Sarah Broom (1972-2013) is to be honoured in a new poetry award thanks to her husband Michael Gleissner (Sarah Broom Poetry Prize). The award is a way of acknowledging the strength, imagination, craft, commitment and love that guided Sarah in both living and writing. The prize will enable a New Zealand poet to work towards the completion of a poetry manuscript. The entry will consist of 6-8 poems of which at least 5 must be unpublished. Entries will be accepted from 3 February 2014 and close on 28 March 2014. The winner will be announced May 2014. Sam Hunt is the inaugural judge and I am delighted to be a member of the judging panel. For further details see here.
Sarah undertook academic studies at Leeds and Oxford which resulted in her publication, Contemporary British and Irish Poetry (Macmillan, 2006). She returned to New Zealand where she held a post-doctoral fellowship at Massey University in Albany. An academic life, however, gave way to time dedicated to poetry, motherhood (three young children) and managing lung cancer. These three factors understandably became entwined — and her poetry is testimony to a woman who nourished the word along with her family and her self. Her first collection, the astonishing Tigers at Awhitu (Auckland University Press, 2010), is a book of two parts. The first part was written before her diagnosis, while the second part was written afterwards. Poetry is at work in both. As you move through the poems your ear is lit by the musical notes, you are drawn into the detail that enlivens a view of the physical world, and captivated by miniature renditions of life and experience (‘The beach is heaped and hilled with bleached branches/ as if whole forests have been rolled over the ocean/ and dumped.’) (And: ‘It was as the snow started falling again/ that she blurted it out, so they were all/ just standing there gazing up, knee deep/ in snow’).
The second half of the book represents poetry trying to absorb a terrific blow to the gut and heart. The titles themselves track the path of searching for a new way to be: ‘NO’ ‘Hospital Property’ ‘Ward’ ‘Three Exercises for Oncologists’ ‘Hold it there’ ‘A Terribly Unfair Question’ ‘Not yet, not now’ ‘because the world can do that to you.’ These poems still have the beauty of musical notes, the attentiveness to the details of the world and the little windows that invite you to stand within the experience of the poem. But these poems now navigate pain and unfathomable questions. Sarah hasn’t poured a deluge of bitterness and despair within the form of the poem, but you can feel the ache along with the determination and ability to take hold of the light. In my review for The New Zealand Herald I wrote:
‘The poems, that may in part be therapeutic, stand as an aid to life. Things outside the clinical procedures and walls wrap about her as windows, anchors and safety nets. Reading these poems, the real world fades to a distance, and beyond the tender craft of each line, the intense luminosity of each word choice is poetry of absolute love.’ For the rest of the review see here.
Sarah’s second poetry collection, Gleam (Auckland University Press, 2013), was launched posthumously. In my review in The New Zealand Herald, I wrote that: ‘Broom uses big things such as the stars (“I am so thin/the stars can see right through me”) and the ocean to navigate lines that shimmer with little explosions of loveliness.’ These poems come from a tremendous love of writing and of family. The poems uphold the musicality and the attentiveness that marked her debut collection (‘So I lay there every night/ and every night the fat white/ moon crept out of the bush/ and came to talk to me’). They are poems that signal the way craft can produce joy, yet upon each occasion there is the fragility of life, the preservation of all that matters, the ability to shine beyond pain and bitterness (‘you are both held/ and not held’). Such poetry becomes a gift to the reader – a place to enter and re-emerge subtly changed. Reading this book strengthened me. Two of the love poems here were published in Dear Heart; love poems that stretch beyond petty squabbles to those bonds that forge immeasurable intimacy. I could never read these out at a reading, but readers have commented on how these poems stick with them.
I love writing about poetry but I want Sarah’s poems to resist my dissection. I want these poems to stand and endure, each and every one, as little homages to love, life, difficulty, family and the insistent desire to write. Each poem holds the world at arm’s length as you read — and then draws it in closer. Perhaps writing and reading under the threat of death does this. Ever since my theoretical explorations for my doctoral thesis I have wondered if writing is a way of postponing death. If you write your way into life. I don’t know. Sarah’s Gleam is a gift for those of us who are well, and those of us who are not; for those of us who write poems and for those of us who love to read them.
Sarah Broom website
Auckland University Press Sarah Broom
Landfall review Tigers at Awhitu
Sarah Laing’s comic
Review of Gleam in ODT
Review of Gleam in Nelson Mail
Michael Gleissner on National Radio