I have always knitted but never very often and never very well. I have a winter cardigan that has been on the go for years and I need help to get it working again. When I was young I knitted a very complicated black jersey. I completed it and it felt like a work of art with its intricate and sublime stitching and hard-to-see-as-you-knit colour. But before I ever put it on, my dog Woody ripped it to shreds. I have never managed to finish anything since. Perhaps this winter I will see if I can find the bag with the grey wool and hope the moths haven’t shredded the cardigan.
I love knitting because it is soothing, because crafting things is a joy, and we can produce things that are of the greatest comfort. (Although at AWF 2021, Brian Turner talked about his grandmother knitting him childhood jerseys he never really liked!) I love the way you can lose yourself in the clicketty clack rhythm, or if you are skilled, you can read and look elsewhere as you knit. But knitting is a metaphor for so much more. Writing a poem is a form of knitting. Relationships and family life are forms of knitting. Telling a story. Living. Loving. Existing.
I am grateful to all the poets and publishers who continue to support my season of themes. These poems are not so about knitting, but have a knitting presence in varying degrees. Ha! I think reading is a form of knitting too! Happy knitting!
Twelve poems about knitting
I hit on knitting for something to do
in the gloom, I get restless,
this end of the room is dim
and outside the window, the sun
burns down on browned-out plants
holding onto the dry clay bank,
relentless blue behind.
What Paul watches all day long.
Smoking for something to do.
He raises his eyebrows ridiculously
as I pull the thread of last year loose,
wants to know what I’m doing.
I say it stops me from chatter.
We say little bits from time to time
it’s peaceful, his coffin
on the dining room table
…32, 34, 36… I’m casting on the front
a dark ship riding into the room
light falling in behind
through the potted palms
in the little courtyard.
I’m halfway up the rib
on announcement day; it’s grim.
Paul says if no one can come
and no one can go,
just chuck him in his car
and straight in the ground.
We take the back seat out.
I knit and wait and watch
at the foot of the bed
and I’m not sure of the pattern:
a black square in the middle
that no one knows how to do.
Reflection on Berthe Morisot’s ‘Young Woman Knitting’
There you sit
where you’re put,
Did you mark
the woman who
in a thousand
strokes of pastel
oils? Do you notice
held up to their task
seem to merge, blend
with the pale-pinkness
of your gown,
how your edges,
threaten to dissolve
into the background,
so that you would
disappear in a haze
and the smell of
Know all that as you sit
fixed at your task,
but also note that she –
your creator –
against the green-grey
of the water. So that we
might see you,
defined, so that you might
feel your head caught by the water
and your hair trail in the waves.
knitting a poem
I’m knitting this poem
for you. knit 1 purl 2.
found the pattern
in an old drawer
fraying at the seams. knit 1 purl 2.
I’m tatting together
to keep us warm. p2sso.
a colourful coverall
to contain love. p2sso.
tangle here, k2tog.
taut to the touch. k2tog.
I’m knitting this poem
for you. knit 1 purl 2.
a cardigan of care
we can don
anytime our world
unravels. knit 1 purl 2.
I’ve sewn up
for you. bind off.
having three sons
to see through winter
in a house
with one fireplace
our mother was an
turning out identical
triplets of jerseys
or like Penelope
seated at her loom
she unravelled then
reconstructed frayed elbows
ragged seams and cuffs
one over the other
in the firelight
We let the string sleep slack between our houses
hours, days, years, until one of us tugs.
Then, lifted and pulled taut, we speak. Buzz
words coming down the line. A baked bean can
for trumpet and for conch. Our voices echo sound,
plumbing the marks. On my lips, your name, a manner
of holding you and what you spell. Something like
kin and kinship, something like kind; something like,
affection being the grounding stitch of love, which,
purl to plain and slip-one-pass-one-over, knits
our kith. Peculiar patterns we make
with our yarn, shaped to what blows through and what’s
prevailing. Rambunctious winds, or fretful. These times
you are bent beneath a howling. I am picking up
the string to make a steady tether for your heart.
For thy heart. Dear friend, I’m thinking of thee.
from The Yield, Otago University Press, 2017
My Mother Spinning
Sit too close
& the spinning bob cools you.
Leave the room
& the foot pedal beats
on a raw nerve.
Leave the house
& a thread of wool follows.
(picked by Richard Langston)
For my parents
You were meant to die at home
suddenly, one of you stepping in from a walk
to find the other on the floor inside.
Then one of you in the garden
splayed on the earth and
the other in the earth already so
it’s like you fell to them.
That’s not how you went.
Things were more difficult than that.
We still talk, or –
to use the language of crossing over –
Shy ministers of the invisible continent.
To cover the quiet moments
I start to knit a hat, and
in deep times,
like a Victorian daughter,
I rest my knitting on my lap.
We have about a hundred stitches to let go
of Alzheimer’s and stroke
and pick up the daily walks down the goat track
to the beach, you two
ahead of me,
towels slung around your shoulders,
your bare feet finding their own way down
the steep clay path.
from Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2020, Lynn reads ‘For My Parents’ here
Side by side
we purl the fine, cream wool.
The baby pushes and glides
beneath your elbows, your fingers
tense with ribbing.
I pick up your slipped stitches,
pass the needles back and forth.
Our tiny singlets grow.
Outside it is afternoon,
the sky paling and snow
clumped on Ben Lomond.
from Parallel, Steele Roberts. 2014
The Pattern of Memoir
In the days before synthetics from China,
women knitted. My Brownie teacher taught me
at seven, words or wool, anyone can master it.
First, the unravelling of elusive, possibly false
strands of memory.
Next, you settle into long days, row after row,
hoping for a garment approximating truth,
knowing anything re-knitted is always a little
uneven, a compromise at best. I make no mention
of the casting off.
The way your hands finding nothing
to do now, start searching for trouble again,
unearthing that old thing in the back
of the wardrobe just itching for a make-over,
a whole new life.
In the days before synthetics from China,
women knitted. My Brownie teacher taught me
at seven, words or wool, anyone can master it.
First, the unravelling of elusive, possibly false
strands of memory.
From Every Now and Then I Have Another Child, Otago University Press, 2020
P l e x i s P e r i p l e x i s
Stooped sore with the shells and soaps of gift-giving, the midnight-baked koulouria
and sesame, the red eggs of the resurrection, a map, a compass
shoulder-sloped with the southerly through the crack in the dining stained-glass,
the dawn frosts on the lawn and the knitting mum prudently started:
so you’ll be able to trace your way back, my mikroula, my thesaurus, so you won’t get lost,
fall, be eaten whole, wander for days in bad company, catch cold, worry; so you’ll have
something to fly from Yiayia’s yard with the pots, the tiles dusted-clean, the shed with my
clothes by the tree
I squeeze on and through; down the rows, losing rows; reach down from
the overhead locker, pull out needles and threads and start looping.
from Ithaca Island Bay Leaves: A Mythistorima, Seraph Press, 2009
lists of names unspooling, not dead
but extinct, never-coming-again
owl, quail, snipe, wren
and I’m on my knees, weeding the lettuces
a blackbird hops, watches, drawn by the freshly turned earth
he’s wary he knows what species I am –
the one whose jersey’s unravelling
leopard, rhino, wolf, ibex
and strands of blue wool
unstitch behind me,
snag on blackberry barbs
penguin, dolphin, sea-lion
and above me, gulls on lifting wind
bring salt-tanged keening
shearwater, petrel, albatross
and a cuff of my jersey flops down, hobbles
my hand on the trowel; I re-roll the sleeve
and my dangling hem has gathered dried sepals dropped
by camellias, that rustle, click like a small-clawed cortege
piopio, huia, bat
and I stare at my trowel as if I don’t know
what to do with it.
very fine lace knitting
this is a picture of my house
wallpaper silvery with birch trees
covering the workbook
the stories and the pictures
red and yellow blue and blue-green
the smiling suns
jack in the box on the window sill
see Sweetie run
the high shelf in the toyshop
I want to be a ship
the umbrella poem
the oak tree and its acorns
the blue eyes that wouldn’t
the bar of chocolate and our mother at a high window
angelic openings in the calendar
circus elephants on the road at Waitara
hot black sand and the donkey rides at Ngāmotu
but we came ashore after the others
Mama still pale and no baby sister
though we begged her to tell us
when we might see her again
hush darlings she said
look at the tents and the lovely black sand
we will camp out until there is a house for us
but that house burned down right away
and Papa had no watch
or any instruments to make drawings with
and all of us felt sad
because the ship had gone
perhaps with our baby sister hidden somewhere inside
crying to us but we couldn’t hear
now Papa must cut the Sugar Loaf line
now Mama must tell us a new story
and when the earth shakes and the rats run across our blankets
we will not think of her
our sister outside in the dark
beside the rivers and wells
that wait to drown children less wary than us
when my mother was a girl
she thought all grown men had to go to jail
and feared to find her father one day
among the figures working in the prison gardens across the river
under the watchful eye of Marsland Hill
how did she know
afternoon sun slanting through eucalypts
stream curving or carving the valley that divides
here from there, us from them
now from then
or not at all
how did she know
that her grandfather was locked up
for three months pending trial
for the attempted murder of his wife and child
on the farm at the top of Maude Road
and that she, our great grandmother
would drop the charges, needing him
at home and claiming he would often shoot at her
going down the road, for target practice
he was cautioned against excessive drinking and released
to lose the farm and start over
as a teacher in country schools
how did my mother know
that her father, a young man in a country town
was put in the lock-up for two weeks in the year before the war
for sending indecent literature to the girl who jilted him
two postcards and a photograph
he is named but she is not
in the police report that went to the local paper
he was in the second draft
leaving for Palmerston North
dark hair brown eyes five foot seven
oblique scar on left forearm
We were too small to remember
the trouble that took Papa to prison
for losing all his money
were we there too we ask Mama
did you take us did we all live in prison for a while
she will tell us only
that it wasn’t so bad
that everyone helped out and soon
he was home again I cannot now recall
how long we were away
but I was glad enough to leave that place
though I was not in favour of the long voyage
to the other side of the world
and dreaded confinement at sea
Well that is another story
now your father ties off his lines
for the company and remembers Cornish hills
Somerset hills and Devon hills under his pencil
he sees the nature path in the valley of the Huatoki
and knows it will take him to slopes covered in red and white pine
rimu and kahikatea
where a house may be built or brought
on land bought with remittances from England
the small child in the big photo
dark hair dark eyes pixie face
is my mother’s sister
they share a middle name
the child in the photo could be a year old
she is holding onto a stool with baby fingers
her feet are bare and she wears a dress
of soft white wool knitted by my grandmother
in whose bedroom the photo hangs
above the treadle sewing machine we are pumping hard
for the noise it makes up and down up and down
up and down and we are never told to stop or be quiet
we know the child in the photo died long ago
before she had time to become my mother’s sister
but we never ask our grandmother
about the very fine lace knitting
of the photo that hangs in her room
when at last we go looking for
the child who would have been our aunt
the trail is cold the dates stones or tears
Date of death: 20 September 1923
Place of death: Stewart Karitane Home Wanganui
Cause or causes of death: Gastroenteritis 2 1/2 Months, Exhaustion
Age and date of birth: 19 Months, Not Recorded
Place of birth: Stratford
Date of burial or cremation: 21 September 1923
Place of burial or cremation: Kopuatama Cemetery
we see our grandfather thrashing the Dodge
between Stratford and Whanganui
and the journey home with the little daughter
he will bury next day at Kopuatama
was our grandmother there
in the car at the Karitane Home at the graveside
the two and a half months of sickness
the birth of a second child
our Uncle Jack
8 July 1923
up and down up and down up and down
noise to cover a heartbeat under soft white wool
I look upon these letters and do not like to destroy them
they are a house of memory and when I read
I am my mother on deck at last
searching for a ripple on the flat Pacific Ocean
I am my father making delicate waves
around each of the Sugar Loaves on the map going to London
I am my brother in a choir of breakers
that bring his body to the landing place
I am my sister in the boat
outside the orbit of the moon and the orbit of the sun
I am my sister a bell-shaped skirt
between ship and shore
I am my sister painting a rock arch
that became fill for the breakwater
I am my sister exhausted
by travelling and the house to clear
I am my sister writing poems
that lie between the thin pages of letters
I am my sister singing
ship to shore choir of breakers alpine meadow
I am myself on the other side of nowhere
waiting for a knock on the door
my mother is taking a photo
of herself and our baby sister
in the mirror on the wall of silvery grey birches
it’s summer and she has propped the baby
between pillows in the armchair
holds the Box Brownie still
leans over the back of the chair smiling
into the mirror
she and her baby by themselves
reflected in silvery light
not for a moment aware of the child
whose passing long ago
mirrors to the day
the arrival of our sister
whose middle name my mother took
from the light of Clair de Lune
and so the daughter library
remakes itself and is not lost
though great libraries burn and cities fall
always there is someone
making copies or packing boxes
writing on the back of a painting or a photo
always there is someone
awake in the frosty dark
hearing the trains roll through and imagining
lying under the stars at Whakaahurangi
face to the sky on the shoulder of the mountain
between worlds and mirror light
Tony Beyer lives and writes in Taranaki. Recent poems have appeared online in Hamilton Stone Review, Molly Bloom and Otoliths.
Diane Brown is a novelist, memoirist, and poet who runs Creative Writing Dunedin, teaching fiction, memoir and poetry. She has published eight books: two collections of poetry – Before the Divorce We Go To Disneyland, (Jessie Mackay Award Best First Book of Poetry, 1997) Tandem Press 1997 and Learning to Lie Together, Godwit, 2004; two novels, If The Tongue Fits, Tandem Press, 1999 and Eight Stages of Grace, Vintage, 2002—a verse novel which was a finalist in the Montana Book Awards, 2003. Also, a travel memoir, Liars and Lovers, Vintage, 2004; and a prose/poetic travel memoir; Here Comes Another.
Lynn Davidson’s latest poetry collection Islander is published by Shearsman Books and Victoria University Press. She had a Hawthornden Fellowship in 2013 and a Bothy Project Residency at Inshriach Bothy in the Cairngorms in 2016. In 2011 she was Visiting Artist at Massey University. She won the Poetry New Zealand Poetry Award, 2020 and is the 2021 Randell Cottage Writer in Residence. Lynn has a doctorate in creative writing and teaches creative writing. She recently returned to New Zealand after four years living and writing in Edinburgh.
Michele Leggott was the first New Zealand Poet Laureate 2007–09 under the administration of the National Library. She received the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry in 2013. Her collections include Mirabile Dictu (2009), Heartland (2014), and Vanishing Points (2017), all from Auckland University Press. She cofounded the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre (NZEPC) with Brian Flaherty at the University of Auckland where she is Professor of English. Michele’s latest collection Mezzaluna: Selected Poems appeared in 2020 (Auckland University Press).
Vana Manasiadis is Greek-New Zealand poet and translator born in Te Whanganui-a-Tara and based in Tāmaki Makaurau after many years living in Kirihi Greece. She is 2021 Ursula Bethell Writer-in-Residence at Te Whare Wanaga o Waitaha Canterbury University. Her most recent book is The Grief Almanac: A Sequel.
Carolyn McCurdie is a Dunedin writer, mainly of poetry and fiction. Her collection, Bones in the Octagon was published by Makaro Press in 2015.
Peter Olds was born in Christchurch, 1944. His mother was a born knitter. All her life she spun and knitted. His Selected Poems was published in 2014 by Cold Hub Press.
Rose Peoples is from Te Awakairangi/Lower Hutt. She is a student at Victoria University and, having finished her law degree last year, decided that the logical next step was to embark upon a Masters in Literature. She is a bookseller at Good Books. Her work has previously appeared in Cordite, Mimicry and Starling.
Vaughan Rapatahana (Te Ātiawa) commutes between homes in Hong Kong, Philippines, and Aotearoa New Zealand. He is widely published across several genre in both his main languages, te reo Māori and English and his work has been translated into Bahasa Malaysia, Italian, French, Mandarin, Romanian, Spanish. Additionally, he has lived and worked for several years in the Republic of Nauru, PR China, Brunei Darussalam, and the Middle East.
Marty Smith spent 2020 writing poems and an essay for her friend Paul, who died in lockdown in April. Now she’s working on her racing project, following riders, trainers and ground staff through the seasons at the Hastings racecourse as they work with their horses.Marty spent lockdown as one of a small team given dispensation from Cranford Hospice to give end-of-life care to their friend, Paul. He does not make it to the end of the extra five days. Nearly. So close. Poem and audio, ‘My Lights for Paul’. VERB Essay: ‘I hope to make six good friends before I die’ (for Paul).
Jillian Sullivan lives in the Ida Valley, Central Otago. Her thirteen published books include creative non-fiction, novels and short stories. Once the drummer in a women’s indie pop band, she’s now grandmother, natural builder and environmentalist. Her awards include the Juncture Memoir Award in America, and the Kathleen Grattan prize for poetry. Her latest book is the collection of essays, Map for the Heart- Ida Valley Essays (Otago University Press 2020).
Sue Wootton lives in Ōtepoti-Dunedin, and works as the publisher at Otago University Press. ‘Calling’ won the 2015 takahē international poetry competition.
Ten poems about clouds
Twelve poems about ice
Ten poems about dreaming
Eleven poems about the moon
Jack Ross reads four poems from The Oceanic Feeling, Salt & Greyboy Press, 2021
Jack Ross works as a senior lecturer in creative writing at Massey University. He is the author of five poetry collections and eight works of fiction, most recently Ghost Stories (Lasavia Publishing, 2019) and The Oceanic Feeling (Salt & Greyboy Press, 2021). He blogs here
Notes to The Oceanic Feeling
Jack reads and comments on ‘1942’
My book, In bed with the feminists, is officially pre-orderable today! It’s being published by Dead Bird Books, and has a stunning cover which started out as a hand-single-stitched piece by the amazing Lucinda King. Emer Lyons has been the editor with the mostess.
In Wānaka, the very brilliant Laura Williamson will be launching the book for me at Creative Juices at Rhyme x Reason brewery. In Ōtautahi and Ōtepoti, Dominic Hoey from Dead Bird Books will be doing the launching. Not sure who is guesting yet at Space Academy in Ōtautahi but I’m already superexcited that Iona Winter will open in Ōtepoti at Adjø.
If you want to preorder the book or read a bit more about it, here’s the link.
Siobhan Harvey, Ghosts, Otago University Press, 2021
Siobhan Harvey is the author of eight books, including Ghosts (Otago University Press, 2021) and 2013 Kathleen Grattan Poetry Award-winning Cloudboy (OUP, 2014). She received the 2020 NZSA Peter & Dianne Beatson Fellowship, and won the 2020 Robert Burns Poetry Award and the 2019 Kathleen Grattan Award for a Sequence of Poems. Her work appears in recent anthologies: Arcadian Rustbelt: Poets Emerging 1980–-1995 (University of Liverpool Press, 2021), Feminist Divine: Voices of Power and Invisibility (Cyren US, 2019) and, translated into Italian, in Alessandra Bava (ed.), HerKind: Anthology of Contemporary New Zealand Poets (Editione Ensemble, 2021).
Otago University Press page
Siobhan in conversation with Lynn Freeman, Standing Room Only, RNZ
The Friday Poem: ‘If befriending Ghosts’ from Ghosts
Kiri Piahana-Wong review for Kete Books
‘You better marvel while you can – marvel and embrace the present.’ Brian Turner, AWF 2021
Dear Anne O’Brien and the AWF team
When the Auckland Writers Festival was cancelled in 2020 we felt such sadness at the loss after all the hard work and planning on your part, at the evaporation of those sessions we planned to attend or to participate in. (Although let’s remember we enjoyed a season of fabulous Paula Morris zoom sessions with various local and international authors.) It felt like a miracle that Auckland Writers Festival Waituhi O Tāmaki 2021 could go ahead with a strong and wide-reaching focus upon Aotearoa writers. To me 2021 was a festival of aroha and connection and, in this upheaval and damaged world, it makes it just that little bit easier to cope.
More than anything I welcomed the embrace of Māori, Pasifika and Asian voices, especially through the work of guest curators, Ruby Solly and Gina Cole.
How good to see sold-out session after sold-out session, foyers thronged with readers and writers, ideas sparking, feelings connecting, books selling. The festival theme Look, Listen & Learn is so very apt. AWF 2021 gave us an extraordinary opportunity to listen to a rich diversity of voices. I loved this so very much. I loved taking time to stop and observe. I loved reflecting upon my own behaviour and biases, my joys and grief. But yes I was grief stricken at the Pākehā woman who vented her ignorance/ racism upon a guest. Do this in my company and I will challenge you. I want our eyes and ears and arms to open wide to make room for communities of wisdom and experience and grievances. It is utterly essential.
Thank you for AWF for caring for your writers and readers, for putting hearts on sleeves and creating space and time for us to listen and look and learn. I adored this festival. I drove home on Saturday night into the pitch black of the West Coast and I felt like I had breathed in love. I saw so many poets and chairs who filled me with a shared joy in the power and reach of words and stories, and quite frankly, the preciousness of each day. Inspirational, heart restoring, mind challenging. Anne O’Brien you are an Auckland Tāmaki Makaurau treasure.
Thank you to every one who made this festival happen and run so smoothly (and yes for the divine food and green tea that kept the writers going). Sorry about the mixed quality of photos off my low-grade phone.
There has never been a festival quite like this one. Every session a gem. Extraordinary.
Some Poetry Highlights
I got to do a Magnetic Poetry workshop with children earlier in the week and once again felt that joy of working with young writers. To see the intense concentration and joy on their faces as their pens went scratching, as they shared poems, as they tried whatever challenge I lay down. I don’t say yes to many children’s workshops at the moment so this was special.
Doing my workshop meant I got a lanyard and so I got to go to loads of fabulous poetry events, to reboot in the Patron’s Lounge, and to catch up with much loved writing friends. So thank you for inviting me. I adored this festival.
First up The Ockham NZ Book Awards – I live streamed it on FB so got to hear the readings and speeches. I talked about the poetry shortlist in a session at Featherston, and what awards are like when you are an author, and how when Wild Honey missed out last year I could say ‘fuck’ at home (in lockdown), and get drunk on bubbles and be really really sad for an hour and then just move on! Because all the new projects bubbled back to the surface and the fact that what matters more than anything is the writing itself. That said the 2021 poetry shortlist was sublime – four astonishing books (although I did mourn the equally astonishing Wow by Bill Manhire and Goddess Muscle by Karlo Mila, but I jumped for joy (yes Featherston I did!!) at Tusiata Avia’s win (The Savage Coloniser) and Jackson Nieuewland’s winning best first book. Check out my celebrations here and here.
I also leapt in delight that Airini Beautrais’s magnificent short story collection Bug Week won (even though I had adored Pip Adam’s and Catherine Chidgey’s novels). I haven’t read Sprigs by Brannavan Gnanalingam yet, but Marion Castree’s words at the Featherston award event has spurred me to get past the disclaimer at the start of the book and read beyond the violence.
Usually I go to as many events as possible on as many days as possible but this year I decided to circle poetry on the Friday and Saturday. I kept hearing people say ‘I was so gutted I missed …’ and I know the feeling. I was gutted to miss Patricia Grace – but I will make up for it by buying her memoir. I was gutted to miss Anne Kennedy and pianist Sarah Watkins on the Friday night. And not to hear Kyle Mewburn and Charlotte Grimshaw, Catherine Chidgey and Carrie Tiffany. Kazuo Ishiguro. Sue Kedgley. Alice Te Punga Somerville. The Purgatory Reimagined session. I had seen some writers at Featherston and at last year’s WORD so that wasn’t quite such a loss (Helen Rickerby, Pip Adam). Oh and Siobhan Havrvey’s launch for Ghosts. In fact when I look at programme I wish I could keep popping back – take a magical month so I could go to every single event.
Autumn salon series: Allende, Hassan, Li
First morning session in the Kiri Te Kanawa room is packed with punters keen to hear Isabel Allende, Mohamed Hassan and Yiyun Li in a zoom conversation with Paula Morris. I had come to hear Mohamed because hearing him read and talk poetry is a rare treat for me. I hadn’t factored in Isabel Allende talking about power and feminism, and how articulate and feisty she is, and how every word that leaves her mouth is perfect, and how I just want to go back and read all her novels, and most definitely her new meditation The Soul of a Woman. I love the fact she rebels against how we see aging. I love the fact she recoils at the label ‘magic realism’ that gets dumped on South American writers whereas with European writers it is philosophy or religion. I love her for saying this:
Like the ocean feminism
never stays quiet.
If you get chance listen to Mohamad Hassan read his poems online. Buy his book National Anthem. Mohamed openly talked about what it is like to write having grown up in both Egypt and Aotearoa, and having lived in other places. About the ghosts that emerged after the Ōtautahi Christchurch mosque attacks, and the ghosts that remain after the settlement of New Zealand, about the increased visibility of Muslim communities after September 11, and monstrous and skewed Muslim identities that continue to be broadcast. Mohamed: ‘Do I apologise or do I try to make a difference and speak on behalf of those without a voice?’ Paula raised the thorny issue of home. Mohamed: ‘In many ways I am not really Egyptian, not really a New Zealander, but 100% both. You create familiarity for yourself in all these places: your work, relationships, writing, and that is what constitutes home.’
As a call out to the current unspeakable, heartbreaking and ongoing violence on the Gaza strip, Mohamed read from his poem ‘There are bombs again over Gaza, are you watching?’. Here’s an extract:
(…) but the bombs are still dropping on
on a Palestine that isn’t, I am a reporter but feel
silent, making news about house prices and a us
president that isn’t, talking about a Muslim ban
that isn’t, I am a Muslim on a bus leaving Auckland
and I’m trying not to read the news, talk to friends
in Denver who pray in terminals not made for our
skin and I tweet about Kayne and check my follows
check my shoes in the glass waiting for the
wrong bus, I wear Palestinian colours by accident
and no one notices, wear a beard by accident
and hope I don’t have to travel soon, watch the
skyline shrink and thank god for a hot meal
Mohamed Hassan, ‘There are bombs again over Gaza, are you watching?’ from National Anthem
Honoured Writer: Brian Turner
Keep It Up
A farmer asked me
if I was working
he didn’t mean
I was sawing
and stacking wood,
tidying the shed,
pruning the hedge.
‘Is that work?’
‘Yes,’ he said,
‘keep it up.’
Brian Turner, Selected Poems, VUP, 2019
John Campbell – along with Bill Manhire, Grace Iwashita-Taylor, Paula Morris, Selina Tusitala Marsh and Emma Espiner – is one of my favourite chairs. He puts such diligent thought into both his introduction and questions. He reads the author’s work deeply, and clearly only accepts invitations where he feels the greatest empathy and engagement with the author and their writing. His conversation with poet Brian Turner was very special. With permission from Brian and his partner Jillian Sullivan, John shared the heartbreaking news that Brian has Alzheimer’s. We were privileged to listen to a conversation that paid tribute to a lifetime of poetry and wonder, a history of writing in multiple genres. The conversation struck so many deep chords with me.
I saw tussock, heard it
speaking in tongues
and chanting with the westerly:
What’s productive here
is what’s in your heart,
sworn through your eyes,
ears, the flitter of the
wind in your hair
Brian Turner, from ‘Van Morrison in Central Otago’, from Elemental: Central Otago Poems, VUP, 2012
John offered richly detailed thoughts on the writing and the living, the landscape and the lyrical line, and Brian was able to respond with sentences that shone out, and the reading of poems. It worked beautifully. In glorious tandem, they made the poetry so alive for us. On childhood: ‘Looking back we were hell of a lucky.’ On Alzheimer’s: ‘30% of my brain’s not working but I’m going to keep the rest of it going now!’ On what matters as a writer: ‘I like to listen to what other people have to say. Looking and listening always.’
John declares he will keep the poems centre stage and he does. Brian says roaming outdoors ‘suppress despair’: ‘I feel this is a wondrous place in all sorts of ways. I couldn’t live in a heavily populated city. I like to hear the cicadas. I like to hear fast clear cool largely clean water rattling on the stones. I like to roll over the stones and see if vertebrates are there, to see if fish might be there.’
We walk upon the earth, feast our eyes,
wonder at what we see in the skies;
listen to rivers and streams, stand
humbled by mountains and stare
in awe of oceans and their might.
Brian Turner, from ‘As We Have Long been Doing’, Selected Poems, VUP, 2019
On grandmothers and knitting: ‘Sometimes they knitted me the sorts of jerseys I didn’t want to wear.’ On self pity: ‘I always use the word luck.’ On learning: ‘I l always learn something from other people – but don’t fancy people a bit up themselves and ignorant!’ On what it’s like to write: ‘Will it hold up? Is it as good as I can make it? When writing a poem you never know what you are going to say next. I have drawers and drawers of poems. I am happy to write what I write and I don’t have to have it published.’
I totally agree about writing poetry for the sheer love of writing because all else is secondary. I also agree wholeheartedly with Brian on this:
‘You better marvel
while you you can – marvel and
embrace the present.’
If home is where and with whom you long to be
you’re still looking for it. In the meantime
you’re in a room where the fire’s crackling
and you’re listening to a CD of a cellist, pianist
and violinist whose urgency’s insistent, persistent
and melodic; you’re somewhere where there’s
just you and the music and the flames
and your cat under a chair near the fire,
and you’re thinking of home and where it may
be as rain begins to drum on the roof
and a wind’s rummaging like a vagabond
and you wonder if perhaps the cat feels this is
his sanctuary and therefore sanctity’s present
too, and that, just possibly, all of that’s true.
Brian Turner from Selected Poems
Pasifika Marama QAQA: Avia, Marsh, Mila
Tusiata Avia, Selina Tusitala Marsh and Karlo Mila read poems and conversed with poet Grace Iwashita-Taylor in a session that was part of the Talanoa series curated by Gina Cole. The room was packed to the gills and all those present witnessed something special. Getting Tusiata, Selina and Karlo to each read a poem that spoke to themselves was a genius idea. And then when Grace asked how they navigated their outsider status as Pasifika wahine, the most glorious conversation unfolded. This was a connective circle. This was ‘permission to be ourselves’. As Tusiata quoted from a poem by Karlo: it’s ‘the tapa of connected talk’. Tusiata talked about body shame at the book awards, Karlo about loneliness, everyone talked about the need to be seen and heard, about women’s wisdom, and women holding and shaping their spaces.
Karlo talked about poetry and a healing process: ‘Poetry is a way of allowing me to be me.’ And that comes through so clearly in Selina’s Mophead books that have touched people of all ages, in the extract she reads. She talked about making it niu, about bringing herself to Pasifika ways of being and doing and knowing, and how each touches upon and matters to the other. And then Karlo talked about remembering and forgetting, and ‘how we’ve all travelled through the bodies of so many to be here’. And Tusiata added: ‘My ancestors are trailing in a long line behind me like a wedding dress.’
Ah, and Selina talked about how Alice Walker and other women of colour influenced her, until the words of her grandfather shone through: ‘When you are ready you will see.’ And Karlo said: ‘The more I become myself the more I find myself – it’s a lifetime journey of shedding.’
‘When we write for deep clarity and to express our greatest truth to ourselves – everything else doesn’t matter’
Karlo: ‘Writing poetry is about clarity so I can hold it in my hands, so I can hold nana in my hands.’
An audience member thanked Grace and acknowledged she was also a great poet, and to date only Hawaii has published her work. Not Aotearoa. She made the important point: ‘Some of us can’t be numb to not being published. And we can’t go to university writing programmes.’
Grace acknowledged the three poets ‘as living breathing taonga, us together as a village’. It was a sublime session.
Holding the Tokotoko: Marsh & Eggleton
Curated by Gina Gole, David Eggleton joined Selina Tusitala Marsh – our current Poet Laureate and our previous Poet Laureate – to talk poetry and power, along with his new collection The Wilder Years (OUP). Selina began the session with a poem she had written for David:
Mr Eggleton’s Poetry Edges
Fledgling images wing
across space, time, paging
piles of concatenated anxiety
ridden, smidgen pictures rage on highways
then pile up against red traffic stop signs.
You go go go into rhythmic flow, the bump
and grind of razor edged objects rhyming
in bumper to bumper timing
street-signing their lines on roads,
byways, tracks, lanes and skyways
You are a ton of eagle,
a feather in Aotearoa’s crown.
You are an egg
in all respects
and we love you
(yep, that’ll do).
Selina Tusitala Marsh
The poem was like a mihi and you could tell David was chuffed at the way Selina riffed on his style. As she later said, David’s poetry ‘is bumper to bumper image and language – and I could listen to you all day’. David suggested he ‘uses the craft of English to find my way into myself’. His first poems might be seen as anti-poems, rants and raps. Now he is getting awards and recognition, he is seeing both his Palangi and Pasifika heritages, that can be in conflict, that can be a source of strength, that can render his poetry multi-faceted, that continue to draw upon ‘rap and chant and traditional rhythms’. You can hear it in ‘The Great Wave’, a poem he wrote after his mother passed in 2016, and he went to Suva to meet up with relatives.
I listen to the ocean chant words from Rotuma.
The Mariposa is a butterfly between islands.
A heatwave, fathoms green, whose light spreads
its coconut oil or ghee or thick candlenut soot,
twinkles like fireflies over plantation gloom,
and heart’s surge is the world’s deep breath.
I learn to love every move the great wave makes;
it coils you into each silken twist of foam,
blown far, all the way to salt-touched Tonga,
with mango pits, wooden baler, shells awash.
My uncle, swimming from New Zealand, wades
out of the sea and wades on shore at Levuka,
where my grandmother is staring out
from her hillside grove of trees waiting for him.
David Eggleton, from ‘The Great Wave’, The Wilder Years: Selected Poems, OUP, 2021
David underlined how important it is to advocate on behalf of other poets to be heard. When he first submitted to poems to Landfall he was rejected so he published his own broadsheets. Selina only got poems accepted when David became editor of Landfall. As Poet Laureate, David hopes to bring poetry to the people (as Selina did), to write poems about New Zealand events, to speak out against injustice (such as Myanmar), to try and maintain a balanced point of view, and to let his poems speak for themselves. To produce critical writing that resists the sneer and the put down. ‘You can use poetry as pure self expression,’ he says, ‘like doodles, to use words and diaphragm to express through mouths’. The power of poetry cannot be underestimated – he wants to be part of a tradition that reaches back to and moves forward from Hone Tuwhare.
This was a riveting session full of laughter and warmth and challenge. Each poet paid tribute to the gifts of the other, listening and applauding in the spirit of the festival. New Zealand is all the better to have the generosity, poetic dexterity and willingness to lay down crucial challenges from these two stellar Poet Laureates.
Humans Being Happy: Kate Camp
Before moving into a discussion with poet Kate Camp, chair Bill Manhire paid a sweetly rhyming tribute to two of our greatest and most beloved poetry patrons, Mary and Peter Biggs (sponsors of this session): ‘Mary and Peter do a huge amount for New Zealand poetry. They not only support it financially, they actually read it. They walk the talk. They’ve never been a failure at onomatopoeia. They step outside their mansion and they really do the scansion. They’re Mary and they’re Peter, and they dig poetic metre!’
The title of the session makes reference to Kate’s How to Be Happy Though Human: New and Selected Poems (VUP, 2020). It is an excellent collection and deserving of spotlight attention at the festival. Yet, as Bill rightly pointed out, other books that came out in 2020 also missed on launches and/or widespread visibility (such as the terrific selected poems from James Brown and from Bernadette Hall). Kate’s book was joint NZ/ Canadian publication so she missed out on launching it in Canada.
I loved Bill’s introduction to Kate’s poetry: He claimed she had been viewed as ‘the Mae West of New Zealand poetry – deadpan, offhand, laconic, out the side-of-the-mouth aphorisms – but over time more reductive, as she got deepening enlarging, enriching.’ The session included scintillating poetry talk, poems, an extract from the memoir she is writing and the hilarious diary Kate penned at the age of fourteen.
I also loved the anecdote about sending her IIML submission portfolio to Damien Wilkins and discovering he read a couple of them to Bill: ‘Holy shit, I have peaked!’ Yet here we are in a packed room listening to Kate read poems all these years later, and it is an absolute treat. To celebrate Tusiata Avia’s win, she reads ‘Panic Button’, a terrific poem in which Tusiata makes an appearance with her facts on the Bedouin (they scarcely drink water and they bury onions in the desert sand). The middle stanza signals things can go wrong in any human life, and if you thought about everyone breathing in and out at night in the house, ‘you’d just throw up in terror’. Here is the final stanza:
Instead I have this button in my pocket
not like a panic button, just a button
that’s come loose, and it fits
into the curve of my thumb and finger
as I turn it over and over.
I keep it in my pocket
like you keep a pebble in your mouth
in the desert, to make the saliva flow.
Kate Camp, from ‘Panic Button, from How to Be happy Though Human
Kate grew up learning poems off by heart, with that memorisation allowing a completely different appreciation of a poem (I find this when I type out poems for the blog! PG). And when she reads poems out loud she will find the nerve, the trigger point. In writing poetry she wants to remain calm and to be funny, to navigate tension and despair, to keep in control. I love the idea of finding the ‘nerve’ of a poem. Wow!
The memoir sample hooked me: it’s a series of essays that are most definitely not an autobiography. She doesn’t want to hurt people, and if the territory is too tough, she will avoid it – then again, compromising the writing is out, sugarcoating is out!
This was another standout session.
A Clear Dawn
A Clear Dawn: New Asian Voices from Aotearoa New Zealand, Auckland University Press, 2021
The first-ever anthology of Asian New Zealand creative writing was launched by editors Paula Morris and Alison Wong, with a selection of readings of poetry and fiction, to a packed room, including a sizable number of the contributors. The specialness of the occasion, in the arrival of this ground-breaking book, was contagious. Auckland University Press have produced a beautiful book to hold in the hand, exquisite interior design, with the writing itself stretching out in multiple directions and styles. As Alison said in her speech, the subject matter might have an overt Asian focus at times but, equally and so importantly, it can traverse and go deep into anything. And I would underline, you can’t pin ‘Asian’ down to single definitions, experiences, opinions, locations as the anthology so brilliantly shows.
You can hear nine of the contributing poets read here – in a feature I posted on Poetry Shelf.
Ngā Oro Hou: The New Vibrations
The programme announced this event: ‘An exceptional evening performance that brings together celebrated writers and taonga puroro practitioners in a lyrical weaving of language and song. Writers Arihia Latham, Anahera Gildea, Becky Manawatu, essa may ranapiri and Tusiata Avia joined poet/musicians Ruby Solly and Ariana Tikao. The session was curated by Ruby as part of her Ora series.
This was the final session I went to at the festival – sadly missing all the events I had circled on the Sunday. But what a sublime way to finish a festival of supreme love and connection, of listening, looking and learning. I didn’t write notes. I did take some photos. I wish I could have recorded the whole event so you too could breathe in the glorious flight of musical notes in harmony with musical word. The words were heart penned. I sat in the front row and breathed in and out, slowly slowly, breathing in edge and curve and pain and aroha and sweet sounds. It was like being in the forest. It was like being in the ocean. It was like being wrapped in soft goosebump blankets of words and music that warmed you, nourished you, challenged you. This is the joy of literary festivals that matter. This warmth, this love, this challenge.
And this was the joy of AWF 2021. I am so grateful to Anne O’Brien and her team for creating a festival that has affected so many writers and readers in the best ways possible. Really rather extraordinary. Thank you.
Submissions are currently OPEN
Deadline midnight 30 June
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We ask that you send up to five poems, preferably in a Word document, to sweetmammalian at gmail.com .
Spread the word far and wide. We’ll read through the winter, and launch the issue in southern hemisphere springtime.
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Intro from the author
Doctor James Barry was a nineteenth-century surgeon. He performed great medical feats, argued with almost everyone he met and duelled some of them too, survived a gay sex scandal in South Africa and travelled across the Atlantic with a goat and his white dog Psyche. He was also a nerd, obsessed with hygiene and hospital administration. He is one of a handful of transmasculine people whose stories have been passed on to us.
This poem is from my upcoming book The surgeon’s brain, an attempt to tell Doctor Barry’s story from the inside out.
The surgeon’s brain
It’s not a trifling thing. A man’s brain is, to some, the man himself. Forget this soul nonsense. He has cut into a thousand bodies and never seen a soul.
He has seen brains frozen, brains shucked from the skulls of criminals, brains in jars. There must be brains in the bogs, he finds himself thinking, Irish brains in Irish mud. There is something in the bogs that preserves. Frightful bodies have been pulled from the mire, twisted and browned like tree roots. Only the skin survives, the innards drained and pulped by the bog, but he imagines the brain laid in rushes, like an egg, like Jesus in the manger.
In an English church on an African Cape, his thinking stumbles and he is a child again, watching from an upstairs window a beggar walking door to door. She has a bad leg, that’s what people say, like a bad dog, just incorrigible. Young Barry wonders about that leg.
Later that night, he thinks about how his mind moved from church to street, from Cape to Ireland. He considers a way to observe the brain: a clean room and scalpel, a bone saw, an array of mirrors. He would need assistance for the sawing but could do the rest himself. He would not like another staring at his brain; it would be akin to being naked. The limitation, of course, is that he could only observe his brain thinking about his brain; he could not see what it looked like thinking of roses, for instance, or of prison cells. Perhaps at the point his attention shifted—he could catch that—the second between thoughts. What would that look like?
It feels to him like there is more than just his brain inside his skull. There is something that he thinks of as the mind, which he pictures as a shiny black spider moving through a web. The brain is static but the mind, his mind, feels as though it is always moving. This is why feelings must be disregarded in the study of anatomy.
Living outside the brain of Dr Barry, as we all do, it is possible to make only a few observations. For example, we can assume his brain weighed between 1.3 and 1.4 kilograms.
He wonders whether anyone has ever been as unhappy as he. Sometimes he wonders if anyone has ever been as happy as he. Sometimes he dances around his room in delight. His dog dances with him. If you were to ask them why they were dancing they would no doubt say, Because the other fellow was.
He imagines a lecture. He holds a thin rod, with which he taps a blackboard. On the blackboard is the word HYGIENE. Under the word HYGIENE are twenty-seven numbered points. He takes his students through each point. The lecture is four hours long. When he finishes, the students don’t want to leave. Sir, is there more you could teach us? Please sir, we want to hear everything. He chuckles, thinking about it, and decides to indulge them. His assistant rolls in a new blackboard. This blackboard is headed DISPOSAL OF EFFLUXIONS.
From where do these dreams come? Sometimes he is standing on a hillside, quite alone. An army mills beneath. His army – men he has trained from birth. He turns and runs and his army follows him, chases him, out of loyalty and bloodlust. I taught you this! he screams. He is lost to their spears.
Other times he is putting a child to bed. She is tired but strong, and hangs her arms around his neck. Patients call from behind the door. They need me, he says. Please let go.
I need you, she whispers. She opens her mouth and cholera climbs out.
He bounces baby Augusta on his knee. Her brain is growing fast. When she was born, it would have been smaller than a clenched fist. Since then it must have tripled in size. He doesn’t tell her parents this. They would ask how he knew.
Imagine a body without a brain. Monster. Demon. Ghost. Imagine a brain without a body, not in a jar but alive somehow, perhaps submerged in a pool of blood. How to feed it? How to communicate? Would it be an it, or still the person it was? Is?
Dr Barry, he imagines saying to his brain. Dr Barry, listen to me. Today we have done something truly remarkable.
Oscar Upperton lives in Wellington. His first collection New Transgender Blockbusters was published by VUP in March 2020. His second collection, on the life of nineteenth century surgeon Dr James Barry, is upcoming.