Tag Archives: Sue Wootton

12 questions for Ockham NZ Book Award poetry finalists: Sue Wootton

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Congratulations on your short-list placing!

Thank you Paula!

 

What poetry books have you read in the past year?

And this is why you should always keep a reading diary … I’ll have to cobble this together from flawed memory and my messy bookcase. Here goes: most recently, a ‘slim volume’ in the Penguin Modern Poets Three series with work by Malika Booker, Sharon Olds and Warsan Shire. In contrast, also Sentenced to Life and Injury Time by Clive James. Before these: Undying by Michel Faber, the poetry collections on the Ockham longlist, Bill Manhire’s Some Things to Place in a Coffin and Tell Me My Name, Walking by a River of Light by John Gibb, South D Poet Lorikeet by Jenny Powell, Getting it Right by Alan Roddick, Alzheimer’s and a Spoon by Liz Breslin, Taking my Mother to the Opera by Diane Brown, Fracking & Hawk by Pat White, The Trials of Minnie Dean by Karen Zelas, Taking My Jacket for a Walk by Peter Olds, Wolf by Elizabeth Morton, Where the Fish Grow by Ish Doney, Family History by Johanna Emeney, Possibility of Flight by Heidi North-Bailey, Withstanding by Helen Jacobs, Conscious and Verbal and Learning Human by Les Murray, Poems New and Collected by Wistawa Szymborska, Poems 1962-2012 by Louise Glűck, and X  by Vona Groarke.  

I like keeping an anthology handy too, and in the past year have been dipping in and out of two: Andrew Motion’s Poetry by Heart (on the bedside table) and Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke’s The Map and the Clock (next to the sofa).  

 

What other reading attracts you? 

Oh boy, you should see the pile of books by my bed – too many to list here. I enjoy both fiction and non-fiction (especially essays, biographies or memoir). Fiction-wise, I’ve recently finished Fiona Farrell’s wonderful Decline and Fall on Savage Street and am now reading Where My Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks, and some short stories by William Trevor. I’ve recently reread Olive Kitteridge and My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (I love all of  Strout’s work!). Vincent O’Sullivan’s All This By Chance is standing by for Easter.

Nonfiction-wise, I’m itching to start neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s The Strange Order of Things and Marilynne Robinson’s new essay collection What Are We Doing Here? (I love all of Robinson’s work!).

 

Name some key starting points (or themes) for your collection. 

This is quite a hard question for me to answer because The Yield wasn’t pre-planned as The Yield – it grew very slowly into The Yield, and I only recognised that I had a coherent  collection very late in the process. In hindsight I can see quite clearly that the poems are bound together by themes of give and take, love and loss, flexibility and rigidity, toil and harvest. This finally clicked into place for me after I wrote the poem called ‘The Yield’. It was only after that that I felt I had a potential collection in my hands. But most of the poems in the collection were written in the couple of years preceding that moment, and during those years I had no idea whether a book would eventuate. I had hope, but not much evidence!

 

Did anything surprise you as the poems come into being? 

Every poem I write is a surprise to me. I can never get over that fact – it amazes me, always.

 

Find up to 5 individual words that pitch your book to a reader.

These words are from The Yield: haul, reach, lift, roam, home.

 

Which poem particularly falls into place for you?

Not sure if I can select one – they all have their place.

 

What matters most when you write a poem?

I like a tight synthesis of sound and sense.

 

What do you loathe in poetry?

 Sometimes in an art gallery I stand in front of a painting I find ugly or too obvious or (conversely) too obscure – challenging, anyway, a canvas that maybe bores me or offends my personal sense of aesthetics, perhaps even my values. But still, alongside my ‘this is not one for my living room wall’ reaction, I can still respect the graft and the craft that went into making it – so long as it’s well made. Ditto, poetry. What I appreciate, above all else in poetry, is knowing that the poet has really leaned in. That’s a fundamentally appealing quality for me, even if I can’t adore the finished product. But if a poem is attentively made, and it somehow moves me – then I’m all in.

 

Where do you like to write poems?

 In my study or on the kitchen table (though I scribble scraps in my notebook anywhere, any time).

 

What are strengths and lacks in our poetry scenes?

We seem to have a lively open mic scene all over the country, with a new fizz of high energy youthful involvement alongside the different – no less intense – energy of more experienced voices. I love the diversity of this, the way it opens our ears and hearts and minds to each other. It’s good, too, to see extroverted poets out there connecting with audiences, attracting media comment and generally flying the flag for poetry. But don’t forget the page! I’m a big believer that poetry is a craft learned by practice. Getting better at it is done through serving a kind of apprenticeship, learning the tools of your trade, and being supported, mentored and informed by more experienced practitioners, so for me it’s really great to see newer literary journals like Mimicry and Starling rising up (though I’m sad to see the end of  JAAM).

Nothing matches the developmental push that comes from submitting work to a well-read editor to be scrutinised word by word. It’s healthy, too, to have enough possible publication places to be able to avoid only submitting work to your friends or classmates. So, I think we can do with still more editor-curated poetry publications to nourish the development of poetry in Aotearoa-New Zealand. Another lack: we need more platforms for the kind of stimulating and informative longform poetry review that critics like Lynley Edmeades, for example (in a recent Landfall Review Online), are so good at writing. But also, no one should be expected to write a seriously-considered review for nothing. Work is work, even if at the end of the day it’s not mud, but ink, on your hands. Funding, funding, funding: there’s a permanent problematic lack!

  

Have you seen a festival poetry session (anywhere) that has blown you off your seat (or had some other significant impact)?

I was at the 2010 Granada Poetry Festival in Nicaragua – truly a festival, a celebration of la poesia. The readings were held in parks and plazas. The Nicaraguan people have a passionate regard for poets and poetry – they turned out in their thousands to hear readings from their own and international poets. One particular event stands out for me. It was an evening reading, outside, warm and dark in the main town plaza, with about 2000 people in the audience – all ages, children, teenagers, parents, grandparents. Their listening was so attentive (most poems were voiced twice, once in the poet’s language and again in Spanish translation) – I watched face after face absolutely blossom in response to some lines. There was a feeling of us all being tapped into a high-voltage current – such power. Sheer zappery! And all from words.

 

If you could curate a dream poetry session at The Auckland Writers Festival which poets would be there and who would mc or chair it?

Sharon Olds, Louise Glück and Rita Dove in conversation with Carol Ann Duffy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flash in Aotearoa: NFFD judges in conversation

 

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Still time to enter!

 

The 2018 National Flash Fiction Day competition runs through April 30.

Send your best 300-word story * Cash prizes

Three categories: Adult, Youth and a Te reo Māori Prize

 

‘Compressed forms tend to make poets of us all, because the fewer words you have to work with the more work you want each of those words to do. So yes, perhaps poets start with a bit of an advantage since they are already familiar with using distilled language and constrained form. But the ‘fiction’ aspect of flash demands a commitment to the idea of story: the passage of time, development of character, something that happens, a transformative moment. And whereas the basic building block of poetry is the line, in flash fiction it is usually the sentence. Which is a good place to suggest that Jac Jenkin’s ‘Settlement’ (2016) is a terrific example of the overlap between prose poetry and flash fiction. It’s carefully crafted with the line and the sentence in mind. It pops with concrete imagery (“one femur has a spiral crack; its neck has been gnawed by rodent teeth”), has rhythm, uses alliteration (“am I fleshed or flayed?”), and speaks as much from the white space between the words as from the words themselves.’ Sue Wootton

 

We are pleased to share insights from this year’s judges.

Sue Wootton and Tracey Slaughter (Adult judges)

Tim Jones and Patrick Pink (Youth judges)

Vaughan Rapatahana (Te reo Māori Prize judge)


 

NFFD 2018 in Auckland, Christchurch, Dunedin, Northland, Wellington

Meet the judges * share stories * celebrate the shortest form

Competition entry details here.

nationalflash.org

 

The Ockham New Zealand Book Awards Poetry shortlist

 

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All shortlists here

Book awards draw attention to books that hook judges for any number of reasons. Hopefully the awards attract new readers and generate new conversations. Check out reactions at The Spin Off to all four lists. In 2017, and I seem to say this every year, New Zealand published an astonishing array of poetry from a diverse range of presses. I loved so much of it, I would have turned down an invitation to judge an award. Yes there were books I utterly loved that didn’t make the long list. Yes there were books from the long list that I utterly loved that didn’t make the short list.

I am really familiar with three of the books on the short list, while the fourth is a pleasing discovery. Each of these books contain poems that gave me goosebumps. So in the spirit of generosity I celebrate the judges’ choices.

What do these poets have in common? Attentiveness!

 

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Elizabeth Smither’s Night Horse   (Auckland University Press)

Last year I read through the captivating stretch of Elizabeth Smither’s poetry: from Here Come the Clouds published in 1975, to the new collection, Night Horse. I was drawn into melodious lines, pocket anecdotes, bright images and enviable movement. Harry Ricketts talked about the transformative quality of Elizabeth’s poems in an interview with Kathryn Ryan, and I agree. As you follow reading paths from the opening line of the first poem — ‘Once, near nightfall, I drove past my mother’s house’—there is always  some form of transformation. The poetry, from debut until now, is meditative, andante, beautiful.

I see a continued poetic attentiveness and an ability to assemble detail that both stalls and surprises the reader. I was thinking the poems are like little jackets that can be worn inside out, and outside in, because Elizabeth offers stillness in movement, and in movement stillness. She generates musicality in plainness, and in plainness there is music. In the strange, there is the ordinary, and in the ordinary, there is strangeness.

Elizabeth so often slows down the pace of her poems so we may linger upon an image, a word, an anecdote, a side-thought to see what surfaces.

I especially love the ongoing friendship and granddaughter poems, but I particularly love the first poem, ‘My mother’s house.’ Kate Camp and I heard Elizabeth read this at the National Library’s Circle of Laureates last year and were so moved and uplifted that we asked for copies! In the poem, unseen, Elizabeth observes her mother move through the house from the street (she told us this autobiographical fact) and sees her in shifting lights. The moment is breathtaking; are we are at our truest self when we are not observed? There is characteristic Smither movement through the poem, slow and attentive, to the point of tilt and surprise. The final lines reverberate and alter the pitch of looking: ‘but she who made it/who would soon walk into the last room/of her life and go to sleep in it.’

 

It was all those unseen moments we do not see

the best of a friend, the best of a mother

competent and gracious in her solitude

 

from ‘My mother’s house’

 

 

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Sue Wootton’s The Yield  (Otago University Press)

Sue Wootton’s shortlisted collection is a sumptuous read, a read that sparks in new directions, while clearly in debt to everything she has written to date. You enter a sumptuous feast of sound and image amongst other glorious things. Several poems feature knitting, and knitting is a perfect analogy for the way Sue’s poems interlace the aural and the visual to produce sensual patterns. The poems have enviable texture and that texture engages both mind and heart.

As I read, the poetry of David Eggleton and Michele Leggott comes to mind.  They both write out of their own skin in ways that are quite unlike the local trend to write conversational poetry. I can see a similar idiosyncratic pulse driving Yield poems as though Sue is pushing boundaries, resisting models, playing and challenging what she can do as a poet.

I am also struck by the heightened musical effects. Sue has always had an attentive ear, but this collection almost feels baroque in the leapfrogging alliteration, assonance and sweet chords. There are traces of the personal in the poems—deaths, a family picnic, illness, a declaration to live life to the utmost, friendship—but I would suggest Sue hides in the crevices. Some of the poems (‘The needlework, the polishing,’ ‘Pray,’ ‘Priest in a coffee shop,’ ‘Graveyard poem,’ ‘Poem to my nearest galaxy’) engage with some kind of spirituality, either through a church building or prayer.

So many poems in the collection stand out for me (and indeed there are a number of award-winning poems here). I especially love ‘Calling,’ ‘Wild,’ ‘Lunch poem for Larry,’ ‘Admission,’ ‘Picnic,’ ‘Unspooling,’ ‘Strange monster,’ ‘A treatise on the benefits of moonbathing,’ ‘The crop,’ ‘Daffodils.’ Ha! Quite a list of poems that matter.

The alluring cover befits the allure of the poems within.

 

Measure my wild. Down to my last leaf,

my furled, my desicated. This deciduousness,

this bloom. Calculate my xylem levels,

my spore count, fungal, scarlet

in a bluebell glade. Whoosh,

where the foliage closes on a great cat.

 

from ‘Wild’

 

 

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Briar Wood Rāwāhi   (Anahera Press)

Briar Wood’s poetry collection gathers, with a wide embrace, details of travel and living, and as the lived-in world grows on the page, the poems set up all manner of conversations. This book draws upon whakapapa, love, relations, ecology, the past and the present. Its warmth and its empathy are infectious.

Briar offers poetry that is both spare in delivery and rich in connection because people and places matter. The book cover glitters white on blue – and for me that is a treat of reading within. Words shine out like little gold nuggets on the line, layering and overlapping, and never losing sight of what matters deeply to the poet.

Poetry can be a way of laying down roots and setting up home in the poem, and on these occasions, it is as though Briar sings home in to being.

 

The sea at night is blacklit,

kikorangi, kōura, topazerine, pango,

a haul of images pouring from nets,

darker than oil underground

 

from ‘Paewai o Te Moana’

 

 

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Tony Beyer’s Anchor Stone (Cold Hub Press)

Tony Beyer was such a discovery for me, I now need to track down his back list. Anchor Stone offers a distinctive voice with each poem judiciously layering detail that animates people, places and events. I am drawn to the measured pace, the slow and steady revelations that beguile and compound. The mix of economy, surprise, wit and physicality is glorious. You get linguistic agility, askew slides and a touch of daring.

No subject is redundant when it comes to poetry – think the land, friendship, trees and stones –  as Tony underlines. ‘Paths’ demonstrates such poetic fluidity, in a sequence of 100 small poems that furnish the outbreath and the inbreath of writing. It is as though each little poem walks its way into thought. Contemplation. The title suggest that these poems are miniature anchors but they are also kite-like in their imaginings and renditions and our need to attend to the physical world we inhabit.

Poetry can embrace beauty, flawed or otherwise, along with ways of belonging.

 

there is someone

everywhere in this house

living or

having lived here

their presence preserved

by a window fastening

the way a door

closes or partly closes

 

from  ‘Paths’

 

 

Each of these collections generates distinctive and diverse poetry pleasures. A big hug to the poets and big hug to all those who missed out on either list. Poetry awards can be tough times when you write, especially when exceptional books don’t make lists, long or short. But for these deserving four poets, it is time to crack open the bubbles and celebrate.

 

 

Courtney Sina Meredith airs new poems at a very good Ladies Litera-Tea – here are two for you

 

 

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This year, The Women’s Bookshop hosted two Ladies Litera-Tea events. I didn’t make the first one, but the one on Sunday was perhaps the best one I have been to. The range of voices was inspired programming. I needed toothpicks to hold my eyes up when I left home, but Dame Fiona Kidman had me sitting up listening to the sonnets she wrote for her mother, Kirsten McDougall mesmerised with an extract from the must-read Tess, Heather Kidd showed the diverse creativity and ambitions of rural women (wow!), Michalia Arathimos spoke of the gut-wrenching origins of her debut also must-read novel Aukati, Fiona Farrell’s extract from Decline & Fall on Savage Street had me sitting on the edge of my seat, the sentences were so good (now have a copy!). Hearing how Eat My Lunch came into being from Lisa King underlined the difference one person can make (with help from friends!). 

The first half was a glorious rollercoasting brain-sparking heart-warming delight.

By this stage no vestiges of tiredness. I thought I might flag in the second half but the immune-system boost continued. Wow! Hearing Sue Wootton read poems was a bit like hearing Anne Kennedy read and I just wanted more (please can she come to AWF?), Annaleese Jochems had me gasping every time she read an extract (also now on my table), Diana Wichtel’s account of Driving to Treblinka and her missing Polish Jewish father was so moving I was in awe of her tenacity and ability to bring that story to life on the page, Tina Makereti made abundantly clear why Black Marks on the White Page matters and why this collection is compulsive reading. I actually loved the way – rather than read her own award-winning ‘Black Milk’  – she picked ‘Famished Eels’ by Mary Rokonadravu to read (it had won the 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for the Pacific Region).

We tell stories and we write poems in so many different ways – and that matters.

I came home with four new novels and so much more! Thank you Carole Beu, her team and the authors. I so needed that pick-me-up. Seriously I felt like I had come back from a month at Sandy Bay after reading novels and swimming.

Somewhere in the glorious mix, Courtney Sina Meredith read some new poems – which is no easy thing. I loved hearing her half sing/half speak an early poem,  ‘Brown Girls in Bright Red Lipstick’, and I loved hearing the new poems. There is the same musical lift, the same political undercurrents, the same heart that beats along every line – yet there is also a stepping out, a tasking risks, a renewed self exposure with vital attachments to the world. Courtney kindly agreed to let me post two new poems that make a rather good pairing. Just so you can have a taste. I feel rather lucky as I an read them with her performance voice taking over.

I just adore the way these two poems make conversations with each other.

 

The poems

 

How about being a woman?

How about being a young woman?

How about being a young brown woman?

How about being a young brown queer woman?

How about being a young brown queer single woman?

How about being a young brown queer single educated woman?

How about being a young brown queer single educated professional woman?

How about being a young brown queer single educated professional creative woman?

How about being a young brown queer single educated professional woman?

How about being a young brown queer single educated woman?

How about being a young brown queer single woman?

How about being a young brown queer woman?

How about being a young brown woman?

How about being a young woman?

How about being a woman?

 

 

 

 

I have stolen away into the secret room

mothers build inside their daughters

I am feeding on a dowry centuries old

the bones sucked dry

a feast of bright quiet.

 

My mother’s dreams are here

beside the red gold river

born of shame and laughter

the shifting bank won’t hold.

 

Her mother’s wings are here

wild shimmered iridescent

girl to bird to prophet

an angel killing time.

 

And there is her mother

at the top of the sky ablaze

lighting the islands below

into a string of tears.

 

©Courtney Sina Meredith

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf interviews Sue Wootton: ‘interweaving and texture in a poem is an effect I love’

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The Yield, Sue Wootton, Otago University Press, 2017

Sue Wootton’s latest collection of poetry is a sumptuous read, a read that sparks in new directions while clearly in debt to everything she has written to date. The cover is so very inviting. I have been a fan of Sue’s poetry for a long time and was delighted she agreed to share thoughts on poetry and the new book.

Sue Wootton lives in Dunedin, where she is the selecting editor for the Otago Daily Times Weekend Poem column and co-editor of the Health Humanities blog Corpus: Conversations about Medicine and Life. She is a PhD candidate at the University of Otago, researching connections between creative practice, literature, and medicine. Sue’s debut novel, Strip (Mākaro Press, 2016), was longlisted for the fiction prize of the 2017 Ockham NZ Book Awards. The Yield (Otago University Press, 2017) is her fifth collection of poetry. Sue’s website. Find Corpus here.

 

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and you wonder if unspooling is, will ever be, your forte,

a question you will never answer since it never ends,

this casting your line on gale or water

from ‘Unspooling’

 

PG: Let’s begin with the world of books. What books affected when you were young and what books have affected you as an adult poet?

SW: My mother used to take us to the Whanganui library every Saturday morning to collect an armful of books for the week, and we were lucky in having a family friend who used to give books—lovely hardback illustrated books—for birthday and Christmas presents. I still have the one I received from her on my sixth birthday: Candy and the Rocking Horse by Gwyneth Mamlok. Oh Candy, how I loved your red hat, your bright pink tights, your long boots, and the way you and your dog Peppermint did everything together, just the two of you! Other beloved books included Hubert’s Hair-Raising Adventure by Bill Peat, Patrick by Quentin Blake and Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr Seuss. A little later I fell big time for Roald Dahl with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword made a huge impression on me, and there was a novel set in the crypt of Winchester cathedral about which I remember nothing except the sinister feelings it evoked and the grip it had on me. By then I was hooked on books that stirred my imagination, especially by describing other possible worlds. I chewed through the Narnia series and Lord of the Rings, and in my teens went through a major science fiction phase, devouring books by authors like Ursula K. Le Guin and Isaac Asimov. Poetry hit me as a force in my final year of secondary school, when we were given poems by Dylan Thomas. We studied King Lear that year, and I remember being well and truly woken up when I heard Richard Burton bring those words to life. And I discovered e e cummings around the same time, and was amazed to see what can happen when syntax and word are unpacked and put back together askew, strange, and suddenly with so much more verve than “ordinary” language.

As an adult, I would credit Harmonium by Wallace Stevens for jolting me forward in terms of realising what the ‘blue guitar’ of poetry can do: “Things as they are / are changed upon the blue guitar”; they become “A tune beyond us, yet ourselves”.  There have been many other influences, too many to list in full, but probably my most thumbed volumes are by Emily Dickinson, W. B. Yeats, W. H. Auden, Czeslaw Milosz, Louise Glück and Elizabeth Bishop.

 

PG: Your latest collection is a sumptuous feast of sound and image amongst other things. Several poems feature knitting and I decided that knitting is a perfect analogy for the way your poems interlace the aural and the visual to produce sensual patterns. Your poems have enviable texture and that texture engages both mind and heart. What matters most when you write a poem?

SW:  Thanks, interweaving and texture in a poem is an effect I love, so I’m pleased if you find it in some of my work. I can get very absorbed in the pattern-making. I like the way Glen Maxwell describes words and phrases as being capable of giving up at least four types of meaning: solar (the daytime, dictionary denotation), lunar (dream and shadow-sense), musical, and visual. Some words are particularly richly endowed with these extra layers, so they can act as portals to interlacing patterns inlaid within the poem. It’s the intertwining, the entanglement, that matters most, because it’s only through connection and relationship that we can experience life. Or, as Emily Dickinson much more succinctly wrote: “The mind lives on the heart / like any parasite”.

 

PG: As I read, the poetry of David Eggleton and Michele Leggott came to mind.  They both write out of their own skin in ways that are quite unlike the local trend to write conversational poetry. I could see a similar idiosyncratic pulse driving your poems as though you were pushing your boundaries, resisting models, playing and challenging what you could do as a poet. I am wrong to think this?

SW:  I suppose this is something to do with my sense that writing poems is an embodied process. How could a poet not write out of their own skin? It’s a matter of probing language for a response, and following what happens. And then paying attention to how that feels. Is it good on the tongue, does it sing in the ear, does it resonate in the heart and mind? Does it intrigue? Has it got heft and mass, or is it a ghostly drifter? Is it slow or swift? Is it eager or melancholy? Quiet or noisy? I can only start shaping the poem properly once I have a sense of these things.

 

Measure my wild. Down to my last leaf,

my furled, my desiccated. This deciduousness,

this bloom. Calculate my xylem levels,

my spore count, fungal, scarlet

in a bluebell glade. Whoosh,

where the foliage closes on a great cat.

Test me: how many tigers in my jungle,

how many lions at roam? Map my rivers,

deltas, estuaries. Mollusc, whelk, worm.

from ‘Wild’

 

PG: I am really struck by the heightened musical effects in these poems. You have always had an attentive ear to the way poems sound but this collection almost feels baroque in the leapfrogging alliteration, assonance and sweet chords. Was this deliberate or an unconscious progression?

SW: I’m not overly conscious of working the musicality of poems as I’m writing them, but undoubtedly I do love sound and lyrical effects in language and this seems to naturally surface in my work. Sometimes I consciously decide to use a poetic form as a template to get started on something, because it can be helpful to have an incubating frame. Whatever words I’ve got, I’ll push them around within the frame until something starts to happen. That something is a gut feeling that the gears have meshed, and things are underway. It’s about then that the poem starts to generate its own peculiar hum. I’ll find myself wanting to shape or enhance that fundamental pulse, and that seems to involve going deaf to the outside world in order to listen to the language itself, word speaking to word, image to image, sound to sound. But it’s an instinctive thing mostly—although there is also a constant back and forth between being immersed in the poem and zooming out to ‘hear’ and ‘see’ it more dispassionately.

 

PG: Some of the poems (‘The needlework, the polishing,’ ‘Pray,’ ‘Priest in a coffee shop,’ ‘Graveyard poem,’ ‘Poem to my nearest galaxy’) engage with the spirituality either through a church building or prayer. Do you see poetry as a vessel to explore the divine? I am also thinking of the way the landscape frames beauty and you as poet tender your version of that (‘Central,’ ‘Hawea,’ ‘A day trip to the peninsula’).

SW: I am not religious in the sense of believing in a god or gods or in cleaving to any institutionalised religious belief or practice. I resent being told what to think and I am allergic to dogma (she says dogmatically). “I like an empty church”, as I say in ‘The needlework, the polishing’. But I do think life is marvellous, in the sense that it’s a marvel, and I think that remembering to marvel at life is hugely important, and in this way I definitely consider myself to have a religious sensibility. Paying attention to nature and landscape, that’s one way to transcend the petty personal and recall the awe-fulness of being alive. In the human world, I do like buildings like churches or mosques or some art galleries and museums that have been designed to facilitate attention, reflection and reverence. Sacred spaces, if you like. And yes, some poetry can also open such a space: architectural, composed, a place of formal dignity.

 

PG: That’s a lovely way to think of the poetic space. To take notions of the landscape further, place does resonate strongly in the collection, particularly the allure of Central. What local poets offer sustenance when it comes to the poetry of place?

SW: I find myself thinking of poets of waterscape, actually, rather than landscape – poets like Bob Orr (especially his poem ‘The Names of Rivers’), Rhian Gallagher’s poems about creeks and rivers and salt marshes, Cilla McQueen’s poems that quietly celebrate Otago harbour and lakes, Brian Turner’s odes to rivers, and Hone Tuwhare’s Tangaroa poems.

 

Some words dwell in the bone, as yet

unassembled.

from ‘Lingua incognita’

 

The bones that lie around Black Lake are lichen spotted.

They do not gleam. They are not white.

Not the idea of bone, but bone itself, scattered, split.

from ‘Black Lake’

 

PG: Are there places in particular that are deep in your bones (to borrow your recurring motif) and call to be written?

SW: Going back to the water poems above, and to quote Bob Orr, there’s a creek near Whanganui that ‘runs through my life’. We used to visit it when I was a small child, and although I’ve never been there as an adult, I keep finding echoes of it elsewhere, as when I was walking along the Omarama stream in North Otago just last week. The Otago peninsula, and several beaches north and south of Dunedin are in me too. And I like the repetition of walking my Dunedin neighbourhood, how (as Charles Brasch wrote) “I walk my streets into recognition”. But it’s the water-places in my life that really haunt me and keep calling to be written.

 

PG: There are traces of the personal in the poems—deaths, a family picnic, illness, a declaration to live life to the utmost, friendship—but I would suggest you hide in the crevices. I am also fascinated by the way the personal does not necessarily mean self confession or family anecdote. What is your relationship with the personal when you write poetry?

SW: I hope that’s so, that the writer is hiding in the crevices and the poems are standing in  the foreground. That seems the right way round to me. I feel that my task when I write a poem is to construct an artefact out of language. The results are always much more interesting if I can get my personal self out of the way of my writing self. My personal self has the usual limited preoccupations, whereas my writing self has much wider vision. I think this is because my writing self tends to be always in conversation with dead and living writers, and they often have interesting things to say, and that make me stretch my own pen beyond mere anecdote or autobiography. There’s a lot more out there to write about, things much more intriguing, more puzzling, more important. And along the way, poets are allowed to make things up. Indeed, this is a very liberating approach. For example, the picnic poem you mention describes a completely imaginary picnic. Then again, many poems in The Yield do have personal resonance, but being poems they have all been through that ‘blue guitar’, and become changed. Not false, mind. Never untrue!

 

PG: I was utterly delighted and moved to see you dedicated a poem to me. Thank you! In my debut book, Cookhouse, I dedicated poems to women who played a role in my writing origins. I called them my ‘afternoon-tea poems,’ because I imagined my poem stood in for this beloved ritual. Which poets, significant in your writing origins, would you invite to afternoon tea?

SW:  This would need a long table and I hope it wouldn’t end in a bun fight, but let’s see: Emily Dickinson, Emily Bronte, Elizabeth Bishop, Louise Glück, Carol Anne Duffy, Adrienne Rich, Amy Clampitt, Kathleen Jamie, and a few blokes: James K Baxter, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Hone Tuwhare and William Shakespeare.

 

PG: So many poems in the collection stand out for me (and indeed there are a praiseworthy number of award-winning poems here). I especially love ‘Calling,’ ‘Wild,’ ‘Lunch poem for Larry,’  ‘Admission,’ ‘Picnic,’ ‘Unspooling,’ ‘Strange monster,’ ‘A treatise on the benefits of moonbathing,’ ‘The crop,’ ‘Daffodils.’ Oh a much longer list than this – I deliberately left off most of the award winners. Do you have a favourite because of its origins? Or the way it formed itself on the page?

SW:  Maybe ‘Strange monster’ because it was a surprise to me in every way—it was one that seemed to generate its own heartbeat from the get-go; it just galloped away. And ‘The crop’, for the opposite reason, because it cavilled and bitched and moaned about being written, and took years to find its final shape.

 

Let parasols be wrecked in soonest storm and let them drop.

Tree be tree and branch be branch. Lean, lean, into the spaces between.

from ‘Wintersight’

Poetry Shelf The Summer Season: Poets pick poems – Sue Wootton picks Rhian Gallagher

 

The Wash House

 

The turning on was slower done — the firebox stoked,

the wooden lid the copper had, gilded shine of its deep pan.

And side by side two great stone sinks

for suds and rinse, could hold a muddy child.

 

The place became a store — chook mash,

pig grits — housed a mat and dust of wares,

played host to mouse. Cat found a hide for bed

and laid her kittens there.

 

One small window choked with web,

light gave way across the floor; each step

softening to listen hard

though you could never say what for.

 

Warped tracks of tallboy teased, opened to a world of finds.

A jar of pennies turned to bank. Rust crept

along the blades of knives. And each oilskin coat, from its nail,

stiffened like a corpse impaled. The kittens ended in a sack.

 

The shedding held small lost endeavour, walls with cracks

poached by the weather, dissolved the meanest acts of time

where garden slept in seed sachets, the mewing

ghosts, the lynching strength of binder twine.

 

©Rhian Gallagher, Shift Auckland University Press, 2011.

 

 

 

Rhian Gallagher publishes beautiful poems, each one of them burnished to a sheen. Her first volume, Salt Water Creek, was published in the UK and shortlisted for the 2003 Forward Prize for best first collection.  In 2012, her second collection, Shift (Auckland: AUP), won the NZ Book Award for Poetry.

How to choose a favourite poem from her oeuvre? I can’t, actually – there are many poems from her two collections that I love. So it’s been a deep pleasure these past few days to read both books again in search of one poem to talk about. At random, here are a few of the Gallagher lines that slay me: What did I ask of you, water of no-going…? (“Salt Water Creek”);  Reaching for you was to hear the light expand (“A Winter’s Room”); Give us this day, cobbles worn to shine like water (“In the Old Town”); To walk off the edge of the green world (“Under the Pines”); It’s always been a wired country (“Paddocks”); Heat radiated from the schist, the air felt migrated (“The High Country”). The spirit animating these poems is open and alert; the writing is sensual and intelligent.

“The Wash House” is one fine example among many possible fine examples.

It’s a poem I simply cannot tire of. It casts its enchantment early through lulling lyricism, assonance, consonance and internal rhyme. I’m hooked before I know I’m hooked. Into this sound-cradle, Gallagher embeds concrete visual details: the firebox, the wooden lid of the deep and shiny copper, the stone sinks, a muddy child. Ah, you might think, how nostalgic. You would be wrong. As the poem progresses, its lyrical charm builds and intensifies. By the middle stanza, we’re hypnotised. Quietly and slowly, we step with the poet behind the “window choked with web”. We “listen hard”. Our eyes and ears adjust, and suddenly we’re in the “world of finds”, and what we find there is both brutally real and threaded through with the uncanny. Gallagher’s exquisite, multi-dimensional craftwork is invisible, but everywhere, in this poem (take the selection and placing of the last word, for one example). I recommend reading “The Wash House” aloud – I recommend learning it by heart.

Sue Wootton

 

Sue Wootton lives in Dunedin where she is a PhD student researching the affinity between medicine and literature. She is the selecting editor for the Otago Daily Times Weekend Poem column, and co-editor of the Health Humanities blog Corpus: Conversations about Medicine and Life. Her novel Strip (Makaro Press) is longlisted in the 2017 Okham NZ Book Awards. Her fifth poetry collection, The Yield, will be published in March by Otago University Press.

website here

corpus.nz