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Poetry Shelf interviews Chris Price – ‘a little dash of crazy, a pinch of furious, and a dash of self-loathing on the one hand, and a bit of song and dance and delight on the other’

Chris Price 2009(13) credit Robert Cross.jpg

Photo credit: Robert Cross



How the song will wait

no matter how long,

how high the moon

or tower, however dry

the seed or flower —

the song will raise you.


from ‘Spell for a child to remember’



Chris Price is the author of two previous poetry collections (Husk, The Blind Singer) and a generically playful collection of biographical anecdotes ( Brief Lives). Her debut collection won the Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poetry (2002). She now teaches Creative Writing at the IIML at Victoria University. Previously, she had stints editing  Landfall and coordinating The International Arts Festival’s Writers and Reader’s Week in Wellington. Her poetry pleasingly follows its own course, as though this poet is not beholden to passing trends. This originality cements her place as a unique and important voice in New Zealand poetry. I got to hear Chris read from her new collection, Beside Herself, at CK Stead’s recent Laureate events in Napier and I came away feeling these edgy poems that hit both shadows and light were her best yet. I could hear the audience appreciating the utterly satisfying pitch of the poems with their oohs and aahs.


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Beside Herself  Chris Price  Auckland University Press  2016


To coincide with the release of the new collection, Chris agreed to an interview with Poetry Shelf.


Did your childhood shape you as a poet? What did you like to read? Did you write as a child? What else did you like to do?

My family were great readers, and bedtime stories were big for me – eventually some of the stories were on LPs, which my parents would put on when I went to bed, to be summoned back with an imperious call of ‘Other side!’ when the LP needed to be turned over.  The Count of Monte Cristo is one I remember.  Because my brother and sisters were quite a bit older than me, I spent a lot of time as a kind of only child.  When I had to go out with my parents on shopping trips or to visit their friends, I was always happy as long as I had a book. I wasn’t one of those who started writing early, though.


When you started writing poems as a young adult, were there any poets in particular that you were drawn to (poems/poets as surrogate mentors)?

I said my family were great readers, but that didn’t generally include poetry.  I can remember two main strands that had a hold of me in my teenage years – one was Japanese and Chinese poetry, which I found in the public library, and the other was the poetry I was taught in school – Keats and Shakespeare, mainly.  If we ever read New Zealand poems in the classroom, I don’t remember it – perhaps a bit of Denis Glover, which I didn’t really connect with at that age. But I did have a teacher in the fifth form who later published a book of poems himself – perhaps his enthusiasm was influential, although we also mocked his beard-stroking in the classroom.  My sixth form teacher (Sandra Coney’s sister) encouraged me to enter a school poetry award judged by Lauris Edmond, in which I received a ‘highly commended’.  Later, I read Lauris’s poem ‘The Pear Tree’ in the Listener, and wrote to her asking where I might find a copy of the book (that’s how clueless I was).  She sent me a copy, which I still find quite extraordinary.  Those small moments of encouragement or being taken seriously can be quite disproportionately important early on.


That is so lovely. My intermediate teacher was a poet who ended up in The Big Smoke anthology. They couldn’t trace him so I read his poem. It felt very spooky. He was like a little epiphany. Did university life transform your poetry writing? Discoveries, sidetracks, peers?

Oh, utterly.  I hadn’t really encountered much contemporary poetry before university, so everything came as a revelation, and lectures on poems by Blake, Rilke, Stevens or Curnow or Rich must have taught me something about the intense pressure the best poets bring to bear on language.  I do think everything you take in at that age becomes a kind of compost for your later writing life, so it’s important to take courses that involve direct encounters with great writing. I’m not a great believer in doing an undergraduate degree that consists of nothing but creative writing workshops.  That said, having the peers and encouragement of a writing workshop (I was in the first writing workshop taught by Karl Stead) cemented the idea that poetry was something a person could do.  It took quite some time, nonetheless, before I rediscovered the courage to give it a go after university. Somehow I hadn’t acquired enough belief in my capacity to do it well to keep going at the time, but the idea of writing hung around until it seemed necessary to put up or shut up.

The massive sidetrack of university life was music, but that’s another story.


Are there any theoretical or critical books on poetry that have sustained or shifted your approach to writing a poem?

On the whole, I am challenged, educated and sustained by great poems first, and criticism second. Theory and criticism can help move poetry along when it seems to be getting stuck or stale, but it can also generate flat writing. But I do find it exhilarating to watch a great reader unpack how a particular poem works.  Poems thrive on a mix of conscious and unconscious knowledge and craft, I think.


What poets have mattered to you over the past year? Some may have mattered as a reader and others may have affected you as a writer.

Last year was prosaic.  I forbade myself the pleasures of poetry in order to finish researching a book about a poet.  So obedient was I to the ban that I didn’t write a single poem last year, and didn’t read a great deal of poetry either.  It’s a pleasure to be return to reading it in 2016: it’s a great pleasure, for example, to have a new book from Andrew Johnston, and it’s looking like it will be a big year for NZ poetry.


What New Zealand poets have you been drawn to over time? What international poets?

I tend to admire poets and poems that have qualities I lack and envy: humour (James Tate, James Brown), surrealism and strangeness (Charles Simic, Greg O’Brien), or that sense of fundamental human decency that can’t be faked, and that emanates from poets such as Jenny Bornholdt and Rachel Bush.  At various points in the past, Robert Hass, Anne Carson and Alice Oswald have been important to me.  At the moment I am a little more interested in what I can learn from the poets in the generations after mine than those who come before, but Bill Manhire’s ability to leave room in his poems for the reader to roam around in offers a model I continually fall short of. I never quite get to the bottom of what they are doing.


Your poems always make delicious demands on the reader – the ideas borne along finely crafted lines, the well tended gaps, the dazzling sound. What are key things for you when you write a poem?

Listening for and being led by the music of the poem has always been central – to the extent that I now feel as if I may need to break the hold of that aspect of poetry to some degree, because it has begun to feel like my default setting. I started (affectionately) calling some of the poems in this book my ditties and jingles — meaning that they have had unabashed fun with quite strong rhyme or assonance. I don’t necessarily want to acquire the habit, though.  I never went looking for rhymes, but it seems they came looking for me.


You spent 2011 in Menton as the Katherine Mansfield Fellow. Your new collection, Beside Myself, does not re-present physical traces of France to the degree I have spotted in some Mansfield Fellows. However, it does open out to the world, to the way the world is carried in one’s head. What difference did Menton make to your poetry, and to this book in particular?

Well, there is a whole journal of the time in Menton, written in poetry and short bursts of prose, that registers the physical traces experience in quite minute detail, as well as thinking about what I was reading there.  It was my guilty pleasure to begin each day at the writing room – where I was working on the prose book I mentioned earlier – by warming up with some writing in this journal, which threatened to become a kind of pleasurable avoidance strategy, albeit one sanctioned by the terms of the Fellowship, or so I thought.  But really I began it because I wanted to register the specialness of the experience on a granular level, and I knew that it would flee from me in future years if all I did was take photographs of where I was, while writing about elsewhere.  In a way it’s the written equivalent of a photo album.

A number of the poems in Beside Herself are lifted from that journal.  I spent a lot of time in the galleries up and down that coast that are the legacies of the Modernists who lived and painted there: Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Bonnard, Cocteau.  And in some of the galleries in Paris and Rome and Oxford, which I also visited on that trip.  The sequence ‘Museum Pieces’ is a record of encounters with some of the artworks I saw that year.  And the little poem ‘Appreciation’ emerged at the end of my morning walk to the writing room in the Villa Isola Bella, on which I would often listen to podcasts. In this case it was a Poetry Foundation podcast that gave me the opening line of the poem.


In a short review of your book (forthcoming for Fairfax), I suggested reading your new book was like entering a poetry thicket and that I wasn’t quite sure what would emerge from the light and dark. It felt like all manner of characters inhabited these woods. I loved this playfulness. What did character and shifting personae mean to you in these poems?

Persona here has often meant a chance to unleash aspects of personality that don’t see daylight otherwise – a little dash of crazy, a pinch of furious, and a dash of self-loathing on the one hand, and a bit of song and dance and delight on the other.  And then there are a few figures I think of as marionettes, or Punch and Judy figures, larger than life rather than realistic.  I wanted to write poems that avoid the pretence of wisdom.


I love the way you can refresh a well-worn subject, such as you do in ‘Abandoned Hamlet.’ Again character seems crucial. This is such a kaleidoscopic book of people. What kind of characters are you drawn to?

I suppose I have always been interested in monsters.  Also the ‘damaged goods’ of humankind: very early in my writing life I began writing people who could be described as outsiders with redeeming characteristics, or magnificent failures. I don’t know where that comes from. Some of the characters in this new book seem to be irredeemable, though, which may have something to do with a pessimism about human nature that has increased as I’ve got older. Others are more vulnerable beneath the surface.


Language choices are vital, but as I read your characters, empathy is close at hand. What matters in the how of writing them?

My interest is in trying to inhabit and understand rather than judge. The first person is perhaps a more troubling but vivid way of doing this.

For a time when I was in my teens I thought I would like to be an actor, and it’s true that, like many actors, I like to hide in other people’s clothing. I just do my acting on the page. There’s a recent poem by Will Kemp  that expresses this impulse quite neatly.


I especially loved the sequence that features Churl. The detail is sumptuous. He gets under your skin.


Churl remembers every

curse and kick that sent him

on his way to this outskirts hut

where even his damp fire

wants to smoke him out.


from ‘The Book of Churl’


Where did the starting point for this poem come from?

I wanted to write a sequence featuring a single character, like Hughes’s Crow or Berryman’s Henry.  I covet the fierce energy of language and attitude in those sequences, but of course I am no Hughes (and a good thing too), so the character who arrived was a much gentler, if still flawed, anti-hero. The poem’s language world is influenced by the Anglo-Saxon alliterative tradition, which probably goes back to hearing Seamus Heaney reading his translation of Beowulf on the radio in the late 90s and being entranced.  To me the Anglo-Saxon part of the English language is a bit like raw protein – it does the most basic work of being human. (Although readers will find that the poem is not absolutely rigorous about excluding Latinate language, I decided not to fight it if the poem seemed to need it.)

The experience of writing Churl was a bit like what certain fiction writers talk about when they refer to hearing a voice and simply writing it down. I wrote most of it over a period of ten days or so when found I could sit down each morning and simply re-enter the voice world of the poem as if it was there waiting for me to step into it each day. About two-thirds of it flowed out quite easily this way – the final third was harder. I am fond of Churl, who despite his poor manners and outsider status has a rough kind of virtue that I find attractive.  One of my redeemable outsiders.


Indeed. I am fond of this character too. There are so many poems that elevate this collection into something special. I particularly liked the poem that tweaks the title of the book. Here the pronouns are particularly slippery, but the magnetic core is a simmering fusion of revelation and invention.


Step sideways.

Now look back

at whatever’s

left standing

in your shoes.


What looks

is reduced to the size

of a bird’s-eye

chilli, hot and salty


staring back at that bonesack

that functions as yourself.


from ‘Beside Yourself’


Are you cautious about self-exposure as a poet?

If poems emerge, as the American poet Peter Gizzi suggests, from a combination of one’s autobiography and one’s bibliography, then my writing has probably leaned more heavily on the bibliographical. It has been said of my previous work that I am, to a considerable degree, not present in it.

I began writing with a conviction that my life doesn’t make for interesting reading, a position that has both disabling and enabling aspects for a writer, as I have gradually come to realise. I am still a believer in following the demands the poem makes, and I don’t often sit down with a desire to write about something that has happened to me. Writing and revising a poem is an act of listening for the possibilities the language offers, rather than a transcription of pre-existing experience, so fictions arrive fairly quickly.

That being said, ‘Beside Yourself’ (not strictly speaking the title poem, as the pronoun takes a sideways step between one and the other) deliberately entertains the confessional, and sets out to lose some composure, both formally and personally. I also had in mind Jenny Bornholdt’s infinitely calmer and more measured poem ‘Confessional’ and its remark, about the world not having had much time for personal poetry lately, along with my own sense that the first person had become profoundly unfashionable, even embarrassing, in certain quarters of American poetry.

On one hand all writing is, in a sense, autobiographical.  On the other, if a poem does deploy autobiographical information, it had better be in the service of something larger than oneself.  I have a t-shirt from American musical duo The Books with the slogan ‘Freedom from expression’, which is a slogan I march under in life and in the workshop.


Which poem really worked for you?

Aside from Churl, whose creation seems a little bit magical, I am still pleased with ‘Tango with Mute Button’, at least half of which was written in my head while the scene at the gym it describes was actually happening, so that  I had to keep repeating it to myself then run off to write it down asap! It might be the most autobiographical poem in the book. And ‘Spell for a Child to Remember’, which is a kind of verbal antidote to the darker currents of the book.


Leo Bensemann’s drawings fit the book perfectly. What sort of connections do you see between them and your poems?

I was initially drawn to the fierceness of the mask on the cover, which seemed to catch the tone of some of the book.  But when I went back to Peter Simpson’s book about Bensemann, to make a copy of the mask to send to AUP, I realised that some of the other images in the Fantastica series also caught different aspects of the book – the rather combative relationships, the impotent fist-shaking of Churl at the powerful, the broken gallows and hangman’s noose that register the destructive or self-destructive aspects of ego, and the contrasting freshness, self-possession and charm (in the magical sense) of the Little Witch.


I also love the way little (or bigger) lists make their way into your writing. What is the allure of a list?


A list is elaboration

and incantation.

It calls up devils or angels,

constructs clockwork mice or pavlovas.

It can be funny, or furious,

insouciant or obsessive,

and sometimes both

at once. It can underline

or undermine itself.

List lives on


and variation.

The road of excess leads

to the palace of wisdom

except when it leads to A&E.


Tell me about the title. There are so many meanings. It suits the way you step into the poems and then step out of them to tilt everything. There is you, and then there is so much more. There is internal confusion, almost like a little fit, and then there is the holding at bay (alongside) of self.

The title points two ways.  ‘Beside’ in the sense of ‘as well as’ or ‘in addition to’ celebrates the chance to be someone else on the page.  But ‘beside herself’ in the more obvious sense of being out of control, and also conscious of that fact, which can be an almost out-of-body experience.


What irks you in poetry?

Lack of urgency. One question I have heard Fergus Barrowman ask of a poem sums it up: ‘Is your journey really necessary?’ Humourless experimentalism (as opposed to the playful kind, which I often love).


What delights you?

A poem that is like Dr Who’s Tardis – bigger on the inside than it appears from the outside, and likely to take me somewhere both strange and mysteriously familiar.


Some poets argue that there are no rules in poetry and all rules are to be broken. Do you agree? Do you have cardinal rules? Do you have rules you particularly like to break?

I am reminded of something the poet Frederick Seidel said in his Paris Review interview: ‘I like to hear the sound of form, and I like to hear the sound of it breaking.’ For any given rule there’s probably a successful piece of writing that breaks it. But that’s different from saying anything goes and sanctioning lack of control.  It’s handy to try playing by a fair number of the rules at first, to figure out why the ‘rules’ have become the ‘rules’ before you experiment with breaking them. As time goes by, a cardinal rule your poems have lived by might just stop being useful to you for a time.  Compression might come to seem cramped and narrow, expansiveness may become saggy and lacking in energy.  Music might become cage rather than liberation.


Do you find social media an entertaining and useful tool or white noise?



The constant mantra to be a better writer is to write, write, write and read read read. You also need to live! What activities enrich your writing life?

Listening to music and making it, looking at paintings, photographs, modern dance: wordless art forms are the most enviable and the most soothing, but I also get poems out of the Film Festival. Conversations with people who are more psychologically acute, more generous and funnier than I am. Getting out into the natural world as a counterbalance to all that reading.


Finally if you were to be trapped for hours (in a waiting room, on a mountain, inside on a rainy day) what poetry book would you read?

That might be a good moment to fill in a gap in the classics. The list of things I ought to have read will always be too long, but Dante (who I’ve only read in part) would be near the top, despite the fact that I am a bit allergic to traditional religion.  Or the epic of Gilgamesh, or the Icelandic sagas… So much to read, so little time.


Thank you Chris.


Auckland University Press page

My Fairfax review

Poetry Shelf Review: Gregory Kan’s This Paper Boat floats on an ethereal current so that poetry finds its way back to us all


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Gregory Kan This Paper Boat Auckland University Press 2016


Gregory Kan’s debut poetry collection, This Paper Boat, is a joy to read on so many levels.

Kan’s poetry has featured in a number of literary journals and an early version of the book was shortlisted for the Kathleen Grattan Poetry Prize in 2013. He lives in Auckland.

Paper Boat traces ghosts. We hold onto Kan’s coat tails as he tracks family and the spirit of poet, Robin Hyde (Iris Wilkinson). The gateway to family becomes the gateway to Iris and the gateway to Iris becomes the gateway to family. There is overlap between family and missing poet but there is also a deep channel. The channel of difficulty, hard knocks, the tough to decipher. There is the creek of foreignness. The abrasiveness of the world when the world is not singular.

Kan enters the thicket of memory as he sets out to recover the family stories. He shows the father as son fishing in the drains, the mother as daughter obedient at school. Yet while he fills his pockets with parental anecdotes, there is too, the poignant way his parents remain other, mysterious, a gap that can never be completely filled:


In the past when I thought about people my parents

were somehow

not among them. But some wound stayed


wide in all of us, and now I see in their faces

strange rivers and waterfalls, tilted over with broom.


The familial stands are immensely moving, but so too is the search for Iris. Kan untangles Iris in the traces she has left – in her poems, her writings, her letters. He stands outside the gate to Wellington house, listening hard, or beside the rock pool. There is something that sets hairs on end when you stand in the footsteps of ghosts, the exact stone, the exact spot, and at times it is though they become both audible and visible. Hyde’s poems in Houses by the Sea, are sumptuous in detail. I think of this as Kan muses on the rock-pool bounty. When he stands at her gate:


I have to hear you to keep you

here, and I have to keep you

here to keep coming back.


I think too of Michele Leggott’s plea at the back of DIA to listen hard to the lost matrix of women poets, the early poets. To find ways to bring them close.

Kan brings Iris (Robin) close. His traces. Iris becomes woman as much as she does poet and the channel of difficulty fills with her darknesses as much as it does Kan’s. There is an aching core of confinement: her pregnancy, her loss of the baby, her second pregnancy, her placement of the baby elsewhere, her mental illness. His confinement in a jungle. His great-aunt’s abandonment as a baby.


The strands of love, foreignness and of difficulty are amplified by the look of the book. The way you aren’t reading a singular river of text that conforms to some kind of pattern. A singular narrative. It is like static, like hiccups, like stutters across the width of reading. I love this. Forms change. Forms make much of the white space. A page looks beautiful, but the white space becomes a transmission point for the voices barely heard.

At one point the blocks of text resemble the silhouettes of photographs in a family album. At another point, poems masquerade as censored Facebook entries.Later still, a fable-like poem tumbles across pages in italics.

The writing is understated, graceful, fluent, visually alive.

I want to pick up Hyde again. I want to stand by that Wellington rock pool and see what I can hear. I have read this book three times and it won’t be the last.


In the final pages, as part a ritual for The Hungry Ghost Festival, Kan sends a paper boat down the river ‘to ensure// that the ghosts find their way/ back.’

The book with its heartfelt offerings is like a paper boat, floating on an ethereal current so that poetry finds its way back to us all (or Hyde, or family).


Auckland University Press page

A terrific interview with Sarah Jane Barnett

Sequence in Sport










Anna Jackson’s I, Clodia and Other Portraits – A lightness that is fierce, a spareness that is complex

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I, Clodia and Other Portraits Anna Jackson, Auckland University Press, 2015

Anna Jackson has published five collections of poetry including Thicket (Auckland University Press, 2011) which was a finalist in the New Zealand Post Book Awards. She currently teaches English Literature at Victoria University.


Anna Jackson’s new collection contains two sequences that step up from everything she has previously written to a lightness that is fierce, a spareness that is complex. Poems become voice, voice becomes reaction to/against, reaction become autobiography, autobiography becomes invention. The pleasure that the poetry generates is multiple; from the exquisite loop of sound to the ideas that pierce, to the stories that accumulate, to the silent patches that are not in fact silent.

The first sequence, ‘I, Clodia,’ signals a return to Catullus, but now his muse, his beloved (Lesbia, Clodia), speaks. There has been a wide line in recent times of re-visioning, resiting, reclaiming, re-presenting women from the shadows of history; women who were spoken on behalf of, who were seemingly passive, are given voice. Anna’s version prompts thinking in myriad directions. The poems are laid across an underlay Catullus carpet. I followed Anna’s directive and read his poems in the order proscribed so that I might absorb the intriguing underlay as I read. In the end, it felt like Anna had given flesh to the bare bones of Catullus’s Lesbia (Clodia). Invented because Anna was working with the protruding bones of a skeletal figure, yet this sequence also gains fire and contextual zest through diligent research. The poems come to life within the context of the times hinted at — the events, relations, circumstances. The degree of research for such a slender sequence could have rendered the historical (the facts, the near-facts) cumbersome, but instead history becomes the lily pads of the poems. Drawing the eye close, moving ever so slightly on the drift of water, encouraging the mind to make little leaps.

What of the voice? No whimsical, petal-of-a-voice here. This is where the layers utterly captivate me. Draw me into a woman brought to sparking life, and all the issues and ideas that emanate. Clodia addresses his charges (‘but to counter them one by one in order’) and declares her love (‘Oh, I loved you, and being loved by me did/  you not take more than you could ever give me?’). She throws his questions back at him (‘Whom shall I love now?’ ‘Whom shall I permit to visit?’ ‘It seems we are occupied with the same questions’). She is fierce (‘You had better be leaving’) and in his moment of speechlessness, she replenishes her own stanzas (‘I’ll fill my/ stanzas up while you can be silent for once’).

We come hard up against the authority of the male poet on the page. His authorship legible, enduring. She, however, ephemeral. Catullus writes: ‘but a woman’s words to her eager lover/ should be written on running water, on the wind.’ Clodia counters (by way of Anna): ‘I can just see you/ scuttling about on the shore, peering/ suspiciously at the ocean and calling it/ a fickle thing’. Ha! He is desperate to read her, yet would not want her words set in concrete, with script and ink that lasts. In this sequence, Clodia exists beyond the contrary longings of Catullus; she exists beyond him in the wider world of political relations and within the intimate moments of her own reckoning.

Anna appeared with Daniel Mendelsohn at the Auckland Writers Festival this year in a standout session on translation. Anna suggested that she was ‘not translating words but ideas,’ and that she wanted to see ‘how far she could push her translated versions, her subversions.’ She had the advantage of translating ‘imaginary texts, non-existent poems.’ So for her, traversing the hiatus between Latin and a second language posed different challenges. The conventional translator faces the untransportable word, gendered endings, punning options, difficult rhymes, different rhythms, inappropriate cliches, time honoured truisms and cultural trapdoors. The list is endless. Anna, though, was traversing a different gap as she worked with English translations and sought to translate the hints, the shadows, the contradictions, the silences. She was after a way to give poetic flesh to longing, loss, love, not-love, circumstance, conflict and so on. Anna has stepped into the skin of a long-lost other and gifted us a mesmerising mouthpiece. The deftness of what is revealed and what is kept back renders the white space poignant, illuminating, fertile.

You need to go for a long walk or eat a bowl of soup before you move into the second sequence, ‘The pretty photographer.’ Now Anna steps into contemporary shoes in order to re-present portraits. The Diane Arbus quote at the start is the perfect entry point (‘A photograph is a secret about a secret’) because the poems are like miniature mise en abymes. You fall into elusive, intangible selves, the dry dust of story, as the autobiographical self is laid like a transparency over the invented or borrowed self. If these are photographs, at times it is like entering the photo negative, where things are dreamlike, with the melancholy of the dark room adhering, the upset of the negative image clinging. The past is caught in splices of looking, looking through and then looking through again (‘I’m going to look right through you/ furiously stapling my feelings together’). It is as much about the photographer as it is the subject.

So many standout poems that linger (‘ Diane, unexploded’ ‘Afraid of falls?’ ‘The photographer in the library’ ‘The photographer’s hallway’ the whole thing really!). So many lines and phrases in the collection as a whole to pin to the wall. Here are some that struck a chord:


‘silent and tethered’

‘a look of such lovely lamentation’

‘the sight of women’s arms/ lifting and rising in and out of the water/ black like black eels in a swarm/ curling and calling/ one to another’

‘She picks out her coldest onion,/ her tears tight on her face.’

‘We were always walking towards the day we’d be parted.’

‘The truth is, I have feelings for you/ in every substance – including/ a cathedral of sea.’

‘I had a dream I was a ghost/ and only one man could see me …’

‘I’ll return/ to the person I was drawing/ and the dawning of the night’.


My copy of I,Clodia is battered and worn as I have carried it out and about with me for months. Sometimes I think the right book finds the right reader, not because you will necessarily get what the poet is trying to do and say, but because that book strikes a deep internal chord — the chord of humanity, the exquisite chord of a solo violin partita, the chord of that which is missing and that which is missed, the chord of women emerging from the shade. This is a poetry collection that matters.



Auckland University page

New Zealand Book Council page

Anna Jackson’s poem, ‘Afraid of falls?’ on Poetry Shelf.

Anna Jackson’s interview on Poetry Shelf



The Friday Poem: John Adams on retiring as a judge today


Docking out

Diminished judgment, rumpled, short concentration:

all I could find was my powers

ebbing when I woke up this morning.

Too much time in the dark room; the strain

almost too taut

to spin a memorandum of consent

into order, even with the miller’s daughter

looking on. I can scarce muster

the puff to adjourn the court

and I doubt I can tell right

with any certitude

from wrong let alone discern

probable truths. Try as I might,

it won’t make a blind bit

of difference. Let’s face it, the good stuff

has gone.

Far too long I’ve hunched over

my papers; time to adopt

a new position. Recently, I’ve been gazing

at the dock.

John Adams is retiring as a judge today and has written this poem as a marker. John’s debut collection, Briefcase (AUP), won the NZSA Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Poetry Book at the 2012 NZ Post Book Awards. John Adams also has a Masters in Creative Writing from The University of Auckland and  has been a consulting editor of legal texts – such as the Butterworths Family Law series.

Steele Roberts page

Auckland University Press page

Poetry Shelf Interviews Anna Jackson: ‘writing a poem out of nothing, it can feel like a small miracle’

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Anna Jackson teaches English Literature at Victoria University and has published five collections of poetry. Thicket was shortlisted for the New Zealand Post Book Awards, and Auckland University Press has just released her new collection, I Clodia, and Other Portraits.  To celebrate the arrival of this terrific new collection, Anna agreed to be interviewed by me. With poet and publisher, Helen Rickerby, Anna has organised, Truth or Beauty: Poetry and Biography, a conference currently running at Victoria University (26th to 28th November).


Did your childhood shape you as a poet? What did you like to read? Did you write as a child? What else did you like to do?

Reading and writing and making up long extended stories in my head were almost all I ever did, that and keeping pets, pretty much the same as now. Everything else was an interruption – children are always being interrupted from their purposes.


When you started writing poems as a young adult, were there any poets in particular that you were drawn to (poems/poets as surrogate mentors)?

To begin with the more musical poets, like Yeats, and my own poetry rhymed and was metred, I often wrote in a ballad metre. I wrote a wonderful long verse poem and then later found whole lines from it were lifted straight from Yeats – I’d remembered them but thought I’d made them up. The Romantics too – Keats and Shelley. But I was also reading Beckett, the novels, for the prose rhythms, which I found breathtakingly funny, and Pinter, again, for the rhythm.


Did university life transform your poetry writing? Discoveries, sidetracks, peers?

Murray Edmond was my tutor in twentieth-century literature and when I showed him some of my own poetry he told me I had to stop writing in metre and rhyme. The next year in modern poetry taught by Don Smith we learned about Ezra Pound modernising Yeats and about the rigorous line breaks of William Carlos Williams, and then the next year I took American poetry with Wystan Curnow and Roger Horrocks and that was revelatory, and challenging because the experimental L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets disturbed and disappointed me as much as they excited and inspired me, and I had to try and make sense of my conflicting responses. There was also always the pleasure of listening to Wystan talk – just like reading Beckett, it wasn’t what he said so much as the rhythms of the sentences – and Roger’s extraordinary generosity as a teacher responding to every student’s individual interests.


Does your academic writing ever carry poetic inflections?


Are there any theoretical or critical books on poetry that have sustained your or shifting your approach to writing a poem?

I like this question and I teach a class on poetry and poetics which is founded on the idea that writing poetry and thinking about poetics, and reading poetry theory, ought to go together. But I can’t think of any poetry criticism or theory that has made any direct difference to anything I’ve done. Poetry criticism I have liked includes James Fenton’s The Strength of Poetry, Helen Vendler, especially The Making of a Poet, and James Longenbach, The Virtues of Poetry. Virginia Woolf is wonderful writing about poetry, although she hardly ever does – she chooses to write about Dorothy rather than William Wordsworth for instance. But her essay on Donne is brilliant. I used to find Ezra Pound an essential guide to poetry though reading The ABC of Reading now I can’t imagine how it could have helped; still, as Pound writes on page 86, “There is no reason why the same man should like the same books at eighteen and at forty-eight.”


Indeed! What poets have mattered to you over the past year? Some may have mattered as a reader and others may have affected you as a writer.

Can I go back further? The only poetry I think I’ve ever read that actually gave me the physical reaction that Robert Graves claims is the test of poetry, the hairs standing up, the shiver down the spine, the reaction that Emily Dickinson describes as feeling as if the top of your head has come off, is the sequence JUMP, from C K Stead’s The Black River, published in 2008. This is a sequence he wrote after a stroke in a state of semi-dyslexia. Some of the images – death as a Picasso, with a hole in the head – are terrifically, strangely vivid and funny. Some of the puns would seem banal in another context – the mine of the mind – and the wordplay on old rhymes and quotations is often simple enough in itself. But altogether, the effect is extraordinary. It really does somehow feel like he is mining the mine of the mind. It seems to reveal something about the way we think in language, something about the way language works, and there is an almost frightening spirituality about it. The capitalized word JUMP provides section breaks through the sequence, and by the end, the announcement can be made “faith hope the JUMP/ these three abide/ and the greatest of these/ is the JUMP.” This seems true, because we have experienced the way God, or religion, or some sense of an enormous and frightening significance can work through the gaps in language, through the jumps offered by dyslexia, a stroke, poetry.

More recently, in the last year or so, collections that have been very important to me include Helen Rickerby’s Cinema, a witty, perceptive collection of poems about the role of cinema in our lives; Ashleigh Young’s Magnificent Moon, a peculiar and wonderful blend of the surreal and the personal, the lyrical and the essayistic; and your own (Paula’s) The Baker’s Thumbprint, with its kaleidoscopic cast of characters, its richly rendered West Coast setting, the light of it, the weight of memory, the lift of imagination.

And then perhaps the most amazing publishing event of the last year was the publication of the newly discovered Sappho poem, “The Brothers,” with the TLS offering a spread of different translations of it – including a hilarious one by Anne Carson, wonderfully freewheeling and playful with its contemporary (and not so contemporary) references, while seeming at the same time to go straight to the psychological core of the poem. Even more moving to me though was the translation by Alistair Elliot – I was just so profoundly moved by the technical brilliance of it, as he apparently effortlessly translated the Greek metre into a perfect English equivalent, while – it seems, comparing only the different versions other poets offered – capturing most closely the sense of the original, the significance, in relation to the logic of the poem, of the details.

And that reminds me of one more translation event I found terrifically exciting which was the debate between Tom Bishop and Steve Willet in the journal Ka Mate Ka Ora over the translation of a Tibullus poem. I thought Tom Bishop won in terms of debating points, and loved his translation, but it was the level of debate and the skill of both translators that made it such a brilliant and absorbing conversation to follow.

(a link: http://www.nzepc.auckland.ac.nz/kmko/11/ka_mate11_bishop.asp)


What New Zealand poets have you been drawn to over time?

I expect I’m going to leave out some names that afterwards I’ll think of with amazement and regret, but among the poets whose work I return to again and again are Bill Manhire, of course, for the rhythms, the lift of the writing (I always hope to catch it a bit), and Jenny Bornholdt again for how rhythmic her poetry is, the way she plays with the rhythms of ordinary speech. Maybe this emphasis on rhythm is surprising, since I think my own poetry is quite prosaic. Though her rhythms are also quite prosaic – I like prosaic. Jenny Bornholdt and Bill Manhire are the poets I’ll read with the feeling that I can sort of catch poetry from them. A new Ian Wedde collection is always an event, and I loved The Lifeguard which came out last year, but I also return often to his earlier collections. I love the experiments with the sonnet in the Carlos sonnets, the intricacy of them and the ease, and I return again and again to the Commonplace Odes, again, the ease, the scope of them. Ease is the word I think of with Robert Sullivan’s poetry too and again that combination of ease and scope – the ease seems to allow the scope. But then again, the nervy tautness of Anne Kennedy’s poetry is tremendously exciting, and though scope isn’t the word that comes to mind in the same way, I like how her collections are always about so much, how she tells stories. James K Baxter, another story-teller, and a poet like Wedde and Sullivan with that combination of ease and scope – I return again and again to the sonnets, that relaxed sonnet he invented. C K Stead got closest to describing how it works, how it depends on a determined and consistent evenness of emphasis, a turning away from metre that is almost a metre in itself.


Your poems always offer surprise, a fresh and vital view of things and idiosyncratic musicality (an Anna Jackson pitch and key). What are key things for you when you write a poem?

Tautness? And that the poem has enough in it?


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Your new collection, I Clodia, reflects a return to sequences that are thematically linked as opposed to discrete poems with more accidental connections. What drew you to this choice?

I far prefer writing sequences, I find building a sequence tremendously satisfying, and at the same time, it is far easier writing from within a sequence that is already underway than it is to generate new poems out of nothing. But not everything will fit into a sequence, so you have the discrete poems as well, and it can be very pleasing just writing a poem out of nothing, it can feel like a small miracle. And a single poem can be written in a very small space of time. It can rescue a day or a week that wouldn’t have had any poetry in it. I always wanted to write the Clodia sequence, but I wanted to so much, I put it off, till I had enough time to make the most of it. The photographer sequence started out just as a single poem about a photographer, which I wasn’t really sure was even a poem at first. But then after that, whenever I started another poem and didn’t know quite what to do with the material, the image or the idea, all it seemed to take was to attribute the experience to the photographer and it seemed to turn into a poem – it gave the material a dramatic element, a fictional element, that made it do just enough more to suffice for a poem. So then I started adding names to the titles of some other poems and found it gave them the same lift, and got interested in the idea of portraiture so wrote more portraits. I don’t think of that half of the book as a sequence so much as a collection of portrait poems – some of which I converted into portraits afterwards. But the Clodia sequence is very much a narrative with a three act structure, a cast of characters, a problem, a low point, a decisive action, and a resolution. I don’t think anything has ever been more fun to write.


And what of Catallus? Why does this subject matter resonate with you so strongly?

There’s a terrific essay by a classicist Maxine Lewis that discusses the reasons why writers and scholars are drawn to make narratives out of the Catullus poems (“Narrativising Catullus: A Never-ending Story,” in the Melbourne Historical Journal Volume 441:2, 2013). There are characters that recur in poem after poem, situations that seem to unfold, changing feelings, a developing relationship, and a complicated chronology that the order of the poems seems to defy. It is impossible to read the poems without trying to construct some sort of narrative – and as you do this, you begin to make the narrative your own, to act as a writer as well as a reader. And then, the poems are so funny, often, so passionate, and often so angry. They are also poems about writing poetry, or about the kinds of relationships that can be built around the exchange of poetry, and exchanges of wit. And love, and all the tumultuous feelings it evokes, has always been the best of themes for poetry.


And what of the point of view of women rather than the dead white men?

I write as Clodia because I love the poetry of Catullus, and I love him no less for being dead. But the point of view of Clodia is everywhere suggested, implied, presented or argued against in the Catullus poems – she is not just a character described by the poetry, but an implied reader teased, provoked, and responded to. The poetry invites an active engagement – I just couldn’t resist.


You gained a grant to undertake substantial research for this poetry project. Did you make serendipitous discoveries that flipped or fine-tuned what and how you wrote?

I made discoveries I really didn’t want to make. I had to give up on the first poem I wrote for the sequence, because it wouldn’t work with the chronology I developed. I had seasons in the wrong places, I had events happening simultaneously that had to happen two years apart. But I was able to work out a chronology that didn’t contradict any of the known dates or facts and allowed for a coherent story to take shape. The most important narrative breakthrough came in Rome, when I was doing nothing but work on the sequence and so could think always in terms of the narrative with an overview of the whole sequence, not just thinking one poem at a time. I had reached an impasse, and decided to go on a long walk along the river. I’d only taken a few steps out the door when I realised the solution that would make the whole story work. I kept walking for two hours, and then came back and wrote what I would have written if I’d turned back after five minutes. But I wouldn’t have had that five minute breakthrough without the weeks of sustained thinking and writing that led up to it.


The second part of the book is like a parade of characters, startling and askew with life, that may have strayed from a Fellini film. They glisten and glow on the page. There seems to be more invention and less autobiography that has marked many of your earlier poems (although not all!). Why this predilection to step into the shoes of others?

I love this description of the photographer section! I think photography has a glamour about it I have borrowed for the poetry. I am not sure how much less autobiographical the poetry really is. Even when I put my own children in to poems, as in “Tea-time with the Timorese”, often I made up the events. In Thicket, my previous collection, I might write as “I” but the “I” is as invented as a character like Saoirshe or Roland in the photographer sequence. And, conversely, I could have written the Saoirshe poem or the Roland poem as “I” – both are stories about my own life, in a way, in the same way the Thicket poems are. Perhaps it is a trick on the reader, perhaps the reader brings more to the poems when given a range of character names to lend the imagination to, perhaps the reader is able to read the poems more as stills from a film?


The constant mantra to be a better writer is to write, write, write and read read read. You also need to live! What activities enrich your writing life?

I completely agree and think the best poetry is, as Leonard Cohen said, the ash from a life burning well. I don’t like poetry about writing poetry, and the song that most embarrasses me is Gillian Welch’s song about not being able to make up a song – I don’t want to know! If you can’t think up a song, don’t sing one. But the truth is, I am unusually lazy and do less than just about anyone I know – almost nothing other than read and write, and have long baths. I have written a few poems about my hens, hen-keeping being my one hobby, if you can call it a hobby, but there are only so many poems you can write about hens and I think I’ve already reached my limit. So, I can’t think of an honest answer. Talking to my friend Phoebe, maybe? I quite often end up writing down bits of things we’ve said. Some of my best poems are probably actually just things Phoebe thought of.


Finally if you were to be trapped for hours (in a waiting room, on a mountain, inside on a rainy day) what poetry book would you read?

I’d want to read the collected Wislawa Symborska or the collected Bill Manhire, but I’d want to not have read them before, I’d want them to be a discovery. A new collection by either of them, I suppose, but I’d want it to be hundreds of pages long.


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Giveaway books Halcyon Ghosts & waha | mouth… there are more to come

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Thanks to Auckland University Press I have randomly selected Harvey Molloy to get the copy of Sam Sampson’s Halcyon Ghosts and thanks to Victoria University Press I have randomly selected Nicola Eastbourne to get Hinemoana Baker’s  waha | mouth.

I have a number of giveaway copies for reviews I am doing when I get back from my Hot Spot Poetry Tour of NZ mid November (can’t promise any before then). I saw some of you ran into technical difficulties ‘liking’ or ‘commenting’ on this blog. Beyond my expertise sorry but I know if you follow the blog (click on follow down right hand side) it is easier. Someone else may give useful advice here.