Tag Archives: James Brown

Poetry Shelf interviews James Brown

The plain words—the best ones—

you couldn’t give them away.

 

from ‘No Trick Pony’

What a delight to see Selected Poems from James Brown arrive in 2020 (Victoria University Press). Like a number of poetry books out in the first year of COVID, I am not sure it got the attention it deserved (see below for some reviews and poem links). James’s debut collection, the terrific Go Round Power Please (1995), won the Jessie Mackay Best First Book Award for Poetry, and like so many recipients of this award, he has published a number of further collections and has gathered a significant fan club. Me included. Pick up a James Brown collection and expect to laugh out loud and feel a heart twinge in the same glorious reading breath. He has edited Sport (1993 – 2000), an issue of Best New Zealand Poems (2008) and The Nature of things: Poems from the New Zealand Landscape (Craig Potton, 2005). He teaches creative writing at the International institute of Modern Letters.

The interview

Paula: Reading your Selected Poems has been like catching up with old friends. I have loved moving through samples from your terrific debut collection Go Round Power Please (1995) through Lemon (1999), Favourite Monsters (2002), The Year of the Bicycle (2006), Warm Auditorium (2012) to the most recent Floods Another Chamber (2017). Plus the nonfiction booklet Instructions for Poetry Readings (2005). I kept wanting to tap someone on the shoulder and say, hey listen to this!

What were the delights and challenges in making the book?

James: It was mostly a challenge. I was hellish busy at the time and it was difficult to immerse myself in the process, which probably wouldn’t have made that much difference to the end result, but would’ve been more fun for me. Nothing like a good wallow in your own missteps. There were a few delights. ‘University Open Day’. And, much to my surprise, I was pleased with Warm Auditorium and Floods Another Chamber, which I’d kind of turned on. I was disappointed by ‘The Language of the Future’, which is a flagship poem in Lemon.

People kept saying Vet was the best.

It had the cow with the glass panel.

Actually, the panel wasn’t that interesting,

sort of dark and red. The cow

was eating hay in a small concrete room.

Mostly it just ate. but now and then

it would look sadly round at everyone,

and that’s when I got to thinking

about Philosophy.

The department wasn’t easy to find.

It turned out to be a single office

down a badly lit corridor.

A faded note on the door said

‘Back in 10’. And so

my education began.

from ‘University Open Day’

The process confirmed for me that what I enjoy most about poetry is writing it. And I’m happy for that process to take forever. I even updated a stanza about the Palmerston North Panthers stockcar team in ‘I Come from Palmerston North’. My past self would’ve written poems and sent them to literary outlets and they wouldn’t have become quite real until they were published. My present self is content with the writing.

Paula: I feel the same way. Patricia Grace said a similar thing at AWF this year. It is the writing that matters. In your first collection you were a whizz at similes. I liken them to picnic clearings. I just wanted to let them reverberate visually, semantically, surprisingly. And then they become less and less of a feature in your writing. Do you think your poetry has changed over the decades?

Now the light breaks

across his shoulders like

pieces of some great glass elevator

he may have been waiting for

for years.

from ‘Creation’

James: It surprises me to hear that because I’ve never thought of myself as a simile poet – in fact, quite the opposite. So much so that when I do drop one in I feel all pleased and writerly, like wow, a simile, I’m a proper writer. I’m sometimes a bit suspicious of similes because you can link almost anything to an abstraction. The poem ‘Their Feelings’ you published plays on that: feelings can be like anything. I once wrote a long poem called ‘Small Obligations’ (Sport 9) that was an endless list of similes which all joined to each other. It’s a catastrophic failure. Hera could probably make the idea work.

What was the question? Has my poetry changed? Some earlier poems were obsessed with notions of representation – postmodern stuff I’d studied at uni. Compiling the Selected, I was shocked to see how often self-referential moments appear in my poems. Power relations – how power doesn’t always flow in clichéd, expected directions – were another early interest. I’m still fascinated by power, but less so about representation.

I’ve always loved narrative and I think I’ve got better at it. A lot of my poems are little stories. Stuff happens.

Humour is also an important part of my poetry. There are so many things jokes can teach writers. I worry my poetry has become less funny. Maybe I’ve become sadder.

But my poems don’t always reflect my feelings or attitudes. People always assume poems are autobiographical, but mine are a mixture of my life, other people’s lives, and pure invention. My relationship poems often involve fictional characters, but try convincing people of that. More of my later poems are autobiographical – and I worry they’re the worse for it.

Paula: I find humour is a constant. So many times I laugh out loud. As Bill Manhire says, you are adept at being funny and serious in the one poem (take ‘Willie’s First English Book’ for instance). So many examples – loved ‘Loneliness’ in which the speaker spots Elvis walking across the quad; ‘Identifying New Zealand Birdsong’ with not a bird to be heard; or the wicked lesson with wine gums in ‘Capitalism Explained’. And I laughed out loud at the small poem ‘Flying Fuck’.


James:
Thank you, it’s nice you see the humour as a constant. I worry it’s diminished. I’ve sometimes purposely structured poems as jokes (eg, ‘Maintenance’). ‘Willie’s First English Book’ is actually a found poem, and I’ve transcribed the 100 Mahi from two of William Colenso’s books, and think they’d make a great little book of found prose poems. ‘Flying Fuck’ struck a chord with people. One good thing about writing different styles of poems, which I do, is that some throwaway experiment or off-quilter gag might become someone’s favourite poem!

Paula: I love Emma Barnes’s recent debut I Am in Bed with You that is funny, serious and surreal in equal measures. And Erik Kennedy. Any New Zealand poets who make you laugh?

James: Ha – I took a simile of Erik Kennedy’s and built a poem called Liking Similes around it. At first, I found his simile ‘Here, the cicadas sing like Christian women’s choirs / in a disused cotton mill’ slightly ridiculous, so I decided to unpack it, to try to make it work, and by the time I got to the end of the poem, it did! Now I can’t hear cicadas without thinking of Christian women’s choirs in a disused cotton mill. Very annoying.

I can reel off some overseas poets who’ve make me laugh recently: Louis Jenkins (Where Your House is Now), Miles Burrows (Waiting for the Nightingale), Kimmy Walters (Killers), and Joe Dunthorne (O Positive).


Ashleigh Young’s poems are very funny! Bill Manhire’s latest book Wow. Hinemoana Baker’s funkhaus juggles humour and seriousness without dropping either. That’s a sign of a good, funny poem: if I read it and think it’s hilarious, then I read it again another time and think it’s actually really sad or serious. Nick Ascroft. Tayi Tibble. Sam Duckor-Jones. Am eagerly awaiting Rangikura and Party Legend (love the title poem!) to arrive in my letterbox.

The sun was clouded

—but it wasn’t gonna rain.

The sky was the colour of water

far off.

from ‘Statement After the Fact’

Paula: I like the continuing presence of rain and birdsong – little anchors no matter what else the poem is doing. Any motifs that persist?

James: Rain is probably ubiquitous in poetry. I like weather generally. As I am a carless person, I have to deal with it directly. Cars maybe – because I’m not a fan of them. Water is probably a big recurring element. Light, for sure. But these are hardly exceptional to me. I’m not that conscious of my motifs. Each poem has its own world that requires its own details. As I become an older poet, ahem, I’ve become aware of maybe writing a poem similar to one I’ve already written, which is maybe why I like to take on different characters and forms.

The day I stopped writing poetry

I felt strangely serene.

Back when I started, I had no idea

what I was trying to do: get something out, perhaps,

and I suppose ‘art’ had something

to do with it. There’s a tempting simplicity

about poetry; you don’t necessarily need

the room, the desk, the glowing typewriter

—a scrap of paper and pencil will suffice.

Some of my tidier lines often came to me

on the bus or while I was just lumping along;

they’d be dancing or singing away in my head

while I grinned helplessly at the passing world

until I could arrange to meet them somewhere.

from ‘The Day I Stopped Writing Poetry’

Paula: I also like the way the making of poetry is not kept hidden. I just love ‘The Day I stopped Writing Poetry’. I got curious. What do poems need? Any rules? Anything?

James: Hmmm. Poems have no rules, and yet they set up their own rules, usually really quickly – as in the first few lines. Things like tone, layout, punctuation. It’s quite hard for a poem to deviate too far from its initial ‘rules’, and if it does, it either feels wrong or abrupt shifts in register become one of its rules.

What do poems need? Can I take that back to the source and answer what do poets need? An ear for the intricate registers of language. The ability to read and be moved by poetry. If you don’t like reading poetry, how can you write it? So writing poetry is as much about being able to hear as it is about making yourself heard. Some poets perhaps focus too much on the latter …

Paula: Sometimes you question whether a particular poem is actually a poem. I so know that feeling even though I am trying not to follow in a long line of self-doubting women. Is it a playful choice suggesting poetry can be anything or perhaps a signpost to doubt?

James: The Guardian once posed this question to readers:



Can anyone

tell me if this

is a poem

or not?


My answer is, yes (it has line-breaks), but it’s not a particularly good one. The line between poetry and prose is blurred, and some of my efforts certainly lean more toward prose. It’s not possible to say whether something is or isn’t a poem. Sometimes I read prose poems and think they’re actually prose, whereas sometimes I read prose (eg, Willie’s First English Book) and hear poetry. Lots of odd books get called poetry simply because publishers are unsure how to categorise them. Kenneth Goldsmith’s, for example. Finally, there’s just good writing and bad writing, by which I mean writing you like and writing you don’t like and the vast continuum between those poles.

‘Son,’ he kept saying, ‘son’. Then he turned to me to see

how I was doing. I was concentrating on the fogged up world

out the fogged up window, but his wet, hopeless face

somehow found a way through and got deep inside me, and,

try as I might, I have never been able to shake it out

my whole life long.

from ‘The End of the Runway’

Paula: I was really affected by the poems that get personal but are all quite different. Take ‘The Bicycle’ for example, a poem that highlights a beloved childhood gift. Am I imagining this but did you once compare writing a poem to riding a bicycle? I love the poignant scene of parents tending to a wet toddler in ‘Feeding the Ducks’. Oh and the glorious comic / raw-edged thread in ‘Family Planning’. And more than anything, the heart ripping ‘The End of the Runway’. OMG this poem tore. I have no idea what the personal – fiction mix is but it is a little beauty.

Do you have no-go zones when it comes to personal subject matter? Confession?

James: I have compared riding up a hill to writing poetry – the link being suffering. There are lots of things I wouldn’t write about. I feel it’s unfair to write about friends and family in ways that might hurt them. Well, I might write a poem, but I wouldn’t publish it. I’ve certainly got poems I think are good that I’ll never publish.  

As said, my poetry is less autobiographical than people think. ‘The Bicycle’, for example, is based on experience, but isn’t entirely true. I did not love my bicycle as a kid, but I had one I really liked as an adult. The feelings in ‘The End of the Runway’ are genuine, but many of the details I use to generate them are imagined.

My new book that VUP are publishing next year is anchored around three long, confessional poems. They were hard for me to write. I’d tried to write about one incident on and off for years. I’m very reliant on VUP as to whether they’re successful as poems because for me writing them was really a kind of therapy.

Paula: Anne French likens you to a bricoleur and I can see why. Under your guidance a poem can hold many things. I wonder how it could possibly work and then the poem becomes an effervescent tablet on the tongue. Are you still drawn to this?

James: Do you mean am I still drawn to bricolage? Well, I think the English language is a bricolage. Sometimes I set out to hijack certain registers – like the official names of Barbie dolls in ‘Ken, Barbie, and Me’. ‘Alt. Country’ mimics the ‘straight talkin’ voice of Americana music. Perhaps my poems are bricolages because my own voice is an assemblage of different language registers – song lyrics, advertising speak, clichés, and very occasionally an original turn of phrase.

Paula: Perhaps the funniest piece was the booklet, Instructions for Poetry Readings. I kept thinking of excruciating occasions where a poet hogs everyone else’s time, or has no idea what they are going to read so have to shuffle through pages and books, or spends twenty times longer on an intro than the poem itself. What prompted you to write this booklet?

James: I wrote it at a time when I was going to a lot of poetry readings. They are, as I’m sure you know, strangely ritualistic events. No matter where you are in the country, they follow similar formats, and the characters you meet are strangely familiar. The haiku writer, the political poet, the lustful poet, the poems about cats. You encounter the same highs and lows, so I thought it was about time someone wrote a booklet outlining how everyone ought to behave. So I created a pseudonym, Dr Ernest M. Bluespire (after the James Tate poem ‘Teaching the Ape to Write Poems’), and Fergus published it as a chapbook. Some people thought the author was Steve Braunias because the publisher we concocted was Braunias University Press. I somehow forgot to put any of this in the Notes in the Selected Poems.

I’m actually a big fan of poetry readings and those who organise them.

Paula: Have you been to memorable poetry readings (in a good way)? I am thinking of Bill Manhire at Going West (sublime!). Tusiata Avia (I just get split into heart atoms). Listening to Emma Neale (the music mesmerising).

James: They start to blur now. Bill Manhire is always worth crossing the road for. I was transfixed by Mary Ruefle’s reading; it was like an incantation. James Fenton was great. Robert Hass. Dinah Hawken brings a quiet power to her readings. Tusiata Avia is a great performer of her poems. I’m not usually a fan of performance poetry. The poetry needs to stand on its own.

Paula: Oh envious of hearing Mary. This feels like an impossible question but any poems in the selection that have really hit the mark for you over the decades?

James: A couple could’ve been cut, but I’m happy with the selection. Here’s
Bill Manhire reading ‘University Open Day’.

Paula: Are you a voracious reader? Any poetry books that have affected you in the last few years?

James: I dunno about voracious. Actual Air by David Berman really affected me. It took me a month to read it. Pins by Natalie Morrison. There’s a new poetry book by Tim Grgec called All Tito’s Children that has the most beautiful, effortless writing.

Paula: Ah Pins is sublime. When you first started writing?

James: Do you mean influences when I first started writing? Bill Manhire and Jenny Bornholdt. Charles Simic. Lots of people.

Paula: Any books in other genres you have loved in the past year?

James: A couple of novels I’ve liked: Elif Batuman (The Idiot) and, less so, Jenny Offill (Weather). I reread John Steinbeck’s novella ‘The Pearl’ over the weekend, and thought it a masterful piece of storytelling. The tension! Also The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. And I’m a secret member of the South Wellington Branch of the Magnus Mill’s Fan Club.

Paula: If you were able to curate a poetry reading inviting poets from any time or place who would you line up?

James: Joe Dunthorne, Emily Dickinson, Philip Larkin, Jorie Graham, Alice Oswald, Gertrude Stein. Which is why I’d never be allowed to curate a poetry reading.

Paula:  Oh i would go to that one in a flash! There is more to life than poetry. What else gives you comfort, stimulation, mind and heart boosts?

James: I still get out for a mountain-bike ride once a week, though in the last few years I’ve exchanged mountain-biking at weekends for walking with friends. I listen to a lot of music and odd audio. I read, but not enough. I find reading hard to do around other things because for me it’s immersive. I work from home so spend my days by myself, which I don’t mind, but it does mean I get out of practice speaking.

Paula: Of all writing forms poetry is least likely to put food in the cupboards, pay a mortgage (as you muse on in poems). It is scantly reviewed, is side-staged at festivals, sells less. Yet on the other hand I find our poetry communities are thriving. Exciting. Any thoughts on life as a poet in 2021?

James: The Wellington poetry communities (and I love that there are a number of them) are abuzz with activity. Anyone who writes poetry for fame and/or fortune has taken a wrong turn. So poets need jobs. But poetry is easier to fit around a job than longer forms of writing. Yes, you might work on a poem for years, but they sometimes arrive in your head almost fully formed. Mostly though, poetry is hard work. I suspect life as a poet in 2021 isn’t that different from life as a poet in 1991 (when I was finding my feet), except for rent. New Zealand’s investor-encouraging property market and extortionist rents are probably impacting on reading and writing by forcing people to work longer hours. A lot of New Zealand’s problems go back to land in the end.

Victoria University Press page

Harry Ricketts review on Nine to Noon (Radio NZ National)

Anna Livesey review at ANZL

Jamnes Brown ‘Liking Similes’ at The Spin Off

James Brown ‘Flying Fuck’ at The Spin Off

New James Brown poem on Poetry Shelf ‘Their Feelings’

Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: James Brown’s ‘Their Feelings’

Their Feelings



Their feelings are like a mosquito sliding
its proboscis into a freckle. Their feelings are like
light through blinds in an 80s music video.
Their feelings are like techno under aurora in Norway.
Their feelings are like swimming in sunlit sea and
seeing a shadow. Their feelings are like when they’ve
taken bath salts that turn out to be bath salts, and they
end up in A&E and their mothers have flown in from
Hamilton and are holding their hands and crying, but
all they can think about is how their lives have become a
TV hospital soap which they could have been written out of
or out of which they could have been written.
Their feelings are like a Mindful Self Compassion course
when someone asks where the hyphen goes in the title
and the convenor says ‘Anywhere’ and the person says
‘I don’t think this is what I am looking for.’

James Brown

James Brown’s Selected Poems was published by VUP in 2020. He is working on a new book.

Poetry Shelf Theme Season: Thirteen poems about water

‘A poem is / a ripple of words / on water wind-huffed’

Hone Tuwhare

from ‘Wind, Song and Rain’ in Sap-wood & Milk, Caveman Press, 1972

The ocean is my go-to salve. Before we went into level-four lockdown last year, I went to Te Henga Bethells Beach near where I live. I stood by the water’s edge as the sun was coming up. The air was clear and salty. Not a soul in sight. I breathed in and I breathed out, and I saved that sublime moment for later. Like a screen shot. Over the ensuing weeks in lockdown, I was able to return to that spot, my eyes on the water, my senses feeding on wildness and beauty. Look through my poetry collections and you will see I can’t keep the ocean out. It is always there somewhere.

Unsurprisingly there is a profusion of water poems in Aotearoa – think the ocean yes, but lakes and rivers and floods and dripping taps. This was an impossible challenge: whittling all the poems I loved down to a handful. I hadn’t factored in leaving poems out when I came up with my theme-season plan. Some poets are particularly drawn to water. Kiri Piahana-Wong’s sublime collection Night Swimming is like an ode to water. The same can be said of Lynn Davidson’s glorious collections How to Live by the Sea and The Islander. Or read your way through Apirana Taylor’s poems and you will find they are water rich – and his poetry flows like water currents. As does the poetry of Hone Tuwhare. Again water rich. And of course the poetry of Dinah Hawken, with her lyrical eye bringing the natural world closer, water a constant companion.

I have so loved this water sojourn. The poems are not so much about water but have a water presence. I am grateful to all the poets and publishers who continue to support my season of themes.

The poems

Girl from Tuvalu

girl sits on porch

back of house

feet kicking

salt water skimming

like her nation

running fast

nowhere to go

held up by

Kyoto Protocol

An Inconvenient Truth

this week her name is Siligia

next week her name will be

Girl from Tuvalu: Environmental Refugee

her face is 10,000

her land is 10 square miles

she is a dot

below someone’s accidental finger

pointing westwards

the bare-chested boys

bravado in sea spray

running on tar-seal

they are cars

they are bikes

they are fish out of water

moana waves a hand

swallows

a yellow median strip

moana laps at pole houses

in spring tide

gulping lost piglets

and flapping washing

girl sits on porch

kicking

Selina Tusitala Marsh

from Dark Sparring, Auckland University Press, 2013, picked by Amy Brown

The body began to balance itself

It started to rain

and it was not clear

if this would last a short time

or a long time

so I got my husband

and colleagues

and the librarian

and the owner of the local chip shop

and the humourless lady who failed me

on eyesight at the driver licence testing station

into a boat

though it was extremely cramped

and they rowed

out to the open ocean

and sat quiet

and waited.

Louise Wallace

from Bad Things, Victoria University Press, 2017

The Lid Slides Back

Let me open

my pencil-case made of native woods.

It is light and dark in bits and pieces.

The lid slides back.

The seven pencils are there, called Lakeland.

I could draw a sunset.

I could draw the stars.

I could draw this quiet tree beside the water.

Bill Manhire

from The Victims of Lightning, Victoria University Press, 2010

Train of thought

I thought of vitality,

I thought of course of a spring.

I thought of the give inherent

in the abiding nature of things.

I thought of the curve of a hammock

between amenable trees.

I thought of the lake beyond it

calm and inwardly fluent

and then I was thinking of you.

You appeared out of the water

like a saint appearing from nowhere

as bright as a shining cuckoo

then dripping you stood in the doorway

as delighted by friendship as water

and beaming welcomed us in.

Dinah Hawken

The lake

The ripples are small enough. The lake surface is the lake surface is the lake surface. All lakes exist in the same space of memory. Deep dark water. The scent of stones. I think of a swift angle to depth. I think of the sound when you’re underwater and the gravel shifts beneath your feet. I think of all the colours of water that look black, that look wine dark, that look like youth looking back at me. I can barely take it. I can see the lake breathing. I am the lake breathing. The lake breathes and I breathe and the depth of both of us is able to be felt by finger, by phone, by feeling. Don’t ask what you don’t want to know. I ask everything. I want to know nothing, everything, just tell it all to me. The gravel shifts again with the long-range round echo of stones underwater. I am separate parts breathing together. You say that I am a little secret. You say, as your brain seizes, that you have lost the way. Your eyes flicker and flutter under your eyelids as you try to find what’s lost, what’s gone forever. Nothing can really be found. I am never located when I want to be located the most. I am instead still that teenager on the side of the road with a cello hard case for company. I forget I exist. You forget I exist. I’ve forgotten I’ve believed I’ve not existed before. I’ve not forgotten you. Never forgotten your face. Could never. Would never. I don’t know how to communicate this with you in a way that you’ll understand. My mouth waters. I am back in the lake again. Except I’m the lake and I’m water myself.

Emma Barnes

Flow

To the stone, to the hill, to the heap, to the seep,

to the drip, to the weep, to the rock, to the rill,

to the fell, to the wash, to the splash, to the rush,

to the bush, to the creep, to the hush;

to the down, to the plain, to the green, to the drift,

to the rift, to the graft, to the shift, to the break,

to the shake, to the lift, to the fall, to the wall,

to the heft, to the cleft, to the call;

to the bend, to the wend, to the wind, to the run,

to the roam, to the rend, to the seam, to the foam,

to the scum, to the moss, to the mist, to the grist,

to the grind, to the grain, to the dust;

to the core, to the gorge, to the grove, to the cave,

to the dive, to the shore, to the grave, to the give,

to the leave, to the oar, to the spring, to the tongue,

to the ring, to the roar, to the song;

to the surge, to the flood, to the blood, to the urge

to the rage, to the rod, to the rood, to the vein,

to the chain, to the town, to the side, to the slide,

to the breadth, to the depth, to the tide;

to the neap, to the deep, to the drag, to the fog,

to the stick, to the slick, to the sweep, to the twig,

to the roll, to the tug, to the roil, to the shell,

to the swell, to the ebb, to the well, to the sea.

Airini Beautrais

from Flow, Victoria University Press, 2017, picked by Amy Brown

as the tide

i am walking the path

around hobson bay point

nasturtiums grow up the cliff face

and the pitted mud has a scattering

of thick jagged pottery, bricks

faded edam cheese packaging

and a rusty dish rack

all of the green algae

is swept in one direction

i am only aware of the blanketed crabs

when a cloud passes overhead

and they escape in unison

into their corresponding homes

claws nestling under aprons

my dad talks about my depression

as if it were the tide

he says, ‘well, you know,

the water is bound to go in and out’

and to ‘hunker down’

he’s trying to make sense of it

in a way he understands

so he can show me his working

i look out to that expanse,

bare now to the beaks of grey herons, which i realise is me

in this metaphor

Lily Holloway

Ode to the water molecule

 

‘Our body is a moulded river.’ Novalis

 

Promiscuous, by some accounts,

or simply playing the field—

     indecisive, yet so decidedly

yourself, you are

 

all these things: ice flow,

cloud cover,

     bend of a river,

crystalline structure

 

on an aeroplane window, fire-

bucket or drop

in the ocean, dissolver of a morning’s

     tablets or

 

mountain range. We envy you

your irresolution,

          the way you get along

with yourself, as glacier

     or humidity of

 

an overheated afternoon. A glass

of pitch-black water

               drunk at night.

Catchment and run-off. Water,

         we allow you

 

your flat roof and rocky bed

but there are also

          tricks we have taught you:

papal fountain, water

feature, liquid chandelier and

     boiling jug. It is, however,

                 your own mind

 

you make up, adept as you are

          —‘the universal solvent’—

at both piecing together

and tearing apart. With or

 

without us, you find your own

structure, an O and two H’s

                    in the infinity

 

of your three-sidedness, your

     triangulation, at once trinity

and tricycle. Two oars

and a dinghy, rowed.

 

Colourless, but for

‘an inherent hint of blue’,

     molecule in which

we are made soluble, the sum

of our water-based parts—

 

resourceful, exemplary friend

      kindred spirit – not one to jump to

conclusions

as you would traverse a stream, but rather

 

as you would leap in. Fluid,

by nature—given to swimming more than

being swum—

    with rain as your spokesperson,

 

tattooed surface of a river’s

undiluted wonder,

          snowfall and drift,

you enter the flow

 

of each of us, turn us around

     as you turn yourself around

as tears,

     sustenance,

          more tears.

 

Gregory O’Brien

first appeared (in a typeset and ‘drawn’ version) in PN Review 252, in the UK, March-April 2020.

First dusk of autumn here and i swim

through fish flicker through

little erasing tails

 

that rub the seafloor’s light-net out

that ink in night

 

down south winter warms to her task and 

will arrive smelling of wet shale in 

a veil of rain     

 

bats flicker into leaves 

to rub the tree-cast light-net from the grass

to ink in night 

Lynn Davidson

Waiheke

You yearn so much
you could be a yacht.
Your mind has already
set sail. It takes a few days
to arrive

at island pace,
but soon you are barefoot
on the sand,
the slim waves testing
your feet

like health professionals.
You toe shells, sea glass, and odd things
that have drifted for years
and finally
washed up here.

You drop your towel
and step out of
your togs, ungainly,
first
your right foot, then

the other
stepping down
the sand
to stand
in the water.

There is no discernible
difference
in temperature.
You breaststroke in
the lazy blue.

A guy passing in a rowboat
says, ‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’
And it is. Your body
afloat in salt
as if cured.

James Brown

from Poetry, 2018, picked by Frankie McMillan

Mere Taito

Isthmus

Write the sea in your heart, write the rain.

Only that. Words are a poor habit. Let

the wind slide under your ribs let the rain,

for no one will love you the way

you write to be loved,

and your name only a name – but the green

edge of a wave made knifish by light

or some hurtful winter clarity in the water:

a bright sheet of sky against the horizon as if

breathing, as if the air itself

is your own self, waiting. Only there.

And know how your heart is the green deep sea,

dark and clear and untame,

and its chambers are salt and the beating

of waves, and the waves breaking,

and the waves.

Olivia Macassey

from Takahē, issue 90

Deep water talk

In honour of Hone Tuwhare

& no-one knows

if your eyes are

blurred red from

the wind, too

much sun, or the 

tears streaking your

face that could be

tears or just lines of

dried salt, who 

can tell

& you never can tell

if you are seasick,

drunk, or just

hungover—the 

symptoms are the

same

& sea and sky merge

until the horizon is

nothing but an

endless blue line

in every direction, 

so that you are sailing,

not on the sea, as you

thought, but in a

perfectly blue, circular 

bowl, never leaving

the centre

& you wonder who 

is moving, you or

the clouds racing

by the mast-head

& you wonder if

those dark shapes

in the water are 

sharks, shadows, or

nothing but old fears

chasing along behind

you

& the great mass of

land recedes, you 

forget you were

a land-dweller, 

feeling the pull 

of ancient genes

—in every tide, your

blood sings against

the moon

& food never tasted

so good, or water

so sweet—you’ve 

never conserved water

by drinking wine

before—and rum;

and coke; and rum 

and coke; and can

after can of cold

beer

& your sleep is

accompanied, not

by the roar of traffic 

on the highway,

but by the creaks

and twangs of your

ship as she pitches

and moans through

the dark ocean,

all alone

& you wonder—

where did that bird,

that great gull perching

on the bowsprit,

come from?

Kiri Piahana-Wong

from Night Swimming, Anahera Press, 2013

The Poets

Emma Barnes lives and writes in Pōneke / Wellington. They have just released their first book I Am In Bed With You. For the last two years they’ve been working with Chris Tse on an anthology of LGBTQIA+ and Takatāpui writing to be released this year by Auckland University Press. They work in Tech and spend a lot of time picking heavy things up and putting them back down again. 

Airini Beautrais lives in Whanganui and is the author of four poetry collections and a collection of short fiction. Her most recent poetry collection is Flow: Whanganui River Poems (VUP 2017). Bug Week and Other Stories recently won the Ockham NZ Book Fiction Award 2021.

James Brown’s Selected Poems was published by VUP in 2020. He is working on a new book.

Lynn Davidson’s latest poetry collection Islander is published by Shearsman Books and Victoria University Press. She had a Hawthornden Fellowship in 2013 and a Bothy Project Residency at Inshriach Bothy in the Cairngorms in 2016.  In 2011 she was Visiting Artist at Massey University. She won the Poetry New Zealand Poetry Award, 2020 and is the 2021 Randell Cottage Writer in Residence. Lynn has a doctorate in creative writing and teaches creative writing. She recently returned to New Zealand after four years living and writing in Edinburgh.  

Dinah Hawken lives and writes in Paekakariki. Her ninth collection of poetry, Sea-light, will be published by Victoria University Press in August, 2021.

Lily Holloway is a queer nacho-enthusiast. She is forthcoming in AUP New Poets 8 and you can find her work here.

Olivia Macassey’s poems have appeared in Poetry New ZealandTakahēLandfallBriefOtolithsRabbit and other places. She is the author of two collections of poetry, Love in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and The Burnt Hotel (Titus). Her website

Bill Manhire founded the creative writing programme at Victoria University of Wellington, which a little over 20 years ago became the International Institute of Modern Letters. His new book Wow is published by Victoria University Press in New Zealand and Carcanet in the UK.

Selina Tusitala Marsh (ONZM, FRSNZ) is the former New Zealand Poet Laureate and  has performed poetry for primary schoolers and presidents (Obama), queers and Queens (HRH Elizabeth II). She has published three critically acclaimed collections of poetry, Fast Talking PI (2009), Dark Sparring (2013), Tightrope (2017) and an award-winning graphic memoir, Mophead (Auckland University Press, 2019) followed by Mophead TU (2020), dubbed as ‘colonialism 101 for kids’.

Gregory O’Brien recently completed a new collection of poems Streets and Mountains and is presently working on a monograph about artist Don Binney for AUP.

Kiri Piahana-Wong is a poet and editor, and she is the publisher at Anahera Press. She lives in Auckland.

Mere Taito is a poet living and working in Kirikiriroa. She is interested in the way poetry can be used to revitalise minority Indigenous languages like Fäeag Rotuạm ta.

Louise Wallace is the author of three collections of poetry published by Victoria University Press, most recently Bad Things. She is the founder and editor of Starling, and is currently working on a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Otago.

Ten poems about clouds

Twelve poems about ice

Ten poems about dreaming

Eleven poems about the moon

Twelve poems about knitting

Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: James Brown’s ‘Lesson’

 

Lesson

When was the last time you
washed a green apple – peeling
off the irksome sticker ­– and
quartered it on a chopping board?

Then sliced the quartered cores out
with two fine v-cuts
and threw them onto the lawn
for the birds? Then cut the quarters

into eighths and passed the eighths
around, eating two yourself
– the sharp fresh taste sweeter
than you’d expected?

  

James Brown

 

 

James Brown’s Selected Poems will be published by VUP in 2020.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf audio spot: James Brown reads ‘Soft Returns’

 

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James Brown’s latest poetry book is Floods Another Chamber (VUP, 2017). You can find ‘Soft Returns’ in this collection.

Victoria University Press page

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The NZ edition of Poetry

 

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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

 

not knowing

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!

 

Poetry here

 

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’

Michele Leggott’s glorious new poetry collection: a launch speech and some poems

 

 

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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.

 

The Speech

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.” [123] 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.” [35]

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” [75] provides a pretext for “imagining a nineteenth-century woman writing on the outskirts of empire as bitter racial conflict erupts around her.” [123]

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? [124]

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 Ross

 

[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.]

 

 

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The poems:

 

from ‘Figures in the Distance’

 

18

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.

 

29

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.

 

30

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.

 

32

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

 

 

 

A poem from James Brown’s dazzling Floods Another Chamber and Gregory O’Brien’s launch speech (the envy of all poets!)

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Postmodernism Explained

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

 

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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.

 

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James Brown launching new collection

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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.
p/b, $25
About Floods Another Chamber

 

 

 

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

 

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Elizabeth Smither with Rusty and Sneaky

 

 

 

‘The Labradors have made nests already

simply by lying in the long grass

sucking the green into their bodies’

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

‘You can run as fast as Atalanta

who bowled three apples at her suitors

Double Red Delicious’

 

from ‘An apple tree for Ruby’ in Night Horse

 

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

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

 

‘The cats are out by the letterboxes

at the ends of long driveways

waiting to see how the night will shape itself.’

 

from ‘Cat night’ in Night Horse

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

‘More moon tonight. 14 per cent  bigger

and closer to the earth. The whole sky

seems to leap to greet a visitor.’

 

from ‘Perigee moon’ in Night Horse

 

 

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

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

 

‘Fast the pulse of the music, every beat

clear as a little stream running over stones’

 

from ‘At the ballet’ in Night Horse

 

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

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

 

 

‘Down their sleeves (his jacket, her blouse)

run currents the early evening stars detect

and whose meaning is held in great museums’

 

from ‘Holding hands’ in Night Horse

 

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

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

            ‘Perhaps in our cool northern air

you rose some echelons

being lighter, the barn empty’

 

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

‘The furious young

ran towards her through fields of wheat.’

 

 

‘Morals that are so pure they blaze

the sunlight back into the air’

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

‘Eggs in foil were hidden everywhere

until the taste of sweetness palled.

She sits in an armchair with her bear’

 

from ‘Ruby and fruit’ in Night Horse

 

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

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

 

Are there taboo areas?

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

 

 

‘It was all those unseen moments we do not see

the best of a friend, the best of a mother

competent and gracious in her solitude’

 

from ‘My mother’s house’ in Night Horse

 

‘Later you’ll scrub individual stains

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

down which a red droplet ran, a smear

of eggy quiche, a buttered crumb.’

 

from ‘The tablecloth’ in Night Horse

 

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

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

 

‘Next morning she was called again

to undo the work of her marvellous wrists.

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

‘Let the street lights mark

the great promenade down which love will come

like black carriages on the Champs-Elysées.’

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

Or from elsewhere?

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

 

Do you read widely in other genres?

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

 

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

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

 

‘ – Can anyone choose

And call it beauty? – The victims

Are always beautiful.’

 

 

 

Auckland University Press Night Horse page and author page

Booksellers review by Emma Shi

Radio NZ National review by Harry Ricketts with Kathryn Ryan