Tag Archives: Elizabeth Smither

Poems from the Ockham NZ Book Award poetry shortlist: Elizabeth Smither’s ‘Tenderness’

 

 

 

Tenderness

 

                           I

 

A tree in the centre of a corn field

the corn rising in its ranks like braided hair

to meet the lowest branches

 

a tree that has replaced at least twenty

corn stalks with their divided leaves

twenty golden cobs sweetly surrendered

 

for this lovely grace: leaf sweep touching

leaf sweep, the whole field given by

this rising trunk, a focus

 

the pattern drawn from the edge of the field

to the centre where the tree

delivers a blessing.

 

II

 

The forest planation blankets hills.

Neat-ankled, swift-running

the dark pines descend

 

except on one little hilltop a ride

of grass begins and runs

with the trees which seem to bend

 

tenderly towards it: a bed from which

a child has risen and begun walking

the solicitousness of pine branches over grass.

 

©Elizabeth Smither from Night Horse

 

Elizabeth Smither’s most recent poetry collection, Night Horse, was published by Auckland University Press in 2017. She also writes novels and short stories.

12 Questions for the Ockham NZ Book Awards poetry finalists: Elizabeth Smither

 

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Congratulations on your short-list placing Elizabeth!

 

What poetry books have you read in the past year?

Everything by Wislawa Szymborska and the Penguin Modern Poets series (3 poets in each clutch purse-sized collection): Emily Berry/Anne Carson/Sophie Collins; Malika Booker/Sharon Olds/Warsan Shire etc.

 

What other reading attracts you?

Almost anything. At the moment I am re-reading Rex Stout and the yellow pyjama-wearing detective Nero Wolfe.

 

Name some key starting points (or themes) for your collection.

I never discover a theme until a collection is put together. The connections between individual poems can be as subtle and perverse as the most delicate rhyme or rhythm.

 

Did anything surprise you as the poems come into being?

Perhaps the secret life of animals?

 

Find up to 5 individual words that pitch your book to a reader.

‘The heart heals itself between beats’ because it was a commission with an extra scoop of fear attached.

 

What matters most when you write a poem?

Depth and uncertainty.

 

What do you loathe in poetry?

Nothing. It’s important not to loathe anything.

 

Where do you like to write poems?

Propped up on a bank of pillows in bed, with the concert programme on the radio and perhaps a glass of wine.

 

What are strengths and lacks in our poetry scenes?

The chutzpah of our independent publishers; a tendency for too much adulation.

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

Night Horse AUP author page

 

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The Ockham New Zealand Book Awards Poetry shortlist

 

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All shortlists here

Book awards draw attention to books that hook judges for any number of reasons. Hopefully the awards attract new readers and generate new conversations. Check out reactions at The Spin Off to all four lists. In 2017, and I seem to say this every year, New Zealand published an astonishing array of poetry from a diverse range of presses. I loved so much of it, I would have turned down an invitation to judge an award. Yes there were books I utterly loved that didn’t make the long list. Yes there were books from the long list that I utterly loved that didn’t make the short list.

I am really familiar with three of the books on the short list, while the fourth is a pleasing discovery. Each of these books contain poems that gave me goosebumps. So in the spirit of generosity I celebrate the judges’ choices.

What do these poets have in common? Attentiveness!

 

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Elizabeth Smither’s Night Horse   (Auckland University Press)

Last year I read through the captivating stretch of Elizabeth Smither’s poetry: from Here Come the Clouds published in 1975, to the new collection, Night Horse. I was drawn into melodious lines, pocket anecdotes, bright images and enviable movement. Harry Ricketts talked about the transformative quality of Elizabeth’s poems in an interview with Kathryn Ryan, and I agree. As you follow reading paths from the opening line of the first poem — ‘Once, near nightfall, I drove past my mother’s house’—there is always  some form of transformation. The poetry, from debut until now, is meditative, andante, beautiful.

I see a continued poetic attentiveness and an ability to assemble detail that both stalls and surprises the reader. I was thinking the poems are like little jackets that can be worn inside out, and outside in, because Elizabeth offers stillness in movement, and in movement stillness. She generates musicality in plainness, and in plainness there is music. In the strange, there is the ordinary, and in the ordinary, there is strangeness.

Elizabeth so often slows down the pace of her poems so we may linger upon an image, a word, an anecdote, a side-thought to see what surfaces.

I especially love the ongoing friendship and granddaughter poems, but I particularly love the first poem, ‘My mother’s house.’ Kate Camp and I heard Elizabeth read this at the National Library’s Circle of Laureates last year and were so moved and uplifted that we asked for copies! In the poem, unseen, Elizabeth observes her mother move through the house from the street (she told us this autobiographical fact) and sees her in shifting lights. The moment is breathtaking; are we are at our truest self when we are not observed? There is characteristic Smither movement through the poem, slow and attentive, to the point of tilt and surprise. The final lines reverberate and alter the pitch of looking: ‘but she who made it/who would soon walk into the last room/of her life and go to sleep in it.’

 

It was all those unseen moments we do not see

the best of a friend, the best of a mother

competent and gracious in her solitude

 

from ‘My mother’s house’

 

 

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Sue Wootton’s The Yield  (Otago University Press)

Sue Wootton’s shortlisted collection is a sumptuous read, a read that sparks in new directions, while clearly in debt to everything she has written to date. You enter a sumptuous feast of sound and image amongst other glorious things. Several poems feature knitting, and knitting is a perfect analogy for the way Sue’s poems interlace the aural and the visual to produce sensual patterns. The poems have enviable texture and that texture engages both mind and heart.

As I read, the poetry of David Eggleton and Michele Leggott comes to mind.  They both write out of their own skin in ways that are quite unlike the local trend to write conversational poetry. I can see a similar idiosyncratic pulse driving Yield poems as though Sue is pushing boundaries, resisting models, playing and challenging what she can do as a poet.

I am also struck by the heightened musical effects. Sue has always had an attentive ear, but this collection almost feels baroque in the leapfrogging alliteration, assonance and sweet chords. There are traces of the personal in the poems—deaths, a family picnic, illness, a declaration to live life to the utmost, friendship—but I would suggest Sue hides in the crevices. Some of the poems (‘The needlework, the polishing,’ ‘Pray,’ ‘Priest in a coffee shop,’ ‘Graveyard poem,’ ‘Poem to my nearest galaxy’) engage with some kind of spirituality, either through a church building or prayer.

So many poems in the collection stand out for me (and indeed there are a number of award-winning poems here). I especially love ‘Calling,’ ‘Wild,’ ‘Lunch poem for Larry,’ ‘Admission,’ ‘Picnic,’ ‘Unspooling,’ ‘Strange monster,’ ‘A treatise on the benefits of moonbathing,’ ‘The crop,’ ‘Daffodils.’ Ha! Quite a list of poems that matter.

The alluring cover befits the allure of the poems within.

 

Measure my wild. Down to my last leaf,

my furled, my desicated. This deciduousness,

this bloom. Calculate my xylem levels,

my spore count, fungal, scarlet

in a bluebell glade. Whoosh,

where the foliage closes on a great cat.

 

from ‘Wild’

 

 

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Briar Wood Rāwāhi   (Anahera Press)

Briar Wood’s poetry collection gathers, with a wide embrace, details of travel and living, and as the lived-in world grows on the page, the poems set up all manner of conversations. This book draws upon whakapapa, love, relations, ecology, the past and the present. Its warmth and its empathy are infectious.

Briar offers poetry that is both spare in delivery and rich in connection because people and places matter. The book cover glitters white on blue – and for me that is a treat of reading within. Words shine out like little gold nuggets on the line, layering and overlapping, and never losing sight of what matters deeply to the poet.

Poetry can be a way of laying down roots and setting up home in the poem, and on these occasions, it is as though Briar sings home in to being.

 

The sea at night is blacklit,

kikorangi, kōura, topazerine, pango,

a haul of images pouring from nets,

darker than oil underground

 

from ‘Paewai o Te Moana’

 

 

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Tony Beyer’s Anchor Stone (Cold Hub Press)

Tony Beyer was such a discovery for me, I now need to track down his back list. Anchor Stone offers a distinctive voice with each poem judiciously layering detail that animates people, places and events. I am drawn to the measured pace, the slow and steady revelations that beguile and compound. The mix of economy, surprise, wit and physicality is glorious. You get linguistic agility, askew slides and a touch of daring.

No subject is redundant when it comes to poetry – think the land, friendship, trees and stones –  as Tony underlines. ‘Paths’ demonstrates such poetic fluidity, in a sequence of 100 small poems that furnish the outbreath and the inbreath of writing. It is as though each little poem walks its way into thought. Contemplation. The title suggest that these poems are miniature anchors but they are also kite-like in their imaginings and renditions and our need to attend to the physical world we inhabit.

Poetry can embrace beauty, flawed or otherwise, along with ways of belonging.

 

there is someone

everywhere in this house

living or

having lived here

their presence preserved

by a window fastening

the way a door

closes or partly closes

 

from  ‘Paths’

 

 

Each of these collections generates distinctive and diverse poetry pleasures. A big hug to the poets and big hug to all those who missed out on either list. Poetry awards can be tough times when you write, especially when exceptional books don’t make lists, long or short. But for these deserving four poets, it is time to crack open the bubbles and celebrate.

 

 

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 interviews Elizabeth Smither: ‘ I think poetry in many ways is a dare’

 

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Elizabeth Smither with Rusty and Sneaky

 

 

 

‘The Labradors have made nests already

simply by lying in the long grass

sucking the green into their bodies’

 

from ‘Lying in the long grass between two black Labradors’ in Night Horse

 

 

I recently read through the alluring stretch of Elizabeth Smither’s poetry; from Here Come the Clouds published in 1975, to the new collection, Night Horse, just released by Auckland University Press. I was drawn into melodious lines, pocket anecdotes, bright images and enviable movement. Harry Ricketts talked about the transformative quality of Elizabeth’s poems in an interview with Kathryn Ryan, and I agree. As you follow reading paths from the opening line, there is always  some form of transformation. The poetry, from debut until now, is meditative, andante, beautiful.

Elizabeth Smither has written 18 collections of poetry, five novels, five short story collections, journals, essays and reviews. She was New Zealand’s Poet Laureate (2001-3), was awarded the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry in 2008, the same year she received an Hon D. Litt from Auckland University. She has appeared widely at festivals and her work has been published in Australia, USA and UK.

To celebrate Night Horse (Auckland University Press, 2017), Elizabeth agreed to answer a few questions.

 

‘You can run as fast as Atalanta

who bowled three apples at her suitors

Double Red Delicious’

 

from ‘An apple tree for Ruby’ in Night Horse

 

What sparked your imagination as a child? Was reading a main attraction or did you also write? Did particular books endure?

Reading and writing. I liked to say long sentences to myself as I walked. The first thing I can remember writing about was my pet New Zealand White rabbit. All the usual books of the period: Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, A Girl of the Limberlost  which I found faintly terrifying. I can see these are the precursors of George Eliot and Jane Austen. As a teenager I had a crush on French writers: Colette, Gide, Mauriac, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Simenon. My father was a great novel reader and he impressed on me the sacrifices made by writers like Charles Dickens. I was scared of Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop and never got past the page on which he appeared.

 

‘The cats are out by the letterboxes

at the ends of long driveways

waiting to see how the night will shape itself.’

 

from ‘Cat night’ in Night Horse

 

Your debut poetry collection, Here Come the Clouds, appeared in 1975, your eighteenth volume, Night Horse, was published in June this year. I see the same poetic attentiveness and ability to assemble detail that both stalls and surprises the reader. Do you see any changes in the way your write poems, or what you bring to poems, over the past decades?

Elizabeth Caffin wrote of an assured voice but I am unaware of it. I think it is more a question of a philosophy: Keats being lost in the leaves of a tree; being most ourselves when we are unconscious of what the self is; not feeling we are the centre of the universe but one of its parts. It is also a balancing act: the outside world meeting the interior; the sad existing alongside the pleasing, our mixed motives and our inability to ever know more than a fraction. In compensation we have the lovely leap of the imagination. I think poetry in many ways is a dare.

 

Have any poets or books affected or boosted your poetic directions?

Wallace Stevens was a huge discovery. I used to spend a year reading a major poet. Stevens, Roethke, Berryman, Plath, Sexton, Bishop, Lowell, Synder, The Beats, Black Mountain. Now I am less of a swot and read wherever I please. And when I am tired and jaded I re-read Hercule Poirot.

 

‘More moon tonight. 14 per cent  bigger

and closer to the earth. The whole sky

seems to leap to greet a visitor.’

 

from ‘Perigee moon’ in Night Horse

 

 

In 1975, very few women poets were getting published in New Zealand. Did you feel you were writing within a community of poets? Men or women? Was it difficult to get your first book out?

Part community, part social movement: Greer, Friedan, Steinem, Kedgley, Mead. The United Women’s Convention. We were all swallowing American poets at that time, looking for a freer way forward. My first book I owe to Sam Hunt who was visiting and found a folder of poems he gave to Alister Taylor. After Alister came McIndoe and then AUP.

 

‘Fast the pulse of the music, every beat

clear as a little stream running over stones’

 

from ‘At the ballet’ in Night Horse

 

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

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

 

 

‘Down their sleeves (his jacket, her blouse)

run currents the early evening stars detect

and whose meaning is held in great museums’

 

from ‘Holding hands’ in Night Horse

 

I love that idea! What attracts you in the poetry of others?

Boldness, form (the pressure of it), language as clear as it can be, given the difficulty or otherwise of the content, not being self-centred, engaging the reader. Visceral was the quality Allen Curnow looked for when I had the temerity to leave a poem in his letterbox. ‘I poked it with a stick and it was alive.’ James Brown does it in ‘Flying Fuck’ (‘The Spinoff, June 9, 2017); Stephen Romer in some lines about cleaning a barn (‘Carcanet Eletter: Set Thy Love in Order)

            ‘Perhaps in our cool northern air

you rose some echelons

being lighter, the barn empty’

 

while Carol Ann Duffy excoriates Theresa May with lines that reach back to the roots of poetry:

‘The furious young

ran towards her through fields of wheat.’

 

 

‘Morals that are so pure they blaze

the sunlight back into the air’

 

from ‘A landscape of shining of leaves’ in Night Horse

 

Janet Frame worked hard to get the rhythm right in her poems and she wasn’t always satisfied (ah, the rogue self-doubt! I adore her musical effects). I find you are able to slow down the pace of your poems so that I linger as reader upon an image, a word, an anecdote, a side-thought to see what surfaces. Does this reflect your process as a writer?

I think, since I write in longhand, it may echo the pauses during composition.

 

Do you, like Janet and countless other poets, have poetry anxieties?

Just the big anxiety, the generalised one. To be better, to get closer, to go deeper, knowing that a rigorous equation awaits. I particularly felt this in ballet: any advance, even within the safety of a spotlight, opened a further and equivalent unknown. My other anxiety is that, having embarked on a poem at speed and decided on a stanza form, the stanzas won’t add up when I have finished.

 

‘Eggs in foil were hidden everywhere

until the taste of sweetness palled.

She sits in an armchair with her bear’

 

from ‘Ruby and fruit’ in Night Horse

 

Your poetry does not slip into a self-confession or grant a window on your most private life, yet it acts as an autobiographical record of your relations with the world, people, animals and objects. How do you see the relationship between autobiography and your poems?

Some of the recent autobiographical poems remind me a little of Elgar’s ‘Enigma Variations’. Ruminating portraits of friends or events illustrating a friend. The ‘Enigma Variations’ are tender but well-defined, different in tone. Autobiography, to me, has many hazards. We all excuse ourselves and even the most honest and analytic among us favour some perspectives over others. I feel confident that something of ourselves always gets in and reveals more than we can imagine. ‘Am I in this poem?’ has never worried me. I know I am.

 

Are there taboo areas?

No, never. It’s just a case of what you can handle.

 

 

‘It was all those unseen moments we do not see

the best of a friend, the best of a mother

competent and gracious in her solitude’

 

from ‘My mother’s house’ in Night Horse

 

‘Later you’ll scrub individual stains

from the white field: the rim of someone’s glass

down which a red droplet ran, a smear

of eggy quiche, a buttered crumb.’

 

from ‘The tablecloth’ in Night Horse

 

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

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

 

‘Next morning she was called again

to undo the work of her marvellous wrists.

“Miss Bowerman, can you let out the water?”‘

 

from ‘Miss Bowerman and the hot water bottles’ in Night Horse

 

There is no formula for an ending but I often get an intake of breath, a tiny heart skip when I read your poems. What do you like endings to do?

The endings I like best have some extravagance in them, like the ending of ‘Cat Night’ where the road which still retains the day’s warmth turns into carriages and cocottes on the Champs-Elysées.

 

‘Let the street lights mark

the great promenade down which love will come

like black carriages on the Champs-Elysées.’

 

There’s a big difference between the size of a cat and a carriage but the emotion is the same.

 

 

Which New Zealand poets have you read in the past year or so that have struck or stuck?

Diana Bridge, Claire Orchard, John Dennison, yourself in New York, Michael Harlow, Geoff Cochrane and all the laureates.

 

Or from elsewhere?

Lots of Australians. I’ve just read Rosemary Dobson’s Collected Poems.

 

Do you read widely in other genres?

Yes, I particularly like hybrid forms – travelogues that turn into miniature poetry collections, diaries, memoirs that admit to no rules as if they understand the psychology of the reader who is liable to become bored, and also the limits of being an author. My main love remains the novel, followed closely by the short story and the detective story.

 

I was once asked to pick a single New Zealand poem I love to talk about on Summer Noelle. What poem would you pick?

Since Allen Curnow: Simply by Sailing in a New Direction, a biography by Terry Sturm, edited by Linda Cassells and Allen Curnow: Collected Poems, edited by Elizabeth Caffin and Terry Sturm are being published by AUP later this year, and since our pohutukawa are threatened by myrtle rust, I would pick ‘Spectacular Blossom’.

 

‘ – Can anyone choose

And call it beauty? – The victims

Are always beautiful.’

 

 

 

Auckland University Press Night Horse page and author page

Booksellers review by Emma Shi

Radio NZ National review by Harry Ricketts with Kathryn Ryan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elizabeth Smither’s Auckland launch

Auckland University Press and The Women’s Bookshop
warmly invite you to the launch of Night Horse

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Please join us in celebrating the launch of Elizabeth Smither’s new poetry collection, Night Horse.

6.00 pm, Tuesday 20 June 2017
The Women’s Bookshop
105 Ponsonby Road
Auckland

 

Please RSVP by 18 June.
Email books@womensbookshop.co.nz or phone (09) 3764399

Auckland University Press