Tag Archives: On Poetry

An Occasional Series on Poetry: Joan Fleming on poetry as a child on fire who is trying, and failing, to pronounce itself

joanfortuesdaypoem (2)  sameyes.9780864736987__33157.1347922933.140.215   sameyes.9780864736987__33157.1347922933.140.215

Photo credit: Kate van der Drift

Poetry as a child on fire who is trying, and failing, to pronounce itself.

My current relationship is so not a failure that I have to find ways to lie about it, poetically speaking. We have parallel occupations and preoccupations. We are the same age, at the same stage in our lives. And things with us are great. Really great. Things with us are gorgeous and brindled and hot and warm and lukewarm and cool, and often not perfect, and I guess I wouldn’t have it any other way.

But because I am writing a book of failed love poems, I have had to invent a set of constraints so that I can write about what is foremost in my life — this relationship, this successful love story — and still keep the project moving. So love becomes loss, pleasure becomes cruelty. I make the words switch places. I tell a lie, and I make a failed love poem.

It makes sense to lie, as what we have is not True Love, in the way I understood it when I was younger. When I was younger, I idealised love as a total, perfected, suited thrumming: two people so in tune, so in love, that any twinges of disconnection and doubt were disavowed. In my Disneyland romance-cosmos, these feelings were not okay. There was no place for them in forever. And if they ever came up so strongly that they demanded to be talked about, it meant I had failed, we had failed, the relationship had failed.

My poetry reflected this, and it was terrible. High abstraction married jumbled metaphors in a house of rigid metre, where I rhymed deep with weep and sleep and endowed the sea with an embarrassing number of abilities, including the ability to weep and to fall asleep, and none of it was ironic or subtle or interesting. I thought the poems I wrote were “true.” I thought I was being honest about how perfect and total my love-feelings were for the guy, and how utterly painful it was to be away from him. But the result could not have been more of a lie. Bad poetry on the page, no matter how sincere the intention, can never access the paradoxes and slant colourings of emotional truth.

Now, of course, I understand love to be a knottier and richer and more self-confronting thing than new relationship energy, where it seems the beloved can do no wrong. And now I wonder if my early hyperboles and my grand rhymes were another kind of lie: a way of trying to convince myself that I still felt for the guy what I had felt at first, despite the inevitable anxieties, disconnections, discomforts, and doubts.

I no longer believe in True Love. Instead, I believe in hard work, communication, and mistakes. I believe in wringing the joy out, in being giving and game. I am interested in writing about the gaps between people, the drifts, the miscommunications, the evasions, and the near-misses. At the moment, it feels more worthwhile to spend time with what is difficult, than with what works.

But now there are new problems. Some of my failed love poems are straight-up fiction. But many are based on my own experiences, or the experiences of those I am close to.When writing about my sister’s ten-year marriage, for example, or a difficult year I spent with an ex-partner, I experience crises of conscience: that I am not being fair, that my necessary selections and orchestrations will betray those who have trusted me with their stories, that a poem’s fierceness is overbalancing its tenderness, that my extreme subjectivity is a form of violence. I worry that I am not giving voice to the other. I worry that my inventions are musical but mean. I am no longer deceiving myself into a celebration of impossible perfection, but this is tricky territory. I don’t know what the rules are. Some poems have already offended people I care about, and I am heavy with the weight of that.

The kinds of poems I like are rich with ambiguity and grounded in intense situations. I like the feeling of language refracting the facts of experience and casting a spell made of itself. But even with a problematised understanding of the relationship between language and experience, there are ethical concerns in a project like this. The sign and the signified might not speak the Truth, but language is still powerful. It moves people. It tells their stories. It is a volatile and dangerous tool.

These are the things I am learning. I still have many questions. How to retain my poet’s naïveté, to follow an impulse along a charged path, while being sensitive to those who have gifted me the impulse? It’s a tightrope walk, a magic trick. How to make the lovely-and-talented assistant disappear, and keep the puff of smoke, the flash of light, make the audience gasp? For answers, I look to masters like Elizabeth Bishop, whose poem “Casabianca” remains one of my guides in the writing of the failed love poem. The poem is concrete, grounded in experience. It writes back to an earlier poem about a genuine historical event. And yet, it is perfectly mysterious. It is both a truth and a lie. It tells a kind of story, but more importantly, it resonates with something untellable. It is a portrait of a child on fire who is trying and failing to pronounce itself.

Joan Fleming is currently studying towards a PhD in ethnopoetics at Monash University, Melbourne, and working on her second book. Her debut poetry collection, The Same As Yes (2011), was published by Victoria University Press.  In my review in The New Zealand Herald’s Canvas magazine, I wrote that the poet is open ‘to the world in all its strangeness, absurdities, loveliness and wonder. The poems are a meeting ground for the surreal, the offbeat, the magical and the ordinary.’ It was one one of my favourite debut collections of the year. Joan won the Biggs Poetry Prize in 2007. She has recently started blogging here.

Victoria University Press page here

A poem on Tuesday Poem here

Poem in Snorkel here

On Poetry: Emma Neale pushes against the glass walls of form

Emma at Ross Creek

Photo credit: Graham Warman

Emma Neale has contributed this piece as part of an occasional series (On Poetry) from New Zealand writers. Emma is a Dunedin-based poet (four collections published), novelist (The Fosterling is a terrific read), teacher, mentor and anthologist. She has a PhD in English Literature from London’s University College, received the inaugural Janet Frame Memorial Award for Literature (2008), the Kathleen Grattan Award for Poetry (2011) and was the 2012 Robert Burns Fellow at the University of Otago. Her poetry is steered by a deft pen, a pen that embraces family as much ideas, and music as much tropes. She writes out of empathy for the world (both universal and particular) and her poems divert the intellect and hook the heart. Her poetry to date cannot be aligned solely with family preoccupations, but her family poems are some of the best I have read. This line from ‘No Time Like the Present’ could also be a cue to her poetry writing: ‘No present like time/ to follow thought’s curving rivers.’

thumb_160160226234240Sleeve thumb_160160226234240Million thumb_160160226234240TheTruthGarden web

On writing a villanelle

Screen shot 2013-11-04 at 3.10.16 PM

When I teach a second-year poetry workshop at the University of Otago, I try to set the students at least two exercises each semester that are new to me, too, to keep my teaching fresh, and to put myself back in the hot-seat: a writer is only as experienced as the new form they’re trying, and I think it’s important to remind myself just how daunting composing-to-deadline can be – not to mention the process of having a first draft read in public.

This year, one of the classic forms I set was the villanelle. I’ve read dozens, but had never tried to write one. The students turned up some good examples, ranging from comic commentaries on poetry itself (Nicola Thorstensen) to whimsically lovelorn (David Cooper). For many of them, it seemed as if writing within these strict constraints actually altered their work for the rest of the semester: it clarified and tautened even their attempts at free verse and/or concrete and in one case, digital, form. It was a prime example of the way form and structure actually give energy to the ideas and words, rather than binding them too tightly. As we might hear the drives of the wasp trapped in the jar more clearly than if the jar weren’t there: the force of the emotion or argument pushes hard against the glass walls of form.

When I started to tackle a villanelle, I initially wanted to write about a fictional character with OCD, based on a young girl I saw in a documentary years ago. I thought the repetitive structure would be useful to capture that stuckness, that inescapable treadmill of obsession. There’s only a skerrick of that in the poem still. It very quickly took on a real world anxiety, about a specific event, rather than being about a psychiatric disorder as such. (Although I’d like to try it again for that purpose.)

Initially I found it hard not to try to work in a kind of narrative progression: but soon saw that the stasis — even in the closure — would be a much better expression of anxiety than writing in a point of release, relief, uplift, psychological shift (even worst-fears-realised) would have been.

The technicalities of finding rhyme or half-rhyme gave the process an unexpected buoyancy: it’s like a kind of verbal orienteering, a happy, almost spatial problem solving. I knew I was meant to repeat two refrains and really wanted to stick with ‘one last check, one last time’ – only to belatedly realise that ‘time’ has a very limited range of potential rhymes. It also meant I had to cheat a little, and use assonance instead of perfect end rhyme, or even half rhyme, for the first and third lines… can we call assonance quarter rhyme?!

The title was a bugbear. I’ve already published a poem called ‘Traveller Overdue’ which is about separation, fear of loss, and a loved one at risk, although it’s in open form and uses mimetic typography — rather than refrains and rhyme — as its way of trying to embed presence into the white void of the page. ‘Overdue’ kept coming back, like an unpaid fine addressed to the wrong person, and I had to keep sending it away again. I tried about 8 different options: all yuck yuck yucketty yuck. Finally, hooray, when imagination’s account is in the red, along come the rich funds of Roget’s Thesaurus – and the phrase ‘Hold the Line’ seemed to arrive with a slap to the forehead. The reference to the phone line, the life line, the poetic line, all seemed perfect: but then I realised that friend and colleague Sarah Broom’s posthumous collection Gleam contained a sparse, moving lyric called ‘Holding the Line’. The loss of Sarah to poetry, and the publication of her collection, both seemed too recent for me to have a similar title, even as a tribute to her. I needed a title that would still evoke a sense of expectation, suspense: without falling either way. Although ‘Any News?’ loses the reflexivity of the other choice, perhaps the fact that it’s also more demotic helps to get that sense of visceral dread more, once you’re into the cyclical doubts of the poem.

I think when I try the form again, I’ll work harder at getting that separate aphoristic quality into the two refrains. When they repeat so often, it would seem logical to make them rich, complex, mysterious, perhaps, so that revisiting them is endlessly compelling. (Although monotony may sometimes be the mood the poet wants, of course, if the subject matter is about endurance.) There’s a much closer relationship to song than the sestina and pantoum, the other closed forms I’ve most enjoyed writing before. Even though I knew that intellectually, from reading other villanelles and reading about the villanelle, there is nothing like moving the mind around within the architecture of a poetic form for us to really know the possibilities of its psychological space and aesthetic effects.

Emma Neale’s blog

New Zealand Book Council page

University of Otago Press page

Steele Roberts page

New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre page

Interview with Emma Neale published in The Listener, April 26-May 2 2008 Vol 213

Emma Neale’s Random House profile

Feature in Otago Daily Times

On Poetry: Airini Beautrais relishes the fulfilment of intent

secretheart.9780864735416__29659.1347922938.140.215       westernline.9780864736499__89622.1349055507.140.215

Airini Beautrais is currently enrolled in a PhD in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters, where she is exploring Australia and New Zealand narrative poems. Airini has a background in ecological science and has worked as a secondary-school teacher. Her debut poetry collection, Secret Heart, was awarded Best First Book at the Montana Book Awards in 2007. Her second, standout collection, Western Line, filled me ‘with joy – through what words can do and through the avenues poetry makes available’ (my NZ Herald review).  The initial sequences of love and charm poems took miniature, imaginative leaps, trailed footprints in the everyday, relished musical lifts and were unafraid of humour. As I said in my review, there was no other New Zealand collection quite like it: daring, fresh, agile.

Airini has generously agreed to contribute to the ongoing series of small pieces ‘On Poetry.’

Here is a quote I came across recently:

“Poetry is the fulfilment of intent; what dwells in the mind is intent, what comes forth in words is poetry. Emotions move in the core of one’s being and take form in words. When speaking them does not suffice, then one sighs them or chants them; if sighing and chanting do not suffice, then one sings them; if singing them does not suffice, then unconsciously one taps them out with the hands, dances them, treads them and stamps them

Emotions come forth in sounds, and when the sounds fulfil patterns they are called musical tones. The musical tones of an age of peace are tranquil and incline to joy; their regulation is harmonious. The musical tones of an age of disorder are dissonant and incline to anger; their regulation is perverted. The musical tones of a kingdom in ruins are mournful and incline to nostalgia; their people are suffering. Therefore, to keep order in success or failure, to move Heaven and Earth, to touch the feelings of ghosts and spirits, nothing can approach poetry.”

This was written in the 1st century AD, in a preface to the Shih Ching anthology of Chinese poetry. It is attributed to a writer named Wei Hung. The translation above is by Dore Levy, and I found it in her book on Chinese narrative poetry.

The first thing that struck me about this passage was the statement “Poetry is the fulfilment of intent.” I had never thought of it like that, but the idea made sense. We do bring our intent forth in words – for better or worse. Intent is the beginning of the poem – but where might a poem end up? What work will it do? Moving heaven and earth, touching the feelings of spirits; these are no mean feats. Would we attempt such things?

Recently I have been thinking a lot about the work of poetry. Largely based on my own experience, I have a suspicion that as poets we have a tendency to make too many rules for ourselves, or to internalise the rules we interpret from what we read. Often these rules seem to involve the work poetry may or may not do. Such as: poetry may involve clever word-play. It may be obscure. It may be unintelligible. It may be funny. It may confess. It may not articulate an opinion. It may not teach. It may not preach, prophesy, challenge, condemn, tell, etc.

Maybe these are what have been my rules. I like to tell people I only have one rule in my poetry: Never write about cats (a rule I am of course prepared to break if the right occasion arises). But underneath are the bigger rules. In my work at the moment, I am staring them down, and it terrifies me. I am terrified of two things: If I break those rules, I will never be a poet. If I don’t break those rules, I will never be a poet.

I am not a chanter or a dancer. I write with a page, and silent reading, in mind. If I write anything that stamps, it will be in a metaphorical sense. But I do, in spite of my rules, have intentions. Are they honourable? I’m not sure. I feel that poetry needs a 1980’s bumper sticker: Poetry can do anything!

Victoria University Press page

Twenty-three love poems

Poetry With Airini on National Radio

On Tuesday Poems

Otago Daily Times review

NZ Books review

IIML student page

Sarah Jane Barnett: Three tips for beginning poets


Sarah Jane Barnett’s fabulous, debut poetry collection was short-listed in the Poetry Category at this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards. She has contributed a piece to the ongoing series On Poetry that  NZ Poetry Shelf is hosting. I totally agree with her tip that reading makes a writer (and I would add writing). Read read read write write write (a simple but time-tested formula. There was an excellent interview in the Listener but you need to subscribe in order to follow link.


Sarah Jane Barnett  A Man Runs Into a Woman Hue & Cry 2012 This is what I wrote about this book last year (part of it ended up on the blurb at the back of the book): Sarah Jane Barnett’s debut collection is a gift for the ear. The words are poised, graceful, musical; verbs and adjectives soar and vault and balance. Within her glorious word gymnasium, Barnett is a poetic trapeze artist with feet on the ground and magical arcs and sidesteps in the air. As the cartographer of human experience, she steps boldly into the shoes and lives of others – a cable television engineer, a geographer, a pipeline worker. Her alert mind and canny eye for detail translate and transform what we may have missed in the world into poetic vignettes that are both light-footed and fresh.

the red room Sarah’s blog

Hue & Cry

And now from Sarah:

Three Tips for Beginning Poets

 Even though I’ve been writing poetry for the last ten years, I still feel like a beginner. I can’t imagine this will ever change. Every time I read a new collection of poetry I learn something new. There is always somewhere else to go; some new poems to write. So, while these tips are aimed at writers who are just starting out, I think they are useful for any writer.


1. Read poetry


A few years ago at a writers festival I met one of my idols, Canadian poet Christian Bök. After he signed his book for me I asked him what advice he had for poets just starting out. His one word reply: “Read.”

It seems an incredibly obvious statement to make, but I’ve been given the same piece of advice by many other poets, and it’s now the piece of advice I give to other people. I think that sometimes poets become so focussed on writing new work that they forget the best poetry is part of a wider dialogue with other poems and art forms. It’s not just about reading, though, but reading with a critical eye. Poets are notorious magpies. By reading other poets you can look at the mechanics of their poems. What tricks do they use? How do they use form, language, sound, and imagery? What poems make you excited and why? Once you figure out these things, you can try them out in your own poems. This tends to result in poems that sound like the poet that’s inspired you, but in the process you learn how poems work.

A great exercise related to this idea is to take the first line of a poem you like, and then use that line to write your own poem. At the end, take away the first line.


2. Experiment with form


After I finished my MA in creative writing I had writers block for about six months. No matter what I tried, I could not write a poem. To feel like I was doing something useful with my time I started to write short stories. These came easily and I enjoyed playing with dialogue, narrative, and place, which poets don’t usually get to do. In the end the stories weren’t very good, but after I finished writing them I started to write long narrative poems, and now these are my favourite poems to write.

What I am trying to say is that no time writing is wasted. If you’re a poet there is a lot to learn from writing stories, creative non-fiction, and essays. I think that every fiction writer should write some poems as a way to learn about how to apply pressure to language.

3. Never give up on a poem


I started to seriously write poetry in 2002 after attending a workshop run by Christchurch poet, James Norcliffe. James was the first person to encourage me to send poems out for publication, so I own him a lot. The best piece of advice he gave during that workshop was to never give up on a poem. Sometimes it takes a long time for a poem to reveal itself. It’s a bit like an archeological dig: you’re not sure what the final find will look like.

Take a recent poem of mine. I wrote this poem at the beginning of my PhD and it never really worked. The form was wrong, and the last few lines were rubbish. I’d take it out every three or four months and push the words around the page. A few weeks ago – four years since I first wrote that poem – the poem finally revealed itself.

Sarah Jane Barnett is a writer, reviewer, and tutor who lives in Wellington. Her debut collection, A Man Runs into a Woman (Hue & Cry Press) was selected as a finalist in the 2013 New Zealand Post Book Awards. She blogs at http://theredroom.org.

On Poetry: Elizabeth Smither is the witness of a mystery

Elizabeth Smither has contributed this piece as the first in an occasional series (On Poetry) from New Zealand writers. Elizabeth has written numerous collections of poetry, the most recent of which, The Blue Coat, I have just reviewed in the Herald. This collection shows Elizabeth at her very best — in the way she opens little doors onto tiny corners of the world and in the way she makes those corners hum and shimmer and shine. Elizabeth’s poems reflect craft, attention and an infectious engagement with the world. These skills are also at work in her fiction writing. I was particularly taken with her novel, Lola.

Night horse…. how a poem comes into being

My daughter-in-law, Kate has brought her horse, Alice, from Melbourne. Alice, who in Melbourne was stabled with other horses, made the solo journey with great nonchalance. The sea did not trouble her, the stable where she was quarantined, the new field where she was on her own with a glimpse of cows in the distance. The strangers bringing her carrots.

But one night when I had been visiting and was turning my car to drive home I saw a secret Alice. A mist was rising from the grass and Alice in her crusader’s coat with its hem that flared out like the stiffened band of a dress was moving in it. The car lights lit her for a moment but she did not look up. She was moving to a mysterious purpose, her eyes circled by light like a tournament horse in a mask. She had her secret life and I had the drive home.

I also had the poem which can never be a substitute for something that is seen – Alice goes on – and if she was still at sea she would be the horse breasting the prow of the Titanic on a night with no icebergs. All I had was a glimpse as the car turned and I raised the beam to full for the pitch-black country road – on Alice I had the good sense to have them dipped. I like to think that I was the witness of a mystery.


Night horse

In the field by the driveway

as I turn the car a horse

is stepping in the moonlight.


Its canvas coat shines, incandescent.

Around its eyes a mask

a Sienese horse might wear.


No banners stir the air, but mystery

in the way it is stepping

as if no human should see


the night horse going about its business.

The soft grass bowing to the silent hooves

the head alert, tending where


the moonlight glows and communes

in descending sweeps that fall

through the air like ribbons


as if the horse moves in a trance

so compelling, so other-worldly

it doesn’t see the car lights.

The own life of others, human, animal or plant, how mysterious it is. We go towards it – perhaps if I hadn’t been so astonished I should have parked the car, got out and had the temerity to enter the field (the open field of poetry) and investigate further. The wonderful thing is that this mysterious world which we are hardly capable of penetrating or understanding – but whenever has that stopped a poem from making the attempt?  – comes towards us too.  The Sienese horses came to me not because Alice is a speedster but because of their daring and the light, falling in sweeping circles put me in mind of a cheering crowd. Ultimately images may be nothing more than an attempt at homage.

I’ve never caught Alice in this mystery again but I still hope to, to see something more unfold. I’ve watched her roll and a friend told me she once fell over a horse sleeping in a field in the dark and they both cried out in shock.

Mysterious Alice: thank you for letting me witness a little of your secret life.

Elizabeth Smither

New Zealand Book Council author page

University of Auckland author file

Auckland University Press author page

Hamesh Wyatt review of The Blue Coat

Caitlin Sinclair review of The Blue Coat