It is October in Dunedin.
Rhododendrons fan out flamenco skirts;
magnolias, magnanimous with their moon-cool glow,
light the path south so the sun stirs us early;
although the river, the creek boulders,
the city’s cinched green belt, still hold the cold
like an ice store’s packed down snow.
The days shiver with filaments
of ua kōwhai: soft rain that dampens paths,
shakes loose carpets of white stamens, yellow flowers
bruised and trodden like flimsy, foil cornets.
School holidays send out falling, silvery arcs
of children’s sky-flung laughter; our bodies drink it in
as if love’s parched ground sore needs this watering.
Yet the radio stays hunched in the kitchen corner,
hard grey clot in the light’s fine arteries
muttering its tense bulletins
and as if they sense this late spring still harbours
frost’s white wreck, or some despotic harm abroad
seeps too near, our sons more than anything want
their old games: secret codes, invisible ink, velvet cloaks;
hide ’n’ seek in public gardens’ clefts and coves—
and again, again, can we tell them again
the chapters of how they first appeared
in the long, blurred myths we are entangled in;
kingfisher-blue wells of their eyes a-gleam
as if they know how much all adults withhold.
They want us to go back deeper, to when
we both were star-spill, sea-flume, spirits,
only belatedly woman, man, climbing up from a shore
feathered in sand black and soft as ash,
driven by some gravid magnetism towards each other
in case we changed to birds, lizards, trees,
or back to sea-salt borne by wind;
an urge clear as hunger coursing the cells’ deep helix
to complete this alteration, half bury and re-germinate
the fleet molecules of self, so we could run our mortal hands
the right, kind way along the children’s plush skins,
learn, pulse on pulse, their true, human names.
Yes, we must go back and back; as if to swear
even to this dread epoch’s wild, original innocence.
Emma Neale received the inaugural NZSA/Janet Frame Memorial Award, the Kathleen Grattan Award for an unpublished poetry manuscript (The Truth Garden), the University of Otago Burns Fellowship and the NZSA/Beatson Fellowship. Her poetry has been shortlisted for the Sarah Broom Poetry Award and the Bridport Poetry Prize, and her poetry collection, Tender Machines, was long-listed in the 2016 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. Her novel, Billy Bird, was short-listed for the Acorn Prize in the 2017 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards and long-listed for the International Dublin Literary Award. She is the current editor of Landfall.
I have a swag of poetry books from 2017 that I have not yet got to – but over the next months I am flagging them through a suite of Summer Postcards.
How important is it that our poetry books get reviewed?
Poetry books get so little attention in the media these days. NZ Books still offers a handful of poetry reviews. Not sure about Takahe. There is Landfall-on-line steered by poet Emma Neale and the occasional attention in print media (Siobhan Harvey in The Herald). For members there is the quarterly NZ Poetry Society Review. There are a few reviews at The Spin Off or in The Listener. Poetry (USA) recently did a NZ cluster and you find some in the Poetry New Zealand Annual. Pantograph Punch has supported poetry, but until they can pay reviewers a decent amount, they are no longer doing reviews.
From The Pantograph Editors:
The Hardest Call
Because of these changes, we’ve made the difficult decision to hit pause on publishing reviews. It’s been one of the toughest decisions we’ve made.
During the existential crisis of 2017 (refer above) we came to the somewhat crushing realisation that in underpaying our writers (sometimes as low as $50 a review), we were contributing to a structure that systematically devalues those writers and privileges voices who can afford to write for low pay. In trying to support critical culture, we were simultaneously contributing to its decay.
It’s one of the hardest decisions because it feels so contradictory: we’re stopping doing one of the exact things we believe in the most.
We strongly believe in critical dialogue, and one of our areas of focus for 2018 is finding a way to bring reviewing back. We’re committed to creating a sustainable pathway for future critics, so one of the things we’ll be doing is creating a fund which will be dedicated to commissioning reviews. Our commitment is to be able to pay reviewers a minimum of $300 per review, and if you feel as strongly about this as we do, we invite you to donate to that fund here.
You can read the full piece and contribute to the funding call here. They favour posting less (one a week) and building a climate of critical dialogue. This is exciting news. Bravo PP!
We are hungry for critical forums. Joan Fleming recently started a vital discussion on reviewing with her Facebook friends:
The Question of Claws
As I step into a new role at Cordite Poetry Review – that of NZ Commissioning Editor – I have been troubling my head about how critical to be of New Zealand poetry books that strike me as undeveloped. Particularly when I’ve admired a writer’s poems in journals, and am frustrated by their book; or am struck by the first few stunning poems of a collection, which then disappointingly levels out. It is tough to be honest in a poetry culture that is so intimately small. Often in our poetry reviewing, there is gentleness where I want rigour, and there is faint praise where I want productive disagreement. We are overly careful because we are reviewing friends and colleagues. We don’t want to offend. It is tricky. Do aesthetic battles push writers to better writing, or ought we to only support and encourage each other, trusting that we are all already pushing ourselves?
On the one hand, the stakes are so low: there is no money, there is no fame (except for the occasional meteoric anomaly!), and poetry is hardly a career. On the other hand, the stakes are painfully high. We are talking about our raw-edged souls on the page here. In a Facebook thread, I asked the question (provocatively worded, I suppose): “Should we be showing our claws more often?” For claws, read: Do I dare to write a thoughtful yet unfavourable review? I hope to think there is nothing in me that wants to tear down other writers because of agendas, grudges, or jealousies – but we all have our lenses and leanings, our sometimes-unconscious preferences and biases.
I, myself, am trying to thicken up my own dreadfully thin skin. A solution to this bind (and this is not an original thought – I think Ellie Catton suggested this way back) is to foster more trans-Tasman reviewing: New Zealand poets reviewing Australians, and Australians reviewing New Zealand books. At Cordite, we’re doing a little of this. We have lots of NZ books on our review list. I wonder if a New Zealand publication might take up this challenge? (Pantograph Punch: I’m looking at you!)
Last week I posted a piece on my Poetry-Shelf aims to see if it was worth keeping up the blog. Is it relevant? Does it matter that I do this? I want to post poems and do reviews, interviews, news, events, musings on local and international poetry. And at times involve other people (as I have done), but in the current drive for decent payment, how can this possibly work?
I strongly believe we need a go-to-place for NZ poetry that crosses borders of all kinds. I like the idea of a mix of reviews (long and short) so that a decent number of published books catch your attention. Ha! so there is a new James Brown out! Or Joan Fleming is reading from a new book at TimeOut (if only!).
To have a long review of your book where the reviewer has paid utmost attention is ideal. But to have no reviews and feel like your book has drifted into the ether is heartbreaking.
I posted this on Joan’s Facebook feed:
I review books on my blog that I love. My life is too short to absorb the toxic fallout of writing about books that I don’t love. I aim to celebrate and explore what a book of poetry might do.
I so often read negative reviews that incense me because the writers seems straitjacketed by a narrow reading and clear bias (I don’t like experimental poetry but here I am reviewing it kinda thing!). Or poets and reviewers who insist there are certain things a poem must do, and if it doesn’t, then it is a failure.
I am not afraid to put my claws out when an important book warrants it – as with the AUP literary omnibus. That attracted utter venom towards me on social media and affected me in all kinds of other ways – but I would still do it. My doctoral thesis (Italian) challenged the way the academy is driven to deconstruct and tear apart, rather than forge connections and produce different intellectual models of thought.
That said, in a world that continues to privilege the status of white men, we still need claws to unpick the ideas that shape us and that we so easily become immune to and accept.
Ellie Catton once used the word kindness in talking to students about writing. Our PM has used the word in view of governing a nation. I want to review out of kindness. That doesn’t mean I will say things I don’t mean when I talk about your poetry. It doesn’t mean I only say good things. It means I pay attention to the fact a human being has written it. It means I work hard to find path ways through a book that might present itself with shuttered windows on foreign pathways on a first reading.
Sometimes the bridge between the reader and a book fails. When I can’t cross that bridge, I am going to share a book where I can.
I believe we can have critical discussions and write out of state of kindness.
This may not be the majority point of view, but it is my view. I have almost finished a book that rescues some of the women from the past who have been misread, unread, muted and sidelined by men with their claws out because in their view the women were not writing poetry.
We, as women poets, have come a long way since our banishment to the shadows, but things are still not ideal. So I will continue to be part of the small (and it is SO very small) group of writers who go public on what they love (outside institutions, financial reward and so on, so beholden to nobody) because I want you (in the widest reach a pronoun is capable of) to fall in love with poetry and what a poem can do.
As I said at the Poetry & Essay conference in Wellington in December this is a matter of JOY!
Emma Neale has been appointed as the new editor of Landfall, published by Otago University Press.
Neale, who lives in Dunedin, has published six novels and five poetry collections, and edited several anthologies.
She is a former Robert Burns fellow (2012) and has received numerous awards and grants for her writing including the Janet Frame/NZSA Memorial Prize for Literature (2008), the University of Otago/Sir James Wallace Pah Residency (2014), and she was Philip and Diane Beatson/NZSA Writing Fellow in 2015.
Neale was awarded the Kathleen Grattan Award for 2011 for her poetry collection The Truth Garden, and was a finalist for the Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards 2017 for her novel Billy Bird.
She has extensive experience as a literary editor and reviewer, and holds a PhD in New Zealand Literature from University College London (UK).
In making the announcement, Otago University Press publisher Rachel Scott says the role of Landfall editor is one that is at the heart of New Zealand arts and literature.
“Otago University Press is pleased to entrust this position to a writer and editor of such distinction and talent.”
Landfall is New Zealand’s foremost and longest-running arts and literary journal. Published biannually, it showcases new fiction and poetry, as well as biographical and critical essays, cultural commentary and visual arts.
Landfall was founded in 1947 by the Dunedin writer, critic and arts patron Charles Brasch.
Retiring editor David Eggleton was editor between 2009 and 2017 (from issues 218 to 234), one of the longest tenures of any Landfall editor. An award-winning poet and critic, Eggleton was recently awarded a Fulbright-Creative New Zealand Pacific Writers’ Residency.
Fourteen Daydreams through Spanish Translation
The wind rotates in the sky’s blue socket.
I wish Ryan would love me.
Okay, notice me. Look at me, even.
But not when I’m smiling with my braces showing.
‘Turn over your tests. You may start.’
Ode to Sunday.
Oh yellow sun, lonely armadillo,
cancel your gut’s groans
with a spade
under the sober trucks
a zap of cheese.
What? Starving. Skipped breakfast. Want cheekbones though.
My sandwiches cat-nap in my lunch box
all fat white stomachy with family love
big and bricky as awful school shoes.
In the cities
the dearness, the world,
agonise us, peg us
in the egg yolks
of the pulverised chicken.
That can’t be right
but the clock’s got hysterics, the minutes
are spilling down its face, gotta crack on with it …
We are suddenly gulping gold
with piety pie
and cactus spines
with hot stones
and the mouth
Rotorua. Smelly eggy air. We went there.
Dad was relaxed for once. Funny that it stunk.
More than all the gifts:
it has salt, the throat, the teeth,
the lips and the language
Ryan hardly speaks, but I’ve seen the soft hairs
on his upper lip and I haven’t minded them at all,
so do I smile too wide? Feelings coated all over me
in oily sheen? Do I clip my hair too tight?
Is it my ugly yellow school bag that cries out, gormless?
I know it is. I’m so ashamed. And of how near my breasts
the gap between my shirt-buttons pouches
on plump skin white as baby scorpions.
But Ryan, he’s café au lait calm,
he’s a cool bronze casting
We want to drink cataracts
the blue night, the poles
and then, crucifying the sky,
the coldest of all the planets,
the round, the supreme,
the heavenly sanity.
Oh what? Change the title, quick! ‘Ode to Sanity’?
It is the fruit of the tree of salt.
It is the ballerina of green truth.
The ballerina of green truth!
Ryan — sanity is the ballerina of green truth.
Do you like that, would you agree?
I’ve heard your mother is very strict
she hasn’t been well, people say she isn’t coping
and I don’t really know what that means.
Could I help, like, somehow? With the dishes?
Is it hard to be so much older than your brother?
You shouldn’t be embarrassed; it makes you seem wiser,
the way you walk him in his carriage, your face so I don’t know,
iron of jawbone, so soccer-practice-serious,
looking like science somehow,
upright, serious science. But your baby brother:
that you have to be another father to him,
and your mother doesn’t like you to be with girls…
If I were thinner, if I were a dancer,
would you fall at my feet so I could laugh,
flick back my hair like some Follyfoot filly,
(‘Grow, grow the Lightening tree …’)
then say, Ryan, no! Stand up! Please don’t!
So you could say, ‘You are even worth asphalt scrape-holes
on my school uniform knees…’
It is the dry universe
all of a sudden stained
by this fresh heaven
Yes, yes, yes, Ryan when I see you,
it is the dry universe
all of a sudden stained
by this fresh heaven
Quiet water coffin
of the fruit stall
(What? That’s a compliment?
I thought they said this poet was romantic.
If only Ryan would say,
my golden colt, my blazing girl,
my ballerina of the heart, my zap of cheese
it doesn’t matter that you are fat,
you are not fat to me ….)
earthly bistro of depth, moon.
Oh pure one
in your abundance
of undressed rubies.
Well that’s just rude.
blah, skip, skip, skip.
If I could see his soul … pink, glowy,
like when the sun shone through his ears
yesterday at the bus stop
and it wasn’t even geeky somehow, it was ….
We divide you in the soft salt
like a mini mountain
of splendid food
Oh crap, is this about FOOD?
Skip skip skip
blah blah blah
we haven’t even been given half this vocabulary
this test SUCKS.
Oh hell, the bell! I can’t revise, that was way too fast.
‘Papers to the front. Pack your bags.’
Oh my GOD my skirt’s side zip’s undone. Please don’t tell me Ryan saw that today. Shit-shit. He would have. It’s been undone all day. You can see the gap between where my shirt tucks in and — God my school regulation underwear. I hate my parents for buying them. I am going to pass out from shame. That’s why he looked away and hardly spoke. Thinks he’s so superior. I’m giving up boys forever. My big fat watermelon hips. My big fat watermelon belly. I’m skipping lunch. I’m throwing myself into my schoolwork from now on. Oh yellow sun. Oh lonely armadillo.ª
ª Fourteen is struggling with ‘Oda a la Sandía’ (‘Ode to the Watermelon’) by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. The version set for the test (‘No dictionaries allowed. You have forty-five minutes, starting from now’) is reprinted in The FSG Book of Twentieth Century Latin American Poetry, edited by Ilan Stavans. The translation here is entirely her own.
© Emma Neale
Author note: I’ve been working and reworking this adolesecent girl’s monologue for a couple of years. I’ve submitted it elsewhere once or twice, immediately sticking my fingers in my ears as if waiting for an explosion (of distaste or mockery, etc.). As the two modes it uses are quite far apart – the teenager speaker’s bad translation, and her internal thoughts – it stretches the container of the poem so far it might split. Perhaps that feeling of excess is okay, though, for an adolescent voice. Young people can be so receptive, sensitive, energetic, inventive, critical, vulnerable, wise and yet also wildly unknowing, there’s a symphonic orchestra of emotions competing on any ordinary day during these years, it seems to me. And each emotion is such an intensely coloured version of itself, what single poem could contain them all, even if it limited itself to one class test, on one day?
Emma Neale‘s most recent poetry collection, Tender Machines, was long-listed in the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards 2016 and her latest novel, Billy Bird, was short-listed for the Acorn Prize at the same awards in 2017. She works as a freelance editor.
From Paula: For Poetry Shelf’s Winter Season, I invited 12 poets to pick one of their own poems that marks a shift in direction, that is outside the usual tracks of their poetry, that moves out of character, that nudges comfort zones of writing. It might be subject matter, style, form, approach, tone, effect, motivation, borrowings, revelation, invention, experimentation, exclusions, inclusions, melody …. anything!