I know I find it hard to listen.
I read too much. I often need a drink.
It isn’t the world that makes us think,
it’s words that we can’t come up with.
Sure, I can work up fresh examples
and send them off to the committee.
But the poetry is in the bird. And in the pretty.
Bill Manhire, from ‘Polly’
International poetry traffic is so often dependent upon fortuitous connections. The degree of familiarity with poetry from elsewhere is utterly paltry compared with the degree of familiarity I have with local writing. Yes I have studied American and British poetry but I am more aware of the luminous stars in these poetry constellations than the grassroot outings.
On the other hand, we are no longer dependent upon ocean voyages and the constraints of distance, but to what degree does our poetry travel (compared say with fiction)? Or our poetry conversations extend beyond our lapping tidelines.
I am acutely aware of my impoverished relations with contemporary Australian poetry. Perhaps Joan Fleming and Amy Brown could guest edit a local journal with an Australian focus? But then again our journals are often annual and offer vital but scant opportunities for local poets.
This is not the first time an overseas journal has showcased New Zealand poetry, but it is perhaps the example I am most excited by. The editors – Stephanie Burt (USA), Paul Millar (NZ) and Chris Price (NZ) – have worked hard to present a distinctive and diverse overview of our current poetry. The selected poets cross all manner of borders: age, geographical location, style, university affiliation, gender, ethnicity. This matters if we want to move beyond the legacy of white male predomination, urban bias and privileged poetry models. I cannot name a NZ journal that has achieved such movement.
Yes the five books Daisy Fried reviewed – from the fifteen 2017 publications she was sent – were all Victoria University Press. Her selection certainly does not reflect the contours of that year, and we can all stand on the sidelines and shout (or sing) about the books we loved, but I have no issue with reviews reflecting individual taste. However I do take issue that a short intro and five VUP books can respond to her opening question: ‘How to characterise a national poetry?’ Why would you even try! It is a personal take on five excellent books.
The rest of the journal is an altogether different joy. The effect of reading is symphonic in the different hues and chords. Every single poem lifts off the page and catches both ear and eye. Such freshness, such lightness, darkness, musicality, room to breathe, surprising arcs and links and undercurrents. I keep swaying between Anna Jackson’s glorious bee poem and the flickering titles that coalesce in Nina Powles’s offering or the infectious wit of James Brown, Ashleigh Young and Tim Upperton. I am pulled into the bite of Anahera Gildea, Chris Tse and then Tayi Tibble and stop in the tracks of reading. Travelling with Janet Charman and the revelatory suite makes me weep. Switching to Anne Kennedy and the momentum coils and overlaps and poetry transforms a starting point into elasticity on the line. Bill Manhire flips me over into the second stanza, and the lacework of reading – intricate yet full of holes – offers mystery, surprise, wit, curious things.
The time of breathing into clasped hands
hovering over a lighter to make a flame
that an angry man threw his eyes into the night
the belly of his shattered father
weeping rain for separation of earth and sky
Jessie Puru from ‘Matariki’
The editors did not feel beholden to poetry that targets versions of New Zealand/ Aotearoa; our poetry might do this and then again it might not. The poems have the freedom to do and be anything whether they spring from spoken-word rhythms or talkiness or thinginess or anecdotal revelations or sumptuous Baroque-detail or story or slanted humour or cutting political edges.
The poets: Anna Jackson, Kate Camp, Michele Leggott, Therese Lloyd, Jessie Puru, Essa Ranapiri, Tayi Tibble, Robert Sullivan, Kerrin P. Sharpe, Hera Lindsay Bird, Dylan Horrocks, James Brown, Murray Edmond, Jenny Bornholdt, Anne Kennedy, Bill Manhire, Nina Powles, Janet Charman, Anahera Gildea, Bernadette Hall, Vincent O’Sullivan, Courtney Sina Meredith, C.K. Stead, Chris Tse, Tim Upperton, Gregory O’Brien and John Pule, Faith Wilson, Ashleigh Young, Albert Wendt, Steven Toussaint, Erik Kennedy
This issue is a cause for celebration – I absolutely love it – and my celebration will take the form of a subscription. New Zealand poetry has been well served – congratulations!
everything I never asked my grandmother
I can understand but I can’t speak
no one has played that piano since
New Zealand is so far away from here
let me translate for you the poem on the wall
Nina Powles from ‘Some titles for my childhood memoir’
Full review here. This is terrific writing that raises issues on poetry and the whole business of political poetry. I realise that statement is ambiguous – so take it to mean both the review and the anthology!
‘One hundred and one political poems, by nearly one hundred and one poets – who knew we had so many? Yet it’s odd, in an anthology as generous and inclusive as this, how you notice who’s missing. It’s a shame that outstanding political poetry from the past is outside the ambit of this book – the broadsides of Whim-Wham, Glover, Baxter, Fairburn and Frame would have provided a rich historical context for this contemporary offering.
Co-editor Philip Temple rightly points out that there’s another anthology-in-waiting here. I particularly missed Bill Manhire’s ‘Hotel Emergencies,’ and among other practising poets, I also missed Helen Lehndorf, Jenny Bornholdt, Ashleigh Young, Hinemoana Baker, Stefanie Lash, Bob Orr, Tim Jones, Sarah Jane Barnett, Sam Hunt, Helen Heath, and Apirana Taylor (there’s an excerpt from Taylor’s ‘Sad joke on a marae’ in Temple’s introduction). But this is an invitation-to-submit volume rather than a survey of what’s already out there in books, magazines and online, so maybe some poets simply missed the memo. (I missed the memo.) And maybe some poets just don’t have a political poem in them. But maybe every poem is political. And if that’s too woolly and undefined, then what is a political poem, exactly?
‘Poetry on the page, in New Zealand at least, seldom raises its voice, so when it does, you prick up your ears and listen.
But the strident, raised voice of many of the poems here also bothered me.’
I don’t know where the dead go, Kevin.
The one far place I know
is inside the heavy radio. If I listen late at night,
there’s that dark, celestial glow,
heaviness of the cave, the hive.
Music. Someone warms his hands at the fire,
breaking off the arms of chairs,
breaking the brute bodies of beds, burning his comfort
surely to keep alive. Soon he can hardly see,
and so, quietly, he listens: then someone lifts him
and it’s some terrible breakfast show.
There are mothers and fathers, Kevin, whom we barely know.
They lift us. Eventually we all shall go
into the dark furniture of the radio.
©Bill Manhire, Lifted Victoria University Press, 2005.
The eldest of my children published a poem in a recent issue of Sport about the two of us. The poem ends, “We don’t like Kevin but we both like ‘Kevin.'” I forget who Kevin was, but of all the poems of Bill Manhire’s that I admire, this one, “Kevin,” this secular prayer, is the one I admire most. It reminds me of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” another secular prayer: what is there, when we all must die, and we have lost religious faith? Arnold finds an answer, of sorts, in personal relations: “Ah, love, let us be true / To one another!” Manhire finds it in human continuity, perhaps the poetic tradition he has inherited, which includes Arnold: “There are mothers and fathers, Kevin, whom we barely know.” The man “breaking off the arms of chairs, / breaking the brute bodies of beds, burning his comfort / surely to keep alive” is no doubt a metaphor, but I think of the great Russian poet, Marina Tsvetaeva, in the winter famine of 1918-1919, who did exactly this. This poem conveys harsh truths, unironically, sympathetically, and in its hopelessness – as in Arnold’s hopelessness – there is a glint of hope, or consolation. Perhaps the only afterlife is in “the dark furniture of the radio” – one of those stained oak radios of my childhood, its transistors humming, a vehicle for the voices of the living and the dead. “They lift us” – “lift” being a particularly resonant word for Manhire – in the way that hymns lifted previous generations. This is such a sad, desolate poem, but every time I read it, it cheers me.
Tim Upperton’s poems have been anthologised in The Best of Best New Zealand Poems (VUP) and Essential New Zealand Poems (Random House). His second book, The Night We Ate The Baby (Haunui Press), was a finalist in the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards in 2016.
On the eve of my 53rd birthday
After Gregory Corso
Once I was very small but then I grew up
and other things were small and nothing hurt
like it did when I was sixteen, and again
at twenty-one. Fifty-fucking-three!
The poems I wrote and the poems I shouldn’t
have written but they’re done now and in books
nobody, absolutely nobody,
ever reads. There was some craziness,
and sometimes I was alone and other times
I was not alone, and alone was better
but I was lonely. To be honest,
the craziness didn’t amount to much.
The confessional stopped working about
the time I had things to confess, and now —
now I’d have to spend the rest of my life
in there and still never get to the end
of it, fuck it, I may as well carry on.
My hair was long and straight but went springy
in my thirties then straight again but not
as straight as before. Now it’s mostly grey
but I don’t really care about it.
I let it grow and grow and then I cut
it all off. I imagine it growing
when I’m lifeless in my coffin, masses
of it, which is unpleasant to think of
and anyway not yet. I want more life
in front of me than I have behind me,
but that’s not about to happen. I want
a bell down there, in the wormy darkness,
like in the Edgar Allan Poe story,
or a buzzer, a buzzer I can press
and somebody to listen just in case.
From Mark Broach:
‘What is poetry? “Poetry is the other way of using language,” goes one definition. It’s what gets left behind in translation, goes another. It’s a hundred things: rhythm, harmony, metaphor, compression, juxtaposition, an obsession with the line. But what is poetry for? That topic’s up for debate this weekend, so we put the question to a group of poets.
The current New Zealand Poet Laureate, CK Stead, says poetry has many roles, some seemingly conflicting.
“It’s for pleasure, intellectual and emotional. It’s sometimes for what Yeats called ‘the fascination of what’s difficult’; and sometimes for a sense of ease, effortlessness, peace and harmony. It’s to remind us of the best uses that have been made, and can still be made, of what marks the human species out as unique on our planet – language. Shakespeare says ‘The truest poetry is the most feigning’, and Wilfred Owen says, ‘The true poets must be truthful’, and both are right without contradiction.”
Tim Upperton wonders if poetry is of any use at all. “If you go by the words of some of its famous practitioners, poetry’s not much good for anything.” ‘
For the rest of the article see here.
Mark also consults CK Stead, our current Poet Laureate, and the three poets performing here:
Kate Camp, Gregory O’Brien and Louise Wallace speak at “A Still Small Voice – What Does Poetry Do for Us?”, a session at Wanaka’s Aspiring Conversations on Sunday, April 24.
I am heading off to Wellington this morning to go to A Circle of Laureates, the Lauris Edmond prize event and do a smidgeon of reading in between. Thought I would share these first:
How to Be Dead in a Year of Snakes Chris Tse, Auckland University Press
Chris Tse is a writer, musician and actor whose poetry first appeared in AUP New Posts 4 (Auckland University Press, 2011). He resides in Wellington, his home town.
Chris’s debut collection, How to Be Dead in a Year of Snakes, responds to a moment in history not so much by narrating that history but by installing a chorus of voices. He takes an event from 1905 when Lionel Terry went hunting for a Chinaman in Haining Street, Wellington and ended up murdering Joe Kum Yung. Within the opening pages, the chilling event is situated in a wider context where laws proscribe the alienness that situates Chinese as outsiders. This is what gets under your skin as you read.
The poems draw upon and draw in notions of distance, defeat, guilt and forgiveness. There are the unsettled imaginings of what it is to be home, to be at home and to be out of home to the extent that home becomes difficult and different. Mostly it is a matter of death (and casting back into life) whereby phantoms stalk and cry about what might have been and what is: ‘You spend your thoughts drowning in your family-/ missing from this vista- and contemplate a return with nothing to show/ for your absence.’
The collection harvests shifting forms, voices and tones that promote poetry as mood, state of mind, emotional residue. Yes, there is detailed evidence of history but this is not a realist account, a story told in such a way. Instead the poetic spareness, the drifting phantom voices give stronger presence to things that are much harder to put into words. How to be dead, for example. How to find the co-ordinates of estrangement, of that which is unbearably lost and is hard to tally (family, home, what matters in life). On page four you move from a matter-of-fact representation of the law to page five and the wife in Canton (‘you carry her bones in your body’). Two disparate but equally potent aches.
For the rest of the review see here
From an interview I did with David Eggleton last year:
I love the title of your new collection (The Conch Shell, Otago University Press). The blurb suggests that this collection ‘calls to the scattered tribes of contemporary New Zealand.’ What tribes do you belong to? What literary tribes? How does the word ‘contemporary’ modify things?
Yes, I’m blowing my own (conch) trumpet at sunrise. That title refers to tide-lines of life, to surf-like sounds, to gathering good vibrations, to gods of the sea who, clarion-like, lull the waves, and to the summer of shakes, the year of quakes. And so on, to the final burnout of the run-ragged consumer. The rest is the tribal outcast, and everything you cannot pin down, or ascribe a bar code to.
In fact, the word ‘tribe’ is fraught. I think James K. Baxter brought it into the literary realm. My own tribal background is distinctly heterogeneous rather than Fonterra-homogenous, but if I look around at my contemporaries, poets and otherwise, I see most of them making it up as they go along. A poem tests a proposition; it doesn’t always prove it.
These new poems offer shifting tones, preoccupations, rhythms. What discoveries did you make about poetry as you wrote? The world? Interior or external?
My poems like to dwell on the silver wake of a container ship, or the wet sand beneath the upturned hull of a dinghy, or the half-seen, the overheard. Poets re-arrange, but they have duties of care. X.J. Kennedy has pointed out that: ‘The world is full of poets with languid wrenches who don’t bother to take the last six turns on their bolts.’
It’s been five years since my last poetry collection Time of the Icebergs appeared, and one reason my collections have been regularly spaced that far apart is the need for more elbow-grease and line-tightening to get the burnish just so.
The poet’s mind, like anyone else’s is made up of reptilian substrate, limbic empathy and neo-cortical rationality. These shape your reveries and hopefully together lift them out of banality. Our ideas are dreams, styles, superstitions. We rationalise our temperaments, draw curtains over our windows, but poems carry an anarchic charge that reveals the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.
A poet is in the business of the unsayable being said, showing you fear in a handful of dust. A poet is amanuensis to the subconscious ceaselessly murmuring, and indeed to the planetary hum, the gravitational pull of the earth, the wobble of placental jellyfish in the womb — anything alive, mindless and gooey.
Is there a single poem or two in the collection that particularly resonates with you?
Every poem resonates on its own wavelength, but I found constructing an immediate elegiac response to my father’s death one of the most turbulent. A bit like getting to grips with a storm, with a howling wind that has shape and substance.
Returning to the notion of detail, I see the accumulation of things in your poems as an overlay of highways to elsewhere whether heart, issues, ideas, fancy, memory. Yet the things also pulsate as things in their own right. What draws you to ‘the thisness of things’ (the blurb)?
Things accumulate in my poems in almost haptic fashion, wrestled there like sculptural ingredients. They accumulate, as in the random haphazard assemblages of the Dadaist Kurt Schwitters, built out of found objects in the streets. Yes, I want to acknowledge the ‘thisness’ of things, but not in the sense of ‘property’. Rather, in the sense of: he who kisses the joy as it flies, lives in eternity’s sunrise.
For the complete interview see here
Tim Upperton, The Night We Ate The Baby HauNui Press, 2014
Tim Upperton’s debut poetry collection, A House on Fire, was published by Steele Roberts in 2009. Since then, his poetry has been published in numerous journals and he has won awards for a number of them. The poems for this new collection were written with the assistance of a Doctoral Scholarship from Massey University of New Zealand, so perhaps they form/formed part of his doctoral submission. Tim will be reading as part of the Haunui Press ‘Deep Friend Poetry Reading’ series at Vic Books on 26th March. Details here.
This latest book is unlike any other collection I have seen in New Zealand; chiefly in terms of the measure of discomfort. The forms are various, scooping an edgy wit into prose blocks, villanelle, triplets, couplets and freer patterns. Yet there is connective glue at work here, and that is what makes this collection stand out. I think it comes down to voice (whether or not it is the personal voice of the poet doesn’t really matter) because the voice steering the poems is sharp, forthright, witty, edgy, grumpy. It unsettles. It keeps you on your toes. On the back of the book, Ashleigh Young suggests that ‘[t]hese willfully, calmly disagreeable poems have tenderness and courage at their heart.’ I would agree. Therein lies the pleasure of reading these poems; there is more to the brittle edginess than meets the initial eye.
The first poem, ‘Avoid,’ very clearly announces that this is a poet who loves language, that is unafraid of rhyme and rhythm working arm in arm. The poem is a miniature explosion of sound effects — with sliding assonance, bounding consonants, near rhyme and sumptuous aural connections. It brought to mind the refrain in Don McGlashan’s song, ‘Marvellous Year,’ and Bill Manhire’s glorious ‘1950s’ in the use of rhythm and rhyme, and aural trapeze work that is ear defying. Whereas Don’s song represents a potted portrait of the world in all its warts and glory (in a marvellous year), and Bill’s poem is a nostalgic recuperation of things, Tim sets up the collection’s negative disposition and itemises things to avoid!
For the rest of the review see here
Roger Horrocks Song in the Ghost Machine
I haven’t read this book! Last year I picked it up to review then found something about it was very close to a fragile starting point I had for a book in my head. I can’t talk about poems I am writing until they are written. I didn’t want to scare my starting point off so left in the pile to read.
Now that I am hard at work writing about NZ women’s poetry, my starting point is in a little holding bay where it may or may not survive. It has been there for over a decade though and has moved to second place in a queue.
So I am throwing caution to the wind and taking this book to read on the plane.