Category Archives: NZ poetry interview

Poetry Shelf interviews Elizabeth Smither: ‘ I think poetry in many ways is a dare’

 

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Elizabeth Smither with Rusty and Sneaky

 

 

 

‘The Labradors have made nests already

simply by lying in the long grass

sucking the green into their bodies’

 

from ‘Lying in the long grass between two black Labradors’ in Night Horse

 

 

I recently read through the alluring stretch of Elizabeth Smither’s poetry; from Here Come the Clouds published in 1975, to the new collection, Night Horse, just released by Auckland University Press. I was drawn into melodious lines, pocket anecdotes, bright images and enviable movement. Harry Ricketts talked about the transformative quality of Elizabeth’s poems in an interview with Kathryn Ryan, and I agree. As you follow reading paths from the opening line, there is always  some form of transformation. The poetry, from debut until now, is meditative, andante, beautiful.

Elizabeth Smither has written 18 collections of poetry, five novels, five short story collections, journals, essays and reviews. She was New Zealand’s Poet Laureate (2001-3), was awarded the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry in 2008, the same year she received an Hon D. Litt from Auckland University. She has appeared widely at festivals and her work has been published in Australia, USA and UK.

To celebrate Night Horse (Auckland University Press, 2017), Elizabeth agreed to answer a few questions.

 

‘You can run as fast as Atalanta

who bowled three apples at her suitors

Double Red Delicious’

 

from ‘An apple tree for Ruby’ in Night Horse

 

What sparked your imagination as a child? Was reading a main attraction or did you also write? Did particular books endure?

Reading and writing. I liked to say long sentences to myself as I walked. The first thing I can remember writing about was my pet New Zealand White rabbit. All the usual books of the period: Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, A Girl of the Limberlost  which I found faintly terrifying. I can see these are the precursors of George Eliot and Jane Austen. As a teenager I had a crush on French writers: Colette, Gide, Mauriac, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Simenon. My father was a great novel reader and he impressed on me the sacrifices made by writers like Charles Dickens. I was scared of Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop and never got past the page on which he appeared.

 

‘The cats are out by the letterboxes

at the ends of long driveways

waiting to see how the night will shape itself.’

 

from ‘Cat night’ in Night Horse

 

Your debut poetry collection, Here Come the Clouds, appeared in 1975, your eighteenth volume, Night Horse, was published in June this year. I see the same poetic attentiveness and ability to assemble detail that both stalls and surprises the reader. Do you see any changes in the way your write poems, or what you bring to poems, over the past decades?

Elizabeth Caffin wrote of an assured voice but I am unaware of it. I think it is more a question of a philosophy: Keats being lost in the leaves of a tree; being most ourselves when we are unconscious of what the self is; not feeling we are the centre of the universe but one of its parts. It is also a balancing act: the outside world meeting the interior; the sad existing alongside the pleasing, our mixed motives and our inability to ever know more than a fraction. In compensation we have the lovely leap of the imagination. I think poetry in many ways is a dare.

 

Have any poets or books affected or boosted your poetic directions?

Wallace Stevens was a huge discovery. I used to spend a year reading a major poet. Stevens, Roethke, Berryman, Plath, Sexton, Bishop, Lowell, Synder, The Beats, Black Mountain. Now I am less of a swot and read wherever I please. And when I am tired and jaded I re-read Hercule Poirot.

 

‘More moon tonight. 14 per cent  bigger

and closer to the earth. The whole sky

seems to leap to greet a visitor.’

 

from ‘Perigee moon’ in Night Horse

 

 

In 1975, very few women poets were getting published in New Zealand. Did you feel you were writing within a community of poets? Men or women? Was it difficult to get your first book out?

Part community, part social movement: Greer, Friedan, Steinem, Kedgley, Mead. The United Women’s Convention. We were all swallowing American poets at that time, looking for a freer way forward. My first book I owe to Sam Hunt who was visiting and found a folder of poems he gave to Alister Taylor. After Alister came McIndoe and then AUP.

 

‘Fast the pulse of the music, every beat

clear as a little stream running over stones’

 

from ‘At the ballet’ in Night Horse

 

Your new collection is a delight to read and offers so many poetic treats. I was thinking as I read that your poems are like little jackets that can be worn inside out and outside in. In stillness there is movement and in movement there is stillness; in musicality there is plainness and in plainness there is musicality. In the strange there is the ordinary and in the ordinary there is the strange. What do you like your poems to do?

I want them to do everything. Everything at once. I want them to feel and think (and feel the thinking in them as you read). I want them to be quick, in the old sense of the word: the opposite of dead. I want them to not know something and try to find it out – I would never write a poem with prior knowledge – I think ignorance can be bliss or at least start the motor. And as I write more I find out more and more about musicality. Isn’t one of the loveliest moments in music when harmony breaks through discord as though it is earned and you know that discord, instead of being a thicket or a dark wood, is part of it?

 

 

‘Down their sleeves (his jacket, her blouse)

run currents the early evening stars detect

and whose meaning is held in great museums’

 

from ‘Holding hands’ in Night Horse

 

I love that idea! What attracts you in the poetry of others?

Boldness, form (the pressure of it), language as clear as it can be, given the difficulty or otherwise of the content, not being self-centred, engaging the reader. Visceral was the quality Allen Curnow looked for when I had the temerity to leave a poem in his letterbox. ‘I poked it with a stick and it was alive.’ James Brown does it in ‘Flying Fuck’ (‘The Spinoff, June 9, 2017); Stephen Romer in some lines about cleaning a barn (‘Carcanet Eletter: Set Thy Love in Order)

            ‘Perhaps in our cool northern air

you rose some echelons

being lighter, the barn empty’

 

while Carol Ann Duffy excoriates Theresa May with lines that reach back to the roots of poetry:

‘The furious young

ran towards her through fields of wheat.’

 

 

‘Morals that are so pure they blaze

the sunlight back into the air’

 

from ‘A landscape of shining of leaves’ in Night Horse

 

Janet Frame worked hard to get the rhythm right in her poems and she wasn’t always satisfied (ah, the rogue self-doubt! I adore her musical effects). I find you are able to slow down the pace of your poems so that I linger as reader upon an image, a word, an anecdote, a side-thought to see what surfaces. Does this reflect your process as a writer?

I think, since I write in longhand, it may echo the pauses during composition.

 

Do you, like Janet and countless other poets, have poetry anxieties?

Just the big anxiety, the generalised one. To be better, to get closer, to go deeper, knowing that a rigorous equation awaits. I particularly felt this in ballet: any advance, even within the safety of a spotlight, opened a further and equivalent unknown. My other anxiety is that, having embarked on a poem at speed and decided on a stanza form, the stanzas won’t add up when I have finished.

 

‘Eggs in foil were hidden everywhere

until the taste of sweetness palled.

She sits in an armchair with her bear’

 

from ‘Ruby and fruit’ in Night Horse

 

Your poetry does not slip into a self-confession or grant a window on your most private life, yet it acts as an autobiographical record of your relations with the world, people, animals and objects. How do you see the relationship between autobiography and your poems?

Some of the recent autobiographical poems remind me a little of Elgar’s ‘Enigma Variations’. Ruminating portraits of friends or events illustrating a friend. The ‘Enigma Variations’ are tender but well-defined, different in tone. Autobiography, to me, has many hazards. We all excuse ourselves and even the most honest and analytic among us favour some perspectives over others. I feel confident that something of ourselves always gets in and reveals more than we can imagine. ‘Am I in this poem?’ has never worried me. I know I am.

 

Are there taboo areas?

No, never. It’s just a case of what you can handle.

 

 

‘It was all those unseen moments we do not see

the best of a friend, the best of a mother

competent and gracious in her solitude’

 

from ‘My mother’s house’ in Night Horse

 

‘Later you’ll scrub individual stains

from the white field: the rim of someone’s glass

down which a red droplet ran, a smear

of eggy quiche, a buttered crumb.’

 

from ‘The tablecloth’ in Night Horse

 

I especially love the ongoing friendship and granddaughter poems, but I particularly love the first poem, ‘My mother’s house.’ Kate Camp and I heard you read this at the National Library’s Circle of Laureates  and were so moved and uplifted that we asked for copies! Unseen, you are observing your mother move through the house from the street (you gave us this introduction) and see her in shifting lights. The moment is extraordinary; are we are at our truest self when we are not observed? There is the characteristic Smither movement through the poem, slow and attentive, to the point of tilt or surprise. The final lines reverberate and alter the pitch of looking: ‘but she who made it/who would soon walk into the last room/of her life and go to sleep in it.’  Do you have a poem or two in the collection that particularly resonate with you?

I’m fond of ‘The tablecloth’ after I observed my friend, Clay, scrubbing at a corner of a white damask tablecloth in the laundry after a dinner party. It reminded me of the old-fashioned way of washing linen in a river. It’s both a doll-sized tablecloth and something almost as large as the tablecloth for a royal banquet around which staff walk, measuring the placement of cutlery and the distance between each chair. ‘Ukulele for a dying child’ tumbles all over itself in an incoherent manner because the subject is so serious and no poet can do it justice. The grandmother poems will probably be ongoing because it is such an intense experience: something between a hovering angel and a lioness. Going back to your remark about ‘My mother’s house’ I agree with the truth that is available in our unobserved moments. Perhaps there is a balance between our social and our private moments which might comprise something Keats called ‘soul-making’.

 

‘Next morning she was called again

to undo the work of her marvellous wrists.

“Miss Bowerman, can you let out the water?”‘

 

from ‘Miss Bowerman and the hot water bottles’ in Night Horse

 

There is no formula for an ending but I often get an intake of breath, a tiny heart skip when I read your poems. What do you like endings to do?

The endings I like best have some extravagance in them, like the ending of ‘Cat Night’ where the road which still retains the day’s warmth turns into carriages and cocottes on the Champs-Elysées.

 

‘Let the street lights mark

the great promenade down which love will come

like black carriages on the Champs-Elysées.’

 

There’s a big difference between the size of a cat and a carriage but the emotion is the same.

 

 

Which New Zealand poets have you read in the past year or so that have struck or stuck?

Diana Bridge, Claire Orchard, John Dennison, yourself in New York, Michael Harlow, Geoff Cochrane and all the laureates.

 

Or from elsewhere?

Lots of Australians. I’ve just read Rosemary Dobson’s Collected Poems.

 

Do you read widely in other genres?

Yes, I particularly like hybrid forms – travelogues that turn into miniature poetry collections, diaries, memoirs that admit to no rules as if they understand the psychology of the reader who is liable to become bored, and also the limits of being an author. My main love remains the novel, followed closely by the short story and the detective story.

 

I was once asked to pick a single New Zealand poem I love to talk about on Summer Noelle. What poem would you pick?

Since Allen Curnow: Simply by Sailing in a New Direction, a biography by Terry Sturm, edited by Linda Cassells and Allen Curnow: Collected Poems, edited by Elizabeth Caffin and Terry Sturm are being published by AUP later this year, and since our pohutukawa are threatened by myrtle rust, I would pick ‘Spectacular Blossom’.

 

‘ – Can anyone choose

And call it beauty? – The victims

Are always beautiful.’

 

 

 

Auckland University Press Night Horse page and author page

Booksellers review by Emma Shi

Radio NZ National review by Harry Ricketts with Kathryn Ryan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf interviews Ian Wedde: ‘writing – or thinking about writing – poetry really is a tremendous pleasure’

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With Donna in Berlin, New Year 2013/14.

 

You have to start somewhere

in these morose times,

a clearing in a forest say,

filled with golden shafts of sunlight

and skirmishes. A little later

your itinerary will take you past

weathered churches on plains that stretch

as far as the eye can see.

 

from ‘The lifeguard’ in The Lifeguard (2013) and Selected Poems

 

To celebrate the arrival of Selected Poems (Auckland University Press, 2017), Ian Wedde agreed to talk about poetry with me.
Born in Blenheim (a twin of Dave) in October 1946, Ian has lived in Bangladesh, England, Jordan, France, Germany, now lives in Auckland with his wife Donna Malane, a screen-writer and novelist, they have five children and five grandchildren, has published seven novels and sixteen collections of poetry as well as books of essays and assorted art books and catalogues. Most recent book is Selected Poems (AUP, 2017) with marvellous art work by John Reynolds. New Zealand poet laureate 2011-12, Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement (poetry) 2014.

 

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Cover and internal art work: John Reynolds

 

The Interview

PG: Did poetry feature in your childhood? What activities delighted you as a young boy?

IW: There wasn’t a lot of poetry in my childhood, though my father chanting John Masefield’s ‘Cargoes’ as he rowed across Waikawa Bay in the Marlborough Sounds was memorable – the rhythm was right but the words were deeply weird to me, which was what I liked.

 

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,

Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,

With a cargo of ivory,

And apes and peacocks,

Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

 

PG: What were some key influences when you first started writing?

IW: A link between the deeply lost-in-it world of reading stories and the hypnotic secret ecstasy of writing things, or trying to. Also the fascination of not understanding either what I was reading sometimes (I happened on Browning’s ‘Sordello’ by accident) or why writing was so mesmerising. Also Kipling, because of the poems associated with the Jungle Books, which I was addicted to.

 

PG: Or at university?

IW: At university I was obsessive about getting my hands on contemporary American poetry after or off the shoulder of the great modernists – post Pound-and-Eliot if you like. Post-Beats, for that matter. William Carlos Williams above all, though of course Spring and All and Kora in Hell were published in the 1920s – but those early books like Spring and All and Kora in Hell incorporated prose and poetry, they seemed to be experimental and interesting in ways that the accredited modernist masters were not. I loved Williams’ humanity and love of sparrows and weedstalks, but also the marvellous delicacy of thought that articulated his lines. Robert Creeley was important, his frugal counterpoint; Denise Levertov’s makeover of the exhausted lyric; Gary Snyder’s ecological ethic that made for a new kind of eclogue; Frank O’Hara’s urbane vernacular and before long Ted Berrigan, especially Berrigan’s Sonnets. John Ashbery’s ‘The Tennis Court Oath’ amazed me. Also French poets, but always sheeting back to Rimbaud. Pablo Neruda in bulk, his marvellous relish for the sensuous world and its political demands on our responsibilities. Elizabeth Bishop’s The Complete Poems. John Wieners because he broke so many rules without showing off.

 

I study my son’s face, to treasure it.

Each day (now, & now) it’s changed & I’ve lost

what I love, loved.

from ‘Paradiso Terrestre’ in Earthly Sonnets for Carlos (1975) and Selected Poems

 

PG: The birth of your first son prompted Earthly: Sonnets for Carlos. While some New Zealand men have written fatherhood poems (notably Graham Lindsay) I cannot think of another extended sequence such as yours. The prolonged contemplation allows greater complexity when facing what might at first seem unsayable – the miracle of a new-born baby. Did your son’s arrival throw your relationship with writing in the air?

IW: I usually threw my infant son in the air. It was a time of wonder. I also walked around with him quite a lot at night, those rhythms shaped how I thought and how the poems moved.

 

PG: What draws you to the longer sequence?

IW: A disinclination to get to the point in timely fashion or to admit there is one worth ending with. There are dear friends whose conversations and phonecalls I love because they do go on. Mostly I like giving in to the drifts and swerves of language that takes me to places I can’t get to by intention. A tendency rapidly to lose interest in the self-centred, anecdotal lyric in which a certain kind of modesty often strikes me as sham.

 

PG: Have other things elbowed your writing—refreshed, transformed, derailed, sent askew in good ways, sparking in new directions? A book or theory or idea or chance encounter or unexpected experience?

IW: Probably art more than anything, and music. The ways in which our perceptions of phenomena trigger thought I find fascinating and seductive. I’m an easy weeper – I’ve been known to sniffle during the opening credits of movies just because it’s so amazing that we can do this stuff. I love art in its many guises because at its best it can be so capable of subversion – of subverting representation as mimesis, subverting personal testament, or markers of class and taste – and because at its worst it can be all those things, and boring to boot, especially as cultural capital. Music perhaps because it’s just off the camber of what language does in poetry, unless of course we’re talking about poets as song-writers, that fabulous ancient lineage. During the time I spent in Jordan in 1969-70 the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish and others was a revelation – how it had a vast, loyal, politically disenfranchised radio audience of Palestinians and at the same time reached deeply into classical histories, reached the audiences of the Egyptian singer Oum Kalsoum and spoke to intellectuals such as Edward Said.

 

(..) If trees &

suchlike don’t tell on me I understand

my son will & soon, too. His new blue eyes

see everything. Soon he’ll learn to see

less. O the whole great foundation is sand.

But the drought has broken today, this rain!

pecks neat holes in the world’s salty fabu-

less diamond-backed carapace & doubt comes

out, a swampy stink of old terrapin.

What shall I say? ‘I hid nothing from you,

but from myself. that I dream, little one,

 

from ‘for Rose’ in Earthly Sonnets for Carlos (1975) and Selected Poems

 

PG: For me Sonnets for Carlos is a collection imbued with love deep within the roots of the line. Yet when I regard the expanse of your writing across the decades, love seems to be an active ingredient whether it is for the dead poet Horace, blistered peppers on the hot plate, the beauty of a city street, family or the wide stretch of home. Do you agree? What do you see as active ingredients that have endured?

 

Late autumn’s good up around

The neighbourhood mountain’s misty flank in the morning

When the piss-trail of the morning’s promenade’s fresh

And even an old dog can still feel

The sac of earth trembling under his running feet.

 

from ‘5.4 To Mount Victoria’ in The Commonplace Odes (2001) and Selected Poems

 

IW: ‘Love’ is an easy word to utter and an even easier one to claim. Looking at what’s in this new book of selected poems, what I think I see repeated quite often is a claim that I ‘love’ the commonplace world – William Carlos Williams’ world of sparrows and weedstalks, if you like. I love appetite and enjoyment and relish and so the preparation of meals and so forth. I love thought that has a vigorous appetite, that enjoys tasty discussion. But I think you have to love this kind of ‘love’ knowing it comes at a cost, that grief or anger are its stalkers. I think there’s quite a lot of anger and frustration in my poems.

 

PG: In your introduction, ‘Enjoyment,’ you talk about the joy of writing poetry. That feeling must be contagious because in my view your poetry is a joy to read. For some writers, writing is a dark and painful process while for others it is energising. Do you also have patches like these? Do you have writing patterns, routines or rituals?

IW: For me writing – or thinking about writing – poetry really is a tremendous pleasure, at once a kind of rapture or abeyance of self, and a complete deployment of the self’s capacities. I’d never describe it as painful, though it can be tough when the critical phase kicks in and you realise that your rapture has generated a steaming heap. But then there’s a certain pleasure in consigning the pile of shit to its bucket. Much of what I write starts with walking around with a little notebook, and in a sense nothing in the notebook is ever wasted, even if what happens to it ends up getting chucked.

 

PG: You refer to the pleasure generated when ‘a poem veers off, carried along by a momentum that’s not quite mine, towards a direction neither I, nor the poem’s reader, is anticipating.’ There is a sense of writing into the unknown, but could you conversely say you write into into the known in unpredictable ways?

IW: No, I’m really talking about how my let’s call it ‘overarching concept’ can be highjacked by language itself – I go along with that, in a sense, and try to keep a very light hand on the tiller (as in that mixed metaphor).

 

PG: I am thinking, for example, of The Commonplace Odes and Three Regrets and a Hymn to Beauty where home infuses the poems in searing physical detail along with home-nourished states of mind. I rate these two books in my handful of sublime New Zealand reading experiences ( I am thinking too of the way your books have been long-term, book mentors along with those of Michele Leggott, Bill Manhire, Bernadette Hall, Cilla McQueen). The language is pitch perfect but it is that glorious tension between the known and the unknown that elevates me—along with the roving intellect and the physical beacons. I am reminded of Kafka’s yearning to read books that, like an axe, cut through the frozen sea within us. Do you have a book in your oeuvre that has particularly worked for you?

IW: Do you mean books I’ve read? I think there have been lots of them, over time. Perhaps the one that keeps on being non-negotiable is Rimbaud’s Oeuvres complètes (Gallimard, 1972) and subsequent translations, including those by Samuel Beckett, John Ashbery and Jeremy Harding, among others. Rimbaud’s pronouncements in May 1871 at the age of seventeen in letters to Georges Izambard and Paul Demeny that ‘I is somebody else’ (Je est un autre) remains for me one of the most potent codes with which to approach the way in which the poet (at seventeen) can become a ‘drunken boat’ that morphs into the child the poet was ten years earlier, playing with his toy boat on a pond, and finally the ship that swims under the frightful gaze of the prison hulks that incarcerated the Communard prisoners of 1871 that were the seventeen year old Rimbaud’s heroes. But if you mean one of my own books that I think has come close to that kind of sorcery, then pass.

 

Beauty

you’re the trouble I’m in

because there’s a lot of sweetness in my life

with that rude kind of magnificence

as when they hung Le Bateau upside down,

unusually animated and sparkling.

Happy birthday Montgomery Clift:

where did I see this guy – in Red River

or From Here to Eternity?

Accept and you become whole

bend and you straighten.

 

from ‘A hymn to beauty: days of a year’ in Three Regrets and a Hymn to Beauty (2005) and Selected Poems

 

PG: The allure of language in its slippery elusive glory, its ability to make music and bear all manner of freight, is a potent force for the poet. When a poem succeeds for you, or comes close, what is language doing? Do you have a poem or two that continue to resonate at the level of language? For me, there is an ongoing musicality, an enviable musicality, that provides shifting keys harmonies and chords.

IW: I think any poem that’s worth reading ‘resonates at the level of language’, which is to say the language doesn’t just do what it’s told to, rather it subverts or distracts the task of making itself understood. ‘Musicality’ in the language of poems can be a distraction or, at worst, an indulgence, an invitation to the categorisation ‘poetic’. I like the idea of meaning-chords as riffs, vertical rather than linear.

 

(..) the lovely world has everything I need,

It has my kids, my sweetheart, my friends, it has a new book

With mouth-watering risotto recipes in it,

The kind of plump rice you might have relished,

Horace, in the Sabine noon, yellowed with saffron.

‘The zen poet’ is another of you, he wrote a poem

About making stew in the desert which changed my life.

A good cookbook is as good as a book of poems

Any day, because it can’t be any more pretentious

Than the produce you savour with friends as night falls.

 

from ‘1.2 To the cookbook’ in The Commonplace Odes (2005) and Selected Poems

 

PG: In ‘To the cookbook,’ we read that ‘A good cookbook is as good as a book of poems.’ Women have long been denigrated for domestic traces in their writing. I take issue with this on so many levels. Food, including the cooking of food, adds a sensual zest, like finely judged salt and pepper, to your poetry, and indeed opens fascinating windows upon relations between food, life and writing. How do these connections work for you? Are you offended if I describe some of your poems as mouth-watering?

IW: Not in the least offended. It’s a compliment, thank you. And then, Neruda’s ‘Ode to Tomatoes’ is one of the most slyly political poems ever written, as is Gary Snyder’s ‘How to Make Stew in the Pinacate Desert’.

 

PG: The word subversion crops up in your introduction. You relish subverting expectations of what language ought to or can do. Do you see other subversions at work?

IW: I try to subvert myself, not always with much success.

 

PG: The Selected Poems underlines how important your reading life is and how it has sustained and infiltrated your writing life. Name three books from any time or any place that have mattered deeply.

IW: Geoff Park’s Nga Uruora: The Groves of Life; May Gibbs, The Complete Adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie; Ovid, Metamorphoses.

 

PG: Name three New Zealand poetry books that have resonated with you.

IW: Nga Moteatea (4 vols.); R.A.K. Mason, Collected Poems; take your pick of poets who are also song-writers, we have some great ones: Hinemoana Baker, Teremoana Rapley, Bill Manhire, Dominic Hoey known as Tourettes, the Dam Native crew, lots more in this country.

 

PG: Have you been attracted or influenced by any poetry movements? Or conversely repelled?

IW: Constantly.

 

If I wanted to translate

silence I would have to be

deaf, to remember silence

I would have to recognise

its opposite, for instance

singing, a miracle, not

too much to ask I hope, and

why wouldn’t I hope, why not?

 

from ‘Shadow stands up’ in The Lifeguard (2013) and Selected Poems

 

PG: In your introduction you suggest it is over to the reader to make sense of the way your writing has changed—over to us to decipher the recurring motifs and predilections, the side steps, the shifts in attention and concerns. Time and age are under the spotlight right from the start, in the first poem addressed to Matisse. Just one question then. Do you feel you have greater freedom at 70 when you pick up your writing pen?

IW: I have less compunction about putting the pen down and going for a walk. With or without my notebook.

 

Henri Emile Benoît Matisse je vous salue!

Let me tell you a secret.

Your work goes on.

I’d only seen your things in art books

bite sized. I dreamed there was a bright room

in my head somewhere

which you were making real stroke

by counterpointed stroke

& where I would some day retire

to an armchair in the corner:

the final element of a composition

that perfectly described itself.

 

from ‘Homage to Matisse’ in Homage to Matisse (1971) and Selected Poems

 

Auckland University Press page

Radio NZ review

Herald piece with Greg Fleming

Discussed in Anna Jackson’s essay on the Epistle Poem

 

 

 

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Poetry Shelf interviews Jeffrey Paparoa Holman: ‘the poetry of witness is necessary still’

 

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Preparing for death is a wicker basket.

Elderly women know the road.

 

from ‘Memoir II’ Blood Ties

 

To celebrate the arrival of two new poetry books—Blood Ties: New and Selected Poems 1963 – 2016 (Canterbury University Press, 2017) and Dylan Junkie (Mākaro Press, 2017) —Jeffrey Paparoa Holman agreed to answer some questions for Poetry Shelf.

 

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Jeffrey Paparoa Holman was born in London in 1947. He writes poetry, memoir and history. His most recent works are The Lost Pilot: a memoir (Penguin, 2013); Blood Ties: New and Selected Poems 1963-2016 (Canterbury University Press, 2017); Dylan Junkie, a collection of His Bobness fanboy poems (Mākaro Press) is released in May 2017.

 

Pantograph Punch review of Blood Ties by Vaughan Rapatahana

Two Poems at The SpinOff

Radio interview

Dylan Junkie will be launched in Wellington at 4pm Sunday 21st May as part of the 2017 Hoopla Series

Mākaro Press page

Canterbury University Press page

 

The Interview:

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PG: Name a poetry book you have read in the past year or so that has really inspired you.

JPH:  I think Tusiata Avia’s Fale Aitu/Spirit House is the book of the past year for a myriad of reasons and you’d have to create a special category for Hera Lindsay Bird’s eponymous dark horse sensation – but I’d give my heart to The Collected Poems of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell. Trying to review the book for Landfall reminded me that no-one can really capture a life in letters that spanned such width and such depth; in his generation, he was the Pasifika pou in a house of words held up for Māori by Hone Tuwhare, and for Pākehā by James K Baxter.

 

 

Squid-fat chicks in the baleful wind hunker

and wait, outwitting winter on Taiaroa’s

broad back.

 

from ‘Toroa feeding – Tairoa Heads’ Blood Ties

 

PG: Your poetry is musical, thoughtful, sustained by deep attachments and thematically active. What matters when you write a poem?

JPH: I don’t know if I can answer that easily, as many poems that speak to me come from a wide compass; whatever hits me when one of mine is coming might depend on mood, or some conviction, an itch or good old fashioned heartache. I do have to restrain myself sometimes from getting overtaken by insistent metrics (some would say not enough), but I am affected by music. I think poetry is embodied, it’s physical to me. On my own at home, sometimes I’ll play a Dylan track and make my own kind of dance moves.  There’s a poem in my latest book from Mākaro, Dylan Junkie where I’m riffing on his World Gone Wrong album from 1993, when I was still in London and he was seen wandering unannounced around Camden, mere blocks away from where I lived. In the series of poems that take biographical snapshots in the first part of the book, that moment in his life and mine is remembered with me dancing around our council flat, “croaking away to those Akai speakers/with blood in my eyes for you”.

I guess that’s an example of a deep attachment to a man whose music and songs, whose poetry, kicked me off in 1964; then the mining town of Blackball where I heard songs like Only a Pawn in Their Game is another deep strata for me, the bookish boy in a tough, outdoor workingman’s world where women did it hard to just to survive, like my mother and her friends.  I got a lot of my songbook from the request sessions on 3YZ (no TV, thank God!) and my politics just from living in that consciousness, of a history of struggle to get fair conditions in a dangerous world underground.

We had a Hospital Request on Sunday morning, in the days when there were no private rest homes and the old people’s homes were attached to the four West Coast hospitals. Many of the oldies were Scots, Irish and English, born elsewhere in the 1880s and the 1890s, so we got lots of longing for lost homelands, melancholy ballads and such like. I was schooled in true nostalgia, meaning “the pain of exile”. And we were an immigrant family too, though I hardly realised it at the time.

It’s all down there somewhere when I write, like the Irish song, Galway Bay: “So the strangers came and tried to teach us their ways/And they scorned us just for being what we are…”. The women gathering potatoes in the song, “speak language that the strangers do not know”, I was hearing the bitterness of the Cromwellian history, the seizing of Ireland by the English and the cruel history of colonisation that followed. The Coast was a sectarian domain, the Catholics, the Protestants, the Communists and all.

I suppose today I’m a bit of a throwback.  I hate it when I hear ingrates who have no idea of where we come from, forget the sacrifices my parental and grandparental generations made to get kids like me a house, a hospital, a school, a job and three square meals. That’s the root of a lot of my thinking and it comes out in some of the poems, true – but I’m a broken human too, I can do love, loss and laughter. One of the things that got to me about John Key was how he – a Bryndwr state house kid like me, at one time – fashioned his story as a kind of rags to riches, self-made man, yet seemed happy to watch the culture that sheltered him degrade. For me now, it seems like the reverse: from enough security for all to ensure social cohesion back then, to now, every one for themselves, insecurity, inequality and selfies all round. I guess that makes me a political writer in many ways, but not all.

 

memory is

the braille of buildings

threading the labyrinth

 

from ‘Memory is a place’ Blood Ties

 

 

PG: I am drawn to the shifting musical effects in your poetry. Which poets catch your ear?

JPH: You’d have to find Baxter and Hone Tuwhare in there for sure, and later on, Jack Gilbert, who all get a nod in Blood Ties, the new selected. Back in the ’70s when I was starting off, I was reading Lowell and cummings, studying Eliot and Pound, falling in love with Neruda and Vallejo, very few women poets then I confess, Emily Dickinson and a nodding acquaintance with Sylvia Plath, overshadowed by Ted Hughes. We had a small group of writers and actors in Christchurch in 1973 and we did public readings in the new Town Hall and out at Teachers’ College. I got to love the idea that page and stage could work together; I always test what’s written with reading, as the poems come on in the making.

I heard Baxter read here the year he died, outside the old UCSA at the town site, early ’72. He was a prophet. I think I picked up the sermonising aspect of some readings I heard and never liked it. I wanted a kind of handmade vernacular, you know, what I found ten years later in Raymond Carver. Poems that were poems that didn’t look like poems, but when you read them aloud, they came alive. Hearing the Czech poet Miroslav Holub read in London in 1991 blew me away: a second language speaker of English, the accents of his Czech made the surreal poems he articulated with some effort simply transfixing, like you were being marinated in a thick black coffee soundscape.

I’m well aware now that what is merely personal “soon rots, it must be packed in ice and salt”, as Yeats told us – but that’s more than just technique he’s talking about, that’s a soundprint of the self the poet has got down somehow, whether it’s Jenny Bornholdt’s subtleties or Glenn Colquhuon’s list variations. Anyone who has heard David Eggleton read has got the whole package: intelligence with invisible guitars, a scalpel for a baton.

There’s always been something ineffable in the English translations of Osip Mandelstam that makes me sad I have no Russian; but he’s always in my heart, since I was pointed his way in 1971 by my American mentor and friend, the late David Walker. “What has held out against oxidation/and adulteration, burns like feminine silver,/ and quiet labour silvers the iron plough/and the poet’s voice.”   353, Voronezh (1937), trs. Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin. I have no way of knowing what it cost this man and his devoted wife and editor, Nadezhda (who memorised his entire body of work to save it for the future), to survive as long as they did as internal exiles in the midst of Stalin’s purges. His poetry has remained with me ever since my first readings, a tutelary angel of courage and brilliance.

 

 

Knit me back together

when time stops to roar

for eternity and everywhere

is water and all is an ear –

resurrect me in the rain.

 

from ‘ Resurrect me in the rain’ Blood Ties

 

 

PG: Your new Selected Poems is arranged in thematic clusters rather than chronologically. What factors were important in collating the book? What difficulties did you face?

JPH: The collection has a history of changes. I roughed out the idea in early 2012 with the working title, My Culture is my Songbook – which is still an implication in what we have now. Then in my time in Iowa at the IWP later that year, I worked up a draft list of poems from the previous collections and some published elsewhere, some unpublished. I also wrote an essay to preface the collection, which hasn’t survived.

One publisher looked at that iteration in the following year and kindly declined; another in 2014 said maybe it was a bit early for me to be doing a selected. Nil desperandum: I was busy with The Lost Pilot, my Japan kamikaze memoir at the time, so probably wasn’t as focussed as I needed to be. But I had an idea, and was happy to wait. I gave the collection a new title (Paparoa Hotel) and shelved it. Working with John Pule and Catherine Montgomery of Canterbury University Press in 2013 for the re-issue of his great poem, The Bond of Time gave me the impetus to approach her in the following year and see if she was interested in looking at the manuscript.

Once Catherine agreed, I had another look, dropped the essay, gave it a new title and winnowed some, added a few others. Her reader came back to us with a positive report but suggested the thematic structure instead of chronology alone as a guide. She also felt that given the amount of darkness in much of the subject matter, ending on some of the more intimate and tender works might be helpful. I thought about this and decided, why not?

That left me to decide where the pieces fitted into which jigsaws, which wasn’t that difficult and resulted in poems from different collections now sitting side by side. The aeroplane poems selected from Fly Boy now found themselves in the opening section on childhood, Only Yesterday; the bird poems from the same 2010 book sat much later with the love poems near the book’s end, in Lovers and Feathers. Ancestors of the flesh and those of the written word rub shoulders: we see my terrified grandmother watching V-1 flying bombs streaking overhead, while on the next page, a salute to the composer and onetime Spitfire pilot John Ritchie takes off in Old Flyers, then a page or two on, an elegy on the death of Hone Tuwhare.

So it goes: the mining poems in Old King Coal, the poetry of wounding in Traumata Dreaming and Other Tongues where work on Māori language and history sits alongside a lament to dead kamikaze and their families. This will work for some and not for others, as the times of composition are necessarily out of joint (the editors did suggest dating the poems in the Acknowledgements, so it is possible to get a timeline, if one is bothered).

 

 

I do not want another father: old man, now

dead, cancer faded

and swelled you, speechless at the door, yellow

feathered fingers.

 

from ‘Father and son’ Blood Ties

 

I lost him the first time

before I could grasp

who he was, what he did, where

he fitted with her

 

from ‘As big as a father’ Blood Ties

 

 

PG: Do you think your poetry has changed over the course of time?

JPH: I can see it has changed even more so than was obvious before, now we have this group to ponder. Just take one set of poems for example: my father and his war. I’ve been aware that my elegy for Dad, ‘Father and Son,’ written in 1973 in the year following his death was echoed in many respects by what seems to have become a signature poem, 1993’s ‘As Big as a Father,’ written in London twenty years later.

The early poem has little in the way of formal structure, held together by the force of feeling and a linked set of images: starving children and cancer patients, the RSA and the bottle of port, the toilet flushing, the doctor leaving after pronouncing sentence. As Big as a Father, two decades later, grief having subsided into regret and amputation, falls back onto form and metaphor: my father is a lost ship that finally sinks when torpedoed by death itself. The stanzas are regular and repeat, the conceit playing variations on the four times loss of a father, each descending tercet ending with “father”.

Yet none of this was consciously planned, any more than was the early poem; it all arose from an idea of the impossibility of losing anything as big as a capital ship (I was musing on the expression, “one of our battleships is missing”). Yes, so how could you lose anything as big as a father?  The thought just slid across my bows. The poem ran from there. It seems that the less apparently personal of the two elegies, the more distanced one, has the greater power to reach others who know what is being spoken of here.

Two later poems – ‘Father war, 2012’ and ‘Wall, 2013’ – are similarly distanced and even more stripped down, unplugged. Father war eschews musicality for a series of jabs to the body, like a boxer hitting over and over in the region of the heart, to demonstrate the brutal ongoing effect of PTSD, kicking survivors of combat when they are down, returned home, but never free of the invisible wounds. Wall, the poem just stares into the abyss of addiction, alcohol, gambling and invisibility.

On this subject at least – warriors and their wounds – I can clearly see changes. I’m more confident now to have a go, try something, a ballad if one is called for, or something more playful like ‘The Writing Teacher.’ I’ve been reading Max Sebald’s poetry: given his sense of history and landscape, both regarding us from their buried secrets, I’ve written some work in imitation.

 

(iii)

the fieldfares

of Norfolk

flock on autumn

stubble, on the old

airfields

 

from ‘After Sebald’

 

It helps to know that the great German novelist – a migrant, to England in the 1960s – lived and died in Norfolk, teaching for many years at the University of East Anglia. He was a frequent walker and wanderer; he would often have seen this large migratory thrush, the fieldfare, wintering over in Norfolk on the flint speckled fields after harvest. The area was the home of other migratory birds: the bombers of the 8th Air Force in World War Two and their crews, American airmen who came to bomb Sebald’s Germany where he was born in the midst of their raids in 1944. So yes, I am aiming now at a little more indirection, suggestion, aware the world is writing me as much as the reverse.

 

It’s not every day you can find a guide

to show you around a working graveyard.

 

from ‘Inferno (Strongman Mine 1967)’ Blood Ties

 

PG: The title is particularly resonant. How important are blood ties as you write? Do they go beyond the familial?

JPH: The title as I mentioned earlier came late and so is retrospective. I think I was looking for something that caught the feel of what was gathered, but it was pretty instinctive. The poems in the book do relate stories of whakapapa, some of blood, others of influence. I can feel some kind of familial connection to writers who connect with me, many of them dead of course, others I’ll never meet.

There are also a number of poems that come out of the connections my family has with war and survival: my father, mother and grandmother especially, but also the poems about mining disasters and that community where I grew up. Relationship as in a shared culture: to me they are ties of blood, as much as those of immediate family members.  Noel Prescott, one of my classmates at high school died in the Strongman Mine disaster in 1967, he was 19 years old.

I went to the 50th anniversary of Strongman in Greymouth and up at the mine site itself, earlier this year. Pike River hung over the whole three days, but nobody mentioned it publicly, as if that would take away from the solemnity of this gathering. Pike is so raw still, seven years on in November. This is where my heart is, down in the roots of childhood and adolescence where blood ties equal whakapapa to me.

We had a West Coast launch for the book after Christchurch, in the Bonzai Café in Greymouth a few weeks ago; again, I had family there and miners as well. Two of the people who were the last to leave were a father and son: Les Neilson, retired miner – son of my old neighbour in Blackball, Les senior – and Kirk, his son, a fourth- generation miner. Les had worked in Strongman after the explosion and was one of those who closed it down in 1993. Kirk is working for Solid Energy, closing Pike River. These men know about blood ties and coal; I was honoured they came for the poetry that night.

 

PG: I like the design of the book with the left-hand side generally blank. Tell me about the design choices.

JPH: I should pay tribute here to the staff of CUP, the reader and my editor, Emma Neale who saw all this through, as well Aaron Beehre and Gemma Banks who designed and printed the book at Ilam Press, based in the University’s School of Fine Arts. They made this format work with their outstanding production values: it is a beautiful artefact, like all the books they make. The reproduction of John Madden’s painting from Karekare on the cover is a crowning glory for me; he too is a West Coast coal miner’s son.

They do this special thing with one page poems getting a whole sheet to themselves; poems that run over do get printed on both sides, but it means a fatter than average poetry book. It’s on art paper too, and then you have section inserts in another colour and the titles picked out in red: classy. The title on the cover is strip overlaid by hand, all finished off with the folding flap.

It makes me feel privileged to have this workmanship where I’ve chosen the poems I think I want to remain behind me when I’m gone. It’s like a waka huia, those intricately carved treasure boxes where Māori kept the precious feathers of rank. I deliberately included my earliest published poem and a couple of juvenilia, because this is my life: the production here is a joy to me. He tino taonga te pukapuka nei!

 

The last time I lost him

I lost him for good:

the night and the day

the breath he was breathing

 

and death’s head torpedoes

blew out of the water

the skiff of my father.

 

from ‘As big as a father’ Blood Ties

 

 

PG: The father poems are so beautifully textured, both emotionally and musically. What are the difficulties and what were the joys in writing of your father?

JPH: People might rightly observe that I’ve made a career out of mining my father’s and my relationship, but you have to play what’s in front of you. In some ways, I had little choice, as we were so entangled. I spoke a bit earlier about how my writing him changed over time; as for emotions, I guess I felt cheated by his early death and our all our unresolved stuff. I know I’m not alone here.

I’m writing this on Anzac Day and I was down at the Dawn Service in Cranmer Square this morning (where in early 1973 I’d stood up and read a poem of James K Baxter’s in the memorial service held there for him). I know I was grieving my Dad’s death and my broken marriage too that day, reading ‘He Waiata Mō Te Kare,’ Baxter’s love poem to Jacqui Sturm.

This morning, watching the sailors march in with the other armed forces, singing The Sailors’ Hymn, “Eternal Father, strong to save,/ Whose arm has bound the restless wave…”, I was touched by his memory again, through the metrics of the hymnody and those bloody uniforms! I cried a bit: not even I’m sure, just for him but like in a poem I read years ago and forgot the writer, “we weep for our strangeness”.

I’m a writer, it’s what I am and what I do, however well, however badly and so if I need to address somebody or something that’s got to me deep down, I have to find a language for it. I might forget the odd name these days, but I don’t forget people, the ones in my life that have touched me. Dad is top of the list, mostly because he was there but not there, always, like I write him in the poem Father war, “gone but not gone/back but half cocked/alone and alone/the war for a self”.

It makes me cry when I think of how alone he was, addicted to alcohol and adrenaline, how I have come to understand him a little more now, inheriting his tendencies to run on chemicals (I have long since sought help, but he never did). The dead are just the dead at first, our parents who disappear, but over time they become stories we tell to keep them alive and finally, they’re mythical beings. Poverty, depression, war, migration, addiction, it’s a God-given epic, isn’t it? It would be churlish not to sing about my parents’ lives and times, to refuse the gift.

 

After the tremor the neighbour

after the terror the stranger

after the stranger the doctor

after the doctor the soldier

after the soldier the looter

after the looter the vulture

 

from ‘After the tremor’ Blood Ties

 

 

PG: Your earthquake poems are also very affecting to read. I was pondering over the way catastrophe can either freeze or impel writers. How did the quakes affect your writing?

JPH:  Well, the quakes were affecting, that’s for sure, but I guess it doesn’t follow writing about them will be. Your observation about catastrophe having the power to “freeze or impel” is very true – of everything, not just writing. You get the adrenaline to react, the fight-or-flight booster, but it’s how you use it, I think (well, in the moment at least).

I know some people freeze so hard they can’t think; so far, I’ve managed in the aftermath to stay focused, but I wonder if that’s partly because as you age, your system is slower anyway? I learned to put my shoes on before blundering around a darkened house (broken glass); to photograph everything right away, for insurance purposes; to text loved ones (and by extension, in a series of quakes, keep your phone charged).

Lots of learned experience, yes, but when it comes to writing about it, I was slow to do anything much, really. I wrote one poem about our cat disappearing, which The Press published shortly after the September event; that ended up opening what became Shaken Down 6.3. The title tells you that the book really begins after the deadly 22 February quake in 2011 that killed 185 people, including my dear friend and neighbour, Tetaki Tairakena, an English teacher killed in the CTV building collapse with many of his Asian students.

That year I’d been awarded a University of Waikato Writing Fellowship, so I spent much of it coming and going, including a trip to Japan in April in the course of writing The Lost Pilot memoir. I managed to come home regularly and caught many of the major shakes, including the February killer and a bad one in June. We were all PTS, shaken up and burned out over that year, including for many of us, our broken impoverished sleep.

That was how the poems arrived, in the middle of my wakeful nights in Hamilton. I’d wake at one, two or three in the morning and it was hard to go back to sleep. My vestigial childhood hyper-vigilance, formed in response to my father’s late night home-from-the-pub rages woke up again: I’d be on the alert automatically, ready to run if another shake came.

 

how can I find

my way through myself

with the past torn down

 

the road of dreams

with my compass

smashed

 

from ‘Memory is place’ Blood Ties

 

Your brain doesn’t care if you’re in another city, another country – this is what we’ve come to call in Christchurch “quake brain”. As I woke and lay there, sometimes a line would come, a half-conscious thought, as in the poem, ‘Memory is place.’ I’d be in my deep mind somewhere and words would come to match a stumbling thought, like how with the city half destroyed and broken down, we didn’t know where we were anymore. It was disorienting to feel you no longer knew your own city, or knew where you stood.

Some of the poems came as broken pieces (when all you) or chants and incantations (after the tremor), and for most, they were night birds, except for the three I wrote in Japan reflecting their experience of tsunami horrors in Fukushima, back in March. In some ways, the book is like reportage, written under pressure in one year and published the next; the use of photographs was a choice there too, giving readers visual information, along with a reflection, an essay that ends the book.

Jim Norcliffe, one of our kaumātua in the poetry scene here for years was at the time poetry editor of The Press and he tells of how he was inundated with up to a thousand poems by Christchurch citizens, over the next year or so. It seems that when the chips were down and we wanted to tell each other what it felt like, a poem was the weapon of choice. I used to say that we all, with our quake stories were now characters in a giant multi-faceted novel, never to be quite finished, authored by Papatūānuku herself.

 

 

I found no trace of your vital signs.

I stopped the car at Poerua.

Your image stained the lake.

Your signature dripped in the bush.

 

from ‘Re-reading you (Peter Hooper, 1919 – 1991)’ Blood Ties

 

 

PG: There are a number of poems that pay tribute to poet, Peter Hooper. Are there other poets that have sustained you in view of both reading and conversation?

JPH:  Yes, Peter my high school English teacher and later, a lifelong friend was always going to figure. I mentioned a few earlier in answer to another question, but I think the next influence was David Walker, who taught literature papers in the American Studies programme at Canterbury when I came back to study in 1971 after dropping out in 1966.

I was starting to write again after what I might like to style as my “Woodstock years”, when I ran away to country (not to escape fame of course, just growing up). I met Gary Langford who had a flat downstairs and he was writing and publishing, very much a presence in the university lit scene. It was David though who helped me step up to the mark. I saw he was publishing poetry in Canta, so after a tutorial one night, I gave him a few of my ‘prentice efforts.

The cold bath he gave them should have put me off, but I persevered; he pointed me towards the Russian and South American writers I mentioned earlier, as well as rarities like Georg Trakl and Goncharov. I guess he steered me into the wider world, out of the claustrophobic Anglophilia which still gripped the English Department in those days (Patrick Evans is good on this subject).

David and I corresponded, were published together by Fragments Press in 1974 in a shared volume (Two Poets: Fragments 5) and stayed friends thereafter, swapping poems and books. He kept the flame alive for me, I think that’s true; after I dropped out of university again, I wrote fitfully but published nothing until 1998, back at varsity for a third time lucky, self-publishing a stapled booklet called Flood Damage.

I met a few poets working in London bookshops in the 1990s (I even heard Stephen Spender read, in a tiny community centre for the arts in north London, in Torriano Avenue, N7). I took a course at the legendary City Lit adult education centre in Stukeley Street not far from my work in Charing Cross Road, tutored by Alison Fell.

I was reading everything I could get my hands on and writing daily, even if only a diary entry: short stories, an abandoned novel and poetry, poetry, poetry. That’s where As Big As A Father came from, that time; like fishing, if you bait a line and cast every day, sooner or later, you’ll get a bite. I was reading Raymond Carver and I think in the end, it was the example of his life, even more than his style that empowered me. Carver was a recovering alkie like me, a working-class kid from the sticks, who’d found the self-belief to keep writing.

Back in New Zealand, at university in 1998, I took Rob Jackaman’s creative writing paper for poetry. I got to know him well and he helped me – along with Patrick Evans – take writing seriously and look to publication, long term. The year before, As Big As A Father had won the Whitirea poetry prize so I had Sam Hunt cheering me on after that (he was the judge).

James Brown I met that night in Porirua was writer in residence at Canterbury in 2001 and he read a manuscript I’d got together, edited by Bernadette Hall and encouraged me to send it so Roger Steele of Steele Roberts. That was breakthrough I needed. The resulting book, As Big As A Father (2002) was shortlisted in the Montana New Zealand Book Award the following year and the faith, the support of all the foregoing writers had a public reward. What matters though as always is the next poem, the being awake in the moment.

 

 

I filled my heart with as many tears as I could

possibly carry and saving them for life, skedaddled.

 

In the pub in Dunoille, knocking back beer after beer

celebrating a visit to hell with a man who works there.

 

from ‘Inferno (Strongman Mine 1967)’ Blood Ties

 

 

PG: Is there a poem that has really lasted the distance for you?

JPH: I thought about this and while it seems obvious ‘As Big As A Father’ will survive me, for a while anyway. I still have a heart for ‘Inferno (Strongman Mine 1967).’ I wrote it in London, during those years when I was isolated from all it speaks of physically and culturally and not getting published much at all, seemingly whistling in the dark.

Somehow, it just turned up and rolled out: the first couplet is a memory of my old Blackball friend David Hibbs in 1978 when I was back living on the Coast, in Runanga, offering to take my wife and me down into Strongman. It was a potent journey: her father had died there in the explosion with eighteen other miners, 19 January 1967.

The image of Virgil guiding Dante down into the underworld just sat there for me and everything else seemed to follow. This is where reading informs and sustains us; without thinking, I was diving down into the Western tradition for guidance. The memory of our trip to Greens Dip where the explosion took place, and the final point where you can go no further in that section, where two bodies still remain buried deep, spooled out of me like a film.

I knew I had it almost straight away. I know it will stay around as it relies on whatever power it has for the buried emotion in the measured pauses at of each couplet. It was well that we took that trip back then; the mine was finally closed and  sealed up in 1993; there is no way down there now, to offer alms to the dead.

But I would put in an honorary mention for one lesser known: The Iconography of Birds (for Les Murray). I wrote this I think in 1998, after hearing Les Murray read at the university, where he spoke of birds perching on a dead tree in a dam on his farm in New South Wales. The poem he read was a graphic dramatization on this scene.

I love birds, I’ve been watching them all my life. I went home and wrote this poem as if in reply, fuelled by my studies in medieval iconography and a recent essay on stained glass windows in the great cathedrals. I was in full flight in Rob’s poetry classes, writing on steroids, so the imagery of Christ as a pelican feeding his young on blood from his own breast came straight from my essay, reflecting on a window that held this image.

From there, the sky was conceived as “the Gothic vault” filled with migratory birds, especially the godwits, who had not long departed the Heathcote Estuary on their incredible, world-girdling flight to Alaska and summer feeding grounds. The birds became Greek voyagers in Homer’s myths and without thinking too much, I’d joined the two great streams of Western literature: the pagan Greeks and the biblical writers, the Jews.

The birds fly out into the Pacific night, driven by that mysterious migratory instinct that tells them it is time to go, star-farers as wise as those who navigated their way here to Aotearoa, Māori first, and later, Pākehā. I was a late arrival to these southern waters, a migratory bird like these early travellers, albeit I sailed here on my mother’s back, so to speak. Below the line, I think the poem was trying to tell me something and I like that.

 

 

it started out of sight and out of mind

too dark to see too hard to think

 

it began with the world made flesh

on the backs of tiny bones

 

from ‘Child labour’ Blood Ties

 

 

PG: Which new poem especially delights you?

JPH:    I like ‘Child Labour’ in its simplicity and its rage, and ‘Dark With Nouns’ too. Very different offerings and both pretty fresh, they were written last year. Catherine Montgomery encouraged me to include something recent. That reading at the ICA with those giants of poetry on a raised stage in front of me: phew! Like Mount Rushmore in the flesh, and I try and capture something of that in the salute to Brodsky, who made the remark somewhere I was reading about how if you covered all the adjective and verbs, a poem should be “dark with nouns”. I like poems to be full of the material world, the word made flesh (small ‘w’).

But I’ll go for ‘Child Labour,’ because it’s a song, like one of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience: here, the innocent get to have a cruel experience, the kind of image I saw in my fifth form history books, tiny, emaciated kids pulling coal tubs in tunnels little more than burrows for moles. It still goes on today, everywhere children and those with less power are exploited for somebody else’s profit, for my smart phone, my T-shirt.

I’ll put my hand up: the poetry of witness is necessary still, whether we look back to Chaucer pointing out ecclesiastical corruption, fast forward to Neruda skewering US companies and their tame dictators enslaving peasants in South America, or Miroslav Holub holding his nose over the rotten Communist bureaucracy in Czechoslovakia, while seemingly talking about a Chinese emperor embalmed stinking fish – we can speak up, when it matters.

It’s great to see that Emma Neale and Philip Temple have just published the anthology Manifesto with Otago University Press, a collection of political and protest poetry. We have a broad church to speak into, it doesn’t have to be one thing or the other; let’s not miss the chance to stand up and be counted.

Look what happened when Eleanor Catton made her opinions known on the back of her public profile, post-The Luminaries afterglow. She took a serve from John Key and a few others, but good for her. That meant was she’d hit them where it hurt. How the hell did we get to be a country where families sleep in cars?

 

9780994137807

 

so anger pushed you back to the river/back again to

the fish that flew/a world made by words over

 

from ‘When the thin wild mercury music came’ Dylan Junkie

 

Dylan Junkie is a tantalising weave of Bob Dylan and Jeffrey Paparoa Holman. When you caught Dylan’s first single, ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues,’ on the radio in 1965, it struck a chord. What initially gave you the Bob-Dylan goosebumps?

JPH: Whew, that’s tough to recall. I say in the first poem, ‘When the thin wild mercury music came,’ “sixty can’t call back sixteen”, an admission that when I’m trying to source the feel of those goosebumps, it’s kinda too late? So in the poem, I make it up, “hearing him was like wind over water” – it was shocking in a way, exciting.

When we did the Christchurch launch at Scorpio Books on Thursday, I gave a brief mihimihi and for my waiata, played that song from my iPhone through a very small battered twin speaker set the size of a TV remote. It was tinny but loud, a bit like the primitive PYE record player we had at the time in Blackball, or the Columbus valve radio. I really wanted to jig about for the two minutes sixteen seconds it took to blast it out to the audience.

I think it was just the sheer energy of the stolen Chuck Berry riff and the beat rap of lyrics fired off like machine gun volleys, with a sneer. It was like somebody had let a noisy opinionated teenager into a room full of retirees, he was running around swearing his head off, warning the kids his age that the squares and their thought police were out to get you. It was the sound of somebody smashing the window of the Readers’ Digest HQ, throwing a brick through the windows of respectability. Yeah, I’m making this up now: I was damaged goods and pubescent right then, so his arrogance and his confidence were intoxicating.

 

PG: Were you writing at the time?

JPH: In 1963, I’d written that poem for Peter Hooper that starts off Blood Ties, and one about the Great War after reading A.J.P. Taylor’s The First World War: an illustrated history. I was a good history student and the book, richly illustrated with often sarcastic photo captions affected me deeply. That one got in the School Magazine the following year, when I met Dylan’s music. I wrote one about my grandmother’s ageing too, since lost but snatches remembered.

 

PG: Did Dylan influence your poetry when you first began writing?

JPH: The high school poetry didn’t follow me beyond the classroom. I was in sawmills and shearing gangs by 1965 and can recall clearly listening to Like A Rolling Stone on jukeboxes in Pahiatua (I was the only one playing it).  That’s in the first poem too, “in a jukebox milkbar chasing a girl/the shock of the snare drum smashing!”. The music, the organ, the sneer, the howl of the chorus, “how does it feel, how does it feel?” bypassed the brain’s resistance and shot you in heart. But it didn’t make me write then; I kept a few diaries and wrote to my mother, that was about it.

A brief romance had me writing to the girl a declaration of something I felt, but nothing like Dylan was doing. He was an inspiration amongst many others: the Beatles, the Stones, Procul Harum, Manfred Mann, the Animals. Once I got out in the country away from the towns, I somehow lost contact with his music after Bringing It All Back Home in 1965. I’d eaten up Mr Tambourine Man and the ‘B’ side, Subterranean Homesick Blues (I bought the single). I’d heard ‘Only a Pawn in Their Game’ from The Times They Are a-Changing album, an angry, powerful song about the 1963 murder of Mississippi civil rights’ activist, Medgar Evers – and many others.

 

if not for

Only a Pawn in their Game

ripsaw hillbilly prophet man

West Coast white boy like me

 

from ‘If not for you’ Dylan Junkie

 

 

That’s in the poem, ‘If Not For You,’ in the History Lessons sequence in the book, where I have poems for songs that sing into years of my life, in sequence. I somehow worked backwards in discovering Dylan: I never knew the songs in the eponymous first album, and only a few in The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan of 1963, like Blowin’ in the Wind. A lot Dylan fans tell this story: how they picked him up somewhere along his career, got hooked and worked back through the catalogue.

My first – unforgettable – album purchase was Another Side of Bob Dylan, in early 1965 after Subterranean shot me through the heart. I never bought another Dylan album till 1973, I missed the entire explosion of genius from1965 onwards for one good reason: I was out of town in a world of farmers, shearers and petrol heads. I heard Lay Lady Lay plenty on airplay in West Australia, but I always associate it with the Vietnam War – how weird is that? Feminists hate it, but to me it carries the melancholy of death. Local Aussie farmers’ sons were getting killed over in Vietnam, so the two things are locked my memories of that time, 1968 to 1970.

Dylan left the country behind just as I went out there to find and test myself, I guess. But the early songs never left me and once I took him up again, back in the city in 1972, he’s never been far away. Somebody gave me Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid in 1973 and flatmates were playing Blonde on Blonde. I bought Planet Waves, a forgotten album now as he’d left Columbia and it came out on Asylum; it’s a favourite with me as it plugged me back; that one did influence my poetry in ’73-74 as I was getting a collection together. Once Blood on the Tracks got to me in 1974 that was it, then I went back and bought more, including the despised Self Portrait from 1969. The Basement Tapes was a revelation in 1975, and then Desire. I was crashing and burning all through the 70s and so was he.

 

PG: On the one hand, the collection delivers traces of Dylan so you replay lines in his gravelly, off-pitch voice, while on the other hand you are transported back to the younger self where certain experiences shine out along life’s uneasy learning curve. Do you think this fertile knit has produced poetry in a different key?

JPH:  I think if you asked my long-suffering adult kids they would say Dylan is in my DNA; my first wife and I would sing songs or recite lines on long car trips or anywhere, really (my son is a fan now, my daughter’s agnostic). I could probably do a medley of lyric snippets anytime, a mashup. I know he tunes my voice somewhere, deep down. There’s plenty of other people’s songs and poems and sounds down in the mix, too.

But it’s kinda physical, you know? I sensed in some way how these poems might go. The first series I wrote, Lines from Hard Rain comes second now in the book we see here. I riffed on single lines from A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall just to kick things off.  I wanted to do a Dylan album, if you like – for example, his “twelve misty mountains” became my “twelve mountains” – but I filled his line out with my world, my take on things. It’s the West Coast, it’s the Paparoa Range, but it’s also Old Testament prophets and a battered wife – a world I knew, transformed into an incantation with rhymes. So it’s a song, really.

Some are biographical – like, poet in gutter, a sweet little wordplay about kids floating sticks in a ditch in the rain – but many are chants, or rages, a weeping that wants to be singing. The lifelines, the bios are in the History Lesson section but there too, as with Most of the Time and Tempest, there are lyric forms and rap sheets like the ones in Hard Rain.

 

Long slow bend, I’m nursing sixty, the world

just rips in half. water that’s flat as the eye can

bear meets sky, meets air, a blue that leaps

without perspective, seas of space stretch

out to nowhere and throw the world aside.

 

from ‘Heading to Hibben’ Dylan Junkie

 

 

‘Heading for Hibbing’ is a road poem, vignettes of a journey I took to his hometown 500 miles from Iowa City where I was in residence for the International Writers’ Program in the autumn of 2012. It’s much more prosey and conversational, like where I fill up with gas just north of the town of Zimmerman (yes!) on I-169 and the blonde counter clerk loves my Kiwi accent, she wants to go to Hobbiton.

A note of the surreal is the undercurrent in this sequence but not the language, the form. Dylan is a storyteller, a klezmerin, a wandering Jewish minstrel deeply linked to that European tradition beyond American folk, country and rock. Lasting classics like Desolation Row (the all-American nightmare), Brownsville Girl (America the Movie) and Blind Willie McTell (the curse of race and slavery) make this man what I called him at a welcome party for the overseas writers in Iowa City that year, “The American Shakespeare”. They seemed to look at me blankly, in reply.

It’s a little like the concept in the Blackball bridge sonnets of 2004: a visit to another world, a lost time, a different kind of people to those in cities and suburbs today, where the land and rivers and the mountains rule and the music has roots in those immigrants and radicals who worked the mines. I felt deeply, subjectively, that in hearing Dylan as a teenager, I’d somehow heard where he came from, a place not unlike my tūrangawaewae. Is that wishful thinking? Who knows.

 

PG: I rather liked the fact there are no endnotes. Were you tempted to include any? Like a Dylan song-map to overlay the poems?

I wrote blogs on the four days of the Hibbing trip and planned to include one, like the essay appended in the earthquake poems in Shaken Down 6.3, but Mary wasn’t keen so it fell off. That was good thinking, in retrospect. The songs are flagged in the History Lessons section and the lines from Hard Rain become titles, edited so they’re not quotes and we don’t risk the wrath of Sony. Highway 61 Revisited shows up at the end of Heading for Hibbing, but I don’t think endnotes or anything like that were considered.

Some of the History Lessons poem have the names of songs for titles (No time to think, that’s from Street-Legal, 1978), others have albums (Time out of mind, 1997). Often, it was a mood or a memory I was hooking into: Bill Mathieson in 1978 grief-stricken at the drowning of Abel Salisbury near White Horse Bay on the Coast Road; or my best friend Frank Pendlebury who loved the 1997 album, especially Not Dark Yet. Sadly, he killed himself ten years later; we played the song for him as we said goodbye at his funeral.

 

 

some roads I’m cruising like a king

on some she’s boiling dry again

some hills the clutch just slips so bad

in the rain the vacuum wipers stall

 

from ‘Time out of mind’ Dylan Junkie

 

PG: Is there a poem that particularly resonates for you either in terms of experience of the Dylan connections? (can we post it?).

There are a few with deep, ongoing hooks, but if I was going to choose one, it would be ‘Time out of mind.’ The album was another of his “back from the dead” records, like Oh Mercy (1989) and World Gone Wrong (1993). He was always being deserted by one group of fans or declared dead and buried by the industry, then popping up later, reborn: electric, country, born-again, Americana, and now, the crooner of standards.

The poem itself is a kind of West Coast hillbilly movie short with its two-line bridges, couplets maybe Bob might like? It’s a road poem too, so he’d be into that. Ikamatua: a nowhere town you drive through heading to Reefton and almost never stop, except for petrol and tobacco. It’s where I drove my old Chev in 1968 on a pub crawl with my mother’s boss from Internal Affairs in Greymouth, the old man who ran a string of cleaners in all the government buildings. Must have been before I headed off to West Australia, just me and Mr Cosgrove on the car’s vast leather bench seat, getting high. He loved his beer and whiskey chasers, Cossie did, another true Coast original straight out of The Basement Tapes cast list.

 

 

Time out of mind

 

1997

 

everybody’s got a different brain

mine’s an old juke box

 

some days it plays you Frank running

like a frightened deer in the dusk

across the flood-wracked Blackball bridge

buckling underneath

 

everybody’s got a twisted heart

mine’s a ’52 Chevrolet

 

some roads I’m cruising like a king

on some she’s boiling dry again

some hills the clutch just slips so bad

in the rain the vacuum wipers stall

 

everyone gets a shot at beauty

everyone sees a distant star

 

here we are on a dusty road

something nagging maybe grace

low on petrol out of smokes

heading for Ikamatua

 

©’Time out of mind,’ from Dylan Junkie, Jeffrey Paparoa Holman, Mākaro Press (Eastbourne, 2017).  Used with permission.

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf interviews Bill Manhire – I get great pleasure from a poem when at some point it pushes me sideways from myself

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Photo Credit: Grant Maiden

 

‘Did you all survive?

On that first day of school, I mostly remember

being terrified: the dark interior, the children in rows

at their separate desks, and I was now to be one of them.

In a field by the school, there were bales of hay.

I remember inkwells.

That was perhaps a harder day.’

 

from ‘The Question Poem’

 

 

Somet_Things_to_Place_in_a_Coffin__40224.1482273596.220.220.jpg  Somet_Things_to_Place_in_a_Coffin__40224.1482273596.220.220.jpg   Somet_Things_to_Place_in_a_Coffin__40224.1482273596.220.220.jpg

Some Things to Place in a Coffin Bill Manhire (Victoria University Press, 2017)

 

Bill Manhire’s new collection of poetry offers the reader a sumptuous reading experience: there is coolness, heat, air, movement, suspension.  There are some poetry books that maintain a cavernous distance as I read, but I just click with Bill’s poems. My review of Bill’s book of riddles, Tell me My Name, is here.

Bill  lives in Wellington, and is an emeritus professor at Victoria University. His first book of poems, The Elaboration, with drawings by Ralph Hotere, appeared in 1972.

 

PG: What challenges you most when you write a poem?

BM: Getting properly underway.  I’m quite good at finding phrases that nag away at me, and I keep them in my head or on paper – but finding my way forward from them can be a problem, or even knowing if I can find my way forward.  I seem to know how long a poem is going to be, roughly what its shape will be and so on, but things often collapse about two thirds of the way through. I suspect there are quite a few poems over the years where it looks like I’ve landed on my feet near the end but I’ve actually broken my ankle.

 

PG: What delights you most?

BM: Knowing that a poem is actually there, but that it needs some work to be fully itself.  Doing that last little bit of work – so different from whatever inspiration is supposed to be – is strangely exhilarating.

 

PG: Your new collection, as with Lifted and Victims of Lightning, refreshes what poetry can do: how it can soothe and challenge and prompt wonder. Initially the Zen-like movement of the poems struck me (or you could track an oxymoron effect): silence yields music, stillness leads to activity, simplicity yields knots, economy yields richness. Such movement prolongs contemplation. Have you ever thought of your poetry in this way?

BM: I don’t think I think very deeply or coherently about poetry, especially my own. I don’t have any aims when I write, even with a commissioned poem like ‘Known unto God’. But I get great pleasure from a poem when at some point it pushes me sideways from myself, pushes me out of habitual assumptions, changes the pace of my inner life. I like it when a poem starts off quietly and then starts resonating – a sort of ripple effect – and I certainly like it when a poem looks innocent and amiable then suddenly gets dangerous and agitating. Tonal shifts – code-switching, logopoeia – seem to be key to individual poems, too; and maybe even more, inside a book, to the way poems keep each other company.

 

The window waits for light.

The path to the river waits

for twigs and stones ands feet.

The day hopes to be successful,

a prose day really, nothing untoward

and so it, too, waits. Also the car waits.

from ‘Waiting’

 

PG: There are several ‘waiting’ poems and it seems to me this book has benefited from a different relationship with time (a little like your Menton sojourn did for Lifted). Away from your hectic university life, has your time with poetry changed to the degree you are able to wait with a poem differently?

BM: It’s not in the least relevant, but I think Waiting for Godot is the great poem of the 20th century.

I don’t think this is what what you’re getting at either, but we all start out in the world full of appetite and desire and with a strong sense only of the immediate moment. And then I suppose there’s that troubling, invigorating phase later that mixes memory and desire, to borrow the start of Eliot’s The Waste Land.  Your past and future are fighting it out in the present. And then if you last the distance there’s a lot more past and much more of this thing called memory, which as someone said is pretty much the imagination in reverse. I think I’m in this last time zone. I’ve even prefaced the collection with a little poem about memory.

 

PG: I found the ‘waiting’ poignant because it felt both philosophical and political.

BM: That’s a generous way of putting it. I suspect it’s more that I’m very much a fatalist. This probably has something to do, someone once told me, with being the child of an alcoholic – you’re totally under the circumstances. The great human beings are the ones who change the circumstances, or have a shot at doing so. But my feeling is that most of the time most of us are under the circumstances, and so how you behave is what measures your worth as a human being.

 

They dug me up in Caterpillar Valley

and brought me home –

well, all of the visible bits of me.

Now people arrive at dawn and sing.

And I have a new word: skateboarding.

from ‘Known unto God’

 

PG: The collection seems open to anything (Chairman Mao’s impersonator, surveillance notes, the school bus, the trenches, a Sunday School mural, a body blown to bits, war, Ralph Hotere’s coffin). Do you have no-go areas as a poet?

BM: I’m pretty protective about my personal life.  No one could accuse me of oversharing. If you were to try and turn the first-person I in my poems into someone called Bill Manhire, it would all be pretty baffling. Sometimes it’s someone else altogether, sometimes someone with some of my features, sometimes (but rarely) the full myself. As Emily Dickinson says, ‘When I state myself, as the representative of the verse, it does not mean me, but a supposed person.’

Of course the life is there in certain poems, but displaced or approached obliquely.  ‘The Question Poem’ deals with the aftermath of an event like the Christchurch earthquake, but the speaker in the poem, trying to deflect the very direct questions about catastrophe, reaches back to memories of his first day at school – and I guess that’s essentially my own first day at school.  Likewise, ‘The Schoolbus’ is fairly true to a particular patch of my childhood.

But I’m never a completely missing person. I’m there in every poem in some form or other, even if it’s just via a small tonal inflection or a tiny hesitation.

 

How Memory Works

 

Come over here

we say to the days that disappear.

No, over here.

 

PG: You are the master of the miniature poem—I liken your examples to a drop of wine that dances on the tongue. What attracts you to this form? What holds your attention in a small poem?

BM: I think I’m drawn to the short poem for visual rather than auditory reasons.  There’s nothing more wonderful than a few words, just two or three lines, sitting in the middle of a white page. The words and letters start to grow out into the space around them  – which I guess is what you also want the reader’s imagination to do. In some ways the words look vulnerable, but to me they’re powerful.

I like putting little poems on Twitter, and that’s partly because I miss the days when I could type out a handwritten poem and see it as it as itself without my protective care.  You need to find ways of making poems remote, independent – there they are on the screen, out in the world. But there’s something undermining about the way Twitter clutters the screen, so it’s not the same.

 

 

Soon enough the enemy will come,

limping out of a place that will not heal.

And soon enough it will be gone,

this world that you once woke into.

from ‘The Enemy’

 

PG: Initially I view your poetry as steered by a mind drifting, stalling, looping. I was watching the surprising lines of a gull at the beach this morning, the way it arced and stretched, hovered with such grace, landed with light feet. I was fascinated by the beauty and the unpredictability and began to compare it to the way your poems move. Which led me to the way politics also feed the poems. There are subtle entries and there are toothpicks: ‘That is why China waits,/ and America waits.’ ‘You cannot reach the beautiful world.’ In this world under threat, is it now more important that political views are visible, whether overt or subtle?

BM: There are poems in the new book with a political dimension, and maybe there are more of them than there used to be. It’s highly satisfying to make a local-body politician say, ‘I do not think that I am rubbish’!  And sometimes a political element’s there but a little oblique. ‘Poem in an Orchard’, for example, is about rendition. I don’t set out to write politically.  I’m not into palpable design. But I’m a citizen who votes and signs petitions and tries to pay attention. And I’m a human being, so I can do gasping and outrage and anxiety and distress – and sometimes hopefulness – in poetry just as others can.  I think the US invasion of Iraq intensified some of those things for me, and that’s probably evident in some of the poems written since then.

I’ve always felt slightly ashamed that I let the Listener mildly censor a poem I wrote years ago called ‘Wellington’.  It was a piece against Muldoon, and included the lines ‘the boys from Muldoon Real Estate / are breaking someone’s arm’. They wanted to change it to ‘Beehive Real Estate’, and I weakly said yes.  Was it better for the doctored poem to appear in the Listener than not? I don’t know. I restored the true reading when the poem appeared in a book. But I don’t imagine either version would have hastened Muldoon’s downfall.  Labour’s Grant Robertson once told me  that there was briefly a Dunedin band called ‘Muldoon Real Estate’, which is nice. Probably one of those stories that’s too good to check.

 

PG: The poem, ‘Falseweed’ was originally published as a little pamphlet by Egg Box Publishing in Norwich. It has a different feel to your other poems. The words are scattered like seeds on the expanse of white page. There is linguistic inventiveness that boosts both music and image, particularly in compound words:

leafcandle  pencilheart  wintertwig  scribblegrass  anchorwhite  tongue-true.

What are the origins of this poem? Did it feel like you were shifting your musical key in terms of the words on the line?

BM: Yes. there’s some sort of musical shift – in some ways back to poems like ‘The Seasons/If I Will Sing There’ or ‘Wulf’.  Your seeds image is a good one, as the poem is pseudo-botanical. I started noticing, a bit obsessively, just how many poets in the UK and North America were using the vernacular names of plants in their poems: poets like Jen Hadfield, Alice Oswald, Robert Hass.  It’s maybe connected to Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks project recovering regional and dialect landscape terms. For a pakeha New Zealander like me it’s possible to feel envious of these language troves. About a year ago the English poet Sasha Dugdale tweeted: ‘Path on Seaford Head through restharrow, agrimony, moon carrot & selfheal.’ Now there’s a lyrical outing!

Anyway, I thought I would try to make a poem that teased that whole fashion – seed-packet poetry, I’ve heard it called – along with my own language inadequacies, by inventing my own weeds and grasses. But then as I wrote I found myself producing a poem very much about writer’s block and a kind of world-weariness.

 

Now darkness brings out

the little paperclip

plus a clump or two

of scribblegrass –

*

If we had seeds
we would scatter them

scatter them –

*

oh pencilheart –

oh smudge-of-lead.

 

PG: Is there one poem in particular that really works for you in this collection?

BM: I’d have to say ‘Known unto God’ – in part because of publisher generosity with formatting. I like the way it’s been able to sit like a small chapbook inside the larger book.  Each speaker in the poem gets their own page – so that that thing I was talking about earlier in terms of small poems, the mix of vulnerability and powerful presence, is made visible. The fact that the sequence effectively opens with a double-sided black page sets up the elegaic mood, too. The whole thing looks right.

 

PG: Which poem took you by surprise?

BM: Again, ‘Known unto God’.  I want to say I didn’t know I had it in me, but of course I didn’t have it in me – it was always out there in the world. My work was to catch it, edit it hard, and get the choreography right.

 

 

Victoria University Press page

Susanna Andrews shares her review on Radio NZ National

Bill describes his writing day for The Listener

‘This Reading Life: Bill Manhire’ for NZ Festival

Poetry Shelf interviews Sue Wootton: ‘interweaving and texture in a poem is an effect I love’

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The Yield, Sue Wootton, Otago University Press, 2017

Sue Wootton’s latest collection of poetry is a sumptuous read, a read that sparks in new directions while clearly in debt to everything she has written to date. The cover is so very inviting. I have been a fan of Sue’s poetry for a long time and was delighted she agreed to share thoughts on poetry and the new book.

Sue Wootton lives in Dunedin, where she is the selecting editor for the Otago Daily Times Weekend Poem column and co-editor of the Health Humanities blog Corpus: Conversations about Medicine and Life. She is a PhD candidate at the University of Otago, researching connections between creative practice, literature, and medicine. Sue’s debut novel, Strip (Mākaro Press, 2016), was longlisted for the fiction prize of the 2017 Ockham NZ Book Awards. The Yield (Otago University Press, 2017) is her fifth collection of poetry. Sue’s website. Find Corpus here.

 

The+Yield.jpg  The+Yield.jpg

 

and you wonder if unspooling is, will ever be, your forte,

a question you will never answer since it never ends,

this casting your line on gale or water

from ‘Unspooling’

 

PG: Let’s begin with the world of books. What books affected when you were young and what books have affected you as an adult poet?

SW: My mother used to take us to the Whanganui library every Saturday morning to collect an armful of books for the week, and we were lucky in having a family friend who used to give books—lovely hardback illustrated books—for birthday and Christmas presents. I still have the one I received from her on my sixth birthday: Candy and the Rocking Horse by Gwyneth Mamlok. Oh Candy, how I loved your red hat, your bright pink tights, your long boots, and the way you and your dog Peppermint did everything together, just the two of you! Other beloved books included Hubert’s Hair-Raising Adventure by Bill Peat, Patrick by Quentin Blake and Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr Seuss. A little later I fell big time for Roald Dahl with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword made a huge impression on me, and there was a novel set in the crypt of Winchester cathedral about which I remember nothing except the sinister feelings it evoked and the grip it had on me. By then I was hooked on books that stirred my imagination, especially by describing other possible worlds. I chewed through the Narnia series and Lord of the Rings, and in my teens went through a major science fiction phase, devouring books by authors like Ursula K. Le Guin and Isaac Asimov. Poetry hit me as a force in my final year of secondary school, when we were given poems by Dylan Thomas. We studied King Lear that year, and I remember being well and truly woken up when I heard Richard Burton bring those words to life. And I discovered e e cummings around the same time, and was amazed to see what can happen when syntax and word are unpacked and put back together askew, strange, and suddenly with so much more verve than “ordinary” language.

As an adult, I would credit Harmonium by Wallace Stevens for jolting me forward in terms of realising what the ‘blue guitar’ of poetry can do: “Things as they are / are changed upon the blue guitar”; they become “A tune beyond us, yet ourselves”.  There have been many other influences, too many to list in full, but probably my most thumbed volumes are by Emily Dickinson, W. B. Yeats, W. H. Auden, Czeslaw Milosz, Louise Glück and Elizabeth Bishop.

 

PG: Your latest collection is a sumptuous feast of sound and image amongst other things. Several poems feature knitting and I decided that knitting is a perfect analogy for the way your poems interlace the aural and the visual to produce sensual patterns. Your poems have enviable texture and that texture engages both mind and heart. What matters most when you write a poem?

SW:  Thanks, interweaving and texture in a poem is an effect I love, so I’m pleased if you find it in some of my work. I can get very absorbed in the pattern-making. I like the way Glen Maxwell describes words and phrases as being capable of giving up at least four types of meaning: solar (the daytime, dictionary denotation), lunar (dream and shadow-sense), musical, and visual. Some words are particularly richly endowed with these extra layers, so they can act as portals to interlacing patterns inlaid within the poem. It’s the intertwining, the entanglement, that matters most, because it’s only through connection and relationship that we can experience life. Or, as Emily Dickinson much more succinctly wrote: “The mind lives on the heart / like any parasite”.

 

PG: As I read, the poetry of David Eggleton and Michele Leggott came to mind.  They both write out of their own skin in ways that are quite unlike the local trend to write conversational poetry. I could see a similar idiosyncratic pulse driving your poems as though you were pushing your boundaries, resisting models, playing and challenging what you could do as a poet. I am wrong to think this?

SW:  I suppose this is something to do with my sense that writing poems is an embodied process. How could a poet not write out of their own skin? It’s a matter of probing language for a response, and following what happens. And then paying attention to how that feels. Is it good on the tongue, does it sing in the ear, does it resonate in the heart and mind? Does it intrigue? Has it got heft and mass, or is it a ghostly drifter? Is it slow or swift? Is it eager or melancholy? Quiet or noisy? I can only start shaping the poem properly once I have a sense of these things.

 

Measure my wild. Down to my last leaf,

my furled, my desiccated. This deciduousness,

this bloom. Calculate my xylem levels,

my spore count, fungal, scarlet

in a bluebell glade. Whoosh,

where the foliage closes on a great cat.

Test me: how many tigers in my jungle,

how many lions at roam? Map my rivers,

deltas, estuaries. Mollusc, whelk, worm.

from ‘Wild’

 

PG: I am really struck by the heightened musical effects in these poems. You have always had an attentive ear to the way poems sound but this collection almost feels baroque in the leapfrogging alliteration, assonance and sweet chords. Was this deliberate or an unconscious progression?

SW: I’m not overly conscious of working the musicality of poems as I’m writing them, but undoubtedly I do love sound and lyrical effects in language and this seems to naturally surface in my work. Sometimes I consciously decide to use a poetic form as a template to get started on something, because it can be helpful to have an incubating frame. Whatever words I’ve got, I’ll push them around within the frame until something starts to happen. That something is a gut feeling that the gears have meshed, and things are underway. It’s about then that the poem starts to generate its own peculiar hum. I’ll find myself wanting to shape or enhance that fundamental pulse, and that seems to involve going deaf to the outside world in order to listen to the language itself, word speaking to word, image to image, sound to sound. But it’s an instinctive thing mostly—although there is also a constant back and forth between being immersed in the poem and zooming out to ‘hear’ and ‘see’ it more dispassionately.

 

PG: Some of the poems (‘The needlework, the polishing,’ ‘Pray,’ ‘Priest in a coffee shop,’ ‘Graveyard poem,’ ‘Poem to my nearest galaxy’) engage with the spirituality either through a church building or prayer. Do you see poetry as a vessel to explore the divine? I am also thinking of the way the landscape frames beauty and you as poet tender your version of that (‘Central,’ ‘Hawea,’ ‘A day trip to the peninsula’).

SW: I am not religious in the sense of believing in a god or gods or in cleaving to any institutionalised religious belief or practice. I resent being told what to think and I am allergic to dogma (she says dogmatically). “I like an empty church”, as I say in ‘The needlework, the polishing’. But I do think life is marvellous, in the sense that it’s a marvel, and I think that remembering to marvel at life is hugely important, and in this way I definitely consider myself to have a religious sensibility. Paying attention to nature and landscape, that’s one way to transcend the petty personal and recall the awe-fulness of being alive. In the human world, I do like buildings like churches or mosques or some art galleries and museums that have been designed to facilitate attention, reflection and reverence. Sacred spaces, if you like. And yes, some poetry can also open such a space: architectural, composed, a place of formal dignity.

 

PG: That’s a lovely way to think of the poetic space. To take notions of the landscape further, place does resonate strongly in the collection, particularly the allure of Central. What local poets offer sustenance when it comes to the poetry of place?

SW: I find myself thinking of poets of waterscape, actually, rather than landscape – poets like Bob Orr (especially his poem ‘The Names of Rivers’), Rhian Gallagher’s poems about creeks and rivers and salt marshes, Cilla McQueen’s poems that quietly celebrate Otago harbour and lakes, Brian Turner’s odes to rivers, and Hone Tuwhare’s Tangaroa poems.

 

Some words dwell in the bone, as yet

unassembled.

from ‘Lingua incognita’

 

The bones that lie around Black Lake are lichen spotted.

They do not gleam. They are not white.

Not the idea of bone, but bone itself, scattered, split.

from ‘Black Lake’

 

PG: Are there places in particular that are deep in your bones (to borrow your recurring motif) and call to be written?

SW: Going back to the water poems above, and to quote Bob Orr, there’s a creek near Whanganui that ‘runs through my life’. We used to visit it when I was a small child, and although I’ve never been there as an adult, I keep finding echoes of it elsewhere, as when I was walking along the Omarama stream in North Otago just last week. The Otago peninsula, and several beaches north and south of Dunedin are in me too. And I like the repetition of walking my Dunedin neighbourhood, how (as Charles Brasch wrote) “I walk my streets into recognition”. But it’s the water-places in my life that really haunt me and keep calling to be written.

 

PG: There are traces of the personal in the poems—deaths, a family picnic, illness, a declaration to live life to the utmost, friendship—but I would suggest you hide in the crevices. I am also fascinated by the way the personal does not necessarily mean self confession or family anecdote. What is your relationship with the personal when you write poetry?

SW: I hope that’s so, that the writer is hiding in the crevices and the poems are standing in  the foreground. That seems the right way round to me. I feel that my task when I write a poem is to construct an artefact out of language. The results are always much more interesting if I can get my personal self out of the way of my writing self. My personal self has the usual limited preoccupations, whereas my writing self has much wider vision. I think this is because my writing self tends to be always in conversation with dead and living writers, and they often have interesting things to say, and that make me stretch my own pen beyond mere anecdote or autobiography. There’s a lot more out there to write about, things much more intriguing, more puzzling, more important. And along the way, poets are allowed to make things up. Indeed, this is a very liberating approach. For example, the picnic poem you mention describes a completely imaginary picnic. Then again, many poems in The Yield do have personal resonance, but being poems they have all been through that ‘blue guitar’, and become changed. Not false, mind. Never untrue!

 

PG: I was utterly delighted and moved to see you dedicated a poem to me. Thank you! In my debut book, Cookhouse, I dedicated poems to women who played a role in my writing origins. I called them my ‘afternoon-tea poems,’ because I imagined my poem stood in for this beloved ritual. Which poets, significant in your writing origins, would you invite to afternoon tea?

SW:  This would need a long table and I hope it wouldn’t end in a bun fight, but let’s see: Emily Dickinson, Emily Bronte, Elizabeth Bishop, Louise Glück, Carol Anne Duffy, Adrienne Rich, Amy Clampitt, Kathleen Jamie, and a few blokes: James K Baxter, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Hone Tuwhare and William Shakespeare.

 

PG: So many poems in the collection stand out for me (and indeed there are a praiseworthy number of award-winning poems here). I especially love ‘Calling,’ ‘Wild,’ ‘Lunch poem for Larry,’  ‘Admission,’ ‘Picnic,’ ‘Unspooling,’ ‘Strange monster,’ ‘A treatise on the benefits of moonbathing,’ ‘The crop,’ ‘Daffodils.’ Oh a much longer list than this – I deliberately left off most of the award winners. Do you have a favourite because of its origins? Or the way it formed itself on the page?

SW:  Maybe ‘Strange monster’ because it was a surprise to me in every way—it was one that seemed to generate its own heartbeat from the get-go; it just galloped away. And ‘The crop’, for the opposite reason, because it cavilled and bitched and moaned about being written, and took years to find its final shape.

 

Let parasols be wrecked in soonest storm and let them drop.

Tree be tree and branch be branch. Lean, lean, into the spaces between.

from ‘Wintersight’

Jesse Mulligan and Simone Kaho in conversation (in case you missed it because it is excellent!)

13 Mar 2017

Poetry: Lucky Punch by Simone Kaho

Auckland poet, Simone Kaho, is from New Zealand and Tongan ancestry. She earned her MA in creative writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters. Her poetry has been published in journals such as JAAM, Turbine, and The Dominion Post. She joins Jesse to read from her book Lucky Punch.

Lucky Punch, Simon Kaho

Poetry Shelf interviews Hannah Mettner: ‘I want to be emotionally moved by a poem, and nothing less’

 

FullSizeRender.jpg

 

 

We believe in the steps.

We tell our children and then our

grandchildren about the cool

pond at the top where sun-

carp clean our feet and where

we can sleep. The steps are one of

the beautiful mysteries of

life, like how did we get here,

fully clothed and so forgetful?

 

from ‘Higher ground’

 

Hannah Mettner is a Wellington-based poet from Gisborne. Her poems have appeared widely in literary journals, including Sport, Turbine and Cordite. She is co-editor with Morgan Bach and Sugar Magnolia Wilson of Sweet Mammalian, an online poetry journal launched in 2014.

I first heard Hannah read at the Ruapehu Writers Festival last year and I was immediately hooked. To celebrate the arrival of her debut poetry collection,  Fully clothed and so forgetful (Victoria University Press), Hannah agreed to do this interview. As you will see from my comments in the interview, this collection has struck a chord with me on a number of levels. I absolutely adore it.

 

The book is launched tonight: 16 March 2017 from 6.00 pm – 7.30 pm

The Guest Room, Southern Cross, 39 Abel Smith St, Wellington

 

 

 

PG: You include two quotations at the start of the book—one by Eileen Myles and one by Adrienne Rich—that underline your status as reader, while the book itself is infused with your reading life.  Can you name three non-poetry books that have sparked you any time from zero until now? And three poetry books, from any point in your reading timeline, that have also affected you?

HM: Ah yes, I mean, it wasn’t meant as any kind of political statement, choosing two gay poets to front the book, although it definitely can be, I just love their writing, and those particular poems. And then those parts of those poems stuck out as handy things to highlight at the outset of the book. As to my reading, well, I’ve always liked reading, and I wonder if it’s partly a control thing: I find people quite hard work, they’re so fascinating and unpredictable and needy, with a book you can just shut it when you get to satiety, and come back to it when you’re ready. Then I studied English Lit at uni, and I work at the Turnbull Library now, so books are very thoroughly part of my comfort zone, and I get a bit panicked if I don’t have one nearby, to serve as a social safety blanket. I remember being completely transported by a Margaret Mahy book The Door in the Air and Other Stories, as a young person. Strange little vignettes into other possible lives: very like one of the stories in that book about a girl who meets a wizard with a house full of different windows depicting different worlds. Obviously all of Mahy’s books are fantastic, and that magical realism has definitely been a thing that has kept my interest over the years, both as a reader and a writer, she’s so good at combining the very mundane with the extraordinary. Another book I’ve come back to again and again (a big deal when you’re a bit blind and reading is a pleasure/pain situation like it is for me) is Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body, which is scorchingly personal and profound. Those two books are really my sun and moon, there are heaps of other books I’ve read and loved, but nothing quite like those. Poetry books are perhaps too numerable to mention? Though I distinctly remember that James Brown’s first book Go Round Power Please was the book that got me reading and eventually writing poetry. I checked it out from the public library in Gisborne not long after having my first baby, and discovered that poetry was a great way to ‘get more bang from my buck’ when I was too tired and busy to make much headway with novels. Those poems are so humble and personable, and so varied, so I could read a couple, then turn them over in my head until I could get to the next couple (which is a great way to read poetry in my opinion).

 

Fully_Clothed_and_So_Forgetful__32303.1486956777.220.220.jpg   Fully_Clothed_and_So_Forgetful__32303.1486956777.220.220.jpg   Fully_Clothed_and_So_Forgetful__32303.1486956777.220.220.jpg

 

PG: Your debut collection, Fully Clothed and So Forgetful, gave me goose bumps as I read and took me beyond words to that state where you stand somewhere wild and beautiful and just stall beyond language to absorb the world. My initial reaction is simply to tell the reader to read your book. But then I start accumulating a list of what I think your poetry is doing: the poems are inventive, unpredictable, melodic, on the move, strange, love-soaked. What key things matter when you write a poem?

HM: Thank you! That is a lovely thing to have someone say about my writing, and quite strange because these poems have become so familiar to me now that I’ve almost become disenchanted by them: you know, the feeling of old outfits you’ve worn too many times and are giving way at the knees or something. The key thing that matters to me in a poem (whether one I’m writing or reading) is that it gets me in the gut. I get very frustrated by poetry that feels empty, or emotionally disengaged or distant, or is teasing the reader or holding them at arm’s length. I just find it boring, I mean, I know that different poems and poets have all sorts of intellectual fare to offer, but I want to be emotionally moved by a poem, and nothing less.

 

PG: I feel the same way. Your book generated strong emotional engagement for me, which is why it mattered so much. I am particularly excited by the way you create poetic movement. Is this something organic and unconscious or deliberate and cultivated?

HM: I guess it must be unconscious, because it’s not something I’ve gone in thinking about or worked at. Maybe it’s because I’m a chronic fidgeter? Or maybe because lots of my poems come to me when I’m walking. Or maybe it’s because I have a terrible attention span?

 

PG: The first poem, ‘Higher ground,’ is memorable, resonant and fablesque. I fill to the brim with it and don’t want to undercut the way I absorb its magical effects—the poetic side lanes and underpasses and overbridges—by explaining what I think it is doing. But I would say, as a tiny hinge into the poem, it reminds me how we can so easily become immune to what we see and hear. How do you feel about talking about the poetry you write?

HM: Ah yes, well this poem is an example of one that came to me while walking! In Wellington, as you know, there are lots of hills, and my old house was up one of them, and then up ninety steps. This made walking home from school with my kids kind of a drag, and so this poem, with its promise of glories to come, is really just an exaggeration of the daily bribery of walking home from school up what is basically a mountain. We totally become immune to life, it’s kind of tragic eh? One of the things that was promised to me when I had kids was that “they’d make me see the world with fresh eyes” and more parental romanticisations like that, and I really don’t know if that’s been true or not. But I do spend a lot of time trying to look at things like that anyway. I used to think I was going to be an artist, so maybe it comes from that? Experiencing the world, then deconstructing it in order to be able to reconstruct it on the page?

 

PG: I loved the oblique appearance of Gertrude Stein and her Tender Buttons in your ‘Gender buttons.’ While your poetry does not replicate the anarchic and playful syntax of a Stein poem, your phrasing is deliciously agile and surprising (‘I wake to you nuzzling into my bed/
complaining of the quick-sand carpet in the hallway’). Do you feel Stein influenced your language in any way or your inventive links between object-self-word-love?

HM: Well actually I’m not a huge Stein fan, I find her poetry difficult to engage with, and I suspect she was kind of a horrible person. In fact, this poem came about because I told the person I was in love with at the time that I thought she looked like Stein (who she also hated), and then I felt so bad that I wrote a love poem by way of apology. But I am interested in Stein’s idea of ‘Cubist writing’, which I guess in my poems isn’t even close to the exaggerated effect she achieves, but I like the idea of multiple things going on, multiple ways to access a work, multiple planes of understanding, gaps in meaning which the mind auto-fills. And I like the idea of language constructing a world, rather than merely referencing it, you know, then I can say each of my lil poems is its own world, like one of the windows in the wizard’s house. I would love it if that’s how they were read, like objects to be picked up and transported by, either a snow-globe or a portkey.

 

PG: Another reason the collection affected me so much is that is deeply yet originally personal. I felt like making a caption to go over my desk: poetry is personal. Your poems demonstrate that you can dig deep into personal experience and self-scrutiny in ways that are inventive and quiet. There are some big things faced: a teenage pregnancy and not meeting expectations to marry a man.  So many of the poems, with strong personal origins, are effervescent with possibilities. I am thinking of ‘In the Forest of the night,’ inspired by William Blake’s ‘The Tyger,’ but hovers like a miniature, fully-formed autobiography (the fearful child, the maternal embrace, the maternal anxiety, the supressed feelings, the broken relationship). Did you have lines you would not cross in order to protect those close to you?

HM: Well yes, poetry is personal. Very personal. I do hope no one reads these and recognises (a part of) themself, and is upset. The relationship poems are unnamed for this exact reason, but the family ones are probably more problematic. Funnily enough the ones about my parents are pretty tidily summed up by saying they’re about miscommunication (or lack of communication), and I hope they’re grown-up enough to understand that everyone sees things differently, and that this is my version of events, so to speak. The kid-ones are the most worrying, as I don’t want them to be like some shameful or burdensome photo brought out at a 21st party. But there aren’t many of them, and I’ve tested them out on Lucia and Jethro, who seem ok with them. We talked about this a lot in Hera’s TMI course last year: what is too personal, what sorts of things make you a ‘bad person’ for disclosing about someone else in a poem, etc etc. I try to think ‘how would I feel if someone said this about me?’ and bear that in mind, and there are lots of excruciatingly personal disclosures about myself in here, so maybe that balances it out? But also, that responsibility can be a bit crippling and sometimes you think ‘well fuck it’ and just write.

 

PG: I love the way you place a personal revelation within intriguing and inventive contexts and layer it like an artichoke so that is exquisitely simple yet flavoursome on the tongue. I am thinking of ‘Trip with Mum,’ where you go to Disneyland and take rides with your aging mother—real or imagined—and have difficult conversations until you spin away from probing questions to a far-off planet: ‘I’d try shouting things like, What do you know about pain?! and I’m afraid! and finally, I love you! as I grew smaller and smaller and she grew older and older and everything just kept spinning.’ Is the autobiographical thread a significant part of how you write?

HM: Well I guess so, erm. I don’t know if that’s just narcissistic and unimaginative or what, but I guess I just don’t want to speak for anyone else, or tread on any toes, and other people are better qualified than me to tell their own stories. But also it’s a by-product of the way I think and experience the world: by relating information and experience directly to my personal history and developing self. I remember our MA class having a near-fight early in the year when Chris presented us with a reading which basically posited that people assume poetry is autobiographical, and that the narrator is the writer. We, mostly, railed against this on principle, wanting perhaps to protect our right to mystery, but I think we all secretly knew that the ‘I’ is the I. I’ve been emboldened by the opening poem in Hera’s book, which gives the reader permission to read it as a book about her (and the title), and Greg’s book which is openly autobiographical while looking outward at people and events to hang his history on in the complicated and beautiful way that true life does.

 

PG: Are you after some kind of autobiographical truth when you write, however elusive that might be? I am wondering if this is why the book has so intricately hooked me.

HM: Autobiographical truth? I guess so, in the sense that I’m prone to self-reflection. I’m quite a socially anxious person, and a major introvert, and one of those people who analyse social interactions excessively as they’re happening and potentially going on for days afterward just in the normal course of things. Looking at your actions in the world so closely is perhaps not healthy, but it is interesting, especially the way different people work in given situations and relations.

 

PG: Feminism is such a complicated, multifaceted, highly contested set of ideas and practices. It always has been and is especially so today. I think your collection is in debt to a feminist engagement with the world that is mobile and probing. Do you think it makes a difference to your poetry that you are a woman? Does feminism matter?

HM: Of course I’m a feminist, though I tend to think in essence feminism is very simple, actually, which is not to say women and womanhood aren’t complicated and gloriously multi-faceted, or that femininity as an identity within feminism (particular for lesbian, bi and trans women) isn’t highly contested. And yes, for sure feminism matters, and I think it needs to keep on mattering, more loudly and insistently than it has to date, for quite a while yet. I think it’s (perhaps too) clear that it matters to my writing that I’m a woman, it matters that I’m a feminist women, that I’m a mother, that I’m a teenage pregnancy statistic, that I’m bisexual, that I grew up in a working-class Christian family etc etc. Those large facts, plus all the more messy detail of just living—that’s my subject matter. I think every writer’s personal history matters to them in their writing to some extent, whether as information or bias, but not all writers are keen to share that information, or maybe they don’t think it’s interesting enough? But the feminist in me wants it to be enough! I want women to write their stories and for them to be enough! I get the sense that it’s sometimes considered not tasteful to be a bit political in poetry, that poetry should be a respite from the real world, but I want to read more poetry about the intricacies of other people’s lives.

 

PG: Are you a solitude poet (you keep poems to yourself) or a community poet (you exchange poems with friends for feedback)? Have you had any poetry mentors?

HM: I’m definitely not a solitary poet! If I was, I don’t think I’d get anything done. I’ve been lucky enough to be part of multiple communities of writers at different times: first my Masters class, then “poetry club” as we fondly call it, and Hera’s TMI school last year. All of those places have been so wonderful for being peopled with other humans who want to think and read and write, and I’m so grateful and in love with and in awe of all those humans! My longest-standing ‘community’ are definitely Sugar Magnolia Wilson and Morgan Bach, who are also my co-editors for Sweet Mammalian. Magnolia’s poems are like crystals, each with special powers, which you can pick up and feel humming through your skin, and which leave you altered and fumbling about on the astral plane. Morgan has this incredible gift for knitting centuries’ worth of narrative weight and detail into small and exacting visions which seep into your subconscious and trick you into thinking they’re your own memories. Those two, phoar, I’m so goddamn lucky to know them, to read their things when they’re vulnerable and new, and to have them do the same for me!

 

I’ve never had an official ‘mentor’, but do you think Anna would be too embarrassed if I claimed her? I think a significant portion of young writers in New Zealand, particularly women, wouldn’t be writing the way that they are if it wasn’t for her. Her writing is so smart, with such a dry sense of humour and openness to silliness too, such a unique voice, such clever observations, but they’re also unashamedly ‘womanly’ poems: they’re about friends and family, they’re domestic and comfortable and they still give you such feels. SO good!

 

Sometimes in your sleep I hear you roar

and it echoes in the back of my jaw, child,

in the forest of the night.

 

from ‘In the forest of the night’

 

 

Victoria University Press page

Radio NZ  National: Harry Ricketts reviews the book with Kathryn Ryan