Tag Archives: Kate Camp

Poetry Shelf interview with Kate Camp

Photo credit: Grant Maiden

‘And I think it is this sense of connection, in all Kate’s poems, which sent me scrambling for a word like spiritual. Because what I feel when I read Kate’s work is that the great mysteries of the world, the omnipresent magnificence, the unexplainable and the truly awesome, rest in being human among humans. Take your ley lines and chakras and give me the oesophagus and the eyeball, the memory of a dusty school hall, that night, that party, remember the small blasts of happiness, our bloody painful hearts.’

Maria McMillan, launch speech for Kate Camp’s How to Be Happy Though Human

Poet, essayist and literary commentator, Kate Camp has published six previous poetry collections. Her debut collection, Unfamiliar Legends of the Stars, won the NZSA Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poetry at the 1999 Montana NZ Book Awards. Her fourth, The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls, won the 2011 NZ Post Book Awards Best Book of Poetry. Her poems have appeared in magazines and journals in New Zealand and internationally. For a number of years she has discussed classic literature – Kate’s Klassics – on with Kim Hill’s Saturday spot on Radio NZ.

To mark Victoria University Press’s publication of Kate’s How to Be Happy Though Human, Kate answered a few questions for Poetry Shelf.

So many things can go wrong

inside a human life, it’s almost comical.

You find yourself in a house,

in a night, with everyone you love

breathing in and out somewhere

and if you thought about it properly

you’d just throw up in terror.

 

from ‘Panic button’

 

Paula: Have you always been an avid reader and writer?

Kate: Family legend is that I came home from my first day of school and told my mother I could read. She said, oh ok read this. I replied, well I don’t know any words yet.

I didn’t learn to read particularly early, but once I did I quickly became obsessive about it, all the usual reading under the covers, walking down the street with a book on my way to school, re-reading books over and over again.

Paula: Can you name a few poets that have caught your attention across the decades?

Kate: Lauris Edmond is a key one for me among New Zealand poets. I’m reading Fleur Adcock’s selected poems at the moment and remembering what an important influence she was for me early on. And Jenny Bornholdt, her work and mine are so different, and yet I always feel such an affinity with her poems.

In more recent years / decades I’ve got into a lot of poetry in translation. Czesław Miłosz is one I come back to again and again, and Wisława Szymborska. Like Bornholdt, Mary Oliver is a poet I feel is very different from me, but I love her.

Paula: You acknowledge your writing group. How important is it to be part of this as a poet?

Kate: My whole career I’ve had a writing group. When I first started writing seriously I was on the creative writing course at Victoria in 1995, so I was in a weekly workshop. After that finished, around half the course members formed a group together and we met for years. Then in 2003 I joined my current group and it’s been going that whole time.

They are my first readers, my best readers, my greatest motivators. We follow the “Iowa workshop” style where we read our poem aloud, the others talk about it, and the poet just listens and says nothing. It’s such a brilliant, powerful way to understand how a poem is landing.

A liquorice cable

wires hand to mouth.

 

Proud magpies

raced the dawn home.

 

Asphalt remains lively

weeks after its laying.

 

from ‘Unfamiliar Legends of the Stars’

Paula: Your debut collection Unfamiliar Legend of the Stars came out in 1998. Were you writing poetry much before this?

Kate: I’d always written poems in a notebook but never really shown them to anyone or thought I’d do anything with them. I knew about the creative writing course at Victoria, I was a student there studying English and I knew that Emily Perkins, who was the older sister of a school friend, had done the course and become a published author.

I thought, I’ll apply for the course three times, if I don’t get in I’ll just give up on it. I got in the first time I applied and it was really only then that I started writing with any focus or seriousness.

Paula: That first book really caught my attention – it felt fresh and rendered the world alive with possibilities. Can you remember what motivated you as a poet then, what mattered when you shaped a poem?

Kate: I think what motivated me then was a sense that I saw the world in a certain way and I wanted to share that way of seeing with others. And I guess I felt the power of poetry, and I wanted to wield that power myself.

What mattered to me then was to write a poem that was clever, surprising, and made you feel something.

Having said that, when I’m actually writing a poem I try not to think at all. About anything. I find that gets in the way. The Canadian poet Christian Bok said “take care of the sound and the sense will take care of itself.” That’s how I’ve always written, just going with what comes up and trying not to switch my thinking brain on until I’ve finished the draft, and it’s time to edit.

Violin was out the back of my flat when I was nineteen.

I would put the speakers in the garden

and play ‘Be Mine Tonight’ again and again

running inside to rewind the tape.

He’s shocked to find I am middle aged.

I’m not shocked. Inside me are Russian dolls

of the women and girls I’ve been before

each more beautiful and unhappy than the current.

 

from ‘One train may hide another’

Paula: Your new collection How to Be Happy Though Human (you have a deft hand with titles!) is a gathering of new and selected poems. I like the way you have placed the new poems first and then we move through your books from the debut to the most recent. Often the new poems go at the end. I love this choice! Any comments?

Kate: I read a lot of selected poems and I tend to read them backwards, in chunks, so that I’m reading the poet’s most recent poems first. Otherwise with a poet like Milosz you’re starting in the 1940s and the poems can feel really dated. But if you start with the new ones, by the time you get back there you’re kind of in the zone.

That doesn’t really apply to my selected though as my career hasn’t been that long, at least not by Milosz standards! I just wanted to start with new poems because, you know, new poems are always the ones you love the most. The best poem is the next one.

And I go back to Saturday

we dance with other people

other people’s children,

create community with physics.

 

Memory is a kind of  mourning.

We take each other’s hands

as if they were made for that

and we form a circle.

 

from ‘How to be happy though human’

 

Paula: Your new book offers perfect routes through the rewards of your poetry. The physical world is refreshed, relationships between things and people are made visible, there are surprising connections, and always a glorious poetic fluency. Did you encounter any poetry stumbling blocks or epiphanies across the decades?

Kate: There was a fairly big gap between Beauty Sleep and The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls. I was having a crap time in my personal life, and I felt really stuck creatively. I was scared to write about my failures, my despair, my loneliness, my fucked up life. And I was scared to write about “the human condition” like a Milosz or a Mary Oliver, I felt – who am I  to write about the meaning of life? On both fronts my ego and my vulnerability was in the way.

But then I realised, the artists I most admired were writing poems and songs of utter devastation and heartbreak and disaster. And I didn’t think they were losers, I thought they were magnificent.

And I realised that I was never going to be anything other than a middle class New Zealand woman who grew up on Timbacryl adverts and 70s singer songwriters, and that I had just as much right as the next poet to plumb the depths of the human psyche.

I think that book marked a “fuck it” point for me where I decided just to write the poems that are in me, however depressing, distasteful or megalomaniacal they may be.

I take the last few turns in darkness

steep, short of breath

these legs have been mine all my life.

Hot hands. Small nights within my lungs.

 

We are fortunate to live in a world.

We are fortunate to live in a world

where some person, some man

is painting railings on the zig zag

 

and when he finished

he could have raised his eyes

and seen, beyond the black-tree hills

some ragged and fast-moving clouds.

 

from ‘Walking up the zig zag’

Paula: I just adore the new poems housed under the title ‘How to Be Happy Though Human’. Now and then I post a poem that has really haunted me in a new collection – and this whole section haunts me. The poems stick to me – I think the title is a key. These poems are intimate and revelatory, physical and movement-rich. Again the surprising juxtapositions: hanging out the washing, Watergate, your mother. Scenes become luminous. Family matters. There is a poetic heartbeat. Would you see any changes in the poetry process?

Kate: Almost all of these poems have been written since I came back from the Menton fellowship, where I was writing prose – a collection of memoir essays. I can definitely see the influence of that. These poems are looser, more prosy in style, and in many cases are straightforwardly autobiographical. They’re also long. Pulling together this book made me realise that my poems have got very long lately!

Paula: Do you have doubt tagging along? Is there a particular poem that was hard to write?

Kate: Most poems I try to write either don’t happen at all, or turn out to be not that good and get abandoned. But every poem I write that turns out good, I write in one go, in an hour or so. I will revise it later but usually not a huge amount. That’s just my process, it’s kind of scattershot but when it’s working, it’s easy, so I don’t really find any poem hard to write. I just throw away a lot of attempted poems.  

My main doubt is whether I will ever write a good poem again. The first sensation when I write something I like is relief.

Tom Waits records the sound of frying chicken

that’s how he achieves his pops and crackles

Our old unit had a crooked arm,

it was a trunk of wood with woven speakers.

 

As I child I worried about forgetting:

the hexagonal handle, a creamy honey cell,

that flaw in the lino resembling Donald Duck

while the others of its kind looked like grey bells.

 

sometimes life would seem too big, even then

an empty Sunday when you drifted as a ghost.

I saw Bonnie and Clyde on such a day,

as I recall, in black and white

 

from ‘Snow White’s coffin’

Paula: What poem really works or matters to you?

Kate: The poem “Snow White’s Coffin” is an important poem for me. It covers a lot of abiding interests for me – found facts, childhood memories, what makes life meaningful when you’re an atheist. It draws on something I thought on a lot when I was living in Berlin, the tension between intellect as the most human thing of all and the intellect as dehumanising. There’s also a tone of anger and despair in it which is quite primal – the word “howling” is in it, which is not a word anyone puts in a poem lightly.

In my last few books, the title poem is a poem that is really important to me – one that functions as a kind of tuning fork for the whole collection.

Paula: Do you have any tips for emerging poets?

Kate: Read poetry by other people. If you don’t like reading poetry, you’re not a poet, you’re just a bit of a dick.

Paula: What else do you love to do apart from writing?

Kate: Conversations and laughing are my favourite things. I love to sing with my choir. I love to watch Netflix. I love to dance. I love to drink to excess, rarely but with gusto. I love doing escape rooms with my nephew. I love looking out the window while drinking tea and listing to podcasts about American politics.

Victoria University Press author page

Poetry Shelf Monday poem: Kate Camp’s ‘The law of expressed emotion’

 

The law of expressed emotion

The law is, that those who love you
will not help you get better.

Yes, they will sit next to you in a car
and take you through space

both moving forward at exactly the same speed
showing your profiles to each other

which are ageing rather more cruelly
than the fronts of you.

They will do things like park their car on the footpath for you
leaving only a card on the dashboard as a plea for clemency

and they will do explaining for you
when people do not understand your language

because you appear absolutely fluent while in fact
you are somewhat on fire.

They might take you to the monastery
with its not very important frescoes of Jesus

faintly visible and let you look down into valleys
that literally never see the sun.

They hope you will find this soothing
but perhaps it will be terrifying, the train of marvels

with its gorges and viaducts
and the medieval villages it passes though

on its way to the coast.
Maybe better to take you to the wardrobe

the armoire, where all the sheets and towels are
and where there used to be stickers of the Incredible Hulk

which glowed in the dark.
Except we gave the wardrobe away

left it out on the street with a sign saying
FREE

and when we woke up
or when we looked around

it was gone.

 

Kate Camp

 

Kate Camp is a Wellington-born essayist and poet, with six collections of poetry published by Victoria University Press. She has also written essays and memoir. Unfamiliar Legends of the Stars won the NZSA Jessie Mackay Best First Book of Poetry Award (1999), and The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls won the New Zealand Post Book Award for Poetry (2011). Snow White’s Coffin was shortlisted for the award in 2013, and The internet of things was longlisted in 2018. She has received the Creative New Zealand Berlin Writer’s Residency (2011) and the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship (2017). Her essay ‘I wet my pants’ was a finalist in the Landfall essay competition in 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf Classic Poem: Kate Camp picks Lauris Edmond’s ‘Camping’

 

Camping

 

Do you remember how we woke

to the first bird in that awkward pine

behind the ablution block, and leaned

across the knotted ground to lift

the canvas as though it was

the wall of the world

and ourselves at the heart of it

lying together

with the fresh grass against our faces

and the early air sweet beyond all telling –

 

do you sometimes look still

into that startled darkness

and hear the bird,

as I do?

 

When we drove away I looked back always

to the flattened yellow grass

to see the exact map of our imagining

our built universe

for a week

and saw that it was just earth

and faced the natural sky.

 

We took with us the dark pine

and the blackbird

and dew beside our foreheads

as we woke

 

and now we live apart

and I don’t know where they are.

 

 

Lauris Edmond  (from New & Selected Poems, Oxford University Press, 1991)

Posted with kind permission from the Lauris Edmond Estate.

 

 

From Kate Camp: It feels a bit odd that this is such a favourite poem of mine, because of the pun with my name. But the image of the flattened grass hit me with such power when I first read it, and does every time I revisit it. There is so much to love about the poem – its sensuality, its unashamed romanticism, and of course (being Lauris Edmond) its absolutely killer ending.

I remember Lauris saying to me once that she felt a poem should end like the shutting of a car door, from which I took a sense of satisfying and substantial closure, a rightness. I didn’t know Lauris well but she had a way of talking, and of reading her poems, as if she was slightly surprised by each individual word. I hear that cadence when I read the poem.

But of course the best thing about this poem is the ablution block. It’s such an ugly, unlikely thing to find in a poem, both the thing itself and the awkward “no one has ever said it” tone of the phrase. You know this is a found piece of language off some battered sign of the camp ground, and that lends the whole poem a down home, unpretentious feeling, that lets her get away with the romantic flourish of the “early air sweet beyond all telling.”

The other thing I love about this poem is how, like one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, it’s really a kind of sly testimony to the power of poetry – and of this particular poet – to capture and immortalise. It ends “I don’t know where they are” but of course we do know where they are, the bird and the pine and the dew are here in this poem. Wherever the poem’s protagonists and landscapes are, however lost to time and mortality, the poet has saved them here.

I think that’s why for me this melancholy poem is one that leaves me with a sense of exhilaration, even triumphalism – because when the car door of the poem closes, I sense the power of the poet in the driver’s seat.

 

 

Kate Camp is a Wellington-born essayist and poet, with six collections of poetry published by Victoria University Press. She has also written essays and memoir. Unfamiliar Legends of the Stars won the NZSA Jessie Mackay Best First Book of Poetry Award (1999), and The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls won the New Zealand Post Book Award for Poetry (2011). Snow White’s Coffin was shortlisted for the award in 2013, and The internet of things was longlisted in 2018. She has received the Creative New Zealand Berlin Writer’s Residency (2011) and the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship (2017). Her essay ‘I wet my pants’ was a finalist in the Landfall essay competition in 2018.

 

Lauris Edmond wrote poetry, novels, short stories, stage plays, autobiography and edited several books, including ARD Fairburn letters. She published over fifteen volumes of poetry, including several anthologies, and a CD, The Poems of Lauris Edmond, was released in 2000. Her debut collection, In Middle Air, written in her early fifties, won the PEN NZ Best First Book of the Year (1975) while Selected Poems won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize (1985). She received numerous awards including the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship (1981), an OBE for Services to Poetry and Literature (1986), an Honorary DLitt from Massey University (1988). Edmond was a founder of New Zealand Books. The Lauris Edmond Memorial Award was established in her name. Her daughter, Frances Edmond, and poet, Sue Fitchett, published, Night Burns with a White Fire: The Essential Lauris Edmond, a selection of her poems in 2017.

 

 

An addition to the 2018 Writers on Mondays series: Kate Camp: Menton, memoir and me

8th Oct 2018 12:15pm to 8th Oct 2018 1:15pm

Soundings Theatre, Te Papa

The International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML) is delighted to announce the addition of this special event to the 2018 Writers on Mondays series.

Kate Camp: Menton, memoir and me:

When poet Kate Camp took up the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship in 2017, it was to write memoir, not poetry.

Memoir writing raises interesting questions – of fact and fiction, ethics and ego, what one remembers, and what one chooses to reveal. In this lecture, Kate Camp examines a more difficult and profound question – who cares? Who could possibly give a damn about the details of someone else’s life?

Drawing on her own work and that of other New Zealand writers, Camp’s lecture is an entertaining, insightful, and at times deeply personal exploration of the ‘point’ of writing memoir.

Originally delivered September as the Frank Sargeson Memorial Lecture, initiated by Waikato University with the support of the Friends of Hamilton Library.

FREE EVENT

from Landfall Online: Helen Lehndorf reviews Hannah Mettner and Kate Camp

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Fully Clothed and So Forgetful by Hannah Mettner (Victoria University Press, 2017), 91 pp., $25; The Internet of Things by Kate Camp (Victoria University Press, 2017), 61 pp., $25

One quality I love about first volumes of poetry is that they often contain an element of the poet’s origin story. Hannah Mettner’s Fully Clothed and So Forgetful certainly does: there are poems referencing childhood, relationships with siblings and wider family, elements of cultural confusion after an across-the-world move, parenthood – all described with deftness, wit and originality. How about that title? It’s a delight … inviting, and very human.

full review here

Three new books by three VUP authors get an art gallery outing

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We warmly invite you to a reading from three new books
by three celebrated VUP writers.

The internet of things, new poetry by Kate Camp
Some Things to Place in a Coffin, new poetry by Bill Manhire
Lifting, a new novel by Damien Wilkins

on Wednesday 12 April, 5.30pm–7.30pm
at Adam Art Gallery,
Gate 3, Victoria University, Kelburn Parade.

Refreshments will be served.

All three books will be for sale courtesy of Vic Books. Guests will also be able to purchase Tell Me My Name, a collaboration between Bill Manhire, composer Norman Meehan, vocalist Hannah Griffin, and photographer Peter Peryer.

All welcome.

Arts Foundation Awards – and Kate Camp is off to Menton

So delighted to see Kate Camp is off to Menton and two writers recognised: Eleanor Catton and Dylan Horrocks. Congratulations.

 
Eleven artists, two philanthropists and four arts organisations are recipients of awards and donations at the 2016 New Zealand Arts Awards. Come and celebrate the Laureate and New Generation Awards, Harriet Friedlander New York Residency, the Award for Patronage and the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship with us.

Congratulations to:

2016 Laureate Award Recipients
Each Laureate Award includes a cash award of $50,000:

Eleanor Catton – Writer
Lyell Cresswell – Composer
Dylan Horrocks – Cartoonist/Graphic Novelist/Writer
Peter Robinson – Visual Artist
Taika Waititi (pictured above) – Film Maker

About the Laureate Award:
The Laureate Award is an investment in excellence across a range of art forms for an artist with prominence and outstanding potential for future growth.  Their work is rich but their richest work still lies ahead of them.  The award should recognise a moment in the artist’s career that will allow them to have their next great success.

2016 New Generation Award Recipients
Each New Generation Award includes a cash award of $25,000:

Parris Goebel – Choreographer
André Hemer – Visual Artist
Alex Taylor – Composer

About the Award:
New Generation artists are the hot shots, the ones to watch, and the ones who have an X-factor that sets them apart from their peers. They have assured potential. Their work is exciting. They are independent, individual and show outstanding promise. They also display a depth of thinking and consistency that gives their work strength.

Harriet Friedlander New York Residency
This residency enables an artist(s) to live in New York for as long as $80,000 lasts them:

Chris Pryor and Miriam Smith – Film Makers

About the Residency
Michael and Jason Friedlander asked the Arts Foundation to assist with the selection and promotion of an artist to receive up to $80,000 to have a New York experience every two years. The Residency is being made possible by a legacy gifted by Harriet Friedlander, who was a dedicated supporter of the arts. She also loved New York. She believed that any young artist exposed to the city would learn and grow in unimaginable ways.

2016 Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellow

Kate Camp – Poet/Writer

About the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship
For the past forty-six years, the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship has enabled a selected New Zealand writer to live for up to six months in Menton, France. There, they have access to the writing room in Villa Isola Bella where one of New Zealand’s most famous writers, Katherine Mansfield, once lived.

Award for Patronage Recipients

John and Jo Gow – Philanthropists

The Award for Patronage Recipients are given $20,000 to distribute to artists or arts organisations of their choice to celebrate the occasion of the award. All recipients to date have chosen to donate $20,000 of their own so they can give away $40,000 to artists, organisations or projects of their choice:

John and Jo’s chosen donation recipients are:

•    The Big Idea
•    Tautai
•    Q Theatre
•    Sculpture On The Gulf

$480,000 will be awarded to the recipients at the New Zealand Arts Awards event night on Wednesday 23 November. With the majority of the funds awarded on the evening being generated by private donations, the Awards are also a celebration of philanthropic support for the arts.

The awards are the highest value, multi-discipline arts awards in New Zealand, and since the inaugural Laureates received their awards in 2000, the Arts Foundation has awarded life-changing monetary and honorary awards to over 190 of New Zealand’s finest artists. By the end of this year, the Arts Foundation will have awarded New Zealand artists $5.2million.

We are very much looking forward to seeing those that have purchased tickets at the Awards next week. If you would like to come and celebrate the achievements of this year’s recipients then select your tickets from our website now.

The 2016 New Zealand Arts Awards
From 6pm, 23 November 2016
Shed 10, Auckland Waterfront

Pre and post ceremony canapés are served with Gladstone Vineyard wines and Yeastie Boys beers

A Reserve $75.00
B Reserve $68.00

Dress: Cocktail/Business

The Listener raises the point of what poetry is

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From Mark Broach:

‘What is poetry? “Poetry is the other way of using ­language,” goes one definition. It’s what gets left behind in translation, goes another. It’s a hundred things: rhythm, harmony, metaphor, compression, juxtaposition, an obsession with the line. But what is poetry for? That topic’s up for debate this weekend, so we put the ­question to a group of poets.

The current New Zealand Poet ­Laureate, CK Stead, says poetry has many roles, some seemingly conflicting.

“It’s for pleasure, intellectual and emotional. It’s sometimes for what Yeats called ‘the fascination of what’s difficult’; and sometimes for a sense of ease, effortlessness, peace and harmony. It’s to remind us of the best uses that have been made, and can still be made, of what marks the human species out as unique on our planet – language. Shakespeare says ‘The truest poetry is the most feigning’, and Wilfred Owen says, ‘The true poets must be truthful’, and both are right without contradiction.”

Tim Upperton wonders if poetry is of any use at all. “If you go by the words of some of its famous practitioners, poetry’s not much good for anything.” ‘

For the rest of the article see here.

Mark also consults CK Stead, our current Poet Laureate, and the three poets performing here:

Kate Camp, Gregory O’Brien and Louise Wallace speak at “A Still Small Voice – What Does Poetry Do for Us?”, a session at Wanaka’s Aspiring Conversations on Sunday, April 24.

 

 

Poetry Shelf interviews Gregory O’Brien — The poem has to dive down into and surface from some essential state of being

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Gregory O’Brien at Tjibaou Cultural Centre, Noumea, March 2015

Photo Credit: Elizabeth Thomson

 

Gregory O’Brien is the  2015 Stout Memorial Fellow at the Stout Research Centre, Victoria University, where he is currently working on a book about poetry, painting and the environment. His new collection of poems is Whale Years (Auckland University Press). He has published numerous books of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Since 2011 he has contributed to the ongoing Kermadec art project, works from which are on show at the Tjibaou Cultural Centre, New Caledonia, until July.

 

 

 

The interview

 

‘Ocean sound, what is it

you listen for?’

 

Did your childhood shape you as a poet? What did you like to read? Did you write as a child?

As far as I can recall, I drew more than I painted. And I always gravitated towards illustrated books—Tove Jansson’s ‘Moomin’ books stand out, and I remember The Lord of the Rings, as much for its illuminated maps as for the words. I went through a phase of reading comics—Whizzer & Chips rather than Batman. I date my interest in the interplay of words and visual images to those early encounters.

I doodled at every available opportunity and I remember being hauled out of class and punished for drawing, rather well, a crouching deer on the inside cover of my maths book. I usually captioned my drawings—so maybe those captions could be thought of as my first writings. Occasionally I filled in speech- or thought-balloons above various life-forms.

 

When you started writing poems as a young adult, were there any poets in particular that you were drawn to (poems/poets as surrogate mentors)?

I can trace this pretty exactly, I think. Aged 14: Bob Dylan’s ‘Writings & Drawings’. Aged 15: Dylan Thomas. Aged 16: James K. Baxter and Flann O’Brien (I liked to pretend Flann was an actual relative. I even screen-printed his book-title AT SWIM-TWO-BIRDS on a singlet—an item I still have in my wee box of treasures.) Aged 17: John Cage (Silence, and A Year from Monday). By the age of 18, I was living in Dargaville, and it was as if everybody suddenly jumped on board the NZ Road Services bus or bandwagon—I was reading Kenneth Patchen, William Blake, Edith Sitwell, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, e e cummings; also Allen Curnow, Janet Frame, Sam Hunt… I had known about Eileen Duggan for some years, because she was a relative, on my mother’s side. More than anything else, however, it was discovering Robin Dudding’s journal ISLANDS that turned my world around, that brought the whole business home…. Therein I discovered Ian Wedde, Bill Manhire, Elizabeth Smither, CK Stead…

 

Did university life transform your poetry writing? Theoretical impulses, research discoveries, peers?

I was six years out of school by the time I finished my BA, so my university life was mixed in, very much, with everything else that was going on: with 15 months in Dargaville, a year or so in Sydney… At university, I certainly wasn’t drawn to theory except in so far as I thought it was a grand imaginative game that might, periodically, yield unpredictable and outlandish results. I enjoyed the pottiness of Ezra Pound’s literary (rather than his political) theorising… An ABC of Reading is a great book. Probably the Zen-inclined John Cage and the Trappist Thomas Merton were the two non-fiction writers I held closest to me.

 

Reading your poetry makes me want to write. I love the way your poems delve deep into the world, surprisingly, thoughtfully yet never let go of the music of the line. Words overlap and loop and echo. There is an infectious joy of language at work. What are key things for you when you write a poem?

I listen to a lot of music. I want the poems to have something of the music that I love. I spend a lot of my time looking at art. And I want my poems to have something of the art that I love. There are aspects of composition, tone, rhythm and character which span all these different creative modes. Those are the key factors for me when I write… At a certain point, an appropriate form makes itself known…. The poem has to dive down into and surface from some essential state of being… There is certainly a joy in doing the things that you love; so there’s joy in the making and, preceding that, in the state of being that leads to the making….

 

Do you see yourself as a philosophical poet? Almost Zen-like at times?

My concept of philosophy is broad and shambolic enough to accommodate what I do as a writer. I’ve never read extensively in the field of Zen (apart from the books of John Cage and the writing of my friend Richard von Sturmer). I’ve read a little, and somewhat randomly, in the field of non-conformist Catholic thought: Simone Weill, Meister Eckhart, Merton, Baxter… These peregrinations may have affected me more than I realise or am prepared to say.

 

Do you think your writing has changed over time?

I guess writing has to evolve – otherwise it will become predictable and a total drag. I’m as entranced as I ever was with the process, the business, the labour of it. At the same time, I remain devoted to the finished form of it: The printed book, with its covers and half-title and title-page; and the shapes of words on the page and maybe illustrations. Poetry is an art that, if it’s working, is constantly reinventing itself.

I look back at my early poems and find fault. I find myself blaming an over-voracious intake of French Surrealism; too much Kenneth Patchen one year, too much Stevie Smith the next… Too much John Berryman! And, next year, not enough John Berryman! But the ship sails on, and finds new oceans to ply.

 

You write in a variety of genres (poetry, non-fiction, critical writing). Do they seep into each other? Your critical writing offers the reader a freshness of vision and appraisal – not just at the level of ideas but the way you present those ideas, lucidly, almost poetically. Does one genre have a particular grip on you as a writer?

I’m only starting to realise the inter-relatedness of these different genres. A few years back I started to explore poetry’s potential to carry information, also to elaborate upon a thought in a more detailed kind of way, ie. to have an almost essayistic function. So quite a few of my longer poems (some of the odes and, particularly, ‘Memory of a fish’ in my new book) are laden with facts, figures and reasonably clearly articulated information.

Needless to say poetry infuses the writing I produce in relation to the visual arts. I find looking at art exciting; it appeals to my poetic self. I don’t really have a critical self. I hope my non-fiction writing has a cadence, a music and a subconscious (rather than a conscious) purposefulness. Pondering my recent writings on artists such as Pat Hanly, Barry Brickell and Michael Hight, I remember in each case hearing a note—a song, almost—in my ear, and I was beholden to it.

 

Do you think we have a history of thinking and writing about the process of poetry? Any examples that sparked you?

James K. Baxter wrote wonderfully about writing poetry. Bill Manhire’s Doubtful Sounds is an immensely useful and energising book. 99 Ways Into New Zealand Poetry is terrific too. I refer back to my set of the journal ISLANDS and, yes, it seems to me we New Zealanders have been writing about the process as well as the product. Janet Frame’s oeuvre might be our greatest, most enduring instance of writing about writing, thinking about writing, writing about thinking, and thinking about thinking.

 

Your poetry discussions with Kim Hill are terrific. The entries points into a book are paramount; the way you delight in what a poem can do. What is important for you when you review a book?

I think a book has to become part of your life to really make an impression. It’s the same with music or visual arts. It can’t be a purely intellectual thing, it has to take you over, to some degree. It has to be disarming. Accordingly I tend not to discuss books that don’t ‘do it’ for me. Life’s too short. Fortunately, I have catholic tastes. There are things I enjoy very much in Kevin Ireland, as there are things I enjoy in Michele Leggott. I guess this makes me a lucky guy.

 

I agree wholeheartedly. I am not interesting in reviewing books on Poetry Shelf unless they have caught me, stalled me (for good reasons!).

What poets have mattered to you over the past year? Some may have mattered as a reader and others may have been crucial in your development as a writer?

Two years ago I went to Paris and met up with one of my all-time heroes, the French poet and art-writer Yves Bonnefoy. He turned 90 last year (Joyeux anniversaire, Yves!) During my recent travels around the Pacific (from New Caledonia to Chile), I’ve taken bilingual editions of Yves with me everywhere. I am interested in the way he has turned the creative conundrum of being an Art Writer and a Poet into something unified and compelling (channelling earlier French poet-art-writers from Baudelaire to Apollinaire, with a nod to Yves’s near-contemporaries, that wondrous group of wanna-be French-art-poets, John Ashbery and the New Yorkers). I also took the poems of Neruda and Borges with me everywhere I went.

 

What New Zealand poets are you drawn to now?

New Zealand poetry is interesting at the moment. It’s all over the place. As it should be. There are plenty of people I read voraciously. As well as the poets mentioned already: Anna Jackson, Vince O’Sullivan, you Paula, Lynn Davidson, Kate Camp, Geoff Cochrane… Last year I edited a weekly column for the Best American Poets website—that was a good chance to ‘play favourites’, as Kim Hill would say. (All those posts are archived here: http://blog.bestamericanpoetry.com/the_best_american_poetry/new-zealand/) There are some great first books appearing at the moment: Leilani Tamu’s The Art of Excavation; John Dennison’s Otherwise. This bodes very well indeed.

 

Name three NZ poetry books that you have loved recently.

I was rereading Riemke Ensing’s Topographies (with Nigel Brown’s illustrations) the other day; I found that book very inspiring when it appeared way back in 1984. Lately I’ve also been reading Bob Orr’s crystalline Odysseus in Woolloomooloo and Peter Bland’s Collected Poems… I could go on.

 

Your new collection, Whale Years, satisfies on so many levels. These new poems offer a glorious tribute to the sea; to the South Pacific routes you have travelled. What discoveries did you make about poetry as you wrote? The world? Interior or external?

The Kermadec voyage, and subsequent travels—most recently to New Caledonia—opened up a huge areas of subjective experience as well as of human and natural history. How do you write about that kind of space, that energy, that life-force? Wherever you travel, the air is different; the ‘night’ has a different character; the smells and textures of the vast Pacific vary from place to place. And people move differently wherever you go – they claim a different kind of space within the environment. My recent travels have been like a door opened on a new world. The last three years of my poetry-writing have been the most intense since I was in my early twenties.

 

That shows in this book Greg. I am looking forward to reviewing it because it touched a chord in so many ways. I love the idea that poems become little acts of homage. What difficulties did you have as traveller transforming ‘elsewhere’ into poetry? To what degree do you navigate poetry/other place as trespasser, tourist, interloper?

The artist Robin White likes to point out that there is only one ocean on earth. All our oceans are joined together—it’s the same body of water. So, if you take the sea to be your home (which, as Oceanians, believe it or not, we should do), then as long as you’re at sea you’re still, to some degree, in your home environment.

As a poet entering a new environment, I bring with me my responses, my eye, my mind and various kinds of baggage. I’m a curious person by nature so I always want to find new things—things I don’t know anything about. I like it when my preconceptions fall apart. I love being wrong about things; I enjoy the subsidence of the known world. I quote the great post-colonialist writer Wilson Harris in Whale Years: ‘If you can tilt the field then you will dislodge certain objects in the field and your own prepossessions may be dislodged as well.’

I feel that, as a poet, I am most in my element when I am sitting on the ground and learning new things. When the field of the known has been tilted. And filling my notebooks with various tracings of that new knowledge or sensation.

 

This is a good way to look poetry that takes hold of you; it ‘tilts’ you. I also loved the elasticity of your language – the way a single word ripples throughout a poem gleaning new connections and possibilities. Or the way words backtrack and loop. At times I felt a whiff of Bill Manhire, at others Gertrude Stein. Yet a poem by Gregory O’Brien is idiosyncratic. Are there poets you feel in debt to in terms of the use of language?

Strangely, I can’t read Gertrude Stein anymore. She is one of a very few writers I have been in love with and then the relationship has waned. Maybe, early on, she loosened up my use of language, the extent to which the rational mind is left to run things. There was a music I found in Stein, for sure. But this was something—increasingly—I found in more conventional writers like Wallace Stevens, Robert Creeley and, most recently, in Herman Melville. Moby Dick is a piece of great, symphonic, oceanic music. The novel (for want of a better term) is an incredible noise, a racket of spoken and sung sounds. Melville’s style reminds me of all the depth-finders, radars, monitors and gauges on the bridge of HMNZ Otago as we sailed north to Raoul Island in May 2011. All that information pinging and popping…

 

Is there a single poem or two in the collection that particularly resonates with you?

The long poem, ‘Memory of a fish’, is the piece that connects various experiences from the three year period in which the book was written, and brings them together—in an essayistic fashion, almost. I enjoy the ebb and flow of the triplets, and the world’s details tripping along them, like things washing ashore on Oneraki Beach… When I was writing that poem I felt I was living inside it, totally. And I haven’t quite climbed out of it yet, to be honest.

 

The book also demonstrates that eclectic field you plunge into as a reader with its preface quotes. What areas are you drawn into at the moment? Any astonishing finds?

The quotations at the beginning of the three sections of the book are constellations in the night sky above the poetry-ground. They mark points of reference, further co-ordinates, which have guided the writing: W. S. Graham’s ‘The stones roll out to shelter in the sea.’ The Flemish proverb: ‘Don’t let the herring swim over your head.’ Those are verbal artefacts I have carried around with me, much as you would pick up a shell or a colourful leaf. They were/are talismans. So I have stored them inside the book as well. Cherished things.

 

‘Constellation’ is perfect. I was thinking underground roots that nourish. Or one of any number of maps you can lay over the poems (the map of domestic intrusion, the map of childhood, the map of objects, the map of reading). But yes the process of writing has its constellation-guides as you venture into and from both dark and light.

Poetry finds its way into a number of your paintings (as it does with John Pule). There are a number of drawings included in the book that add a delicious visual layer. How do you negotiate the relationship between painting and poetry? Does one matter more? Do they feed off each other?

My notebooks contain a thick broth of visual and verbal ingredients. These materials arrive in my journal simultaneously. When writing or painting, I separate the words from the visual images and work on them more-or-less separately. When it comes to putting together a book, like Whale Years, these two disparate activities are reunited again. I’ve always loved illustrated books. (I think immediately of Bill Manhire’s The Elaboration, with pictures by Ralph Hotere; Blaise Cendrars’ long Trans-Siberian poem, illustrated by Sonia Delaunay; William Blake illustrating himself, and so on)

 

notes-on-the-raising-of-the-bones-of-pablo-neruda-at-isla-negra-gregory-obrien-and-john-reynolds-etching-2014

NOTES ON THE RAISING OF THE BONES OF PABLO NERUDA AT ISLA NEGRA by John Reynolds & Gregory O’Brien, etching, 2014

You have collaborated with a number of other artists and writers. What have been the joys and pitfalls of collaboration?

There are no pitfalls, as far as I can see. Somehow, I’ve found my way into a few collaborative circumstances and very much enjoyed the results. In the past year I’ve made etchings with my two painter-friends John Reynolds and John Pule. Like Charles Baudelaire and Frank O’Hara before me, I seem to have been lucky enough to fall in with a good crowd of painters (and also photographers—but that’s another story).

 

sailing-to-raoul-gregory-o_brien-and-john-pule-etching-aquatint-with-colour-roll-2011

SAILING TO RAOUL by John Pule & Gregory O’Brien, etching, 2012 (John titled this work, riffing off Yeats’s ‘Sailing to Byzantium’)

 

The constant mantra to be a better writer is to write, write, write and read read read. You also need to live! What activities enrich your writing life?

Certainly my recent travels around the Pacific have been hugely enriching. I’m not a proper swimmer, but since I was a child I have had a great passion for floating in, or being upon salt water. (My book News of the Swimmer Reaches Shore grew out of that propensity.) The everydayness of existence is the most enriching thing—as the poems of Horace and Neruda and Wedde keep reminding me. What a great and pleasant swarm of information and sensation we find ourselves amidst, every day of our lives.

 

Finally if you were to be trapped for hours (in a waiting room, on a mountain, inside on a rainy day) what poetry book would you read?

I keep coming back to the Collected Poems of James K. Baxter. Not because it’s the best book ever written but because of the simple fact that it occupies a huge and resonant place in my life.

 

Auckland University Press page

New Zealand Book  Council page

Arts Foundation page

The Kermadecs page

National Radio page (discussing poetry highlights of 2014 with Kim Hill)