave air, but, the giving,

Scotland unfree!

 

Hear you the living that fare never forth

From your guerdonless thrift in the halted out-flowing.

Too long your life-river, all-hoping, unknowing,

Gold-ribboned the seas from the dawn to down-going

Of sums that had set for your cradling North.

Scotland unfree.

 

Gold ribbons you gave to the seas of the west.

The world had your best of divine discontent.

Your parasites battened; despoiled and forspent,

‘Twas the babes of your breast, ’twas your children that went;

No steading in life, and no anchor of rest,

Scotland unfree!

 

What now and what more, when the world is at halt? —

When winds of all destinies clash in the blue?

The gadflies of battles are stinging anew,

Meanly to risk, or unhallowedly rue,

The redeless old nations in fear and at fault,

Scotland unfree.

 

Redeless they gather, no nation are you,

Mother of sages, the seal on your lips,

The gyve on your arm, by dead havens of ships,

Silent, interned, and betrayed to eclipse;

Scarce a name, not a nation! Is Caledon through,

Scotland unfree?

 

Lure-word of sophistry, “Britain!” quo’ she,

Weaver of phrases—high word and poor favour!

Your peers they are bidden—jejune and a-waver,—

To brag and to bicker; what salt and what savour?

“Britain?” what Britain that’s wanting of thee,

Scotland unfree!

 

Scotia, North Britain, draw biddably nigh,

Re-born to the day, and for ever re-born,

To the mock of moor-purple and crackle of thorn,

Your hour of re-queening: come, preen and adorn!

For your fairings you have but to dance and to die,

Scotland unfree!

 

Dance featly and fair, for your lords would be pleasured.

Skirl to their fancy, the caber let fly;

There’s gold for the lifting and silver forbye;

But, redeless, quiescent, to-morrow you die,

When for ever of yours shall your glens be untreasured,

Scotalnd unfree.

 

Be done with the talking, let scorning be done.

Bid Britain be Britain; whose vassal be ye,

Druidess, Norna, and chrissom Culdee?

One in a triad blent, one, two, and three;

God’s in His heaven, and Albyn is one,

Scotland the free!

 

Riddle us fairly that triad of yore;—

Sisterly queens that for ever are twain,

Sisterly queens that have done with disdain,

En-sceptred in one at the gates of the main

Live you, so live you, or none shall live more,

Scotland the free!

 

 

* Tribute

Note from Jessie: At the date of writing, May 31st, 1935, no answer has been reported to the recent joint demand of Scotland and Wales to be granted immediate Dominion status. The position has become increasingly impossible under the conditions of this century. For fifty years Scottish Home Rule Bills have been introduced, talked out or thrown out. Now national feeling demands the full and only solution of an impossible situation.

 

Jessie Mackay,  Vigil and Other Poems, Whitcombe & Tombs, 1935

 

 

DSCN9617.jpg

 

DSCN9618.jpg

‘Scotland Unfree’ is the final poem in Jessie Mackay’s final book, Vigil and Other Poems.

 

Jessie Mackay (1864 – 1938)  We have a poetry prize honouring Jessie Mackay’s legacy: the Jessie Mackay Best First Book Award for Poetry in our national book awards.  Jessie was born in Rakaia, Canterbury and grew up on several remote sheep stations. She trained as a teacher, taught briefly and then devoted her life to politics and poetry. Jessie wrote countless letters to newspapers and articles on issues such as the plight of women, the vote for women, prohibition, ending the war and Scottish Home Rule. The latter affected her deeply as her Scottish parents spoke of their beloved homeland and the cruel land clearances. Perhaps this is why she revealed such a concern for Māori issues in a number of poems: the fact that land, language, stories and culture make a people. To take them away is to dispossess them. Cruelly. Unforgivably. Pākehā might write poems differently now, after decades of interrogating colonialism; perhaps less likely to borrow myth but, like Jessie, many poets are showing history in a new light  (such as Parihaka).  Jessie often drew us to the women’s point of view.

Towards the end of her life over 300 admirers presented Jessie with a testimonial letter that praised her outstanding humanitarian work and contributions to New Zealand literature. On her death the media sung her praises yet you are hard pressed to find her work in anthologies and we have no Jessie Mackay in print. When I first started reading her work it felt like a foreign country but the more time I spent in the archives, and the more time I spent with her writing, the more she moved me.

The first chapter in my forthcoming book, Wild Honey: Reading New Zealand Women’s Poetry, seeks to draw Jessie’s poetry closer. I am moved by her political stamina and by her battle to be heard as a woman writing. I have picked one of her Scottish poems to post as it feels very timely. What would she think? What would she think about Brexit and our own local tragedies? She would be weeping with her feet in the southern stream, and she would be speaking out. She would be writing poetry.

My book is out in August with Massey University Press.

This year’s poetry finalists in the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards will be appearing at the Auckland Writers Festival Award event: Tuesday 14 May, 7 pm- 8.30 pm, ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre.

The finalists: Helen Heath, Therese Lloyd, Erik Kennedy, Tay Tibble

 

Screen Shot 2019-05-05 at 9.31.56 AM.png  dscn9615-e1557006520698.jpg

Poetry Shelf review: Lynn Davidson’s Islander

Islander__83638.1547675687.jpg

 

Lynn Davidson Islander Victoria University Press 2019

 

 

Time goes slower in the sea

and faster in the mountains.

Physics has taken over

where poetry left off.

 

from ‘Pearls’

 

 

Lynn Davidson’s terrific new poetry collection, Islander, travels between Scotland and New Zealand, between the place she grew up (Kapiti, Wellington) and the place she now lives (Edinburgh). Divided into five parts the poems move amidst light, fire and earth. Like Dinah Hawken, Lynn pays close attention to the world about her, the physical world, the inhabited world, a world buffeted by weather, seasons, time. Her poems are layered and fluent and measured.

The opening poem, ‘My stair’, sees the speaker (the poet?) looking out, in an eerie night light, from her second-floor window onto the bus depot. She evokes a scene through pitch perfect detail and a surprising simile (‘buses lightly lumber / into the yellow depot / like bubbles back / into solution’). But the surprise for me, the point of ruffle and ripple, is the mention of the father:

 

My father’s heart is failing, he fills up

 

with fluid (like an empty bus fills up with light?)

I look for flights.

 

One of the pleasures of this collection is the eclectic movement. There is movement born from departure, from the sway between presence and absence, birds in flight, the ripple of water, the movement of a musing and contemplative mind. A number of poems struck me. ‘A hillside of houses leave’ is mysterious, magical and rich in movement. Like many of the poems, there is a link to birds that might be symbolic but that is always physical.

 

Steeped in old weather the wooden houses

remember their bird-selves and unfold

barely-jointed wings.

 

The poem holds the conundrum of life – its impermanence, its fragility and the little anchors, the necessary bones.

 

People curl inside

the bones that keep them

that will not keep them long.

 

The presence of birds is fitting in a collection that navigates islands – the birds might signal the ocean’s presence, the multiple flights, the multiple nests, the bird on the poet’s sight line, the bird carried by heart, the bird house and the bird lungs.

I began to see the collection as a poetry chain; where this poem rubs against that poem and that poem rubs against this. Here the light of this day touches the light of that day which touches the light of the day before all the way back to ancient times. Dinah has a poem dedicated to her and I am reminded of Dinah’s ability to evoke the spare and the luminous within a cluster of lines that then open out with absorbing richness. Lynn is similarly dexterous. This from Lynn’s ‘Bonfire’:

 

The mainland is rendered down

silvers and is gone.

 

My heart is green and raw – a pea not a heart –

front to the fire back to the wind.

 

The groan of stone on stone unsettles

me as I unsettle them.

 

Islands is also inhabited with daily lives, with anecdote and incident, thus rendering landscape humane as well as wild and beautiful. At times it made me laugh out loud as in ‘Lineage’:

 

I was nine months pregnant, and waiting, when the man in the

Taranaki airport shop snapped this isn’t a library you know,

 

and when I turned my great belly full of fingernails and teeth-in-bud

towards him he asked (hotly) if I was actually going to buy anything.

 

The baby made exclamation marks with its soft bones,

glared with its wide open eyes – two Os. No I said I won’t buy

 

my news from you.

 

Lynn traces family, the children who leave, the children who make home solid, the unnamed boy who names home hame, the children half a hemisphere away. This from ‘Leaving Wellington’:

 

Hours go by and elements still gather.

Each day my waking children, just by naming

assembled all the solid things of world:

the bath, stove, chair, the bed, the window,

the shoe, the dinosaur, the door, the wall.

Then in a kind of via negativa

they composed two empty rooms by leaving home.

 

I said it was an anchor but it’s not.

It’s a shadow roughly like a kiss.

 

 

This is a book to slow down with – just as you slow down when you walk the perimeter of an island – gazing into a shifting sky vista and towards the unreachable but alluring horizon line  –letting your own thoughts cascade and catch. It is a book where the view of a poem never settles but keeps revealing new lights, new joys, new surprises. I love this considered pace, this sharp revelation, this anchored heart. I love this book.

 

Victoria University Press author page

 

Lynn Davidson is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently How to Live by the Sea (2009, VUP) and a novel, Ghost Net, along with essays and short stories. She grew up in Kāpiti, Wellington and currently lives in Edinburgh.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf noticeboard: Gregory O’Brien’s launch speech for Richard von Sturmer’s Postcard Stories

9781877441622.jpg

 

POSTCARD STORIES…a launching speech, VicBooks, Wellington, 12 April 2019

 

It’s over thirty years ago since Richard von Sturmer appeared on the cover of Robert Cross’s and my book about New Zealand writers Moments of Invention. Back in 1987 I remember Richard suggesting that Robert photograph him in his ‘most natural habitat’. So we went to Smales Quarry, near Lake Pupuke—a flooded, desolate, you could almost say post-apocalyptic zone—a lunar landscape with the occasional sprig of kowhai. After spending quality time in a trench-coat and mask (as the ‘Neanderthal businessman’ character, Mr Chipden), Richard donned striped overalls and a papier mache zebra-head.

Screen Shot 2019-04-17 at 7.43.56 AM.png

Was the zebra outfit a uniform or a disguise—an act of self-expression of concealment? Either way, the photo on the book’s cover raised the question, for me, of how it might be that writers, more generally, fit into this world. Richard was, and still is, proposing we should all look, listen and think beyond the obvious. Maybe the lesson of Smales Quarry is that we should look for answers in the direction of archaeology or possibly the analysis of dreams, rather than in the realms of sociology, cultural history or literary theory. The cover photo of Richard, zebra-headed and humanimal (in the adjectival sense), begged the question whether the life of the writer is ultimately an absurdity, a theatrical production or maybe even an inexplicable folly. More than anything else, the image reminds me of one characteristic of all good writers: they are up to something. They ask that we follow them somewhere new and surprising. ‘I think we should go into the jungle,’ as Barbara Anderson would have put it. Their jungle.

The cover photo was taken shortly after the appearance of Richard’s We Xerox Your Zebras appeared—a book which has long been something of a cult classic and which, infamously, upon publication prompted threats of legal action from Rank Xerox Corporation, on account of copyright infringement. Still in his twenties, Richard’s creative trajectory as a genre-bending, world-expanding writer was set, as was his now longstanding allegiance with, and commitment to, the unexpected, the odd and the illuminating. He struck me then, as he strikes me now, as an improving influence not only on the world of letters but on the world itself.

Over the three decades since then, there have been collections of poems from Richard and –to much-deserved acclaim upon its publication three years ago–a memoir about his father and grandfather, This Explains Everything. Yet, as the new book reiterates, nothing is ever really explained. Explanation is too often simply a misreading, simplification or a reduction of the matter at hand. Reality is full of live circuitry and ongoingness and expansiveness. We reach conclusions at our peril.

Richard’s books are working documents of a life-in-progress, a sensibility in the making and constant remaking. Reality is put, much of the time, through a Zen Buddhist filter, yet his writing can be as rowdy and colourful as the line-dancing Filipino women on the cover of Postcard Stories. Such a paradoxical, contrary state remains at the heart of his creative project. Also worth noting is a curious propensity for the transmutation or transubstantiation of the mundane or the misguided into a state of meaningful joyfulness.

What sort of narratives are on offer in Postcard Stories? Are these stories about postcards or inspired by postcards—or are these the stories the postcards themselves might have told, if they could speak. Through the first half of the book, Richard performs a visual/verbal two-step, offering short sequences of text—a hybrid of short story and  haiku—to enhance, elaborate upon, subvert and embrace the images which they accompany.

 

Quickly enough, the book gets one thinking about the nature of postcards. It becomes a protracted meditation on that endangered if not dying species. In the era of the jpeg and digital file, postcard stands are becoming fewer and further between. Postcard Stories offers the gentlest of interrogations, a backward glance at these printed images, their industry and their format. It asks questions, but without, of course, requiring any kind of answer.

Most of the time, postcards relate to a specific location yet, as this book manifests, they often reflect a certain lostness, aimlessness, waywardness. You would not want to use them to get your bearings in the physical world. I remember, years ago when Jen and I were spending six months in the South of France courtesy of the Katherine Mansfield fellowship, Richard sent us—in Menton—an antique Greetings from Menton postcard which he had procured from a South Auckland second hand shop.  As Richard’s new book attests, postcards, like the rest of us, lead paradoxical, complex and unreliable lives. In his bright and user-friendly introduction, he goes so far as to describe postcards as ‘cells in a giant, universal brain’ then adds, instructively: ’I like to dream with postcards’.

Traversing such inner and outer realities, the texts in Postcard Stories feature a surprising number of flowers. Ditto monuments, towers, clocks and water features. In deep amidst the imagistic ebb and flow, we are asked to consider how flowers flower differently in words than they do in pictures. We are back in the quarry. We are back at the beginning of the world, and the beginning of the word. We are once again keeping company with a zebra-headed youth in his wasteland-quarry. Yet we are also in the world of a film-maker, one half of the Humanimals who is now one half of a group called the Floral Clocks (greetings to the other half, Gabriel White, here with us tonight)… We are in the world of a man- or person-of-letters, an exemplary citizen of Aotearoa, a Buddhist, activist, free radical and traveller in the universe of postcards; a surveyor also of the lives contained in these most wistful of images and of the lives that continue to swirl around them long after they have been posted, received and put to one side.

 

Gregory O’Brien

 

 

 

 

 

 

.

 

 

Poetry Shelf in conversation with Elizabeth Welsh

 

 

DSC_0937.jpg

 

 

Elizabeth Welsh, Over There a Mountain, HoopLa Series, Mākaro Press, 2018

 

Elizabeth Welsh’s debut poetry collection, Over There a Mountain, is an exquisite read: surprising, absorbing, complex. She is an academic editor working for international university presses, she founded the online journal The Typewriter, and co-edited Flash Frontier. Her poetry has appeared in local and overseas journals and in 2012 she won the Auckland University Divine Muses Emerging Poets Award. She lives in Auckland with her family.

The collection brought Anne Kennedy’s marvelous Time of the Giants to mind as Elizabeth has also produced a long narrative poem made of glistening pieces and fluent lines. There is a sense of magic at work, a myth-like underlay, seams of real experience, and a satisfying blend of true and invented settings. This is the story of a daughter whose parents are mountains  – who puzzles and struggles and faces what it is to be a mountain daughter, to be with a mountain mother and a mountain father. This is fable but this is also satisfyingly human as the mountain daughter navigates how she is formed ‘by’ and ‘outside’ relationships.

Over There a Mountain was one of my favourite poetry reads of 2018.

 

Over-there-a-mountain-cover

 

 

It’s hard to know how to be    with a mother who is

a mountain. It’s hard to feel how to be   with a father

who is a mountain. It’s hard to understand how to be.

It’s hard to explain that luminous bond, that bewilderingly

stretched distance.

 

 

Paula: Narrative and character mattered so much as I read Over There a Mountain. What poetic effects were you drawn to as you wrote?

 

They were slow-moving, glistening tail-lights

in the guttering of a kasrt dawn.

 

Elizabeth: Yes, both narrative and character are central to Over There a Mountain, given its form as a narrative poem. It was actually near to completion when the poem evolved and settled into a book-length narrative (albeit split into three distinct parts – the mountain-daughter’s childhood, adulthood and last years), tracing the arc of the mountain-daughter’s life and eventual transformation. As it is involved in, or at least plays with, contemporary myth-making, the oral quality and auditory effects were particularly important to me. When I was unable to find a specific sound or rhythm, I took liberties with words, much to the confusion of my publisher at times. I remember ‘alpinic’ and ‘huffly’ both resulting in interesting discussions.

 

Paula: I love the liberties with words, the sonic playfulness, because that added to the mysteriousness, the strangeness. You hear mystery. Poetry is all the better for made up words.

I was totally captivated by the protagonist daughter – the underlying daughterness – and her electric movements. What discoveries, joys and struggles unfolded as you wrote your way into the daughter?

 

Her mountain-father found it easy, catching sight of her

in a bottle-green jersey scaling a vertiginous cliff, shoulder

blades painted with a dipped sphere of wet Cheshire moon;

 

she became all manner of oceans.

 

Elizabeth: Thank you – I’m really pleased you felt that way about the mountain-daughter. It was an interesting exercise, as I fell pregnant and gave birth to my daughter around roughly the same time (tracing my notes back, it appears the mountain-daughter began to emerge about a year before I fell pregnant when I was living far from home in south London). Whether it was timing or synchronicity or chance, I became increasingly fascinated by familial bonds and ways to refigure, disrupt, defamiliarise them. The domestic is traditionally wrought as such a safe, sanitised space, but is so expansive in its reach; it maintains such a hold on us, even as we age. And the mountain-daughter is both us and not-us, she struggles in ways we don’t and struggles in ways we do; at times, it was quite liberating to construct her character. The particular challenge for me was tracing her ‘daughterness’ – I love that word(!) – throughout her later years as a chronicle of growth, with grafts and accretions, trying to do justice to the shape her inheritance would take. I’m sure we never lose our sense of being the child of our parent(s), whatever form that relationship takes.

 

They told her the mountain stories as love stories, taking

her each dusk to pick bear’s garlic together. Not touching,

they bobbed like pendulums as she murmured: we just keep

hardening and hardening and hardening until all we are

is unfolded, thrown wide.

 

Paula: I love the way I build a setting for the narrative in my head that draws upon my own mountain experiences. Did you have real places that loomed large in your imagination?

 

Sleeping afterwards in the southern heat of a midday sun,

she dreamed of Tākaha Hill, Pancake Rocks, both faint

and singing outlines.

 

Fa!

 

Elizabeth: The collection is deeply rooted in the New Zealand landscape, so there are quite a number of real places that surface throughout the poem. But while parts of the poem are specifically geographically located – including Mount Saint Bathans, Punakaiki, Mount Peel, Tākaka Hill, Mount Aspiring, Dolomite Point, Miranda and Picton – a significant portion of the narrative is deliberately hazy as to its precise location. The Southern Alps, around the Mackenzie country, particularly Lake Tekapo and Mount John, as well as Arthur’s Pass, heavily influenced ‘the mountain-daughter’s childhood’. And the edge where the Waitākere Ranges meets the Tasman Sea provided inspiration for the final section – that wild, untamed, rugged topography ‘what is this line of sea she came to? […] Bucking the empty trug to the picketed boundary of sopping, wolfing dunes’.

Also, venturing globally, a very fortunate and well-timed encounter with the ancient Montserrat (and the Benedictine Abbey there, complete with Holy Grotto), a multi-peaked mountain range that is part of the Catalan Pre-Coastal Range in Spain, spurred on the narrative and general ‘mountain thoughts’.

 

Paula: Ah maybe that is one part of the strong connections I feel with the book – like a channel for subconscious attachment- because I see the tail end of the ranges and smell the Tasman Sea from our place and I drive around the Mackenzie country and Central Otago with my partner artist.

Do you have a cluster of poetry books with which you have strong goosebump connections? Whatever they might be?

Elizabeth: Oh yes, I know what you mean – that feeling of simultaneous exhilaration and unease/disquietude. Poetry collections that I have felt an extremely strong kinship with over the years and which, without doubt, have hugely informed my creative practice include Maggie Nelson’s Bluets – these fragments/propositions change me, confront me every time I read them with their candour, urgency and meditative illumination – Anne Kennedy’s Sing-Song, Mary Oliver’s Swan, Alice Oswald’s Dart – the primal, polyvocal, experimental quality of this poem still haunts me – as well as Woods etc., Fleur Adcock’s Tigers, William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, Anna Livesey’s Ordinary Time – this collection is a true gift; it lived within arm’s reach when my daughter was very young – Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers, Mary Stanley’s Starveling Year, H.D.’s Helen in Egypt and for its shimmering poetic sensibility, Jessie Greengrass’ Sight.

 

 

 

 

Paula: I love this list! I haven’t read Jessie Greengrass. I have been musing on activities that augment poetry writing. For me: running, walking, gardening, cooking and of course reading. Listening to music. What activities enhance writing for you or keep it in balance?

Elizabeth: So much of my life is filled with motherhood at the moment, which enriches and enhances my writing and thinking and being in every way (although actually getting words to paper can be somewhat challenging). In particular, baking bread with my daughter each week is such a therapeutic act for us both and always leaves me poetically inspired. Tending to our garden and wild span of bush also slows me down and reminds me to be patient, to be present.

 

Two mountains encase a flushed fire,

two mountains eat hot soda damper with their daughter.

 

 

Elizabeth reads from Over There a Mountain

Mākaro Press page

Extract at Turbine / Kapohau

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf noticeboard: Gail Ingram launches new collection

Contents Under Pressure a new poetry collection by Gail Ingram illustrated by Rata Ingram published by Pūkeko Publications 5.30-7.00pm Spark Room, Ground Floor at Tūranga New Central Library, Christchurch.

 

Screen Shot 2019-04-13 at 3.17.20 PM.png

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf classic poem: Vana Manasiadis picks J. C. Sturm’s ‘The last night at Collingwood’

 

The last night at Collingwood

 

No moon and a black sea,

The daytime birds have flown

To their night time places,

The incoming tide creeps

 

Over Farewell Spit.

Soon waves will wash the rocks

Outside our windows,

Spraying the glass with salt.

 

Twenty-four hours from now

Birds, land and sea

Will repeat it all again

We’ll be gone by then

 

Back to that northern

Beach across the Strait

With far fewer sea birds

But Kapiti close at hand.

 

There we watch the sun go down

Where the Spit lies out of sight,

Believing love, like them

Returns again and again.

 

J C Sturm  from Postscripts, Steele Roberts, 2000

(posted with kind permission from J C Sturm estate)

 

 

From Vana Manasiadis:

Dear Jacquie

Postscripts was the first poetry collection I cared enough about to steal from my sister and stash in a ring-binder. It was the first poetry collection I read and reread until I could say aloud the lines that made me cry. Repeat it all again, Beach across the Strait: I pinned your ‘The last night at Collingwood’ over Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ once I got over men with rights and titles; once I was on the other side of the Entitled Man, the White Supremacist man, the Drunken Father-Husband man. Jacquie, there’s been a lot of pain. Jacquie, we really need the sea. Island Bay, Gouves-Crete, Piraeus, Collingwood followed all these peak-and-trough waves meeting; immigrating. So thank you for not bordering up the sea. Thank you for your black sea (our big fish tīpuna), your Farewell Spit-salt-glass sea (our headings off and back), your Kāpiti close at hand (where Alia lives, who healed our sudden schisms, and Nadine and Alex, their mana wāhine seeing).   I believe you Jacquie. I believe that there are shared ways and still ways and noticing ways.  I believe you Jacquie that there’s a clear and certain way to wash the rocks.

 

 

Vana Manasiadis has published two collections of poetry, with a third, The Grief Almanac: A Sequel, to be published by Seraph Press in 2019. She co-edited Tātai Whetū: Seven Māori Women Poets in Translation (2018) in the Seraph Press Translation Series, and edited and translated from Greek Ναυάγια/Καταφύγια: Shipwrecks/Shelters: Six Contemporary Greek Poets (Seraph Press, 2016).

J. C. Sturm (Jacqueline Cecilia) (1927–2009), of Taranaki iwi, Parihaka and Whakatōhea descent, was born in Opunake and is thought to be the first Māori woman to graduate with an MA from a New Zealand university (First Class Hons, Philosophy, Victoria University of Wellington). She initially wrote short fiction, and her work was the first by a Māori to appear in an anthology. Her debut poetry collection, Dedications (Steele Roberts, 1996), received an Honour Award at the 1997 Montana New Zealand Book Awards and she published further collections of poetry and short stories. Her poetry appeared in a number of anthologies and journals. Her collection, Postscripts (Steele Roberts, 2000), includes images by her son John Baxter. She received an honorary doctorate from Victoria University of Wellington, worked as a librarian, was married to James K Baxter and had two children.

 

Te Ara page on J. C. Sturm by Paul Millar

NZ Book Council page

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf conversation with Sugar Magnolia Wilson

 

Magnolia photo.jpg

 

The night sky is full of

stars but

we are more clever than

most – we know

they are just

      burned bones.

 

from ‘Spent’

 

 

Sugar Magnolia Wilson is from Fern Flat, a valley in the far North. In 2012 she completed her MA in creative writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington. Her work has appeared in a number of journals, both in New Zealand and overseas, and she co-founded the journal, Sweet Mammalian, with Morgan Bach and Hannah Mettner. Auckland University Press is launching Magnolia’s debut collection, Because a Woman’s Heart is Like a Needle at the Bottom of the Ocean on March 13th. The new collection is a reading treasure trove as it shifts form and musical key; there are letters, confessions, flights of fancy, time shifts, bright images, surprising arrivals and compelling gaps. Lines stand out, other lines lure you in to hunt for the missing pieces. There is grief, resolve, reflection and terrific movement.

 

Mags book.PNG

 

 

Paula: Tell me about the cover of your book. I just love it. I love the way it is rich in miniature things, a little like your poems are.

Magnolia: Isn’t it totally amazing? When I first received the email from Keely O’Shannessy with several cover design options, I was so blown away by it that I almost couldn’t see it. It was weird, like I was looking at running water in a stream or something and I felt like I might faint. I guess I’d never expected her to ‘get’ my work so completely or so quickly, I was prepared to have to go back and forth to fight for a cover I loved, but that never happened. My friend Kerry Donovan-Brown said it’s like someone took a blood sample from me, put it in a petri dish and looked at it under a microscope, and that the cover is what close up Magnolia Wilson blood looks like! Haha. I wish! Best compliment ever. It’s what my dream blood looks like. I wish my blood was jewellery.

And yes, rich in miniature things. One external review of my book mentioned that I seem to be obsessed with accumulation in my work, and it’s true. Lots of little collections of pins and clips, of food in bowls, jewellery, flowers. I grew up as an only child and I lived a rather sylvan kind of life. I loved to collect bits a pieces and when I was nine Mum, Dad and I travelled around the world (yes, lucky me), and I came home with a giant collection of buttons from different countries. I think it’s an innate desire to hang on to what is beautiful in life, to have proof that beautiful things happened, and is probably tied into grief somehow.

 

Paula: I first heard you read poems from this book at the National Library Poetry Day celebration and your ‘Dear Sister’ poems – they open the book – blew my socks off. The letter-writing voice drew me in, the sparkling detail, the mood and the mysteriousness. Where did this haunting sequence spring from?

Magnolia: I can kind of trace where they have come from, but like most creative stuff, the true meaning flutters off just before I can pin it down. So, ‘Pen Pal’ was written in 2012, and that’s a letter sequence, and I think that’s where I got the love for the freedom and mystery that epistolary poems allow, and in that same year I wrote a poem called Anne Boleyn, which is also in the book. I started writing the ‘Dear Sister’ sequence with the idea that is was Anne (pre-Henry) writing to her sister, Mary. But, I wasn’t trying to be factually correct I just sort of followed what the letter writer had to say. Slowly it morphed away from being Anne and simply became a woman from another time, struggling with a sense that she was immensely powerful but with no place to express that power. Hence the onset of a kind of ‘madness’ or, more accurately … going full Sybil / turning into a ‘witch’.

 

Paula: It is such a magnificent way of building a voice in a poem – fierce mixes with doubt, vulnerability, tenderness. This was poetry that I felt. Can you tell me a couple of poetry books that you have felt?

Magnolia: One of the first books of poetry ever gifted to me was Mary Oliver’s collection, American Primitive. My dad set off and travelled around the States after my mother passed away, and he must’ve come across it in his travels and sent it to me with the inscription, Magsie darling, I know you will love this. And I did! It makes me grieve for the majesty of the natural world. I love the way she honours the idea that beauty and love are inseparable from pain and the brutality of nature.

I also love that she is a Christian woman. Usually I would run a mile from a ‘Christian’ poet (probably because I am a bit basic in my thinking and have stereotyped Christians, as though there aren’t a billion different variations on what a Christian can be), but she was Christian in some kind of arcane, pagan way that I love – or that’s what I like to imagine, at least. Also, Mary Reufle’s poetry always makes me feel a lot of hard-to-put-words-to/liminal-space feelings. Her work is a kind of déjà vu. Also, Atsuro Riley’s collection, Romey’s Order, is completely beautiful and was a huge influence for my Pen Pal sequence – the tender, ever so delicate construction-work a child does to build their world.

 

Paula: Poetry may or may not be something you feel as either reader or writer; it might be a matter of music and mystery, story or ideas. Yet so often a poem knots a complex (scarcely visible) string of effects. Take your poem ‘Home Alone 2 (with you)’, for example. At the core of this poem are multiple loves (a movie, a lover, a mother) and a punch-gut moment. And the after effects last and the questions surface. This is the joy of poetry. You move in and out of self-exposure in the collection. Do you have limits? Is it a form of discovery?

 

Christmas time and we’ve been out all night.

You’ve been speaking mix of Korean and English,

the way you do when you’re drunk – and

because English is your second language

people can’t be sure if you’re

talking over their heads or if

you’re freestyling your own

kind of poetry.

 

from ‘Home Alone 2 (with you)’

 

Magnolia: Interesting. Yes, I definitely have limits. And not purposeful ones for creative constraint etc. They’re the limits of being the specific person that is me with my specific voice and set of issues, trying to write poetry. It’s 100 percent a form of discovery for me, a way of making sense of my world and of growing. I think going back to my interest in accumulation, of objects and imagery, I think maybe it’s a kind of armour.

 

The lake has a long memory a long

memory, a large imagination.

 

When my mother left the spring

on our land didn’t change. The water didn’t

stop didn’t stop bubbling up from below.

It didn’t cover itself in a shawl of blackbirds

to indicate grief.

 

Each litre of water that came up

was different from the next and the next

and each time and each time after that

when I took a drink a drink I became

a deep blue lantern teeming with invisible life.

 

from ‘The lake has a long memory’

 

In my poetry I definitely move between self-exposure/vulnerability and then away from it, and I tend to build my poems up and up with imagery like a larva building itself a protective pupa, in order to do its work within, safely. Lol. I think in my poems I build a space where I can work things through, maybe without confronting them directly. And I find that my poems keep on revealing things to me. ‘Muddy Heart’ is an old poem, but only two weeks ago I finally ‘got’ what it was saying. I read it out in an interview and suddenly I was like whoa! That’s what it means! It was so clear and I’d never seen it.

Maybe it’s totally obvious to the reader, I don’t know, but to me I only just got that it was about feeling abandoned by my father after my mum died. I think all creative work is like this, a process of many lives and many mini-deaths, which allow for new life and new understanding in turn.

 

Muddy heart

 

You’ll lie down one day on the field behind

your house and your heart will turn

to mud.

 

Dandelions will push up through the earth, your

blood mingling to a rich beet-coloured soil,

your bones some kind of ash like your father uses

around the strawberry plants.

 

Clover and pennyroyal will take seed on you.

You’ll call out in the fading light for your father,

who is, after all, just over the fence in the house – but you’ll

sound like the long grass, the frogs, the dogs herding cattle.

When eventually he comes looking for you,

how ever many years later

 

there will only be the green flush of land down toward

the road, the river and a patch of grass

where he will tend to st from now on.

 

Paula: It is such a layered sensual poem; I can feel the earth and smell a sharp kick of dandelions just as the image of the father in the fading light who ‘eventually comes looking for you’ is also a sharp heart-kick. And the potent last lines. I adore this poem. The main story might be missing but the feeling is acutely present.

What do you find hard when you write poetry? What gives you pleasure? Does doubt aid or hinder?

Magnolia: I think doubt is something I’m always struggling with in terms of writing. Before I did the IIML masters course, I never really thought much about writing, it was just something that happened to/for me from the age of nine! The IIML course was mostly a blessing and partially a curse. There’s a lot of shit poetry floating round in the world. Honing your editorial eye/ear is key if you want an audience for your work and want to grow as a writer, but, thinking critically about my work pushed me into a place where I felt like nothing was really good enough. I’m only now, seven years on, getting free from that thinking, I am no longer giving fucks.

I am a lyrical, image-laden, nostalgic, confessional poet and that’s totally fine. What I find hard when I write: getting started! I have so, so many failed starts at poems. For every one poem there are maybe 10 or 20 failures. What gives me pleasure: when the creative duende / spirit shows up, and writing just happens in a way that seems outside of my control. It doesn’t happen often but when it does it makes all of the failed attempts worth it.

 

Paula: Ah yes, I don’t think doubt ever leaves. But that mysterious hard-to-describe poem flow can be such a joy. Have you read any poetry books in the past few years that have given delight? Challenged you? Taken you outside your comfort zone. Given your pure reading uplift?

Magnolia: I’m more likely to love individual poems rather than have entire favourite collections. The poems that’ve struck me in some way or other recently (but aren’t necessarily ‘new’ works) have been: Kiki Petrosino – Witch Wife. Alice Te Punga Somerville – time to write (for Larry), Hannah Mettner, her whole book Fully Clothed and So Forgetful, Emma Barnes – all her poems but especially Ohio. Lynn Jenner – many poems, Rebecca Hawkes – the cave draws u in like a breath, Michael Steven – a sequence of poems he wrote about his son, August. Nina Powles – in the end we are humanlike. Jenny Bornholdt – Flight. Anna Jackson – her whole incredible chapbook, Dear Tombs, Dear Horizon. Faith Wilson – Lynette #1. Cynthia Arrieu-King – her whole book People are Tiny in Paintings of China. Alice Oswald – the whole collection Dart. Morgan Bach – her two new poems in Sport. SO MANY MORE.

 

Paula: Ok – books for me to track down there. I haven’t read that poem by Nina for a start. Where was it published? I love reading books outside my comfort zone, that are nothing like I will ever write in terms of style, form and content, but I also love those books that refresh my own writing preoccupations. What are key things when you write a poem? Could you narrow it down to three words?

Magnolia: The Nina one was published in The Shanghai Literary Review online.

Three words: really quite random! I don’t know how I write poems. It seems like a bizarre miracle every time it happens, and then I’m convinced I’ll never be able to write another one again.

 

Paula: I know that feeling – and the way you can pick up an old poem and it reveals new and surprising things to you (as you did with ‘Muddy Heart’). That feels like another miracle. Was there a poem in the collection that just arrived with ease and flow (almost in one sitting) and another that was much harder to form?

Magnolia: ‘The sleep of trees’ was a poem that was just ready and waiting to be written. There had been fragmented, short incarnations of it the year leading up to writing it, but they never worked, and then they all magnetically found their way into that poem, and it was written in about fifteen minutes. And then edited a bit over time.

 

this is the sleep of mothers – of

five thousand lit candles burning hot in the

dark hall of the body, eyes open

and flaming over the bars of a cot

the sleep of babies – restless turning

a sweet and angry clock

bending in space as it draws earthward, pushing

out and protesting against

                            the constraints

                                the boredoms

                                    the repetitions.

from ‘The sleep of trees’

 

‘Glamour’ also kind of wrote itself. Harder to write – Newton gully mixtape – trying to capture the feeling of growing up in the 80s and visiting fashionable Aucklanders, the party scene my parents were involved in, but the emptiness of the scene at the same time. Don’t think I nailed it – because of course, it was way more nuanced than that. Lots of love and happiness too.

 

Paula: Your collection offers poetic pleasure because it has music, space and heart and that makes it both open and fertile. I was flying home from Wellington musing on your book and was drawn to the two-part ‘Conversation with my boyfriend’ where you ‘translate’ your experience together from English into Korean, and from Korean into English, not as language translations but as experience translations. I was thinking then how every poem is a form of translation – so capturing the 80s scene is like a flickery translation. I guess if you think of poetry as translation it becomes something new and intriguing with fragile lines to the original experience-thought-feeling.

 

You are always full of rice because you eat rice and you love rice and

your skin feels like rice when we hug – our bodies mould together

and we are a bread yin and a rice yang and although traditionally

Korean people don’t eat bread you are more than hungry to have me.

 

from ‘English into 한글’ in ‘Conversations with my boyfriend’

 

 

We should always be filled with rice: cooking it and eating meals

together, and rice is important before we die, too. We hug and your

skin is learning to love rice, or, at least starting to star the healthy

map of rice. Traditionally, Korean people don’t eat bread, but there

are now many patisseries in larger cities, and many children long to

be pastry chefs, and I am not so sure about this.

 

from ‘한글 into English’ in ‘Conversations with my boyfriend’

 

I loved the way as I closed the book the two translations merged; yin overlaying yang, yang overlaying yin. Would you ever see a poem as translation or at times as performance/acting out or as walking into discovery (like some poets do) or as an opening of the writing valves into a mysterious process (as you indicated above) that is never the same and simply happens?

Magnolia: Love the fact that they close over one another! Hadn’t even noticed that. I think all of those things are true about poems – they are translation, performance, an act of discovery and totally mysterious. Art is a way to translate human experience and I think life is a constant act of translation, layer upon layer of meaning being filtered through our own specific set of circumstances, beliefs and experiences, that have been filtered through someone else’s before us, and will go through someone else’s after us. That’s why I am not really into black and white dichotomies – left vs right, Labour vs Nats, the right thing to say vs the wrong thing to say, male vs female. Life is way, way too nuanced and strange for such basic framing. Hannah Mettner passed on the most excellent quote about poetry to me, by the poet Robin Robertson and it sums up all my moods: I’ve always thought that writing poetry has very little to do with the intellect. It’s not something one can explain and chat about very easily: certainly not about the making of it. It’s very resistant to explanation. It comes from a place that is occult, in the sense of being hidden. It attends to some of our deepest anxieties and hopes in the same way that dreams do.

 

Auckland University Press page

Magnolia reads ‘Betty as a Boy’

 

1251989-557485-7.jpg