Tag Archives: Oscar Upperton

Poetry Shelf in conversation with Oscar Upperton

 

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Oscar Upperton New Transgender Blockbusters Victoria University Press, 2020

 

 

Optimism is the idea that it not always will rain.

Leave home as soon as you are free,

for everyone comes back again—

 

just never board a train

without a member of family.

Optimism is the idea that it will not always rain,

 

that between sea and plain

will always sprout a city.

For everyone comes back again.

 

from ‘Dutch instruction’

 

 

Oscar Upperton was born in Christchurch in 1991, grew up in Whāngarei and Palmerston North, and now lives in Wellington. In 2019 he was awarded the Creative New Zealand Louis Johnson New Writer’s Bursary. His work has appeared in Sport, The Spinoff, Metro and Best New Zealand Poems. His debut collection New Transgender Blockbusters was one of two go-to poetry books for me in lockdown (Elizabeth Morton the other). It is fresh, witty, offbeat, surprising yet never loses sight of a lived-in world. As it says on the blurb: These poems are vitally human and consoling: they reframe the ordinary as something to yearn for’. This is the kind of book that I want to talk about with someone, the way the city and rural settings are both present, the way there is a degree of incantation at times, a sense of song, a jubilant relationship with words that might involve rhyme or repetition or silence. I am out of lockdown now but the world is still wobbly, I am still wobbly as both reader and writer, and I find this book the perfect retreat. Glorious is the word for it.

 

In conversation with Oscar Upperton

 

Paula: What poets, both here and overseas, have hooked your attention?

Oscar: I only really read Kiwi poets. I love Tayi Tibble’s writing. Also Jane Arthur and Ashleigh Young. My younger sibling Katrina Upperton is my favourite read at the moment though.

 

Paula: Poetry performers?

Oscar: I went on a road trip with my dad before the lockdown and read in Palmerston North, Whangārei and Kerikeri. I was lucky to see some awesome, awesome performers on that trip. I can’t name everyone (and some of the readings were private anyway) but I will single out Vera Hua Dong, who gave an amazing performance in Kerikeri. I’m looking forward to seeing her writing on the page in Ko Aotearoa Tātou when it comes out in August.

 

Years aren’t to blame. I was always old.

The garden gathers rain. I grew and grew

and broke the mould. I sat there in the rain.

 

from Garden beds’

 

Paula: Your book is like a breath of fresh air. I am drawn to the economy, the richness, the quirkiness, the surprise. What are key things when you write a poem?

Oscar: Thank you for all the compliments! I like to think I’m quirky. Sort of the manic pixie dream boy of New Zealand poetry.

Usually I start with a line or a sound I like, and just follow that. Or I start with an idea, like writing a poem with footnotes. I like to make up rules for myself, like this poem has to have every fourth line written backwards or in this poem the first word of every line rhymes. And I like to use prompts, like Pip Adam’s exercises from her podcast Better Off Read.

 

The dog is a book read over and over

The dog is a river that’s stopping for no one

The dog is a child who thinks hot is a colour

 

The book is a dog that’s waiting for water

The book is a river that cannot be forded

The book is a child who’s made out of silence

 

from ‘Song abut a child’

 

Paula: I like the appearance of lists in your poems, whether subtle or overt. What attracts you to poetry list making?

Oscar: It’s easy! Also I like repetition. Also I like juxtaposition. Like if you put one image beside another, unrelated image, what happens? Lists are useful for that.

 

Paula: Yes- I love the connections between things on a line and in the poem. That is where surprise and quirkiness can take root. I also like the musicality – the rhyme. Sometimes I am reminded of Bill Manhire’s poetry palette as I read your poems (final word in book might be referencing his poem ‘Kevin’). Any poets that feel like close writing relations?

Oscar: This is a funny question to me because some of my closest relations are poets (my dad Tim and my sibling Katrina) and they are probably the writers that I am the most similar to, for obvious genetic and environmental reasons. I definitely am very influenced by Bill Manhire. I like his relaxed approach to sound and rhythm, and how a lot of his poems are jokes or riddles. He seems to be having a lot of fun when he writes, and it’s infectious. I aspire to be like that.

 

Paula: I so see that in your writing! Your poetry seems assured to me, crafted with a deft hand, but do you suffer doubt as you write?

Oscar: Yes, all the time! But I chuck out poems or lines I don’t like, so I am usually happy with a poem by the time it is published. There are some lines in my poems I really don’t like. For example, I think the ending of ‘Child’s First Dictionary’ is really bad. And I even dedicated that poem to my sister! How rude.

 

 

We like mushrooms best when they taste of thieving.

At home we turn the Beatles up to eleven.

This bag of mushrooms was not a given.

We don’t like Kevin but we both like ‘Kevin’.

 

from ‘Two thieves’

 

Paula: Some poets currently favour massive self-exposure in poems – there are heart-punching examples I adore. I find your collection a complex weave of human experience that might be invented or real, intimate or restrained. How do you feel about revealing your private life in a poem?

Oscar: I have a lot of childhood poems in my book that I guess you could say are autobiographical, but they are more about mood or tone than describing a particular thing that happened. Although ‘Two thieves’ is entirely truthful.

I don’t think I’m interesting enough to merit too much self-exposure – all the poets I love who write about themselves, they seem to get out of the house much more often than I manage to. I’d much rather write about something I haven’t done or haven’t experienced, and I don’t tend to write in my own voice. The only poems I have written that I consider to be in my voice are ‘New transgender blockbusters’ and ‘Carmen’. I wrote them because I had two very specific emotional experiences (one after watching a terrible movie, one after listening to people talk about Carmen Rupe) and I was interested in the challenge of recording those experiences accurately. I like both those poems but I wouldn’t want to write a whole book like that.

 

A juggernaut is anything sour, sour cabbage.

Why do you hide your head beneath the bedclothes?

A juggernaut is anything at all, air and beans.

Why do you keen? Why throw yourself against the porch light?

A juggernaut is anything sitting on a rooftop not a bird.

 

from ‘Juggernaut’

 

Paula: Ha! Poetry is a way of writing yourself out of the house in any way or voice you care to invent. The blurb lists questions. ‘Juggernaut’ is a sequence of questions. I began musing on the idea of questions shadowing poems, like furtive ghosts that help bring something into being. What’s your take on poetry and questions?

Oscar: I like questions because they invite the reader in and suggest an answer without me actually having to come up with one. I don’t like being too definite or conclusive when I write, and questions are useful for that.

 

Paula: That is another plus about your poetry. In fact I could have used the word ‘openness’. Porous poetry that is like an open home for the reader. Was there a poem that was particularly tough to write?

Oscar: ‘Caroline’ was hard to write because it contains a lot of repetition. The same lines had to make sense in six different contexts, over six stanzas. I wrote it in Excel with formulas set up so that if I changed a line in one place the change would flow through the rest of the poem. It took ages and was a weird time but I really like that poem now.

‘Prudence’ was hard to write because it’s about a cat and therefore ran the risk of becoming too cute.

 

 

Last year’s trees are dropping.

They drop like sticky fruit.

They drop as the flies rise.

Last year I woke up differently.

This year is the same old mess.

 

from ‘Atlas’

 

Paula: Is there a particular poem – or two – where you feel you have nailed it?

Oscar: ‘Atlas’ is the first poem in the book because it’s my favourite. I wrote it about ten years ago, when I was at my peak.

 

Paula: Hmm! More peaks on the horizon please! Slowly we return to live poetry events. If you were to curate a session with poets from any time or place who would you invite?

Oscar: I would like to see Bashō and Sappho read. Also Robbie Burns. I wonder if they would be baffled by the experience of a modern poetry reading or if they would just go with it.

 

Paula: Wow. What a combination. I have no idea how Sappho would deliver a poem and we could get to see gaps filled if she moved beyond fragments. Finally there is more to life than writing poems. What else feeds you?

Oscar: Right now I’m helping out with an online writing workshop run by InsideOUT. Being the ‘teacher’ is super weird but has given me a new perspective on writing. And it is so cool to see what the writers are coming up with.

 

Victoria University Press page

Oscar in conversation with Karyn Hay RNZ

 

 

 

 

 

Ten reasons to read Sport 46

 

 

 

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1. Anna Smaill’s long interview with Bill Manhire. The advantages of  slow-paced email interviews are evident as Anna and Bill explore the personal, ventriloquism, creative writing programmes, reading poetry, writing poetry, weirdness, holding back, trauma, God, mystery, parents, memory, drinking jugs of beer with Hone Tuwhare through the night. Life and poetry still maintain the requisite cloudy patches, private life and inner life are signposted but not made specific. This is a cracking interview – it refreshes my engagements with Bill’s poems, and writing and reading poetry in general.

2. Oscar Upperton’s poem ‘Yellow House’ because it has bright detail in the present tense and I am in the scene reading on a glorious loop.

The stream crosses the bridge. Pūkeko flicker

from blue to white, bikes rust into each other.

We rust at table.

 

(and the fact this poem is followed by ‘Explaining yellow house’ where Pip Adam gets a mention)

 

3. Sarah Barnett’s long poem essay ‘One last thing before I go’. Wow. This piece of writing is one of my treasures of the year because it goes deep into tough dark experience. It is measured and probing and hits you in the gut. Yet the fact of it on the page in front of me, so crafted and exposed, is uplifting.

 

4. Jane Arthur’s poem ‘I’m home a lot’ because it’s strange and real and unsettling.

 

This one sounds loudest against the front windows

and this one across the roof, nearly lifting it,

in an angry violent way. not like a bird taking off.

And even the birds here are massive and prehistoric.

Silence is rare. It’s eerie when it happens. Our dreams are mute.

 

5. Morgan Bach’s poem ‘carousel’ because when you read this your breathing changes and you enter a glorious mysterious complicated experience in the present tense.

 

but now having swallowed full moons,

coupled with mirrors of reticence, I find

life is not an experiment like that

and soon the body gives up its hunt

how soon the body becomes a cliff

how soon the body becomes a full stop

 

6. Discovering new-to-me poet Nikki-Lee Birdsey – she has a collection out with VUP next year and is currently an IIML PhD candidate. Her first-person storytelling in the form of a poem gripped me from the first lines.

7. essa may ranapiri’s selections because I find myself picturing them performing the poems and then I take supreme delight in the detail on the page.

8. Lynley Edmeades’s “We’ve All Got to Be Somewhere’ because it left a wry grin on my face. Poetry can do that.

9. Emma Neale’s ‘Unlove’ because this poem sings so beautifully.

 

My friend whose mind has frozen

sends me small gifts she says to keep her sane —

a cornflower-blue watch;

a box carved of light with a green latch;

a pink soapstone egg she says will one day hatch

a small, exquisite monster, its teeth sharp as love.

 

10. Rata Gordon’s poem ‘Mango’ because the writing is spare but it makes you feel so many different things.

 

This is all you have

to look forward to

your heartbeat and a

mango

everything else has dissolved:

your family

your intentions

 

 

Sport page

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reading Sport 44 on a wet Sunday keeps the blues away

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The new edition of Sport includes 8 essays along with the usual spread of poetry and fiction. At the start of the book is an impressive advertisement for Victoria University Press’s forthcoming publications. This Press is a consistent and exemplary supporter of New Zealand writing whether poetry, fiction or non-fiction.

 

Why I am singing VUP’s praises:

There are 15 poetry collections in the offing (okay some might not appear until next year, but still!). We are going to see books by Tusiata Avia and Hera Lindsay Bird over the next few months.

Sarah Laing‘s new book is out in October (Mansfield and me: A Graphic Memoir).

There are 4 works of fiction (Catherine Chidgey has a new novel out in November!)

And I am looking forward to the collection of essays Ingrid Horrocks co-edited having tasted some in Ruapehu and Ashleigh Young‘s essays (November).

 

Sport 44

some preliminary highlights:

Usually, I read all the poems first but this time I was in the mood for a bite of fiction so I dove straight into Kirsten McDougall‘s ‘A Visitation.’ The story responds to the collapse of the internet and the arrival of Clarice Lispector to make a batch of eggs to tempt an indifferent palate. I adored this story so much it made me want to take up writing short fiction. It is sweet writing; warm, witty, funny, thoughtful, polemical. I do hope there is a new collection in the pipelines. I read this on a plane with two hours sleep and it was such an uplift. ‘I saw anew the detritus in the house I had allowed to build up like a plaque to the heart.’

The journal always puts in me in touch with writers I am unfamiliar with. This time a glorious suite by Oscar Upperton: ‘The ship is a sort of dark undoing.’

And Philip Armstrong‘s utterly inventive narrative, ‘Life of Clay,’ which keeps you on your toes as you read: ‘I can tell you it began with nothing/ but the wide white bare and empty endless plain/ but there was something there already there.’

I have already posted some of Rachel Bush‘s poems here.  Movingly, achingly beautiful. Written when life has fingertips against death.

Jenny Bornholdt‘s exquisite haiku: ‘It is eight degrees/and the Thorndon outdoor pool/ is swimming with leaves.’

Ashleigh Young‘s ‘Process’ which is sad and happy and a little bit witty and a little bit true: ‘On this day our city is a perfect haircut, its losses gently layered/ and what is left, falling gracefully.’ Oh word shivers!

Tusiata Avia‘s ‘Gaza’ which brings heart and politics together and rips your easy Sunday slumbering with poetic teeth: ‘I cannot write a poem about Gaza because I cannot eat a whole desert.’

The stillness, the extraordinary image, the enigmatic bridge between title and poem in Louise Wallace‘s ‘The body began to balance itself’. You just have to read the whole thing!

Hannah Mettner‘s ‘The day Amy died’ that takes a moment that pricks with sharp detail and pricks even deeper when the moment is declared and time and noise go haywire.

Maria McMillan‘s ‘The Ski Flier’ is a whoosh of a poem that sucks you up into story and music and is so evocative: ‘And/ there is a moment when they pass,/ the snow and the ski flier,/ each taking on the character of the other.’

Harry Rickett‘s ’14A Esmonde Road’ exudes the mood of place, that historic property where Janet and Frank lived; and you can just feel the phantoms stalking the poem until you get to the perfect ending.

The first poem, ‘Falseweed,’ is by Bill Manhire and was published as a little pamphlet by Egg Box Publishing in Norwich. It has a different feel to some of Bill’s recent poems. The words are scattered like seeds on the expanse of white page. Or pebbles. But I like the idea of seed as they are so fertile. I can see the roots and buds bursting out. There is linguistic inventiveness that boosts both music and image, particularly in compound words:

leafcandle  pencilheart  wintertwig  scribblegrass  anchorwhite  tongue-true.

I felt like I was following a dandelion kiss and pausing to see where it landed. The poem is about childhood and writing and a mind floating, roaming. Words floating, roaming. It is beautiful and mesmerising: ‘I began to recall/ how the words came knocking.’ ‘Oh pencilheart –/ oh smudge of lead.’

 

And still much to read; more poems, more fiction and the bundle of essays. This is a terrific issue.

The VUP ad:

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