Tag Archives: POetry Shelf interview

Poetry Shelf in conversation with Gregory Kan

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Photo credit: Time Out Bookstore

 

 

Gregory Kan’s poetry has featured in various literary journals including Atalanta Review, Cordite, Jacket, Landfall, The Listener and Sport, in the annual Best New Zealand Poems, and in art exhibitions, journals and catalogues. His debut collection, This Paper Boat (Auckland University Press, 2016) was shortlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. His new collection, Under Glass, has gripped me as much as his debut. While his first book was unified by themes – he contemplated the poet Robin Hyde, his family, ghosts – Under Glass is also unified by form. A dialogue develops between a sequence of prose poems and a sequence of verse poems. The former features a protagonist moving through a strange and at times estranging landscape with its blazing sun. The latter establishes an interior landscape where the speaker struggles to make sense of things in a glorious interplay of gaps, knots, silence, physical things, ideas, yearnings, dream, hinges, contact, light, dark. The title underlines the way everything trembles and meaning is both prolific and unstable. The glass is a barrier, a way through, transparent, a longing to see, breakable, dangerous, a distortion, a view finder. I loved this book, this poetry haunting, and set about an email conversation with Gregory over nine weeks with pleasure.

 

 

 

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Gregory Kan, Under Glass, Auckland University Press, 2019

 

 

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Paula: Your new book is beautiful,  mysterious and haunting, I really like the idea of skirting its edges rather than breaking through the ‘glass door’ of its making. What psychological, physical and heart states did its writing place upon you?

Gregory: Writing the book was a process of discovery from start to finish. For me, writing poetry involves a set of transactions or exchanges with the unknown. It is a fragile but ecstatic space to inhabit. I was privileged enough to be on the Grimshaw-Sargeson Fellowship when I wrote the bulk of it. I bounced a lot between our place in Wellington and the Sargeson Centre in Auckland. Perhaps that complemented the liminal, the interstitial states that come to characterise a good portion of my work: in-between, incomplete, on-the-edge-of, peripheral, fragmentary, perforated with holes. Radically finite. Distant but not disconnected. The Sargeson Centre is a beautiful but haunting place in and of itself. There’s a long bookcase in the apartment lined with portrait photos of all the previous fellows. At night there is nobody around except for passers-by and the occasional reveller in Albert Park. Ghosts everywhere. There is sometimes nothing more haunting than the process of writing, and the artefacts of writing. The overwhelming sense of the past in the present meant that my sense of linear time dissolved severely. I went looking for things to see if I could escape them.

 

Paula: Hmm. I wonder if all writer’s residences are like this? I had a similar experience at the Robert Lord cottage in Dunedin.

As I read the various hauntings in your collection three motifs stood out: the map, the mouth, the maze: ‘I started marking the walls with my knife / so I’d know where I’d been.’

The reading of the poetry took me into a maze of sea, land and self. I got ‘lost’ in reading. And that was a joy. The unconventional ‘maps’ were the navigational points. I am reminded of the blurb on Hinemoana Baker’s book, waha | mouth: ‘I’d like to think that opening this book to read is like standing at the mouth of a cave, or a river, or a grave, with a candle in your hand.’ So much for skirting the edges! Here I am drawing in close on a stanza like this:

 

Today the world overwhelms me.

I feel a garden

growing in my mouth

and eventually touch stone.

I am afraid of appearing sentimental about sentimental things.

 

Was the mouth also important as you wrote? Along with the maze and the map?

Gregory: Thanks for sharing that image from Hinemoana Baker’s book/blurb. I love it. Yes, I suppose the mouth marks several interrelated ideas for me: gap/hole/gate, threshold/limit, transition/passage, entry vs. exit, inside vs. outside, private vs. public, and a lot more. Someone, I can’t remember who, writes about the mouth being a place where the soft inside opens up to meet the outside. At the same time, I should qualify that this wasn’t part of any conscious or conceptual intent when I was writing the book. It’s something that I can see in hindsight. On the other hand, the map and the labyrinth were both entities I was conscious of letting loose in the strange game of writing the book. In retrospect, I think of all these entities constitute the problem-space of finite agents, with finite resources and knowledge, trying to understand a volatile and alien world.

It’s always fascinating to me, the differences between what one anticipates, speculates and discovers, when writing. I look forward to hearing about what other people notice when they read the book!

 

You think I don’t know you anymore

and I never read your emails

but I wonder if we have the same nightmare

about some final thing

for which there is no forgiveness.

 

Paula: I think the movement between the unconscious and conscious that a poet leaves in a poem contributes to the way a poem is both fertile and open. And that is exactly why Under Glass is a joy to read; mysterious yes, musical yes, multilayered yes. The movement is also heightened by the open pronouns. Who speaks? Who is playing? Who hides? In your last collection you engaged in self-revelations by way of Robin Hyde. Do you do so here by way of ambiguous pronouns? Or are the speaking characters both porous and invented?

Gregory: Yes, the “I” and “you” in the book are varying mixtures of real, imagined and abstract. I’ve been interested in the fragility of the address and of the self for a long time.

Both the “I” and “you” in the book are fluctuating identities. Some of the poems involve addressing real individuals in my life to begin with, but then depart from them. Sometimes they are completely abstract and/or imaginary addressees. The “I” also shifts within and from each poem. In all these ways (and many others besides), there is an intense fragility to the transmission of information and intent. I wanted to challenge the transparency of the lyric poem and the lyric “I” and “you” in this particular way. I wanted to push it to a kind of limit, to de-privatize the self. I wanted something both incredibly personal and incredibly abstract.

 

 

Paula: Such movement, such uncertainty, fluctuations, flickers. Reading this has sent me back to the book to follow those tremors. Conversely, do you think a poem or a line or even a word can offer a temporary but comfort-rich anchor? For me: ‘Every day the coast looks the same, as/ though I haven’t moved’.

Gregory: In order to write, I need to believe so. I need to believe that hope and overcoming are as universal as hardship. We have seen how a single event can completely rewrite the way we see the past, and the future. Despite such an event, some good things persist, and some new good things can even grow. While a lot of my poems imply a world of flux and uncertainty, where little can be taken for granted, I hope they can also provide a sense of solace, of possibility. The exceeding of limits and thresholds. The possibility of change and doing some good. The strength of being together and moving with others. The relief from pain.

In an idealised model of the world, there is an answer to every question. There is a reason for every event. Things can always be explained, if not anticipated. Everything is as it seems. But this is not the world I know. I think many of us experience a world far in excess of this idealisation. Flux and stability, pain and comfort, despair and hope, uncertainty and understanding – they walk together. The book is in a constant dialectic between entrapment and escape.

 

Paula: Indeed. The event in Christchurch tilted us at such a human level. I am a great believer in hinges as opposed to confrontation, connections rather than disconnections.  For me that is what marks the pleasure of my reading experiences, such as your book. What poetry books have offered you solace or connection or breathtaking possibilities over the past year or so, but at any point in your life?

Gregory: I agree. The world can be seen in terms of its disconnections, animosities – its radical otherness. But I see that as the enabling space for bridges, for empathy and understanding. This is the condition for knowledge and for being together with others, for the grasping mindsoul looking for an island to rest on, awash in a dizzying ocean.

As for poetry books, there are so many! Since we’ve been talking about my book, I’ll use that as my constraint. Reading and writing are almost indistinguishable for me (you gotta eat to live), and these books were absolute pillars when I was writing Under Glass

Tusiata Avia’s Fale Aitu | Spirit House. Soul-slaying. I often lament the lack of action and politics in New Zealand poetry. I sense a general sentiment that politics in poetry is “too prescriptive” or “ham-fisted” but I think that’s a cop-out. Those are not reasons to remain silent. My opinion is that our poetry community needs to speak up more, to do more work, to not be lost in the complacency of this privileged bubble of liberal high (and white) culture. Race, class, gender – they’re all here, beautifully woven into Tusiata Avia’s work. She’s not fucking around.

Anne Carson’s Nox. A sparse and fragmented work. Grief and memory. Love. Such a beautiful object, too. What she makes of the scant traces of her brother.

Raul Zurita’s Dreams for Kurosawa. Otherworldly. Heartbreaking. A very strange combination of elements: traces of trauma under the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, homage to Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, and ghosts everywhere.

Mary Burger’s Sonny. This book has been very influential to me – even since my first book, This Paper Boat – in form, in diction, in tone, in subject matter. I think it was Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle who recommended it to me. It showed me the power of plain prose and diction, and the power of arrangement and organisation. Like me, Burger is invested in interrogating and pushing the limits of the writing of selves. Like me, she is also invested in interrogating the conditions and limits of knowledge. The writing about her past collides with that of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the American physicist who was credited for being the “father” of the atomic bomb.

 

Paula: This is a terrific list. Thank you. I have been thinking about the fingertip traces your book has left on on me – that sometimes act as tiny questions and that sometimes resemble little melodies. Did writing this book raise a question for you – large or small? In the process of writing or upon completion?

Gregory: All kinds of questions. A lot of self-centred ones, especially if I’m in an anxious mood. Will people accept this book as poetry? Is it even any good? Did I do my best? What constitutes success for this book, and for myself? What does my poetry mean to me? These are questions that have no real answers, and I’ll be taking them to my therapist, ha.

And some bigger, more difficult questions, after the book’s release and after Christchurch. What are the possible functions of poetry in our contemporary world? At one of its lowest points, poetry, for me, is so often an institutional and institutionalised form of nostalgia and conservatism. Why is it so enamoured with its own past? I don’t know if I’ve encountered another medium that is as hell-bent on dogmatically validating itself based on historical precedents and norms. At another low point, poetry is a site of postmodern whimsy, irony and impotence. If I were being charitable, I can understand that perhaps this is driven by the belief that almost everything can be and is subsumed under the totality of capitalism, and that resistance involves finding the most non-utilitarian, non-functional gesture possible. At other times, I think that this is simply a sneering cynicism. And I find that to be incredibly lazy and dispiriting. When our world is confronted by planetary annihilation and the increasing visibility of fascism and white supremacism, these attitudes are unacceptable to me. So what does it mean for poetry to adapt, and move forward?

What should the New Zealand poetry community be asking itself? I am afraid of particular kinds of silence. The silence of grief and shock, and the impossibility of witness and testimony, is of course understandable. But why do I also have the sense that there is also the silence of privileged complacency and passivity? The roots of colonialism – and the conditions of white supremacism – run deep, and I believe it’s our responsibility to start digging in our own backyards. It is a necessary labour for all of us.

 

Paula: I utterly agree. A necessary labour for all of us.

What do you like to do as a counterbalance to poetry?

Gregory: I work as a programmer and that offers me a world with a lot more certainty. There is still a lot of creativity and imagination involved in programming, especially in how you approach a problem. There is a caricature of programming that implies there is always a correct way to do things but that isn’t accurate. There are many possible solutions to any one problem. However, in the context of my work, the ends of programming are often certain – the problem itself is usually fairly determinate. What you are trying to get out of the program is usually fairly determinate. With poetry, utility and ends are always in question, and I may never know ultimately what “purpose” or function a poem serves. So having this kind of existential stability in my working world as a programmer can be a real comfort, as a point of difference. At the same time, there is such a thing as speculative programming, but I don’t yet have the intent, vision or skill to get there. In saying all of that, sometimes programming and poetry can feel very similar to me, both language-driven, both world-building. From that perspective my escapes become more recreational and indulgent ones. I love hanging out with my partner and watching Netflix. I love playing video games. I love watching trashy horror movies. Also activities that involve my body to a greater degree than the mind – swimming, cooking, listening to music, playing with the cat, eating, sleeping!

 

 

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Auckland University Press page

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Louder: A conversation with Kerrin P Sharpe on politics, poetry and a new book

 

 

 

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Kerrin P Sharpe has published poetry in a wide range of journals, both in New Zealand and overseas. Louder is her fourth collection of poetry (Victoria University Press, 2018). She lives in Christchurch.

I was immediately drawn to Kerrin’s new title because I envisioned poetry that spoke out. Politics and poetry have had a long relationship in New Zealand, with diverse forms and registers, whether on political or personal issues.  When I was doing my Italian studies I encountered politically motivated poets who wanted their message to be clear; tricky poetics were not to get in the way of issues at hand, the message was paramount, particularly with feminist women writing and thinking outside the academy. At the time, I felt that here, we had often addressed political issues in softer voices and in subtle ways; and that poetry that used loud political voices was more open to criticism. Yet the more you look, the more you discover a rich vein of political poetry. I am thinking of the way the political bite of Hone Tuwhare’s ‘No Ordinary Sun’ is sharpened by the solar metaphor, the searing detail.  Or Selina Tusitala Marsh’s various responses to racism in Tightrope. Or Mary Stanley’s 1950s poem, ‘The Wife Speaks’. I loved writing a chapter for Wild Honey on women poets speaking out because the poetry, and the issues, were so diverse. Women have spoken out from the messy knot of the personal and the political since they first started publishing in New Zealand with loud voices, quiet voices, veiled messages, clear ideas.

2108 seems to be a time when we need to speak out from the comfort/discomfort of our lives, from  the shelter/shelterlessness of our own homes, from the fullness/emptiness of our own stomachs, from the embrace/diaspora of our own communities, from the wound of our own healing/abuse, from the shared earth we stand on that is under wide threat.

Kerrin’s reflective book is utterly personal yet entirely political. She leads us from threatened species to unjust power plays to dislocated refugees to the toxic waste of human greed. To celebrate the arrival of Louder, we embarked on an email conversation.

 

 

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Paula: Your new collection struck me because it gives voice to issues that affect us all. I am really fascinated by the myriad way politics and poetry meet in New Zealand poems. When I asked if you would like to have this email conversation, you made some important points. I wondered if you would like to share those as I think ‘personal’ and ‘politics’ forge vital relationships.

Kerrin: Though as I said earlier I’m not really a ‘political person’ – not in a party-political sense anyway – I do believe ‘political poems’ in a broader sense of the phrase, have the power to sometimes influence and change thought and even behaviour at times. This was what I wanted my poems in LOUDER to do.

As anyone reading the poems in LOUDER will have noticed, they spring from a personal well of concern for endangered animals, refugees, global warming and pollution. When I came to shape the final collection into specific sections, the poems all seemed to work together and together they became even LOUDER.

The volume of the voices vary of course. Some poems are soft but yet still insistent; others clamour for our attention. But none of them whatever their individual volume, let us forget what we should be doing.

 

Paula: I really like the title because it suggests you have to speak your concern for these important issues a little louder without necessarily yelling. I was reminded of some of our early women poets who expressed deep concern for issues of the time. I am thinking of the way Jessie Mackay and Blanche Baughan spoke out for the suffragette movement, for prison reform, displaced people, the underprivileged and so on. They wrote poems but they were more inclined to write articles and letters to newspapers. They kept in touch with global issues through letters, journals and newspapers that travelled by ship. How do you keep in touch with the issues your poems navigate, whether global or local?

Kerrin: To use the stolen phrase ‘the writer as a thief’, I keep in touch with important issues through reading and watching environmental programmes on TV. I saw the idea for the poem ‘louder’ and the direction of the whole collection, when I was in the barber’s one day waiting for a haircut. In one of the magazines was a picture of an elephant with his tusks cut off. I could hardly look at the picture, but it gave me a powerful image I’ll never forget. Naturally, the barber himself is a recurring character in the LOUDER collection.

 

Paula: ‘Louder’ is the opening poem in the collection. It makes it clear that the poetry is linked to issues and that the poems move in intricate ways. It moved me as reader. The poem juxtaposes the beauty of a tribe of elephants with the mutilated bodies, tusks removed.

 

and if you can imagine

thousands of elephants

all in outdoor studios

painting themselves and their tribe

as whole elephants

even as guns are raised

and calves stumble

 

from ‘louder’

 

I was also moved by the sequence, ‘where will the fish sleep’. The poem is equally intricate. It looks like water lines, long ripples across the page that connect different places in the world. What prompted this sequence of vignettes? How difficult (or easy) is it to write of issues located elsewhere along with the way we are affected locally?

Kerrin: The fourth and final section of LOUDER offers the reader 10 multi-choice answers to the question ‘where will the fish sleep?’. I like your analogy that they are ‘water lines’ or ‘ripples’ and for me, writing about issues outside New Zealand gives me a greater freedom to explore connections that interest and intrigue me. This group of poems is all concerned with water and its behaviour due to weather events or global warming. We have just seen again the destructive effects both to land and life in Japan and more recently Indonesia. I like to think many of the poems in LOUDER carry on working beyond the covers of this collection. It is deliberate on my part that in the last poem, ‘how they leave the world’, polar bears in their ‘bubbles of blurry fur’ use soft but very firm voices to beg the reader to now act.

 

he tickles a thick-bodied trout that throws itself

back to unveil the path of the Arahura River

what remains in his square hands?

bones of water enough to mix with shingle

river sand wild grass to grow a daughter

up on the steep riverbank his empty fishing kete

with soft shearwater feathers

 

from ‘from the Arahura River’ in ‘where will the fish sleep?’

 

Paula: Water becomes the vital link in this sequence as it highlights such basic human and planetary needs. Selina Tusitala Marsh’s latest poetry collection, Tightrope, is also a form of ‘louder’. She speaks on issues that matter and affect her. In ‘Apostles’, Selina refers to Alice Walker’s claim that ‘poetry is revolutionary’. Selina is not quite sure that she believes Alice but Tightrope becomes a form of speaking out. Do you ever feel helpless when contemplating so many issues, so many injustices? And what point is poetry?

Kerrin: The many obvious injustices in the world inspire me to write with more conviction. They empower me to feel I must try to raise awareness of what is happening around me.

When I am writing I frequently ask of my writing, ‘What is the point of this? What is its purpose in the poem?’ If I have just written a series of word images that have no real or meaningful ideas or concepts underlying them, then I feel this isn’t the direction in which I should be going with this piece of writing.

As a poet I feel poems should be real, urgent and necessary of themselves and evoke a response in the reader. At least this is what I am attempting to do with my writing.

 

Paula: Did you read any poetry books that explored similar issues in ways that were perhaps ‘real and urgent’ – or simply stuck with you?

Kerrin: The British poet, Alex Houen’s poetry collection Ring Cycle (Eyewear Publishing) impressed me. He explores the world in a real, urgent and innovative way. Another British poet, John Clegg’s Holy Toledo, (Carcanet Press) has also influenced my writing with his poems; they are both playful yet also powerful.

For a long time, George Szirtes, a Hungarian poet living in England, has intrigued me with his writing which is often concerned with social issues. He raises challenges and perspectives that can only come from an ‘outsider’. His latest collection is Mapping the Delta (Bloodaxe).

I met all three of these poets when I was last in England and I talked with them about many of the issues and topics that come up in my poems in louder and I felt reassured by their feedback that I was on the right track. In fact they told me that the social and environmental topics I explore in louder were also starting to emerge in poetry written in Britain and in some cases were being explored by British poets in a very vigorous way indeed.

 

Paula: How wonderful to have that acknowledgement from writers you admire. There is something quite magical about conversations with people who get what you are doing. Are there any local writers who have caught your attention with issue-inspired poetry?  I was really taken with Airini Beautrais’ Flow: Whanganui River Poems. The politics of the river, the land, the everyday lives infused the work on so many levels. I also wondered whether you have a support crew of local writers in terms of both poetry and speaking out?

Kerrin: Yes, Erik Kennedy a local writer from Christchurch has just released his new collection of poems, There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime (VUP) and many of the poems in his collection are quite innovative and fresh in the way they address important issues like war and climate change.

Gregory O’Brien’s two poems ‘Mihi’ and ‘Conversation with a mid-Canterbury braided river’ are clever and strong in the way they challenge us about our threatened waterways.

I tend to do much of my writing alone. I am well known for heading down to a local cafe in Merivale, Christchurch each Saturday and Sunday morning to write. I love the atmosphere and the buzz of people about me.

I often chat with Frankie McMillan a well known Christchurch writer, and we frequently discuss our writing with each other; I read her my recent work and she gives me feedback and suggestions that send me back to refine what I’ve written. I also chat with other writers about my work and theirs and they too keep me grounded and encouraged.

 

Paula: I really like the shifting tones and forms in your collection, from the little poem breaths in ‘what we hear’ (like haiku) to the personal revelation, the mother’s appearance in ‘my mother darns the windsock’. It suggests there are multiple ways to speak louder and draw attention to issues that matter. Is there are poem that particularly worked for you?

Kerrin: Yes Paula, I do tend to employ changes in tone and form in my poems though sometimes I must admit it is as likely to be unconscious as conscious. One of the ‘drivers’ of this is that I have a fear that my poems will all look and sound alike if I don’t look to innovate in the way they sound, their shape and in their tone and form. Often the changes in my poems arise from ideas I get when reading the poems of other writers who themselves are experimenting with tone, shape and form.

Obviously in the context of my louder collection you picked up that I have experimented on several levels with some poems in an attempt to make them speak louder and more insistently.

To give you an illustration. When I visited England earlier this year, I was shown around the historic chapel designed by Sir Christopher Wren at Pembroke College at the University of Cambridge. Inside this beautiful chapel was a blue cross made from a refugee boat and some votive candles. As I was looking at this fascinating symbol, I began to think of the beginnings of a poem that I began to write in my head and the title of it of course became wick which I later included in my new collection.

I wrote the first draft of ‘wick’ on the train coming back from Cambridge and when it was complete I recognised that it had very strong links to the other poems in the collection about refugees: ‘they are found in the sea’ and ‘the bear’.

It probably sounds a bit quixotic but I like the way that ‘wick’ as a poem seemingly jostles to be heard and to extend itself beyond the written words on the page.

 

wick

 

from the flicker of a boat

in the Aegean Sea

they took the heart

they built a cross

a twisted pale blue beak

they sky they followed

still and blue like the toddler

carried ashore by a soldier

carried through our televisions

the terrible cries of his father

that cross and a bowl

of votive candles

in the chapel at Pembroke

every candle a voice

between wick and flame

a Syrian refugee

who never arrived

 

 

Paula: You work a lot with school-age writers. Do you think they are concerned with issues that threaten our world? Do you ever explore political and ecological issues with them through poetry?

Kerrin: I love working with school-age writers. And yes, I find them very open and aware of issues that threaten our world and they are not at all afraid to write passionately about many of the things we as adults are concerned about as well.

Recently one of my students designed a set of tea towels each with a haiku she had written printed on the tea towel. Her haiku were from a series of haiku she had written called ‘Haiku for Humanity’. Among her haiku are ones that draw our attention to the sad plight of many refugees in different parts of the world – a subject that as you know, is very close to my own heart. As a postscript, last I heard, her haiku tea towels were very popular with her student customers; I even have a couple myself!

Other creative writing students I work with participate in the Young Poets’ Network, based in London and have had poems on subjects such as global warming published on the Network.

 

Paula: We have a Prime Minister who uses the word ‘kindness’ in her discussions on governance, she keeps the well-being of children (and a nation) centre frame and resists attack politics and bullying. We have yet to see how Jacinda’s talk is converted into widespread action, but this approach, with the initial welcome moves, gives me hope for people and for the planet. What gives you hope?

Kerrin: As I said earlier, while my poetry in Louder is often about environmental and social issues and can therefore perhaps in that sense be described as political, I don’t have a lot of faith in politicians, whether it be the current Prime Minister or anyone else.

What does give me hope in our world are people, the people I meet every day in my local community, the people I work with, the children I teach creative writing – a creative writing class full of children is a magical place for me – my husband, family and friends.

I don’t expect politicians to bring about a better world. Positive change in our world, if it comes, will come because there are more and more people in our world with open, loving hearts, people who are honest and people who care deeply about others who need caring for.

One of my greatest joys is working with children. When I am in a class of children and we are all working on our creative writing; it’s then that I feel most a sense of hope in our future and what we can become.

 

Victoria University Press page

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf in conversation with Erik Kennedy

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Erik Kennedy has followed his poetry chapbook, Twenty-Six Factions (Cold Hub Press, 2017) with his debut collection, There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime (Victoria University Press, 2018). He edits the online journal Queen Mob’s Teahouse. He lives in Christchurch. His first-full length collection sparks with multiple fascinations, experience, thought, wit, politics, optical delights and aural treats. It is a book of harmonics and elastic thinking, and is a pleasure to read.

 

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To celebrate the book Erik and I embarked on a slow-paced email conversation.

 

 

Paula: Did you read, write or hear poetry as a child? As a teenager?

Erik: I wouldn’t say that I grew up in a poetical household, but it was certainly a bookish one. My early touchstones were mostly fact-filled books: The Book of Lists, Jacques Cousteau, The Rand McNally Encyclopedia of Military Aircraft, atlases. We had that two-volume complete OED that comes with a magnifying glass, which I never used, and instead I liked to bring my eyes quite close to the tiny, tiny type on the huge pages. I was born in 1980, so I am part of the last cohort that had a childhood without the internet.

I came to poetry in my early teens. I was converted by my father’s old university poetry textbook, which was an early edition of An Introduction to Poetry by X. J. Kennedy (no relation). Then I realised that we had a lot more of this ‘poetry’ stuff in the house, and that even bookshops in suburban New Jersey would sell you poetry if you wanted it. I became obsessed with it. I was an only child with addictive tendencies. I started writing my own poems, and I liked it so much that I thought I should write hundreds of them. For a while I kept a chart of my productivity. For a while I thought six poems per day was a decent target.

Eventually I became saner and realised that reading was more important than writing, but the funny thing is, I wasn’t wrong about the benefits of writing tons of poems. At the time I thought I should do it because I assumed they were all brilliant and worth recording. Now I do it because I know that half of them will be rubbish.

 

Paula: Oh I love the image of the chart. I wonder if you will look through the rubbish pile one day and see some of the poems glow? I am intrigued by the way relationships change with a poem over time. I am also wondering with your enviable productivity if you write a poem quickly or it is agonisingly slow?

Erik: These days I’m more likely to abandon a poem than to revise it extensively, so I guess I go along at a fair clip. (If taking a week on a poem is writing ‘quickly’.) A couple of poems in the book – like ‘The Shame’, for instance – were written in one sitting. Poets reading this will be familiar with how amazing a feeling this is. Like bowling a perfect game on Christmas Eve, or finding a fifty dollar note in a seldom-worn coat.

I’m not very sentimental about particular poems. I tend to revisit certain subjects regularly – climate change, the atheist’s perspective on religion, inequality, mortality and the fear of death – so it’s unlikely that any given poem I write will be my last word on the matter. This takes off some of the pressure to get it perfect. This isn’t to say that I don’t like my poems or have particular favourites. But often it’s reader or audience reaction that earns a poem a place in my affections. I want my work to connect with people, and that connection is something that’s probably more important than my own super-subjective feelings about my work. This is one reason why I send my poems out so much and why I do as many readings as I can. Hopefully it all adds up to something in the end.

 

Paula: Writing is such a private thing – we send our work into the world and so often don’t eavesdrop on the reader. When an audience gasps after you read a poem it is gold!

 

There’s no place like the internet in springtime!

Everything foals a new thing like itself,

and old things are respectful in their pastures

and only argue over if it’s best

to let the snow melt or to make it melt.

 

from ‘There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime’

 

 

The order within disorder

is a spice-rack in a shipwreck,

an abacus in the corner

at the ruined abbey of Glenluce,

or hill-roads amid the scree

where earthquakes preside.

It is also a probe

in orbit around a comet,

a self-tightening noose,

a precise polypeptide

in a gummy primordial soup

 

from ‘I Can’t Even’

 

Your collection navigates eclectic subject matter but I was initially drawn to the interplay between a virtual world and a classical world. I began to muse on how poetry fits into movement between the arrival of the internet and a legacy of classical knowledge. Do both feed your curiosities as a poet? Does the internet make a difference to you as poet? I really love the lines in ‘I Can’t Even’:

 

The things we write we transform:

the far becomes the distant,

the distant becomes the invisible,

the invisible becomes the new

 

Erik: I sometimes (over-ambitiously!) describe the book as a collision between the digital and the pastoral – like responding to Marlowe’s ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love’ with an image macro. It seems to me that poetry is good at representing collisions like this, given that so much of the art as it’s practised now is about surprising juxtapositions and skewed perspectives. Even some of the famous ‘definitions’ of poetry get at this. Take one of Carl Sandburg’s hare-brained formulations: ‘Poetry is a puppet-show, where riders of skyrockets and divers of sea fathoms gossip about the sixth sense and the fourth dimension.’ This is barking, obviously, but it’s a way of saying, ‘Well, I add a and b together and I get x, and I’m not really sure why.’ And I understand that. That’s how it feels to me, too.

You’re right to sense that I care deeply about history. I’ve always cared as much about the seed drill as I have about @dril. It seems to me that on the c. 2018 internet all of history exists simultaneously. This was previously possible in the arts, but I don’t think that our daily lives were filled with the disorientating, mind-bending glory of it all until we had social media. I’m thinking of the @medievalpoc Twitter account, Daniel Mallory Ortberg’s legendary art/lit/textspeak mash-ups on The Toast (a few years old, but not forgotten), even Jim’ll Paint It (if old British telly counts as history). I could go on forever. We are blessed to live in these times.

But, in a way, I don’t think it is internet culture itself that has primarily affected my work, although I like Weird Twitter as much as the next idiot. I think instead the ability to plug into existing literary cultures has allowed my work to be broader than it would have been otherwise. This is part of the general, larger process of globalisation and cultural cross-pollination that we’re all living with and contributing to. I’m not the first person to say this, but I feel like I just know a lot more about the various poetries there are out there than I used to. And if I didn’t, I’d probably still be writing the same kinds of poems I wrote when I was twenty . . . and trust me, that would not be a good thing.

 

Paula: Engagement with diverse poetries seems so important and for me that involves reading outside my comfort zone, my poetry loves. I also love the idea of poetry reacting to collisions, intersections, juxtapositions. Interestingly when I was jotting down notes I wrote the words ‘detail’, ‘things’ and ‘juxtaposition’ but not just for the embedded ideas. Yes, the detail in the poems is striking in itself, but I was drawn to the ‘static’ or the  ‘conversation’ or ‘kinetic energy’ between things as I read.

 

Two feet of snow at my parents’ place, in another season.

Here, the cicadas sing like Christian women’s choirs

in a disused cotton mill. Belief is a kind of weather.

I haven’t seen proper snow for three years.

 

from ‘Letter from the Estuary’

 

I can jump about this stanza for ages. How important are the connections or bridges (and perhaps disconnections) between things as you write? Is there a poem where it is particularly important?

Erik: Perhaps you already know that James Brown has (gently) mocked my thought processes in that stanza of ‘Letter from the Estuary’ in a poem called ‘Liking Similes’? From his poem:

 

When I hear cicadas, their singing always reminds me of
Christian women’s choirs in a disused cotton mill.
I picture the conductor’s arms bent in supplication
as she tries to draw forth the correct ‘cicadian’ rhythm
from the collective gasp of Christian women.

 

And it goes on in that vein for about 400 words! I recommend it enthusiastically. I’m a strong believer in trying to surprise readers. Maybe sometimes I try too hard. Maybe sometimes that effort borders on the absurd. But a certain amount of risk is necessary if you’re going to write either very good or very bad poems. I’d like to be remembered as someone who wrote both.

I think James has got my style down, though! Or at least he’s got the logic of it, if not the exact tone. I’m lucky enough to be in a great critgroup – four other poets I trust, with whom I meet once a month. I often get told that my poems operate in predictable ways because they argue more than they emote. I think that aspect of my writing is easy to parody, and I don’t mind that. What’s wrong with using poems to work out problems? One of the oldest, simplest, and most enjoyable poems in the book, called ‘Growing Fears That the Leadership Contest Has Been Hijacked by Far-Left Infiltrators’, is a series of propositions, which, if answered in the affirmative, all seem to say that the reader is a proper socialist. That’s the sort of connection that’s most important to me – connections that lead to a punch line rather than ones that merely establish a mood.

 

Paula: Well, heck, I love jumping about that stanza and indeed the whole collection. Do you have a favourite poem in the collection – where the poem just clicked into place and lifted?

Erik: When it comes to my poems, I’m like a parent. I’m like a parent who loves all his children equally. I’m like a parent who acknowledges his children’s limitations. I’m like a parent who hopes his next children will be better than the ones he already has are. I’m like a parent who thinks his children would have been better off if they had been born in another time and place, when children rhymed and scanned. Maybe this is a faulty simile from someone who hasn’t got any kids.

What I’m trying to say is that I have a lot of favourite poems, and they all do different things, and I’m not vain enough to think that they’re all perfect. In fact, I have frosty relations with some of my poems. I won’t renounce them, but I hope I can replace them with better ones in future.

So instead of a one-poem answer, I hope you’ll let me nominate a few poems that I think fulfil their ambitions pretty well:

 

Favourite love poem: ‘Love Poem with Seagull’

Favourite poem about aesthetics: ‘I Rank All the Beautiful Things There Are’ (which appears in a slightly different version in the book)

Favourite rambling philosophical poem: ‘The School of Naps’

Favourite ‘history poem’: ‘Public Power’

Favourite ‘New Zealand poem’: ‘Letter from the Estuary’

Favourite eco-poem: ‘I Am an Animal Benefiting from Climate Change’ (not online)

Favourite poem that isn’t online: ‘Double Saw Final at the Canterbury A&P Show’ (also not online)

 

Paula: Oh, how perfect. I have been thinking of running a series on my blog where I get a poet to recommend a favourite poem (and go through categories!). I was thinking of poems by other poets though. I love your list; it is a reminder that poetry does all kinds of things on all kinds of subject matter with all kinds of stylistic leanings and you enagge with them for different reasons.

I had a conversation with a writer who, like me, finds writing makes her happy. It can be a challenge, demanding much of/from you, but it makes me happy. I jotted down a couple of lines from three terrific poems near the end of your book that feature ‘happy’, ‘glad’, ‘contentment’. For some reasons these three poems gave me goosebumps.

 

From ‘The School of Naps’: When you’re happy you have a responsibility to those who are unhappy / to do your best with it.’

From ‘The Contentment Poem’: ‘I’ve got the garden just how I like it and that, obviously, / is just how I like it.’

From ‘Today’: ‘And I, alone and glad, have missed these things.’

 

Does writing make you happy or is it a painful part of your life as it is with some writers?

 

Erik: Are there really poets who cause themselves pain when they write? Of course I love writing. I’ll never be more alive – ever – than when I feel an unmistakably good line come into my head. To me, that’s what humanity is: the moment when you acknowledge yourself as a self-aware, clever being. (Knowing that you’ve written a good poem is like juggling in the mirror.) At the moment of my death I will probably say something like, ‘One more line, please.’ One line in Latin on one’s tombstone below one’s name: Magis. More.

Obviously, I hate the process of writing as much as everyone else does; 999 lines in a thousand are just craft, not art. But I will chase the feeling of that serendipitous line across all of time and space. I suppose it’s why I’m a poet rather than a novelist – I can capture that feeling more easily in ten choice words than in ten chapters. Poetry is a shortcut to pleasure, and none of us should ever apologise for taking that shortcut.

 

Paula: Bill Manhire quotes Randall Jarrell in his (Bill’s!) poem ‘The Victims of Lightning’ – good poets might get struck by lightning five or six times in a thunderstorm – a great poet maybe a dozen. Sometimes it feels like that – where did this poem come from? How on earth did it hit the page and sound like this!

I am really drawn to the lists in your poems – there is something that both surprises and comforts about list poems or poems that play with lists. What is the attraction?

 

Erik: A natural rage for order, I suppose! I hope I don’t write many ‘list poems’, though. I’m happy enough to write poems that contain lists, but when lists are the poem I’m not usually very happy. It’s the same with anaphora, parallel structure, whatever. Like any rhetorical gimmick, these devices make useful servants and oppressive masters. I was reading Clint Smith’s ‘the drone’ the other day and I was thinking that it is a good example of a poem that develops and emerges naturally from its confines to say something necessary. And the structure helped it say what it said; it wasn’t just there when it got said, hanging around or getting in the way.

 

So when I write things like this:

 

I rank all the beautiful things there are

starting with self-sacrifice, then supernovas,

the brain, love, virga, Korean pottery,

lemurs, cuckoo clocks, suits of armour for horses,

a child’s first words, mercy, bread, and so on.

 

from ‘I Rank All the Beautiful Things There Are’

 

Or this:

 

The human ingenuity I admire

is limited, implausible, post hoc,

folksy, unconsidered, overthought,

ecstatic, garden-shed, Corinthian,

exhausting, nebulous, and somehow sexy.

 

from ‘I’m Impressed’

 

I am indulging myself, yes, but I am also pointing to the richness and strangeness of experience, which is a subject that those two poems share. Lists are a nice way to establish breadth. As someone who (likes to think that he) writes on a broad range of subjects, many of them not personal ones, they help me show that I have considered things, that I aware of the possibilities and I love them. Maybe that’s why I like lists and deploy them.

 

Paula: I am reluctant to wrap our conversation up as it has been such fun, but can we finish with a list – around five New Zealand poems that have struck you for different reasons?

Erik: In no particular order, and with no comment: Nick Ascroft’s ‘Five Limericks on Grief’, Hera Lindsay Bird’s ‘The da Vinci Code’, Alistair Te Ariki Campbell’s ‘Waiting for the Pākehā’, Ashleigh Young’s ‘Ghost Bear’, and James K. Baxter’s ‘Elegy for My Father’s Father’. Thanks! This has been great!

Paula: Indeed! Poetry delight.

 

 

Erik reads ‘Tour Grandfather’s Stories’

Victoria University Press page

Erik’s website

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf interviews Tayi Tibble

 

 

She kisses him goodbye with her eyes still wet and alight from their

last swim in the Awatere River. At the train station celebration, she

leads the kapa haka but her voice keeps breaking under and over itself

like waves. Like last night, on the riverbank, between the moss and the

baby’s-breath, where he had kissed her sticky until she cried out from

her chest. And she was thinking about the rolls of white fabric her

sister kept in the shed and how she would make a dress pressed with

shiny bits of shell. She could even fix a veil from a fishing net or wear

knots of pale hydrangeas like a crown upon her head. Then together

they would move to the empty plot of ancestral land forgotten by the

sea and have little brown babies that she would make sure to stuff fat

with potatoes and wobbly mutton.

 

from ‘Hoki Mai’

 

 

 

15A06110-7CBA-40C9-92D4-0D304B3350F8.jpeg

Photo credit: Curti Angle

 

Tayi Tibble (Te Whānau ā Apanui/Ngāti Porou) completed her MA in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Lettters in 2017, where she was awarded the Adam Foundation Prize. She currently lives in Wellington. Her debut collection, Poūkahangatus, has already and understandably attracted widespread media attention. The poetry is utterly agile on the beam of its making; and take ‘beam’ as you will. There is brightness, daring and sure-footedness. The poems move in distinctive directions: drawing whanau close, respecting a matrilineal bloodline (I adore this!), delving into the dark and reaping the light, cultural time-travelling, with baroque detail and sinewy gaps. The collection charts the engagement of a young, strong woman with her worlds and words  – and the poetic interplay, the sheer joy and magnetism of the writing, is addictive.

 

Tayi and I embarked on a slowly unfolding email conversation over the past month.

 

 

Paula: I am always curious about the books that shaped us when we were children. What did you read as a child? Did you read poetry?

Tayi: As a child I read all sorts but particularly fantasy and young adult fiction. I remember reading a lot of dragon books like Eragon, The Hobbit, The Dragon Riders of Pern, The Narnia Chronicles etc. I also read the hell out of The Jacqueline Wilson books, especially The Girls in Love series. I loved The Sisterhood of The Travelling Pants books and this series called The It Girl Novels, written by ‎Cecily von Ziegesar, who also wrote Gossip Girl. My grandparents also had this collection of, I think they were Reader Digest condensed classic books or something? There was like four titles in one book, all hardback with foiled damask prints on the cover. So I’d read bits of The Grapes of Wrath, Huckleberry Finn, Wuthering Heights etc. I also remember being aware that I read a lot of tabloid magazines a kid, because my Nana would buy all three; Woman’s Day, Women’s Weekly, and New Idea every week.

Poetry I came to in my preteens and early teens. The intermediate that I went to had really great diverse teachers who taught us Hone Tuwhare, and Apirana Taylor poems, and made us write our own. When I started high school was when I started reading poetry; Carol Ann Duffy, Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg, and then also like, Robert Frost, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Tennyson, Lord Byron which we had to do for English, but I was into it.

 

Paula: Ha! I remember reading classics like that on my relation’s bookshelves in the summer holidays. It was like I had a child’s understanding of the Brontë sisters, then years later that of an adult!

What poetry books have affected you in different ways in the last few years? Sometimes you meet the right book at just the right time, with all kinds of reactions.

Tayi: I discovered a lot of great writers during my MA year, last year. I got heavily into Kaveh Akbar, an American-Iranian poet and his chapbook Portrait of an Alcoholic and then Calling a Wolf a Wolf. I also read Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and that was a whole big thing for me, and gave me a sense of permission. Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth by Warsan Shire, both stunned and influenced me greatly. She writes about family, dysfunction, race and religion, with lush imagery – often grounded in the body and always people oriented. I also discovered Cate Marvin, who I think is really brilliant. Her poetry is feminine and feminist and so bold and funny. I especially love her books Fragment of the Head of a Queen Head and Oracle. I think Harmony Holiday is the poet I adore the most. I think her poetry is very stylish. She writes mostly prose-poetry, combining the politics of being black in America with celebrity and pop culture. I think her book Hollywood Forever, is just the coolest thing ever.

And in New Zealand, Courtney Sina Meredith’s Brown Girls In Bright Red Lipstick had a big impact on me. I first discovered her work at Litcrawl in 2015. She was reading from it and I was in the audience wearing a bright red dress and matching bright red lipstick and as she was reading the title poem I felt both entirely seen and see-through. I had similar experiences reading This Paper Boat by Gregory Kan and Chris Tse’s How to Be Dead in a Year of Snakes and He’s So Masc too. Tusiata Avia’s Fale Aitu became a real touchstone text for me too. Reading her poem, White Sunday, always makes my chest tighten, but it always helps me to kind of, get out of my own way and re-align my writing intentions. This might be passé, but that books that affect me the most are the ones that make me feel personally liberated, and inspires a sense of bravery or urgency on the page.

 

Paula: Oh how spooky I was just sitting here gazing at the wind in the manuka imaging organising a poetry reading in Wellington and I was musing upon Chris, Greg and Tusiata (with a few others!) because their poetry electrifies every bit of me: heart, mind, skin, blood. I agree with you. It does come down to bravery and urgency because, and here I am also anxious I sound clichéd, I am drawn to poetry that matters. That makes the world and people and ideas and feelings and the music of words matter.

 

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You dedicate your debut collection to your mother. I am moved by this. What prompted this dedication?

Tayi: That line up would be incredible. Yeah, I love poetry that gives me physical sensations, when words ring in the body—a transfer of energy. Dedicating the book to my mum was such an obvious decision; I can hardly give words to it. On one hand the presence of maternal figures is very prominent in the book, so dedicating the book to my mum made sense thematically, but also rather simply, a dedication is a thank you, and there’s no one I am more thankful for, then my Mum.

I did debate whether it should read ‘For Adrienne’ instead, but I also liked the idea that maybe, someone somewhere might give the book to their mum. Then the book can be for them too, which is pretty geeky, but still nice, I think.

 

Paula: Yes I liked ‘for Mum’ for the same reasons and the way it was a perfect gateway into the women in the book.  I treasure this book for its kaleidoscopic female relations and views of women. Was this a strengthening thing to do? To make women the vital overcurrents and undercurrents of the collection?

 

Our nan wears black leather pumps

and dries wishbones from chicken carcasses

in an empty margarine container on top of the fridge

She’s not my real nan

but I have always wished she was.

I wished I was born with her

blood in my veins, her dark

Waikato DNA, high cheekbones

and heavy wet eyes just like my sister.

 

from ‘Our Nan Lets Us Smoke Inside’

 

Tayi: It was definitely strengthening to do. That’s a really good way to put it. Once I let the women take over, the writing really flowed and I knew pretty early on, that I might be making something quite cool. Having the different generations of women was also a good way to get away from ‘myself’ and prevent the work from becoming super me-centric, while simultaneously supporting my own experiences haha. During the process of writing and imagining the experiences of Māori women in different points in history, I felt as though my own experiences were legitimised, contextualised even. I think their inclusion elevated the kind of storytelling that I wanted to do. I think their inclusion made the themes of colonialism, inequality, intergenerational trauma that I seemed to be circling, feel more integral to work, and also robust. I guess including these maternal figures also just kind of gave me a bit of company and confidence on the page. It felt important to me, and that gave me a lot of drive and motivation.

 

Paula: So much poetry by Māori women is invisible – there is a history of groundbreaking Māori women poets that is not easy to access. That your collection shines a light on your whakapapa, and that te reo is a vital beam on the line, matters. Does this feel personal or political or a mix of both?

 

Smile at the wives who refuse to kiss their ghost-pink cheeks.

Order dessert like pecan pie but never eat it.

Eat two pieces of white bread in the kitchen with the light off.

Slip into an apricot nylon nightgown freshly ordered off the catalogue.

Keep quiet with their husbands’ blue-veined arms corseting their waists.

Remember the appointment they made to get their hair fixed on Lambton Quay.

Think about drowning themselves in the bathtub instead.

Resurface with clean skin, then rinse and repeat.

 

from ‘In the 1960s an Influx of Māori Women’

 

Tayi: It’s definitely both, and largely for the simple fact that politics are personal to me. I’ve experienced politics my whole life. My body, my skin, my hair are all politicised and I can’t divorce myself from that. I don’t want to divorce myself from that either. And the politics wouldn’t be effective at all if they weren’t rooted in the body, in the people, in the day to day experiences and interactions. I think the place where the personal and politics meet is the perfect place for poetry. I think that’s where language can get really interesting.

I can’t really tell if poetry by Māori women is invisible – certainly disproportionately underrepresented in publishing. But I have always actively looked for it, been brought up around it and sought it out for myself, so it’s visible to me. I have also been lucky, for example, to have had Hinemoana Baker for my course-convenor during my undergrad poetry course at the IIML. I also took this really amazing history paper convened by Airini Loader about the history of Māori literacy and you’re right, the history of Māori female poets is astounding and so interesting! I know not everyone has access to education, but I do think that anything can be accessed if you actually want to look. So I don’t know if Māori Female poetry is invisible, but maybe people are wilfully blind, and keep their eyes shut.

 

Paula: I guess I am talking about poets in the 60s and 70s and a time when men hogged the limelight. And when I looked in Puna Wai Kōrero: An anthology of Māori poetry in English, edited by Robert Sullivan and Reina Whatiri, there are great women poets who I would just love to read more from. Jacq Carter for example. Ah so much to say about this!

I love the kaleidoscopic effect of your book; the way it is edgy and dark and full of light. The way it catches living from popular culture to family relations, the way it carries sharp ideas and equally sharp feelings. Do you have any writing taboos? Do you prefer to disguise autobiography or are you happy to get personal?

 

 

Poūkahangatus

 

in 1995 I was born and Walt Disney’s Animated Classic Pocahontas was

released. Have you ever heard a wolf cry to the blue corn moon? Mum has.

I howled when my mother told me Pocahontas was real but went with John

Smith to England and got a disease and died. Representation is important.

 

from ‘Poūkahangatus’

 

 

Tayi: Well, that’s interesting because I’m more reserved than people might think, but I’m also of a generation who grew up oversharing on the internet everyday so I quite often have conflicting feelings about the autobiography in this book lol! There is definitely material in this book that’s sensitive, and I have spent some time worrying about its implications and what assumptions people might make about me. But I also think that self-consciousness can be pretentious and also, yolo who cares it’s not that deep.

So I wouldn’t say that I’m necessarily happy to get personal, but I’m definitely prepared to. This is going to sound really intense but I’d go pretty far and pretty hard for a poem if the poem demands it. I also think I’m properly a really good writer. I trust my taste and my ability to walk a fine line. I trust that I have my own back, and that on a subconscious level, I know what I’m doing. And it’s not like I’m just blabbing about my whole boring life on the page. It might only be a moment that’s autobiographical. I wouldn’t say I disguise the autobiography, but I manipulate it for the poem, and then the poem has its own life and I don’t have to feel so caught up about it.

In terms of writing taboos, my morals are pretty neutral tbh and I don’t even know what a taboo is. I’m pretty curious about a lot of awful things and I’m super non-judgemental. I think I’d probably be a better person if I was a little more judgemental so I’ll work on that, but I passionately hate self-righteousness. I have a strong distaste for crudeness, like toilet humour and gratuitous violence, but that’s more taste than principles.

I do try my best to be ethical when writing about other people or shared experiences and I try to go about it in most respectful way I can. I’d never publish anything that was written from a place of ill-intention because that’s not the vibe I’m trying to throw out into the world. Chris Price said close attention is an act of love, and poetry is all about close attention so I think about that all the time, and use that as my sort of measuring stick.

 

Paula: I love attentiveness in poetry and often reference it in reviews: attentiveness to small details, or the way a poem sounds, or movement, revelation/non-revelation, humanity. Books that both catch and hold you and demand attention. I also like the traffic between attention and an act of love. Interesting. I guess that is happening as I read your book – the poems snag me and demand attention!

 

you know this story because

your grandmother wrote it down

in a brown photo album

she kept poorly hidden

 

from ‘Shame’

 

In an interview you were asked to pick a favourite poem. Tough! Sometimes though the stars align in a poem and it just feels right. The one where lightning strikes. Did you feel that with any? Sometimes a poem hides in the shadows but has intense meaning for the poet. Or was a struggle to get down.  Can you share a couple of quite different relationships you have with poems in the collection?

 

Tayi: My favourite poem is the title poem, ‘Poūkahangatus’. I wrote it as an exercise very early on during my MA year. I thought it was cool and my class was very receptive. It was also my first time experimenting with a different form. Previously I had been writing very concentrated, small poems. I discovered that I loved writing in the longer lines and I got really into prose poetry after that. I didn’t know it at the time, but now I think that essay really changed the direction of my writing. One of the last decisions I made in the manuscript before hand-in, was moving the essay to the front of the book and that really elevated the collection in my opinion. I thought it just perfectly touched on all the themes I was interested in. It acts almost like a foreword. And I still think it’s really fresh even though it’s probably the oldest poem in the book.

 

In the Beginning

The earliest memory to survive the red fog of infancy reveals your great-

grandmother on her bed, cutting the thick peppery plait falling down her

back with a blunt pair of orange-handled scissors. Remember the resistance.

Imagine if the ropes of Māui had snapped and the world had been plunged

back into the womb of darkness. After she died, you found it again, coiled

and paled like the skin of an ancient snake. You held it to your throat,

between her unwanted fur coats, and felt like Cleopatra deciding not to wait

for the Romans.

 

from ‘Poūkahangatus’

 

 

My other favourite poems are Vampires versus Werewolves and Red Blooded Males, just because I think I got the words right. They satisfy me. I also really love Hoki Mai and In the 1960s an Influx of Māori Women because I think they’re beautiful and in service to something bigger than myself. I also adore Black Velvet Mini, LBD and Pania, they’re stylish. Ode to Johnsonville’s Cindy Crawford, I think is really good because it’s so in my own voice, but so much so that it’s almost makes me cringe, like hearing yourself on recording.

 

She plays Hendrix on guitar

at her teen daughter’s party.

She finds a room full of Gregg Araki

cyberspace stoners who recommend

a remedy for her shoulders

the bones softened and sore from the weight

of religious condemnation.

So she gives up the Bible verses.

 

from ‘Black Velvet Mini’

 

Shame was the hardest poem to get on the page and I wanted to cut it quite often because I kept thinking it felt unfinished until I realized that it was just discomfort I was feeling. It’s an uncomfortable poem, but that’s its intended effect. Shame has to feel insidious, and lingering and unfinished because that’s what shame is like.

Receipt is maybe the poem that’s lowkey in the book, but means a lot to me personally. I love the energy, the humour and bizarreness of it. I had a relationship that for a long time afterwards, really annoyed me, but I didn’t know how to articulate it until I wrote this poem and was able to kind of just channel these frustrations about power dynamics and money into this one weird item, the rose-gold bathtub, and then it was funny. I love it’s placement in the book, towards the end. I think it lifts the book a little. I actually dislike the word sassy, but it’s got that kind of energy. To me it’s very much feels like a reclamation and a refusal. It’s the exact opposite of holding your breath or holding your tongue. I’m fond of its tone. It’s a little obnoxious. It’s a little wicked.

 

Paula: Thanks Tayi. I have loved our unfolding conversation. I want to finish with a section from a sequence I loved because in being so surely placed within a scene, a story, I felt the world. And who wants to be immune or numb? The gorgeously paced detail pricked my skin. After that, as a sweet postscript, I am sharing Hinemoana Baker’s fabulous blurb on the back cover. As with Sam Duckor-Jones, I feel like I could reflect on poetry and your book with you for weeks! It is a book of glorious returns.

 

The Ghost

They washed their hands because everyone else was washing their

hands. There were two sawn-off mik bottles and a mossy trough

filled with rainwater. They watched their mother make the shape of

a cross across her chest while the nannies tossed handfuls over their

shoulders, so they copied but with tactful aim, again and again, until

their father got so mad that they were sent to bed with no tea and no

Chocolate Thins for supper. Angry in their sleeping bags, Hera told

them that she had heard from their mean aunty that if they didn’t

wash their hands seriously then the ghosts would come and pull

their eyeballs out, which made Hemi too scared to close his eyes, and

in the middle of the night he woke Hera up with desperate puppy

begging. He asked her soft and whakamā to please take him to the

bathroom and help him wash his hands again, just to be sure.

 

from ‘Tangi in the King Country’

 

Victoria University Press page

Book launch reading via NZ Book Council

Reading picks for NZ Book Council

Poem in Starling

The Spinoff interview

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf in conversation with Sam Duckor-Jones

 

 

In the winter I planted flaxes

& they’ve taken

tall & muscular

now it’s spring

so I sleep naked

& when that suckerpunch

wind comes down

it makes those hard shafts slap

slide like lovers legs in showers

Go step outside go feel it

go stand naked in the flaxes

to get one physical fix

 

from ‘5  … romance’ in ‘People from the Pit Stand Up’

 

 

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Photo credit:  Ebony Lamb

 

Sam Duckor Jones is both a poet and sculptor living in Featherston. He won the Biggs Poetry Prize from the International Institute of Modern Letters in 2017. Victoria University Press recently released his first collection: People From the Pit Stand Up. I got goosebumps when I saw the book – generous in size, font choice and layout. Sam’s enigmatic black & white cover drawing perfectly fits poetry that floats ideas, syncopates both feelings and hungers, relishes life and never relinquishes the whole business of making art. White space is as gorgeous as the lines that drift and stall, with agility and sweet bite, for both ear and eye. This a poetry collection to enthuse about. As you will see from the photos below, my copy is well thumbed – it has been a perfect diversion in a month of waiting rooms.

 

Sam and I recently embarked upon a slow-paced email conversation.

 

 

Paula: Were you an avid reader as a child? Did you ever read poetry? Or had poetry read to you?

Sam:  I don’t know about avid…I read a lot of Nature books…  or any fiction with an animal: Redwall, Rats of Nimh, Beak of the Moon, Animal Farm.  I was a soft version of smart, smarter than I am now.  We were a bookish house.  Books were just there, like baths or siblings, inevitable, and we all read to each other.  As for poetry, how as-a-child are we talking?  Goodnight Moon, Dr Seuss, I loved them I guess.  Edward Gorey, Terry Jones: dark verse for sensitive boys.  I have other things on my mind besides breasts: / Australia – for example – Australia. / To tell you the truth, I think a great deal about Australia.  Paul Durcan. I might have been a kid when I read that.

 

Paula: Gosh I am getting all nostalgic for those animal books, especially The Rats of NIMH.

 

 

On the plane home                        I sat behind a man who was

reading poems                                & I was also reading poems!

I hoped the flight attendant would notice &         say out loud

something like         hey

 

                                    two people reading poems

 

so that other people might hear & say

 

                                                                        My heart’s aflutter!

 

 

from ‘Nudes on Loan’

 

I love the scene on a plane, in ’Nudes on Loan’, where the speaker in the poem is reading poetry. Poetry readers sometimes feel like an endangered species but then you see the turnout at readings, get feedback from readers or spot someone with a poetry book in hand.

If you were to pen a short biography of yourself, from a poetry book that made an early impression to a more recent astonishment, what books would feature?

 

Sam: I wrote poems before I read poems, I think.  Freely as a kid, gloomily as a teenager, and then with relative *wisdom* as an adult, which can be problematic.

There are poems and poets that have made impressions, from Paul Durcan’s moment with breasts/Australia to John Dickson’s moment with a slaughterman/Australia.  Really though, I am a lover of picture books, usually ones with a poetic sensibility, probably.

So who do I treasure the most, for the longest?  Shel Silverstein: Different Dances.  We called it the Rude Book, and it was.  Kept on the top shelf out of reach, but we’d climb on top of an armchair, get it down, thumb wide eyed through pages of pen and ink penises being thrown like javelins, spectacular.  And this from the same gentle man who brought us The Giving Tree!  A revelation!  To inhabit both worlds so easily, fearlessly.  That’s a poetry of a kind.  William Steig’s The Amazing Bone I adore for it’s unhurried absurdity: ….the warm air touched her so tenderly, she could almost feel herself changing into a flower.  Her light dress felt like petals.  “I love everything,” she heard herself say.  Gushy!  And then of course she makes friends with a talking bone who, after rescuing her from a creep abductor, goes on to become a part of the family.  I mean, why not?  Adults sometimes forget to be playful.

These books keep me connected to some essential childhood dreaminess, loose and unquestioned, important to channel when putting down one’s own lines.  Maurice Sendak with Ruth Krauss:  All I want is / sugar off a button Or this, from A Girl at a Party: …her face was beautiful. / Her dress was beautiful. / Her feet were beautiful. / Everybody said, “How beautiful!” / And she was rich too. / But the other girls at the party didn’t care / because they all had warm bathrobes.  Maybe this is where my taste for repetition began.  Later, just before I turned to face poetry front on, I read Schoolmaster by Yevtushenko, another gorgeous exercise in repetition: The window gives onto the white trees. / The master looks out of it at the trees, / for a long time, he looks for a long time / out through the window at the trees, / breaking his chalk slowly in one hand … Snow falling on him softly through silence / turns him to white under the white trees. / He whitens into white like the trees. / A little longer will make him so white / we shall no longer be able to see him in the whitened trees.  

Then for a while I went in for broody American male fiction: Hemmingway, Salinger, Cheever, Carver.  They’re still among my favourites.  In fact I think they’re most front of my mind when I sit down to write.  Funny then, that what comes out are poems about birds, art, gay love.

Eventually, cos I was writing poetry, I figured I better read some poetry.  Jenny Bornholdt: And when the nice young woman tells the young man he has left his / parking lights on we are overjoyed with the drama of it all, crane / our necks, follow him down the road with our eyes, want to clap a / little, say     what grace     what style. (from Bus Stop)  Around the same time, a poem by Edward Field about a man crying on a train (from A Journey): He hid his head behind a newspaper / No longer able to hold back the sobs, and willed his eyes / To follow the rational weavings of the seat fabric. / He didn’t do anything violent as he had imagined. / He cried for a long time, but when he finally quieted down / A place in him that had been closed like a fist was open, / And at the end of the ride he stood up and got off that train: / And through the streets and in all the places he lived later on / He walked, himself at last, a man among men, / With such radiance that everyone looked up and wondered.  Hmm, if I was employed as his editor I’d suggest cutting ‘man among men’, (who do I think I am!!!?) but otherwise this poem devastates me in all good ways.

Then one day Frank O’Hara popped up (from Meditation in an Emergency): … I am the least difficult of men.  All I want is boundless love. / Even the trees understand me!  Good heavens, I lie under them, too, don’t I?  I’m just / like a pile of leaves.  These lines became an amulet that I carry always, hold up to the light now and then.  Other gays like David Trinidad, his pop obsessions making legit poem fodder, inspired.  And the elegant decrepitude of Geoff Cochrane.  In a way he’s taken up the space where those boozy American heavyweights sat.  And Geoff C lives in Wellington, so perhaps he’s more appropriate.  I still like a sloshy dated American, but I get my fix now from, hmm, Anne Sexton…  I tried Bukowski for a while but soon became exhausted.  England doesn’t interest me, except for wicked old Ted Hughes.  I know there are new young things making important searing poetry all over town, but I’m a slow reader ok?  I did read this line from Chris Tse, clutched my pearls and sighed loudly in the kitchen:

‘It’s a toy for girls’, its makers said / like how some boys are for girls / and the rest fall into beds with each other (from Still – the boys)

In the mean time I’ll continue to read A Sign on Rosie’s Door aloud to prospective boyfriends.

 

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Paula: I read in your bio you are both sculptor and poet. I was really struck by how sculpting is a thematic current in the poetry. A long central poem, ‘Blood Work’, explores the way man (men) is (are) shaped from clay and I was reminded of Christina Beer’s poetry collection, this fig tree has no thorns published in 1974. She is both poet and sculptor with words and clay, and at that point in time, was shaping woman when women were finding voice. Her book felt deeply personal and completely outside what all the visible men were doing.

 

 

 

but who needs sport anyway

in order to compete

go stand in a room full of artists

bet the round

when nerves will be shattered

& it’s physical        too

to wield the tools

to make an eight-foot man

to make him look like he’d sweat

 

 

 

from ‘…muscles’ in ‘Blood Work’

 

 

How important was the book as a partner to clay? As a way of shaping man? Yourself?

 

Sam: For this book, important, but:

Clay is my safe space.  And safe….is a cop-out.  Writing poems is daunting and bare.  Writing poems that share the same breath as clay feels…..less fledgling, feels manageable.  Clay as poetic training wheel, steadying hand, mentor.  Also: love, but everyone does that.  …..Post book, I would like to look less internally.  Cos I think I’m fairly spent.  I think I’m fairly desp to start looking outwards.  It’s probably time to let my pursuits become independent.  I’m bored of write-what-you-know.

Impossible! To the 2nd and 3rd parts of your question: it’s gonna be an ongoing engagement.  Sexuality, intimacy, I want to understand it & I just want it, but it scares me & I run from it.  There are loads of writers and artists exploring such things… #solidarity.  But I’m a #loner by default, bit blue, bit obsessive & cos I’m not rich enough for a therapist, I will continue to work things out on the page & in the studio.  I’m braver in clay and in print.  One day I’ll go check out Pride.  Pride terrifies the shit outta me.  Even though my house, my work, my aspirations are camp as all hell x o x

 

Paula: Perhaps that was what gripped me on one level: the sharp edge of heart, exposure, exploration. On the other hand I get caught in the gorgeous lyricism. I jotted down ‘radio static of the world, of life’. It is as though the poems catch fragments of things and there are gaps in hearing and seeing.

 

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(third image: from ‘Blood Work’)

 

The white space is magnificent – both for eye and ear. I am thinking these are like broken poems, like stutters and offbeat moments, but there are such delicious currents flowing through. The space becomes the silent beat, the important beat that resonates and connects. Could say so much about this but what about you? Why is the white space such a necessary element in the poems?

Sam: I’m pleased you like the white spaces.  And you’ve pretty much described to a T my intentions with them!  Breath, rhythm, pace, music ……at school, when my classmates were crying beautifully over Kurt Cobain, I was melting in a corner to Satie.  I was an eleven year old secret dandy and a scaredy-cat to boot.  But when I heard Debussy’s famous quote that music is the space between the notes, that was like a powerful permission slip to go soak in hesitations, a silent beat is still a beat.  It means that when you do pack words in, you get to be really really loud.  Dynamics          etcetera…..  It’s how we talk, right?  Plus, it’s sculptural.   Spaces as fingerprints, workings, like a gestural painting or wax sculpture – I like to see the artists hand.  The spaces keep that searching/looking-around/wondering alive on the page.  It offers a sort of transparency or malleability.

Have you ever seen ancient Hebrew?  There are no vowels!  It can be daunting. But there are other sound clues in the text.  Some words are stretc—————ched across half a column (that might just be to fill a line, but I imagine a ritardando).  Some letters have little crowns to denote a trill or appoggiatura.  It’s quite beautiful to look at and when people read it, they can choose to sing.

 

Paula: Yes! the vowels in languages are fascinating! When I speak Italian it feels like I am constantly rhyming.

Some poets say once they pick up pen or keyboard a poem just flows while others speak of doubt and struggle. Did you have a poem that was particularly difficult to get down or one that just slipped out near perfect?

 

Sam: I picked up a copy of The Fig Tree Has Thorns this morning – I love how she turns round recurring sounds and lines like a chant…it really does feel like wedging clay.  And how she tires of herself, but can’t quite see a way around the mirror.  The repetition, the loose dreamy autobiographic meanderings, childlike/primordial/a sort of hacking, damp creation.  Thanks for the suggestion!

To your question:  I think I’m alright at beginning poems.  I think I can begin a dozen poems without too much fuss.  I think finishing poems in another story.  I think this might be true for many people.  Maybe bunching poems together into sequences is a sneaky way around having to tie anything up much…  You will have noticed that I have a lot of sequences.  Sometimes though, sure, a poem does just slide right out fully formed, hello!  Life Model might be an example of that.  There are others that still feel bruised from all the deep tissue manipulation required to keep them alive…. Poems I could have worked on forever.  Someone else had to just say stop.  I’m too ashamed to point these out.  Perhaps you can still spot a tremor? A restlessness? Or make out their soft skeletons?  I suppose there is a kind of thrill to reading a poem that is barely holding on…..like it was taken to print just in time oh my god.  Adds to the dynamism and hand-built element.  Robust adaptability of the flawed.  Bullshit?  Maybe. Talking about its scaffolding is hard, I just blank and blather, I will never be an English teacher.

A writer I really admire is Ken Bolton.  His verse is sometimes raggy and fragmented.  How much should a writer fiddle with such things in post?  Maybe sometimes not too much.  I like his unrefined spread…. It’s rough and classy, like a five o’clock shadow.

 

Paula: I am glad you managed to find a copy of Cristina’s book! I have tried editing a poem as I read it in public because it has suddenly felt unbearably flawed. Madness! Then there are the poems that stay in the hedge groves of a collection and that I have never shared in public. I seem to grow fond of these.

I am reading and conversing with Tayi Tibble at the same time as I am reading you! And both books demand second readings, not because they are hard to make sense of but because, as I said on Twitter, electrifyingly good. Both collections are multi-toned and surprising and utterly original.

I move from your slithering sizzle of spring detail in ‘Daffodil Day’ to ‘Two Ways of Going to Sleep’ which it practical, poetic and downright funny. I will try this: ‘Think about the seaweed/ & how nobody works harder than the seaweed/ Seaweed tosses out its hair   gathers it up in a towel   tosses it out again’. ‘Years Passed, Just Like That’ offers poetry as dialogue; keen edged and utterly human.  The longer sequences, such as ‘People from the Pit Stand Up’ and ‘Blood Work’ are sumptuous labyrinths of self exposure, attentiveness and an eye/I that casts about in multiple surprising directions. For the reader there are a thousand ways through and I love that!

 

I was wondering what these poems sound like when you read them aloud? Is this important? How do you read the white space? And whether you introduce them with little anecdotes? (can’t make the launch!) Are there a couple of poems where knowing the origin might fascinate the audience?

Sam: I think if the origin is fascinating enough, it will probably be there in the poem! But yep sometimes some context might be required, like if one poem is being lifted from a sequence. I’m getting better at banter. I guess for a reading I’d look to choose a poem that can stand fairly competently on its own.

I love to read aloud. Reading a poem aloud I feel like the truest, most fully realised version of myself and I feel like the poem is living in its purest form then, too. The white space is the muscle shimmer, the little energy shock: breathing, sighing, shifting of weight. And the word is the miracle that follows.

Tayi Tibble is so powerful, I am in awe of her wise and confident, glittering song. I am very proud to have had my book launched alongside such a talent.

 

text message

see you tomorrow

sun-kissed          kissed

generally     &

quite happy in the end

saw two dotterels at

Whatipu

don’t want to get

married anyway

 

Paula: Thanks Sam – this was an absolute pleasure, especially at our snail’s pace. And I got  to hear you read, courtesy of NZBC (see below).

 

 

Sam’s website

Victoria University Press page

Book launch reading via NZ Book Council

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf interviews Anna Livesey – ‘Every time I have published a book I have felt a part of myself caught in amber’

 

Ordinary_Time__59860.1501624161

Ordinary Time Victoria University Press, 2017

 

‘I want a little quiet, a piece of the day

where the baby and I soak in our own silent language.’

 

from ‘Speech and Comprehension’

 

Anna Livesey has published two previous poetry collections, Good Luck (2003) and The Moonmen (2010). She graduated with an MA in Creative Writing from Victoria University and was the Schaeffer fellow at Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2003.  Her new collection, Ordinary Time has just been published by Victoria University Press. With these new poems, personal experience is paramount because this book, with its roots and wings in the miracles and challenges of parenting, is an intimate exposure. Lines are agile, things pulse, gaps pollinate, and the glorious, challenging, curvatures of motherhood are brought searingly close.

 

 The interview

 

Paula:

 

‘Having not been out for days I have very little to add—

save that the house is sweet and clean, the baby safe and fed.’

 

from ‘Synthetic Thinking’

 

Before I enter your new collection of poems, I stall on the title: Ordinary Time. Poets have often used ordinary things as a gateway to the less ordinary, as a way of refreshing little patches of the world about us, whether experience, sensation or physical object. Yet the title goes deeper for me, particularly having read the word ‘parenthood’ in Jenny Bornholdt’s quote on the back cover. It feels like you are boldly staking the domestic space and the mothering role as a necessary and fertile springboard for writing. How does the title resonate for you?

Anna: One of the things I think about a lot (for whatever use it is), is our moral responsibility to the world we live in – who we should care about, who we should care for. What events – horrors and wonders –  should we allow to get under our daily carapace and work on us? Especially in this world where the news of disaster is never far away. There’s that phrase about extreme weather events: “the new normal”. Hurricane Irma – the new normal. Degradation of democracy in the States, Spain, parts of Latin America where it was once thought it be bedded in – the new normal. The end of Francis Fukuyama’s “the end of history” – the new normal.

The book starts with Peter Singer, a moral philosopher who basically says – “we are all equally valuable so we are wrong to value ourselves, our families, our tribe above those who are ‘other’…”.  And I believe that, but I also believe it is an impossible and inhuman doctrine. To me this is the puzzle at the heart of this book and the title. My beautiful, blessed, mundane life of glorious domesticity and early motherhood with my children, husband, friends and family and warm dry house with full cupboards exists in the same reality as Syria. Where children as beautiful and as beloved as mine are dying. Both of these realities are “ordinary”.

To survive and function and care for those who are most immediately our responsibility we need (or at least I need) to take refuge in the shared human mendacity of closing up our carapace and giving an emotional shrug. And in fact I think this is not really the “new” normal, but just normal – the Hobbesian description of the human condition – “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” – continues to hold true. (And as I type this I think – and what is the point of poetry in all this anyway?)

And then on the other hand – the title poem talks about the late winter time when the magnolias all around Auckland are covered in their magical flowers. They look like aliens or supermodels, all lanky grace and outrageous decoration. Then the flowers fade and the “green leaves of ordinary time” appear and the magnolias just look like normal trees for another year. So yes, the title is also a nod to the magic and mania of those first early weeks with a new baby, and how they refine and change one, as a parent and inevitably as a writer.

 

‘(…) Across the road two magnolias, one pink, one white. In the days

since we came home I’ve watched their stark flower-spiked branches

soften and go pastoral—the green leaves of ordinary time climbing out

of the wood.’

 

from ‘Ordinary Time’

 

Paula: That nagging doubt about the value of writing poetry is a tough one. What difference does it make to the Syrian crisis, the ordinary families there that love their babies, eat, sleep, celebrate and mourn? Perhaps one response is that in translating your experience you contribute to a global poetry conversation that opens windows on how we live with our different hungers, failures, connections, kindnesses.

 

‘I am a person in love with nostalgia

and this unfits me for every moment of living but the one just past.’

 

from ‘I Am a Person in Love with Nostalgia’

 

You record the early weeks of motherhood and the poems undulate through fatigue and joy, routine and insistent questions. I love the way you pull things from the past into the patterns of the present. I particularly love ‘I Am a Person in Love with Nostalgia.’ It feels like there is nostalgia for former selves, but you also make a precious baby moment glow that might be a future nostalgic memory hub. What kind of returns does poetry represent for you?

 

Anna: The returns of poetry. Let me first be contrary and take returns in the sense of “what you get back”. In my previous book, The Moonmen, there is a poem called “Bonsense”. Bonsense means “good sense” – ‘bon’ as in the French “bonne”, for good (and indeed the Scots “Bonnie” – beautiful, cheerful – which is my daughter’s name). The poem is about the returns of poetry, and of art, the non-essential, in general. It is addressed to a dear poet friend who had a job caring for a very very small library in a small town in Montana, and ends:

 

“From the chest of your books

you enjoin belief

in outposts of minature sense or nonsense,

or going further, antonym, bonsense—

the elaborate folly of the heart and brain,

built curlicued, baroque.

 

What bonsense is this, a tiny horse, a tiny library?

The great iced cake of relationships,

the ornamental pony of compassion,

the perennial shout (SHOUT) of shared exclamation.”

 

The central idea here is that compassion and art spring from the same core impulse. Imagination/transportation/identification/recognition/the marvellous… these are human characteristics and lead to our greatest baroqueries – the welfare state, poetry, breeding horses too tiny for any purpose but to be admired. I don’t feel that poetry needs to “do” or “contribute to a conversation”. I think the return of poetry is merely for it to be.

And the returns in the sense of nostalgia. Every time I have published a book I have felt a part of myself caught in amber. And through my three books the amount of “me” that is there like an insect in the settled gum is greater than before. And in this book, as you observe, “me” has expanded out and encompasses my babies. As I am writing this to you, it is day one of Bonnie being fully weaned. Yesterday she had her last ever feed and five years of being pregnant, breastfeeding or both came to an end for me. So to have that moment at the early cusp of our relationship captured and kept in a way that I love, that moves me back into that moment perfectly, is infinitely precious. A memory outside myself. That is the personal return of poetry.

 

Paula: I loved that. For me, it is exactly why poems that venture into the domestic or the personal are utterly productive for reader and writer.

 

‘When my mother died she had spent

a long time in darkness.

 

When my grandmother died she had spent

a medium time in darkness.

 

When my daughter was born she had spent

a short time in darkness.’

 

from ‘Quotation’

 

That phrase ‘caught in amber’ really resonates, and that poems can be an intimate way of catching a present moment to savour the future. Is there a poem in the collection that particularly resonates with you? I found myself haunted and, as that word rightly implies, returning to ‘Quotation’. I was entranced by the generations of women and by the distinctive dark and light.

Anna: That’s like asking if I have a favourite child! I’m pleased you asked about “Quotation”. It’s a funny little poem – the opening lines include a quotation from William Calos Williams, of course — “Danse Russe”. In that poem, Williams is talking of himself, dancing naked, singing (go and read the poem now…! Such an image it is), waving his shirt around his head. His poem ends “Who shall say I am not/ the happy genius of my household?”.  My grandma was a brave woman (a WREN, among the first five WRENS to be choosen to go on a troop transport as decoders), but also a modest, genteel, English/Irish Catholic of her time. And so the image of her secretly dancing naked, admiring herself as Williams does, is part of the joy of that poem for me. And then there is the word “genius”. In my poem, as in Danse Russe, it means, essentially, “the soul of a place” – the genius loci, the ancient Roman concept that all places have a soul. So my poem is saying… who shall say that this modest woman, looking like a snuggly grandmother to me, her little grand-daughter, was not in fact a wild dancing creature, the secret, gleeful soul of the old farmhouse.

And then I just miss her so. And the farmhouse that had every aspect of a fairytale farm – my Grandpa made all the bread, there were hens and herbs and a sheepdog, a shy white cat, treasures from India (war service), a dressing table with mirrors that folded out and could be made to reflect themselves into infinity. Winegums in the pantry for story time. Easter in the garden. Woollen blankets. Grandpa’s blue farming overalls. Sunday roast – “from our own sheep”. I want every single part of it back, including and especially them.

(I should note here my family have a terrible weakness for writing books. My mother was a published historian with several books to her credit. My Grandpa wrote several local histories of the Wairarapa and a five volume self-published autobiography (Yes. Five volumes. And very interesting they are, at least to me). My grandma trained as a speech teacher in her 60s and then wrote plays which her students performed in the garden at Perrymead. She also wrote short stories for us, her grandchildren, and several of them were read on radio. So I am not just missing the rural idyll and the unstinting love of Grandparents, but also missing a formative place, where books and language and storytelling and performance were part of everyday life.)

In this poem, and in ‘Privacy’, and several other poems in the book, I was thinking about a passage from Simone de Beauvoir’s memoir of her mother’s death, A Very Easy Death. In the book she is looking for keepsakes for her mother’s friends, after her mother has died. She writes: “Everyone knows the power of things: life is solidified in them, more immediately present than in any one of its instants.” (C.f. Williams: “no ideas but in things”). So that’s the desire behind taking their house and putting it in my house — I want to “quote” their life in my life through their things.

The poem ends with another quotation, from Yeats, “John Kinsella’s Lament for Mrs Mary Moore”. Again, if you don’t know the poem, go and read it. It’s a song of grief for a witty, wise, sexy old woman (I have always loved this poem and it continues to appeal as I grow a little older myself and hope to be appreciated in the round, (even and despite my flaws), as John Kinsella appreciates Mrs Mary Moore). The repeated refrain is “What shall I do for pretty girls/ now my old bawd is dead?”. Mrs Mary Moore is, literally, a bawd. And so again this is a naughty joke on my part. My grandmother was a witty, wise, sexy older woman. She absolutely die to see that written down! But I love having that thought about her.

 

Paula:

‘is this how my mother felt

this fear, this,

bewilderment?

I want to mother better than I was mothered.

I can say this because she is dead.’

 

from ‘Bay Leaves’

 

I like the idea of a poem as keepsake. A way of preserving familial relations in the manner of a photograph album, a daily journal or a shoebox of mementos.

The collection offers myriad rewards for the reader. It is a bit like peeling back layers of living to expose the challenges along with the miracles or joys. I am drawn to the way the world rubs into the private life: the child washed up on the beach makes the mother hold her child that much closer. Perhaps the poems that struck deepest faced the mother, the mother no longer here, the mother who prompted the poet to look at her own mothering. Were these difficult poems to write?

Anna: No they weren’t. The difficulty was in the long years of decline. My mother was a writer, so writing feels like a very real way to honour her. Making art felt like salvaging something.

 

Paula: Do you think, in this move to the overtly personal, other things such as musicality, changed a little too?

Anna: I deliberately wanted some of these poems to be clumsy. Awkward subjects deserve an awkward sound. That’s not something I would have been comfortable with in my earlier work.

 

Paula: Were you tempted to include endnotes as some poets do? I can go either way. Endnotes open up poems in ways I don’t necessarily anticipate, adding avenues of delight, but conversely might limit my own freedom to explore and delve within the myriad possibilities of a poem.

Anna: My first book, Good Luck, had endnotes.  There was a lot of found poetry and I wanted to reference where it had come from.  With this book I thought about end notes, very briefly. And then I thought: who has the time??? And also I didn’t want to explain the poems – either they do their own work or they don’t.

 

Paula: Did you read any books while writing this that affect how and what you were writing?

Anna: Czeslaw Milsolz’s Roadside Dog – a little book of prose poems, limpid, narrative, engaged, straightforward, complicated, personal and full of the world. The best bits of Ordinary Time are really just a crib of Roadside Dog. Raymond Carver – again, the direct voice of his poetry. The beautiful poem, “The Haircut”, of his referenced in “Because I’m a Human”. Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life is the book that “Reading Books About the War” lifts off from. Tove Jannsen, the Moomintrolls – moments of recognition in literature affect me profoundly, especially when they are parent/child, and Tove Jannsen does these so beautifully. I am always reading Janet Frame’s poetry, and hoping for a little of her perfectly awkward insight to rub off. And then also the manuscript of my dear friend Lauren Levin. Her work is quoted in the last poem in the book. She has just had a truly wonderful book published – The Braid. If you care about poetry and about women and about the world and about justice and about beauty you should order it. And Heather Tone’s Likenesses. There are several poems for Heather in The Moonmen, and she and her luminous, curious, outsider-mind writing are a constant inspiration to me – how to live, how to write.

 

 

Victoria University Press page

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf interviews Brent Kininmont: “Among other threads are those related to ‘drifting’ and ‘sleeping’”

Brent Kininmont 

Brent Kininmont is originally from Christchurch. Except for a year in Wellington, he has lived for the past 16 years in Tokyo. He worked as a journalist at The Japan Times and Reuters news agency, and now teaches intercultural communication. His poems have appeared in JAAM, Landfall, Poetry NZ, The Press, Snorkel, Sport, Takahe, Trout, Turbine, and Best New Zealand Poems 2009 and 2011. His debut collection, Thuds Underneath, was recently published by Victoria University Press.

 

This is a terrific debut, and I am hard pressed to think of a New Zealand collection quite like this. At times there is a fablesque, dreamlike quality that fleetingly pitches camp in the surreal (whiffs of early Gregory O’Brien), while at other times the real is luminous. The effect is surprising, inventive, original. What sorts of things do you want your poems to do?

In Thuds Underneath I tried to not include poems that couldn’t stand alone, but there is always a danger that a poem will underwhelm, particularly if it’s composed of short lines and compact stanzas, as quite a few of mine are. In a collection, then, I would like the seemingly disparate poems to speak to each other. By conversing, they can help to justify each other’s inclusion.

It would be marvelous if readers noticed the intentional echoes in the book, especially those spaced quite a few pages apart. A blatant example is a title appearing at the start that is repeated towards the end of the collection, as the title of a different poem. That echo is significant, to me at least. Still, I don’t really mind if subtle reverberations do go undetected – it should be enough for me to know they are there, and hopefully a slight bonus for anybody who does notice. Besides, I’m not the ideal reader of my own book; I seldom read collections of poetry cover to cover in one sitting, so I can miss things. I can’t really expect more from the reader than I can actually offer as a reader myself.

 

Thuds cover   Thuds cover

 

Right from the start the poems demonstrate a curious mind at work, as though the collection is a cabinet of fascinating things, anecdotes, observations. What feeds your curiosity as a poet?

The strands running through the collection suggest a preoccupation with transport, particularly aircraft, as well as temples and plains, and gaps of various kinds. How my daughter is schooled in Japan interests me ­­– when it’s not frustrating me; this crops up in the book’s final section. I’m also fascinated by the ancient Mediterranean, and that has found form in some of my poems. If I hadn’t ended up in Japan, which obviously has its own deep history of human occupation, I imagine pitching tent in Sicily or The Peloponnese. Recently I have been spending time with some of the key source texts from the classical world (Homer, Herodotus, etc.). Nothing may come of this in my future writing, though it would be nice if something did.

 

What I love about this debut is the way it offers such diverse and engaging reading routes. I also followed a vein of poetry of travel (not just via geography). The poems generate moments of stillness within the momentum of internal movement. And yes, the locations are global. How do the poems travel in your view?

There are routes I was conscious of while writing the book and others that revealed themselves during the long time spent arranging the poems. The collection is ordered into three locales: classical lands, the South Island, and Japan. I was quite alert to reversing the familiar narrative of leaving New Zealand then coming back; Thuds Underneath could be read as a coming home then departure again – the return is left open-ended. There is also a fairly standard transition from a sense of restlessness at the beginning to an embrace of some stability at the end (though somebody had to point that out to me). The arrival of a daughter seems to contrast with the passing of a mother; and a father keeps appearing, though he is somewhat detached. Among other threads are those related to ‘drifting’ and ‘sleeping’, and imposing structures with godlike attributes. It is those particular threads I was acknowledging with the two epigraphs I included at the beginning of the collection.

 

Does Japan have an effect upon how you write?

Probably the main effect is the objectivity that living there provides about my home culture and my own learned behavior. Differences seem magnified in a country like Japan, where the language is very dissimilar, but so are discussion styles, the nature of relationships, and the sense of formality. Silence also has a wider range of meanings, in verbal messages and on the written page. Japan, especially in the beginning, forced me to consider why I think and behave in certain ways, and that has likely seeped into how I write, though it is hard to cite specific examples. I have certainly embraced the opportunity that the physical distance from New Zealand has given me to step back and write about my upbringing and education, say, and their effects. Meanwhile, any sense of being culturally isolated from New Zealand is diminished quite a bit by yearly trips home and by the Internet, which allows me to plug into what is going on in local poetry.

 

One poem bears the epigraph, ‘after Maui and Manhire’. What New Zealand poets have influenced you?

Among the New Zealand books  tagged on my poetry shelves, those by Andrew Johnston and David Beach literally stick out. Beach’s first book of prose sonnets, the drolly titled Abandoned Novel, sparked my interest in the form. Although the sonnets I have written probably differ in style to his, they likely wouldn’t have appeared so prominently in my collection if I hadn’t admired his unique and witty perspectives. Beach’s work was one of my paths to the weighty James K. Baxter. And I got through The Iliad (even weightier) with help from his second collection, The End of Atlantic City, in which 24 sonnets are smart abridgments of the 24 books of Homer’s epic poem. After finishing each book, I would read the corresponding sonnet. It was my small reward for slogging through numerous, and not always engaging, battle scenes. (The fall of Troy in The Iliad niftily contrasts with another 24 sonnets in Beach’s collection, about the survival ­– or slow ‘fall’ ­– of the Wellington suburb of Te Aro.)

I first came across Beach’s work in 2007, the same year I was fortunate to meet regularly with Andrew Johnston, while I was doing the creative writing Masters at Victoria University. Andrew lives in Paris and was only back in New Zealand for that year (like me). Quite a few years earlier his debut, How to Talk, was the first book of poetry I ever bought, and he was the first poet I wanted to write like. His sharp, shorter poems had given me permission to keep trying to write stanzas trimmed of excess. In our regular talks, among many superb insights, he encouraged me to not fret about borrowing ideas from other poets ­– a revelation to me at the time. That he is also a former journalist who lives away from New Zealand could be another reason why I still rely on his poetry for occasional counsel.

 

Name three poetry books you have loved in the past year.

They would be among those I kept returning to while Thuds Underneath was coming together. Other than volumes by the two poets I mention above, these three stand out (plus two more):

Night Light, by Donald Justice

After the Dance, by Michele Amas

The Street of Clocks, by Thomas Lux

Milky Way Bar, by Bill Manhire

Bell Tongue, by Paola Bilbrough

 

With kind permission from Brent and VUP a poem from the new collection:

 

Hitch

after Maui and Manhire

 

It can be quite a stretch to haul

the north closer, given that great trench

 

in between. After lunch we

caught rides on a succession of

 

straights, a crooked thread line

of far peaks stitching our plains to sheets

 

of clouds. Only the closed mouth of

the evening vessel stalled us.

 

Now, among ponga overlooking

the sound, my torch shines on a slim

 

book she packed. It’s about our known

universe (her tutor said), how we all

 

live at its edge. In one poem

the word Coromandel really sticks out.

 

©Brent Kininmont 2015