Tag Archives: NZ poetry interview

Poetry Shelf: Invitation Interviews – Mary McCallum interviews Jamie Trower

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Mary McCallum of Mākaro Press interviews debut poet Jamie Trower about his collection Anatomy, which they published under their Submarine imprint in 2015.

(for my review of the book see here)

 

Mary McCallum: As a new poetry publisher we get a lot of emails from people wanting to submit their collections of poetry. Some of those emails are like explosive devices — as soon as you open them you know you’re in danger. All the tiny words on the screen shimmer with the excitement of being written by someone for whom words are not simply tools or exciting ways to evoke the world of experience or imagination, but tiny rockets that have changed or saved a life.

This was the case when I opened an email from Aucklander Jamie Trower – a young man in his early twenties who had only just discovered poetry, but who had nonetheless crafted a whole collection that he wanted me to read. A collection of poems that charted his recovery from a terrible childhood brain injury that could have killed him.

What a ride. It felt to me reading Anatomy for the first time – and I continue to feel this – that Jamie had given himself permission to write how he wanted to write, and discover what he wanted to discover using words in a way that he’d never thought possible. With obvious delight he raged on the page, and laughed at and interrogated it. Words came and he connected them and lit the fuse. Which is not to say Jamie wasn’t open to editing. He was. He loved the whole process … more of a chance to play with words, more connections to fire. We published it, dear reader, and this week I talked to Jamie about the book so close to his heart – how he wrote it and why, and where to now.

 

M: What made you start to write poetry?
J: In the months of rehab after I sustained a severe brain injury as a nine-year-old, I learned to use a typewriter. I wrote sporadic, jumbled notes of how I was feeling and the changes I noticed in my wheelchair-bound body. I really started writing poetry after taking a creative writing course at the University of Auckland two years ago. It was then that I went back to the notes that I wrote in rehab and found myself expanding and stretching the words into poetry.

M: What do you like about it?
J: The beauty and ease of poetry. How a single moment can be expanded on, heightened, strengthened, transformed, stretched, redefined and moulded in a couple of lines. How a writer can adapt a thought, a feeling or an event so easily through compressed, rhythmic language.

M: Who are your poetry heroes? Are there any poets you try and emulate?
J: I am in awe of Sam Hunt, Paul Muldoon, Ben Okri – the list goes on! I think their writings are compelling and eloquently formed. I draw on their poetry quite a bit – how they use simple thoughts and words to create a big impact.
M: Your poetry collection feels like one long narrative poem about what you went through when you had a brain injury as a child – rather than lots of separate poems – do you see it that way?
J: Anatomy is definitely narrative in its structure: a start, middle and end. I tried to separate the poetic canvas by titling the poems – making it feel like more of a collection rather than a narrative – and pairing it with a traditional form of storytelling. I decided in the editing process to parallel poetry with prose to guide the reader, and to allow the emotion I felt to show through more.
M: In Anatomy you indicate the typewriter was an important tool in your rehab – is poetry also important as a form of therapy in getting over what happened to you?
J: Poetry will always be my rehab, my therapy, my hospital, my home. This use of self-expression and self-examination helped me (and still does) realise that I needed to take control of my own body, my own disability. I hope to continue to use the lessons that poetry has taught me for many years to come.

M: What are you writing now?
J: I’m writing my next poetry collection, and I’m brainstorming a novel on the side. I’m excited to see what comes of it!

M: Who are you reading?
J: Right now I’m reading Michele Leggott’s Heartland (for the tenth time, it feels). She very kindly came to the launch of Anatomy, which was very, very cool.

Mākaro Press page

Poetry Shelf interviews Sarah Jane Barnett — writing is an act of contemplation for me

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Photo credit: Matt Bialostocki

 

Sarah Jane Barnett has an MA in Creative Writing from Victoria University and a PhD from Massey University. Her poetry has been published in New Zealand, Australia, and the US, and anthologised in Best New Zealand Poems, Dear Heart: 150 New Zealand Love Poems (Godwit), and Essential New Zealand Poems: Facing the Empty Page (Random House). Her debut collection A Man Runs into a Woman (Hue & Cry Press, 2012) was a finalist in the 2013 New Zealand Post Book Awards. Sarah was the recipient of the Louis Johnson New Writers’ Bursary and the Estate Phoebe Maunsell Scholarship. Her second collection WORK has just been launched by Hue & Cry Press. Sarah teaches creative writing at Massey University.

To coincide with the arrival of WORK, Sarah agreed to do an interview with Poetry Shelf.

 

Did your childhood shape you as a poet? Did you write as a child?

I’ve written for my whole life, in one way or another. I remember entering a poetry competition as a kid, and at primary school we’d illustrate poems. I also remember going for walks as a kid and making up silly poems in my head. I never thought I’d be a writer, though. My undergrad is in Fine Arts and then I studied Museum Studies, so I spent many years working in the public sector and writing on the side. I couldn’t look at my writing full on, in case it was truly awful (and some of it was). It was as though I was teaching myself to write behind my own back!

Something changed around the time I wrote the death row poems for my first collection. There was an inescapable humanity about the material. I had to fully engage with the work in order to respect the stories of the inmates and their victims. After that I quit my job and did a PhD at Massey. Now I’m overqualified so there’s no going back.

 

Your new collection, Work, lifted me off the page into realms of delicious contemplation – particularly in view of character and narrative. It grew in me. You say ‘these poems are works of fiction that draw on real people’ and that you ‘worked hard to be faithful to the facts while also allowing room for the poem.’ That poetic room is a fertile space (I want to write about it in my new book!) engendering countless fascinating relations. Were you aiming for particular kinds of poetic activity?

I like that you’ve used the word contemplation, because writing is an act of contemplation for me, and I hope my poems spark contemplation in a reader. I’m not sure that’s the same as ‘poetic activity.’ I know that I wanted the poems to be realistic, so set in the real world, with the sun rising at a real time and the flora and fauna being factual to a real landscape that any reader could visit. That was my way of honouring the people whose stories I drew from, and the landscapes they dwelt in, by making them as round and beautiful and burnished as I could.

But I also wanted the poem to be more than that – for it to be a fictional construction that explored what it is to be human. For each poem to be knowing that it was this imagined thing, created from language. In that sense each poem’s ‘realness’ is in being a poem. The main character in ‘Addis Ababa’ is a translator for this reason. Not only is it a nice metaphor for how he ‘translates’ his life from one country to another, but it was a way for me to explore how different languages, in his case Amharic and English, shape experience. It also points to how the poet ‘translates’ the world into poetry. I’m not sure where this preoccupation comes from, but I’m intrigued by the liminal space between fact and fiction (and, for that matter, poetry and prose). We all have stories that we tell ourselves in the on-going narrative of our life and identity. I think there’s value in questioning those stories.

 

I also loved ‘Glaciers’ and its multiple levels, overlaps and smudgings. It is a mysterious poem, a haunting poem – yet it embraces something utterly fundamental. Notions of family. I loved the different reactions that the poem drew from me; I was moved, perplexed and delighted in the myriad cryptic hinges. As I read the poem, and navigated the potent maternal traces, I wondered how being a mother affects your writing. Does it?

On a very practical level I have less time to write. At the start it was very difficult as he was a baby and I was finishing my PhD. There were some black days during that time (which is partially what ‘Glaciers’ is about). That said, having Sam actually helped my writing. I’ve had to learn how to stop the critical voice that fuels procrastination because he’s only in childcare 24 hours a week. That’s all I get! There’s no time to do it later.

At the moment I use the Pomodoro technique to get started. I set a timer for 25 minutes and write without stopping or editing. Then I have a five minute break (I write at home so usually I make a coffee or do the vacuuming or hang out the washing – such glamour!). That’s one ‘pomodoro’ and you’re meant to do four in a row before taking a 30 minute break. By the time I’m into my third pomodoro I’m away and can generally write for four hours at a stretch. So having Sam has been good for developing a stable and on-going writing practice. Also, and I’m going to get soppy here, he’s the most joyous and glorious human. He’s totally and entirely himself without reservation. Being around him makes me brave, which makes my writing brave as well.

 

What writers have mattered to you? Some may have mattered as a reader and others may have been crucial in your development as a writer.

That’s such a hard question to answer. So many of my friends are writers, and talking to them often feels like one long amazing master class! I also have a super writer’s group which has been going since 2007 when we had a studio in an old zipper factory on Tennyson Street.

That said, WORK is dedicated to my doctoral supervisors Bryan Walpert and Jack Ross, and to my publisher Chloe Lane. So those three – they’re all writers alongside the other hats they wear – have been mentors to me in different but crucial ways. Bryan especially; he has mentored me for the last six years, first as a teacher at Massey, and then as an academic and a poet during my PhD. You need to be tough to work with Bryan. He knew I could go further with my work, but like most writers I had self doubt and a lack of clarity about what I wanted to say. He kept on pushing and pushing until I stepped up. He will hate me saying this because he dislikes gushiness and sentimentality, but he’s a brilliant mind and an outstanding teacher. I’ve learned more about poetry from him than anyone else. It’s also why I’ve continued to teach at Massey. I want to be able to do that for other writers.

In terms of poets, Robert Hass and Anne Kennedy have both had a huge influence on my work. I wrote my doctorate on Hass, and while I know he’s not to everyone’s taste, I’m still deeply moved by his work. I’m in a life long relationship with his first four collections! Anne Kennedy’s The Time of the Giants was one of those collections that shifted my world. She’s simply amazing. It was my first introduction to contemporary long form poetry and now I can’t stop.

 

Hue & Cry Press author page

Sarah’s blog

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Poetry Shelf interviews Joan Fleming – ‘My only rule is to write from the gut, not from the head’

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Photo Credit: Ben Speare

Victoria University Press has just published Joan Fleming’s second poetry collection: Failed Love Poems, a book in which I found so much to admire. Joan graduated with an MA in Creative Writing at IIML, where she was awarded the Biggs Prize in 2007. She is currently working on a Doctorate in ethnopoetics at Monash University in Melbourne. Her debut poetry collection, The Same as Yes was published by Victoria University Press in 2011. Along with Anna Jaquiery, Joan recently edited Verge 2015, a literary journal from Monash University. It is a terrific issue – I reviewed and highly recommended it here.

 

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To celebrate the arrival of her new collection, Joan agreed to be interviewed.

 

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 read constantly as a kid and kept journals. Shel Silverstein, fantasy YA novels with animal characters, kid romances, and a collection of ‘morality’ storybooks with titles like Courage: the Helen Keller story are what I remember reading and re-reading. I had an imaginary friend named Becky, and I think I was a bit fey, always off with the pixies or tucked into a corner, praying under my umbrella. But I was a performer, too. I would do anything goofy, just to be looked at. I was an easy child, but a strange one. I wonder if you can see that in my poems now.

 

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

The poems that carved early grooves in my mind were often lived or shared, somehow. I would memorise poems and recite them to my own head as I walked through Wellington. Paul Muldoon’s “Wind and Tree” is now inextricably Kelburn; Hopkins’ “The Windhover” is Lambton Quay. I discovered Anne Carson and wanted to inscribe everything she’d written on the inside of my body. I carried her “Town” poems with me, like “Town of Uneven Love”: “If he had loved me he would have seen me. / At an upstairs window brow beating against the glass.” See how you can walk yourself deeper and deeper into that poem?! I have an intense memory of drunkenly reading sections of Howl aloud to a living room of people, not all of them friends, and then going out into the alleyway behind the house to cry. Music had a similar effect. The poetry of Radiohead and Bonnie Prince Billy can still bring me to my knees. For me, it was about rhythm, emotion, suggestion. And poetry having palpable effect, an effect you couldn’t escape, even if you wanted to.

 

I love the way your poems refresh the page. There is an elasticity of grammar, a tilt of perspective, dazzling connections and disconnections, an originality that furnishes a distinctive voice. What are some key things for you when you write a poem?

My only rule is to write from the gut, not from the head. I know when I’m writing from the head. What happens is this flat, crass, nasal voice squats in my frontal lobe and won’t shut up, saying, “this is what a poem should do.” When I’m writing from the gut, there are no directives. Only sensation, surprise, connection, music, and feeling. It takes a lot of time and a lot of reading to get the gut working, but it’s the only way.

 

I adore the inventive syntax at work in your poems; a syntax that replays ambiguity and honeyed fluency all in one breath. Are there any other poets that have fed your syntactical inventiveness?

Anne Carson and Gertrude Stein are heroes of odd syntax for me. Jerome Rothenberg’s pseudo-translations of ritual poetries have also been influencing my practices of fragment and invention.

 

Deletion and erasure is a potent device (so apt for revelations and concealments when it comes to matters of the heart). Whereas Mary Ruefle whites out part of a poem in order to create something new, you have used bold black as an erasure tool. It steps away from a thing of aesthetic beauty as we witness on Mary’s page to something far harder hitting. Like a gut kick. Can you talk a little bit about notions of erasure in this collection?

Do they hit hard? That’s good. A couple of the blacked-out poems are angry ones. Erasure turned out to be a way of protecting certain subjects and lending torque to poems that gave too much away. The act of erasure also feels thematic – we perform conscious or unconscious erasures on our memories of love. We select moments and lenses; we tell ourselves a story, that casts the beloved in golden or bitter light. Blackout was a way of enacting that selectivity of the mind – the mind’s failure to tell itself the whole truth about love.

 

‘Things’ are palpable. They send you on a goose-bump trail such as with paper or sugar or biscuits. At the start of ‘First loss’: ‘When we met, all the songs were about loss,/ all the television shows contained it,/ it was in everything, like sugar.’ And then a little later: ‘your eyes gone hurt and biscuity with broken/ light and hunger.’ What do you want things to do in your poems?

Sometimes I want things to be persons. To have personhood, agency, worldview. Or be receptacles for emotional energies that can’t possibly be named.

 

At the heart of the book – love. Like a word repeated to the point it is drained of meaning and vitality, love can be elusive. Reading the poems love felt like a human glue. To know love is to have lost love, could that be true? To lose love, is to know love. To have lost love is to invent love, could that be so? What discoveries did you make as you wrote? Or is this only to be discovered as you live?

There is one monstrously important relationship whose aftermath I put to rest in these poems. There are still poems in the book I can’t re-read without getting choked up. I know confessional poetry is unfashionable, but candid, passionate, stirring writing is what I am always looking for. Those are the poems I value. That particular relationship was a ‘failure’ according to the standard narrative. We were together for years, but we didn’t marry, we didn’t have children, it didn’t end when one of us died. But it’s impossible to call it a failed relationship. It was a success. It didn’t last, but in the end (the last sequence in the book is named as much, “The End,”), it made us both larger and more capable of giving and receiving love.

 

I loved the proseness of the poetry/ the poetry of the prose. Would you write a novella or a novel?

I tried to write a novel a couple of years ago, but it was a dreadful, a plot-less, cringingly autobiographical mess. I’ve entertained the idea of writing a pulp novel about non-monogamy, Confessions of a Call Girl–style (surely it would be a bestseller!?), or a historical novel about my grandparents’ time as missionaries in Central Australia. Though I worry about becoming one of those writers who dilutes her craft by spreading it too thinly. Fiction is an art form I have huge admiration for, but I’m a total novice at it until further notice!

 

You recently spent time in the Outback. How did that vastness and colour infiltrate your writing?

Yes! Absolutely it has. That time helped strengthen my intuition. Weeks on end in the desert will do strange things to your body-perceptions. The land starts to talk to you, and you can’t help but listen, because it is working on your moods and your dreams.

I’m writing about that time in the Outback now. About my relationships with Yapa (Aboriginal) friends and worldview. I suppose the full effect of that desert-infiltration will show itself in time.

 

What New Zealand poets are you drawn to now?

Some of the New Zealand poets I’m most excited about haven’t even published full collections yet: Hera Lindsay Bird, Loveday Why, Nina Powles, Lee Posna, Bill Nelson, Emma Barnes, and Sugar Magnolia Wilson. I also want to read everything written by Ashleigh Young, Sarah Jane Barnett, Rachel O’Neill, and Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle. It’s the next generation I’m most drawn to, though poets Jenny Bornholdt and Dinah Hawken still loom large.

 

Joan Fleming’s webpage

Victoria University Press page

Poetry Shelf interviews Kerrin P Sharpe – I want the reader in my poems to be like a pilgrim

Kerrin P Sharpe-Poetry Shelf 2015    

 Kerrin P Sharpe lives in Christchurch where she teaches Creative Writing in schools and at The Hagley Writers’ Institute. In 2008 she was awarded The New Zealand Post Creative Writing Teacher’s Award from the Institute of Modern Letters. She was a student in Bill Manhire’s original writing composition class at Victoria University in 1976. Last year, Victoria University Press launched There’s A Medical Name for This. Her previous collection with VUP was entitled Three Days in a Wishing Well (2012). I gave her latest poetry collection a glowing review earlier this year (link below) — it was one of my standout poetry reads of 2014.

 

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?

As a child I was raised on a rich diet of fairy tales and Enid Blyton stories. I loved Noddy and Big Ears and the stories of the Far Away Tree which my father read to me at bed time. I wrote stories and won a few competitions at school. What else did I do? Like most children I loved riding my bike and helping my brothers build treehouses.

 

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

At Wellington Teachers’ College (as it was then) and at Victoria University I discovered the poetry of Sam Hunt, Gary McCormack and Bill Manhire and they introduced me to a whole new world of words and images that I loved. I was fortunate to be taught at Victoria by Bill Manhire: it was he in the end who was responsible for lighting the poetry writing fire in me. He encouraged what became a lifelong passion for poetry and creative writing and in a way he was and is my poetry writing “hero”. One of the funny, eccentric quirks that I developed around this time (and which my husband still reminds me of) was wearing a special black hat upside down when I was writing poetry. It seemed to work and I did it for many years!

 

I love the way your poems can be strange and slightly surreal in part but always lay anchors down in an acute realness. What are some key things for you when you write a poem?

When I write I try to ask myself:

  1. What is this poem trying really trying to tell me?
  2. What is the ‘right’ point of view for this poem?
  3. For me every poem has a “trigger”- some idea, story or image or suchlike that triggers the creative process and commences the creation and birth to a new poem. But there is also a point in writing one of my poems that I ask myself, “Is it time now to move on from the ‘trigger’? Where is the life of the poem taking me?”

 

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Your latest collection, There’s a Medical Name for This, contains a number of poems that astonished me. Not often I say this! In my review I suggested it wasn’t just a handful of poems that did so, and that it was ‘not in a flaming extravagant way, but in ways that are at more of an alluring whisper. These poems are imbued with little droplets of incident, image, tension.’ Is there a book that has astonished you like this?

Yes there is Anthony Doerr’s The Shell Collector which does just that every time I go back to it. It is a collection of short stories and I feel the characters are always waiting there on standby for me to re-enter their astonishing and enchanting world. All I have to do is to open the collection and read one of the stories and I am back in their world discovering new things I had never even noticed before. It’s wonderful!

 

Characters are important in these poems. I see them as an amalgam of invention and autobiography and yet more than that. They are shoes to be filled. What did you want the characters to do in the poems? Where did you draw them from?

I believe characters are central to the success of a poem. I keep reminding myself that they want to be heard but their role is always to show, to hint, to suggest, even to foreshadow but never to “tell” – and sometimes I forget that – to my peril!

Often the characters in my poems are drawn from my past, people I knew many years ago who remain alive in my imagination. Sometimes my characters come from people I have read about; sometimes from figures in history (often obscure people whose lives interest and intrigue me). I often write in restaurants and I hear fascinating snippets of conversations that soon pop into one of my poems. I also often meet the most interesting characters in places like MacDonald’s; I’m amazed at the variety of people who come in and the meetings they have there. There are some fascinating characters that I just can’t wait to slip into my poems. They always get changed in the poems of course with different overlays of imagination but the original characters are so interesting.

 

I finished my review with these words: To read these poems is to be a pilgrim – tasting the sweet and sour bite of the land, feeling the lure of travel and elsewhere, entering the space between here and there that is utterly mysterious, facing a terrific moment of epiphany. Would you agree that this is poetry of movement and that movement highlights both light and dark?

I am so pleased you picked up on the pilgrim motif in many of my poems. I want the reader in my poems to be like a pilgrim, journeying through light and darkness ending up in some curious way like the Godwit in one of my poems, in the place where they originally began their journey but all the richer in experiences from the pilgrimage.

 

Subject matter is eclectic in this collection (ponies, illness, birds, snow, familial relations). Are there motifs and topics you find yourself returning to, again and again?

I like to steal from myself both lines and motifs and even topics. Themes like injustice and war are important to me. I also find myself returning again and again to the sea, the stars and to the horse.

 

I particularly loved the earthquake poem at the start of the book. How have the earthquakes affected your life as a writer, your process of writing?

The Christchurch earthquakes were a frightening time for all of us who went through them. They never seemed to stop; one after shock after another. It made me feel so impermanent and I found myself driven for a time to write with great urgency, almost as if every moment was a last chance.

 

What do you want readers to take away from these new poems?

Sometimes I would like to know why someone walks into a bookshop, picks up my book and reads it. What are they looking for and what do they find when they read my poems?

For me, I would like my readers to take away images and lines from my poems that creep into their minds and suddenly emerge when they least expect it. I would like the images and lines they take from my poems to make important connections with their own lives.

 

Do you have filters at work as you write? A need to conceal for the sake of the poem and for the sake of self?

With me poems generally spring from an initial “trigger” that gets the creative process going. As I write I begin to fictionalise situations very early on and “flashes of truth” emerge in the poem. Sometimes, as I write, I reverse situations so that they are the opposite of what might initially have triggered the poem. I suppose in a way these are all filters that are at work when I am writing. Some of the filters are consciously applied; others are perhaps more instinctive.

 

Do you think it makes a difference when the pen is held by a woman?

Men and women often see things differently and no doubt their writing expresses this, but in writing, the differences between men and women in my experience are less significant to writing than the differences that arise from our own unique individual experiences of life.

 

I gave you a glowing review of your latest book. How do you manage reviews that aren’t so positive (if you have ever had any!)?

Sometimes I think my poetry is perhaps a little unconventional both in the things I write about and my style of writing. I’m a little difficult to pin down and categorise as a writer – perhaps I’m a little eccentric! So it doesn’t entirely surprise me if a reader or critic finds my poetry a little unusual. Generally however reviewers have been very kind to me and that has been very reassuring.

 

 

You have taught Creative Writing at a number of age levels. What rewards do you reap from this experience?

I love teaching creative writing and have taught all levels from young children through to adults. Some of my happiest writing experiences have been with young children; we can all be a little crazy and creative together and I find their freshness and freedom with words so exciting. They enter new worlds so easily and with so much trust in a way that only children can do.

 

I agree! What irks you in poetry?

Sometimes I read poetry that doesn’t seem to be saying anything. It is almost as if it has been written to a formula; it has no inner passion or feeling. Sometimes I also see poems that are too obviously modelled on someone else’s writing – they don’t feel authentic.

 

What delights you?

I like images in a poem that move, grow and develop as you read further into the poem developing greater layers of meaning and resonance and constantly delighting you as you uncover greater and lovelier insights. Sometimes there are lines in a poem that stand out for you and which you come back to over and over again; they resonate in your mind and you find yourself repeatedly quoting the lines to yourself. It reminds you again of the power of poetry to open the door to a rich inner life where things are different.

 

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.

I keep coming back to poets like Bill Manhire, Bernadette Hall, Frankie McMillan, Vincent O’Sullivan, Sarah-Jane Barnett, Jenny Bornholdt and Siobhan Harvey. We have a lot of very good poets in New Zealand and many of them like the ones I have mentioned are so encouraging and supportive. Without them I would never have grown as a poet.

 

What New Zealand poets are you drawn to now?

Over the last year I have especially enjoyed new collections from Caoilinn Hughes, Marty Smith and Chris Tse.

 

Name three NZ poetry books that you have loved.

Three that spring to mind are:

Lifted by Bill Manhire

There Are No Horses in Heaven by Frankie McMillan

Your own book: Making Lists for Francis Hodgkins by Paula Green

 

What about poets from elsewhere?

I like:

Ruth Pradel – an English poet and academic who has a great gift for the analysis of poetry

Tomas Transtomer – A Swedish master I admire

Mary Ruefle – an American poet whose powerful imagery is outstanding

Ted Hughes – his interweaving of nature and poetry is still unsurpassed and his poetic craft is superb

 

Any other reading areas that matter to you?

I like reading about creative writing and how other writers go about writing poetry. I find it fascinating reading about their daily work routines, how they overcome “writing block”, what they think about the world of creative writing — in fact anything that gives me insights into the “secrets of the dark arts” of writing good poetry.

I have found Kevin Brophy’s Creative Writing and Richard Hugo’s Triggering Town two of the best books around and I keep coming back to them.

 

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?

I must admit I regularly break most of the rules! I don’t use capital letters and rarely use formal punctuation. However there are some “rules” I still abide by. I am careful with words that end in “-ing”. I rarely use “but”. I am vigilant about line lengths and line breaks. I still believe that the purpose of a poem is to “show” not “tell”.

 

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

Much to everyone else’s frustration I have no interest whatsoever in social media and I don’t use technology unless I really have to. I continue to handwrite my poems with sharpened pencils and writing journals!

 

The constant mantra to be a better writer is to write, write, write and read read read. You also need to live! What activities enrich your writing life?

I’m happily married to my best friend and critic and we do a lot together. My four grown-up children and their lives and challenges are a huge part of my life. And of course my creative writing students bring joy and interest to each day.

 

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?

I always take Bill Manhire’s Selected Poems when I’m travelling or waiting somewhere. They keep me inspired and wanting to be a creative writer.

 

My review of There’s a Medical Name for This

Victoria University Press page

 

 

Poetry Shelf interviews Morgan Bach: ‘finding my way into a poem is not something I can force’

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Morgan Bach’s debut poetry collection, Some of Us Eat the Seeds, is to be launched today by Victoria University Press at Unity Books (details here). A graduate of the IIML MA in Creative Writing Programme, Morgan was awarded the Briggs Family Prize for Poetry. She currently lives in Wellington. To celebrate the arrival of this terrific new collection, Morgan agreed to be interviewed by Poetry Shelf.

 

Did your childhood shape you as a poet? What did you like to read? Did you write as a child? What else did you like to do?

I suppose it must have… I think being a shy child (because of living in the wops when I was very small) who kind of watched everyone set me up as both a bit of an outsider and definitely an observer. I suspect I came across as a bit of a creep! I certainly didn’t really meet any other kids I actually felt a proper kinship with until I met my friend who’s an amazing writer… That seems more significant than ever now.

I remember reading a book called Mr Rabbit and the Lovely Present (which Sendak had illustrated I believe, but I can’t remember who the author was… Charlotte someone I want to say), and finding it made me sad for a reason I couldn’t understand, and I think now it might have just been the tone of the whole thing, the miniature story that almost worked like a simple narrative poem, with an undercurrent of sadness and isolation that (now I think of it) would have resonated with me. Of course, it was a child’s picture book and I was about 3… but I suppose I found that story cathartic in a way and so I’m therefore assuming words were important to me early on. I remember singing a lot as a child, and it always being more about the words for me.

I did write, but not with any great purpose. Or rather, everything I started (outside of school) got abandoned pretty quickly. There are some hilarious bits and pieces though that have survived in family archives and prove me to have been a cynical and doomy child.

I always read a lot, all sorts, mostly fiction though in the first couple of decades of life.

 

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

Oh heck, I can’t remember now… So many over the years it all just kind of layers up as compost on the brain – turn it over and you can’t distinguish the origins of the matter anymore.

 

I love the way your poems have anchors in the real world (such sumptuous detail) but are unafraid to negotiate things less physical (states of mind, philosophical ideas). In other words, your poems take root in the world you inhabit and that includes inchoate worlds within the mind. They are inventive, suggestive, intelligent, at times puzzling (I like that!). What are some key things for you when you write a poem?

Thank you! I think that’s right – or at least that’s a balance I hope to strike. I wonder if that approach comes from how active my dream life can be. Sometimes it almost dominates with its use of my energy – waking up can be relaxing.

I think the key thing for me finding my way into a poem is that it’s not something I can force. It has almost never yet worked when I’ve tried to force it – I imagine most writers feel the same? I think that’s why I seem (to this point in time) to be incapable of writing to traditional form. The results are fit only for burning.

What I have realised over the process of writing this book is that I actually don’t write a lot on paper… most of it seems to happen in my head. But once it’s on paper not that much gets thrown away… the survival rate of poems is pretty high so far! I’m sure that will change over time. But yeah, currently I find it takes a phrase or idea to kind of catch in my head (like getting a song stuck) and then weaving my way out from that point. I say weaving as it’s then a process of tying the more ephemeral aspects to the concrete world. That’s my preferred space I guess.

 

Your debut collection, Some of Us Eat the Seeds, struck several intoxicating chords with me. I stalled in the first section, with the evocative family poems catching me at every turn. What are the pitfalls and the benefits of drawing family, familial relations, into poems?

Pitfalls – I’m already worried that some of the family will think I’m talking about them when I’m not. I’m a little worried they’ll think I’m claiming things they’ve experienced differently with too much authority. But the thing is, you can’t think about that or you’re censoring from the brain and that’s crippling. And as I’ve said to my mother – the poems they’re in aren’t actually about them, or if they are, they’re about my memory of them… they’re inevitably about me. Benefits – It’s just that they’re the people that populated my world back then… I’m not sure why I wrote about it. I didn’t set out to write poems about family or familial relations but it worked out that way anyway… I’m kind of hoping I’m done with it though. I prefer (or am more comfortable with) the poems in that section that aren’t about my family.

 

In a poem that took me back to games of spotlight, ‘Night in the forest,’ the power of the dark for a child with a torch, on and then off, became the power of the dark for a poet for me. Would you agree there are ways in which your poetry nudges the dark (dread, for example)?

Yeah definitely – and nudging is the right word, in that it’s both rubbing up against and gently testing. I adore this quote from Rebecca Solnit (the essayist) on Woolf (who I also love): ‘It’s the job of writers and explorers to see more, to travel light when it comes to preconception, to go into the dark with their eyes open.’ I feel like that’s a motto to live and write by.

 

Going back to the notion of poetic strands (physical, thematic, abstract for example), I loved the way ‘thought’ bravely makes itself visible in lines and phrases. (‘The past is a tether/ you don’t need to wear’). Do you think poems can be enhanced by ideas flickering on their hems?

Yes I feel like ideas (as visible thoughts) can often do something good in a poem. I seem to be unable to avoid doing my thinking on paper… But more than that, I feel like reading into a poem where there is active thinking presented, that you then relive in your own temporal experience of reading, can at times walk you into a space where you’re staring the writer bang in the eyes – or it can feel that way. Like getting lost in the eyes of someone in a portrait (I mean in a painting or photograph) – the static art object or defined collection of words expands somehow, and you’re in a little world of connection through that thought (which I’m equating here to a brain-stare haha – see what happens when I think as I write?!)

 

The final section of poems brings to life states of mind of the adult (love, desire, discovery, betrayal, heartache, recognition). What difference does it make when you write the adult as opposed to writing the child?

Unfortunately I think there’s a bit of a cynical streak across the whole lot… I suppose that’s because the adult is remembering (re-membering even) the child, and so colours experience a certain way (‘memory makes its own myths’ to quote myself). What difference does it make … Well I think I feel more comfortable writing the adult, because something about childhood makes me uneasy. I think it did at the time. I would certainly never go back. I don’t think I was ever a comfortable child, and I’m really enjoying aging. I feel like the ‘adult’ poems here are still kind of young though… I’m looking forward to seeing what I’m writing in another 10 years. The other thing is I suppose there’s more risk in writing the adult. Everyone’s inventing childhood through memory, but the adult carries an implication of self (even if it’s a fiction). I quite enjoy that risk though, so far…

 

Yes, a different implication of self than the smudgy thing a child navigates. Are there filters at work? A need to conceal for the sake of the poem and for the sake of self?

Heck yes. I’d say that seeming to reveal a great deal can be the best way to conceal what is most private. That said, most of my filters are for the sake of the poem. There are plenty of fictions or elaborations, which hopefully get to a more truthful truth.

 

What do you want readers to take away from your debut collection?

A feeling of resilience and self-reliance perhaps. It’s not a particularly cheery book but I think it’s kind of hopeful…

 

I can see those threads. You definitely fall upon nuggets of hope (light). You have studied Creative Writing at IIML at Victoria University. What key things did you take from this experience?

That reading and critiquing other people’s work is often the best way to work out what you need to do to your own work. That it’s a hell of a lot of work to write a book in that short span of time, but it’s so very worth giving yourself the opportunity to do it if you can. I loved the MA year at the IIML. It was the kind of experience I’d hankered after for so long and such a rare opportunity to just focus on reading and writing with a bunch of people who are as nerdy about it as you are. I wish I could do it again, really.

 

You acknowledge a writing group in your endnotes. How does this nourish your writing?

I’ve been in a few writing groups since doing the MA. One with my MA class… though we’re currently flagging! Come on guys!

My most productive one of late is with a bunch of damn fine and interesting Wellington poets at various career ‘stages’ or perhaps spaces is a better word, and with different kinds of poetry goals. It’s exciting to see their new work in early and sometimes quite raw form, and to be spurred on to write for our little deadlines. Also the camaraderie – I think that’s important.

 

What irks you in poetry?

Abstraction that isn’t tied to anything concrete, too much of a cerebral remove, or if it’s so academic as to be exclusive of almost everyone. Word play for the sake of sound alone – I understand that it has merit but I just can’t take it myself – you know what I mean, that stuff that is a bit like a toddler practicing with their tongue and vocal cords but is just essentially human white noise. I guess that’s my wanting a brain-stare again.

 

What delights you?

When you encounter poems that make you feel like your brain has been through a car wash. I don’t mean some ‘great revelation’ has occurred but just a combination of sense/sound/image/thought that creates that almost magic adrenalin behind the eyes feeling. I really hope I can make something like that one day…

 

What New Zealand poets are you drawn to now?

Oh I never know how to answer these questions, partly because there are too many and partly because ‘favourites’ lists feel too intimate/revealing to me. I know that’s weird… I’d rather tell you my full medical history or something. HA!

There are so many NZ poets that I love – I still read more NZ poetry than stuff from overseas. I’d basically just list everyone.

I will say that I am so excited about Joan Fleming’s forthcoming collection, if her recent poems are anything to go by. We have a few in Issue 2 of Sweet Mammalian and they are so good. I love how she has these little turns in some of her poems, a really interesting movement, and lines that just kind of kick you in the guts. Can’t wait.

I stand by my many previous claims that Ashleigh Young is the most interesting writer (poetry included) of our generation. I, like a lot of people, am hankering after another collection from her.

I’d like to shout out to what my Sweet Mammalian co-eds do too, Hannah Mettner and Sugar Magnolia Wilson, who are both wonderful clever and gutsy poets (though very different) and are constantly blowing me away with their delicious brains.

 

Any other reading areas that matter to you?

Yes, all of them… Who does not love a good essay? And nothing is more transporting than a novel that’s so good you forget to get up from your seat for hours even to eat. Also music – I mean good lyrics. I can’t listen to music unless I like the lyrics. It’s a totally different craft than poetry of course but it’s still important to me for the brain-compost.

 

Some poets argue that there are no rules in poetry and all rules are to be broken. Do you agree? Do you have cardinal rules?

The only rules I’ve tried to set myself so far are:

  • Don’t censor from the brain
  • Don’t try to make ‘yourself’ look good to the detriment of truth
  • Everything is layered – language, interaction, assigned meaning, just actual life – and so should a poem be.

I just made those up now, but I reckon they’ve been in there, unspoken.

 

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

To be honest I find it a bit overwhelming. I personally don’t feel I have time for both life and Twitter, though I see that it’s productive and enriching for other people. I’m only ever lurking or dutifully responding there. I use Facebook sometimes willingly and sometimes with a feeling of entrapment. I find it more conversational and so more useful, though I just duck in and out these days. I actually like Instagram the best, as I find it the least taxing. Perhaps when life is less busy I’ll find it all useful…

 

The constant mantra to be a better writer is to write, write, write and read read read. You also need to live! What activities enrich your writing life?

I think travel is the main one for me. It’s always been my default day dreaming space. I suppose it puts me into that outsider/observer role and also just bombards the senses with the new. I’ve been craving it so much… I’ve been waiting to get the book out before heading off again, for an as yet undecided ‘while’. I’m hoping somewhere along the way I’ll find my way into whatever the next project is.

 

Finally if you were to be trapped for hours (in a waiting room, on a mountain, inside on a rainy day) what poetry book would you read?

Just one? Too hard… I’ll stare out the window being indecisive instead.

 

Victoria University Press author page

My review of Some of Us Eat the Seeds.

Friday Poem on Poetry Shelf; Morgan Bach’s ‘In pictures’

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf interviews Gregory O’Brien — The poem has to dive down into and surface from some essential state of being

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Gregory O’Brien at Tjibaou Cultural Centre, Noumea, March 2015

Photo Credit: Elizabeth Thomson

 

Gregory O’Brien is the  2015 Stout Memorial Fellow at the Stout Research Centre, Victoria University, where he is currently working on a book about poetry, painting and the environment. His new collection of poems is Whale Years (Auckland University Press). He has published numerous books of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Since 2011 he has contributed to the ongoing Kermadec art project, works from which are on show at the Tjibaou Cultural Centre, New Caledonia, until July.

 

 

 

The interview

 

‘Ocean sound, what is it

you listen for?’

 

Did your childhood shape you as a poet? What did you like to read? Did you write as a child?

As far as I can recall, I drew more than I painted. And I always gravitated towards illustrated books—Tove Jansson’s ‘Moomin’ books stand out, and I remember The Lord of the Rings, as much for its illuminated maps as for the words. I went through a phase of reading comics—Whizzer & Chips rather than Batman. I date my interest in the interplay of words and visual images to those early encounters.

I doodled at every available opportunity and I remember being hauled out of class and punished for drawing, rather well, a crouching deer on the inside cover of my maths book. I usually captioned my drawings—so maybe those captions could be thought of as my first writings. Occasionally I filled in speech- or thought-balloons above various life-forms.

 

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 can trace this pretty exactly, I think. Aged 14: Bob Dylan’s ‘Writings & Drawings’. Aged 15: Dylan Thomas. Aged 16: James K. Baxter and Flann O’Brien (I liked to pretend Flann was an actual relative. I even screen-printed his book-title AT SWIM-TWO-BIRDS on a singlet—an item I still have in my wee box of treasures.) Aged 17: John Cage (Silence, and A Year from Monday). By the age of 18, I was living in Dargaville, and it was as if everybody suddenly jumped on board the NZ Road Services bus or bandwagon—I was reading Kenneth Patchen, William Blake, Edith Sitwell, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, e e cummings; also Allen Curnow, Janet Frame, Sam Hunt… I had known about Eileen Duggan for some years, because she was a relative, on my mother’s side. More than anything else, however, it was discovering Robin Dudding’s journal ISLANDS that turned my world around, that brought the whole business home…. Therein I discovered Ian Wedde, Bill Manhire, Elizabeth Smither, CK Stead…

 

Did university life transform your poetry writing? Theoretical impulses, research discoveries, peers?

I was six years out of school by the time I finished my BA, so my university life was mixed in, very much, with everything else that was going on: with 15 months in Dargaville, a year or so in Sydney… At university, I certainly wasn’t drawn to theory except in so far as I thought it was a grand imaginative game that might, periodically, yield unpredictable and outlandish results. I enjoyed the pottiness of Ezra Pound’s literary (rather than his political) theorising… An ABC of Reading is a great book. Probably the Zen-inclined John Cage and the Trappist Thomas Merton were the two non-fiction writers I held closest to me.

 

Reading your poetry makes me want to write. I love the way your poems delve deep into the world, surprisingly, thoughtfully yet never let go of the music of the line. Words overlap and loop and echo. There is an infectious joy of language at work. What are key things for you when you write a poem?

I listen to a lot of music. I want the poems to have something of the music that I love. I spend a lot of my time looking at art. And I want my poems to have something of the art that I love. There are aspects of composition, tone, rhythm and character which span all these different creative modes. Those are the key factors for me when I write… At a certain point, an appropriate form makes itself known…. The poem has to dive down into and surface from some essential state of being… There is certainly a joy in doing the things that you love; so there’s joy in the making and, preceding that, in the state of being that leads to the making….

 

Do you see yourself as a philosophical poet? Almost Zen-like at times?

My concept of philosophy is broad and shambolic enough to accommodate what I do as a writer. I’ve never read extensively in the field of Zen (apart from the books of John Cage and the writing of my friend Richard von Sturmer). I’ve read a little, and somewhat randomly, in the field of non-conformist Catholic thought: Simone Weill, Meister Eckhart, Merton, Baxter… These peregrinations may have affected me more than I realise or am prepared to say.

 

Do you think your writing has changed over time?

I guess writing has to evolve – otherwise it will become predictable and a total drag. I’m as entranced as I ever was with the process, the business, the labour of it. At the same time, I remain devoted to the finished form of it: The printed book, with its covers and half-title and title-page; and the shapes of words on the page and maybe illustrations. Poetry is an art that, if it’s working, is constantly reinventing itself.

I look back at my early poems and find fault. I find myself blaming an over-voracious intake of French Surrealism; too much Kenneth Patchen one year, too much Stevie Smith the next… Too much John Berryman! And, next year, not enough John Berryman! But the ship sails on, and finds new oceans to ply.

 

You write in a variety of genres (poetry, non-fiction, critical writing). Do they seep into each other? Your critical writing offers the reader a freshness of vision and appraisal – not just at the level of ideas but the way you present those ideas, lucidly, almost poetically. Does one genre have a particular grip on you as a writer?

I’m only starting to realise the inter-relatedness of these different genres. A few years back I started to explore poetry’s potential to carry information, also to elaborate upon a thought in a more detailed kind of way, ie. to have an almost essayistic function. So quite a few of my longer poems (some of the odes and, particularly, ‘Memory of a fish’ in my new book) are laden with facts, figures and reasonably clearly articulated information.

Needless to say poetry infuses the writing I produce in relation to the visual arts. I find looking at art exciting; it appeals to my poetic self. I don’t really have a critical self. I hope my non-fiction writing has a cadence, a music and a subconscious (rather than a conscious) purposefulness. Pondering my recent writings on artists such as Pat Hanly, Barry Brickell and Michael Hight, I remember in each case hearing a note—a song, almost—in my ear, and I was beholden to it.

 

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

James K. Baxter wrote wonderfully about writing poetry. Bill Manhire’s Doubtful Sounds is an immensely useful and energising book. 99 Ways Into New Zealand Poetry is terrific too. I refer back to my set of the journal ISLANDS and, yes, it seems to me we New Zealanders have been writing about the process as well as the product. Janet Frame’s oeuvre might be our greatest, most enduring instance of writing about writing, thinking about writing, writing about thinking, and thinking about thinking.

 

Your poetry discussions with Kim Hill are terrific. The entries points into a book are paramount; the way you delight in what a poem can do. What is important for you when you review a book?

I think a book has to become part of your life to really make an impression. It’s the same with music or visual arts. It can’t be a purely intellectual thing, it has to take you over, to some degree. It has to be disarming. Accordingly I tend not to discuss books that don’t ‘do it’ for me. Life’s too short. Fortunately, I have catholic tastes. There are things I enjoy very much in Kevin Ireland, as there are things I enjoy in Michele Leggott. I guess this makes me a lucky guy.

 

I agree wholeheartedly. I am not interesting in reviewing books on Poetry Shelf unless they have caught me, stalled me (for good reasons!).

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?

Two years ago I went to Paris and met up with one of my all-time heroes, the French poet and art-writer Yves Bonnefoy. He turned 90 last year (Joyeux anniversaire, Yves!) During my recent travels around the Pacific (from New Caledonia to Chile), I’ve taken bilingual editions of Yves with me everywhere. I am interested in the way he has turned the creative conundrum of being an Art Writer and a Poet into something unified and compelling (channelling earlier French poet-art-writers from Baudelaire to Apollinaire, with a nod to Yves’s near-contemporaries, that wondrous group of wanna-be French-art-poets, John Ashbery and the New Yorkers). I also took the poems of Neruda and Borges with me everywhere I went.

 

What New Zealand poets are you drawn to now?

New Zealand poetry is interesting at the moment. It’s all over the place. As it should be. There are plenty of people I read voraciously. As well as the poets mentioned already: Anna Jackson, Vince O’Sullivan, you Paula, Lynn Davidson, Kate Camp, Geoff Cochrane… Last year I edited a weekly column for the Best American Poets website—that was a good chance to ‘play favourites’, as Kim Hill would say. (All those posts are archived here: http://blog.bestamericanpoetry.com/the_best_american_poetry/new-zealand/) There are some great first books appearing at the moment: Leilani Tamu’s The Art of Excavation; John Dennison’s Otherwise. This bodes very well indeed.

 

Name three NZ poetry books that you have loved recently.

I was rereading Riemke Ensing’s Topographies (with Nigel Brown’s illustrations) the other day; I found that book very inspiring when it appeared way back in 1984. Lately I’ve also been reading Bob Orr’s crystalline Odysseus in Woolloomooloo and Peter Bland’s Collected Poems… I could go on.

 

Your new collection, Whale Years, satisfies on so many levels. These new poems offer a glorious tribute to the sea; to the South Pacific routes you have travelled. What discoveries did you make about poetry as you wrote? The world? Interior or external?

The Kermadec voyage, and subsequent travels—most recently to New Caledonia—opened up a huge areas of subjective experience as well as of human and natural history. How do you write about that kind of space, that energy, that life-force? Wherever you travel, the air is different; the ‘night’ has a different character; the smells and textures of the vast Pacific vary from place to place. And people move differently wherever you go – they claim a different kind of space within the environment. My recent travels have been like a door opened on a new world. The last three years of my poetry-writing have been the most intense since I was in my early twenties.

 

That shows in this book Greg. I am looking forward to reviewing it because it touched a chord in so many ways. I love the idea that poems become little acts of homage. What difficulties did you have as traveller transforming ‘elsewhere’ into poetry? To what degree do you navigate poetry/other place as trespasser, tourist, interloper?

The artist Robin White likes to point out that there is only one ocean on earth. All our oceans are joined together—it’s the same body of water. So, if you take the sea to be your home (which, as Oceanians, believe it or not, we should do), then as long as you’re at sea you’re still, to some degree, in your home environment.

As a poet entering a new environment, I bring with me my responses, my eye, my mind and various kinds of baggage. I’m a curious person by nature so I always want to find new things—things I don’t know anything about. I like it when my preconceptions fall apart. I love being wrong about things; I enjoy the subsidence of the known world. I quote the great post-colonialist writer Wilson Harris in Whale Years: ‘If you can tilt the field then you will dislodge certain objects in the field and your own prepossessions may be dislodged as well.’

I feel that, as a poet, I am most in my element when I am sitting on the ground and learning new things. When the field of the known has been tilted. And filling my notebooks with various tracings of that new knowledge or sensation.

 

This is a good way to look poetry that takes hold of you; it ‘tilts’ you. I also loved the elasticity of your language – the way a single word ripples throughout a poem gleaning new connections and possibilities. Or the way words backtrack and loop. At times I felt a whiff of Bill Manhire, at others Gertrude Stein. Yet a poem by Gregory O’Brien is idiosyncratic. Are there poets you feel in debt to in terms of the use of language?

Strangely, I can’t read Gertrude Stein anymore. She is one of a very few writers I have been in love with and then the relationship has waned. Maybe, early on, she loosened up my use of language, the extent to which the rational mind is left to run things. There was a music I found in Stein, for sure. But this was something—increasingly—I found in more conventional writers like Wallace Stevens, Robert Creeley and, most recently, in Herman Melville. Moby Dick is a piece of great, symphonic, oceanic music. The novel (for want of a better term) is an incredible noise, a racket of spoken and sung sounds. Melville’s style reminds me of all the depth-finders, radars, monitors and gauges on the bridge of HMNZ Otago as we sailed north to Raoul Island in May 2011. All that information pinging and popping…

 

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

The long poem, ‘Memory of a fish’, is the piece that connects various experiences from the three year period in which the book was written, and brings them together—in an essayistic fashion, almost. I enjoy the ebb and flow of the triplets, and the world’s details tripping along them, like things washing ashore on Oneraki Beach… When I was writing that poem I felt I was living inside it, totally. And I haven’t quite climbed out of it yet, to be honest.

 

The book also demonstrates that eclectic field you plunge into as a reader with its preface quotes. What areas are you drawn into at the moment? Any astonishing finds?

The quotations at the beginning of the three sections of the book are constellations in the night sky above the poetry-ground. They mark points of reference, further co-ordinates, which have guided the writing: W. S. Graham’s ‘The stones roll out to shelter in the sea.’ The Flemish proverb: ‘Don’t let the herring swim over your head.’ Those are verbal artefacts I have carried around with me, much as you would pick up a shell or a colourful leaf. They were/are talismans. So I have stored them inside the book as well. Cherished things.

 

‘Constellation’ is perfect. I was thinking underground roots that nourish. Or one of any number of maps you can lay over the poems (the map of domestic intrusion, the map of childhood, the map of objects, the map of reading). But yes the process of writing has its constellation-guides as you venture into and from both dark and light.

Poetry finds its way into a number of your paintings (as it does with John Pule). There are a number of drawings included in the book that add a delicious visual layer. How do you negotiate the relationship between painting and poetry? Does one matter more? Do they feed off each other?

My notebooks contain a thick broth of visual and verbal ingredients. These materials arrive in my journal simultaneously. When writing or painting, I separate the words from the visual images and work on them more-or-less separately. When it comes to putting together a book, like Whale Years, these two disparate activities are reunited again. I’ve always loved illustrated books. (I think immediately of Bill Manhire’s The Elaboration, with pictures by Ralph Hotere; Blaise Cendrars’ long Trans-Siberian poem, illustrated by Sonia Delaunay; William Blake illustrating himself, and so on)

 

notes-on-the-raising-of-the-bones-of-pablo-neruda-at-isla-negra-gregory-obrien-and-john-reynolds-etching-2014

NOTES ON THE RAISING OF THE BONES OF PABLO NERUDA AT ISLA NEGRA by John Reynolds & Gregory O’Brien, etching, 2014

You have collaborated with a number of other artists and writers. What have been the joys and pitfalls of collaboration?

There are no pitfalls, as far as I can see. Somehow, I’ve found my way into a few collaborative circumstances and very much enjoyed the results. In the past year I’ve made etchings with my two painter-friends John Reynolds and John Pule. Like Charles Baudelaire and Frank O’Hara before me, I seem to have been lucky enough to fall in with a good crowd of painters (and also photographers—but that’s another story).

 

sailing-to-raoul-gregory-o_brien-and-john-pule-etching-aquatint-with-colour-roll-2011

SAILING TO RAOUL by John Pule & Gregory O’Brien, etching, 2012 (John titled this work, riffing off Yeats’s ‘Sailing to Byzantium’)

 

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?

Certainly my recent travels around the Pacific have been hugely enriching. I’m not a proper swimmer, but since I was a child I have had a great passion for floating in, or being upon salt water. (My book News of the Swimmer Reaches Shore grew out of that propensity.) The everydayness of existence is the most enriching thing—as the poems of Horace and Neruda and Wedde keep reminding me. What a great and pleasant swarm of information and sensation we find ourselves amidst, every day of our lives.

 

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?

I keep coming back to the Collected Poems of James K. Baxter. Not because it’s the best book ever written but because of the simple fact that it occupies a huge and resonant place in my life.

 

Auckland University Press page

New Zealand Book  Council page

Arts Foundation page

The Kermadecs page

National Radio page (discussing poetry highlights of 2014 with Kim Hill)

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf interviews Harry Ricketts — All I can remember about his poem is that it contained the phrase “curly kale”

 Harry Ricketts 2011    half_dark_front_small__05477.1417645489.220.220

Harry Ricketts has written over twenty-five books, and while poetry is a primary love, he also writes in other genres. These include literary biography (The Unforgiving Minute and Strange Meetings:The Poets of the Great War), personal essays (How to Live Elsewhere and How to Catch a Cricket Match), and has co-edited a number of New Zealand poetry anthologies (including Spirit in a Strange Land, The Awa Book of Sports Writing and 99 Ways into NZ Poetry). He teaches English Literature and creative writing at Victoria University of Wellington. Half Dark (Victoria University Press, 2015) is Harry’s tenth collection of poems. To celebrate this new book, he recently answered some questions for Poetry Shelf.

 

 

Did your childhood shape you as a poet? What did you like to read? Did you write as a child? What else did you like to do?

My yo-yoing childhood certainly shaped me as a person. My father was in the British army, and we moved every couple of years. This has made me see everything as temporary, provisional, also to think of the present as the moving edge of the past. I read novels, the longer the better: Rosemary Sutcliff, Arthur Ransome, C S Lewis, Tolkien, Conan Doyle ‒ and endless comics. Not much poetry, though at school we had to learn poems by heart: “The Highwayman”, “Cargoes”, “Gunga Din”. They had good thumping rhythms which, together with the rhyme, made them easy to memorise. We then had to stand up and recite them in class – quite an ordeal. I still remember some of those poems and others that ‘sing in the head’, and I’m sure that contributes to my enjoyment of poets like James Fenton and Derek Mahon who use metre and rhyme much more subtly. I remember once we had to write a poem for homework. The title and subject were up to us. My effort was feeble: rhymed, of course, complete doggerel – in every sense, it was even about our dog. But one of the other boys was asked to read his poem out loud in front of the class – a great mark of favour. All I can remember about his poem is that it contained the phrase “curly kale”. And that alliterative phrase, so simple, visual and exact, has always stayed with me. Also the sudden feeling I had when he read it out: a mixture of excitement and envy. I knew that he had somehow managed to pull off something quite beyond me, but which I now felt might be possible. But mostly from the age of eight I was mad about cricket.

 

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 started writing poems when I was sixteen. I still thought poems had to rhyme and be metrical, and felt very daring when, trying to copy T S Eliot (whom we were studying), I wrote in what I thought was free verse. I did read quite a lot of poetry: poets were we studying like Wordsworth and T S Eliot, but also Ezra Pound, Wilfred Owen, and Holub and Cavafy (in the Penguin translations that were popular at the time). I particularly liked Cavafy and tried to imitate him.

 

Did university life (as a student) transform your poetry writing? What kind of discoveries did you make?

Personally university wasn’t helpful as far as writing poetry went, though I came out knowing a bit about a lot of English poetry from the Anglo-Saxon “Seafarer” to Spenser to Marvell to Gray to Byron to Browning to W H Auden. Nothing contemporary – in fact, nothing post-WW2. We had to write weekly essays – last week Wordsworth, this week Coleridge, next week Keats. It was like a whistle–stop tour of poetry’s greatest hits – wonderful in a way, but also intimidating. Sometimes I felt I was turning into a dial-a-quote.

I do remember reading some Sylvia Plath which was edgily thrilling and liking Roger McGough and Adrian Mitchell because they were funny and expressed political opinions I agreed with. I bought and read Ted Hughes’s Crow when it came out. I don’t think I ‘got’ the poems at all, but I enjoyed their dark laughter (though I wouldn’t have put it like that). This was the time when Gormenghast and Catch–22 were obligatory reading, and Bergman’s Seventh Seal and Godard obligatory viewing. We all said things like “really weird”, “far out” and “freaky”. We were terrified of being normal or at least being thought normal. It had a lot to do with the music we were obsessively listening to: Dylan, the Doors, the Stones, the Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd, later Steely Dan. Each new album was like a bulletin from another, more exciting world. We wanted our lives to be like those songs – “Strange days have found us”; “Remember what the dormouse said” – and fantasised that they were. It was very heady, and I don’t regret it, but it didn’t lead to me writing any halfway decent poems, though I did eventually write some lyrics for songs.

 

What about as a lecturer?

I think initially being a university teacher was another inhibiter because I only ever taught poems from earlier centuries ‒ often wonderful but not much help (at least in any direct way) with trying to write my own poems. More helpful was the only poetry writing course I’ve attended. This was a two–day affair in 1979, I think, at the Lancaster Arts Festival, run by a poet called Gavin Ewart. He was a playful-serious poet, who, like Auden, used poetic form as a starter-motor and could do everything from villanelles to clerihews, from prose poems to McGonagallesque doggerel. His poems were (are) clever, also often funny (a rare gift in poetry).

The workshop was memorable. The first day Ewart got us to write haiku and limericks and one–line poems, and one man soon got stroppy and said this wasn’t poetry and that only the rather pretty girl with black hair was producing anything remotely interesting and then he stormed out – never to return. Personally I found trying to do the forms useful and helpful, partly because it got me away from Romantic ideas of the muse having to strike – I was still very hung up on Wordsworth and Keats and notions of the creative mood, sometimes ‘suitably enhanced’. And I do think the class generally encouraged me to be less earnest, that play was okay. The second day we workshopped poems we’d sent in advance and that was helpful. Ewart was very hot on line-endings and about not being lazy with rhyme (if you used it): every word had to pay its way.

I was teaching in Leicester at the time and, partly as a result of the workshop, I joined a small group of local poets. We’d meet and discuss our work, but it all tended to be too polite, and when one member won quite a big national prize, the group combusted from envy. But I do think of that as the time when I slowly started to take writing poems more seriously. This coincided with having children, and I’d blue-tack drafts of my poems to the walls and think about them as I walked around at night, holding wakeful babies. Sometimes the poems were about my children (I had step–children too), and I think becoming a parent not only made a huge difference to me as a person but gradually also to the poems I was beginning to write. It’s not a coincidence that the first poem of mine I think is any good – “Your Secret Life” written in my mid–thirties – is about my (then six-year-old) daughter and imagining her as a teenager.

 

Some people want to let their poems speak for themselves while others are happy to offer provisional entry points. What do you think your role is when you ‘teach’ poetry?

I think if you’re giving a reading, it’s a good idea to say something between poems, offer an entry point, but not so as to swamp the poem. It is hard to listen to poem after poem without a break, particularly if you haven’t read or heard them before. (I have been to readings like this.) Teaching others to write poems or at least trying to help them is a different matter. It’s not your poem, so your role is more like that of a facilitator or midwife, perhaps. Sometimes your own experience can be helpful, but it’s mostly attention and encouragement. And urging them to read as much poetry as possible.

 

Another terrific example of poetic entry points that work is your book on the war poets (Strange Meetings: The Poets of the Great War). To me it was scholarly yet satisfyingly fresh in its approach. Your book opens rather than closes the experience of reading these writers. What did you hope to achieve with this book?

That’s very kind of you. I wanted to write a book that demythologised those WWI poets and restored them to a sympathetic human scale, something closer to the people who actually wrote the poems, who together with the horror of the war, had friendships, fallings-out, tried to find a language adequate to their experience.

 

We wrote 99 Ways into NZ Poetry together a few years ago. Writing the book was a way of viewing the poetry landscape in new lights for me. What discoveries did you make?

New lights for me, too, and many discoveries. You really helped me to read Michele Leggott, a poet I’ve always found very hard.

 

I love the way your poems reflect shifting forms, pitch, moods, preoccupations and rhythms, yet there is always a clarity of line, a sharpness of detail, the essential moment. What are key things for you when you write a poem?

That’s difficult to answer. Sometimes I’ll deliberately try to write a poem about some event, occasion or person. More usually, I’ll be doing something else altogether ‒ like writing this for you now ‒ and a word or phrase or maybe a memory will suddenly press itself on me, and I’ll find it prompts a line or another phrase and a sense of excitement. Often things just switch off; nothing more happens. But sometimes I have to keep coming back to it (whatever it is) and have to fiddle away, try this, try that. That’s the best part, don’t you think, being inside a new poem? Nothing better. When it’s finished, or as finished as it can be, you’re back in the cold again.

 

I like that idea — the best bit is when you are inside the poem. Really, your heart starts beating faster. The outside world fades to black (or light). Harry, you have lived both in New Zealand and Britain (like Peter Bland), but I don’t find a relentless niggling tension between here and there in your poems. It is as though a poem steered by you can lay its roots in either place. Are your poems a way of forging home? Laying roots? Being elsewhere?

That’s very perceptive. Temporary roots, anyway. I think the ricocheting childhood thing. I do think that not quite belonging to where you live can be an advantage to a writer.

 

I agree. Do you think your writing has changed over time?

Yes, I’m not so inhibited, not so hung-up about perfection, more prepared to try things.

 

Prompted by Eleanor Catton, this question: Do you think we have a history of thinking and writing about the process of writing poetry in New Zealand? Any examples that sparked you? Have you done this?

Well, there are poets who have written about this (Allen Curnow, James K Baxter, Michele Leggott, Bill Manhire among others). But I think there is a fairly general distrust of seeming to proselytise or sound too arty or up-yourself. Some cultures (France, America) seem to be able to talk about the arts (including poetry) more naturally or with less inhibition. But the rise of creative writing schools has definitely increased some writers’/poets’ ability, and desire, to talk about process. It’s a question as to whether this will help to produce better work. Good if it does, but writers sometimes, even often, write best when they break their own precepts.

 

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

The Irish poet Derek Mahon and Auden always matter to me. I constantly read and reread them, and learn from them.

 

What international poets are you drawn to?

The American poet Mary Ruefle has been a belated discovery.

 

She is a fabulous discovery for me too! I feel like I want to secretly do some MR poems and see what happens. Particularly the white-out pages. What New Zealand poets are you drawn to now?

In the last year or two? Fleur Adcock’s last two collections ‒ terrific. Ian Wedde’s recent poems.

 

Ian’s The Commonplace Odes would have to be one of my top NZ picks. Name three NZ poetry books that you have loved.

Jenny Bornholdt’s The Rocky Shore. James Brown’s Lemon. Bill Sewell’s Ballad of Fifty-one.

 

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

Yes and no, but poetry is the thing.

 

What irks you in poetry?

Poems that presuppose a trust they haven’t earned.

 

What delights you?

Surprises. Also wit.

 

I was drawn to the title of your new collection (Half Dark) because for me it signals the way poems emerge from and move in and out of the shadows (as opposed to a glass is half full kind of thing). Why this title?

It’s a phrase in one of the poems. As you say, it suggests movement in and out of shadows. It also suggests the mood and tone of many of the poems.

 

These new poems are like a steaming road with heart, memory, ideas, anecdote, sights rising up and simmering above the surface— poems that steam with life and possibilities. For me this is one of your best books yet. What discoveries did you make about poetry as you wrote? The world? Yourself?

One discovery, as I’ve explained in a note in the collection, was about a form called the triolet. I’d never imagined trying this short form with repeated lines, had shared a fairly common sense of superiority towards the form. But an Australian poet-friend Cath Vidler confessed to having become addicted to the form and suggested I try it. I found she was right; it is addictive. More interestingly, I discovered that though usually used for light verse (which is fine, ‘light’ doesn’t have to mean ‘slight’) in fact you can use the triolet for serious, even heart-breaking, subjects. It’s much more flexible than it looks. And, as poets have done with the sonnet and other rhyming forms, you can empty out the rhyme and just keep the shadowy shape. Discoveries about the world? Well, with the death of friends and family, my world is getting colder, half-dark.

 

I love your triolets– reading them prompted me to write one myself. I can see why they are addictive. There is a honeyed overlap of repetition and within that echo the subtle nuance of difference. Nuances steered  by shifting juxtapositions. Is there a single poem or two in the collection that particularly resonates with you?

The last poem, “About”, means a lot to me. I started it in 1980 and it’s changed over the years as I have, and I kept losing it and then finding it again. “Noddy” (about a dead university friend) brings him strongly to mind.

 

I love the blurb on this book. First it references your poem about the phrase ‘Mind the gap’ from the London Underground (that has haunted me too!) and then it introduces the collection as one that ‘addresses the people and places that fill a life and the gaps they leave behind.’ Gaps are so crucial in poems. For me, this entry point heightens my response to your poems. Tell me about the role of gap in this new collection.

It’s all gaps.

 

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

Yes, doubt is key. Also gratitude.

 

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?

Travel.

 

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?

Rules are to be broken, but it’s worth knowing what they are first. Personally I don’t end lines with words like ‘a’, ‘the’ ‘in’ or ‘of’, unless there is a really good reason.

 

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

A bit of all of these.

 

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?

W H Auden’s Collected Poems.

 

Thanks Harry!

 

Victoria University Press author page

NZ Book Council page