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Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: Bill Manhire’s ‘Topping’

Topping 

The weight of the world continues to be exhausting for some of us, especially if you try to load it on to your shoulders. You need a lot of help with that sort of thing, several strong men and – obviously – a highly experienced person to direct them. This might explain why the weight of the world is not for everyone. I myself prefer the weight of a handkerchief, one you can keep in your pocket; or maybe the weight of a flower (I would choose a zinnia, the first flower to be successfully grown in outer space – I wonder how many of you knew that); or hang on, maybe best of all now I think of it a slice of thin-crust pizza from that small neighbourhood place whose name always slips my mind. It is not important to me which flavour if flavour can even be, where pizzas are concerned, anything like the right word. Well, I can see it is not the right word. Topping would be better but in this particular context it sounds far too heavy. 

Bill Manhire

Bill Manhire founded the creative writing programme at Victoria University of Wellington, which a little over 20 years ago became the International Institute of Modern Letters. His most recent book Wow is published by Victoria University Press in New Zealand and Carcanet in the UK.

Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: Sue Wootton’s ‘The bare patch’

The bare patch

I walk past it daily on my way
to work, and mostly I forget my promise

to remember. The inward eye is lazy,
defers at once to eyeball, retina 

and light. The fact of tree can’t be defied:
it is; it fills the field. It towers above

our offices. Yet even this, at times
I do not see. It’s after rain, the tang

of eucalyptus in the air, and gumnuts
strewn across the footpath, it’s then (sometimes)

I blink and search the ground, recall
the lattice bones that swiftly, unexpected, 

rose, as swiftly withered, sank. Ever-present, busy, 
usually unseen: tutae kehua, ghost 

that comes up after thunder. All year
I’ve tried and mostly failed to hold in mind 

the basket fungus. There is a moving mesh 
beneath my feet. There is that fact.

Sue Wootton

Sue Wootton is a poet and novelist who lives in Ōtepoti Dunedin. Her most recent poetry collection is The Yield (OUP), which was a finalist in the 2018 Ockham NZ Book Awards.

Poetry Shelf update: the blog and health

The brand new information kiosk at Te Henga Bethells Beach

On Saturday June 11th I am due to be admitted to Auckland Hospital for a stem cell transplant (the date can change, especially if I get a cold!). For the past months I have been having millions of tests and scans to make sure I am match fit. It is a high-risk high-reward procedure that can save lives. I am feeling immeasurable gratitude to an an anonymous stem cell donor. Beyond the words a poem might hold for example.

I will be in hospital for four to six weeks all going well, and then have multiple weekly visits. My Covid vaccines will be back to zero and I will be steering clear of people and shops for the rest of the year (and book launches and writers festivals!). I have no idea how things will go, and there are loads of forks in the road, but I will take and love each day as it comes.

Writing and reading have been my go-to place since childhood. I find strength and happiness when I write, devour books, and do both my blogs. I cannot imagine what it will be like ahead of me, but I have created a clearing in the bush. I am taking two beautiful notebooks to hospital and I may or may nor write a word on a page, or string five together, or leave a sequence of pages silence (Sarah Scott).

My blogs will both go on hold – bar four poems I have lined up to post automatically. And this is a very strange feeling, after all this time, after all this glorious Aotearoa poetry blog time. It’s never a chore, never hard work creating a space for poetry communities. But for now, I will be ignoring requests to do this or post that or read this (unless you are recommending the perfect book to read in body battering conditions – or movie, or tv show, or podcast, or puzzle).

I liken this adventure to climbing Mt Everest and I am currently at base camp in training. I am packing my emotional and physical bags with things to help me through. And that includes lines from the Paragraph Room 3. Your kindest messages.

Some of you have asked me what you can do to help. I know that what is ahead of me is unspeakably tough – some people hate to remember it in fact – but having such supportive poetry communities matters so much.

I came up with an idea (you know me!). Write a card, put a poem you love in it by you or someone else, and mail it to me with a stamp. I can only have two named visitors, as the ward is ultra filtered from outside bugs – not even flowers get in! So Michael can deliver cards that I can open when I need a poem lift.

PO Box 95078 Swanson Waitākere 0782

My stem cell transplant team at Auckland Hospital, my heaven-sent transplant nurse Mia, my Doctor, and the rest of the staff on Motutapu and Rangitoto wards are extraordinary. Think warmth, compassion, empathy, diligence. If I had the words, they would get the best thank you poem ever. A bouquet of better pay and extra staff, and some divine pastries.

Finally thank you: Poetry Shelf has been around a long time now and it wouldn’t be what it is without you. A special thank you to essa may ranapiri and Jordan Hamel who recently told me to put myself first – and that new poetry books could wait. Your kindness moved me to tears. We are astonishing, vibrant, eclectic, connecting communities and we thrive on aroha as much as mahi. On the listening and sharing and that means so much. Your poetry is a gift. I am packing it in my bags. I am carrying poetry with me as I climb the steep mountain – along with children’s books, picture books, novels, puzzles, beautiful teas and juices.

Just writing this – fills me warmth and strength, happiness and light.

with love

Paula x

Poetry Shelf Paragraph Room 3: No ideas but in

I have always played around with the William Carlos Williams notion no ideas but in things in my head. Sure no ideas in things but what about in music or mountains or sky or line breaks or on blank paper or silence or heaven forbid feeling? 

Or what about: No words but in music. No politics but in the personal. No silence but in noise. No noise but in silence.  No heart but in mountains. No poetry but in movement. No anarchy but in order. No order but in protest. No poetry but in yes. 

For my final paragraph room in this current series, I invited poets to play around with this notion. Grateful thanks to everyone who participated. I have so loved spending time in this room.

No life but in stillness

‘… here and there the rocks shining and glittering– / It’s this stillness we both love.’
– Louise Glück, Celestial Music

Lately I’ve been thinking about stillness. My family and I have been isolating, so that probably helps! I’m writing poems about still life paintings and considering the relationship between the words ‘still’ and ‘life’ – about all the life that burgeons there in stillness. About what it might mean to live a more still life, everything able to be heard, or ‘marrying a kind of spaciousness’ as poet Cyril Wong so beautifully articulates it. One of the amazing things about poetry is that it can create that still space for the poet and reader, and what shimmers in that space is intimacy – the ability to hear and be heard. I was in a poetry workshop once which was totally silent for what felt like ages, until finally a poem was read out. I remember thinking, oh, it’s a bit like being in a church – the silence and stillness create what can feel like an almost sacred space, in which to properly hear whatever it is that wants to be heard, whatever it is you need to hear. That was a revelation to me, as someone who had struggled to let stillness in.

Sarah Scott

No energy but in rest, no writing but in waiting

I’ve been thinking about the times when work doesn’t progress, words don’t come, or only the wrong words come. I have a quotation from Ursula K. Le Guin pinned up on a cork-board in the kitchen, the room where I often felt most disconnected from my writing, particularly when my children were very small — because the urgencies of feeding them were one of the demands I couldn’t timetable or procrastinate on! The line is  ‘Waiting, of course, is a very large part of writing.’ It comes from Le Guin’s collection The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination. It’s been pinned there for so long now that I’ve forgotten the exact, richer context it came from: I just remember its simplicity hitting me like a lightening bolt, as in, a bolt that made me feel lighter and less burdened by the struggle both to carve time out of family and work life to write, and the struggle to lift things to a good enough standard. It helped me – still helps me – to trust that even when I feel defeated by a project that seems to be failing, or a line of thought is disrupted by the realities of the daily (chores, family needs, work, personal flaws!), even that apparently ‘lost’ time is still part of the same current. It’s time to reflect, to rest, to get distance and perspective; it’s still part of the stream of experience that one day will run into the catchment of the poem, the story, the novel.

Emma Neale

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about poetry as both a singular and communal act. I’ve been thinking about the shifting relationship that poetry can have to identity. I’ve been thinking about how curation can transform journals and anthologies into something greater than the sum of its parts. I think this applies on a more macro scale too. We have so much interesting and vibrant poetry floating around right now, and I like the way it talks to each other. Whether it’s book to book, poem to poem, even performance to performance, the small moments of connection bring unexpected joy. I like poetry that bumps and shifts like tectonic plates, I like to stick my ear to the ground and wait for rumblings.

Jordan Hamel

No poems but in linen

Linen is special the salesgirl at Farmers tells me when I buy a linen shirt. Nurses wrap newborns in linen; linen allows airflow and restricts abrasion; it wrinkles and doesn’t need ironing; it has almost zero fluff. Just like a poem, I think. A poet may have wrinkles but a poem needs airflow and who wants fluff? Abrasion might mean the wrong word or a grating rhythm. When I get home and iron the shirt it seems to want to revert to wrinkles. It prefers to be warmed by the heat of the body. After scribbling feverishly I have managed to iron a poem. My head feels hot as if I have been sitting an exam but the linen shirt stays cool against my skin. It is so strong it was once used for bowstrings and even a type of body armour. And were Yeats’s Cloths of Heaven, despite heavy embroidery and various shades of blue, plain linen underneath? There’s no better fabric for writing about dreams. I think I’ll buy another linen shirt so I can always have one to write poems in.

Elizabeth Smither

No worries but in reality. No reality but in worries. No promise but in time. No data but in range? No range but in the-far-north. No excuses but in Whenua. No trees but in water. No harm but in danger. No relics but in time-liqueur. No remedy but instinct. No plotting but investing. No premise but interest. No guesses but informal. No-nonsense but in time. No quiet but in process. No cutting but in diamond. No diamond but in cutting. No promise but in time.

Courtney Sina Meredith

No self but in slips 

Poetry has always felt like a collaborative process; for me, the poem is only truly written when it is shared (no matter the reach) and defined by the truths that a reader might also bring to the work. Obviously, there’s something a bit too trusting in this, too naïve, but the more and more I explore the world of words, the deeper I want to wade nonsensically through the world of image and for others to find space too, in the intangibles. In the slips of meaning that might only ever come through by feeling your way between the words yourself. I definitely have my interpretation of the poems I write but these are still very much tied up into my “self” of the poem. I like the possibilities of other selves of the poems more. It makes a poem live and breathe as a separate entity. At the moment, something I’m interested in is: how do we subvert the limitations of language in order to get closer to whatever a poem wants to do rather than what we expect it to do. As a poet, I’m not sure I’m all that interested in whether someone sees me in a poem, only that they might see something of/for themselves within the slips of the poem. 

Amber Esau

 

I’ve been reading lots about Janet Frame lately, so I couldn’t help doing this exercise with the great novelist in mind: ‘No fantasy but in childhood / No tragedy but in family / No shyness but in silence / No madness but in metaphor.’

Frame voluntarily readmitted herself to Seacliff Hospital, a mental asylum, in 1954. Hospital notes show she wrote her ‘reason for admission’ that December in the form of a poem:

As I was walking on the stair
            I met a thing that wasn’t there
            It wasn’t there again today
            I wish the thing would go away

Back then, such abstractions were dangerous in New Zealand’s mental health system. Frame often spoke of literary characters—in Shakespeare and Tolstoy, for example—as if they were real people. Her child-like, nonchalant way of moving between fantasy and reality was one of the many reasons she was misunderstood (and, more gravely, misdiagnosed) as someone who couldn’t lead an ‘ordinary’ life. This got me thinking about how, as we get older and adapt to the ways of the world, we forget how it feels to be imaginative. There’s nothing strange about a five-year-old having an imaginary friend. But Frame’s adult imaginary friends of Prospero and Pierre Bezukhov (who she viewed as real people), were seen as further signs of a serious affliction. Not only does poetry lend itself to imagination, it’s perhaps the only written form that doesn’t have to make sense. Poetry allows us to step into that childhood space. We can forget about what’s rational for a moment and appreciate an image or feeling without necessarily understanding it.

Tim Grgec

No ideas but in

no ideas but in things / no iris but in garden eyes / no brusqueness but in telegrams / no symbol but in low parkway bridge / no lion but in yellow mop hair / no skin but in water / no happiness but in your snore-nings / no gaps but in peering through hair gaps / no patience except in delays / no appetite but for pattern / no generosity softer but in tree shade / or home-cooked meals / no pitchers but in the mountain-poured night / no slip but in information / in dress over hips / in jealous flashes / in cash deposits / no silkiness but in vodka pasta / no raised voice but in bad dreams / no willpower but in deadlines / no horsepower but in physics classes / no person is a poem but in your own tinted eyes / no fish but in surplus bread baskets / no laces but in fingers beside pillow-head / no recoiling but in coughs / no harsh categories but in people / no freedom but in people / no priorities weighed but in dog-eared book / small damage / life-changing quotes / no communion but in sitting together / at the level of the floor / or projects together / after the train ride / no waiting but in those news-bearing rooms / no light but in all of the sky / no fleetness but in climbers’ feet / no firn but in crampons / no decisions but in averseness to making them / no harm but in dissatisfaction / no relief but in pain / confirmed in a monitor / a machine / nothing buried in yourself / but in good moments / and the many others / radiating opposite / or just beside

Modi Deng

No grounding but in leaves

Second to the moon—another thing that always changes its shape I suppose—one of the most harped-on-about things in poetry must be leaves. But it’s true they’re a constant source of interest and hope to me as they perish and reappear and move; abundant and intricate, noisy and silent, singular and mass. There’s a Matthew Zapruder line I remember about the endless origami made by their light and shadows. My mum has always pointed them out to me, and for a long time I’d roll my eyes and tell her we were going to be late, but I guess I’m turning into her. Their lacy afterlives are around the place at the moment, white skeletons where you can trace the routes rain once took after it had fallen. In lockdown last year I’d sometimes walk late at night and look up through the huge banana palm leaves on my street. Illuminated by the street lights above, I could see the silhouettes of the insects perched on top of them like an x-ray. It’s one of the few things I remember from that blurry time.

Manon Revuelta

No poem (yet) but in preparation


As someone who is short on time for writing poems, I’m often wondering if it’s possible to leapfrog the distracted-by-the-dishes sort of warm-up that seems necessary for the stillness to emerge that’s required to write a poem-with-potential. But some things I’ve read lately have encouraged me to be more accepting of this process. Helen Garner writes that through all the ‘wandering about pointlessly … you have to believe you’re preparing the ground for something to manifest out of the darkness’. Rebecca Solnit says ‘so much of the work of writing happens when you are seemingly not working, made by that part of yourself you may not know and do not control’, and Elizabeth Bishop reflected that unproductive writing time is not wasted time because it’s all going towards creating an ‘atmosphere’ in your brain that will produce a good poem. I think Teju Cole captures the kind of writing experience we’re all hoping for when he describes Tomas Tranströmer’s poetry: ‘the sense is of the sudden arrival of what was already there, as when a whale comes up for air.’

Frances Samuel

No hope but in metaphor  

Hope exists in the metaphor of possibility, always pegged some place onwards. Greener grass, silver linings, lights at the end of tunnels. Poetry is the playfulness of counterfactuals, the hope of extending a concept beyond its brute reality. Hope happens in metaphor, the outstretching of a thing ad absurdum. What is hope but a prising away from the prospect of pain and boredom? Sometimes we hope for the best but expect the worst – and that kind of hope is equipped to meet the End Times with a twelve-pack of toilet paper, Wattie’s spaghetti, a buoyancy vest and a whistle. Hope summons nouns even where the adjectives are feeble, summons escalators even when the malls are on fire. Emily Dickinson said “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers”. It is the ‘little bird’ in as much as metaphor breathes animal into abstraction. Metaphor is the celebrating of the outer-most reaches of human creativity in the face of the white noise that issues from a vehicle set to autopilot. When I’m desolate, when the engine cuts and I’m left in the loneliest circumstance, I find my ray, kernel, or shred, of hope in the poems of other voyagers. Which is not to say, for me at least, the poem needs to be sunny-side-up. At its core, there is hope in the audacity of pegging life’s agonies to words. Sometimes it is enough for a poet to wink at you from a line break, and for a poem to mouth I know this. I know this pain too.

Elizabeth Morton

No Seeing but in Closeness

Parked at the window, hunkered down in his streamlined self, I missed his face but even in my mask he knew me. His sight was on the blink, form was unravelling. He was blind to the Autumn wither of sun; I recited the view. Poached blue of sky, Opoho rise of trees positioned like cut-outs to define a transition. Happy Easter he said, reading a sticker on the window. Are you taking the piss Mr Olds? No. No. Not that he replied, pulling me back into usual conversation. Our last conversation? The last blessing of language? No. No. Not that. It was the gift of the window. Just as it is.

Jenny Powell

No lift but in laughter. No laughter but in joy. No joy but in tears. No tears but in knowledge. No knowledge but in mind. No mind but in mountains. No mountains but in fall. No fall but in blankness. No blankness but in lift. No lift but in the words. No words but in poetry. No poetry but in the lift and the fall.

Harry Ricketts

No perception but in action

I recently had lens replacement surgery for developing cataracts. When I entered the operating theatre––this alien space lit with bright lights, filled with smooth, clean, empty surfaces, where the floor, walls and ceiling are white––I saw the surgeon in his grey scrubs wheeling himself on an office chair from a table to a screen. He turned to face me, didn’t say anything, gave me a wave. I was reminded of my dad waving from the cowshed each school morning after I stopped my bike beside the yard and rang the bell until he looked up from an udder or turned from the cow he was walking towards the bail. As I readied myself, prepared to put myself in the surgeon’s hands, this momentary notion of familiarily embued me with a sense of trust.

The next thing, I am writing a poem. I am “fixing a fleeting emotion about an ephemerical vision,” as Anna Jackson says in Actions & Travels: How Poetry Works  (p. 49). Or, as George Saunders says in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: “What we turn to art for is precisely this moment, when we ‘know’ something (we feel it) but can’t articulate it because it’s too complex and multiple. But the ‘knowing’ at such moments, though happening without language, is real. I’d say this is what art is for: to remind us that this other sort of knowing is not only real, it’s superior to our usual (conceptual, reductive) way” (p. 100).

Janet Newman

No Existence But In Chance

While walking, I exchange greetings and smiles with other walkers, their acknowledgement a validation for my place in the world, and vice versa. As I turn to cross playing fields, I notice how each blade of grass hugs its own tiny rainbow. In front of me as I walk, a multitude of rainbows spark like the disco lights on the soles of my granddaughter’s sneakers. Being able to witness this minor phenomenon is simply a matter of being here at the right time, the angle of the sun over my right shoulder perfectly positioned for refraction to occur in a single dewdrop on a blade of grass. Trajectories of self, place and time crossing paths. I arrive home with a head full of loose thoughts that may be grist for poetry, or may not be. It’s up to me to knit together the intersecting threads. It’s up to me to acknowledge my own experience and the role that chance plays.

Kay McKenzie Cooke

No thoughts but in feelings

I’ve heard a lot recently about the need to say something, to have something to say if you’re going to write. As there is so much to want to say, so many problems to address, don’t writers have the responsibility to do so? I think about this a lot, but in the end I wonder about the wisdom of that sort of approach. If writing a poem is discovery, I worry that having something that desperately needs to be said will detract from the saying. That is, such well-intentioned efforts risk producing work whose main thrust is argument, whose emotional heft is at the mercy of persuasion, whose poetics will be subsumed by rhetoric. Not that ideas shouldn’t arise in poetry, but arise from seems about right—the pleasure for me as a writer is in the surprising discovery of what it is that might be said. I go into a poem with a feeling in my gut or a phrase in my ears. The ideas take care of themselves.

Bryan Walpert

No wars but in words

When I was at school, my friends and I used to have long philosophical arguments about whether or not it was possible to have a thought which wasn’t initially in words. I was a strong believer in the idea that a thought could precede the words which expressed it: that it often had to be translated – imperfectly – into words, after being conceived in musical or architectural or simply relational terms. Of course I couldn’t prove it, as our discussions were conducted entirely in words. We were also very concerned about the status of mathematics. Was it really a language? Did its axioms constitute words, or were they somehow superior to those slippery entities (as the budding scientists among us tended to argue)? Now that I’m older, my trust in words has not grown greater – but I think I love them more. In fact, “words are windows” was the first phrase that came to mind for this paragraph, until I realised it lacked a “no” and a “but”. Words are windows. They show us things. But they don’t do so clearly. And when you read – as I did in the online news today – that in Russia now you can “speculate freely and quite calmly on the prospects of nuclear war,” I’m again terrified at what treacherous little disease-laden free radicals words can be. I’d like to set against that the opening of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms: “I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain … There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.” That is to say, choose your words wisely, or they may blow up in your face.

Jack Ross

No words but in corners. No scarlet but in red. No sunsets but in sunsets. No right word but in accidents. No cumulus but in another cloudy day. No beauty but in breakfast. No moment but in meandering. No grace but in my clomping shoes. No parenthesis but in trying to fit inside them. No alchemy but in dirt. No pa rum pa pum pum but in conundrums. Nothing to say but in two hours, all on your own.

Susanna Gendall

No comedy but in sadness

A comic moment in a modern poem is not the same thing as a joke or a gag, even if the form is superficially similar. When comedy is deployed in poetry, it is inevitably seen in the long context of that art form, with its moral obligations, self-serious canons, and futile bids for immortality. Even if we don’t realise it, this casts a shadow over the comedy. The comic moment in contemporary poetry is a pantomime horse at a funeral, a squirting flower at a presidential debate. We can still laugh at the incongruity and absurdity of it all—perhaps we laugh harder because the incongruity is especially great—but always a little ruefully.

Erik Kennedy

I’m almost embarrassed to admit it, but the thing I like most about WCW’s line is its certainty of tone. I’m an uncertain person (I think) and usually suspicious of certainty (or secretly drawn to it) – those poems that batter you with their messages. Good poetry is always more about the how than the what. WCW’s line is clever and simple, but it’s the structure that seduces. No [whatever] but in [whatever]. Yes sir. Sign me up.

James Brown

william  carlos williams goes swimming

no ports but in storms/ no movement but in gulls/ no peace but in surrender/ no surrender but in ferrymen/ no coins but in paper boats/ no power but in horses/ no herrings but in court/ no soldiers but in slippers / no flags but in wings/ no boundaries but in cliff faces/ no heart but in swimming /no strokes but in dog-paddling/ no pause but in breath/ no breath but in small litanies/ no faith but in the three hearts of octopus/ no clasp but in floating/ no children but in drowning/ no dreams but in nightmares/ no nightmares but in anchors/ no anchors but in the turning of the tide  

Frankie McMillan

No abandon but in design

With writing specifically intended for the page, I’m very invested in the status of poems as visual documents. The words that make up a poem are only one part of the equation; we also owe a great deal of our reading experience to the format of the thing. I think the container a poem arrives to us in (left-aligned cascade; pseudo-pinball machine) can massively shape how we receive it, how we understand it, even the pace at which we read. It does for us what the melody accompanying a lyric, or the nonverbal performance of an actor, might. The form of a poem is, quite literally, its body language. So it’s important to be conscious, both as a reader and as a writer, that nothing simply falls onto a page. Just as the words have to be conjured up, so, too, does the shape they take. Whether the poem reads as chaotic or even untouched, its indents and line breaks—its pillars of seemingly-disembodied punctuation—have all been placed there by the poet’s own hand, and ought to inform how we consume the work. It reveals to us something essential about the poem, or about the poet themselves(!): is this an aesthetic inclination? Why does this stress me out? How’s there so much blank space? Are these common alignments clues to something bigger? What’s manufacturing a pause for me? How is this so visually beautiful that I love it before I’ve even got to the words? I am obsessed with form (and formatting), both as a reader and as a writer. Everything in a poem is a choice! And I love it. I love seeing exercises of restraint; I love seeing how far people extend when experimenting. The margins (and HTML) are the limit! And sometimes, even then, there’s farther to go.

Tate Fountain

Poems occupy stanzas, which is to say ‘rooms’, which is to say contained spaces that together make up something greater than the sum. Poems need space: the spaces between words, the spaces between stanzas, the things left unsaid. The space is where the poetic alchemy happens, where readers bring experiences and ideas to the poem and a new poem forms. No poems but in space. We might find solace; we might find rage. The poem is a building where we wander from one room to the next, passing a series of images as though in a gallery, lingering where something grabs us. The rooms may be small and dense, or expansive and airy. Perhaps a stanza might also be a forest clearing or a star in a distant constellation. Perhaps a stanza is a rock in a river and leaping from stone to slippery stone gets you to the other side. Because poems must take you somewhere, move you from one state to another, one idea to the next. It may be a steady journey or a rocky one. You may fall in. No poems but in journeys. A poem might leave you on a railway platform without your luggage. It might take you to marvel at a distant galaxy. It might lead you through the electron microscope to the intimate workings of atoms. It might dredge the bottom of your sea floor and show you things you thought you’d long forgotten.

Janis Freegard

No rage but in poetry. No rage outside this paper room.
No rage if not articulate. No grief if not correctly punctuated.
No terror but in em-dash. Nothing broken but in stanza.
No abuse unless poetic. No rage-poem without resolution.
No rage-poem but in PSA. No anger I can’t put a bookmark in.
No rage-poem here, but you are so brave! Great rage-poem
but have you considered a happier ending? These new poets
are all oversharers. These sad poems are selling like hotcakes.
These new poets are self-victimising. These self-victims
are making folks anxious. These anxiety-inducers stir up
the silt. These silt-stirrers get all the clicks.
No rage if not urgent. No rage if not necessary.
No rage if you expect action. No rage but in full-stop.
No rage without pity. Yes rage about pity. Love the rage poem
but I am remaining impartial. No rage but in blood. No blood-poem
without apology. My blood-poem will make everyone apologise.
Not a rage-poem but a horse. A fucking wild biting horse.
Not a rage-poem but something rotting. No rot but in the body.
No body-poem bleeding. No rot-poem paid for. No rot-poem
where the harm is too sharp. No harm-poem if you are too harsh.
Do not hate those who have harmed you. No poem but in forgiveness.
No rage but in quiet. No poem but in the after. All quiet after the rage.
After the rage.

Lily Holloway

no ending but in the title
no wholeness but in the spaces
no fulfilment but in what you have drawn in from your paper straw, sucking minerals and a chain of fatty acids
no season finale but in the early morning sky
no perfection but in our imagination
no ticking off the to do list but in fantasy
no neatly wrapped Christmas parcel with ribbons and bows and folded edges but at the mall
no meaning but in what we
see / create / perceive
no meaning but in what we
connect / absorb / supply
no meaning but in what we
apply / imagine / create

no blessings but in actions
no prayers but in actions
no reverence but in action
no ritual but in spirit
no meaning but in what we stitch together
no meaning but in choices.

Many of us strive for fulfillment, completion, perfection, the perfect ending. We seek that magical feeling of a blank sheet of paper in front of us unmarred by scribbles or mistakes. But life doesn’t always allow us the chance of a proper ending, a final farewell or a perfect celebration. Poetry offers a way to make sense of a lack of closure, a lack of the ideal, often through unexpected means – the juxtaposition of objects or ideas, the sour taste of anxiety, the bumpy or satin smooth feel of hands running along a railing, a moment of connection between two people, a demeaning or humiliating experience. Poetry has the power to bring about meaning to these things and to draw out a sense of peace or fulfilment. Poetry can be described as imperfect – there are line breaks, there are fragments of images, there are characters that we don’t fully understand, there may not be a definitive ending, there are questions. Despite these imperfections, or rather because of these imperfections, poetry opens up possibilities and a diversity of understanding – there are so many ways that poems can offer meaning both for the writer and the reader or listener. My poetry captures family, religious and cultural rituals, often ordinary and daily occurrences such as lighting a lamp, making chai, going to school. Poetry allows me to pull these experiences out of their preserves of myth and memory and pull them out of their preserve of the sacred. No meaning but in choices. No meaning but in what we stitch together.

Neema Singh

Poetry Shelf review: Khadro Mohamed’s We’re All Made of Lightning

We’re All Made of Lightning, Khadro Mohamed, We Are Babies, 2022

from ‘A Nomadic Odyssey’

Khadro Mohamed, originally from Somalia, lives in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. Her writing has appeared in a number of Aotearoa online journals. She acknowledges her attachments to Somalia, Aotearoa and Egypt in her poetry, and her writing becomes a form of home.

I have finished reading We’re All Made of Lightning and I am still breathing in the poetry. I am making lists for the months ahead of me, packing my emotional and physical bags, finding nourishment in the writing of others. Willing poetry to make a difference to the way we inhabit the world, to the way we move through the day. Willing poetry to be the window that opens up the wide expanse of who we are. How we are.

You are not violet
You are not hands filled with morning light
You are not skin made of bone
Of tears pooling int the corners of my eyes
You are not the pāua shells that cling to the end of your hair

from ‘You Are Not’

An early poem, ‘The Second Time’, opens upon Egypt, and I am immediately transported to an aunt’s home, to the physicality of place that ignites all senses, to the food shared, the conversations, the evocative writing that compares an Egyptian autumn to ‘ripened sweet corn and sweet potato skin’.

Khadro’s debut collection is prismatic, probing, resonant with heart pulse. The book is still sitting beside me on the bed sparking multiple lights into the room. The lights of elsewhere which are infused with the lights of here, the lights of here which are boosted by the lights of elsewhere. Each poem is tethered in some glorious and moving way to whakapapa, to homelands, to self. To the awkwardness of speaking another tongue. To the life that is etched, tattooed, imprinted upon skin. Feelings. Longings. Epiphanies.

The book is sitting bedside, and I am thinking home is a state of mind we carry in our hearts as well as on our skin, and that it is relationships, and it is the physicality of place that feeds all senses and that can be so badly missed.

Khadro is asking for story and song. How to speak? And she is speaking within the honeyed fluency of her lines, with recurring motifs: herbs and tea, storm, typhoon and hurricane, ghosts and rain, ash and pain, chocolate and dates, drownings and rescue.

She is showing the searing wound, the challenges of being a young Muslim woman in a different home. She is responding to the barely pronounceable impact of March 15th. And there it is. The intolerable virus: a hatred that is fuelled by the colour of skin, a language spoken, one’s lineage, one’s dress or food or religion. Here in Aotearoa and across the world.

The book is beside me on the bed, and I am willing poetry to make a difference. And for me it does. To pick up this astonishing book of vulnerability and strength, of journey and vision, is to take up Khadro’s invitation and step into her home, into her poems, to share her tea and listen to her songs, her stories, her hope and her comfort. In her endnote, which she admits she had trouble writing, she thanks the reader. I am thanking Khadro and We Are Baby Press for a book ‘worth holding onto’, in multiple milky star ways.

from ‘Today, After March’

We Are Babies page

Poetry Shelf noticeboard: Nominations open for NZ Poet Laureate

An evening of poetry was held at The National Library of New Zealand on Friday 11th March, with Poets Laureate Jenny Bornholdt, Michele Leggott, Bill Manhire, Cilla McQueen, Vincent O’Sullivan, Elizabeth Smither, C.K. Stead, Brian Turner, Ian Wedde and Rob Tuwhare, son of Hone Tuwhare. Image shows driftwood tokotoko of former Poet Laureate CIlla McQueen.

Call for Poet Laureate nominations

The National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa is inviting nominations for the next New Zealand Poet Laureate. The award celebrates outstanding contributions to New Zealand poetry.

The most valuable poetry award in Aotearoa sees the New Zealand Poet Laureate receive $80,000 over a two-year period. Each Laureate receives a tokotoko or carved orator’s stick created by Haumoana artist Jacob Scott and is supported by the National Library to create new work and promote poetry throughout the country.

National Librarian Te Pouhuaki Rachel Esson will appoint the New Zealand Poet Laureate after reviewing nominations and seeking advice from the New Zealand Poet Laureate Advisory Group. The National Library has had responsibility for the New Zealand Poet Laureate Award since 2007.

“The Laureate is an accomplished and highly regarded poet who can advocate for New Zealand poetry and inspire current and future readers,” says Ms Esson.

John Buck of Te Mata Estate Winery began a Laureate Award in 1996 and over a ten-year period appointed Bill Manhire, Hone Tuwhare, Elizabeth Smither, Brian Turner and Jenny Bornholdt. The National Library has appointed seven Laureates: Michele Leggott, Cilla McQueen, Ian Wedde, Vincent O’Sullivan, CK Stead and Selina Tusitala Marsh and the present Laureate David Eggleton.

Nominees must have made an outstanding contribution to New Zealand poetry and be an accomplished and highly regarded poet who continues to publish new work. They must also be a strong advocate for poetry and be able to fulfil the public role required of a Poet Laureate. Candidates are expected to reside in New Zealand during their tenure as Laureate.

“Each Laureate brings their own voice to the role and explores it in different ways,” says Ms Esson.

“They’re an advocate for New Zealand poetry, being involved in events that promote the reading and writing of poetry.”


Nominations close Friday, 29 July at 5pm and the next Poet Laureate will be named on National Poetry Day, Friday, August 26.

For more information please visit here

Email: media@dia.govt.nz

Poetry Shelf on live streaming the Ockham NZ Book Awards 2022

I usually do a poetry post to celebrate the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards but need to restock my energy jar today. My mind is all over the show. I woke at 4 am and couldn’t stop thinking about Tayi Tibble reading her mother poem from Rangikura (‘My Mother Meets My Father in an Alternate Koru’). The sun was nowhere ready to come up and I was electrified body and soul, replaying the poem in my head. I was lead back to Tayi’s sublime book. I wanted to whisper in all your sleeping ears: read this collection, please read this collection. I have written about it here.

I was also blown apart hearing Whiti Hereaka read from Kurangaituku. I so wanted to write about her path-carving, heart-boosting book last year, but every time I tried, words failed me. I wanted to hold the book out to you and say, read it. Say, this is what an extraordinary book can do. This is the kind of risks we can take as writers, not at the expense of reading connections, nor at the expense of human connections. Far from it. So to see this superlative book awarded the supreme fiction prize is something special.

I also loved hearing Bryan Walpert read from Entanglement, to hear the musical pitch of his narrative enthralled me, and supported my review.

What a joy to see Nicole Titihuia Hawkins’ Whai win best first book of poetry. And it is also a fine acknowledgement of an excellent new poetry press, We Are Babies. I adored Nicole’s book (from my review):

I have things to share about Nicole Titihuia Hawkin’s debut collection Whai, but one part of me wants you to find a quiet nook and find your own bridges and poem trails. I love it so much – the way from the first page the rhythm pulls me in, a rhythm that is life and that is writing. We are welcomed into a space that is whanau, marae and connection. That is breathing the past, the present and the future. That is fed upon potatoes from warm earth, and by words that are nourished on warm tongues. It is discomfort, it is scars and it is let down. It is to be held close and it is to sing. Oh so much to sing, with waiata the energy force, the structure, the passed-down precious melody that sings mother father ancestors, the earth, sings names and naming, singing out in protest, singing in te reo Māori.

Every year I seem to mourn and celebrate. I know how awards can impact on writers, even those with a fleet of publications under their belts. But especially young writers who have launched a debut publication into the world. Ruby Solly’s Tōku Pāpā was an arrival that struck me deeply: “This precious book – that in its making, its stands, rests and journeys from and towards so much – is the reason why I cannot stop reading and sharing thoughts on and writing my own poetry. The book is a gift and like so many other readers I am grateful.” I was so glad it made the longlist.

I started reading Joanna Preston’s book Tumble yesterday (Poetry winner) and noted it is a collection of visual and aural uplift. Metaphors surprise and enhance the physical. The speaker steps into other scenes, situations, voices, memories, always observing, maintaining stillness as much as movement. It is deftly crafted with both economy and richness.

Last year was the only time I have ever felt personally invested in an award night. When Wild Honey didn’t win, I was able to say fuck in a loud voice, get the champagne out of the fridge, and tell my family I would be really sad for one night, but would be okay in the morning. And I was. Really really sad not to win. And then really really glad the next morning when I picked up my pen and start writing.

At 7 am I drove into the city today for an appointment and I couldn’t stop thinking about books that have affected me over the past year. I wish the awards would be streamed every year, because so many readers and writers tuned in across the country last night. I was reminded how short readings are like the best holiday imaginable. AND! I decided I wanted to put in a pitch for audio books from Tayi, Whiti and Bryan because I didn’t want them to stop.

Listening in last night was a rare treat. Grateful thanks to the Ockhams, to all the authors, the publishers and booksellers. 🌷💜

May we pick up our pens and start writing today, and may we open the next book on our piles and begin reading. Or simply open a window and go drifting in the clouds. Kia kaha.

Poetry Shelf review: michaela keeble’s Surrender

Surrender: Poems, michaela keeble, Karaheke | Bush Lawyer, 2022

there are so many
rivers inside me
i may as well be
a continent

the rivers
when i run
are running

when i tilt
this way, that way
the rivers slow down
and change direction

 

from ‘mother, crab’

I have about thirty poetry books in a stack on my desk, a stack of children’s books and a stack of novels. I pick a book and start reading, and I am delighted at how many books I fall in love with. Deeply. Last week it was a picture book, The Lighthouse Princess by Susan Wardell and Rose Northey (Penguin), along with Entanglement by Bryan Walpert (Mākaro Press). Is it a matter of contagious charisma? Are the books touching a human chord with language that electrifies me?

I picked up michaela keeble’s poetry collection Surrender and it stuck to my white skin like honey, like biddy bids, like a lattice of ideas and confessions that resonate. Michaela is a white Australian, living in Aotearoa with her partner and children, who has worked as an editor, writes fiction and poetry, and works in multiple ways towards anticolonial social justice, including climate justice. Her book is published by Taraheke | Bush Lawyer, ‘a new publishing collective of indigenous women and their allies from Aotearoa and so-called Australia’.

you give my poem a gift
you give my poem a ledge
a place to be seen
to rest

i greet your poem, a place
the way i greet each voice
within and around me
i pick up a pen

 

from ‘revision is a kind of faith’

michaela’s book is cradled in a nest of other books. You can follow the thread to other writers, to books she has read, to your own reading connections. The short lines, self exposure, the lower case ‘i’, the vital political currents lead me to Janet Charman. I read the word ‘intertidal’, and I am back in the pages of Kiri Piahana-Wong.

The white space around each poem establishes essential breathing room, new starts. It is writing out of white and not forgetting, searching for the ‘white tongue’, the ‘shame tongue’, seeking and discovering syllables, medicine, stories, communication lines, dialogue, metaphors. What does the ‘half tide’ stand for? Or the conference poem or the guilt poem? Or the throat or the river? The country? Or the person writing and reading next to you? What does the metaphor stand for, instead of, against?

The poems face the earth, the sick earth, the beloved earth, the damaged state of affairs where hierarchies continue to gulf and elevate the privileged. They rattle complacency, my steady feet on the ground. Where I am? Who am I am? How I am?

white poem
goes on holiday
white poem escapes heat
nice white holiday
package
nice white plastic
travel shop
nice big white plane
nice carbon
got the budget

 

from ‘white poem goes on’

And while the collection navigates an imperative of wider human stories, especially of belonging, it also brings an intimate core to the surface. A writing self. A mother father daughter. And there is pain. Heartache. Grief. The mother becomes ill. The mother is no longer here. The daughter becomes ill. Heart and wound and writing move close to the bone. So yes, wherever the poems lead me, there is heart, there is searing heart, and I feel this book turns interior ignition keys.

i’m still here
but now
i’m made of fire

if this wind ever turns
i’ll return
a message

send
my searing selves
to the sky

honour
the hard seams of m
of my mother’s cloths

 

from ‘hard seams’

Pronouns form the book’s structure: you, me / other, self / we, us / her, she, they. Check what Emma Barnes said recently in my second Paragraph Room. We cannot take pronouns for granted. Making the ‘i’ lower case links back to feminist calls to dismantle authority. Decades later, each pronoun embraces community, communities, connection, connections, personal narratives. And that is important here. In the poem ‘even Alice’, the ‘you’ is personal, an intimate and known ‘you’, but I am drawn into its shape. The occasion is a gathering of writers on the marae to hear Joy Harjo read.

This need for community, this need to write and to speak, to be private and to share. That is exactly what Surrender does, in writing so sweetly crafted the hairs lift on my skin. The lines economical, yet satisfyingly rich. Pip Adams wrote on the cover: ‘One of the most welcome and important collections I’ve read.’ I agree. This book is both humble and extraordinary, and I love it to the moon and back.

i remember who else read:
Briar and Api and that other poet Rob
from Paekākāriki

even Alice Te Punga Somerville
was there
i remember washing dishes
i remember thinking

read poetry
for community

to be a poet with community

 

from ‘even Alice’

Michaela Keeble is a white Australian writer living in Aotearoa with her partner and children. Her chapbook intertidal about change underway in our oceans was published in early 2020 and she has a children’s book, co-authored with her son Kerehi Grace and illustrated by Tokerau Brown, forthcoming from Gecko Press in 2022. Watch out for Paku Manu Ariki Whakatakapōkai!

Michaela’s anticolonial poetry has been published and anthologised widely, including in Intimate Relations: Communicating in the Anthropocene (Lexington Press, 2021), No Other Place to Stand (AUP, 2022); and Not Very Quiet (Recent Work Press, 2021). Her poetry & fiction have appeared in Pantograph Punch, Capital, The Spinoff, Newsroom, Cordite, Plumwood, Westerly & elsewhere. 

Michaela is a guest poet at the 2022 Brisbane Writers Festival. Find out more at her writer’s website.

Taraheke | Bush Layer page

Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: Tim Grgec’s Electric Kiwi

Electric Kiwi

Every day, my power company offers customers an hour of free power—
at an off-peak time, of course, so before bed
I make sure I turn on the dishwasher, get a load of washing in,
charge my laptop and phone, vacuum, and maybe,
if I remember, use the dryer for no real reason
other than to heat my towel so the winter air doesn’t slice through me

after a shower, and by then I’ve done pretty well on the savings for the night,
so I boil the jug for a cup of tea, marking the end
of the day by blowing on the white knots of steam;
and because I rushed home from work to get dinner on early
and set my alarm—as usual—for 8:55 p.m., ready to vault through the house,
there’s still time in the hour of power,
so I boil the jug again to soak the pots and pans,
put the electric blanket on and even

blow dry my hair, and I’m starting to get on a bit of roll by this point,

so I do my ironing in advance for a change,
pop tomorrow’s roast in the slow cooker and stream
an entire Netflix series
so I have something to talk about at work tomorrow; and it’s about now I’m hoping
I’m not bothering the upstairs neighbours too much,
or worse, if they’re contracted with Electric Kiwi themselves
and are saving more than I am, so I turn the shower on just to leave it running
go down to the garage for last year’s Christmas decorations

and line the fence with fairy-lights,
restart the chest freezer that hasn’t been used in years,
play my stereo as loud as it goes; and even after all that
there’s still time in the hour of power,
and I’m not a handyperson by any means but
I get the electric saw going—finally getting around to that bookcase I started over lockdown—
and as I’m buzzing away, part of me wonders if I should really write a list next time
of all the things to use and save money on

until I run out of cords and power sockets to plug into

and the whole house swells, swells;
and the only thing stopping me now is if the fuse box blows
(which my landlord wouldn’t be happy about)
but at least I’d finally have some peace and quiet,
and all the spaces would be flooded with darkness
and I could creep upstairs into my bedroom,
tracing my hands along the wall, until I’m under the duvet
and everything is still.

Tim Grgec

Tim Grgec is a writer and public servant based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. His first poetry collection, All Tito’s Children (Te Heranga Waka Press, 2021), is a verse biography of the Yugoslavian dictator Josip Broz Tito. He was the 2018 recipient of the Biggs Family Prize for Poetry.

Poetry Shelf Paragraph Room 2

Ideas for my blog drop into my head like golden peaches. The next thing I know I am sending out invitations, poets are getting on board, and the Poetry Shelf community is engaged. I recently adored Tracey Slaughter’s editorial to Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2022. Rather than introduce the poets, she spoke to the idea of breakage in poetry. More than that, she offered a vital plea for us to bring everything when we enter the issue. I felt galvanised,on so many levels, by her piece. I compiled a list of words with links to writing and reading poetry, and invited a few poets to pick a word and write a paragraph in response. I am hoping to do one more Paragraph Room before early June. You can read the first Paragraph Room here.

With thanks to all the contributors, and to the ongoing supporters of Poetry Shelf. It means a lot.

Refuge

I’ve been thinking about writing as a refuge, as a place of safety and freedom, which means thinking about my poetry’s relationship to me and to the world. I’ve recently written what I used to disparagingly call poetry-as-therapy, a neighbour of poetry-as-refuge. There are lots of contradictions. I like to think of poetry as a place of freedom, somewhere you can write about anything in whatever way you like. But of course it isn’t. For example, I believe you should be careful how you use people who might recognise themselves in your poems. And although I like using personas because I like to imagine what it might be like to be somebody else, I’m not entitled to take on any voice I like. So can you write about what you don’t know or only about what you know? And where is the imagination in all this?

There are no easy answers, but there is a solution. You have the absolute freedom of your head. You can dream, try things, be someone else, make a mess, bore yourself, shock yourself, disgrace yourself at the keyboard. It’s what I like most about writing … the act of writing. When it comes to publishing, however, you leave your refuge and enter the world.

James Brown

music

it begins with a bird, one that claps its beak together, another that seems about to vomit, a shriek that is countermanded by a note so pure Mozart might have approved. It’s Radio NZ concert and it’s how I feel about writing. There is music and there are preambles: Handel’s first performance of ‘Messiah’ was dangerously short of seats so gentlemen were instructed to leave their swords at home and ladies to jettison their hoop petticoats. On which side does a sword go; what if a gentleman encountered a brigand on the way home; would love be less encumbered minus a hoop? The bird and then imagination and then the music. I used to admire those who scorned a room of one’s own and could write with children galloping around the dining room table, but now I realise I need music. Perhaps I am thinking of the music in poetry – not the obvious end rhymes – but the mysterious, not-quite rhymes that surprise you and lead you on like notes in pursuit of a theme. There is so much to think about, so much humour. Rachmaninoff’s big hands (another preamble) or the way some composers (Rachmaninoff is one) pummel and pulverise the end of a symphony as if they are beating it to death.  Sometimes, thinking of music and poetry together, I say to myself my favourite rhyme from ‘The Owl and the Pussy-Cat’.

         “Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling                                                
Your ring?” Said the Piggy, “I will.”

It’s that willing and shilling and will and the subtler pig and ring that never fail to enchant me.

Elizabeth Smither

Grief

I haven’t written much poetry in the last five years, but what I have written has been suffused with grief. Every creative practitioner goes through ebbs and flows, and I have been going through a poetic ebb. Poetry has been a place where I have been spending time alone, working through grief. The grief of losing family members, the grief of relationship breakups, the grief of dealing with trauma. Old griefs surface amongst the more recent ones and it feels like walking through a weird forest or a very biodiverse swamp. After pursuing a writing career for over 20 years I am only just getting to a point where I feel comfortable in this space. I have found poetic forms useful for providing emotional distance but also as a kind of packaging or container I can put things into and observe them. I don’t know when and how this work will find a home in the world – dark formalism is a very acquired taste – but for now it is enough that it functions as reflective practice.

Airini Beautrais

Time Travel

I love the idea of poetry as time travel.  How amazing that we can sing our words onto a page and a minute or a day or a century later someone can read it and the song will flow into them. The song will sound subtly different to each listener, but it will still spark and ignite and fizz and I as the writer will speak directly to you, the reader. That’s the magic of poetry. In a time when seemingly it’s harder for us to listen to others, here is a room – a space – where two consenting people can touch, across space and time.  That is something to hold on to.

Renee Liang

grief


I went past the word ‘grief’ near the top of the list and got stuck on it, I couldn’t concentrate on the other words and kept going back to it. I have been writing a lot of grief-ridden poems lately, trying to process ‘losing’ my father to dementia, as well as this communal grief we are all experiencing to some extent, for the way of living and connecting we used to have, and the way covid has put a stop to a lot of that life. At first that stop felt temporary, but now, two years on, it does not seem to be leaving. Poems are a sort of beacon in that darkness. I often think of a poem by James Brown called ‘Beyond Repair’, that I read as a young writer and loved. Although the poem was about a broken umbrella, there was a sadness sitting underneath it that I felt moved by. There are plenty of great celebratory poems, or f-you poems, or / or / or, but poems about grief seem to come from a deep and obviously painful place in the physical body. By writing poems about grief, I hope to reach people grieving. And as someone grieving, I want to read poems to see that I’m not alone. Poems are a place of kinship that you don’t have to be in the same room (or even the same time) as someone else to experience.

Louise Wallace

Fragment

In a way, all poems are made of fragments. Each line is created by a sort of breaking, making the poem a form fissured with cracks. Some poetry is literally fragmented; only sections survive. Lots of ancient poetry is like this; it is as if we possess a handful of sea glass rather than a complete bottle. I like the mystery of never quite knowing the whole. Because, I think, mystery is important to poetry, too. Good poetry is about what you know and can read, sure, but it is also about what is hidden, implied, unknown. What is lurking outside the text and exerting pressure on it. Poetry, to me, is always about what we know and what we cannot simultaneously. At once complementary and oppositional. So give me sea glass over a bottle any day; give me a fragment; give me a poem.

Hebe Kearney

Knot

I am fascinated by the presence of knots in both corporeal bodies and bodies of words. The innumerable ways knots are tied and undone in/through people and poetry constantly impresses me. I often catch myself chewing over everyday reversals/oppositions and getting quite furious at how quickly I diagnose their nature or belonging as ‘oppositional’. Every bit of me doesn’t want to arrive at these conclusions but I do, but I am always ready to interrogate my arrivals and departures. Humans seem to have some chronic compulsion—some biological compulsion—to disentangle, to cling to the asynchronous over the synchronous, but unless this compulsion is actually going to save our lives, I believe we ought to reassess it. There is a blend about almost everything: it is possible to be dreaming and not dreaming, truly overjoyed and truly miserable at once. Perhaps Maggie Nelson’s keen awareness of mutual inclusivity in The Argonauts best articulates how I feel about the responsibility of people, and the page, to examine a chronically loose knot: “I had spent a lifetime devoted to Wittgenstein’s idea that the inexpressible is contained—inexpressibly!—in the expressed.” Poetry is special for the way it knits so intricately together the forces and feelings we aren’t sure how to make sense of (and often we still don’t know how to make sense of them after the poem, only feel we know them better) but for poetry to do such work it requires first a person to acknowledge this work as necessary, and more, to need this work to be necessary. I am thinking now of essa may ranapiri’s ransack. I am thinking of Anna Jackson’s Actions and Travels. I am thinking about the way I want my writing to always be honest about the knot: the deep-rooted (I accidentally typed deep-rotted, hmm) drive to disentangle, and the desire, the urgency, to keep the braid. My current MA project aspires to gallop through and around the knot. I wonder where I will arrive, where I will depart, and why, and why not?

Amy Marguerite

Time

I find it essential to be on time for everything (including the present assignment). If I’m invited anywhere, I count backwards to find the latest moment I can leave in order to be at my destination punctually. Occasionally I try to factor in a bit of fashionable lateness, but mostly in vain. Time in poetry, though, is a horse of a different colour. I wrote a poem while travelling in the Lake District with my family in 1981. The first two lines ran:

We built a man of slates, and after years,
revisited, the rock had grown a face.

I liked them, but I wasn’t really sure what they meant. Perhaps for that reason, what came next was less satisfactory – to me, and to others. The poem stayed with me, though, and fifteen or so years later I made a concerted attempt to complete it with some entirely new lines. And in that form it appeared in my first book, City of Strange Brunettes (1998), under the title “First Love.” But I didn’t entirely like that version either, so later on I had a go at changing the second stanza. Just now, in 2022, I had a look at the poem again and decided to change it back to the way it’d been in the book. Even as I read it, though, I can still hear the original 1981 version of the last four lines going round and round in my head. My point is not so much that the poem is still alive for me, after forty-odd years (though it is); rather, the thing that fascinates me is the number of different moments over those four decades that are somehow miraculously preserved in this one six-line poem. Writing a poem is the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to that Proustian idea of recovering lost time – not just as it was, but with the added patina of what has come in between then and now. It’s a snapshot of a buried past, but with the advantage that the people in the picture are still able to live and breathe. Going back to old poems to rewrite and reshape them is not so much about improving them as asserting their ongoing vitality – and, I suppose, my own.

Jack Ross

Tongue

One of the things I value most about poetry is its ability to put me into contact with the feel of language, to allow me to hold language in my mouth, to taste language anew, to slow and savour. I have been immensely lucky to be lead in my writing and reading life by Tracey Slaughter, who encourages her students to encounter language in the limbic system, to practice out the sounds and shapes of words in our mouths like babies learning to talk, like kids crowing the same word over and over just to hear it echo. The rush of poetic lines are only liberated when the tongue is loosed, when those pursed lips of self-censor are softened. That’s the thing I’ve been holding onto most about writing and reading poetry lately: the invitation to slow and notice where words come from, where they live in the body, and what they do there. I’m really interested in the power of ink and tongues, of words and bodies—in language and the way it moves us, for better and worse. Poetry is maybe the lab where I go to tune my ear into the layers of inheritance and learning that lace our tongues, where I begin to untangle these shouting, baffling seasons that seem to just keep unfurling.

Aimee Jane Anderson-O’Connor

Politics

‘All poetry is political’ is one of the most abused adages in the game. What people want it to mean is that their 16-line sonnets about urban ennui are quite radical, politically. What it really means is that most bodies of non-revolutionary poetry implicitly rubber-stamp the status quo. Being mindful of the difference between those two very different kinds of writing has been helpful to me as I consider what I really need to say and how I want to say it. (And don’t get me wrong: I love a good ennui poem!)

Erik Kennedy

Line-break


With each line-break I take a breath in, and in the out breath there is often a protest where I question what I’ve left unspoken. 
Line-break. 
wince at the constriction of my tongue 
Line-break. 
What does poetry mean for the environment we have created?
Line break. 
There is uncertainty around what constitutes freedom of speech for humanity nowadays. Who listens to the wild voices, of all ages, who press us with an acute urgency to look deeply at our foundations?
Line-break. 
Is there space for another vernacular
Line-break.
I imagine, if our collective can move forwards with aroha, that the external/internal/existential chaos might have less power. 
Line-break.
And while I may wish in secret, for outdated oppressive systems to collapse, so that we might find stillness inside a new landscape, I know ultimately that the answers lie inside ourselves. 
Line-break.
Am I a poet utilising line-breaks as moments to reflect? I sure hope so.

Iona Winter 

Chaos

In Game of Thrones season 3 episode 6, Lord Petyr Baelish famously says to Master of Whispers Varys ‘chaos is a ladder’. I can only assume he was referring to employing chaos as a poetic device. Chaos in a poem can be a powerful tool, able to cut through a poem straight to the reader or audience. It can act as a sort of shortcut to an emotional evocation or provocation. But it can also be fool’s gold, an enticing siren seducing you on your poetry voyage, you hear its gorgeous call, then before you know it, you’ve crashed, and your poem has been obliterated into something unrecognisable. My personal philosophy is that more young poets should experiment with chaos. Sure, we’re following you through a golden field, eating pomegranate seeds, in a soothing state of cottagecore bliss, but where’s the chaos? Where’s the amplified effects of climate change setting the field immediately ablaze? Where’s the sudden ennui that leads to the speaker choking on the pomengranate? Where’s the local elderly occult devotees performing sacrifices in the neighbouring field? Maybe it’s all terrible and should never make it in the poem, but what’s the harm in trying? My favourite poets are those who have realised the secret to chaos is restraint, who can control it with ease and employ it when it is most effective, it raises the ceiling on the effect their poetry can have on their audience. 

Jordan Hamel

Slippage

Perhaps more than prose, poetry always has the potential to slip into something else, which is part of what makes the writing process so challenging. You’re often drawing on influences both ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ the poem — there’s the content of the poem itself, but then there are all the poems you’ve read and loved before it; that live in your mind while you construct this one. A poem can be a séance: you’re never quite sure what you’re summoning; but what you let in can change it forever. A poem might slip into different places. It can slip wholly into memory or a vision of the future. The reality of the poem can slip. So can the language itself; it might shift into another language, or entirely into incoherence. The form of a poem can unwind and fray. It can slip into something no longer resembling a poem. The poet’s relationship with the reader can change. And you can change too.

Anuja Mitra

Landscape


When I’m writing, what I’m really doing is chasing a feeling. That’s why I love poetry so much because it does what no other genre of writing seems to do: it allows for the creation of emotional landscapes, to build these microcosms of feelings with as many or as few words as you like. You can put someone in the middle of the dining room, your childhood home, the eye of a mental breakdown, taking and giving, being honest, telling lies. Part of me really likes that challenge, likes trying to use a small number of words to put my reader inside a certain perspective. It’s one of the first things I notice about a poem I read and the thing I’m always reaching for in the dark of my draft work. That little world that pulls me in and sinks me to the core, where you look up from the page like you’ve just been somewhere far away, and now the light is seeping back in, and you can go about your day again.

Brecon Dobbie

Loathing 

For poetry, loathing is recommended. I am only being half-facetious. It’s important I think, the loathing. The loathing of poetry. One’s own, sure. A bit. But the poetry of others. Particular poets. Some in far-off cities and some that you fraternise with and find charming. You may choose not to announce it out loud, and you’ll certainly deny it. Consider the opposite, that you loved all poems, that you applauded every line. You would surely be an idiot. Or at least undiscriminating. Liking everything would dilute your love of poetry. If you love it, you’ve got to loathe it. Right? What you love and what you loathe defines your aesthetic. I think it’s common to disagree with the list of poets and poems that others loathe. But I see the loathing itself as a good sign. It shows they care. And the lens of that loathing focuses a poet’s own writing. If you loathe every Nick Ascroft poem I applaud you. You have the good sense to loathe. Me, I like everything and everyone. 

Nick Ascroft

Findability

When I write a poem, one thing has never changed: the thrill is in the process, which is bristlingly private. If I’m writing, I’m smiling. So what could possibly add to that? A live audience. These days, something else adds value to my poems: findability. My tired short-term memory abandons any lines scribbled on envelopes, no matter how fascinating. If they’re not in the file named “2022-half-baked-poems” they don’t exist. They have plopped out of my fingers like tadpoles. From the poems I read, I ask nothing. They may add or they may do mysterious things with a slide rule. If I could analyse this, would it be poetry?

Rachel McAlpine

Human

I don’t want much really. I just want to learn what another person knows about the human condition. I want to hear this experience in language that is mine and also not mine, with cadence that draws me up hills and through valleys. I want the poem to penetrate my body and leave me both weaker and stronger. That’s all.

Lynn Jenner

Line break

To me, line breaks are one of the most important tools in poetry. People joke that anyone can write a poem by spamming the enter key lots of times, but I think that knowing when to break up a sentence is very important. It can feel very intuitive or extremely calculated, depending on the poem. When I first started reading poetry, I found it confusing when a poem would break suddenly, seemingly against the natural rhythm of its structure, against what my brain wanted to do. But now I understand that this is often the art of poetry – to highlight something that normally might go unnoticed in the grinding rhythm of things. By changing the emphasis to fall on a certain word, you can create whole new worlds of meaning. It’s exciting, when you fall into a rhythm only to have it thwarted by where the words sit on the page. Like you can’t predict where the poem will fall next.

Cadence Chung

Pronouns

Whether or not you consider non-binary people trans depends on so many things both internal and external to the individual thinking about it. I, personally, live outside the binary and across it. Sometimes seen. Sometimes not. In general extremely hidden. I find these days eventually things boil down to pronouns. Things are revealed by pronouns. For better, for worse. Sometimes they are something good. Regularly, they are an uncomfortable choice between uncomfortable choices layered with further uncomfortable choices. I’m not drawn to any of the pronouns in regular circulation, poetically, they just exist. The pronoun I am most obsessed with when it comes to my writing is you. It’s me, it’s you, it’s a different you, it’s all of us in general. It’s a flexible cover for a multitude of people. It’s a flexible cover for a multitude of selves. I sometimes feel it’s the central working theme in my work to obscure and reveal who is speaking and spoken of. Who is the object and who is the subject. I love what I can do with you. I love what you, the reader, can do with you. I love who I can be with you. I love you.

Emma Barnes