1. Anna Smaill’s long interview with Bill Manhire. The advantages of slow-paced email interviews are evident as Anna and Bill explore the personal, ventriloquism, creative writing programmes, reading poetry, writing poetry, weirdness, holding back, trauma, God, mystery, parents, memory, drinking jugs of beer with Hone Tuwhare through the night. Life and poetry still maintain the requisite cloudy patches, private life and inner life are signposted but not made specific. This is a cracking interview – it refreshes my engagements with Bill’s poems, and writing and reading poetry in general.
2. Oscar Upperton’s poem ‘Yellow House’ because it has bright detail in the present tense and I am in the scene reading on a glorious loop.
The stream crosses the bridge. Pūkeko flicker
from blue to white, bikes rust into each other.
We rust at table.
(and the fact this poem is followed by ‘Explaining yellow house’ where Pip Adam gets a mention)
3. Sarah Barnett’s long poem essay ‘One last thing before I go’. Wow. This piece of writing is one of my treasures of the year because it goes deep into tough dark experience. It is measured and probing and hits you in the gut. Yet the fact of it on the page in front of me, so crafted and exposed, is uplifting.
4. Jane Arthur’s poem ‘I’m home a lot’ because it’s strange and real and unsettling.
This one sounds loudest against the front windows
and this one across the roof, nearly lifting it,
in an angry violent way. not like a bird taking off.
And even the birds here are massive and prehistoric.
Silence is rare. It’s eerie when it happens. Our dreams are mute.
5. Morgan Bach’s poem ‘carousel’ because when you read this your breathing changes and you enter a glorious mysterious complicated experience in the present tense.
but now having swallowed full moons,
coupled with mirrors of reticence, I find
life is not an experiment like that
and soon the body gives up its hunt
how soon the body becomes a cliff
how soon the body becomes a full stop
6. Discovering new-to-me poet Nikki-Lee Birdsey – she has a collection out with VUP next year and is currently an IIML PhD candidate. Her first-person storytelling in the form of a poem gripped me from the first lines.
7. essa may ranapiri’s selections because I find myself picturing them performing the poems and then I take supreme delight in the detail on the page.
8. Lynley Edmeades’s “We’ve All Got to Be Somewhere’ because it left a wry grin on my face. Poetry can do that.
9. Emma Neale’s ‘Unlove’ because this poem sings so beautifully.
My friend whose mind has frozen
sends me small gifts she says to keep her sane —
a cornflower-blue watch;
a box carved of light with a green latch;
a pink soapstone egg she says will one day hatch
a small, exquisite monster, its teeth sharp as love.
10. Rata Gordon’s poem ‘Mango’ because the writing is spare but it makes you feel so many different things.
This is all you have
to look forward to
your heartbeat and a
everything else has dissolved:
Holly Hunter has edited the latest issue of Mimicry. She has drawn together an eclectic package of art and writing that will place your finger on the pulse of emerging (well mostly!) voices. The magazine is devoted to poetry, fiction, nonfiction, comedy, music, art, photography and design. It is slim but is abundant in reading currents.
You even get a mix tape at bandcamp to listen to as you read.
Often when I pick up a poetry journal I gravitate to the familiar poets whose work I already love – like a music hook. I will share my initial hooks with the rain thundering down outside. In this case Morgan Bach because I haven’t read anything from her for awhile and I just loved her debut book, Some of Us Eat the Seeds. Her two poems here are honed out of cloud and snow and blood because they are light and airy and serious.
Looking for balance to the red interiors
in a calm sea of grasses, the dull love
of dust on a hillside, the caress of each
muscle as it contracts and expands
to pull me to a summit. That place
I would reuse to leave if I could,
but the hours have me by the ankles.
After hearing Emer Lyons read in Wellington last year, I jump to her poems in an instant. She is nimble on the page and in the ear, and tacks in fresh directions that retune me as poetry reader.
i talk too much at parties
every bee i see is dead or dying
people set fire to the sky
set the dogs howling
record themselves singing the same thing
(and The Fish goes
A A X B B X
1 3 8 1 6 8)
Chris Tse’s latest book, HE’S SO MASC, is a sublime read. I love this book because it risks and it opens. The poem here is ultra witty but dead serious.
20. It’s the way we step out of a burning theatre as if nothing’s wrong.
21. As if the smoke in our eyes is a lover’s smile caught in sunlight.
22. An uncontrollable fire is perfectly fine, given the state of the world.
23. Then why do I feel so angry?
24. Are you angry?
25. I’m angry.
from ‘Why Hollywood won’t cast poets in films anymore’
Essa Ranapiri was a highlight for me at Wellington Readers and Writers week this year. Their poem, ‘her*’, catches the way they make words ache and arc and slip between your ribs. You need to read the whole thing. To quote a glimpse is barely fair (two lines out of thirteen).
i left him wrapped in curtains
to stall the acid action of my stomach
I have only just discovered Rebecca Hawkes on The Starling. She is so good. The poem here is a linguistic explosion on the page: like an intricate and lush brocade that amasses shuddering detail and smatters expectation. You want to spend the weekend with this poem. (I want to hear her read so will be posting an audio clip of a Starling poem soon)
I ask their name and they make an unpronounceable sound / like the
curdling clink of cooling obsidian / so I call them the ultimate war machine
/ they hurl rocks into my enemies and when they beat the earth with their
fists / I feel the world quake under me / this is how I know I have fallen in
love / but also onto the ground
We are served well with fresh young literary journals at the moment (literary doesn’t seem to catch what they do). They keep you in touch with poets that continue growing on you but also take you into new zones of reading, with unfamiliar voices making themselves felt. Indelibly! I have just read Sophie van Waardenberg’s three poems and they touch me, make me want to write with their viscosity and tang.
my girl becomes a calendar and I curl up inside her
my girl becomes a tongue twister and I curl up inside her
my girl lets the spring in through her hands
she puts her hands over my ears and I remember how it feels
Cheers to a well-stocked journal to keep you going through wet wintry days. I am saving the rest of the journal for the next wild weekend. First up Louise Wallace (author of much loved Bad Things), Aimee-Jane Anderson-O’Connor (the winner of the Landfall Young Writers Competition 2018) and Rachel O’Neill (who was recently awarded a NZ Writers Guild Puni Taatuhi o Aotearoa Seed grant to develop her screenplay).
The pleasure of good writing journals is that keep you in touch with what you know and catapult you into the unfamiliar where you accumulate new must-reads. Mimicry does exactly that.
See Mimicry on Facebook
‘Teach me how to forget the colours of the city as we saw them, just as we left them, bright and full of drowning.’
Nina Powles, from ‘What it tastes like’
Sweet Mammalian Issue 4 is out now and it is a terrific read (almost finished!).
The magazine is edited by Hannah Mettner, Magnolia Wilson and Morgan Bach – three poets whose work I admire. Here is their goal:
‘We are all sweet mammalians.
This publication comes out of a wish to see more good, new writing out in the world. Our aim is to provide a fresh space for poetry that comes out of the complex, the absurd, the warm-blooded. Our aim is to provide a space for all kinds of writing.’
I got goosebumps reading these poems and I kept reading when I should have been doing other stuff. It felt like I entered a magical music palace where, whichever way I turned my ear, I would hear a different melody- heavenly or sharp. Plus there’s lots of colour!
Clare Jones muses beneath the surface of exquisite detail.
Manon Revuelta, lyrically adroit, employs colour hinges and fertile juxtapositions.
Elizabeth Welsh delivers a lyrical echo chamber, again vibrant with colour, with intense realism giving way to strangeness.
Rata Gordon delivers a surprising narrative coil. I want to read her first collection!
There is the acidic bite of Freya Daly Sadgrove that moves you by surprise.
Tayi Tibble catches a nostalgic light to the point her poem glows.
Nina Powles‘ evocation of memory, in its tilts and slips, is infectious.
There is sheer beauty when you read Chris Stewart.
Louise Wallace dedicates her poem to Rachel Bush, and I am hooked on the way expectation tricks, the way you can hear a hydrangea voice and the way a duet might stumble at the bridge.
Anna Jackson produces sunlight and dark, the easily viewed and the hard to see, yet there is a melodic lift.
You can read the latest issue here.
Book Award lists should promote debate. Ideas and issues should be raised. As long as judges and authors don’t come under personal attack. It is a time of celebration, let’s not forget that, but it is also a time when diverse opinions may draw attention to our healthy landscape of books.
I have just started writing a big book on poetry by New Zealand women. I have carried this project with me for a long time, and it something I care about very much indeed. It is a book I am writing with a great sense of liberation and an equal dose of love.
I bring many questions to my writing.
The shortlist for poetry and fiction in the Ockham NZ Book Awards includes 0ne woman (Patricia Grace) and seven men. There are no women poets.
This is simply a matter of choice on the part of the judges and I do not wish to undermine the quality of the books they have selected. However, in my view, it casts a disconcerting light upon what women have been producing in the past year or so.
Women produced astonishing books in 2015. I reviewed their poetry books on this blog and praised the diligent craft, the exquisite music, the sumptuous detail, the complexities that challenge and the simplicity that soothes. I have lauded books by women that have moved me like no other, and that have contributed much to the possibilities of what a poem might do.
I am gobsmacked that not a single one made it to the shortlist.
Men have written extraordinary poetry in the past year, but so too have women.
Today is International Women’s Day. In celebration of this, here is a selection of poetry and fiction I have loved in the past year and would have been happy to award.
This list is partial. Please add to it. Some of these women are my friends, so yes there is unconscious bias. Some of these women I would recognise in the street, some I would not.
Eleven Poetry Books by women to adore
(I have reviewed all these to some degree on Poetry Shelf or interviewed the poets)
Emma Neale Tender Machines This is a domestic book that is utterly complex. Yet it moves beyond home to become a book of the world. The music is divine. I am utterly moved. The Poetry Shelf trophy is yours Emma.
Joan Fleming Failed Love Stories Poetry that dazzles and shifts me. This book is on replay!
Holly Painter Excerpts from a Natural History Startling debut that blew me out the window and made me want to write
Sarah Jane Barnett Work Poetry that takes risks and is unafraid of ideas. Adored this.
Johanna Aitchison Miss Dust Spare, strange, surprising, wonderful to read.
Anna Jackson I, Clodia and Other Portraits The voice gets under my skin no matter how many times I read it. So much to say about it.
Jennifer Compton My Clean & The Junkie This narrative satisfies on so many levels.
Airini Beautrais Dear Neil Roberts Risk taking at the level of politics and the personal.
Morgan Bach Some of Us Eat the Seeds Beauty of the cover matches the surprise and beauty of the poetry within.
Hinemoana Baker waha/ mouth This poetry lit a fire in my head not sure which year it fits though. But wow!
Diane Brown Taking My Mother to the Opera This is poetry making pin pricks as it moves and gets you chewing back through your own circumstances.
…. and this is just a start. Ha! Serie Barford with her gorgeous mix of poetry and prose.
Yep I am going over board here just to show you that women have footed it with the best of the men. Whichever year you look at, a different set of judges would come up with a different mix of books. Yes let’s celebrate that worthy shortlist but let’s also remember that canon shaping only revels in and reveals part of the story.
Fiction (I haven’t read so widely here and have a wee stack to get too – Laurence Fearnley and Charlotte Grimshaw here I come!)
Anna Smaill The Chimes This book – plot character, setting, premise, events – still sticks to me. The sentences are exquisite. Some books you lose in brain mist. Not this one.
Sue Orr The Party Line I see this book becoming a NZ classic – a novel of the back blocks. The characters are what move you so profoundly. So perfectly crafted.
Some of my most intense local poetry reading experiences this year have been as a literary editor, working my way through hundreds of poems and finding something wonderful in many of them, and then cherry-picking from these for Landfall 229 and Landfall 230; but beyond that the stack of new slim volumes looms, and I’ve elected to mention four poetry collections I enjoyed musing over.
‘No, not Bali or Samarkand. Take/ me down to the Dominion Road . . .’ Peter Bland commands in his collection Expecting Miracles (Steele Roberts), drawing you in immediately with his canon-echoing rhythms and decluttered simplicity. His poems have a casual, conversational tone that belies their craft, bolstered by an oldster’s genial humour and air of wry bemusement at the oddity of the quotidian: he’s a metropolitan in a provincial culture.
Gregory O’Brien‘s Whale Years (Auckland University Press) navigates its way around the South Pacific as if following the drift of ocean currents. In this collection, he’s a beachcomber pointing to curious flotsam and jetsam. His poems are mantras, notations, journal jottings, gatherings-together of cadenced imagery, and compelling in the way they combine astrological zodiacs, weather balloons, shipwrecks, islands. Collectively, the sense is of a star-trek odyssey, recapitulating ecological markers of the anthropocene era, Notably, too, the exoticism of travel helps generate a semi-arcane vocabulary, serving to align his verses with the baroque wing of New Zealand poetry: there where Kendrick Smithyman sculls in the sunset.
I was also very taken by the skewed reminiscences in Morgan Bach‘s first collection Some of us eat the seeds (Victoria University Press). Spiky, terse, yet also lyrical and tonally subtle, they recount a sense of adolescent awkwardness and estrangement, almost as if at times she’s ogling the outside world and its emotional coldness from her own private igloo, growing up in small town provincial New Zealand and longing to be elsewhere. But if she offers a return to childhood as a rejection of the sugar puff Disneyland of a commodified Nineties environment, she does this by crafting a version of Banksy’s subversive Dismaland: ironic, comic, sharply observant about the advertised ‘great expectations’ we have been led to expect from the product called ‘Life’.
Her poetic intuitions result in a cleverly-written-up sequence of what might be termed out-of-body experiences: the feeling of towering over shuffling Japanese passers-by in Tokyo; watching her screen-actor father die successively in movie after movie; and then ultimately a kind of ecstatic insight that turns her collection full circle: ‘the way you felt swimming/ in the rain that hammered/ when you put your head above water to see/ lightning flash in the pitch of the sky’ (‘The swimming pool’).
Frankie McMillan‘s There are no horses in heaven (Canterbury University Press) contains a multitude of poems rife with the storyteller’s art, proving her a kind of fabulist, distilling states of enchantment and sometimes states of disenchantment into a few lines ever so lightly and delicately, so that her shortish poems seem to musically chime with one another. And it’s as if you can carry them with you wherever you go. As she puts it: ‘What I want to say is something small/ enough to hold within the crook of my arm/ and that is not the half of it’.
And then there’s her poem ‘Observing the ankles of a stranger’, about a tourist being startled out of her wits when Ruaumoko’s seismic fists of fury pummeled central Christchurch almost into the ground on February 22nd, 2011. Here enchantment— or metamorphosis — takes the form of feeling lost in a familiar habitat as the dust settles. We need more such terrific poems.
WRITERS ON MONDAYS
Beach, Bach and Beyond: Three Poets
Come and hear the latest in poetry, in a reading and discussion chaired by poet Cliff Fell. David Beach’s fourth collection, Jerusalem Sonnets, Love, Wellington Zoo, tackles, amongst other things, the inescapable presence of James K. Baxter for nay sonnet writer. Morgan Bach’s debut, Some of Us Eat the Seeds, welcomes a refreshing new voice that is in turns witty and sharp-edged. The international publication of Otherwise, John Dennison’s first collection, heralds a new, vivid and sensual voice in the New Zealand (and UK) poetry scene.
DATE: Monday 20 July
VENUE: Te Papa Marae, Level 4, Te Papa
(please note that no food may be taken onto the Te Papa Marae)
Writers on Mondays is presented with the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, National Poetry Day and Circa Theatre.
Morgan Bach’s debut poetry collection, Some of Us Eat the Seeds, is to be launched today by Victoria University Press at Unity Books (details here). A graduate of the IIML MA in Creative Writing Programme, Morgan was awarded the Briggs Family Prize for Poetry. She currently lives in Wellington. To celebrate the arrival of this terrific new collection, Morgan agreed to be interviewed by Poetry Shelf.
Did your childhood shape you as a poet? What did you like to read? Did you write as a child? What else did you like to do?
I suppose it must have… I think being a shy child (because of living in the wops when I was very small) who kind of watched everyone set me up as both a bit of an outsider and definitely an observer. I suspect I came across as a bit of a creep! I certainly didn’t really meet any other kids I actually felt a proper kinship with until I met my friend who’s an amazing writer… That seems more significant than ever now.
I remember reading a book called Mr Rabbit and the Lovely Present (which Sendak had illustrated I believe, but I can’t remember who the author was… Charlotte someone I want to say), and finding it made me sad for a reason I couldn’t understand, and I think now it might have just been the tone of the whole thing, the miniature story that almost worked like a simple narrative poem, with an undercurrent of sadness and isolation that (now I think of it) would have resonated with me. Of course, it was a child’s picture book and I was about 3… but I suppose I found that story cathartic in a way and so I’m therefore assuming words were important to me early on. I remember singing a lot as a child, and it always being more about the words for me.
I did write, but not with any great purpose. Or rather, everything I started (outside of school) got abandoned pretty quickly. There are some hilarious bits and pieces though that have survived in family archives and prove me to have been a cynical and doomy child.
I always read a lot, all sorts, mostly fiction though in the first couple of decades of life.
When you started writing poems, were there any poets in particular that you were drawn to (poems/poets as surrogate mentors)?
Oh heck, I can’t remember now… So many over the years it all just kind of layers up as compost on the brain – turn it over and you can’t distinguish the origins of the matter anymore.
I love the way your poems have anchors in the real world (such sumptuous detail) but are unafraid to negotiate things less physical (states of mind, philosophical ideas). In other words, your poems take root in the world you inhabit and that includes inchoate worlds within the mind. They are inventive, suggestive, intelligent, at times puzzling (I like that!). What are some key things for you when you write a poem?
Thank you! I think that’s right – or at least that’s a balance I hope to strike. I wonder if that approach comes from how active my dream life can be. Sometimes it almost dominates with its use of my energy – waking up can be relaxing.
I think the key thing for me finding my way into a poem is that it’s not something I can force. It has almost never yet worked when I’ve tried to force it – I imagine most writers feel the same? I think that’s why I seem (to this point in time) to be incapable of writing to traditional form. The results are fit only for burning.
What I have realised over the process of writing this book is that I actually don’t write a lot on paper… most of it seems to happen in my head. But once it’s on paper not that much gets thrown away… the survival rate of poems is pretty high so far! I’m sure that will change over time. But yeah, currently I find it takes a phrase or idea to kind of catch in my head (like getting a song stuck) and then weaving my way out from that point. I say weaving as it’s then a process of tying the more ephemeral aspects to the concrete world. That’s my preferred space I guess.
Your debut collection, Some of Us Eat the Seeds, struck several intoxicating chords with me. I stalled in the first section, with the evocative family poems catching me at every turn. What are the pitfalls and the benefits of drawing family, familial relations, into poems?
Pitfalls – I’m already worried that some of the family will think I’m talking about them when I’m not. I’m a little worried they’ll think I’m claiming things they’ve experienced differently with too much authority. But the thing is, you can’t think about that or you’re censoring from the brain and that’s crippling. And as I’ve said to my mother – the poems they’re in aren’t actually about them, or if they are, they’re about my memory of them… they’re inevitably about me. Benefits – It’s just that they’re the people that populated my world back then… I’m not sure why I wrote about it. I didn’t set out to write poems about family or familial relations but it worked out that way anyway… I’m kind of hoping I’m done with it though. I prefer (or am more comfortable with) the poems in that section that aren’t about my family.
In a poem that took me back to games of spotlight, ‘Night in the forest,’ the power of the dark for a child with a torch, on and then off, became the power of the dark for a poet for me. Would you agree there are ways in which your poetry nudges the dark (dread, for example)?
Yeah definitely – and nudging is the right word, in that it’s both rubbing up against and gently testing. I adore this quote from Rebecca Solnit (the essayist) on Woolf (who I also love): ‘It’s the job of writers and explorers to see more, to travel light when it comes to preconception, to go into the dark with their eyes open.’ I feel like that’s a motto to live and write by.
Going back to the notion of poetic strands (physical, thematic, abstract for example), I loved the way ‘thought’ bravely makes itself visible in lines and phrases. (‘The past is a tether/ you don’t need to wear’). Do you think poems can be enhanced by ideas flickering on their hems?
Yes I feel like ideas (as visible thoughts) can often do something good in a poem. I seem to be unable to avoid doing my thinking on paper… But more than that, I feel like reading into a poem where there is active thinking presented, that you then relive in your own temporal experience of reading, can at times walk you into a space where you’re staring the writer bang in the eyes – or it can feel that way. Like getting lost in the eyes of someone in a portrait (I mean in a painting or photograph) – the static art object or defined collection of words expands somehow, and you’re in a little world of connection through that thought (which I’m equating here to a brain-stare haha – see what happens when I think as I write?!)
The final section of poems brings to life states of mind of the adult (love, desire, discovery, betrayal, heartache, recognition). What difference does it make when you write the adult as opposed to writing the child?
Unfortunately I think there’s a bit of a cynical streak across the whole lot… I suppose that’s because the adult is remembering (re-membering even) the child, and so colours experience a certain way (‘memory makes its own myths’ to quote myself). What difference does it make … Well I think I feel more comfortable writing the adult, because something about childhood makes me uneasy. I think it did at the time. I would certainly never go back. I don’t think I was ever a comfortable child, and I’m really enjoying aging. I feel like the ‘adult’ poems here are still kind of young though… I’m looking forward to seeing what I’m writing in another 10 years. The other thing is I suppose there’s more risk in writing the adult. Everyone’s inventing childhood through memory, but the adult carries an implication of self (even if it’s a fiction). I quite enjoy that risk though, so far…
Yes, a different implication of self than the smudgy thing a child navigates. Are there filters at work? A need to conceal for the sake of the poem and for the sake of self?
Heck yes. I’d say that seeming to reveal a great deal can be the best way to conceal what is most private. That said, most of my filters are for the sake of the poem. There are plenty of fictions or elaborations, which hopefully get to a more truthful truth.
What do you want readers to take away from your debut collection?
A feeling of resilience and self-reliance perhaps. It’s not a particularly cheery book but I think it’s kind of hopeful…
I can see those threads. You definitely fall upon nuggets of hope (light). You have studied Creative Writing at IIML at Victoria University. What key things did you take from this experience?
That reading and critiquing other people’s work is often the best way to work out what you need to do to your own work. That it’s a hell of a lot of work to write a book in that short span of time, but it’s so very worth giving yourself the opportunity to do it if you can. I loved the MA year at the IIML. It was the kind of experience I’d hankered after for so long and such a rare opportunity to just focus on reading and writing with a bunch of people who are as nerdy about it as you are. I wish I could do it again, really.
You acknowledge a writing group in your endnotes. How does this nourish your writing?
I’ve been in a few writing groups since doing the MA. One with my MA class… though we’re currently flagging! Come on guys!
My most productive one of late is with a bunch of damn fine and interesting Wellington poets at various career ‘stages’ or perhaps spaces is a better word, and with different kinds of poetry goals. It’s exciting to see their new work in early and sometimes quite raw form, and to be spurred on to write for our little deadlines. Also the camaraderie – I think that’s important.
What irks you in poetry?
Abstraction that isn’t tied to anything concrete, too much of a cerebral remove, or if it’s so academic as to be exclusive of almost everyone. Word play for the sake of sound alone – I understand that it has merit but I just can’t take it myself – you know what I mean, that stuff that is a bit like a toddler practicing with their tongue and vocal cords but is just essentially human white noise. I guess that’s my wanting a brain-stare again.
What delights you?
When you encounter poems that make you feel like your brain has been through a car wash. I don’t mean some ‘great revelation’ has occurred but just a combination of sense/sound/image/thought that creates that almost magic adrenalin behind the eyes feeling. I really hope I can make something like that one day…
What New Zealand poets are you drawn to now?
Oh I never know how to answer these questions, partly because there are too many and partly because ‘favourites’ lists feel too intimate/revealing to me. I know that’s weird… I’d rather tell you my full medical history or something. HA!
There are so many NZ poets that I love – I still read more NZ poetry than stuff from overseas. I’d basically just list everyone.
I will say that I am so excited about Joan Fleming’s forthcoming collection, if her recent poems are anything to go by. We have a few in Issue 2 of Sweet Mammalian and they are so good. I love how she has these little turns in some of her poems, a really interesting movement, and lines that just kind of kick you in the guts. Can’t wait.
I stand by my many previous claims that Ashleigh Young is the most interesting writer (poetry included) of our generation. I, like a lot of people, am hankering after another collection from her.
I’d like to shout out to what my Sweet Mammalian co-eds do too, Hannah Mettner and Sugar Magnolia Wilson, who are both wonderful clever and gutsy poets (though very different) and are constantly blowing me away with their delicious brains.
Any other reading areas that matter to you?
Yes, all of them… Who does not love a good essay? And nothing is more transporting than a novel that’s so good you forget to get up from your seat for hours even to eat. Also music – I mean good lyrics. I can’t listen to music unless I like the lyrics. It’s a totally different craft than poetry of course but it’s still important to me for the brain-compost.
Some poets argue that there are no rules in poetry and all rules are to be broken. Do you agree? Do you have cardinal rules?
The only rules I’ve tried to set myself so far are:
I just made those up now, but I reckon they’ve been in there, unspoken.
Do you find social media an entertaining and useful tool or white noise?
To be honest I find it a bit overwhelming. I personally don’t feel I have time for both life and Twitter, though I see that it’s productive and enriching for other people. I’m only ever lurking or dutifully responding there. I use Facebook sometimes willingly and sometimes with a feeling of entrapment. I find it more conversational and so more useful, though I just duck in and out these days. I actually like Instagram the best, as I find it the least taxing. Perhaps when life is less busy I’ll find it all useful…
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?
I think travel is the main one for me. It’s always been my default day dreaming space. I suppose it puts me into that outsider/observer role and also just bombards the senses with the new. I’ve been craving it so much… I’ve been waiting to get the book out before heading off again, for an as yet undecided ‘while’. I’m hoping somewhere along the way I’ll find my way into whatever the next project is.
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?
Just one? Too hard… I’ll stare out the window being indecisive instead.
Victoria University Press author page
My review of Some of Us Eat the Seeds.
Friday Poem on Poetry Shelf; Morgan Bach’s ‘In pictures’
Morgan Bach Some of Us Eat the Seeds Victoria University Press, 2015
I agree with Bernadette Hall. Morgan Bach’s debut poetry collection is ‘both ordinary and extraordinary.’ Morgan is a graduate of the MA in Creative Writing at IIML where she was awarded the Biggs Family Prize in Poetry.
First up a stunning cover (cover design Rowan Heap) and a title that hooks. An allure of blue, the words a cascade downwards in white, the lush red pomegranates spilling their seeds. Gorgeous. The title resonant, already establishing a set of relations (‘us’).
What I especially love about this book is the way it plants anchors in the ground through an attachment to the real yet is unafraid to step into the smudged edges of the worlds that a mind both inhabits and produces. This is a book of collecting fruit, doing the high jump, cooking shows and vampire movies, but it is also a book of dread, heartache, anxiety, love, dreams, foreignness. The three sections are distinctive clusters (family, travel, adulthood), yet there is a satisfying drift of motifs and themes throughout the collection.
The opening poem, ‘What they made,’ is secured in self as it walks into physical detail (these feet, these eyes) and beyond that into a roving ignition of ideas (by way of a trope: ‘A person// is a weak rope’). The opening question (‘What do I inherit?/ A split face// the eyes of one/ the sighs of another’) is particular apt in a book that faces memory, and in doing so represents myriad versions of self. The resulting poems are both invigorating and effervescent.
Take the title poem for example. The poem houses a jiggety mind at work, a mind walking (walking is a reoccurring device) into the fuzzy, elusive and utterly fascinating pull of memory, with its shifting and established myths, where ‘our country’ is not entirely accessible let alone knowable.
(..) The past is a tether
you don’t need to wear. Time has
its own ways of making people disappear.
Poems become frames for disappearances, for a vanishing (after terrific citations from Mary Ruefle and Adrienne Rich). You can link these unsettling and uncanny departures to memory, to the way things can not remain present reachable fathomable. The way in recuperation things change. Reading through the collection with this fertile knot is provocative yet nourishing. In anther poem, ‘His binding land,’ the disappearance is like a plot cog. A father walks away and off to ‘the paddock/ he called the back of beyond’ to lie ‘in the dew, unblinking/ as the morning changed/ with the cambered spring sun/ into full day.’ This little paternal disappearance resonates so beautifully and is a perfect example of how Morgan leaves a trail of physical traces to spark miniature narratives connections possibilities. Delicious. And then the end of the poem that is poignant, the language sweet in its simplicity: ‘When evening/ slid up and over, his wife/ walked out to find him.’
I posted ‘In pictures’ on Poetry Shelf awhile ago with a note from Morgan and a note from myself, and was surprised to learn the story of the deaths. Morgan’s father was the actor, John Bach, and the countless deaths she had witnessed were on stage. This constitutes another disappearance and is the hallmark of much poetry; what the poet chooses to reveal and conceal. and whether not to use endnotes, can alter the navigation of a collection. Notes to the poem’s genesis can be fascinating and enlightening but I am equally happy to enter without guy ropes.
The first section, with its poems that draw upon family, family relations and childhood struck a chord with me. I stalled in this section. I got hooked and sent flying, hooked and sent flying. Here there is a richness of line, striking invention, a muscular layering. ‘The swimming pool’ evokes childhood to beautifully, through physical detail yes (Most of the day you’d lie/ on warm concrete/ beside the pool that was cold as needles’), but through so much more than this. The poem shows how childhood is also a state of mind to resist and adore.
I also loved the inventiveness of some of these poems, audacity even. In ‘Vampires,’ Morgan meshes together watching a British cooking show with family, choosing a vampire movie and walking through devastated Christchurch. The result, a sweet interplay of striking connections and overlap.
Here is a sampler of some of the lines that have stuck with me:
‘In that season life was ripe for the feast– plums and lemons, figs, apples; everything fell.’
‘We’re at the centre/ of what we know. We’re brains// and sight.’
‘I see myself alone on a swing/ and watching’
‘Forgive me then if I always// write about watching,/ it’s what a lonely child// does, even when she ventures/ over oceans.’
There is a strong sense of composition to the collection as a whole. The middle section begins and ends with the cold, inventively, fascinatingly so. In the first poem, ‘Cold,’: ‘In that time we ate only the darkest snows/ and felled lights, brittle paintings.’ The poems travel, they take to the core people and places, otherness foreignness. This line stood out: ‘There are never the right postcards.’ And so it is as if the poems become surrogate postcards with willowy lines leading us to elsewhere. And always the roving mind, the courage to layer ideas alongside heart and acute observation: ‘Take as much time as you have, build the house in your head.’
The final section with its adult yearnings displacements recognitions pulls uou from betrayals to desire, from love to heartache. I adore ‘This is how to write a love poem’; the way it is aware of its own making (could be old hat as self-reflexivity has been done to death, but here it is refreshed and vital. This is a cluster of love and not-love poems that burst at the seams with flavour impact vulnerability.,
Reading Morgan’s debut is utterly rewarding as it sets every part of your readerly self on high alert, every bit paying attention to the pulse of the poem, each poem needing the grit of daily life, the surprise and flight of a daring mind, the traces of real life, the miniature stories, the lines that move in the ear so beautifully. Ordinary, extraordinary and yes, astonishing.
Within the next week or so I will be posting an interview with Morgan.
VUP page here
‘In pictures’ on Poetry Shelf here
Posts about Morgan Bach in The Red Room
Victoria University Press warmly invites to the launch of
Some of Us Eat the Seeds
by Morgan Bach
6pm–7.30pm on Thursday 16 July
at Unity Books, 57 Willis St, Wellington.
About Some of Us Eat the Seeds:
Morgan Bach weaves a line between waking life and the unstable dreamworld beneath, disorienting and reorienting us from moment to moment. In poems of childhood, family, travel and relationships, she responds to the ache and sometimes horror of life in a voice that is restless and witty, bold and sharp-edged.
‘It’s ordinary and extraordinary. It’s the kind of arrival that delights me.’ – Bernadette Hall