Category Archives: NZ poetry

Poetry Shelf reviews Nina Powles’s Luminescent – Every poem is a jewel of a thing

 

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Luminescent, Nina Powles, Seraph Press, 2017

 

Nina Powles’s debut poetry collection, Luminescent, is a set of five slender chapbooks in a night-sky sleeve. Each book is like a constellation, with a particular woman, its luminosity. (Auto)biography of Ghost catches a ghost who was said to haunted Queen Margaret College’s bell tower where she fell to her death; Sunflowers becomes a conversation and an homage to Katherine Mansfield; Whale Fall imagines the world of Betty Guard, perhaps the first Pākehā woman to have lived in the South Island; Her and the Flames draws upon Phyllis Porter who died at 19 when her costume caught alight in a theatrical performance; The Glowing Space Between the Stars turns to Beatrice Tinsley, a New Zealand cosmologist. There are notes in the back of each booklet that background each woman.

 

I love the way the poems talk to each other within each booklet and between booklets.

 

The poetry extends itself in imaginings, yet grounds itself in the light of an autobiographical presence and research. Motifs such as dust, moths, ghosts and dreams are like connecting lacework that render a sense of ethereal wholeness to the set. The poems accumulate exquisitely textured voice; confident and idiosyncratic, searching and still, melodic and spare, intricate and warm. Every poem is a jewel of a thing.

 

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Sunflowers takes several Mansfield experiences as starting points for poems: she burnt all her letters and journals when she was in her early turbulent twenties; she wrote about a writing epiphany after seeing a Van Gogh painting for the first time; she recorded a dream after her brother’s death. In an early chapbook, Girls of the Drift, Nina put New Zealand poets, Jessie Mackay and Blanch Baughan together in poetry. The poems offered surprising pathways into our first women poets in print alongside a young contemporary poet forging her own poetic trails. With the Mansfield poems, I feel like I am sitting in a room in the South of France, and each poem resembles an aperture in the wall that pulls me into a Mansfield dreaming.

‘Fever dream’ is without punctuation, a slim short-lined poem that sizzles with ‘s’ alliterations that cut into the feverish night. In the midst of the hissing heat (stinging scorching nerves skin simmers inside struck bones sky she rising), two words cut into the fevered skin (teeth cracking). The poem is visually alert with its storm inflected sky. What stamps the poem indelibly is the final image:

 

bones cracking under

a New Zealand sky

and she is the wave

rising to meet it

 

‘She’ is Mansfield, and in that wave of fevered self, I am hooked into Mansfield musings.

The poems tap nostalgia, calling upon the senses to electrify the page. ‘Silver dream’ is set in a London garden in 1915, where Katherine bites into the pear her brother hands her:

It tastes like jam sandwiches

and sunshine on her mother’s hair.

 

After physical details that light the scene, the poem shifts to dream again, to the ghost-like vein that runs through all the poems, and it’s a surprising nudge. The pear leads us to ‘where everything is silver/ and he is alive again’, and the idyllic setting shifts. We are also lead to the collection’s title, as the whole poem glows with ache and loss in subtle overlaps:

 

Later she plants a pear tree

in one of her stories,

 

makes it glow in the window,

makes it touch the moon.

 

Several booklets feature erasure poems, where blocks of ghostly grey enable certain words to shine out as a poem. That we can see the journal entry in ‘Lucid dream’, through the grey veil, adds to the dream-like state of shiver and float. I pictured the whole journal translated into grey-veil poems. The lines that lift up feel so apt: ‘Time/ was shaken/ out of me.’ The final word, ‘violet’, pulls back to sweet-scented earth, to that nostalgic hunt for elsewhere places and elsewhere memories.

 

I love this set of poetry booklets, because we still need light shining on the shadows to recover the women who did extraordinary things, or everyday things, so they form a constellation, a suite of coordinates that might shift our contemporary means of navigation.

 

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The Glowing Space Between Stars again links to the collection’s title, and underlines the idea that poetry can light up things, experiences, relations, ideas, feelings, memory. Beatrice, the cosmologist, shows how the space between things is the domain of curiosity. And for me, that feeds back into the way poetry is also curious about the gaps between. When you enter the poem gap, you enter a luminous field that so often surprises or delights or upturns.

Nina lists things in Beatrice’s childhood room; out of these things grew the adult curiosity (did anyone do this for Einstein or Newton?). She imagines the girl at 16:

 

then rushing home immediately

to write down what she’s seen,

noting especially

the glowing space between stars,

how it seems to have changed

since the night before.

 

Nina is making poems and she is making biographies, the one coming out of the other, and it is as though she is not tied to the rules of one or the rules of the other but can imagine and detour and intrude. In ‘Minutes’, the poet moves behind the galaxy facts, and the ongoing discoveries, to reveal the hiding narratives, the domestic underlay:

 

The light emitted by distant galaxies

takes billions of years to reach us.

It comes from a far younger universe,

somewhere where no one ever worried

about ironing their husband’s shirts

or arranging after-school childcare

because there were no ironing boards

and no children and no husbands

 

Five glowing booklets of poems that shine beyond the individual poems to gather a necessary and inventive, a lyrical and seismic, view of five very different women. I love this collection with its feminist energy, its poetic agility and its warm heart.

 

This, too, was the perfect time

to measure things in infinities.

 

from ‘Red (ii)’

 

Nina Powles, half Malasian-Chinese and half Pākehā, is from Wellington where she graduated with an MA in Creative Writing from Victoria University. There, she won the 2015 Biggs Family Prize for Poetry for Luminescent’s first draft. She writes poetry, non-fiction and makes poetry zines. Her chapbook, Girls of the Drift, was published by Seraph Press in 2014.

 

Seraph Press page

Nina Powles web page

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from E-Tangata: Paula Morris in excellent conversation with Dale Husband

Paula Morris: Our Māori writers are free to write whatever they want

 

I suppose there’s the question of what constitutes a Māori story. And whether a Pākehā can write a Māori story.

Generally, when I talk about Māori literature, I’m talking about writers who are Māori. To me, if you’re a Māori writer, you’re part of Māori literature — no matter what you’re writing. Overseas, people understand that. If Ernest Hemingway is writing a book in Spain — he’s still an American writer. If Graham Greene is writing a book set in Haiti or Cuba — he’s still a British writer.

Here, sometimes I think that, because our literature is younger and a bit more anxious, we worry about who’s in and who’s out. I do think really good Pākehā writers can write a Māori story if they really understand what they’re writing — and if they have the empathy, imagination, and skills, and if they’ve done their research. Then, yes. Absolutely.

And, of course, Māori writers can write about whatever the hell they want to. So Kelly Ana Morey can write about a racehorse in a book largely set in Australia — and still be part of Māori literature because she is a Māori writer. Our national literature is like other art. It’s to do with the painters or the sculptors themselves. It’s not to do with the actual work having to fit a particular theme or subject.

 

Full interview here

Is Hera Lindsay Bird a flash in the pan?

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‘All I care about is looking at things and naming them’

‘I love life’

Hera Lindsay Bird Hera Lindsay Bird, Victoria University Press, 2016

 

For the past week or so, after visits to our key research libraries,  I have been writing about Jessie Mackay, a founding mother of New Zealand poetry. What I am writing is under wraps but my relationship with both the woman and her poetry is not clear cut. She moves me, she astonishes me, she irritates me, but I am always filled with admiration. One question bubbling away is: how different is it for women writing over a hundred years later?  Sure, contemporary poems are like a foreign country, we have changed so much. But what of our behaviour as poets? Our reception? What feeds us? What renders us vulnerable and what makes us strong?

I want to draw a pencil line from Jessie Mackay to Hera Lindsay Bird and see what I can peg on it. But I want to save these thoughts for my book.

Hera Lindsay Bird has attracted the biggest hoo-ha with a poetry book I can recall. It felt like I was witnessing the birth of a cult object. Images of the book cover on the side of a bus or a building (photoshopped?!?!) created a little Twitter buzz. Lorde tweeted. Anika Moa tweeted. Tim Upperton reviewed it on launch day on National Radio. Interviews flamed the fan base on The Spin Off, The Wireless and Pantograph Punch. The interviews promoted a debut poet that is hip and hot and essential reading. Poems posted have attracted long comment trails that apparently included downright vitriol (I haven’t read these and I think just applied to one poem). The Spin Off cites this as one of a number of factors in the shutting down of all comments on their site. The launch was jam packed, the book sold out, and took the number one spot on the bestseller list. Hera is a poet with attitude. Well, all poets have attitude, but there is a degree of provocation in what she says and writes. Maybe it’s a mix of bite and daring and vulnerability. Just like it is with JM, Hera’s poetry moves, astonishes and irritates me, but most importantly, it gets me thinking/feeling/reacting and prompts admiration.

 

A few thoughts on Hera Lindsay Bird by Hera Lindsay Bird

 

This book is like rebooting self. Each poem reloads Hera. Click click whirr.

At first you might think the book is like the mohawk of a rebellious punk who doesn’t mind hate or kicking stones at glass windows or saying fuck at the drop of a hat.

The word love is in at least two thirds of the poems. It catches you at times with the most surprising, perfect image:

‘when we first fell in love

the heart like a trick candle

on an ancient, moss-dark birthday cake’

 

‘it’s love that plummets you

back down the elevator shaft’

 

You could think of this book as a handbook to love because Hera doesn’t just write love poems, she riffs on notions of love:

‘It’s like falling in love for the first time for the last time’

or: ‘What is there to say about love that hasn’t already been’

 

Some lines are meant to shock you out of reading lethargy:

‘I feel a lot of hate for people’

or: ‘My friend says it’s bad poetry to write a book’

or: ‘Some people are meant to hate forever’

 

or:

‘It’s a bad crime to say poetry in poetry

It’s a bad, adorable crime

Like robbing a bank with a mini-hairdryer’

 

Hera reads other poets and uses them as springboards to write from: Mary Ruefle, Bernadette Mayer, Mary Oliver, Chelsey Minnis, Emily Dickinson.

Sometimes the book feels like a confessional board. Poetry as confession. It hurts. There is pain. There is always love.

This poetry is personal. Poems (like little characters) interrupt the personal or the chantlike list or the nettle opinion the honey opinion as though they want a say and need to reflect back on their own making, if not maker.

Love hate sex girlfriends life death: it is not what you write but how you write it that makes a difference, that is the flash in the pan, not to mention the pan itself.

Hera writes in a conversational tone, sometimes loud, sometimes quiet, as though we are in a cafe together and some things get drowned out but the words are electric and we all listen spellbound.

 

She uses excellent similes. On poetry:

‘This is like an encore to an empty auditorium

It’s a swarm of hornets rising out of the piano’

 

‘Neither our love nor our failures will save us

all our memories

like tin cans on a wedding car

throwing up sparks’

 

‘I can only look at you

Like you are a slow-burning planet

And I am pouring water through a telescope.’

 

Hera likes to talk about bad poems; like the wry punk attitude that says look at my bad style. I am not convinced that there is much in the way of bad poetry here unless you are talking about a vein of impoliteness. It kind of feels like a set of Russian dolls – inside the bad poetry good poetry and inside that the bad and then good and so on and so forth. There is always craft and the ears have been working without fail.

One favourite poem in the book is ‘Mirror Traps’ but I am saving that for the Jessie Mackay pencil line.

Hera’s sumptuous book comes out of a very long tradition of poets busting apart poetic decorum, ideals and displays of self. It’s a while since we have witnessed such provocation on our local poetry scene. What I like about this scintillating writing is that each poem manifests such a love of and agility with words — no matter how bad it tries to be. It is addictive reading. Yes there is a flash that half blinds you and spits searing fat along your forearms, but you get to taste the sizzling halloumi with peppery rocket and citrus dressing.

 

‘I love to feel this bad because it reminds me of being human

I love this life too

Every day something new happens and I think

so this the way things are now’

 

PS I adore the cover!

Hera Lindsay Bird has an MA in poetry from Victoria University where she won the 2011 Adam Prize for best folio. She was the 2009 winner of the Story! Inc. Prize for Poetry and the Maurice Gee Prize in Children’s Writing. She lives in Wellington with her girlfriend and collection of Agatha Christie video games.

 

Poem: ‘Everything Is Wrong

 

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Poetry Shelf Review: Kerrin P Sharpe’s Rabbit Rabbit – There is a honeyed fluency that is downright enviable

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I fall with the rhythm of rowing

into long narrow light

bridges sigh like single oars

 

from ‘last supper in Venice’

 

Rabbit Rabbit Kerrin P Sharpe , Victoria University Press, 2016

 

Victoria University Press is publishing a heavenly suite of poetry books this year (actually all the presses are!). So many good poetry books I think I need a poetry book club where we can talk about poetry to our heart’s content with coffee and sweet little cakes. A once a month indulgence!

Kerrin P Sharpe is a very fine poet whose previous books hooked me with their agility, their lightness of touch, their grounding. She is currently the Writer-in-Residence at St Andrews College in Christchurch. In 2008, she was awarded the NZ Post Creative Writing Teacher’s Award by the International Institute of Modern Letters. She is a terrific mentor for young writers.

Kerrin’s latest book is an utter treat in the way things condense to the near point of evaporation and then unfold with such grace you get goosebumps. Bare threads shiver and shimmer as speech-bubble anecdotes hover above and below. There is necessary tenderness. Sometimes it is like looking into the mysterious dark of family archives where things or photographs or memories twitch in the patchy shadows. You move from smoky dream to real life to near fable.

If you think of poem writing as hitting the whirr and pace on a bike so the whole world feels perfect, then Kerrin is hitting that perfect whirr and pace as she writes. There is a honeyed fluency that is downright enviable (enhanced by the lack of capitals and full stops).

So many poems stand out, but I keep returning to the mother poems: the pitch of the line, the tilted head of the daughter looking, the inventive tropes, the extraordinary stories that resist mother frames. These poems belong in an anthology of mother poems because they are surprising in where they take you, the way they move you and the presence of things that do little cartwheels on the page.

I loved the way the mother’s Astrakhan coat prompts mystery that meets strange fable that meets down-to-earth pathos in ‘when a crayfish could feed 6 men‘:

 

yet though the coat

cracked the small change

it was when my mother’s money

stretched beyond the frontier towns

 

that she no longer wore

what after her funeral  seemed

little more than a fleece

 

There is a glorious and daring alignment of the mother’s belly and the ship she builds in ‘The mary blanche in situ.’ All poem borders slip and slide. Where does mother begin and ship end? Where does trope set sail and real life intrude?  Entering the poem is like entering a show, both magical and wondrous, and you just want to get another ticket and go through again.

 

my mother built her own ship

because she hated

the idea of drowning

 

In ‘the morning of my mother’s funeral her cup is sober minded,’ a single tea pot pours, in a little stream, like stream-of-conscious English Breakfast,the grief and thoughts of a key life moment. The poem catches the unrealness of losing a loved one; of life not stopping its circular routines and paying attention with you.

 

two plumbers install a shower

my mother will never use

 

they eat her peanut rockies

in the coronation tin

 

A delicious inventiveness drives the collection as a whole, as though reality is strained through kaleidoscopic filters to refurbish ordinary things with off kilter tints. There is the train that keeps a son breathing, there is the mouth of the sky that opens and drops bodies, the daughter that decides the bee sting is a butterfly kiss. In ‘a language goes silent,’ a Chinese fruit shop uses the bare threads, the strange tilts to move you:

 

Amy and Harry

lived in the fruit

of their shop

like mango stones

 

I adore this book. It shows just what things can do when you let them loose in a poem. Wonderful!

Poetry Shelf Postcard: Anahera Gildea’s Poroporoaki

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Poroporoaki to the Lord My God: Weaving the Via Dolorosa: Ekphrasis in Response to Walk (Series C) by Colin McCahon 

Anahera Gildea, Seraph Press, 2016

Designed and produced by Helen Rickerby of Seraph Press, this is the most exquisite chapbook imaginable. Add the gorgeous paper stock to the extra heavenly endpapers, the hand stitching and an internal design that is elegant and minimalist and you have a rare poetry treat. It is a work of beauty and all poets will be dreaming of their very own chap book. I for one!

 

XIV

Sometimes it is enough

to sit and look out.

Other times you have to walk

across bone, stone and shell.

 

Anahera Gildea’s poem is written in response to ‘Walk (Series C)‘ by Colin McCahon and is as much for James K Baxter as it is a response to the painting. It is an example of poetry as gift/taonga. Each line carefully stitched like the stitching in the kahu-kuri she makes for Baxter. This poet knows you don’t need many lines on the page to entice a reader to linger. You are walking alongside McCahon’s painting, you are walking along the wild and dark threat and wonder at Muriwai Beach, you are walking the Stations of the Cross and you are walking the poem. It is, for me, a very moving sequence.

 

Anahera (Ngāti Raukawa-ki-Te-Tonga, Kāi Tahu, Te Āti Awa, Ngāti Toa, Ngāi Te Rangi) is a Wellington-based writer who has had her poems and short stories published in a variety of journals. She recently completed the Masters of Creative Writing at Victoria University of Wellington and is currently finishing her first novel.
Seraph Press page

Three poems from Hoopla 16: Helen Jacobs, Harvey Molloy, Ish Doney

 

Mākaro Press recently released its third series of Hoopla poetry collections. Under the guiding eye of series editor, Mary McCallum, each year includes a debut, a mid-career and a late-career New Zealand poet. The design is uniform and eye-catching with simple but striking covers and fold-in jackets.

To celebrate this series, Mākaro Press has given Poetry Shelf permission to post a  poem from each collection (tough picking!)

 

This year sees a collection by young poet Ish Doney. Ish completed a design degree in Wellington, and currently lives in Scotland with an aim to move elsewhere soon. The poems generate a youthful zest, as they navigate love, loss, home, family, departure, distance. Feeling is paramount but, rather than smothering the poems, sets up shop in the pace of a line, sharp and surprising detail, images that prick your skin.

 

 

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Mid-career poet, Harvey Molloy has published widely both here and abroad. He was born in Lancashire but moved to New Zealand as a teenager and now lives in Wellington. As the key word on the cover indicates, these poems move through kaleidoscopic worlds.  This is a poet unafraid of directions a poem might take, of stories being told, of shifting forms, of a mind reflecting, contemplating, observing.Screen Shot 2016-04-22 at 2.47.20 PM.png

Helen Jacobs (Elaine Jakobsson) was once the Mayor of Eastbourne, but moved to Christchurch in 1995. She has been publishing poems for 35 years both in New Zealand and abroad. Since her arrival in Christchurch in 1995, Helen has belonged to the Canterbury Poets Collective. At the age of 85, she has now relinquished some of her lifelong passions such as gardening and bush walks but not writing. Her new poems come out of old age with delicious vitality — her ear and eye are active participants in the world. The collection renews your relationships with the things that surround you.

 

 

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Poetry Shelf Review: Gregory Kan’s This Paper Boat floats on an ethereal current so that poetry finds its way back to us all

 

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Gregory Kan This Paper Boat Auckland University Press 2016

 

Gregory Kan’s debut poetry collection, This Paper Boat, is a joy to read on so many levels.

Kan’s poetry has featured in a number of literary journals and an early version of the book was shortlisted for the Kathleen Grattan Poetry Prize in 2013. He lives in Auckland.

Paper Boat traces ghosts. We hold onto Kan’s coat tails as he tracks family and the spirit of poet, Robin Hyde (Iris Wilkinson). The gateway to family becomes the gateway to Iris and the gateway to Iris becomes the gateway to family. There is overlap between family and missing poet but there is also a deep channel. The channel of difficulty, hard knocks, the tough to decipher. There is the creek of foreignness. The abrasiveness of the world when the world is not singular.

Kan enters the thicket of memory as he sets out to recover the family stories. He shows the father as son fishing in the drains, the mother as daughter obedient at school. Yet while he fills his pockets with parental anecdotes, there is too, the poignant way his parents remain other, mysterious, a gap that can never be completely filled:

 

In the past when I thought about people my parents

were somehow

not among them. But some wound stayed

 

wide in all of us, and now I see in their faces

strange rivers and waterfalls, tilted over with broom.

 

The familial stands are immensely moving, but so too is the search for Iris. Kan untangles Iris in the traces she has left – in her poems, her writings, her letters. He stands outside the gate to Wellington house, listening hard, or beside the rock pool. There is something that sets hairs on end when you stand in the footsteps of ghosts, the exact stone, the exact spot, and at times it is though they become both audible and visible. Hyde’s poems in Houses by the Sea, are sumptuous in detail. I think of this as Kan muses on the rock-pool bounty. When he stands at her gate:

 

I have to hear you to keep you

here, and I have to keep you

here to keep coming back.

 

I think too of Michele Leggott’s plea at the back of DIA to listen hard to the lost matrix of women poets, the early poets. To find ways to bring them close.

Kan brings Iris (Robin) close. His traces. Iris becomes woman as much as she does poet and the channel of difficulty fills with her darknesses as much as it does Kan’s. There is an aching core of confinement: her pregnancy, her loss of the baby, her second pregnancy, her placement of the baby elsewhere, her mental illness. His confinement in a jungle. His great-aunt’s abandonment as a baby.

 

The strands of love, foreignness and of difficulty are amplified by the look of the book. The way you aren’t reading a singular river of text that conforms to some kind of pattern. A singular narrative. It is like static, like hiccups, like stutters across the width of reading. I love this. Forms change. Forms make much of the white space. A page looks beautiful, but the white space becomes a transmission point for the voices barely heard.

At one point the blocks of text resemble the silhouettes of photographs in a family album. At another point, poems masquerade as censored Facebook entries.Later still, a fable-like poem tumbles across pages in italics.

The writing is understated, graceful, fluent, visually alive.

I want to pick up Hyde again. I want to stand by that Wellington rock pool and see what I can hear. I have read this book three times and it won’t be the last.

 

In the final pages, as part a ritual for The Hungry Ghost Festival, Kan sends a paper boat down the river ‘to ensure// that the ghosts find their way/ back.’

The book with its heartfelt offerings is like a paper boat, floating on an ethereal current so that poetry finds its way back to us all (or Hyde, or family).

 

Auckland University Press page

A terrific interview with Sarah Jane Barnett

Sequence in Sport