Category Archives: NZ poetry interview

Poetry Shelf interview wth Nick Ascroft

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Nick Ascroft, Moral Sloth Victoria University Press, 2019

 

A heater heats

a Rita Angus, seen

through the steam from the langoustine

with mangosteen.

 

from ‘A Writer Wrongs’

 

‘Nick Ascroft’s Moral Sloth is among other things a virtuoso display of formal skills. He does a particularly classy line in sonnets. He can rhyme as tellingly as Alexander Pope or the Byron of Don Juan – and can match those poets in quickness of thought and even (it seems to me) outstrip them in richness of diction.’—Bill Manhire

 

Nick Ascroft’s latest poetry collection arrived at the end of last year – it had multiple effects upon me at the time and I was dead keen to do an interview with Nick – we started a conversation but then Covid 19 sidetracked everything. I return to the book and here I am again finding sweet rhyme comfort, linguistic agility, biting self exposure, equally biting wit, the humour, the poetic stretching out. Months ago I mentioned ‘a world gone mad’ in a question to Nick. That feels at odds now. Jarring in fact. This is a world off kilter trying to find equilibrium, solutions, ways forward. So many people working hard to care for so many other people. So much risk tasking. Yes there is madness on the ground and in certain leaderships. But there are also multiple comforts. When everything has spun and has seemed impossible to do – poetry has continued to hold my attention. Nick’s book has done just that.

 

Automating word noise from the stroller,

my son defines the wind in onomatopoeia:

‘Zheesh!’

Then he spies the moon, our little naked analogue,

and tells the secret of its abased name.

‘Zig zig zig,’ the bridging cicada agrees.

 

from ‘Naked Analogue’

 

 

Paula: Name three or four poetry books that mattered at different points in your life.

Nick: Sure. I think the ones I remember are the ones that brought me back in shock to the reminder that I love poetry. That it isn’t all just the same bag of grey Countdown sausages. Early on that’s easy. All poems seem great. But the more you read (and write) the harder it is to be impressed. These days I really enjoy certain books of poetry, but few actually get me excited. I am a cold-blooded egg, it must be said. But films, fiction, music are more likely to have me jazzed. I think Eunoia by Christian Bök of Canada was so shockingly good and novel and funny and well-executed that I ate it like a pavlova. All at once. For those who haven’t read it, the author set himself the task of writing five sections based on the five vowels with each section only using words that contained only that section’s vowel, so in the ‘E’ section words like ‘be’, ‘teehee’, ‘letter’ or ‘fecklessness’ could (and must) appear. This may sound like a pure exercise, but the result is just beautiful. Chapter I begins: ‘Writing is inhibiting. Sighing I sit, scribbling in ink this pidgin script. I sing with nihilistic witticism, disciplining signs with trifling gimmicks – impish hijinks which highlight stick sigils. Isn’t it glib? Isn’t it chic? …’ I could go on. The book is from 2001 but I got to it a few years later.

The other that comes to mind is In a Slant Light by Cilla McQueen from I think 2016. I’ve gushed about this elsewhere so I’ll hold back, but I was really captured by this one. It seemed the greatest use of Cilla’s talents to tell her own fascinating life story. I was struck both by the telling and the life in art. It felt empowering. Both those are single poem as whole book numbers. So to give a third I’ll say Byron’s Don Juan, which I finally got to two years ago. I really do prefer to read rhyming poetry, and no one has as much fun with it as Byron in the Don Juan cantos. More than that it showed me what a poet can be at their best. His use of persona and sensationalism and other needlessly frowned upon things, employed without giving a shit, and better still, sometimes pretending to give a shit. It inspired ‘The Plotz’ in Moral Sloth.

 

How loose and gauche.

How loose it goes;

my purple tongue

speaks weeks of prose.

 

from ‘Kay? Syrah? Shiraz?’

 

Paula: I am a big fan of In a Slant Light too – I had really wanted sessions at festivals featuring Cilla and using her poetry / autobiography as a starting point – but wasn’t to be!

I love your linguistic playfulness. Any poets you admire who also do this?

Nick: I am not quite sure what my linguistic playfulness is. It’s one of those things reviewers say of me and I feel my hackles and feckles rising. ‘Nick Ascroft, he plays with words.’ Plays?! PLAYS!? How dare you! I am not playing with language. I am working with it. This is high blinking art. But I do, I play with words. A play on words usually means delivering a pun right? Or some other rhetorical devices like zeugma (‘We stir: I my tea, and he in his grave’). I’m not sure how often I do such things. Not a lot I suspect.

So I presume the playing that is perceived relates more to my attitude to language. My attitude is: I like all the words. Any word can appear in a poem, it just needs a hospitable sentence that restricts its meaning in the right way. In the most delightful way ideally, to jack Mary Poppins. I find words joyous. Some chap smarter than me once said my work made him think of the ‘gay science’, that is the joyful spirit of Provencal troubadours as prized by Nietzsche or some such. So while my subject matter is often bleak, there is a joyfulness in the deployment of words that must come across as playful. I don’t know. Never try and analyse one’s own thing I say. That way boring pastiche lies.

But to the actual question, who else has a playfulness I admire? I think I see it in all the writers I like. David Eggleton’s parroting of the culture back at it relies on his repackaging of the phrases, buzzwords and clichés currently on the world’s lips. He seems to be both mocking the world and celebrating it. On the radio the other day he read a poem full of Z words. Love it. Richard Reeve too is playful, and what I like best is that he’s playful while being vicious, pointed, serious. The Irish and British poets of the last 30 years are lexically obsessed. Don Paterson can be my random exemplar.

 

Paula:  I love play because there are implications of risk tasking, discovery, the unexpected, surprise, less obligation to rules and limits, you can obey rules, reinvent them, abandon them. I am wondering if play can be serious!

I also love the way you move from infectious wit to an intense moment (love, for example). What matters when you write a poem?

Nick: What matters to me is that the idea and its phrasing are entertaining to me. I want to express whatever ideas I’m peddling in a way that gets them across. I want to be generous. That doesn’t always happen, because I also love obfuscation and nonsense. To me poetry is art with language, and language is a wonderful mess of things. I can’t sum up all poems, so I’ll try to think about what matters in particular instances. When I write a sonnet what matters is that I obey the rules: 14 × 5 iambs and a rhyme scheme. I want the rhymes to be novel, enjoyable in themselves while the poem works quietly around them. If a poem has jokes, they have to actually make me giggle. I have to laugh at my own jokes like an ass. I have a real problem with weakly jokey poems. And so a fear that I am writing them. It’s good fear.

 

Paula: I found myself laughing, feeling both comfort and discomfort, being moved in complex ways as I read you book. What hooks you in the poetry of others?

Nick: Many things. Too many things. But ultimately, invention. What comes to mind is the surreal brilliance in the similes of Hera Lindsay Bird. As most people likely to read this are writers themselves, I’m sure you will be familiar with the experience of reading a line and thinking, I never could have written that. That has a brilliance I will never attain. It’s bittersweet. And that’s how I feel about HLB. The intricacy of those similes. The sheer invention. Now I see everyone copying the style, the surreal and intricate and somehow true HLB simile. I don’t say that sneeringly. They are infectious. I feel the same way of Richard Reeve’s ease of invention, and his accuracy at depicting things. At the moment he is writing a poem about rain that I have seen the first few sections of and its makes you see the truths of rain anew. It makes you care about rain. I could never come up with those lines.

 

Not one to plotz, I’m private, careful, flaccid.

How did I change? One moment I wear blouses,

vinyl shoes, I’m pulverised on acid,

the next I’m at the bank discussing houses

or circling with a whiteboard marker ‘hazard

class’, a tucked-in shirt with belted trousers.

I want to understand, to tweeze this tuft.

Did I grow up? Or was my brightness snuffed?

 

from ‘The Plotz’

 

Paula: I saw Hera in a simile battle with USA poet Patricia Lockwood at the Wellington Writers Festival a couple of years ago. Each trying to out do the other, so the session was was like a gigantic poem. At the time it felt like there was a global wave of simile battles, every which way you looked.

Sometimes you get quite personal. There is a little confession in ‘The Plotz’: ‘I’m  private, careful, flaccid.’ Do you have lines you don’t cross? How do you feel about breaking down the privacy?

Nick: The whole of ‘The Plotz’ is uncomfortable confession … sprinkled with self-mythologising. This is not my natural mode, but something I have occasionally indulged in. And that’s how I always saw it, indulgence. Confession and making poems only about oneself were things I thought tired and distasteful. I have completely 180-ed on that. I admire the bravery of confession in other poets these days. It’s only in saying our oddest truths that others can recognise them and feel liberated by it being said elsewhere.

I can think of two lines I am uncomfortable crossing. The first relates to poems of fatherhood. I had a motto going in to the whole breeding business that ‘you become what you hate’. Constant gushing on Facebook: check. Dad dancing: check. I read Amy Brown’s brilliant evocation of those early hellish weeks of infancy, and in a similar vein Chris Stewart in the recent AUP New Poets 6. In the recognition of experience I really value these poems. I remember reading Graham Lindsay’s Lazy Wind Poems a decade ago and really enjoying it, but having a sense that his baby had poisoned his mind. He was now obsessed with this tot and it was suckling on his poetry like a parasite. I was afraid to become that thing. A dad poet fixated on his offspring. It’s a foolish fear and a few of the better poems in Moral Sloth relate to dadhood. But I remain uncomfortable with it. Perhaps it’s in the way ‘dad’ is used as a modifier to denote uncool or hopeless: ‘dad jokes’, ‘dadbod’, ‘dad pants’ (I made that up, but you can imagine what it might mean and it is not flattering).

My other discomfort is naming names. All of my best confessional anecdotes involve other people. I’ll shame myself happily – and certain others who it is humorous to shame – but not everyone.

 

And hello, I am a beaver.

To you my sincerest, I am a starfish

with an old-fashioned disposition.

Ever yours, a beetle, one of many, writing,

amid a rainstorm, of commas, to an eagle.

 

from ‘Good Day, I Am a Horse’

 

Paula: Are you drawn to particular things, subjects?

Nick: Moral philosophy. The human condition. Sanctimony. Hubris. My own pratfalls. Funny cats.

 

Paula: What attracts you to rhyme (I love your rhyme!)?

Nick: I enjoy rhyme more than anything in poetry. For a while that felt enormously unfashionable. It was OK to like the rhymesters of the past with a knowing wince, but rhyme’s time had passed. Or so we thought. People at NASA have a saying: ‘Space is hard’. Meaning it is always likely any mission will crash and burn and only the most meticulous planning will give you a hope in hell. No. Rhyme is hard. It crashes and burns by its very nature. It’s a real craft I think that takes some years of apprenticeship. I am still learning. It has to seem both obvious and invisible, blunt but subtle. That’s more in the lead up, perhaps, but the rhyme words themselves delight me. I recently rhymed ‘triplex’ and ‘shipwrecks’. Giddy. A good near-rhyme can be so rewarding too, for instance in ‘Art Is Weak’ the rhyme of ‘horsemen’ with ‘porcelain’. But I like metrical rhyming poetry ultimately for the puzzle. It’s like a crossword or Sudoku. You labour away at it trying to make it complete, and acceptable. But unlike a puzzle there is no final answer and always room for improvement. At one point in Moral Sloth there are 242 lines of iambic pentameter in a row (including a few sonnets and the 18 stanzas of ottava rima of ‘The Plotz’). I really worry this is off-putting. But it’s what I write.

 

A certain governmental agency

provisioning the arts suggested in

the aftermath that those invested in

opposing such disgusting vagrancy

of moral intellect should hashtag works

of art or prose on Twitter: ‘#CreateAroha’.

 

from The Mosque Attacks’

 

Paula: What good is poetry in a world gone mad?

Nick: The world hasn’t gone mad of course. It remains mad. I am not optimistic that poetry will help. It summons some of the forces in the world perhaps. There are forces for order, forces for chaos, forces that are just like fingers on the inside of a balloon trying to poke outwards, such as comfort. As to good – and evil –  these are such important girders of the human world that shape much of how we live our lives and who we feel it’s okay to look down on, but they are ultimately make-believe. That’s a meaningless thing to say as I’m speaking from within that make-believe world where good and evil are as real as music (also doesn’t exist) or mathematics (I’m on the fence). So the good of poetry? And its good to a mad world, where the word ‘good’ is some fantastical fudge? I am the wrong choice to pontificate on such a thing. I admire people who push the great worth of poetry to society, being someone who writes the darn-goshed stuff, and I also admire those who scoff and suggest poetry is the most worthless garbage.

My only sermon on this front is that if poetry is lowly garbage, which very few read, it has a secret strength. Poets can say anything. We can say the things others would rightly shy away from. There is no personal consequence. We’re already the lowest of the low. And we will never derive a living income from poetry, so the biggest risk is a few sales off a small total. We can say ugly truths and scary falsehoods. An example. I was going to cut a poem from Moral Sloth called ‘The Mosque Attacks’ for two very good reasons. The first being that the mosque attacks in Christchurch are still fresh, still appalling, still punch-to-the-gut sickening to even think about, and the response to them still complex and, to many, problematic. My poem is not even about the attacks. It’s about a Creative New Zealand tweet. The poem, a sonnet, tries to untangle my dislike of CNZ’s post-attacks call to hashtag works on social media with #CreateAroha. The upshot being that it was feelgood vomit. So yes, the first reason to cut, is that my rhymey poem is petty in the face of real tragedy. You all think: and you needed a second reason, man? The second reason was not to bite the hand that feeds. Why attack Creative New Zealand? They are my only chance to make a little money. I thought it absurd I would even consider putting the poem in the collection. I’d shown it to my email poet-circle. That was enough. But those readers didn’t blink or scold me. So I slipped it in the manuscript. I presumed Ashleigh Young would say, this is a bit on the nose, Nick. Nothing. Then I had to cut poems to get down to a slick 80 pages. Surely it would be cut now. I left it. And I left it because poetry sashays under the radar. It can waltz its way through the sacred and taboo. Poetry can say unwise things. This is the good of poetry. More people will read this interview than that poem.

 

Paula: If you were running this interview and wanted to take a swerve what would you ask yourself?

Nick: I’ve thought about this too much, but the question I would suggest is ‘Has success changed you?’ In fact, it would almost be great if you deleted your question and just asked this, so that people might pause and think, but he’s not successful at all is he? Why’s she asking that? Weird.

The reason I’d like the question is that success as a poet is a funny thing. No it really isn’t, actually. If one is celebrated, studied, one’s books sell in large numbers, one wins prizes, awards, fellowships, is asked to panel-beat festivals around the world, and one’s surname becomes sufficient identification, etc. etc., then one is successful. I nearly almost have a couple of those things. But I decided recently that I would think of myself as successful. Everyone can see someone more successful than themselves. So why not? Some people enjoy my poetry, and some people publish it. I’ll take that. And yes, success has changed me. I am much much worse.

 

Paula: Love the question. Might try it on someone else. It’s the stranger coming up to you and saying they liked your book. That’s something I rate. Everything else feels like white noise.

Is there a poem that particularly worked for you?

Nick: Difficult. They all worked enough to be included and all carried their flaws. I like ‘The Plotz’ the most, but a few lines bug me, and I’ll likely be rewriting it until I die. ‘I Coo Haiku High, Eh’, which squashes eight haiku into a sonnet, pleases me very much but it’s a bit of a grand folly. The one I wrote for my father’s funeral ‘A Good Heart’ using Dad’s stock phrases is special to me but similarly is a bit too personal to transcend that. I’ll choose ‘What to Avoid Calling My Next Poetry Collection’, simply because it involved the most work. It was much longer and continuously growing. Ashleigh helped me cull it back to something tighter and more manageable. One of the lines is entirely hers. Is it poetry? I’m not sure that it is. But meh.

 

 

What to Avoid calling the Next Collection

 

You’re Going to Need a Big Old Dictionary

What to Expectorate When Your Expectorating

Fanny Pack of Wolves

Words Good

Dry, Slow, Grinding, Unremitting, Desolate, Endless

 

Dwang Nibbler

Full Metal Jean Shorts

You Don’t Have Time for This

Treat Your Own Neck

Fey Canoes

 

Your Haircut Looks Like a Pauper’s Grave

Your Pauper’s Grave Is a Bit Ooh-Look-at-Me

Unstapleshuttable

People Who Bought This Also Bought Pornography

Smellybutton

 

I Preferred His Early Funny Poems

Just Thoughts Really

Limericks for Pubic Baldness

Charge Conjugation Parity Symmetry Violation for Dummies

Hang on, Nobody Wang Chung a Second

 

Impervious to Criticism

Found Poems of Financial Regulation

Away with Words

Fighting Fire with Fire Extinguishers

There Was an Old Lady from Lucknow

 

Most Eligible Lecturer

You People

Once Were Wordier

Cry Me ¡Arriba!

What to Ejaculate When You’re Ejaculating

 

Suckle on My Verse Teats

Emilio Estevez

10 Child Abduction Fails #3 Is Hilarious

Your Feet Honk Like Tofurkey

Wheeeeeeeee!

 

 

Nick Ascroft was born in Oamaru. His previous poetry collections are From the Author Of (2000), Nonsense (2003), and Back with the Human Condition (2016); in 2018 Boatwhistle published his Dandy Bogan: Selected Poems. He has edited Landfall, Glottis and Takahē and was all-too briefly the Burns Fellow at the University of Otago. He is also a non-fiction author, writing on music and football. Nick is an editor by trade, a linguist by training and a competitive Scrabble player by choice.

Victoria University Press author page

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some questions for poets reading at Paula Green’s Poetry Shelf Live (Wellington)

 

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Paula Green with Jane Arthur, Lynn Jenner, Simone Kaho, Gregory Kan, Karlo Mila, Tayi Tibble and and special guest, US Poet Laureate Joy Harjo.

 

Prompted by the arrival of Wild Honey, Claire Mabey (Verb Wellington) invited me to curate a session for NZ Festival of the Arts Writers programme. It morphed into a Poetry Shelf Live session at Claire’s suggestion. I have always wanted to do this and would love to curate seasons of Poetry Shelf Live in other places, even my hometown Auckland! But I am a big fan of the poetry verve in our capital city, and have multiple Wellington attachments, having lived there twice in my life (I started school at Petone Central way back when).

So am delighted to be hosting this session!

Picking just a handful of poets was hard as there are so many recent poetry collections that I have adored, along with poets whose work has inspired me for a long time. And it’s something special to have American Poet Laureate Joy Harjo read with us.

As a prelude to the reading, a few of the poets answered some poetry questions.

 

Why write poetry?

Gregory Kan: Poetry is a way for me to process the world and also to build new worlds.

Simone Kaho: My mother used to read me and my brothers and sister bedtime stories, and we all loved reading growing up. When I first came across poetry at school, I saw how much energy there was in it. It seemed to me, to be a wild and condensed version of stories in books. I was drawn to the way a poem could tell a story, or create powerful emotion with very few words. I liked how much the writer collaborates with the reader to create meaning. It looked like magic to me and I had to try and see if I had some in me.

Jane Arthur: I think it’s because my brain suits short, intense bursts of thoughts and words, thinking about poem-sized ideas and doing poetry-shaped crafting. Which is why it’s bizarre and terrifying that I am working on a children’s novel right now.

Lynn Jenner: 

Because poetry is an arrow.

Because it can also be  as wide as a sea.

 

What  attracts you in a poem as a reader?

Gregory Kan: Leaps of the mind, eye and imagination.

Simone Kaho: I like poetry that is dark and funny, but in any poetry I’m looking for the moments where you have to stop and look away from the page, to savour what the poem has said or done. I find in many poems, times where there’s a feeling of spiritual connection. What the poem is saying becomes so true for you it’s like you are experiencing it yourself, you suddenly blend with the poet and understand, deeply, something they are saying or feeling. This can happen in any type of poetry, but for me, it’s probably more likely to happen in poetry that is slightly narrative, or grounded in the real world.

Lynn Jenner: I like the poet to tell me about what they know and what they have learned in their life. I like politics in poems. Other than that, I probably like what everyone likes; surprising language, some building up of themes and some swing and lurch in the rhythm and cadence.

 

What matters to you in a poem as a writer?

Gregory Kan: Movement beyond what I know.

Lynn Jenner:It is important to feel that the poem has done enough, that it has brought something into the light and examined it quite a bit. Because of this, I tend to write long-ish poems! I also aspire to write poems that have an emotional punch to them.

Jane Arthur: Authenticity, voice, surprise.

Simone Kaho: When a poem works, to me, it’s like it holds it’s own energy. You can read it back and see things you didn’t necessarily intend at the time of writing, and it communicates new things back to you. It feels a bit distant – like a memory of being in that moment.

 

I just hosted a festival of tree poems on Poetry Shelf – do you have recurring things in your poems?

Lynn Jenner: Trees, actually, and people dying. Also people talking.

Gregory Kan: Funny you should mention the tree poems – trees!

Jane Arthur: There’s a constant oscillation between rage and apathy. At least, those were the two states I found myself in while writing Craven, and I can still sense them when I read it now.

Simone Kaho: Yes, trees is a recurring them in my poems. Also family, the natural environment generally, and how it feels to be human. Lately, I’ve been writing poetry that is perhaps more overtly political – it’s talking about gender dynamics and trauma.

 

Name 3 to 5 books that you have loved at different points in your life.

Lynn Jenner: Seamus Deane,  Reading in the Dark;  Amos Oz, Tales of Love and Darkness; Leo Tolstoy, Hadji Murad; H.G. Sebald, The Emmigrants

Gregory Kan: Nox by Anne Carson, Sonny by Mary Burger, Dreams for Kurosawa by Raul Zurita, Penury by Myung Mi Kim. Just off the top of my head. But really there are so many.

Simone Kaho:  Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain, In the line of Beauty – Alan Hollinghurst, Bunny – Selima Hill, All of Tusiata Avia’s books, The Book of the Black Star – Albert Wendt

 

If you were to host a festival poetry session with poets from any time and any place who would you include?

Lynn Jenner: Adrienne Rich, Bill Manhire, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Leonard Cohen, Paul Muldoon, Seamus Heaney, Rumi

Gregory Kan: I don’t know!

Simone Kaho: The poets in this reading definitely. Selima Hill, Tusiata Avia, Albert Wendt, essa may ranapiri, Hone Tuwhare, Jacquie Sturm, Maya Angelou, Staceyann Chin. I could go on to include 100’s but these would be my first picks.

 

 

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Poetry Shelf interviews Heidi North

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We are tiny beneath the light, Heidi North, The Cuba Press, 2019

 

 

Muscle memory

 

I don’t know how to let you go

into a future where you don’t turn

as if by muscle memory, as if by heart

to take my hand

I can still feel the beat under your palm

the dry square next to your thumb

crescent moons rise on your fingernails

the tiny red freckle sparking up

 

Heidi North, from We are tiny beneath the light,

 

 

 

 

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Heidi North has won awards for both her poems and short stories, including an international Irish prize, and has published work in local and overseas journals. She was the New Zealand fellow in the Shanghai International Writers programme in 2016. She was awarded the Hatchette/NZSA mentorship to work on a novel and has a MA in Creative Writing from the University of Auckland. Her debut poetry collection Possiblity of Flight was published by Mākaro Press in 2015. U2 chose ‘Piha Beach, two years on’ from her new collection We are tiny beneath the light to screen at its Joshua Tree Stadium concerts in New Zealand. I find her poetry both economical and rich in effect, the self-exposure moving, the gaps equally significant.

 

 

Paula: I loved your debut collection Possibility of Flight. How do you look back upon that book?

Heidi: Oh thank you, that’s very kind of you to say. While I think there are things I would change if I published that collection today, I will always be fond of Possibility of Flight. It feels like a first book to me, in that I’d been working on some of those poems for a long time – some 10 years, so it felt so good to get them out there. This next book is quite different because it covers a relatively short space of time and I knew it didn’t have to contain the whole world. So they’re different collections. Possibility of Flight spans childhood, and leaving New Zealand to go on an OE to London, and ends with getting married and having a baby. Saying this, I realise you could read We Are Tiny Beneath the Light as a sequel of sorts.

 

 

Paula: Your new collection, with its evocation of both pain and joy, charts the end of a marriage. How difficult was it translating the private experience in poetic form and allowing it to go public? Does poetry aid the hard-to-say?

Heidi: I think that if I’d set down to write a book solely about the end of my marriage I would never have done it, but by working through the creative process and shaping the collection with my excellent editor and publisher, Mary McCallum at The Cuba Press, I allowed myself to be more vulnerable and go deeper, to strip away the poems that weren’t adding to this story, add in some more that did, and I let it become more of a narrative collection, which I think makes it stronger. I didn’t want people to think I was self-indulgent, and I didn’t want people to find it depressing. To counter that, I focused on the craft, and the book as its own entity, separate to me, and I hope that’s come through. But of course, there was a large part of me that was nervous to publish it – there is no escaping that this is an intense, personal book and I knew it was a risk. But yes, in general I think poetry aids the hard to say, and forces an honesty on ourselves as writer and reader that is at once liberating and terrifying. That’s the thrill of a poem.

 

There were three red apples

on the tree for weeks

and only today did you brave

the undercurrent of weeds

to find steady ground

to stand on to pick them.

 

from ‘Autumn’

 

 

Paula: Things matter gloriously in your poems. A window, dust, a rose, old photos, the sky resonate profoundly as I read and affect the way I inhabit a poem as reader. Were there particular things that you kept returning to? That were essential poem aides.

Heidi: There weren’t conscious things, but focusing on details, everyday things, is a way of dealing with the impossible. Poetry is a form of paying attention and slowing down. I use it to force to me do so, anyway – both when reading and writing poetry. When I think of myself writing this book, I have a sense of me grappling with the poems, they’re alive, wild and slippery, and I’m trying to button them down with concrete things rather than let them escape and run with the wind.

 

Paula: The three-section structure works well as you move from a specific place through despair and rupture to repair and joy. What effect did you want for the reader?

Heidi: I wanted to make sure I didn’t leave the reader in despair! Both because that’s an awful reading experience, and because that’s the truth of this story. I hoped to take the reader on a journey and that they would find grief and solace and joy in it, too. Because that’s the juxtaposition of life, isn’t it?

 

Paula: What are key things when you write a poem? When you read a poem?

Heidi: There’s the language, the musicality and muscularity of it. I want the poem to look right on the page. I spent a long time on that, the silence of a space, the punctuation – I could spend days on punctuation and how the words knit together – and I want to be startled and surprised with imagery. And I want all of this to come together with a clarity that feels like magic – I want to hear what the poem is singing and hear it ringing out clear. I don’t want the note the poem is sounding to be muddied with layers of complexity or cleverness for the sake of it. This is what I love reading in poetry and what I’m always aiming for.

 

The trouble

 

He’s wrapped his arms in muslin gauze

broken bird wings pressed close to his chest.

We pass without pecking

at the dried blood.

He’s been doing the washing in the communal machine.

He’s been doing a lot of that lately.

 

Heidi North

 

Paula: Did you read any poetry books that captured you as you wrote this collection?

Heidi: When I’m actively writing or editing poetry, I tend to stay away from reading too many other poets as it can influence me too much, but I came across Anne Michaels (she was at the Auckland Writers Festival in 2019) and when I heard her read I knew I needed to read more. She is an incredible poet and writer. Her collection, All We Saw, is so bold and unapologetically seeped in loss, and reading it gave me the courage to let We Are Tiny Beneath the Light be what it is – short, intense and quite raw. I often listen to music while I’m writing, often the same song over and over. For my first collection, Possibility of Flight, the song for that book is ‘England’ by The National and that was clear early on. This book took me longer to find the exact song, but in the end it is ‘Skin’ (live version) by Rag’n’Bone man.

 

Paula: Yes Anne Michaels was a festival highlight. I read all her books before she came and also especially loved All We Saw.

We Are Tiny Beneath the Light must have been a challenge. What kind of writing challenges do you see next?

Heidi: I have two novels kicking around and I think it’s time to finish them. One of them is a light-hearted novel about two sisters embarking on their OE to London and the other researched while I was in Shanghai on the Shanghai Writing Program in 2016, and wrote the bulk of while completing my Master’s at University of Auckland in 2017,  with the inspirational Paula Morris. It’s the story of a runaway bride from Auckland who goes back to the last place she remembers being happy – Shanghai – after running out her wedding. Perhaps 2020 is the year to finish both of them!

 

From the top we survey our domain

the sand, the sea, those hills –

for an instant each soft blade

of tussock is picked out in brilliant sunshine

the world sharpened by tiny shadows

from ‘Burst’

 

 

 

Heidi North reads ‘The chickens’ from We are tiny beneath the light

 

The Cuba Press author page

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf interviews Nikki-Lee Birdsey

 

 

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Night as Day, Nikki-Lee Birdsey, Victoria University Press, 2019

 

 

All the words I could write for you,

the darkness rising through darkness

the gleam-rich sea, a movie theatre

we went to.

 

from ‘The Long Nineteenth Century’

 

 

Nikki-Lee Birdsey’s poetry has appeared in a number of local and international journals, she holds a MFA from Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a BA from New York University. In 2015 she was a visiting faculty fellow at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington where she is now a PhD candidate. Victoria University Press published her debut collection Night as Day last year.

Night as Day struck multiple chords with me, particularly in the way poetry can inhabit the present tense, build sumptuous layers of feelings, ideas, things, relationships and buried secrets. Movement accumulates between places that both unsettles and anchors. Self exposure is tested, how we make poems is equally so. Pronouns are open homes: ‘you’ could be anyone. It is the kind of book that settles deep inside through its complexity, its quietness and its subterranean questions. I adore it.

We have spent perhaps a year conversing and I feel I have barely scraped the surface in what I want to talk about. And that is good – it shows the rich reading experience this poet offers.

 

(…)   As I drive

through the valleys, silky plumes of smoke rise

from the trees at random intervals, different rooms,

and I, frantic at the moment’s undoing.

 

The wind always working against us

and the scattered remainders, the past’s

shallow artefacts; somewhere whole cities

covered in ash, that legacy of fire and burning.

 

It just means someone’s home.

Your birthplace perhaps the only

kind of destiny. To know where you begin

and where you return.

 

from ‘The Great Western Hotel’

 

 

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Paula: As my introduction makes clear, your debut collection Night as Day was a rich reading experience for me. When did you first begin writing poetry? Was it as far back as childhood? What compelled you? Did any poets influence you?

 

Nikki-Lee: Thank you so much Paula. That’s a great question—compelled is a good way to describe writing.

I first began writing poetry in high school two years after I moved from Piha to a town thirty minutes outside of New York City. Growing up, I was moved around a lot and was never given a lot of information about what was happening to me. Reading was an escape, but also I can remember this early compulsion of note-taking, of trying to learn and order the information. I don’t remember reading or learning anything in schools in New Zealand. I’m not sure if it was because I moved a lot or was a terrible student or the schools were terrible. I remember being bored, nervous, and acting out because we didn’t seem to do anything. But I read on my own from books from the library. As a kid, and a girl-kid, I read monster and magic and fairy books in New Zealand. Like a lot of kids I read Harry Potter, and I would reread and reread to get lost in it. The idea that there was a magical world you couldn’t see that could choose you and take you away from what was happening to you. It was very appealing. I didn’t care about sentences, and I wasn’t taught any skills about identifying what’s a good sentence. I don’t have a lot of clear memories as a child because when you deal with instability, discontinuity, trauma you forget stuff out of necessity.

I was talking to a friend recently about this—the early love of fantasy. I remember as a girl I thought if I could just be a were-witch or a werewolf or a faerie-king or a freaking animorph! Anything to explain this incredible power I felt while reading—it felt like a hawk soaring if you can try to imagine what that feels like, and I did a lot—and this powerlessness I felt all the time as a child. I don’t read fantasy anymore but I think I should. I had to let that go in American high school to make room for algebra and bio and history. But dark, Victorian-like stories of the fallen still hold their sway.

When I got to a New Jersey public school I became conscious of the first thing: September 11 happened and the school was evacuated. I’m just now at the end of my twenties understanding how that affected me, not just moving countries with no explanation, but that sense of danger; words like terrorism, war, entering my vocabulary but not understanding really what they meant. The second thing I became conscious of in high school was the system of knowledge was completely different. I took all of these required subjects like American/ Colonial history, European/ Colonial history, Algebra, AP bio, AP physics, but the classes where I didn’t feel the burning anxiety of knowing nothing and feeling like a fraud, or an idiot, or an interloper were English classes. Books I were familiar with. So even though I was reading for the first time the very western canon, I was open to it: Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, Hawthorne, Hardy, August Wilson, Harper Lee, Milton, Melville. Stuff you would find in a high school English class. It was a lot of information but I was kind of learning my own world through those worlds in the books, i.e. making sense of what the mid-west is, this is what Dean Moriarty means by Colorado and here it is on the map and that is in the country I now live in, etc. And I had a teacher who taught a poetry class and that was it for me, I was off!

Poetry for me was fragmented in a way, like how I saw the world, in pieces, trying to make sense of it, and so I felt weirdly that it understood me and I understood it. It was also a way for me to not really express myself but express that I was there when I felt this sense of incoherence as my New Zealand past was disappearing. By the end of high school at 17 I had caught up, but while I closed this big gap in knowledge I knew there was so much more, and during this time too I figured out how to sit the SATs and applied to college and financial aid applications and buried a parent and so on.

I read a lot of Keats, Hardy, Brontes, Plath, as I would Animporphs. That sense of transformation. In university, I had to repeat the process of high school but with a lot more reading and working in bars to pay rent and then the Global Financial Crisis/ Great Recession happened by the time I graduated in New York in 2010. I think now, as I finish my PhD once again in the institution, the world in crisis, how much those big early events like 9/11, the Great Recession, really influenced my personality. Man, how child and teen years and your early self-becoming years are radioactive; they are so so crucial. It was like I was there but I was too close to it so I couldn’t see it, or if I looked at it directly it might swallow me up, as it did many people, and it was affecting me in all these ways physically and emotionally. How I handle stress and a sort of constant anxiety and nervousness, etc.

I’m just now getting more time to read separate from my doctorate, even though it’s not done yet but I have the sense of an ending, and for instance I’m writing this at 7:13 a.m. and I’ve been up since 3 a.m. reading Rilke for actually no reason other than I saw it on the bookshelf lit by the full moon, shadow journaling, thinking maybe this is who I am, this is who I’ve always been ha. It’s finally light enough to make a cup of tea without waking anyone.

 

Paula: Reading this is like reading a miniature and evocative biography where books and learning have shaped a life. I am full to the brim with questions! Your debut collection Night As Day embodies writing and subsequently reading as a way of existing, just for that provisional moment. As your title suggests: in the dark of night and light of day, and in the light of night and dark of day. What attracts you to writing? Does it make a difference if it is poetry, academic writing or something else altogether?

Nikki-Lee: What a lovely reading of Night as Day! Writing is a part of me, I think, one of the most consistent parts, my long-time companion. I came to writing as a teen in dark times, like many people. I’d write in diaries, which actually turned out to be long catalogues of what I was reading at the time. I don’t know why I did this. I also wrote these long “dictionary lists”. Oh man. But writing in diaries or in notebooks is very different to writing poems. When I first went to graduate school in Iowa I got really overwhelmed with composition. I was getting paid to write and learn but I was in a competitive environment, and younger than I am now and full of self-loathing and a lack of confidence. So I spent a lot of time burying my impulses with writing and then finding them again towards the end of my time there. And then I first came to Wellington shortly after Iowa and discovered another deep lack of confidence: not being New Zealander (for lack of a better word) enough.

So I wrote Night as Day in an academic environment, but then sort of just said fuck it. If people want to know what “Conedison” means or what I mean by “100s” I’m going to annotate these poems and I’m sure they won’t like that either. But readers responded to the biographical (poem-ographical?) end notes, and also the tone of them, I just tried to be as earnest as possible even if being earnest isn’t necessarily interesting. So in a way it does matter if it’s poetry or academic or something else but if it feels right to me then it is always me—contains that part of me that is shaped by writing continually, ever-changingly, through my life. The insistence on writing that for me says: I am here, I am new here, and tries to refuse that displaced self that is untethered to place.

Also, when I’m not writing I feel like shit. But I can’t force it. I’ve heard this is a common problem.

Is it ok to swear in this interview? Sorry.

 

I have no idea how you see me.

I think about this a lot tonight

in the purple-dark sky, the sun

falling suddenly, broken up

 by hills. I’m in the office

scrawling over the whiteboard

impossible notes and perambulations.

We never look at just one thing.

I throw my phone in the bin

too many images—

it’s just a piece of junk aglint

in the plastic folds of the liner.

 

from ‘Objects 7’

 

Paula: YES! And you can choose whether to read the annotations. I like the way they provide different illuminations and send me back rereading. Reading your collection, I felt like I was inhabiting a moment, a provisional glorious moment that was shaped by me and affected so deeply by the poems. Every time I inhabit the poem it is different. How does poetry affect as you reader and / or as writer?

Nikki-Lee: I love the idea of inhabiting a moment in a poem. What I love about poetry is that if you respond to it as the reader, you are shaping the poem. Poetry can make you give something of yourself to the poem, if just for a second. But that is such a gift. When you’re reading a poem, and you feel like it sees you, that’s the goal, the hope of the poet. One of the many reasons why it’s so vital to have different writers represented in literature.

 

Paula: Do you have key motifs, themes, symbols that you can’t get away from, that you simple love?

Nikki-Lee: I have always loved the colour of the sky and how it changes. The light of the day subsiding, the day rising. And a million other things.

 

Paula: Ah I love the appearance of sky in poems too for all kinds for reasons. Poetry is a form of wonder in all its connotations. I also love the way you take us outside the poem to the wider context of its own making. How important is this?

Nikki-Lee: I wanted to draw attention to the moment, or act, of writing the poem as a way to open the poem up. I think there should be multiple ways into a poem, why not? There are no rules. I spend so much time thinking about this. There are literally no rules, less is not more, more is not less. You just do everything you can to make connections, to reach a hand out, to make anything — maybe even especially the thing that is most painful — beautiful.

 

She said, ‘I believe in being a poet

in all moments of life.’ She wrote

of machine guns planted in courtyard gardens,

of the breaths of silk-tasselled acacias,

and she asked if she would dance

once more on wine glasses. Her repeated

phrase an echo, ‘Why should I stop?

Why should I stop?’

She divorced her husband,

she bore a bright son

and I think she loved her mother.

Is it obvious that she was beautiful?

Her books were banned

and she said, ‘Being a poet means

being human.’

 

from ‘Objects 9’

 

(a composite biography of Iranian poet, Forugh Farrokhzad, 1935 – 1967)

 

Paula: I totally agree. Poetry equals no rules. Multiple pathways. I find your poems to be pitch perfect on the line (I would love an audio version of the book), while the arrival of detail adds texture to feeling, ideas, storytelling. What matters when you write a poem?

Nikki-Lee: Wow thank you! What matters when I write a poem? I dunno. I left my life in New York City in my mid twenties to move back here and write this book Night as Day. Write a book about the place I’m from. Sometimes writing feels like the thing that keeps me going, keeps me alive. I know it sounds maybe over the top but this is a dramatic, consequential year. So I’m feeling it a lot.

 

Look, I’ll show you around

this condensed symbol of a place.

It’s true, its everything

and nothing specific,

and everything to me

and always specific.

It’s impossible to understand

how we got from there to here.

One place after another.

You come close

to a home.

 

from ‘Objects 12’

 

Paula: Do you have tension between reserve and admission?

Nikki-Lee: Yeah, considering the answer to the last question ha. I’m all tension. Constantly wondering if I’ll regret being open. People don’t like that always — I get that vibe here more than in other places I’ve lived. Hey Nikki-Lee how’s it going?

Me: Let me talk to you about how we have the highest homelessness rate in the OECD.

 

Paula: Yes! To what degree do we put the filter on when we write or go out in public. Is it something that keeps poets awake at night I wonder.

Is there a poem in the collection that particularly resonates with you? I am particularly drawn to the object poems, ‘The Blue Hour’, the notes at the back!

Nikki-Lee: They’re all a snapshot of me at a certain time. You gotta learn to love the past versions of yourself (I’m writing like I wrote this book years ago as opposed to finishing it last year and publishing it a few months later but it’s early and I have to catch the bus to work, sorry!). In Night as Day I’m working through a lot of difficult memories, things that were spurred by moving back here, and other stuff.

The poem ‘The Blue Hour’ is one people talk to me about. I’m proud because I was so afraid writing that poem and I want people who might read it to think it’s okay to have parents who can be toxic and that reject you. It’s nothing to do with you. There’s this really privileged tyrannical notion of upholding this family ideal when the people who are your parents, who are supposed to protect you, are, like, annihilating you with their generational greed.

 

You need a human to love in this awful

human endeavour. You look at all the

sad, dark things I can write long after his death.

 

You are reading this introduction

to my life now, I wish it were closer

to happiness, but then it wouldn’t be

 

close to me.

That light most

like New Zealand—

 

even I couldn’t tell the difference—

the blue hour lit up her piano

that she never played in front of us,

 

just as her mother never did, whom she

loathed and then nursed. I do not want

to loathe and then nurse.

 

Mum, please, don’t hate this,

 

I love you.

 

from ‘The Blue Hour’

 

 

 

Paula: Ah ‘The Blue Hour’ really affected me and seems connected to a maternal undercurrent hiding in the book. All the poems in this section map a life (and as you say in the whole book) and in this example the mother-daughter relationship is in the foreground. The poem’s larger indents on the first lines of stanzas are like breath intakes, the writer’s hiccups, hesitancies, with a filter at work and the fertility of pause.

You were born in Piha – I live near Te Henga on the West Coast and it anchors and lightens me in so many ways. How does your birthplace matter?

Nikki-Lee: It’s a place that both anchors and unmoors. It stands in for the flood of the past when you’re trying and failing and living a life where your past doesn’t have to define you. And then I go back there and I stand at the cliffs at the end of the road and I want to scream but I also know how that place is always a part of me. How honoured I am to be in that place. To have been taken so far away, and then to find my way back.

 

You craved the sea so long

but this is the first time you

look at it for a long time. You

wonder at the names of boats.

 

from ‘The Undergraduate’

 

Paula: What other activities enhance your life as writer?

Nikki-Lee: Occasionally crying while working out. Saunas. Skincare. Cardi B. Asking politicians at events about how’s it possible we have so many people living in poverty in a wealthy country with no tax on wealth.

 

 

The Blue Hour

  It’s the blue hour of an August

five o’clock, unlike any other I’ve seen.

I’ve made worse this worst time of year

 

for me, haven’t spoken to my mother

in a whole year. Longer? Words

compound, then run away from you.

 

That’s a cliché, but so is everything.

How many times I could barely

look to see the light streaming through

 

the windows of her New Jersey apartment.

No difference between the filmy curtains

and gauzy air. She’d bring me broccoli soup

 

from Panera Bread™, she’d say one can

never understand the sadness of you,

which explains not all, but some, of our problems.

 

From the rooftop garden

I would focus on the peak of the church

steeple across the street, and the early summer

 

moon just behind it, while the cat Lily,

deceased recently, slunk over to my deck chair

sunk in the faux-grass. My mother says

 

you need an animal to love,

but in that garden state I could see only

the ordered treetops, below the brown bees

 

swarming the dirt in the revolutionary war

cemetery. I walked through their hum once

and found four in my shoes; couldn’t tell the graves

 

from the broken headstones;

didn’t feel the sting till much later.

What do you put on bee stings? She asked,

 

I think vinegar, I said. She, beautiful

and smaller, somehow, walking out

of the bathroom wrapped in a purple sarong,

 

make-upless, wet hair made her

more definite; the light on her gold curls

a real halo, slight smile, curve of a tiny hand.

 

She was so beautiful I didn’t

think I could ever be beautiful because

some beautiful mothers never tell

 

            their daughters in time. I built myself

from the ground to that rooftop, waking in my spot

amongst the trees, the spotted leaves.

 

You need a human to love in this awful

human endeavour. You look at all the

sad, dark things I can write long after his death.

 

You are reading this introduction

to my life now, I wish it were closer

to happiness, but then it wouldn’t be

 

close to me.

That light most

like New Zealand—

 

even I couldn’t tell the difference—

the blue hour lit up her piano

that she never played in front of us,

 

just as her mother never did, whom she

loathed and then nursed. I do not want

to loathe and then nurse.

 

            Mum, please, don’t hate this,

 

I love you.

 

Nikki-Lee Birdsey

 

 

Victoria University Press author page

Poetry Shelf audio: Nikki-Lee reads ‘Foreign and Domestic’

Poetry Shelf poem festival (trees):  ‘Objects 4’

Best NZ Poems 2018: ‘Mutuwhenua

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf celebrates Fleur Adcock: Winner of 2019 Prime Minister’s Award for Literature Achievement in Poetry

To celebrate the terrific news that Fleur Adcock will receive the Prime Minster’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry, I am re-posting the interview we did earlier in the year. It was such a pleasure doing this – as it was reading my way through Fleur’s poetry backlist for Wild Honey. A research highlight!

In celebration I will give a copy of Fleur’s magnificent Collected Poems (VUP, 2019) to one reader who names a poem they love by her – and in one sentence says why (either on Twitter, Facebook or as a comment on this post. NZ readers only sorry!

Brava Fleur!

 

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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.

 

21

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!

 

Paths

 

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)

 

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