Vaughan Rapatahana has just a posted a terrific feature on Wild Honey on Jacket2. I am usually doing the reviewing and posting so felt nervous being on the other end of the critique. Especially when I am in a cycle of terrible doubt about what I do and write, the state of the planet, the covid issues, the political game playing at home and abroad, about whether people read things any more. I wake in the night and worry about this.
I felt incredibly moved and restored by Vaughan’s engagement with the book – by his acknowledgement that this was an important arrival in view of a history of women poets in the shadows, by his considered attention. I send a bouquet of thankfulness.
I am reminded that books are an important part of who we are – and that we must do everything in our power to create them, publish and circulate them, review them, celebrate them, even challenge them if needed. Read and talk about them. Gift them!
This paragraph in particular moved me so much – there are people in the world building houses of knowledge, peace, forging multiple connective links:
I am immediately reminded of the work of Hirini Melbourne and his concept of whare whakairo, or a carved meeting house, whereby everything in and about this construction fits into and lends support, stability and splendour to every other component. The parallels are manifest. Granted that I am transposing women poets into his words, however Melbourne’s description of te whare whakairo rings out as so similar to Green’s own kaupapa in Wild Honey, namely, “The whare whakairo is … a place of shelter and peace. It is a place where knowledge is stored and transmitted and where the links with one’s past are made tangible … [it] is a complex image of the essential continuity between the past and present …” (Melbourne, 1991).
I also answered a few questions for the feature, after a run of wakeful nights with world and local worry, so my self-filter wasn’t on – I was answering from that secret-self-core that is private and wakes in the dark to dream, worry, invent and somehow find the truth.
Last year I did Wild Honey events throughout Aotearoa where women came and read, and I have never experienced anything like it. Such a strong feeling as younger and older writers made connections, different kinds of voices were heard together. I felt like I was holding something enormous that I created but that it got bigger than me as so many women told me what the book meant to them. It was overwhelming and it was wonderful.
I am due to do a Wild Honey event at the Word festival in Christchurch with a stunning group of women poets and I can’t wait. Come and say hello!
High Wire Lloyd Jones and Euan Macleod Massey University Press 2020
Massey University has launched the kōrero series of picture books for adults – a series of collaborations where ‘two different kinds of artistic intelligence’ work on a shared topic.
The first collaboration links author Lloyd Jones and artist Euan Macleod.
After Lloyd invited Euan to the bridge project, Euan drew and sketched profusely. Lloyd mused upon the crisscrossing bridges that constitute a life, and the way such structures lift you above the mundane. But then his musings changed:
But soon the heady ideas I had about bridges began to collapse. Where I had been, others had. The commonality of experience breathed its deflating air. As exhilarating as it had been to walk across Golden Gate Bridge or to soar above Sydney Harbour or to flit across the modest rainbow from child hood, my footsteps fitted neatly into others’: my beating heart fell in with theirs.
Bridges became high wire.
With High Wire you enter a collaboration that is glorious at every level: the words, the images, the ideas, the feelings. It is a book that saturates you in wonder and, as reader, I contemplate, observe, sidetrack. I had thought about interviewing both Lloyd and Euan, but the book is so powerful, so haunting, I want to celebrate that. Keep room for the unsaid, the enigma, the openings.
To begin with I am mindful of the beauty, the vistas and heights that bridges might deliver but then, as Lloyd abandons his first musings and settles on the high wire, I am lodged in the terrain of vertigo, fear, death, exhilaration, memory, wobbliness.
Euan’s initial drawings resemble subconscious scrawls steered by predetermined subject matter (an oxymoron?). I can’t stop looking at them. I can’t stop turning the pages as the opening light and airiness hit the dark. The thicker wedges of ink and line draw me in and then switch back to an enigmatic wash of light, a sudden and surprising flash of colour. Euan’s kinetic sketches are as much about the maker as they are the subject. I read them as a piece of music. Again an oxymoron, as all senses are lit. More than anything, I relish the musical flow. Art as music as feeling as idea in a tempo-ed move between light and dark, thin and thick, space and density. The high-wire figures – scrawled and ink washed – are a catalogue of human emotion. Think intimacy, think vulnerability, think daring. Think astonishing!
This is gut wrenching stuff. It is a book you feel before you move on and speculate. I find myself thinking about art, heights, tightrope walkers, childhood, people leaping from the flaming Twin Towers, struts and balancing acts. I get to the drawing ‘hold your nerve’ and it seems prescient.
Adjacent to each image is the writing – tightrope writing – where the author opens himself up, testing where he places the next foot so to speak. At one point he writes:
In the subconscious everything is up for grabs – there is no enforced geographical isolation. There are no trespass notices.
Again I am pondering the degree to which the subconscious steers the predetermined subject matter – to the way a sense of risk and challenge is heightened in the state of writing. I could have asked Lloyd this if I had interviewed him, but I remember he once told me his novels are guided by the unknown and discovery.
I don’t need to know how this book came into being – I want to navigate its existence in as many ways as possible. That makes it a book of returns.
On a pragmatic level you could stick with the simple premise that this is a book about a narrator walking to Australia on a high wire! Or the story of Philippe Petit who walked a high wire between the Twin Towers in 1974. Ah but this is a book of so many crossings, crisscrossings and possibilities, both physical and ethereal. At one point we meet the saddest bridge in the world. It is a bridge that is as much about disconnection as it is connection.
Lloyd muses on the bridges between random things as Bill Gates had imagined. So now, having stalled on this opening on the page, the bridges between me reading and my own random things are spiked into view by the book. How do I dare? How do I dare? How do I dare? How do I cross the vertigo-inducing gap between here and there? As reader? As writer? As human being?
What would the world be like without bridges? Lloyd asks. I carry that question as I follow the drawings again.
Lloyd weaves together the mysterious and the physical: to the point a sentence becomes luminous. Haunting.
A dark wriggle in the lunar surface of the sea turns yellow as the cloud passes and the moon reappears. To the west, the steady light of an aeroplane on its direct and patient course.
I love this book for so many reasons: because of its fertility for both heart and mind, because images and words speak to each other without taking a privileged position, because human experience is made complex and absorbing.
I don’t see this as a graphic novel – I see it as a book of connections born out of collaboration. An adult picture book. Massey University Press has created an exquisite book – the paper a perfect hue and texture. A gorgeous object to hold. High Wire is bookmaking at its very best. I recommend it highly and I can’t wait to read the next one.
High Wire brings together Booker finalist writer Lloyd Jones and artist Euan Macleod. It is the first in the new kōrero series of a series of ‘picture books written and made for grown-ups’ and designed to showcase leading New Zealand writers and artists working together in a collaborative and dynamic way.
In High Wire the narrators playfully set out across the Tasman, literally on a high wire. Macleod’s striking drawings explore notions of home, and depict homeward thoughts and dreams. High Wire also enters a metaphysical place where art is made, a place where any ambitious art-making enterprise requires its participants to hold their nerve and not look down.
It’s a beautifully considered small book which richly rewards the reader and stretches the notion of what the book can do.
It’s a hardback and $45.
Unity Books Wellington are currently taking pre-orders for the book, simply fill out the inquiry form here
Alternatively, the book is available for purchase from the Massey University Press website here
Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2020 edited by Johanna Emeney (MUP)
Johanna Emeney works at Massey University as a teacher of creative writing and has published several poetry collections.
Many many years ago my first poetry collectionCookhouse (AUP) appeared in the world and it was a big thing for me. I was at the stove with my baby in my arms, when the phone rang, and I dropped something all over the floor. It was Alistair Paterson, then editor of Poetry NZ, wanting to know if I would be the feature poet. The tap was running, the mess was growing, the pot was bubbling, my baby was crying, but somehow I spoke about poetry and agreed to my face on the cover and poems inside. It felt important.
I have only sent poems to journals a couple of times since then as I find it a distraction, but I love reading NZ literary journals. We have so many good ones from the enduring magnificence of Sport and Landfall to the zesty appeal of Mimicry and Min-a-rets.
Poetry NZ has had a number of editors, and is New Zealand’s longest running literary magazine. Poet Louis Johnson founded it in 1951 and edited it until 1964 (as the New Zealand Poetry Yearbook). Various others have taken turns at the helm – most notably Alistair Paterson from 1993 to 2014. In 2014 Jack Ross took it back to its roots and renamed it Poetry New Zealand Yearbook. This year Johanna Emeney stepped in as guest editor while Tracey Slaughter takes over the role from 2021.
Each issue includes essays, reviews, critical commentary, poetry and a featured poet.
For me Poetry New Zealand 2020is a breath of fresh air. It opens its arms wide and every page resonates so beautifully. It showcases the idea that poetry is an open home. The poems behave on the page in a galaxy of ways, sparking and connecting multiple communities. I feel so satisfyingly refreshed having read this, warmed though, restored.
I am at the point in lockdown where I drift about the house from one thing to next in an unsettled state. I alight on this and land on that. So Poetry NZ 2020 is the perfect resting spot. I want to sing its praises to the moon and back, but I am tired, have barely slept and words are like elusive butterflies.
Johanna Emeney’s introduction is genius: ‘It is wonderful to be chosen by poems, and the very opposite of trying to chose poems.’ And later: ‘A poem choose you the minute it takes you by surprise. To be clear this cannot be any old surprise.’ And later: ‘poems that choose you are like mille-feuilles— thoughtfully assembled and subtly layered.’
I love the way Johanna has treated the issue like we often shape our own collections – in little clusters of poems that talk to each other: ‘Into the water’, ‘Encounter’, ‘Other side up’, ‘Remember to understand love’. It is an issue lovingly shaped – I am in love with individual poems but I am also mesmerised by the ensuing conversation, the diverse and distinctive voices.
The essay section is equally strong. You get an essay by Mike Hanne on six NZ doctor poets, Maria Yeonhee Ji’s ‘The hard and the holy: Poetry for times of trauma and crisis’. You also get Sarah Laing’s genius comic strip ‘Jealous of Youth’ written after going to the extraordinary Show Ponies poetry event in Wellington last year. And Roger Steele’s musings on publishing poetry. To finish Helen Rickerby’s thoughts on boundaries between essays and poetry. Restorative, inspiring.
77 pages of reviews cover a wide range of publishers (Cold Hub Press, VUP, Mākaro Press, Otago University Press, Cuba Press, Compound Press, Titus Books, Waikato Press, Hicksville Press and a diverse cohort of reviewers. With our review pages more and more under threat – this review section is to be celebrated.
The opening highlight is the featured poet (a tradition I am pleased to see upheld). Like Johanna I first heard essa may ranapiri read at a Starling event at the Wellington Writers Festival, and they blew my socks off (as did many of the other Starlings). essa is a poet writing on their toes, in their heart, stretching out here, gathering there, scoring the line in shifting tones and keys. So good to have this group of new poems to savour after the pleasures of their debut collection ransack. I particularly enjoyed the conversation between essa and Johanna – I felt like I was sitting in a cafe (wistful thinking slipping though?) sipping a short black and eavesdropping on poetry and writing and life. Tip: ‘That a lot of poems are trying to figure something out. If you already know it, then you don’t need to write the poem.’
I have invited a handful of the poets to read a poem they have in the issue so you can get a taste while in lockdown and then hunt down your own copy of this vital literary journal. Perhaps this time to support our excellent literary journals and take out a few subscriptions. Start here!
a n a u d i o g a t h e r i n g
First up the Poetry New Zealand Poetry Prize and the Poetry New Zealand Student Poetry Competition.
Lynn Davidson (First Prize)
Lynn reads ‘For my parents’
Lynn Davidson is a New Zealand writer living in Edinburgh. Her latest poetry collection Islander is published by Shearsman Books in the UK and Victoria University Press in New Zealand. She had a Hawthornden Fellowship in 2013 and a Bothy Project Residency at Inshriach Bothy in the Cairngorms in 2016. Lynn has a doctorate in creative writing, teaches creative writing, and is a member of 12, an Edinburgh-based feminist poetry collective. Her website
E Wen Wong (First Prize Y12)
E Wen reads ‘Boston Building Blocks’
E Wen Wong is in her final year at Burnside High School, where she is Head Girl for 2020. Last year, her poem ‘Boston Building Blocks’ won first prize in the Year 12 category of the Poetry New Zealand Student Yearbook Competition.
Chris reads ‘Brightest first’
Chris Tse is the author of How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes and HE’S SO MASC. He is a regular contributor to Capital Magazine’s Re-Verse column and a book reviewer on Radio New Zealand. Chris is currently co-editing an anthology of LGBTQIA+ Aotearoa New Zealand writers.
Fardowsa reads ‘Tuesday’
Fardowsa Mohamed is a poet and medical doctor from Auckland, New Zealand. Her work has appeared in Poetry New Zealand, Sport Magazine, Landfall and others. She is currently working on her first collection of poetry.
Photo credit: Jane Dove Juneau
Elizabeth reads ‘Cilla, writing’
Elizabeth Smither, an award-winning poet and fiction writer, has published eighteen collections of poetry, six novels and five short-story collections, as well as journals, essays, criticism. She was the Te Mata Poet Laureate (2001–03), was awarded an Hon D Litt from the University of Auckland and made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2004, and was awarded the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry in 2008. She was also awarded the 2014 Janet Frame Memorial Award for Literature and the 2016 Sarah Broom Poetry Prize. Her most recent collection of poems, Night Horse (Auckland University Press, 2017), won the Ockham New Zealand Book Award for Poetry in 2018.
Anuja reads ‘Waiting Room’
Anuja Mitra lives in Auckland and is co-founder of the online arts magazine Oscen. Her writing can be found in Starling, Sweet Mammalian, Mayhem, Poetry NZ and other journals, though possibly her finest work remains unfinished in the notes app of her phone.
Semira reads ‘Punkrock_lord & the maps to i_am_105mm’
Semira Davis is a writer whose poetry also appears in Landfall, Takahe, Ika, Blackmail Press, Ramona, Catalyst and Mayhem. In 2019 they were a recipient of the NZSA Mentorship and runner-up in the Kathleen Grattan Poetry Award.
Photo credit: Miriam Berkley
Johanna reads ‘The girl with the coke can’
Johanna Aitchison was the 2019 Mark Strand Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in Tennessee, and her work has appeared, most recently, in the Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2020, NZ Poetry Shelf, and Best Small Fictions 2019.
Vaughan Rapatahana reads ‘mō ō tautahi’
Vaughan Rapatahana (Te Ātiawa) commutes between homes in Hong Kong, Philippines and Aotearoa New Zealand. He is widely published across several genre in both his main languages, te reo Māori and English and his work has been translated into Bahasa Malaysia, Italian, French, Mandarin and Cantonese.
Emma Harris lives in Dunedin with her husband and two children. She teaches English and is an assistant principal at Columba College. Her poetry has previously been published in Southern Ocean Review, Blackmail Press, English in Aotearoa and Poetry New Zealand.
Dani reads ‘I don’t know how to talk to you so I wrote it for me’
Dani is a Wellington poet, and one of the Plague Writers (a Masters student) at Victoria’s IIML this year. They’ve been published in Mayhem, Aotearotica, Takahe, Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2020 and others. They’re currently working on their first collection of poetry.
This is the first in my new series. I phone a NZ bookshop, they suggest a NZ book, I add my NZ pick, and they pop the books in the mail for me. I am using my Wellington Writers Festival fee to spend on books.
Carol Beu, from The Women’s Bookshop in Auckland, recommended Becky Manawatu’s Auē (Makāro Press, 2019), shortlisted in the 2020 Ockham NZ Book Awards Fiction Category. She enthused about this gripping narrative – and I had already been tempted by reviews. I picked Damien Wilkins’s YA novel – Aspiring (Massey University Press, 2020). The book was unable to launched in the traditional sense so newsroom posted Damien Wilkins’s launch speech. To help promote the book I am including a Q & A.
As you can see I never leave a bookshop empty handed and always add a few extras. Two authors I am big fan of got popped in the parcel – so can’t wait to get stuck into new books as I am imposing semi self isolation.
First sentence from Aspiring: ‘Pete’s was where I had an after-school job.’
First sentence from Auē: ‘Taukiri and I drove here in Tom Aiken’s truck.’
Damien Wilkins Q & A
Q1: A YA novel! What’s the story here?
I have no idea! At no point did I think ‘I must write a YA novel’. I’d always wanted to write about the Gateway Arch in St Louis, this beautiful and quite strange public monument. I lived in St Louis for two years. The arch always seemed to me to be unconnected to the world. It’s spectacular but also plonked there, as if by aliens. A long time ago, I wrote twenty pages of an adult novel featuring the architect Eero Saarinen, who designed the arch. But I abandoned it. I knew nothing about architecture. Then I wrote a song about him and recorded it on my first record. That was that, I thought. But then somehow the arch came back and got caught up in the story of this New Zealand boy. Nothing is planned!
Q2: Liberating to write, or tough to work within the confines of the genre?
There are confines? I didn’t really think about the genre. This is a book about a young person from a young person’s point of view. Once I’d decided I would never leave Ricky’s mind, the idea of an audience was settled – Ricky is speaking to himself and his peers. I didn’t want this novel to feel like ‘adult fiction writer Damien Wilkins on holiday’. I was always trying to write the best sentences, the best scenes, the most alive story I could write.
Q3: Aspiring … it’s Wanaka, right?
It’s Wanaka put through a filter, sometimes put through the ringer. You touch something with language and it changes. I needed the freedom to say things that are incorrect and even unfair about the real place. I didn’t want the reader to say ‘Oh, he got that wrong’.
Q4: How much time have you spent there and what struck you about the place?
I’ve been visiting and staying there for thirty years. We have family connections. The obvious and true thing to say is that it’s a beautiful place to put a town. The mountains! The lake! And over the decades that beauty becomes a magnet – more people want to be there. Retirees, escapees, people of means, tourists – we’re all drawn there. How to manage that growth? It’s a place of privilege of course, and not very diverse. And I became interested in what happens behind the scenes in a place like that. And what it would be like to grow up there, especially if you don’t really share the values of the place … It’s all probably a thinly disguised version of me growing up in Lower Hutt in the 1970s, except we just had boring hills to look at!
Q5: Ricky is so likeable. To what extent is he an amalgam of all the terrific sixteen-year-olds you’ve come across?
Boys of this age get a bad press. I wanted to write a little hymn to their internal lives. Those lives now seem more compressed, more stressed. There’s a lot of anxiety around. I think it’s disastrous for everyone the way that young males are still educated away from the life of feeling.
Q6: At one stage Ricky thinks, ‘Put away childish things’. That seems all that needs to be said about the fraught process of adolescence, doesn’t it?
If only! I think the novel catches Ricky at this weird moment where his body is outstripping his brain and his emotional resources – his sudden tallness and bigness gives him access to an adult world he’s not ready for. He grieves for his old life as a child but is also excited by and drawn to the possibilities of the future. He knows, however, that the planet’s future is dire. But there’s something else too. I mean, it’s not as if Ricky’s dad is a model of emotional maturity. I hope the novel gives a picture of people of all ages in the process of becoming, of trying to work out things, of trying to shift. I don’t believe in these clear-cut categories of human development – ‘and now you have emerged from the chrysalis!’ A lot of us still have bits of chrysalis stuck in our hair.
Q7: It’s such a painful time but do you also envy your characters their youth?
Of course! I’m old. I have two daughters in their twenties. But then it’s impossible for me to know what it’s really like to be sixteen now. There are lots of signs that it’s not so much fun. I put some of this in the novel. I also wanted to show the resourcefulness of young people, and the endless search for pleasure.
Q8: And they gave you a great opportunity for jokes and whipsmart dialogue.
Kids are quick. I envy the speed of their minds. The dialogue between Ricky and his friends, and Ricky and Keri were the most enjoyable parts to write. If you don’t have power, you still have talk.
Q9: Adults will no doubt end the book feeling protective, even anxious, about Ricky. But what do you think young readers will feel?
I hope they feel that they’ve read about someone who has gone through something and come out the other side not just intact but with a renewed sense of his potential and his power. I’ve always liked that thing that Maurice Sendak said about children protecting adults from the truth. You really don’t want to upset your parents by letting on how much you know.
Q10: Will he be ok?
Hope is important. He hasn’t solved anything but he’s in a relationship, he’s having fun, and his family is in a better place. Ricky has successfully protected his parents from the truth about his life! Good on him.
Just back from a wonderful visit to Dunedin. We got to celebrate Wild Honey last night thanks to Massey University Press, Kay Mercer and Dunedin Libraries, and Bronwyn Wylie-Gibb and the University Book Shop. There was a great turn out of poetry fans, and a set of readings that prompted both laughter and tears. We even got to hear Fiona Farrell sing! The occasion felt even more precious because that afternoon local poet, Elizabeth Brooke-Carr, had passed away, and so many local poets were together. Jenny Powell read one of Elizabeth’s poems as a tribute.
Heartfelt thanks to the readers: Sue Wootton, Carolyn McCurdie, Fiona Farrell, Kay McKenzie Cooke, Diane Brown, Jenny Powell, Eliana Gray, Emer, Lyons and Emma Neale.
Wild Honey continues to place women’s poetry under a warm and receptive light. I was humbled by the joy, the warmth and the generosity in the room. I am humbled by the way it continues to be an open home.
Emma Neale’s introduction was so good I want to share it with you – plus a few photos taken by Kay.
Wild Honey introduction
Tena kotou katoa
Ko Emma Neale toku ingoa ….
What a fabulous, upbeat reason for us all to be together tonight. It is very happily my role to introduce Paula Green to you all and talk a little about Wild Honey.
I noticed at around page 200 of Wild Honey that in my reading habits, I was inadvertently reflecting the structuring principle of the book. For those of you who haven’t looked into it yet — the book gathers small communities of women poets in separate rooms of a capacious imaginary house: so we move from the Foundation Stones of 19th-century authors Jesse Mackay and Blanche Baughan and of early 20th century writer Eileen Duggan, through to spaces such as the study, the music room, the hearth, the hammock and the garden, where Paula reflects on the thematic concerns, the psychological spaces, the poetic techniques, and also the lives of the writers she gathers there.
I realised last week that I’ve been carrying the book with me into every nook and cranny of my own house – brushing my teeth while reading it – burning dinner while cooking from it, or rather, by miming cooking while actually travelling deep into the passageways and chambers of the book itself. I didn’t twig to all this until I found myself nearly braining the family rabbit with it, as I tried to dish out pellets and straw to him in his outside hutch while Wild Honey was still tucked under one arm. Clearly this potentially book- and rabbit-wrecking approach is a mark of how compelling the prose is – capable of supplanting a cell-phone as the glued-to object to stare at. I suspect this won’t just be true of fellow poetry obsessives: the prose is pellucid, generous, and welcoming.
The book embraces myriad voices; it’s receptive to multiple styles, and it actively celebrates the writers it discusses. It doesn’t pit one writer against another, try to champion one above another, or upbraid writers for perceived political derelictions, but it listens attentively to what each writer has to say, and aims to capture and characterise the tone of their preoccupations. It’s a history of women’s poetry here in Aotearoa, yet one that is also a memoir of reading, as Paula laces the analysis with vivid personal responses and descriptions of how reading other women’s work has bolstered and boosted her — not only as a professional writer, herself interested in aesthetic questions, but as a person moving through time, dealing with love and loss, memory and projection, physical injury and philosophical problems, seized by the beauty of the natural world, shocked by social toxicity … it’s a vast and varied coastline of human experience.
I think it’s important to say that even as we encounter generations of writers here, learn of their preoccupations and savour the sensuous aspects of their expression, one of the delights of reading this book is finding Paula’s own poetic signature throughout. It travels with you like a piwakawaka flitting along at shoulder height on a hiking trail – so you can start to feel kind of blessed and graced yourself with the ability to communicate in the same free, light and spirited way … until you actually try to express all the things this book achieves.
Wild Honey is so embracing, so capacious, that what I would really like to do before starting the readings and our conversation, is to ask everyone here —but particularly the poets — to both congratulate and thank Paula for her diligence, her energy, her curiosity, her own creative gifts and above all tonight for her generosity. You can whoop, clap, dance, sing, stomp your feet – pull out a clarinet or a trombone if you have one — just make a bloody great non-library- like racket.
Last week I launched Wild Honey in Auckland and Wellington and I have never experienced anything like it. It was a long time in the making – four years writing and researching – and several decades reading New Zealand poetry and germinating ideas. I faced all kinds of hurdles – notably a string of accidents and illnesses – that made the project tougher. But ever since I was a young girl words have been a primary love. Writing gives me energy, it makes me feel good, it connects me with the world when I am primarily drawn to a quiet, private life. Through my schooling years you would have to say I was misfit – for all kinds of reasons – and I had little confidence in what I could do. To be an awkward teenager and have my Y12 English teacher tell me in front of the whole class I would never get anywhere in the world writing as I did was a cruel blow. I pretty much failed school and all my writing was stored in secret notebooks.
A turning point for me was going to university in my thirties and studying Italian. I first thought I would do one paper but I ended up doing full degrees until there were no more to do. Moving into another language was the best thing I could have done. I loved reading Italian literature, watching Italian movies, spending time with the ideas and art of the Renaissance, and the women poets, but the language itself was an essential joy. To speak in different rhythms and musicalities (always rhyme) was an epiphany. To read Dante, Calvino, Ramondino, Durante and copious women poets and novelists refreshed my relationship with English. I just had to write poetry. I still didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere but writing was both my anchor and my sails. I discovered the poetry of Dinah Hawken (Small Stories of Devotion in particular), Fiona Farrell and Michele Leggott, and so began my personal quest to read as much New Zealand poetry as possible. I read poems regardless of gender but I was committed to reading poetry by women because poetry by women had been served so badly throughout the twentieth century.
I want to thank my extraordinary Italian lecturers with whom I studied, wrote theses and taught – Bernadette Luciano, Mike Hanne and Laurence Simmonds – who allowed an awkward nonconforming student to find her way and excel. Wild Honey is in such debt to you. My Italian years shaped me as a writer unlike any other.
And now Wild Honey is out in the world. I have created events to celebrate its arrival, done interviews with attentive reviewers and am watching the book find its way into the hands of readers. It is both wonderful and overwhelming. Nerve wracking. Exciting. Exhausting. Energising.
I don’t know how to explain it but there is still a bit of that shy awkward girl in me – who favours staying at home with family and having one-on-one conversations with friends rather than big social / public occasions.
At my launches I invited around twelve poets to read one of their own poems and a poem they love by a local woman. In the middle I had a brief conversation with Selina Tusitala Marsh (Akld) and Helen Heath (Wtn). In both cities the poets reading offered a kōrero: for me, for the book, but most importantly for women. And they were all speaking from the heart; starting with the book but going beyond the book. Helen suggested that Wild Honey was just the beginning. More books would be written. More houses built. I love the prospect of different perspectives, different houses, different structures, different voices.
Dinah picked out the word ‘household’ and talked about the way Wild Honey was ‘holding’ women together. To me it felt like the whole room was ‘held’. In Wellington the readers crossed generations: from Fiona Kidman, Rachel McAlpine and Dinah Hawken to Sugar Magnolia Wilson, Tayi Tibble and Gregory Kan (reading one of his magnificent Robin Hyde poems). I can’t underestimate how significant this was: to have our poetry elders embracing our young voices and to have our young poets blown away by women who have paved the way. The audience too was a terrific gathering of poets of multiple generations.
It made me want to do more – to bring poets together across generations, cultures, styles, schools, cities and so on. To pay attention to the way poetry is multiple conversations, connections, communities.
In Wellington, mid event, Anahera Gildea got on her phone and asked Hinemoana Baker to send her Ihumātao poem from Berlin. Hinemoana was now in the room. We loved that. We were crossing oceans and then being carried to the whenua where poets are gathering. A similar thing happened when Grace Iwashita Taylor read in Auckland.
A key point with Wild Honey is that poetry establishes many resistances, homages, repetitions, discoveries, existences, differences, residencies. It is ‘an open home’ to borrow a phrase from Sally Blundell’s terrifically attentive Listener review.
At my Wellington launch I confessed I had deleted all the toxic anecdotes from Wild Honey – the scenes where men have muted or sideswiped me or other women – because I wanted my book to work differently. I wanted my book to lay down a challenge, not through toxic attack and deconstruction, but by writing out of love and connection. Is it possible? Can you write a book that challenges authority and injustice by writing out of kindness? Can you refresh the academic page by creating hybrid books that call upon scholarship, research, autobiography, biography, history, close reading, a resistance to vapid jargon and women-deleting theory? My time with Italian women writers and philosophers showed me you can think and write outside the academy as well inside it.
That night, the night of my Wellington event, I was awake pretty much until dawn, overwhelmed by the aroha in the room and musing on my book and its intentions. I started crying without knowing why. I was thinking that sometimes we do have to challenge authority and injustice in strident voices. I should have said that out loud. I was also mourning the exceptional women who aren’t in my book – the rooms and objects I had to leave behind. In the middle of the night it feels unbearable.
In the light of day when I am still overwhelmed and astonished at what I have written, I keep returning to the idea that Wild Honey comes out of the awkward girl and the love she felt for words and their power to restore and energise and connect.
In Auckland we were running over time (not excessively!); everyone was saying things that needed to be said but, because we were in Auckland Central Library with an 8pm closing time, I felt I needed to ditch my conversation with Selina. The kōrero to that point was heartlifting. Young Pasifika women acknowledging their place in the room, in Wild Honey and in poetry communities. Courtney Sina Meredith began the event by reading a poem by her favourite poet, her mother Kim who was in the room. Johanna Emeney concluded the event by reading a poem that pays tribute to her mother, no longer with her, and Elizabeth Smither’s ‘My mother’s house’. A maternal full circle. Breathtaking, evocative, moving. Each poet invited another woman into the room through the poems they picked (Tusiata Avia, Lauris Edmond, J C Sturm, Robin Hyde, for example).
At the mid point, when I told Selina we needed to ditch our conversation, she stood up, pulled me next to her heart and said we were going to talk. She said, however, before we talked, she and I would stand in silence for 30 seconds and then invited everyone to send me their love. I have never experienced anything like it. A packed room looking back at me with warm, loving faces. People I didn’t know. People I did. I was reminded that when I was in the radiotherapy machine I had imagined a cocoon of light spinning around me and I attached each hug I had received to the spinning light and the cocoon became one of love and when I left the room I felt light and enlivened.
Wild Honey is bigger than me. On the day of my Auckland launch I baked a loaf of bread as I usually do each day (I bake grainy seedy breads in a bread maker and sour dough loaves). But I had forgotten to put in yeast, sugar and salt so I baked a hard brick! I began musing on how Wild Honey was like a sour dough loaf. l gathered flour, salt and water but it was activated by the wild yeast in the air. There is something in the air – I’d say globally – voices that are insisting women are brought into the light: in politics, sports, comedy, music, literature, film, law, human rights, equity, equality, education, positions of power, on airspace and so on.
Wild Honey is not just a matter of what, as Selina said, but a matter of how. If we are trying to govern out of kindness, we can also critique out of kindness. There is a woman holding the pen and her ink is imbued with her story, her imagination, her vision of what a poem might do, of what the world can be. I want to move closer to that woman. I don’t like all the poetry I read, I might not understand all the poetry I read, but I will slow down and find ways to move through a poem. I refuse the position of authority – I am an author minus the ‘ity’ bit.
That reviewers such as Kiran Dass (The Herald) and Sally Blundell (New Zealand Listener) have slowed down and read Wild Honey on its own terms has moved me profoundly.
Soon I hope to sleep through the night again – but today on Phantom Billstickers National Poetry Day I want to acknowledge everyone who made Wild Honey possible. Massey University Press and Nicola Legat who worked with such passion and patience to make the best book possible. My friends and family who got me through all manner of hurdles with enduring support. I hit rock bottom writing this book as my friends know and the end result would not be possible without their aroha and backing.
But most importantly, on this day when we celebrate poets and poetry in Aotearoa, I raise a glass of champagne to all the women who have written poems before me, all the women who write alongside me, and to the poets of the future, whatever their gender. My book is in debt to your wild honey. Today I toast you. Happy National Poetry Day!
Mary Kisler Finding Frances Hodgkins Massey University Press, 2019
At First Glance
At first glance you are a bird in flight
wings flapping and paper flailing
feet above the cobbled bridge
ready to land on a blank page
as happy as the lark,
Dorothy behind with strings let loose.
At first glance you carry a pigeon on your head
a thousand pictures and a thousand words
colours to cry for and lines to settle on
the tools of art tucked tight beneath your arm
in the blackest of winters and the blackest of springs,
Dorothy behind with her feet on the ground.
At first glance you are a moth to the flame
wings beating and cloth shivering
feet above the water
ready to land on windmills and cabbages
the cloud effects magnificent,
Dorothy behind with an eye on the light.
from Making Lists for Frances Hodgkins Auckland University Press, 2007
One summer I was invited to write something for a Frances Hodgkins exhibition – I lay on my bed surrounded by catalogues of her work and pitched deep into her paintings. It was a curious experience, because the more I looked, the more I became entangled in her artwork and the more her artwork became entangled in me: my back story, my obsessions, my predispositions, my failings. I ended up writing a poetry collection that I named Making Lists for Frances Hodgkins.
All these years later I am lounging back after finishing Wild Honey and find myself entangled in Frances’s paintings again; but this time it is a little more intricate – thicket like – because I am entering the artwork by way of Mary Kisler’s terrific new book Finding Frances Hodgkins. The book is beautifully produced by Massey University Press, with a generous serving of Frances’s paintings and drawings, and photographs from the archives and from Mary’s travels. Mary is the Senior Curator, Mackelvie Collection, International Art at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.
In 2013 Mary was updating an unpublished catalogue raisonné of the works of Frances, and it proved a challenging task solving the unnamed titles and places. Keen to track the changes in style and subject matter in the work of such a nomadic artist, Mary decided to trace Frances’s travels through Italy, France, Spain, Morocco and Britain. Armed with the artist’s work on her iPad and her letters, Mary journeyed through Europe. The final result is a little treasure; a book that stitches you as reader to Mary as traveller/memoirist and to Frances as artist. It is a concertina booklet; Frances’s paintings folds onto Mary’s vivid descriptions, musings and anecdotes which fold onto Frances’s anecdotes which fold onto Mary’s photographs which fold onto your own experiences which fold back onto the paintings themselves. Unfold the whole sequence and your breathtaking absorption of a painting is rich and surprising.
Mary immerses you in the world of Frances – her daily routines, the physical scenes, the painter’s observations – the writing culled from letters, the lexicon of paint and from standing in places where Frances once stood/painted. A particular painting, Hill Landscape (1936), with its juxtaposed motifs and borrowed elements, is described as ‘a memoir, so pleasing and much richer than a postcard or a photograph that captures only a single place in a single moment’. Herein lies the joy of the book – the way Mary’s engaging travels have produced a book that offers postcards and photographs yet is so much more. It is travel guide, art guide and twinned memoir that draws you close to place, both past and present. As much as it illuminates the workings of an artist does it illuminate the workings and preoccupations of a scholar. Everything seems to bound off and rebound against each other. I love that.
Take Frances on truth and how she is perceived:
I wish the papers wouldn’t make me out a sort of freak artist. I am really a very sober minded thoughtful sort of person with nothing slapdash or offhand about my work. Every stroke I put down comes from real conviction & is a sincere aspect of truth – if not the whole truth. If I can only live long enough the world will have to acknowledge me – I am horribly stubborn & I haven’t lived these long years of privation & hard work for nothing.’
By 1929 Frances is pleased to be in the news and exhibiting alongside Len Lyre and emerging modernists Henry Moore, Ben and Winifred Nicholson and Paul Nash. In a letter to her brother Bert she writes:
It is about time they realise I exist and am doing something a little more significant than the usual ruck of artists who come to Europe – even it is unpopular now people will in time grow used to the strangeness of my technique, a “handwriting” unfamiliar to them and therefore ‘eave a brick at its ‘ead!
To view the paint stroke as a form of handwriting is genius – with its subjective gestures and colour palette. Her autobiographical script was affected by the art of others, as Mary often points out, but Frances was always forging her own visual voice. It affects me as spectator at the level of both feelings and ideas. I am reminded of Robin Hyde’s pull to flee New Zealand and her ache to write. Frances was also pulled to Europe (and Africa) but in her ‘ache to paint’ she navigated what she felt and witnessed in front of her. She would stick to her own painting impetus but she would also wipe her canvases clean when her galleries saw ‘flaws’ and demanded new work. ( Interestingly I have lived with an artist for over 30 years and have never witnessed such gallery demands). She was both alone and not alone – alone in the moment of putting brush on canvas but often touring with friends or teaching students to earn money.
Behind any painting (or poem or movie etc) is the narrative and context of its making. Sometimes traces are glimpsed in what is disclosed or hinted at but often it is impenetrable. Frances’s life-long struggle to survive for example. This was a matter of finances, of crippling contracts with galleries and of maintaining her own ‘painting voice’ regardless of the ‘isms’ she rubbed against and the scant recognition back home. Mary highlights this independence: ‘Other English modernists were constantly battling over the right “ism” to follow, but Hodgkins kept her head down and followed her own path, sometimes weaving certain surrealist elements into a partially abstracted tapestry of motifs.’
I am drawn to the way Frances produced a strong bond between place and objects. Sometimes place took the form of an armchair, at other times a Mediterranean vista. The objects were often dreamlike and mnemonic, often a potent symbol. In this sense her paintings become poems – rich in visual chords that activate multiple engagements. This is what attracted me when I was lying on my bed with her catalogues. Mary comments on ‘Self Portrait: Still Life’:
(..) we know what she physically looked like, but encompassed in her self-portrait are aspects of everything that was important to her: objects she loved and which held particular symbolism for her, her favourite scarves reflecting her love of pattern and design, and her ability to construct a work rather than simply paint what was in front of her. It states clearly: judge me by what I do and what I believe, not by how I look.
Finding Frances Hodgkins is a book to linger over, savouring sumptuous detail, along with joyful discoveries and sidetracks. It is kaleidoscopic in its reach, it enhances viewings of Frances’s paintings and the real/imagined woman painting. I love this book because it resists straitjacketing the artist within specific theories in order to explicate her work. The way we write about art, the way we ‘find’ art cannot fit into a single reductive box. We can critique within the critical climate of our time but we can also choose independent paths (whilst brushing up and absorbing traces of contemporary thinking, styles, tastes). Mary has followed in the path of Frances but she has made that path her own.
Of course no one really ‘finds’ Frances Hodgkins, because she will never fit comfortably into a single box. But what I hope to have done on this journey is cast some light on how important place became in her search for modernity, and her individuality as an artist, respecting the work of others but always taking her own path. (Mary Kisler)
The Writing Life: Twelve New Zealand Authors edited by Deborah Shephard
Massey University Press, 2018
Albert Wendt reads ‘Used-by Date’
Twelve authors talk to biographer and historian, Deborah Shephard, about writing and living. It is a captivating new book. Deborah has done an excellent job drawing out stories and raising issues; from what it means to write alongside domestic and money-earning demands to coping with both success and failure. She is familiar with the authors’ books and the context of the times in which they were written. The interviews often feel like a warm and stimulating conversation rather than a pre-prepared interview. John McDermott took stunning photographs to accompany the text.
Joy Cowley’s interview is essential reading. I didn’t realise how tough things were for her in her first marriage and how writing became increasingly important. The depth and range of her revelations moved me. I have been a big fan of Joy’s writing for decades. Along with Margaret Mahy she has also shown me that writers can be generous beyond the writing desk – in the way they listen and back younger or emerging writers (from the child to the adult). Joy was motivated to write New Zealand children’s books because it was really hard to find local examples.
Writing was something I just did. Wanting to be a writer, well, that’s like wanting to be a breather. I just lived stories.
Joy said she used to think people were like apples that fell from trees when they withered and dried but that she now thinks of people as onions – beautifully layered. This is an apt description for the interviews, for the writing life.
Deborah undertakes the interviews on the author’s turf, often over several days, and that makes a difference. We discover that Fiona Kidman has images of her writing mentors on the wall: Robyn Hyde, Katherine Mansfield, Margurite Duras. When they talk about Fiona’s mother and her knowledge of china, there is some Royal Doulton with pansies on the wall . That this is the china that featured as decorative end pieces in Fiona’s poetry collection This Change in the Light adds layers for me. I feel present in Fiona’s kitchen and I am reminded of her terrific poems about her mother.
My way of communicating with the world from when I was a very solitary child was through the written word.
Fiona’s interview covers family, friendship and feuds, love and terrible loss, along with the origins of her novels, the way she brings them to life and the way her writing process has changed over time. Her novels catch me immeasurably with their humaneness, their warmth and empathy; and the meticulous attention paid to details (think dialogue, setting, signs of the time). I have just read her latest, This Mortal Boy, and I recommend it highly.
In her interview Fiona returns to the 1970s, a time when women were reassessing their roles, finding their voice, standing together and speaking out. I was fascinated to read the back story to her debut novel, A Breed of Women – the way an early unpublished novel, ‘Club Litany’, was shelved because ‘it wasn’t a book I was quite ready to live with’. That novel formed the basis of A Breed of Women – the novel that affected so many women at the time. Fiona talks about entering ‘some new hall of knowledge’ and the women who gave her both the confidence to write and the tools to explore feminist issues.
I was particularly drawn to Fiona’s struggle to find a way to put Māori in her novels – Fiona grew up close to Māori communities and married a man with both Māori and Pākehā ancestry and has a daughter with Māori and Pākehā ancestry.
Again I am riveted by the conversation; the way it takes me back to Fiona’s writing and the way I reconsider what it was like to write in a particular time in a particular place.
Owen Marshall’s interview begins with Deborah reading his poem, ‘Missing person file – Jane Ella’, aloud. The poem features his mother and his slender memories of her; she had died when he was young. She is also there because Marshall had adopted her maiden name as his writing surname. His father remarried and had six more children to add to the initial three. Owen wanted to stay at secondary school beyond 5th form so was allowed to if he paid for it and contributed a small sum towards the household. Fascinating – the commitment to learn when many of his friends were reluctant. Like his father he savoured books and academic learning along with outdoor activities.
I loved the way Owen described the relationship between experience and invention in a novel or short story:
Much of that is my own experience, but burnished and reformed by the process that is fiction writing.
And that Owen prefers the novel to autobiography when he is asked about his short memoir:
The memoir is based on two short pieces I did for Sport magazine and takes my life only to the beginning of the nineties when I left full-time teaching and became a professional writer. I did enjoy revisiting an earlier time and earlier self, but the experience hasn’t given me a desire to write my autobiography. I prefer to be seen through the prism of my work.
Albert Wendt, like Joy Cowley, has gifted us literature across diverse genres and has offered extraordinary support towards other writers, both emerging and established. In the interview he keeps some things private out of respect to the living but he draws us close to his lineage, to parents and grandparents, to the way writing both takes flight and becomes grounded. In a talk to students at his old school, New Plymouth Boys’ High he said:
Our lives are made up of great joy and love and also great pain and suffering and change. At times we feel like giving up. But this is the only life we have so we have to try and survive it, and enjoy it. Live it with integrity and honesty and to the best of your gifts.
I want to pin this to my wall. Like many of the authors I have read so far, the writing life is a life of both challenge and joy. It is also a life of reading, and in most cases from an early age. Albert is no exception. He read the Bible and then the School Journal before hiding himself away in the secondary -school library. Then his sixth-form English teacher gave handouts of The Waste Land.
I’d never heard of The Waste Land but when he began reading, shit, it was like listening to music and the way my grandmother chanted. We studied the whole poem for the next two weeks and my attention was held right from the beginning.
Albert talks about the way he has always been political; and of his willingness to write about and challenge racism. He talks about the way politics infused Sons for the Return Home. I remember reading this book the year after I had left school – and thinking, as it settled inside me, this is what writing can do. Albert said:
When I write it’s mainly for myself. I’m writing a book that I would like to read. It has to mean something to me and if it has some impact on the public then good, but that is not my aim. At the time I wrote Sons for the Return Home I had become politicised, and I still am, but I was interested in exploring colonisation, what it does to people, both the colonised and the coloniser.
I am also fascinated by the process of writing and the way it differs from writer to writer. Albert speaks of writing poems:
I deliberately set out to make them feel effortless, but to achieve that sometimes I had to rewrite and rewrite, or leave it for a few days and then go back to it. With my new collection From Mānoa to a Ponsonby Garden I decided to write a set of poems fourteen lines long each, and centre each one on this garden and this house and Reina, our cat, me, and any other creature that entered the garden, and see what happened. I was doing what I do with my paintings, deliberately limiting the colours, and the bloody poems began to take off. And instead of having short lines I decided to have fourteen fairly lengthy lines and make them appear just casual, and closer to prose.
I love this book. I love the way it returns me to writing I am familiar with and lives that I am not. It reminds me that the writing process is addictive, sustaining and for many a necessary joy. It is not a criticism – because I found the interviews I have read immensely satisfying – but at the end of each one I wanted to enter the room and carry on the conversation myself.
I shall read the other interviewed authors over summer: Marilyn Duckworth, Tessa Duder, Marilyn Duckworth, Chris Else, Patricia Grace, David Hill, Witi Ihimaera, Vincent O’Sullivan and Philip Temple.