Racheal King has been appointed the new Literary Director of The Press Christchurch Writers’ Festival, an appointment that signals the departure of Morrin Rout and Ruth Todd. Morrin and Ruth have worked in the service of New Zealand literature for a long time, not only as Festival Directors, but also promoting and celebrating New Zealand books on air. Their dedication to books and generous support of our writers and our writing underlines that these two women are literary taonga. When I was in Christchurch recently, we three had a cup of tea and a conversation on the joys of poetry.
To begin with, I clarified the origins of their working relationship. Coinciding with the Suffragette Anniversary, Ruth began Women on Air on Plains FM, and it was several years before Morrin joined her.
MR: I went and joined Ruth and from the moment we got on the microphone together, it’s been a special chemistry.
Then for about eight years Ruth and Morrin also ran Bookmarks on National Radio, a programme devoted to New Zealand writing (with very generous attention paid to poetry). A number of local writers were prompted to write to The Listener when Morrin and Ruth’s Bookmarks was not included in the new Arts on Sunday programme (they retained Simon Morris to speak on film).
MR: Getting Bookmarks was a real surprise to us — it was thanks to Ruth’s boundless optimism, and a very good engineer at PlainsFM with all the right sound equipment. Then, because we were now doing the National Radio programme, more local people started listening to us …
RT: … and coming to events. Literary and poetry events have been a big part of what we do.
MR: And that lead to an invitation to co-ordinate events for The Christchurch Arts Festival and then The Press Christchurch Writers Festival. So it has been continually evolving, no grand plan.
RT Things just pop up!
MR And years later we are still at it!
RT: We still have the Bookenz programme on PlainsFM and we will still do some events. I found it very hard giving away Women on Air, but it’s nice having Saturday mornings free.
MR: I am still on the Writers Festival Trust in an advisory, mentoring role.
RT: I am still involved with the Crime Writers’ Awards.
PG: I have been interviewed by both of you in terms of poetry books and I have enjoyed the conversations immensely. What are your aims when you review a poetry book?
MR It was not so much us reviewing the books as us giving the poets an opportunity to talk about their work, and read their poems.
RT: The reading of the poems. I don’t like hearing a poetry interview where the poet doesn’t read anything. I’d rather a poet read and then talked. Keep us out of it really.
Poetry for me has got to be read. Which is quite hard for some poets if they don’t like reading aloud.
MR: I’d like to think that over the years we have given numerous people opportunity to read – that they wouldn’t get that kind of exposure very often.
RT: Especially local people.
MR And we’ve helped people gain some confidence.
MR: There is the beauty of editing where you can take things out.
RT: We always wanted to have a lot of New Zealand poets for the Festival. Poetry sessions have always been an important part of the Writers Festival.
PG: Did you read poetry as a child or a teenager?
RT: All I can remember is Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses that I got for my seventh or eighth birthday.
MR I don’t remember actively reading poetry, but I remember my mother quoting poetry to me. One of her favourites was, ‘Tiger, tiger, burning bright/ In the forests of the night’. I don’t know why that had been a favourite of hers, but she had been a school teacher. I do remember some poetry at school, but it was never something that grabbed me the way fiction did. I didn’t really start reading poetry until we had to for the interviewing. I was really grateful to read poetry.
R When I look back it was all English poetry, hardly any New Zealand poets. It wasn’t until Lauris Edmond, Fiona Kidman, Bub Bridger, those older women. We didn’t do any New Zealand poetry at university. When I was teaching English in secondary schools, it started to happen. I was searching for New Zealand poets. There were some early ones, Allen Curnow and so on. Now there is a wonderful feast of New Zealand poets. I would hardly read any poets other than New Zealand. Poetry is still being published even if poetry books might not sell that much.
MR: There are still brave publishers out there. Not just the well known ones, the AUPs and VUPs continuing to publish poetry – but there’s also the smaller ones, Cold Hub Press, Seraph Press for example.
RT: There are little groups all over the country, little collectives, bringing in a few well know poets to perform alongside those that aren’t. It’s very strong.
MR: Of course we are incubating poets at Hagley Writers’ Institute, which is a nice thing to do. Kerrin and Frankie McMillan, who are both wonderful poets, are tutors. And Bernadette Hall is our patron so she will be doing a workshop with them.
RT: And the Secomdary School poetry Competition brings out a lot of young poets and The School For Young Writers with their annual anthology of writing. There are a lot of poems in that each year.
Can you name a poetry book that you have enjoyed in the past year or so?
MR: Kerrin P Sharpe’s Three Days in a Wishing Well. It’s a delight, so full of Kerrin. People who don’t know Kerrin don’t know that, but you get a strong impression reading it that you are dealing with someone who’s very whimsical, and a great lover of words. And like with all good poetry books, there are poems that you come back to time and time again. I love the way she has animals moving through her poetry, especially the deer.
RT: I love Bernadette Hall’s The Lustre Jug. I love Fiona Farrell’s The Inhabited Initial.
MR: and Fiona’s The Pop-Up Book Of Invasions, that’s good too. I am also a big fan of James Brown.
RT: I think someone like Sam Hunt has done a lot for poetry. He’s out there talking to people.
PG: We all like different kinds of poetry. What are some key ingredients of poetry that matters to you? When it hits the right notes for you?
MR: I don’t like poetry to be too obvious, to be too neat. I like it to be something that forces me to want to read it again. I usually sit and try and read it through on a first-reading, at a superficial level, and then I leave it and go back to it over numerous readings – and then that tells me whether there is some depth in the poems.
RT: Poems have to have something that just grabs me, a spark, because a poem is not like reading a novel, it’s more like reading a short story.
MR: Some poetry books resonate with you more as they bring up things that are familiar to you. Or they will introduce things that are slightly off key and will make you look at things again. And I also like a bit of humour, sometimes, not always. And playfulness.
RT: Yes, I like a sense of playfulness.
M A bit of whimsy in there is nice. I don’t like people who take themselves too seriously.
RT: And original language. Usually if I have heard someone read, that’s what I remember. I go back to the poem. And I can hear them reading it.
PG: I really like poems to be musical.
RT: Yes, musical, almost songs, some of them. I remember when the National Orchestra performed Robert Sullivan’s Captain Cook in the Underworld. That’s quite exciting. Quite a lot of poetry is now being transposed into music.
PG: I was at the Poetry Salon in Auckland recently and Janet Charman questioned whether there is good and bad poetry because such a notion took you back to the fifties where Allen Curnow and his peers proscribed what was good and bad – and women didn’t fit into that. Do you think there is good and bad poetry?
MR: Probably, but that’s such an individual thing. I don’t think it is something that can be proscribed.
RT: I never think of it in that way, I just know what I like.
MR: There is poetry that works and poetry that doesn’t work. And maybe that’s a better definition than good and bad.
RT: Poetry that doesn’t have any feeling or rhythm – sometimes just a string of words doesn’t do much for me unless I’ve heard it read.
MR: Gosh that’s a debate. What do you think about it?
PG: There is the historical argument that Janet put forward, but on the other hand, we make judgements about poetry. It is subjective, but not all poetry works. Then again, I find some reviewers review poetry through such limited frames about what a poem ought to be or do. Women’s poetry can still be dismissed for an attachment to domestic things. Poetry also doesn’t need to be judged solely in terms of a Western model – or poetry for the page.
PG: Do you think that the earthquake has produced more poetry in Christchurch?
RT: There has been some: Fiona Farrell, Tusiata Avia, Jeffrey Paparoa Holman. Perhaps there hasn’t just been poetry, but I think people have written things.
MR: I don’t see that as surprising. They were going to be writing anyway, and they have got a new topic to write about.
PG: I just wondered if it was more than local writers such Fiona. That the earthquake has prompted others to write.
MR: It is slowly evolving.
RT: It has helped people –helped others understand. For me, it was putting some of my thoughts into poems I will treasure — I am glad they wrote because I couldn’t.
MR: In our classes, students were a bit tentative about writing about the earthquake in the beginning. They wanted to wait a bit, privately they may have written, but I didn’t see an outpouring.
RT: No, not huge.
MR: Most people were so busy trying to exist in those first days, but slowly people have begun to.
RT: When Tusiata read those amazing poems of the earthquake, and they played those on the radio several times, and still do. I think that’s where poetry is really powerful.
MR: It certainly is.
RT: And I think it is helpful to ordinary people like me who can’t write.
PG: Do you have an ethics or codes of reviewing/interviewing?
RT: I just like to say as little as possible.
MR: I agree with that.
RT: I don’t want to analyse poetry to death.
MR: I don’t want to impose a structure. If I sense someone wants to move in a particular direction then I am happy to let them do so, and to follow on.
RT: I wouldn’t interview a writer if I didn’t like their poetry.
MR: Or there might be a poet whose work I didn’t particularly like but who has a standing. I wouldn’t mind interviewing someone like that. What we don’t do is interview poets if we haven’t read their work.
PG: I do sometimes wonder if reviewers have read the work in full or if they are simply indulging in their own preconceptions and prejudices.
What are the strengths of New Zealand Poetry?
RT: There seems to be support for one another, particularly in the little communities scattered about, there are several different groups in Christchurch. They all do different things and they seem to encourage each other. Particularly new poets.
MR And are very committed to poetry. I’d have to mention Doc Drumheller’s Catalyst as showing a great enthusiasm and offering encouragement to many different of poets.
RT: I would feel that if I was quietly writing at home and going to those groups eventually I would pluck up courage to perform something as it is so non-judgemental. Community groups are great.
MR: Poetry is still being published — that’s bold and that’s courageous. Publishers may know that there won’t be terribly many sales, but they are still willing to put poetry out there. It’s one thing to have it spoken and another to see. And the actual publications themselves are of great quality. They are real little objects, art objects. That’s admirable.
RT: A magazine like Takahe has always had a big focus on poetry. Landfall.
MR: There is Sport and a proliferation of online journals.
RT: Michele Leggott’s nzepc. Whitireia’s 4th Floor Literary Journal. That’s been brilliant. Best NZ Poems where poets get to choose other poets. I look up that when I am looking for a poem.
RT: The fact we now have a Poet Laureate. I like that idea and the poet has a chance to spend time writing.
PG: Just to have that honour, too.
MR: It elevates poetry. It signals that poetry is important.
RT: It is a way we are able to appreciate important writers and poets. Fiction and non-fiction get a lot more attention.
MR: Well, you’d have to say that poetry seems to be proliferating.
RT: If I’ve got to speak at a funeral I don’t use a bit out of a novel I always use a poem. We remember poems. I don’t remember quotes from novels, but I can quote from poems.
PG: Thank you Morrin and Ruth, not just for the tea and conversation, but also for your enthusiasm, support and tireless promotion of New Zealand books (and poetry in particular!). You are two Christchurch treasures.