2017 seems to be the year of enviable launch speeches. Gregory O’Brien did a cracking job launching James Brown’s new book; Greg had taken the poems up to Palmerston North to read before writing his speech.
Jack Ross has launched Michele Leggott’s Vanishing Points (Auckland University Press) with similar incandescent word flare. I have read the book twice so far and he is right on point: this is one special poetry collection.
Well, needless to say, I felt very flattered when Michele Leggott asked me to launch her latest book of poems, Vanishing Points. Flattered and somewhat terrified. It’s true that I’ve been reading and collecting her work for well over 20 years, and I’ve been teaching it at Massey University for almost a decade now, but I still felt quite a weight of responsibility pressing down on my shoulders!
One thing that Michele’s poetry is not, is simple. It’s hard to take anything in it precisely at face value: what seems like (and is) a beautiful lyrical phrase may be a borrowing from an unsung local poet – a tangle of Latin names can be a reference to an obsolete star-chart with pinpricks for the various constellations.
The first time I reviewed one of her books, as far as I can see, in 1999, I ended by saying “the reading has only begun.” At the time, I suspect I was just looking for a good line to finish on, but there was a truth there I didn’t yet suspect. Certainly, I’ve been reading in that book, and all her others, ever since.
But how should we read this particular book? “Read! Just keep reading. Understanding comes of itself,” was the answer German poet Paul Celan gave to critics who called his work obscure or difficult. With that in mind, I’ve chosen two touchstones from the volume I’m sure you’re all holding in your hands, or (if not) are planning to purchase presently.
The first is a phrase from the American poet Emily Dickinson, referred to in the notes at the back of the book: “If ever you need to say something … tell it slant.”  The second is a quote from the great, blind Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges: “I made a decision. I said to myself: since I have lost the beloved world of appearances, I must create something else.” 
With these two phrases in mind, I’d like you to look at the cover of Michele’s book. It’s a painting of the just-landed Imperial troops, camped near New Plymouth in August 1860. The wonderful thing about it is the way the light of the campfires shines through the painting: little holes cut in the canvas designed to give the illusion of life and movement.
“War feels to me an oblique place,” wrote the reclusive New England poet Emily Dickinson to Thomas Wentworth Higginson in February 1863, at one of the darkest points of the American Civil War. Higginson, a militant Abolitionist, was the Colonel of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, the first officially authorized black regiment in American history. He was, in short, a very important and admirable man in his own right. Perhaps it’s unfair of posterity to have largely forgotten him except as the recipient of these letters from one of America’s greatest poets.
New Zealand’s Land Wars of the 1860s may have been on a much smaller scale, but they were just as terrifying and devastating for the people of Taranaki – both Māori and Pakeha – in the early 1860s. In her sequence “The Fascicles,” Michele transforms a real distant relative into a poet in the Dickinson tradition. Just as Emily Dickinson left nearly 1800 poems behind her when she died in 1886, many collected in tidy sewn-up booklets or fascicles, so Dorcas (or Dorrie) Carrell “in Lyttelton, daughter of a soldier, wife of a gardener”  provides a pretext for “imagining a nineteenth-century woman writing on the outskirts of empire as bitter racial conflict erupts around her.” 
There’s an amazing corollary to this attempt to “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” (in Dickinson’s words). Having repurposed one of her family as a war poet, Michele was fortunate enough to discover the traces of a real poet, Emily Harris, the daughter of the Edwin Harris who painted the picture of Taranaki at war on the wall over there, whose collected works so far consist of copious letters and diaries, but also two very interesting poems. “Emily and her Sisters,” the seventh of the sequences collected here, tells certain aspects of that story.
It’s nothing but the strictest truth to say, then (as Michele does at the back of the book), that one should:
walk away from the painting when it is lit up and see how light falls into the world on this side of the picture surface. Is this what the artist meant by his cut-outs? Is this the meaning of every magic lantern slide? 
I despair of doing justice to the richness of this new collection of Michele’s – to my mind, her most daring and ambitious work since the NZ Book Award-winning DIA in 1994. There are eight sequences here, with a strong collective focus on the life and love-giving activities which go on alongside what Shakespeare calls in Othello “the big wars”: children, family, eating, painting, swimming. One of my favourites among them is the final sequence, “Figures in the Distance,” which offers a series of insights into the world of Michele’s guide-dog Olive – take a bow, Olive – amongst other family members, many of whom, I’m glad to see, have been able to come along here tonight.
This is a radiant, complex, yet very approachable book. It is, in its own way, I’m quite convinced, a masterpiece. We have a great poet among us. You’d be quite crazy to leave here tonight without a copy of Vanishing Points.
[Jack and Michele then had a discussion on how the book came into being. I am going to do an interview with Michele so Poetry Shelf readers can also get different entry points into the collection.]
from ‘Figures in the Distance’
In he comes, bouncing and sweaty, to borrow a towel and go swimming at Duders. Voice out front, key in the lock, just passing through. A voice on the phone from an airport far away, saying early morning is the time to go and see the ruins outside the city when there’s no one else around. One heading for the beach each morning with a thermos of coffee and that same ragged towel. Breakfast. The other drinking something from a coconut on a beach in Mexico. One in this city, one in that city, two brothers crossing the sea. Camper vans gather down at the bay. Two people sit with their feet in the waves, looking out to sea and drinking wine from glasses they fill from the bottle hung off the side of their aluminium deckchairs. The house at the corner has been flying a tricolore since the Paris attacks. The house next to it is flying a flag that says Happy New Year. Here’s a man walking up the street dripping wet and asking if he can stick his nose into the buzzing magnolia flowers at the gate.
I saw the Maori Jesus walking on Wellington Harbour but his pool in the shadow of the museum was drained for repairs and the words were no longer lapped in fishscale light. I saw John Baxter in the pool ecstatic in arcs of water he was splashing over his father’s words on the day the writers’ walk opened. I heard the mihi that was sending Wellington Harbour over the father’s words. I heard the camera catch water light and send it to the eyes of beholders who were a great crowd on the waterfront that day. We took the train as far as Woburn, crossed the platform and came back along the side of the harbour. We took the ferry to Day’s Bay and back riding on the top deck and talking about other excursions. We had a dance at the mardi gras and kept walking along the waterfront to Roseneath. When we turned back there was the young woman walking towards us with bags full of produce from the market. Look, holes, she said.
We know what the dog of tears will do next, he who has been trailing the woman standing on the balcony looking up at the sky. She is the woman who wept, he is the dog who licked away her tears. They have gone on like this for some time, the only woman who can see and the dog who is now more human than he wants to be. His nails scratch the wooden floor. His belly is as empty as everyone else’s but he does not mind. He is walking towards the woman on the balcony. When he reaches her she will bring her eyes down to look at the ruined city and become blind. Everyone else will have their eyes back. She will have the dog of tears. The dog will bark holes in the last page of the book and lead her through one of them. There they are, the dog of tears and the woman who wept. His nails click on the rough stones. She who can no longer see begins to tell a story. They pass the street of crocodiles, the pool of tears, the hill of forty days and the hill of forty nights. They pass the little seahorse in its salty pool. They pass a white rose, a black swan, a blue biddy. The dog kills another hen and they roast it over a small fire. They can hear the sea, its fronding on smooth sand, its talking against rocks, its clapotis bouncing off stone walls. What might we not do with the hot bones dripping fat, she says. Two birds rise into the air on wings the colour of ash. Did you hear that she asks the dog licking away the salt on her cheeks.
The boy in his green turban the girl in her purple tunic dancing around each other under the old clock on the waterfront. Voices float in the morning air. One says, I had always imagined Paradise as a kind of library. The other replies, It is a bowl that one fills and fills.
©Michele Leggott, Vanishing Points Auckland University Press 2017
Auckland University Press page
Jack Ross’s blog The Imaginary Museum – his extended launch coverage
Victoria University Press warmly invites you to the launch of
by Louise Wallace
With readings from Lynley Edmeades, Bill Manhire, Tayi Tibble and Chris Tse. All welcome.
6pm–7.30pm on Thursday 10 August,
at Vic Books, Rutherford House, Pipitea
27 Lambton Quay, Wellington
Books by all authors available for purchase on the night, along with prints of the cover illustration by Kimberly Andrews.
WRITERS ON MONDAYS
Poetry Quartet: Louise Wallace, Hannah Mettner, Maria McMillan & Airini Beautrais
These poets write works of boldness and acute observation. Louise Wallace’s Bad Things, Hannah Mettner’s Fully Clothed and So Forgetful, Maria McMillan’s The Ski Flier and Flow by Airini Beautrais are diverse and exciting books of poetry. Each writer engages with language in innovative ways to explore and reimagine history, commerce, science, love and the things people do. Come and hear the latest New Zealand poetry in a reading and discussion chaired by poet and novelist Anna Smaill.
DATE: Monday 7 August
VENUE: Te Papa Marae
It is midday on Monday 31 July, and I am one of around a hundred people who have gathered in Te Marae at Te Papa to hear visiting American writer Marianne Boruch in discussion with Chris Price. On the way in I meet up with my friend and fellow IIML student Mia. We’re both elated and windswept from our brisk bicycle rides through the city to get here. Outside the wind is ferocious, making a high-pitched whistling sound against the building and pushing clouds out of the sky, letting multi-coloured sunlight to pour in through the stained-glass windows in the marae. After an introduction from Chris, Marianne steps up to the lectern and says she thinks the whistling is a good spirit. Te Marae is peaceful, warm and light. It does feel full of good spirits.
Opening with an acknowledgement of spirits is appropriate at a marae, and even if Marianne doesn’t know that, I feel immediately that she is, for all her international success, an utterly humble writer. She wants first and foremost to let us know that even though it seems we are here to talk about her, she is putting herself aside.
Today’s talk is called The Little Death of Self, which is the title of her new collection of essays published by The University of Michigan Press earlier this year. But this notion, the death of the self, relates to all her writing, and today she continually comes back to the idea of removing the self/the writer/the personality from the writing, and allowing its own life, or spirit, to come through.
She talks about her poetry collection, Cadaver, Speak, in which the poems are in the voice of a cadaver. In 2008, as part of a faculty fellowship at Purdue University in Indiana where she is Professor of English, Marianne took an anatomy class in the medical school studying corpses. She was drawn to one cadaver in particular, the body of a 99-year old woman. The result of her study was the collection of poetry, published in 2014 by Copper Canyon Press.
At first, she tells us, she struggled with voice in the Cadaver poems, which were all in third person pronoun. It felt wrong, she said, like she the writer was speaking for someone, rather than letting them to speak for themselves. She wanted a ‘self’ there, but it was the wrong one. A simple but profound switch solved the problem: she changed the poems to first-person pronoun. Suddenly it was like the real cadaver’s voice coming out, and the poems seemed to live on their own.
She reads us three poems from Cadaver, Speak; an essay on audibility; and a hilarious section from her memoir The Glimpse Traveller (Indiana University Press 2011), in which a high school nun gives her and her friends dating advice for keeping boys “at bay.” The advice that is so absurdly unique it is almost surreal, such as carrying around a little bag of stones to drop in any puddles one has to step over, in order to break the reflection.
She tells us that her memoir is really a “we-oir,” because it’s not just her story, it’s the story of a generation in 1970s America. Here again she’s putting the ‘me’ aside. She talks about the idea of intention as almost worthless in writing – intention can get you started, she says, but the work has to be allowed to be what it wants to be. Get the self out of the way. Let the spirit of it out.
It strikes me that this idea of intention as inherently selfish, and the idea removing the self, are both about allowing for empathy. They are both about putting yourself, whether you are the reader or writer, through feeling and imagination, into another’s shoes.
I am one of this year’s Masters students at Victoria’s IIML. My background is all in theatre, which I’ve studied and worked in for the past decade, and this year I suddenly find myself trying to be a non-fiction writer. At first it felt alien, but more and more I’m struck by the core values that cover all art forms. For me, theatre is also all about empathy. Marianne is a poet, essayist and memoirist, all seemly different forms. I’m beginning to see that you can switch between forms and mediums and be effective in them, but only if in every instance, you get rid of the ego and let the self die.
The wind is still whistling when we finish, blowing in from the harbour. I hop on my bicycle and the gusts push me all the way home, back to my desk and the spirits waiting there.
Claire O’Loughlin, August 2017
Full details here.
I am booking my ticket! Brava Anna Jackson and Helen Rickerby.
We’re very pleased to announce a few more speakers who will be participating in the Poetry and Essay conference, which will be held at Victoria University of Wellington, 6–8 December 2017.
US poet and essayist Brian Blanchfield’s Proxies: Essays Near Knowing (Nightboat Books, 2016; Picador UK, 2017),have been one of our discoveries of the year, and we have been enjoying the wide-ranging rich, intimate, sometimes uncomfortable gems that are each subtitled ‘Permitting Shame, Error and Guilt, Myself the Single Source’. His second book, the collection of poetry A Several World (Nightboat Books, 2014), was James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets and was a longlist finalist for The National Book Award. He is Assistant Professor of Literary Nonfiction at the University of Idaho.
Canadian poet Christian Bök is perhaps best known for Eunoia (2001), a bestselling work of experimental literature, which won the Griffin Prize for Poetic Excellence. He is currently working on The Xenotext – a project that requires him to encipher a poem into the genome of a bacterium capable of surviving in any inhospitable environment. You can watch a video of him talking about this fascinating project on the CBC website. Bök is a Fellow in the Royal Society of Canada, and he teaches at Charles Darwin University.
Amy Brown, a New Zealand poet now living and working in Melbourne, wrote the ambitious and impressive collection The Odour of Sanctity (Victoria University Press, 2013) as part of her PhD in creative writing, in which she examined contemporary epic poetry. She is currently an English and Philosophy teacher at the Mac.Robertson Girls’ High School.
A special opportunity to hear poems by Professor Luci Tapahonos, the first Poet Laureate of the Navajo Nation. The reading is followed by a Q&A session.
Professor Luci Tapahonos is the inaugural Wai-te-ata Press Creator in Residence at Victoria University of Welllington.
Tapahonos was born in 1953 in Shiprock, New Mexico, where she grew up on a farm, immersed in the Navajo culture. She is the author of six books of poetry and three books for children. Tapahonos has received many awards, including the 2006 Lifetime Achievement award from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas.
This event is brought to you by the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, in association with Wai-te-ata Press, Victoria University, and the Embassy of the United States of America.
Contemporary poetry has plenty to offer new readers, and plenty more for those who already follow it. Yet its difficulty—and sheer variety—leaves many readers puzzled and overwhelmed. The critic, scholar and poet Stephen Burt sets out to help.
In Close Calls with Nonsense: How to Read New Poetry, Victoria University of Wellington’s International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML) presents a public masterclass on poetry. Steered by Victoria University Emeritus Professor Bill Manhire, Burt will guide the audience through a number of contemporary poems by writers from the United Kingdom, United States and New Zealand, illuminating their methods and unfolding their pleasures. This event aims to introduce both tentative and long-time poetry readers to the rewards of reading new poetry. Burt will also give a reading of their poems.
Burt is Professor of Poetry at Harvard University. Their influential reviews and books have made them one of the leading critics of their generation, and their enthusiasm for new writing has helped to establish the careers of younger poets, and helped audiences to appreciate their work.
Burt’s 1998 essay ‘The Elliptical Poets’ is widely credited with identifying a new school of poetry. The book that followed, Close Calls With Nonsense (2009), includes an essay on James K. Baxter among those on more recent poets.
In their new book, The Poem is You, Burt explores 60 American poems. Publisher’s Weekly wrote that: “Burt’s many ways of looking at a poem will inspire new students and accomplished poets, especially as many of his meditations circle the question of what poetry does or should do: making readers pay attention, ask questions, and experience new things.”
In 2012 a NY Times interview hailed Burt as ‘Poetry’s Cross-Dressing Kingmaker’. Burt identifies as transgender, and their poetry chapbook All-Season Stephanie (2015) explores coming of age as it might have happened for their female alter-ego. Burt prefers to use the gender-neutral pronoun ‘they’.
Close Calls With Nonsense is presented by the IIML in partnership with City Gallery Wellington. Admission is free, with all welcome. The gallery will be open prior to the event for visitors to view the exhibition Cindy Sherman (exhibition entry charges apply).
What: Close Calls With Nonsense, with Stephen Burt and Bill Manhire
When: 5.30–7pm, Monday 12 December
Where: City Gallery, Wellington
For more information contact Chris Price on firstname.lastname@example.org.