Fleur Adcock, Collected Poems, Victoria University Press, 2019
No; I can’t get it to knit. Scrunch!
Somewhere on the timeline between
the historical Eva whose
disappointments and retreating
daydreams I so tenderly probe
and our childhood’s ‘Grandma Adcock’
comes a fracture: Sam’s young lady,
eager emigrant, pioneer,
snaps into the dumpy figure
telling me off, when I was three,
for proving, at the tea-table,
I could put my toes in my mouth.
from ‘Reconstituting Eva’ (originally published in The Land Ballot, 2014)
One of the many joys in researching and writing Wild Honey was reading Fleur Adcock’s poetry books – from The Eye of the Hurricane (1964) to Hoard (2017). Since then Victoria University Press has published Fleur’s Collected Poems. It is a sumptuous, substantial tribute to a much loved poet: the hardback book is beautifully designed, keenly edited and a perfect way to enjoy the scope of her poetry.
Born in New Zealand in 1934, Fleur has spent most of her writing life in Britain; she is an editor, a translator and above all a poet. She has published 18 collections of poems including the latest book along with several other Selected Poems. She edited The Oxford Book of Contemporary New Zealand Poetry (1982); The Faber Book of Twentieth-Century Women’s Poetry (1987); The Oxford Book of Creatures, with Jacqueline Simms (1995). Her multiple awards include the Jessie Mackay Prize in 1968 and 1972, the Buckland Award in 1968 and 1979, and a New Zealand Book Award in 1984. She received an OBE in 1986, the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 2006 and was made a CNZM for services to literature in 2008.
The effects of Fleur’s poetry are wide ranging; she writes from a sustained history of reading and inquiry, from personal experience and sharp observation, from measured craft to conversational tones. Her poetry can be poignant, witty, serious, physical, abstract, humane. She assembles family and she looks back at New Zealand as she widens the definition of home.
To celebrate the arrival of Collected Poems we embarked on a slow email conversation.
At school I used to read, mostly,
and hide in the shed at dinnertime,
writing poems in my notebook.
‘Little fairies dancing,’ I wrote,
and ‘Peter and I, we watch the birds fly,
high in the sky, in the evening’.
from ‘Outwood’ (originally published in The Incident Book, Oxford University Press, 1986)
Paula: Can you paint a small snapshot of yourself as a young girl? Did books and writing feature?
Fleur: From the age of six I was always a passionate reader, somewhat to the annoyance of my mother as the years went by. One of my favourite childhood photographs of myself (there were very few, because photographic films were almost unobtainable during the war) is of me lying on my stomach on the grass in our garden when I was eight or nine, reading a book. When I was nearly seven I was given a book called Jerry of St Winifred’s, about a girl who wanted to be a vet and who when trying to rescue a puppy from a rabbit hole accidentally discovered an ancient manuscript. This was when Marilyn and I were living in the country, as unofficial evacuees on the farm of our father’s cousins George and Eva Carter. Auntie Eva told me reading was bad for the eyesight, and restricted me to one chapter a day. If she had wanted to encourage me this would have been the best thing she could have done – in these days of reluctant readers, parents are told that if reading were forbidden more children would want to do it. In my case there was absolutely no need.
At that time we were away from our parents, and therefore writing letters and little stories for them, or at least I was – Marilyn was still at the stage of sending pictures, but it was all useful practice in communication.
The following year, 1940, we were living in Salfords, Surrey, with our mother, just across the road from the small tin-roofed public library. I used to go and browse in it alone, to borrow books. Titles I remember are Fairies and Chimneys, by Rose Fyleman, and Tales of Sir Benjamin Bulbous, Bart, which involved naiads, water sprites, etc. You will observe a fairy theme.
In what seems no time at all we were settled in a house of our own and I was reading whatever I could lay my hands on: library books, books from school, occasional books I was given as presents. Because of the wartime paper shortage these were in rather short supply. I liked adventure stories: Dr Doolittle, books by Arthur Ransome, Robert Louis Stevenson, and inevitably Enid Blyton. When I was 10 my mother lent me her copy of Gone with the Wind, and the following year gave me a rather beautiful ex-library copy of Pride and Prejudice, which I read over and over again and still treasure.
I was also writing poems. When I was seven, at Outwood School in the Surrey countryside, I had a little notebook in which I wrote my compositions at lunchtimes. I was there for only three months, from early June to early September 1941, and had no friends. Marilyn was away for the first few weeks, with whooping cough. Poetry was my refuge.
(…) I was impatient
for Jerry of St Winifred’s –
my Sunday School prize, my first real book
that wasn’t babyish with pictures –
to curl up with it in the armchair
beside the range, for my evening ration:
‘Only a chapter a day,’ said Auntie.
‘Too much reading’s bad for your eyes.’
I stuck my tongue out (not at her –
in a trance of concentration), tasting
the thrilling syllables: ‘veterinary
surgeon’, ‘papyrus’, ‘manuscript’.
from ‘Tongue Sandwiches’ (originally published in Looking Back, Oxford University Press, 1997)
At my next school, St John’s, I won a gold star (see my poem ‘The Pilgrim Fathers’, and also the previous one, ‘Tongue Sandwiches’, re the earlier experience). I graduated to a slightly larger notebook and my subject matter expanded slightly, although one of my principal influences was still Enid Blyton – our mother thought her little magazine “Sunny Stories” was suitable reading matter for children, rather than the comics we swapped with our friends from school. I also liked ballads and melodrama. There were three more schools before the end of the war. At one we studied ‘The Lady of Shalott’: just my cup of tea, with its Tennysonian sound-effects and melancholy ending.
When I was 13 we went back to New Zealand, and I began writing nostalgic poems about such topics as “Spring in a Surrey wood”. The poems were rather fewer in my teens; some of them were carefully made, with rhymes and proper scansion, suitable for the school magazine, in which I won prizes for ‘The Bay’ and a poem about a seagull. My more private poems came under the influence of TS Eliot, whose work we studied when I was 15. World-weary disillusionment set in, together with free verse; I’ve just found one that ends with the two lines: “But what the hell does it matter? / Let’s go out and shoot ourselves.” The Waste Land has a lot to answer for.
But I’m afraid this is not a small snapshot but a sprawling album! I’ll stop.
Paula: I got goose bumps picturing the power of words and books for the young child making her way from girlhood to adolescence. Has poetry writing always been a refuge for you? Or has it developed other functions?
Fleur: Writing poetry has many functions for me; more than I can identify. It’s art, it’s therapy, companionship, a challenge, an indicator of health – I’ve always been aware that when I’m healthy I’m writing, and when I’m writing I’m healthy. It’s that much despised thing self-expression, as resorted to by generations of teenagers. It’s also, to some extent, my bread and butter. When I had a proper job, as a librarian in the civil service, time to write poetry was the unattainable ideal. Now that I’m retired I have a small pension from that ‘proper job’, but for a long time while I was freelance most of the work I did, in the form of poetry readings, broadcasting, book reviewing, translating, teaching on writing courses, going to festivals, writing libretti, etc, arose out of the fact that I wrote poetry. There’s less of that now – you don’t get quite so many commissions in your 80s – but still a certain amount. And I’m still writing the poems.
Poetry also has a social function. Some 18th century poets used to call their books ‘Poems upon Several Occasions’. I’ve written a number of those, too: poems for other people, for specific occasions or on topics that I hope they will be able to identify with. My poem ‘The Chiffonier’ about a particular habit of my mother’s (marking out special items for her children to inherit, long before she died) turned out to be common to a whole troop of mothers, I was pleased to learn from fan letters. I write a number of family poems: for birthdays, for Greg’s wedding to Angie, for the birth of my great-grandson Seth (a rare male among my hosts of female descendants), also elegies – for my parents and various ancestors, and one for Alistair that I managed to produce in time for Marilyn to read it at his funeral. There are elegies for friends, too, and increasing numbers of laments for doomed or extinct inhabitants of the natural world: birds, butterflies, insects of all kinds (my book Glass Wings contains examples), bats… It would be depressing to go on.
But now I see you in your Indian skirt
and casual cornflower-blue linen shirt
in the garden, under your feijoa tree,
looking about as old or as young as me.
Dear little Mother! Naturally I’m glad
you found a piece of furniture that had
happy associations with your youth;
and yes, I do admire it – that’s the truth:
its polished wood and touch of Art Nouveau
appeal to me. But surely you must know
I value this or any other treasure
of yours chiefly because it gives you pleasure.
I have to write this now, while you’re still here:
I want my mother, not her chiffonier.
from ‘The Chiffonier’ (originally published in The Incident Book, Oxford University Press, 1986)
Art: one of the enormous satisfactions of writing is constructing a beautiful or at least memorable and satisfying artefact. I believe that one of the essential elements of being human is wanting to create some kind of art. I remember having an argument with a friend about this, or perhaps just a misunderstanding – when I say “art” I include large areas of human creative endeavour such as gardening, growing plants, making clothes, furniture, jewellery, or anything that gives satisfaction to its creator. Some people (I’m not among them) find artistic pleasure in cooking. When my grandchildren Cait and Ella were small they spent hours of ingenuity constructing miniature items of furniture for their Sylvanian toys out of scraps of cardboard, Sellotape, fabric or whatever was around; that was art. So, I suppose, were the elaborate cakes their mother made for their birthdays; I remember one in the form of a swimming pool with blue jelly for water. For me the primary art-form is poetry. Very few things make me happier than finishing a poem I’ve been struggling with.
Paula: I love the way poetry emerges from the nooks and crannies of your life and thinking, the way it feeds and spurs. Your Collected Poems demonstrates this so clearly. Rereading the first two collections – The Eye of the Hurricane (1964) and Tigers (1967) – I am reminded how these early poems have travelled so well across the decades. Take the much-loved and anthologised ‘For a Five-Year-Old’ for example. What were your early preoccupations as a poet in view of both style and subject matter?
I see, then, that a kind of faith prevails:
your gentleness is moulded still by words
from me, who have trapped mice and shot wild birds,
from me, who drowned your kittens, who betrayed
your closest relatives, and who purveyed
the harshest kind of truth to many another.
But that is how things are: I am your mother,
and we are kind to snails.
from ‘For a Five-Year-old’ (originally published in The Eye of the Hurricane, AW Reed, 1964 and then in Tigers, Oxford University Press, 1967)
Fleur: I don’t think I can answer this in any meaningful way. I could look back through the early collections to see what I was writing about, but so could anyone; it’s not the same as being inside my feelings at the time, which I find it impossible to recall. I wasn’t setting out with any aim or objective; I just wrote about whatever topics suggested themselves, and my chief emotion was “Oh, good, I’m writing a poem!”
One of my first preoccupations, even as an adolescent, was my ‘exile’ from England. I wrote about this in my early teens, and also in the poem I called ‘The Lover’, in which I imagined a male persona trying to adapt to living in a new country. This ridiculous enterprise naturally misfired: everybody thought I was writing about Alistair. Serves me right, for not having had the confidence to write as a female.
Looking at The Eye of the Hurricane, I see that a number of the poems were about relationships with various men, one in particular – a natural preoccupation of a person in her 20s. One person they were definitely not about is Alistair. I was very surprised, in later years, to find that some people imagined he was the character represented in such poems as ‘Knifeplay’, when he was not at all like that. Most of those poems were written in the nearly five years between my divorce from him and my marriage to Barry Crump in 1962. I never wrote about Alistair while I was married to him. Most of my very few poems about him were written while he was dying or after his death in 2009 – my elegy for him was modelled stylistically on his famous Elegy in Mine eyes dazzle. My own early “battle of the sexes” poems (to use a Baxter phrase) were about my then current preoccupations. By 1959, Alistair was history.
As for the style, in those days I wrote in traditional verse forms, often rhymed, because it was easier to be convinced that I’d got a poem right if the rhymes and metre were correct. Free verse is far more difficult to judge (I don’t mean blank verse – unrhymed iambic pentameter, as in Shakespeare’s plays – which is another kettle of fish. I certainly used that from time to time.)
When it came to my next collection, Tigers, a new subject presented itself: culture shock. I was suddenly living in a wider society, in England, exposed to the harsh realities outside insular little cosy New Zealand. ‘Regression’ is a reflection of my new political anxieties, although I had also written about the nuclear threat earlier, in NZ. We were all convinced the world could end at any time, as seemed quite likely. But on the whole I rather cringe to open these two earliest collections. I think of what Katherine Mansfield wrote to JMM when he urged her to allow In a German Pension to be reissued: “It is far too immature, and I don’t even acknowledge it today. I mean I don’t ‘hold’ by it. I can’t go foisting that kind of stuff on the public” (quoted in his introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition).
All the flowers have gone back into the ground.
We fell on them, and they did not lie
crushed and crumpled, waiting to die
on the earth’s surface. (..)
from ‘Regression’ (originally published in Tigers, Oxford University Press, 1967)
Paula: You touch upon the way autobiography can both corrupt and enhance a reader’s pathways through a poem and the danger of making assumptions about both the speaker and subject of a poem. Some things in a poem stay secret and some are exquisitely open. As I read my way through your collections I relish the shifting tones, sharpness, admissions, contemplations. The way poems are both oblique and transparent. Two collections have particularly affected me, but before sharing these, are there one or two books that have been especially important in the making and published result?
Fleur: Once again, impossible to answer. For quite some time The Incident Book gave me particular pleasure to look back on, but inevitably it was overtaken by others. Every published collection that appears between covers and looks like a complete and separate entity is in fact just a bundle of individual poems. When my youngest granddaughter saw the size of my Collected Poems in New Zealand, she said to her father, “Wow! How could she write so many poems?” The answer is, one at a time. Each new poem is a world in itself, something to plunge into and be absorbed by for as long as the writing of it lasts. Only much later does it become part of a published book, if I decide to include it in one. Not every poem is chosen.
The fountain in her heart informs her
she needn’t try to sleep tonight –
rush, gush: the sleep-extinguisher
frothing in her chest like a dishwasher.
She sits at the window with a blanket
to track the turning stars. A comet
might add some point. The moon ignores her;
but dawn may come. She’d settle for that.
from ‘Meeting the Comet’ (originally published in Time-Zones, Oxford University Press, 1991)
My feelings about the various collections tend to be influenced by my memories of the circumstances and places in which they were written. For example, Time-Zones received its title from the travelling I was doing during that time I was working on it. It contains poems from my three months in Australia as writer in residence at the University of Adelaide in 1984, including the two long sequences at the end, ‘Mrs Fraser’s Frenzy’ (written for music, originally for Gillian Whitehead, but she decided it didn’t suit the commission she had in mind and it was subsequently set by the English composer George Newson instead), and ‘Meeting the Comet’, which I wrote in bits and pieces during my journey to and from the southern hemisphere, as a way of staying sane and having something to work on while I was in transition from one place to another. (The girl in the poem is fictional, but was originally inspired by the child of friends in Newcastle, who had the same disability although not the same history as the one in the poem.) The collection also includes poems about Adelaide, where I was living for a time, and Romania, which I had visited and where I had made good friends and had my eyes opened to a new political landscape. Altogether a bit of a ragbag – I was crossing time zones as the poems came to me.
How complicated these things are to explain.
Then there was Looking Back, which was short-listed for the T.S. Eliot prize in 1997. It gave me great pleasure to write, or at least the poems about my ancestors did, because of my obsession with genealogy, but shortly afterwards, oddly enough, I lost interest in writing poems for some years, and devoted myself to the ancestors in a big way.
Dragon Talk was important, by virtue of the fact that it marked my return to writing poetry after a gap of several years. However, I certainly wouldn’t call it my best collection; it was a necessary one, to get the wheels turning again, but afterwards I moved on in different directions.
The only book I actually conceived and embarked on as a single entity, in the way you might embark on a novel, was The Land Ballot. I wrote three or four poems about my father’s childhood, and then it dawned on me that I might be able to produce enough for a book. I did enormous amounts of research for this, over a period of two years, 2012-2013, building up a picture of this remote community and its inhabitants, and was totally immersed in it. Two of the happiest years of my life as a writer. On the other hand, one of the happiest years of my life as a person was 1977-8 (September-June), living in the Lake District as writer in residence at Charlotte Mason College in Ambleside, surrounded by amazing scenery, with time to walk and explore and make discoveries, as well as making a quantity of new friends and spending more time than usual with many of the old ones: if you live in a famously beautiful place and have a spare bedroom you suddenly become very popular. But the poems that emerged from this time are scattered between more than one published collection.
As there was only one lamp
they had to spend the winter evenings
at the table, close enough to share
its kerosene – perfumed radiance –
his mother sewing, and he
reading aloud to her the books
he borrowed from Mr Honoré
or the Daysh boys on the next farm
from ‘Evenings with Mother’ (originally published in The Land Ballot, Bloodaxe Books and VUP, 2014)
Paula: I love the way a poem becomes a miniature absorbing world for both reader and writer, and the way the context of its making is important for the poet. Reading a book is akin to listening to a symphony; you absorb the composition as a whole with certain notes and melodies standing out. I also loved The Incident Book with its fertile movement, physical beacons and emotional underlay. I keep going back to ‘The Chiffonier’, both a conversation with and portrait of your mother. The ending never fails to move me.
But I also loved Looking Back and The Land Ballot, two collections that consider ancestors, the past and the present, an attachment (and detachment) to two places, the UK and New Zealand. I guess it gets personal; the fact I am drawn to the gaping hole of my ancestors with insistent curiosity and the fact your exquisite writing satisfies my interest as a poet. Heart and mind are both engaged. Questions might arise, I feel and think multiple things, the music holds me, the intimacy is breathtaking.
What attracts you in poetry you admire?
Fleur: Another impossible question. The simple answer is simply expressed in the last line of my poem ‘The Prize-Winning Poem’: “it’s got to be good.” Of course you will ask what is the nature of that ‘goodness’, or excellence? I could talk about the tone, the rhythms, the emotional resonances, the sense of mystery or wonder that poems sometimes induce, but what I always want a poem to do is surprise me. The only full answer would be a list of poems I have admired over the years, which would be impractical.
This afternoon I was listening to a performance of Britten’s Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, which includes the setting of Blake’s little gem ‘O rose thou art sick’, which I’ve known and admired since childhood, but because the musical setting (also familiar to me) slows the words down I was listening to them more carefully than usual, and particularly struck by them. A perfect poem. But then yesterday I picked up the latest copy of the TLS and found a poem by Helen Farish that was totally new to me, and found it striking in a different way, possibly because of its strangeness: it makes you want to know more about the situation she describes, although on the other hand knowing too much might spoil it.
Poems serve different functions in our lives, and how we respond to them is affected by the circumstances in which we read or hear them.
Paula: Indeed. Can you name three poetry collections you have admired in the last few years?
Fleur: The answer is that no, I can’t make any such choices. I don’t do “favourite poets” or “favourite books”. To do so would not constitute a considered judgement. Enthusiasms come and go; they are things of the moment. It takes me a long time to make up my mind about the value of any particular writer. For example, many of my friends have published books that were important to me, but that would be a judgement about friendship, not necessarily about literary worth. I’d rather pass on this question.
Paula: What activities complement your love of poetry?
Fleur: Walking (in our local woods or wherever I happen to be), watching plants grow, watching birds and other living creatures in my garden or elsewhere. The greater the destruction of our natural environment, the more important these things become. When I first bought my house in London, in 1967, huge crowds of birds came to the neighbours’ bird table; miniature froglets hopped around the grass verges when I tried to mow the lawn; the buddleia tree was smothered in butterflies; we used to hear owls in the night. Now that I have my own birdfeeders, and more time to watch and observe the population, I’m more and more aware of the sad losses. On the other hand, I’m grateful for my health and continued ability to look after my garden and get out and about.
Now that my eyesight is so much worse I find myself reading less and listening to music a lot more, but that doesn’t really belong in this interview – music is a completely different medium from literature.
Paula: Thank you Fleur, especially as I posed such difficult questions. I have loved this slowly unfolding conversation that has kept me returning to the joy and richness of your poetry. Thank you for your generous and engaging responses – it is now time for you to get back to what you love – writing poems!
I am the dotted lines on the map:
footpaths exist only when they are walked on.
I am gravel tracks through woodland; I am
field paths, the muddy ledge by the stream,
the stepping-stones. I am the grassy lane
open between waist-high bracken where sheeep
fidget. I am the track to the top
skirting and scaling ricks. I am the cairn.
Here on the brow of the world I stop,
set my stone face to the wind, and turn
to each wide quarter. I am that I am.
(originally published in Below Loughrigg, Bloodaxe Books, 1979)
Victoria University Press page
More of Us, edited by Adrienne Jansen with Clare Arnot, Danushka Devinda and Wesley Hollis, Landing Press 2019
In New Zealand, it’s the weekend.
The streets are very quiet.
Anni Pinedo Bone from ‘The weekend and the carnival’
More of Us was launched shortly after the Christchurch mosque attacks. When many of us were unable to speak – as we sought ways to come together, to listen, to show kindness, unity, solidarity, empathy – the book became even more important. The editors have assembled a terrific range of poetry that navigates loss, dislocation, home, families, food, place. It includes 46 writers from 29 countries, from award-winning poets to high school students, all now living in New Zealand. I am moved by this book. I cry at the unspeakable wounds, I rejoice at the moments of joy. I would love to see this book in every secondary school. I would love to see this book in every lounge because it is an aid to appreciating difference as much it is an aid to forging connections. It is a gift. Thank you.
I sent a list of questions to a group of the contributors and let them choose what they wanted to answer – grateful thanks to Adrienne Jansen for helping me do this.
Why do you write poetry?
Nicky Subono: I write poetry as a way to express what is in my mind and heart. It helps me process and accept things in life and also hope that my writing can inspire or help others in tough times.
Yazan El Fares: I write because writing is often the best way to express things that a person may feel or want to tell. So I chose poetry to express what I feel and share it with other people.
Sevgi Ikinci: I love all the strands of poetry, it focuses on what wanted to be said, it’s sharp and concise. It has sound which can be delivered by writing. It can be romantic or rebellious. Also, I find poetry so delightful due to its ability to deliver different meanings for different people. When my emotions came out in a form of poetry the first time, I was thrilled. It became the way how I express my deep emotions and thoughts.
Reza Zareianjahromi: For a long while now I’ve wanted to find the perfect combination of words to describe some visceral sensation deep inside – I’ve so far failed. But the closest I’ve ever gotten to it is through poetry.
My uncle switches to a music channel.
The music is fire!
My uncles stand up, and my aunties –
they’re all ready to start that dabke,
Syria’s best dance, where people stand,
shoulder to shoulder, holding hands.
Yazan El Fares from ‘My dance story’
Like music, the poems in this anthology sound good, they make me feel the world, they make me think the world, they make my senses spark, they take me into scenes outside my knowing and I am grateful. What do you like your poems to do?
Nicky Subono:I would like my poem to communicate to individuals / be relatable to those who are struggling to find their identity/ coming to terms with living in different worlds and also help them realize and appreciate the place where they can call home.
I would like my poem to highlight diversity and embrace inclusivity.
Tofig Dankalay: Change others’ views and perception of the world and prejudice of people and places that they have never met or seen.
Yazan El Fares: I like my poems to make others feel what we feel and try to think of other people and how do they live. I also want to send a message to people through my poems that each one of us has their own culture and beliefs but we all are human being.
Sevgi Ikinci: Additionally, poetry is a peacemaker. It tells people from different parts of the world, you feel so similar, you are so similar.
Also, I love that the poetry can be read so many times and it gets even tastier.
Reza Zareianjahromi: I like my poems to make you think of dreaming. I want the dimly lit visuals of a dream to come through, the half-lucid state of your mind that produces not necessarily very fantastic and wild imagery, but instead images that are strange enough to be believable and at the same time completely alien. I want readers to get a sense of that familiarity we have with the things we see in our dreams – and I want them to realise that even though they sense this familiarity, the experience is a wholly new one each time.
Was I like this?
No, I wasn’t, but I was
just a bit quieter, reserved and afraid.
I couldn’t tell anyone who I really was!
Sevgi Ikinci from ‘Was I like this back in my home country?’
Are you drawn to certain subjects or feelings when you write?
Nicky Subono: yes, personally, I tend to write more when I feel like there is a message I wanted to express and in hope to reach out to people. It is my own way of communicating my feelings and thoughts.
Tofig Dankalay: My own constantly and forever changing views of the world as part of the universe: Where New Zealand we’re at the end of the world at sometime and at the centre of it right now…
Yazan El Fares: Yes, most of my writing revolves around my mother country and the memories always drawn me.
Sevgi Ikinci: Not objects so much, I think my drive is intense emotions.
Reza Zareianjahromi: I write quite a lot about people’s suffering. I feel a lot of people are dangerously indifferent to it. I also draw quite a lot of inspiration from my dreams, as evident from my previous answer. A good amount of the poetry I write is connected to my Iranian roots.
I remember how my first experience of lettuce
prepared me to compile a recipe book for salads
Sudha Rao from ‘Making a salad’
Do you find certain motifs or symbols keep appearing in your poems?
Tofig Dankalay: The nature, the universe, the different species, objects, that abide by the same physical and universal forces and laws.The engineering species poet within me.
Sevgi Ikinci: I am not sure. Maybe not.
Reza Zareianjahromi: A lot of my poetry is quite personal. I write quite a lot of things for myself, and never intend to share it with others. So, I guess most of my poetry has a very personal motif and intention behind. I’d like to think of them as fragments of how I felt about a certain thing the exact moment I sat down to write, and that feeling can change rather quickly or take on an almost absurd form in my writing.
I became a stranger to my own identity,
an Indonesian who never felt
she belonged in her own land.
I was a blooming flower
surrounded by poison ivy.
Now I am a bird
flying towards the clouds.
Nicky Subono from ‘Overboard’
This anthology reflects diverse migrant and refugee experience. Has your migrant or refugee experience affected the way you write? Did you write poetry in your first home country in your first language?
Nicky Subono: Yes, my life experiences has played many parts of what I write, and because English has become my first language, I tend to think and write in English.
Tofig Dankalay: Of course, it’s a huge part of it. I was born in a war zone. I have no birth certificate, I was a UN refugee at age of 5 in Sudan. Then, I moved with my family to Middle East. I got my Bachelor degree in Engineering in Jordan. Moved to New Zealand in a Skilled Migrant Category Visa (SMC). I am a refugee, expat, migrant, and a resident. I am all of that.
Yazan El Fares: Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to write in my country. All my writings are coming from my migrant background and they all talking about a child who was 10 years old when he left his own country, relatives and friends. This is because of the war which doesn’t have mercy on anyone.
Sevgi Ikinci: My migrant experience affected my writing but I don’t think it affected the way. And yes, I’ve been writing poetry for a long time. I started writing in my language and after a few years living in New Zealand, first my poetry started appearing in English.
Reza Zareianjahromi: My parents are both scientists. Because of their careers, I’ve moved around the globe a fair amount. Therefore, my migration experience is not only an experience but also a fundamental part of who I am as a person. Without it, I wouldn’t be me. So yes, the fact of my moving to new places constantly has shaped a great deal of my writing. I never wrote poetry in Persian, but I have always enjoyed reading Persian poetry.
We be pack of crow. Black bird perched upon scorched
branch. Perched upon broken building. Perched upon
snapped wire. Perched upon this doomscape.
Reza Zareianjahromi from ‘What we be?’
Was there a poet or poets that affected you in your first home country? Has a poet from Aotearoa caught your attention?
Sevgi Ikinci: Yes, possibly a few of them affected my writing from my home country.
Reza Zareianjahromi: Saadi, Hafez, Rumi, and Ferdowsi are all great Iranian poets. I can’t say any poets from Aotearoa have caught my eye (other than the really great ones is the collection!), but then that’s my own fault since I have not yet read much New Zealand Poetry. Other influences on my work are Charles Bukowski and Leonard Cohen.
I am an alien.
Call me names.
You called me all names.
Why not human?
Call me human.
Tofig Dankalay from ‘Call me human’
Which poem in the anthology really got under your skin, or moved your heart, or challenged your ideas, or gave you goosebumps? I would find it impossible to pick one so do mention others.
Nicky Subono: I loved reading ‘Call me Human’ by Tofig Dankalay because it is very raw and amazingly heartfelt… I can feel the pain within the words and it is very moving to me because I always believe that we are all belong to one race, which is humanity.
Reza Zareianjahromi: ‘The Imprisonment of Ap-Kain’ by Laurens Ikinia. Can’t quite put my finger on it, but there is something tremendous about that poem. I don’t know why. (Note from Paula: I agree!)
I would stand by you,
if there was no stone.
There is no sound,
that would awaken me.
I would have tasted how you felt,
if I were there.
There is only one chance
to be away from the stone.
Laurens Ikinia from ‘The Imprisonment of Ap Kain’
Tofig Dankalay: I was born in Eritrea in 1974, but I grew up in the Middle East. I speak Arabic and love Arabic poetry, which has influenced me. I have lived in Auckland, New Zealand since 2016. I have an engineering degree and am currently studying towards a Masters in artificial intelligence (AI) at Unitec University while working full time.
Yazan El Fares: I am Mana College in Porirua. I have been a part of the student council in 2018, and I enjoy playing football. I am interested in going to university in the future to do dentistry. I am from Syria and have been in New Zealand for two years.
My name is Sevgi Ikinci. I’m originally from Turkey and have been living in New Zealand nearly eight years now. I work as a finance professional, though writing is my passion. I’ve been writing mainly poetry and short stories. I took creative writing courses from AUT in 2018.
Nicky Subono: I am a writer and a beauty entrepreneur. I am a New Zealand permanent resident, originally from Indonesia. I first moved to New Zealand and became a kiwi at the age of ten. After being abroad for eight years, I have returned to live in Wellington. I obtained my Diploma in Creative Writing from Whitireia Polytechnic in 2009.
Reza Zareianjahromi: I was born in Iran, a country torn to shreds by a botched Islamic revolution. I am angry. I am sad. Confused. I miss my home and want it to be free from the bickering crows ripping it to pieces. I look forward to the day when I have children of my own, and they do not have to witness their country in ruins. My love for poetry stems from classical Persian poetry – especially the work of Rumi, Hafez and Saadi.
Landing press page
RNZ National interview
Two poems from the anthology
If you were to map your poetry reading history, what books would act as key co-ordinates?
– James K. Baxter Pig Island Letters
– Allen Curnow Continuum
– Robert Creeley For Love
– Robert Lowell Life Studies; For The Union Dead
– Elizabeth Bishop The Complete Poems
– Cesare Pavese Selected Poems, Penguin Modern Poets
– Richard Hugo Making Certain It Goes On
– August Kleinzahler Sleeping It Off In Rapid City
– Denis Johnson The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millenium General Assesmbly
– Fanny Howe Selected Poems
– Philip Levine The Simple Truth
– William Bronk Collected Poems
What do you want your poems to do?
I hope something of our beautiful and difficult world’s damaged rapture remains in my poems, long after the impetus or occasion for their being written has passed.
Which poem in your selection particularly falls into place. Why?
I’m still a poor judge of a poem’s strengths, and perhaps an even poorer judge of its weaknesses, but of my entry poems ‘Summer/Haszard Road’ is the one I have the most love for. (This poem will appear on the Sarah Broom website)
There is no blueprint for writing poems. What might act as a poem trigger for you?
Here are some memorable triggers:
Cooking and drinking with Malcolm Deans. Spring drives through the Lower Kaipara. Jewel heists in Dubai. Hawkers markets. The Proustian memory avalanches set off by listening to certain records. Flying from Auckland to Dunedin. Driving from Auckland to Dunedin. The spice merchants of Kochi. The industrial plains of Penrose. Tank farms. Musty churches. Junk stores. Museums. Dusk in Taupaki. Coffee and indica. My son.
If you were reviewing your entry poems, what three words would characterise their allure?
Embodied. Emboldening. Empathetic.
You are going to read together at the Auckland Writers Festival. If you could pick a dream team of poets to read – who would we see?
John Forbes. Ed Dorn. Anne Sexton. Seamus Heaney. Elizabeth Bishop. Ishion Hutchinson.
Dropped Pin: Three Lamps, Ponsonby
– for Ryan Moroney, poet of Papamoa –
This poem I started writing ten years ago
to say thanks for buying me breakfast
after a night of rough red and hydro.
Waiting for coffee, outside Cezanne,
the heat climbing high into the twenties,
our brains were slow rebooting that morning.
You’ll remember we shared a table with Monica.
Unduly caged by dubious DSM definitions,
by a psychiatrist’s repeat prescriptions,
she gulped cans of cola through a white straw,
gut-dragged on John Player Specials,
and muttered “Yes, dear,” to our questions.
Ryan, I like to think she was healed a little
every lunchtime in All Saints church,
when the minister threw open the doors
and she shuffled inside the chapel
lumping her cache of shopping bags
stuffed with paperbacks, woollen jumpers,
fortnight-old copies of The Herald
along the aisle and on to the transept
to her daily appointment in the organist’s seat.
I remember one of her small communions,
how the delicate first notes of a minor adagio
by Schubert were held in the humid air
by a common and accessible grace
on a lost afternoon, outside the chapel.
In that district of ghosts we once knew,
Monica is long gone; the minister, too.
Her playing stopped time but was heard by few.
You said goodbye, and went south again.
Her last recital you missed by twenty minutes.
Michael Steven was born in 1977. He is the author of four chapbooks and the acclaimed full-length collection Walking to Jutland Street which was longlisted for the 2019 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards (Otago University Press, 2018.) He was recipient of the 2018 Todd New Writer’s Bursary. His writing has been described as “expansive and earthed and spirited.” He lives in West Auckland.
at Jacket2 Catherine Dale, Orchid Tierney and David Howard write on Michael Steven (with poems)
Otago University Press Page
The Sarah Broom Prize session: Michael appears at the Auckland Writers Festival with the other finalists where Anne Michaels will announce the winner. Saturday May 18th, 1pm, Waitākere Room, Aotea Centre
Photo Credit: Sophie Davidson
If you were to map your poetry reading history, what books would act as key co-ordinates?
My poetry reading history – by which I mean paying attention to poetry and seeking it out on my own terms – begins with Anne Carson, whose long poem “The Glass Essay” was introduced to me by Anna Jackson in my final undergraduate year of uni. Her translations of Sappho in If Not, Winter and her shadowy, hybrid work Nox suddenly split open for me the limits of what poetry could mean. That’s when I began to feel at home in poetry, maybe because I’ve always been drawn to things that can’t be explained.
Very quickly in my literature degree I realised that the ‘Western literary canon’ we studied was the product of a violent colonial legacy. Instead I felt a pull towards the fringes of contemporary poetry, where I found poets doing extraordinary things with poetic form and linguistic boundaries, especially in The Time of the Giants by Anne Kennedy, The Same as Yes by Joan Fleming, and Lost And Gone Away by Lynn Jenner.
But it wasn’t until I discovered Cup by Alison Wong during my MA year that I recognised something of my own childhood and background in New Zealand poetry. Loop of Jade by Sarah Howe, published in 2016, was the first poetry book I ever read by someone half-Chinese like me. Ever since, I’ve been building my own poetry canon made up of works that negotiate displacement, loss, diaspora, living between cultures, and the ongoing damage caused by European colonisation. Schizophrene by Bhanu Kapil, Citizen by Claudia Rankine, Whereas by Layli Long Soldier, and Poukahangatus by Tayi Tibble are all books that I would like to carry around me at all times like talismans to keep me safe.
What do you want your poems to do?
I want a poems that are spells for curing homesickness, I want poems that are notebooks and witness accounts and dream diaries, I want poems that create a noticeable shift in the temperature of the air and transport you to your grandma’s kitchen.
Which poem in your selection particularly falls into place. Why?
I knew that when I saw a kōwhai tree in full bloom in a garden in north London, close to where I was working at the time, I would need to write about it because it was the only thing I could do. It was spring and in spring I tend to feel really melodramatic about things. I don’t think the poem is melodramatic, though; I think it ended up somehow capturing what I was feeling, in fragments: both very far away and very close to home at exactly the same moment.
There is no blueprint for writing poems. What might act as a poem trigger for you?
Recent poem triggers: silken tofu, being near the sea, tracking sunlight across my tiny garden in order to figure out where particular plants will grow, a house on fire by the side of the motorway, chocolate ice cream, dreams about whales, Chinese supermarkets, reading, reading.
If you were reviewing your entry poems, what three words would characterise their allure?
(This is too difficult and I wish I could ask someone else). Dreamlike, downpour, heatwave.
You are going to read together at the Auckland Writers Festival. If you could pick a dream team of poets to read – who would we see?
It would have to be a few American and British poets who I’ve discovered only since moving to London, because I want them and their work to travel as widely as possible. But I wouldn’t want to read alongside them because then I would be too nervous / too in awe / tearful to listen properly. Ocean Vuong – because sometimes at poetry readings he bursts into song. Also Tracy K. Smith, Raymond Antrobus, Bhanu Kapil, and Rachel Long.
Nina Mingya Powles is of Pākehā and Malaysian-Chinese heritage and was born in Wellington. She is the author of field notes on a downpour (2018), Luminescent (2017) and Girls of the Drift (2014). She is poetry editor of The Shanghai Literary Review and founding editor of Bitter Melon 苦瓜, a new poetry press. Her prose debut, a food memoir, will be published by The Emma Press in 2019.
You can hear Nina read ‘Mid-Autumn Moon Festival 2016’ here
Photo credit: Time Out Bookstore
Gregory Kan’s poetry has featured in various literary journals including Atalanta Review, Cordite, Jacket, Landfall, The Listener and Sport, in the annual Best New Zealand Poems, and in art exhibitions, journals and catalogues. His debut collection, This Paper Boat (Auckland University Press, 2016) was shortlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. His new collection, Under Glass, has gripped me as much as his debut. While his first book was unified by themes – he contemplated the poet Robin Hyde, his family, ghosts – Under Glass is also unified by form. A dialogue develops between a sequence of prose poems and a sequence of verse poems. The former features a protagonist moving through a strange and at times estranging landscape with its blazing sun. The latter establishes an interior landscape where the speaker struggles to make sense of things in a glorious interplay of gaps, knots, silence, physical things, ideas, yearnings, dream, hinges, contact, light, dark. The title underlines the way everything trembles and meaning is both prolific and unstable. The glass is a barrier, a way through, transparent, a longing to see, breakable, dangerous, a distortion, a view finder. I loved this book, this poetry haunting, and set about an email conversation with Gregory over nine weeks with pleasure.
Gregory Kan, Under Glass, Auckland University Press, 2019
Paula: Your new book is beautiful, mysterious and haunting, I really like the idea of skirting its edges rather than breaking through the ‘glass door’ of its making. What psychological, physical and heart states did its writing place upon you?
Gregory: Writing the book was a process of discovery from start to finish. For me, writing poetry involves a set of transactions or exchanges with the unknown. It is a fragile but ecstatic space to inhabit. I was privileged enough to be on the Grimshaw-Sargeson Fellowship when I wrote the bulk of it. I bounced a lot between our place in Wellington and the Sargeson Centre in Auckland. Perhaps that complemented the liminal, the interstitial states that come to characterise a good portion of my work: in-between, incomplete, on-the-edge-of, peripheral, fragmentary, perforated with holes. Radically finite. Distant but not disconnected. The Sargeson Centre is a beautiful but haunting place in and of itself. There’s a long bookcase in the apartment lined with portrait photos of all the previous fellows. At night there is nobody around except for passers-by and the occasional reveller in Albert Park. Ghosts everywhere. There is sometimes nothing more haunting than the process of writing, and the artefacts of writing. The overwhelming sense of the past in the present meant that my sense of linear time dissolved severely. I went looking for things to see if I could escape them.
Paula: Hmm. I wonder if all writer’s residences are like this? I had a similar experience at the Robert Lord cottage in Dunedin.
As I read the various hauntings in your collection three motifs stood out: the map, the mouth, the maze: ‘I started marking the walls with my knife / so I’d know where I’d been.’
The reading of the poetry took me into a maze of sea, land and self. I got ‘lost’ in reading. And that was a joy. The unconventional ‘maps’ were the navigational points. I am reminded of the blurb on Hinemoana Baker’s book, waha | mouth: ‘I’d like to think that opening this book to read is like standing at the mouth of a cave, or a river, or a grave, with a candle in your hand.’ So much for skirting the edges! Here I am drawing in close on a stanza like this:
Today the world overwhelms me.
I feel a garden
growing in my mouth
and eventually touch stone.
I am afraid of appearing sentimental about sentimental things.
Was the mouth also important as you wrote? Along with the maze and the map?
Gregory: Thanks for sharing that image from Hinemoana Baker’s book/blurb. I love it. Yes, I suppose the mouth marks several interrelated ideas for me: gap/hole/gate, threshold/limit, transition/passage, entry vs. exit, inside vs. outside, private vs. public, and a lot more. Someone, I can’t remember who, writes about the mouth being a place where the soft inside opens up to meet the outside. At the same time, I should qualify that this wasn’t part of any conscious or conceptual intent when I was writing the book. It’s something that I can see in hindsight. On the other hand, the map and the labyrinth were both entities I was conscious of letting loose in the strange game of writing the book. In retrospect, I think of all these entities constitute the problem-space of finite agents, with finite resources and knowledge, trying to understand a volatile and alien world.
It’s always fascinating to me, the differences between what one anticipates, speculates and discovers, when writing. I look forward to hearing about what other people notice when they read the book!
You think I don’t know you anymore
and I never read your emails
but I wonder if we have the same nightmare
about some final thing
for which there is no forgiveness.
Paula: I think the movement between the unconscious and conscious that a poet leaves in a poem contributes to the way a poem is both fertile and open. And that is exactly why Under Glass is a joy to read; mysterious yes, musical yes, multilayered yes. The movement is also heightened by the open pronouns. Who speaks? Who is playing? Who hides? In your last collection you engaged in self-revelations by way of Robin Hyde. Do you do so here by way of ambiguous pronouns? Or are the speaking characters both porous and invented?
Gregory: Yes, the “I” and “you” in the book are varying mixtures of real, imagined and abstract. I’ve been interested in the fragility of the address and of the self for a long time.
Both the “I” and “you” in the book are fluctuating identities. Some of the poems involve addressing real individuals in my life to begin with, but then depart from them. Sometimes they are completely abstract and/or imaginary addressees. The “I” also shifts within and from each poem. In all these ways (and many others besides), there is an intense fragility to the transmission of information and intent. I wanted to challenge the transparency of the lyric poem and the lyric “I” and “you” in this particular way. I wanted to push it to a kind of limit, to de-privatize the self. I wanted something both incredibly personal and incredibly abstract.
Paula: Such movement, such uncertainty, fluctuations, flickers. Reading this has sent me back to the book to follow those tremors. Conversely, do you think a poem or a line or even a word can offer a temporary but comfort-rich anchor? For me: ‘Every day the coast looks the same, as/ though I haven’t moved’.
Gregory: In order to write, I need to believe so. I need to believe that hope and overcoming are as universal as hardship. We have seen how a single event can completely rewrite the way we see the past, and the future. Despite such an event, some good things persist, and some new good things can even grow. While a lot of my poems imply a world of flux and uncertainty, where little can be taken for granted, I hope they can also provide a sense of solace, of possibility. The exceeding of limits and thresholds. The possibility of change and doing some good. The strength of being together and moving with others. The relief from pain.
In an idealised model of the world, there is an answer to every question. There is a reason for every event. Things can always be explained, if not anticipated. Everything is as it seems. But this is not the world I know. I think many of us experience a world far in excess of this idealisation. Flux and stability, pain and comfort, despair and hope, uncertainty and understanding – they walk together. The book is in a constant dialectic between entrapment and escape.
Paula: Indeed. The event in Christchurch tilted us at such a human level. I am a great believer in hinges as opposed to confrontation, connections rather than disconnections. For me that is what marks the pleasure of my reading experiences, such as your book. What poetry books have offered you solace or connection or breathtaking possibilities over the past year or so, but at any point in your life?
Gregory: I agree. The world can be seen in terms of its disconnections, animosities – its radical otherness. But I see that as the enabling space for bridges, for empathy and understanding. This is the condition for knowledge and for being together with others, for the grasping mindsoul looking for an island to rest on, awash in a dizzying ocean.
As for poetry books, there are so many! Since we’ve been talking about my book, I’ll use that as my constraint. Reading and writing are almost indistinguishable for me (you gotta eat to live), and these books were absolute pillars when I was writing Under Glass…
Tusiata Avia’s Fale Aitu | Spirit House. Soul-slaying. I often lament the lack of action and politics in New Zealand poetry. I sense a general sentiment that politics in poetry is “too prescriptive” or “ham-fisted” but I think that’s a cop-out. Those are not reasons to remain silent. My opinion is that our poetry community needs to speak up more, to do more work, to not be lost in the complacency of this privileged bubble of liberal high (and white) culture. Race, class, gender – they’re all here, beautifully woven into Tusiata Avia’s work. She’s not fucking around.
Anne Carson’s Nox. A sparse and fragmented work. Grief and memory. Love. Such a beautiful object, too. What she makes of the scant traces of her brother.
Raul Zurita’s Dreams for Kurosawa. Otherworldly. Heartbreaking. A very strange combination of elements: traces of trauma under the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, homage to Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, and ghosts everywhere.
Mary Burger’s Sonny. This book has been very influential to me – even since my first book, This Paper Boat – in form, in diction, in tone, in subject matter. I think it was Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle who recommended it to me. It showed me the power of plain prose and diction, and the power of arrangement and organisation. Like me, Burger is invested in interrogating and pushing the limits of the writing of selves. Like me, she is also invested in interrogating the conditions and limits of knowledge. The writing about her past collides with that of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the American physicist who was credited for being the “father” of the atomic bomb.
Paula: This is a terrific list. Thank you. I have been thinking about the fingertip traces your book has left on on me – that sometimes act as tiny questions and that sometimes resemble little melodies. Did writing this book raise a question for you – large or small? In the process of writing or upon completion?
Gregory: All kinds of questions. A lot of self-centred ones, especially if I’m in an anxious mood. Will people accept this book as poetry? Is it even any good? Did I do my best? What constitutes success for this book, and for myself? What does my poetry mean to me? These are questions that have no real answers, and I’ll be taking them to my therapist, ha.
And some bigger, more difficult questions, after the book’s release and after Christchurch. What are the possible functions of poetry in our contemporary world? At one of its lowest points, poetry, for me, is so often an institutional and institutionalised form of nostalgia and conservatism. Why is it so enamoured with its own past? I don’t know if I’ve encountered another medium that is as hell-bent on dogmatically validating itself based on historical precedents and norms. At another low point, poetry is a site of postmodern whimsy, irony and impotence. If I were being charitable, I can understand that perhaps this is driven by the belief that almost everything can be and is subsumed under the totality of capitalism, and that resistance involves finding the most non-utilitarian, non-functional gesture possible. At other times, I think that this is simply a sneering cynicism. And I find that to be incredibly lazy and dispiriting. When our world is confronted by planetary annihilation and the increasing visibility of fascism and white supremacism, these attitudes are unacceptable to me. So what does it mean for poetry to adapt, and move forward?
What should the New Zealand poetry community be asking itself? I am afraid of particular kinds of silence. The silence of grief and shock, and the impossibility of witness and testimony, is of course understandable. But why do I also have the sense that there is also the silence of privileged complacency and passivity? The roots of colonialism – and the conditions of white supremacism – run deep, and I believe it’s our responsibility to start digging in our own backyards. It is a necessary labour for all of us.
Paula: I utterly agree. A necessary labour for all of us.
What do you like to do as a counterbalance to poetry?
Gregory: I work as a programmer and that offers me a world with a lot more certainty. There is still a lot of creativity and imagination involved in programming, especially in how you approach a problem. There is a caricature of programming that implies there is always a correct way to do things but that isn’t accurate. There are many possible solutions to any one problem. However, in the context of my work, the ends of programming are often certain – the problem itself is usually fairly determinate. What you are trying to get out of the program is usually fairly determinate. With poetry, utility and ends are always in question, and I may never know ultimately what “purpose” or function a poem serves. So having this kind of existential stability in my working world as a programmer can be a real comfort, as a point of difference. At the same time, there is such a thing as speculative programming, but I don’t yet have the intent, vision or skill to get there. In saying all of that, sometimes programming and poetry can feel very similar to me, both language-driven, both world-building. From that perspective my escapes become more recreational and indulgent ones. I love hanging out with my partner and watching Netflix. I love playing video games. I love watching trashy horror movies. Also activities that involve my body to a greater degree than the mind – swimming, cooking, listening to music, playing with the cat, eating, sleeping!
Auckland University Press page
Elizabeth Welsh, Over There a Mountain, HoopLa Series, Mākaro Press, 2018
Elizabeth Welsh’s debut poetry collection, Over There a Mountain, is an exquisite read: surprising, absorbing, complex. She is an academic editor working for international university presses, she founded the online journal The Typewriter, and co-edited Flash Frontier. Her poetry has appeared in local and overseas journals and in 2012 she won the Auckland University Divine Muses Emerging Poets Award. She lives in Auckland with her family.
The collection brought Anne Kennedy’s marvelous Time of the Giants to mind as Elizabeth has also produced a long narrative poem made of glistening pieces and fluent lines. There is a sense of magic at work, a myth-like underlay, seams of real experience, and a satisfying blend of true and invented settings. This is the story of a daughter whose parents are mountains – who puzzles and struggles and faces what it is to be a mountain daughter, to be with a mountain mother and a mountain father. This is fable but this is also satisfyingly human as the mountain daughter navigates how she is formed ‘by’ and ‘outside’ relationships.
Over There a Mountain was one of my favourite poetry reads of 2018.
It’s hard to know how to be with a mother who is
a mountain. It’s hard to feel how to be with a father
who is a mountain. It’s hard to understand how to be.
It’s hard to explain that luminous bond, that bewilderingly
Paula: Narrative and character mattered so much as I read Over There a Mountain. What poetic effects were you drawn to as you wrote?
They were slow-moving, glistening tail-lights
in the guttering of a kasrt dawn.
Elizabeth: Yes, both narrative and character are central to Over There a Mountain, given its form as a narrative poem. It was actually near to completion when the poem evolved and settled into a book-length narrative (albeit split into three distinct parts – the mountain-daughter’s childhood, adulthood and last years), tracing the arc of the mountain-daughter’s life and eventual transformation. As it is involved in, or at least plays with, contemporary myth-making, the oral quality and auditory effects were particularly important to me. When I was unable to find a specific sound or rhythm, I took liberties with words, much to the confusion of my publisher at times. I remember ‘alpinic’ and ‘huffly’ both resulting in interesting discussions.
Paula: I love the liberties with words, the sonic playfulness, because that added to the mysteriousness, the strangeness. You hear mystery. Poetry is all the better for made up words.
I was totally captivated by the protagonist daughter – the underlying daughterness – and her electric movements. What discoveries, joys and struggles unfolded as you wrote your way into the daughter?
Her mountain-father found it easy, catching sight of her
in a bottle-green jersey scaling a vertiginous cliff, shoulder
blades painted with a dipped sphere of wet Cheshire moon;
she became all manner of oceans.
Elizabeth: Thank you – I’m really pleased you felt that way about the mountain-daughter. It was an interesting exercise, as I fell pregnant and gave birth to my daughter around roughly the same time (tracing my notes back, it appears the mountain-daughter began to emerge about a year before I fell pregnant when I was living far from home in south London). Whether it was timing or synchronicity or chance, I became increasingly fascinated by familial bonds and ways to refigure, disrupt, defamiliarise them. The domestic is traditionally wrought as such a safe, sanitised space, but is so expansive in its reach; it maintains such a hold on us, even as we age. And the mountain-daughter is both us and not-us, she struggles in ways we don’t and struggles in ways we do; at times, it was quite liberating to construct her character. The particular challenge for me was tracing her ‘daughterness’ – I love that word(!) – throughout her later years as a chronicle of growth, with grafts and accretions, trying to do justice to the shape her inheritance would take. I’m sure we never lose our sense of being the child of our parent(s), whatever form that relationship takes.
They told her the mountain stories as love stories, taking
her each dusk to pick bear’s garlic together. Not touching,
they bobbed like pendulums as she murmured: we just keep
hardening and hardening and hardening until all we are
is unfolded, thrown wide.
Paula: I love the way I build a setting for the narrative in my head that draws upon my own mountain experiences. Did you have real places that loomed large in your imagination?
Sleeping afterwards in the southern heat of a midday sun,
she dreamed of Tākaha Hill, Pancake Rocks, both faint
and singing outlines.
Elizabeth: The collection is deeply rooted in the New Zealand landscape, so there are quite a number of real places that surface throughout the poem. But while parts of the poem are specifically geographically located – including Mount Saint Bathans, Punakaiki, Mount Peel, Tākaka Hill, Mount Aspiring, Dolomite Point, Miranda and Picton – a significant portion of the narrative is deliberately hazy as to its precise location. The Southern Alps, around the Mackenzie country, particularly Lake Tekapo and Mount John, as well as Arthur’s Pass, heavily influenced ‘the mountain-daughter’s childhood’. And the edge where the Waitākere Ranges meets the Tasman Sea provided inspiration for the final section – that wild, untamed, rugged topography ‘what is this line of sea she came to? […] Bucking the empty trug to the picketed boundary of sopping, wolfing dunes’.
Also, venturing globally, a very fortunate and well-timed encounter with the ancient Montserrat (and the Benedictine Abbey there, complete with Holy Grotto), a multi-peaked mountain range that is part of the Catalan Pre-Coastal Range in Spain, spurred on the narrative and general ‘mountain thoughts’.
Paula: Ah maybe that is one part of the strong connections I feel with the book – like a channel for subconscious attachment- because I see the tail end of the ranges and smell the Tasman Sea from our place and I drive around the Mackenzie country and Central Otago with my partner artist.
Do you have a cluster of poetry books with which you have strong goosebump connections? Whatever they might be?
Elizabeth: Oh yes, I know what you mean – that feeling of simultaneous exhilaration and unease/disquietude. Poetry collections that I have felt an extremely strong kinship with over the years and which, without doubt, have hugely informed my creative practice include Maggie Nelson’s Bluets – these fragments/propositions change me, confront me every time I read them with their candour, urgency and meditative illumination – Anne Kennedy’s Sing-Song, Mary Oliver’s Swan, Alice Oswald’s Dart – the primal, polyvocal, experimental quality of this poem still haunts me – as well as Woods etc., Fleur Adcock’s Tigers, William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, Anna Livesey’s Ordinary Time – this collection is a true gift; it lived within arm’s reach when my daughter was very young – Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers, Mary Stanley’s Starveling Year, H.D.’s Helen in Egypt and for its shimmering poetic sensibility, Jessie Greengrass’ Sight.
Paula: I love this list! I haven’t read Jessie Greengrass. I have been musing on activities that augment poetry writing. For me: running, walking, gardening, cooking and of course reading. Listening to music. What activities enhance writing for you or keep it in balance?
Elizabeth: So much of my life is filled with motherhood at the moment, which enriches and enhances my writing and thinking and being in every way (although actually getting words to paper can be somewhat challenging). In particular, baking bread with my daughter each week is such a therapeutic act for us both and always leaves me poetically inspired. Tending to our garden and wild span of bush also slows me down and reminds me to be patient, to be present.
Two mountains encase a flushed fire,
two mountains eat hot soda damper with their daughter.
Elizabeth reads from Over There a Mountain
Mākaro Press page
Extract at Turbine / Kapohau