Tag Archives: Victoria University Press

Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: Jenny Bornholdt’s ‘Crossing’

 

Crossing

 

Driving across town

she feels plain

and botanical.

 

At a crossing

there’s a man

with a cake, girl

with a tune.

Four young people

wheel a bed,

headed for a house

where a young woman

might read, love a man/some

men, might hold their bodies

close and welcome some parts

of those bodies

into hers.

 

Years later

she might see these men

in suits and on television and

many years later

might pass one, a house painter,

as she drives to buy

paint, for heaven’s sake.

 

Now, nearing sixty,

this woman loves her husband

ferociously.

When she turns the compost

and finds the flat wrinkled body

of a mouse,

she remembers the time

he rang her in Scotland

to say he’d seen one in the pile

and what should he do?

 

She shovels the remains

of the mouse with the rest

of the compost to beneath

the blossom, which bows

low and graceful over neglect,

which abounds, as it does,

wonderfully, in the garden of the

southern house they move to

for a time.

 

He’s up to his ears

in sadness, both of them aghast

at landscape. Being asthmatic

he is immediately attractive

to animals – at the lake

a fox terrier pup takes shelter

under his chest as he lies down

on a towel after a swim.

In the kitchen a mouse

bumps into his foot. Drama

in the house! Not for the first

time. These were rooms

of costume, scenery,

leading ladies and men

on the front terrace, leaning

on architect Ernst Plischke’s rail,

stone warm underfoot, snowed

mountains as backdrop

while the deep, broad river passed

below them, always

on its way.

 

Jenny Bornholdt, from Lost and Somewhere Else, Victoria University Press, 2019

 

 

Jenny Bornholdt is the author of many poetry collections, including The Rocky Shore (Montana New Zealand Book Award for Poetry winner, 2009) and Selected Poems (2016). She has edited several notable anthologies including Short Poems of New Zealand (2018).

Victoria University Press author page

 

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Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: Jane Arthur’s ‘Situation’

 

Situation

 

Kākā have been screaming across the sky.

I’ve been thinking up jokes to tell myself.

One of the dogs pisses on the floor as soon as I leave the room.

The other dog follows me around the house.

There are a lot of dogs in the neighbourhood.

I am sure they know how to behave.

They don’t bark so much.

I’ve been preoccupied with what others think again.

I’ve been trying not to let people down.

Nights are not long enough.

Lately there’s been more sun than I would’ve expected.

I keep the weather report open in its own tab and check it often.

The internet has most of the answers I’m looking for.

Some of my questions come up at inconvenient times.

Some are just hard to explain.

Like, when people say ‘I want you inside me’

do they sometimes mean cannibalism?

Or that they want to inject your fluids into their veins?

Or do they only ever mean something plainly sexual?

Don’t laugh, it’s not always obvious, and

sometimes desire can make us hungry or violent.

Maybe healthy emotional behaviour wasn’t modelled to us as children.

So we bite. We draw blood. We take things that aren’t ours, I don’t know.

 

Jane Arthur, Craven, Victoria University Press, 2019

 

 

 

Jane Arthur was the recipient of the Sarah Broom Poetry Prize in 2018, judged by Eileen Myles. She has worked in the book industry for over fifteen years as a bookseller and editor, and has a Master of Arts in Creative Writing from the IIML at Victoria University of Wellington. Born in New Plymouth, she lives in Wellington with her family. Her first poetry collection, Craven, was published in September 2019 by Victoria University Press.

Victoria University Press page

 

 

 

 

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Poetry Shelf noticeboard: Nick Ascroft’s launching Moral Sloth

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You are warmly invited to the launch of

Moral Sloth
a new collection of poetry by Nick Ascroft
to be launched by Ashleigh Young

Tuesday 12 November, 5.30pm–7pm
Hudson Bar, Chews Lane, Wellington.

All welcome!
$25

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf celebrates Fleur Adcock: Winner of 2019 Prime Minister’s Award for Literature Achievement in Poetry

To celebrate the terrific news that Fleur Adcock will receive the Prime Minster’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry, I am re-posting the interview we did earlier in the year. It was such a pleasure doing this – as it was reading my way through Fleur’s poetry backlist for Wild Honey. A research highlight!

In celebration I will give a copy of Fleur’s magnificent Collected Poems (VUP, 2019) to one reader who names a poem they love by her – and in one sentence says why (either on Twitter, Facebook or as a comment on this post. NZ readers only sorry!

Brava Fleur!

 

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Fleur Adcock, Collected Poems, Victoria University Press, 2019

 

No; I can’t get it to knit. Scrunch!

Somewhere on the timeline between

the historical Eva whose

disappointments and retreating

daydreams I so tenderly probe

and our childhood’s ‘Grandma Adcock’

comes a fracture: Sam’s young lady,

eager emigrant, pioneer,

snaps into the dumpy figure

telling me off, when I was three,

for proving, at the tea-table,

I could put my toes in my mouth.

 

from ‘Reconstituting  Eva’ (originally published in The Land Ballot, 2014)

 

 

One of the many joys in researching and writing Wild Honey was reading Fleur Adcock’s poetry books – from The Eye of the Hurricane (1964) to Hoard (2017). Since then Victoria University Press has published Fleur’s Collected Poems. It is a sumptuous, substantial tribute to a much loved poet: the hardback book is beautifully designed, keenly edited and a perfect way to enjoy the scope of her poetry.

Born in New Zealand in 1934, Fleur has spent most of her writing life in Britain; she is an editor, a translator and above all a poet. She has published 18 collections of poems including the latest book along with several other Selected Poems. She edited The Oxford Book of Contemporary New Zealand Poetry (1982); The Faber Book of Twentieth-Century Women’s Poetry (1987); The Oxford Book of Creatures, with Jacqueline Simms (1995).  Her multiple awards include the Jessie Mackay Prize in 1968 and 1972, the Buckland Award in 1968 and 1979, and a New Zealand Book Award in 1984. She received an OBE in 1986, the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 2006 and was made a CNZM for services to literature in 2008.

The effects of Fleur’s poetry are wide ranging; she writes from a sustained history of reading and inquiry, from personal experience and sharp observation, from measured craft to conversational tones. Her poetry can be poignant, witty, serious, physical, abstract, humane. She assembles family and she looks back at New Zealand as she widens the definition of home.

To celebrate the arrival of Collected Poems we embarked on a slow email conversation.

 

At school I used to read, mostly,

and hide in the shed at dinnertime,

writing poems in my notebook.

‘Little fairies dancing,’ I wrote,

and ‘Peter and I, we watch the birds fly,

high in the sky, in the evening’.

 

from ‘Outwood’ (originally published in The Incident Book, Oxford University Press, 1986)

 

 

Paula: Can you paint a small snapshot of yourself as a young girl? Did books and writing feature?

Fleur:  From the age of six I was always a passionate reader, somewhat to the annoyance of my mother as the years went by. One of my favourite childhood photographs of myself (there were very few, because photographic films were almost unobtainable during the war) is of me lying on my stomach on the grass in our garden when I was eight or nine, reading a book. When I was nearly seven I was given a book called Jerry of St Winifred’s, about a girl who wanted to be a vet and who when trying to rescue a puppy from a rabbit hole accidentally discovered an ancient manuscript. This was when Marilyn and I were living in the country, as unofficial evacuees on the farm of our father’s cousins George and Eva Carter. Auntie Eva told me reading was bad for the eyesight, and restricted me to one chapter a day. If she had wanted to encourage me this would have been the best thing she could have done – in these days of reluctant readers, parents are told that if reading were forbidden more children would want to do it. In my case there was absolutely no need.

At that time we were away from our parents, and therefore writing letters and little stories for them, or at least I was – Marilyn was still at the stage of sending pictures, but it was all useful practice in communication.

The following year, 1940, we were living in Salfords, Surrey, with our mother, just across the road from the small tin-roofed public library. I used to go and browse in it alone, to borrow books. Titles I remember are Fairies and Chimneys, by Rose Fyleman, and Tales of Sir Benjamin Bulbous, Bart, which involved naiads, water sprites, etc. You will observe a fairy theme.

In what seems no time at all we were settled in a house of our own and I was reading whatever I could lay my hands on: library books, books from school, occasional books I was given as presents. Because of the wartime paper shortage these were in rather short supply. I liked adventure stories: Dr Doolittle, books by Arthur Ransome, Robert Louis Stevenson, and inevitably Enid Blyton. When I was 10 my mother lent me her copy of Gone with the Wind, and the following year gave me a rather beautiful ex-library copy of  Pride and Prejudice, which I read over and over again and still treasure. 

I was also writing poems. When I was seven, at Outwood School in the Surrey countryside, I had a little notebook in which I wrote my compositions at lunchtimes. I was there for only three months, from early June to early September 1941, and had no friends. Marilyn was away for the first few weeks, with whooping cough. Poetry was my refuge.

 

(…) I was impatient

for Jerry of St Winifred’s

my Sunday School prize, my first real book

that wasn’t babyish with pictures –

 

to curl up with it in the armchair

beside the range, for my evening ration:

‘Only a chapter a day,’ said Auntie.

‘Too much reading’s bad for your eyes.’

 

I stuck my tongue out (not at her –

in a trance of concentration), tasting

the thrilling syllables: ‘veterinary

surgeon’, ‘papyrus’, ‘manuscript’.

 

from ‘Tongue Sandwiches’ (originally published in Looking Back, Oxford University Press, 1997)

 

At my next school, St John’s, I won a gold star (see my poem ‘The Pilgrim Fathers’, and also the previous one, ‘Tongue Sandwiches’, re the earlier experience). I graduated to a slightly larger notebook and my subject matter expanded slightly, although one of my principal influences was still Enid Blyton – our mother thought her little magazine “Sunny Stories” was suitable reading matter for children, rather than the comics we swapped with our friends from school. I also liked ballads and melodrama. There were three more schools before the end of the war. At one we studied ‘The Lady of Shalott’: just my cup of tea, with its Tennysonian sound-effects and melancholy ending.

When I was 13 we went back to New Zealand, and I began writing nostalgic poems about such topics as “Spring in a Surrey wood”. The poems were rather fewer in my teens; some of them were carefully made, with rhymes and proper scansion, suitable for the school magazine, in which I won prizes for ‘The Bay’ and a poem about a seagull. My more private poems came under the influence of TS Eliot, whose work we studied when I was 15. World-weary disillusionment set in, together with free verse; I’ve just found one that ends with the two lines: “But what the hell does it matter? / Let’s go out and shoot ourselves.” The Waste Land has a lot to answer for.

But I’m afraid this is not a small snapshot but a sprawling album! I’ll stop.

 

Paula: I got goose bumps picturing the power of words and books for the young child making her way from girlhood to adolescence. Has poetry writing always been a refuge for you? Or has it developed other functions?

Fleur: Writing poetry has many functions for me; more than I can identify. It’s art, it’s therapy, companionship, a challenge, an indicator of health – I’ve always been aware that when I’m healthy I’m writing, and when I’m writing I’m healthy. It’s that much despised thing self-expression, as resorted to by generations of teenagers. It’s also, to some extent, my bread and butter. When I had a proper job, as a librarian in the civil service, time to write poetry was the unattainable ideal. Now that I’m retired I have a small pension from that ‘proper job’, but for a long time while I was freelance most of the work I did, in the form of poetry readings, broadcasting, book reviewing, translating, teaching on writing courses, going to festivals, writing libretti, etc, arose out of the fact that I wrote poetry. There’s less of that now – you don’t get quite so many commissions in your 80s – but still a certain amount. And I’m still writing the poems.

Poetry also has a social function. Some 18th century poets used to call their books ‘Poems upon Several Occasions’. I’ve written a number of those, too: poems for other people, for specific occasions or on topics that I hope they will be able to identify with. My poem ‘The Chiffonier’ about a particular habit of my mother’s (marking out special items for her children to inherit, long before she died) turned out to be common to a whole troop of mothers, I was pleased to learn from fan letters. I write a number of family poems: for birthdays, for Greg’s wedding to Angie, for the birth of my great-grandson Seth (a rare male among my hosts of female descendants), also elegies – for my parents and various ancestors, and one for Alistair that I managed to produce in time for Marilyn to read it at his funeral. There are elegies for friends, too, and increasing numbers of laments for doomed or extinct inhabitants of the natural world: birds, butterflies, insects of all kinds (my book Glass Wings contains examples), bats… It would be depressing to go on.

 

But now I see you in your Indian skirt

and casual cornflower-blue linen shirt

in the garden, under your feijoa tree,

looking about as old or as young as me.

Dear little Mother! Naturally I’m glad

you found a piece of furniture that had

happy associations with your youth;

and yes, I do admire it – that’s the truth:

its polished wood and touch of Art Nouveau

appeal to me. But surely you must know

I value this or any other treasure

of yours chiefly because it gives you pleasure.

I have to write this now, while you’re still here:

I want my mother, not her chiffonier.

 

from ‘The Chiffonier’ (originally published in The Incident Book, Oxford University Press, 1986)

 

Art: one of the enormous satisfactions of writing is constructing a beautiful or at least memorable and satisfying artefact. I believe that one of the essential elements of being human is wanting to create some kind of art. I remember having an argument with a friend about this, or perhaps just a misunderstanding – when I say “art” I include large areas of human creative endeavour such as gardening, growing plants, making clothes, furniture, jewellery, or anything that gives satisfaction to its creator. Some people (I’m not among them) find artistic pleasure in cooking. When my grandchildren Cait and Ella were small they spent hours of ingenuity constructing miniature items of furniture for their Sylvanian toys out of scraps of cardboard, Sellotape, fabric or whatever was around; that was art. So, I suppose, were the elaborate cakes their mother made for their birthdays; I remember one in the form of a swimming pool with blue jelly for water. For me the primary art-form is poetry. Very few things make me happier than finishing a poem I’ve been struggling with.

 

Paula: I love the way poetry emerges from the nooks and crannies of your life and thinking, the way it feeds and spurs. Your Collected Poems demonstrates this so clearly. Rereading the first two collections – The Eye of the Hurricane (1964) and Tigers (1967) – I am reminded how these early poems have travelled so well across the decades. Take the much-loved and anthologised ‘For a Five-Year-Old’ for example.  What were your early preoccupations as a poet in view of both style and subject matter?

 

I see, then, that a kind of faith prevails:

your gentleness is moulded still by words

from me, who have trapped mice and shot wild birds,

from me, who drowned your kittens, who betrayed

your closest relatives, and who purveyed

the harshest kind of truth to many another.

But that is how things are: I am your mother,

and we are kind to snails.

 

from ‘For a Five-Year-old’ (originally published in The Eye of the Hurricane, AW Reed, 1964 and then in  Tigers, Oxford University Press, 1967)

 

Fleur: I don’t think I can answer this in any meaningful way. I could look back through the early collections to see what I was writing about, but so could anyone; it’s not the same as being inside my feelings at the time, which I find it impossible to recall. I wasn’t setting out with any aim or objective; I just wrote about whatever topics suggested themselves, and my chief emotion was “Oh, good, I’m writing a poem!”

One of my first preoccupations, even as an adolescent, was my ‘exile’ from England. I wrote about this in my early teens, and also in the poem I called ‘The Lover’, in which I imagined a male persona trying to adapt to living in a new country. This ridiculous enterprise naturally misfired: everybody thought I was writing about Alistair. Serves me right, for not having had the confidence to write as a female.

Looking at The Eye of the Hurricane, I see that a number of the poems were about relationships with various men, one in particular – a natural preoccupation of a person in her 20s. One person they were definitely not about is Alistair. I was very surprised, in later years, to find that some people imagined he was the character represented in such poems as ‘Knifeplay’, when he was not at all like that.  Most of those poems were written in the nearly five years between my divorce from him and my marriage to Barry Crump in 1962. I never wrote about Alistair while I was married to him. Most of my very few poems about him were written while he was dying or after his death in 2009 – my elegy for him was modelled stylistically on his famous Elegy in Mine eyes dazzle.  My own early “battle of the sexes” poems (to use a Baxter phrase) were about my then current preoccupations. By 1959, Alistair was history.

As for the style, in those days I wrote in traditional verse forms, often rhymed, because it was easier to be convinced that I’d got a poem right if the rhymes and metre were correct. Free verse is far more difficult to judge (I don’t mean blank verse – unrhymed iambic pentameter, as in Shakespeare’s plays – which is another kettle of fish. I certainly used that from time to time.)

When it came to my next collection, Tigers, a new subject presented itself: culture shock. I was suddenly living in a wider society, in England, exposed to the harsh realities outside insular little cosy New Zealand. ‘Regression’ is a reflection of my new political anxieties, although I had also written about the nuclear threat earlier, in NZ. We were all convinced the world could end at any time, as seemed quite likely. But on the whole I rather cringe to open these two earliest collections. I think of what Katherine Mansfield wrote to JMM when he urged her to allow In a German Pension to be reissued: “It is far too immature, and I don’t even acknowledge it today. I mean I don’t ‘hold’ by it. I can’t go foisting that kind of stuff on the public” (quoted in his introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition).

 

All the flowers have gone back into the ground.

We fell on them, and they did not lie

crushed and crumpled, waiting to die

on the earth’s surface. (..)

 

from ‘Regression’ (originally published in Tigers, Oxford University Press, 1967)

 

Paula: You touch upon the way autobiography can both corrupt and enhance a reader’s pathways through a poem and the danger of making assumptions about both the speaker and subject of a poem. Some things in a poem stay secret and some are exquisitely open.  As I read my way through your collections I relish the shifting tones, sharpness, admissions, contemplations. The way poems are both oblique and transparent. Two collections have particularly affected me, but before sharing these, are there one or two books that have been especially important in the making and published result?

Fleur: Once again, impossible to answer. For quite some time The Incident Book gave me particular pleasure to look back on, but inevitably it was overtaken by others.  Every published collection that appears between covers and looks like a complete and separate entity is in fact just a bundle of individual poems. When my youngest granddaughter saw the size of my Collected Poems in New Zealand, she said to her father, “Wow! How could she write so many poems?” The answer is, one at a time. Each new poem is a world in itself, something to plunge into and be absorbed by for as long as the writing of it lasts. Only much later does it become part of a published book, if I decide to include it in one. Not every poem is chosen.

 

21

The fountain in her heart informs her

she needn’t try to sleep tonight –

rush, gush: the sleep-extinguisher

frothing in her chest like a dishwasher.

 

She sits at the window with a blanket

to track the turning stars. A comet

might add some point. The moon ignores her;

but dawn may come. She’d settle for that.

 

from ‘Meeting the Comet’ (originally published in Time-Zones, Oxford University Press, 1991)

 

My feelings about the various collections tend to be influenced by my memories of the circumstances and places in which they were written. For example, Time-Zones received its title from the travelling I was doing during that time I was working on it. It contains poems from my three months in Australia as writer in residence at the University of Adelaide in 1984, including the two long sequences at the end, ‘Mrs Fraser’s Frenzy’ (written for music, originally for Gillian Whitehead, but she decided it didn’t suit the commission she had in mind and it was subsequently set by the English composer George Newson instead), and ‘Meeting the Comet’, which I wrote in bits and pieces during my journey to and from the southern hemisphere, as a way of staying sane and having something to work on while I was in transition from one place to another. (The girl in the poem is fictional, but was originally inspired by the child of friends in Newcastle, who had the same disability although not the same history as the one in the poem.) The collection also includes poems about Adelaide, where I was living for a time, and Romania, which I had visited and where I had made good friends and had my eyes opened to a new political landscape. Altogether a bit of a ragbag – I was crossing time zones as the poems came to me.

How complicated these things are to explain.

Then there was Looking Back, which was short-listed for the T.S. Eliot prize in 1997. It gave me great pleasure to write, or at least the poems about my ancestors did, because of my obsession with genealogy, but shortly afterwards, oddly enough, I lost interest in writing poems for some years, and devoted myself to the ancestors in a big way.

Dragon Talk was important, by virtue of the fact that it marked my return to writing poetry after a gap of several years. However, I certainly wouldn’t call it my best collection; it was a necessary one, to get the wheels turning again, but afterwards I moved on in different directions.

The only book I actually conceived and embarked on as a single entity, in the way you might embark on a novel, was The Land Ballot. I wrote three or four poems about my father’s childhood, and then it dawned on me that  I might be able to produce enough for a book. I did enormous amounts of research for this, over a period of two years, 2012-2013, building up a picture of this remote community and its inhabitants, and was totally immersed in it. Two of the happiest years of my life as a writer. On the other hand, one of the happiest years of my life as a person was 1977-8 (September-June), living in the Lake District as writer in residence at Charlotte Mason College in Ambleside, surrounded by amazing scenery, with time to walk and explore and make discoveries, as well as making a quantity of new friends and spending more time than usual with many of the old ones: if you live in a famously beautiful place and have a spare bedroom you suddenly become very popular. But the poems that emerged from this time are scattered between more than one published collection.

 

As there was only one lamp

they had to spend the winter evenings

at the table, close enough to share

its kerosene – perfumed radiance –

 

his mother sewing, and he

reading aloud to her the books

he borrowed from Mr Honoré

or the Daysh boys on the next farm

 

from ‘Evenings with Mother’ (originally published in The Land Ballot, Bloodaxe Books and VUP, 2014)

 

Paula: I love the way a poem becomes a miniature absorbing world for both reader and writer, and the way the context of its making is important for the poet. Reading a book is akin to listening to a symphony; you absorb the composition as a whole with certain notes and melodies standing out. I also loved The Incident Book with its fertile movement, physical beacons and emotional underlay. I keep going back to ‘The Chiffonier’, both a conversation with and portrait of your mother. The ending never fails to move me.

But I also loved Looking Back and The Land Ballot, two collections that consider ancestors, the past and the present, an attachment (and detachment) to two places, the UK and New Zealand. I guess it gets personal; the fact I am drawn to the gaping hole of my ancestors with insistent curiosity and the fact your exquisite writing satisfies my interest as a poet. Heart and mind are both engaged. Questions might arise, I feel and think multiple things, the music holds me, the intimacy is breathtaking.

What attracts you in poetry you admire?

Fleur: Another impossible question. The simple answer is simply expressed in the last line of my poem ‘The Prize-Winning Poem’: “it’s got to be good.”  Of course you will ask what is the nature of that ‘goodness’, or excellence? I could talk about the tone, the rhythms, the emotional resonances, the sense of mystery or wonder that poems sometimes induce, but what I always want a poem to do is surprise me. The only full answer would be a list of poems I have admired over the years, which would be impractical.

This afternoon I was listening to a performance of Britten’s Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, which includes the setting of Blake’s little gem ‘O rose thou art sick’, which I’ve known and admired since childhood, but because the musical setting (also familiar to me) slows the words down I was listening to them more carefully than usual, and particularly struck by them. A perfect poem. But then yesterday I picked up the latest copy of the TLS and found a poem by Helen Farish that was totally new to me, and found it striking in a different way, possibly because of its strangeness: it makes you want to know more about the situation she describes, although on the other hand knowing too much might spoil it.

Poems serve different functions in our lives, and how we respond to them is affected by the circumstances in which we read or hear them.

 

Paula: Indeed. Can you name three poetry collections you have admired in the last few years?

Fleur: The answer is that no, I can’t make any such choices. I don’t do “favourite poets” or “favourite books”. To do so would not constitute a considered judgement. Enthusiasms come and go; they are things of the moment. It takes me a long time to make up my mind about the value of any particular writer. For example, many of my friends have published books that were important to me, but that would be a judgement about friendship, not necessarily about literary worth. I’d rather pass on this question.

 

Paula: What activities complement your love of poetry?

Fleur: Walking (in our local woods or wherever I happen to be), watching plants grow, watching birds and other living creatures in my garden or elsewhere. The greater the destruction of our natural environment, the more important these things become. When I first bought my house in London, in 1967, huge crowds of birds came to the neighbours’ bird table; miniature froglets hopped around the grass verges when I tried to mow the lawn; the buddleia tree was smothered in butterflies; we used to hear owls in the night. Now that I have my own birdfeeders, and more time to watch and observe the population, I’m more and more aware of the sad losses. On the other hand, I’m grateful for my health and continued ability to look after my garden and get out and about.

Now that my eyesight is so much worse I find myself reading less and listening to music a lot more, but that doesn’t really belong in this interview – music is a completely different medium from literature.

 

Paula: Thank you Fleur, especially as I posed such difficult questions. I have loved this slowly unfolding conversation that has kept me returning to the joy and richness of your poetry. Thank you for your generous and engaging responses – it is now time for you to get back to what you love – writing poems!

 

Paths

 

I am the dotted lines on the map:

footpaths exist only when they are walked on.

I am gravel tracks through woodland; I am

field paths, the muddy ledge by the stream,

the stepping-stones. I am the grassy lane

open between waist-high bracken where sheeep

fidget. I am the track to the top

skirting and scaling ricks. I am the cairn.

 

Here on the brow of the world I stop,

set my stone face to the wind, and turn

to each wide quarter. I am that I am.

 

(originally published in Below Loughrigg, Bloodaxe Books, 1979)

 

Victoria University Press page

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf interviews Steven Toussaint

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The same differently

and always already:

 

after writing laïcité

new laity like birdsong.

 

from ‘Pickstock Improvisations’

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

The conversation

 

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

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

 

Are you still listening

 

to poets

who listened

 

to Coltrane

 

laughed and framed

vocations around that

 

brazen ascesis?

 

from ‘Yes or No’ 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

abide more tritone idle mode

the dominant’s a leaky still

 

for quiet divination

for every thought

a finger on

the fret-

board’s shifting centre

where nothing dearer

than the pure heart’s

purring minor

requires demonstration

 

from ‘Aevum Measures’

 

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

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

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

 

Must be a stumbler, bleeder,

as some floccus remains here, carded

into ragged sleeves by barbed wire.

I believe in a God who can learn

 

to work new spindles, new pupils

uncomprehending the reasons

light rosins in winter, and still

spill clumsily, bleeding.

 

from ‘Agnus Dei’  97

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

The subtlest consolations

arrive in waves

 

one had neglected

to observe.

 

The way children

when they sing

forget to breathe.

 

from ‘Pickstock Improvisations’

 

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

Reading the collection is a tonic.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Victoria University author page

Karyn Hay in conversation with Steven on RNZ National

Poetry Shelf noticeboard: celebrating Helen Heath

Helen Heath won the 2019 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards with her poetry collection, Are Friends Electric? National Poetry Day sat down and talked to her about ‘that moment,’ the themes that recur in her work and why poetry is so hot in Aotearoa.

 

 

Helen reads two poems for Poetry Shelf

Poetry Shelf in conversation with Helen

Victoria University Press author  page