Tag Archives: Auckland University Press

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.’

 

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

 

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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

 

 

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

In conversation with Selina Tusitala Marsh

 

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Tightrope, Selina Tusitala Marsh , Auckland University Press, 2017.

 

 

Let’s talk about unity

here in London’s Westminster Abbey

 

did you know there’s a London in Kiritimati?

Republic of Kiritibati, Pacific Sea.

 

We’re connected by currents of humanity

alliances, allegiances, histories

 

from ‘Unity’

 

 

To celebrate Selina’s new poetry collection, Tightrope, and her appointment as our current New Zealand Poet Laureate we email-conversed over several weeks. Selina is of Samoan, Tuvaluan, English and French descent. Her debut collection, Fast Talking PI, won the Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poetry. She was the first Pacific Islander to graduate with a PhD in English from the University of Auckland. Last year as Commonwealth Poet she performed ‘Unity’ for the Queen at Westminster Abbey.

I leapt for joy when I found out our new Laureate was Selina. Firstly because I am in awe of what she writes and she is a good friend. Her latest book catches you from first to last page on so many levels. Secondly I follow behind her at schools and I can see how she has utterly inspired teachers and students, whatever the level. This is poetry gold. Thirdly I leapt for joy because that now makes it 5 women poets  out of the 11. Did it matter to me that a woman was picked -yes it most certainly did. Selina has talked about the way she wants to have 1000 hands touch the tokotoko – how she wants to bring the poetry of brown faces to the spotlight. When I look about and see how whitewashed we are in so many ways – what gets published, what gets reviewed (check out the latest list of best poetry books 2017 in The Listener), what gets put stage centre at festivals, journal content etc – I leapt for joy that we have Selina. Hone Tuwhare and Sam Hunt are the two poets that are so beloved by our nation. I predict Selina is our third. I am currently writing a book on NZ women’s poetry and while my aim is to showcase the poetry that so often gets eclipsed by theory and dogma and bias, I also, at times, talk about the woman holding the pen. She has existed in the shadows. She has been maligned and misunderstood and devalued. I want to give women poets presence where it seems apt because their stories have so seldom been told. So while I think the poem is the first most paramount thing, I also think it is important to navigate the difficulties and triumphs women have faced as poets over the past century in New Zealand; how their poetry has been denigrated and erased due to gender or race. To have Selina given this golden opportunity to write further into our sightlines is heartwarming.

Paula Green 10 October 2017 on Facebook

 

Our conversation

 

 

Paula: I have spent a stormy Sunday morning lying in bed reading your new poetry collection, Tightrope, from cover to cover, and now I want to read it again slowly as an email conversation unfolds between us. The reading experience moved shook soothed challenged diverted me with the ooh and aah of recognition pain delight. In other words, the poems take you so many places in so many ways. I love it!

 

Gran’s jasmine

delicate pink

 

heavy and sweet

clings to the bone

 

from ‘Kiwitea Street in the ’80s’

 

The cover is striking with the tightrope moving from top to bottom rather than stretched taut across a horizontal line. I had held up my piece of red wool at your book launch, but it is only now, I am wondering why it holds a vertical line. It as though the rope stretches from the sky (heavens) to the earth (grounding), or from earth to sky. It is like an upturn, an overturn, and is infinitely resonant in its red to green glow. Why this placement?

 

Selina:  Instinctively insightful as always Paula.  In part, it references the living conditions of what I think of as the first poem of this land – the poetic parting of Papatuanuku, Earth mama and Ranginui, Sky dad, and the struggles of living before, during and after their separation. What does it mean to live in between such aroha, such passion, such angst?  Sometimes, like this morning, it means submitting to Tawhirimatea’s restlessness in the driving wind; other times, it means tuning into a mist-like longing in the light after-rain.  I’m often in between.  As a middle child I’m used to it and have finely honed skills of negotiation. Inbetweeners possess tightropish qualities:  a tender balance between joy and pain; the toe inching forward of a line that demands feeling before seeing.  That’s why the line is raised (much to Michele Leggott’s joy, who proclaimed at the Devonport Library launch recently that it was one of few books which she could hold up to an audience and know it was rightside up!)  Because I feel my lines.  Because that’s what brings me out of the abyss.  It’s also what gives depth to the abyss.

Unity is an underlying theme in the collection, as well as being the title of the poem for the Queen.  Unity is what’s needed in ‘the struggle’, however you define it in your life at that point (evoking the brothers’ struggle against the darkness imposed on them by their parents).  Unity is what my poetry seeks to create.  Unity of the multitudinous stories that constitute our memory, which in turn, form our history, ‘the remembered tightrope’, to quote Albert Wendt. The morphing colours of that beautiful vertical rainbow line (thanks Katrina Duncan and Spencer Levine) evokes the many hues of our lives that refuse to be forgotten.

 

Al,

I’ve taken a black vivid marker

pressed it against your page

and letter by space by word by phrase

inked across your lines

streaking pouliuli pathways

wending in and out of the Void

 

from ‘The Blacking Out of Pouliuli (1977)’

 

 

Paula You climb reverse-wise through Albert’s quote, so to speak, in your three sections: from the abyss to the tightrope to the trick. It seems the poetry pollinates the inbetween space between forgetting and remembering. He places this in view of history, but is it also personal?

‘We are what we remember, the self is a trick of memory … history is the remembered tightrope that stretches across the abyss of all that we have forgotten.’ Maualaivao Albert Wendt

Selina:  History is deeply personal, after all, it’s ‘written by the winners’, as I first saw in my undergraduate years graffettied under Grafton Bridge as my bus was heading out to Avondale (and later attributed to Churchill).  I’m reading a delicate collection of poems titled ‘Luminescent’ by Nina Powles at the moment (PG: my review here). 5 chapbooks are stacked in a fold out box (Seraph Press does a beautiful job) and each of them speaks back to women figures – some famous (I especially like the poem ‘If Katherine Mansfield were my best friend’) and some lesser known (to me), like ‘The Glowing Space Between the Stars’ responding to the award-winning New Zealand cosmologist Beatrice Tinsley (1941-1981), who ended up at Yale University teaching on galaxy evolution.  Where was her history in school?  Nina’s personal, poetic connection with five (early) New Zealand women is helping to build this history.

I think that’s why I so love Al’s line ‘the self is a trick of memory’, because that’s the personal self (‘Queens I Have Met’, a way to memorise moments), the communal self (‘The Dogs of Talimatau’ – how did all those dogs really die?) and the national self  (from the New York poems, see for example ‘Inward Hill, New York’ – what happened to the indigenous people of Manahatta? – to Oceania’s ‘Atoll Haiku Chain’ – Tahiti’s stories fan the flames of its history of colonisation, nuclear testing, and protest.  That inbetween space between forgetting and remembering though, is probably most potent in the abyss of death, but ‘Essential Olis for the Dying’, the poem written for my beloved colleague and ‘shooting black star’ Teresia Teaiwa (1968-2017), to whom this collection is dedicated, appears in the ‘Tightrope’ section.   That’s because, to quote Al again, ‘we are what we remember’, and we choose to capture moments of relationship that are ephemeral by nature, that’s the act of tightrope walking.

We choose, inch by inch, what we will feel beneath our toes, how we will balance ourselves in the air and keep our centre of gravity so that we can keep moving forward.  Certain moments, particular memories, we will throw across the abyss of time in order to reach back while moving forward.  Other things will recede into the background – we think we’ll never forget, but then we do.  We lose shades of it, pieces of it, and even though the loss stays, even that, the depth of it, the pain of it begins to diminish over time.  Maybe it’s meant to.

 

Take this cardamon

to ease you into the next plane

not the one taking you back to Santa Cruz

or Honolulu or Suva

but the next plane.

 

from ‘Essential Oils for the Dying’

 

Paula: I also love Nina’s collection and the way she is casting light on these five diverse women. That you dedicate your collection to Teresia Teaiwa resonates deeply, on an individual level, but also because you are part of a weave of women writing, speaking, sharing. You don’t write out of a vacuum.

I was particularly moved by, ‘Apostles’ and the way it challenges on so many levels. Alice Walker lays down the first challenge:

 

Alice Walker said

before placing a red

cushion in the middle of the road

that poetry is revolutionary.

 

You recount events that speak to such a claim. I am musing on way you highlight the example you accidentally found when googling lime; a brown skin woman mob tortured for sorcery. Not famous; one woman suffering. Do you think poetry can make a difference?

 

A brown woman is sitting

her back to us

bare on a corrugated

iron dock

noose round her neck

wrists bound

machete bites

mar her back

one gash so deep

its creviced meat

blackens

in the smoking air.

 

from ‘Apostles’

 

Selina: ‘Apostles’ is my answer to that question, which is answered by a question back to Alice Walker, poet, writer and activist extraordinaire: ‘Alice, how can a poem possibly revolutionise?’  Then Kepari Lenara, the name of the young woman murdered by mob, appears and fades over the following lines. These visually echoing whispers evoke the power of orality at the heart of poetry.  Poems are meant to sit on the tongue, be spoken and sung, flung into someone’s ears.

One of my favourite lines of all time is by poet and lyricist Rangitunoa Black: ‘A fire burns on the tip of my tongue, I should cry to put it out.’ That’s the power of poetry, that it matters, that it creates fire and movement out into the world.  It’s why the Poet Laureate Matua Tokotoko (parent tokotoko) is so gorgeously poetic. The parents have three detachable sections to them (to enable easy travel!).  It comprises of a mama section (which has a hand written poem by Hone Tuwhare in its belly) and a papa section (which has a grooved tip).  When you rub them together – ahi!  Smoke! Isn’t that what poetry is about?  It’s why I’d love love love to have a flint embedded in my own tokotoko so in performance, I can strike it and create that spark.  A living metaphor.  A heightened engagement with the audience.  An interactive poetry.  That’s the difference poetry can make.   And poetry has made a tangible difference in my life.  Poetry enabled me to articulate my turangawaewae (standing place) at university as nothing else could. Poetry can make a difference.  That’s why I take it out to schools, community halls, corporate boardrooms.  For the difference it can make.

 

Paula:  And you take it to your sons in ‘Warrior Poetry’. It is like a letter coming from the gut, saying this is what I do, but it also feels like an energised song-chant-poem for teenagers, especially boys, who skirt books and poetry.

Putting together a poetry collection, boys

is like the NLR nines

Eden Park, 45,000 packed

you’ve got 90 pages of lines

to work the eclectic crowd

into some kinda synthesis – some kinda wonderful

 

from ‘Warrior Poetry’

 

Poetry does many things in your collection – even act as a little spot of revenge! Ah! the revenge poem.

Selina: Poetry for all occasions right?  You see, often in a difficult, embarrassing, confronting, uncomfortable situations, my first reaction is to smile (my kickboxing trainer used to call me the ‘Smiling Assassin’).  It’s only later when the brilliant retorts, the intellectual one-liners, the sardonic replies, come to the tongue. Or I should write, the pen.  And poems can carry the weight of my anger or angst; they can take the push-pull of my righteousness and ambivalence (at the same time); they can turn a moment of indecision about what just happened or shock at someone’s rudeness or felt gut-disempowerment and re-story it ways that return power to me.  Call it ‘the revenge poem’ or call it ‘the re-storying painful or uncomfortable events poem’, whatever you call it, its at all of our fingertips!

 

My moana blue Mena

My Plantation House shawl

My paua orb

My Niu Ziland drawl

My siva Samoa hands

My blood red lips

My va philosophising

My poetic brown hips

 

from ‘Pussy Cat’

 

Paula: Five poets were Te Mata Estate Poets Laureate, with Bill Manhire (1996) and Hone Tuwhare (1997), the first two. In 2007 the National Library took over the administration and appointment process and selected Michele Leggett as the first New Zealand Poet Laureate. You are the sixth Laureate appointed by the National Library with the change in title.

Looking back across the Laureate blogs and tenures, each Laureate seems to shape the role to fit him or herself, just as the tokotoko is carved by Hauamoana artist, Jacob Scott, to fit the individual. I love the idea that you will shape the role to fit – what matters to you as Poet Laureate?

 

Selina: In 2 weeks I leave for Samoa where I’m judging the Pan-Pacific Tusitala Short Story competition, giving the keynote for the Pacific Arts Association, running two writing workshops, and performing on opening night.  While this was arranged well before becoming Poet Laureate, I am taking the Matua Tokotoko with me and ‘they’ (the parents) will feature.  Usually behind lock and key in a glass case at the National Library in Wellington, I have instinctively known, as a person from the Pacific, the taonga, the national treasure, that I have in my possession.

Polynesians know the mana such taonga possess.  Material objects become taonga as they are passed on and down; as they pick up the stories, histories, and genealogies of those who possess them.  I will have reached my goal of a 1000 pairs of hands touching the Matua Tokotoko in Samoa (I’m currently at 977) since the Award was announced on August 25th.  Everywhere I go people are enthralled with the story of its making – but it’s not really common knowledge.  That’s what I want to do, at least among the diverse communities I engage with.  Most are not aware of what the Poet Laureate is, nor what the tokotoko represents.  Each Laureate has helped increase awareness in their own circles, in their own way.  That’s what I’m doing now.

After visiting Hawkes Bay and finally having a korero with carver Jacob Scott from Matahiwi Marae, we’re really excited about bringing my tokotoko into the world.  This trip to Samoa will also enable my Samoan treasures to be included in its making.  One idea was that I source (that means ‘cut’) some wood from my grandfather’s house in Elise Foe, the original ‘Tusitala’, to include in the carving.  Then when I visit Vailima, Robert Louis Stevenson’s plantation house, I do the same there (with permission from the owners) and source material from the other ‘Tusitala’ to somehow incorporate.  I’d like to bring home a stone from the river my mother used to bathe and play in. I’d like to include some other historical objects.   As poets are wont to do, I will wait for synchronous moments to come – I know these material stories will make themselves known to me.

This is part of a journey and Mike Hurst, along with his film-mate Andrew Chung, and Tim Page are the guerilla film / photo crew capturing formative moments in order to make a lovely documentary – more on that later!

I guess this is a round-about way of also addressing the question: ‘What does it mean to be a Pasifika Poet Laureate?’  It means doing this stuff.  Taking the Laureate-ship along in my Pacific-infused life (we are, after all, in the middle of the Pacific), not just in incidental ways, but in deliberate, epistemologically-informed ways that centre Pacific worldviews, at least, as far as I see and experience them in my life as a Pasifika poet-scholar.

So, as the Poet Laureate, people matter to me, stories matter to me, especially when those stories have existed on the margins of mainstream consumption.  Creativity and freedom matters to me, honoring my own unique poetic voice, and continuing to grow it matters to me.  I have two years to work on these things that matter to me: to continue taking poetry ‘to the people’ and to continue growing poems!

 

We are about to step

on stage at Aotea Centre

in front of a sold-out

crowd of two thousand

I ask

How would you like to walk on –

before me or after me?

You say

Let’s just do this

and take my hand.

We stroll on

side by side

to a standing ovation

your hands become doves

 

from ‘Alice Walker’ in ‘Queens I Have Met’

 

 

Auckland University Press page

Poet Laureate blog

NZ Book Council page

Watch Selina perform ‘Unity’ at Westminster Abbey here

Gina Cole picks ‘In Creative Writing Class’

‘The Dogs of Talimatau’ at The SpinOff

Selina picks Tusiata Avia’s ‘This is a photo of my house’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Michele Leggott’s glorious new poetry collection: a launch speech and some poems

 

 

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2017 seems to be the year of enviable launch speeches. Gregory O’Brien did a cracking job launching James Brown’s new book; Greg had taken the poems up to Palmerston North to read before writing his speech.

Jack Ross has launched Michele Leggott’s Vanishing Points (Auckland University Press) with similar incandescent word flare. I have read the book twice so far and he is right on point: this is one special poetry collection.

 

The Speech

Well, needless to say, I felt very flattered when Michele Leggott asked me to launch her latest book of poems, Vanishing Points. Flattered and somewhat terrified. It’s true that I’ve been reading and collecting her work for well over 20 years, and I’ve been teaching it at Massey University for almost a decade now, but I still felt quite a weight of responsibility pressing down on my shoulders!

One thing that Michele’s poetry is not, is simple. It’s hard to take anything in it precisely at face value: what seems like (and is) a beautiful lyrical phrase may be a borrowing from an unsung local poet – a tangle of Latin names can be a reference to an obsolete star-chart with pinpricks for the various constellations.

The first time I reviewed one of her books, as far as I can see, in 1999, I ended by saying “the reading has only begun.” At the time, I suspect I was just looking for a good line to finish on, but there was a truth there I didn’t yet suspect. Certainly, I’ve been reading in that book, and all her others, ever since.

But how should we read this particular book? “Read! Just keep reading. Understanding comes of itself,” was the answer German poet Paul Celan gave to critics who called his work obscure or difficult. With that in mind, I’ve chosen two touchstones from the volume I’m sure you’re all holding in your hands, or (if not) are planning to purchase presently.

The first is a phrase from the American poet Emily Dickinson, referred to in the notes at the back of the book: “If ever you need to say something … tell it slant.” [123] The second is a quote from the great, blind Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges: “I made a decision. I said to myself: since I have lost the beloved world of appearances, I must create something else.” [35]

With these two phrases in mind, I’d like you to look at the cover of Michele’s book. It’s a painting of the just-landed Imperial troops, camped near New Plymouth in August 1860. The wonderful thing about it is the way the light of the campfires shines through the painting: little holes cut in the canvas designed to give the illusion of life and movement.

“War feels to me an oblique place,” wrote the reclusive New England poet Emily Dickinson to Thomas Wentworth Higginson in February 1863, at one of the darkest points of the American Civil War. Higginson, a militant Abolitionist, was the Colonel of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, the first officially authorized black regiment in American history. He was, in short, a very important and admirable man in his own right. Perhaps it’s unfair of posterity to have largely forgotten him except as the recipient of these letters from one of America’s greatest poets.

New Zealand’s Land Wars of the 1860s may have been on a much smaller scale, but they were just as terrifying and devastating for the people of Taranaki – both Māori and Pakeha – in the early 1860s. In her sequence “The Fascicles,” Michele transforms a real distant relative into a poet in the Dickinson tradition. Just as Emily Dickinson left nearly 1800 poems behind her when she died in 1886, many collected in tidy sewn-up booklets or fascicles, so Dorcas (or Dorrie) Carrell “in Lyttelton, daughter of a soldier, wife of a gardener” [75] provides a pretext for “imagining a nineteenth-century woman writing on the outskirts of empire as bitter racial conflict erupts around her.” [123]

There’s an amazing corollary to this attempt to “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” (in Dickinson’s words). Having repurposed one of her family as a war poet, Michele was fortunate enough to discover the traces of a real poet, Emily Harris, the daughter of the Edwin Harris who painted the picture of Taranaki at war on the wall over there, whose collected works so far consist of copious letters and diaries, but also two very interesting poems. “Emily and her Sisters,” the seventh of the sequences collected here, tells certain aspects of that story.

It’s nothing but the strictest truth to say, then (as Michele does at the back of the book), that one should:

walk away from the painting when it is lit up and see how light falls into the world on this side of the picture surface. Is this what the artist meant by his cut-outs? Is this the meaning of every magic lantern slide? [124]

I despair of doing justice to the richness of this new collection of Michele’s – to my mind, her most daring and ambitious work since the NZ Book Award-winning DIA in 1994. There are eight sequences here, with a strong collective focus on the life and love-giving activities which go on alongside what Shakespeare calls in Othello “the big wars”: children, family, eating, painting, swimming. One of my favourites among them is the final sequence, “Figures in the Distance,” which offers a series of insights into the world of Michele’s guide-dog Olive – take a bow, Olive – amongst other family members, many of whom, I’m glad to see, have been able to come along here tonight.

This is a radiant, complex, yet very approachable book. It is, in its own way, I’m quite convinced, a masterpiece. We have a great poet among us. You’d be quite crazy to leave here tonight without a copy of Vanishing Points.

Jack Ross

 

[Jack and Michele then had a discussion on how the book came into being. I am going to do an interview with Michele so Poetry Shelf readers can also get different entry points into the collection.]

 

 

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The poems:

 

from ‘Figures in the Distance’

 

18

In he comes, bouncing and sweaty, to borrow a towel and go swimming at Duders. Voice out front, key in the lock, just passing through. A voice on the phone from an airport far away, saying early morning is the time to go and see the ruins outside the city when there’s no one else around. One heading for the beach each morning with a thermos of coffee and that same ragged towel. Breakfast. The other drinking something from a coconut on a beach in Mexico. One in this city, one in that city, two brothers crossing the sea. Camper vans gather down at the bay. Two people sit with their feet in the waves, looking out to sea and drinking wine from glasses they fill from the bottle hung off the side of their aluminium deckchairs. The house at the corner has been flying a tricolore since the Paris attacks. The house next to it is flying a flag that says Happy New Year. Here’s a man walking up the street dripping wet and asking if he can stick his nose into the buzzing magnolia flowers at the gate.

 

29

I saw the Maori Jesus walking on Wellington Harbour but his pool in the shadow of the museum was drained for repairs and the words were no longer lapped in fishscale light. I saw John Baxter in the pool ecstatic in arcs of water he was splashing over his father’s words on the day the writers’ walk opened. I heard the mihi that was sending Wellington Harbour over the father’s words. I heard the camera catch water light and send it to the eyes of beholders who were a great crowd on the waterfront that day. We took the train as far as Woburn, crossed the platform and came back along the side of the harbour. We took the ferry to Day’s Bay and back riding on the top deck and talking about other excursions. We had a dance at the mardi gras and kept walking along the waterfront to Roseneath. When we turned back there was the young woman walking towards us with bags full of produce from the market. Look, holes, she said.

 

30

We know what the dog of tears will do next, he who has been trailing the woman standing on the balcony looking up at the sky. She is the woman who wept, he is the dog who licked away her tears. They have gone on like this for some time, the only woman who can see and the dog who is now more human than he wants to be. His nails scratch the wooden floor. His belly is as empty as everyone else’s but he does not mind. He is walking towards the woman on the balcony. When he reaches her she will bring her eyes down to look at the ruined city and become blind. Everyone else will have their eyes back. She will have the dog of tears. The dog will bark holes in the last page of the book and lead her through one of them. There they are, the dog of tears and the woman who wept. His nails click on the rough stones. She who can no longer see begins to tell a story. They pass the street of crocodiles, the pool of tears, the hill of forty days and the hill of forty nights. They pass the little seahorse in its salty pool. They pass a white rose, a black swan, a blue biddy. The dog kills another hen and they roast it over a small fire. They can hear the sea, its fronding on smooth sand, its talking against rocks, its clapotis bouncing off stone walls. What might we not do with the hot bones dripping fat, she says. Two birds rise into the air on wings the colour of ash. Did you hear that she asks the dog licking away the salt on her cheeks.

 

32

The boy in his green turban the girl in her purple tunic dancing around each other under the old clock on the waterfront. Voices float in the morning air. One says, I had always imagined Paradise as a kind of library. The other replies, It is a bowl that one fills and fills.

 

©Michele Leggott, Vanishing Points Auckland University Press 2017

 

Auckland University Press page

Jack Ross’s blog The Imaginary Museum – his extended launch coverage

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf Spring Season’s poetry fans: Ros Ali picks Elizabeth Smither

 

Spring bulbs

Plant them carelessly. The earth straightens them.
Already they have divided and multiply.
They stand straight up like pencils

among last year’s survivors, also thicker
for a year’s disregard, a feeble weeding
an intention to reform as a gardener

knowing nothing will change: the philosophy
is too broad, too many variants
the huge tree, the little viola

one shivering, the other sending shivering down
on a white head near the ground, sheltering
its tremulousness a little, in its shadow.

©Elizabeth Smither, Night Horse (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2017).

 

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Note from Ros: Delving into Elizabeth Smither’s special new collection, Night Horse, when it was released in June, the poem ‘Spring bulbs’ was an arresting reminder of the fresh green shoots of random bulbs surprising my winter garden, and the all too familiar failure to reform. Significantly, the poem deftly and tenderly shifts its focus, into a deeper contemplation of the vulnerability, beauty and power of the natural world.

Rosalind Ali is a teacher of English and Writing, and Director of Libraries at St Cuthbert’s College in Epsom. She is a member of the Michael King Writers’ Centre Trust and co-facilitates the Michael King Young Writers’ Programme with poet and teacher, Johanna Emeney.

 

Elizabeth Smither has written five novels, five collections of short stories and seventeen poetry collections, the most recent of which was The Blue Coat (2013).  She has twice won the major award for New Zealand poetry and was the 2001–2003 Te Mata Poet Laureate. In 2004 she was awarded an honorary DLitt from the University of Auckland for her contribution to literature and was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit. She was given the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in 2008. In 2016 she won the Sarah Broom Poetry Prize, New Zealand’s most valuable poetry award, judged by Paul Muldoon, and those poems are included in Night Horse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf Spring Season’s poetry fans: Elizabeth Caffin picks Allen Curnow

 

A Busy Port

I

My turn to embark. A steep gangplank
expects me. An obedient child,
I follow my father down.

It happens that the sun will have topped
a black hill beside the time-ball tower,
and found the spot of a fresh

tear on Bob Hempstalk’s cheekbone, whose wet
red eyes blink back seaward where he leans
for’ard at the wheel-house glass;

one hand wipes an eye, the other shakes
a half-hitch loose, unlashing the wheel.
A man’s tears, obscene to me

caught looking. Too late now. The time-ball
drops. Quayside voices (not for my ears)
discuss the dead, bells repeat

ding-ding across the wharf. Brightwork traps
the sun in brass when I next look up,
following my father down,

who made the trip himself many years
past. The old rust-bucket gets up steam.
Frequent sailings from where we live.

II

Winched aboard still warm over the for’ard
hatch the morning’s bread hangs by a breath
of its own. It smells of bed.

An enriched air. The urinal under
the wharf drip-feeds, the main steam below
sweats. Darky Adams, deckhand

engineer stoker bangs his firebox
open, slings in a shovelful, slams
the insulted flame back home,

thick acrid riddance topples the way
smoke rolls by its own weight, in an air
that barely lifts, off the stack.

One jump clear of the deck the plank dips
with a short uneasy motion, deep-
sea talk to the paddler’s foot

out of my depth, deeper yet, off the Heads,
our Pillars. Pitching like a beer-can.
I’m hanging on tight, can’t hear

clashes from the stokehole for the wind
yelling, crossed on the wheel he’s yelling
back, ‘Ay, bit of a stiff breeze’.

Eyes that last I saw in tears can read
abstruse characters of waves, on course
between them, our plunging bows.

 

©Allen Curnow Early Days Yet (Auckland University Press, 1997) published with kind permission from the Curnow Estate.

 

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Note from Elizabeth: This is one of the wonderful poems recalling moments of his childhood that Allen Curnow wrote in the last years of his life. They move me especially because I too had a Canterbury childhood and can also remember sailing out from Lyttelton through the Heads, ‘our Pillars’. Curnow captures the excited anticipation of this birthday treat with his father but at the same time the child’s perplexed and disturbed glimpses of grief and death. (It seems the skipper’s wife has just died.) The voyage becomes the voyage we all make from birth to death; he ‘follows [his] father down’ not only into the bowels of  ‘the old rust bucket’ but also towards death, ‘who made the trip himself many years/ past’.  The famous time ball drops as it always did at 1pm but also to signal the passing of time, the course of his life and of his father’s. The two perspectives of small boy and elderly poet merge; precise details of sight, smell, sound blend with an almost mythic vision in this great poem.

Terry Sturm’s biography of Allen Curnow, Simply by Sailing in a New Direction, and Curnow’s Collected Poems were published at the end of September.

 

Elizabeth Caffin was formerly director of Auckland University Press, which
published Allen Curnow’s poetry over many years. She is also the co-editor,
with Terry Sturm, of the recently published Collected Poems of Allen Curnow (Auckland University Press, 2017).

Allen Curnow (1911 – 2001) published numerous poetry collections – from his debut with Valley of Decision (1933) to The Bells of St Babel (2001). He also produced criticism, plays and anthologies that contributed at both national and international levels. Among numerous awards, he received the Commonwealth Prize for Poetry and the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry.

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