Category Archives: NZ poetry interview

2 poems and a conversation – All of Us by Adrienne Jansen and carina gallegos

 

homework

 

she waits

for her children

to fall asleep

before she opens

their schoolbags

and studies their homework.

they learn

so much faster

and she’s falling behind.

they speak her language

with an accent now

and she can’t

understand what they say

when they speak

among themselves

in their new

mother tongue.

 

carina gallegos

 

 

 

Lost in translation

 

Lev has learnt

the word in English.

Rabbit.

He points at the book

and says in his thick accent

‘Rabbit.’

It’s freezing cold,

frost on the window.

‘Rabbit’ comes out

in a rush of smoke.

‘No’ I say,

‘that’s not a rabbit.’

I point at the book.

‘It’s a pig.’

He breathes heavily,

clouds of white steam

rising around him.

He goes to the window.

A dog is running

on the white grass.

‘Rabbit!’ he shouts

‘Rabbit! Rabbit! Rabbit!’

and bursts into tears.

 

Adrienne Jansen

 

 

©Adrienne Jansen and carina gallegos All of Us, Landing Press, 2018

Watch a clip from the book launch

 

 

Adrienne and carina  gave me kind permission to post their conversation which forms the  introduction to the collection.

 

Where did these poems come from?

Adrienne: I wanted to write a series of poems from two perspectives: what does someone from Syria, for example, experience when they go to a railway station, compared to what I experience going to a railway station? What would happen if we each wrote about our experience of the railway station?

So I started to write a series of poems that were about ‘there’ and ‘here’. One of the reasons it appealed to me was because I didn’t want to take on the voice of the migrant or refugee. I might be recording the stories and experiences they’ve told me, but I’m not taking on their voice.

Now you can talk about where your poems came from.

carina: my poems aren’t imagined either, they’re just sharing the experiences that people have shared with me. they’re the observations of ‘here’ and ‘there’, when you work with people or communities from refugee backgrounds, you hear these stories over and over again. the stories go on for days and people experience them in their heads every day, and to tell them in a poetic context brings them alive in a more succinct way. but we don’t get to experience the ‘there’, we only experience the ‘here’.

coming from a migrant background it was easy for me to relate to some of their stories too.

Adrienne: Both of us are retelling the stories that we’ve heard and heard and which we think are very important to pass on, and in this case, we’re recording them in poetry.

carina: exactly. it’s storytelling poetry.

that was the other part of the vision – that we were going to write poetry that was accessible to a wide range of people. it wasn’t conceptual poetry, it wasn’t difficult, it was poetry that a lot of people could read and understand, even if there were other layers of meaning, even if there were stories between the lines. there was something there, regardless of whether you could read between the lines or not.

Adrienne: Tell me why you don’t use capital letters.

carina: because i don’t like capital letters.

Adrienne: Because … ?

carina: ever since i was a little girl i’ve had an issue with authority (that’s a longer conversation). i don’t mean for the lack of capital letters to be an obstacle for people. it’s quite common for poets to play with capital letters and punctuation and with the aesthetics of letters and words. i love full stops and commas and use them in a very traditional way. i just don’t like capital letters. i don’t even use them to spell my name.

Adrienne: So that was a challenge for us, how to combine two quite different styles. I use capitals and punctuation because I see them as a kind of small signpost to the reader and a kind of fine-tuning for the writer. That would be my approach.

But there are other differences in style too. Like yours – would you describe your style as Latin American style? It’s more discursive.

carina: we talk a lot. latin americans, i mean.

Adrienne: You talk a lot. Right. And of course, New Zealanders don’t talk so much. This could be very interesting!

carina: we’re long-winded people.

Adrienne: That’s why you’ve got longer poems than mine. We’re both being true to type.

 

carina: and there’s also the weather factor. we’ve been told that in the poems it rains a lot. the weather here is not tropical. if we lived in central america or south america, we’d be writing about mugginess or bad hair days. but in new zealand the challenge is the weather, even for people who were born here. it’s the cold weather that challenges people.

Adrienne: So that’s why it rains a lot.

carina: that’s why it rains a lot.

Adrienne: In the poems.

carina: because in new zealand it rains a lot.

 

From All of Us, published by Landing Press November 2018

 

Carina Gallegos has a background in journalism and development studies. She grew up in Costa Rica, moved to New Zealand thirteen years ago, and has worked with refugee-background communities since 2011. She lives in Wellington with her family.

Adrienne Jansen has published numerous books (poetry, novels, nonfiction). She teaches on the Creative Writing Programme at Whitireia Polytechnic. For ten years she was part of the writing team at Te Papa, New Zealand’s national museum. She lives in Wellington.

Louder: A conversation with Kerrin P Sharpe on politics, poetry and a new book

 

 

 

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Kerrin P Sharpe has published poetry in a wide range of journals, both in New Zealand and overseas. Louder is her fourth collection of poetry (Victoria University Press, 2018). She lives in Christchurch.

I was immediately drawn to Kerrin’s new title because I envisioned poetry that spoke out. Politics and poetry have had a long relationship in New Zealand, with diverse forms and registers, whether on political or personal issues.  When I was doing my Italian studies I encountered politically motivated poets who wanted their message to be clear; tricky poetics were not to get in the way of issues at hand, the message was paramount, particularly with feminist women writing and thinking outside the academy. At the time, I felt that here, we had often addressed political issues in softer voices and in subtle ways; and that poetry that used loud political voices was more open to criticism. Yet the more you look, the more you discover a rich vein of political poetry. I am thinking of the way the political bite of Hone Tuwhare’s ‘No Ordinary Sun’ is sharpened by the solar metaphor, the searing detail.  Or Selina Tusitala Marsh’s various responses to racism in Tightrope. Or Mary Stanley’s 1950s poem, ‘The Wife Speaks’. I loved writing a chapter for Wild Honey on women poets speaking out because the poetry, and the issues, were so diverse. Women have spoken out from the messy knot of the personal and the political since they first started publishing in New Zealand with loud voices, quiet voices, veiled messages, clear ideas.

2108 seems to be a time when we need to speak out from the comfort/discomfort of our lives, from  the shelter/shelterlessness of our own homes, from the fullness/emptiness of our own stomachs, from the embrace/diaspora of our own communities, from the wound of our own healing/abuse, from the shared earth we stand on that is under wide threat.

Kerrin’s reflective book is utterly personal yet entirely political. She leads us from threatened species to unjust power plays to dislocated refugees to the toxic waste of human greed. To celebrate the arrival of Louder, we embarked on an email conversation.

 

 

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Paula: Your new collection struck me because it gives voice to issues that affect us all. I am really fascinated by the myriad way politics and poetry meet in New Zealand poems. When I asked if you would like to have this email conversation, you made some important points. I wondered if you would like to share those as I think ‘personal’ and ‘politics’ forge vital relationships.

Kerrin: Though as I said earlier I’m not really a ‘political person’ – not in a party-political sense anyway – I do believe ‘political poems’ in a broader sense of the phrase, have the power to sometimes influence and change thought and even behaviour at times. This was what I wanted my poems in LOUDER to do.

As anyone reading the poems in LOUDER will have noticed, they spring from a personal well of concern for endangered animals, refugees, global warming and pollution. When I came to shape the final collection into specific sections, the poems all seemed to work together and together they became even LOUDER.

The volume of the voices vary of course. Some poems are soft but yet still insistent; others clamour for our attention. But none of them whatever their individual volume, let us forget what we should be doing.

 

Paula: I really like the title because it suggests you have to speak your concern for these important issues a little louder without necessarily yelling. I was reminded of some of our early women poets who expressed deep concern for issues of the time. I am thinking of the way Jessie Mackay and Blanche Baughan spoke out for the suffragette movement, for prison reform, displaced people, the underprivileged and so on. They wrote poems but they were more inclined to write articles and letters to newspapers. They kept in touch with global issues through letters, journals and newspapers that travelled by ship. How do you keep in touch with the issues your poems navigate, whether global or local?

Kerrin: To use the stolen phrase ‘the writer as a thief’, I keep in touch with important issues through reading and watching environmental programmes on TV. I saw the idea for the poem ‘louder’ and the direction of the whole collection, when I was in the barber’s one day waiting for a haircut. In one of the magazines was a picture of an elephant with his tusks cut off. I could hardly look at the picture, but it gave me a powerful image I’ll never forget. Naturally, the barber himself is a recurring character in the LOUDER collection.

 

Paula: ‘Louder’ is the opening poem in the collection. It makes it clear that the poetry is linked to issues and that the poems move in intricate ways. It moved me as reader. The poem juxtaposes the beauty of a tribe of elephants with the mutilated bodies, tusks removed.

 

and if you can imagine

thousands of elephants

all in outdoor studios

painting themselves and their tribe

as whole elephants

even as guns are raised

and calves stumble

 

from ‘louder’

 

I was also moved by the sequence, ‘where will the fish sleep’. The poem is equally intricate. It looks like water lines, long ripples across the page that connect different places in the world. What prompted this sequence of vignettes? How difficult (or easy) is it to write of issues located elsewhere along with the way we are affected locally?

Kerrin: The fourth and final section of LOUDER offers the reader 10 multi-choice answers to the question ‘where will the fish sleep?’. I like your analogy that they are ‘water lines’ or ‘ripples’ and for me, writing about issues outside New Zealand gives me a greater freedom to explore connections that interest and intrigue me. This group of poems is all concerned with water and its behaviour due to weather events or global warming. We have just seen again the destructive effects both to land and life in Japan and more recently Indonesia. I like to think many of the poems in LOUDER carry on working beyond the covers of this collection. It is deliberate on my part that in the last poem, ‘how they leave the world’, polar bears in their ‘bubbles of blurry fur’ use soft but very firm voices to beg the reader to now act.

 

he tickles a thick-bodied trout that throws itself

back to unveil the path of the Arahura River

what remains in his square hands?

bones of water enough to mix with shingle

river sand wild grass to grow a daughter

up on the steep riverbank his empty fishing kete

with soft shearwater feathers

 

from ‘from the Arahura River’ in ‘where will the fish sleep?’

 

Paula: Water becomes the vital link in this sequence as it highlights such basic human and planetary needs. Selina Tusitala Marsh’s latest poetry collection, Tightrope, is also a form of ‘louder’. She speaks on issues that matter and affect her. In ‘Apostles’, Selina refers to Alice Walker’s claim that ‘poetry is revolutionary’. Selina is not quite sure that she believes Alice but Tightrope becomes a form of speaking out. Do you ever feel helpless when contemplating so many issues, so many injustices? And what point is poetry?

Kerrin: The many obvious injustices in the world inspire me to write with more conviction. They empower me to feel I must try to raise awareness of what is happening around me.

When I am writing I frequently ask of my writing, ‘What is the point of this? What is its purpose in the poem?’ If I have just written a series of word images that have no real or meaningful ideas or concepts underlying them, then I feel this isn’t the direction in which I should be going with this piece of writing.

As a poet I feel poems should be real, urgent and necessary of themselves and evoke a response in the reader. At least this is what I am attempting to do with my writing.

 

Paula: Did you read any poetry books that explored similar issues in ways that were perhaps ‘real and urgent’ – or simply stuck with you?

Kerrin: The British poet, Alex Houen’s poetry collection Ring Cycle (Eyewear Publishing) impressed me. He explores the world in a real, urgent and innovative way. Another British poet, John Clegg’s Holy Toledo, (Carcanet Press) has also influenced my writing with his poems; they are both playful yet also powerful.

For a long time, George Szirtes, a Hungarian poet living in England, has intrigued me with his writing which is often concerned with social issues. He raises challenges and perspectives that can only come from an ‘outsider’. His latest collection is Mapping the Delta (Bloodaxe).

I met all three of these poets when I was last in England and I talked with them about many of the issues and topics that come up in my poems in louder and I felt reassured by their feedback that I was on the right track. In fact they told me that the social and environmental topics I explore in louder were also starting to emerge in poetry written in Britain and in some cases were being explored by British poets in a very vigorous way indeed.

 

Paula: How wonderful to have that acknowledgement from writers you admire. There is something quite magical about conversations with people who get what you are doing. Are there any local writers who have caught your attention with issue-inspired poetry?  I was really taken with Airini Beautrais’ Flow: Whanganui River Poems. The politics of the river, the land, the everyday lives infused the work on so many levels. I also wondered whether you have a support crew of local writers in terms of both poetry and speaking out?

Kerrin: Yes, Erik Kennedy a local writer from Christchurch has just released his new collection of poems, There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime (VUP) and many of the poems in his collection are quite innovative and fresh in the way they address important issues like war and climate change.

Gregory O’Brien’s two poems ‘Mihi’ and ‘Conversation with a mid-Canterbury braided river’ are clever and strong in the way they challenge us about our threatened waterways.

I tend to do much of my writing alone. I am well known for heading down to a local cafe in Merivale, Christchurch each Saturday and Sunday morning to write. I love the atmosphere and the buzz of people about me.

I often chat with Frankie McMillan a well known Christchurch writer, and we frequently discuss our writing with each other; I read her my recent work and she gives me feedback and suggestions that send me back to refine what I’ve written. I also chat with other writers about my work and theirs and they too keep me grounded and encouraged.

 

Paula: I really like the shifting tones and forms in your collection, from the little poem breaths in ‘what we hear’ (like haiku) to the personal revelation, the mother’s appearance in ‘my mother darns the windsock’. It suggests there are multiple ways to speak louder and draw attention to issues that matter. Is there are poem that particularly worked for you?

Kerrin: Yes Paula, I do tend to employ changes in tone and form in my poems though sometimes I must admit it is as likely to be unconscious as conscious. One of the ‘drivers’ of this is that I have a fear that my poems will all look and sound alike if I don’t look to innovate in the way they sound, their shape and in their tone and form. Often the changes in my poems arise from ideas I get when reading the poems of other writers who themselves are experimenting with tone, shape and form.

Obviously in the context of my louder collection you picked up that I have experimented on several levels with some poems in an attempt to make them speak louder and more insistently.

To give you an illustration. When I visited England earlier this year, I was shown around the historic chapel designed by Sir Christopher Wren at Pembroke College at the University of Cambridge. Inside this beautiful chapel was a blue cross made from a refugee boat and some votive candles. As I was looking at this fascinating symbol, I began to think of the beginnings of a poem that I began to write in my head and the title of it of course became wick which I later included in my new collection.

I wrote the first draft of ‘wick’ on the train coming back from Cambridge and when it was complete I recognised that it had very strong links to the other poems in the collection about refugees: ‘they are found in the sea’ and ‘the bear’.

It probably sounds a bit quixotic but I like the way that ‘wick’ as a poem seemingly jostles to be heard and to extend itself beyond the written words on the page.

 

wick

 

from the flicker of a boat

in the Aegean Sea

they took the heart

they built a cross

a twisted pale blue beak

they sky they followed

still and blue like the toddler

carried ashore by a soldier

carried through our televisions

the terrible cries of his father

that cross and a bowl

of votive candles

in the chapel at Pembroke

every candle a voice

between wick and flame

a Syrian refugee

who never arrived

 

 

Paula: You work a lot with school-age writers. Do you think they are concerned with issues that threaten our world? Do you ever explore political and ecological issues with them through poetry?

Kerrin: I love working with school-age writers. And yes, I find them very open and aware of issues that threaten our world and they are not at all afraid to write passionately about many of the things we as adults are concerned about as well.

Recently one of my students designed a set of tea towels each with a haiku she had written printed on the tea towel. Her haiku were from a series of haiku she had written called ‘Haiku for Humanity’. Among her haiku are ones that draw our attention to the sad plight of many refugees in different parts of the world – a subject that as you know, is very close to my own heart. As a postscript, last I heard, her haiku tea towels were very popular with her student customers; I even have a couple myself!

Other creative writing students I work with participate in the Young Poets’ Network, based in London and have had poems on subjects such as global warming published on the Network.

 

Paula: We have a Prime Minister who uses the word ‘kindness’ in her discussions on governance, she keeps the well-being of children (and a nation) centre frame and resists attack politics and bullying. We have yet to see how Jacinda’s talk is converted into widespread action, but this approach, with the initial welcome moves, gives me hope for people and for the planet. What gives you hope?

Kerrin: As I said earlier, while my poetry in Louder is often about environmental and social issues and can therefore perhaps in that sense be described as political, I don’t have a lot of faith in politicians, whether it be the current Prime Minister or anyone else.

What does give me hope in our world are people, the people I meet every day in my local community, the people I work with, the children I teach creative writing – a creative writing class full of children is a magical place for me – my husband, family and friends.

I don’t expect politicians to bring about a better world. Positive change in our world, if it comes, will come because there are more and more people in our world with open, loving hearts, people who are honest and people who care deeply about others who need caring for.

One of my greatest joys is working with children. When I am in a class of children and we are all working on our creative writing; it’s then that I feel most a sense of hope in our future and what we can become.

 

Victoria University Press page

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf interviews Michael Harlow – recipient of the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry

 

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Photo credit: Courtesy of Creative New Zealand. Photographer: Neil Mackenzie

 

Warm congratulations to Michael Harlow on receiving the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry this year. To celebrate this well-deserved honour, Michael has shared a few poetry memories and thoughts.

 

Paula:  Name a favourite poetry book by another poet that has stuck with you over time.

Michael: Wallace Stevens’ Harmonium.  And then I have to include Emily Dickinson’s Selected (especially the one edited by James Reeves, the best commentary on her work in the Introduction).

 

Paula:  A favourite poem that has also endured.

Michael: ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’ by Stevens.  And it’s only fair to include Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’.  They do share first chair in the orchestra.

 

Paula: A performance or reading by another poet that has had an effect upon you.

Michael: Robert Frost reading on a number of occasions.  And I can’t forget a reading by e.e. cummings at the Poetry Y in NYC near the end of his life.  I’m not sure why, since he read in a very flat, slightly monotone style.  And must include Dylan Thomas, especially his ‘Child’s Christmas in Wales’.  And closer to home, the first time I heard Cilla McQueen read: one could hear that ‘Writing [poetry] is the painting of the voice’, in the original ‘L’écriture est la peinture de la voix’ (Voltaire).

 

Paula: A poetry epiphany in terms of your own writing.

Michael: When I realised, fairly early on in my music studies, that ‘Poetry is when words sing’. At the same time I was trying to impress the girl next door (literally), who played the piano and the flute, and who said she really liked poetry.  As it has turned out, ‘to tell love one must write’.

 

Paula: If you got to select a group of poets (dead or alive say) who could read at a festival with you – who would you pick?

Michael: Oh, and oh, here we go. Sir Thomas Wyatt (I can hear him so musically on the page); Emily Dickinson, if she could ever be enticed; Gertrude Stein; Henry Miller (the prose that is in poetry); Dylan Thomas (because he’s Dylan Thomas); Cilla McQueen; Michele Leggott, because she reads the words and not the ideas (that’s where the music is); Gerard Manley Hopkins, to hear the voice of ‘sprung rhythm’; Elizabeth Smither, such clarity; the late Christopher Middleton, English poet long resident in USA, and one of the foremost translators from the German (we did read together on a few occasions, and I learned a lot from him); Emma Neale (as poet) for the way she does ‘make words sing’, exemplary in the sound-and-sense converse; Joseph Brodsky (in Russian and English); Charles Simic, who always knows how to ‘say’ a poem; Robert Frost, who always ‘says’ his poem; Brian Turner, because you can hear that he has not only ‘thought’ his poems but has lived them…

 

Paula:  A poem of your own that has really sung for you.

Michael: A poem entitled ‘And yes’, a lyric, love poem (the heart poems are the hardest ones to write and they seem somehow to be inevitable sooner or later).

 

 

And, yes

 

Sometimes your touch

love’s homecoming is

Not to put too fine a call

on what heart knows

despite head’s long

success in all silly else;

that is, by ‘all flowers’

and these candles,

love’s invitations

you light up a parcel of dark,

the way your breasts

wear sunlight: the heart

has reasons reason

cannot know. The green

wild call of spring

that waits over the hill,

and here in love’s bed

wants me you to kiss

and all our trulys touch.

And that is the story

about yes: never trust

a god who does not dance.                        –

 

©Michael Harlow from Cassandra’s Daughter (Auckland University Press, 2005)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf in conversation with Erik Kennedy

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Erik Kennedy has followed his poetry chapbook, Twenty-Six Factions (Cold Hub Press, 2017) with his debut collection, There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime (Victoria University Press, 2018). He edits the online journal Queen Mob’s Teahouse. He lives in Christchurch. His first-full length collection sparks with multiple fascinations, experience, thought, wit, politics, optical delights and aural treats. It is a book of harmonics and elastic thinking, and is a pleasure to read.

 

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To celebrate the book Erik and I embarked on a slow-paced email conversation.

 

 

Paula: Did you read, write or hear poetry as a child? As a teenager?

Erik: I wouldn’t say that I grew up in a poetical household, but it was certainly a bookish one. My early touchstones were mostly fact-filled books: The Book of Lists, Jacques Cousteau, The Rand McNally Encyclopedia of Military Aircraft, atlases. We had that two-volume complete OED that comes with a magnifying glass, which I never used, and instead I liked to bring my eyes quite close to the tiny, tiny type on the huge pages. I was born in 1980, so I am part of the last cohort that had a childhood without the internet.

I came to poetry in my early teens. I was converted by my father’s old university poetry textbook, which was an early edition of An Introduction to Poetry by X. J. Kennedy (no relation). Then I realised that we had a lot more of this ‘poetry’ stuff in the house, and that even bookshops in suburban New Jersey would sell you poetry if you wanted it. I became obsessed with it. I was an only child with addictive tendencies. I started writing my own poems, and I liked it so much that I thought I should write hundreds of them. For a while I kept a chart of my productivity. For a while I thought six poems per day was a decent target.

Eventually I became saner and realised that reading was more important than writing, but the funny thing is, I wasn’t wrong about the benefits of writing tons of poems. At the time I thought I should do it because I assumed they were all brilliant and worth recording. Now I do it because I know that half of them will be rubbish.

 

Paula: Oh I love the image of the chart. I wonder if you will look through the rubbish pile one day and see some of the poems glow? I am intrigued by the way relationships change with a poem over time. I am also wondering with your enviable productivity if you write a poem quickly or it is agonisingly slow?

Erik: These days I’m more likely to abandon a poem than to revise it extensively, so I guess I go along at a fair clip. (If taking a week on a poem is writing ‘quickly’.) A couple of poems in the book – like ‘The Shame’, for instance – were written in one sitting. Poets reading this will be familiar with how amazing a feeling this is. Like bowling a perfect game on Christmas Eve, or finding a fifty dollar note in a seldom-worn coat.

I’m not very sentimental about particular poems. I tend to revisit certain subjects regularly – climate change, the atheist’s perspective on religion, inequality, mortality and the fear of death – so it’s unlikely that any given poem I write will be my last word on the matter. This takes off some of the pressure to get it perfect. This isn’t to say that I don’t like my poems or have particular favourites. But often it’s reader or audience reaction that earns a poem a place in my affections. I want my work to connect with people, and that connection is something that’s probably more important than my own super-subjective feelings about my work. This is one reason why I send my poems out so much and why I do as many readings as I can. Hopefully it all adds up to something in the end.

 

Paula: Writing is such a private thing – we send our work into the world and so often don’t eavesdrop on the reader. When an audience gasps after you read a poem it is gold!

 

There’s no place like the internet in springtime!

Everything foals a new thing like itself,

and old things are respectful in their pastures

and only argue over if it’s best

to let the snow melt or to make it melt.

 

from ‘There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime’

 

 

The order within disorder

is a spice-rack in a shipwreck,

an abacus in the corner

at the ruined abbey of Glenluce,

or hill-roads amid the scree

where earthquakes preside.

It is also a probe

in orbit around a comet,

a self-tightening noose,

a precise polypeptide

in a gummy primordial soup

 

from ‘I Can’t Even’

 

Your collection navigates eclectic subject matter but I was initially drawn to the interplay between a virtual world and a classical world. I began to muse on how poetry fits into movement between the arrival of the internet and a legacy of classical knowledge. Do both feed your curiosities as a poet? Does the internet make a difference to you as poet? I really love the lines in ‘I Can’t Even’:

 

The things we write we transform:

the far becomes the distant,

the distant becomes the invisible,

the invisible becomes the new

 

Erik: I sometimes (over-ambitiously!) describe the book as a collision between the digital and the pastoral – like responding to Marlowe’s ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love’ with an image macro. It seems to me that poetry is good at representing collisions like this, given that so much of the art as it’s practised now is about surprising juxtapositions and skewed perspectives. Even some of the famous ‘definitions’ of poetry get at this. Take one of Carl Sandburg’s hare-brained formulations: ‘Poetry is a puppet-show, where riders of skyrockets and divers of sea fathoms gossip about the sixth sense and the fourth dimension.’ This is barking, obviously, but it’s a way of saying, ‘Well, I add a and b together and I get x, and I’m not really sure why.’ And I understand that. That’s how it feels to me, too.

You’re right to sense that I care deeply about history. I’ve always cared as much about the seed drill as I have about @dril. It seems to me that on the c. 2018 internet all of history exists simultaneously. This was previously possible in the arts, but I don’t think that our daily lives were filled with the disorientating, mind-bending glory of it all until we had social media. I’m thinking of the @medievalpoc Twitter account, Daniel Mallory Ortberg’s legendary art/lit/textspeak mash-ups on The Toast (a few years old, but not forgotten), even Jim’ll Paint It (if old British telly counts as history). I could go on forever. We are blessed to live in these times.

But, in a way, I don’t think it is internet culture itself that has primarily affected my work, although I like Weird Twitter as much as the next idiot. I think instead the ability to plug into existing literary cultures has allowed my work to be broader than it would have been otherwise. This is part of the general, larger process of globalisation and cultural cross-pollination that we’re all living with and contributing to. I’m not the first person to say this, but I feel like I just know a lot more about the various poetries there are out there than I used to. And if I didn’t, I’d probably still be writing the same kinds of poems I wrote when I was twenty . . . and trust me, that would not be a good thing.

 

Paula: Engagement with diverse poetries seems so important and for me that involves reading outside my comfort zone, my poetry loves. I also love the idea of poetry reacting to collisions, intersections, juxtapositions. Interestingly when I was jotting down notes I wrote the words ‘detail’, ‘things’ and ‘juxtaposition’ but not just for the embedded ideas. Yes, the detail in the poems is striking in itself, but I was drawn to the ‘static’ or the  ‘conversation’ or ‘kinetic energy’ between things as I read.

 

Two feet of snow at my parents’ place, in another season.

Here, the cicadas sing like Christian women’s choirs

in a disused cotton mill. Belief is a kind of weather.

I haven’t seen proper snow for three years.

 

from ‘Letter from the Estuary’

 

I can jump about this stanza for ages. How important are the connections or bridges (and perhaps disconnections) between things as you write? Is there a poem where it is particularly important?

Erik: Perhaps you already know that James Brown has (gently) mocked my thought processes in that stanza of ‘Letter from the Estuary’ in a poem called ‘Liking Similes’? From his poem:

 

When I hear cicadas, their singing always reminds me of
Christian women’s choirs in a disused cotton mill.
I picture the conductor’s arms bent in supplication
as she tries to draw forth the correct ‘cicadian’ rhythm
from the collective gasp of Christian women.

 

And it goes on in that vein for about 400 words! I recommend it enthusiastically. I’m a strong believer in trying to surprise readers. Maybe sometimes I try too hard. Maybe sometimes that effort borders on the absurd. But a certain amount of risk is necessary if you’re going to write either very good or very bad poems. I’d like to be remembered as someone who wrote both.

I think James has got my style down, though! Or at least he’s got the logic of it, if not the exact tone. I’m lucky enough to be in a great critgroup – four other poets I trust, with whom I meet once a month. I often get told that my poems operate in predictable ways because they argue more than they emote. I think that aspect of my writing is easy to parody, and I don’t mind that. What’s wrong with using poems to work out problems? One of the oldest, simplest, and most enjoyable poems in the book, called ‘Growing Fears That the Leadership Contest Has Been Hijacked by Far-Left Infiltrators’, is a series of propositions, which, if answered in the affirmative, all seem to say that the reader is a proper socialist. That’s the sort of connection that’s most important to me – connections that lead to a punch line rather than ones that merely establish a mood.

 

Paula: Well, heck, I love jumping about that stanza and indeed the whole collection. Do you have a favourite poem in the collection – where the poem just clicked into place and lifted?

Erik: When it comes to my poems, I’m like a parent. I’m like a parent who loves all his children equally. I’m like a parent who acknowledges his children’s limitations. I’m like a parent who hopes his next children will be better than the ones he already has are. I’m like a parent who thinks his children would have been better off if they had been born in another time and place, when children rhymed and scanned. Maybe this is a faulty simile from someone who hasn’t got any kids.

What I’m trying to say is that I have a lot of favourite poems, and they all do different things, and I’m not vain enough to think that they’re all perfect. In fact, I have frosty relations with some of my poems. I won’t renounce them, but I hope I can replace them with better ones in future.

So instead of a one-poem answer, I hope you’ll let me nominate a few poems that I think fulfil their ambitions pretty well:

 

Favourite love poem: ‘Love Poem with Seagull’

Favourite poem about aesthetics: ‘I Rank All the Beautiful Things There Are’ (which appears in a slightly different version in the book)

Favourite rambling philosophical poem: ‘The School of Naps’

Favourite ‘history poem’: ‘Public Power’

Favourite ‘New Zealand poem’: ‘Letter from the Estuary’

Favourite eco-poem: ‘I Am an Animal Benefiting from Climate Change’ (not online)

Favourite poem that isn’t online: ‘Double Saw Final at the Canterbury A&P Show’ (also not online)

 

Paula: Oh, how perfect. I have been thinking of running a series on my blog where I get a poet to recommend a favourite poem (and go through categories!). I was thinking of poems by other poets though. I love your list; it is a reminder that poetry does all kinds of things on all kinds of subject matter with all kinds of stylistic leanings and you enagge with them for different reasons.

I had a conversation with a writer who, like me, finds writing makes her happy. It can be a challenge, demanding much of/from you, but it makes me happy. I jotted down a couple of lines from three terrific poems near the end of your book that feature ‘happy’, ‘glad’, ‘contentment’. For some reasons these three poems gave me goosebumps.

 

From ‘The School of Naps’: When you’re happy you have a responsibility to those who are unhappy / to do your best with it.’

From ‘The Contentment Poem’: ‘I’ve got the garden just how I like it and that, obviously, / is just how I like it.’

From ‘Today’: ‘And I, alone and glad, have missed these things.’

 

Does writing make you happy or is it a painful part of your life as it is with some writers?

 

Erik: Are there really poets who cause themselves pain when they write? Of course I love writing. I’ll never be more alive – ever – than when I feel an unmistakably good line come into my head. To me, that’s what humanity is: the moment when you acknowledge yourself as a self-aware, clever being. (Knowing that you’ve written a good poem is like juggling in the mirror.) At the moment of my death I will probably say something like, ‘One more line, please.’ One line in Latin on one’s tombstone below one’s name: Magis. More.

Obviously, I hate the process of writing as much as everyone else does; 999 lines in a thousand are just craft, not art. But I will chase the feeling of that serendipitous line across all of time and space. I suppose it’s why I’m a poet rather than a novelist – I can capture that feeling more easily in ten choice words than in ten chapters. Poetry is a shortcut to pleasure, and none of us should ever apologise for taking that shortcut.

 

Paula: Bill Manhire quotes Randall Jarrell in his (Bill’s!) poem ‘The Victims of Lightning’ – good poets might get struck by lightning five or six times in a thunderstorm – a great poet maybe a dozen. Sometimes it feels like that – where did this poem come from? How on earth did it hit the page and sound like this!

I am really drawn to the lists in your poems – there is something that both surprises and comforts about list poems or poems that play with lists. What is the attraction?

 

Erik: A natural rage for order, I suppose! I hope I don’t write many ‘list poems’, though. I’m happy enough to write poems that contain lists, but when lists are the poem I’m not usually very happy. It’s the same with anaphora, parallel structure, whatever. Like any rhetorical gimmick, these devices make useful servants and oppressive masters. I was reading Clint Smith’s ‘the drone’ the other day and I was thinking that it is a good example of a poem that develops and emerges naturally from its confines to say something necessary. And the structure helped it say what it said; it wasn’t just there when it got said, hanging around or getting in the way.

 

So when I write things like this:

 

I rank all the beautiful things there are

starting with self-sacrifice, then supernovas,

the brain, love, virga, Korean pottery,

lemurs, cuckoo clocks, suits of armour for horses,

a child’s first words, mercy, bread, and so on.

 

from ‘I Rank All the Beautiful Things There Are’

 

Or this:

 

The human ingenuity I admire

is limited, implausible, post hoc,

folksy, unconsidered, overthought,

ecstatic, garden-shed, Corinthian,

exhausting, nebulous, and somehow sexy.

 

from ‘I’m Impressed’

 

I am indulging myself, yes, but I am also pointing to the richness and strangeness of experience, which is a subject that those two poems share. Lists are a nice way to establish breadth. As someone who (likes to think that he) writes on a broad range of subjects, many of them not personal ones, they help me show that I have considered things, that I aware of the possibilities and I love them. Maybe that’s why I like lists and deploy them.

 

Paula: I am reluctant to wrap our conversation up as it has been such fun, but can we finish with a list – around five New Zealand poems that have struck you for different reasons?

Erik: In no particular order, and with no comment: Nick Ascroft’s ‘Five Limericks on Grief’, Hera Lindsay Bird’s ‘The da Vinci Code’, Alistair Te Ariki Campbell’s ‘Waiting for the Pākehā’, Ashleigh Young’s ‘Ghost Bear’, and James K. Baxter’s ‘Elegy for My Father’s Father’. Thanks! This has been great!

Paula: Indeed! Poetry delight.

 

 

Erik reads ‘Tour Grandfather’s Stories’

Victoria University Press page

Erik’s website

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf in conversation with Alison Glenny

 

 

 

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Alison Glenny was born in Christchurch and now lives in Paekākāriki. She graduated with an MA in Creative Writing from Victoria University and she has a postgraduate certificate in Antarctic Studies from the University of Canterbury. She has taught creative writing at Whitireia New Zealand. Her poetry has appeared in print and online, in journals and anthologies. Bill Manhire selected her as the 2017 winner of the Kathleen Grattan Poetry Award and I can see why. The resulting book, The Farewell Tourist, recently published by Otago University Press, is poetry pleasure at every level. I utterly love it. It is so prismatic in its making and effect every time I pick it up to reread I feel like I am holding a new book.

To celebrate The Farewell Tourist Alison and I embarked on a slow-paced email conversation.

 

 

Each of his letters was a tiny museum, a footnote to an imaginary

novel. ‘I searched the box of negatives to discover the keepsakes,

but they had vanished in the silence of the crevasses.’

 

from ‘Footnotes to the Heroic Age’

 

 

Paula: Your new collection is a joy to read. It is so rich in silence, enigma and erasure I wondered how you would feel talking about it?

Alison: Kia ora Paula, thank you for those kind words. And yes, it’s probably true that I don’t find writing about myself the easiest thing. I can only promise to answer your questions as non-cryptically and with as little self-erasure as possible!

On the subject of form (implied I think by your reference to erasure), can I say that the form you have devised for these interviews seems very appealing to me – like a super-relaxed game of tennis, or a parlour game where you write something on a piece of paper, fold it and give it to the next person, and eventually discover you’ve generated a piece of writing.

 

She dreamed that winter was a little cabinet. When she unlocked

it, she discovered a small white dog.

 

from ‘Footnotes to the Heroic Age’

 

Paula: Oh you have caught exactly why I love doing this kind of conversation. Min-a-ret’s latest issue resembles the paper parlour game in that poets created poems by handing over the accruing poem with only the last line showing. There seems to be such delight in the surprising connections.

When did you first find delight in poetry? As a child? As a teenager?

Alison: I grew up in a bookish household. My father, whose childhood was marked by a certain amount of hardship and who left school very young, could probably be described as a first generation reader. As a child, my first encounters with poetry were through anthologies like Geoffrey Grigson’s The Cherry Tree, which combined extracts from Shakespeare or the Metaphysical poets with traditional counting rhymes or riddles. I remember it included his own free verse translation of an immensely sad and beautiful poem by Hölderlin. And at school there were the Voices anthologies, which mixed up short prose pieces, poems, and visual images, and which I recall as having a sort of modernist rigour that I found both alluring and slightly frightening. As a teenager I mainly read science fiction.

 

Paula: Can you pick a couple of poets (or poetry books) who really mattered to you between these early readings and recent times?

Alison: That’s a tough question! How much space do we have? Going right back, I would say Bill Manhire. My copy of Zoetropes has remained with me through shifts and relocations of home or country. As someone who leans towards prose, I am drawn to hybrid forms such as prose poetry or loosely narrative sequences. Charles Simic’s The World Doesn’t End, Dinah Hawkin’s Small Stories of Devotion, Rachel O’Neill’s One Human in Height. Tranströmer’s The Sorrow Gondola. This is a very partial list. Also I’m wary of lists, as they tend to exclude more than they include.

When I’m working on a project I feel a bit like I’m scrolling through radio stations, hoping to pick up something that resonates on a similar frequency. When I was writing The Farewell Tourist I was reading Bernadette Hall’s Antarctic poems, and I discovered poets like Jenny Boully and Kristina Marie Darling, who create entire books from prose fragments and found forms such as footnotes that refer to works that don’t exist. I am drawn to these works, which suggest the possibilities of constructing emotional landscapes from suggestion and from things that aren’t there.

 

The absence of daylight was partly compensated for by an

excellent little blubber lamp, which burned with a clear white

flame.

 

from ‘Footnotes for a Heroic Age’

 

 

Paula: Oh I love that book of Dinah’s. It showed me that poetry can feel and think and play with form and be acutely aware of how things are for women.

Your debut collection is so dependent on what is not there as much as what is there. But let’s go to Antarctica first. What drew you to Antarctic Studies at the University of Canterbury?

Alison: I’d been trying to write about Antarctica for a while, but wasn’t very satisfied with what I was writing. I felt as if my imagination kept coming up against the limits imposed by my lack of actual experience. The Antarctic Studies course is multidisciplinary, so it seemed like an opportunity to learn more about all aspects of Antarctica – ecology, governance, current debates around issues like climate, tourism, and resources. It also includes a field trip to the Ross Sea area, and for someone like me who isn’t a scientist, this was a rare opportunity to travel to Antarctica and experience the ice first-hand.

 

XVI

Some nights the staircase disappeared and was replaced by

an ice tongue. She improvised crampons using nails, spiked

boots to descend the slick surface. In the morning the

house was back to rights, although at moments the night

would impose itself unexpectedly. Gazing at the hinge of

her jewellery box, for example, she would be seized by a

sudden vertigo. Overtaken by a conviction that the dressing

table, room, and everything in it had detached from the house

and was floating away, calving new impossibilities as it drifted

from the dynamic boundary.

 

from ‘The Magnetic Process’

 

 

Paula: Before we move to the poetry what were some key astonishments and surprises when you stayed in Antarctica? What was it like to write in situ?

Alison: The moment of arriving felt very euphoric. After eight hours of noise and vibration in the belly of a Hercules you emerge from the aircraft into what feels almost like a bowl of dazzling whiteness and light, surrounded by mountains and filled with incredibly pure air. In that moment Antarctica feels like everything you ever dreamed it might be and more. Most of my time in Antarctica was spent ‘in the field’ (ie a tent) but at Scott Base I got to spend a bit of time in the library, which has windows on three sides. I’d look up from what I was working on and see the scenery with its views of Mt Erebus and other landmarks. It conveyed a powerful feeling of thereness. Being able to work at midnight in natural light was also a highlight. I did more drawing than writing while I was there.

 

Paula: Your glorious new collection is a book of parts – a sequence, a series of footnotes, an appendix or two – but each part is highly-charged poetry. The Antarctic is a thread that stitches the pieces together in patterns of disappearance, mystery and snow. What mattered to you as you wrote?

Alison: The direction it took was probably born out of a number of encounters. One was with a language of science and scientific concepts that was largely new to me. Because I didn’t understand it properly, it prompted other, improper or fictitious associations. Another was with the literature of Heroic Era exploration. As others have commented, it’s a body of work in which the project of Edwardian imperial exploration is pursued in an environment so extreme and inhospitable to human life, as to render its goals strangely futile, while infusing everyday experience with an almost surreal intensity. One of my essays was a review of autobiographical narratives by the first women to visit Antarctica, so acknowledging the specifically gendered nature of that early Antarctic experience was also at the front of my mind. But I also believe that we view history through a lens that reflects our present concerns. Heroic Era narratives of climate-related suffering and death irresistibly prompt associations with our current concerns about the effects of human-induced climate change. We are living during the greatest mass extinction since the dinosaurs, but it can be hard to know not only what to do about it, but even how to feel about it. While I don’t address the topic of extinction in the book directly, it has a displaced influence on both the form and subject-matter.

 

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from ‘Footnotes to A History of the Honeymoon’

 

Paula: Thus the repeating motifs and concern with disappearance. I was really drawn to the footnote sequence where the page is mostly white space and the footnotes hug the bottom. I love the way the white space reverberates as snow, silence and missing material before you read the footnotes. The footnotes seem a perfect response to the foreign, the alien, the difficult to write. Would it be pushing it too far to think of the way some narratives are footnotes to history rather than the main argument? Perhaps those by the first women who wrote Antarctica autobiographies?  I was musing on what it might be like to build a sequence of footnotes that unsettle an actual history or travel book written through a singular lens. Where do your musings on footnotes lead you?

 

Alison: I am very much in sympathy with your idea for that work, and I would love to read it!

Your comments suggest one of the things that appeals to me about the use of footnotes as primary text, which is the invitation this seems to offer to readers to imagine their versions of what that missing primary text might be. As a writer who tends to rely on found material, I find that the distinction between author and reader can be fluid. As a child I was drawn to works such as cookbooks that provided blank pages at the end for you to add your own notes, to personalise the book. The idea that as the given text runs out, your own begins. I agree with your suggestion that this idea is particularly appealing for those whose experiences are marginal or under-represented – a kind of footnote to the official narratives or histories, as you put it.

But to go back to your previous question about what it is like to write in Antarctica, most of the writing I did was limited to tiny notes or observations scribbled in pencil (because pens are less reliable in the cold). So the footnote form was probably partly an attempt to preserve a sense of that way of working. There also seems to be an observational quality to the footnote. Even though its function is to refer to something else, it can feel slightly self-contained, outside narrative. In contrast to more conventional narrative, writing in footnotes can be a way of slowing down one’s reading of a text, and focussing on single objects or moments. Temporal sequentiality is downplayed in favour of an emphasis on spatial arrangement. I also have a longtime interest in collage, and the way in which the placing of incongruous elements in proximity can disrupt conventional ways of viewing, and generate unexpected effects.

 

Paula: The poem as collage is interesting. I love the idea of slowing the reading process down. This happens when you define a single word ‘erasure’ and create a poem. I was reminded of the time I tried writing online poems where if you clicked on a word it would lead you to a definition or refinement of that word. And you could keep clicking and refining. I love the way ‘Erasure’ in ‘Appendix 1’ offers pleasure in itself but also stands as a sequence of doorways into reading the collection.

 

Erasure

1.An act or instance of erasing. 2. The removal of all traces

of something: obliteration. 3. The state of having been

erased; total blankness. 4. The place or mark, as on a piece of

paper, where something has been erased. There were several

erasures on the paper. 5. Crossing out, striking out, blotting

out, effacement, expunging. 6. A tendency to ignore or

conceal an element of society. 7. Removal of something in

order to reveal another: for example, the discovery that the

beloved has been replaced by a set of measurements.

8. The practice of concealing part of a poem by covering it

with snow.

 

 

Do you do this as reader? Do you stall on individual words? Or collect words as keepsakes?

Alison: I do get slightly obsessed with certain words, as if they might hold the key to a larger idea or work. In general, I am drawn to the way that entries in dictionaries that provide extensive etymologies, like the OED, tend to form small narratives of transformation and expansion, in which an early or primary meaning (usually imported from another language) accrues further applications or secondary meanings, or travels from one part of speech to another. There’s an interesting tension between repetition (reinstating a meaning in slightly different ways, makes it more emphatic) and slide – the tendency for meaning to wander into other contexts and nuances. The inclusion of historical examples of these usages makes these entries another kind of fragmented text or collage, where things brush up against each other in unexpected ways.

Interestingly it’s the most common, everyday words that tend to be richest in terms of this kind of multiplicity. A reminder of the kind of amnesia we routinely practice whenever we use language –  partly, as you suggest, to save time. At the other end of the spectrum, glossaries focused on a particular subject can be productive places for word-hunting.  I found The International Classification for Seasonal Snow on the Ground – which includes terms such as ‘snow penitents’ – particularly evocative.

 

Paula: I loved thumbing through dictionaries as a child, especially in bed when I should have been sleeping. I wonder how that would work on the internet?

The single word is like a single detail in a poem. Your collection savours the small, the slightly off beat as well as the boundless, the snow that stretches on and on.

 

She dreamed she was on a ship that was sinking. She could

see the gleaming surface of the iceberg, feel the cold water

rise above her ankles. But she was seated with the violins

and preoccupied by details; the amount of rosin on her bow,

a false note from the woodwind, and the frayed portion of

sleeve at her wrist – did it show?

 

from ‘X’ in ‘The Magnetic Process’

 

Often I am drawn to a different way of looking at the world as I read these poems. Our viewfinder is altered. What sort of things did you hope for in your use of detail?

 

Alison: First of all, let me say how impressed I am that you read dictionaries as a child!

I do agree that smallness is a focus of the collection, and that this is partly an attempt to convey a kind of inadequacy of the individual against larger forces. In the particular fragment you quote I was trying to describe that kind of disproportion in relation to the experience of anxiety. The strangeness of worrying about something relatively trivial, like a detail of one’s appearance, while ignoring the much larger problem of being on a sinking ship.  It seemed fitting to portray this via a dream, given the tendency of dreams to reconfigure elements of everyday life in ways that often bring anxiety to the fore, while representing it in absurd ways.

 

Paula: A number of poets – Mary Ruefle and Selina Tusitala Marsh, for example – white or black out portions of texts to create new poems. I am fascinated by your ‘Correspondence’ sequence where you have taken fragments from The Shackleton Letters: Behind the scenes of the Nimrod Exhibition (edited by Regina W Daly). You create a poem with words crossed out that offers two readings: one that includes the crossed out words and one that doesn’t. Again you are generating glorious poetic movement. But perhaps also unsettling things. Can you tell me a little about what it was like reading Shackleton’s letters and then producing poetry from them?

 

 

DSCN9585

from ‘Appendix 2 Correspondence’

 

Alison: Mary Ruefle’s ‘A Little White Shadow’ is one of my favourite erasure-based works, partly because of the way that her use of white-out to erase the original text (a ghost story) transforms it almost literally into a shadow or ghost. There is a tension between the contrary movements of embodiment and disembodiment. Similarly, Selina Tusitala Marsh’s dark ink erasures seem to pay homage to the title of the source text, Wendt’s novel ‘Pouliuli’. The form conveys or enacts the subject-matter of the work in an almost literal way.

I find collections of letters, or similar historical documents, an interesting way of telling a story. On the one hand there is the sense of intimacy and immediacy that comes from reading the words of the participants, written close to the moment they are describing. But there are also large gaps in the narrative and the reader has to work to connect the pieces. In the case of the Shackleton letters what interested me was less the behind the scenes view of the Nimrod Expedition –such as Shackleton’s conflict with Scott over where to locate his Antarctic base, or the fact that he was writing love letters to two women simultaneously – than the editor’s descriptions of the damage to the paper on which some of the letters are written. Again, these feel like a literal record of fragmentation and incompleteness that emphasises the distance, both spatial and temporal, that these messages sought to bridge.

 

Paula: I think therein lie the delights of your collection; as readers we navigate both intimacy and distance, visibility and absence, musicality and silence.

It has been such a pleasure moving into a close focus on your poems. To finish can you name five New Zealand poetry books you have utterly loved for different reasons?

Alison: Apart from those already mentioned earlier? Bill Manhire’s The Victims of Lightning for the exquisite melancholy of the title poem, which also shows the potential for found poetry to express the profoundly personal. Cliff Fell’s The Adulterer’s Bible for introducing Fidel Serif and his search for a missing word. Michele Leggott’s Vanishing Points for its wonderful poem about Erebus and Terror. John Newton’s Family Songbook for its entanglement of place and memory and seemingly effortless narrative. Rhian Gallagher’s Shift and Hannah Mettner’s Fully Clothed and So Forgetful for proving that lyric poetry can be both a passionate and precise account of lived experience, especially queer experience. Lynn Jenner’s work (in general) for its hybridity and experimentation with form. Therese Lloyd’s The Facts for creating a body of work in relation to another poet. Is that five already? More than five? OK, I’d better stop.

 

I

She would wait for him in the morning room, seated on a

velvet sofa. Each time he visited she was delighted when

he produced a bouquet of flowers, summoned out of thin

air. He spoke of his belief that materials absorb the

identity of those who handle them. Sometimes their

fingers would touch during the examination of an object.

The inevitable sparks were part of what he called the

magnetic process.

from ‘The Magnetic Process’

 

 

 

Otago University Press page

Excerpts from The Farewell Tourist at the Fourth Floor

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf in conversation with Alice Miller

 

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Alice Miller’s debut collection, The Limits was published in 2014. She has also published Blaue Stunde (2016), an English/German edition of poems which features letters with the Pakistani author Bilal Tanweer. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the International Institute of Modern Letters, Alice was recently a fellow at the Akademie Schloss Solitude. She now lives in Berlin where she is on the faculty for the Creating Writing MFA programme at Cedar Crest College. Her latest poetry book, Nowhere Nearer, was published in 2018 by Auckland University Press and Liverpool University Press. It is a UK Poetry Book Society Recommendation.

Nowhere Nearer is kaleidoscopic in its reach for heart and mind; silence matters as much as a delight in words and linguistic connections. You move between countries, ideas, memories, hauntings, loss. The past makes way for the future and the future makes way for the past. It is a joy to read, and a joy to read again. To celebrate its arrival in the world Alice and I undertook an email conversation over the course of a month or so.

 

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Epilogue

 

I’m not here to repair the world.

No one here’s here for much, except

perhaps these high windows boasting sky.

My friend says love is easier the less

you know a person. The more you know

the less you love. I say love’s

an exhausted word, used for everything.

I turn the tap on, cold, the stream smooth,

and I can’t remember why in Hell

I should turn it off.

Doesn’t language get tired?

Doesn’t it get sick of

lulling us into believing

all the **** we say? In the Prater a willow dips herself

into water and stirs her own image, and

in the lake her leaves retract, refuse to repair.

Isn’t love also the kind of cruelty

you give to someone because you can’t hold

all that cruelty in your own hands?

All I know’s I’m overflowing.

All I know’s I’m overflowing and I’m not sure

how much of me the world can hold.

 

©Alice Miller, from Nowhere Nearer

 

 

Paula: I have just finished reading your new book of poems, a collection that is lucid on the line and bright with ideas. The attentiveness to a peopled and physical world as well as preoccupations of the mind struck me. This is a book of musings unlike any other. The title of the book, Nowhere Nearer, and an early poem, ‘Out of this World’, underline the cerebral movements. Do you feel these titles speak of human existence but also the very process of writing poetry?

Alice: Absolutely. Poetry is a form of rescue for me. I’m terrified of death, and poetry is the closest I come to feeling comfortable about my relationship with it. I can be in dialogue with it; I can dislodge it with music. I can call it “it.” In life I have no power over death, but in poetry I have a little. I feel as though something is happening between us. So yes, for me writing occurs “nowhere” but also gives this sense that we’re getting closer.

The book’s title also leans towards other things. One is not knowing where you belong (that weird thing that happens when you live away for a few years, during which time you describe yourself as a proud citizen of Aotearoa New Zealand, but when you return to NZ the locals say “but where’re you really from?”). Another is that absurd tendency we all have of striving towards a goal, that, once it’s achieved or abandoned, is immediately replaced with a new, different goal. In a secular world, what does it mean to get nearer? And where the hell is nowhere?

 

Paula: I have carried a thought from the French feminist author, Julia Kristeva with me: that writing postpones death. I guess with a history of illness and accident it resonated. I wonder if death affects other writers?

 

                                 (..) This morning

inside other mornings, as the city nests

inside other towns, the sun steps in

to blast the snow back

so my eyes must shut,

see only blood.

 

from ‘Outside Vienna’

 

Notions of belonging – of here and elsewhere – form such vital and various threads in the collection. I am thinking of cities (Vienna in particular) to begin with and the way you can be both inside and outside place. I was reminded of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities where the sequence of cities is in fact the shifting facades, interiors and intricacies of Venice. Have Vienna and Berlin changed things for you as a poet? Does a poem form a provisional self-anchor in a particular city?

 

Alice: The first time I read Invisible Cities, I felt like I was waking from an old world – I was filled with a vast awe and also a strange envy, that it was exactly the kind of book I’d wanted to write. What it captures is rather like that Éluard quote, There is another world but it is in this one. In this sense, perhaps everywhere I go is the hill above Mahina Bay where I used to walk around as a kid, taking myself awfully seriously, and failing to find my way out of thinking.

On the other hand, Vienna and Berlin are not just stage sets, because we live in time – in 2018 – which is exhibiting noisy echoes of another moment in the 20th century, in which Vienna and Berlin were central. My grandmother, a German Jew, had to leave Germany in the 1930s, and eventually ended up in Wellington. I spent time looking after her at the end of her life, when I was sixteen and she had lost much of her memory. All this seems connected to me in ways that can’t be approached directly. Once more Europe – and the world – feels precarious, and part of this must be tackled in prose, and part of it can’t be. Poetry’s music gets at a different slant of it, something fixed and floating and true.

 

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Paula: I am thinking too of the way your collection represents the lure and float of home. Home is the playful musing in ‘The Roof’:

 

 

(…)  When a psychoanalyst

says adults have no notion of home, a

nomadic woman says rubbish

and in America rubbish perches on gutters

and won’t wash down. A gull has a sense of home?

A bumblebee is bumbling home?

We bumble but we do not gull, only

cull our belongings as we wait to board

     our next plane out. In our bold age. In our bumble back

         to riches and our gull back to rags.

 

In ‘Fourteen Mistakes’ the traveller cannot be admitted home until ‘we have re-mapped our own insides’. The poem, ‘Maker’, is equally powerful: ‘Home’s far and grown old.’

What are the key navigation points as you write this moving attention to home? The discoveries that surprise or unsettle or soothe?

Alice: Home! I stumbled on this question because there are so many ways to tackle it. Home is not one thing. On the most obvious level for me, Aotearoa NZ is most obviously my home; I have a strong physical reaction to the bush and the ocean, my entire family live there, I love it with a fierceness – but oddly I’m most easily at home right now, day-to-day, in Berlin, which is noisy and dirty and unfinished (and gentrifying with wild rapidity) and is also where a couple of the people I love most in the world live.

I like music as a metaphor here; in a Western tonal tradition, we are dragged towards the home key, we know what the resolution is. We yearn for it and feel it in our body when we hear it – and yet we can also distrust its perfection, its cleanness. When we did piano exams as kids they’d play a few bars on the piano and you had to say whether it was a “plagal,” “interrupted,” or “perfect” cadence. I always thought “plagal” meant related to plague; it was infected somehow, imperfect. I think home is all three of these things, perfect, plagal, interrupted. For that matter, so is poetry, making it perhaps the perfect (and plagal, and interrupted) vehicle to carry a sense of home.

 

Paula: I love bringing that trio to both home and poetry. Silence becomes a form of interruption in your poetry; a feature of its exquisite musicality. Occasionally there are long gaps between stanzas like pauses for thought as though the writing process is slow paced. Or the unsaid is paramount. What attracts you to the white space of poetry?

 

The hold I have’s not one I want to lose

though it’s caught in the flick of the clock through this blood

which knows it can’t gulp down tides, can’t tear out time,

needs a rest from the world I have wrinkled

in fingers, questions, musics. I try to teach my breath a new north,

      new east

 

from ‘The Hold I Have’

 

Alice: Poetry is all about gaps, about what’s conjured, what’s beyond definition. I’ve always been fascinated (and occasionally paralysed) by the swirling counterfactual possibilities inherent in all our decisions. In a way this book could be described as an attempt to let our counterfactual existences live: to forge those counter-narratives – our seemingly false futures – into an essential strand of the story.

 

Paula: Oh I love that way of approaching your collection. Such an idea generates all manner of movements. There is the movement between remembering and forgetting, between the adequacy of telling and an inadequacy. Are you plagued with doubt as a writer? With forgetting? Was there a poem that was particularly difficult to write?

 

How today in a haunted town

the rain is patient

and windows promise

to split our faces

How today in a hunting ground

we tell our stories in the only

wayward inadequate way

anyone knows how

 

from ‘How to Forget’

 

 

Alice: I’m plagued with doubt as a person! I am plagued by fears of death and failure and shame. But I believe I need that doubt and fear to push through what’s easy and get to the mystery. So I’m happy to be an anxious, stubborn, stumbling person who takes a long time to finish a book. There’s also a very strange disconnect between the luminous space where you are alone playing words like an instrument, and the bit where you have a book in your hands and you’re supposed to thrust it upon people. The object of the book has such a distant relationship to the luminous space. And the luminous space is why we do what we do.

After my first book came out, I thought every time a book of mine was published I would feel a kind of shame. But it was different with the small book I published in Germany a couple of years ago, and again with Nowhere Nearer. I feel extremely lucky that I can point to this new book and say it’s mine without feeling completely mortified. I can see that people might not like the book, but that’s okay with me. At the moment it’s the best answer I have for how to live in what James Wright called “this scurvy/ And disastrous place.” And I know I write for the luminous space, and what comes after is beyond me.

 

Paula: Did you read any poetry books that stuck with you as you wrote this book? Any other books that stuck or affected your writing?

Alice: Elizabeth Bishop is always somewhere nearby, and she’s the best on that idea of home, too: the line “Should we have stayed at home/ wherever that may be?” appears a simple question, but while keeping this idea of staying home, it also rips away the very notion, questioning whether it exists at all. The title Nowhere Nearer is also a hat-tip to her abstract, geographical book titles: North and South, Geography III, Questions of Travel. She is so skilled at control and the lack of it: her seemingly distant tone tries to control the emotion that she also lets you glimpse.

 

Paula: Are there one or two poems in your collection that have really worked for you? Where the subject matters profoundly and/or the making of the poem just fell into place and it sang for you.

Alice: They’re all songs! An example follows. And I want to say thank you so much for this conversation, which has been lovely — and thank you for the extraordinary amount you do for poetry in Aotearoa. I’m definitely not the only person who is extremely grateful for everything that you’ve done, and continue to do.

 

Born Breathing

 

Because I have never quite caught the moment when you

stand and breathe on top of a mountain in a country where

you were born, and

 

because I have never been trapped in an underground cavern

with a single candle and no water, and

 

because a man I was once in love with just sent me a

photograph from Colorado of a famous man’s baby booties

and his gold death mask,

 

and because he was so gentle I had to push him away,

 

and because because means by cause of, and causes multiply as

a matter of course, and because our arguments come to us like

breath,

 

I am trying to keep the seconds still, in this bed overlooking a

window blasted white by mist

 

while I look on the dark web for a definition of the seconds

after a wisdomflash, where

 

you re-see each tip of tree, each gasping leaf, each scrape of

thin snow, when

 

your naked, foolish self can’t be argued with, and

 

your death mask is, for that second, wiped clean.

 

©Alice Miller, from Nowhere Nearer

 

Auckland University Press page

Liverpool University Press page

Poetry Book Society recommendation

 

Liverpool University Press edition:

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At Jacket 2: Vaughan Rapatahana and Tusiata Avia – poems and conversation

 

 

Full piece here

Vaughan Rapatahana’s interview with Tusiata Avia  – with a generous serving of poems – is unmissable. Here is just one question that got me musing:

 

Would you define yourself as a Kiwi poet having a perspective that is different than the ‘normal’/mainstream (i.e. generally, Pākehā New Zealander) one? If so, how so?

It’s a funny old thing defining myself. Certainly other people: reviewers, academics, and the like define me as different to the mainstream, but in my experience they like to use their pegs to stake me out in a certain shape. It would be disingenuous to say I wasn’t (different to the Pākehā mainstream) but the defining always makes me squirm. I get really uncomfortable with the binary of mainstream and other. I don’t like being other. Or othered.

My good friend Hinemoana Baker once said something along the lines of: I reserve the right to be what ever it is I am feeling at the time. I think she was quoting someone else — but it was in reference to being of mixed heritage. The point being, right at the moment, as I write this I don’t feel like claiming the Pasifika space, the Samoan space, the mixed heritage space or the Kiwi space. As a poet/ writer, there is a much broader space I can move about in.