Tag Archives: Auckland University Press

Reading CK Stead’s That Derrida Whom I Derided Died: Poems 2013 – 2017

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CK Stead, That Derrida Whom I Derided Died  Auckland University Press  2018

 

 

Frank and Allen, Robin, Ron and Rex

rode the North Shore ferries, while Rangitoto

pictured itself sunk in a stone composure.

Eeven the Golden Weather would have to end

where a small room with large windows disclosed

geraniums wild in the wet and a gannet impacting.

 

from ‘That summer cento sonnet, 1950s’

 

In September I listened uncomfortably as Steve Braunias questioned CK Stead and Charlotte Grimshaw about the truth of happy childhoods in the Stead family. Steve insisted but Karl and Charlotte sidestepped with tact and grace. I have since read and loved Charlotte’s novel Mazarine – I was caught up in both the momentum of a thriller and entranced by the interior struggles of the main character. I savoured the novel for the novel’s sake rather than muse upon autobiographical tracings. In this world on edge the novel felt vulnerable, driven, humane. It was writing I felt as much as I thought.

Here I am writing about the daughter when I have just read the father (his novel waits me).

When I first picked up Karl’s new poetry collection, That Derrida Whom I Derided Died, the title catapulted me back into the gated community of literary theory.  I wanted to open the book and travel lightly but I was carrying the Going West session into the collection; that tension between what you write and what you live. I can’t think of a New Zealand literary figure who has courted greater controversy, maintained lifelong enemies along with lifelong friendships, and who has irked so many writing peers. I scarcely know the details of these relations or want to but I have had a long history of reading and admiring Karl’s poetry and fiction. Really I wanted to banish all this external hubbub from my reading and engage with the poetry on its own terms.

 

In the dark

of the 15th floor

Bill Manhire woke

thinking the building

had turned over in sleep

and groaned

or ground its teeth

 

from ‘Apprehension’ in ‘Christchurch Word Festival, 2016’

 

Karl’s collection is deeply personal; the poetry is a meeting ground for dream, memory, retrieval, old age. It is a book of friendships with the living, with ghosts of the past and with writers that attract such as Catallus. He obliquely and briefly returns to arguments and enmities that persisted but for me it is the love of poetry that is the greatest fuel.

The poetry is deftly crafted – like honey at perfect consumption – with shifting forms, syllabics, subject matter. You move from the exquisite opening poem ‘An Horatian ode to Fleur Adcock at eighty’ to the challenge of writing war poems to the final poem written at ‘ten to midnight’.

The 80 plus poems almost match Karl’s age (86) – and maybe that changes things for me as a reader. I am brought closer to death as I am reading, not because death is a protagonist, but because the long-ago past is returned to the frame. And I have had close shaves. What do we want to bring close and find poetic ways to make present? I am asking myself this as I read. Mysterious, dreamlike, moving; yet there is an intensity about these replayed moments. Perhaps luminosity is a better word for these poems that make things utterly present.

 

She was, she tells me

the one without a partner

until I came

with a bottle of bubbly and two plastic cups

and a small box of rose petals.

‘You realise my age?’ I ask

(uncertain what it is).

‘Of course,’ she says.

‘This was half a century ago.’

So we danced and danced

until just before midnight

when I walked out

into the Bavarian dark.

‘I’ve never forgiven you,’she says.

‘Where did you go? Where have you been?’

 

from ‘Ten minutes to midnight’

 

In one poem, ‘By the back door’, Karl responds to Damien Wilkin’s review that suggests Karl’s writing suffers from a glut of lucidity and that his novels yearn to be poems. I can’t say I have ever felt that but Karl suggests in his endnote he wrote this as a semi farewell to fiction. Ah the way we get thrown off kilter. This is what I mean by deeply personal. We are being brought in close to the man writing, the man living, the man and his little and larger anxieties, the man and his little and larger fascinations. And how this might shift and resettle at ten to midnight. In a footnote Karl tells us that he ended up writing at least one novel (The Necessary Angel – it’s on my pile) but maybe two (Risk) after writing the poem.

As I move through the book, lingering over poems with admiration and feeling uncomfortable at others, the outside stories come clamouring. But I hold them at arm’s length. Even when Karl is doing the signposting. Instead I relish the dreamlike moment that the writer, on this occasion, in this instant of almost urgent return, renders lucid, gleaming. This is a book to be celebrated.

 

I was the one who believed in poetry –

that it could capture the gull in flight

and the opening flower

and in the blink of an eye

a knock on the door of death.

I believed with Shakespeare

there was a trick that unlocked

the mystery of

the named stars.

 

from ‘I was the one …’

 

 

Auckland University Press page

CK Stead is an award-winning poet, literary critic, novelist, essayist and Emeritus Professor at The University of Auckland. He was the New Zealand Poet Laureate (2015 -2017), has received the Prime Minster’s Award for Literary Achievement in Fiction and is a member of the Order of New Zealand, the highest possible honour in New Zealand.

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf in conversation with Alice Miller

 

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

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

 

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Epilogue

 

I’m not here to repair the world.

No one here’s here for much, except

perhaps these high windows boasting sky.

My friend says love is easier the less

you know a person. The more you know

the less you love. I say love’s

an exhausted word, used for everything.

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

and I can’t remember why in Hell

I should turn it off.

Doesn’t language get tired?

Doesn’t it get sick of

lulling us into believing

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

into water and stirs her own image, and

in the lake her leaves retract, refuse to repair.

Isn’t love also the kind of cruelty

you give to someone because you can’t hold

all that cruelty in your own hands?

All I know’s I’m overflowing.

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

how much of me the world can hold.

 

©Alice Miller, from Nowhere Nearer

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

                                 (..) This morning

inside other mornings, as the city nests

inside other towns, the sun steps in

to blast the snow back

so my eyes must shut,

see only blood.

 

from ‘Outside Vienna’

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

 

(…)  When a psychoanalyst

says adults have no notion of home, a

nomadic woman says rubbish

and in America rubbish perches on gutters

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

A bumblebee is bumbling home?

We bumble but we do not gull, only

cull our belongings as we wait to board

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

         to riches and our gull back to rags.

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

needs a rest from the world I have wrinkled

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

      new east

 

from ‘The Hold I Have’

 

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

 

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

 

How today in a haunted town

the rain is patient

and windows promise

to split our faces

How today in a hunting ground

we tell our stories in the only

wayward inadequate way

anyone knows how

 

from ‘How to Forget’

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

Born Breathing

 

Because I have never quite caught the moment when you

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

you were born, and

 

because I have never been trapped in an underground cavern

with a single candle and no water, and

 

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

photograph from Colorado of a famous man’s baby booties

and his gold death mask,

 

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

 

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

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

breath,

 

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

window blasted white by mist

 

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

after a wisdomflash, where

 

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

thin snow, when

 

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

 

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

 

©Alice Miller, from Nowhere Nearer

 

Auckland University Press page

Liverpool University Press page

Poetry Book Society recommendation

 

Liverpool University Press edition:

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Celebrating Elizabeth Smither’s Best Book of Poetry Award

 

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Elizabeth Smither, Night Horse – winner of the Best Poetry Book Award at the Ockham NZ Book Awards 2018

 

Paula: Your new collection is a delight to read and offers so many poetic treats. I was thinking as I read that your poems are like little jackets that can be worn inside out and outside in. In stillness there is movement and in movement there is stillness; in musicality there is plainness and in plainness there is musicality. In the strange there is the ordinary and in the ordinary there is the strange. What do you like your poems to do?

Elizabeth: I want them to do everything. Everything at once. I want them to feel and think (and feel the thinking in them as you read). I want them to be quick, in the old sense of the word: the opposite of dead. I want them to not know something and try to find it out – I would never write a poem with prior knowledge – I think ignorance can be bliss or at least start the motor. And as I write more I find out more and more about musicality. Isn’t one of the loveliest moments in music when harmony breaks through discord as though it is earned and you know that discord, instead of being a thicket or a dark wood, is part of it?

 

Paula: I especially love the ongoing friendship and granddaughter poems, but I particularly love the first poem, ‘My mother’s house.’ Kate Camp and I heard you read this at the National Library’s Circle of Laureates and were so moved and uplifted that we asked for copies! Unseen, you are observing your mother move through the house from the street (you gave us this introduction) and see her in shifting lights. The moment is extraordinary; are we are at our truest self when we are not observed? There is the characteristic Smither movement through the poem, slow and attentive, to the point of tilt or surprise. The final lines reverberate and alter the pitch of looking: ‘but she who made it/who would soon walk into the last room/of her life and go to sleep in it.’  Do you have a poem or two in the collection that particularly resonate with you?

Elizabeth: I’m fond of ‘The tablecloth’ after I observed my friend, Clay, scrubbing at a corner of a white damask tablecloth in the laundry after a dinner party. It reminded me of the old-fashioned way of washing linen in a river. It’s both a doll-sized tablecloth and something almost as large as the tablecloth for a royal banquet around which staff walk, measuring the placement of cutlery and the distance between each chair. ‘Ukulele for a dying child’ tumbles all over itself in an incoherent manner because the subject is so serious and no poet can do it justice. The grandmother poems will probably be ongoing because it is such an intense experience: something between a hovering angel and a lioness. Going back to your remark about ‘My mother’s house’ I agree with the truth that is available in our unobserved moments. Perhaps there is a balance between our social and our private moments which might comprise something Keats called ‘soul-making’.

from our interview

 

 

Tenderness

 

                           I

 

A tree in the centre of a corn field

the corn rising in its ranks like braided hair

to meet the lowest branches

 

a tree that has replaced at least twenty

corn stalks with their divided leaves

twenty golden cobs sweetly surrendered

 

for this lovely grace: leaf sweep touching

leaf sweep, the whole field given by

this rising trunk, a focus

 

the pattern drawn from the edge of the field

to the centre where the tree

delivers a blessing.

 

II

 

The forest planation blankets hills.

Neat-ankled, swift-running

the dark pines descend

 

except on one little hilltop a ride

of grass begins and runs

with the trees which seem to bend

 

tenderly towards it: a bed from which

a child has risen and begun walking

the solicitousness of pine branches over grass.

 

©Elizabeth Smither from Night Horse

 

 

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Paula: Have you seen a festival poetry session (anywhere) that has blown you off your seat (or had some other significant impact)?

Elizabeth: Margaret Atwood and Hans Magnus Enzensberger at the Aldeburgh festival. I read first and sat down between them, shivering.

Paula: If you could curate a dream poetry session at The Auckland Writers Festival which poets would be there and who would mc or chair it?

Elizabeth: I  think I’d do a Dead Poets session. Keats and Shelley, Robert Lowell, William Empson, John Crowe Ransom, Tomas Tranströmer, Szymborska, of course… the possibilities are endless. It might have something of the bitchy tone of ‘The Real Housewives of Melbourne’.  To chair it one of the Paulas: Green or Morris.

 

from Poetry Shelf  ’12 Questions for the Ockham New Zealand Book Award Poetry finalists’

 

Elizabeth will appear at the Auckland Writers Festival 

Sunday May 20  1.30 – 2.20 Disappearances  (4 readings) Limelight Room, Aotea Centre

 

Auckland University Press Night Horse page and author page

Booksellers review by Emma Shi

Radio NZ National review by Harry Ricketts with Kathryn Ryan

 

Award night

 

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Poetry Shelf Audio Spot: Chris Tse reads ‘I want things that won’t make me happy’

 

 

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Chris Tse, ‘I want things that won’t make me happy’, He’s so MASC, Auckland University Press, 2018

Auckland University Press page

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf interviews Anna Jackson

 

On my way elsewhere. 

  

My shoulders are sore, and my feet.  But I have my vision.

I will look past the old man whose beard drips

down like a stalactite, to the light

at the end of the tunnel – it isn’t a cave

he sits in, but a tunnel, and out

the other side there is a path as white

as sand.  There is a break in the clouds to the East,

but the light falls from the West – it is later

than I thought.  I should have gone home long ago

and he, no doubt, has come a long way himself,

is no doubt just resting a moment, not living in a cave. 

Though it isn’t a cave, but the mouth of a tunnel, and I 

should be getting home, though I have no family

to go home to and the fireworks can be seen

from here, through the tunnel, which could

be seen as a frame, almost.  Would you rather

have twenty-twenty vision of the fireworks or be blind

with five children around you, five children

clamouring for fireworks that you cannot light? 

I would ask the old man this question, if

he were close enough to hear me – I don’t know

how well he can hear.  But what I thought

was the sound of the fireworks I think is the old man, light

catching his eyes suddenly so they shine in the dimness,

calling out from inside the tunnel to me:

“even if you lit them, you wouldn’t be able to see.”  

 

©Anna Jackson in Pasture and Flock

 

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Anna Jackson debuted in AUP New Poets 1 and has subsequently published 6 poetry collections with Auckland University Press. She has a DPhil from Oxford, and is an Associate Professor of English at Victoria University. She has organised several poetry related conferences with Helen Rickerby (most recently Poetry & the Essay) along with the Ruapehu Writers Festival (much loved by participants). In 2009, with Charles Ferrall, she published  British Juvenile Fiction 1850 – 1950: The Age of Adolescence, and in the following year, Diary Poetics: Form and Style in Writers’ Diaries 1915 -1962.

When Anna Jackson’s Pasture and Flock: New & selected poems arrived in my reading lap, I stalled on the perfect cover and the perfect title for curated travels across 25 years of poetry. There is new growth, myriad viewpoints, shelter and flight. My relationship with the poetry extends back to the first publication as does my friendship with Anna. Opening this book is like opening a poetry album where the ghosts above the line are our shared conversations, celebrations and confessions. Yet when I enter the poem, our interlinked history dissolves, and it is just the poem flaring and gliding in my mind.

 

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An unfolding email conversation with Anna

Paula: Right from the start your poetry has touched a chord with me. I am reading the early poems, and the litheness on the line, the measured wit, the roving curiosity are as captivating as when your debut poems appeared in AUP New Poets 1 and The Long Road to Teatime. Reading the poems from the early collections, I wondered what it is like musing back on the young woman who wrote them. Are you startled to see what you wrote? What do you love about these first outings? Was there difficulty?

Anna: It is more startling finding unpublished things I wrote at the time, when I really don’t know where they are going to go or what I was thinking.  Because these poems were published I have never forgotten them so completely, but I like returning to that sense of who I was, and who we were, when I was writing poetry for my friends at the age of 23 (“looking as young as the teenagers at the bar” – well of course I did, I was only 23!).  I wasn’t writing for publication except we found we could use the old printing press at the university, so we wrote some things to play around with the letterpress with, and then we got more ambitious and made little chapbook anthologies of our writing, with a photocopier and woodcuts, or maybe they were linocuts.

 

Paula: I am really drawn to the ‘friendships’ you set up with other writers and the way the poem becomes conversation or story, surprising in the paths taken.

 

The sun has taken to me.

It rarely comes out now

without stopping to talk.

I am expected to drop everything.

 

from ‘My friendship with Mayakovsky’

 

Often your family and friends are drawn into the other scenes. I especially love the Dante poems where you are all lost in a thicket of autobiography, musings and literary engagements.

 

In the middle of the journey

we found ourselves lost.

‘This is the jungle,’ said Johnny.

Roe asked if we had a map.

‘Not a road map,’ said Simon.

‘So what sort do you have?’

We looked for a life map.

 

from ‘The road to Karekare’ in ‘The long road to teatime’

 

 

Were these early literary friendships like a support crew as you started out, or a way to take risks and refresh the inherited page, or something in between or altogether different?

Anna: Yes and yes…In Dunedin, writing and publishing poetry was a way of taking part in an arts scene I wanted to be a part of.  There were empty warehouse buildings, scavenged equipment, all sorts of projects people were trying out, some of which never amounted to anything, some which were just one-off experiences.  One evening Alastair Galbraith, a musician, writer and artist, read through a Marguerite Duras script with me, I can’t remember why, but it was an extraordinarily powerful theatrical experience for me, except more intimate than theatrical because we were performing for no one.  And making friends with Mayakovsky, travelling with Dante, was part of this way of living in connection with other writers and artists, on and off the page.

  

Paula: Were there losses in not including the whole sequences? From my point of view there is a greater economy of travel, yet the underlying pulse of intersections is not diminished. So the family refreshes Dante and Dante refreshes the family—and that ‘would of selves’ hungry for ‘hot buttered toast’.

Anna: The collection includes six sequences, two from my first book, and I only edited them a little, for “economy of travel” as you say and also to cut out some lines or stanzas that still embarrass me.  I selected six whole sequences rather than fragments from more sequences, to tell whole stories as much as I could, and I think another story tells itself through the sequence of sequences too maybe.

 

Paula: I have edited earlier poems when performing them in public on the spot! There is the little nag hovering above a word or a line that I finally pay attention to. When an editor coincides with that nag, I sit up and listen.

It is fascinating how this new version of sequences retains the original chords yet makes the synchronicities between books sing with different intensities. I am thinking of the voice of the child (Johnny, Elvira, Rufus), relations with writing, the imagined and longed for, the lived.

With The Gas Leak you step into narrative, but family is still in acute focus. There is a humaneness at work, little wisdoms, a playful yet serious pushing at familial boundaries. What freedoms and advantages did you find in writing this book? How did the sonnet help?

 

Has someone broken in?

I wouldn’t know what was missing.

For years I have left

the door open

thinking even mud

from the break-in would be

a gain

 

from ‘A master key is easy to procure’

 

Anna:

The family in acute focus, I like that.  The sonnet form allowed for a very taut story-telling voice, the sonnets in the book being reduced sonnets, with fourteen lines but very short lines.  I would put as much as I could in each poem and then cut it back, and when I couldn’t cut it back any further, I would add an additional element and then cut again.  Perhaps I was doing something like that with the narrative too, with the rearrangement and fictionalization of elements of autobiography and elements of narrative I’d taken from Gerrit Achterberg’s Ballade of a Gas-fitter – a “ballad” that is also written in sonnet form.  It is a heightened, fraught version of a family that only incidentally resembles, sometimes, my own.  I wrote it very quickly, between classes, making use of whatever material was to hand, a discussion of Xeno’s arrow with a colleague, an attempt to use the barre around our office lifts for leg stretches, the children’s soccer game in the weekend, a song on the radio.  There isn’t a word I would change, but I’ve already found changes I would make to two of the poems in the new selection at the end of Pasture and Flock.

 

 

Paula: What draws you to poetry rather than narrative?

Anna: I went to a novel-writing workshop run by Curtis Sittenfeld once, and she said writers reveal a lot about themselves in fiction in details they don’t think are giving anything away – how much characters drink, or what they worry about, or how they respond to a telephone ringing.  I think poetry offers more secrecy, but maybe I am giving away more than I mean to.  I do think I am writing narrative though – sometimes little narratives in individual poems, sometimes a narrative sequence across a series of poems.  I like the possibility for different forms of narrative, shorter stories, or stories that leap across gaps and shifts in perspective.

 

 

Paula: Catullus is your point of return. What attracts you to his poetry? In meshing your voice and his, your preoccupations and his, again you freshen poetic possibilities. There is daring and there is conversation, particularly when you turn your attention to Clodia. The I, Clodia poems have always resonated for me.

 

I might cry over your verses –

tears of laughter

but these are real tears,

I’m grieving.

Look at what wax my little bird,

yesterday – this was

somebody, closer to me than …

you had better be leaving.

 

from ‘Pipiabat’

 

Anna: Yes, the Catullus for Children poems were a kind of translation game, domesticating Catullus not just into a contemporary New Zealand setting but revisiting his poetry in terms of the preoccupations of a seven-year-old child.  I liked how the excess and passion of his poetry translated into the different kinds of excesses of the playground, and also was interested to see what was left with the very adult themes of his poems taken away.  I, Clodia is a more serious engagement with the poetry, putting the love affair with Clodia (or Lesbia as he calls her), that several of his poems return to, right at the centre of a narrative I construct through a series of poems in her voice.  I was drawn to the narrative possibilities that the Catullus poems suggest but do not resolve, and I was also drawn to the romantic intensity of the poetry, and wondered what it would be like to be on the receiving end of it, and perhaps to match it.

 

Paula: I enthused wildly on the blog about your chapbook with Seraph Press (Dear Tombs, Dear Horizon). Much of these poems were written when you had the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship in Menton. You have included ‘Dear Tombs’ that comes out of that cluster of experience. On my blog I wrote:

The poem steps off from graffiti witnessed on rocks: ‘You are my most lovely horizon’. Each experience, thought, recalled page or vista steps off into the mysterious elsewhere of thinking, and from the elsewhere of thinking into the paradoxical here yet elsewhere of writing. The horizon is the translucent line where Mediterranean sky meets Mediterranean sea, a sensual hook of beauty that stalls the walker, but it is also the indefinable lure that poses a need to write, to think, to experience. It is Katherine Mansfield, the other authors, the conversations that stick, the not-home-ness that becomes a home-ness. (see here for review)

What prompted the ‘Dear Tombs’ narrative? I do think these poems lift from the page in glorious ways. Did your French writing sojourn make a difference?

 

Dear Tombs, I do not see anything here but dust.

Dust, dust, dust and beyond your hollows

and pillars, some trees still clinging to the dust

that gives them nothing, not a swallow

of water in it, a good winter one with rain,

a bad winter the one they have just had, and the one to follow.

 

from ‘Dear Tombs’

 

Anna: Yes, I was wonderfully home and not-home in France, and at home and not-at-home in my own writing as well.  Poetry is something I can write in between what I ought to be doing, as a form of procrastination or resistance, so it was both liberating and unnerving to feel an obligation to write, and to write something I couldn’t otherwise have written.  The Dear Tombs, Dear Horizon chapbook was made up of notes I wrote to myself, work towards writing rather than writing itself, not a way I usually work, but a way of writing I could do every day.  It did come to take on a kind of life and rhythm of its own and I was really pleased Helen Rickerby would publish it as a Seraph Press chapbook.  I feel it has a lightness and spaciousness like our life in France.  It wouldn’t really have worked to work up the notes into a different kind of poetry, except I did work up the dream at the very end of the chapbook about the tombs, exactly as I half-jokingly planned in those notes, in terza rima.  And then that set me off writing a few other poems in terza rima – but none of the others have the depth and glittery darkness of Dear Tombs.

 

Paula: The new poems continue this uplift. I love all of them, but especially ‘Flammable’, ‘On my way elsewhere’, ‘Bees, so many bees’, ‘Pasture and flock’. Really any page I land on becomes a favourite. There is a pulse of love that is always surprising and that is steered by shifting melodies. Which poems have particularly fallen into place for you? What mattered as you wrote these?

 

The world was flammable, we knew it was.

Our hair lit up with candle-light, we peeled off

the wax from the table and made it into

something beautiful, tender as the high voices

of the castrati, fine as smoke through the grain

of an old LP, a radiance through their song

like the flame of a wick slowly burning,

burning in its casing of wax. We all felt it.

 

from ‘Flammable’

 

Anna: ‘Flammable’ and ‘On my way elsewhere’ I think have something of that glittery darkness of Dear Tombs.  They both, in fact, have darkening skies and glittering lights, candlelight again in ‘Flammable’, and fireworks in ‘On my way elsewhere’, but I also mean a kind of coming from elsewhere, a sort of charged darkness.  They are about what we can’t see, can’t have, don’t know about ourselves, and I think they have something of an oracular quality about them, represented in ‘On my way elsewhere’ by the old man in the tunnel.  Maybe they are also a bit silly, a bit absurd, or at least a bit comic.  Most of the poems have been published in journals and I sent “On my way elsewhere” out to a few in turn but couldn’t place it anywhere, but it is one of my favourites.

 

Paula: I like the idea of glitter and darkness in a poem. You often draw real people into your poems, as we have already discussed. Does this ever make you uncomfortable?

Anna: I have written some I won’t publish because they draw too closely on real life, in ways that might be uncomfortable for the people I’ve written about. To make a poem work, often you want to push it as far as you can into discomfort.  And sometimes you will take risks for the work, at the risk of other people as well as yourself.  I mean, I have.  It is the same in fiction and essays – Brian Blanchfield’s brilliant, compelling book of essays, Proxies, was written with the method of keeping going from any starting point until he reached a point of personal discomfort or shame.  It makes for brilliant reading but it is very exposing, for himself and sometimes for other people he writes about.  I think he is extraordinarily brave.

 

Paula: Writing is the most important thing, but there are so many other aspects to a poet’s life: public readings, festivals, reviews, interviews, book awards, teaching. How do you feel about these extra demands?

Anna: I think most poets probably write because it is such a secret art, no one watches you do it.  You can be very controlled about what you release, no one has to see the early drafts or the work that goes nowhere, or goes somewhere you don’t want anyone to know about.  So public events are everything the poet has chosen against.  I love teaching and I have really brilliant, engaged students this year who constantly surprise me with new insights, but it is always still a little frightening standing at the front of the lecture hall, hoping the hour will go well.  There is a poem in Pasture and Flock, ‘The Cooking Show’, about the dread of lecturing, wishing I could lecture in secret, under a blanket with a torch.   You want people to read your work, and so the invitations to take part in events are very welcome, but I always wish I didn’t have to do them.  I don’t want to put people off inviting me by saying this, I’m grateful too to be asked.  I think it is the same for most writers.  And it isn’t as if publishing the work isn’t also an act of exposure you sometimes dread.  You still want to do it.

 

Paula: Why write poetry? Why read it?

 Anna: I read poetry almost every day.  It allows for a different kind of thinking and seeing.  I love fiction too and the way you can be immersed in a whole other world, but poetry allows for micro-immersions, intense unfinished experiences like dreams, that can have that same urgent resonance a dream can have.  Some poems I have held in my head for years, a poem is very portable.  I would like to think a poem of mine could have that kind of resonance for another reader.  Writing poetry is itself a micro-immersion in a developing dream, a dream you can partly control, even as it takes control of you.  It is like a more active form of reading.  And then you have written a poem, that wouldn’t be in the world if you hadn’t written it.

 

Pasture and flock

 

Staring up into the sky my feet

anchor me to the ground so hard

I’m almost drowning, drowning

in air, my hair falling upwards

around my shoulders, I think I’ll hug

my coat closer.  I’m standing

on hundreds of blades of grass, and 

still there are so many more

untrodden on.  Last night, in bed,

you said, “you are the sheet

of linen and I am the threads,” and

I wanted to know what you meant

but you wouldn’t wake up to tell me

and in the morning you didn’t

remember, and I had forgotten

till now when I think, who is

the blades of grass, who is the pasture?

It is awfully cold, and my coat

smells of something unusual.

It almost seems as if it is the stars

smelling, as if there were

an electrical fault in the sky,

and though it is almost too dark

to see I can see the sheep

moving closer, and the stars

falling. I feel like we are all

going to plunge into the sky

at once, the sheep and I,

and I am the sheep and I am

the flock, and you are the pasture

I fall from, the stars and the sky.

 

©Anna Jackson

 

Auckland University Press author page

‘Meet Viva la Novella shortlistee Anna Jackson’ – interview with Seizure Press includes her new project!

‘What are you working on now?

I am writing a book about poetry and at the moment I am finishing a chapter on sprawl in poetry, while thinking about a chapter on dead poets and what it means to write in anticipation of being dead.’

 

DSCN1936.JPG

 

 

 

 

 

Today in 1941, Virginia Woolf dies: my two poems from 1997

 

0997400a-5501-4f11-9e31-3caf0ffc1708.jpg

 

afternoon tea with Virginia Woolf

 

over the flower beds

over the fumes and steams

over the neck of a horse

over the same broad leaves

over the limb

over the pastry and fruit

over the mass and edge

over the shell against stone

over the one bright feather

over the sharp wedges

over the pressure of the morning

over the swift scales

over the glaze of china

over the bulk of a cupboard

 

 

afternoon tea with Virginia Woolf: 2

the curtain quivers

‘I am a poet, yes’

 

©Paula Green (Cookhouse, Auckland University Press, 1997)

 

Auckland University Press page

 

 

Poetry Shelf interviews Chris Tse

 

 

Chris Tse - October 2017 - 01x - Photo by Rebecca McMillan.jpg

 

 

 

Chris Tse is a poet, actor and musician whose poetry first appeared in AUP Poets 4. His award-winning debut collection, How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes, responds to a moment in history – a 1905 murder – not so much by narrating that history but by installing a chorus of voices. I loved the book as you will see here.

I consumed Chris Tse’s new poetry collection, He’s so MASC, in one sitting, because I was caught in its grip. The knottiness belies the grace and fluidity of writing, but the tangle of self – the laying on the line and the holding in reserve – haunted me. It feels utterly exposing, playful, inventive and daring. It is warm, vulnerable, strong. I began to fear a review might appear heavy-footed alongside its lithe connections; like a delicately balanced house of cards, a review might miss the point and topple it over. Instead I have opted for an unfolding email conversation.

Chris made a deeply personal speech at his launch, acknowledging heartfelt gratitude to his friends and family. His tears, in hoping his friends and family were proud of him, moved me to tears. He told us that, for the first time in his poetry, ‘the speaker is one hundred percent me’.  This is the book that matters. Chris also hoped the book might find its way into the hands of people who might ‘see themselves in it’.

 

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Chris Tse, He’s So MASC, Auckland University Press, 2018

 

Paula: Are you hesitant to answer questions about this book? I am hesitant to ask them! In the first poem we meet wolves. The wolf is also there in the last poem and makes a number of appearances in between, with teeth and claws and transformations. They can never settle to a single trope or behaviour or ache. I don’t want to explain the wolf. I just want to say they were a subterranean sharpness that clawed me. I can’t stop talking about the wolf. They are plot device, semantic undercurrent, emotional barometer, love infected, unreliable protagonist, hidden key. Ah, there is that glorious knottiness. Can you say anything about the wolf?

 

The wolves are closing in

on the ballroom while the band members

look out and brace themselves

for the conflict to come. Shit just got real.

They pick up their instruments

and clear their throats.

from ‘Intro’

 

 

Chris: For me, a big part of getting this book ready for publication was figuring out how I’m going to talk about it. With Snakes, it was like there was a safe following distance between me as author and the book as a literary/historical object. With this book, I don’t feel the safety of that distance given its themes and content, and honestly that’s a little terrifying. I work in communications and part of my job is to train our staff in how to deal with the media and select committees. We drill them on all the possible questions they could be asked and the best ways to answer them so that nothing throws them. I’ve been feeling I need to do that for myself for this book just to make me feel less anxious about it!

I like to think of each of the poems in this book being a single wolf roaming the terrain of my personal history. The first wolf poem I wrote for the book was ‘Lupine’, but it began life as a poem about my brother and I. Eventually, as the poem begin to take shape, it was clear that my brother had nothing to do with what I was trying to say in the poem. From there on, the image of the wolf and its association with transformation and masculinity felt like a good fit for what I wanted to explore, and so wolves began to pop up in other poems. I love how you’ve described the wolves as an ’emotional barometer’ – that’s a really apt description of what I wanted them to do in the book. They seem to have a habit of popping up in poems where I’m feeling uncertain, heartbroken, or angry.

 

Paula: I think the diverse self exposures is one reason why this book has affected me so much – and the sway between distance and intimacy. Things are at a distance and things keep disappearing. Presence is handlocked with vanishings, and not just the speaker in the poem. That flitting in and out of view intensifies the emotional impact for me, the unspoken. I am wondering too if distance is also coupled with masquerades and masks?

 

I can almost run my fingers through

the sun-streaked strands of those days

 

when I was nothing but a silhouette

disappearing into fog—just a sketch.

 

I could step into a crowd and never

resurface. No one would suspect anything.

 

from ‘Belated backstory’

 

Chris: The masquerades and masks are definitely there for distance. I’ve been performing my entire life – in public and private – so it was essential that this book, as unflinchingly open and true to my experiences as it is, also acknowledged the masks I’ve worn to protect, to give myself confidence, and to play. Those masks have been an important tool of survival and a way to make sense of the mess that sometimes builds up in my head. It’s also in part a response to having a somewhat public life now and the expectations that some people have of me as a Chinese New Zealand writer, especially given how few there are of us. I’ve talked at length in the past about being piegeon-holed, so I won’t go into all of that again, but sometimes I do feel like I’m performing the part of a Chinese New Zealand writer to appease others and meet a certain need. I can’t and won’t ever deny that side of me, but this book was a chance to draw from the intersectionalities of who I am.

 

Paula: Yes! The Chinese New Zealand part surfaces here and there – I was thinking like little teeth marks teeth to carry on the Wolf presence:

 

I’ll go to my next grave                     wondering

whether I pushed them hard enough to never settle

for being the token Asian in a crowd scene or

the Asian acquaintance in an ethnically diverse television series

from ‘Punctum’

I like the way intersectionalities of self are so important. The ‘coming out as a poet’ poems feel high risk when masks and arm’s lengths are dropped or reduced. I found these poems witty and raw and touching a chord. Yet there is also the nerve-ending intersections with coming out sexually. The one standing in for the other.

 

There’s no such thing as the perfect time or the best way to tell loved

ones about your poetry inclinations. You need to muster up every

ounce of courage in your being and just say it: I am a poet. You could

say ‘I write poetry’, but there’s something non-committal about

that phrasing, like you only dabble now and then and would prefer

not to attach labels to your preferences. Prepare yourself for a full

spectrum of emotional reactions, from ‘You’re still the same person

to me’ to ‘I can’t be friends with a poet’.

from ‘I was a self-loathing poet’

 

Paula: Is this an example of letting the poetry do the talking?

 

Chris: Absolutely. And not just letting it talk, but also letting it have the last laugh, so to speak. It was important to me that a poem like that (which dealt with something that I don’t exactly fondly look back upon!) had a healthy dose of humour in it to soften some of the emotional barbs for me as a writer. It’s not that I’m trying to run from the memory of that moment in my life or downplaying its significance. Rather, I see it as a way to embrace it for what it is while still being able to continuously learn from it and move forward.

Those intersectionalities of the self are important, and possibly even more so for readers who are trying to find someone they can identify with. On the flip side, those intersectionalities can be so easily carved up and used as labels to make someone or something appear more palatable or accessible. Even I’ve been guilty of this: as this book was coming together I would joke with my friends that this was “the gay book”, but it could just as easily have been “the break-up book” or “the pop music book”.

 

Paula: Sometimes poetry books should come with playlists at the back! This was what I was listening to at the time.

Is there a poem that particularly resonates with you – where everything has fallen into place and it just works or it matters in other ways? For me it is ‘Release’. I gasped when I read this. Maybe it is feeling that is both intense and restrained. I love this poem. Then again I like the surprise and momentum of ‘The saddest song’. I also adored ‘Wolf Spirit —Fade’, the last poem, but readers have to discover this poem for themselves.

 

Chris: Well, being the mix tape/playlist geek that I am, I’ve made two playlists for this book: Side A and Side B! They feature songs and artists that inspired the poems or feature in the poems themselves.

 

I can fit the saddest song in the world in my carry-on.

I can fit the saddest song in the world in my right-side brain.

But I can’t fit it in my lungs or hold on to it with confidence

when underwater.               And I can’t fit the saddest song

on one side of a 90-minute cassette tape without

an uncomfortable interlude cutting into its breath.

from ‘The saddest song in the world’

 

 

‘The saddest song in the world’ is the poem that resonates the most for me – I consider it the heart and soul of the book. Writing ‘Release’ was a very confronting experience. I read that poem now and I feel so vulnerable, but it was important to me that it had a place in the collection. Every time I had to revise what was in or out, I fought for it to be in, even though it feels like a ‘selfish’ inclusion because of its personal significance, so I’m glad it resonated with you as a reader! I’ve never performed it and I don’t know if I ever could. ‘Punctum’ and ‘Performance—Part 2’ were the last two poems written for the collection, after my publisher had already seen a final-ish version of the manuscript. They were both based on two separate lines that I’d been holding on to for a long time but just didn’t want to play with any of the other poems. When those two poems were finished it felt like I’d clocked a video game – those two lines were the things I needed to complete my quest!

 

Paula: One of the great attractions in the collection is movement. There are vital points (themes, events, revelations, states of being) that shine out, that repeat and overlap, a bit like a constellation. But it is the movement between that creates the knottiness I first mentioned, and I am not thinking of an ugly mess of a knot, just intricacies and complications.

What attracts you in the the poetry of others. Did you read any books that got under your skin while you were writing this?

 

Chris: I can’t pinpoint what attracts me to a particular poet or type of poetry – keeping an open mind is essential – but lately I have been drawn to poets and books that aren’t afraid to be sassy, funny or messy.

Unsurprisingly, I read a lot of poetry by gay male poets while writing this book: D.A. Powell, Richard Siken, Stephen S Mills, Ocean Vuong, Saeed Jones, Danez Smith, Andrew McMillan and Mark Doty, to name but a few. D.A. Powell was one of the first contemporary gay poets that I remember reading while I was an undergraduate and being absolutely shaken by his syntax and the emotional intensity of his writing.

Reading Hera Lindsay Bird’s first book was a revelation – a real YES! moment that in its own little way gave me the confidence to carry on with the types of poems I wanted to write for the book. Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and Bluets have also had a profound effect on me recently. Her work is often described variously as memoir, essay or genre hybrid. It’s all drawn from her personal experiences, which are then filtered through many layers of what interests and excites her. That, to me, is poetry. The way she’s able to draw in so many threads to weave a net of support over a single narrative is fascinating to experience as a reader.

 

Paula: Finally, I love the title. It feels like a little challenge. You are opening the space of masculinity – stretching poems wide open to its possibilities. As our conversation so clearly shows your book challenges us as much as it challenges you. I am really intrigued how certain books, such as this one, matter so much to me – often it is because they anchor themselves in human experience in distinctive ways. This seems like a scary, tricky question but what do you love about your book?

 

Chris: That is a scary question! It’s apt that you’ve mentioned the title because that is what I would pick. For the longest time – even before Snakes was published – I thought I knew what the title of this book would be. But somewhere along the way it became clear that my working title wasn’t going to cut it, and this book needed something spikier with loads more character. HE’S SO MASC instantly felt right – it’s cheeky, it’s a little irreverent and there’s a pop music connection (Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual). And I love what Greg Simpson, the cover designer, has done with it too – the dash drawing my name into the title, the italicised ‘so’. In a way the title is a challenge – the word ‘MASC’ is so loaded in gay culture and I wanted to turn that on its head. It’s my way of pushing back on everything I’ve ever been told that made me feel like I wasn’t enough or didn’t fit in.

 

Auckland University page

Chris Tse website

Friday poem at the SpinOff