my kitchen activities
Over the past weeks I have received so many poems in my inbox – poems from friends, from poets, both known to me and not known. It seems some of us took up reading and writing, while others found words an impossible currency.
Each week I have invited different groups of New Zealanders (writers, publishers, booksellers and across the arts) to pick a book or two that has offered solace or comfort. Some people kindly said no as they haven’t been reading, while others have found books to be the greatest comfort. I plan to keep these lists going for a wee while yet as a way of supporting our booksellers and publishing communities.
Some people have written nonstop, while others either haven’t time with so many other pressures or haven’t found inclinations.
This is the year we go easy on ourselves. We do what we can when we can. We might write, we might not, and that is ok.
I have never had so many emails (and poems arrive) especially as Poetry Shelf is an invitation-only blog. BUT I decided to devote April and May to NZ poetry and do as many things as I could. Some days it has taken me 6 hours to read all the emails, so apologies if I have missed some and apologies I cannot post all the poems I have received.
I have taken such delight in reading what you have sent. It feels like – when such an unprecedented crisis slams us in the gut / heart / lungs – poetry can be a good thing, whether we are reading or writing it.
Along with the sough dough, the microgreens, the homemade almond milk and yoghurt (my coup!), and the walks down the road, poems have been fermenting across Aotearoa.
I have barely slept in the past months. I wake at some ungodly hour and find poems tiptoeing through my mind. I have been writing them down. Barely polishing them. Night arrivals. The Herald have published some – the last one will appear in Saturday’s Canvas.
Today I am posting some of the poems that arrived and will sprinkle a few more over the next week or so. I am also getting back to posting interviews, reviews, and various Poetry Shelf features. I will still host book launches, and other audio and video things. In fact, while I am going to reserve time for my own new projects and writing, I plan to keep Poetry Shelf highly active in these uncertain times.
Poetry Shelf is a way of making connections.
I want to thank everyone who has supported me and my requests during Level 4 and Level 3. You have made such a difference. Your kind emails have been essential reading. Kindness, here I am musing on this, is never a redundant word. Even more so. That and patience. And I am trying to learn more about empathy.
thank you poetry fans
may poetry sing and dance in our lives
Where we sleep
when my marriage went west
I rebubbled in my childhood home
with two matriarchs
the dowager and incumbent
my father and sons
it was never going to be easy
bought a red chaise longue
too wide for 1950’s doorframes
it sat on blocks in the garage
displaced my parents’ car
these days I have my own home
French doors and a faded chaise longue
elderly parents bubbling on a peninsula
sons ensconced with flatmates
on the other side of town
one cooks and plays guitar
the other lauds Japanese joinery
has discovered carpentry
the wondrous feel of wood
the throb and thrust of tools
there is nowhere to store his creations
he texts me a photo
My next lockdown project, Mum
I’m making you a table
you text us photos garden to plate
baby beetroot out of isolation
tides of beetroot where the moon fed
turned them red clusters of beetroot
in scarlet jackets like foxy
waiting waiting at our window
we text you photos
of the maple planted at your birth
text haiku autumn breeze/flames of leaves/
warm an empty sky/ and misty morning/
her leaves light/the whole house/ and pray
when the world repairs its lungs
with the business of breathing
the rising sea between us
becomes a red bridge
Kerrin P Sharpe
putting out rubbish is the new black
neighbours listen for rumbling concrete
synchronise wheelie bins
join the procession
Council approved receptacles
brimming with homemade scraps
stand on berms
lean on lampposts
sit on green transformers
greet friends and strangers
dogs at their feet
alert for moving cars
in a room where you can’t get to him
he breathes despite his lungs
overnight the bones in your face
shift into the mask of grief
you speak to me over the fence
from a safe 3 metres
from a black tunnel that goes forever
at the far end with a lighter
that burns your thumb as you try
to see how to feel
your husband takes the kids inside
to watch peppa pig
they say every line by heart
They Should’ve Sent an Influencer
‘Today, in the whole history of the world, it’s my birthday.’
London Kills Me Hanif Kureishi
Everyone has their time – goes the jingle –
to clonk out into the limelight,
to let that burning lime’s candoluminescence throw
your features into relief,
hyperreal, sunlike, and arrayed
with tendril shadows snaking black into the velvet
of the backcloth. Everyone a time,
and for every time a person. This is yours.
Reach. Snatch at it with your elaborations of peace and
kindness, bread and candour.
Bottle it like memory.
Sell it for free to the sick, the half-blind and sand-blind.
Give it a lemon spotlight. Bejazzle it with spaffed glitter
handwriting. As it twists, bepectacle it, add bunny lugs,
balloons, a flash of thunder from forehead to chin like
Jacinda Bowie. No: minimise. Let the brand tell
its story. The morning light the window’s hills sing.
Shadows burbling. A child shimmering, who takes
a sashayed step, takes it back, repeats.
It’s how one talks business, the talking and not the business.
It’s why heads lift, fingers tap, scroll, pinch.
This is their story you are telling of yourself.
At balance teeter anxiety, joy, vanity, yelping, relativism,
tigers, platters, psycho splatters.
All for the drawing in, the seating at your outdoor table,
are these flourishes and motifs, and affirmations
for their loyalty of looking. Preparing them for the real sell.
It is again your birthday. One must be all the ages.
And all the ages you have been are past, and the new
ones are hungry waiting.
This is your moment, your audience landlocked
to their living rooms, or hiding on a bath chair flicking
through your plays on light and motherhood.
This isn’t the worst day of your life,
though the restaurants are bolted closed
and I have bought you a present no husband should
ever buy his wife, even if she had asked for it,
but asked for it if he passed a supermarket, not wrapped
to double its unintended but now italic insult,
mouthwash. The streets are barricaded in a war
on the pandemic and it was all I … could …
But this is your limelit opportunity.
If you don’t seize it like a bear salmon,
the first one slopping out of its grip, but then
munch, right in the kisser, you are a debutante,
a wonder of the glare.
Avondale Police Station
our relationship grew
significant to you
the way an old friend
merits heritage protection
you find my green
but leaves drop
on your cars
you feel displeased
you are the pest species
at my base
to deter your seedlings
whatever axing you plan
in my maturity
branches spreading old friend
i saw you off
Cover of daylight
with this suspension
of scruffy habitual delights
op shop used thrillers
coffee stands where you stand too
leaning against a shelf
sipping a cardboard Americano
while sorting out your change
writing up your notebook
it’s possible we’ll learn something
about ourselves and others
like how to share with decency
the space allotted to us all
and the time it takes for lives
collective and individual
to pause and rekindle
to accept and endure loss
or how saving someone
we love by our absence
by no means a passive commitment
may clarify things in the end
for the sake of the nest there is
neither ceremony nor commemoration
a dark column carries the debris
of existence away into the dark
absorbs the individual
and any small hopes and regrets
until all pronouns are plural
yet we need not devour each other
in order to survive and succeed
lesson one of a thousand or million
to be preserved from this ordeal
being conscious of living through history
has never in the past been an advantage
(remember the old curse
May you live in interesting times)
the pace from here on will need
to be more humane if less profitable
except in the sense
that all should be well
From our three bubbles, I quiz
my mother and my sister
on the finer points
of bottling fruit
overnight, the supermarket
has bloomed into
a biohazard zone
malevolent cans of peaches
and apple sauce
we would rather
holiday in Chernobyl
opinions differ on the internet
on the necessity of sugar
its preservative powers
my sister recalls
always added sugar –
not too much
my mother is equivocal
thinks it might be ok without
if using the water bath method
I don’t have a big enough pot
my stepfather chimes in
he has heard that sugar
makes the fruit last longer
how long does he think
that we’ll be here
best be on the safe side
we recall my grandmother’s
penchant for pickling
the jars of preserves
she would line up in her pantry
I remember picking strawberries
in vanished fields in Karaka
the time a knife fell on my foot
while chopping rhubarb
the small white scar
a never-ending memory of Christmas
Mum finally persuaded Grandma
to switch to Watties cans
she gave it up reluctantly
like driving at 87
taking the old people to church
unappetising bottled pears
the grittiness of quinces
air bubbles are safe in jars
as long as they’re sealed in
I wonder when we’ll next
be together in the kitchen
still hold us there.
a ramble down a road
zig zag in and out
keep the two metre distance
pass walkers and dogs on leads
people smile but seldom speak
is it fear or are they trapped in their headphones?
i crave the sound of friends’ voices
ring Rosemary chat for 10 min by the side of the road
yesterday Janet rang, picked up my pieces
decide to ring a friend a day
texting useful but lacks warmth
happy now i ramble on
see Sam Sampson just after a swim
walking home with his wife and two kids
Sam wonders what i’m doing so far from home
we stop to chat at a safe distance
happy about low emissions
friendliness of people
peace and quiet
worried about families in crowded conditions
after solving the crisis we part
i walk on down to the tempting wild water
maybe tomorrow, maybe not
walking back i pull out my notebook
sit on a step and start to write
four steps down a sign says
shove notebook in my pack
a glowing woman in a golden poncho passes
smiles, further up I see the family I saw yesterday
today the young boy walks with his mum
i slip to the road then step back to the sidewalk
the older boy and his dad follow behind
passing a rugby ball on the road
yesterday i follow this family
the two play catch back and forth
the young boy wants to join in
fumbles the ball, passes it end over end
frustration kicks in, he kicks the ball down a steep bank
both boys scramble after it
we laugh as i pass their parents
today we smile at each other as we zig zag in different directions
THE SPIDER AND THE SITTING DUCK
a spider crawls across the wall
while I’m sitting on my meditation cushion
the wall is there to avoid distraction
a deliberately nothing kind of wall
until the spider crawled across it
although the Sensei says ignore the spider
indeed ignore the wall
if it comes to that
that spider’s very hard to ignore
I hear the sound of tires on asphalt
making like a rain has begun to fall
but that I can ignore
if I quickly reached out
even while maintaining this Burmese half-lotus pose
I reckon I could grab the spider
squash it flat
I know Buddha says don’t do that
but the spider is a sitting duck
it’s almost as if it’s asking for it
squashed spiders presage rain
or so they say
but that’s plain hocus-pocus
take your mind off hocus-pocus things
how can you meditate
in this shall-I-shan’t-I kind of state
whereas if the spider wasn’t there
I’d be back in the groove
meantime (mean time indeed!) how long can I last
vacillating like a pendulum
neither here nor there
neither this nor that
Arthur nor Martha
though neither is my name
absorption in this kind of dithering
can make you lose all sense of the passing moment
which is after all the thing you’re meant to be noticing
as it passes
and it’s right about now
that I look up
having lost my focus on the wall for a lower one
that stain upon the carpet
and bugger me
the spider’s gone
the sitting duck has slipped away
and left in her stead
another sitting duck
upon his meditation cushion
the washing machine throbs
coughs and spits dark gunk.
the walls shake.
our hands shake,
but we don’t
litter our living room floor,
their fragile corpses like
small velvet off-cuts. the
mourning garb of old Italian women
is strewn over unrehearsed ground;
a myriad broken rosaries,
bodies of a generation piled like landfill.
feverishly we beat against the membranes of our bubbles,
drill frenetically into floorboards, slap white paint over
chips and scars, block the entry points
of mice and contagion,
the air is vibrant, the sky vivid, the land verdant
and in the
clear ear of the world,
there is resonance
Nick Ascroft was born in Oamaru. His latest collection is Moral Sloth (VUP, 2019). His previous poetry collections are From the Author Of (2000), Nonsense (2003), and Back with the Human Condition (2016); in 2018 Boatwhistle published his Dandy Bogan: Selected Poems. He has edited Landfall, Glottis and Takahē and was all-too briefly the Burns Fellow at the University of Otago. He is also a non-fiction author, writing on music and football. Nick is an editor by trade, a linguist by training and a competitive Scrabble player by choice. Victoria University Press author page
Serie Barford was born in Aotearoa to a migrant German-Samoan mother and a Palagi father. Her latest collection, Entangled Islands (Anahera Press 2015), is a mixture of poetry and prose. Serie’s work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. She was awarded the Seresin Landfall Residency in 2011 and is a recipient of the Michael King Writers’ Centre 2018 Pasifika residency. Some of Serie’s stories for children and adults have aired on RNZ National. She has recently completed a new collection, Sleeping with Stones.
Tony Beyer writes in Taranaki. His recent work can be found online in Hamilton Stone Review, Mudlark and Otoliths; and is forthcoming in print in Kokako and Landfall.
Janet Charman’s monograph SMOKING! The Homoerotic Subtext of Man Alone is available as a free download at Genrebooks. Her essay ‘Mary Mary Quite Contrary’ on Allen Curnow’s suppression of the poetics of Mary Stanley, appears in the current issue on-line of Pae Akoranga Wāhine, the journal of the Women’s Studies Association of NZ.
Stephanie Christie is a poet who also works on multimedia collaborations and produces zines. She is the featured poet in Poetry NZ 2019. Her latest collection is Carbon Shapes and Dark Matters (Titus Books, 2015). Stephanie’s author page.
Murray Edmond lives in Glen Eden, West Auckland. His latest book, Back Before You Know, includes two narrative poems, ‘The Ballad of Jonas Bones’ and ‘ The Fancier Pigeon’ (Compound Press, 2019).
Amanda Hunt is a poet and environmental scientist from Rotorua, currently locked down at Pukorokoro Miranda on the Firth of Thames. Her work has been published in Landfall, Takahē, Mimicry, Poetry NZ, Ngā Kupu Waikato, Sweet Mammalian and more. She has been highly commended in NZ Poetry Society competitions and published in numerous anthologies. In 2016, she was shortlisted for the Sarah Broom Poetry Prize.
Ila Selwyn gained First Class Honours in MCW at the University of Auckland in 2014, with a multi-media approach of drama, poetry and art. She wants to write a one-woman play, with poetry. She launched her latest poetry book, dancing with dragons, in 2018.
Kerrin P Sharpe has published four collections of poetry (all with Victoria University Press). She has also appeared in Best New Zealand Poems and in Oxford Poets 13 (Carcanet Press UK) and POETRY (USA) 2018. She is currently working on a collection of poems around the theme of snow, ice and the environment.
Sophia Wilson resides with her rural GP husband and their three daughters in Otago. She has a background in arts, medicine and psychiatry. Her recent poetry/short fiction can be found in StylusLit, Not Very Quiet, Ars Medica, Hektoen International, Poems in the Waiting Room, Corpus and elsewhere. In 2019 the manuscript for her first children’s novel, ‘The Guardian of Whale Mountain’, was selected in the top ten for the Green Stories Competition (UK). She was shortlisted for the 2019 Takahē Monica Taylor Prize and the 24 Hour National Poetry Competition, and was a finalist in the Robert Burns Poetry Competition. She won the 2020 International Writers Workshop Flash Fiction Competition and is the recipient of a 2020 NZSI mentorship grant.
Nick Ascroft, Moral Sloth Victoria University Press, 2019
A heater heats
a Rita Angus, seen
through the steam from the langoustine
from ‘A Writer Wrongs’
‘Nick Ascroft’s Moral Sloth is among other things a virtuoso display of formal skills. He does a particularly classy line in sonnets. He can rhyme as tellingly as Alexander Pope or the Byron of Don Juan – and can match those poets in quickness of thought and even (it seems to me) outstrip them in richness of diction.’—Bill Manhire
Nick Ascroft’s latest poetry collection arrived at the end of last year – it had multiple effects upon me at the time and I was dead keen to do an interview with Nick – we started a conversation but then Covid 19 sidetracked everything. I return to the book and here I am again finding sweet rhyme comfort, linguistic agility, biting self exposure, equally biting wit, the humour, the poetic stretching out. Months ago I mentioned ‘a world gone mad’ in a question to Nick. That feels at odds now. Jarring in fact. This is a world off kilter trying to find equilibrium, solutions, ways forward. So many people working hard to care for so many other people. So much risk tasking. Yes there is madness on the ground and in certain leaderships. But there are also multiple comforts. When everything has spun and has seemed impossible to do – poetry has continued to hold my attention. Nick’s book has done just that.
Automating word noise from the stroller,
my son defines the wind in onomatopoeia:
Then he spies the moon, our little naked analogue,
and tells the secret of its abased name.
‘Zig zig zig,’ the bridging cicada agrees.
from ‘Naked Analogue’
Paula: Name three or four poetry books that mattered at different points in your life.
Nick: Sure. I think the ones I remember are the ones that brought me back in shock to the reminder that I love poetry. That it isn’t all just the same bag of grey Countdown sausages. Early on that’s easy. All poems seem great. But the more you read (and write) the harder it is to be impressed. These days I really enjoy certain books of poetry, but few actually get me excited. I am a cold-blooded egg, it must be said. But films, fiction, music are more likely to have me jazzed. I think Eunoia by Christian Bök of Canada was so shockingly good and novel and funny and well-executed that I ate it like a pavlova. All at once. For those who haven’t read it, the author set himself the task of writing five sections based on the five vowels with each section only using words that contained only that section’s vowel, so in the ‘E’ section words like ‘be’, ‘teehee’, ‘letter’ or ‘fecklessness’ could (and must) appear. This may sound like a pure exercise, but the result is just beautiful. Chapter I begins: ‘Writing is inhibiting. Sighing I sit, scribbling in ink this pidgin script. I sing with nihilistic witticism, disciplining signs with trifling gimmicks – impish hijinks which highlight stick sigils. Isn’t it glib? Isn’t it chic? …’ I could go on. The book is from 2001 but I got to it a few years later.
The other that comes to mind is In a Slant Light by Cilla McQueen from I think 2016. I’ve gushed about this elsewhere so I’ll hold back, but I was really captured by this one. It seemed the greatest use of Cilla’s talents to tell her own fascinating life story. I was struck both by the telling and the life in art. It felt empowering. Both those are single poem as whole book numbers. So to give a third I’ll say Byron’s Don Juan, which I finally got to two years ago. I really do prefer to read rhyming poetry, and no one has as much fun with it as Byron in the Don Juan cantos. More than that it showed me what a poet can be at their best. His use of persona and sensationalism and other needlessly frowned upon things, employed without giving a shit, and better still, sometimes pretending to give a shit. It inspired ‘The Plotz’ in Moral Sloth.
How loose and gauche.
How loose it goes;
my purple tongue
speaks weeks of prose.
from ‘Kay? Syrah? Shiraz?’
Paula: I am a big fan of In a Slant Light too – I had really wanted sessions at festivals featuring Cilla and using her poetry / autobiography as a starting point – but wasn’t to be!
I love your linguistic playfulness. Any poets you admire who also do this?
Nick: I am not quite sure what my linguistic playfulness is. It’s one of those things reviewers say of me and I feel my hackles and feckles rising. ‘Nick Ascroft, he plays with words.’ Plays?! PLAYS!? How dare you! I am not playing with language. I am working with it. This is high blinking art. But I do, I play with words. A play on words usually means delivering a pun right? Or some other rhetorical devices like zeugma (‘We stir: I my tea, and he in his grave’). I’m not sure how often I do such things. Not a lot I suspect.
So I presume the playing that is perceived relates more to my attitude to language. My attitude is: I like all the words. Any word can appear in a poem, it just needs a hospitable sentence that restricts its meaning in the right way. In the most delightful way ideally, to jack Mary Poppins. I find words joyous. Some chap smarter than me once said my work made him think of the ‘gay science’, that is the joyful spirit of Provencal troubadours as prized by Nietzsche or some such. So while my subject matter is often bleak, there is a joyfulness in the deployment of words that must come across as playful. I don’t know. Never try and analyse one’s own thing I say. That way boring pastiche lies.
But to the actual question, who else has a playfulness I admire? I think I see it in all the writers I like. David Eggleton’s parroting of the culture back at it relies on his repackaging of the phrases, buzzwords and clichés currently on the world’s lips. He seems to be both mocking the world and celebrating it. On the radio the other day he read a poem full of Z words. Love it. Richard Reeve too is playful, and what I like best is that he’s playful while being vicious, pointed, serious. The Irish and British poets of the last 30 years are lexically obsessed. Don Paterson can be my random exemplar.
Paula: I love play because there are implications of risk tasking, discovery, the unexpected, surprise, less obligation to rules and limits, you can obey rules, reinvent them, abandon them. I am wondering if play can be serious!
I also love the way you move from infectious wit to an intense moment (love, for example). What matters when you write a poem?
Nick: What matters to me is that the idea and its phrasing are entertaining to me. I want to express whatever ideas I’m peddling in a way that gets them across. I want to be generous. That doesn’t always happen, because I also love obfuscation and nonsense. To me poetry is art with language, and language is a wonderful mess of things. I can’t sum up all poems, so I’ll try to think about what matters in particular instances. When I write a sonnet what matters is that I obey the rules: 14 × 5 iambs and a rhyme scheme. I want the rhymes to be novel, enjoyable in themselves while the poem works quietly around them. If a poem has jokes, they have to actually make me giggle. I have to laugh at my own jokes like an ass. I have a real problem with weakly jokey poems. And so a fear that I am writing them. It’s good fear.
Paula: I found myself laughing, feeling both comfort and discomfort, being moved in complex ways as I read you book. What hooks you in the poetry of others?
Nick: Many things. Too many things. But ultimately, invention. What comes to mind is the surreal brilliance in the similes of Hera Lindsay Bird. As most people likely to read this are writers themselves, I’m sure you will be familiar with the experience of reading a line and thinking, I never could have written that. That has a brilliance I will never attain. It’s bittersweet. And that’s how I feel about HLB. The intricacy of those similes. The sheer invention. Now I see everyone copying the style, the surreal and intricate and somehow true HLB simile. I don’t say that sneeringly. They are infectious. I feel the same way of Richard Reeve’s ease of invention, and his accuracy at depicting things. At the moment he is writing a poem about rain that I have seen the first few sections of and its makes you see the truths of rain anew. It makes you care about rain. I could never come up with those lines.
Not one to plotz, I’m private, careful, flaccid.
How did I change? One moment I wear blouses,
vinyl shoes, I’m pulverised on acid,
the next I’m at the bank discussing houses
or circling with a whiteboard marker ‘hazard
class’, a tucked-in shirt with belted trousers.
I want to understand, to tweeze this tuft.
Did I grow up? Or was my brightness snuffed?
from ‘The Plotz’
Paula: I saw Hera in a simile battle with USA poet Patricia Lockwood at the Wellington Writers Festival a couple of years ago. Each trying to out do the other, so the session was was like a gigantic poem. At the time it felt like there was a global wave of simile battles, every which way you looked.
Sometimes you get quite personal. There is a little confession in ‘The Plotz’: ‘I’m private, careful, flaccid.’ Do you have lines you don’t cross? How do you feel about breaking down the privacy?
Nick: The whole of ‘The Plotz’ is uncomfortable confession … sprinkled with self-mythologising. This is not my natural mode, but something I have occasionally indulged in. And that’s how I always saw it, indulgence. Confession and making poems only about oneself were things I thought tired and distasteful. I have completely 180-ed on that. I admire the bravery of confession in other poets these days. It’s only in saying our oddest truths that others can recognise them and feel liberated by it being said elsewhere.
I can think of two lines I am uncomfortable crossing. The first relates to poems of fatherhood. I had a motto going in to the whole breeding business that ‘you become what you hate’. Constant gushing on Facebook: check. Dad dancing: check. I read Amy Brown’s brilliant evocation of those early hellish weeks of infancy, and in a similar vein Chris Stewart in the recent AUP New Poets 6. In the recognition of experience I really value these poems. I remember reading Graham Lindsay’s Lazy Wind Poems a decade ago and really enjoying it, but having a sense that his baby had poisoned his mind. He was now obsessed with this tot and it was suckling on his poetry like a parasite. I was afraid to become that thing. A dad poet fixated on his offspring. It’s a foolish fear and a few of the better poems in Moral Sloth relate to dadhood. But I remain uncomfortable with it. Perhaps it’s in the way ‘dad’ is used as a modifier to denote uncool or hopeless: ‘dad jokes’, ‘dadbod’, ‘dad pants’ (I made that up, but you can imagine what it might mean and it is not flattering).
My other discomfort is naming names. All of my best confessional anecdotes involve other people. I’ll shame myself happily – and certain others who it is humorous to shame – but not everyone.
And hello, I am a beaver.
To you my sincerest, I am a starfish
with an old-fashioned disposition.
Ever yours, a beetle, one of many, writing,
amid a rainstorm, of commas, to an eagle.
from ‘Good Day, I Am a Horse’
Paula: Are you drawn to particular things, subjects?
Nick: Moral philosophy. The human condition. Sanctimony. Hubris. My own pratfalls. Funny cats.
Paula: What attracts you to rhyme (I love your rhyme!)?
Nick: I enjoy rhyme more than anything in poetry. For a while that felt enormously unfashionable. It was OK to like the rhymesters of the past with a knowing wince, but rhyme’s time had passed. Or so we thought. People at NASA have a saying: ‘Space is hard’. Meaning it is always likely any mission will crash and burn and only the most meticulous planning will give you a hope in hell. No. Rhyme is hard. It crashes and burns by its very nature. It’s a real craft I think that takes some years of apprenticeship. I am still learning. It has to seem both obvious and invisible, blunt but subtle. That’s more in the lead up, perhaps, but the rhyme words themselves delight me. I recently rhymed ‘triplex’ and ‘shipwrecks’. Giddy. A good near-rhyme can be so rewarding too, for instance in ‘Art Is Weak’ the rhyme of ‘horsemen’ with ‘porcelain’. But I like metrical rhyming poetry ultimately for the puzzle. It’s like a crossword or Sudoku. You labour away at it trying to make it complete, and acceptable. But unlike a puzzle there is no final answer and always room for improvement. At one point in Moral Sloth there are 242 lines of iambic pentameter in a row (including a few sonnets and the 18 stanzas of ottava rima of ‘The Plotz’). I really worry this is off-putting. But it’s what I write.
A certain governmental agency
provisioning the arts suggested in
the aftermath that those invested in
opposing such disgusting vagrancy
of moral intellect should hashtag works
of art or prose on Twitter: ‘#CreateAroha’.
from The Mosque Attacks’
Paula: What good is poetry in a world gone mad?
Nick: The world hasn’t gone mad of course. It remains mad. I am not optimistic that poetry will help. It summons some of the forces in the world perhaps. There are forces for order, forces for chaos, forces that are just like fingers on the inside of a balloon trying to poke outwards, such as comfort. As to good – and evil – these are such important girders of the human world that shape much of how we live our lives and who we feel it’s okay to look down on, but they are ultimately make-believe. That’s a meaningless thing to say as I’m speaking from within that make-believe world where good and evil are as real as music (also doesn’t exist) or mathematics (I’m on the fence). So the good of poetry? And its good to a mad world, where the word ‘good’ is some fantastical fudge? I am the wrong choice to pontificate on such a thing. I admire people who push the great worth of poetry to society, being someone who writes the darn-goshed stuff, and I also admire those who scoff and suggest poetry is the most worthless garbage.
My only sermon on this front is that if poetry is lowly garbage, which very few read, it has a secret strength. Poets can say anything. We can say the things others would rightly shy away from. There is no personal consequence. We’re already the lowest of the low. And we will never derive a living income from poetry, so the biggest risk is a few sales off a small total. We can say ugly truths and scary falsehoods. An example. I was going to cut a poem from Moral Sloth called ‘The Mosque Attacks’ for two very good reasons. The first being that the mosque attacks in Christchurch are still fresh, still appalling, still punch-to-the-gut sickening to even think about, and the response to them still complex and, to many, problematic. My poem is not even about the attacks. It’s about a Creative New Zealand tweet. The poem, a sonnet, tries to untangle my dislike of CNZ’s post-attacks call to hashtag works on social media with #CreateAroha. The upshot being that it was feelgood vomit. So yes, the first reason to cut, is that my rhymey poem is petty in the face of real tragedy. You all think: and you needed a second reason, man? The second reason was not to bite the hand that feeds. Why attack Creative New Zealand? They are my only chance to make a little money. I thought it absurd I would even consider putting the poem in the collection. I’d shown it to my email poet-circle. That was enough. But those readers didn’t blink or scold me. So I slipped it in the manuscript. I presumed Ashleigh Young would say, this is a bit on the nose, Nick. Nothing. Then I had to cut poems to get down to a slick 80 pages. Surely it would be cut now. I left it. And I left it because poetry sashays under the radar. It can waltz its way through the sacred and taboo. Poetry can say unwise things. This is the good of poetry. More people will read this interview than that poem.
Paula: If you were running this interview and wanted to take a swerve what would you ask yourself?
Nick: I’ve thought about this too much, but the question I would suggest is ‘Has success changed you?’ In fact, it would almost be great if you deleted your question and just asked this, so that people might pause and think, but he’s not successful at all is he? Why’s she asking that? Weird.
The reason I’d like the question is that success as a poet is a funny thing. No it really isn’t, actually. If one is celebrated, studied, one’s books sell in large numbers, one wins prizes, awards, fellowships, is asked to panel-beat festivals around the world, and one’s surname becomes sufficient identification, etc. etc., then one is successful. I nearly almost have a couple of those things. But I decided recently that I would think of myself as successful. Everyone can see someone more successful than themselves. So why not? Some people enjoy my poetry, and some people publish it. I’ll take that. And yes, success has changed me. I am much much worse.
Paula: Love the question. Might try it on someone else. It’s the stranger coming up to you and saying they liked your book. That’s something I rate. Everything else feels like white noise.
Is there a poem that particularly worked for you?
Nick: Difficult. They all worked enough to be included and all carried their flaws. I like ‘The Plotz’ the most, but a few lines bug me, and I’ll likely be rewriting it until I die. ‘I Coo Haiku High, Eh’, which squashes eight haiku into a sonnet, pleases me very much but it’s a bit of a grand folly. The one I wrote for my father’s funeral ‘A Good Heart’ using Dad’s stock phrases is special to me but similarly is a bit too personal to transcend that. I’ll choose ‘What to Avoid Calling My Next Poetry Collection’, simply because it involved the most work. It was much longer and continuously growing. Ashleigh helped me cull it back to something tighter and more manageable. One of the lines is entirely hers. Is it poetry? I’m not sure that it is. But meh.
What to Avoid calling the Next Collection
You’re Going to Need a Big Old Dictionary
What to Expectorate When Your Expectorating
Fanny Pack of Wolves
Dry, Slow, Grinding, Unremitting, Desolate, Endless
Full Metal Jean Shorts
You Don’t Have Time for This
Treat Your Own Neck
Your Haircut Looks Like a Pauper’s Grave
Your Pauper’s Grave Is a Bit Ooh-Look-at-Me
People Who Bought This Also Bought Pornography
I Preferred His Early Funny Poems
Just Thoughts Really
Limericks for Pubic Baldness
Charge Conjugation Parity Symmetry Violation for Dummies
Hang on, Nobody Wang Chung a Second
Impervious to Criticism
Found Poems of Financial Regulation
Away with Words
Fighting Fire with Fire Extinguishers
There Was an Old Lady from Lucknow
Most Eligible Lecturer
Once Were Wordier
Cry Me ¡Arriba!
What to Ejaculate When You’re Ejaculating
Suckle on My Verse Teats
10 Child Abduction Fails #3 Is Hilarious
Your Feet Honk Like Tofurkey
Nick Ascroft was born in Oamaru. His previous poetry collections are From the Author Of (2000), Nonsense (2003), and Back with the Human Condition (2016); in 2018 Boatwhistle published his Dandy Bogan: Selected Poems. He has edited Landfall, Glottis and Takahē and was all-too briefly the Burns Fellow at the University of Otago. He is also a non-fiction author, writing on music and football. Nick is an editor by trade, a linguist by training and a competitive Scrabble player by choice.
Victoria University Press author page
Phlegmatic, I’m not one to plotz or wax
nostalgic for a life that could’ve been.
I bumble forward, shuffling in my tracks
to work and back again. The kitchen’s clean.
I use Excel to calculate Kate’s tax.
I had once dreamt I’d be a libertine,
admired for simile and malaprop.
The 90s raised me up then let me drop.
Back then, each anecdote would cost you corkage,
my poems swigged on flasks, were furious
and hot with psychedelic flash and squawkage.
I blazed, affectedly bi-curious.
These days I just complain about the mortgage,
all other matters somehow spurious
and flat. I spend the evening sudsing plates
and pots, in fear of rising interest rates.
Not one to plotz, I’m private, careful, flaccid.
How did I change? One moment I wear blouses,
vinyl shoes, I’m pulverised on acid,
the next I’m at the bank discussing houses
or circling with a whiteboard marker ‘hazard
class’, a tucked-in shirt with belted trousers.
I want to understand, to tweeze this tuft.
Did I grow up? Or was my brightness snuffed?
Before I went under a nom de plume,
before the bank had made a covenant
with me to slavishly add commas to
abhorrent documents for subsequent
emolument, I lived in Oamaru.
(I still took money from the government,
the dole.) And from that opposite of Eden,
I drag the band with me down to Dunedin.
I trip the halls like velvet under
my beret, a lip-stuck elf with pointed toes.
I study language, thought, but wonder
why, in chief, so few enjoy my gigs, or prose.
A typically blind-spotted blunder:
I’m unchanged it seems. Less fresh of gill, less rosy
eyed, perhaps, but so alike in fact
of taste and dreams. My foibles are intact
at least. The years gallumph like this. I shake
songwriting off and go for verse. They’re kinder,
literary types. I’d tried to break
our demo to a label not inclined to
it. Pete from Snapper said we’re a mistake.
I graduate, am single (dumped), and find a
bookshop gig. It’s 1998.
I chase a girl, and demonstrate I’m straight
by kissing boys just to ensure we will
avoid the sin of overegging hetero.
My gender freedom is sartorial.
Free too from time, I dress embracing retro.
London is more dictatorial.
It frowns. And though years pass before I let go,
it schools me how to look more apropos,
to come across more man than man-mango.
The movie I’d self-finance of my life
(the casting option either Aquaman
or Jesse Eisenberg – and here my wife
can roll her eyeballs) would compact a span
of years into a weekend on a knife-
edge. Sleeping at a bus stop backward, fanned
around my bag, cold in PVC,
I doze, am homeless, terrified, but free.
Above, the stars are smothered by the smog.
I’m outside Heathrow, stuck until the Tubes
resume. They treat a person like a dog.
To bed, they say, till six. Go to your rooms,
you Londoners. The pubs lock up the grog.
But airports, they’re all hours, one presumes?
Two coppers sweeping shake their heads, say no.
I make it through the night outside, then go.
I stay with Andy’s friends near Glastonbury.
I have no job and live on money sponged
from Kim, back home, who’d said if drastically
required I could use her card – I lunged –
and cash from Mum as well, left spastically
behind in Wimbledon. Their flat’s implunged
in odour, but they offer me a niche
to kip in, and tobacco with hashish.
The two are always smoked together, all
day long and every day by him in whom
I see a British doppelgänger, tall
and slim, long hair. It’s not the constant fume
emitted from his lips that splits us, or will
once I partake. It’s that he bears a gloom.
That’s Britain, and its thrashing underclass.
He takes a kicking in an underpass.
The nights unfold with dramas of the poor.
A day’s work picking peas from yellow turf.
We mark the solstice drumming on the Tor.
At Argos, blag a tent, intending to return
it after camping in the mud before
the policy – ‘no questions’ – comes to term.
The festival itself is glad, we’re gladder
still we stole in with a home-made ladder.
Returning back to Wimbledon, I claw
my horde of traveller’s cheques in glee
then crash out in the sticks, a room, well, floor
some kid – the dealer of whose ecstasy
I’d met – extends an open offer for.
This stranger’s kind. I rest my neck rent-free.
One sleeps more, if turns less, when in a bed,
but cushions brace my hip and ease my head.
The weeks rotate. I get a ten-hour job,
but till I’m paid, possessing no per diem,
I can’t examine ethics like a snob.
I think, ‘They’re not as hungry’, when I see them.
‘These tourists shouldn’t miss a couple bob,’
and fleece them as they ramble the museum.
That is, the cashier does, when she miscounts
their change. I simply balance the amounts.
Asleep, the kid I stay with moans and keens.
Still dossing every evening in the sticks,
the tube and bus is just within my means
but only once perfecting certain tricks
to keep the Travelcard inside my jeans.
I search under his bed, there’s porn, the pix
are strange to me: in each the women flick
their eyes to where above there hangs a dick.
Two times I sleep at Jon’s. His place is bleaker:
Paddington, guests not allowed, and stinking.
My presence irks his girlfriend, one Tameka.
I was naive to leave New Zealand thinking
that I’d just stay with Jon, the pleasure seeker.
The cops raid our speakeasy. But a winking
dealer passing sells us . . . oregano!?
‘Race traitor!’ chirrups T like a soprano.
The lowest point before I get a proper
bedsit of my own in Saint John’s Wood,
is when I beg Tameka for a Whopper,
and she assents, annoyed to feel she should.
This is the seed. I never want to cop the
look again. And so ends childhood.
The film returns. I’m at the bus stop, cold,
inhaling in short draughts. The credits roll.
I grow I think from this. I learn the scaled
threat of non-conformance. It’s no shame
and easier to navigate regaled
as others, smart, domesticated, tame.
Another view is that in fact I’ve failed
to change a jot. That I remain the same
pretentious fool and cautious pragmatist,
and always was a dry protagonist.
Nick Ascroft, from Moral Sloth, Victoria University Press, 2019
Nick Ascroft has released four collections of poetry through Victoria University Press. The latest, Moral Sloth, appeared in November. Kapka Kassabova once said of his face that ‘it shines through the obscurity of life like / fake gold’. Burn.
Victoria University Press author page
You are warmly invited to the launch of
a new collection of poetry by Nick Ascroft
to be launched by Ashleigh Young
Tuesday 12 November, 5.30pm–7pm
Hudson Bar, Chews Lane, Wellington.
Photo credit: Grant Maiden
Nick Ascroft’s selected poems for the UK, Dandy Bogan (Boatwhistle, 2018), comes out this July. Unfortunately he neglected to thank his wife Kate in the acknowledgements, which was a daft oversight. It is much too late, but I hereby thank my fellow cat-slung sofa friend for being the constant support and discerning eye without whom none of the poems would be written. Kate, thank heavens for you.
Landfall 235 launches Emma Neale as the new editor. The cover aptly features ‘The House Party’; Kathryn Madill’s monoprint is strange and seductive with sunken black space and textured skin. It is like a poem that tempts and then holds you in an intricate grip. There is a Madill sequence inside that is equally sumptuous, surprising, lyrical.
This is an addictive issue – think of it as a musical composition that carries you through diverse and distinctive reading effects across an arc from first poem to final story. I do hope more Pasifika, Māori and Asian poets send in submissions for the next issue to increase the diversity of voice.
The two visual sequences (by Madill and photogapher Russ Flatt) are stunning. Flatt’s photographs reconstruct memories from the ‘subconscious grief’ and experience of growing up gay in Auckland in 1970s and 1980s. Wow. This is the power of art to take you some place that transcends ideas and feeling but that is ideas and feeling.
Landfall 235 also includes the winner of the Charles Brasch Young Writers’ Competition, Aimee-Jane Anderson-O’Connor, fiction (including a keenly observed piece by Airini Beautrais) and reviews. It welcomes established elders such as Elizabeth Smither and Bernadette Hall and barely published authors such as Sarah Scott and James Tremlett.
Here are a few poetry highlights:
Tracey Slaughter has turned from her dark, edgy must-read fiction to poetry. She was recently shortlisted for the 2018 Peter Porter Poetry Prize and I can see why. Her poem, ‘the mine wife’, with short-line fluidity, fictional momentum building, spiky detail, gritty feeling, is all about voice. A vulnerable, risking, space clearing, ‘self’ admitting voice:
the hand is a useless
surface for showing
the love it takes
to clear a path. Under
layers you wait for me to sift
your face from its mask.
from ‘the mine wife’
Lynley Edmeades‘ list poem, ‘The Age of Reason’, kicks off from Jean Paul Sartre’s title to move from ‘longing’ to ‘baby’, scooping up Simone de Beauvoir on the way, and all the staccato thoughts that propel a micro portrait: because why because how because who. I adore this!
Because fear of death
Because a dog might do
Because déjà vu
Because the trees
Because the population
from ‘The Age of Reason’
‘A Love Letter to My Mother: A work in progress’ by Wen-Juenn Lee is layered and probing and direct. I am wanting to read the whole work:
She takes astronomy classes at night.
I do not ask her why she stargazes
what she looks for in the oily darkness
we go to a poetry reading on migrant women
I do not tell her
I remember her crying on the plane
from ‘A Love Letter to My Mother: A work in progress’
Nick Ascroft’s playful word shenanigans in ‘A Writer Wrongs’ are a delicious shift in key as rhyme binds writer, hater and waiter:
So my fish is pallid.
So there’s a little pebble in my freekeh salad.
Is it necessary a balladeer batters
out a ballad?
from ‘A Writer Wrongs’
I haven’t encountered Rachel Connor‘s poetry before. She is a medievalist and a postgraduate student in Otago University’s Department of English. I want to read more of her poetry! Her poem, ‘Home’, captivates with its quirky tropes and agile pivots upon ‘swan’:
A swan like a carved radish kickstarts its way across the water.
It should be easier
to temper my words and make iron gates of them,
to remember the names picked out in gold
that echo a memorial garden.
Tim Vosper offers my favourite ending in ‘The False Way to the Real’
When it comes time to kill the lamp
the leaf will turn into a shade.
from ‘The False Way to the Real’
I am fan of Sugar Magnolia Wilson’s poetry and have fingers crossed she gets a book out soon. ‘Betty as a Boy’ is lush with detail and movement:
And you, outside the upmarket grocer’s, camouflaged top, khaki pants
slashed with a silk of red, a backpack strung with things that clink,
disappearing into your androgyny— the inverse of a newly minted drag queen,
appearing like a flaming comet, burning to be noticed.
from ‘Betty as a Boy’
Here is another unfamiliar poet I want to see a collection from. Susan Wardell’s poem pulsates with glorious surprising life. I will quote a piece but I urge you to read the whole thing: place rich, lithely troped, visually sparking, enigmatic, humane. I am drawn to the voice, to the word hunger, to the portrait built.
when meaning is gone, all that is left
is the grain
of the voice.
Well, hers sweeps the room like salt-flecked taffeta.
from ‘Grain of her Voice’
Writing journals, literary journals open up new avenues of reading and engagement. Landfall 235 is no exception. I have not finished, I have not yet read the reviews and all the fiction, but congratulations Emma Neale, you have taken the literary torch from David Eggleton, and the boost he gave, and turned your astute editorial eye to our advantage. I have new poets I am keen to track down. I have seen familiar poets with fresh eyes. Kind of like a poetry house party in my head.
You can also go to the Landfall Exhibition if you live in Dunedin. Opening is Thursday May 25 at 5.30 pm.
POETRY | CHOCOLATE
The taste of poetry, the sound of chocolate and the sense of books. We’ve matched medieval humours with contemporary New Zealand poets and some of the best chocolate you’ll find, ever.
Join us at Ekor Bookshop for a multi-sensual, medieval-medicine-inspired poetry reading and chocolate tasting.
Featuring: Nick Ascroft, Hannah Mettner, Louise Wallace, and Freya Daly Sadgrove.
Chocolate curated and introduced by Luke Owen Smith (The Chocolate Bar).
Chocolate (and poetry) included in ticket price.
Landfall 233 edited by David Eggleton
Last Sunday I was feeling travel worn, flat, depleted, sick and I could not settle on anything. The kind of day where you pick this up and put it down. You pick that and then this and then that and then this. And then find yourself back at the start again. It was only when I opened the new Landfall I found my self settling back and reading.
The 70th Birthday issue is terrific. It includes testimonies from Chris Price and Iain Sharp (both candid on the difficulties of editing a key literary journal), Philip Temple (on the controversial dismissal of Robin Dudding and efforts to revive the flagging enterprise) and Peter Simpson on Charles Brasch and Landfall. Simpson quotes Brasch musing on when to quit editing. He decided he must stop at 15 years – although it stretched to 20. He concluded:
‘I shall have nothing to live for, nothing I badly want to do, nothing I am forced to do in order to live …’
Sometimes I like to read a journal from first page to last page in order to follow the contours and harmonies of editing. This time it was pick n’ mix poetry. As I read I jotted down:
vibrant fresh vital diverse essential reading unfamiliar voices much-loved voices direct indirect
Adore the Art Portfolios by Chris Corson-Scott and Heather Straka.
Two prose pieces caught me eye first. Both surprising and stick like biddibids.
‘Last-ditch Daisies’ Aimee-Jane Anderson-O’Connor
‘It’s All I Had’ Joanna Cho
Then the poetry:
‘Four Transformations on a theme of Philip’ by Anne Kennedy is like a return to her brother (1951 – 1973). Every time I pick the book up it falls open here and I read it again. The short lines shift patterns on the pages like little twitches of contemplation, memory, bright retrieved detail with indents, parentheses, fluency.
Catch me in the garden
and put me in a jar
the air where I was
in the palm of your hand
‘Morning Song’ by Emma Neale builds a loving grandfather portrait that weds sharp detail with war undertones spiky within a family’s daily life. It is sumptuous writing with things hiding off the edges.
Gramps stole eggs, green seeds of song, from their nests
to show us wonder; hairline cracks ran
our sooks’ hearts as we watched the robbed mothers fly home.
‘Mr Anderson, You Heartbreaker’ by Helen Rickerby teases and bites into Hans Christian Anderson and his depiction or wooing of women and harnesses Helen’s adult eyes on the Little Mermaid.
And really, if she’d just held onto her tongue
she could have sung him to her
reeled him in, drunk him down
one prince, on the rocks, coming up
‘Storm’ by Amanda Hunt is a glorious lyrical snapshot that slows down the pace of contemplation to the point each detail is under an enviable spotlight. ( I am reminded of how Janet Frame wanted to slow down the pace of her poems)
a butterfly flutter
of moth-soft feathers
glancing across my shoulder
‘Fear of Feathers’ by Michael Gould delivers a surprising passage through the lines to the final enticement ‘life is good.’
Some sounds of birds (unseen but heard)
may confound those with no sense of the absurd
‘Personal Space’ by Johanna Emeney refreshes the domestic poem beautifully and needs to be read in its completeness to catch the humour, the pathos, the politics, the poetry, the feeling. I am including the last stanza.
She should clear a space
beneath the sudden worry of crowded floors,
the scatter of feet; the shock of doors,
run downstairs and shut herself in
the last room at the bottom,
then spin, arms open,
to see just how wide
she has forgotten.
‘Inflammable’ by Anna Jackson is a poem that catches the dark and light of life and living beneath the flicker of candle light. It reminds me of the way a particular moment, against all the millions lost and faded, that is luminous on return.
The world was flammable we knew it was.
‘Art Is Weak’ by Nick Ascroft is smart and sharp and hooks you from the first line.
Conceptual art is not so empty sleeved
‘The Bee Elle’ by Lynley Edmeades curls and coils deliciously around a physical view and subterranean ideas.
Everyone is hooked up
to various elsewheres
as if our bodies don’t matter.
‘How a New Zealand Sunrise is Different from Other Sunrises’ by Erik Kennedy is like a landscape poem standing on its head and is thus invigorating to read (I am a landscape poem fan for all kinds of reasons).
Pinks and yellows collude to orange the hillside,
but they trick you into thinking the hills are proper orange
on their own, like an oyster catcher’s lurid bill