Category Archives: NZ poetry interview

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf interviews Tayi Tibble

 

 

She kisses him goodbye with her eyes still wet and alight from their

last swim in the Awatere River. At the train station celebration, she

leads the kapa haka but her voice keeps breaking under and over itself

like waves. Like last night, on the riverbank, between the moss and the

baby’s-breath, where he had kissed her sticky until she cried out from

her chest. And she was thinking about the rolls of white fabric her

sister kept in the shed and how she would make a dress pressed with

shiny bits of shell. She could even fix a veil from a fishing net or wear

knots of pale hydrangeas like a crown upon her head. Then together

they would move to the empty plot of ancestral land forgotten by the

sea and have little brown babies that she would make sure to stuff fat

with potatoes and wobbly mutton.

 

from ‘Hoki Mai’

 

 

 

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Photo credit: Curti Angle

 

Tayi Tibble (Te Whānau ā Apanui/Ngāti Porou) completed her MA in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Lettters in 2017, where she was awarded the Adam Foundation Prize. She currently lives in Wellington. Her debut collection, Poūkahangatus, has already and understandably attracted widespread media attention. The poetry is utterly agile on the beam of its making; and take ‘beam’ as you will. There is brightness, daring and sure-footedness. The poems move in distinctive directions: drawing whanau close, respecting a matrilineal bloodline (I adore this!), delving into the dark and reaping the light, cultural time-travelling, with baroque detail and sinewy gaps. The collection charts the engagement of a young, strong woman with her worlds and words  – and the poetic interplay, the sheer joy and magnetism of the writing, is addictive.

 

Tayi and I embarked on a slowly unfolding email conversation over the past month.

 

 

Paula: I am always curious about the books that shaped us when we were children. What did you read as a child? Did you read poetry?

Tayi: As a child I read all sorts but particularly fantasy and young adult fiction. I remember reading a lot of dragon books like Eragon, The Hobbit, The Dragon Riders of Pern, The Narnia Chronicles etc. I also read the hell out of The Jacqueline Wilson books, especially The Girls in Love series. I loved The Sisterhood of The Travelling Pants books and this series called The It Girl Novels, written by ‎Cecily von Ziegesar, who also wrote Gossip Girl. My grandparents also had this collection of, I think they were Reader Digest condensed classic books or something? There was like four titles in one book, all hardback with foiled damask prints on the cover. So I’d read bits of The Grapes of Wrath, Huckleberry Finn, Wuthering Heights etc. I also remember being aware that I read a lot of tabloid magazines a kid, because my Nana would buy all three; Woman’s Day, Women’s Weekly, and New Idea every week.

Poetry I came to in my preteens and early teens. The intermediate that I went to had really great diverse teachers who taught us Hone Tuwhare, and Apirana Taylor poems, and made us write our own. When I started high school was when I started reading poetry; Carol Ann Duffy, Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg, and then also like, Robert Frost, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Tennyson, Lord Byron which we had to do for English, but I was into it.

 

Paula: Ha! I remember reading classics like that on my relation’s bookshelves in the summer holidays. It was like I had a child’s understanding of the Brontë sisters, then years later that of an adult!

What poetry books have affected you in different ways in the last few years? Sometimes you meet the right book at just the right time, with all kinds of reactions.

Tayi: I discovered a lot of great writers during my MA year, last year. I got heavily into Kaveh Akbar, an American-Iranian poet and his chapbook Portrait of an Alcoholic and then Calling a Wolf a Wolf. I also read Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and that was a whole big thing for me, and gave me a sense of permission. Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth by Warsan Shire, both stunned and influenced me greatly. She writes about family, dysfunction, race and religion, with lush imagery – often grounded in the body and always people oriented. I also discovered Cate Marvin, who I think is really brilliant. Her poetry is feminine and feminist and so bold and funny. I especially love her books Fragment of the Head of a Queen Head and Oracle. I think Harmony Holiday is the poet I adore the most. I think her poetry is very stylish. She writes mostly prose-poetry, combining the politics of being black in America with celebrity and pop culture. I think her book Hollywood Forever, is just the coolest thing ever.

And in New Zealand, Courtney Sina Meredith’s Brown Girls In Bright Red Lipstick had a big impact on me. I first discovered her work at Litcrawl in 2015. She was reading from it and I was in the audience wearing a bright red dress and matching bright red lipstick and as she was reading the title poem I felt both entirely seen and see-through. I had similar experiences reading This Paper Boat by Gregory Kan and Chris Tse’s How to Be Dead in a Year of Snakes and He’s So Masc too. Tusiata Avia’s Fale Aitu became a real touchstone text for me too. Reading her poem, White Sunday, always makes my chest tighten, but it always helps me to kind of, get out of my own way and re-align my writing intentions. This might be passé, but that books that affect me the most are the ones that make me feel personally liberated, and inspires a sense of bravery or urgency on the page.

 

Paula: Oh how spooky I was just sitting here gazing at the wind in the manuka imaging organising a poetry reading in Wellington and I was musing upon Chris, Greg and Tusiata (with a few others!) because their poetry electrifies every bit of me: heart, mind, skin, blood. I agree with you. It does come down to bravery and urgency because, and here I am also anxious I sound clichéd, I am drawn to poetry that matters. That makes the world and people and ideas and feelings and the music of words matter.

 

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You dedicate your debut collection to your mother. I am moved by this. What prompted this dedication?

Tayi: That line up would be incredible. Yeah, I love poetry that gives me physical sensations, when words ring in the body—a transfer of energy. Dedicating the book to my mum was such an obvious decision; I can hardly give words to it. On one hand the presence of maternal figures is very prominent in the book, so dedicating the book to my mum made sense thematically, but also rather simply, a dedication is a thank you, and there’s no one I am more thankful for, then my Mum.

I did debate whether it should read ‘For Adrienne’ instead, but I also liked the idea that maybe, someone somewhere might give the book to their mum. Then the book can be for them too, which is pretty geeky, but still nice, I think.

 

Paula: Yes I liked ‘for Mum’ for the same reasons and the way it was a perfect gateway into the women in the book.  I treasure this book for its kaleidoscopic female relations and views of women. Was this a strengthening thing to do? To make women the vital overcurrents and undercurrents of the collection?

 

Our nan wears black leather pumps

and dries wishbones from chicken carcasses

in an empty margarine container on top of the fridge

She’s not my real nan

but I have always wished she was.

I wished I was born with her

blood in my veins, her dark

Waikato DNA, high cheekbones

and heavy wet eyes just like my sister.

 

from ‘Our Nan Lets Us Smoke Inside’

 

Tayi: It was definitely strengthening to do. That’s a really good way to put it. Once I let the women take over, the writing really flowed and I knew pretty early on, that I might be making something quite cool. Having the different generations of women was also a good way to get away from ‘myself’ and prevent the work from becoming super me-centric, while simultaneously supporting my own experiences haha. During the process of writing and imagining the experiences of Māori women in different points in history, I felt as though my own experiences were legitimised, contextualised even. I think their inclusion elevated the kind of storytelling that I wanted to do. I think their inclusion made the themes of colonialism, inequality, intergenerational trauma that I seemed to be circling, feel more integral to work, and also robust. I guess including these maternal figures also just kind of gave me a bit of company and confidence on the page. It felt important to me, and that gave me a lot of drive and motivation.

 

Paula: So much poetry by Māori women is invisible – there is a history of groundbreaking Māori women poets that is not easy to access. That your collection shines a light on your whakapapa, and that te reo is a vital beam on the line, matters. Does this feel personal or political or a mix of both?

 

Smile at the wives who refuse to kiss their ghost-pink cheeks.

Order dessert like pecan pie but never eat it.

Eat two pieces of white bread in the kitchen with the light off.

Slip into an apricot nylon nightgown freshly ordered off the catalogue.

Keep quiet with their husbands’ blue-veined arms corseting their waists.

Remember the appointment they made to get their hair fixed on Lambton Quay.

Think about drowning themselves in the bathtub instead.

Resurface with clean skin, then rinse and repeat.

 

from ‘In the 1960s an Influx of Māori Women’

 

Tayi: It’s definitely both, and largely for the simple fact that politics are personal to me. I’ve experienced politics my whole life. My body, my skin, my hair are all politicised and I can’t divorce myself from that. I don’t want to divorce myself from that either. And the politics wouldn’t be effective at all if they weren’t rooted in the body, in the people, in the day to day experiences and interactions. I think the place where the personal and politics meet is the perfect place for poetry. I think that’s where language can get really interesting.

I can’t really tell if poetry by Māori women is invisible – certainly disproportionately underrepresented in publishing. But I have always actively looked for it, been brought up around it and sought it out for myself, so it’s visible to me. I have also been lucky, for example, to have had Hinemoana Baker for my course-convenor during my undergrad poetry course at the IIML. I also took this really amazing history paper convened by Airini Loader about the history of Māori literacy and you’re right, the history of Māori female poets is astounding and so interesting! I know not everyone has access to education, but I do think that anything can be accessed if you actually want to look. So I don’t know if Māori Female poetry is invisible, but maybe people are wilfully blind, and keep their eyes shut.

 

Paula: I guess I am talking about poets in the 60s and 70s and a time when men hogged the limelight. And when I looked in Puna Wai Kōrero: An anthology of Māori poetry in English, edited by Robert Sullivan and Reina Whatiri, there are great women poets who I would just love to read more from. Jacq Carter for example. Ah so much to say about this!

I love the kaleidoscopic effect of your book; the way it is edgy and dark and full of light. The way it catches living from popular culture to family relations, the way it carries sharp ideas and equally sharp feelings. Do you have any writing taboos? Do you prefer to disguise autobiography or are you happy to get personal?

 

 

Poūkahangatus

 

in 1995 I was born and Walt Disney’s Animated Classic Pocahontas was

released. Have you ever heard a wolf cry to the blue corn moon? Mum has.

I howled when my mother told me Pocahontas was real but went with John

Smith to England and got a disease and died. Representation is important.

 

from ‘Poūkahangatus’

 

 

Tayi: Well, that’s interesting because I’m more reserved than people might think, but I’m also of a generation who grew up oversharing on the internet everyday so I quite often have conflicting feelings about the autobiography in this book lol! There is definitely material in this book that’s sensitive, and I have spent some time worrying about its implications and what assumptions people might make about me. But I also think that self-consciousness can be pretentious and also, yolo who cares it’s not that deep.

So I wouldn’t say that I’m necessarily happy to get personal, but I’m definitely prepared to. This is going to sound really intense but I’d go pretty far and pretty hard for a poem if the poem demands it. I also think I’m properly a really good writer. I trust my taste and my ability to walk a fine line. I trust that I have my own back, and that on a subconscious level, I know what I’m doing. And it’s not like I’m just blabbing about my whole boring life on the page. It might only be a moment that’s autobiographical. I wouldn’t say I disguise the autobiography, but I manipulate it for the poem, and then the poem has its own life and I don’t have to feel so caught up about it.

In terms of writing taboos, my morals are pretty neutral tbh and I don’t even know what a taboo is. I’m pretty curious about a lot of awful things and I’m super non-judgemental. I think I’d probably be a better person if I was a little more judgemental so I’ll work on that, but I passionately hate self-righteousness. I have a strong distaste for crudeness, like toilet humour and gratuitous violence, but that’s more taste than principles.

I do try my best to be ethical when writing about other people or shared experiences and I try to go about it in most respectful way I can. I’d never publish anything that was written from a place of ill-intention because that’s not the vibe I’m trying to throw out into the world. Chris Price said close attention is an act of love, and poetry is all about close attention so I think about that all the time, and use that as my sort of measuring stick.

 

Paula: I love attentiveness in poetry and often reference it in reviews: attentiveness to small details, or the way a poem sounds, or movement, revelation/non-revelation, humanity. Books that both catch and hold you and demand attention. I also like the traffic between attention and an act of love. Interesting. I guess that is happening as I read your book – the poems snag me and demand attention!

 

you know this story because

your grandmother wrote it down

in a brown photo album

she kept poorly hidden

 

from ‘Shame’

 

In an interview you were asked to pick a favourite poem. Tough! Sometimes though the stars align in a poem and it just feels right. The one where lightning strikes. Did you feel that with any? Sometimes a poem hides in the shadows but has intense meaning for the poet. Or was a struggle to get down.  Can you share a couple of quite different relationships you have with poems in the collection?

 

Tayi: My favourite poem is the title poem, ‘Poūkahangatus’. I wrote it as an exercise very early on during my MA year. I thought it was cool and my class was very receptive. It was also my first time experimenting with a different form. Previously I had been writing very concentrated, small poems. I discovered that I loved writing in the longer lines and I got really into prose poetry after that. I didn’t know it at the time, but now I think that essay really changed the direction of my writing. One of the last decisions I made in the manuscript before hand-in, was moving the essay to the front of the book and that really elevated the collection in my opinion. I thought it just perfectly touched on all the themes I was interested in. It acts almost like a foreword. And I still think it’s really fresh even though it’s probably the oldest poem in the book.

 

In the Beginning

The earliest memory to survive the red fog of infancy reveals your great-

grandmother on her bed, cutting the thick peppery plait falling down her

back with a blunt pair of orange-handled scissors. Remember the resistance.

Imagine if the ropes of Māui had snapped and the world had been plunged

back into the womb of darkness. After she died, you found it again, coiled

and paled like the skin of an ancient snake. You held it to your throat,

between her unwanted fur coats, and felt like Cleopatra deciding not to wait

for the Romans.

 

from ‘Poūkahangatus’

 

 

My other favourite poems are Vampires versus Werewolves and Red Blooded Males, just because I think I got the words right. They satisfy me. I also really love Hoki Mai and In the 1960s an Influx of Māori Women because I think they’re beautiful and in service to something bigger than myself. I also adore Black Velvet Mini, LBD and Pania, they’re stylish. Ode to Johnsonville’s Cindy Crawford, I think is really good because it’s so in my own voice, but so much so that it’s almost makes me cringe, like hearing yourself on recording.

 

She plays Hendrix on guitar

at her teen daughter’s party.

She finds a room full of Gregg Araki

cyberspace stoners who recommend

a remedy for her shoulders

the bones softened and sore from the weight

of religious condemnation.

So she gives up the Bible verses.

 

from ‘Black Velvet Mini’

 

Shame was the hardest poem to get on the page and I wanted to cut it quite often because I kept thinking it felt unfinished until I realized that it was just discomfort I was feeling. It’s an uncomfortable poem, but that’s its intended effect. Shame has to feel insidious, and lingering and unfinished because that’s what shame is like.

Receipt is maybe the poem that’s lowkey in the book, but means a lot to me personally. I love the energy, the humour and bizarreness of it. I had a relationship that for a long time afterwards, really annoyed me, but I didn’t know how to articulate it until I wrote this poem and was able to kind of just channel these frustrations about power dynamics and money into this one weird item, the rose-gold bathtub, and then it was funny. I love it’s placement in the book, towards the end. I think it lifts the book a little. I actually dislike the word sassy, but it’s got that kind of energy. To me it’s very much feels like a reclamation and a refusal. It’s the exact opposite of holding your breath or holding your tongue. I’m fond of its tone. It’s a little obnoxious. It’s a little wicked.

 

Paula: Thanks Tayi. I have loved our unfolding conversation. I want to finish with a section from a sequence I loved because in being so surely placed within a scene, a story, I felt the world. And who wants to be immune or numb? The gorgeously paced detail pricked my skin. After that, as a sweet postscript, I am sharing Hinemoana Baker’s fabulous blurb on the back cover. As with Sam Duckor-Jones, I feel like I could reflect on poetry and your book with you for weeks! It is a book of glorious returns.

 

The Ghost

They washed their hands because everyone else was washing their

hands. There were two sawn-off mik bottles and a mossy trough

filled with rainwater. They watched their mother make the shape of

a cross across her chest while the nannies tossed handfuls over their

shoulders, so they copied but with tactful aim, again and again, until

their father got so mad that they were sent to bed with no tea and no

Chocolate Thins for supper. Angry in their sleeping bags, Hera told

them that she had heard from their mean aunty that if they didn’t

wash their hands seriously then the ghosts would come and pull

their eyeballs out, which made Hemi too scared to close his eyes, and

in the middle of the night he woke Hera up with desperate puppy

begging. He asked her soft and whakamā to please take him to the

bathroom and help him wash his hands again, just to be sure.

 

from ‘Tangi in the King Country’

 

Victoria University Press page

Book launch reading via NZ Book Council

Reading picks for NZ Book Council

Poem in Starling

The Spinoff interview

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf in conversation with Sam Duckor-Jones

 

 

In the winter I planted flaxes

& they’ve taken

tall & muscular

now it’s spring

so I sleep naked

& when that suckerpunch

wind comes down

it makes those hard shafts slap

slide like lovers legs in showers

Go step outside go feel it

go stand naked in the flaxes

to get one physical fix

 

from ‘5  … romance’ in ‘People from the Pit Stand Up’

 

 

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Photo credit:  Ebony Lamb

 

Sam Duckor Jones is both a poet and sculptor living in Featherstone. He won the Biggs Poetry Prize from the International Institute of Modern Letters in 2017. Victoria University Press recently released his first collection: People From the Pit Stand Up. I got goosebumps when I saw the book – generous in size, font choice and layout. Sam’s enigmatic black & white cover drawing perfectly fits poetry that floats ideas, syncopates both feelings and hungers, relishes life and never relinquishes the whole business of making art. White space is as gorgeous as the lines that drift and stall, with agility and sweet bite, for both ear and eye. This a poetry collection to enthuse about. As you will see from the photos below, my copy is well thumbed – it has been a perfect diversion in a month of waiting rooms.

 

Sam and I recently embarked upon a slow-paced email conversation.

 

 

Paula: Were you an avid reader as a child? Did you ever read poetry? Or had poetry read to you?

Sam:  I don’t know about avid…I read a lot of Nature books…  or any fiction with an animal: Redwall, Rats of Nimh, Beak of the Moon, Animal Farm.  I was a soft version of smart, smarter than I am now.  We were a bookish house.  Books were just there, like baths or siblings, inevitable, and we all read to each other.  As for poetry, how as-a-child are we talking?  Goodnight Moon, Dr Seuss, I loved them I guess.  Edward Gorey, Terry Jones: dark verse for sensitive boys.  I have other things on my mind besides breasts: / Australia – for example – Australia. / To tell you the truth, I think a great deal about Australia.  Paul Durcan. I might have been a kid when I read that.

 

Paula: Gosh I am getting all nostalgic for those animal books, especially The Rats of NIMH.

 

 

On the plane home                        I sat behind a man who was

reading poems                                & I was also reading poems!

I hoped the flight attendant would notice &         say out loud

something like         hey

 

                                    two people reading poems

 

so that other people might hear & say

 

                                                                        My heart’s aflutter!

 

 

from ‘Nudes on Loan’

 

I love the scene on a plane, in ’Nudes on Loan’, where the speaker in the poem is reading poetry. Poetry readers sometimes feel like an endangered species but then you see the turnout at readings, get feedback from readers or spot someone with a poetry book in hand.

If you were to pen a short biography of yourself, from a poetry book that made an early impression to a more recent astonishment, what books would feature?

 

Sam: I wrote poems before I read poems, I think.  Freely as a kid, gloomily as a teenager, and then with relative *wisdom* as an adult, which can be problematic.

There are poems and poets that have made impressions, from Paul Durcan’s moment with breasts/Australia to John Dickson’s moment with a slaughterman/Australia.  Really though, I am a lover of picture books, usually ones with a poetic sensibility, probably.

So who do I treasure the most, for the longest?  Shel Silverstein: Different Dances.  We called it the Rude Book, and it was.  Kept on the top shelf out of reach, but we’d climb on top of an armchair, get it down, thumb wide eyed through pages of pen and ink penises being thrown like javelins, spectacular.  And this from the same gentle man who brought us The Giving Tree!  A revelation!  To inhabit both worlds so easily, fearlessly.  That’s a poetry of a kind.  William Steig’s The Amazing Bone I adore for it’s unhurried absurdity: ….the warm air touched her so tenderly, she could almost feel herself changing into a flower.  Her light dress felt like petals.  “I love everything,” she heard herself say.  Gushy!  And then of course she makes friends with a talking bone who, after rescuing her from a creep abductor, goes on to become a part of the family.  I mean, why not?  Adults sometimes forget to be playful.

These books keep me connected to some essential childhood dreaminess, loose and unquestioned, important to channel when putting down one’s own lines.  Maurice Sendak with Ruth Krauss:  All I want is / sugar off a button Or this, from A Girl at a Party: …her face was beautiful. / Her dress was beautiful. / Her feet were beautiful. / Everybody said, “How beautiful!” / And she was rich too. / But the other girls at the party didn’t care / because they all had warm bathrobes.  Maybe this is where my taste for repetition began.  Later, just before I turned to face poetry front on, I read Schoolmaster by Yevtushenko, another gorgeous exercise in repetition: The window gives onto the white trees. / The master looks out of it at the trees, / for a long time, he looks for a long time / out through the window at the trees, / breaking his chalk slowly in one hand … Snow falling on him softly through silence / turns him to white under the white trees. / He whitens into white like the trees. / A little longer will make him so white / we shall no longer be able to see him in the whitened trees.  

Then for a while I went in for broody American male fiction: Hemmingway, Salinger, Cheever, Carver.  They’re still among my favourites.  In fact I think they’re most front of my mind when I sit down to write.  Funny then, that what comes out are poems about birds, art, gay love.

Eventually, cos I was writing poetry, I figured I better read some poetry.  Jenny Bornholdt: And when the nice young woman tells the young man he has left his / parking lights on we are overjoyed with the drama of it all, crane / our necks, follow him down the road with our eyes, want to clap a / little, say     what grace     what style. (from Bus Stop)  Around the same time, a poem by Edward Field about a man crying on a train (from A Journey): He hid his head behind a newspaper / No longer able to hold back the sobs, and willed his eyes / To follow the rational weavings of the seat fabric. / He didn’t do anything violent as he had imagined. / He cried for a long time, but when he finally quieted down / A place in him that had been closed like a fist was open, / And at the end of the ride he stood up and got off that train: / And through the streets and in all the places he lived later on / He walked, himself at last, a man among men, / With such radiance that everyone looked up and wondered.  Hmm, if I was employed as his editor I’d suggest cutting ‘man among men’, (who do I think I am!!!?) but otherwise this poem devastates me in all good ways.

Then one day Frank O’Hara popped up (from Meditation in an Emergency): … I am the least difficult of men.  All I want is boundless love. / Even the trees understand me!  Good heavens, I lie under them, too, don’t I?  I’m just / like a pile of leaves.  These lines became an amulet that I carry always, hold up to the light now and then.  Other gays like David Trinidad, his pop obsessions making legit poem fodder, inspired.  And the elegant decrepitude of Geoff Cochrane.  In a way he’s taken up the space where those boozy American heavyweights sat.  And Geoff C lives in Wellington, so perhaps he’s more appropriate.  I still like a sloshy dated American, but I get my fix now from, hmm, Anne Sexton…  I tried Bukowski for a while but soon became exhausted.  England doesn’t interest me, except for wicked old Ted Hughes.  I know there are new young things making important searing poetry all over town, but I’m a slow reader ok?  I did read this line from Chris Tse, clutched my pearls and sighed loudly in the kitchen:

‘It’s a toy for girls’, its makers said / like how some boys are for girls / and the rest fall into beds with each other (from Still – the boys)

In the mean time I’ll continue to read A Sign on Rosie’s Door aloud to prospective boyfriends.

 

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Paula: I read in your bio you are both sculptor and poet. I was really struck by how sculpting is a thematic current in the poetry. A long central poem, ‘Blood Work’, explores the way man (men) is (are) shaped from clay and I was reminded of Christina Beer’s poetry collection, this fig tree has no thorns published in 1974. She is both poet and sculptor with words and clay, and at that point in time, was shaping woman when women were finding voice. Her book felt deeply personal and completely outside what all the visible men were doing.

 

 

 

but who needs sport anyway

in order to compete

go stand in a room full of artists

bet the round

when nerves will be shattered

& it’s physical        too

to wield the tools

to make an eight-foot man

to make him look like he’d sweat

 

 

 

from ‘…muscles’ in ‘Blood Work’

 

 

How important was the book as a partner to clay? As a way of shaping man? Yourself?

 

Sam: For this book, important, but:

Clay is my safe space.  And safe….is a cop-out.  Writing poems is daunting and bare.  Writing poems that share the same breath as clay feels…..less fledgling, feels manageable.  Clay as poetic training wheel, steadying hand, mentor.  Also: love, but everyone does that.  …..Post book, I would like to look less internally.  Cos I think I’m fairly spent.  I think I’m fairly desp to start looking outwards.  It’s probably time to let my pursuits become independent.  I’m bored of write-what-you-know.

Impossible! To the 2nd and 3rd parts of your question: it’s gonna be an ongoing engagement.  Sexuality, intimacy, I want to understand it & I just want it, but it scares me & I run from it.  There are loads of writers and artists exploring such things… #solidarity.  But I’m a #loner by default, bit blue, bit obsessive & cos I’m not rich enough for a therapist, I will continue to work things out on the page & in the studio.  I’m braver in clay and in print.  One day I’ll go check out Pride.  Pride terrifies the shit outta me.  Even though my house, my work, my aspirations are camp as all hell x o x

 

Paula: Perhaps that was what gripped me on one level: the sharp edge of heart, exposure, exploration. On the other hand I get caught in the gorgeous lyricism. I jotted down ‘radio static of the world, of life’. It is as though the poems catch fragments of things and there are gaps in hearing and seeing.

 

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(third image: from ‘Blood Work’)

 

The white space is magnificent – both for eye and ear. I am thinking these are like broken poems, like stutters and offbeat moments, but there are such delicious currents flowing through. The space becomes the silent beat, the important beat that resonates and connects. Could say so much about this but what about you? Why is the white space such a necessary element in the poems?

Sam: I’m pleased you like the white spaces.  And you’ve pretty much described to a T my intentions with them!  Breath, rhythm, pace, music ……at school, when my classmates were crying beautifully over Kurt Cobain, I was melting in a corner to Satie.  I was an eleven year old secret dandy and a scaredy-cat to boot.  But when I heard Debussy’s famous quote that music is the space between the notes, that was like a powerful permission slip to go soak in hesitations, a silent beat is still a beat.  It means that when you do pack words in, you get to be really really loud.  Dynamics          etcetera…..  It’s how we talk, right?  Plus, it’s sculptural.   Spaces as fingerprints, workings, like a gestural painting or wax sculpture – I like to see the artists hand.  The spaces keep that searching/looking-around/wondering alive on the page.  It offers a sort of transparency or malleability.

Have you ever seen ancient Hebrew?  There are no vowels!  It can be daunting. But there are other sound clues in the text.  Some words are stretc—————ched across half a column (that might just be to fill a line, but I imagine a ritardando).  Some letters have little crowns to denote a trill or appoggiatura.  It’s quite beautiful to look at and when people read it, they can choose to sing.

 

Paula: Yes! the vowels in languages are fascinating! When I speak Italian it feels like I am constantly rhyming.

Some poets say once they pick up pen or keyboard a poem just flows while others speak of doubt and struggle. Did you have a poem that was particularly difficult to get down or one that just slipped out near perfect?

 

Sam: I picked up a copy of The Fig Tree Has Thorns this morning – I love how she turns round recurring sounds and lines like a chant…it really does feel like wedging clay.  And how she tires of herself, but can’t quite see a way around the mirror.  The repetition, the loose dreamy autobiographic meanderings, childlike/primordial/a sort of hacking, damp creation.  Thanks for the suggestion!

To your question:  I think I’m alright at beginning poems.  I think I can begin a dozen poems without too much fuss.  I think finishing poems in another story.  I think this might be true for many people.  Maybe bunching poems together into sequences is a sneaky way around having to tie anything up much…  You will have noticed that I have a lot of sequences.  Sometimes though, sure, a poem does just slide right out fully formed, hello!  Life Model might be an example of that.  There are others that still feel bruised from all the deep tissue manipulation required to keep them alive…. Poems I could have worked on forever.  Someone else had to just say stop.  I’m too ashamed to point these out.  Perhaps you can still spot a tremor? A restlessness? Or make out their soft skeletons?  I suppose there is a kind of thrill to reading a poem that is barely holding on…..like it was taken to print just in time oh my god.  Adds to the dynamism and hand-built element.  Robust adaptability of the flawed.  Bullshit?  Maybe. Talking about its scaffolding is hard, I just blank and blather, I will never be an English teacher.

A writer I really admire is Ken Bolton.  His verse is sometimes raggy and fragmented.  How much should a writer fiddle with such things in post?  Maybe sometimes not too much.  I like his unrefined spread…. It’s rough and classy, like a five o’clock shadow.

 

Paula: I am glad you managed to find a copy of Cristina’s book! I have tried editing a poem as I read it in public because it has suddenly felt unbearably flawed. Madness! Then there are the poems that stay in the hedge groves of a collection and that I have never shared in public. I seem to grow fond of these.

I am reading and conversing with Tayi Tibble at the same time as I am reading you! And both books demand second readings, not because they are hard to make sense of but because, as I said on Twitter, electrifyingly good. Both collections are multi-toned and surprising and utterly original.

I move from your slithering sizzle of spring detail in ‘Daffodil Day’ to ‘Two Ways of Going to Sleep’ which it practical, poetic and downright funny. I will try this: ‘Think about the seaweed/ & how nobody works harder than the seaweed/ Seaweed tosses out its hair   gathers it up in a towel   tosses it out again’. ‘Years Passed, Just Like That’ offers poetry as dialogue; keen edged and utterly human.  The longer sequences, such as ‘People from the Pit Stand Up’ and ‘Blood Work’ are sumptuous labyrinths of self exposure, attentiveness and an eye/I that casts about in multiple surprising directions. For the reader there are a thousand ways through and I love that!

 

I was wondering what these poems sound like when you read them aloud? Is this important? How do you read the white space? And whether you introduce them with little anecdotes? (can’t make the launch!) Are there a couple of poems where knowing the origin might fascinate the audience?

Sam: I think if the origin is fascinating enough, it will probably be there in the poem! But yep sometimes some context might be required, like if one poem is being lifted from a sequence. I’m getting better at banter. I guess for a reading I’d look to choose a poem that can stand fairly competently on its own.

I love to read aloud. Reading a poem aloud I feel like the truest, most fully realised version of myself and I feel like the poem is living in its purest form then, too. The white space is the muscle shimmer, the little energy shock: breathing, sighing, shifting of weight. And the word is the miracle that follows.

Tayi Tibble is so powerful, I am in awe of her wise and confident, glittering song. I am very proud to have had my book launched alongside such a talent.

 

text message

see you tomorrow

sun-kissed          kissed

generally     &

quite happy in the end

saw two dotterels at

Whatipu

don’t want to get

married anyway

 

Paula: Thanks Sam – this was an absolute pleasure, especially at our snail’s pace. And I got  to hear you read, courtesy of NZBC (see below).

 

 

Sam’s website

Victoria University Press page

Book launch reading via NZ Book Council

 

 

 

 

 

Jacket 2: Vaughan Rapatahana in conversation with Bob Orr

 

Full piece and a few poems here

 

Bob Orr has been a well-regarded New Zealand poet for several decades, having eight collections of poetry produced to date, with a new collection due out soon. He is also rather different to so many ‘modern’ poets, in that he has always paddled his own poetic waka (or canoe) in and through his own currents. Oaring across his own ocean, if you will.

Bob never completed any tertiary education. He never attended any  university ‘creative writing’ classes in an endeavour to craft his poetry ‘better.’ Up until very recently, when he was the 2017 University of Waikato Writer in Residence, he eschewed any applications for literary grants. He rarely, if ever, uses a computer to write with or on — he doesn’t even have an email address. Indeed, he continues to write with an old style ribbon-fed typewriter. Bob Orr is a bit of a Luddite — all of which ensures that his stream of poetry flows deep from his heart and mind and is never obfuscated by the trends, tropes, and trivialities of the latest poetic fad. Like another key New Zealand poet, Sam Hunt, Bob Orr has always remained a people’s poet, by which I mean, a writer who keeps it simple, who never overreaches into pretentiousness and amorphous cleverdickism.

 

Better Off Read: Pip Adam in conversation with Helen Heath

 

 

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Wonderful conversation, wonderful book, plus the joys of reading Fleur Adcock.

‘This episode I caught up with poet, essayist and teacher Helen Heath. Helen recently published an astounding collection of poetry which poses the question Are Friends Electric? We got together to talk about Fleur Adcock’s poem ‘Gas’, first published in her 1971 collection High Tide in the Garden and it’s also available in Fleur Adcock Poems 1960-2000, and Helen’s exciting new book.’

Listen here

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf in conversation with Majella Cullinane

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Majella Cullinane, originally from Ireland, has lived in New Zealand since 2008. She graduated with an MLitt in Creative Writing from St Andrew’s University in Scotland and her debut collection was published by Salmon Poetry in Ireland. She has received a number of awards including the Robert Burns Fellowship at Otago University and the 2017 Caselberg International Prize for Poetry. She is currently a PhD candidate at the Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies at Otago University. She lives in Port Chalmers.

Otago University Press has just released Majella’s second collection, Whisper of a Crow’s Wing. It is a terrific read that furnishes a sumptuous bridge between homes, contemplations and experience – with luminous detail, undercurrents and themes. To celebrate the book’s arrival, we embarked on a slowly unfolding email conversation.

 

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The conversation

 

I too find myself in a bedroom now, the reflection of myself in the window,

only the line of my torso, my arms in a white woollen jumper.

Below me the neighbour’s house; behind that a tree stripped by winter.

I am neither idle nor riveted by my eyes, but at this moment

the letters race to catch each other across the space; the sound

in my ears is the piano keys and the slow stretch of bows against strings.

It is the day before the shortest day of the year.

The sky is grey; it has started to rain.

 

from ‘Winter Solstice’

 

 

Paula: The first line of the first poem, ‘Winter Solstice’, stalled me: ‘In the dark I cannot say what the day begins with.’ Is this how it is writing a poem at times? You are writing into the light from the dark? Or the exact opposite?

Majella: I think what I meant is more practical in that I hadn’t opened the curtains. The opening line of my poem is specifically a response or answer to Kinsella’s poem (epigraph) which begins:

The day dawns, with scent of must and rain… (Kinsella)

and I’m saying/opening with:

In the dark I cannot say what the day begins with…(Me) 

 

Paula: Yes! I love the way you set up a conversation. The line is a perfect entrance into the poem itself but, as I stalled on it, I began to think about all the different ways to come to writing a poem. I love the way poetry can sidetrack you and then return you to the heart of a poem. My thinking got quite twisty because I was thinking I write into both dark and light when I begin a poem, always with jolts of surprise as the words hit the page. How is it for you when you write a poem?

Majella: How I come to write a poem varies widely. Generally I tend to let ideas and images simmer or gestate for quite a while first, or I might write a line or two and leave it and then return later. I’m a great believer in free-writing or writing down the page and letting words spill out unhindered, unedited.  I suppose it’s my way of discovering what the poem is about and what it is I want to say. I need to write my way in.  If something is not quite working I often like to move stanzas around. At some point I think there is, as you describe, a kind of jolt of surprise when you see that the poem is taking shape and you know what it’s trying to say.  Rarely, and it’s like a beautiful gift, I will get a poem fully formed, one that doesn’t need too much tweaking. But this is very rare. It is the craft and close attention to each word that I really love about poetry, the way poetry has this magical way of making you stop and notice the seemingly small things in life. Also because I also write fiction I think poetry allows me to access the stiller, more reflective side of my personality.

 

 

III

I watch the slow tide one late February day,

stare into the grey whiteness of sky,

marvelling at the vagary of clouds.

If they could unshackle themselves,

I’d parcel them up with the mountains,

the inlets, the sea,

paint them on canvas,

carry them home under the nook of my arm.

 

from ‘Broad Bay’

 

 

Paula: Simmering and gestating are like the invisible threads of a poem. Stillness along with slow contemplation is such a captivating feature of your poetry. I am also drawn to the sumptuous detail in your poems: pungent, sharp, intriguing, scene building. I am always intrigued by the way details work and the various places it leads me as reader. What does detail do for you in your poems?

Majella: An attention to detail mostly helps me to reconnect with memory and place, and thereby conjure imagery associated with a particular time and place. It also enables me to explore language, and hopefully enrich the essence of a particular poem. The curiosity engendered by specificity or detail also allows me to discover new things. For example, I’m fascinated by NZ flora and fauna which is so specific and unique to this country, and am interested in connecting that uniqueness, which may be taken for granted if you grew up here, to my own experience of being an outsider/immigrant and to my sense of place in the world. Perhaps it is my attempt to root or anchor myself in familiar and unfamiliar landscapes, and for the present and past to coexist and play with or against each other.

 

Paula: Is there one poem where the detail particularly works for you?

 

We’re not there yet, but there are hints: in the pink-red clasp of sorrel,

the cicada easing a pitch lower, shedding its voice. The wind

changing direction like the act of entering a room and forgetting

what it is you came for. The sky tinged in blue-lavender,

spools of cloud whipping over the hills like wounds.

 

from ‘Finale to the Season’

 

 

Majella: I think most of my poems use detail to attempt what I discussed above. ‘Finale to the Season’ juxtaposes details from my past and present to explore the contrasting seasons –  New Zealand’s early autumn, with the reference to the cicada and the grey warbler in the southern hemisphere and in the Northern hemisphere early spring with ‘crows stalking frozen trees’ and also the memory of my parent’s house where my sister and I shared ‘our own narrow bed’. The contrast of the first and third stanza, between the here and there is suspended for a moment, or at least hinted at when I write ‘the season’s murmurings are breached.’ Perhaps what I’m trying to achieve here, at least imaginatively, is that the past and present converge somehow and it is through imagery and connection with place that a momentary connection is possible.

 

The birch collar box lying in the centre of his suitcase the day he had left.

And you wondered about it, whether or not it had been returned;

if he had ever worn such a neat, rigid, clean thing, knee deep in rain and mud,

with the boom of the guns deafening, the smell of the kitchen,

the stove’s heart miles away.

 

from ‘Op Shop, 1985’

 

Paula: Yes – I was really struck by the way some of the poems arc between here and there, New Zealand and Ireland. I was quite moved by them. Another poem that struck me was ‘Op Shop, 1985’. Rather than place, this poem animates people. Do you ever feel poems are a way of anchoring place and people when you have attachments in both hemispheres? Poetry is a way of being at home?

Majella: Absolutely. I’ve lived in New Zealand since 2008 and to be honest it took me a while to settle in. Although there are many similarities between NZ and Ireland there are many differences, and not just with the flora and fauna, which is the most obvious thing but culturally too of course. I am now a dual citizen of Ireland and New Zealand and feel very much at ‘home’ in both countries. I think a big part of that settling-in period, and eventual ease with having a foot in each hemisphere so to speak, was achieved by exploring my feeling and experience through poetry, and the realisation that it’s not one place that necessarily makes a home but rather the people that, as you suggest, animate it whether they be living or dead.

 

Paula: Do you still touch base with Irish poetry?

Majella: Very much so.  There’s a lot going on in Ireland in terms of poetry and fiction at the moment. Favourite Irish and Northern Irish poets include Vona Groarke, Michael Longley, Kerry Hardy, Sinead Morrissey, Eavan Boland just to name a few. But my reading is pretty wide. I also love Scottish and American poetry.

 

Paula: I got to hear Vona at AWF a few years ago. She is so good, and I have loved books by Sinead and Eavan. I also love the way Eavan writes about poetry. I will have to track down the other two! What about New Zealand poets? Are there any that you have really engaged with?

Majella: Rhian Gallagher, Emma Neale and Sue Wootton for their lyrical intensity, striking imagery and attention to form and craft.

 

Paula: Musicality is such a feature of their poetry, both on the page and when they perform. Do you write for the page or is reading aloud equally important? An early New Zealand poet, Eileen Duggan, with familial links back in Ireland, was shaped by Irish song. Not so much individual songs but the love of song, of women singing.  Has Irish singing influenced your poems?

Majella: I read everything I write aloud, both poetry and fiction. Sound is so essential when writing poetry so that each draft I write I’m reading and re-reading it as I go. As for Irish song, I wouldn’t say I’m influenced by Irish singing but I do listen to music while I’m writing/drafting mainly classical music and I love soundtracks. Mind you having said that I do love Irish ballads: Siúil a Rún, She Moved Through the Fair, Raglan Road, etc. so maybe I’ve been influenced subliminally. I certainly used to sing a lot as a young child and had singing and piano lessons. I’ve often said if I didn’t write I probably would have gone into music.

 

You called just after eight. I could hear the longing in your voice

as raw as the air two days earlier when the hills were dusted with snow

and temperatures plummeted. We wrapped your grandson in layers

vest, long johns, hat and gloves. I stayed in and cleaned, found traces of myself

in drawers and cupboards, in scraps of paper and old notebooks, piled

laundry on the bed and folded it.

 

from ‘Compline’

 

Paula: For me the joy of your collection lies in the multiple subjects that depend upon musicality and contemplative movement. The poems engage so intricately with people and place, but there is an emotional undercurrent that also hooks me. I love ‘Compline’, the poem for your mother that catches the ache of distance. There are the tender mother observations in ‘You Say’ and ‘The Little Boy That Got Away’.

In some poems, grief is measured and utterly moving – as in ‘There But For’. I am drawn into the width and depth of being human in your poems. How important is it to write as both mother and daughter? To write the tough experience along with the jubilant and the wonder?

 

Majella: Well, when I first started writing I was a little hesitant to use the personal in poetry, which is why I wrote quite a few dramatic monologues, especially in the first collection. It is a form I still love as it allows me to explore another I and perhaps connect with the latent thespian in me. There’s quite a gap between the first and second collections. In a way that gap mirrors the experience of being both here and there, of becoming a mother in New Zealand, and consequently knowing what it is to be a mother, and how my own mother feels about distance, especially as I’ve been coming and going from Ireland since I was twenty and haven’t lived there since 2004.

Regarding writing about the tough, or difficult in life, well, the older I get I find I need to write about all aspects of being human as you suggest.  Even in the most difficult situations I have encountered, there is, if I look hard enough, and slow enough, a little wonder and hope to be found. I’m reminded of that phrase, the darkest hour is just before dawn. 

 

Paula: Can you pick one poem to post at the end? My collections often have poems that particular matter to me. Do you have one like this?

Majella: One poem that particularly matters to me would be Feather, inspired by Dickinson’s Hope Is The Thing With Feathers.  The idea that until we ‘know’ we can always hope, and even when what is hoped for is not possible we can still feel it to be real somehow – through the power of the imagination.

 

 

Feather                

If only everyday was as simple as listening to birds, their small voices

plucking the grey-blue morning, emboldened on this first day of spring.

We too might dare to hope that what has long been desired is not so far away.

Let’s suppose it is here already, as real as this room’s radiator

switching itself on and off; the thermostat of our longing unhindered

by a dial of hours. Rather it exists in a kind of elsewhere,

or takes form in the wanderer who crosses bridges and borders

without restraint. Better to loosen the tangle of our rough wishes,

of the could-have-beens and might-have-beens and know we had it all,

just for a moment. Beneath the clamour of sounds –

logging trucks rattle to and fro from the port, a dog barks at the passersby.

A friend writes a message, subvoce – imagine, imagine,

and the bird that sheds a feather without knowing,

is the one we might chance upon, pick up and carry home

 

©Majella Cullinane Whisper of a Crow’s Wing

 

 

Otago University Press page

 

 

 

 

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A Radio NZ National poetry interview: Megan Whelan and Tayi Tibble

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This is electrifyingly good! The book is out in July.  So in the meantime:

 

 

 

 

 

Victoria University Press page

Tayi’s Anzac Day poem at The SpinOff

Kaleidoscopes‘ at Starling

‘For a cigarette and a blanket‘ at The Wireless

Identity Politics’ at Poetry Foundation