Tag Archives: fleur adcock

Poetry Shelf noticeboard: my giveaway copy of Fleur Adcock’s magnificent Collected Poems

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          Victoria University Press, 2019

 

Thanks everyone who named one of their favourite Fleur Adcock poems and wrote a sentence saying why.

I put all the names in the hat and pulled out Tania Roxborogh! She picked ‘Advice to a Discarded Lover’ but also had a cool anecdote on the most widely picked poem, ‘For a Five year Old’

Congratulations to Fleur – who will be receiving the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry tomorrow.

 

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Poetry Shelf celebrates Fleur Adcock: Winner of 2019 Prime Minister’s Award for Literature Achievement in Poetry

To celebrate the terrific news that Fleur Adcock will receive the Prime Minster’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry, I am re-posting the interview we did earlier in the year. It was such a pleasure doing this – as it was reading my way through Fleur’s poetry backlist for Wild Honey. A research highlight!

In celebration I will give a copy of Fleur’s magnificent Collected Poems (VUP, 2019) to one reader who names a poem they love by her – and in one sentence says why (either on Twitter, Facebook or as a comment on this post. NZ readers only sorry!

Brava Fleur!

 

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Fleur Adcock, Collected Poems, Victoria University Press, 2019

 

No; I can’t get it to knit. Scrunch!

Somewhere on the timeline between

the historical Eva whose

disappointments and retreating

daydreams I so tenderly probe

and our childhood’s ‘Grandma Adcock’

comes a fracture: Sam’s young lady,

eager emigrant, pioneer,

snaps into the dumpy figure

telling me off, when I was three,

for proving, at the tea-table,

I could put my toes in my mouth.

 

from ‘Reconstituting  Eva’ (originally published in The Land Ballot, 2014)

 

 

One of the many joys in researching and writing Wild Honey was reading Fleur Adcock’s poetry books – from The Eye of the Hurricane (1964) to Hoard (2017). Since then Victoria University Press has published Fleur’s Collected Poems. It is a sumptuous, substantial tribute to a much loved poet: the hardback book is beautifully designed, keenly edited and a perfect way to enjoy the scope of her poetry.

Born in New Zealand in 1934, Fleur has spent most of her writing life in Britain; she is an editor, a translator and above all a poet. She has published 18 collections of poems including the latest book along with several other Selected Poems. She edited The Oxford Book of Contemporary New Zealand Poetry (1982); The Faber Book of Twentieth-Century Women’s Poetry (1987); The Oxford Book of Creatures, with Jacqueline Simms (1995).  Her multiple awards include the Jessie Mackay Prize in 1968 and 1972, the Buckland Award in 1968 and 1979, and a New Zealand Book Award in 1984. She received an OBE in 1986, the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 2006 and was made a CNZM for services to literature in 2008.

The effects of Fleur’s poetry are wide ranging; she writes from a sustained history of reading and inquiry, from personal experience and sharp observation, from measured craft to conversational tones. Her poetry can be poignant, witty, serious, physical, abstract, humane. She assembles family and she looks back at New Zealand as she widens the definition of home.

To celebrate the arrival of Collected Poems we embarked on a slow email conversation.

 

At school I used to read, mostly,

and hide in the shed at dinnertime,

writing poems in my notebook.

‘Little fairies dancing,’ I wrote,

and ‘Peter and I, we watch the birds fly,

high in the sky, in the evening’.

 

from ‘Outwood’ (originally published in The Incident Book, Oxford University Press, 1986)

 

 

Paula: Can you paint a small snapshot of yourself as a young girl? Did books and writing feature?

Fleur:  From the age of six I was always a passionate reader, somewhat to the annoyance of my mother as the years went by. One of my favourite childhood photographs of myself (there were very few, because photographic films were almost unobtainable during the war) is of me lying on my stomach on the grass in our garden when I was eight or nine, reading a book. When I was nearly seven I was given a book called Jerry of St Winifred’s, about a girl who wanted to be a vet and who when trying to rescue a puppy from a rabbit hole accidentally discovered an ancient manuscript. This was when Marilyn and I were living in the country, as unofficial evacuees on the farm of our father’s cousins George and Eva Carter. Auntie Eva told me reading was bad for the eyesight, and restricted me to one chapter a day. If she had wanted to encourage me this would have been the best thing she could have done – in these days of reluctant readers, parents are told that if reading were forbidden more children would want to do it. In my case there was absolutely no need.

At that time we were away from our parents, and therefore writing letters and little stories for them, or at least I was – Marilyn was still at the stage of sending pictures, but it was all useful practice in communication.

The following year, 1940, we were living in Salfords, Surrey, with our mother, just across the road from the small tin-roofed public library. I used to go and browse in it alone, to borrow books. Titles I remember are Fairies and Chimneys, by Rose Fyleman, and Tales of Sir Benjamin Bulbous, Bart, which involved naiads, water sprites, etc. You will observe a fairy theme.

In what seems no time at all we were settled in a house of our own and I was reading whatever I could lay my hands on: library books, books from school, occasional books I was given as presents. Because of the wartime paper shortage these were in rather short supply. I liked adventure stories: Dr Doolittle, books by Arthur Ransome, Robert Louis Stevenson, and inevitably Enid Blyton. When I was 10 my mother lent me her copy of Gone with the Wind, and the following year gave me a rather beautiful ex-library copy of  Pride and Prejudice, which I read over and over again and still treasure. 

I was also writing poems. When I was seven, at Outwood School in the Surrey countryside, I had a little notebook in which I wrote my compositions at lunchtimes. I was there for only three months, from early June to early September 1941, and had no friends. Marilyn was away for the first few weeks, with whooping cough. Poetry was my refuge.

 

(…) I was impatient

for Jerry of St Winifred’s

my Sunday School prize, my first real book

that wasn’t babyish with pictures –

 

to curl up with it in the armchair

beside the range, for my evening ration:

‘Only a chapter a day,’ said Auntie.

‘Too much reading’s bad for your eyes.’

 

I stuck my tongue out (not at her –

in a trance of concentration), tasting

the thrilling syllables: ‘veterinary

surgeon’, ‘papyrus’, ‘manuscript’.

 

from ‘Tongue Sandwiches’ (originally published in Looking Back, Oxford University Press, 1997)

 

At my next school, St John’s, I won a gold star (see my poem ‘The Pilgrim Fathers’, and also the previous one, ‘Tongue Sandwiches’, re the earlier experience). I graduated to a slightly larger notebook and my subject matter expanded slightly, although one of my principal influences was still Enid Blyton – our mother thought her little magazine “Sunny Stories” was suitable reading matter for children, rather than the comics we swapped with our friends from school. I also liked ballads and melodrama. There were three more schools before the end of the war. At one we studied ‘The Lady of Shalott’: just my cup of tea, with its Tennysonian sound-effects and melancholy ending.

When I was 13 we went back to New Zealand, and I began writing nostalgic poems about such topics as “Spring in a Surrey wood”. The poems were rather fewer in my teens; some of them were carefully made, with rhymes and proper scansion, suitable for the school magazine, in which I won prizes for ‘The Bay’ and a poem about a seagull. My more private poems came under the influence of TS Eliot, whose work we studied when I was 15. World-weary disillusionment set in, together with free verse; I’ve just found one that ends with the two lines: “But what the hell does it matter? / Let’s go out and shoot ourselves.” The Waste Land has a lot to answer for.

But I’m afraid this is not a small snapshot but a sprawling album! I’ll stop.

 

Paula: I got goose bumps picturing the power of words and books for the young child making her way from girlhood to adolescence. Has poetry writing always been a refuge for you? Or has it developed other functions?

Fleur: Writing poetry has many functions for me; more than I can identify. It’s art, it’s therapy, companionship, a challenge, an indicator of health – I’ve always been aware that when I’m healthy I’m writing, and when I’m writing I’m healthy. It’s that much despised thing self-expression, as resorted to by generations of teenagers. It’s also, to some extent, my bread and butter. When I had a proper job, as a librarian in the civil service, time to write poetry was the unattainable ideal. Now that I’m retired I have a small pension from that ‘proper job’, but for a long time while I was freelance most of the work I did, in the form of poetry readings, broadcasting, book reviewing, translating, teaching on writing courses, going to festivals, writing libretti, etc, arose out of the fact that I wrote poetry. There’s less of that now – you don’t get quite so many commissions in your 80s – but still a certain amount. And I’m still writing the poems.

Poetry also has a social function. Some 18th century poets used to call their books ‘Poems upon Several Occasions’. I’ve written a number of those, too: poems for other people, for specific occasions or on topics that I hope they will be able to identify with. My poem ‘The Chiffonier’ about a particular habit of my mother’s (marking out special items for her children to inherit, long before she died) turned out to be common to a whole troop of mothers, I was pleased to learn from fan letters. I write a number of family poems: for birthdays, for Greg’s wedding to Angie, for the birth of my great-grandson Seth (a rare male among my hosts of female descendants), also elegies – for my parents and various ancestors, and one for Alistair that I managed to produce in time for Marilyn to read it at his funeral. There are elegies for friends, too, and increasing numbers of laments for doomed or extinct inhabitants of the natural world: birds, butterflies, insects of all kinds (my book Glass Wings contains examples), bats… It would be depressing to go on.

 

But now I see you in your Indian skirt

and casual cornflower-blue linen shirt

in the garden, under your feijoa tree,

looking about as old or as young as me.

Dear little Mother! Naturally I’m glad

you found a piece of furniture that had

happy associations with your youth;

and yes, I do admire it – that’s the truth:

its polished wood and touch of Art Nouveau

appeal to me. But surely you must know

I value this or any other treasure

of yours chiefly because it gives you pleasure.

I have to write this now, while you’re still here:

I want my mother, not her chiffonier.

 

from ‘The Chiffonier’ (originally published in The Incident Book, Oxford University Press, 1986)

 

Art: one of the enormous satisfactions of writing is constructing a beautiful or at least memorable and satisfying artefact. I believe that one of the essential elements of being human is wanting to create some kind of art. I remember having an argument with a friend about this, or perhaps just a misunderstanding – when I say “art” I include large areas of human creative endeavour such as gardening, growing plants, making clothes, furniture, jewellery, or anything that gives satisfaction to its creator. Some people (I’m not among them) find artistic pleasure in cooking. When my grandchildren Cait and Ella were small they spent hours of ingenuity constructing miniature items of furniture for their Sylvanian toys out of scraps of cardboard, Sellotape, fabric or whatever was around; that was art. So, I suppose, were the elaborate cakes their mother made for their birthdays; I remember one in the form of a swimming pool with blue jelly for water. For me the primary art-form is poetry. Very few things make me happier than finishing a poem I’ve been struggling with.

 

Paula: I love the way poetry emerges from the nooks and crannies of your life and thinking, the way it feeds and spurs. Your Collected Poems demonstrates this so clearly. Rereading the first two collections – The Eye of the Hurricane (1964) and Tigers (1967) – I am reminded how these early poems have travelled so well across the decades. Take the much-loved and anthologised ‘For a Five-Year-Old’ for example.  What were your early preoccupations as a poet in view of both style and subject matter?

 

I see, then, that a kind of faith prevails:

your gentleness is moulded still by words

from me, who have trapped mice and shot wild birds,

from me, who drowned your kittens, who betrayed

your closest relatives, and who purveyed

the harshest kind of truth to many another.

But that is how things are: I am your mother,

and we are kind to snails.

 

from ‘For a Five-Year-old’ (originally published in The Eye of the Hurricane, AW Reed, 1964 and then in  Tigers, Oxford University Press, 1967)

 

Fleur: I don’t think I can answer this in any meaningful way. I could look back through the early collections to see what I was writing about, but so could anyone; it’s not the same as being inside my feelings at the time, which I find it impossible to recall. I wasn’t setting out with any aim or objective; I just wrote about whatever topics suggested themselves, and my chief emotion was “Oh, good, I’m writing a poem!”

One of my first preoccupations, even as an adolescent, was my ‘exile’ from England. I wrote about this in my early teens, and also in the poem I called ‘The Lover’, in which I imagined a male persona trying to adapt to living in a new country. This ridiculous enterprise naturally misfired: everybody thought I was writing about Alistair. Serves me right, for not having had the confidence to write as a female.

Looking at The Eye of the Hurricane, I see that a number of the poems were about relationships with various men, one in particular – a natural preoccupation of a person in her 20s. One person they were definitely not about is Alistair. I was very surprised, in later years, to find that some people imagined he was the character represented in such poems as ‘Knifeplay’, when he was not at all like that.  Most of those poems were written in the nearly five years between my divorce from him and my marriage to Barry Crump in 1962. I never wrote about Alistair while I was married to him. Most of my very few poems about him were written while he was dying or after his death in 2009 – my elegy for him was modelled stylistically on his famous Elegy in Mine eyes dazzle.  My own early “battle of the sexes” poems (to use a Baxter phrase) were about my then current preoccupations. By 1959, Alistair was history.

As for the style, in those days I wrote in traditional verse forms, often rhymed, because it was easier to be convinced that I’d got a poem right if the rhymes and metre were correct. Free verse is far more difficult to judge (I don’t mean blank verse – unrhymed iambic pentameter, as in Shakespeare’s plays – which is another kettle of fish. I certainly used that from time to time.)

When it came to my next collection, Tigers, a new subject presented itself: culture shock. I was suddenly living in a wider society, in England, exposed to the harsh realities outside insular little cosy New Zealand. ‘Regression’ is a reflection of my new political anxieties, although I had also written about the nuclear threat earlier, in NZ. We were all convinced the world could end at any time, as seemed quite likely. But on the whole I rather cringe to open these two earliest collections. I think of what Katherine Mansfield wrote to JMM when he urged her to allow In a German Pension to be reissued: “It is far too immature, and I don’t even acknowledge it today. I mean I don’t ‘hold’ by it. I can’t go foisting that kind of stuff on the public” (quoted in his introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition).

 

All the flowers have gone back into the ground.

We fell on them, and they did not lie

crushed and crumpled, waiting to die

on the earth’s surface. (..)

 

from ‘Regression’ (originally published in Tigers, Oxford University Press, 1967)

 

Paula: You touch upon the way autobiography can both corrupt and enhance a reader’s pathways through a poem and the danger of making assumptions about both the speaker and subject of a poem. Some things in a poem stay secret and some are exquisitely open.  As I read my way through your collections I relish the shifting tones, sharpness, admissions, contemplations. The way poems are both oblique and transparent. Two collections have particularly affected me, but before sharing these, are there one or two books that have been especially important in the making and published result?

Fleur: Once again, impossible to answer. For quite some time The Incident Book gave me particular pleasure to look back on, but inevitably it was overtaken by others.  Every published collection that appears between covers and looks like a complete and separate entity is in fact just a bundle of individual poems. When my youngest granddaughter saw the size of my Collected Poems in New Zealand, she said to her father, “Wow! How could she write so many poems?” The answer is, one at a time. Each new poem is a world in itself, something to plunge into and be absorbed by for as long as the writing of it lasts. Only much later does it become part of a published book, if I decide to include it in one. Not every poem is chosen.

 

21

The fountain in her heart informs her

she needn’t try to sleep tonight –

rush, gush: the sleep-extinguisher

frothing in her chest like a dishwasher.

 

She sits at the window with a blanket

to track the turning stars. A comet

might add some point. The moon ignores her;

but dawn may come. She’d settle for that.

 

from ‘Meeting the Comet’ (originally published in Time-Zones, Oxford University Press, 1991)

 

My feelings about the various collections tend to be influenced by my memories of the circumstances and places in which they were written. For example, Time-Zones received its title from the travelling I was doing during that time I was working on it. It contains poems from my three months in Australia as writer in residence at the University of Adelaide in 1984, including the two long sequences at the end, ‘Mrs Fraser’s Frenzy’ (written for music, originally for Gillian Whitehead, but she decided it didn’t suit the commission she had in mind and it was subsequently set by the English composer George Newson instead), and ‘Meeting the Comet’, which I wrote in bits and pieces during my journey to and from the southern hemisphere, as a way of staying sane and having something to work on while I was in transition from one place to another. (The girl in the poem is fictional, but was originally inspired by the child of friends in Newcastle, who had the same disability although not the same history as the one in the poem.) The collection also includes poems about Adelaide, where I was living for a time, and Romania, which I had visited and where I had made good friends and had my eyes opened to a new political landscape. Altogether a bit of a ragbag – I was crossing time zones as the poems came to me.

How complicated these things are to explain.

Then there was Looking Back, which was short-listed for the T.S. Eliot prize in 1997. It gave me great pleasure to write, or at least the poems about my ancestors did, because of my obsession with genealogy, but shortly afterwards, oddly enough, I lost interest in writing poems for some years, and devoted myself to the ancestors in a big way.

Dragon Talk was important, by virtue of the fact that it marked my return to writing poetry after a gap of several years. However, I certainly wouldn’t call it my best collection; it was a necessary one, to get the wheels turning again, but afterwards I moved on in different directions.

The only book I actually conceived and embarked on as a single entity, in the way you might embark on a novel, was The Land Ballot. I wrote three or four poems about my father’s childhood, and then it dawned on me that  I might be able to produce enough for a book. I did enormous amounts of research for this, over a period of two years, 2012-2013, building up a picture of this remote community and its inhabitants, and was totally immersed in it. Two of the happiest years of my life as a writer. On the other hand, one of the happiest years of my life as a person was 1977-8 (September-June), living in the Lake District as writer in residence at Charlotte Mason College in Ambleside, surrounded by amazing scenery, with time to walk and explore and make discoveries, as well as making a quantity of new friends and spending more time than usual with many of the old ones: if you live in a famously beautiful place and have a spare bedroom you suddenly become very popular. But the poems that emerged from this time are scattered between more than one published collection.

 

As there was only one lamp

they had to spend the winter evenings

at the table, close enough to share

its kerosene – perfumed radiance –

 

his mother sewing, and he

reading aloud to her the books

he borrowed from Mr Honoré

or the Daysh boys on the next farm

 

from ‘Evenings with Mother’ (originally published in The Land Ballot, Bloodaxe Books and VUP, 2014)

 

Paula: I love the way a poem becomes a miniature absorbing world for both reader and writer, and the way the context of its making is important for the poet. Reading a book is akin to listening to a symphony; you absorb the composition as a whole with certain notes and melodies standing out. I also loved The Incident Book with its fertile movement, physical beacons and emotional underlay. I keep going back to ‘The Chiffonier’, both a conversation with and portrait of your mother. The ending never fails to move me.

But I also loved Looking Back and The Land Ballot, two collections that consider ancestors, the past and the present, an attachment (and detachment) to two places, the UK and New Zealand. I guess it gets personal; the fact I am drawn to the gaping hole of my ancestors with insistent curiosity and the fact your exquisite writing satisfies my interest as a poet. Heart and mind are both engaged. Questions might arise, I feel and think multiple things, the music holds me, the intimacy is breathtaking.

What attracts you in poetry you admire?

Fleur: Another impossible question. The simple answer is simply expressed in the last line of my poem ‘The Prize-Winning Poem’: “it’s got to be good.”  Of course you will ask what is the nature of that ‘goodness’, or excellence? I could talk about the tone, the rhythms, the emotional resonances, the sense of mystery or wonder that poems sometimes induce, but what I always want a poem to do is surprise me. The only full answer would be a list of poems I have admired over the years, which would be impractical.

This afternoon I was listening to a performance of Britten’s Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, which includes the setting of Blake’s little gem ‘O rose thou art sick’, which I’ve known and admired since childhood, but because the musical setting (also familiar to me) slows the words down I was listening to them more carefully than usual, and particularly struck by them. A perfect poem. But then yesterday I picked up the latest copy of the TLS and found a poem by Helen Farish that was totally new to me, and found it striking in a different way, possibly because of its strangeness: it makes you want to know more about the situation she describes, although on the other hand knowing too much might spoil it.

Poems serve different functions in our lives, and how we respond to them is affected by the circumstances in which we read or hear them.

 

Paula: Indeed. Can you name three poetry collections you have admired in the last few years?

Fleur: The answer is that no, I can’t make any such choices. I don’t do “favourite poets” or “favourite books”. To do so would not constitute a considered judgement. Enthusiasms come and go; they are things of the moment. It takes me a long time to make up my mind about the value of any particular writer. For example, many of my friends have published books that were important to me, but that would be a judgement about friendship, not necessarily about literary worth. I’d rather pass on this question.

 

Paula: What activities complement your love of poetry?

Fleur: Walking (in our local woods or wherever I happen to be), watching plants grow, watching birds and other living creatures in my garden or elsewhere. The greater the destruction of our natural environment, the more important these things become. When I first bought my house in London, in 1967, huge crowds of birds came to the neighbours’ bird table; miniature froglets hopped around the grass verges when I tried to mow the lawn; the buddleia tree was smothered in butterflies; we used to hear owls in the night. Now that I have my own birdfeeders, and more time to watch and observe the population, I’m more and more aware of the sad losses. On the other hand, I’m grateful for my health and continued ability to look after my garden and get out and about.

Now that my eyesight is so much worse I find myself reading less and listening to music a lot more, but that doesn’t really belong in this interview – music is a completely different medium from literature.

 

Paula: Thank you Fleur, especially as I posed such difficult questions. I have loved this slowly unfolding conversation that has kept me returning to the joy and richness of your poetry. Thank you for your generous and engaging responses – it is now time for you to get back to what you love – writing poems!

 

Paths

 

I am the dotted lines on the map:

footpaths exist only when they are walked on.

I am gravel tracks through woodland; I am

field paths, the muddy ledge by the stream,

the stepping-stones. I am the grassy lane

open between waist-high bracken where sheeep

fidget. I am the track to the top

skirting and scaling ricks. I am the cairn.

 

Here on the brow of the world I stop,

set my stone face to the wind, and turn

to each wide quarter. I am that I am.

 

(originally published in Below Loughrigg, Bloodaxe Books, 1979)

 

Victoria University Press page

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf interviews Fleur Adcock

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Fleur Adcock, Collected Poems, Victoria University Press, 2019

 

No; I can’t get it to knit. Scrunch!

Somewhere on the timeline between

the historical Eva whose

disappointments and retreating

daydreams I so tenderly probe

and our childhood’s ‘Grandma Adcock’

comes a fracture: Sam’s young lady,

eager emigrant, pioneer,

snaps into the dumpy figure

telling me off, when I was three,

for proving, at the tea-table,

I could put my toes in my mouth.

 

from ‘Reconstituting  Eva’ (originally published in The Land Ballot, 2014)

 

 

One of the many joys in researching and writing Wild Honey was reading Fleur Adcock’s poetry books – from The Eye of the Hurricane (1964) to Hoard (2017). Since then Victoria University Press has published Fleur’s Collected Poems. It is a sumptuous, substantial tribute to a much loved poet: the hardback book is beautifully designed, keenly edited and a perfect way to enjoy the scope of her poetry.

Born in New Zealand in 1934, Fleur has spent most of her writing life in Britain; she is an editor, a translator and above all a poet. She has published 18 collections of poems including the latest book along with several other Selected Poems. She edited The Oxford Book of Contemporary New Zealand Poetry (1982); The Faber Book of Twentieth-Century Women’s Poetry (1987); The Oxford Book of Creatures, with Jacqueline Simms (1995).  Her multiple awards include the Jessie Mackay Prize in 1968 and 1972, the Buckland Award in 1968 and 1979, and a New Zealand Book Award in 1984. She received an OBE in 1986, the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 2006 and was made a CNZM for services to literature in 2008.

The effects of Fleur’s poetry are wide ranging; she writes from a sustained history of reading and inquiry, from personal experience and sharp observation, from measured craft to conversational tones. Her poetry can be poignant, witty, serious, physical, abstract, humane. She assembles family and she looks back at New Zealand as she widens the definition of home.

To celebrate the arrival of Collected Poems we embarked on a slow email conversation.

 

At school I used to read, mostly,

and hide in the shed at dinnertime,

writing poems in my notebook.

‘Little fairies dancing,’ I wrote,

and ‘Peter and I, we watch the birds fly,

high in the sky, in the evening’.

 

from ‘Outwood’ (originally published in The Incident Book, Oxford University Press, 1986)

 

 

Paula: Can you paint a small snapshot of yourself as a young girl? Did books and writing feature?

Fleur:  From the age of six I was always a passionate reader, somewhat to the annoyance of my mother as the years went by. One of my favourite childhood photographs of myself (there were very few, because photographic films were almost unobtainable during the war) is of me lying on my stomach on the grass in our garden when I was eight or nine, reading a book. When I was nearly seven I was given a book called Jerry of St Winifred’s, about a girl who wanted to be a vet and who when trying to rescue a puppy from a rabbit hole accidentally discovered an ancient manuscript. This was when Marilyn and I were living in the country, as unofficial evacuees on the farm of our father’s cousins George and Eva Carter. Auntie Eva told me reading was bad for the eyesight, and restricted me to one chapter a day. If she had wanted to encourage me this would have been the best thing she could have done – in these days of reluctant readers, parents are told that if reading were forbidden more children would want to do it. In my case there was absolutely no need.

At that time we were away from our parents, and therefore writing letters and little stories for them, or at least I was – Marilyn was still at the stage of sending pictures, but it was all useful practice in communication.

The following year, 1940, we were living in Salfords, Surrey, with our mother, just across the road from the small tin-roofed public library. I used to go and browse in it alone, to borrow books. Titles I remember are Fairies and Chimneys, by Rose Fyleman, and Tales of Sir Benjamin Bulbous, Bart, which involved naiads, water sprites, etc. You will observe a fairy theme.

In what seems no time at all we were settled in a house of our own and I was reading whatever I could lay my hands on: library books, books from school, occasional books I was given as presents. Because of the wartime paper shortage these were in rather short supply. I liked adventure stories: Dr Doolittle, books by Arthur Ransome, Robert Louis Stevenson, and inevitably Enid Blyton. When I was 10 my mother lent me her copy of Gone with the Wind, and the following year gave me a rather beautiful ex-library copy of  Pride and Prejudice, which I read over and over again and still treasure. 

I was also writing poems. When I was seven, at Outwood School in the Surrey countryside, I had a little notebook in which I wrote my compositions at lunchtimes. I was there for only three months, from early June to early September 1941, and had no friends. Marilyn was away for the first few weeks, with whooping cough. Poetry was my refuge.

 

(…) I was impatient

for Jerry of St Winifred’s

my Sunday School prize, my first real book

that wasn’t babyish with pictures –

 

to curl up with it in the armchair

beside the range, for my evening ration:

‘Only a chapter a day,’ said Auntie.

‘Too much reading’s bad for your eyes.’

 

I stuck my tongue out (not at her –

in a trance of concentration), tasting

the thrilling syllables: ‘veterinary

surgeon’, ‘papyrus’, ‘manuscript’.

 

from ‘Tongue Sandwiches’ (originally published in Looking Back, Oxford University Press, 1997)

 

At my next school, St John’s, I won a gold star (see my poem ‘The Pilgrim Fathers’, and also the previous one, ‘Tongue Sandwiches’, re the earlier experience). I graduated to a slightly larger notebook and my subject matter expanded slightly, although one of my principal influences was still Enid Blyton – our mother thought her little magazine “Sunny Stories” was suitable reading matter for children, rather than the comics we swapped with our friends from school. I also liked ballads and melodrama. There were three more schools before the end of the war. At one we studied ‘The Lady of Shalott’: just my cup of tea, with its Tennysonian sound-effects and melancholy ending.

When I was 13 we went back to New Zealand, and I began writing nostalgic poems about such topics as “Spring in a Surrey wood”. The poems were rather fewer in my teens; some of them were carefully made, with rhymes and proper scansion, suitable for the school magazine, in which I won prizes for ‘The Bay’ and a poem about a seagull. My more private poems came under the influence of TS Eliot, whose work we studied when I was 15. World-weary disillusionment set in, together with free verse; I’ve just found one that ends with the two lines: “But what the hell does it matter? / Let’s go out and shoot ourselves.” The Waste Land has a lot to answer for.

But I’m afraid this is not a small snapshot but a sprawling album! I’ll stop.

 

Paula: I got goose bumps picturing the power of words and books for the young child making her way from girlhood to adolescence. Has poetry writing always been a refuge for you? Or has it developed other functions?

Fleur: Writing poetry has many functions for me; more than I can identify. It’s art, it’s therapy, companionship, a challenge, an indicator of health – I’ve always been aware that when I’m healthy I’m writing, and when I’m writing I’m healthy. It’s that much despised thing self-expression, as resorted to by generations of teenagers. It’s also, to some extent, my bread and butter. When I had a proper job, as a librarian in the civil service, time to write poetry was the unattainable ideal. Now that I’m retired I have a small pension from that ‘proper job’, but for a long time while I was freelance most of the work I did, in the form of poetry readings, broadcasting, book reviewing, translating, teaching on writing courses, going to festivals, writing libretti, etc, arose out of the fact that I wrote poetry. There’s less of that now – you don’t get quite so many commissions in your 80s – but still a certain amount. And I’m still writing the poems.

Poetry also has a social function. Some 18th century poets used to call their books ‘Poems upon Several Occasions’. I’ve written a number of those, too: poems for other people, for specific occasions or on topics that I hope they will be able to identify with. My poem ‘The Chiffonier’ about a particular habit of my mother’s (marking out special items for her children to inherit, long before she died) turned out to be common to a whole troop of mothers, I was pleased to learn from fan letters. I write a number of family poems: for birthdays, for Greg’s wedding to Angie, for the birth of my great-grandson Seth (a rare male among my hosts of female descendants), also elegies – for my parents and various ancestors, and one for Alistair that I managed to produce in time for Marilyn to read it at his funeral. There are elegies for friends, too, and increasing numbers of laments for doomed or extinct inhabitants of the natural world: birds, butterflies, insects of all kinds (my book Glass Wings contains examples), bats… It would be depressing to go on.

 

But now I see you in your Indian skirt

and casual cornflower-blue linen shirt

in the garden, under your feijoa tree,

looking about as old or as young as me.

Dear little Mother! Naturally I’m glad

you found a piece of furniture that had

happy associations with your youth;

and yes, I do admire it – that’s the truth:

its polished wood and touch of Art Nouveau

appeal to me. But surely you must know

I value this or any other treasure

of yours chiefly because it gives you pleasure.

I have to write this now, while you’re still here:

I want my mother, not her chiffonier.

 

from ‘The Chiffonier’ (originally published in The Incident Book, Oxford University Press, 1986)

 

Art: one of the enormous satisfactions of writing is constructing a beautiful or at least memorable and satisfying artefact. I believe that one of the essential elements of being human is wanting to create some kind of art. I remember having an argument with a friend about this, or perhaps just a misunderstanding – when I say “art” I include large areas of human creative endeavour such as gardening, growing plants, making clothes, furniture, jewellery, or anything that gives satisfaction to its creator. Some people (I’m not among them) find artistic pleasure in cooking. When my grandchildren Cait and Ella were small they spent hours of ingenuity constructing miniature items of furniture for their Sylvanian toys out of scraps of cardboard, Sellotape, fabric or whatever was around; that was art. So, I suppose, were the elaborate cakes their mother made for their birthdays; I remember one in the form of a swimming pool with blue jelly for water. For me the primary art-form is poetry. Very few things make me happier than finishing a poem I’ve been struggling with.

 

Paula: I love the way poetry emerges from the nooks and crannies of your life and thinking, the way it feeds and spurs. Your Collected Poems demonstrates this so clearly. Rereading the first two collections – The Eye of the Hurricane (1964) and Tigers (1967) – I am reminded how these early poems have travelled so well across the decades. Take the much-loved and anthologised ‘For a Five-Year-Old’ for example.  What were your early preoccupations as a poet in view of both style and subject matter?

 

I see, then, that a kind of faith prevails:

your gentleness is moulded still by words

from me, who have trapped mice and shot wild birds,

from me, who drowned your kittens, who betrayed

your closest relatives, and who purveyed

the harshest kind of truth to many another.

But that is how things are: I am your mother,

and we are kind to snails.

 

from ‘For a Five-Year-old’ (originally published in The Eye of the Hurricane, AW Reed, 1964 and then in  Tigers, Oxford University Press, 1967)

 

Fleur: I don’t think I can answer this in any meaningful way. I could look back through the early collections to see what I was writing about, but so could anyone; it’s not the same as being inside my feelings at the time, which I find it impossible to recall. I wasn’t setting out with any aim or objective; I just wrote about whatever topics suggested themselves, and my chief emotion was “Oh, good, I’m writing a poem!”

One of my first preoccupations, even as an adolescent, was my ‘exile’ from England. I wrote about this in my early teens, and also in the poem I called ‘The Lover’, in which I imagined a male persona trying to adapt to living in a new country. This ridiculous enterprise naturally misfired: everybody thought I was writing about Alistair. Serves me right, for not having had the confidence to write as a female.

Looking at The Eye of the Hurricane, I see that a number of the poems were about relationships with various men, one in particular – a natural preoccupation of a person in her 20s. One person they were definitely not about is Alistair. I was very surprised, in later years, to find that some people imagined he was the character represented in such poems as ‘Knifeplay’, when he was not at all like that.  Most of those poems were written in the nearly five years between my divorce from him and my marriage to Barry Crump in 1962. I never wrote about Alistair while I was married to him. Most of my very few poems about him were written while he was dying or after his death in 2009 – my elegy for him was modelled stylistically on his famous Elegy in Mine eyes dazzle.  My own early “battle of the sexes” poems (to use a Baxter phrase) were about my then current preoccupations. By 1959, Alistair was history.

As for the style, in those days I wrote in traditional verse forms, often rhymed, because it was easier to be convinced that I’d got a poem right if the rhymes and metre were correct. Free verse is far more difficult to judge (I don’t mean blank verse – unrhymed iambic pentameter, as in Shakespeare’s plays – which is another kettle of fish. I certainly used that from time to time.)

When it came to my next collection, Tigers, a new subject presented itself: culture shock. I was suddenly living in a wider society, in England, exposed to the harsh realities outside insular little cosy New Zealand. ‘Regression’ is a reflection of my new political anxieties, although I had also written about the nuclear threat earlier, in NZ. We were all convinced the world could end at any time, as seemed quite likely. But on the whole I rather cringe to open these two earliest collections. I think of what Katherine Mansfield wrote to JMM when he urged her to allow In a German Pension to be reissued: “It is far too immature, and I don’t even acknowledge it today. I mean I don’t ‘hold’ by it. I can’t go foisting that kind of stuff on the public” (quoted in his introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition).

 

All the flowers have gone back into the ground.

We fell on them, and they did not lie

crushed and crumpled, waiting to die

on the earth’s surface. (..)

 

from ‘Regression’ (originally published in Tigers, Oxford University Press, 1967)

 

Paula: You touch upon the way autobiography can both corrupt and enhance a reader’s pathways through a poem and the danger of making assumptions about both the speaker and subject of a poem. Some things in a poem stay secret and some are exquisitely open.  As I read my way through your collections I relish the shifting tones, sharpness, admissions, contemplations. The way poems are both oblique and transparent. Two collections have particularly affected me, but before sharing these, are there one or two books that have been especially important in the making and published result?

Fleur: Once again, impossible to answer. For quite some time The Incident Book gave me particular pleasure to look back on, but inevitably it was overtaken by others.  Every published collection that appears between covers and looks like a complete and separate entity is in fact just a bundle of individual poems. When my youngest granddaughter saw the size of my Collected Poems in New Zealand, she said to her father, “Wow! How could she write so many poems?” The answer is, one at a time. Each new poem is a world in itself, something to plunge into and be absorbed by for as long as the writing of it lasts. Only much later does it become part of a published book, if I decide to include it in one. Not every poem is chosen.

 

21

The fountain in her heart informs her

she needn’t try to sleep tonight –

rush, gush: the sleep-extinguisher

frothing in her chest like a dishwasher.

 

She sits at the window with a blanket

to track the turning stars. A comet

might add some point. The moon ignores her;

but dawn may come. She’d settle for that.

 

from ‘Meeting the Comet’ (originally published in Time-Zones, Oxford University Press, 1991)

 

My feelings about the various collections tend to be influenced by my memories of the circumstances and places in which they were written. For example, Time-Zones received its title from the travelling I was doing during that time I was working on it. It contains poems from my three months in Australia as writer in residence at the University of Adelaide in 1984, including the two long sequences at the end, ‘Mrs Fraser’s Frenzy’ (written for music, originally for Gillian Whitehead, but she decided it didn’t suit the commission she had in mind and it was subsequently set by the English composer George Newson instead), and ‘Meeting the Comet’, which I wrote in bits and pieces during my journey to and from the southern hemisphere, as a way of staying sane and having something to work on while I was in transition from one place to another. (The girl in the poem is fictional, but was originally inspired by the child of friends in Newcastle, who had the same disability although not the same history as the one in the poem.) The collection also includes poems about Adelaide, where I was living for a time, and Romania, which I had visited and where I had made good friends and had my eyes opened to a new political landscape. Altogether a bit of a ragbag – I was crossing time zones as the poems came to me.

How complicated these things are to explain.

Then there was Looking Back, which was short-listed for the T.S. Eliot prize in 1997. It gave me great pleasure to write, or at least the poems about my ancestors did, because of my obsession with genealogy, but shortly afterwards, oddly enough, I lost interest in writing poems for some years, and devoted myself to the ancestors in a big way.

Dragon Talk was important, by virtue of the fact that it marked my return to writing poetry after a gap of several years. However, I certainly wouldn’t call it my best collection; it was a necessary one, to get the wheels turning again, but afterwards I moved on in different directions.

The only book I actually conceived and embarked on as a single entity, in the way you might embark on a novel, was The Land Ballot. I wrote three or four poems about my father’s childhood, and then it dawned on me that  I might be able to produce enough for a book. I did enormous amounts of research for this, over a period of two years, 2012-2013, building up a picture of this remote community and its inhabitants, and was totally immersed in it. Two of the happiest years of my life as a writer. On the other hand, one of the happiest years of my life as a person was 1977-8 (September-June), living in the Lake District as writer in residence at Charlotte Mason College in Ambleside, surrounded by amazing scenery, with time to walk and explore and make discoveries, as well as making a quantity of new friends and spending more time than usual with many of the old ones: if you live in a famously beautiful place and have a spare bedroom you suddenly become very popular. But the poems that emerged from this time are scattered between more than one published collection.

 

As there was only one lamp

they had to spend the winter evenings

at the table, close enough to share

its kerosene – perfumed radiance –

 

his mother sewing, and he

reading aloud to her the books

he borrowed from Mr Honoré

or the Daysh boys on the next farm

 

from ‘Evenings with Mother’ (originally published in The Land Ballot, Bloodaxe Books and VUP, 2014)

 

Paula: I love the way a poem becomes a miniature absorbing world for both reader and writer, and the way the context of its making is important for the poet. Reading a book is akin to listening to a symphony; you absorb the composition as a whole with certain notes and melodies standing out. I also loved The Incident Book with its fertile movement, physical beacons and emotional underlay. I keep going back to ‘The Chiffonier’, both a conversation with and portrait of your mother. The ending never fails to move me.

But I also loved Looking Back and The Land Ballot, two collections that consider ancestors, the past and the present, an attachment (and detachment) to two places, the UK and New Zealand. I guess it gets personal; the fact I am drawn to the gaping hole of my ancestors with insistent curiosity and the fact your exquisite writing satisfies my interest as a poet. Heart and mind are both engaged. Questions might arise, I feel and think multiple things, the music holds me, the intimacy is breathtaking.

What attracts you in poetry you admire?

Fleur: Another impossible question. The simple answer is simply expressed in the last line of my poem ‘The Prize-Winning Poem’: “it’s got to be good.”  Of course you will ask what is the nature of that ‘goodness’, or excellence? I could talk about the tone, the rhythms, the emotional resonances, the sense of mystery or wonder that poems sometimes induce, but what I always want a poem to do is surprise me. The only full answer would be a list of poems I have admired over the years, which would be impractical.

This afternoon I was listening to a performance of Britten’s Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, which includes the setting of Blake’s little gem ‘O rose thou art sick’, which I’ve known and admired since childhood, but because the musical setting (also familiar to me) slows the words down I was listening to them more carefully than usual, and particularly struck by them. A perfect poem. But then yesterday I picked up the latest copy of the TLS and found a poem by Helen Farish that was totally new to me, and found it striking in a different way, possibly because of its strangeness: it makes you want to know more about the situation she describes, although on the other hand knowing too much might spoil it.

Poems serve different functions in our lives, and how we respond to them is affected by the circumstances in which we read or hear them.

 

Paula: Indeed. Can you name three poetry collections you have admired in the last few years?

Fleur: The answer is that no, I can’t make any such choices. I don’t do “favourite poets” or “favourite books”. To do so would not constitute a considered judgement. Enthusiasms come and go; they are things of the moment. It takes me a long time to make up my mind about the value of any particular writer. For example, many of my friends have published books that were important to me, but that would be a judgement about friendship, not necessarily about literary worth. I’d rather pass on this question.

 

Paula: What activities complement your love of poetry?

Fleur: Walking (in our local woods or wherever I happen to be), watching plants grow, watching birds and other living creatures in my garden or elsewhere. The greater the destruction of our natural environment, the more important these things become. When I first bought my house in London, in 1967, huge crowds of birds came to the neighbours’ bird table; miniature froglets hopped around the grass verges when I tried to mow the lawn; the buddleia tree was smothered in butterflies; we used to hear owls in the night. Now that I have my own birdfeeders, and more time to watch and observe the population, I’m more and more aware of the sad losses. On the other hand, I’m grateful for my health and continued ability to look after my garden and get out and about.

Now that my eyesight is so much worse I find myself reading less and listening to music a lot more, but that doesn’t really belong in this interview – music is a completely different medium from literature.

 

Paula: Thank you Fleur, especially as I posed such difficult questions. I have loved this slowly unfolding conversation that has kept me returning to the joy and richness of your poetry. Thank you for your generous and engaging responses – it is now time for you to get back to what you love – writing poems!

 

Paths

 

I am the dotted lines on the map:

footpaths exist only when they are walked on.

I am gravel tracks through woodland; I am

field paths, the muddy ledge by the stream,

the stepping-stones. I am the grassy lane

open between waist-high bracken where sheeep

fidget. I am the track to the top

skirting and scaling ricks. I am the cairn.

 

Here on the brow of the world I stop,

set my stone face to the wind, and turn

to each wide quarter. I am that I am.

 

(originally published in Below Loughrigg, Bloodaxe Books, 1979)

 

Victoria University Press page

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf classic poem: Tracey Slaughter picks Fleur Adcock’s ‘Composition for Words and Paint’

 

Composition for Words and Paint

 

This darkness has a quality

that poses us in shapes and textures,

one plane behind another,

flatness in depth.

 

Your face; a fur of hair; a striped

curtain behind, and to one side cushions;

nothing recedes, all lies extended.

I sink upon your image.

 

I see a soft metallic glint,

a tinsel weave behind the canvas,

aluminium and bronze beneath the ochre.

There is more in this than we know.

 

I can imagine drawn around you

a white line, in delicate brush-strokes:

emphasis; but you do not need it.

You have completeness.

 

I am not measuring your gestures;

(I have seen you measure those of others,

know a mind by a hand’s trajectory,

the curve of a lip).

 

But you move, and I move towards you,

draw back your head, and I advance.

I am fixed to the focus of your eyes.

I share your orbit.

 

Now I discover things about you:

your thin wrists, a tooth missing;

and how I melt and burn before you.

I have known you always.

 

The greyness from the long windows

reduces visual depth; but tactile

reality defies half-darkness.

My hands prove you solid.

 

You draw me down upon your body,

hard arms behind my head.

Darkness and soft colours blur.

We have swallowed the light.

 

Now I dissolve you in my mouth,

catch in the corners of my throat

the sly taste of your love, sliding

into me, singing;

 

just as the birds have started singing.

Let them come flying through the windows

with chains of opals around their necks.

We are expecting them.

 

Fleur Adcock

 

From Poems 1960-2000 (Bloodaxe Books, 2000). Subsequently published in Collected Poems (Victoria University Press); originally published in Tigers (Oxford University Press, 1967). Posted with kind permission from Bloodaxe Books and Victoria University Press.

 

Note from Tracey Slaughter:

 

When I read Fleur Adcock’s ‘Composition for Words and Paint’ I get a feeling like I’ve just stepped from glaring sunlight into a dim cool room, a blinking transition where objects shift their edges, textures and sensations blur. Things cross the retina that shouldn’t coexist – heat and cool, shade and sheen, disorientation and sharp awareness – as the dazzled eye tries to pull focus on outlines, shadows, glints. I’ve read it so many times now I could start to break down how its sheer mastery does this to me – but first I’d rather just surrender, step over that threshold, and let it return me to that liminal space it evokes, that experience of sensory eclipse.

Charted in a present tense aquiver with nowness, it’s a poem that wants to keep you in that state of dissolve, that hazy receptivity. Stanza through stanza as it tracks the movements of lovers drawing close in an intimate room, it guides the senses through concrete details that both cloud and illuminate, define and veil, observing the couple’s actions through sustained brushstrokes of metaphorical paint. It’s a poem that watches the act of love with an eye for its composition on the canvas, using the artist’s gaze to render the encounter in visual strokes and shapes, bringing bodies to slow light through questions of perspective, surface, angle, plane. As if conducting an ekphrastic exercise, analysing imagery already framed, it envisages the elements of this love scene in terms of its visual field, lining up the lovers in a studied play of light, curve, pose, dark, parallel, emphasis, depth. But if it employs the methodical and intricate tone of the artist approaching the canvas at the same time it applies the motif of paint to evoke the flooded senses of the lover lost in the work-at-hand’s erotic experience. Issues of surface, extension, colour, focus are at once used to underline the artist’s trained gaze and to wash the scene with a sensuous physical impression of the lovers’ work in progress. ‘I sink upon your image’ the speaker says – the borders of the canvas collapse. It pivots on a repeated play on ‘drawing,’ a practice which moves both brush and body – from a white line sketched around a figure, a head is drawn back, another tantalisingly down – using the term to figure both the tactile capture of the painted line and the gestural seduction of bodies, the pull and call of the lovers pacing and exploring each other in the shaded room. In that elided term, the hand that draws cannot sustain its ‘measured’ distance, it’s too coated in the palette of touch, too absorbed in lust for each line it envisages. Each brushstroke shivers on the painter’s own skin as it orders and colours objective space. It’s part of the mystery I love in Adcock’s language throughout the piece, that it can be at once controlled and lush, clinical and intoxicating – when I read it over I’m always searching for how it extracts such pulse from precision, such glistening intensity from poised restraint. Heat and chill, dark and gleam, it always keeps me blinking for how she keeps that threshold so skilfully blurred.

From an eye scrutinizing the shades and planes of love, the perspective slips to a place where the deeply implicated speaker can only ‘melt and burn’; I imagine that Adcock must have known the work of other women trying to depict female desire around this era: I always hear a tinge of Plath and Sexton in that phrasing. Perhaps there’s an echo of those poets present in the voice of this piece too, its commanding first-person, an ‘I’ intent on fixing and tracing the interaction with ‘you’ in a potent, honed, hypnotic tone. The slow processional sound of each line moves like brush or fingertip savouring the detail, like an entranced hand lingering on the contours of all it draws to light, tasting and positioning each syllable that ‘discovers’ the body with its palpable paint. It is unconventional glints of the lover that are touched upon too, the odd raw details an ordinary love-poem would read as flaws lifted into luminosity – flashes like ‘thin wrists, a tooth missing’ stand in contrast to the points of perfection a love ode would usually pick out, but the ‘tactile reality’ of this encounter sets them alight with ache and lustre. The final blur is ultimately the blur of fusion, of bodies merged and dissolved in such a close-up all sense of scale is lost from the visual field: ‘We have swallowed the light.’ The paint of the scene now spills into the speaker’s throat as she drinks in the lover: it’s a slyly rapturous depiction of orality which could have been a terrible paean to pleasure, but which Adcock’s lyric language manages to sculpt to a sultry and mutual release. Could any other poet pull off the miracle of birdsong ‘flying through the windows’ at climax? Sometimes I wonder if there’s a tint of darkness caught in the opal chains around the necks of those birds – but if there is, it is set against the tender domination of the voice, its soft imperative immediacy: ‘Now I dissolve you.’ It’s been said that a love poem always appeals as much to the reader as it does to the lover, using its language to pull and lure their senses too into a sweet-talking thrall. Consider me dissolved. ‘Composition for Words and Paint’ always has me at ‘This darkness…’

 

 

Bloodaxe Books page

Victoria University Press page

 

Tracey Slaughter‘s latest work is the poetry collection Conventional Weapons (VUP, 2019). She is the author of the acclaimed short story collection deleted scenes for lovers (VUP, 2016), and her work has received numerous awards, including the 2015 Landfall Essay Competition and the 2014 Bridport Prize. She works at the University of Waikato, where she edits the journal Mayhem.

Fleur Adcock, a New Zealand poet, editor and translator, resides in Britain. She has published numerous poetry collections, her most recent being The Land Ballot (2014) and Hoard (2017). This year Victoria University Press published her Collected Poems. She has won many book awards and has received notable honours including an OBE (1986), the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry (2006) and a CNZM for services to literature (2008).

 

 

 

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New Books: Celebrating Fleur Adcock’s Collected Poems launch day with Maria McMillan

 

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Launches on Wednesday 13 February, 6pm–7.30pm
at Unity Books, 57 Willis St, Wellington.

 

Today Fleur Adcock launches her Collected Poems with Victoria University Press at Unity Books in Wellington. This is an occasion to celebrate! I read my way through all Fleur’s books for Wild Honey and I loved the experience and the multiple effects it had upon me.

This week Marty Smith and I (and many more by the looks!) were directed by Maria McMillan’s tweet to her (Maria’s) terrific 2015 blog post on Fleur. Sharing thoughts on what a poetry book means to you on such a personal level is exactly why I am launching my classic (well-loved, enduring) poems/poetry books slot on Wednesdays.

 

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Read Maria’s effervescent blog, pop into the Wellington launch and then tuck up into the glorious richness, kicks, grace, wit, reflective-ness and absolute joy of Fleur’s poetry.

A taste of Maria’s blog post:

 

Selected Poems, Fleur Adcock. Oxford University Press, 1983.

Being a girl is dangerous. I don’t just mean we are vulnerable to danger, but that we are, ourselves, dangerous, capable of causing great damage to ourselves and others. We, especially in those years we are changing into women, live in danger, where danger is the vibrating state we occupy.

I started thinking tonight about Fleur Adcock’s Selected Poems which I first read at 15. I remembered the dark green cover and how the spine looked on my parents’ bookshelf. The slim sitting room one with the cut out hearts and tidy shelves of Penguins. Have I made up the moment of discovery? Of pulling the book from the shelf, of curling in the large brown chair with the ribbed pattern that would leave its tribal marks on me? The book must have come alive to me then, something that breathed and beat so that next time I came to the shelf I would recognise it. It would hum when I entered the room.

It was my mother’s book but became mine in the way any book is claimed as intimate property by obsessed readers. I wonder if it in turn claimed me, lodging its shards in my ears and brain and heart, because it was the first book of poetry I really read. A book I read for sheer pleasure but also I read and reread wanting to understand how Fleur Adcock had done it. I don’t know if that is peculiarly a budding poet’s reading, or if that is the nature of all close reading of poetry. That the thrill of a good poem is watching it run but also holding it in your lap, seeing the bones and muscles move beneath the pelt, smelling its oily springed wool. Understanding how it all fits together.

Do teenagers, or at least the kind I was,  gravitate towards poetry because the best of it is transformative in the same way adolescence is? Good poetry allowing us not just to see the capacity of the poet, but our own capacities. A transformation from passive childlike recipients of the word and the world, to readers active, engaged and creative in our own right. I think about how it’s not just writers who are dangerous, with their strange ability to conjure mountains and moods, but readers too. There is a moment, when we get poems, if we get them, where we are not having something done to us by the poem, but we are doing something to the poem. A good poem, that we have read and understood, can give us a sense of mastery, perhaps what a musician feels when she plays fluently, for the first time, a difficult piece of music.

It is a long time since I have opened Adcock’s book and when I do it is with great affection as phrases I have loved for 30 years float up off the page out to me, triggering the same pings of pure pleasure as they did on my first encounter with them.

 

Full piece by Maria here

Victoria University Press page

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf in conversation with Helen Heath

 

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Photo Credit: Victoria Birkinshaw

 

Helen Heath’s debut collection, Graft, won the NZSA Jessie Mackay Best First Book for Poetry Award. It was also shortlisted for the Royal Society of New Zealand Science Book Prize (the first poetry or fiction shortlisted). Helen has a PhD in Creative Writing from Victoria University of Wellington’s IIML. Her new collection, Are Friends Electric, is a poetic smorgasbord that offers diverse and satisfying engagements. To celebrate the new book, Helen and I embarked on an unfolding email conversation.

 

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The large electric that is you

is like the help that is you and

the mouth and the associated

kiss. The source is kind, simply

loved. Turning, my bird, turning

to view a scratched course.

 

from ‘Greg and the bird’

 

 

A slowly unfolding email  conversation

 

Paula:  The first poem, ‘Reproach’, starts with the word ‘you’. It is like an open invitation to enter the book. The next word jump cuts to ‘poet’ and from there to a reading hunger:

 

You. Poet. You’re hungry to be read

 

It is the best opening, the most audacious opening, to a book I have read in ages. Then as the poem curves and folds you end up at the footnote and the origins of the poem’s found text. I am reminded of the unreliability of language to represent reality. Tell me about the challenges you lay in the opening line and your experiences with Plato’s Phaedrus.

 

Helen: Thank you, I’m so glad you think so. The opening line is a response to the feeling of despondency I sometimes get when writing: ‘What’s the point?! Who even reads this?! This will all get lost and forgotten in time!!’ There is a famous passage in Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus where Plato recounts Socrates rejecting the invention of writing, believing it will strip our ability to remember and thereby an essential part of our humanity. Of course, the irony is that we know this because Plato wrote it down. Writing was an early technology and a similar argument is often put forward against various kinds of modern technology, such as smartphones or the internet, claiming they harm the development of memory or social skills.

Nicholas Carr wrote a now famous article in The Atlantic in 2008: ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet is doing to our brains’, which he developed into his book The Shallows. Giovanni Tiso wrote a thoughtful response to it on his blog. Technology can’t be separated from culture, it’s a cultural artifact, like language. “We shape our tools and, thereafter, our tools shape us.” — John Culkin (1967). This all circles back to the anxieties of the opening line and, as you rightly point out, the unreliability of language to represent reality. The poem attempts to wrap up anxieties surrounding the fallibility of language and writing with central themes of the collection.

 

Paula: Fascinating. The act of writing is itself a way of remembering and negotiating what is hard, elusive, necessary, puzzling. The list could go on! There are a number of found poems in the collection that stage you as first reader then writer. What attracts you to them?

Helen: It became impossible to separate the research from the writing in this collection. This book can almost be seen as a journal of reading and cultural responses. I was writing my way through some big ideas, trying to come to some kind of personal understanding. ‘Thought in motion’ is a phrase that comes to mind.

The other aspect of the found poems is the concept of literary and cultural intertextuality and how that can be seen as an analogue translation of hypertext and the internet as form. I am interested in poems that weave connected and reoccurring themes and ideas through their collections. In this book the poems reference other texts, popular culture, and each other, and (I hope) build up the reader’s understanding of the collection’s thesis incrementally.

 

Paula:

 

I am a woman and

this is a bridge,

despite our vast differences

we are very much in love.

One of the most difficult

parts of being in love

with a public object

is that he and I can never

 

be truly intimate.

 

from ‘The objects of her desire’

 

Movement can be such a strength in a poem. A poem as ideas in motion is in such contrast to personal poetry. Yet what I love in your poems is the shifting voice, the conversational tones. Do the found poems also stage forms of ventriloquism?

Helen:  Yes, definitely. I went to a Masterclass with Kei Miller when he visited Wellington in 2014, many of his poems are based on research and I asked him what techniques he used to keep his poetry from getting bogged down in facts and getting stale. He said he tries to focus on voice in his work. I started experimenting with persona poems and found this shape-shifting quite addictive.

I see myself working in a feminist tradition ­­­– the use of persona and alternative memories plays an important role in feminist revisionist mythology. In addition, a modern, post-positivist, scientific approach acknowledges the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of removing the personal from narratives of knowledge; it acknowledges the importance of multiple voices and experiences. I wanted to reflect that in my work.

 

Paula:

 

(..) The city is constantly

under construction, so many empty spaces,

so many car parks, you can get lost

in your home town without familiar landmarks.

My google glass app returns the lost buildings

but they jiggle on my hand-held screen.

 

from ‘Run rabbit’

  

I also see a common thread of seeing, strolling, collecting, as though this is poet as bricoleur, as though the book is a cabinet of curious things? How does that resonate with you?

Helen:  Yes, I think that is a good description, especially of the first half of the collection. Although, I hope this ‘cabinet of curiosities’ builds into a narrative for the whole book.

 

Paula:

I ask if you would like a body.

You say, ‘No I’m beyond bodies now,

I’m ready to be fluid, spilling out all over.

I’m ready to spread myself so thin that I’m

a membrane over the world.’ I’m not ready.

I take off my socks and shoes and walk

over a patch of grass very slowly.

 

from ‘Spilling out all over’

 

You move into poems that link grief with the effect of technology upon our bodies. Again there is a carousel of voices that may or may not be invented or borrowed but they make you feel something. What was driving you as you wrote these poems?

Helen:  My brother-in-law was dying of cancer while I wrote the collection and that had a profound impact on my work. I was watching my sister and her children go through this devastating loss while I was researching new technologies. The voices aren’t their voices directly, they are invented, but they are deeply influenced by this experience.

 

Paula: That’s interesting. The way writing can absorb things so it is there hiding in the ink. Were you bringing yourself in close as you wrote or keeping at a little more distance?

 Helen:  The first half of the collection is probably more curious and observational. The second half, while still observed (yet invented) is definitely more personal to me. The collection attempts to zoom in from observer to participant as you read through it.

Paula:  Yes I got that shift. And in a way the second half reflects and refracts back on the first. Did you need a particular place to write the poems?

Helen: I guess it was a particular headspace rather than a physical space. I was deeply immersed in the research and the writing, it was all consuming. Physically, I wrote wherever I could: at home, at varsity, on retreat, on the train, in bed…

Paula: The book is so complex, and satisfies so many layers for the reader, what did it do for you as writer?

 Helen: Haha, it completely did my head in!

 

Paula: Were there any poetry books you read as you were writing this that tilted things for you? Or simply filled you were awe or admiration?

Helen: I was reading everything I could of Jo Shapcott, Jorie Graham and Deryn Rees-Jones. Jo Shapcott doesn’t write about technology but she is what I would describe as a science poet who creates poems as thought experiments and deeply considers embodiment. I stumbled across Fleur Adcock’s 1971 speculative poem ‘Gas’ for the first time while writing this book, I found it disturbing and exciting. Similarly I was thrilled by Welsh poet Deryn Rees-Jones’ book length poem Quiver (2004) – a speculative murder mystery involving a clone – it’s fantastic.

 

Paula: Is there a poem that particularly works for you?

Helen:  I’m going to cheat and name three for different reasons. The poem that is the most personal is ‘A rise of starlings’, which is for my sister. I feel my heart crack open when I read it. ‘The Anthropocene’ is a poem, or lyric essay, which I think works because of the way it circles around a subject, attempting and failing to nail it neatly. Finally, I kind of love ‘Greg and the bird’ because it is the whole book scrambled then distilled into one poem that is meaningful and meaningless at the same time.

Paula: Yes, and all three are quite different.  Perhaps the connective tissue is what I might call a humane fluency.  ‘A rise of starlings’, for example, is mesmerising – both still yet full of movement. It is a poem that catches in your throat as you read.

 

Orion loosens his belt

in our own night sky. You

have drawn new maps

across the darkness, through

wild celestial fields, tracing

messages to me in particles

of dust and light.

 

from ‘A rise of starlings’

 

This was such a pleasure Helen, talking poetry, thank you.

 

Victoria University Press page

Helen Heath website

New Zealand Book Council author page