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.
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
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
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
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:
tell me if this
is a poem
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’