This is poem 7 from a sequence called ‘Leviathan’ in The Lifers (Otago University press, 2020).
Jeffrey reads ‘7’
Jeffrey Paparoa Holman:
There is a whakapapa of prison poetry that links Michael Steven’s poem on men behind bars in The Lifers, his recent second volume from Otago University Press. The poems in this book have gritty echoes that François Villon would hear and feel; a deep well of humanity also that Oscar Wilde would appreciate, from his cell in Reading Gaol. Whether we are watching users scoring, thieves preparing a raid, a friend mourning the suicide of a kindred lost soul, there opens up before us a vision of brokenness elegised with compassion through an unsparing binocular lens. The poem considered here – Sonnet 7 from a series, Leviathan – captures precisely the cold realities of those sentenced to life for the most serious of crimes. The effect is so visual, it returned to me a memory of Van Gogh’s ‘Prisoners Exercising’, painted in 1890 while he was in the asylum at Saint-Rémy, suffering deep depression. Most Fridays, with two other poets, Bernadette Hall and Jeni Curtis, we take part in a reading group at Christchurch Mens Prison; I recently took copies of this poem and shared it. The silence that greeted its reading attested the truth Michael Steven has captured, from the inside. This poem – and the rest of his fine and developing oeuvre – invite your close attention.
Jeffrey Paparoa Holman is a Christchurch poet and non-fiction writer. His most recent poetry collection, Blood Ties: selected poems, 1963-2016 was published by Canterbury University Press in 2017. A memoir, Now When It Rains came out from Steele Roberts in 2018. He is currently working on a book chapter for a collection of studies on early 20th century ethnographers. He makes his living as a stay-at-home puppy wrangler for Hari, an eight-month old Jack Russell-Fox Terrier cross. Hari ensures that very little writing happens, but Victoria Park is explored and mapped daily.
Michael Steven is the author of the acclaimed Walking to Jutland Street (Otago University Press, 2018). He was recipient of the 2018 Todd New Writer’s Bursary, and his poems were shortlisted for the 2019 Sarah Broom Poetry Prize. He lives and writes in West Auckland. The Lifers (Otago University Press) was recently launched at Timeout Bookshop.
Rarotonga-based poet Jessica Le Bas is the winner of the Sarah Broom Poetry Prize 2019.
Sarah Broom website here with poems by the finalists and winner
On Saturday I had the honour of mc-ing the Sarah Broom Prize session, having acted as Prize Director for the past year. I welcomed international judge, Anne Michaels, the finalists, Michael Steven, Jessica Le Bas and poet Vana Manasiadis standing in for London-based Nina Mingya Powles, the Prize founder and Sarah Broom’s husband, Michael Gleissner, and their family, and a room packed to the rafters with poetry fans.
In 2014 when Michael established the award he told me he had created a financial prize to support writing time for a poet, as his wife Sarah had enjoyed. But the Sarah Broom Prize is more than this. It allows us to shine increased light on NZ poetry, local poets get to be read by an international judge and the finalists get to read at Auckland Writers Festival. This is a gift for our poetry communities and we are immensely grateful to you, and to the hardworking Sarah Ross and Greg Fahey. The Sarah Broom Trust has launched a new website and new plans for the future. This year there were over 320 entries. For the past six years The Sarah Broom Trust has worked in partnership with the Auckland Writers Festival.
Sarah Broom (1972 -2013)
The prize also enables an annual return to Sarah’s poetry and this is a joy. Sarah’s debut, Tigers at Awhitu, appeared post her Cambridge doctorate, at a time she dedicated her life to motherhood, poetry and managing lung cancer. Her second collection, Gleam, was published posthumously. I have found her poems shine with cadence and craft, exquisite wisdom and subtle movements. She wrote poetry for the well and for the dying; the world is to be cherished. Love is always intensely present. I carry her poetry next to my heart.
I read two of her poems: ‘anchor’ and ‘river come gently’ from Gleam Auckland University Press, 2013.
Nina Mingya Powles, of Pākehā and Malaysian-Chinese heritage is the author of field notes on a downpour (2018), two from Seraph Press Luminescent and Girls of the Drift She is the poetry editor of The Shanghai Literary Review and founding editor of Bitter Melon 苦瓜, a new poetry press. Her prose debut, a food memoir, will be published by The Emma Press in 2019. Poetry Shelf interview
Jessica Le Bas has published two collections of poetry with AUP, incognito and Walking to Africa and with Penguin, a novel for children, Staying Home. She currently lives in Rarotonga, working in schools throughout the Cook Islands to promote and support writing. Poetry Shelf interview here
Michael Steven is the author of four chapbooks and Walking to Jutland Street, a collection published by OUP, longlisted for the 2019 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. He was recipient of the 2018 Todd New Writer’s Bursary. He lives in West Auckland. Poetry Shelf interview
The Judge, Anne Michaels
Anne Michaels, poet and fiction writer, Toronto Poet Laureate, author of the beloved Fugitive Pieces among other splendid things, has produced breath-taking poetry. Poems that take up residency in your body, that savour silence alongside revelation, that tend to musical pitch and luminosity, that take you deep into human experience, both physical and imagined. These are some of her poetry treasures. [I held up All We Saw, Poems (her first three collections) and her magnificent children’s book, The Adventures of Miss Petitfour that I urged Kate De Goldi to read if she hasn’t already]. When I was in A & E on Sunday my daughter brought me Anne’s Infinite Gradations to reread. It transported me beyond injury, beyond hospital walls to the most glorious writing on poetry and art I know, on what it feels or means to write poetry or make art. So many lines felt utterly relevant in the wake of the Christchurch mosque attacks when we collectively asked and keep asking ‘what good poetry’ and collectively seek kindness, empathy and connection.
Let me share a few favourites.
We write and we read in order to hold another person close.
Sometimes language is the rescuer.
Poetry is the lonely radical precious expression of a single life.
Poetry suspends time. Poetry is time. Poetry gives us time.
Anne Michaels spoke on poetry and the finalists entries – she has also selected two highly recommended poets – Jess Fiebig and Wen-Juenn Lee.
Anne told the audience it it was an honour to judge the prize – and that she paid absolute attention to every entry. She said the poems provided a glimpse of New Zealand one could never have in any other way, and that questions arose on home, exile, language, belonging. She saw the poems as kinds of ‘seeking voices’, and that poets are a tribe with a shared love of the word, a compulsion to write, solidarity – and that we are all in it for the enterprise of it.
Anne wanted everyone who entered a poem to understand and feel to their very soul that they are part of this enterprise. She then introduced each of the finalists (I have included her comments on highly recommended):
Jessica Le Bas (winner)
Jessica Le Bas’s poems are alive with detail acutely observed. In the poet’s disciplined language and perception is a kind of tenderness – for the natural world, and for human frailty. It is a poetic vision that understands how inextricable hope and despair, beauty and loss: of a cracked mango, Le Bas wisely advises, “eat it now”. In these poems, the world is passionately perceived.
Nina Mingya Powles (finalist)
These poems express both the power of memory and the grace of a present moment. They are a deeply felt exploration of language – how it separates us and holds us close; how it can become, sometimes, the only home we have. The best compassion is born of clear seeing, and this is the compassion that imbues Nina Mingya Powles’s poems – expressed with a generous, gentle, authority. These are poems of beautiful depth.
Michael Steven (finalist)
These poems speak of intimate encounters, often wordless, and of communions – through music, plums shared along a path, a circling hawk, a gravestone. There is a quietude in these poems that reminds us just how loud the world has become, and how valuable those moments, the “tiny benefactions” that gently restore our attention to what’s important.
Jess Fiebig (highly commended)
By not turning away from a moment, these poems insist on understanding, finding meaning where it hurts. These poems are full of compassionate detail, direct and wondering, and “finding treasures” in plain sight.
Wen-Juenn Lee (highly commended)
These are poems of witness – vivid and fierce, seeking a kind of justice. In their passion to name what it means to live in exile – from a place, from a language – these deeply felt poems assert the right to be seen and known, not forgotten. Their seeking is a kind of restoration. Wen-Juenn reads ‘Prologue’ for Poetry Shelf
In announcing the winner Anne underlined how she loved all three poets, and she urged the audience to follow their careers, to buy their books and to spread the word.
At the beginning I asked, what good poetry? I took up from Anne’s point and finished by saying, as this session so beautifully demonstrated, that we read and write to hold things close: life, love, loss, people, experience, knowledge, connections. Friends and strangers come up to me afterwards and said that this session was full of heart and soul. I agreed.
Grateful thanks to the Sarah Broom Trust and to the Auckland Writers Festival.
If you were to map your poetry reading history, what books would act as key co-ordinates?
– James K. Baxter Pig Island Letters
– Allen Curnow Continuum
– Robert Creeley For Love
– Robert Lowell Life Studies; For The Union Dead
– Elizabeth Bishop The Complete Poems
– Cesare Pavese Selected Poems, Penguin Modern Poets
– Richard Hugo Making Certain It Goes On
– August Kleinzahler Sleeping It Off In Rapid City
– Denis Johnson The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millenium General Assesmbly
– Fanny Howe Selected Poems
– Philip Levine The Simple Truth
– William Bronk Collected Poems
What do you want your poems to do?
I hope something of our beautiful and difficult world’s damaged rapture remains in my poems, long after the impetus or occasion for their being written has passed.
Which poem in your selection particularly falls into place. Why?
I’m still a poor judge of a poem’s strengths, and perhaps an even poorer judge of its weaknesses, but of my entry poems ‘Summer/Haszard Road’ is the one I have the most love for. (This poem will appear on the Sarah Broom website)
There is no blueprint for writing poems. What might act as a poem trigger for you?
Here are some memorable triggers:
Cooking and drinking with Malcolm Deans. Spring drives through the Lower Kaipara. Jewel heists in Dubai. Hawkers markets. The Proustian memory avalanches set off by listening to certain records. Flying from Auckland to Dunedin. Driving from Auckland to Dunedin. The spice merchants of Kochi. The industrial plains of Penrose. Tank farms. Musty churches. Junk stores. Museums. Dusk in Taupaki. Coffee and indica. My son.
If you were reviewing your entry poems, what three words would characterise their allure?
Embodied. Emboldening. Empathetic.
You are going to read together at the Auckland Writers Festival. If you could pick a dream team of poets to read – who would we see?
John Forbes. Ed Dorn. Anne Sexton. Seamus Heaney. Elizabeth Bishop. Ishion Hutchinson.
Dropped Pin: Three Lamps, Ponsonby
– for Ryan Moroney, poet of Papamoa –
This poem I started writing ten years ago
to say thanks for buying me breakfast
after a night of rough red and hydro.
Waiting for coffee, outside Cezanne,
the heat climbing high into the twenties,
our brains were slow rebooting that morning.
You’ll remember we shared a table with Monica.
Unduly caged by dubious DSM definitions,
by a psychiatrist’s repeat prescriptions,
she gulped cans of cola through a white straw,
gut-dragged on John Player Specials,
and muttered “Yes, dear,” to our questions.
Ryan, I like to think she was healed a little
every lunchtime in All Saints church,
when the minister threw open the doors
and she shuffled inside the chapel
lumping her cache of shopping bags
stuffed with paperbacks, woollen jumpers,
fortnight-old copies of The Herald
along the aisle and on to the transept
to her daily appointment in the organist’s seat.
I remember one of her small communions,
how the delicate first notes of a minor adagio
by Schubert were held in the humid air
by a common and accessible grace
on a lost afternoon, outside the chapel.
In that district of ghosts we once knew,
Monica is long gone; the minister, too.
Her playing stopped time but was heard by few.
You said goodbye, and went south again.
Her last recital you missed by twenty minutes.
Michael Steven was born in 1977. He is the author of four chapbooks and the acclaimed full-length collection Walking to Jutland Street which was longlisted for the 2019 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards (Otago University Press, 2018.) He was recipient of the 2018 Todd New Writer’s Bursary. His writing has been described as “expansive and earthed and spirited.” He lives in West Auckland.
at Jacket2 Catherine Dale, Orchid Tierney and David Howard write on Michael Steven (with poems)
The Sarah Broom Prize session: Michael appears at the Auckland Writers Festival with the other finalists where Anne Michaels will announce the winner. Saturday May 18th, 1pm, Waitākere Room, Aotea Centre