Tag Archives: NZ Poet Laureate

Poetry Shelf archives: an interview with our new Poet Laureate David Eggleton

To celebrate the announcement of our new Poet Laureate, David Eggleton, I have scoured the Poetry Shelf archives and rediscovered this interview. I welcome David as Poet Laureate: he is a charismatic poet and performer, and a longtime ambassador for poetry in Aotearoa. It is good to have a Dunedin-based Laureate.

I posted this interview in 2015 on the publication of The Conch Shell (OUP). Since then The Conch Trumpet won the Poetry Award at the 2016 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. He has held the Fulbright-Creative New Zealand Pacific Writer’s Residency at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, received the Prime Minister’s Award for Poetry (2016) and published edgeland and other poems (OUP, 2018).

 

An interview with David Egggleton

 

Screen Shot 2019-08-26 at 8.50.28 AM.pngPhoto credit: F. J. Neuman

 

David Eggleton is a poet, reviewer and non fiction writer. His books include: Here on Earth: the Landscape in New Zealand Literature, (Craig Potton Publishing, 1999); Seasons: Four Essays on the New Zealand Year, (Craig Potton Publishing, 2001); Ready to Fly: the Story of New Zealand Rock Music, (Craig Potton Publishing, 2003); Into the Light: a History of New Zealand Photography, (Craig Potton Publishing, 2006); and Towards Aotearoa: A Short History of Twentieth Century New Zealand Art (Reed/Raupo, 2008). His poetry collections include: Rhyming Planet, (Steele Roberts, 2001); Fast Talker, (Auckland University Press, 2006); Time of the Icebergs, (Otago University Press, 2010); and The Conch Trumpet (Otago University Press, 2015). He is the current Editor of Landfall  and of Landfall Review Online (now Emma Neale). He lives in Dunedin.

To celebrate the arrival of his new poetry collection, The Conch Shell, David kindly agreed to answer some questions for Poetry Shelf.

 

‘Stone clacks on stone

so creek lizards slither,

runnels slip through claws,

each cloud’s a silver feather.’

from ‘Raukura’ in The Conch Trumpet

 

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 had very little to do with books as a child, apart from prolonged weekly exposure to the King James Bible. However, it was a rich, sensual and even privileged environment, with wide exposure to a variety of cultures and a strong sense of the carnivalesque about everyday life. My father at that time was a soldier ant, when the last Pacific colonies were gaining independence, and then there were my mother’s ancestral voices and her extended family. This idyll was abruptly terminated when our family relocated permanently from Fiji to New Zealand. It was a bit like the post-Edenic Fall, though gradually I became aware of a different kind of richness, including eventually the world of the library.

In early adolescence my options veered between seminary school and reform school, though neither eventuated. I began to understand that truth, social truth at least, is not absolute but institutional and class-bound, and you need a ticket to get in — but if you are a poet you can construct your own truth. ‘I am the shadows my words cast’, as Octavio Paz wrote.

My early literary influences, besides the Bible, included Phantom comics, church music, gospel choirs and listening to pop music on the radio: an auditory riot. The Bible contained fascinating and troubling verses: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe…’

Meantime, living in South Auckland there were not the quiescent, somnolent afternoons of lawn tennis such as you might have found in the leafy avenues of the inner suburbs, but rather the lingering smell of tanneries and abattoirs — offal being boiled down at the freezing works, corned beef being cooked for shipment to the Islands. This became partly associated in my mind with the lives of saints and martyrs I had already spent time reading about: believers being boiled in oil by non-believers, and so forth. There was also much bellowing in the streets and the roar of motorcycles.

 

When you started writing poems as a young adult, were there any poets in particular that you were drawn to (poems/poets as surrogate mentors)?

I got interested in writing at high school, my first published efforts appearing in the Aorere College literary magazine. Around the same time, I was discovering Dylan Thomas, Gerard Manley Hopkins, T. S. Eliot, Gunter Grass — some of these were on the school curriculum.

Then I got immersed in the American Beats and their ‘action writing’: Go! Howl! On the Road! I heeded the call; I dropped out of school and tried to get a job on a cargo ship. I wasn’t taken on, so I got a job in a South Auckland carpet warehouse instead. Kerouac’s road novels were a word-spattered canvas wide as America and seemed related to the Ab-Ex canvases of the artist Jackson Pollock, whose paintings I also got interested in.

Energised, I sought to emulate the yackety-yak spoken word rhythms of Jack Kerouac, the biting wisecracks of William Burroughs and the vatic yawp of Allen Ginsberg in my own screeds of verse. And then there was the one-man typographical liberation front of e.e. cummings: ‘anyone lived in a pretty how town and down they forgot as up they grew…’

I was pretty much unaware of New Zealand writing, apart from the plummy-voiced Bruce Mason, who had visited our school out in the sticks with his one-man theatrical show.

 

I remember when you were awarded London Time Out’s Street Entertainer of the Year in 1985. From that time you have gained a solid reputation as a performance poet. Do you still see yourself as a performance poet? Did the award alter the path of poet for you at all?

Well, 1985 was New Zealand’s special moment in the sun, with David Lange roaming the globe as a kind of No Nukes! ambassador, and Keri Hulme winning the Booker Prize. There was a big travelling Maori art exhibition, plus the Rainbow Warrior bombing, the Flying Nun catalogue. All that kind of created a climate where things New Zild were of interest in the UK, and I was able to get on and stay on the cabaret circuit at the time.

Performance for me became a poetry vehicle and there was a national consciousness locally it tapped into: grass roots, flax roots, ground up, underground, public assemblies to hear, watch, attend to, what poets and other performers were saying — and maybe have all this on at a variety night down at the community hall.

Things have changed, become more sophisticated, more ironic, more knowing. Perhaps there is less of a communal thing now and more of a tightly-organised, clearly-defined niche market, maybe even a gentrification of poetry scenes — where the confessional genre and the misery memoir have top billing, everyone competing to prove that they have the tiniest violin in the world and they know how to play it. I enjoyed, and still enjoy, the Dadaist nature of the wilder poetry performance. The novelist Henry James said about a poetry reading by Robert Browning that, if the audience didn’t understand his poems he seemed to understand them even less: ‘He reads them as if he hated them and would like to bite them to pieces.’ That sounds like my kind of event.

 

I love the way your poems absorb and replay the world in a dazzling eruption of detail, hallucinogenic at times. It is like standing in the street or bush just after it has rained. Luminous. Invigorating. Yet as much as each poem is an aural feast, there is an engagement with the world on multiple levels. What are key things for you when you write a poem?

Incantation, cadence, rhythm, pacing, matter more to me than formal metre stress and scansion. I like overgrown gardens and rainforest: that which is lush. I like absurdity and contradiction as closer to real experience rendered more accurately. In poetry, arguably, lexical meaning is less important than rhythm and emotionally-charged sound, which have their own echo-chamber allusiveness.

All that said, I also like psychedelic dream-fever imagery, and teasing evocations of mythical ancestors and invented traditions: invented traditions which engage with canonical poems, the poems which begin, as Yeats put it, in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart, but then become marble, monumental.

Poems are generated in many different ways, of course. Sometimes a poem might begin as a psychotherapeutic notion, as automatic writing, where as long as you keep writing you eventually find the solution to whatever it is that ails you, psychosomatically or existentially. Other poems may be less fluent; instead they are painstakingly assembled, built up like a movie in an editing suite from many separate images in order to create a mood, an atmosphere, a climate.

What one does not want is what Yeats (again!) described as ‘the stale odour of spilt poetry’: we want the fresh bouquet of wild flowers — or of hothouse blooms transfigured. Poetry remains in the service of the subversive. That’s its power. The magical thinking of the ancient gods has been replaced by a future of junk science, which explains that emotions are only neuropeptides attaching to receptors and stimulating an electrical charge on neurons. Easy-peasy. How might a poet extract a poem from this revised reality? That’s the challenge.

 

Do you see yourself as a political poet? Overtly so or in more subtle ways?

Poetry is politics by other means; anthologies prove this. But I think what you are getting at is the idea of poets on the barricades leading the revolution. OK, the revolution may not be televised, as Gil Scott-Heron prophesied in his debut album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox back in the 1970s, but these days it’s corporatised and monetised. As Arundhati Roy has pointed out, in the era of the free market, ‘free speech’ has become a valuable commodity, too valuable to be wasted on the underclass. Poetry must find ways to remain anarchic, not for sale. As the Zen poem has it: ‘Sitting quietly doing nothing/ Spring comes and the grass grows by itself.’

My favourite poets include the Nightingale and the Skylark: Keats and Shelley — not yet Pixar characters — and Shelley undoubtedly was a revolutionary bard who believed that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Likewise, William Blake was a revolutionary, but he wasn’t arrested and beheaded because they considered him mad. Nowadays we consider him a visionary.

I am inspired by the poetry of witness: that of Osip Mandelstam, Marina Tsvetaeva, Georg Trakl, John Clare, Pablo Neruda. These poets spoke truth to power and sometimes paid with their lives.

New Zealand is a relatively lucky country, but it also means, I think, that we have an obligation to speak out against injustice, though not necessarily through simple polemics. Poetry, said Auden, makes nothing happen — well, many poets would disagree. Poetry can help generate social earthquakes — or be part of them in subtle ways. Globalisation is all subtle interconnections.

One poem in my new book was inspired by the sight of a superyacht belonging to a Russian oligarch in Auckland’s Viaduct Basin, an impressive white vessel designed by Philippe Starck. I stayed on the wharf for a while, and revisited, watching the comings and goings on this superyacht, and then researched the background — or rather added to what I already knew. That’s the starting point for a poem, which is not so much about Putin’s Russia as about the approved neo-liberal narratives of today and the warped truths which seem to accompany unbridled power. Yet nothing is spelt out — the reader must surmise, or suspect.

Pablo Neruda said that a poem is a net, and in a net it’s not just the strings that count but also the air, or the ocean, that escapes through them. To which I might add about my poem that while ‘knowledge’ is steady and cumulative and a satisfying form of story-telling, ‘information’ is random and miscellaneous and frustrating. My poetry sometime plays around with these twinned perceptions. For, as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: ‘the poet knows he speaks adequately only when he speaks somewhat wildly, not with the intellect alone, but with the intellect inebriated by nectar.’

The fact is that the black rain of tragic images is unending. The poet must put out his bucket and collect enough, and then endeavour to make sense of them; find a way to transform the surplus into poetry. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry said Auden of Yeats, rather contradicting his other statement that poetry makes nothing happen. The ambitious poet is a voyant, a seer still, despite the scoffers, disdainful of rolling up their sleeves, spitting on their hands and going to work. Delmore Schwarz was right: in dreams begin responsibilities.

From the frantic antics of the nuclear meltdown to the shirtfronting of the financial meltdown, there’s plenty happening politically that cries out for poems. Then, too, as New Zealanders we need to constantly catechise our past in poetry so as to attest to our grasp of identity. Because this collective past, the stuff of song, ballad and pontificating political speech, is only approximately remembered, or else only partly told. Different people will tell, for example, the story of the Treaty of Waitangi in skewed fashion, laying emphasis on different details, and carry this away as poetic myth. The poet of conscience searches out social stigmas, personal stigmas, linguistic stigmas — the difficult subjects — and finds new ways to address them.

 

Do you think we have a history of thinking and writing about the process of poetry? Any examples that sparked you? Have you done this?

Yes, of course we have a tradition of thinking about what poetry is. Manifestos, prefaces, books and essays by Allen Curnow, A.R.D. Fairburn, Alan Brunton, Riemke Ensing, Kendrick Smithyman, Ian Wedde, Bill Manhire, Murray Edmond, C.K. Stead and Robert Sullivan are amongst those I value most. A writer is a descendent of other writers. I’ve written a lot in response to reading other poets; that is, to specific instances, but not manifestos or generalising, barrow-pushing commentaries.

New Zealand has its own quirky bicultural literary history. There’s also a strong puritanical tradition, nowhere so pronounced, I think, as in the repressed verses of Charles Brasch. He reminds me of what Anthony Burgess once said about himself: that he was so much of a puritan that he couldn’t describe a kiss without blushing. That said, there’s a value in circumspection, in euphemism, in artful disguise: telling by other means.

Actually, I think that all the theorising stacks up to mere post-rationalisation, to temperaments attempting to influence posterity, whereas, as John Steinbeck put it: ‘Time is the only critic without ambition’. Instead, I would argue that we learn most by example — the example of careful noticers, and for me one of the influential is Katherine Mansfield, still one of our best, perhaps our best, echo-locators: ‘All that day the heat was terrible. The wind blew close to the ground, it rooted among the tussock grass, slithered along the road, so that the white pumice dust swirled in our faces.’ So much menace, so close to home.

 

What poets have mattered to you over the past year? Some may have mattered as a reader and others may have been crucial in your development as a writer.

It would take a book to answer this question adequately. I’ve read the work of around 1000 poets over the past year, and all of them mattered at the time of reading. To read a poem properly is to engage with it, alertly. Listing names and poems that grabbed me would be counter-productive, because each would require an explanation of the encounter: what the sense and what the sensibility? Deconstruction at warp speed cannot happen in this format.

 

What New Zealand poets are you drawn to now?

Currently my favourite New Zealand poet, in the terms of the poet I am thinking most about, is Robin Hyde, followed by Ursula Bethell and A.R.D. Fairburn. So many clues, or soundings, to where we are now lie in the inter-war years. Other than that, I pretty much read everybody.

 

Do you think your writing has changed over time?

My own feelings about this are, necessarily, extremely subjective, but I would advance a cautious perhaps. According to Heraclitus, everything flows and all movement is history. William Blake said that without contraries there is no progression. In short: change is the only constant in life; one writes not as one was, but as one is.

Certainly the cultural climate has changed, and my corporeal self has changed. The typical New Zealand afternoon of the recent past had all the excitement of a damp tea towel and all the urgency of a dripping tea urn, with somewhere the smell of scones burning. Somehow this no longer seems applicable. Along with Denis Glover though, I do not dream of Sussex downs or quaint old English towns — I think of what may yet be seen in Johnsonville and Geraldine.

 

You write in a variety of genres (poetry, short fiction, non-fiction, critical writing). Do they seep into each other? Does one have a particular grip on you as a writer?

All of my writing is really just personal essays by other means — that is, if you consider the personal essay a form of self-correction, a form of self-contestation, an interior monologue conducted in solitude in preparation for being presented in public. Otherwise, the prescriptions of each genre apply, distinctly.

However, in my view, literature is or should be a site of struggle, no matter what the genre. Each mode is always inherently in a state of primal conflict about purpose and meaning. Otherwise it is moribund, mere cliché-recycling.

There are elements of hybridity, the mongrel, in my writing. The mixed bag, the medley, the odd job lot, the tall order; that’s what I’ve ended up doing. To pluck out just one continuity: I have an overarching interest in the iconoclastic — how might we tear all these false idols down. And aren’t they all false anyway? So there you go; we’re always casting about for the new, the next, supreme fiction.

 

 

The detail you collect makes place so vital — and that place emerging is particular, local, recognisable. For me, the poems transcend poetic exercise or form as they establish contact with what it might or might not mean to be human. These poems tick with humanity. Is a sense of home an important factor as you write? Or connections with humanity?

The Rumanian philosopher E.M. Cioran wrote that you don’t inhabit a country, you inhabit a language, and as Caribbean poet Derek Walcott pointed out, when you inhabit a language you enter into a relationship with its imperial width. A language is not a place of contemplative retreat or escape; it’s a site of struggle. Struggle for control, or, to use Kendrick Smithyman’s formulation, ‘a way of saying’. So, it starts with the language, which works on homegrown imagery. As Ian Wedde once neatly put it, my poetry is preoccupied with ‘growth into location’. Not just that, but this regionalism reflects the society’s obsession with where it is: Anne French’s one big waka, Robert Sullivan’s hundred small waka.

This, in a way, is ‘small country syndrome’ and Dylan Thomas wrote something eloquently pertinent to this sense of us against the world in a letter to his wife: ‘the world is unbalanced unless, in the very centre of it, we little mutts stand together all the time in a hairy, golden, more-or-less unintelligible haze of daftness.’

By not living in exile, by living here, the whole past stays in the pulsating present. Wherever I turn, I see reminders of things past, of ghost trails, phantoms. As I write this, autumn rains are bashing at the windows in silver-grey lights as the furthermost fringe of Cyclone Pam brushes past. That’s what being here means to me. That and folk memories: cow cockies used to tighten Number 8 wire with a strainer until it literally sang when it was flicked. Now whole rugby stadiums hum that same tune.

This is a land of miraculous icons, a poet’s task is to discover and celebrate them before the local version of the Taliban, often in the form of a property developer, moves in and breaks them up.

 

What irks you in poetry?

I’m not sure that any poem irks me. Rather, the challenge is: what is the poet doing? Has it been achieved? Sometimes poems feel hollow, or are expressed in sentiments that have a breathy earnestness, yet you know that they know that you know they haven’t got there and earned it. Kate Clanchy wrote recently in the UK Poetry Review about a new collection of poems by Ruth Padel that some poems took your assent, your acquiescence, for granted because these were poems about ‘the Holocaust’. In fact, poems should take nothing for granted but must make their case through genuinely felt details, line by scrupulous line, even when about a supposedly sacrosanct subject. Even when a poem’s a failure, it remains interesting, through falling short.

 

What delights you?

The achievement, the mastery of the thing. Or else it falls away sharply to hit the ground with a thump. That said, value judgements are complex things, governed by notions of taste, knowledge of context, histories of contestation. A poem that appears to fly high to you — an ode to the west wind, a hymn at heaven’s gate — may not seem that way to another reader or listener.

 

Name three NZ poetry books that you have loved.

Just quickly. Runes (1977), by James K. Baxter. He was, at one time, both my spice paladin and my herb goblin. No Ordinary Sun (1977), by Hone Tuwhare. He could use his diaphragm like a sounding board, a sea chest. Inside Us the Dead (1976), by Albert Wendt. I was delighted by his witty reportage in the immediate post-colonial moment in the newly emergent Pasifika.

 

I love the title of your new collection (The Conch Shell). The blurb suggests that this collection ‘calls to the scattered tribes of contemporary New Zealand.’ What tribes do you belong to? What literary tribes? How does the word ‘contemporary’ modify things?

Yes, I’m blowing my own (conch) trumpet at sunrise. That title refers to tide-lines of life, to surf-like sounds, to gathering good vibrations, to gods of the sea who, clarion-like, lull the waves, and to the summer of shakes, the year of quakes. And so on, to the final burnout of the run-ragged consumer. The rest is the tribal outcast, and everything you cannot pin down, or ascribe a bar code to.

In fact, the word ‘tribe’ is fraught. I think James K. Baxter brought it into the literary realm. My own tribal background is distinctly heterogeneous rather than Fonterra-homogenous, but if I look around at my contemporaries, poets and otherwise, I see most of them making it up as they go along. A poem tests a proposition; it doesn’t always prove it.

 

These new poems offer shifting tones, preoccupations, rhythms. What discoveries did you make about poetry as you wrote? The world? Interior or external?

My poems like to dwell on the silver wake of a container ship, or the wet sand beneath the upturned hull of a dinghy, or the half-seen, the overheard. Poets re-arrange, but they have duties of care. X.J. Kennedy has pointed out that: ‘The world is full of poets with languid wrenches who don’t bother to take the last six turns on their bolts.’

It’s been five years since my last poetry collection Time of the Icebergs appeared, and one reason my collections have been regularly spaced that far apart is the need for more elbow-grease and line-tightening to get the burnish just so.

The poet’s mind, like anyone else’s is made up of reptilian substrate, limbic empathy and neo-cortical rationality. These shape your reveries and hopefully together lift them out of banality. Our ideas are dreams, styles, superstitions. We rationalise our temperaments, draw curtains over our windows, but poems carry an anarchic charge that reveals the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.

A poet is in the business of the unsayable being said, showing you fear in a handful of dust. A poet is amanuensis to the subconscious ceaselessly murmuring, and indeed to the planetary hum, the gravitational pull of the earth, the wobble of placental jellyfish in the womb — anything alive, mindless and gooey.

 

Is there a single poem or two in the collection that particularly resonates with you?

Every poem resonates on its own wavelength, but I found constructing an immediate elegiac response to my father’s death one of the most turbulent. A bit like getting to grips with a storm, with a howling wind that has shape and substance.

 

Returning to the notion of detail, I see the accumulation of things in your poems as an overlay of highways to elsewhere whether heart, issues, ideas, fancy, memory. Yet the things also pulsate as things in their own right. What draws you to ‘the thisness of things’ (the blurb)?

Things accumulate in my poems in almost haptic fashion, wrestled there like sculptural ingredients. They accumulate, as in the random haphazard assemblages of the Dadaist Kurt Schwitters, built out of found objects in the streets. Yes, I want to acknowledge the ‘thisness’ of things, but not in the sense of ‘property’. Rather, in the sense of: he who kisses the joy as it flies, lives in eternity’s sunrise.

 

Is doubt a key part of the writing process along with an elusive horizon of where you are satisfied with a poem?

I can’t get no satisfaction. Actually, poets need to be their own sophisticated antagonists. After all, why write? There’s always a struggle going on between self-revelation and self-concealment. Poetry is a kind of verbal tic; it runs in parallel with consciousness. To be conscious and verbal are vital signs, as Les Murray has pointed out. Then comes the self-questioning: are these fifty poems, fifty varieties of same-same? Is this what the thunder truly said? Is this poem really language dancing, and is it top of the poppermost — that is, is it the best you can do? All this nervous self-doubt surrounds the birth of a successful poem, I think.

 

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?

Much time is taken up by arts-related stuff: gallery-going, movie-going, theatre-going, concert-going, poetry recitals, beer-sampling, weekend dabbling in arty-crafty matters. And then also I like to get out and about in the landscape: tramping through national parks, exploring West Coast walkways, cycling around Waiheke Island, or across the Mackenzie Country, climbing the lower slopes of the Southern Alps, and on and on. Typical Kiwi pastimes that keep one modestly prepared for the long sedentary hours ahead.

 

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?

Poets are actually not their own creatures. They imitate their forebears. In her diaries, Susan Sontag wrote: ‘Poetry must be exact, intense, concrete, significant, honed, complex.’ She wrote this sentence as a high Modernist priestess when that kind of poetic faith was at its apogee, nevertheless I’d go along with that as an aspirational motto. Yeats again: ‘How but in custom and ceremony are beauty and innocence born?’

There are always rules. A poem — even one generated by a computer — follows rules. But these rules vary poem to poem, and the end result is not about the rules but about organic coherence and meaningfulness.

Here’s another Katherine Mansfield sentence (she’s endlessly quotable), and one William Burroughs would surely have applauded. The reasons why she wrote this don’t matter. What matters is the imagery and the pacing, the rhythm: ‘I took the revolver into the garden today and practised with it, how to load and unload and fire.’ A great New Zealand sentence.

 

Do you find social media an entertaining and useful tool or white noise?

Hyperreal, hyperventilating, hyper-opinionated, it’s the new centre of gravity — or else a black hole that will swallow the sun, and take all the time you have. I try to minimise my involvement. As for poetry, the internet works well as an events noticeboard, but actual poems feel anaemic on it, drained and destabilised, apt to float away into cyberspace, never to be seen again.

 

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?

Well, today, a big compendium that includes Auden’s ‘ 1 September 1939’, Owen’s ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ and ‘The Road to Mandalay’, ‘The Waste Land’, Christina Rossetti, and bits of Don Juan, the Sonnets of Shakespeare… ‘But I think my head is burning and in a way I’m yearning to be done with all this measuring of proof…’

 

 

Otago University Press page

New Zealand Book Council author page

New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre page

Selina Tusitala Marsh celebrates her Poet Laureateship tenure with a poem and a power point

 

Dear Selina

You have given us so much  as Poet Laureate – you have sparked poetry and poets all over Aotearoa and beyond its shores – you have shared poems, your own experience and opened up what poetry can do. Poetry matters to so many more people because of you. Thank you three times thank you. I look forward to reading your new books, hearing you perform again and talking poetry. Meanwhile enjoy your time as Poet in Residence at the Queensland Poetry Festival – you deserve this time with a much clearer calendar! I embrace you dear friend, dear poet.

Aroha nui

Paula

 

 

Selina Tusitala Marsh’s first Poet Laureate blog refreshes the page of living and writing

 

week1-01.JPG

 

Selina Tusitala Marsh debuts on the National Library Poet Laureate blog with diary entries that provide a candid snapshot of life, poetry and keeping a secret. I love the way poetry and life smudge up against each other.

‘I want to do the right thing, and be a mum who meets her kids exactly where they are, rather than expecting them to meet me where I am, which is outside the house of poetry, at the intersection of writing and creative expression, art and music, in the town of books and reading and learning and yet, none of the boys have shown any interest in living here.’

 

Screen Shot 2017-09-13 at 10.40.32 AM.png

 

 

Selina’s first Poet Laureate blog here

 

Call for nominations for our next New Zealand Poet Laureate

This is a golden opportunity to nominate a poet for this. I have a poet in mind and plan to write a letter saying why he or she is the perfect man or woman for the job! I love the way the Poet Laureate adds value to our poetry communities during their tenure – with appearances, publications and contributions to the Poet Laureate website.

 

The National Library is calling for nominations for the next New Zealand Poet Laureate.

The Award of Poet Laureate recognises an outstanding New Zealand poet, who receives $80,000 and is supported by the National Library to concentrate on their own work, take part in literary events, and utilise the Poet Laureate blog.

The Laureate also receives a tokotoko created by Jacob Scott and a stipend of wine from Te Mata Estate Winery (who began the Laureate Award in 1996 and supported it until 2007 when the National Library assumed responsibility for it).

Nominations close on 11 August, and the new Laureate will be announced on National Poetry Day, Friday 25 August 2017.

For further information and a nomination form.

A Little Poetry Shelf Diary: A weekend at Matahiwi Marae to launch our new Poet Laureate, CK Stead

 

IMG_3281.JPG

 

 

This weekend friends, family and poets gathered to join CK Stead celebrate his Poet Laureateship and the presentation of the tokotoko. It was a marvelous occasion that will stand in my memory for a long time. The weekend featured two key events. The formal and informal proceedings at Matahiwi Marae on the Saturday morning and a Poets’ Night Out in the evening.

With exemplary dedication to New Zealand poetry, Te Mata Estate’s Peter Buck and poet Bill Manhire established the award twenty years ago. In 2007, The National Library took over the administration, although the Buck family still remain involved, and donates a stipend of wine to the Laureates. Unlike most of the visitors, I got called onto the marae on the Friday evening with Chris Szekely and Peter Ireland from the National Library, and a number of their colleagues, including Oliver Stead and his son Isaac. Peter was the driving force behind detail of the weekend, and Ian Wedde’s moving tribute to him at The Circle of Laureates hit the mark. Thoughtful, attentive, committed to making a celebration fit for a Laureate. His back-up team are pretty special too (Joan, Cellia Joe, Lynette, Jason and Oliver).

Kaumatua Tom Mulligan and other members of the marae welcomed us with much aroha.

Joan, Cellia, Jason and I practiced some waiata back in the whare nui. CJ on ukulele.We crack up when CJ says all her family knows she can’t sing and she just fakes it. We are all fooled and I wonder what I can’t do but could fake and get away with.

On Friday night we hived off to Havelock North (one poet, five librarians) for dinner at Maine where the food was divine. We fell greedily into the comfort of the best hot chips ever and with that salty comfort digging deep into our bones were ready for whatever the weekend delivered. One plate of salmon with the best Niçoise salad and I was ready for a weekend of poetry and celebration.

 

 

 

Saturday morning

I got up early to walk in the near rain and saw a black cat stock still on a fence post eyeballing my lack of sleep. Not budging an inch until a car came down the gravel road and sent the cat sliding down like a snake into the golden corn. I had no idea what it meant. But it glowed with options.

 

CK Stead was called onto the marae with his whanau (around 20), poets Gregory O’Brien and Chris Price, her partner Robbie Duncan, and other guests. To have such family support felt very special. He is poetry but he is most definitely family. His daughter had travelled from London with her children.

After the formal speeches and the waiata exchanges, the tokotoko was presented to Karl by a kuia. She had such presence. Jacob Scott, who carves the tokotoko for each Poet Laureate said he had wanted to make a tokotoko for a gentleman and a scholar that could be used on a daily basis if needed. He had gained inspiration from Karl’s poem, ‘Scoria.’

Karl responded with a speech that mixed graciousness, humbleness, love. He said he was not only honoured by the role but honoured by the marae: ‘by being here, by your presence, by your aroha.’

Before he read a few poems, Karl talked about place, about the importance of one’s childhood occupation of place, and the way that place becomes one of return. He grew up with three maunga facing him whichever way he turned. He also underlined the primacy of poetry for him since his teenage days and the way he has ‘always come back to poems.’ With much humbleness, he added,’that’s why it is extraordinary at this late stage in my career as a writer to be honoured as Poet Laureate.’

Karl paused in his korero and then said; ‘I am getting advice from the tokotoko. We have to get used to one another.’

At that we all paused.

I am delighted that the Poet-Laureate role honours our elders, our writing taonga. It felt good to be part of the protocol. The talking. The listening. The exchange.

 

MC-ed by Marty Smith, the informal part of the morning was like a miniature poetry reading. As his invited poets, Chris, Gregory and I read a couple of poems and Chris sang a Bill Manhire song with her partner Robbie. What made this section special were the performances from local secondary students. One student used the analogy of a bird to explore the Poet Laureate’s original function to write poems on dictated subjects. She was keen to let a Laureate fly free! A student played a solo violin piece, one sang a Māori version of ‘Hallelujah,’ while another wrapped up the morning with Van Morrison’s ‘Moondance.’ Wonderful! I pictured us all dancing slow motion with the wind in our hair. Instead the wind whipped the music sheet up and away.

It was a morning of korero, waiata, music and poetry and it felt good to inhale both words and song. Nourishing. We moved to the whare kai where a tremendous lunch of fresh local produce matched the hubbub of conversation. You don’t get to experience many days like this in your lifetime. Such warmth, and connections.

 

Saturday night

Marty Smith was the MC extraordinaire in a poetry reading of two halves. It’s ages since I have heard Chris and Greg read, but to hear them read in this context was something special with poems handpicked for the Laureate occasion. Greg read a terrific poem now showcased in the selection of Best NZ Poems from 2015, while Chris confirmed that her new book is her best to date (we have an interview in the pipeline!). Three young opera singers from Project Prima Volta wowed us with two arias. The room befitted the occasion: white cloths on tables, astonishing flower/plant arrangements, platters of food, Te Mata wine. Karl started and ended the night and showed very clearly why he is Laureate. He read across his range and his last set gave me goosebumps. The clarity of voice, the poetic strata, the acute detail that makes you want to pick up your pen and write.

 

Sunday morning

Breakfast and poroporoaki for everyone on the marae. The goodbyes. At breakfast Karl and I talked about the weekend and how we both spent chunks of the night wide awake as though we had to rehearse the next day and analyse the day before. I probably had about two or three hours sleep a night and it seemed like a state of wakefulness that kept me on high alert. What had happened, what was about to happen. I had brought seven books to match most moods (everyone laughed at my big bag of duvet and books) but I only got to read snatches of The Lie Tree. The gap between YA fantasy and the marae was unbridgeable. I got up early and walked my way into wakefulness before Emma Scott, Jacob’s sister, took me out to the river mouth and then coffee at her brother’s house. To see the meeting waters, where river meets ocean, to soak up the gleam of sun on waves and estuary, felt like a poem on the surface of the world. We talked and we looked. Emma is a stone mason. We talked about poetry and we talked about stone. We talked about what holds things together. It matters that we hold up our treasured poets. Give them a place to stand and speak.

There was much korero after breakfast, and song. Chris and Robbie sang a mesmerising Bob Dylan number, almost lullabying me into necessary slumber.

Peter Ireland, running on empty after little sleep, spoke with characteristic thought and thanked everyone personally. It felt like a garland of words to wear out into the world of planes and trains and motorways. Or for me, a place of solitude and bush.

Jacob said it beautifully. He said that the Poet Laureate was significant for the marae. That it spread the hapu’s power and influence. That this is now Karl’s place as well. The undercurrent is that poetry matters. Jacob said it is significant ‘that the Poet Laureate can articulate the thoughts and expressions of who we are. Of what we can do. Of what we have got. And what we could do.’ Like a bird.

We all felt in debt to Tom Mulligan and his drawing together of this poetry clan. With much aroha and generosity of place, stories and a willing ear.

Our heads are full of days we cannot remember, but for many of us, this weekend will not be one of them.

Thank you. Especially Karl, The National Library and Matahiwi Marae.

 

 

 

The performances.

 

A quick trip into Havelock North to drink the best coffee and eat the best lemon tart in a cafe on the brink of closing for the day. Peter was a very good guide.

 

The writers, friends and family ate at Pipi Cafe, a cafe renowned for its love of poetry and its excellent pizzas in Havelock North.

Poets’ Night Out

 

 

IMG_3258

IMG_3276

The last morning.

A Circle of Laureates, a galaxy of poetry

This event prompted me to hunt for cheap fares to Wellington because it seemed like a rare and special poetry occasion. And it was! A sold-out event!

The National Library, as current administrator of the NZ Poet Laureate awards, hosted the evening as part of Wellington Writers Week.  John Buck from Te Mata Wines instigated the Laureateship in 1997, with Bill Manhire taking the debut spot. John was there with wine to share. He still retains an involvement.

Fergus Barrowman from VUP was the MC. He made the important point that the award is ‘an activist portfolio not just an honour.’ The earliest debut publication by a Laureate was in 1964 while the most recent debut was 1988.  Three generations of poets! Cilla McQueen and Michele Leggott calculated over 700 years of life/poetry experience across the ten laureates to date.

Bill Manhire (1997) spoke about what the Laureateship meant to him and the two ways it expanded his sense of what he might do as a poet, as a public figure. Firstly he began to write poems with some kind of public dimension. Secondly he explored the way the role centred on the promotion of poetry. He wanted to ‘talk it up.’ Both are options we can be thankful for. Bill’s poems that stand on a public stage are poems that embrace the knots and crests of humanity. I talked about the way ‘Hotel Emergencies’ does this on Summer Noelle in January.

Bill read ‘Erebus Voices’ and I sat there thinking this is a poem that belongs in the world and can be heard again. And again. And then again. Because it both moves and matters. Bill shows so adeptly the way poems can shift us to laughter, to wry grins at the surprise of it all, but also lead to far more unfathomable movements of the heart.

‘I am here beside my brother, terror./ I am the place of human error.’

I especially loved the way he started with the poem of a fellow poet. He ‘talked her poem up,’ and I fell in love with it all over again: Rachel Bush’s ‘The Strong Mothers.’

 

Hone Tuwhare was represented by his son Rob. We listened to Hone read ‘No Ordinary Sun,’ we listened to Rob read Hone and then Rob picked up his guitar and sang a Graham Brazier version of one of the poems. A version of friendship. Quiet, haunting, utterly melodic. This was love. Hairs standing on your arm on end from start to finish in the Tuwhare bracket.

‘Oh tree/ in the shadowless mountains/ the white plains and/ the drab sea floor/ your end is at last written.’

 

Elizabeth Smither read a cross section of poems that delighted the audience. But one as-yet-unpublished poem in particular stuck to me. Kate Camp, her mum and I – all went ‘wow.’ I adored the story of Elizabeth seeing her mother move through her house, the windows bright, unaware of the daughter driving by. By the time I got to congratulate her, dear Elizabeth had already signed her copy for Kate. How lovely! Like a bouquet of flowers. Elizabeth emailed the poem so I can read and write about it for my book.

‘It was all those unseen moments we do not see/ the best of a mother/ competent and gracious in her solitude’

 

Brian Turner with his delicious wit said: ‘I’ve been called a political animal many times and it’s not always a compliment!’ And that is what makes his poems so enduring. The way he hits the right pitch of land and sky but with a deep love that is unafraid to match beauty with issues. He read a cluster of short poems where every word sang. Gee whizz this was good. Here are few lines I loved without the line breaks (sorry):

‘and the shadows are mauve birthmarks on the hills’

‘If the sky knew half of what we were doing down here it would be inconsolable and we would have nothing but rain’

‘where a river sings, a river always sang’

See what I mean!

 

Jenny Bornholdt

Jenny rued the way Wellington Writers Week has dropped ‘readers’ from the title. She said she would reclaim readers, in the perfect setting (the library), with a longish poem: ‘A long way from home.’ This was a highlight for me. The poem is all about illness and reading; the ability to read and a time when it flees. Here are some sample lines:

‘How as a child, books were the lens// through which I eyed the muddy track to adulthood’

‘For six weeks now I’ve been outside weather/ and of reading. Outside of myself.’

‘I have tried to read but nothing/ sticks. That anchor of my life has been raised and// I’m all at sea.’

 

Michele Leggott, like Bill, brings poetry to a a public arena through her tireless promotion and expansive love. Michele read an extract from a long work (‘The Fasciclies’) that bridges Taranaki and Lyttelton, the 1860s and the 1970s, and the connections between two women.

My notebook is full of Persian-like doodles of birds and shapes interspersed with notes but, as I listened to Michele, my pen stalled. I felt like I could hear Robin Hyde with her luminous detail and observations in the seams. For this was luminous writing. There is a bridge between reader and poem. Sometimes you cross it. Sometimes it seems impassable. I just wanted to cross the bridge and read the whole poem.

You can find the whole piece here.

 

Cilla McQueen read ‘Ripples’ a long poem that showcases her strengths as a writer. It is in her latest collection, The Radio Room (2010). Another highlight. Other poets make an appearance, Joanna and Hone. Moving. Uplifting in a way.

‘After the funeral service you leaned down towards me out of a cloud;/  “Kia mau!” you shouted into my mind.’

Cilla McQueen’s memoir is due next week from Otago University Press.

 

Ian Wedde also has a childhood memoir out, The Grass Catcher, which is on my must-read list. Ian’s poetry produces my ideal poetry trifecta of relations: music, ideas, heart. Oh! And singing its way through, a sense of story. He read from ‘The Life Guard.’ Ha! It’s all here. Listen to the start:

‘You have to start somewhere/ in those morose times,/ / a clearing in the forest say,/ filled with golden shafts of sunlight// and skirmishes’

 

Vincent O’Sullivan has a new book out from VUP, which I am about to review for a newspaper, so perfect to hear him read his poetic contours. He has the ability to refresh anything. To tilt tropes, to enhance the music of a line, to poke you with an idea, to make you feel. Once again I got caught up in the moment of listening and didn’t catch lines in my notebook.

 

Ck Stead is the current Poet Laureate. He began with a poem about Allen Curnow, who he felt would have been Laureate if he had lived within the Laureate time span. Karl had struggled over whether to read a top-hit kind of poem or read new things. I know that feeling and first thought I would only ever read a poem once in public when first published. That soon fell by the wayside.

It was a moment of audience empathy as Karl confessed he thought he would read it, then wouldn’t, then finally after hearing Bill, decided he would. And we were glad, indeed, as he read an elegy for his mother. Utterly moving.

Poetry is such a love for Karl. He made this clear when I was filming his ‘thank you’ speech for the Sarah Broom Poetry Award. And hearing him read on this occasion, lifted the poems off the pages where I have loved them, to a new life in the air/ear.

from ‘Elegy’ but without that scattered layout that makes much of white space (sorry):

‘She’s there somewhere/ the ferryman/ assures me.// He tells me/ she was reluctant to go/ but silent – // stood in the prow/ no tears/ and never looked back.’

Karl filled the room with the warmth of poetry. Music. Heart. Ideas. A perfect end.

 

The tokotoko table, with all the talking sticks carved especially for each poet, was like a quilt with stories. I wished someone had held up the mother tokotoko for all to see and told that story. And indeed held up each tokotoko, for each tokotoko has its own.

Karl will get his at the Matahiwi ceremony in April. I am honoured to be part of this occasion along with Gregory O’Brien and Chris Price.

 

A Circle of Laureates was a magnificent occasion. I bumped into Elizabeth Knox the next day and we were both enthusing about how good it was. Peter Ireland from the National Library had put in all the hard work! Kindly acknowledged on the night by Ian. Every poet held my attention. There is a big age range here, but to me, it is a way of honouring our poetry elders.

As a poet, I write with one foot in the past and one foot in the future.I want to know who I’m writing out of. This is my tradition. This is my innovation. This circle.

It reminded me of Selina Tusitala Marsh’s’s poem ‘A Circle of Stones in her debut collection where she honours the women she writes from, towards and beside.

Thank you to everyone who made this event possible. It was worth my spur-of-the-moment cheap flight, my accidental data blow out, my misbooking home that meant a new booking, the chance to hear the Lauris-Edmond finalists, and losing myself in Jessie Mackay in The Alexander Turnbull Library.  Thirty-six hours of poetry. Heaven.

Thanks! Ten Poets Laureate to celebrate!