Photo credit: Danny Baillie
Emma is a Dunedin-based poet (four collections published), novelist, teacher, mentor and anthologist. She has a PhD in English Literature from London’s University College, received the inaugural Janet Frame Memorial Award for Literature (2008), the Kathleen Grattan Award for Poetry (2011) and was the 2012 Robert Burns Fellow at the University of Otago. She was the Summer Resident at the Pah Hometead in 2014 (supported by Sir James Wallace Arts Trust/ University of Otago). Her latest collection is entitled The Truth Garden.
My reaction to Emma’s poems: ‘Emma’s poems often find a starting point in her domestic life—with her exquisitely tuned ear and her roving mind producing lines of singing clarity. The musicality is enhanced by a sumptuous vocabulary, by single words that stand out in a line and a rhythm that gives each poem startling breath and movement. What struck us particularly is the way each poem is made more complex—through an unfolding pocket narrative, meditative strains of thought, aching confession, political sharpness, the rollercoaster ride of maternal feeling. These were definitely poems with an aftertaste that kept you wanting more.’
Did your childhood shape you as a poet? What did you like to read? Did you write as a child? What else did you like to do?
My sister and I were surrounded by books: my mother is a voracious and rapid reader; there had to be at least weekly visits to the library for her to maintain her supply. My father used to say she couldn’t possibly be reading at that pace; she was turning the pages too fast. She was not just bookworm but book termite. She read to us often — AA Milne and Beatrix Potter when we were preschoolers — and she also actively encouraged our participation in drama lessons, and — at our pleading — wrote us small items to perform for family. Theatre I think also helped to attune my ear to pace, variation in tone: many of the aural aspects of language. I was a slightly shy, slightly overweight child and had started at 6 different schools before high school: books of all kinds were a refuge from the inevitable ill-fit of new-girl/plump-girl.
I did write as a child. One of the ways I tried to stay in touch with a friend in Christchurch when we moved to San Diego was to send her a ‘novel’ (a few pages typed up from my wonky handwriting by my ever-patient mother) about horses. The friend and I had an ongoing imaginary game of horse-riding adventures with another friend, where we were some sort of horse and human hybrid, cantering all over the Spreydon school playground and our back gardens, and making up odd mixtures of talcum powder, perfume, grass, water and weeds at home to feed the horses…(this must have been unbeknownst to somebody’s mother: who would let kids splash perfume into buckets to feed invisible stallions?). I missed Nicola and the game so intensely that writing the story seemed a way of holding on to both friendship and game. I even tried to illustrate it, which is a woeful confession as I have the drawing skills of an eggplant. Other things I loved doing: I was a good swimmer, just about lived in the water in California, but didn’t have any interest whatsoever in competitive swimming. I loved music, but probably didn’t get lessons soon enough – or rather, had a regrettable gap of six years between recorder and clarinet. I like to fantasise that my potential fell through that gap like a necklace through a knot in the floorboards….I tried hard at clarinet, but was as average as average can be. I loved hooning around on roller skates; all the kids in my street in San Diego at one point had a grand scheme to perform Grease on wheels in the road…we practised, we choreographed; we entered school talent contests with our own dances… That sort of free, imaginative, almost wholly unsupervised play for primary school children was a lot easier in the 1970s: even, it seems, in urban California. I took various dance classes in San Diego too: Polynesian Dance; Jazz Dance; but as I said, I was an inelegant, dumpy, ordinary, slightly clumsy child – so almost everything other than swimming and reading seemed to have an element of struggle to it.
When you started writing poems as a young adult, were there any poets in particular that you were drawn to (poems/poets as surrogate mentors)?
When I read Hone Tuwhare as a 14- year-old, it was like discovering a new art form, even though I’d read a fair amount of narrative, nonsense, or Romantic poetry either consciously shaped for children or digestible by children — Eleanor Farjeon, Edward Lear, Kate Greenway, Walter de la Mare, John Masefield, Browning’s The Pied Piper of Hamelin… I thought I knew poetry but coming across Tuwhare’s poem ‘Rain’ in a fourth form English class felt like some fog had peeled away from the world: the very air had clarified. And then I was introduced to the poets of the Mersey Sound through an anthology I got for a class prize – and there were poems filled with humour and identifiable urban detail — fish and chip paper, denim jackets, neon lights, cups of tea, steamed up café windows, brown packing string: these poems too were a revelation. I suppose there was a transition from poetry that seemed to be set in the realm of myth and imagination to poetry that dealt with the realities I had to start confronting without the protective feather-down of family. I read Plath and TS Eliot at high school; Dylan Thomas; Cilla McQueen; Fleur Adcock; Alistair Campbell; and began to read independently over the school holidays as if it was some kind of secret vice – buying myself Faber and Faber editions of WH Auden and Wallace Stevens, more of the Penguin Modern Poets anthologies – reading them in a kind of uninformed, naïve way, trying to find that clarifying ‘hit’ again that Tuwhare and Plath had both given me.
Hone had a similar effect on me. I likened it to putting on glasses for the first time. Did university life (as a student) transform your poetry writing? Theoretical impulses, research discoveries, peers?
I think it did. It probably led me even further away from the fantastical and science fiction, which were genres I absolutely loved reading as an adolescent. (John Wyndham, Ray Bradbury, Maurice Gee, Ursula Le Guin, Louise Lawrence, Penelope Farmer…)Taking courses in canonical literature, and striving to do them well, left little time for exploring outside the set reading lists. Yet an honours course in Modern Poetry, which Bill Manhire taught at VUW, was as important to me as the original composition paper I did there. Bill’s work as an academic teacher is perhaps mentioned less often than his work as a creative writing mentor: he could talk about various periods in literary history with an apparently casual, contemporary language that was still incisive and vivid. It made it all seem fresh, relevant, ripe with anecdote and choice morsels of quotation. He spoke without condescension or aloofness, which then, anyway, was actually still very rare in university professors towards undergraduates: these things have immeasurable impact on a very young scholar or writer.
The course in original composition taught me to try new forms, and it encouraged re-writing, rather than preciousness and weak defensiveness — the ‘Well that’s the way it really happened’ or ‘That’s just the way it came out’ bullishness that’s common in workshop situations. It encouraged stepping back from the work and testing it. It asked technical questions such as, why that tonal shift? Why that line break? Why so obscure? One of the most important things Bill said to me was about a syllabic poem, which was comparing psychological scars to physical scars, and doing so in that terribly abstruse, fraught, coded way that new writers often tackle the personal. The class went totally shtum, and Bill, who usually tried to hold back on commentary so that it was a student forum, finally said, with a serious frown, “I’ve got no idea what it means, but it sounds really good.” Everybody else in the room seemed to suddenly go limp with relief. They didn’t have to grapple with that recondite, contorted crocodile of a draft any more. That was a moment where I realised I actually might have some kind of poetic ear, but that I’d also inadvertently managed to write something that was almost purely sound, with no sense at all. When I re-read that poem now, more than 20 years on, I have no idea what some of it means either.
In some ways I think the lessons from a course like that only come to fruition many years afterwards: they really are just one step in a much longer process of self-education, and learning through doing. They help to set the clock running: but the clock has to keep being wound on.
For my PhD, I wrote on expatriation as depicted in the work of Katherine Mansfield, Robin Hyde, Janet Frame and Fleur Adcock — I could discuss ways in which I think their work has influenced mine, but I think it would only be of interest to me and my navel and even my navel is getting sick of me…
I love the way your poems abound in complexity. The first delight is the delight of music, the way each poem is a miniature musical score. The second and third delights are the way your poetry engages both heart and mind at a profound level. What are key things for you when you write a poem?
That’s a really generous critique. Yes, the way a poem sounds is key: though even after all these years of reading poetry and even teaching it, the rhythmic element is often done intuitively rather than according to a strict percussive rule or a classically constrained metrical scheme. But I do listen closely to pace; I think of the line break as a micro-pause; I think of white space as silence, or yes, articulate musical rests. All the other aural components are things I enjoy and crave when reading poetry: so I try to gently feed them into the work too.
What poets have mattered to you over the past year? Some may have mattered as a reader and others may have been crucial in your development as a writer.
Jack Gilbert; Tomas Tranströmer; Alice Ostriker: Siobhan Harvey; Ian Wedde; – I’ve only just read his Lifeguard poems, and was astonished at the combination of control and tenderness; the way the dreamy refrain ‘shadow stands up…’ accrues more and more eerie power as the poem proceeds.
In terms of the question who has been ‘crucial in your development as a writer’ over the past year, I’d say Michael Harlow, whose review of The Truth Garden was a turning point for me in terms of self-acceptance. Even as a 20-something, that decade which is always the decade of refining one’s public persona, of perfecting cool, whether you’re a writer, a student, a shop worker or an office clerk, I was, hmmm, temperamentally suspicious of what seemed a ubiquitous tonal irony in local poetry: of what I sometimes felt was dishonesty, or posturing, or a reserve that seems on some levels a failure to commit. There is a downbeat understatement in some contemporary poetry that very often tips over into the banal – where poets are so afraid of saying too much, or of seeming sentimental, of seeming uncool, that the default mode is a lack of affect; a ‘like, whatevs.’ I’d rather be accused of being too ornate, or ‘high octane’, or of making the emotional position of the poem too clear, rather than appear disengaged and numbed down. Harlow’s review felt like someone saying certain aesthetic risks are worth taking.
What New Zealand poets are you drawn to now?
I’ve been very excited by the young Joan Fleming’s work and by a young expatriate English woman, Loveday Why, who is studying at Otago and writing poetry also. These two young women seem to manage to infuse their work with an enormous amount of feeling and yet also to have technical control, an eye for a delectable oddness of imagery and phrasing, a way of bending the line and toying with syntax and white space in ways that seem psychologically expressive as much as academically or theoretically driven. I’m also intrigued by Ashleigh Young, and am keen to see what she does next. I’m struck by her prose as much as, if not more than, her poetry: she strikes me as a gifted essayist/blogger — she applies a poet’s microscopic attention to the sway of a sentence.
Do you think your writing has changed over time?
Yes. But I want to change it again. I’ve had a phase of the poems expanding, turning into 2-3 page mullings, and now I’m longing for the cool crisp ice cube; the tequila shot rather than the rambling lunch.
You write in a variety of genres (poetry, fiction, critical writing). Do they seep into each other? Does one have a particular grip on your heart as a writer?
They do infuse each other. Although I write reviews I don’t claim to be a critic – I think of myself as a practitioner reading other writers closely to see what I can learn from them. I think of a critic as someone who has the full weight of academia behind them; someone, in other words, with a full-time salary and regular hours to immerse themselves. It’s something of a shock to realise people consider me mid-career. I still feel like a novice. Every book, every poem, makes me feel like a novice. That’s part of the allure, I suppose. So I’m still trying to figure out, poetry or fiction? Which is my natural habitat? As a matter of fact, the 92,000 word novel I’ve been writing on and off over the past 3 years started off as a verse novel. Then it rebelled and the lines started refusing to break as I tried to build up my own understanding of the character dynamics. I’m trying to gird every part of my anatomy to go back to it and see if I can recast the entire thing as a verse novel again. It’s like arm wrestling with a stroppy Sumo-sized toddler. Sometimes it won’t even come and sit up at the table.
Michael Hulse recently queried the status of certain poems in a review he did for New Zealand Books. In his mind, some poems weren’t in fact poems. How would you define poetry?
Poetry is so broad – this is one thing that teaching creative writing constantly reminds me. It can be narrative, epic, lyric, patterned by numbers, patterned by wildly arbitrary constraints, it can be experimental, digital, anecdotal, it can be two words on a page, or even one word on a page that highlights its own typographical components, it can have a tight rhyme scheme, it can have a rolling freight train metre, it can merge into prose and call itself a prose poem; it can have a close relationship to visual sculpture. Even that list is not exhaustive. For my own practice, the musical elements are vital. The luminous moment is vital; sometimes the poem embodies the movement towards or away from that luminous moment. I also like the idea of a poem tracing the activity of a mind as it works out just what it thinks; of a poem transcribing the very process of realisation. But as a reader, I’m open to poems that do all the things my own work can’t, as well as to those that work in the same space. In fact, it’s often more exciting to read someone whose work is vastly different from one’s own: it’s like foreign travel.
You were recently The Pah Homestead Resident in Auckland. How did this new location and distance from home affect your writing?
There were acres and acres of time. That was the main difference. When I had the Burns Fellowship two years ago, I still had a very young child (a two-year-old), we moved house, and the fellowship itself involved a lot of public speaking, which meant that in some ways the year was quite stressful; in addition, my normal domestic responsibilities continued. At the Pah Homestead, I could write all day every day anywhere I liked: at the dining table, in the bedroom, at the desk, on the floor, legs waving in the air like a synchronised swimmer if I wanted. No having to drop everything to attend to family needs. I got a huge amount done: I managed to finish the draft I’d started on the Burns — and I’m still immensely grateful for that opportunity. My husband should be considered one of the co-sponsors of that stint: he solo-parented for the entire three months and he did a better job than I would have on my own. I absolutely loved the solitude and it felt like truly coming home in a very deeply reassuring, even empowering way.
Women writers have often had to manage a writing life along with domestic demands and have been denigrated for writing that embraces domestic concerns. You write some of the best domestic poetry in New Zealand and I say that partly because your poems take the reader into the aching and joyous gut of family life in ways that are poetically complex, moving, haunting. Any thoughts on this?
I’m less and less sure of where the domestic and the political drop hands – if ever. Sometimes the poetry comes out of a real struggle with all the roles I have to play. Sometimes the domestic is my subject because I don’t have the time to read, research and explore more arcane or erudite topics, or topics that actually interest me more than the fights over getting dressed in the morning, or where the red light sabre is, or what to cook for dinner. The psychic energy parenthood takes is enormous. I also think that another way of describing so-called domestic poetry is psychological poetry. It’s about mind, character, power dynamics, identity development, relationships, dependence, independence. Nearly every day we leave home for the world; nearly every day we come back home with the air of the world on our skin. Where does home end and the world begin? Is the ‘where’ a mythical line, an imaginary equator?
What irks you in poetry?
Self-conscious quirkiness and the posturing default irony mentioned above. (I don’t dismiss layered, witty, or dramatic or knowing irony of course.)
What delights you?
Musicality; crispness; an ear for the unintended double meanings in casual speech; innovators like Anne Carson; typographical experimentation; wit; multiple meanings; psychological depth.
Name three NZ poetry books that you have loved.
Only three? How cruel!
Cloudboy by Siobhan Harvey
Sheet Music by Bill Manhire
The Tram Conductor’s Blue Cap by Michael Harlow
Selected Poems by Lauris Edmond (An extra for the same price!)
The constant mantra to be a better writer is to write, write, write and read read read. You also need to live! What activities enrich your writing life?
Conversations with lively adventurous warm hearted friends, sleep, art galleries, theatre, film, teaching new young hungry energetic responsive students, conversations with my children, walking, running, looking out the window. Very important to look out the window.
Some poets argue that there are no rules in poetry and all rules are to be broken. Do you agree? Do you have cardinal rules?
The line break is a marvellous invention. It should be used consciously.
Do you find social media an entertaining and useful tool or white noise?
All three things, actually. They exhibit the best and the worst of humanity: ingenuity, the urge to connect. Yet they can be a shallow, addictive distraction, and a vehicle for spitefulness and vitriol. So I suppose they are only as good as we are.
What were some of the key elements of the poems you submitted for the award?
The immediate concerns of the intense ‘terrarium’ of my own small family; my ambivalence about various social movements/mind-sets or rapid technological change; anxiety about ecological crisis; the coded way dreams speak to us. I know that I’ve been working over maternal anxieties, fears and discomforts for several books now, fiction and poetry, and this subject won’t leave me alone, but I was also trying to consciously push myself to try something completely different – hence the social media poems, which have a visual/pictorial component too. I decided that my ambivalence about social media could be put to a more positive use than just a cyclical disgruntlement then attraction, and it could perhaps seed some poems instead.
Finally if you were to be trapped for hours (in a waiting room, on a mountain, inside on a rainy day) what poetry book would you read?
Definitely Wallace Stevens’ Collected Poems. I’ve owned it since I was 16, I think, and I still haven’t managed to read every single word, but I go back to it again and again. It’s a kind of atheist’s Bible: it’s technically supreme, musically audacious and exquisite, intellectually diamond cut, it offers enormous consolation, somehow, to an atheist who longs for transcendent meaning but just cannot hear a God who suffers the little lambs to come unto him.
Emma Neale’s blog
New Zealand Book Council page
University of Otago Press page
Steele Roberts page
New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre page
Interview with Emma Neale published in The Listener, April 26-May 2 2008 Vol 213
Emma Neale’s Random House profile
Feature in Otago Daily Times