I picked up the latest Sport the other day and the cover was so good that I didn’t want to open the issue for ages. Sam Duckor-Jones’s drawing is like a poem that is strange, off-kilter, mesmerisingly good (someone is adrift awkwardly in the sky).
Just inside there is list of books that Victoria University Press are publishing this year: 8 fiction, 11 poetry, 2 plays/poetry-music, 9 non-fiction. I have been musing lately on VUP’s productiveness and how it is to be utterly lauded. In a tough publishing climate, VUP work hard to showcase New Zealand writing in diverse forms and with diverse preoccupations. I hear niggles (especially when VUP got such a clean sweep at the Book Awards) yet I have no time for such gripes. This is a chance to celebrate a publisher sticking its neck out and publishing quality writing whichever way you look. I don’t see the VUP stable as a set of clones – the exact opposite. On my blog I only have time to review the books I love (and even then I don’t get to them all) and interview poets that have struck a chord at some point. It is very seldom I skip over a VUP poetry book because it has missed the mark for me as a reader. If I look back at books published over the past few years, I see an eclectic mix as opposed to a restrictive school of poetry. Think of the wry wit of James Brown, the breathtaking musicality and heart-stopping moves of Bill Manhire, the grit of Geoff Cochrane, the anarchy and surrealism of Hera Lindsay Bird, the contemplative detail along everyday trails of Jenny Bornholdt, the inventive, unpredictabliity of Hannah Mettner. I have adored this poetry and yes, I will sing its praises from the rafters.
In ‘The Old Guard New Guard’ session at AWF17 and in response to Andrew Johnston raising the clone issue, Bill Manhire summed up his aims and ways of working when he was teaching at IIML. The conversation utterly resonated with me and a few things he said corresponded perfectly with my idea for Poetry Shelf’s Winter Season (to be posted in July!). The essential aim was for students to find their own voice (Teju Cole talked about this a little too). I loved this idea: ‘Write what I don’t know but it will somehow be mine.’ In workshops, Bill wanted students ‘to jump the tracks, to go sideways from themselves.’ He wanted them ‘to turn themselves into other poems’ and ‘to produce poems that mattered to them.’ Bill also applied this to himself and talked about the way he might get too comfortable and thus seek out ways to elbow himself sideways off the writing tracks (my words sorry as I didn’t record this). These notions really resonated with me. As poets we are all attached to the mysterious thing called voice: our voice, how to sustain it, how to tilt or transform or nurture it. I love the idea of sidestepping the usual ruts and paths.
The latest issue of Sport is chiefly a celebration of writing that has come out of Wellington or is part of the VUP stable. I don’t have an issue with this and I applaud the range and diversity of writing within. There is a fabulous interview (Bill Manhire interviews John Gallas). I now want to track down John’s poetry – the taster of poems confirms he is a poet to add to your shelves. Hope the poetry interview (or of other genres) becomes a regular feature of Sport particularly if it is conducted over months at leisure by email as this one was. Great reading!
Also loved the cluster of essays in the middle by John Newton, Virginia Were and Giovanni Tiso. Another essential ingredient that adds verve and challenges.
The poets range from James Brown to Frances Samuel ( conjunctional wit produced out of found material to slightly strange, reader-hooked storytelling); from the luminous detail of Elizabeth Smither to the surreally personal and personally surreal of Rata Gordon; from the bolt in the eye of Claire Orchard to the tender detail of Harry Ricketts. One of my favourite new poets, Amy Leigh Wicks, haunts me, as does Bill Nelson, in the unfolding detail and the way the poems move. Good to read Bob Orr sharply conjuring place, Rachel O’Neill’s prose-like agility, Jake Brown’s bright jumpcut portrait of a town, the stark, sharp tug of Natalie Morrison’s fairytale-ing.
I haven’t finished reading yet: still Anna Jackson, Vincent O’Sullivan, Jake Arthur, Helen Heath, Kerrin P Sharpe and more. In my bag for today. Ha! A poetry bag!
So this seems like the perfect occasion to say congratulations to Fergus Barrowman and his team at VUP. As a writer, reader and commentator on NZ poetry, I am in debt to the extent of your gifts to NZ literature. As for Bill Manhire, I reckon it is about time a poet got the top Honours in a Queen’s Honour’s list along with those who have done extraordinary things in the business world. Bill has gifted so much with generosity and humbleness, he has enhanced what we both read and write, and has written poetry collections that sing like no other.
Yes there is magnificent poetry in all its forms accruing the length and breadth of NZ, fabulous poets and poetry projects, tireless ambassadors (Michele Leggott, Bernadette Hall, Emma Neale, David Eggleton) but this is VUP’s year and I applaud you!