RNZ National review here (Paul Diamond on Nine to Noon)
reading the signs Janis Freegard, The Cuba Press, 2020
I walk into Ema Saikō’s room to find the poet herself at the writing desk,
long hair scraped back in a bun. She wears an embroidered robe. Tea? I
offer. It seems the right thing to do.
I let her choose the teapot. I was tossing up between late evening
blue and bright green. She claps her hands and says something about
bamboo. So I go with the green one that looks like a Dalek.
from ’11. Meeting Ema Saikō’
I have been musing on national book awards and how they expand the life of shortlisted books and boost the authors and boost readership. Without a doubt they are a vital and important part of book landscapes. But like so many people, I find the idea of a ‘best’ book a little twitchy. I flagged the 2021 Ockham NZ Book Award poetry longlist as the best I have seen in ages, especially because (for once) it wasn’t top heavy with Pākehā poets. I had read, reviewed and adored eight of the books and then read, reviewed and adored the other two. If you haven’t read these fabulous books check them out. Yet there are other nz poetry books I have read, reviewed and adored that didn’t make the long list. Slowing down with a poetry book, finding the ways your body, heart and mind absorb the poetic affects is a privilege. A joy. As both author and reader I claim the writing and reading process as the most important thing.
A book has the ability to lift you.
I have been reading Janis Freegard’s poetry collection reading the signs over the past months and falling in love with the way it inhabits the moment. Janis had been awarded a residency at the Ema Saikō room in the Wairarapa. This room and the rituals Janis observed were the springboard for a sequence of connected poems.
Halfway through the book I became curious about Ema Saikō (1787 – 1861). She was a Japanese poet, painter and calligrapher much influenced by Chinese art, and who was producing work at a time when it was rare for women to do so (publicly anyway). I know nothing about her beyond her attachment to the physical world. But I am curious about the bridge from this much lauded woman to the occupants of a room named after her. It seems like Janis was also curious about Ema as her poetry and her occupation of the room become more and influenced by the poet / painter from the past. In both writing and in observing daily rituals such as making tea, especially in the making of loose-leaf tea with an exquisite concentration, Janis moves closer to Ema.
While you’re drinking the tea,
only drink the tea. By all means
notice twig shadows fluttering on the ground,
the calls of kiwi and kākā,
but do nothing else with your hands.
Let drinking the tea be the whole of it.
from ‘4. If you’re looking for a teapot, make sure
there’s a lug on the lid’
Janis writes after a fracture in her life, mending herself by writing poetry, paying attention to what is close at hand. A gender-fluid interpreter arrives in the sequence to direct her attention to things, questions, possibilities. Poetry stands in for the gold that ‘seals the fissures’:
You’ll break until you feel you may never be whole again.
(You will be.)
But you’ll be altered. Now is the time for kintsugi,
the Japanese art of repairing with gold, mending the cracks
in smashed ceramics to make something more beautiful.
You’ll reassemble yourself and use gold to seal the fissures.
from ‘8. Kintsugi’
So you could see this sequence as therapeutic, and no doubt it is, but it transcends the therapeutic and becomes a mesh of experiences: of slowing down and taking note of, of absorbing beauty in nature, from the sky to birds to trees. She is reading the sky – and the way a poem is a tree and a tree is a poem. She is reading the tea. She is absorbing stages of grief and loss and peace and life. She is translating what she feels, thinks, observes into lyrical poetry that is both steadfast and ethereal.
Ema Saikō says, ‘It is true things get lost in translation, but if you lose so much more if you don’t translate at all.’ In a sense Janis is translating herself on the line, finding lyrical form for experience, memories, feelings, contemplation. She is translating myriad connections with the world, with life – with an endangered world, with an endangered self.
It is warming to read, this book of dreaming, of signs, of being. I imagine it as a prism in the hand that shifts in the light. And here is the thing. I am never after the best book. I am after the prismatic effects that poetry has upon me, the way a book can shift and glint in my heart and mind as I read. Think how the effect changes with each book you pick up. The way it lifts you off the ground and out of daily routine and then returns you to your own daily rituals observations concentrations. An exquisitely layered and fluent book that reminds you of the power of the moment. I loved this book.
Janis Freegard is a Wellington poet, novelist and short story writer. She has won a number of awards including the Geometry | Open Book Poetry Competition and the BNZ Katherine Mansfield Short Story Award, and she was the inaugural Ema Saikō Poetry Fellow in the Wairarapa. Janis performs with the Meow Gurrrls poetry collective.
The Cuba Press page
Janis Freegard’s Weblog
VIDEO: Janis reading poems from reading the signs (Wellington City Libraries)
Janis held the inaugural Ema Saikō Poetry Fellowship with NZ Pacific Studio in Wairarapa. The 2015 Fellow: Yukari Nikawa (Japan); 2016: Alan Jefferies (Australia) and Ya-wen Ho (NZ); 2017: Makyla Curtis (NZ); 2018: Leanne Dunic (Canada); 2019/2020: Rebecca Hawkes (NZ). For more
Richard Langston, Five O’Clock Shadows, The Cuba Press, 2020
We often wonder
what moves us in a day –
was it words in a sequence
that surprised us
or notes played by someone
who kept their mouth closed
& let the sound leave
their broken body
from ‘Hill walk’
I am writing this as Tāmaki Makaurau is back in lockdown, wondering if I will pack the car for our first family summer holiday up north in years, worrying how Auckland businesses will cope, how families will cope, and sleeping like a patchwork quilt. Poetry is such a necessary diversion. It even makes up for patchwork sleep. I still have a wee stack of 2020 poetry books and now the 2021 stack is growing. It is like a preserving cupboard of treats along with the canned tomatoes and the black beans.
Richard Langston’s book has been on my mind for months after hearing the reading he did for Poetry Shelf. This week has been the perfect time to return to the poems. I finished the book and the word that came to mind, a word I have never applied to a poetry collection, was precious. This is a precious book – it has poise and it is personal.
The first poems take me to the land. I am musing on how Allen Curnow and the crew of white men writing poetry in the middle of the twentieth century were digging their way into a New Zealand kind of poetry. They were moving away from the early poets that filtered the land and experience through poetry models from Britain. It is a complicated story that has been retold so many times over the decades, in so many different contexts, with so many different biases and erasures. Ah. And then the land barely got a look in in poems. I feel there is a book to be written that traverses the relationship between the land and poetry, that never lets the poem lose contact with the reader, that never lets the poem service the theory and little else, that acknowledges the suffering and heartbreaking losses of the tangata whenua.
The first poems in Five O’Clock Shadows make the land precious. I am reminded of how Sue Wootton, Brian Turner, Airini Beautrais (a river), Hone Tuwhare, Ruth Dallas have done this in distinctive ways. Like these poets, Richard’s poems also travel with myriad subject matter: from the closing of a tavern, to a lost dog, to Dunedin, to refugees, to Sunday in the islands. But it is the land poems that first strike me. I am musing on how earth warmth and leaf light can permeate a whole book. So yes, this is a collection of earth warmth. You get to stand in the land poems and the poem is beauty and anchor and care.
We love the land by eye & feel & sun
& shadow. It grows within us.
This is who we are, this is how we find ourselves.
There is a spareness in all the poems, a light rich economy. Goodness knows what it took to write these, but when they reach me there is an exquisite poise. Every word belongs. I also found ‘Bsharri, Lebanon’ – a poem penned for Richard’s sisters who travelled to their ancestral village – precious. This ancestor poem is a poem to hear read aloud:
We have come to hug you,
we have come to kiss you for the life
you made us.
We have come, ancestors, to love
you as you taught us. We have come,
ancestors, & now we are together.
Ancestors, we hug you, we kiss you.
Ancestors, we weep, because
we have come.
The poetry is economical but each poem launches you into multiple musings, feelings, intricacies. I love ‘Please, do not’. The poem begins with infectious word wit and then travels to the punch-gut restorative ending – and the word ‘enough’. I want you to read the whole poem but here is the beginning:
Please do not yell,
such a small shattering word –
YELL – I prefer yell-ow
that might imply surrender
or a field of flowers holding
their faces to the sun,
why not peace, or acceptance,
such lovely hard-earned words.
Perhaps the poems that strike deepest, that are most precious, are the several addressed to mother and father. Eulogies, recollections, re-tracings. I am thinking how Richard’s poems are made of parts and you need to experience the coming together of these parts to get the reading joy in full. If I take a stanza or two to share with you, I am distilling the magic. These poems are magic, moving, must-reads: ‘Plums’, ‘Sons’, ‘Snoring’, Threaded’, ‘There’. In writing the poems both mother and father are held close, like a gift for family, like a gift for us as readers who also live and love and mourn. I especially love ‘There’, a poem that places the mother at the centre. Here are a few stanzas near the end of the poem (again I implore you to read the whole poem):
What we share is our story.
I sit with her
& look out at the weather.
are full of the day.
She doesn’t know. I do not know.
We have our story,
our fallible memories.
hovers by the spoon,
& we watch the weather.
You can tell this book matters so very much to the poet – and the degree of personal investment is contagious, whether in words gathering the land, family, experience, memory. Think of the poems as personal plantings in the undergrowth of life, with all manner of glorious lights shining through. Like I said, I reread this book in our return to lockdown, and by the time I got to the end I was filled with the joy of living and writing and reading. I am going to leave you with the final poem in the book, that takes us back to the land (crikey we never left it), how the need to be creative is such a necessary thing and how we share so many attachments – ‘together on this whenua’.
Richard Langston is a veteran broadcasting journalist and director, who comes from Dunedin, and was a driving force in the city’s music scene in the 1980s. He lives in Wellington and is a proud member of the three-person South Wellington Poetry Society.
The Cuba Press author page
Richard reads from Five O’Clock Shadows
Off the Tracks review
Helen Jacobs, A Habit of Writing The Cuba Press, 2020
I am being ordinary
and flying on a word
as the mist of the morning
I am being ordinary
in a community
where all are old and ordinary
and I am flying on a word
to meet the sun.
Helen Jacobs (the pen name of Elaine Jakobssen) was born in Pātea, Taranaki in 1929. She has published eight poetry collections, and contributed to numerous journals both in Aotearoa and offshore. During her time as Mayor of Eastbourne, Helen advocated for the local environment and local writers and artists. She worked at the Women’s Electoral Body and was appointed to the Planning Tribunal. Since her time in Christchurch she has been a longtime member of the Canterbury Poets Collective. Aged 91, she lives in a retirement village and is still writing.
Helen’s new collection A Habit of Writing is a delight. Here is a poet writing in old age, absorbing things, often small, but sometimes large, always captivating: an object, walking, a flower uncurling, the hills, the wind, a pot of utensils. Each poem slowly and exquisitely unfolds its subject with rivered fluency, with enviable economy.
These are poems to place on your tongue, one at a time, where they will slowly dissolve leaving vibrant aftertastes that last all day. I read the poems before I went to sleep and I got straight back when I woke up. Perhaps I am drawn to the state-of-being of a woman in her nineties, where relations with life and death shift a tad. Where age is a close companion. Words matter a lot. She reaches out for words. She writes. She celebrates.
Fluency traipsed off with the years,
shuffled out imagery.
I look at the pots on the balcony
the plants static, consonants and vowels
They do not speak in the wind.
Look to the hills. I do,
as the low cloud ends wisp
across the ridges.
This is a collection of miniature pieces that form a larger mosaic, a wider picture that holds up the poet’s lived-in world. I am acutely drawn into an experience of age that makes me see things a little differently. And that is good. When Helen was ‘young’ and in her sixties she would see the ‘oldies’ out on a bus excursion, and now when she is out on the retirement-village bus she sees the young go by on bicycles. Her steps might be slow. She might slowly examine a geranium leaf as she waters her pots. She might repeat her mother’s ritual and drink a glass of port wine at Christmas. A sonnet would never suit ‘the bowls we play’; free verse is the ticket. It is the ‘small things / as my time grows old’ she observes, that ‘remark the larger world.’
Here I am, a young one on Helen’s time scale, but I am drawn to the slow step, to the measured pace, the prolonged look, to the way a single object or activity can be both rich and comforting in reward. The poem ‘Thinking of lemons’ reminds me how we skate over the surface of things, places, people, experiences. How every person we brush against in the street has a story, a sequence of dreams and mishaps. How every view is on the move, and like a good book, or a good poem, reveals further lights and shadows.
Reading A Habit of Writing offers the utmost joy and comfort. This is a book to savour and to give away. Glorious.
You said, ‘Write me sonnets,’
If I squeeze the day,
wring the hours, spin-dry the minutes,
perhaps the drips will swell dry words.
There will be watercolours,
washes of light.
The Cuba Press author page
Rachel McAlpine piece
Simon Sweetman reads poems from his debut poetry collection, The Death of Music Journalism (The Cuba Press, 2020)
Simon Sweetman is a Wellington-based writer of poems, stories, blogs and reviews. He grew up in Hawke’s Bay where sport was the thing. Now it’s music, horror movies, dog walks and family time. The Death of Music Journalism is his second book (after 2012’s On Song) and his first book of poetry. He blogs, everyday, at offthetracks.co.nz and is the host of Sweetman Podcast. Sometimes he appears on RNZ talking about music. And would like to do that more often.
The Cuba Press author page
Richard Langston reads three poems from his new collection, Five O’Clock Shadows (The Cuba Press, 2020)
Richard Langston is a poet, television director, and writer. Five O’Clock Shadows is his sixth book of poems. His previous books are Things Lay in Pieces (2012), The Trouble Lamp (2009), The Newspaper Poems (2007), Henry, Come See the Blue (2005), and Boy (2003). He also writes about NZ music and posts interviews with musicians on the Phantom Billstickers website.
The Cuba Press author page
How to Be Old: Poems Rachel McAlpine, The Cuba Press, 2020
Nobody knows your neck squeaks.
Nobody knows your heart
is a bowl of poems.
Everything you do is very very good
and very very good is good enough.
The past supports us
like a trampoline.
The future? Face it.
Unlace it. Embrace it.
At dusk I want to be with you and stay.
I love it when you ask about my day.
from ‘Fortune cookies’
Wellington writer Rachel McAlpine blogs and podcasts about old age. She has published novels, songs, plays, books about writing as well as a number of poetry collections. To celebrate her 80th birthday she has published a new book of poems, How to Be Old. She kindly agreed to answer some questions for Poetry Shelf.
The Cuba Press page
Rachel’s blog Write into Life
Paula: Like me, you are a Minister’s daughter. I am wondering what you read as a child?
Rachel: Everything available! We (six girls) went to the library every Friday and came home fully loaded with books. But the Book of Common Prayer had the most irresistible and enduring influence on my language.
Paula: What books stood out in your teenage reading?
Rachel: Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Tess of the Durbervilles spring to mind.
Paula: Can you name a few poets that have really mattered to you across the decades?
Rachel: Across the decades? Well, Allen Curnow was at university with my parents and was even engaged to my mother for two weeks: thus I was aware that some poets were living humans. This mattered to me because at school we read dead poets and only dead poets. My mother read Whim Wham in the Saturday Press which reinforced my arcane insider knowledge. Poets who first took my breath away include Pablo Neruda, Gerard Manly Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, Federico Garcia Lorca, Erica Jong and Adrienne Rich. Then a wave of young male New Zealand poets in the 1970s got me thinking hmm, maybe I could do that too…
When we bang on about our trips
and our memoirs and our blogs
and our grandchildren (best of kind)
our ills and pills and volunteering
our hearing aids and hips—
pay attention, don’t switch off
is our first attempt at being old
and we’re wondering how to do it
not just for us but for you.
Paula: I was really struck by your reaction to Sam Hunt’s contention in the 1970s that women either wrote very good or very bad poems: ‘just women scribbling their little women’s nothings’. So rather than mimic his lyrical voice–you wrote from life, and you wrote for women, and in doing so refused to see women’s writing (the how and the what) as mediocre. I love you for this. Your bolshiness. I see that inspirational bolshiness there in your new book! Am I right?
Rachel: Oh sure, I can’t help seeming bolshy even when I think I’m being most reasonable. Many of the poems in How To Be Old come from a bolshy approach to the clichés of old age. Come on now! What does that even mean, “age is just a number”? What is old age really, specifically, cold-bloodedly like—not to the observer but to the old person?
Paula: Do you think things have changed for women writers? I just checked out the latest Starling issue and its nearly all women (under 25s). Women poets are writing anything and everything, and are most definitely in the spotlights.
Rachel: Agree! Was it Arthur Baysting’s 1973 anthology The Young New Zealand Poets that included 19 men and one woman, Jan Kemp? With International Women’s year looming that was a red rag to a bull. Hard to imagine now.
Paula: Yes – although there is still a way to go. I talk about it in Wild Honey. I just love the energy and output from the current wave of young poets.
Your new book How to Be Old is a glorious evocation of old age. Such captivating self-exposure. Was this also a feature of your first collections? What angst made its way into your poetry then?
Rachel: Hey thanks, Paula! My first collection was basically shouting “I feel sad!” (as you need to sometimes). After that I jumped feet first into other issues, mainly feminist ones. My own experience is a good starting point for making a larger point digestible. Not much angst in How To Be Old, although some sadness tempers the joy.
In the seventies and eighties
as a mournful poet
and strident feminist
(there was no other sort)
I shouted loud and rude
mean and bold
waking up my sisters
with the stories of their lives.
from ‘Growing my brand’
Paula: You were a significant voice for me in the 1970s – did you feel part of a writing community, particularly women? What about now?
Rachel: In the 1970s and 80s I totally felt part of a community, a world of women who were busting to write about our own experience and women who needed to hear our voices, which were also theirs. Then I dipped out of the literary world for a couple of decades: I was very absorbed in my work with digital content until 2015. I did keep writing poems but didn’t publish. So as a poet I’ve been a bit of a loner since then, except for those who have followed my blog and podcast.
The bravest are millions
Out there living the bravest days
are the very old, the frail old
using every scrunch of the soul
for the next impossible chore.
The very old must win and win
on multiple fronts
day after trembling day.
Out there building the bravest lives
are the young
knowing what we knew
and did not do.
Paula: I think Wild Honey has really made me feel part of communities of women writing and supporting each other. Like you I am a loner poet but so many possibilities for connection these days.
Your new collection refreshes the way old age can be both viewed and lived. The poems are tender, vulnerable, provocative, entertaining. What prompted to you to publish a collection after a bit of a gap?
Rachel: Two things. A, I sold my business and had time on my hands. B, I turned 75 and abruptly realized that I might live another 25 years. So I needed a little hobby to keep me busy (joke). I went late and went hard at old age. Obsessed about it, researched it, decided to do at least one thing per month for a year to improve my chances of having a healthy old-old age. That project, my boot camp for the bonus years, shone a light on my own barmy ageism and society’s odd way of talking about old age. A year later, I started processing this strange interlude and the product was this book, How To Be Old. (Which of course is not a manual.)
I gave myself one year
to understudy for the role
of someone old.
I was confused but I was committed.
Month by month I tackled
housing and eating and exercise
finance and hobbies and friends and voice
happiness and brain and mind
and lastly, nervously
the existential bit.
from ‘My boot camp bonus years’
Paula: Let’s go back to old age. Just as there are continued pressures on young women to achieve ridiculous ideals there are equally ridiculous notions about old age: on ‘how to be old’. Your collection navigates this so beautifully – but can you comment on what delights and what bugs you about ‘how to be old’?
Rachel: That’s the nitty gritty, isn’t it? Well, no doubt about it, my own old age so far offers many delights. I’m alive, for one thing. At dawn I’m inclined to say, Good morning world! Thank you for having me! (I’m deeply privileged to have superannuation and a roof over my head and to live in this beautiful place.) I’m interested in my brain workings: my short-term memory is crap but the rest is working better and faster than ever… until too soon I get tired and it goes on strike. So in dance rehearsals I learn choreography at a perfectly acceptable rate—then instantly forget it. Puzzling, isn’t it? I like the So what? attitude that many old people report: that is rather obvious in my poems, I hope. What bugs me? Nothing so far except when I get a whiff of condescension from someone younger—but then that was me until I was 75, so I do understand.
A cold teabag on a sore eye feels good.
A cold mermaid on the eye
feels good too.
Tell you what, Granny.
What say I write a prescription
to stop you forgetting
that your friend is dead
because that makes you sad.
from ‘Alternative therapy’
Paula: Love love love this age attitude, and I love the tips for well-being in the last section of poems. Can you comment on this section?
Rachel: My lovely granddaughter Elsie was my life coach when she was little. I recorded her wise words for future reference and tickled them into poems. So the book ends with some of her tips. You could use them, Paula: then you would know how to breathe, what to do when zombies come up the toilet, and how to think.
Paula: Thank you! What did you hope for the poetry as you wrote? In terms of the ‘poemness’ and the poems’ reception?
Rachel: Every now and then I let myself slip into something lyrical or mysterious. But the poems are intended to be read aloud by anyone and talked about over coffee (not studied at university) so I guess I wanted most of them to be clear, funny, challenging and sort of comforting. I’ve had great feedback from readers, who always bring so much to the table. An occupational therapist tells me she has been reading my poems to all her client groups. That is absolutely perfect: I couldn’t wish for more.
You are tourists in our land.
We are prisoners of slow.
That said, we’d rather be quick than slow
and we’d rather be slow than dead.
Paula: I love the way you open pronouns wide – to embrace versions of you and welcome in the reader. Do you have no-go areas as a writer?
Rachel: I think in my old age I don’t judge people so much. (Or do I?) When it comes to aging, we’re all doing own best thing. And I have been many different people.
Paula: Do you bring autobiography and fiction together or did you navigate forms of truth?
Rachel: There’s no way I can control the way people read my poems so I might as well use myself as my own lab rat. My confidence is based on the certainty that I’m not a one-off. With How To Be Old I think I express ideas about aging that many others also think or have half-thought. That’s my wee gift to the world.
Paula: Indeed! What words fit you as poet? I think of provocative, personal, poetic fluency.
Rachel: I love hearing that, of course. Actually I mainly write for the joy of it so maybe that comes through?
Paula: Ah, my favourite poetry guide too – I write for love and joy! Do you have doubt tagging along? Is there a particular poem that was hard to write?
Rachel: I have a well of black muck inside me which converts to self-doubt if stirred. I’m human.
We take anecdotes and turn them to the light.
We polish them in private.
They are touchstones. So it goes.
from ‘How older people talk’
Paula: What else do you love to do apart from writing?
Rachel: Dance, sing, draw, read, think, do Pilates, tai ch’i, walk on Mt Victoria, watch Netflix and hang out with my friends and family.
Kay McKenzie Cooke reads ‘No Longer Applies’ from Upturned, The Cuba Press, 2020
Kay McKenzie Cooke, Kai Tahu, Kati Mamoe, lives in Dunedin. Her fourth poetry collection Upturned has just been released from The Cuba Press. Her website and blog can be found here.
Rachel McAlpine reads ‘Reading a paper book’ from How to Be Old The Cuba Press 2020
Poet Rachel McAlpine lives in Wellington and is 80. She blogs, podcasts and draws (badly) as well as writing poems. How To Be Old, her latest collection of poems, will be launched by Fiona Kidman at Unity Books on Tuesday 21st July at 12.30 pm.
We are tiny beneath the light, Heidi North, The Cuba Press, 2019
I don’t know how to let you go
into a future where you don’t turn
as if by muscle memory, as if by heart
to take my hand
I can still feel the beat under your palm
the dry square next to your thumb
crescent moons rise on your fingernails
the tiny red freckle sparking up
Heidi North, from We are tiny beneath the light,
Heidi North has won awards for both her poems and short stories, including an international Irish prize, and has published work in local and overseas journals. She was the New Zealand fellow in the Shanghai International Writers programme in 2016. She was awarded the Hatchette/NZSA mentorship to work on a novel and has a MA in Creative Writing from the University of Auckland. Her debut poetry collection Possiblity of Flight was published by Mākaro Press in 2015. U2 chose ‘Piha Beach, two years on’ from her new collection We are tiny beneath the light to screen at its Joshua Tree Stadium concerts in New Zealand. I find her poetry both economical and rich in effect, the self-exposure moving, the gaps equally significant.
Paula: I loved your debut collection Possibility of Flight. How do you look back upon that book?
Heidi: Oh thank you, that’s very kind of you to say. While I think there are things I would change if I published that collection today, I will always be fond of Possibility of Flight. It feels like a first book to me, in that I’d been working on some of those poems for a long time – some 10 years, so it felt so good to get them out there. This next book is quite different because it covers a relatively short space of time and I knew it didn’t have to contain the whole world. So they’re different collections. Possibility of Flight spans childhood, and leaving New Zealand to go on an OE to London, and ends with getting married and having a baby. Saying this, I realise you could read We Are Tiny Beneath the Light as a sequel of sorts.
Paula: Your new collection, with its evocation of both pain and joy, charts the end of a marriage. How difficult was it translating the private experience in poetic form and allowing it to go public? Does poetry aid the hard-to-say?
Heidi: I think that if I’d set down to write a book solely about the end of my marriage I would never have done it, but by working through the creative process and shaping the collection with my excellent editor and publisher, Mary McCallum at The Cuba Press, I allowed myself to be more vulnerable and go deeper, to strip away the poems that weren’t adding to this story, add in some more that did, and I let it become more of a narrative collection, which I think makes it stronger. I didn’t want people to think I was self-indulgent, and I didn’t want people to find it depressing. To counter that, I focused on the craft, and the book as its own entity, separate to me, and I hope that’s come through. But of course, there was a large part of me that was nervous to publish it – there is no escaping that this is an intense, personal book and I knew it was a risk. But yes, in general I think poetry aids the hard to say, and forces an honesty on ourselves as writer and reader that is at once liberating and terrifying. That’s the thrill of a poem.
There were three red apples
on the tree for weeks
and only today did you brave
the undercurrent of weeds
to find steady ground
to stand on to pick them.
Paula: Things matter gloriously in your poems. A window, dust, a rose, old photos, the sky resonate profoundly as I read and affect the way I inhabit a poem as reader. Were there particular things that you kept returning to? That were essential poem aides.
Heidi: There weren’t conscious things, but focusing on details, everyday things, is a way of dealing with the impossible. Poetry is a form of paying attention and slowing down. I use it to force to me do so, anyway – both when reading and writing poetry. When I think of myself writing this book, I have a sense of me grappling with the poems, they’re alive, wild and slippery, and I’m trying to button them down with concrete things rather than let them escape and run with the wind.
Paula: The three-section structure works well as you move from a specific place through despair and rupture to repair and joy. What effect did you want for the reader?
Heidi: I wanted to make sure I didn’t leave the reader in despair! Both because that’s an awful reading experience, and because that’s the truth of this story. I hoped to take the reader on a journey and that they would find grief and solace and joy in it, too. Because that’s the juxtaposition of life, isn’t it?
Paula: What are key things when you write a poem? When you read a poem?
Heidi: There’s the language, the musicality and muscularity of it. I want the poem to look right on the page. I spent a long time on that, the silence of a space, the punctuation – I could spend days on punctuation and how the words knit together – and I want to be startled and surprised with imagery. And I want all of this to come together with a clarity that feels like magic – I want to hear what the poem is singing and hear it ringing out clear. I don’t want the note the poem is sounding to be muddied with layers of complexity or cleverness for the sake of it. This is what I love reading in poetry and what I’m always aiming for.
He’s wrapped his arms in muslin gauze
broken bird wings pressed close to his chest.
We pass without pecking
at the dried blood.
He’s been doing the washing in the communal machine.
He’s been doing a lot of that lately.
Paula: Did you read any poetry books that captured you as you wrote this collection?
Heidi: When I’m actively writing or editing poetry, I tend to stay away from reading too many other poets as it can influence me too much, but I came across Anne Michaels (she was at the Auckland Writers Festival in 2019) and when I heard her read I knew I needed to read more. She is an incredible poet and writer. Her collection, All We Saw, is so bold and unapologetically seeped in loss, and reading it gave me the courage to let We Are Tiny Beneath the Light be what it is – short, intense and quite raw. I often listen to music while I’m writing, often the same song over and over. For my first collection, Possibility of Flight, the song for that book is ‘England’ by The National and that was clear early on. This book took me longer to find the exact song, but in the end it is ‘Skin’ (live version) by Rag’n’Bone man.
Paula: Yes Anne Michaels was a festival highlight. I read all her books before she came and also especially loved All We Saw.
We Are Tiny Beneath the Light must have been a challenge. What kind of writing challenges do you see next?
Heidi: I have two novels kicking around and I think it’s time to finish them. One of them is a light-hearted novel about two sisters embarking on their OE to London and the other researched while I was in Shanghai on the Shanghai Writing Program in 2016, and wrote the bulk of while completing my Master’s at University of Auckland in 2017, with the inspirational Paula Morris. It’s the story of a runaway bride from Auckland who goes back to the last place she remembers being happy – Shanghai – after running out her wedding. Perhaps 2020 is the year to finish both of them!
From the top we survey our domain
the sand, the sea, those hills –
for an instant each soft blade
of tussock is picked out in brilliant sunshine
the world sharpened by tiny shadows
Heidi North reads ‘The chickens’ from We are tiny beneath the light
The Cuba Press author page
You are rowing a lifeboat around a little garden in summer.
You are happy like that,
just you and a few birds and some swaying trees.
Just you and some herbs and a yellow rose.
You could be praying.
You dip your oars in the quiet,
forget everything that has happened.
All your questions are unanswered,
your beliefs unimaginable.
You row on, thinking:
I can hop into this boat anytime,
on any disastrous afternoon.
When push comes to shove, when words fail me,
this boat is mine. There is no other.
from Michael, I thought you were dead, illustration by William Carden-Horton (The Cuba Press, 2019)
Michael Fitzsimons is a proud member of the three-person South Wellington Poetry Society and co-founder of Wellington communications and publishing company Fitzbeck Creative. Michael, I Thought You Were Dead (The Cuba Press) is his second collection. His first, Now You Know, was recommended in RNZ’s annual poetry highlights. Michael lives in Seatoun with his wife, Rose, in a hillside house overlooking Wellington Harbour.
The Cuba Press author page