James Brown’s latest poetry book is Floods Another Chamber (VUP, 2017). You can find ‘Soft Returns’ in this collection.
Victoria University Press page
James Brown’s latest poetry book is Floods Another Chamber (VUP, 2017). You can find ‘Soft Returns’ in this collection.
Victoria University Press page
I know I find it hard to listen.
I read too much. I often need a drink.
It isn’t the world that makes us think,
it’s words that we can’t come up with.
Sure, I can work up fresh examples
and send them off to the committee.
But the poetry is in the bird. And in the pretty.
Bill Manhire, from ‘Polly’
International poetry traffic is so often dependent upon fortuitous connections. The degree of familiarity with poetry from elsewhere is utterly paltry compared with the degree of familiarity I have with local writing. Yes I have studied American and British poetry but I am more aware of the luminous stars in these poetry constellations than the grassroot outings.
On the other hand, we are no longer dependent upon ocean voyages and the constraints of distance, but to what degree does our poetry travel (compared say with fiction)? Or our poetry conversations extend beyond our lapping tidelines.
I am acutely aware of my impoverished relations with contemporary Australian poetry. Perhaps Joan Fleming and Amy Brown could guest edit a local journal with an Australian focus? But then again our journals are often annual and offer vital but scant opportunities for local poets.
This is not the first time an overseas journal has showcased New Zealand poetry, but it is perhaps the example I am most excited by. The editors – Stephanie Burt (USA), Paul Millar (NZ) and Chris Price (NZ) – have worked hard to present a distinctive and diverse overview of our current poetry. The selected poets cross all manner of borders: age, geographical location, style, university affiliation, gender, ethnicity. This matters if we want to move beyond the legacy of white male predomination, urban bias and privileged poetry models. I cannot name a NZ journal that has achieved such movement.
Yes the five books Daisy Fried reviewed – from the fifteen 2017 publications she was sent – were all Victoria University Press. Her selection certainly does not reflect the contours of that year, and we can all stand on the sidelines and shout (or sing) about the books we loved, but I have no issue with reviews reflecting individual taste. However I do take issue that a short intro and five VUP books can respond to her opening question: ‘How to characterise a national poetry?’ Why would you even try! It is a personal take on five excellent books.
The rest of the journal is an altogether different joy. The effect of reading is symphonic in the different hues and chords. Every single poem lifts off the page and catches both ear and eye. Such freshness, such lightness, darkness, musicality, room to breathe, surprising arcs and links and undercurrents. I keep swaying between Anna Jackson’s glorious bee poem and the flickering titles that coalesce in Nina Powles’s offering or the infectious wit of James Brown, Ashleigh Young and Tim Upperton. I am pulled into the bite of Anahera Gildea, Chris Tse and then Tayi Tibble and stop in the tracks of reading. Travelling with Janet Charman and the revelatory suite makes me weep. Switching to Anne Kennedy and the momentum coils and overlaps and poetry transforms a starting point into elasticity on the line. Bill Manhire flips me over into the second stanza, and the lacework of reading – intricate yet full of holes – offers mystery, surprise, wit, curious things.
The time of breathing into clasped hands
hovering over a lighter to make a flame
that an angry man threw his eyes into the night
the belly of his shattered father
weeping rain for separation of earth and sky
Jessie Puru from ‘Matariki’
The editors did not feel beholden to poetry that targets versions of New Zealand/ Aotearoa; our poetry might do this and then again it might not. The poems have the freedom to do and be anything whether they spring from spoken-word rhythms or talkiness or thinginess or anecdotal revelations or sumptuous Baroque-detail or story or slanted humour or cutting political edges.
The poets: Anna Jackson, Kate Camp, Michele Leggott, Therese Lloyd, Jessie Puru, Essa Ranapiri, Tayi Tibble, Robert Sullivan, Kerrin P. Sharpe, Hera Lindsay Bird, Dylan Horrocks, James Brown, Murray Edmond, Jenny Bornholdt, Anne Kennedy, Bill Manhire, Nina Powles, Janet Charman, Anahera Gildea, Bernadette Hall, Vincent O’Sullivan, Courtney Sina Meredith, C.K. Stead, Chris Tse, Tim Upperton, Gregory O’Brien and John Pule, Faith Wilson, Ashleigh Young, Albert Wendt, Steven Toussaint, Erik Kennedy
This issue is a cause for celebration – I absolutely love it – and my celebration will take the form of a subscription. New Zealand poetry has been well served – congratulations!
everything I never asked my grandmother
I can understand but I can’t speak
no one has played that piano since
New Zealand is so far away from here
let me translate for you the poem on the wall
Nina Powles from ‘Some titles for my childhood memoir’
2017 seems to be the year of enviable launch speeches. Gregory O’Brien did a cracking job launching James Brown’s new book; Greg had taken the poems up to Palmerston North to read before writing his speech.
Jack Ross has launched Michele Leggott’s Vanishing Points (Auckland University Press) with similar incandescent word flare. I have read the book twice so far and he is right on point: this is one special poetry collection.
Well, needless to say, I felt very flattered when Michele Leggott asked me to launch her latest book of poems, Vanishing Points. Flattered and somewhat terrified. It’s true that I’ve been reading and collecting her work for well over 20 years, and I’ve been teaching it at Massey University for almost a decade now, but I still felt quite a weight of responsibility pressing down on my shoulders!
One thing that Michele’s poetry is not, is simple. It’s hard to take anything in it precisely at face value: what seems like (and is) a beautiful lyrical phrase may be a borrowing from an unsung local poet – a tangle of Latin names can be a reference to an obsolete star-chart with pinpricks for the various constellations.
The first time I reviewed one of her books, as far as I can see, in 1999, I ended by saying “the reading has only begun.” At the time, I suspect I was just looking for a good line to finish on, but there was a truth there I didn’t yet suspect. Certainly, I’ve been reading in that book, and all her others, ever since.
But how should we read this particular book? “Read! Just keep reading. Understanding comes of itself,” was the answer German poet Paul Celan gave to critics who called his work obscure or difficult. With that in mind, I’ve chosen two touchstones from the volume I’m sure you’re all holding in your hands, or (if not) are planning to purchase presently.
The first is a phrase from the American poet Emily Dickinson, referred to in the notes at the back of the book: “If ever you need to say something … tell it slant.”  The second is a quote from the great, blind Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges: “I made a decision. I said to myself: since I have lost the beloved world of appearances, I must create something else.” 
With these two phrases in mind, I’d like you to look at the cover of Michele’s book. It’s a painting of the just-landed Imperial troops, camped near New Plymouth in August 1860. The wonderful thing about it is the way the light of the campfires shines through the painting: little holes cut in the canvas designed to give the illusion of life and movement.
“War feels to me an oblique place,” wrote the reclusive New England poet Emily Dickinson to Thomas Wentworth Higginson in February 1863, at one of the darkest points of the American Civil War. Higginson, a militant Abolitionist, was the Colonel of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, the first officially authorized black regiment in American history. He was, in short, a very important and admirable man in his own right. Perhaps it’s unfair of posterity to have largely forgotten him except as the recipient of these letters from one of America’s greatest poets.
New Zealand’s Land Wars of the 1860s may have been on a much smaller scale, but they were just as terrifying and devastating for the people of Taranaki – both Māori and Pakeha – in the early 1860s. In her sequence “The Fascicles,” Michele transforms a real distant relative into a poet in the Dickinson tradition. Just as Emily Dickinson left nearly 1800 poems behind her when she died in 1886, many collected in tidy sewn-up booklets or fascicles, so Dorcas (or Dorrie) Carrell “in Lyttelton, daughter of a soldier, wife of a gardener”  provides a pretext for “imagining a nineteenth-century woman writing on the outskirts of empire as bitter racial conflict erupts around her.” 
There’s an amazing corollary to this attempt to “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” (in Dickinson’s words). Having repurposed one of her family as a war poet, Michele was fortunate enough to discover the traces of a real poet, Emily Harris, the daughter of the Edwin Harris who painted the picture of Taranaki at war on the wall over there, whose collected works so far consist of copious letters and diaries, but also two very interesting poems. “Emily and her Sisters,” the seventh of the sequences collected here, tells certain aspects of that story.
It’s nothing but the strictest truth to say, then (as Michele does at the back of the book), that one should:
walk away from the painting when it is lit up and see how light falls into the world on this side of the picture surface. Is this what the artist meant by his cut-outs? Is this the meaning of every magic lantern slide? 
I despair of doing justice to the richness of this new collection of Michele’s – to my mind, her most daring and ambitious work since the NZ Book Award-winning DIA in 1994. There are eight sequences here, with a strong collective focus on the life and love-giving activities which go on alongside what Shakespeare calls in Othello “the big wars”: children, family, eating, painting, swimming. One of my favourites among them is the final sequence, “Figures in the Distance,” which offers a series of insights into the world of Michele’s guide-dog Olive – take a bow, Olive – amongst other family members, many of whom, I’m glad to see, have been able to come along here tonight.
This is a radiant, complex, yet very approachable book. It is, in its own way, I’m quite convinced, a masterpiece. We have a great poet among us. You’d be quite crazy to leave here tonight without a copy of Vanishing Points.
[Jack and Michele then had a discussion on how the book came into being. I am going to do an interview with Michele so Poetry Shelf readers can also get different entry points into the collection.]
from ‘Figures in the Distance’
In he comes, bouncing and sweaty, to borrow a towel and go swimming at Duders. Voice out front, key in the lock, just passing through. A voice on the phone from an airport far away, saying early morning is the time to go and see the ruins outside the city when there’s no one else around. One heading for the beach each morning with a thermos of coffee and that same ragged towel. Breakfast. The other drinking something from a coconut on a beach in Mexico. One in this city, one in that city, two brothers crossing the sea. Camper vans gather down at the bay. Two people sit with their feet in the waves, looking out to sea and drinking wine from glasses they fill from the bottle hung off the side of their aluminium deckchairs. The house at the corner has been flying a tricolore since the Paris attacks. The house next to it is flying a flag that says Happy New Year. Here’s a man walking up the street dripping wet and asking if he can stick his nose into the buzzing magnolia flowers at the gate.
I saw the Maori Jesus walking on Wellington Harbour but his pool in the shadow of the museum was drained for repairs and the words were no longer lapped in fishscale light. I saw John Baxter in the pool ecstatic in arcs of water he was splashing over his father’s words on the day the writers’ walk opened. I heard the mihi that was sending Wellington Harbour over the father’s words. I heard the camera catch water light and send it to the eyes of beholders who were a great crowd on the waterfront that day. We took the train as far as Woburn, crossed the platform and came back along the side of the harbour. We took the ferry to Day’s Bay and back riding on the top deck and talking about other excursions. We had a dance at the mardi gras and kept walking along the waterfront to Roseneath. When we turned back there was the young woman walking towards us with bags full of produce from the market. Look, holes, she said.
We know what the dog of tears will do next, he who has been trailing the woman standing on the balcony looking up at the sky. She is the woman who wept, he is the dog who licked away her tears. They have gone on like this for some time, the only woman who can see and the dog who is now more human than he wants to be. His nails scratch the wooden floor. His belly is as empty as everyone else’s but he does not mind. He is walking towards the woman on the balcony. When he reaches her she will bring her eyes down to look at the ruined city and become blind. Everyone else will have their eyes back. She will have the dog of tears. The dog will bark holes in the last page of the book and lead her through one of them. There they are, the dog of tears and the woman who wept. His nails click on the rough stones. She who can no longer see begins to tell a story. They pass the street of crocodiles, the pool of tears, the hill of forty days and the hill of forty nights. They pass the little seahorse in its salty pool. They pass a white rose, a black swan, a blue biddy. The dog kills another hen and they roast it over a small fire. They can hear the sea, its fronding on smooth sand, its talking against rocks, its clapotis bouncing off stone walls. What might we not do with the hot bones dripping fat, she says. Two birds rise into the air on wings the colour of ash. Did you hear that she asks the dog licking away the salt on her cheeks.
The boy in his green turban the girl in her purple tunic dancing around each other under the old clock on the waterfront. Voices float in the morning air. One says, I had always imagined Paradise as a kind of library. The other replies, It is a bowl that one fills and fills.
©Michele Leggott, Vanishing Points Auckland University Press 2017
Auckland University Press page
Jack Ross’s blog The Imaginary Museum – his extended launch coverage
You’re dreaming. In the
dream you fall asleep and dream
you’re writing. If to
write is to reflect
what you’ve already read, and
thus to reread, to
read is also to
rewrite. What are you saying?
Wake up, you tell me.
©James Brown 2017
And for an extra sample you can read the magnificent ‘Janet and John Go to the Book Launch’ here
The launch speech:
James Brown comes from Palmerston North
There are numerous questions that arise, like a lowland mist, from this collection, as from all of James Brown’s books: For a start, why did he ever leave his home-town of Palmerston North, to which he is so manifestly linked. Or maybe he did never leave? Or when is he due back there?
Taking this, Brown’s sixth poetry collection, as a kind of provocation, two Fridays ago I drove north to Palmerston North and checked in for the night at the Hotel Coachman, a neo-Tudor confection on Fitzherbert Avenue. Not far from ground zero—the address where Brown spent his formative years—I had decided to read this new collection on its home turf—on the south side of ‘the bustling go-ahead city at the heart of the Manawatu Plains’ as Brown once memorably wrote.
According to the Palmerston North Creative Giants website:
‘Of all Palmerston North’s Creative Giants, poet and short fiction writer James Brown stands out…’ Expectations of the new book were, accordingly, running very high in Room 102 of the Hotel Coachman. In the company of an increasing platoon of sopping tea-bags and an intermittently boiling kettle, I lay down and made my way across the flat, bicycle-friendly territory of Floods Another Chamber. . .
Despite the fact she appears in Brown’s new collection a much-remarked-upon four times, Jenny Bornholdt had earlier in the day declined the invitation to accompany me northwards on this hyper-literary excursion. . . Alone, I was consigned to my carpark-facing double room—$160 the night, which included breakfast in a rowdy dining area filled with travelling salesmen and at least one sports team. While the scrambled eggs resembled a Manawatu wetland and the spread, generally, was lacklustre, I was up to my ears in Brown’s book by breakfast time, which made it all not so bad. In fact it was as if James Brown had scripted the whole thing.
Later I drove past the Palmerston North Public Hospital, where the poet was born at 12.40am on April the 1st, 1966; a moment’s respectful silence, also, near the birthplace of Sarah Laing and the childhood home of Karl Maughan—and on Broadway Avenue where painter Pat Hanly, aged 15, was an apprentice hairdresser at Bert Pratt Limited.
The early things in life determine how we evolve. In Brown’s villanelles and quatrains, I can detect the orderly grid of the Palmerston North street plan, and the inspirational, idiot wind that crosses it. This is the place where, as Brown writes in ‘Childhood’, the days ‘inched by… Glue, glitter, galaxies. Things shone. Broke. You laughed / until you cried. There was no escape.’
While James Brown delights in poetic constraints, and is dazzling within them, he can also blast away and, like the late night motorists on Fitzherbert St, has been known to throw beer-cans and drop donuts, or their literary equivalent. . . On the subject of provincial psychology, ‘Erotic Snowdome’, from the new book, contains possibly the best, rudest line in all of New Zealand verse—or first-equal with Hera Lindsay Bird. (You’ll have to read the poem to discover this for yourselves.)
Brown is the New Zealand poet laureate of torpor, resignation and exhaustion (or maybe loss of interest), with intermittent bouts of fanatical bicycle riding. The miracle is that he can make it all so interesting and darkly humorous and weirdly moving. The poems are characterised by a process of subtle inversion whereby the personal is rendered impersonal and the impersonal becomes personal. The end result is a poetry that is simultaneously lop-sided and true. At times, it’s like L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, but definitely, to use a word from Brown’s book, funner. . .
Like the hometown, the poetry gains a certain intensity through its sprawl, pragmatism, volubility and absence of long term planning. . . Just as Palmerston North has its New Zealand Rugby Museum, Brown embraces the sacred paddock and has written the odd rugby poem (most recently ‘True Blood’ in Warm Auditorium). For such a flat place, Palmerston North casts a long shadow. Echoing the city’s single Beds R Us outlet—at 133 Rangitikei St—Floods Another Chamber includes a similarly stocked poem titled ‘Beds R Us’. . . With its conference centre, in-house training and local dialect, the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa—Brown’s recent long-term place of employment—configures in much of his poetry as a kind of rehash of Palmerston North, but on three or four levels.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, there are a great many poems in Floods Another Chamber about the other place, Wellington, but as any true son or daughter of Palmerston North will tell you, Wellington is only the southernmost suburb of Palmy—a feeder city or satellite. All roads, as indeed all bike lanes, lead to the one true Square.
After giving a talk at the Palmerston North art gallery—which was the other reason for my trip north two weeks ago—I fell into a conversation with a member of the audience, a district planner. When I put it to him that Palmerston North was just a theme park based on James Brown’s poetry, he appeared not to hear me and proceeded to outline, in some detail, the myriad cycle lanes that the council was now investing in—riverside bike trails, designated lanes, scenic diversions. . . According to my new friend, the place would soon be like Copenhagen—although with Fonterra and DB in the ’hood, and the Manawatu River rolling through and occasionally flooding everything. Having just read James Brown’s new book, it was crystal clear to me that the city was preparing itself for the imminent return of its most illustrious son, its cyclist-poet laureate.
Floods Another Chamber is our latest, biggest chance to bask in the life and work of a genuine Creative Giant of Palmerston North and of everywhere in the world that does not call itself Palmerston North. The overnight trip to Palmy is an optional extra. In some very fundamental ways, this indispensable collection will take you there anyway.
Gregory O’Brien October 2017
James Brown’s previous poetry collections include Go Round Power Please (1995), which won the Jessie Mackay Best First Book Award, Lemon (1999), Favourite Monsters (2002), The Year of the Bicycle (2006), and Warm Auditorium (2012), as well as the useful nonfiction booklet Instructions for Poetry Readings (2005). He edited The Nature of Things: Poems from the New Zealand Landscape (Craig Potton Publishing, 2005), the literary magazine Sport from 1993 to 2000, and the online anthology Best New Zealand Poems 2008. James teaches the Poetry Workshop at Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters.
Victoria University Press warmly invites you to the launch of
James Brown’s brand new poetry collection
Floods Another Chamber
on Wednesday 4 October, 6pm–7.30pm
at The Guest Room, Southern Cross Garden Bar,
39 Abel Smith St, Te Aro.
Greg O’Brien will launch Floods Another Chamber
Books will be for sale courtesy of Unity Books.
About Floods Another Chamber
Elizabeth Smither with Rusty and Sneaky
‘The Labradors have made nests already
simply by lying in the long grass
sucking the green into their bodies’
from ‘Lying in the long grass between two black Labradors’ in Night Horse
I recently read through the alluring stretch of Elizabeth Smither’s poetry; from Here Come the Clouds published in 1975, to the new collection, Night Horse, just released by Auckland University Press. I was drawn into melodious lines, pocket anecdotes, bright images and enviable movement. Harry Ricketts talked about the transformative quality of Elizabeth’s poems in an interview with Kathryn Ryan, and I agree. As you follow reading paths from the opening line, there is always some form of transformation. The poetry, from debut until now, is meditative, andante, beautiful.
Elizabeth Smither has written 18 collections of poetry, five novels, five short story collections, journals, essays and reviews. She was New Zealand’s Poet Laureate (2001-3), was awarded the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry in 2008, the same year she received an Hon D. Litt from Auckland University. She has appeared widely at festivals and her work has been published in Australia, USA and UK.
To celebrate Night Horse (Auckland University Press, 2017), Elizabeth agreed to answer a few questions.
‘You can run as fast as Atalanta
who bowled three apples at her suitors
Double Red Delicious’
from ‘An apple tree for Ruby’ in Night Horse
What sparked your imagination as a child? Was reading a main attraction or did you also write? Did particular books endure?
Reading and writing. I liked to say long sentences to myself as I walked. The first thing I can remember writing about was my pet New Zealand White rabbit. All the usual books of the period: Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, A Girl of the Limberlost which I found faintly terrifying. I can see these are the precursors of George Eliot and Jane Austen. As a teenager I had a crush on French writers: Colette, Gide, Mauriac, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Simenon. My father was a great novel reader and he impressed on me the sacrifices made by writers like Charles Dickens. I was scared of Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop and never got past the page on which he appeared.
‘The cats are out by the letterboxes
at the ends of long driveways
waiting to see how the night will shape itself.’
from ‘Cat night’ in Night Horse
Your debut poetry collection, Here Come the Clouds, appeared in 1975, your eighteenth volume, Night Horse, was published in June this year. I see the same poetic attentiveness and ability to assemble detail that both stalls and surprises the reader. Do you see any changes in the way your write poems, or what you bring to poems, over the past decades?
Elizabeth Caffin wrote of an assured voice but I am unaware of it. I think it is more a question of a philosophy: Keats being lost in the leaves of a tree; being most ourselves when we are unconscious of what the self is; not feeling we are the centre of the universe but one of its parts. It is also a balancing act: the outside world meeting the interior; the sad existing alongside the pleasing, our mixed motives and our inability to ever know more than a fraction. In compensation we have the lovely leap of the imagination. I think poetry in many ways is a dare.
Have any poets or books affected or boosted your poetic directions?
Wallace Stevens was a huge discovery. I used to spend a year reading a major poet. Stevens, Roethke, Berryman, Plath, Sexton, Bishop, Lowell, Synder, The Beats, Black Mountain. Now I am less of a swot and read wherever I please. And when I am tired and jaded I re-read Hercule Poirot.
‘More moon tonight. 14 per cent bigger
and closer to the earth. The whole sky
seems to leap to greet a visitor.’
from ‘Perigee moon’ in Night Horse
In 1975, very few women poets were getting published in New Zealand. Did you feel you were writing within a community of poets? Men or women? Was it difficult to get your first book out?
Part community, part social movement: Greer, Friedan, Steinem, Kedgley, Mead. The United Women’s Convention. We were all swallowing American poets at that time, looking for a freer way forward. My first book I owe to Sam Hunt who was visiting and found a folder of poems he gave to Alister Taylor. After Alister came McIndoe and then AUP.
‘Fast the pulse of the music, every beat
clear as a little stream running over stones’
from ‘At the ballet’ in Night Horse
Your new collection is a delight to read and offers so many poetic treats. I was thinking as I read that your poems are like little jackets that can be worn inside out and outside in. In stillness there is movement and in movement there is stillness; in musicality there is plainness and in plainness there is musicality. In the strange there is the ordinary and in the ordinary there is the strange. What do you like your poems to do?
I want them to do everything. Everything at once. I want them to feel and think (and feel the thinking in them as you read). I want them to be quick, in the old sense of the word: the opposite of dead. I want them to not know something and try to find it out – I would never write a poem with prior knowledge – I think ignorance can be bliss or at least start the motor. And as I write more I find out more and more about musicality. Isn’t one of the loveliest moments in music when harmony breaks through discord as though it is earned and you know that discord, instead of being a thicket or a dark wood, is part of it?
‘Down their sleeves (his jacket, her blouse)
run currents the early evening stars detect
and whose meaning is held in great museums’
from ‘Holding hands’ in Night Horse
I love that idea! What attracts you in the poetry of others?
Boldness, form (the pressure of it), language as clear as it can be, given the difficulty or otherwise of the content, not being self-centred, engaging the reader. Visceral was the quality Allen Curnow looked for when I had the temerity to leave a poem in his letterbox. ‘I poked it with a stick and it was alive.’ James Brown does it in ‘Flying Fuck’ (‘The Spinoff, June 9, 2017); Stephen Romer in some lines about cleaning a barn (‘Carcanet Eletter: Set Thy Love in Order)
‘Perhaps in our cool northern air
you rose some echelons
being lighter, the barn empty’
while Carol Ann Duffy excoriates Theresa May with lines that reach back to the roots of poetry:
‘The furious young
ran towards her through fields of wheat.’
‘Morals that are so pure they blaze
the sunlight back into the air’
from ‘A landscape of shining of leaves’ in Night Horse
Janet Frame worked hard to get the rhythm right in her poems and she wasn’t always satisfied (ah, the rogue self-doubt! I adore her musical effects). I find you are able to slow down the pace of your poems so that I linger as reader upon an image, a word, an anecdote, a side-thought to see what surfaces. Does this reflect your process as a writer?
I think, since I write in longhand, it may echo the pauses during composition.
Do you, like Janet and countless other poets, have poetry anxieties?
Just the big anxiety, the generalised one. To be better, to get closer, to go deeper, knowing that a rigorous equation awaits. I particularly felt this in ballet: any advance, even within the safety of a spotlight, opened a further and equivalent unknown. My other anxiety is that, having embarked on a poem at speed and decided on a stanza form, the stanzas won’t add up when I have finished.
‘Eggs in foil were hidden everywhere
until the taste of sweetness palled.
She sits in an armchair with her bear’
from ‘Ruby and fruit’ in Night Horse
Your poetry does not slip into a self-confession or grant a window on your most private life, yet it acts as an autobiographical record of your relations with the world, people, animals and objects. How do you see the relationship between autobiography and your poems?
Some of the recent autobiographical poems remind me a little of Elgar’s ‘Enigma Variations’. Ruminating portraits of friends or events illustrating a friend. The ‘Enigma Variations’ are tender but well-defined, different in tone. Autobiography, to me, has many hazards. We all excuse ourselves and even the most honest and analytic among us favour some perspectives over others. I feel confident that something of ourselves always gets in and reveals more than we can imagine. ‘Am I in this poem?’ has never worried me. I know I am.
Are there taboo areas?
No, never. It’s just a case of what you can handle.
‘It was all those unseen moments we do not see
the best of a friend, the best of a mother
competent and gracious in her solitude’
from ‘My mother’s house’ in Night Horse
‘Later you’ll scrub individual stains
from the white field: the rim of someone’s glass
down which a red droplet ran, a smear
of eggy quiche, a buttered crumb.’
from ‘The tablecloth’ in Night Horse
I especially love the ongoing friendship and granddaughter poems, but I particularly love the first poem, ‘My mother’s house.’ Kate Camp and I heard you read this at the National Library’s Circle of Laureates and were so moved and uplifted that we asked for copies! Unseen, you are observing your mother move through the house from the street (you gave us this introduction) and see her in shifting lights. The moment is extraordinary; are we are at our truest self when we are not observed? There is the characteristic Smither movement through the poem, slow and attentive, to the point of tilt or surprise. The final lines reverberate and alter the pitch of looking: ‘but she who made it/who would soon walk into the last room/of her life and go to sleep in it.’ Do you have a poem or two in the collection that particularly resonate with you?
I’m fond of ‘The tablecloth’ after I observed my friend, Clay, scrubbing at a corner of a white damask tablecloth in the laundry after a dinner party. It reminded me of the old-fashioned way of washing linen in a river. It’s both a doll-sized tablecloth and something almost as large as the tablecloth for a royal banquet around which staff walk, measuring the placement of cutlery and the distance between each chair. ‘Ukulele for a dying child’ tumbles all over itself in an incoherent manner because the subject is so serious and no poet can do it justice. The grandmother poems will probably be ongoing because it is such an intense experience: something between a hovering angel and a lioness. Going back to your remark about ‘My mother’s house’ I agree with the truth that is available in our unobserved moments. Perhaps there is a balance between our social and our private moments which might comprise something Keats called ‘soul-making’.
‘Next morning she was called again
to undo the work of her marvellous wrists.
“Miss Bowerman, can you let out the water?”‘
from ‘Miss Bowerman and the hot water bottles’ in Night Horse
There is no formula for an ending but I often get an intake of breath, a tiny heart skip when I read your poems. What do you like endings to do?
The endings I like best have some extravagance in them, like the ending of ‘Cat Night’ where the road which still retains the day’s warmth turns into carriages and cocottes on the Champs-Elysées.
‘Let the street lights mark
the great promenade down which love will come
like black carriages on the Champs-Elysées.’
There’s a big difference between the size of a cat and a carriage but the emotion is the same.
Which New Zealand poets have you read in the past year or so that have struck or stuck?
Diana Bridge, Claire Orchard, John Dennison, yourself in New York, Michael Harlow, Geoff Cochrane and all the laureates.
Or from elsewhere?
Lots of Australians. I’ve just read Rosemary Dobson’s Collected Poems.
Do you read widely in other genres?
Yes, I particularly like hybrid forms – travelogues that turn into miniature poetry collections, diaries, memoirs that admit to no rules as if they understand the psychology of the reader who is liable to become bored, and also the limits of being an author. My main love remains the novel, followed closely by the short story and the detective story.
I was once asked to pick a single New Zealand poem I love to talk about on Summer Noelle. What poem would you pick?
Since Allen Curnow: Simply by Sailing in a New Direction, a biography by Terry Sturm, edited by Linda Cassells and Allen Curnow: Collected Poems, edited by Elizabeth Caffin and Terry Sturm are being published by AUP later this year, and since our pohutukawa are threatened by myrtle rust, I would pick ‘Spectacular Blossom’.
‘ – Can anyone choose
And call it beauty? – The victims
Are always beautiful.’
Booksellers review by Emma Shi
Radio NZ National review by Harry Ricketts with Kathryn Ryan
The longer the week drags on, the more I realise I’m not going to be able to write anything creative for Paula. I feel flat and dull. I’d finally handed a poetry manuscript to VUP the previous week and am in a post-hand-in slump.
Paula had provided a long list of words as sparks, but now I couldn’t face the decision I would have to make if I returned to them. The tyranny of choice. I recall there were a lot of poetic words – ‘lilt’ was one – and of course ‘cycling’ had caught my eye. But I don’t want to write about cycling. I’m also not even sure what I’m supposed to produce. Should I be writing a poem?
It’s like I’m struggling with one of the creative writing exercises I set my students at the IIML, and I begin to think about creative sparks – when something takes off and when it doesn’t. And, let’s be honest, mostly things don’t. If I could sit down and write a book of poems like I’m typing this, it would take about a week. My last poetry book took seven years. Not full-time, of course, but I suddenly realise how much of my writing takes place off the page. Gazing around, thinking, reading, listening to music, people, nothing … actually writing is only part of it. I recently read (some of) The Writer’s Room by Charlotte Wood – a book of interviews with writers. I didn’t recognise any poets; certainly the interviewees I read were prose writers and they presented themselves as impressively diligent, rising early to pound out word counts, often leaving off mid-flight or sentence so they could jump straight back into the action the next morning without wasteful floundering.
I wonder how different the process is for poets. The poetry writer’s room, if there’s a room at all, would, I imagine, witness much less keyboard action. For me, poetry writing is beset with guilty spaces. But like the prose writers, I too have to leave off poems and return to them – they’re rarely completed in one sitting – though it may be several days before I can get back to them. Time and space are good for those poems I kid myself are finished, but not for a poem still trying to ignite. The initial spark may go out. Poetry is a bit like lighting a fire: you often have to wander away to gather fuel, but you need to return and keep blowing on it for it to really take hold and raze everything in your suburb – or however far it’s going to travel.
Okay, most poems are more candle than bushfire, but what makes some reach ignition temperature and some not? I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no special formula for mine (though I can think of things that don’t help), but they generally begin with an idea, phrase or word that interests me. I got a couple of poems out of the word ‘hibiscus’. And this very week, flat and dull as I feel, I tried to get a poem going using a particular kind of word. The result so far has been amusing, but pointless. I also created a small found poem using a couple of sentences from a friend’s email. I wonder if my interest in found poetry stems from being averse to poetry’s emotive and moralistic excesses.
At this point I remember Paula saying something about ‘a couple of paragraphs’. Eek. I was just getting going. Maybe there is something in triggers and deadlines.
©James Brown 2017
James Brown’s new poetry collection, probably called /Floods Another Chamber/, will be published by VUP later in 2017.