Tag Archives: Steven Toussaint

Poetry Shelf noticeboard: The Ockham NZ Book Award for Poetry 2020 shortlist

 

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Ah, I have loved so many poetry books published in 2019, so many of which could easily have made this shortlist ( I have no interest in hammering on about who is not here), but I felt a warm poetry glow that these four were picked. I spent a long time with each of these collections because they do what poetry does so well. They make you feel things, ponder the world, walk new tracks, make your body sway, refresh versions of the world, little and large.

I raise my poetry glass to Anne Kennedy, Helen Rickerby, Steven Toussaint and Ashleigh Young. Yep, this is a very fine shortlist.

 

Anne Kennedy

 

The thing in the jar

always dies!

The rice cooker steams

so the sun goes down

Deep in the house

sepia gathers

The pencil has eaten

the fragile book

 

from ‘Thirty-Three Transformations on a Theme of Philip’

 

I first read Anne Kennedy’s new collection Moth Hour (Auckland University Press) as a piece of music that traces the contours of grief. Words form little melodies, solo instruments sound out, there is echo, overlap, loop and patterning. Above all there is a syncopated beat that leaves room for breath, an intake of pain, an out-sigh of grief, an intake of observation, an out-breath of recognition. There is the fragile word-dance to the light.

Moth Hour responds to a family tragedy; in 1973, at the age of twenty-two, Anne’s brother, Philip, accidentally fell to his death. Anne, her seven siblings (she was the youngest and aged fourteen) and parents now lived with unbearable grief and loss, separately, diversely, as a family.

Like a mesmerising, lung-like piece of music, Moth Hour is a book of return-listening. Every time you place the poetry on the turntable of your reading you will hear something different. It blisters your skin. It touches you. But above all Moth Hour fills you with the variation and joy of what a lithe poet can do.

My full piece here

Auckland University Press author page

Anne Kennedy is a writer of fiction, film scripts and poetry. Her debut poetry collection Sing-song was named Poetry Book of the Year at the 2004 Montana New Zealand Book Awards. The Time of the Giants was shortlisted for the same award in 2006, and The Darling North won the 2013 NZ Post Book Award for Poetry. Her novels include The Last Days of the National Costume, shortlisted for the NZ Post Book Award for Fiction in 2014, and The Ice Shelf longlisted in the 2019 Ockham NZ Book Awards. She lives in Auckland.

 

 

Helen Rickerby

 

I slept my way into silence

through the afternoon, after days

of too many words and not enough words

to make the map she needs

to find her way from here

I wake, too late, with a headache

and she, in the garden wakes up shivering

 

from ‘Navigating by the stars’

 

Helen Rickerby’s latest poetry collection How to Live (Auckland University Press) is a joy to read. She brings her title question to the lives of women, in shifting forms and across diverse lengths, with both wit and acumen. Like many contemporary poets she is cracking open poetic forms – widening what a poem can do – as though taking a cue from art and its ability both to make art from anything and in any way imaginable.

Reading this book invigorates me. Two longer poems are particularly magnetic: ‘Notes on the unsilent woman’ and ‘George Eliot: a life’. Both function as fascination assemblages. They allow the reader to absorb lyrical phrases, humour, biography, autobiography, insistent questions. Biography is enlivened by such an approach, as is poetry.

‘How to live’ is a question equally open to interpretation as it ripples through the poems; and it makes poetry a significant part of the myriad answers. I haven’t read a book quite like this and I love that. The writing is lucid, uplifting, provocative, revealing, acidic, groundbreaking. The subject matter offers breadth and depth, illuminations, little anchors, liberations, shadows. I am all the better for having read this book. I just love it.

My full piece here

 

Poetry Shelf Audio Spot: Helen reads ‘How to live through this’

Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: Helen’s “Mr Anderson, you heartbreaker you’

Anna Jackson’s launch speech for How to Live

 

Helen Rickerby is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently How to Live (Auckland University Press, 2019). She likes questions even more than answers. Since 2004 she has single-handedly run boutique publishing company Seraph Press, an increasingly important publisher of New Zealand literature, focusing on poetry. Helen lives in a cliff-top tower in Aro Valley, and works as an editor.

 

Steven Toussaint

 

abide more tritone idle mode

the dominant’s a leaky still

for quiet divination

for every thought

a finger on

the fret-

board’s shifting centre

where nothing dearer

than the pure heart’s

purring minor

requires demonstration

from ‘Aevum Measures’

 

 

Steven’s Lay Studies (Victoria University Press) entrances on multiple levels; initially through the exquisite musical pitch and counterpoints, and then in the way heart and mind are both engaged. His sumptuous poetic terrain is physical, elusive, stretching, kinetic, mysterious, difficult, beautiful. Hearing the poetry read aloud is utterly transporting. An extract from our interview:

Paula: When I listen to the ‘regular pulse’ of ‘Aevum Measures’, I am not dissecting its craft, I am feeling its craft like I feel music before I react to other features. The reading experience might be viewed as transcendental – an uplift from the physical world and from routine. I am suggesting I let myself go in the poem. Does this make sense? And is it, on another level, a way of being spiritual in a ransacked world?

Steven: It makes a lot of sense, and I am gratified to hear that you could lose yourself in the music of the poem. What you describe sounds somewhat like Keats’ notion of ‘negative capability.’ That is to say, if the sonic architecture of the poem is doing its job, then the reader is ‘capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’ at the semantic level. Not that the semantic level – what the poem is literally ‘about’ – is insignificant. The music would be thin and feeble without varied syntax, rich diction, logical continuity and metaphor. And yet, the poem’s semantic sense is ‘heightened,’ elevated out of the ‘horizontal’ realm of mere communication, information, or transaction by its participation in ‘vertical’ patterns of sound whose ‘meaning’ is intuitively felt, as a kind of felicity, but cannot be rationally reduced or summarised away.

And you hit the nail on the head when you point to the spiritual implications of this phenomenon. Walter Pater said that all art ‘aspires to the condition of music.’ Over the past several years, I’ve come around to a different a view. While writing Lay Studies, I fell under the influence of a number of Christian theologians of an Augustinian-Thomistic persuasion, especially Catherine Pickstock, to whom one of the poems in the book is dedicated. She suggests that liturgical doxology is the art toward which all others strive, a gesamtkunstwerk performing the narrative of salvation history. As such, the worshipper willingly submits herself to a mode of expression, praise, that is both recollective and anticipatory. The rhythm of liturgy – interpreted as a gratuitous gift, contoured by procession, repetition, and return – offers an implicit critique of the violence, entropy, and fatal self-enclosedness of historical time. I believe poetry can approach liturgy by analogy. A training in prosody might help us to see the world, ourselves, and our speech-acts sacramentally, as vertically conditioned by grace.

Steven in conversation with Karyn Hay RNZ National

Poetry Shelf Audio Spot: Steven reads ‘Aevum Measures’

Victoria University author page

 

Steven Toussaint, born in Chicago, immigrated to New Zealand in 2011. He has studied poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the International Institute of Modern Letters and philosophical theology at the University of Cambridge. He has published a chapbook of poems, Fiddlehead (Compound Press, 2014), and a debut collection, The Bellfounder (The Cultural Study Society, 2015). His writing has also recently appeared in Poetry, Commonweal, The Spinoff, Sport, and The Winter Anthology. He has been recognised in the past few years by residencies at The University of Waikato, the Michael King Writers’ Centre and with a Grimshaw Sargeson Fellowship. He is currently pursuing graduate study in philosophical theology at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Victoria University Press recently published his second full poetry collection, Lay Studies.

 

 

Ashleigh Young

 

If a waterfall no longer has water, it is a groove

that suggests a falling motion, just as this trail

suggests a walking motion

but if a person keeps walking until there is no more walk to take

they will no longer look forward to it, so will turn back.

 

from ‘Guide’

 

 

I have written about How I Get Ready (Victoria University Press) in Wild Honey so have tried not to repeat myself (in my review) or even refer to the poems I picked to talk about in the book! But Ashleigh became one of my sky poets for all kinds of reasons.

I like the shape of this book – this matters with poetry – because when a poetry book is good to hold it makes you want to linger even more, to stall upon a page. The book looks good, the paper feels good, and the cover drawing by Sam Duckor-Jones is a perfect fit. His idiosyncratic artwork moves in and out of reality, a person tilted by anxiety, the wind, both exposed and screened. A little like the poems inside the book. This is a collection of waiting, breathing, of curious things, anxieties, anecdotes, lists, found things, recycled words; little starts in your head as you read.

Every poem catches me! Some books you pick up, scan a few pages and then put down because you just can’t traverse the bridge into the poems. Not this one. It is as exhilarating as riding a bicycle into terrain that is both intensely familiar and breathtaking not. The speaker is both screened and exposed. The writing feels like it comes out of slow gestation and astutely measured craft. I say this because I have read this andante, at a snail’s pace. Glorious!

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: Ashleigh’s ‘If so how’

Victoria University page

Ashleigh Young lives in Wellington and works as an editor at Victoria University Press. She is the author of Magnificent Moon (poems), Can You Tolerate This? (essays), and How I Get Ready (poems). She writes a fortnightly column in Canvas magazine and is the poetry editor at The Spinoff.

 

Full Ockham NZ Book Awards shortlists.

 

I am so chuffed (another warm word!) Wild Honey: Reading NZ Women’s Poetry has been shortlisted in the general nonfiction category. Never have any expectations when it comes to awards – just see it as a time to celebrate some of the great books we publish each year.

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf poem festival: Wonder

 

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Gregory Kan wrote a terrific article for Verb Festival on writing his book-length poem Under Glass (longlisted for 2020 Ockham New Book Awards). It prompted me to choose ‘wonder’ for my February poem festival. I love Under Glass and picked Gregory to read at my Poetry Live Session at the Wellington Writers Festival in March. He talked about writing trauma yet resisting the need to make a spectacle of it. He also spoke of  ‘an increasing drive and demand for the narratives of women, Queer and Trans people, people of colour, immigrants, refugees, etc., etc.’ but that we don’t need tokenism. Pronouns and symbols, things, the paths we follow as readers, wonder, love, empathy – these are open, mobile, able to be reformed, replenished in the form of a poem. Alienness and alienated are two different experiences:

 

I think everyone experiences alienness, i.e. encountering something in the world that one finds alien. To me, alienness is the experience and feeling of one’s internal models of reality being exceeded and/or disrupted. And I don’t think alienness always needs to be framed negatively. It is also a condition of the most beautiful things in the world, such as empathy, love and wonder. All these experiences that begin in the encounter of the unknown. Impossible gaps and impossible bridges. The beauty and terror and noise of being in a jungle.

But not everyone experiences being alienated. Those who are particularly privileged stand at the centre of their respective worlds, and may not often experience what it’s like to be on the other side of those borders. I wanted the text to be able to invoke, at times, the sensation of being outside, even in the places that we find most comfortable and familiar.

Gregory Kan

 

Poetry is wonder. So is science, dance, music, mathematics, sport, growing things, cooking things, the landscape, sky, crashing ocean, having a family, breathing clean air and watching the sun rise.  These things fill me with awe, they challenge, raise questions, leave me lost for words, curious. I witness beauty and I marvel. But I also witness tragedy ignorance violence hatred greed and I wonder. I wonder at humanity. Poetry is a place of retreat when I don’t quite understand, when something puzzles, when something astonishes. Poems set me wandering, with skin pricking, with uplift. Reading and writing poems can be transcendental, like experiencing a rush of utter well being. I completely agree with Reihana Robinson that poetry can fill children with wonder – and that that carries on to adulthood!

 

 

A festival of poems: wonder

 

 

 

 

Their own mind was a kind of wunderkammer, and they kept themselves in the smallest box of all. A parrot with a bird’s keen eye for colour and flash, its memory of jungle and the blue infinite. How eloquently they decorated the tiny space, a slow but relentless process of removal. First one object disappeared and then another. But they were still there, the last to leave, curating their beautiful absence.

 

*A place where a collection of curiosities or rarities is exhibited

 

Alison Glenny

 

 

 

I think the beginning of anything

is always a secret.

I love myself when my mind is fucking the hinges of events.

 

Gregory Kan

 

 

The Houses  II

 

On the asphalt a gas light pools: a child looks out

Swinging against the slotted fence and grey,

And eats the three nasturtium seeds: all day

She kept them in her pocket for the doubt

They might be poison, as her sisters say.

But now their delicate, dubious taste can sting

Her tongue curled: snails’ horns curl: they drop and cling

On round nasturtium leaves, green-saucered here.

 

Now she has evening all her own; the hot

Cream scent of cabbage palms, trying to flood out

Like man’s love, or the Blessed Sacrament:

Sunset peaks over her, a copper net,

Wind like God’s breath goes past her in a shout:

Behind this street shine houses that are not,

Playmates she loves, or loved: but then forgot.

 

Robin Hyde

from ‘The Houses’ in Houses by the Sea and the Later Poems of Robin Hyde, ed Gloria Rawlinson, Caxton Press 1952

 

 

 

Poem to my nearest galaxy

 

Yes, I had forsaken curiosity, let it

dull. Now, a most delicate bell,

it chimes as if a monk at meditation’s

end gently tapped the brass, a call

 

to wake. Stirred. Beguiled.

Not simply interested. Agog. The stars

above (if they’re above) recede

in an ever expanding universe

 

and here by your side at midnight

I’m startled childish by wonder.

Galaxies? Infinite question, red-shift

reply. But you, you helped me remember.

 

Sue Wootton

from The Yield  (Otago University Press, 2017)

 

 

 

Wonder

 

Is one

of my core values.

 

It sits in the twelfth

House of Soul Growth

and the Unconscious.

 

Wonder might end

the marriage.

 

Wonder is the Shotover

Moonlight mountain

marathon trail

 

each step pushed

on by the destiny

toe edging its way

along the barren

ridge line

and what the Bible knows:

 

That mountains

and marriages

are earthed scaffolding

for Atua

seeded in the lava ash

of Pouliuli

sown in the rays

of Ra

grown under

the cratered cracks

of Mahina

where thigh-splitting

Va lies supine

between us

watching the woman

coming to the end

of herself

at 2000 metres elevation

at the 41st kilometre

after the seventh and final

water station

 

when each step

is a leap

towards or away from

an infinite love.

 

Selina Tusitala Marsh

 

 

 

                                                Dance of Sina

 

You are a tiny flutter, a marigold on water

flung out calling the dead. You are the Tūī

across four winds, an armour of feathers

bone and light soaring over mountains

climbing the day.

 

You are the core, spilling seeds deepest

blue, head first into soul. You are blood

woven into silk piercing night to sun. You

are a child. A child at sea anchored on your

mother’s lips.

 

Coral holding the shore, fingers caressing Tāmaki

river. Young girl breaking into woman unfurling

on the Waitematā. You are Sina, sung from

the bones of ancestors, always swimming

towards the sun.

 

Kim Meredith

 

 

What to say and how to be *

Lively eyes lively eyes lively eyes
Square as a box white hair on top
Darrin is thinking HARD about Hiroshima

His teacher has set an
Assignment. It is August 6 three days
until Fat Man dropped on Nagasaki

History is such a funny idea

The fact of men and maybe women men and
maybe women in tiny offices and laboratories
scattered in some other continent
scheme a burning up of people
A burning up of people

And so Darrin writes

All Japan is waiting for
WONDER WOMAN
in your star tights

She is craven she is the last twig
on the cliff-face the last air before
going under that final fast car of rescue
Get away get away sinking wreck
punctured lifeboat wretched sickness

Her grace betraying comic perfection

as if a child could stroke her arm
and be imbued with safety and love

Darrin is wishing for WONDER WOMAN
in her star tights

to catch the falling weapon
in her saving arms like a baby
an infant who is truly a Little Boy

To save all children from

a brief but never-ending childhood
To save schools and satchels and bentos
and laces from ashes more ashes

To save shy smiles and perfectly
folded ‘kerchiefs
Ah! The etching of dark shadows

Shadows fall on Darrin’s classroom

35 small years after Enola Gay rose up
from Tinian amid floodlights and cameras
to fly into history

this funny thing called history
counting a quiet 43 seconds

Tick tock tick tock tick tock tick tock tick tock tick tock tick tock tick tock tick tock tick tock tick tock tick tock tick tock tick tock tick tock tick tock tick tock tick tock tick tock tick tock tick tock tick

 

* As a teacher of 11 to 13 years olds at one period in my life I loved the way poetry exploded in the hands and hearts of children who otherwise may have been overlooked in classroom chaos.

 

Reihana Robinson

(First published as ‘After the fall or the power of reading’
in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal Hong Kong)

 

 

 

Fireflies

 

Last summer I sat amongst a swarm of fireflies while night fell into place around me. I wanted to know if one firefly could ever fly far enough from the rest to see the pulse of their collective light. But there was no one to ask. I raised my arm and held my fingers outstretched towards them but the movement caused them to disappear in a flickering panic—

just as I imagine she might have walked every night to a spot in the bush, not far from the house, where there is a mossy bank riddled with holes and crevices and inside those crevices there are clusters of glow worms, pinpricks of bluegreen light, brightening as her eyes adjust to the dark. She reaches out to touch them and the lights extinguish so suddenly she is not sure they were even there at all.

 

Nina Mingya Powles

from Whale Fall a chapbook in Luminescent (Seraph Press, 2017). This chapbook focuses on Betty Guard (1814 – 1870) who arrived in Aotearoa as a 15 year-old-bride and was the first Pākehā woman to settle in the South Island.

 

 

 

Cambridge Trilogy

 

KETTLE’S YARD

 

The kingdom will have its own colours,

and the unfashioned light will let itself be mastered

in a bottomless, Brancusi pool.

Metal refined by its own thinking force

retains that mercury peril,

continues

to reflect the furious pleasure

of a man being listened to, the one who explains,

art become epiphenomenon of explanation,

a nuclear residue cheaper to tame,

grace nostalgia

strident, even here

where the Gaudier-Brzeska

holds the uncomfortable end of her posture,

sinews bright in the light nursery,

and light in the pits

and mistakes.

 

 

JESUS GREEN

 

The kingdom will have its own spices

whose fore-scent is the privilege of a retriever

lifting her nose at last from the carcass.

When assorted corvids take her place

I will not whisper any of their names

to the tutelar of the college.

The blue

roman candle advance of liberated students,

crossing the moat, appear from this distance

to embarrass the jogger,

the avenue

of plane trees a parlour

for homeless

who paddle through bugs like playing a harp,

plucking and smoking at once,

labour given lightness by caution.

I follow the sun down the darkening aisles

as if it were criminal.

The wind is animal with cannabis.

 

 

ST. MARY THE LESS

 

 

The kingdom will have its own currency.

I cannot see any from the pew,

but I know the rivers of this country

sing with cancelled sterling.

Like silver under water

mercy

will flicker through the feeling

of the reader

infinitesimally warming the air

until all of our salvos begin with forgive me.

We pray today

in a national rope

for the brokenness of what we do

here

in memory, pray

the discordances

of an amateur choir perform that brokenness better

than harmony, pray like the nonagenarians

cough

and infants bray

from the back

the Angelus domini.

 

Steven Toussaint

from Lay Studies Victoria University Press, 2019

 

 

 

The Good Husbandwoman’s Alphabet 

 

When people fall in love with love

they fling themselves in the abyss

Marina Tsvetaeva (translated by. Elaine Feinstein)  

     

 

(Animals)

 

Languages we never learn to speak,

although in books they taught us how to read:

tiger, tapir, timber wolf—T was all of these—

each a name in which I find myself again,

I, who see him coming from the hill.

Now I turn the barbecue to ‘full’.

     

(Bridle)

 

These words: throat-lash, brow-band, bit—

how a horse gets broken in.

Each night I am unbridled.

Never try to understand a marriage.

It’s beyond the wonder of all but the finest

gentlemen: how the bridle’s said to fit the bride.

 

(Cattle)

 

Heedless ones who never knew

their names, the oxen were unyoked in

Happy Valley, where the years will pass

easy as eels in a creek. I was of the alphabet they made,

slipping across the wet grass at night—

eel among the cattle, gone in a scribble of water.
(Dog)

 

No one knows but the dog—

dog-sense, dog’s-chance, dog’s life.

So why should I care if he has changed

His name—for if he reads, he must read backwards.

I is what I am. No more or less. So, go on,

say what you will—but go and spread the word.

   

(Earth)

 

Consider the earth he works up rich beneath the plough,

or a tilth of crumbly soil—

didn’t Virgil say these were best for corn?

‘Earth yields to us its bread, each cartload

drawn into the barn by slow-

moving oxen.’

 

(Fires)

 

Even when the fire was lit, I knew that

sex would never be the thing.

Say that this is true—

an alphabet of husbandry might burn in other ways.

G would be for glimpses of this,

even as he flared beneath my skin.

 

(Glimpse)

 

I will make myself absolutely clear—

whatever glimpses you gain of me,

as string of letters, or random word, it was

nothing would ever be easy. Believe me when I say,

to be the good husbandwoman, I tried at every turn

to turn myself into any other thing.

     

(Husbandry)

 

Only when he’d love and

care for all the animals on this, my farm;

only when he could name and

number all the cravings of my body—only in such

fidelity would he learn to play their song, though

even then, I’d keep an eye on him.

 

(Information)

 

Something’s trying to tell me that

something’s going on. Oh yes.

This morning at sunrise he woke me with his

‘old ways’—then laid them on the floor.

He placed them where the sun’s first beams would alight

on them and opened the blue window.

 

(Jump-cut)

 

Whenever he wanted anything,

I recited this, my alphabet to him.

Fevers of words fastened in the needy

evening of his brow, a projection of

letters that flicker in this jump-cut to his eyes,

lifting his eyelids silent as a rose.

 

(Knowing)

 

In the first glimmer of knowing that

nothing will come of nothing,

life was all we could make

of those swiftly passing days: I was the golden

violin that he would touch into

echoes­, as the echoes gathered us in.

 

(Lovers)

 

Whisper it once more in my ear. Oh, that

I would have you hold me still,

tenderly touching me into my skin:

how is it that we render our souls to

love’s fine place, in the rivery light of this:

oh, the pillow and the kiss.

 

(Money)

 

Vouchsafe for me these days of

eminence, though in my bag lies nothing but

a worn-out empty purse. Oh,

nothing will come of the nothing that

declines with each transaction. Oh,

I stared back at the checkout girl. And oh I

     

(Nothing)

 

waited for the earth to take me in,

as though this were the

nub of it all, the rub of the nothing

that plies between the echo and its

testament to what I pledge to you,

out of the hills, and echoing over again.

 

(Over)

 

My name is this: the day that passeth over.

Ancient in the making, now it will be broken over.

Keepsake, my heart, oh will you ever make it over?

Easeful now, I wake when the night is over.

Ashes in the wind: and then its fragrances blew over.

Carry me, sir, carry me on, into the going over.

 

(Providence)

 

Apple-blossom drifting down the creek.

Still the rooster wants to crow, though

evening’s almost here.

Forgo these things, though fate or commonplace

ordain us with this dream—our conveyance into

rapture, or the idea that provides.

 

(Quotidian)

                                                             

As though this were the remedy for everything—

delight indeed will arise

unto these indigo-tinted skies;

latitude will restore us to the brightness of

the sun, to the spindle of this dreaming

earth that turns for everyone.

 

(Release)

 

Release me into the somewhere of the dream—

you will remember where, when you were

brother to me.

Unhook me from the steely world of

tractors, sheep-shit, shearing shed—

I am the one who has already gone into the giddy now.

 

(Sky)

 

Cherish the way you held me in your arms—you, he . . .

as usual I confuse the one with the other,

nattering my way through the rain, seeking out

the tarradiddle, the silver-tongue that touched

me once with truth: my good husband was

a pillar whose love could hold earth and sky apart.

 

(Tarantella)

 

Knowledge is this, with the heart in mind:

everything you ever did can always be undone.

Absolution never is never quite complete.

Cast yourself in the spider’s web:

a day would come and then the dust would settle.

Some days we would dance the wildest dance.

 

(Underworld)

 

Easier by far to see where the stars let out.

Friday. And then he said he really came from

Orion’s belt, the buckle star: Epsilon Orionis.

Riding in the hills that afternoon, he declared another name—

Alnilam . . . O you of the three Maries, I said. And then,

declare that name again . . .

 

(Vespers)

 

Usually at around this time it comes to this:

leaves in the poplars start to rustle,

the Empyrean gives forth its heron to the roost.

Except for this, the evenings are ordinary.

Round here they say the poplars are a kind of a people, too.

You’ll believe it when you hear the heron speak.

 

(Whisper)

 

It was thus that I came to quietude.

Came into the silence

and the redress of the mind. For

no one thinks to ask

of me what the horses say,

nor guide them on the way, although . . .

 

(Exhale)

 

Let me take you back to when

you first could take this in, this breath that is

my husbandman and this my

alphabet—and I, oh I whose breathing

knew of each his suck and sigh of life, each eddy in the

ebb and flow, wherein I now exhale.

 

(Yet)

 

a day would come when he would be gone.

Commend to me to these last things: a rustic table,

a bowl of fruit, the music-box that sang

‘Sally is my sweetest heart’. As though the mountains might

exalt his name, even as he flees through

falling shadows and the warbler’s plaintive voice.

 

(Zero)

 

Oh and only when the last of words is

ruled and underlined, only when you see the

love that learns itself again,

only when you find the text that declines into the

vertical, will you read in its acrostic that

everything is this: the sweetest of the nothings that are love.

 

Cliff Fell  (Last Leaf Press, 2014)

 

 

 

 

The contributors

 

Cliff Fell is the author of three books of poetry. The Good Husbandwoman’s Alphabet came out in 2014, published as a chapbook by Last Leaf Press, with illustrations by Fiona Johnstone and photographs by Ivan Rogers.

Alison Glenny‘s Antarctic-themed collection of prose poems and fragments, The Farewell Tourist, was published by Otago University Press in 2018. In 2019 she was, with Lawrence Patchett, a recipient of an Ursula Bethell writing residency at the University of Canterbury. She currently lives in Kāpiti.

Robin Hyde (Iris Guiver Wilkinson) (1906–1939) was born in Cape Town, South Africa, and moved to Wellington with her family in 1907. She was a poet, novelist and journalist. She worked for the Dominion before becoming Lady Editor at the Wanganui Chronicle, and subsequently the New Zealand Observer. She published three poetry collections (and one posthumously), along with two anthologies of her work (edited by Lydia Wevers and subsequently Michele Leggott).

Gregory Kan’s latest collection Under Glass was longlisted for the Ockham NZ Book Awards 2020.

Selina Tusitala Marsh (ONZM, FNZRS), former NZ Poet Laureate, is a Pasifika Poet-Scholar and graphic mini-memoirist. She is an Associate Professor at the University of Auckland and lives on Waiheke Island.

Kim Meredith (Samoan, Tokelauan, and Portuguese descent). Her poetry and short stories are founded on reclaiming space for the female narrative and have been published in Aotearoa, Hawaii and Mexico. She has collaborated extensively with partner Kingsley Spargo performing to audiences in New Zealand and China. She is co-producing an upcoming album on spoken word and soundscapes ‘Swimming Toward the Sun’ due for release later this year.

‘Dance of Sina’ was written for her daughter Courtney Sina. Courtney was named after her maternal grandmother Rita Sina. Rita Sina was named after her paternal grandmother Sina le pua (Sina the flower). There was a sense of awe and wonder about Sina, continuing her journey down the family line. This beautiful and incredible creature daring to push boundaries and seeking out her own path.

Reihana Robinson:  2019 highlights included poetry readings for Mākaro Press with Jo Thorpe and Elizabeth Welsh (including Poetry Live in Auckland and the Fringe in Wellington), as well as reading at Lounge Poetry at Auckland University and with the remarkable Bob Orr at Carson’s in Thames. Reihana is working on her next collection tentatively titled ‘Grassfire’ but may end up with the title ‘NO’.

Steven Toussaint is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the IIML and is currently studying philosophical theology at Cambridge. He has been a Grimshaw Sargeson Fellow and is the author of poetry collection The Bellfounder and the chapbook Fiddlehead. His new collection, Lay Studies, is longlisted for the 2020 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.

Sue Wootton lives in Dunedin. Her most recent publications are her novel, Strip, which was longlisted in the 2017 Ockham NZ Book Awards, and her poetry collection, The Yield, which was a finalist in these awards in 2018. She will travel to Menton, France, later this year as the 2020 Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellow.

Poetry Shelf interviews Steven Toussaint

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The same differently

and always already:

 

after writing laïcité

new laity like birdsong.

 

from ‘Pickstock Improvisations’

 

 

 

 

Steven Toussaint, born in Chicago, immigrated to New Zealand in 2011. He has studied poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the International Institute of Modern Letters and philosophical theology at the University of Cambridge. He has published a chapbook of poems, Fiddlehead (Compound Press, 2014), and a debut collection, The Bellfounder (The Cultural Study Society, 2015). His writing has also recently appeared in Poetry, Commonweal, The Spinoff, Sport, and The Winter Anthology. He has been recognised in the past few years by residencies at The University of Waikato, the Michael King Writers’ Centre and with a Grimshaw Sargeson Fellowship. He is currently pursuing graduate study in philosophical theology at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Victoria University Press recently published his second full poetry collection, Lay Studies.

Steven’s poetry entrances me on multiple levels; initially through the exquisite musical pitch and counterpoints, and then in the way heart and mind are both engaged. His sumptuous poetic terrain is physical, elusive, stretching, kinetic, mysterious, difficult, beautiful. Hearing the poetry read aloud is utterly transporting (listen to Steven read ‘Aevum Measures’).

 

The conversation

 

Paula:  When did you first start writing poetry? Did you read poems as a child?

Steven:  Poetry wasn’t a big part of my childhood. It didn’t feature in my family’s reading life, and it seemed to be a genre that teachers avoided whenever possible. But Bob Dylan sang about Verlaine and Rimbaud and made a music video with Allen Ginsberg. So when I was sixteen I sought these poets out at the Borders Books in Orland Park, Illinois. As a consequence, my first writings were Beat pastiche. I didn’t show them to anyone. Many of my friends were in punk rock bands and wrote lyrics, which seemed like a more socially defensible practice somehow. I didn’t know any other poets until I went to university.

 

Are you still listening

 

to poets

who listened

 

to Coltrane

 

laughed and framed

vocations around that

 

brazen ascesis?

 

from ‘Yes or No’ 

 

 

Paula: Can you pick a few key moments in your life as a poet? What poets have affected you both as a reader and a writer?

Steven:  There are far too many to list exhaustively, especially as your word ‘affected’ includes, alongside my favourite writers, a number of poets who have inspired me negatively or ambivalently – just as important a list in terms of shaping my sense of poetic possibility. But certain writers and moments stand out.

Early on, Ginsberg loomed large. In my first teenaged fumbles, I tried to imitate his long, anaphoric lines without truly appreciating their provenance in Whitman and Blake. As an undergraduate at Loyola University in Chicago, I was introduced to literary modernism and came to admire the economy of expression in Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. I learned that Ginsberg knew them personally and considered them as father-figures. This was my first intimation that poetry had its own version of apostolic succession.

In my years at Loyola, I was impressionable and soaked up as much knowledge as I could from teachers, visiting writers, and friends about the cottage industry of independent poetry publishing in the US: hundreds of small presses and little magazines, each with its own house style and canon of influences. I tried on a lot of hats. This continued and intensified at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I wrote under the sign of Frank O’Hara for a time. David Berman, Frank Stanford, and Alice Notley came and went as models. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I’d encounter new poets and find myself unconsciously emulating them. My familiarity with the landscape of contemporary poetry was growing but I didn’t have a strong enough foundation in the sources.

It wasn’t until near the end of my MFA that I began to read the ‘Objectivist’ and Black Mountain poets seriously and began to discern a set of basic, shared assumptions about what a poem should be. Despite wide variations in style, each of these poets committed him- or herself to a rigorous interpretation of Pound’s concept of melopoeia: The poem, aside from everything else it may be, is first and foremost a sonic event in language. These writers self-consciously traced a common lineage back to Pound and Williams, and further back to Elizabethan, Medieval, Roman and Greek lyricists. I wanted in!

Pound, H.D., Louis Zukofsky, Lorine Niedecker, George Oppen, Robert Creeley, and Robert Duncan became especially important to me, and I began to seek out contemporary poets who shared this pantheon. Ronald Johnson, Gustaf Sobin, Karin Lessing, and Frank Samperi are probably the most conspicuous tutelaries of my first book, The Bellfounder. And to this day, many of my favourite living American poets descend from this tradition, among them John Taggart, Nathaniel Mackey, Fanny Howe, Pam Rehm, Peter O’Leary, Joseph Donahue, Jennifer Moxley, Devin Johnston, and David Mutschlecner.

Since moving to New Zealand in 2011, my horizons have broadened. It’s easy to take one’s national biases for granted, even easier if you’re an American. My interactions with NZ writers, often with strikingly different tastes and canons, have both tempered my prejudices and forced me to reflect critically on why I value certain poetic qualities over others. The ‘Pound tradition,’ for example, hasn’t made nearly as big an impact here as it has in the US. Michele Leggott is my favourite exception. Her poetry – not to mention her critical work on Zukofsky, Lola Ridge, Eileen Duggan, and Robin Hyde – has taught me a great deal about what a ‘late modernism’ in New Zealand might absorb from domestic traditions, a major consideration as I wrote Lay Studies. John Dennison’s poetry, whose sources are mostly homegrown (Bethell, Curnow, Baxter), has been equally important.

Work and study opportunities have taken my wife and me in recent years to the UK for extended periods of time. From Black Mountain I inherited a partisan prejudice against T.S. Eliot, which had made much of contemporary British poetry unintelligible to me. But I have been steadily reassessing Eliot’s work and consider myself a reluctant convert. As such, I’ve lately been exploring a tributary of British poetry whose wellsprings are the history of that land and its ancestral religion. David Jones’s The Anathemata and his essays on sacramental poetics have become indispensable resources. So too the work of Kathleen Raine, C.H. Sisson, Christopher Logue, Rowan Williams, Thomas A. Clark, Alice Oswald, and Toby Martinez de las Rivas. But the greatest revelation has been Geoffrey Hill: a staggering, dangerous genius who has blown my preconceived notions about poetry to smithereens.

I have been narrating my shifting loyalties within modern poetry, but I find that my work begins to asphyxiate whenever I am too long away from Dante, the Provençal troubadours, and the English Metaphysicals.

 

Paula: Fascinating. I too find my relationships with certain poets and ways of writing poetry shift over time. Two words stand out for me here – ‘sonic’ and ‘asphyxiated’ – because they are key to my reading of your new collection Lay Studies. The aural experience is paramount yet so too is the way the writing is oxygenated, given life. When I listened to ‘Aevum Measures’ I was breathless, in a trance-like state, and felt like I was in a church. The music was the first arrival on my body, the first poetry joy, with the rippling currents of chords and sonic play. Cadence oxygenated me as reader. Were these two factors – sound and breath – significant as you wrote?

Steven: Absolutely. At heart, I’m a student of Pound’s ‘A Retrospect’ and Charles Olson’s ‘Projective Verse.’ Both of these manifesti, in different ways, ask the writer to strive for an ‘absolute rhythm’ (Pound’s term), a way of discovering one’s own meaning, in a particular poem, by listening attentively, obediently to ‘the acquisitions of [one’s] ear and the pressure of [one’s] breath’ (Olson). Pound elsewhere called this ‘the tone leading of vowels.’ The syllable becomes the basic unit of composition, and the test of the poet’s integrity rests on the integrity of the line (‘the dance of the intellect’ among syllables) and its relationship with other lines. With practice – by writing, by reciting, and especially by studying great poets – I have tried to learn how to intuit whether this integrity is present, in my own work and in the work of others: Does the lineation possess that subtle sense of necessity, vitality, earnestness? Or do the moves feel arbitrary, enervated, ‘counterfeit’? These questions are my first principles of composition, my ‘bullshit detector’ or ‘examination of conscience.’

‘Aevum Measures’ isn’t dogmatically Olsonian. It’s written in a fairly regular iambic tetrameter/dimeter, what Olson calls ‘closed’ or ‘non-projective’ verse (with special digs at Eliot). And yet, he may have overlooked the fact that certain ‘hieratic’ or ‘high’ emotions, thoughts, and ends announce themselves to consciousness in ancient accents, declaring their continuity with older forms. Pound understood this, I think, his ‘metronome’ proscriptions notwithstanding. I hadn’t decided on the metric scheme or the repetition of the line ‘abide more tritone idle mode’ in advance. These events emerged ‘organically’ in the process of composition, a teleological tug that made itself heard gradually as a regular pulse.

 

abide more tritone idle mode

the dominant’s a leaky still

 

for quiet divination

for every thought

a finger on

the fret-

board’s shifting centre

where nothing dearer

than the pure heart’s

purring minor

requires demonstration

 

from ‘Aevum Measures’

 

Paula: When I listen to the ‘regular pulse’ of ‘Aevum Measures’, I am not dissecting its craft, I am feeling its craft like I feel music before I react to other features. The reading experience might be viewed as transcendental – an uplift from the physical world and from routine. I am suggesting I let myself go in the poem. Does this make sense? And is it, on another level, a way of being spiritual in a ransacked world?

Steven: It makes a lot of sense, and I am gratified to hear that you could lose yourself in the music of the poem. What you describe sounds somewhat like Keats’ notion of ‘negative capability.’ That is to say, if the sonic architecture of the poem is doing its job, then the reader is ‘capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’ at the semantic level. Not that the semantic level – what the poem is literally ‘about’ – is insignificant. The music would be thin and feeble without varied syntax, rich diction, logical continuity and metaphor. And yet, the poem’s semantic sense is ‘heightened,’ elevated out of the ‘horizontal’ realm of mere communication, information, or transaction by its participation in ‘vertical’ patterns of sound whose ‘meaning’ is intuitively felt, as a kind of felicity, but cannot be rationally reduced or summarised away.

And you hit the nail on the head when you point to the spiritual implications of this phenomenon. Walter Pater said that all art ‘aspires to the condition of music.’ Over the past several years, I’ve come around to a different a view. While writing Lay Studies, I fell under the influence of a number of Christian theologians of an Augustinian-Thomistic persuasion, especially Catherine Pickstock, to whom one of the poems in the book is dedicated. She suggests that liturgical doxology is the art toward which all others strive, a gesamtkunstwerk performing the narrative of salvation history. As such, the worshipper willingly submits herself to a mode of expression, praise, that is both recollective and anticipatory. The rhythm of liturgy – interpreted as a gratuitous gift, contoured by procession, repetition, and return – offers an implicit critique of the violence, entropy, and fatal self-enclosedness of historical time. I believe poetry can approach liturgy by analogy. A training in prosody might help us to see the world, ourselves, and our speech-acts sacramentally, as vertically conditioned by grace.

 

Must be a stumbler, bleeder,

as some floccus remains here, carded

into ragged sleeves by barbed wire.

I believe in a God who can learn

 

to work new spindles, new pupils

uncomprehending the reasons

light rosins in winter, and still

spill clumsily, bleeding.

 

from ‘Agnus Dei’  97

 

Paula: Abstract thought and spiritual layerings are so important in the collection – yet so too is physical detail. What attracts you to the arrival of the physical in a poem?

Steven: Chesterton said ‘the greatest of poems is an inventory.’ I’m not sure about that, but I think I know what he was talking about. The poems I most love to read, and try my best to write, are taken up with thingness. By this, I mean they attend to concrete particulars, of the world and of the mind. I mean also that the poem itself can be understood as a thing, a made thing, with a physical, substantial reality of its own.

We seem recently to have entered a phase in the cycle of literary fashion that favours self-expression over thingness. Or maybe the self has become poetry’s privileged thing. On this understanding, the poem is treated as a dispatch from an essential core of selfhood. I tend to think of poetry instead as a species of artefacture, closer to sculpture or musical composition than self-portraiture or memoir. Not that those two understandings are totally incompatible. It’s more a question of emphasis.

And it extends from what I was speaking of before with respect to a liturgical or sacramental understanding of poetry. I follow David Jones here: The poet is a ‘sign-maker’; she uses signs in a particular way, applying uniquely poetic formal pressures upon them, so that they become, in a sense, what they signify. The poetic sign isn’t merely a communiqué; it makes the thing it represents really present. This intensified attention to particular words, particular things – in their horizontal and vertical relationships, in their present and historical denotations and connotations – can be seen as a kind of custodianship. Jones writes that ‘Poetry is to be diagnosed as “dangerous” because it evokes and recalls, is a kind of anamnesis of, i.e. is an effective recalling of, something loved.’ Poetry, as an exercise in loving attention to what is real and lasting, proposes an ethos inimical to a culture of disposability and distraction. These concerns were at the forefront of my mind during the composition of Lay Studies.

So, I suppose the ‘abstract and spiritual layerings’ of the work are indivisible from its ‘physical’ layer. I only have access to the one though the other. To answer your question in an entirely different way, I write poems (hopefully) to be read out loud, declaimed even! The most ‘abstract’ poem becomes a physical reality when recited.

 

The subtlest consolations

arrive in waves

 

one had neglected

to observe.

 

The way children

when they sing

forget to breathe.

 

from ‘Pickstock Improvisations’

 

Paula: I find the traffic between the abstract, the spiritual and the physical in your poems both prolific and productive. I also pick up on the phrase ‘loving attention’ because to me that it is a key in your work. Complexity and diverse acts of re-collection are shaped by attentiveness.

Reading the collection is a tonic.

Do you ever wonder, as I do at times, what good poetry is in a world under threat? Does doubt affect you?

Steven: We are living through a time of crisis, and all forms of cultural expression are being subjected to tests of utility. But I think there is a danger in overlooking how this very utilitarian calculus (‘What good is poetry?’) threatens the integrity of language.

Poetry is like a crucible in which the language of the day is subjected to enormous pressures, revealing its volatile constituents: latent histories of usage, repressed subtexts, forgotten connotations, contemporary clichés and dead metaphors, and new possibilities for utterance. Composition is an intuitive negotiation between the intellect, the imagination, and the ear. The will to ‘say something’ is chastened by the demands of form, which can act as an important counterforce to the unchecked ego and its fragile certainties. When poetry is weaponised, as just another mallet in the activist’s bag, I fear it forsakes this more primary function: to keep our language honest.

When I first read your question, I interpreted it as a question about quality: What makes for good poetry in a time of crisis? For me, this is the more important question to ask ourselves now. The past few years have produced some brilliant examples of poetry with explicit political content. They have also produced examples of tin-ear sloganeering, unctuous virtue-signalling, and gross oversimplification of the political paradoxes of our time.

As I suggested before, I think the difference is one of integrity. Good poetry has structural integrity, is well-made. But I also use the word in the sense of ‘responsibility.’ Robert Duncan wrote, ‘Responsibility is to keep / the ability to respond.’ I’d modify that slightly and say good poetry helps its readers to become response-able. It hones faculties we need in order to respond well to the world. And I would say that good poetry makes itself vulnerable to response; it trusts in the reader’s intelligence and curiosity and invites readerly collaboration in the form of further creation and genuine feedback. I think the reason why Dante’s Commedia or Denise Levertov’s post-conversion lyrics from the 1980s, to name just two examples, have served as interlocutors in Lay Studies is because I have detected within those poems this kind of ‘good faith.’ They don’t foreclose or pre-empt my freedom of interpretation. They possess what I would call an active ambivalence as opposed to the passive ambivalence of political quietism (I owe this distinction to long conversations with Auckland-based art critic Anthony Byrt). They are rife with doubt, contradiction, tenuous discovery, and yet both attest to the need to keep making, speaking, and acting in the face of such overwhelming provisionality. We throw the word ‘brave’ around a lot today, but the poems that seem to me to be truly risking something tend to exhibit this character.

 

 

Victoria University author page

Karyn Hay in conversation with Steven on RNZ National

Poetry Shelf audio spot: Steven Toussaint reads ‘Aevum Measures’

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Steven Toussaint reads ‘Aevum Measures’

from Lay Studies, Victoria University Press, 2019

 

Steven Toussaint was born in Chicago in 1986. He immigrated to New Zealand in 2011. He is the author of the poetry collections, Lay Studies (2019) and The Bellfounder (2015), and a chapbook, Fiddlehead. His writing has also recently appeared in Poetry, Commonweal, The Spinoff, Sport, and The Winter Anthology. He has been recognised in the past few years by residencies at The University of Waikato and the Michael King Writers’ Centre and with a Grimshaw Sargeson Fellowship. He is currently pursuing graduate study in philosophical theology at Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

 

 

Victoria University Press page

Steven Toussaint in conversation with Karyn Hay RNZ Lately

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf noticeboard: Karyn Hay in conversation with Steven Toussaint @radionz

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This is a terrific conversation –  listen here.

Lay Studies VUP

at the Spinoff:  ‘TMI: An essay on contemporary poetry in Aotearoa/New Zealand’

‘This much is obvious: something electrifying is taking place in New Zealand poetry. I became a permanent resident of this country four years ago, and at that time I privately considered verse here to have grown a little stale. While stand-out collections frequently knocked me over – among them Amy Brown’s The Odour of Sanctity (2013), Chris Holdaway’s Six Melodies (2014), and John Dennison’s Otherwise (2015) – my general impression was that a nostalgic suburban quietism had captured the style, tone, and subject matter of New Zealand poetry, calling to mind James K. Baxter’s warning to denizens of this ‘Happy Island’ that ‘one of the functions of artists in a community is to provide a healthy and permanent element of rebellion; not to become a species of civil servant’. Since then, however, a talented cohort of writers in their 20s and 30s, many of them women, LGBTQ, and people of colour, have exploded onto the scene in a searching and incendiary spirit, and have transformed the literary landscape irrevocably.’

Steven Toussaint, from the Spinoff essay

 

 Lay Studies will be launched at Time Out Bookstore on Friday July 19th 6-8 pm

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monday Poem: Steven Toussaint’s ‘The Neoplatonist Theatre’

 

THE NEOPLATONIST THEATRE

 

 

In the neoplatonist theatre

audience exists, a couple

 

of victims of the new

conscription, waiving

 

all their outrage,

waiting in the cockpit.

 

One’s a former gallery

serf, feeding frozen

 

grapes to animals

not born to work

 

their mandibles that way.

One expresses gently

 

the gland whence prayers

discharge, a man

 

who sits and glares

at his companion, lost

 

in the foreignness

and novelty of names

 

his gland would praise

but can’t forgive.

 

Some overeager, out-

of-tune apologist

 

announces tea

and biscuits in the vestibule.

 

Neither budge, rooted

in middlebrow certainty

 

that a single righteous

and timely volume

 

of samizdat applause, lodged

like a socket wrench

 

in the uptake, would stay

the launch of a still

 

more secretive

and stylized soliloquy.

 

©Steven Toussaint

 

Steven Toussaint was born in Chicago in 1986. His books include Fiddlehead (Compound Press, 2014) and The Bellfounder (The Cultural Society, 2015). He lives with his wife, the writer Eleanor Catton, in Auckland.