Tag Archives: Auckland University Press

Poetry Shelf Lounge: Anna Jackson launches AUP New Poets 6

AUP_New_Poets_6_frontcover_HiRes-1__53429.1579568941.jpg

 

Welcome to AUP New Poets 6 launch. Settle back with a glass of wine or a cup of tea and enjoy the launch. You can order the book from your favourite bookshop once they are open. The book is beautiful – I can’t wait to share my thoughts on it soon.

Congratulations Anna Jackson, Vanessa Crofskey, Ben Kemp and Chris Stewart.

Cheers!

 

From publisher Sam Elworthy:

Thanks to editor Anna Jackson’s mighty work, AUP NEW POETS has come back with a bang. And in AUP NEW POETS 6 (our second in the new format, this time a book in rumpled bed sheets), the poets turn things inside out and upside down. Ben Kemp, our first poet coming down the line from Papua New Guinea. Vanessa Crofskey, our first poet to lead us to include fold-outs and colour in a poetry book (and excel graphs and arrival cards). And Chris Stewart, well his poetry is from Christchurch as a husband and a father, which may or may not be a first for us but we like it very much.

So I’m sorry that our launch can only be virtual because I would have loved to see Vanessa and Chris in live action (and Ben coming in over the ether) but thanks to Paula for hosting us here and to the great team who made the book: editor Nic Ascroft and proofer Louise Belcher; designer Greg Simpson; Creative New Zealand for the funding and the lovely AUP team, Katharina Bauer, Sophia Broom and Andy Long.

 

 

with fly and wilma.jpg

 

From editor Anna Jackson:

This is a collection of poems that deserves a party so thank you to Paula Green for organising this poetry party on Poetry Shelf, and thank you to Time Out Bookstore who would have been hosting an actual launch with people actually at it, if we weren’t all now in lock-down. They can’t process orders now but please remember to support the bookshop and support the poets by placing an order that can be filled after the lockdown is lifted.

I love this collection, which brings together three such different poets as Ben Kemp, Vanessa Crofskey and Chris Stewart. It moves from Ben Kemp’s slow-paced attentive readings of place and people, in a selection moving between Japan and New Zealand, to the velocity of Vanessa Crofskey’s fierce, funny, intimate and political poetry, which takes the form of shopping lists, post-it notes, graphs, erasures, a passenger arrival card and even *poetry*, and finally to Chris Stewart’s visceral take on the domestic, the nights cut to pieces by teething, the gravity of love and the churn of time.

There is so much in this anthology, poems about whale strandings, teething, dispossession, loss, the pain of physical exercise, the embarrassment of swimwear, the gravity of responsibility, the love you feel with the shiver of your skin, friends to watch Ferris Bueller’s Day Off with a parent to the rescue, cherry blossom, the chatter of 10.000 sea-gulls, clean sheets, rice, bathing a child, white washed pages, red ink and more. We need poetry at a time like this and if we can’t buy books, we can read the books we have, and if we run out of books, we won’t run out of poetry on the internet, and if we have to self-isolate, we don’t have to be alone.

Thank you to the poets for their poetry, to Sam Elworthy and all the team at Auckland University Press and to editor Nick Ascroft, for bringing this book into the world.

 

 

Poet Erik Kennedy says a few words and reads a poem by Chris Stewart:

 

 

 

 

And now for the AUP poets (Chris Stewart, Ben Kemp and Vanessa Crofskey):

 

Chris Stewart reads three poems:

image.png

 

 

 

Ben Kemp reads:

 

 

90954433_2725811307653688_2949007391057772544_n.jpg

 

Vanessa Crofskey reads ‘I used to play the silent game even during the lunch breaks’

 

 

ExPartners.png

Ben, Chris and Vanessa in conversation

 

Chris to Ben: You make links between cultures in your poems. What ideas do you want to ‘get at’ in this way?

When I was a child, we used to visit the local marae every Wednesday and listen to the elders tell stories. These experiences really shaped me. The stories were mystical and deeply embedded in the natural world. Years later, I came into contact with the films of Akira Kurosawa, and I was immediately struck by a familiar energy. I explored Japanese film, theatre and literature for a number of years, and began to explore ways to fuse.

The Fauvist movement, and particularly the paintings of Paul Gauguin also greatly influenced me. The contrast and the juxtaposition of colours has always inspired me. In poetry, the concept of plucking two unfamiliar images from different cultures, and placing them alongside each other often creates a fascinating reaction, and a new energy.

As artists, we are all searching for new ground. In poems, we endeavour to express emotions in a new way, constantly exploring alternative perspectives and all the space in between.

 

Chris to Ben:  I like how you use space in your poems (e.g. the poem oto (sound)). How important do you think space on the page is to a poem, and what informs your choices about that in terms of form?

Miles Davis claimed that the most important notes were the ones you don’t play. Every word must serve a purpose and be innately linked to the whole of the poem. For that reason, I spend quite a lot of time on the editing and refining process. I like space, and the careful arrangement of the poem on the page creates breathing space for the eye. I also often use space to replace punctuation because it declutters the page.

 

Chris to Ben: The essence of I seems to have some connection to song of myself by Walt Whitman. What parts of Walt Whitman appeal to you, and how do you think they appear in your poems?

Both Walt Whitman and Henry Miller outlined a process where the person must die in order for the artist to grow from the ashes. I had a similar experience in my early twenties. Both writers have been influential on me. Walt Whitman, because he so acutely mined his own consciousness, both evolution and devolution. Whitman is a celebration of everything that is light and dark in the human spirit. The other aspect of Whitman that I have always enjoyed is the way he is able to weave tenderness, fragility, intimacy and brazenness. His lens is so wide, but he is able to pull it all together into his single stream of consciousness.

 

Chris to Ben: My favourite poem of yours is Ranginui’s tomb. I loved the flow and sound of the sentences, but can you expand on what meaning the last line ‘the tree that grows in someone else’s garden’ has for you?

I guess the line is more a reflection of my own feelings of displacement i.e. being both Maori and Pakeha. I love humanity and hate it at the same time. I will often draw humanity in with affection, then in the next line, throw it away in disgust. I fear for the environment and our disregard for it horrifies and frightens me. Personifying the natural world enables me to express how poorly we treat it. I used Maori gods and placed them in an unfamiliar setting, in order to sharpen a sense of displacement.

 

Ben to Chris: In Gravity (btw it’s stunning) It seems you’ve drawn on the place and experience before birth. Why were you drawn there?

OK so what happened with that was there was a very clear trigger for that poem, and it was the birth of my second daughter. It was supposed to happen in hospital… but it happened on the veranda on the way to the car. Luckily, the midwife was there! It went waaaay better than the hospital birth for our first daughter – Jo (my amazing) said it was kind of a healing experience for her. Gravity was more drawn from the place and experience of the immediate post birth: The midwife was fiddling around with the placenta (we’ve still got them in our freezer!) and commenting on what it looked like and what it meant. It reminded me of some sort of neolithic wizardy person reading the rune stones, and I thought that I could write a poem about that kind of cosmic stuff. I mean, childbirth is kind of a cosmic experience. Of course that was just the trigger, and you do tend to go away from the trigger a bit in the writing process. I did feel a bit like I really had to get it down; the initial brainstorm happened very quickly, but it took me about three months to work on it. It was one of those poems that was like an ice sculpture; the big block of ice was frozen in place quite early, and the chipping away of small pieces around the edges happened bit by bit over time until I kind of just knew it was done. A big shout out to the Sweet Mammalian crew for selecting it (Hannah Mettner, Magnolia Wilson, and Morgan Bach); I think it was the second poem that I ever got published, and it really made me think, ‘yeah, I can do this’.

 

Ben to Chris: How do you develop the rhythm and structure of each poem? Is it instinctual? Why have you chosen not use commas throughout?

Yes. I think it is instinctual. I do think that people must just have their own sense of rhythm that comes out in their writing style, in the same way as you can listen to some people talk, and others: not so much… I don’t set out to write ‘rhythmic’ poetry – I do try to work with symbolism and imagery purposefully, though. I definitely edit stuff if I think it needs to ‘sound better’ or if there are awkward sentence structures that need ‘smoothing out’.

The commas thing: well, I don’t usually like using punctuation at all for a variety of reasons. Firstly, punctuation is used to make things clear when clarity is a primary purpose. In poetry, I don’t think clarity is a primary purpose; there are a lot of interesting effects that happen in the reader’s mind as they read without punctuation. I also want the line break to do work: surprise, ambiguous meanings, pace etc… In saying that, I do shy away from finishing and starting different sentences on the same line without full stops. The poem ‘mummy’ is one example of where I’ve done that, though – I think that’s more about pace than meaning. Punctuation tends to ‘direct’ the reader, and I don’t want to do that. Kerrin P Sharpe is a NZ poet who really goes to the limit of the whole ‘say no to punctuation’ thing. If you want to get a sense of the effects it can create in terms of ambiguity and pace, check her stuff out.

 

Ben to Chris: Stepping back from poetry, how has the birth of your children changed and reshaped you as an artist and a person?

As an artist: I manage my time better! Being a creative person, it’s really difficult to settle into a creative process. It takes a lot of brain space to organise yourself in order to create art… I get very little time that I can actually allocate to that; it’s usually between 8-10pm, and I’m usually buggered from the non-stop day, so unless I have a specific idea for a poem that is churning away and I’m really motivated to drive that forward, I just don’t do it. I find I write my best stuff if I’ve been thinking about poetry and writing regularly for at least a couple of weeks (I’ve heard it called ‘oiling the machine’), and sometimes I’m in that mode, and sometimes I’m not. It happens in fits and starts. Poetry / writing is definitely something that I come back to and is there in me; it will always come out eventually.

As a person: my priority is family. Every decision I make is about ‘how will this affect my family?’ That includes putting work and writing behind that. I feel quite guilty if I think I’m not ‘present’ for my kids. In saying that, as a secondary school teacher, I often feel I put more energy into other people’s kids than my own kids. Also a source of guilt. When I get home I’m often too tired to really give them the best of me. I’ve started to have very little patience for people who waste my time, too, because having kids means you have to be efficient if you want to achieve anything.

 

Ben to Chris: Why do you write poetry? What drives you? What does the craft give you in return?

Fantastic question. I write poetry because I want to make things. I like making things out of words – things that sound cool and mean something. Sometimes I kind of just get a feeling that I want to bash certain images together or that I want to write something about something-or-other, and I can’t get rid of the urge until I’ve sat down and got it out in a poem. It can actually affect my relationships, like, if all I want to do is sit down and write a poem, and someone else needs me to do something, then I can get quite irritated. The craft gives me what people often call ‘flow’. I get that when i’m in the middle of writing something and it gets to the point where the language I’ve gathered starts to fit together and it all seems to drive itself. I think writing is like putting a puzzle together, but you have to create the pieces yourself as well. That’s the fun bit. I enjoy the feeling of potential when I sit down to do a poem.

 

Chris to Vanessa: The poem PTSD memes for the anxious / avoidant teen: I find the grid form quite innovative. What effect do you think that adds to the poem? How is it different to other structural techniques that you could have chosen to separate the units of meaning within the poem?

The structure of this poem had to be split up to accommodate page sizing, but it is meant to be like a Bingo grid!

I was inspired by the bingo memes I saw all over the internet that related common experiences to each other, it seemed like a way to confess certain behaviours or feelings without making yourself isolated or vulnerable.

So I wanted to replicate that in my poems to be able to speak about how I felt about something personal, which was sexual trauma.

 

Chris to Vanessa: Some of your poems seem to be ‘getting at’ the subject of ‘identity politics’ (e.g. every time auckland council says ‘diversity targets,’ my phone vibrates). What do you think your poems are saying about that?

I think identity politics in general can be a bizarre and wild minefield to navigate. It is one I feel aware of in my everyday experience.

I think it’s ironic that people own your identity more than you do yourself. I suppose I’m writing from a place of only just beginning to know myself and yet it feels like that is such a public journey, people put things and assumptions on you before you even make the first step. So you’re always battling against something or clearing away the debris before you find your pathway.

 

Chris to Vanessa: ‘peak hour Kmart lines of salmon dancing’. I love the surprising imagery and incongruous juxtapositions in your poems. What work do you want juxtaposition and imagery to do in your poems?

I have ADHD so I think I just jump around in my brain anyway!!!! Lol. I suppose I’m interested in breaking up the narrative tone people assume, or the given pathway of a poem. I like using metaphor and imagery to surprise people, which makes them have to reorient themselves in a written landscape. You can take someone anywhere.

 

Chris to Vanessa: In the poem ‘Beauty‘, I’m interested in the ‘redaction’ technique you’ve employed. What effect do you want that to create for the reader?

I think I wanted to make my process of retraction and deletion visible, to show the process that occurs prior to a surface feeling smooth.

I think that’s what beauty feels like to me, dangerous and bumpy, so it didn’t make sense for the way it was written to be glossy. I want people to think about what’s been removed and hidden, and perhaps why.

 

Vanessa to Chris: Ben might have asked u this already!!! But what draws you to lowercase? Is there anything in particular that makes you feel more comfortable using a more casual style of grammar?

Hhmmm… yep. I do feel comfortable using a more relaxed style of punctuation because it opens bits of a poem more to interpretation – I don’t think my grammar is casual, though. I do try to make my sentences sound ‘correct’. But the lower case thing… I guess what I’d add to my answer to Ben’s question would be I think some poets, for example Nick Ascroft is one, use capitals at the beginning of every line, and I think this might be an appeal to tradition… Maybe I don’t really care about tradition? I like to strip it all back to the essential nature of words themselves. I was told to use capitals for words like ‘Russian’ and stuff like that, though, and I didn’t mind that. There are a couple of poems in there that I’ve punctuated ‘correctly’.

 

Vanessa to Chris: I am interested in how the domestic unfolds into the astronomical in your writing. What motivates you to write about a specific moment in particular?

I suppose elevating the mundane is one way of putting it. I’ve always been taught that small moments are powerful in writing, so I guess I do try to focus on moments in detail just because I think that’s what good writing does… A specific moment in real life can be a trigger, and I find once I start to unpack it in writing, a lot of symbolism and meaning can fall out of it, so unpacking a moment works for me. I think there’s only a couple of poems that play with astronomical imagery. I guess it’s the bigness of the universe that I draw on to compare to the small moments that seem big.
Vanessa to Chris: There is a force of nature that lies beneath your poems. How do you think your present surroundings/ being from Aotearoa New Zealand impacts the way you write?

I’m really interested in what you mean by ‘force of nature’. Do you mean they seem powerful in some way? If so, thanks for the compliment! Is that a mood / atmosphere thing? A mate of mine, Erik Kennedy, said that he thought I was good at creating moods, so maybe that’s what you mean. Is there a particular poem that you think is a good example of that? I take the stance that writing is just words, rather than being in any way connected to, like, my spiritual essence or something. Once the words come out, I’m quite detached from them in the editing process; I just want to make them ‘work’ as a piece of writing, and sometimes that involves ‘deleting’ those lines and phrases that I may feel the most connected to – you’ve got to be a bit detached from the ‘forces of nature’ if you’re going to ‘kill your babies’ so to speak. IDK whether that’s what you meant, though.

I have definitely tried to write poems about being from Aotearoa, but I don’t think any of them have been good enough to be published! I think that most of the poetry I read comes from NZ poets; I like to keep up to date with the contemporary journals, and of course there may be some features of language that happen subconsciously in my poems that are just because I’m ‘a New Zealander’, but putting ‘New Zealandness’ into my poems is not something that is ever at the forefront of my mind when I sit down to write.

 

Vanessa to Ben: Your writing is so beautiful! What is the place of food in your poetry?

Food is a sensory experience, the transition from material, to the tongue, to chemicals in the brain, to emotion is mind-blowing to me. It epitomises everything that is extraordinary and mystical about the experience of living one single life.

Food also forms the cornerstone of a culture. Generally, we can trace a handful of key ingredients in every culture. Defining culture through one ingredient is fascinating to me. It’s challenging but interesting!

 

Vanessa to Ben: Your writing spans several languages through words and phrases – from English to Japanese to te reo Māori. What is interesting to you, or important, about using the phrases of the original languages (without necessarily prefacing or explaining them)?

Interesting question. I think it is  a lot about the phonetic beauty of language and how they interact with English when placed alongside each other. As poets, we explore meaning, but the phonetic composition is equally as important, drawing from other languages broadens the palette. I have also drawn on quotes, which allows me to go directly to the source, or the essence of the person who uttered them.

 

Vanessa to Ben: Writing from the perspective of being a Māori person living in Japan feels both curious and insightful, a place to discover both foreign and common cultural connections anew. Which poem were you most surprised by, in terms of what you wrote or gained insight around?

I have always been drawn into Maori culture, but it has never really accepted me. I am of mixed ethnicity and that has always created huge tension in me. I’m not sure any poet truly accepts themselves! I think ‘The Japanese Moko’ was my boldest attempt to blend. The poem/vessel is so short/small, but I feel that I was able to get both Japanese and Maori words/images to snuggle into each other comfortably.  I think that the title ‘The Japanese Moko’ is very risky, but I was happy to put it out there.

 

The poets

Ben Kemp works as a primary school teacher in Papua New Guinea where he has lived for the past three years with his diplomat wife and three children. Gisborne-born Kemp arrived in the Pacific following six years in Australia and ten years in Japan. Tokyo was where he discovered his passion for Kabuki theatre and Japanese film and literature. Between 2003 and 2010 he recorded three studio albums with his band Uminari and toured in Japan, Australia and New Zealand. His artistic work has often explored the nexus between Japanese and Māori/Polynesian culture. He credits the late Taupo-based Māori writer and mentor Rowley Habib with helping him tap into poetry and original writing in his twenties.

Vanessa Crofskey (born in 1996) is a writer and artist of Hokkien Chinese and Pākehā descent. She graduated from Auckland University of Technology with a degree in Sculpture in 2017. Through her practice she investigates social connection: how we form identities through intimacy, inheritance, location and violence. Vanessa has published and presented widely as an interdisciplinary artist – in performance spaces, galleries, festivals plus digital and print publications. She has written for The Spinoff, Gloria Books, New Zealand Herald, Dear Journal, Hainamana and other serious publishing places. She is also a two-time poetry slam champion and award-winning theatre maker but we promise that doesn’t detract from the rest of her career and personality. Vanessa currently works for The Pantograph Punch as a staff writer, and as a curator at Window Gallery (University of Auckland). She advocates for complex trauma survivors and those with attention deficit disorder, plus is very funny and knows a lot about what snacks to eat.

Chris Stewart was born in Wellington but grew up in Christchurch. He has a BA in History and Art History with minors in English and Education from the University of Otago and two graduate diplomas in teaching. After completing the course at the Hagley Writers’ Institute in 2015, winning The Margaret Mahy Prize, his poems have been published in New Zealand journals such as Snorkel, Takahē, Sweet Mammalian, Brief, Catalyst, Mimicry, Blackmail Press, and Aotearotica. He regularly attends the monthly open mic event ‘Catalyst’, a forum for literary and performance poets in Christchurch. Most importantly, he is a son, a brother, a husband, and a father.

 

AUP page

 

Thanks everyone – do mark this book on your list to buy once bookshops are back in business. I am raising my glass and declaring this beautiful book well and truly launched.

 

Kia kaha

Keep well

Keep imagining

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf fascinations: Anne Kennedy’s Moth Hour

 

 

Kennedy_Moth_Hour__40770.1564362579.jpg

 

 

Anne Kennedy, Moth Hour, Auckland University Press, 2019

 

1.

 

The thing in the jar

always dies!

The rice cooker steams

so the sun goes down

Deep in the house

sepia gathers

The pencil has eaten

the fragile book

 

from ‘Thirty-Three Transformations on a Theme of Philip’

 

 

 

I first read Anne Kennedy’s new collection Moth Hour as a piece of music that traces the contours of grief. Words form little melodies, solo instruments sound out, there is echo, overlap, loop and patterning. Above all there is a syncopated beat that leaves room for breath, an intake of pain, an out-sigh of grief, an intake of observation, an out-breath of recognition. There is the fragile word-dance to the light.

Moth Hour responds to a family tragedy; in 1973, at the age of twenty-two, Anne’s brother, Philip, accidentally fell to his death. Anne, her seven siblings (she was the youngest and aged fourteen) and parents now lived with unbearable grief and loss, separately, diversely, as a family.

The book is in three parts: the long sequence ‘Thirty-Three Transformations on a Theme of Philip’,  a coda poem ‘The Thé’ and an essay (‘Pattern/Chaos: Afterword’).

Over time Anne had read Philip’s book collection (think a 1970s gathering of books ) along with his poetry. She begins Moth Hour with one of his poems, an affecting piece that forms both the bony skeleton of her book and a fragile yet insistent pattern of echos. A voice calling out over the crevice, a voice that keeps returning. In Philip’s poem a speaker imagines being caught by a child and placed in a jar on a windowsill along with edible leaves, The Book of Tea, paper and a pen. The power of imagination is evoked.

These elements keep returning and if there is syncopation, a form of stutter, a difficulty of transmission, of speaking and retrieving, there is also fluency. The way both music and poetry can pull you into an utterly absorbing connective movement.

 

The second time I read Moth Hour I listened to Ludwig van Beethoven’s Thirty-Three Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli because Anne had listened to this as she wrote the book. She had first listened to it over and over after Philip’s death.

 

 

Catch me little child and put me in a jar.

Ajar is small and a view of everything.

Hopefully we will always want and want for nothing.

Shall I seize you? Yes, I mean no. Please seizure.

We will live in a jar.

I will live in a jar. And the jar is a house.

Place inside a place inside.

That is how we will look out. Look out.

I am being very straight with you.

Look no hands.

In the language.

 

from ’19’ Thirty-Three Transformations on a theme of Philip’

 

 

The poetic fluency of Moth Hour carries so much in its momentum. There are detailed locations: a Wellington family home, the contemporary Auckland of the poet. Signs of the times (the 1970s). Surreal intrusions. Politics (again think the 1970s). There are contrasts: new / dead / breath; some / any. There are the rebounding questions. Ideas, feelings, words waver as though nothing can be fixed and certain. Such movement evokes a sense of linguistic play but it also performs the difficulty of the subject matter. Death is impossible to pin down. Grief equally so.

Such a symphonic effect means the reader participates in dis-equilibrium – the unease of unknowing along with the whoosh of connection.

If there are no air holes in the jar we cannot breathe but this book is all about breath. Breath is life sustaining and freedom. And yet this breath, this sustained breath of writing and recall, comes in gasps and puffs.

The second poem, ‘The thé’, reflects the concerns of the first  – the reverberating motifs appear in a present tense of grief and observation – but now the short lines float apart on the page. A pattern of drift; the white space fractured like hicccupy breaths. Yet each line (melody) offers a moment of certainty. I am back to the music pooling inside me.

 

The poem burns off an hour.

We walk along the street many times.

The street is practice for death.

The chairs are aching in and out.

He staggers to his feet.

The the is ready to go through.

Ritual finally occupies the body.

Thoughts burst the shelter of the room.

The people swarm into the streets.

 

from ‘The Thé’

 

Like a mesmerising, lung-like piece of music, Moth Hour is a book of return-listening. Every time you place the poetry on the turntable of your reading you will hear something different. It blisters your skin. It touches you. But above all Moth Hour fills you with the variation and joy of what a lithe poet can do.

 

 

 

Anne Kennedy is a writer of fiction, film scripts and poetry. Her debut poetry collection Sing-song was named Poetry Book of the Year at the 2004 Montana New Zealand Book Awards. The Time of the Giants was shortlisted for the same award in 2006, and The Darling North won the 2013 NZ Post Book Award for Poetry. Her novles include The Last Days of the National Costume, shortlisted for the NZ Post Book Award for Fiction in 2014, and The ice Shelf was longlisted in the 2019 Ockham NZ Book Awards. She lives in Auckland.

Auckland University Press author page

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf fascinations: AUP New Poets 5

images.jpg

AUP New Poets 5: Carolyn DeCarlo, Sophie van Waardenberg, Rebecca Hawkes, edited by Anna Jackson, Auckland University Press

 

Auckland University Press’s New Poets collections began in 1999 and, after an eight-year hiatus, has relaunched the series. Anna Jackson, who appeared in the debut issue, has  edited volume 5 and written the foreword. The series serves as welcome launchpad for emerging poets and has, for example, included the work of Chris Tse, Sarah Quigley, Sonja Yelich, Erin Scudder and Reihana Robinson in previous volumes.

The recent launch at Unity Books (Wellington) was packed with an attentive audience – the reading highlighted three distinctive voices linked by poetic charisma: Carolyn DeCarlo, Sophie van Waardenberg and Rebecca Hawkes.

 

Carolyn DeCarlo, originally from USA, has read at various literary events including Welington’s LitCrawl, and runs the literary reading series Food Court. Her writing delivers mesmerising physicality, detail that illuminates the present tense, a moment that might be hyperreal in ways that startle or soothe or move you.

The opening poem ‘Spy Valley’ is a sumptuous rendition of a scene to the point it glows with heat and crackling light: it’s sensual, surprising, moreish. Every word is pitch perfect and every word adds to a building physicality that clings to you as you read.

 

(…) Their calls cleave the

valley like lightning, crackling in the air,

striking the dirt beneath your toes,

and when the drops of rain hit your face

thick as bread you’re unafraid,

you open wide, you spread your arms

and soak your skin in sanguine heat,

its spongy hug lulling you to sleep.

 

Carolyn offers textured poetry – almost as though you can brush your fingers over the surface of a poem and feel grains of feeling, its physicality, its movement. The poems often bridge the hyperreal and an everyday real, relishing the slow occupation of a moment, a place, a state of being. In ‘Fields of Glass’ the speaker stands musing on a glass hill – there is a building (sometimes sad and green, sometimes uncomfortable) driving the movement of the poem, the thoughts of the muser. Everything is slightly mysterious, anchorless, as though each stanza is a shortcut to censored feeling, reserved circumstances. Again the reading effect is addictive.

 

Another time, we danced

on the floor. Do you remember that?

Our socks bunched up

around our ankles

then our ankles around our knees

and so on.

 

I am eating tomatoes and crying,

if you sit beside me

I will let you carry the juice,

I am carrying the rain.

 

Much thought has been given to the order of the poems – water and rain ripple through, along with birds, trees, piquant colour. In the middle the speaker is anchored in the land, their body made visible, and anxiety appears like little body fractures, the physicality of the writing potent. This from ‘The Year I Let My Heart Go Asunder’:

 

I am crouched down on the bank of Wellington Harbour

and I am huge as the hills.

I am squatting with my bottom on Khandallah,

my feet in the harbour and the water barely splashing my ankles.

 

I love Carolyn’s selection of poems (Winter Swimmers) so much: it’s beautifully crafted, aurally satisfying, surprising in turn and revelation. There are a number of poems named ‘Winter Swimmers’; like a swelling and shifting contemplation that keeps changing hue and effect, yet never losing sight of the water, the swim stroke, the breath necessary for living, for writing, for reading. This selection is like a pair of lungs inside me, expanding and dilating, expanding and dilating. Glorious.

 

At the time of publication Sophie van Waardenberg was working at the Open Book in Ponsonby. She has completed a BA at the University of Auckland and is now undertaking an MFA in poetry at Syracuse University, New York State. Her poetry has appeared in a number of journals.

Sophie’s selection of poems – does a potato have a heart? – navigates learning the world in all its brittleness and wonder, especially through the glints and sharp edges of love.

In ‘Unhatched egg/two girls at easter’, a precious bird’s egg is discovered, wrapped and held close to the girl’s belly. The egg’s potential life is in razor contrast to the felled trees, the scarred landscape, but then life delivers the little blow with the cracked egg, the cracked future.

 

in the morning we two bury the fresh-cut shell by the river

where her parents had their honeymoon

and at hot noon with downy arms we swim there

under trees our failure has grown for us so quickly.

 

Love is a constant infusion, whether of a particular person close or at a distant. In ‘schön’ a woman (a beloved one) appears in a lyrical list poem like a chant; the love portrait builds sweetness and good feeling, along with topple and enigma:

 

my girl becomes a calendar and I curl up inside her

my girl becomes a tongue twister and I curl up inside her

 

my girl lets the spring in through her hands

she puts her hands over my ears and I remember how it feels

 

it is nice and nice and nice

 

One poem – ‘all the friendship bracelet makers have retreated’ – hooked me with its evocation of yearning and ache: of missing someone, missing home, of negotiating elsewhere and of being apart. The writing is confessional, yet prismatic in its different slants. Dislocation tempers location, location tempers mascara-smudged cheeks. The middle stanza is the exquisite heart of confession, the simile potent in meaning:

 

I want to be far away but I want to be home.

breath by breath I want these things.

let me show you how little I want to know:

make a fist and let no air in.

I want to make the world as tight around me

as I make my single duvet cover in winter.

 

On the adjacent page, ‘to keep all the bees out’ signals love’s potential pain and potential joy. The poem, with intricate and surprising detail, layers what ‘we’ do. Sophie is refreshing the scope and dimensions of confessional poetry; not everything is visible, not everything is stable, not everything is knowable. The hills they climb together ‘are eaten by their own edges’. Such a striking image of mist and uncertainty heightens the final stanza:

 

and the right ventricle of the human heart

does not have doors heavy enough

to keep all the bees out, and their stings

 

Sophie’s selection of poetry haunts me; it is an atlas of love, experience and feeling, with pronouns shifting to accommodate you and you and we and I, and poems that keep drawing you back. It feels fresh and original, and I love it.

 

Rebecca Hawkes grew up on a high-country farm near Methven. She graduated in media studies and then completed an MA in creative non-fiction at Victoria  University.

As the title suggests Softcore coldsores is an audible kaleidoscopic rendition of life: startling, a sonic explosion in your ear, acutely visual, utterly satisfying. The poems move from milking cows to trying to go vegetarian, sexual fumblings, all manner of hungers and yearnings. ‘Gremlin in sundress’ is an intense and captivating blast of sound that catches an intensity of living and craving for life. I have heard Rebecca read live several times and it is an addictive experience – the sonic rewards find new traction in the air / ear. Here is the middle bit of the free-flowing, page-long ‘Gremlin in sundress’:

 

gimme something pretty but with brains

I can crack open gimme salt’n’pepper

tentacle dredged from the abyss and deep

fried gimme hot cephalopod gimme yer cold

shoulder gimme drunkenness gimme the vomitorium

next door to the buffet gimme mortal clay

with tingle and baby fat to live in

gimme glory gimme eternity gimme your likings

 

There are many paths through Rebecca’s poetry but every reading path is an intricate interplay of the visual and the aural. I keep rereading a poem to savour the music and  and the visual impact. Maybe it makes a difference that Rebecca is a painter with a richly-hued palette and eye for massed and sensual detail. She takes me to the edge of vertigo at times, even squeamishness, in both her art and her poetry. Reading her poetry becomes a whole body experience (as it so often is) and I find myself unable to move onto the next thing, the next book, the next chore, the next outing. Perhaps at the core is the notion want: I am thinking of its varied meanings as Rebecca’s poetry pivots upon desire and upon lack.

With her high-country childhood it is not surprising the back blocks feature in some poems. The magnificent and utterly surprising ‘Dairy queen’ begins in the milking shed with an image of a shedhand:

 

you’re the other shedhand on the early morning shift

and you work shirtless

under your heavy rubber apron

which I appreciate from behind –

muscles moving under your tan

perspiring          glossy as a cold can of golden pash

unfortunately the overall effect is ruined

by your bleach-blonde dreadlocks             Grinch fingers

dyed greenish by weeks of cowpat splashback

 

Lust makes way for private musings on love and sadness, on loving people for their sadness and equally resenting a desire to be loved despite internal sadness. I am out of the cowshed into the secret moment, the little confession on the power of trust and tenderness: ‘all summer / I’ve been skittish    and gentle    like a puppy / saying hello by resting my whole mouth around your hand but not biting’. This sweet piquant moment is like a eyecatching flash before we return to the cowshed, the sexual pulls, and an image of the speaker in a water trough, bathed in barley seed and molasses.

I am also entranced (held in the grip of) by ‘Add penetrant to preferred broadleaf herbicide & devastate the wildflowers’. The poem brings the rabbit-infested, lupin-covered Mackenzie Country into sight by interweaving opposing views, both opinion and what you frame in your camera lens. Driving through the beauty in this poem is to drive through the Mackenzie basin with reactivated eyes:

 

as the lupins bloom out the summer in their splendid blushing colonies

both the planters of lupins & their weedkiller neighbours insists

that nature should take its course

but they can’t agree on what nature means:

conserving shrivelled unpalatable tussock or letting slip

the lupine war on the landscape

 

Rebecca’s poetry has such potency the poems stick to your skin and you carry them all day, reflecting back on the twisty turns, the compounding rhythms that act as both torrent and ripple, the bits that make little bites which get you thinking and feeling. For a small cluster of poems to do this is astonishing.

 

A welcome return, AUP New Poets 5 delivers three poets who fit together beautifully. Their writing is complex, unafraid of feeling, physical, invigorated and invigorating. Yet each poet offers a distinctive voice that is highly addictive; it is like getting to swim in three very different locations with three very different impacts on your body as you move. I can’t wait for the next volume (it’s in the pipeline) and I can’t wait for debut collections from these three fresh voices.

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: Helen Rickerby’s ‘Mr Anderson, you heartbreaker you’

 

Mr Anderson, you heartbreaker you

 

Oh Hans Christian Andersen, you tormentor

of children, creator of nightmares

The Little Mermaid always did me in

with her big love and her

enormous silence and giving up

her fishy tail for two legs

maybe to part them for

her sweet prince, but

relegated to the friend-zone

each shard of glass she stepped on

pricked a tiny hole into my

squishy little heart

And, really, if she’d just held on to her tongue

she could have sung him to her

reeled him in, drunk him down

One prince, on the rocks, coming up

 

*

 

And at the same time as the prince married the princess and the Little Mermaid turned into not even sea foam, but air, Andersen wrote to his friend Edvard Collin, who was also about to marry: ‘I languish for you as for a pretty Calabrian wench … my sentiments for you are those of a woman.’ Collin later wrote in his memoir, ‘I found myself unable to respond to this love, and this caused the author much suffering.’ Gosh, I can barely move for the shards of broken hearts beneath my feet.

 

Helen Rickerby, How to Live, Auckland University Press, 2019

 

Helen Rickerby is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently How to Live (Auckland University Press, 2019). She likes questions even more than answers. Since 2004 she has single-handedly run boutique publishing company Seraph Press, an increasingly important publisher of New Zealand literature, focusing on poetry. Helen lives in a cliff-top tower in Aro Valley, and works as an editor.

 

1565824292476

Poetry Shelf fascinations: Helen Rickerby’s How to Live

1565824292476.jpg

How to Live, Helen Rickerby, Auckland University Press, 2019

 

When that philosopher said life must be lived forwards

but can only be understood backwards

he was not thinking of me

I have lived all kinds of lives

 

from ‘A pillow book’

 

Helen Rickerby’s latest poetry collection How to Live is a joy to read. She brings her title question to the lives of women, in shifting forms and across diverse lengths, with both wit and acumen. Like many contemporary poets she is cracking open poetic forms – widening what a poem can do – as though taking a cue from art and its ability both to make art from anything and in any way imaginable.

Reading this book invigorates me. Two longer poems are particularly magnetic: ‘Notes on the unsilent woman’ and ‘George Eliot: a life’. Both function as fascination assemblages. They allow the reader to absorb lyrical phrases, humour, biography, autobiography, insistent questions. Biography is enlivened by such an approach, as is poetry.

 

6.   It seems to me that poetry usually begins with the self

and works its way outwards; and the essay, perhaps, starts

outwards and works its way in towards the self.

 

from ‘Notes on the unsilent woman’

 

Thinking of the silent woman I am reminded of Aristotle’s crown of silence that he placed upon she. I then move across centuries to Leilani Tamu’s poem ‘Mouths Wide Shut’ where she sits on a bus with her mouth taped shut silent. The skin-spiking poem (and the protest) considers silence in the face of racism. Even now, even after the women’s movements of the 1970s and the explosion of feminism and feminisms over ensuing decades, men still talk over women, still dismiss the women speaking (take women in power for example, or a young woman at the UN challenging climate-change inertia).

What Helen does is remind us is that silence is like snow – it is multi-hued and deserves multiple names and nuances: ‘Silence isn’t always not speaking. Silence is sometimes / an erasure.’

Ah the stab in my skin when I read these lines. In ‘Notes on the unsilent woman’ Helen draws me in close, closer and then even closer to Hipparchia of Maroneia (c 350 – c 280 BC).

 

5.    But I do have something to say. I want to say that she

lived. I want to say that she lived, and she spoke and she

was not silent.

 

Helen gathers 58 distinctive points in this poem to shatter the silence. Sometimes we arrive at a list of women who have been both audible and visible in history, but who may have equally  been misheard, misread and dampened down. At other times the poet steps into view so we are aware of her writing presence as she records and edits and makes audible. In one breath the poet is philosopher: ‘Silence might not be speaking. It might be / listening. It can be hard to tell the difference.’ In another breath she apologies for taking so long to bring Hipparchia into the picture.

Elsewhere there is an ancient warning: ‘”If a woman speaks out of turn her teeth will be / smashed with a burnt brick.” Sumerian law, c. 2400 BC.’

A single line resonates with possibilities and the ‘we’ is a fertile gape/gap/breathing space: a collective of women, the poet and her friends, the women from the past, the poet and I: ‘There are things we didn’t think we could tell.’ Yes there are things we didn’t think we could tell but then, but then, we changed the pattern and the how was as important as the what.

Another single line again resonates with possibilities for me; it could be personal, it could equally be found poetry: ‘I would like to be able to say that  it was patriarchy that stopped me talking on social media, but it wasn’t, not / directly.’

I read ‘Notes on the unsilent woman’ as a poem. I read this as an essay. I am tempted to carry on with my own set of bullet points as though Helen has issued an open invitation for the ‘we’ to speak. Me. You. They. She quotes Susan Sontag: ‘The most potent elements in a work of art are, often, its silences.’

 

The other poem I dearly love, ‘George Eliot: a life’, is also long form. Like the previous poem this appears as a sequence of numbered sections that are in turn numbered in smaller pieces. It is like I am reading a poem and then an essay and then a set of footnotes. An assemblage of fascinations. Biography as fascination allows room for anything to arrive, in which gaps are curious hooks, reflective breathing spaces and in which the personal is as compelling as the archives. Helen names her poem ‘A deconstructed biography’ and I am reminded of  fine-dining plates that offer deconstructed classics. You get a platter of tastes that your tongue then collates on the tongue.

To taste ‘George Eliot: a life’ in pieces is to allow room for reading taste buds to pop and salivate and move. This is the kind of poem you linger over because the morsels are as piquant as the breathing spaces. It delivers a prismatic portrait of George Eliot but it also refreshes how we assemble a biography and how we shape a poem. Helen brings her acerbic wit into play.

 

10.7.1.  But the fact is, and I don’t want to give you spoilers, that for such an

extraordinary woman she sure did create some disappointing female

characters. Even the heroines don’t strike out – they give up, they stop,

they enclose themselves in family, they stand behind, they cease, they  die.

They found nothing.

 

10.7.2.   Did she think she was too exceptional to be used as a model for her

characters? Did she think that while she was good enough to be involved

in intellectual life, and she could probably even be trusted to vote, the same

could not be said for her inferior sisters?

 

A number of smaller poems sit alongside the two longer ones including the moving ‘How to live though this’, a poem that reacts to an unstated ‘this’. ‘This’ could be anything but for me the poem reads like a morning mantra that you might whisper in the thick of tough times or alongside illness or the possibility of death.

‘How to live’ is a question equally open to interpretation as it ripples through the poems; and it makes poetry a significant part of the myriad answers. I haven’t read a book quite like this and I love that. The writing is lucid, uplifting, provocative, revealing, acidic, groundbreaking. The subject matter offers breadth and depth, illuminations, little anchors, liberations, shadows. I am all the better for having read this book. I just love it.

 

I slept my way into silence

through the afternoon, after days

of too many words and not enough words

to make the map she needs

to find her way from here

I wake, too late, with a headache

and she, in the garden wakes up shivering

 

from ‘Navigating by the stars’

 

 

Auckland University Press author page

Helen reads ‘How to live through this’

Helen on Standing Room Only

Poetry Shelf noticeboard: Better Off Read in conversation with Carolyn DeCarlo (AUP New Poets)

Screen Shot 2019-09-12 at 9.18.54 AM.png

(Image of Carolyn DeCarlo by Tabitha Arthur)

 

Screen Shot 2019-09-12 at 9.19.15 AM.png

 

Launched in 1999, AUP New Poets first introduced readers to Anna Jackson, Sonja Yelich, Janis Freegard, Chris Tse and many other significant New Zealand voices. Relaunching this year under the editorship of Anna Jackson and with a bold new look, AUP New Poets 5 includes substantial selections from the poetry of Carolyn DeCarlo, Sophie van Waardenberg and Rebecca Hawkes.

Go here to listen

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf noticeboard: Gregory O’Brien (AUP) and Jenny Bornholdt (VUP) book launch

 

Screen Shot 2019-09-03 at 5.12.57 PM.png

 

You are warmly invited to the joint VUP and AUP launch of

Lost and Somewhere Else
by Jenny Bornholdt (VUP)
&
Always Song in the Water: An Oceanic Sketchbook
by Gregory O’Brien (AUP)

on Thursday 19 September, 6pm–7.30pm
at Unity Books, 57 Willis St, Wellington

Both books will be launched by Chlöe Swarbrick, MP.

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf noticeboard: Anna Jackson’s launch speech for Helen Rickerby’s How to Live

 

Rickerby_How to Live.jpg

 

Helen Rickerby, How to Live

 Helen Rickerby’s ‘Notes on the Unsilent Woman, Note 2’: ‘Perhaps the first thing you need to know is that women in ancient Athens didn’t get out much. No dinner parties, no debate, no public life. Unless you were already ruined. Or unless you were Hipparchia.’

Times have changed – and here we all are – to launch Helen Rickerby’s How to Live alongside AUP New Poets 5.

Before I talk about How to Live, I want to thank Sam Elworthy for supporting my wish to see the AUP New Poets series relaunched, for sharing my enthusiasm for poetry and projects generally, and for all he does for New Zealand poetry. I’d also like to acknowledge Elizabeth Caffin’s role in launching the series of AUP New Poets in 1999, and Anna Hodge’s support of the series under her editorship, and I’d like to thank the whole AUP team for everything they have done to support this beautiful collection of poems I love so much from Rebecca Hawkes, Sophie van Waardenberg and Carolyn DeCarlo. Most of all I want to thank the poets themselves for the extraordinary poetry which is setting this series back in motion.

I first knew Helen Rickerby when we were both fairly new poets ourselves, and I knew her poetry before I met her. I was very taken by her Theodora character in her first collection Abstract Internal Furniture, and the way the whole collection glitters with dark comedy, rapid shifts of scene, and exuberant detail. ‘I think I’ll edit out those long   silences’, she writes in one poem from that book, though even back then she was deciding to ‘leave in some of the shorter ones for effect.’

Now – several books of poetry and many years later – we have the book-length considered take on silence – and outspokenness – of How to Live: book-length because the ‘Notes on the Unsilent Woman’ which opens the book sets up questions and ideas that resonate all through the collection.

Notes on the Unsilent Woman, Note 53:

Hipparchia wrote treatises such as Philosophical Hypotheses, Epicheremas and Questions to Theodorus. Letters, jokes, philosophical refutations. All are lost. (Crates wrote Knapsack and Praise of the Lentil.)

A small note can say a lot, and it is a characteristic Rickerby move to pair the loss of intellectual history represented by Hipparchia’s lost treatises with the pointed addition of the titles of the work of Hipparchia’s more famous philosopher husband, to whose life she typically appears as a footnote, at best. His place in this note, in parentheses, after the main point is made, is just one of the many lightly undertaken total overhauls of intellectual history this book of poetry offers.

Its own title – How to Live – indicates its philosophical reach: this is a book that asks the biggest questions. The title poem references Susan Sontag, Helen Keller, Empedocles, Adorno and other philosophers and writers, alongside friends discussing the big questions in person and on facebook – ‘I am forever putting my friends in’, Helen confesses, and her friends are forever finding themselves caught up in extended conversations that take in the details, big and small, of their own lives.

The collection as a whole takes in questions such as how to choose a good fork or how to choose a house; how to read and how to listen; when we choose to suffer – ‘It all depends on / what the other choice is’ – and the question of what poetry is for, what is poetry? It is an urgent question for a poet constantly questioning her own practice, constantly experimenting with form: about the prose-like appearance of some of these poems on the page, she says, ‘I have long struggled against the tyranny of the line break. Am I afraid that if I let the words leak out, they’ll mix with oxygen and become prose?’

What happens in fact is a collection which rewrites the boundaries of poetry and prose to dazzling effect, as, for instance, the interest in portraiture that goes right back to the Theodora character of her first book now gives rise to entirely new forms of biography – the sharply comic, occasionally personal, often poignant and brilliantly illuminating verse essay on George Eliot, in thirteen numbered sections (with sub-sections); the ‘poem for three voices’ moving between the perspectives of Mary Shelley, Victor Frankenstein and the monster himself; the meditation on the life of Ban Zhao as palimpsest, pillow book and personal essay.

If Helen Rickerby is New Zealand’s most intellectually exciting writer (and I think she is), it is not although but because she writes always as a poet, with a poet’s interest always in form.  And it works just as well to turn the equation around to say she is one of the most formally innovative poets in New Zealand, because her interest in formal innovation is always driven by the intellectual ideas she grapples with.

And she’s funny. For all its formal interest and intellectual brilliance, what I really most love about the book is the voice – but for that, I can do no better than to hand over to Helen herself.

 

– Anna Jackson, 7 August 2019

 

DSC_0295-7.jpg

 

69231481_896457350741162_5031697055056134144_n.jpg

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf in conversation with Amy Leigh Wicks

c2c29528-aa4b-47c3-8776-b016ad9931d9.jpg

 

 

 

Who doesn’t hope

for a fishing net

to come heavy

from the water with

an old locked box

caught in the net?

 

from ‘Loretta’

 

 

Amy Leigh Wicks holds a PhD from the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University. Originally from New York, her debut collection Orange Juice and Rooftops appeared in 2009 while her poetry has also appeared on The Best American Poetry blog and in several local journals. She lives in Kaikōura with her husband.

Amy Leigh’s new collection The Dangerous Country of Love and Marriage is an intricate weave of themes, motifs, forms and sound effects that offers much for the reader. Strangeness and discomfort sit alongside beauty and soul searching as a woman writes between her birthplace and her new home. The enigmatic gaps in the narration are counterbalanced by sumptuous detail, exquisite images, tiny admissions; the melodic lines build both the music of place and the music of character. As much as it is a physical world marked by mountains, oceans, anchors and salt, it is an abstract world marked by conversations with God. It is a collection that has stuck with me.

 

1560378285137

 

Amy Leigh Wicks, The Dangerous Country of Love and Marriage, Auckland University Press, 2019

 

Paula:  When did you first start reading and writing poetry?

Amy Leigh:  I remember coming across a box in my grandparent’s attic when I was about seven.  The box was filled with mostly handwritten poems by my Grandma.  They mostly rhymed, and her writing was in cursive, so I couldn’t make out all the words. I felt I had found a treasure box.  Later, I locked myself in Grandpa’s office and emerged however many hours later with a poem I’d written that I gave to Grandma.  She cried a little when I read it aloud to her, and took me out for an ice-cream sundae, which was as good as winning the lottery as far as I was concerned.

 

Paula: Oh what a wonderful memory. Were there any poetry turning points and/or epiphanies between that young girl writing and your recent collection?

Amy Leigh: A whole sky full of stars map the journey between little Amy Leigh writing and this collection.  The epiphanies and turning points are bright pinpricks against a darker subconscious, and the constellations that I see, clear as Orion, are comprised of poems, lectures, exhibitions, drawings on napkins.  Reading Nikki Giovanni’s poem Ego Tripping in high school alongside Shakespeare’s sonnets; sitting in Lorene Taurerewa’s Brooklyn studio as she described walking to school beside the barefoot James K. Baxter in Whanganui; working on sestinas and villanelles with locals in Kaikōura after the 7.8 earthquake: these are some of the influences that shape the way I read and the way I write.

 

The house is quiet and then the sound of bees

gather at my head. Will you let me be swallowed

by this? Another wave, another scalloped

rim of water on top of quiet water.

 

from ‘Impasse’

 

Paula: Your new collection weaves multiple themes and poetic effects. I view it as both a long narrative poem and a sequence of intensely connected pieces. What do you like your poetry to do?

Amy Leigh: When selecting poems for this collection, I wanted the reader to be able to let the book fall open and read a single poem without feeling they’d missed something vital. I also wanted a cover-to-cover reading to feel like one unfolding narrative that moved forward in time and backwards through memory in order to recover things that may have been lost along the way.

 

When the roof is pried from

the house and I am a sardine

(blinkless before you)

 

what will you say to me?

I see your hills, and yes,

every night a different

sun leaves slamming the door,

rattling the handle behind it.

 

from ‘Psalm III’

 

 

Paula: At times it felt like poetry as prayer. Did it ever feel like that to you?

Amy Leigh: Very much.  The sestinas offer a sort of liturgical reprieve, and Epiphany deals directly with the uncertainty and catharsis of prayer—‘it was just me, alone with the bruise/ of a bad decade, finally asking toward the sky/ for a little help, shuddering ugly tears until/ I was dry in the silence of an answer I’m still/learning to understand.’

 

expatriate

 

it is like heaven

here and every

where else too

but some sad

-ness hangs in

the air and I do

not know if I

carried it or of

it carries me

 

Paula: I am drawn to the way the collection layers the strange, unknowable and the unsettling within the context of a marriage and multiple homes. Does it make a difference where you are when you write?

Amy Leigh: Yes, I believe it does.  I’ll write where I am, regardless of the environment, but Kapiti Island at sunset in Plimmerton, wooden tables cluttered with tea cups at writing group in Kaikōura—these things affect my writing the way altitude, rainfall, and sunlight affect the flavour profile of a coffee bean.

 

Where else is there to go once I’ve got

paper, a new pencil with a green eraser

and half a peanut butter and jam sandwich? If

I could erase one year of my life

what would fill the hole? (..)

 

from ‘August’

 

Paula: How much of yourself do you let into the sequence and how much do you hold at arm’s length? In some ways I see the poems as both losing and finding things (including self).

Amy Leigh: While the poems in this collection are based on happenings in my life, the only confessional elements of the work that I’ve retained, are those elements that feel necessary to the advance the poem, or the collection. I have kept and discarded facts intentionally while putting this book together, in an attempt to perform the artist’s task as Louise Gluck describes, which ‘involves the transformation of the actual to the true.’

 

Paula: I have many favourites (‘Psalm II’, ‘Psalm III’, ‘Water Song’, Psalm X’, ‘Log No. 4’) but which poem particularly resonates for you? In either subject matter or resolution?

Amy Leigh: It depends on the day for me. Usually my favourite poem is the one I’ve just finished writing, until a bit of time goes by and I can look at it more objectively and less like an offspring of mine that needs nurturing. At the moment I’m fond of ‘Remnant’.  Just a little poem, but it makes me smile to be sharing a personal revelation that I find a little embarrassing in such a public way.

 

Remnant

 

Once I said, I want

to be a lawyer, a doctor,

and a ballerina—

 

I woke twenty years later

writing these poems.

 

Paula: Are there any poetry books that you have read in the past year or so that have particularly mattered?

Amy Leigh:  I’m reading Sugar Magnolia Wilson’s Because a Woman’s Heart is Like a Needle at the Bottom of the Ocean at the moment.  I met her at a reading in Wellington recently, and I felt as if someone had filled the room up with champagne while she read her work and we were all floating in it. Her voice and her words had this incredibly soft effervescent quality. Then when I held the book in my hands and let it fall open (which is what I like to do first before I begin reading a collection from start to finish) I opened to Full moon celebrations and I thought, this is really something.  To feel such resonance and joy at reading a stranger’s words is an incredible thing.

 

Paula: What do you love to do when you are not writing?

Amy Leigh: I love to dance and cook, and paint, although not usually at the same time. I also love to curl up with a stack of books on a rainy day, but if I’m not careful, before long I end picking up my pen and notebook.

 

Auckland University Press page

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf in conversation with Gregory Kan

GK_BWIMG_4290.jpg

Photo credit: Time Out Bookstore

 

 

Gregory Kan’s poetry has featured in various literary journals including Atalanta Review, Cordite, Jacket, Landfall, The Listener and Sport, in the annual Best New Zealand Poems, and in art exhibitions, journals and catalogues. His debut collection, This Paper Boat (Auckland University Press, 2016) was shortlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. His new collection, Under Glass, has gripped me as much as his debut. While his first book was unified by themes – he contemplated the poet Robin Hyde, his family, ghosts – Under Glass is also unified by form. A dialogue develops between a sequence of prose poems and a sequence of verse poems. The former features a protagonist moving through a strange and at times estranging landscape with its blazing sun. The latter establishes an interior landscape where the speaker struggles to make sense of things in a glorious interplay of gaps, knots, silence, physical things, ideas, yearnings, dream, hinges, contact, light, dark. The title underlines the way everything trembles and meaning is both prolific and unstable. The glass is a barrier, a way through, transparent, a longing to see, breakable, dangerous, a distortion, a view finder. I loved this book, this poetry haunting, and set about an email conversation with Gregory over nine weeks with pleasure.

 

 

 

1552353128013.jpg   1552353128013.jpg

Gregory Kan, Under Glass, Auckland University Press, 2019

 

 

Screen Shot 2019-04-29 at 7.40.21 PM.png

 

 

Paula: Your new book is beautiful,  mysterious and haunting, I really like the idea of skirting its edges rather than breaking through the ‘glass door’ of its making. What psychological, physical and heart states did its writing place upon you?

Gregory: Writing the book was a process of discovery from start to finish. For me, writing poetry involves a set of transactions or exchanges with the unknown. It is a fragile but ecstatic space to inhabit. I was privileged enough to be on the Grimshaw-Sargeson Fellowship when I wrote the bulk of it. I bounced a lot between our place in Wellington and the Sargeson Centre in Auckland. Perhaps that complemented the liminal, the interstitial states that come to characterise a good portion of my work: in-between, incomplete, on-the-edge-of, peripheral, fragmentary, perforated with holes. Radically finite. Distant but not disconnected. The Sargeson Centre is a beautiful but haunting place in and of itself. There’s a long bookcase in the apartment lined with portrait photos of all the previous fellows. At night there is nobody around except for passers-by and the occasional reveller in Albert Park. Ghosts everywhere. There is sometimes nothing more haunting than the process of writing, and the artefacts of writing. The overwhelming sense of the past in the present meant that my sense of linear time dissolved severely. I went looking for things to see if I could escape them.

 

Paula: Hmm. I wonder if all writer’s residences are like this? I had a similar experience at the Robert Lord cottage in Dunedin.

As I read the various hauntings in your collection three motifs stood out: the map, the mouth, the maze: ‘I started marking the walls with my knife / so I’d know where I’d been.’

The reading of the poetry took me into a maze of sea, land and self. I got ‘lost’ in reading. And that was a joy. The unconventional ‘maps’ were the navigational points. I am reminded of the blurb on Hinemoana Baker’s book, waha | mouth: ‘I’d like to think that opening this book to read is like standing at the mouth of a cave, or a river, or a grave, with a candle in your hand.’ So much for skirting the edges! Here I am drawing in close on a stanza like this:

 

Today the world overwhelms me.

I feel a garden

growing in my mouth

and eventually touch stone.

I am afraid of appearing sentimental about sentimental things.

 

Was the mouth also important as you wrote? Along with the maze and the map?

Gregory: Thanks for sharing that image from Hinemoana Baker’s book/blurb. I love it. Yes, I suppose the mouth marks several interrelated ideas for me: gap/hole/gate, threshold/limit, transition/passage, entry vs. exit, inside vs. outside, private vs. public, and a lot more. Someone, I can’t remember who, writes about the mouth being a place where the soft inside opens up to meet the outside. At the same time, I should qualify that this wasn’t part of any conscious or conceptual intent when I was writing the book. It’s something that I can see in hindsight. On the other hand, the map and the labyrinth were both entities I was conscious of letting loose in the strange game of writing the book. In retrospect, I think of all these entities constitute the problem-space of finite agents, with finite resources and knowledge, trying to understand a volatile and alien world.

It’s always fascinating to me, the differences between what one anticipates, speculates and discovers, when writing. I look forward to hearing about what other people notice when they read the book!

 

You think I don’t know you anymore

and I never read your emails

but I wonder if we have the same nightmare

about some final thing

for which there is no forgiveness.

 

Paula: I think the movement between the unconscious and conscious that a poet leaves in a poem contributes to the way a poem is both fertile and open. And that is exactly why Under Glass is a joy to read; mysterious yes, musical yes, multilayered yes. The movement is also heightened by the open pronouns. Who speaks? Who is playing? Who hides? In your last collection you engaged in self-revelations by way of Robin Hyde. Do you do so here by way of ambiguous pronouns? Or are the speaking characters both porous and invented?

Gregory: Yes, the “I” and “you” in the book are varying mixtures of real, imagined and abstract. I’ve been interested in the fragility of the address and of the self for a long time.

Both the “I” and “you” in the book are fluctuating identities. Some of the poems involve addressing real individuals in my life to begin with, but then depart from them. Sometimes they are completely abstract and/or imaginary addressees. The “I” also shifts within and from each poem. In all these ways (and many others besides), there is an intense fragility to the transmission of information and intent. I wanted to challenge the transparency of the lyric poem and the lyric “I” and “you” in this particular way. I wanted to push it to a kind of limit, to de-privatize the self. I wanted something both incredibly personal and incredibly abstract.

 

 

Paula: Such movement, such uncertainty, fluctuations, flickers. Reading this has sent me back to the book to follow those tremors. Conversely, do you think a poem or a line or even a word can offer a temporary but comfort-rich anchor? For me: ‘Every day the coast looks the same, as/ though I haven’t moved’.

Gregory: In order to write, I need to believe so. I need to believe that hope and overcoming are as universal as hardship. We have seen how a single event can completely rewrite the way we see the past, and the future. Despite such an event, some good things persist, and some new good things can even grow. While a lot of my poems imply a world of flux and uncertainty, where little can be taken for granted, I hope they can also provide a sense of solace, of possibility. The exceeding of limits and thresholds. The possibility of change and doing some good. The strength of being together and moving with others. The relief from pain.

In an idealised model of the world, there is an answer to every question. There is a reason for every event. Things can always be explained, if not anticipated. Everything is as it seems. But this is not the world I know. I think many of us experience a world far in excess of this idealisation. Flux and stability, pain and comfort, despair and hope, uncertainty and understanding – they walk together. The book is in a constant dialectic between entrapment and escape.

 

Paula: Indeed. The event in Christchurch tilted us at such a human level. I am a great believer in hinges as opposed to confrontation, connections rather than disconnections.  For me that is what marks the pleasure of my reading experiences, such as your book. What poetry books have offered you solace or connection or breathtaking possibilities over the past year or so, but at any point in your life?

Gregory: I agree. The world can be seen in terms of its disconnections, animosities – its radical otherness. But I see that as the enabling space for bridges, for empathy and understanding. This is the condition for knowledge and for being together with others, for the grasping mindsoul looking for an island to rest on, awash in a dizzying ocean.

As for poetry books, there are so many! Since we’ve been talking about my book, I’ll use that as my constraint. Reading and writing are almost indistinguishable for me (you gotta eat to live), and these books were absolute pillars when I was writing Under Glass

Tusiata Avia’s Fale Aitu | Spirit House. Soul-slaying. I often lament the lack of action and politics in New Zealand poetry. I sense a general sentiment that politics in poetry is “too prescriptive” or “ham-fisted” but I think that’s a cop-out. Those are not reasons to remain silent. My opinion is that our poetry community needs to speak up more, to do more work, to not be lost in the complacency of this privileged bubble of liberal high (and white) culture. Race, class, gender – they’re all here, beautifully woven into Tusiata Avia’s work. She’s not fucking around.

Anne Carson’s Nox. A sparse and fragmented work. Grief and memory. Love. Such a beautiful object, too. What she makes of the scant traces of her brother.

Raul Zurita’s Dreams for Kurosawa. Otherworldly. Heartbreaking. A very strange combination of elements: traces of trauma under the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, homage to Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, and ghosts everywhere.

Mary Burger’s Sonny. This book has been very influential to me – even since my first book, This Paper Boat – in form, in diction, in tone, in subject matter. I think it was Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle who recommended it to me. It showed me the power of plain prose and diction, and the power of arrangement and organisation. Like me, Burger is invested in interrogating and pushing the limits of the writing of selves. Like me, she is also invested in interrogating the conditions and limits of knowledge. The writing about her past collides with that of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the American physicist who was credited for being the “father” of the atomic bomb.

 

Paula: This is a terrific list. Thank you. I have been thinking about the fingertip traces your book has left on on me – that sometimes act as tiny questions and that sometimes resemble little melodies. Did writing this book raise a question for you – large or small? In the process of writing or upon completion?

Gregory: All kinds of questions. A lot of self-centred ones, especially if I’m in an anxious mood. Will people accept this book as poetry? Is it even any good? Did I do my best? What constitutes success for this book, and for myself? What does my poetry mean to me? These are questions that have no real answers, and I’ll be taking them to my therapist, ha.

And some bigger, more difficult questions, after the book’s release and after Christchurch. What are the possible functions of poetry in our contemporary world? At one of its lowest points, poetry, for me, is so often an institutional and institutionalised form of nostalgia and conservatism. Why is it so enamoured with its own past? I don’t know if I’ve encountered another medium that is as hell-bent on dogmatically validating itself based on historical precedents and norms. At another low point, poetry is a site of postmodern whimsy, irony and impotence. If I were being charitable, I can understand that perhaps this is driven by the belief that almost everything can be and is subsumed under the totality of capitalism, and that resistance involves finding the most non-utilitarian, non-functional gesture possible. At other times, I think that this is simply a sneering cynicism. And I find that to be incredibly lazy and dispiriting. When our world is confronted by planetary annihilation and the increasing visibility of fascism and white supremacism, these attitudes are unacceptable to me. So what does it mean for poetry to adapt, and move forward?

What should the New Zealand poetry community be asking itself? I am afraid of particular kinds of silence. The silence of grief and shock, and the impossibility of witness and testimony, is of course understandable. But why do I also have the sense that there is also the silence of privileged complacency and passivity? The roots of colonialism – and the conditions of white supremacism – run deep, and I believe it’s our responsibility to start digging in our own backyards. It is a necessary labour for all of us.

 

Paula: I utterly agree. A necessary labour for all of us.

What do you like to do as a counterbalance to poetry?

Gregory: I work as a programmer and that offers me a world with a lot more certainty. There is still a lot of creativity and imagination involved in programming, especially in how you approach a problem. There is a caricature of programming that implies there is always a correct way to do things but that isn’t accurate. There are many possible solutions to any one problem. However, in the context of my work, the ends of programming are often certain – the problem itself is usually fairly determinate. What you are trying to get out of the program is usually fairly determinate. With poetry, utility and ends are always in question, and I may never know ultimately what “purpose” or function a poem serves. So having this kind of existential stability in my working world as a programmer can be a real comfort, as a point of difference. At the same time, there is such a thing as speculative programming, but I don’t yet have the intent, vision or skill to get there. In saying all of that, sometimes programming and poetry can feel very similar to me, both language-driven, both world-building. From that perspective my escapes become more recreational and indulgent ones. I love hanging out with my partner and watching Netflix. I love playing video games. I love watching trashy horror movies. Also activities that involve my body to a greater degree than the mind – swimming, cooking, listening to music, playing with the cat, eating, sleeping!

 

 

Screen Shot 2019-04-29 at 7.39.38 PM.png

 

 

Screen Shot 2019-04-29 at 7.39.24 PM.png

 

 

Auckland University Press page