Tag Archives: Jenny Bornholdt

Comfort and discomfort: A fragmented Writers and Readers Week diary

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All mixed-quality photos without credit by me

 

 

Back home after a head-and-mind-rich time at Writers and Readers Week in Wellington. I loved the change of venue to the waterfront cluster: Circa Theatre, the Festival Club tent, Te Wharewaka o Pōneke, the Michael Fowler Centre and Renouf Foyer along with a few outlying places such as The National Library. The diversity of the programme, as it moved across genre and person, was terrific. With four sessions in each slot, like the Auckland Writers Festival, it was impossible to get to everything you ticked. And that is what festivals are about: an explosion of taste and flavour.

At festivals, I love supporting my friends, going to local writers (especially poets),  much loved international writers, but I also like stepping out of my comfort zone and trying things that are completely unfamiliar. You could say that opting for discomfort along with comfort – because you never know what gold nuggets will gleam – is a festival must.

Things didn’t quite run to plan and I came home with a fragmentary notebook and novels unread as you will see.

But warmest congratulations to Mark Cubey and his team, because this was an excellent occasion that had audiences, including me, buzzing with delight. Thanks for the invite!

 

My fits and starts diary

 

Thursday

I have my checked-in bag with books for every mood because I am off to Wellington’s Writers and Readers Week to mc and read poems at Call Me Royal and chair Capital Poets, Bill Manhire and Mike Ladd. Having sent off my ms on reading New Zealand women’s poetry, this is my poetry treat. I want to go to every poetry event and read novels in the gaps.

I leave the heat and humidity of Auckland’s West Coast and step out into the wet and cold of Wellington. It is a sweet relief to feel like moving and thinking again.

First up is a bus ride to Rimutaka Prison to participate in a writing workshop with some prisoners thanks to Write Where You Are Collective. On the bus are a mix of organisers, festival people, balloted public and a handful of writers. Waiting for the bus, I am asked to speak at the end – what I thought of the event and about writing poetry – and I am really nervous! I have run countless workshops but have rarely if ever been a participant. I summon Hone Tuwhare’s ‘Rain’ and  Y12-me to find courage. I say that while we are not allowed to take the writing out, I am also not going to share the details of the experience in public. And I am not. However the general mood I carry back into the city is absolute enthusiasm for what has taken place. This is special and I would do it again at the drop of a hat.

Next up my hotel room – the chemical cleaners are so strong it triggers an allergic reaction that just grew worse over the five days. I know not to stay in this hotel again – luckily the hyperactive Wellington wind is able to blast through the window each day. My post-writing treat suddenly becomes a matter of survival and definitely not luxuriating in a hotel room reading novels or writing lucid accounts of the sessions for my blog. (I had to flee several sessions with a coughing fit fighting for breath and attendees were wondering whether to call an ambulance.)

I arrive at the VUP book launch late but love the tail end of Damien Wilkin‘s launch speech celebrating new books by Vincent O’Sullivan, Therese Lloyd and Gigi Fenster).  I am sitting here in a toxic chemical haze and the little readings flick about like little hallucinogenic butterflies. I buy the two books, that I don’t have, to read at home.

The Gala Night, Women Changing the World – is kaleidoscopic in range and impact and I am still on planet hallucinogenic butterfly. Renée gets an almost-standing ovation. Selina Tusitala Marsh shares a poem for Teresia Teaiwa (1968 – 2017) to whom she dedicated Tightrope, her most recent book.  I am reminded how important Oceanic foremothers are for Selina, not just as a poet but as a woman forging her way in the world. This is breath-catching (dangerous in my state!). Along with Selina the highlight for me is hearing Harry Josephine Giles read their body twisting, word slipping, gorgeous glorious evocation of life and living. Check out graphic artist Tara Black‘s take.

I am at Loretta eating snapper pie with freekeh topping and it is comfort food cutting through the toxins. I am wondering if poetry is comfort food as much as it is discomfort food and that we need both and everything in between. At the moment I crave comfort.

 

Friday

I have coffee with Jane Parkin who is going to edit my book. We have never met before but it is such a pleasure to talk about the pleasures of punctuation. I didn’t tell her I used to read grammar books and dictionaries in bed at night when I was primary school. I am thinking grammar and punctuation is always on the move – I am so excited she is going to go through my writing with a fine-tooth comb spotting all the infelicities. As a poet I often use a punctuation mark as a guide to breathing and pause. How will this change in prose?

Next up Sarah Laing talks with two American comic artists, Sarah Glidden and Mimi Pond. The conversation flows between the personal and the political with revelation and reflection and I buy both books risking an overweight bag. Tara Black is in the front row drawing her fabulous renditions of a session.

This festival puts comic and graphic novelists centre stage, both local and international. I like that. Check out Tara’s review and images.

This is where my good plans go awry and I have to opt out of a few things. Sadly.

I am lying on the bed with the wind gusting in. I feel like I am in the cleaning cupboard.

I make it to Tusiata Avia in conversation with her cousin Victor Rodger (and an excellent chair not named in the programme). This is mesmerising stuff. I instantly connect with their need for some kind of truth. Truth got a bad rap when I was at university because it is mobile, unreliable and hard to pin down. Yet when I hear or read a writer working from the truth of their experience, (however you see that) it just gets me. Check out Tara‘s review and images.

Tusiata talks about her epileptic history, perhaps for the first time in public, and how she might have an aura on stage. She reads her epileptic poem and it feels tough and vulnerable and full of music that replays a fractured inner state. I want more poems but I am loving the talk. She reads a poem that responds to an ongoing painful knotty experience of Unity Books wanting to check her bags fifteen years ago, on two occasions, because they suspected her of shoplifting. She has mashed up an email from them to show her point of view, to show how racism is embedded in the unconscious way we speak and communicate. She puts pronouns on alert. My heart is breaking because I don’t know how to fix this rift knot. I love Tusiata. I have family connections that link me and Tilly back to my daughter’s parents. I love Marion, bookseller extraordinaire. I don’t know what to do to help.

I have to stand on stage and mc tonight and celebrate poetry and I can’t breathe.

My first book, Cookhouse has a poem, ‘Listing the breathless women’, that I wrote in hospital when I couldn’t breathe.

who will live in this place of white sheets

when the stories built to terrifying pitches?

I have missed The Lauris Edmond Memorial Award. I have missed the Bloody Difficult Women and I loved Kirsten McDougall‘s Tess so much.

I put on a blue dress and a Parisienne necklace Sue gave me, and Tusiata’s pounamu bracelet. I told a prisoner that when I get nervous, I picture something in my head that I love, or wear something someone has given me (usually a gift from Michael). Then I am fortified to go on. When you lose your breath you lose your voice and I am wondering if I will be a ghost on stage even with the necklace and the bracelet.

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Photograph credit: Mark Beatty, photographer, The National Library

To be in the Alexander Turnbull Library, at Call Me Royal, with a fine showing of the librarians who helped me find my way through the archives is restoring; to catch sight of dear Elizabeth Jones for a second is restoring. And Peter Ireland the Laureate guardian, ever helpful, ever supportive of poetry. I lay my stones for Selina Tusitala Marsh as a gift for her mana, and then let her do the talking and the poems. We write and speak from an embrace of women. The ‘Unity’ poem for the Queen, the way it came into elusive being, always captivates. Again the pronoun strikes: the ‘i’ and the ‘u’ in ‘unity’ is genius.

I am wondering what the audience makes of us. The way we hug and perform because this is a poetry whanau. We have many connections and we are all driven to write and stand on stage and open up poetry for the ear, heart and mind. The space between is alive with what we think and feel. Check out my photo gallery and intros here.

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Photograph credit: Mark Beatty, photographer, The National Library

 

I am back at Loretta having another snapper pie and talking about poetry with Helen. All I need is comfort food in this state of discomfort. Maybe that includes poetry.

 

Saturday

I am eating poached eggs with Bill and Marion and the conversation sets me up for the day like a good slow release protein. I miss Charlie Jane Anders and Samin Nosrat. I miss fun and games with Harry Josephine Giles. I miss the amazing Charlotte Wood because I am about to go on stage with Mike Ladd and Bill Manhire, the Capital Poets. First I need to lie down with the window wide open.

 

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I have an early lunch with Selina and Serie, and we bump into Rachel McAlpine, whose poetry I write about in my book. Four poets, by chance, in Cuba Street,

 

 

When I agreed to chair the Capital Poets session a month ago, I thought these poets were chalk and cheese, and I wasn’t quite sure how Bill was a capital poet bar the fact he was a good one, and he lived in Wellington. But as I ran on the beach each morning, I began to find connections. I decided they both write with an economy that is paradoxically rich and they both write from attention to humanity, not necessarily blazing on the line, but as a vital core. MIke’s poetry often takes me to a sharply rendered scene that is so bright (or dark) I get goosebumps.  Bill can transport a reader into a more mysterious interplay of dark and light, full of glorious movement, offbeat or sideways, so you find and lose and find your bearings. Another kind of goosebump. Goosebumps are an excellent, but not the only poetry barometer.

Being a chair, in a space that feels like a lounge, means it is like you get to talk poetry at home with quite a lot of strangers listening. I find it fun. You set up a conversational field and go exploring. I cheekily got Bill to pitch Wellington to a stranger in 60 seconds which he did with good grace. I really liked the idea of a city where you constantly bump into things around corners. But as always it is the poetry readings that get me – and I can now play Mike’s poems in my head in his voice and that makes a difference. I can hear his fascination with sound and the way politics always find a way in. Bill read a brand new short poem with Colin Meads and some good rural vocabulary before turning a corner and letting us laugh-bump into the ending.

I spent two and half years writing my book, and when I sent it off a few weeks ago, I felt there was so much more I could explore and write. Same with a festival session; the time goes by in a whizz and we barely scratch the surface of conversation.

 

Paula Morris gets to talk to Teju Cole and it feels like balm and challenge as we see his photographs and hear the story behind them. I could have listened for hours. I reviewed his tremendously good essays for The NZ Herald ages ago – so it was a treat to listen to that mind roving. Paula is just the right mix of adding comments and getting the speaker talking.

Next up Blazing Stars: Hera Lindsay Bird and Patricia Lockwood with Charlotte Graham. I miss most of this session. I sit down in the front row with a bunch of writers but have a coughing fit to the point I can’t breathe and have to walk out. Embarrassing! The festival people are so kind bringing me things. I sat on a chair outside and then at the back. I am back with the hallucinogenic butterflies. Charlotte is wearing a butterfly dress and Hera and Patricia seem to be in some kind of butterfly bitch challenge. Hera reads a poem with psychedelic metaphors. I desperately need a stunt stand-in to pay attention and write things down for me.

I eat roasted fish and fig pie at Floridita before going to bed. I am thinking about my new poetry collection and how I need to blast it to smithereens. Then I might see what to do with it. This happens at festivals. It gets you thinking about your own work and all its failings and possibilities.

I miss Outer Space Saloon. I really want to go.

 

Sunday

Fruit at Loretta and a coffee to pull the bits of me together. If I wasn’t making this my Poetry Day, I would be off to hear the fabulous Ursula Dubosarsky.

 

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Essa and Tayi

First up The Starlings – a festival highlight for me. Chris Tse is also in the audience supporting these young writers. The session features 9 writers aged under 25 who have been published in Starling (now up to 5 Issues). The journal is edited by Francis Cooke and Louise Wallace. They mc the session with Sharon Lam, Rebecca Hawkes, Claudia Jardine, Tayi Tibble, Emma Shi, Joy Holley, Henrietta Bollinger, Sophie van Waardenberg and Essa Ranapiri. The poetry resists homogenisation as it travels across distinctive and diverse moods and revelations, challenges and connections. I love it – and will be posting poems from this across the next month or so when I reignite Poetry Shelf next week. See my photo gallery here.

 

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Apologies to David Larsen because I don’t know how to mute my camera – just took photos at start and end.

Second up, my other festival highlight: Harry Josephine Giles in conversation with Chris Tse. The poetry  –  with its meshing up of Scots and English, its filthy patches and rollercoaster rhythms, its musical effervescence and its little heart taps  – is astonishing! No other word for it. Great chair, fluid talk, happy audience. I go out and buy all their books so I can do a feature on the blog if I dare. This session was like a dose of breathing medication and was the only time I wrote screeds in my journal.

One sample: ‘When your body is at odds with what is normal – not that anyone is normal – I can play with this. I can muck around with it.’

I like the idea of mucking around much better than blasting to smithereens. At breakfast when I asked Bill if he was writing he said he was mucking around. I thought of Tom and the Hired Sportsmen who were expert at mucking around before they ate greasy bloaters. Poets like mucking about.

One other thing. Harry Josephine was at pretty much every NZ poetry event I went to. I loved that. There was a handful of Wellington poets at the Laureate event – but mostly it was poetry readers not poetry writers. I wondered why this was. Harry Josephine was there talking to the locals.

 

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Next up Patricia Lockwood is talking with Kim Hill and I get another coughing fit – the breathing medication has worn off so I have to walk out several times. It is like they are talking on another planet and I can’t make head nor tail of anything. I decide you need oxygen to listen.

I am sitting outside in the wind sun wondering what makes writing matter. What makes a poem matter when this one over here doesn’t. I can’t think of a single thing. It seems to depend upon the individual. Some kind of mysterious alchemy. I told the prisoners music is always the first port of call for me. Actually I told Bill that on stage when he said music mattered. The first hit from a Manhire poem is music.

 

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Marae and Vana

I am off to Helen Rickerby’s Seraph Press launch of Tātai Whetū: Seven Māori Women Poets in Translation. We are welcomed on with a little powhiri and a big mihi.  Editors Vana Manasiadis and Maraea Rakuraku acted as mcs. This is my third festival highlight. An utterly special occasion, uplifting and challenging, as I listen to Te Reo and English versions of each poem (Anahera Gildea, Alice Te Punga Somerville, Kiri Piahana-Wong, Tru Parahaa, Michelle Ngamoki, Dayle Takitimu, and Maraea). I will be posting a poem from Maraea on the blog. 

I am reminded, how on so many occasions at this festival, I witness the creative strength of women (wahine mana), not just in the poetry families/whanau, but across genres. Maybe because poetry is such a poor cousin in the book world, the bonds are forged tighter.

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Helen Rickerby from Seraph Press

 

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I miss the editing session with my new editor, because I just can’t duck out of this one. Like I said, when you are on the verge of breathing collapse you crave comfort. That doesn’t mean poetry without edges, because this poetry has raw cutting edges, sharp spikes, but it also feeds upon humaneness, writing with heart, hankering after truth. In a lopsided endangered world that can be a vital tonic.

 

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I bump into Elizabeth Knox and her fabulous skirt. She is long overdue for a Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction, just saying.

 

I made the Poetry International event where post accident, highly medicated Chris Price does a stellar job as mc/chair. This feels like a risky format combining reading and questions with nine poets, both local and international. As you would expect, several resist the brief in their 6 minute slots. But you end up with a glorious explosion of words and thoughts and poems. I jot this down from Bill after saying he had read a lot of American poetry: ‘I feel uneasy about my enthusiasms. I feel I’ve reverted to the local.’

 

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The final thing and I am at Anna Jackson and Chris Tse’s AUP book launches in the crowded Circa foyer. I did an email interview with Chris over the past weeks so I know his book well and love it to bits. His speech moves the socks off us when he says he wanted his friends and family to be proud of him and that he hopes the book will fall into the hands of those who will see themselves in it. I am equally in love with Anna’s book, a Selected Poems, that travels through decades of writing with new writing at the end. Anna and I are in the middle, or near the end, of an unfolding email interview that I will post soon.

This was my experience, slightly skewed by being on the edge of a breathing precipice. Elizabeth Heritage wrote up the Harry Josephine session like I wish I could have done!

 

There is always a bridge between ourselves and the page, between ourselves and the reader and speaker. Sometimes we skim across it with ease, with all kinds of sparking connections. Other times the bridge falters and it is hard to find a way. Then there are the occasions where crossing is like an impossibility and the page, the reader and the speaker are utterly out of reach. It happens to me. I wait. It may mean I need to retune the way I walk.

 

Wednesday

I am back home grateful for the invitation to participate. Happy to be back to the quiet and the wild and the chance to write new things.

There is a strong chance this blog is riddled with mistakes – let me know so I can correct. Meanwhile I am off to sleep.

 

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A photo gallery: Call Me Royal

I am about to post my big but fragmented New Zealand Festival Writers and Readers Week diary but first two photo galleries. First up: Call Me Royal.

These photos were taken by Mark Beatty, one of the The National Library photographers, and they catch the spirit, warmth and generosity of the event so beautifully. It was an utter privilege to mc, to read poems with Jenny Bornholdt, Serie Barford, Tusiata Avia and our Poet Laureate extraordinaire, Selina Tusitala Marsh. I have put my intros at the end.

Grateful thanks to Peter Ireland, Chris Szekely and the National Library team. This was special.

All photographs courtesy of Mark Beatty, The Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library

 

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My mihi

The Poet Laureateship began under the administration and vision of Te Mata Estate with Bill Manhire the inaugural Laureate and has moved through to the six poets appointed by The National Library. Each Laureate is gifted a tokotoko, a walking stick, a personal fit, carved by Haumoana artist Jacob Scott. This to me is like the Laureate role – each recipient shapes the role to fit their own predilections and circumstances, from the Laureate blog, to poetry written, to a book published, to engagements and visibility within our reading and writing communities.

I jumped for joy on Poetry Day when I discovered Selina was our new Laureate; she is invigorating how the tokotoko is held, how the role is shaped. Of Samoan, Tuvaluan, English and French descent, she was the first Pacific Islander to graduate with a PhD in English at the University of Auckland – where she is now Associate Professor.

 

In her debut collection, Fast Talkin PI, Selina lays a circle of stones to acknowledge the embrace of women from which she writes, from which she throws the calabash for us to catch the seeds. I want to lay a circle of 6 stones for Selina.

The first stone is the gift of her poetry from her effervescent, award-winning debut with the title poem already a classic, and far ranging poetry that establishes movement on the page and charismatic movement in performance. To the second collection, Dark Sparring, written out of strength and lightness, out of her adoption of Muay Thai kickboxing and the death of her mother from cancer. The kickboxing is like a trope for poems that are graceful, startling, strong. This book lifts you out of your senses as she lifts grief out of her body and translates it into word music carrying us to the sun and moon and clouds. Selina’s latest book, Tightrope, longlisted for the book awards, travels in myriad directions, in ways that soothe, challenge and delight, that move us along fecund highways between sky and earth.

The second stone is the poetry mana Selina carries to young writers (I have witnessed this as I follow in her slipstream at Auckland schools) and to emerging writers – because she liberates the word. She stands, speaks and sings poetry, from self and wider communities and lineages, with such passion and drive the audience is compelled to read and write.

The third stone is Selina’s drive to bring Pasifika women poets to our attention – with a groundbreaking book in the making.

The fourth stone is the way she has carried poetry from our shores, in multiple translations, at myriad festivals, representing Tuvālu at the London Olympics Parnassus event, and as the 2016 Commonwealth Poet performing her commissioned poem UNITY for the Queen.

The fifth stone is the life of the poem in performance that Selina has made utterly her own. I am thinking of two mesmerising performances of Dark Sparring. At her launch, Selina was accompanied by Tim Page’s musical layerings, and she interrupted a kickboxing poem with a round or two of sparring in the room. It was breathtaking. On the second occasion, Selina read at the Ladies Litera-Tea without musical accompaniment and without a round or two of sparring. What struck me about this performance was the way silence was a significant part of the poetry palette. Again breathtaking. And of course there was the performance for the Queen that so many of us adored on the internet.

The sixth stone is the circle itself, the poetry connections and friendships, the poetry whanau that links us readers and writers that Selina tends with aroha and prodigious energy. Let us offer a warm to welcome dear friend and poet, Poet Laureate, Selina Tusitala Marsh.

 

The second half 

Jenny, Serie, Tusiata, me, Selina

Jenny Bornholdt, a much honoured poet, anthologist and children’s author, is a former Te Mata Estate NZ Poet Laureate. VUP has paid luminous tribute to her poetry in her recent Collected Poems. The book showcases Jenny’s intricate movements in the world – close at hand and roaming wider, and on the page itself, with large themes such as love, loss, illness and family, and smaller attentions such as a cotton shirt, a tea towel or a blanket, the large animating the small, and vice versa. You might get a conversational tone, with images unfolding like origami, surprising turns, linguistic agility and ample room for pause. You will always get a necessary heart beat, because Jenny’s poetry refreshes our relations with a living world, both complicated and vital. When I had to pick my ten favourite NZ Poetry books for a newspaper once, I picked Jen’s The Rocky Shore, but I could have added Summer or Mrs Winter’s Jump or These Days.

Tusiata Avia, of Samoan lineage, a poet, performer and children’s author, currently living in Christchurch, is a significant presence, a poetry beacon say, for emerging Pasifika poets.  She has carried that beacon on her overseas travels. Tusiata originally staged her debut collection, Wild Dogs under My Skirt, as a one-woman show – but we can now see this must-read book performed at the festival by a cast of six. I went to the goosebump launch of her latest collection, Fale Aitu / Spirit House, and like slow release food resides in your blood, this became my favourite book of 2016. The book releases skeletons, darkness and pain, yet in doing so, the roots of being daughter, mother, poet are tended with such animation, such love, such a willingness to be open, self reflective, world reflective, these poems, this book, matters so very very much.

Serie Barford is a West Auckland performance poet of Samoan and European descent with four published collections. Her poetry, both political and deeply personal, is rich in evocation. You can absorb her poems through senses as you bite into flavour, catch the lull and lift of melody, smell the poem’s very essence. You get to travel with heart and with challenges laid down. Her most recent book, Entangled Islands, with both prose and poetry, emerges from a tangle of family, motherhood, partnership, colonisation, history, communities, migration, childhood memories, culture and love, most importantly love. Connections are nourished: between words, things, people, places, events. Disconnections are acknowledged. As with Jenny’s poetry, the essential undercurrent, the fuel in the pen, is love.

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf Spring Season’s poetry fans: Lydia Wevers picks Jenny Bornholdt

Then Murray came

 

It was the morning for

selling the car, but

when I went out to start it,

it wouldn’t go. Greg went

to get petrol on the bike. I

rang the A.A. Then Ray

arrived. I said I’m sorry, he

said don’t worry and looked at

the car and at the wheels and

in the boot and said she’s a lovely

old thing. He tapped the coil

and the fuel pump to try to

make it go. Greg came back

with petrol, but that didn’t help.

Then, because there was nothing else

to do, we went inside and had coffee

and Ray smoked and talked about

going to Outward Bound and sleeping

and losing a stone.

 

Then Murray came.

He drove up the hill in his yellow

A.A. car, shaking his head. Got out and said

I was sure you were having me on. Last time I was

here you said you were selling it

and the other day I saw you walking

through town and I thought ‘thank god she’s

sold that thing’. He cleaned the carburettor

and laughed. Put more petrol in, replaced a

filter. I said I wasn’t joking, there’s

someone here who wants to buy it. Murray

laughed and said sure. No, no, I said, it’s

true. Ray. See, there he is, up at the

window. Murray looked up and Greg and Ray

waved. How much is he paying for it? asked

Murray. I started to say and he stopped

me. Said no, on second thoughts, don’t tell

me. I don’t want to hear about this.

Ray came down and took over

holding up the bonnet of the car.

What’s your name? he asked Murray.

Murray, said Murray. Well I’m

Ray, this is Greg and this is

Jen. Hello Murray, we said.

And then the car started.

 

©Jenny Bornholdt from How We Met, Victoria University Press, 1995

 

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Note from Lydia: I laughed aloud when I first read this poem. Selling a car which won’t start, Greg getting petrol on the bike, Ray smoking and talking about Outward Bound, it is a micronarrative of intense suburban familiarity and yet… also heroic (‘then Murray came’), touching about relationships (‘ I thought thank god she’s sold that thing’ ) and an acute register of local idiom while also suggesting the Pinteresque deeps that lie behind what is said. How much is he paying for it?  asked Murray…no, on second thoughts don’t tell me’.

‘Then Murray came’ has lodged in my head. It shows me the world I live in, but freshly, deeply, newly, wittily. And at the end, after Murray has come (I’d like to know Murray) the car starts.

 

Lydia Wevers has recently retired as the Director of the Stout Research Centre at Victoria. She is a lifelong reader of New  Zealand writing and a literary historian.

 

Jenny Bornholdt has published ten books of poems, the most recent of which is Selected Poems. Her collection The Rocky Shore was a made up of six long poems and won the Montana New Zealand Book Award for Poetry in 2009.

She is the co-editor of My Heart Goes Swimming: New Zealand Love Poems and the Oxford Anthology of New Zealand Poetry in English.

Jenny’s poems have appeared on ceramics, on a house, on paintings, in the foyer of a building and in letterpress books alongside drawings and photographs. She has also written two children’s books.

 

 

 

National Library poetry event – Six o’clock: Poets under the influence

  • Date: Thursday, 19 October, 2017
  • Time: 5.30pm light refreshments for 6pm start
  • Cost: Free
  • Location: Te Ahumairangi (ground floor), National Library, corner Molesworth and Aitken Streets
  • Contact Details: For more information, email events.natlib@dia.govt.nz

A bevy of poets mark 50 years since the end of six o’clock closing

Iain Sharp presents Gregory O’Brien, Freya Daly Sadgrove, Bill Manhire, Jenny Bornholdt, Lindsay Rabbitt, and more.

The end of the ‘6 o’clock swill’ was a defining moment in New Zealand’s social history, one which changed the way we drank and socialised. New Zealanders’ unique and often fraught relationship with drink has been both a stimulus and an inspiration for some of the country’s great poets from Denis Glover to Apirana Taylor.

To mark 50 years since the end of ‘the swill’ the National Library is bringing together some of the country’s best poets, and poetry, both new and old, featuring ‘the drink’.

The event will comprise some special related Alexander Turnbull Library collection items, music from the collection of the National Library and films from Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision.

Refreshments available with tastings and craft beer and cider.

20/20 May Poets: A Phantom Billstickers Poetry Day celebration

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Alison Wong and Chris Tse

Apirana Taylor and Kiri Piahana Wong

Vincent O’Sullivan and Lynley Edmeades

Paula Green and Simone Kaho

Jenny Bornholdt and Ish Doney

 

This terrific project forms a little poetry reading house where you enter the rooms off the side and you don’t know what you will find. There is a vitality and a freshness as established and emerging poets and those in-between come together in poem conversations. Love it! (I am part of it but no idea how the poetry house would unfold)

 

 

Poetry Shelf interviews Jeffrey Paparoa Holman: ‘the poetry of witness is necessary still’

 

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Preparing for death is a wicker basket.

Elderly women know the road.

 

from ‘Memoir II’ Blood Ties

 

To celebrate the arrival of two new poetry books—Blood Ties: New and Selected Poems 1963 – 2016 (Canterbury University Press, 2017) and Dylan Junkie (Mākaro Press, 2017) —Jeffrey Paparoa Holman agreed to answer some questions for Poetry Shelf.

 

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Jeffrey Paparoa Holman was born in London in 1947. He writes poetry, memoir and history. His most recent works are The Lost Pilot: a memoir (Penguin, 2013); Blood Ties: New and Selected Poems 1963-2016 (Canterbury University Press, 2017); Dylan Junkie, a collection of His Bobness fanboy poems (Mākaro Press) is released in May 2017.

 

Pantograph Punch review of Blood Ties by Vaughan Rapatahana

Two Poems at The SpinOff

Radio interview

Dylan Junkie will be launched in Wellington at 4pm Sunday 21st May as part of the 2017 Hoopla Series

Mākaro Press page

Canterbury University Press page

 

The Interview:

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PG: Name a poetry book you have read in the past year or so that has really inspired you.

JPH:  I think Tusiata Avia’s Fale Aitu/Spirit House is the book of the past year for a myriad of reasons and you’d have to create a special category for Hera Lindsay Bird’s eponymous dark horse sensation – but I’d give my heart to The Collected Poems of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell. Trying to review the book for Landfall reminded me that no-one can really capture a life in letters that spanned such width and such depth; in his generation, he was the Pasifika pou in a house of words held up for Māori by Hone Tuwhare, and for Pākehā by James K Baxter.

 

 

Squid-fat chicks in the baleful wind hunker

and wait, outwitting winter on Taiaroa’s

broad back.

 

from ‘Toroa feeding – Tairoa Heads’ Blood Ties

 

PG: Your poetry is musical, thoughtful, sustained by deep attachments and thematically active. What matters when you write a poem?

JPH: I don’t know if I can answer that easily, as many poems that speak to me come from a wide compass; whatever hits me when one of mine is coming might depend on mood, or some conviction, an itch or good old fashioned heartache. I do have to restrain myself sometimes from getting overtaken by insistent metrics (some would say not enough), but I am affected by music. I think poetry is embodied, it’s physical to me. On my own at home, sometimes I’ll play a Dylan track and make my own kind of dance moves.  There’s a poem in my latest book from Mākaro, Dylan Junkie where I’m riffing on his World Gone Wrong album from 1993, when I was still in London and he was seen wandering unannounced around Camden, mere blocks away from where I lived. In the series of poems that take biographical snapshots in the first part of the book, that moment in his life and mine is remembered with me dancing around our council flat, “croaking away to those Akai speakers/with blood in my eyes for you”.

I guess that’s an example of a deep attachment to a man whose music and songs, whose poetry, kicked me off in 1964; then the mining town of Blackball where I heard songs like Only a Pawn in Their Game is another deep strata for me, the bookish boy in a tough, outdoor workingman’s world where women did it hard to just to survive, like my mother and her friends.  I got a lot of my songbook from the request sessions on 3YZ (no TV, thank God!) and my politics just from living in that consciousness, of a history of struggle to get fair conditions in a dangerous world underground.

We had a Hospital Request on Sunday morning, in the days when there were no private rest homes and the old people’s homes were attached to the four West Coast hospitals. Many of the oldies were Scots, Irish and English, born elsewhere in the 1880s and the 1890s, so we got lots of longing for lost homelands, melancholy ballads and such like. I was schooled in true nostalgia, meaning “the pain of exile”. And we were an immigrant family too, though I hardly realised it at the time.

It’s all down there somewhere when I write, like the Irish song, Galway Bay: “So the strangers came and tried to teach us their ways/And they scorned us just for being what we are…”. The women gathering potatoes in the song, “speak language that the strangers do not know”, I was hearing the bitterness of the Cromwellian history, the seizing of Ireland by the English and the cruel history of colonisation that followed. The Coast was a sectarian domain, the Catholics, the Protestants, the Communists and all.

I suppose today I’m a bit of a throwback.  I hate it when I hear ingrates who have no idea of where we come from, forget the sacrifices my parental and grandparental generations made to get kids like me a house, a hospital, a school, a job and three square meals. That’s the root of a lot of my thinking and it comes out in some of the poems, true – but I’m a broken human too, I can do love, loss and laughter. One of the things that got to me about John Key was how he – a Bryndwr state house kid like me, at one time – fashioned his story as a kind of rags to riches, self-made man, yet seemed happy to watch the culture that sheltered him degrade. For me now, it seems like the reverse: from enough security for all to ensure social cohesion back then, to now, every one for themselves, insecurity, inequality and selfies all round. I guess that makes me a political writer in many ways, but not all.

 

memory is

the braille of buildings

threading the labyrinth

 

from ‘Memory is a place’ Blood Ties

 

 

PG: I am drawn to the shifting musical effects in your poetry. Which poets catch your ear?

JPH: You’d have to find Baxter and Hone Tuwhare in there for sure, and later on, Jack Gilbert, who all get a nod in Blood Ties, the new selected. Back in the ’70s when I was starting off, I was reading Lowell and cummings, studying Eliot and Pound, falling in love with Neruda and Vallejo, very few women poets then I confess, Emily Dickinson and a nodding acquaintance with Sylvia Plath, overshadowed by Ted Hughes. We had a small group of writers and actors in Christchurch in 1973 and we did public readings in the new Town Hall and out at Teachers’ College. I got to love the idea that page and stage could work together; I always test what’s written with reading, as the poems come on in the making.

I heard Baxter read here the year he died, outside the old UCSA at the town site, early ’72. He was a prophet. I think I picked up the sermonising aspect of some readings I heard and never liked it. I wanted a kind of handmade vernacular, you know, what I found ten years later in Raymond Carver. Poems that were poems that didn’t look like poems, but when you read them aloud, they came alive. Hearing the Czech poet Miroslav Holub read in London in 1991 blew me away: a second language speaker of English, the accents of his Czech made the surreal poems he articulated with some effort simply transfixing, like you were being marinated in a thick black coffee soundscape.

I’m well aware now that what is merely personal “soon rots, it must be packed in ice and salt”, as Yeats told us – but that’s more than just technique he’s talking about, that’s a soundprint of the self the poet has got down somehow, whether it’s Jenny Bornholdt’s subtleties or Glenn Colquhuon’s list variations. Anyone who has heard David Eggleton read has got the whole package: intelligence with invisible guitars, a scalpel for a baton.

There’s always been something ineffable in the English translations of Osip Mandelstam that makes me sad I have no Russian; but he’s always in my heart, since I was pointed his way in 1971 by my American mentor and friend, the late David Walker. “What has held out against oxidation/and adulteration, burns like feminine silver,/ and quiet labour silvers the iron plough/and the poet’s voice.”   353, Voronezh (1937), trs. Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin. I have no way of knowing what it cost this man and his devoted wife and editor, Nadezhda (who memorised his entire body of work to save it for the future), to survive as long as they did as internal exiles in the midst of Stalin’s purges. His poetry has remained with me ever since my first readings, a tutelary angel of courage and brilliance.

 

 

Knit me back together

when time stops to roar

for eternity and everywhere

is water and all is an ear –

resurrect me in the rain.

 

from ‘ Resurrect me in the rain’ Blood Ties

 

 

PG: Your new Selected Poems is arranged in thematic clusters rather than chronologically. What factors were important in collating the book? What difficulties did you face?

JPH: The collection has a history of changes. I roughed out the idea in early 2012 with the working title, My Culture is my Songbook – which is still an implication in what we have now. Then in my time in Iowa at the IWP later that year, I worked up a draft list of poems from the previous collections and some published elsewhere, some unpublished. I also wrote an essay to preface the collection, which hasn’t survived.

One publisher looked at that iteration in the following year and kindly declined; another in 2014 said maybe it was a bit early for me to be doing a selected. Nil desperandum: I was busy with The Lost Pilot, my Japan kamikaze memoir at the time, so probably wasn’t as focussed as I needed to be. But I had an idea, and was happy to wait. I gave the collection a new title (Paparoa Hotel) and shelved it. Working with John Pule and Catherine Montgomery of Canterbury University Press in 2013 for the re-issue of his great poem, The Bond of Time gave me the impetus to approach her in the following year and see if she was interested in looking at the manuscript.

Once Catherine agreed, I had another look, dropped the essay, gave it a new title and winnowed some, added a few others. Her reader came back to us with a positive report but suggested the thematic structure instead of chronology alone as a guide. She also felt that given the amount of darkness in much of the subject matter, ending on some of the more intimate and tender works might be helpful. I thought about this and decided, why not?

That left me to decide where the pieces fitted into which jigsaws, which wasn’t that difficult and resulted in poems from different collections now sitting side by side. The aeroplane poems selected from Fly Boy now found themselves in the opening section on childhood, Only Yesterday; the bird poems from the same 2010 book sat much later with the love poems near the book’s end, in Lovers and Feathers. Ancestors of the flesh and those of the written word rub shoulders: we see my terrified grandmother watching V-1 flying bombs streaking overhead, while on the next page, a salute to the composer and onetime Spitfire pilot John Ritchie takes off in Old Flyers, then a page or two on, an elegy on the death of Hone Tuwhare.

So it goes: the mining poems in Old King Coal, the poetry of wounding in Traumata Dreaming and Other Tongues where work on Māori language and history sits alongside a lament to dead kamikaze and their families. This will work for some and not for others, as the times of composition are necessarily out of joint (the editors did suggest dating the poems in the Acknowledgements, so it is possible to get a timeline, if one is bothered).

 

 

I do not want another father: old man, now

dead, cancer faded

and swelled you, speechless at the door, yellow

feathered fingers.

 

from ‘Father and son’ Blood Ties

 

I lost him the first time

before I could grasp

who he was, what he did, where

he fitted with her

 

from ‘As big as a father’ Blood Ties

 

 

PG: Do you think your poetry has changed over the course of time?

JPH: I can see it has changed even more so than was obvious before, now we have this group to ponder. Just take one set of poems for example: my father and his war. I’ve been aware that my elegy for Dad, ‘Father and Son,’ written in 1973 in the year following his death was echoed in many respects by what seems to have become a signature poem, 1993’s ‘As Big as a Father,’ written in London twenty years later.

The early poem has little in the way of formal structure, held together by the force of feeling and a linked set of images: starving children and cancer patients, the RSA and the bottle of port, the toilet flushing, the doctor leaving after pronouncing sentence. As Big as a Father, two decades later, grief having subsided into regret and amputation, falls back onto form and metaphor: my father is a lost ship that finally sinks when torpedoed by death itself. The stanzas are regular and repeat, the conceit playing variations on the four times loss of a father, each descending tercet ending with “father”.

Yet none of this was consciously planned, any more than was the early poem; it all arose from an idea of the impossibility of losing anything as big as a capital ship (I was musing on the expression, “one of our battleships is missing”). Yes, so how could you lose anything as big as a father?  The thought just slid across my bows. The poem ran from there. It seems that the less apparently personal of the two elegies, the more distanced one, has the greater power to reach others who know what is being spoken of here.

Two later poems – ‘Father war, 2012’ and ‘Wall, 2013’ – are similarly distanced and even more stripped down, unplugged. Father war eschews musicality for a series of jabs to the body, like a boxer hitting over and over in the region of the heart, to demonstrate the brutal ongoing effect of PTSD, kicking survivors of combat when they are down, returned home, but never free of the invisible wounds. Wall, the poem just stares into the abyss of addiction, alcohol, gambling and invisibility.

On this subject at least – warriors and their wounds – I can clearly see changes. I’m more confident now to have a go, try something, a ballad if one is called for, or something more playful like ‘The Writing Teacher.’ I’ve been reading Max Sebald’s poetry: given his sense of history and landscape, both regarding us from their buried secrets, I’ve written some work in imitation.

 

(iii)

the fieldfares

of Norfolk

flock on autumn

stubble, on the old

airfields

 

from ‘After Sebald’

 

It helps to know that the great German novelist – a migrant, to England in the 1960s – lived and died in Norfolk, teaching for many years at the University of East Anglia. He was a frequent walker and wanderer; he would often have seen this large migratory thrush, the fieldfare, wintering over in Norfolk on the flint speckled fields after harvest. The area was the home of other migratory birds: the bombers of the 8th Air Force in World War Two and their crews, American airmen who came to bomb Sebald’s Germany where he was born in the midst of their raids in 1944. So yes, I am aiming now at a little more indirection, suggestion, aware the world is writing me as much as the reverse.

 

It’s not every day you can find a guide

to show you around a working graveyard.

 

from ‘Inferno (Strongman Mine 1967)’ Blood Ties

 

PG: The title is particularly resonant. How important are blood ties as you write? Do they go beyond the familial?

JPH: The title as I mentioned earlier came late and so is retrospective. I think I was looking for something that caught the feel of what was gathered, but it was pretty instinctive. The poems in the book do relate stories of whakapapa, some of blood, others of influence. I can feel some kind of familial connection to writers who connect with me, many of them dead of course, others I’ll never meet.

There are also a number of poems that come out of the connections my family has with war and survival: my father, mother and grandmother especially, but also the poems about mining disasters and that community where I grew up. Relationship as in a shared culture: to me they are ties of blood, as much as those of immediate family members.  Noel Prescott, one of my classmates at high school died in the Strongman Mine disaster in 1967, he was 19 years old.

I went to the 50th anniversary of Strongman in Greymouth and up at the mine site itself, earlier this year. Pike River hung over the whole three days, but nobody mentioned it publicly, as if that would take away from the solemnity of this gathering. Pike is so raw still, seven years on in November. This is where my heart is, down in the roots of childhood and adolescence where blood ties equal whakapapa to me.

We had a West Coast launch for the book after Christchurch, in the Bonzai Café in Greymouth a few weeks ago; again, I had family there and miners as well. Two of the people who were the last to leave were a father and son: Les Neilson, retired miner – son of my old neighbour in Blackball, Les senior – and Kirk, his son, a fourth- generation miner. Les had worked in Strongman after the explosion and was one of those who closed it down in 1993. Kirk is working for Solid Energy, closing Pike River. These men know about blood ties and coal; I was honoured they came for the poetry that night.

 

PG: I like the design of the book with the left-hand side generally blank. Tell me about the design choices.

JPH: I should pay tribute here to the staff of CUP, the reader and my editor, Emma Neale who saw all this through, as well Aaron Beehre and Gemma Banks who designed and printed the book at Ilam Press, based in the University’s School of Fine Arts. They made this format work with their outstanding production values: it is a beautiful artefact, like all the books they make. The reproduction of John Madden’s painting from Karekare on the cover is a crowning glory for me; he too is a West Coast coal miner’s son.

They do this special thing with one page poems getting a whole sheet to themselves; poems that run over do get printed on both sides, but it means a fatter than average poetry book. It’s on art paper too, and then you have section inserts in another colour and the titles picked out in red: classy. The title on the cover is strip overlaid by hand, all finished off with the folding flap.

It makes me feel privileged to have this workmanship where I’ve chosen the poems I think I want to remain behind me when I’m gone. It’s like a waka huia, those intricately carved treasure boxes where Māori kept the precious feathers of rank. I deliberately included my earliest published poem and a couple of juvenilia, because this is my life: the production here is a joy to me. He tino taonga te pukapuka nei!

 

The last time I lost him

I lost him for good:

the night and the day

the breath he was breathing

 

and death’s head torpedoes

blew out of the water

the skiff of my father.

 

from ‘As big as a father’ Blood Ties

 

 

PG: The father poems are so beautifully textured, both emotionally and musically. What are the difficulties and what were the joys in writing of your father?

JPH: People might rightly observe that I’ve made a career out of mining my father’s and my relationship, but you have to play what’s in front of you. In some ways, I had little choice, as we were so entangled. I spoke a bit earlier about how my writing him changed over time; as for emotions, I guess I felt cheated by his early death and our all our unresolved stuff. I know I’m not alone here.

I’m writing this on Anzac Day and I was down at the Dawn Service in Cranmer Square this morning (where in early 1973 I’d stood up and read a poem of James K Baxter’s in the memorial service held there for him). I know I was grieving my Dad’s death and my broken marriage too that day, reading ‘He Waiata Mō Te Kare,’ Baxter’s love poem to Jacqui Sturm.

This morning, watching the sailors march in with the other armed forces, singing The Sailors’ Hymn, “Eternal Father, strong to save,/ Whose arm has bound the restless wave…”, I was touched by his memory again, through the metrics of the hymnody and those bloody uniforms! I cried a bit: not even I’m sure, just for him but like in a poem I read years ago and forgot the writer, “we weep for our strangeness”.

I’m a writer, it’s what I am and what I do, however well, however badly and so if I need to address somebody or something that’s got to me deep down, I have to find a language for it. I might forget the odd name these days, but I don’t forget people, the ones in my life that have touched me. Dad is top of the list, mostly because he was there but not there, always, like I write him in the poem Father war, “gone but not gone/back but half cocked/alone and alone/the war for a self”.

It makes me cry when I think of how alone he was, addicted to alcohol and adrenaline, how I have come to understand him a little more now, inheriting his tendencies to run on chemicals (I have long since sought help, but he never did). The dead are just the dead at first, our parents who disappear, but over time they become stories we tell to keep them alive and finally, they’re mythical beings. Poverty, depression, war, migration, addiction, it’s a God-given epic, isn’t it? It would be churlish not to sing about my parents’ lives and times, to refuse the gift.

 

After the tremor the neighbour

after the terror the stranger

after the stranger the doctor

after the doctor the soldier

after the soldier the looter

after the looter the vulture

 

from ‘After the tremor’ Blood Ties

 

 

PG: Your earthquake poems are also very affecting to read. I was pondering over the way catastrophe can either freeze or impel writers. How did the quakes affect your writing?

JPH:  Well, the quakes were affecting, that’s for sure, but I guess it doesn’t follow writing about them will be. Your observation about catastrophe having the power to “freeze or impel” is very true – of everything, not just writing. You get the adrenaline to react, the fight-or-flight booster, but it’s how you use it, I think (well, in the moment at least).

I know some people freeze so hard they can’t think; so far, I’ve managed in the aftermath to stay focused, but I wonder if that’s partly because as you age, your system is slower anyway? I learned to put my shoes on before blundering around a darkened house (broken glass); to photograph everything right away, for insurance purposes; to text loved ones (and by extension, in a series of quakes, keep your phone charged).

Lots of learned experience, yes, but when it comes to writing about it, I was slow to do anything much, really. I wrote one poem about our cat disappearing, which The Press published shortly after the September event; that ended up opening what became Shaken Down 6.3. The title tells you that the book really begins after the deadly 22 February quake in 2011 that killed 185 people, including my dear friend and neighbour, Tetaki Tairakena, an English teacher killed in the CTV building collapse with many of his Asian students.

That year I’d been awarded a University of Waikato Writing Fellowship, so I spent much of it coming and going, including a trip to Japan in April in the course of writing The Lost Pilot memoir. I managed to come home regularly and caught many of the major shakes, including the February killer and a bad one in June. We were all PTS, shaken up and burned out over that year, including for many of us, our broken impoverished sleep.

That was how the poems arrived, in the middle of my wakeful nights in Hamilton. I’d wake at one, two or three in the morning and it was hard to go back to sleep. My vestigial childhood hyper-vigilance, formed in response to my father’s late night home-from-the-pub rages woke up again: I’d be on the alert automatically, ready to run if another shake came.

 

how can I find

my way through myself

with the past torn down

 

the road of dreams

with my compass

smashed

 

from ‘Memory is place’ Blood Ties

 

Your brain doesn’t care if you’re in another city, another country – this is what we’ve come to call in Christchurch “quake brain”. As I woke and lay there, sometimes a line would come, a half-conscious thought, as in the poem, ‘Memory is place.’ I’d be in my deep mind somewhere and words would come to match a stumbling thought, like how with the city half destroyed and broken down, we didn’t know where we were anymore. It was disorienting to feel you no longer knew your own city, or knew where you stood.

Some of the poems came as broken pieces (when all you) or chants and incantations (after the tremor), and for most, they were night birds, except for the three I wrote in Japan reflecting their experience of tsunami horrors in Fukushima, back in March. In some ways, the book is like reportage, written under pressure in one year and published the next; the use of photographs was a choice there too, giving readers visual information, along with a reflection, an essay that ends the book.

Jim Norcliffe, one of our kaumātua in the poetry scene here for years was at the time poetry editor of The Press and he tells of how he was inundated with up to a thousand poems by Christchurch citizens, over the next year or so. It seems that when the chips were down and we wanted to tell each other what it felt like, a poem was the weapon of choice. I used to say that we all, with our quake stories were now characters in a giant multi-faceted novel, never to be quite finished, authored by Papatūānuku herself.

 

 

I found no trace of your vital signs.

I stopped the car at Poerua.

Your image stained the lake.

Your signature dripped in the bush.

 

from ‘Re-reading you (Peter Hooper, 1919 – 1991)’ Blood Ties

 

 

PG: There are a number of poems that pay tribute to poet, Peter Hooper. Are there other poets that have sustained you in view of both reading and conversation?

JPH:  Yes, Peter my high school English teacher and later, a lifelong friend was always going to figure. I mentioned a few earlier in answer to another question, but I think the next influence was David Walker, who taught literature papers in the American Studies programme at Canterbury when I came back to study in 1971 after dropping out in 1966.

I was starting to write again after what I might like to style as my “Woodstock years”, when I ran away to country (not to escape fame of course, just growing up). I met Gary Langford who had a flat downstairs and he was writing and publishing, very much a presence in the university lit scene. It was David though who helped me step up to the mark. I saw he was publishing poetry in Canta, so after a tutorial one night, I gave him a few of my ‘prentice efforts.

The cold bath he gave them should have put me off, but I persevered; he pointed me towards the Russian and South American writers I mentioned earlier, as well as rarities like Georg Trakl and Goncharov. I guess he steered me into the wider world, out of the claustrophobic Anglophilia which still gripped the English Department in those days (Patrick Evans is good on this subject).

David and I corresponded, were published together by Fragments Press in 1974 in a shared volume (Two Poets: Fragments 5) and stayed friends thereafter, swapping poems and books. He kept the flame alive for me, I think that’s true; after I dropped out of university again, I wrote fitfully but published nothing until 1998, back at varsity for a third time lucky, self-publishing a stapled booklet called Flood Damage.

I met a few poets working in London bookshops in the 1990s (I even heard Stephen Spender read, in a tiny community centre for the arts in north London, in Torriano Avenue, N7). I took a course at the legendary City Lit adult education centre in Stukeley Street not far from my work in Charing Cross Road, tutored by Alison Fell.

I was reading everything I could get my hands on and writing daily, even if only a diary entry: short stories, an abandoned novel and poetry, poetry, poetry. That’s where As Big As A Father came from, that time; like fishing, if you bait a line and cast every day, sooner or later, you’ll get a bite. I was reading Raymond Carver and I think in the end, it was the example of his life, even more than his style that empowered me. Carver was a recovering alkie like me, a working-class kid from the sticks, who’d found the self-belief to keep writing.

Back in New Zealand, at university in 1998, I took Rob Jackaman’s creative writing paper for poetry. I got to know him well and he helped me – along with Patrick Evans – take writing seriously and look to publication, long term. The year before, As Big As A Father had won the Whitirea poetry prize so I had Sam Hunt cheering me on after that (he was the judge).

James Brown I met that night in Porirua was writer in residence at Canterbury in 2001 and he read a manuscript I’d got together, edited by Bernadette Hall and encouraged me to send it so Roger Steele of Steele Roberts. That was breakthrough I needed. The resulting book, As Big As A Father (2002) was shortlisted in the Montana New Zealand Book Award the following year and the faith, the support of all the foregoing writers had a public reward. What matters though as always is the next poem, the being awake in the moment.

 

 

I filled my heart with as many tears as I could

possibly carry and saving them for life, skedaddled.

 

In the pub in Dunoille, knocking back beer after beer

celebrating a visit to hell with a man who works there.

 

from ‘Inferno (Strongman Mine 1967)’ Blood Ties

 

 

PG: Is there a poem that has really lasted the distance for you?

JPH: I thought about this and while it seems obvious ‘As Big As A Father’ will survive me, for a while anyway. I still have a heart for ‘Inferno (Strongman Mine 1967).’ I wrote it in London, during those years when I was isolated from all it speaks of physically and culturally and not getting published much at all, seemingly whistling in the dark.

Somehow, it just turned up and rolled out: the first couplet is a memory of my old Blackball friend David Hibbs in 1978 when I was back living on the Coast, in Runanga, offering to take my wife and me down into Strongman. It was a potent journey: her father had died there in the explosion with eighteen other miners, 19 January 1967.

The image of Virgil guiding Dante down into the underworld just sat there for me and everything else seemed to follow. This is where reading informs and sustains us; without thinking, I was diving down into the Western tradition for guidance. The memory of our trip to Greens Dip where the explosion took place, and the final point where you can go no further in that section, where two bodies still remain buried deep, spooled out of me like a film.

I knew I had it almost straight away. I know it will stay around as it relies on whatever power it has for the buried emotion in the measured pauses at of each couplet. It was well that we took that trip back then; the mine was finally closed and  sealed up in 1993; there is no way down there now, to offer alms to the dead.

But I would put in an honorary mention for one lesser known: The Iconography of Birds (for Les Murray). I wrote this I think in 1998, after hearing Les Murray read at the university, where he spoke of birds perching on a dead tree in a dam on his farm in New South Wales. The poem he read was a graphic dramatization on this scene.

I love birds, I’ve been watching them all my life. I went home and wrote this poem as if in reply, fuelled by my studies in medieval iconography and a recent essay on stained glass windows in the great cathedrals. I was in full flight in Rob’s poetry classes, writing on steroids, so the imagery of Christ as a pelican feeding his young on blood from his own breast came straight from my essay, reflecting on a window that held this image.

From there, the sky was conceived as “the Gothic vault” filled with migratory birds, especially the godwits, who had not long departed the Heathcote Estuary on their incredible, world-girdling flight to Alaska and summer feeding grounds. The birds became Greek voyagers in Homer’s myths and without thinking too much, I’d joined the two great streams of Western literature: the pagan Greeks and the biblical writers, the Jews.

The birds fly out into the Pacific night, driven by that mysterious migratory instinct that tells them it is time to go, star-farers as wise as those who navigated their way here to Aotearoa, Māori first, and later, Pākehā. I was a late arrival to these southern waters, a migratory bird like these early travellers, albeit I sailed here on my mother’s back, so to speak. Below the line, I think the poem was trying to tell me something and I like that.

 

 

it started out of sight and out of mind

too dark to see too hard to think

 

it began with the world made flesh

on the backs of tiny bones

 

from ‘Child labour’ Blood Ties

 

 

PG: Which new poem especially delights you?

JPH:    I like ‘Child Labour’ in its simplicity and its rage, and ‘Dark With Nouns’ too. Very different offerings and both pretty fresh, they were written last year. Catherine Montgomery encouraged me to include something recent. That reading at the ICA with those giants of poetry on a raised stage in front of me: phew! Like Mount Rushmore in the flesh, and I try and capture something of that in the salute to Brodsky, who made the remark somewhere I was reading about how if you covered all the adjective and verbs, a poem should be “dark with nouns”. I like poems to be full of the material world, the word made flesh (small ‘w’).

But I’ll go for ‘Child Labour,’ because it’s a song, like one of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience: here, the innocent get to have a cruel experience, the kind of image I saw in my fifth form history books, tiny, emaciated kids pulling coal tubs in tunnels little more than burrows for moles. It still goes on today, everywhere children and those with less power are exploited for somebody else’s profit, for my smart phone, my T-shirt.

I’ll put my hand up: the poetry of witness is necessary still, whether we look back to Chaucer pointing out ecclesiastical corruption, fast forward to Neruda skewering US companies and their tame dictators enslaving peasants in South America, or Miroslav Holub holding his nose over the rotten Communist bureaucracy in Czechoslovakia, while seemingly talking about a Chinese emperor embalmed stinking fish – we can speak up, when it matters.

It’s great to see that Emma Neale and Philip Temple have just published the anthology Manifesto with Otago University Press, a collection of political and protest poetry. We have a broad church to speak into, it doesn’t have to be one thing or the other; let’s not miss the chance to stand up and be counted.

Look what happened when Eleanor Catton made her opinions known on the back of her public profile, post-The Luminaries afterglow. She took a serve from John Key and a few others, but good for her. That meant was she’d hit them where it hurt. How the hell did we get to be a country where families sleep in cars?

 

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so anger pushed you back to the river/back again to

the fish that flew/a world made by words over

 

from ‘When the thin wild mercury music came’ Dylan Junkie

 

Dylan Junkie is a tantalising weave of Bob Dylan and Jeffrey Paparoa Holman. When you caught Dylan’s first single, ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues,’ on the radio in 1965, it struck a chord. What initially gave you the Bob-Dylan goosebumps?

JPH: Whew, that’s tough to recall. I say in the first poem, ‘When the thin wild mercury music came,’ “sixty can’t call back sixteen”, an admission that when I’m trying to source the feel of those goosebumps, it’s kinda too late? So in the poem, I make it up, “hearing him was like wind over water” – it was shocking in a way, exciting.

When we did the Christchurch launch at Scorpio Books on Thursday, I gave a brief mihimihi and for my waiata, played that song from my iPhone through a very small battered twin speaker set the size of a TV remote. It was tinny but loud, a bit like the primitive PYE record player we had at the time in Blackball, or the Columbus valve radio. I really wanted to jig about for the two minutes sixteen seconds it took to blast it out to the audience.

I think it was just the sheer energy of the stolen Chuck Berry riff and the beat rap of lyrics fired off like machine gun volleys, with a sneer. It was like somebody had let a noisy opinionated teenager into a room full of retirees, he was running around swearing his head off, warning the kids his age that the squares and their thought police were out to get you. It was the sound of somebody smashing the window of the Readers’ Digest HQ, throwing a brick through the windows of respectability. Yeah, I’m making this up now: I was damaged goods and pubescent right then, so his arrogance and his confidence were intoxicating.

 

PG: Were you writing at the time?

JPH: In 1963, I’d written that poem for Peter Hooper that starts off Blood Ties, and one about the Great War after reading A.J.P. Taylor’s The First World War: an illustrated history. I was a good history student and the book, richly illustrated with often sarcastic photo captions affected me deeply. That one got in the School Magazine the following year, when I met Dylan’s music. I wrote one about my grandmother’s ageing too, since lost but snatches remembered.

 

PG: Did Dylan influence your poetry when you first began writing?

JPH: The high school poetry didn’t follow me beyond the classroom. I was in sawmills and shearing gangs by 1965 and can recall clearly listening to Like A Rolling Stone on jukeboxes in Pahiatua (I was the only one playing it).  That’s in the first poem too, “in a jukebox milkbar chasing a girl/the shock of the snare drum smashing!”. The music, the organ, the sneer, the howl of the chorus, “how does it feel, how does it feel?” bypassed the brain’s resistance and shot you in heart. But it didn’t make me write then; I kept a few diaries and wrote to my mother, that was about it.

A brief romance had me writing to the girl a declaration of something I felt, but nothing like Dylan was doing. He was an inspiration amongst many others: the Beatles, the Stones, Procul Harum, Manfred Mann, the Animals. Once I got out in the country away from the towns, I somehow lost contact with his music after Bringing It All Back Home in 1965. I’d eaten up Mr Tambourine Man and the ‘B’ side, Subterranean Homesick Blues (I bought the single). I’d heard ‘Only a Pawn in Their Game’ from The Times They Are a-Changing album, an angry, powerful song about the 1963 murder of Mississippi civil rights’ activist, Medgar Evers – and many others.

 

if not for

Only a Pawn in their Game

ripsaw hillbilly prophet man

West Coast white boy like me

 

from ‘If not for you’ Dylan Junkie

 

 

That’s in the poem, ‘If Not For You,’ in the History Lessons sequence in the book, where I have poems for songs that sing into years of my life, in sequence. I somehow worked backwards in discovering Dylan: I never knew the songs in the eponymous first album, and only a few in The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan of 1963, like Blowin’ in the Wind. A lot Dylan fans tell this story: how they picked him up somewhere along his career, got hooked and worked back through the catalogue.

My first – unforgettable – album purchase was Another Side of Bob Dylan, in early 1965 after Subterranean shot me through the heart. I never bought another Dylan album till 1973, I missed the entire explosion of genius from1965 onwards for one good reason: I was out of town in a world of farmers, shearers and petrol heads. I heard Lay Lady Lay plenty on airplay in West Australia, but I always associate it with the Vietnam War – how weird is that? Feminists hate it, but to me it carries the melancholy of death. Local Aussie farmers’ sons were getting killed over in Vietnam, so the two things are locked my memories of that time, 1968 to 1970.

Dylan left the country behind just as I went out there to find and test myself, I guess. But the early songs never left me and once I took him up again, back in the city in 1972, he’s never been far away. Somebody gave me Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid in 1973 and flatmates were playing Blonde on Blonde. I bought Planet Waves, a forgotten album now as he’d left Columbia and it came out on Asylum; it’s a favourite with me as it plugged me back; that one did influence my poetry in ’73-74 as I was getting a collection together. Once Blood on the Tracks got to me in 1974 that was it, then I went back and bought more, including the despised Self Portrait from 1969. The Basement Tapes was a revelation in 1975, and then Desire. I was crashing and burning all through the 70s and so was he.

 

PG: On the one hand, the collection delivers traces of Dylan so you replay lines in his gravelly, off-pitch voice, while on the other hand you are transported back to the younger self where certain experiences shine out along life’s uneasy learning curve. Do you think this fertile knit has produced poetry in a different key?

JPH:  I think if you asked my long-suffering adult kids they would say Dylan is in my DNA; my first wife and I would sing songs or recite lines on long car trips or anywhere, really (my son is a fan now, my daughter’s agnostic). I could probably do a medley of lyric snippets anytime, a mashup. I know he tunes my voice somewhere, deep down. There’s plenty of other people’s songs and poems and sounds down in the mix, too.

But it’s kinda physical, you know? I sensed in some way how these poems might go. The first series I wrote, Lines from Hard Rain comes second now in the book we see here. I riffed on single lines from A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall just to kick things off.  I wanted to do a Dylan album, if you like – for example, his “twelve misty mountains” became my “twelve mountains” – but I filled his line out with my world, my take on things. It’s the West Coast, it’s the Paparoa Range, but it’s also Old Testament prophets and a battered wife – a world I knew, transformed into an incantation with rhymes. So it’s a song, really.

Some are biographical – like, poet in gutter, a sweet little wordplay about kids floating sticks in a ditch in the rain – but many are chants, or rages, a weeping that wants to be singing. The lifelines, the bios are in the History Lesson section but there too, as with Most of the Time and Tempest, there are lyric forms and rap sheets like the ones in Hard Rain.

 

Long slow bend, I’m nursing sixty, the world

just rips in half. water that’s flat as the eye can

bear meets sky, meets air, a blue that leaps

without perspective, seas of space stretch

out to nowhere and throw the world aside.

 

from ‘Heading to Hibben’ Dylan Junkie

 

 

‘Heading for Hibbing’ is a road poem, vignettes of a journey I took to his hometown 500 miles from Iowa City where I was in residence for the International Writers’ Program in the autumn of 2012. It’s much more prosey and conversational, like where I fill up with gas just north of the town of Zimmerman (yes!) on I-169 and the blonde counter clerk loves my Kiwi accent, she wants to go to Hobbiton.

A note of the surreal is the undercurrent in this sequence but not the language, the form. Dylan is a storyteller, a klezmerin, a wandering Jewish minstrel deeply linked to that European tradition beyond American folk, country and rock. Lasting classics like Desolation Row (the all-American nightmare), Brownsville Girl (America the Movie) and Blind Willie McTell (the curse of race and slavery) make this man what I called him at a welcome party for the overseas writers in Iowa City that year, “The American Shakespeare”. They seemed to look at me blankly, in reply.

It’s a little like the concept in the Blackball bridge sonnets of 2004: a visit to another world, a lost time, a different kind of people to those in cities and suburbs today, where the land and rivers and the mountains rule and the music has roots in those immigrants and radicals who worked the mines. I felt deeply, subjectively, that in hearing Dylan as a teenager, I’d somehow heard where he came from, a place not unlike my tūrangawaewae. Is that wishful thinking? Who knows.

 

PG: I rather liked the fact there are no endnotes. Were you tempted to include any? Like a Dylan song-map to overlay the poems?

I wrote blogs on the four days of the Hibbing trip and planned to include one, like the essay appended in the earthquake poems in Shaken Down 6.3, but Mary wasn’t keen so it fell off. That was good thinking, in retrospect. The songs are flagged in the History Lessons section and the lines from Hard Rain become titles, edited so they’re not quotes and we don’t risk the wrath of Sony. Highway 61 Revisited shows up at the end of Heading for Hibbing, but I don’t think endnotes or anything like that were considered.

Some of the History Lessons poem have the names of songs for titles (No time to think, that’s from Street-Legal, 1978), others have albums (Time out of mind, 1997). Often, it was a mood or a memory I was hooking into: Bill Mathieson in 1978 grief-stricken at the drowning of Abel Salisbury near White Horse Bay on the Coast Road; or my best friend Frank Pendlebury who loved the 1997 album, especially Not Dark Yet. Sadly, he killed himself ten years later; we played the song for him as we said goodbye at his funeral.

 

 

some roads I’m cruising like a king

on some she’s boiling dry again

some hills the clutch just slips so bad

in the rain the vacuum wipers stall

 

from ‘Time out of mind’ Dylan Junkie

 

PG: Is there a poem that particularly resonates for you either in terms of experience of the Dylan connections? (can we post it?).

There are a few with deep, ongoing hooks, but if I was going to choose one, it would be ‘Time out of mind.’ The album was another of his “back from the dead” records, like Oh Mercy (1989) and World Gone Wrong (1993). He was always being deserted by one group of fans or declared dead and buried by the industry, then popping up later, reborn: electric, country, born-again, Americana, and now, the crooner of standards.

The poem itself is a kind of West Coast hillbilly movie short with its two-line bridges, couplets maybe Bob might like? It’s a road poem too, so he’d be into that. Ikamatua: a nowhere town you drive through heading to Reefton and almost never stop, except for petrol and tobacco. It’s where I drove my old Chev in 1968 on a pub crawl with my mother’s boss from Internal Affairs in Greymouth, the old man who ran a string of cleaners in all the government buildings. Must have been before I headed off to West Australia, just me and Mr Cosgrove on the car’s vast leather bench seat, getting high. He loved his beer and whiskey chasers, Cossie did, another true Coast original straight out of The Basement Tapes cast list.

 

 

Time out of mind

 

1997

 

everybody’s got a different brain

mine’s an old juke box

 

some days it plays you Frank running

like a frightened deer in the dusk

across the flood-wracked Blackball bridge

buckling underneath

 

everybody’s got a twisted heart

mine’s a ’52 Chevrolet

 

some roads I’m cruising like a king

on some she’s boiling dry again

some hills the clutch just slips so bad

in the rain the vacuum wipers stall

 

everyone gets a shot at beauty

everyone sees a distant star

 

here we are on a dusty road

something nagging maybe grace

low on petrol out of smokes

heading for Ikamatua

 

©’Time out of mind,’ from Dylan Junkie, Jeffrey Paparoa Holman, Mākaro Press (Eastbourne, 2017).  Used with permission.

 

 

 

 

Jenny Bornholdt’s choice of Best NZ Poems 2016 now live

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Looking forward to delving into this delectable poetry banquet (sorry AY but I love cooking and writing equally!) An impressive array of mostly Wellington published and Wellington based poets –  poetry must sizzling on the streets there just as it does in Ireland. It blew my poetry socks off. Extraordinary!

 

Press release:

The latest online edition of Best New Zealand Poems is now available, bringing together twenty-five poems that are rich with place and vibrating with a fierce energy.

The anthology has been published annually since 2001 by the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML) at Victoria University of Wellington with support from Creative New Zealand.

“Best New Zealand Poems 2016 comes with a brand new look that includes author photos and a search feature,” says series editor, poet and IIML senior lecturer Chris Price.

This year’s edition represents the cream of New Zealand poetry published in 2016, as selected by poet and Arts Foundation Laureate Jenny Bornholdt.

Ms Bornholdt says she picked poems that “made me pause and put a book/pile of paper down; made me want to go to the bakery and buy a cream torpedo then make coffee; or put my gumboots on and go and inspect the compost—the things I do when I need to think”.

Internationally acclaimed and Ockham New Zealand Book Award-shortlisted writers Ashleigh Young and Hera Lindsay Bird, and the father/son duo Tim and Oscar Upperton are among the poets who have made the cut. The anthology takes flight into the past with an ancient Egyptian pharaoh, soars with an orphaned falcon named Avro Vulcan, yet always manages to return to earth in a recognisably New Zealand landscape and culture.

Place is a key theme in this year’s selection, and the poets often find themselves transported—in both senses of the word. Claire Orchard’s ‘Charms’ takes a drive through her childhood neighbourhood to examine her past life, James Brown heads for the trig in a Wellington wind and 2017 Windham-Campbell Prize winner Ashleigh Young is galloped away screaming on a frightened horse. John Dennison meditates on man’s urge to fly; Andrew Johnston travels outside of time and space at the ear, nose, and throat doctor’s; and Tim Upperton visits Kansas, well, kind of.

Other poets find their way around life’s biggest emotions and events. Bill Nelson writes a memorandum of understanding to his love; Anna Livesey examines the death of her mother, the birth of her child and cabbages; Tusiata Avia looks at a photo of her house, and watches it populate with people, spirits and history.

“The poems themselves are as fresh as this morning’s milk. There’s never been a better time to encounter new New Zealand poetry,” says Chris Price.

The new site has been designed by poet Rachel O’Neill.  (looks great Rachel!! PG)

Best New Zealand Poems 2016 can be viewed online