Elizabeth Smither with Rusty and Sneaky
‘The Labradors have made nests already
simply by lying in the long grass
sucking the green into their bodies’
from ‘Lying in the long grass between two black Labradors’ in Night Horse
I recently read through the alluring stretch of Elizabeth Smither’s poetry; from Here Come the Clouds published in 1975, to the new collection, Night Horse, just released by Auckland University Press. I was drawn into melodious lines, pocket anecdotes, bright images and enviable movement. Harry Ricketts talked about the transformative quality of Elizabeth’s poems in an interview with Kathryn Ryan, and I agree. As you follow reading paths from the opening line, there is always some form of transformation. The poetry, from debut until now, is meditative, andante, beautiful.
Elizabeth Smither has written 18 collections of poetry, five novels, five short story collections, journals, essays and reviews. She was New Zealand’s Poet Laureate (2001-3), was awarded the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry in 2008, the same year she received an Hon D. Litt from Auckland University. She has appeared widely at festivals and her work has been published in Australia, USA and UK.
To celebrate Night Horse (Auckland University Press, 2017), Elizabeth agreed to answer a few questions.
‘You can run as fast as Atalanta
who bowled three apples at her suitors
Double Red Delicious’
from ‘An apple tree for Ruby’ in Night Horse
What sparked your imagination as a child? Was reading a main attraction or did you also write? Did particular books endure?
Reading and writing. I liked to say long sentences to myself as I walked. The first thing I can remember writing about was my pet New Zealand White rabbit. All the usual books of the period: Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, A Girl of the Limberlost which I found faintly terrifying. I can see these are the precursors of George Eliot and Jane Austen. As a teenager I had a crush on French writers: Colette, Gide, Mauriac, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Simenon. My father was a great novel reader and he impressed on me the sacrifices made by writers like Charles Dickens. I was scared of Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop and never got past the page on which he appeared.
‘The cats are out by the letterboxes
at the ends of long driveways
waiting to see how the night will shape itself.’
from ‘Cat night’ in Night Horse
Your debut poetry collection, Here Come the Clouds, appeared in 1975, your eighteenth volume, Night Horse, was published in June this year. I see the same poetic attentiveness and ability to assemble detail that both stalls and surprises the reader. Do you see any changes in the way your write poems, or what you bring to poems, over the past decades?
Elizabeth Caffin wrote of an assured voice but I am unaware of it. I think it is more a question of a philosophy: Keats being lost in the leaves of a tree; being most ourselves when we are unconscious of what the self is; not feeling we are the centre of the universe but one of its parts. It is also a balancing act: the outside world meeting the interior; the sad existing alongside the pleasing, our mixed motives and our inability to ever know more than a fraction. In compensation we have the lovely leap of the imagination. I think poetry in many ways is a dare.
Have any poets or books affected or boosted your poetic directions?
Wallace Stevens was a huge discovery. I used to spend a year reading a major poet. Stevens, Roethke, Berryman, Plath, Sexton, Bishop, Lowell, Synder, The Beats, Black Mountain. Now I am less of a swot and read wherever I please. And when I am tired and jaded I re-read Hercule Poirot.
‘More moon tonight. 14 per cent bigger
and closer to the earth. The whole sky
seems to leap to greet a visitor.’
from ‘Perigee moon’ in Night Horse
In 1975, very few women poets were getting published in New Zealand. Did you feel you were writing within a community of poets? Men or women? Was it difficult to get your first book out?
Part community, part social movement: Greer, Friedan, Steinem, Kedgley, Mead. The United Women’s Convention. We were all swallowing American poets at that time, looking for a freer way forward. My first book I owe to Sam Hunt who was visiting and found a folder of poems he gave to Alister Taylor. After Alister came McIndoe and then AUP.
‘Fast the pulse of the music, every beat
clear as a little stream running over stones’
from ‘At the ballet’ in Night Horse
Your new collection is a delight to read and offers so many poetic treats. I was thinking as I read that your poems are like little jackets that can be worn inside out and outside in. In stillness there is movement and in movement there is stillness; in musicality there is plainness and in plainness there is musicality. In the strange there is the ordinary and in the ordinary there is the strange. What do you like your poems to do?
I want them to do everything. Everything at once. I want them to feel and think (and feel the thinking in them as you read). I want them to be quick, in the old sense of the word: the opposite of dead. I want them to not know something and try to find it out – I would never write a poem with prior knowledge – I think ignorance can be bliss or at least start the motor. And as I write more I find out more and more about musicality. Isn’t one of the loveliest moments in music when harmony breaks through discord as though it is earned and you know that discord, instead of being a thicket or a dark wood, is part of it?
‘Down their sleeves (his jacket, her blouse)
run currents the early evening stars detect
and whose meaning is held in great museums’
from ‘Holding hands’ in Night Horse
I love that idea! What attracts you in the poetry of others?
Boldness, form (the pressure of it), language as clear as it can be, given the difficulty or otherwise of the content, not being self-centred, engaging the reader. Visceral was the quality Allen Curnow looked for when I had the temerity to leave a poem in his letterbox. ‘I poked it with a stick and it was alive.’ James Brown does it in ‘Flying Fuck’ (‘The Spinoff, June 9, 2017); Stephen Romer in some lines about cleaning a barn (‘Carcanet Eletter: Set Thy Love in Order)
‘Perhaps in our cool northern air
you rose some echelons
being lighter, the barn empty’
while Carol Ann Duffy excoriates Theresa May with lines that reach back to the roots of poetry:
‘The furious young
ran towards her through fields of wheat.’
‘Morals that are so pure they blaze
the sunlight back into the air’
from ‘A landscape of shining of leaves’ in Night Horse
Janet Frame worked hard to get the rhythm right in her poems and she wasn’t always satisfied (ah, the rogue self-doubt! I adore her musical effects). I find you are able to slow down the pace of your poems so that I linger as reader upon an image, a word, an anecdote, a side-thought to see what surfaces. Does this reflect your process as a writer?
I think, since I write in longhand, it may echo the pauses during composition.
Do you, like Janet and countless other poets, have poetry anxieties?
Just the big anxiety, the generalised one. To be better, to get closer, to go deeper, knowing that a rigorous equation awaits. I particularly felt this in ballet: any advance, even within the safety of a spotlight, opened a further and equivalent unknown. My other anxiety is that, having embarked on a poem at speed and decided on a stanza form, the stanzas won’t add up when I have finished.
‘Eggs in foil were hidden everywhere
until the taste of sweetness palled.
She sits in an armchair with her bear’
from ‘Ruby and fruit’ in Night Horse
Your poetry does not slip into a self-confession or grant a window on your most private life, yet it acts as an autobiographical record of your relations with the world, people, animals and objects. How do you see the relationship between autobiography and your poems?
Some of the recent autobiographical poems remind me a little of Elgar’s ‘Enigma Variations’. Ruminating portraits of friends or events illustrating a friend. The ‘Enigma Variations’ are tender but well-defined, different in tone. Autobiography, to me, has many hazards. We all excuse ourselves and even the most honest and analytic among us favour some perspectives over others. I feel confident that something of ourselves always gets in and reveals more than we can imagine. ‘Am I in this poem?’ has never worried me. I know I am.
Are there taboo areas?
No, never. It’s just a case of what you can handle.
‘It was all those unseen moments we do not see
the best of a friend, the best of a mother
competent and gracious in her solitude’
from ‘My mother’s house’ in Night Horse
‘Later you’ll scrub individual stains
from the white field: the rim of someone’s glass
down which a red droplet ran, a smear
of eggy quiche, a buttered crumb.’
from ‘The tablecloth’ in Night Horse
I especially love the ongoing friendship and granddaughter poems, but I particularly love the first poem, ‘My mother’s house.’ Kate Camp and I heard you read this at the National Library’s Circle of Laureates and were so moved and uplifted that we asked for copies! Unseen, you are observing your mother move through the house from the street (you gave us this introduction) and see her in shifting lights. The moment is extraordinary; are we are at our truest self when we are not observed? There is the characteristic Smither movement through the poem, slow and attentive, to the point of tilt or surprise. The final lines reverberate and alter the pitch of looking: ‘but she who made it/who would soon walk into the last room/of her life and go to sleep in it.’ Do you have a poem or two in the collection that particularly resonate with you?
I’m fond of ‘The tablecloth’ after I observed my friend, Clay, scrubbing at a corner of a white damask tablecloth in the laundry after a dinner party. It reminded me of the old-fashioned way of washing linen in a river. It’s both a doll-sized tablecloth and something almost as large as the tablecloth for a royal banquet around which staff walk, measuring the placement of cutlery and the distance between each chair. ‘Ukulele for a dying child’ tumbles all over itself in an incoherent manner because the subject is so serious and no poet can do it justice. The grandmother poems will probably be ongoing because it is such an intense experience: something between a hovering angel and a lioness. Going back to your remark about ‘My mother’s house’ I agree with the truth that is available in our unobserved moments. Perhaps there is a balance between our social and our private moments which might comprise something Keats called ‘soul-making’.
‘Next morning she was called again
to undo the work of her marvellous wrists.
“Miss Bowerman, can you let out the water?”‘
from ‘Miss Bowerman and the hot water bottles’ in Night Horse
There is no formula for an ending but I often get an intake of breath, a tiny heart skip when I read your poems. What do you like endings to do?
The endings I like best have some extravagance in them, like the ending of ‘Cat Night’ where the road which still retains the day’s warmth turns into carriages and cocottes on the Champs-Elysées.
‘Let the street lights mark
the great promenade down which love will come
like black carriages on the Champs-Elysées.’
There’s a big difference between the size of a cat and a carriage but the emotion is the same.
Which New Zealand poets have you read in the past year or so that have struck or stuck?
Diana Bridge, Claire Orchard, John Dennison, yourself in New York, Michael Harlow, Geoff Cochrane and all the laureates.
Or from elsewhere?
Lots of Australians. I’ve just read Rosemary Dobson’s Collected Poems.
Do you read widely in other genres?
Yes, I particularly like hybrid forms – travelogues that turn into miniature poetry collections, diaries, memoirs that admit to no rules as if they understand the psychology of the reader who is liable to become bored, and also the limits of being an author. My main love remains the novel, followed closely by the short story and the detective story.
I was once asked to pick a single New Zealand poem I love to talk about on Summer Noelle. What poem would you pick?
Since Allen Curnow: Simply by Sailing in a New Direction, a biography by Terry Sturm, edited by Linda Cassells and Allen Curnow: Collected Poems, edited by Elizabeth Caffin and Terry Sturm are being published by AUP later this year, and since our pohutukawa are threatened by myrtle rust, I would pick ‘Spectacular Blossom’.
‘ – Can anyone choose
And call it beauty? – The victims
Are always beautiful.’
Booksellers review by Emma Shi
Radio NZ National review by Harry Ricketts with Kathryn Ryan