Category Archives: NZ poetry interview

Poetry Shelf in conversation with Alison Glenny

 

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

from ‘Footnotes to the Heroic Age’

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

it, she discovered a small white dog.

 

from ‘Footnotes to the Heroic Age’

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

The absence of daylight was partly compensated for by an

excellent little blubber lamp, which burned with a clear white

flame.

 

from ‘Footnotes for a Heroic Age’

 

 

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

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

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

 

XVI

Some nights the staircase disappeared and was replaced by

an ice tongue. She improvised crampons using nails, spiked

boots to descend the slick surface. In the morning the

house was back to rights, although at moments the night

would impose itself unexpectedly. Gazing at the hinge of

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

sudden vertigo. Overtaken by a conviction that the dressing

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

and was floating away, calving new impossibilities as it drifted

from the dynamic boundary.

 

from ‘The Magnetic Process’

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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from ‘Footnotes to A History of the Honeymoon’

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

Erasure

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

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

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

paper, where something has been erased. There were several

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

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

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

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

beloved has been replaced by a set of measurements.

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

with snow.

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

sleeve at her wrist – did it show?

 

from ‘X’ in ‘The Magnetic Process’

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

 

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from ‘Appendix 2 Correspondence’

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

I

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

velvet sofa. Each time he visited she was delighted when

he produced a bouquet of flowers, summoned out of thin

air. He spoke of his belief that materials absorb the

identity of those who handle them. Sometimes their

fingers would touch during the examination of an object.

The inevitable sparks were part of what he called the

magnetic process.

from ‘The Magnetic Process’

 

 

 

Otago University Press page

Excerpts from The Farewell Tourist at the Fourth Floor

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf in conversation with Alice Miller

 

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

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

 

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Epilogue

 

I’m not here to repair the world.

No one here’s here for much, except

perhaps these high windows boasting sky.

My friend says love is easier the less

you know a person. The more you know

the less you love. I say love’s

an exhausted word, used for everything.

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

and I can’t remember why in Hell

I should turn it off.

Doesn’t language get tired?

Doesn’t it get sick of

lulling us into believing

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

into water and stirs her own image, and

in the lake her leaves retract, refuse to repair.

Isn’t love also the kind of cruelty

you give to someone because you can’t hold

all that cruelty in your own hands?

All I know’s I’m overflowing.

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

how much of me the world can hold.

 

©Alice Miller, from Nowhere Nearer

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

                                 (..) This morning

inside other mornings, as the city nests

inside other towns, the sun steps in

to blast the snow back

so my eyes must shut,

see only blood.

 

from ‘Outside Vienna’

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

 

(…)  When a psychoanalyst

says adults have no notion of home, a

nomadic woman says rubbish

and in America rubbish perches on gutters

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

A bumblebee is bumbling home?

We bumble but we do not gull, only

cull our belongings as we wait to board

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

         to riches and our gull back to rags.

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

needs a rest from the world I have wrinkled

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

      new east

 

from ‘The Hold I Have’

 

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

 

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

 

How today in a haunted town

the rain is patient

and windows promise

to split our faces

How today in a hunting ground

we tell our stories in the only

wayward inadequate way

anyone knows how

 

from ‘How to Forget’

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

Born Breathing

 

Because I have never quite caught the moment when you

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

you were born, and

 

because I have never been trapped in an underground cavern

with a single candle and no water, and

 

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

photograph from Colorado of a famous man’s baby booties

and his gold death mask,

 

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

 

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

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

breath,

 

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

window blasted white by mist

 

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

after a wisdomflash, where

 

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

thin snow, when

 

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

 

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

 

©Alice Miller, from Nowhere Nearer

 

Auckland University Press page

Liverpool University Press page

Poetry Book Society recommendation

 

Liverpool University Press edition:

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

 

 

Full piece here

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf interviews Tayi Tibble

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

with potatoes and wobbly mutton.

 

from ‘Hoki Mai’

 

 

 

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Photo credit: Curti Angle

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

Our nan wears black leather pumps

and dries wishbones from chicken carcasses

in an empty margarine container on top of the fridge

She’s not my real nan

but I have always wished she was.

I wished I was born with her

blood in my veins, her dark

Waikato DNA, high cheekbones

and heavy wet eyes just like my sister.

 

from ‘Our Nan Lets Us Smoke Inside’

 

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

 

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

 

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

Order dessert like pecan pie but never eat it.

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

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

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

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

Think about drowning themselves in the bathtub instead.

Resurface with clean skin, then rinse and repeat.

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

Poūkahangatus

 

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

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

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

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

 

from ‘Poūkahangatus’

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

you know this story because

your grandmother wrote it down

in a brown photo album

she kept poorly hidden

 

from ‘Shame’

 

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

 

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

 

In the Beginning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

for the Romans.

 

from ‘Poūkahangatus’

 

 

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

 

She plays Hendrix on guitar

at her teen daughter’s party.

She finds a room full of Gregg Araki

cyberspace stoners who recommend

a remedy for her shoulders

the bones softened and sore from the weight

of religious condemnation.

So she gives up the Bible verses.

 

from ‘Black Velvet Mini’

 

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

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

 

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

 

The Ghost

They washed their hands because everyone else was washing their

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

wash their hands seriously then the ghosts would come and pull

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

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

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

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

 

from ‘Tangi in the King Country’

 

Victoria University Press page

Book launch reading via NZ Book Council

Reading picks for NZ Book Council

Poem in Starling

The Spinoff interview

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf in conversation with Sam Duckor-Jones

 

 

In the winter I planted flaxes

& they’ve taken

tall & muscular

now it’s spring

so I sleep naked

& when that suckerpunch

wind comes down

it makes those hard shafts slap

slide like lovers legs in showers

Go step outside go feel it

go stand naked in the flaxes

to get one physical fix

 

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

 

 

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Photo credit:  Ebony Lamb

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

 

On the plane home                        I sat behind a man who was

reading poems                                & I was also reading poems!

I hoped the flight attendant would notice &         say out loud

something like         hey

 

                                    two people reading poems

 

so that other people might hear & say

 

                                                                        My heart’s aflutter!

 

 

from ‘Nudes on Loan’

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

but who needs sport anyway

in order to compete

go stand in a room full of artists

bet the round

when nerves will be shattered

& it’s physical        too

to wield the tools

to make an eight-foot man

to make him look like he’d sweat

 

 

 

from ‘…muscles’ in ‘Blood Work’

 

 

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

 

Sam: For this book, important, but:

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

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

 

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

 

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(third image: from ‘Blood Work’)

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

text message

see you tomorrow

sun-kissed          kissed

generally     &

quite happy in the end

saw two dotterels at

Whatipu

don’t want to get

married anyway

 

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

 

 

Sam’s website

Victoria University Press page

Book launch reading via NZ Book Council

 

 

 

 

 

Jacket 2: Vaughan Rapatahana in conversation with Bob Orr

 

Full piece and a few poems here

 

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

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

 

Better Off Read: Pip Adam in conversation with Helen Heath

 

 

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

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

Listen here