Tag Archives: Victoria University Press

Poetry Shelf: 8 Poets pick favourite 2020 poetry reads

For end-of-year Poetry Shelf wraps, I have usually invited a swag of writers to pick books they have loved. It has always turned into a mammoth reading celebration, mostly of poetry, but with a little of everything else. This year I decided to invite a handful of poets, whose new books I have loved in 2020, to make a few poetry picks.

My review and interview output has been compromised this year. I still have perhaps 20 poetry books published in Aotearoa I have not yet reviewed, and I do hope to write about some of these over summer.

The 8 Poets

Among a number of other terrific poetry reads (Oscar Upperton’s New Transgender Blockbusters for example), here are eight books that struck me deep this year (with my review links). Tusiata Avia’s The Savager Coloniser (VUP) is the kind of book that tears you apart and you feel so utterly glad to have read it. Tusiata has put herself, her rage, experience, memories, loves, prayers, dreads into poems that face racism, terrorism, Covid, inequity, colonialism, being a mother and a daughter, being human. An extraordinary book. Rhian Gallagher’s Far-Flung (AUP) is a sumptuous arrival, a book of exquisite returns that slowly unfold across months. Her poetic craft includes the lyrical, the political, the personal and the contemplative in poems that reflect upon the land, experiences, relationships.

Rata Gordon‘s Second Person (VUP) is fresh, layered and utterly captivating. This is a book of birth, babies, death, the universe, love, motherhood, water, sky, wildlife. It is a book that celebrates the present tense, the way we can inhabit the now of being. Reading Mohamed Hassan’s new collection, National Anthem (Dead Bird Books), opens up what poetry can do. It widens your heart. It makes you feel. It makes you think. It gets you listening. It makes you think about things that matter. Humanity. Family. Soil. Ahh!

Bill Manhire‘s Wow (VUP) will haunt you – so many of these poems have joined my list of memorable poetry encounters. The baby in the title poem says ‘wow’ while the big brother says ‘also’. This new collection sparks both the ‘wow’ moments and the ‘also’ moments. Get lost in its glorious thickets and then find your way out to take stock of the ordinary (and out-of-the-ordinary) world about you. Like Rhian’s collection this is a book of poetry astonishments. Natalie Morrison‘s (VUP) debut collection Pins is exquisite, both melodious and tactile, economical and rich. There is both a quirkiness and a crafted musicality, resonant white space, yet perhaps a key link is that of narrative. I filled with joy as I read this book.

Jackson Nieuwland‘s I am a Human Being (Compound Press), so long in the making, lovingly crafted with the loving support of friends, with both doubt and with grace (think poise, fluency, adroitness), this book, in its lists and its expansions, moves beyond the need for a single self-defining word. I knew within a page or two, this book was a slow-speed read to savour with joy. Nina Powles‘s Magnolia (Seraph Press) is the book I am currently reading. I have long been a fan, from Girls of the Drift to the glorious Luminscent). Nina’s new book is so immensely satisfying as it navigates home and not-home, identity, history, myth, the lives of women – with characteristic nimbleness, heavenly phrasing, open-heart revelations, the senses on alert, the presence of food, multiple languages. Reading bliss!

The poets and their picks

Tusiata Avia

I’m a terrible book buyer. I tend to read books given to me (because I’m cheap like that) and the shopping-bag full of books my cousin, playwright, Victor Rodger, lends to me on the regular. He has the best taste! I should probably be a better reader of New Zealand poetry in particular, but I reckon I’ve got enough things to feel guilty about.

The top three on my list of books I have read this year and love:

 

Funkhaus by Hinemoana Baker (Victoria University Press)

I love the way Hinemoana uses language to make the ethereal and the mysterious. I’m happy to not immediately be able to pin down meaning; her language allows me to be suspended between what it does to me and what it means. Poems like the incantatory Aunties and Mother – which I think of as more ‘rooted’ – make me want to sit down immediately and write a poem. In fact that is exactly what I did do when I read this book. I love a book that makes me write.

An American Sunrise Joy Harjo (WW Norton & Co)

An American Sunrise is Joy Harjo’s most recent book of poetry. Joy is Poet Laureate of the United States. I love everything Joy Harjo has written. And I mean everything. She Had Some Horses (from an early book of the same name) is one of favourite poems of all time. Elise Paschen says of her, “ Joy Harjo is visionary and a truth sayer, and her expansive imagination sweeps time, interpolating history into the present.”. I would add to that she is taulaaitu, mouth-piece for the ancestors, gods and spirits. While you’re reading Joy Harjo’s poetry, read Crazy Brave, her wonderful autobiography. It will stay with you forever.

National Anthem by Mohamed Hassan (Dead Bird Books)

When I was looking for favourite lines in this book, I couldn’t decide, sooo many – like small poems in themselves. Mohamed speaks with an iron fist in a velvet glove. His poetry is elegant and beautiful and it tells the damn truth. Someone needs to tell the damn truth – about March 15, about being Muslim in New Zealand (and in the entire western world), about the things that happen so close to us – and inside us – that are easy (and more comfy) to avert our eyes from.

Some favourite lines from White Supremacy is a song we all know the words to but never sing out loud: ‘Please come and talk on our show tomorrow/ no don’t bring that up/…

‘This isn’t about race/ this is a time for mourning/ this is about us/ isn’t she amazing/ aren’t we all’…

‘Let us hold you and cry/ our grief into your hijabs’…

Who can tell these stories in this way but a good poet with fire in his fingers, love and pain in equal measure in his heart and feet on the battleground?

There are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce Morgan Parker (Tin House)

I have to add, There are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce by Morgan Parker to every list I write forever. In my opinion, no reader of poetry should miss this. If it doesn’t grab you by the shoulders, the heart, the brain, the belly – you might be dead. From the epigraph: ‘The president is black/ she black’ (Kendrick Lamar). Morgan Parker is PRESIDENT.

Rhian Gallagher

The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry (HarperCollins) edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Susan Harris features translations of 20th century poets from around the world and is packed with surprises.

Amidst all the books I have enjoyed during 2020, this is the one that I have read and re-read and continue to come back to. It was first published in 2010. I have been slow in coming to the book. 

When a poem in another language is re-cast into English, through the empathy and skill of a translator, it seems to unsettle notions of line, rhythmn, word choice and form. Translation pushes and tugs at the boundaries of the ‘rules’ and introduces a kind of strangeness. This strangeness I experience as an opening; a feeling of potential, slippery as a an eel to articulate. It recalibrates predetermined notions and generates excitement about what a poem can do or be.

There are well-known names here: Cavafy, Lorca, Akhmatova, Ritsos, Milosz, Symborska among others. There are also many poets previously unknown to me, and many whose work is either out of print or difficult to source. It’s a diverse, inspiring array of poetic voices and, as Kaminsky says in the introduction, puts us ‘in conversation with a global poetic tradition’.

Making discoveries is one of the great pleasures of anthologies. I now have a brand new ‘to read’ list.

Rata Gordon

When I’m reading something that inspires me, I have the urge to inhabit it somehow. I find that entering into a creative process by writing with, and around, another’s words helps me to absorb them into my internal landscape. This poem was created with snippets of some of the poetry I have met recently.

Soon, we are night sailing (Hunter, p. 71)

This is the closest you can get to it:

the void, the nothing,

the black lapping mouth of the sea

and the black arching back of the sky. (Hunter, p. 71)

One still maintains a little glimmer of hope

Deep down inside

A tiny light

About the size of a speck

Like a distant star

Is spotted on the horizon this dark night (Boochani, p. 26)

Swish swish swish

as quiet as a fish. (Ranger, p. 13)

… holy women

await you

on the shore –

long having practiced the art

of replacing hearts

with God

and song (Walker, p. 7)

Today you are tumbling towards her like the ocean.

… you are becoming nearer and nearer to someone other

than yourself. (Hawken, p. 49)

I have … imagined my life ending,

or simply evaporating,

by being subsumed into a tribe of blue people. (Nelson, p. 54)

The End We Start From by Megan Hunter (2017, Picador). (Not strictly poetry, but the book feels so much like a long poem to me). Line breaks added by me.

No Friend but the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani (2020, Picador).

‘Autumn Leaves’ by Laura Ranger. In A Treasury of NZ Poems for Children edited by Paula Green (2014, Random House).

Good Night, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning by Alice Walker (1975, The Women’s Press).

Small Stories of Devotion by Dinah Hawken (1991, Victoria University Press).

Bluets by Maggie Nelson (2009, Jonathan Cape). Line breaks added by me.

Mohamed Hassan

Tusiata Avia’s The Savage Coloniser Book (Victoria University Press)

A few weeks ago, I sat in the audience at a WORD Christchurch event and watched our former poet laureate Selina Tusitala Marsh read a poem from Tusiata Avia’s new collection. It began as such:

Hey James,

yeah, you

in the white wig

in that big Endeavour

sailing the blue, blue water

like a big arsehole

FUCK YOU, BITCH.

The hall fell pin silent and a heavy fog of discomfort descended from the ceiling, and I sat in the corner brimming with mischievous glee. It was a perfect moment, watching two of the country’s most celebrated poets jointly trash the country’s so-called ‘founder’ in the most spiteful way imaginable. The audience squirmed and squirmed and I grinned and grinned.

This is how Avia’s book begins, and it never lets up. As the title subtly implies with a hammer, Avia has things she wants to say, and doesn’t care how people feel about them. She delights in the spiteful, burrows down into the uncomfortable and the impolite and pulls out nuggets of painful truths with her bare hands. They are all truths that must be said bluntly and Avia drills them home.

In Massacre, Avia reflects on her youth fighting the demons of Christchurch, and asks us if our ‘this is not us’ mantra is divorced from the history carried in the land, haunted instead by the white spirits that rose to claim lives on March 15.

The book crescendos with How to be in a room full of white people, a dizzying poem that traps us in a single moment in time and forces us to witness and squirm and eventually, hopefully, understand what it is like to be the only brown body in a foreign space, in all its literal and metaphorical significance.

This has been my most cherished book this year, bringing together Tusiata Avia’s firecracker wit and her uncanny gift of conjuring worlds that feel vivid in their weight and poignancy. Abandoning all diplomacies, this is a blazing manifesto for honest and confrontational poetry that speaks with an urgency that puts me as a writer to shame, and demands more of me at once.

Bill Manhire

Jenny Lewis, Gilgamesh Retold, (Carcanet)

I love the way poetry re-visions the past, especially the deep past. I’m thinking of books like Matthew Francis’s reworking of the Welsh epic The Mabinogi and Alice Oswald’s Memorial, a book that abandons the main storyline of Homer’s Iliad in favour of narrating the death scenes of minor characters, accompanied by extra helpings of extended simile. I’d always known about the Epic of Gilgamesh, which I have owned for about 40 years in a yellow 1960 Penguin paperback. I’ve hardly opened it, but it’s one of some nine translations of the poem that Jenny Lewis has consulted for Gilgamesh Retold, published by Carcanet some four thousand years after the stories first circulated in oral form. (Her publisher at Carcanet, Michael Schmidt, has himself written a much admired book about the poem’s origins and afterlife)

Locally Dinah Hawken has worked with this ancient material, particularly writing about Inanna, the goddess of beauty and fertility and, sometimes, war, who is one of the major figures in the Gilgamesh cycle. Dinah’s feminist sense of the ancient stories accords with Jenny Lewis’s decision, as the blurb says, to relocate the poem “to its earlier oral roots in a Sumerian society where men and women were more equal, … [where] only women were allowed to brew beer and keep taverns, and women had their own language – emesal.”

It’s as well Inanna has such a significant role in Gilgamesh, for otherwise it would be a tale about male adventuring and bonding (Gilgamesh and Enkidu) and the discovery that even the greatest heroes can never overcome death. The world of Gilgamesh also gives us a Flood, which matches and in some ways outdoes the Old Testament. I love the way Jenny Lewis has retold these stories. She doesn’t try to pad them out to produce the sorts of coherence and pacing that contemporary readers and movie-goers find comfortable, while her phrasings have an unreductive clarity and a genuinely lyrical grace. The most audacious thing she has done, and has carried off brilliantly, is to use different metrical forms to reflect the ways in which a range of different custodians/retellers have voiced and revoiced the story. You admire the 21st-century poet’s craft even as she inducts you into a baffling and unfamiliar world. All stories, Gilgamesh Retold tells us, are made by many voices, and the best of them will journey on through many more.

And now I must try and summon up the courage to give the latest version of  Beowulf a go!

Natalie Morrison

Gregory Kan, Under Glass (Auckland University Press)

My esteemed colleague, with one hand around his Friday swill-bottle: ‘I hate poetry – no one cares, no one reads it anymore.’

Gregory Kan, with two suns infiltrating the long ride on the train
to Paekākāriki, illustrates otherwise: Under Glass lulls like a really disquieting guided meditation.

After lockdown, it is the first book I read outside our ‘bubble’.
Threading through an internal landscape, somehow a place I recognise.
‘Here, there are two suns. The ordinary sun is in the sky overhead. The other sun
is eating its way out from inside me.’

Certain lines, with their mystical insistence, snag on me and come back again from time to time:
‘Everything that surrounds the second sun is not part of it but nonetheless makes it what it is.’
It’s as if some lines have been dreaming of themselves. The book invites a gentle inspection. A glass bead held right up against the eye. A shutter flipped open over a stark interior.

‘When you move
a look moves inside me
and eats there what I eat.’

Once, a kind individual in Paekākāriki, their hands busy with a teapot, told me: ‘Those who know what it is,
fall on it like starving people.’

When Litcrawl comes, we make our way to some of the events. The room has sucked a crowd in.
Spells for 2020, with Rebecca Hawkes, Rata Gordon, Stacey Teague, Arihia Latham, Rachel McAlpine and Miriama Gemmell (thank you for your entrancing words), reminds me of how poetry is still something people might come in search of. Visitations of bees, airline heights and morphing walls. There is a sense of relief.

A crowd still feels like a dream, and a dream still feels like the sea. Gregory writes that ‘the sea is a house made of anything. The sea is a story about anything, told by someone unfit for storytelling. More than what I can know, and much more than I can understand.’

Under Glass, which wasn’t exactly written for this year (no ordinary year), seems to slot into it.

My steamed colleague, with one hand steadying the banister: ‘I guess Bob Dylan is okay, though.’

Note: I asked my colleague’s permission for quoting him. He said he was fine with it, as long as a mob of angry poets didn’t come knocking.

Jackson Nieuwland

2020 was the year we finally got a book from Hana Pera Aoake (A bathful of kawakawa and hot water Compound Press). I had been waiting for this for so so long. It’s a taonga that I am incredibly grateful for. Ever since I first read Hana’s work they have been one of my favourite writers. Their writing is both clever and wise, of the moment and timeless, pop culture and fine art, Aotearoa and international.

This is a book I will be returning to over and over again for inspiration, electrification, nourishment, and comfort. I would recommend it to anyone.

Other poetry books I read and loved this year: Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky, The Book of Frank by CA Conrad, hoki mai by Stacey Teague, Hello by Crispin Best, and Head Girl by Freya Daly Sadgrove.

Nina Mingya Powles

For most of this year I could only read things in fragments. I could only hold on to small parts of poems, essays, short stories in my head before they floated away. This year I sought out poetry by Indigenous writers. Of these two books, the first I read slowly, dipping in and out like testing the surface of cool water. The other I read hungrily all at once.

Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz (Graywold Press) reminded me why I write poetry, at a time when writing anything at all felt impossible. Diaz’s heavy, melodic love poems circled around my head for days: “My lover comes to me like darkfall – long, / and through my open window.” But it is her writing about water and the body that changed me. In this book, water is always in motion, a current that passes through time, memory and history. Her long poem “The First Water of the Body” is a history of the Colorado River, a sacred river: “I mean river as a verb. A happening. It is moving with me right now.”

A bathful of kawakawa and hot water by Hana Pera Aoake (Compound Press) came to me when I needed it most, nourishing me and warming me. I haven’t yet held a copy of the book, but I read it on my laptop over two days and have carried parts of it around in my body ever since: “I speak broken French and Português into the broken yellow gloaming.” A bathful of kawakawa and hot water is a searing, lyrical work of poetry, memoir, and political and cultural commentary. Like the title suggests, it was a balm for me, but also a reminder of the ongoing fight for our collective dream of a better world, and most importantly, that “racism is not just a product of psychological malice, but a product of capitalism.”

Poetry Shelf Lounge: Dylan Horrocks and Tara Black discuss This Is Not a Pipe

Tara Black makes comics and sits in the front row of book events so she can draw the writers. Her work appears on The SaplingStasis Journal and her website, taracomics.comThis Is Not a Pipe is her first book.  

Dylan Horrocks is the author of the modern classic Hicksville (1998; new edition VUP 2010), and Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen (VUP 2014).

Victoria University Press page

Photo credit: Ebony Lamb

Poetry Shelf review: Tusiata Avia’s The Savage Coloniser Book

Tusiata Avia, The Savage Coloniser Book, Victoria University Press, 2020

I have just read Selina Tusitala Marsh’s brilliant review of The Savage Coloniser Book at the Academy of New Zealand Literature, and if you read one book review this year, from first line to last line, read this. It pays sublime tribute to Tusiata Avia’s book at a personal level and at a wider level. This is a taster:

The Savage Coloniser Book poetically documents our wounds, and by doing this provides poetic catharsis. Avia goes through the wound – colonisation, slavery, genocide and racism – and back through it several times. It’s an uncomfortable read in many places. Some might avert their eyes, refuse to lift off their own bandages to see, but it’s a wound that belongs to all of us and one shared by people of colour the world over. These are wounds that leak into our day-to-day lives, whether you’re paying in a bookshop or praying in a mosque, whether you are having coffee with blithely racist friends or standing in a protest line.

Tusiata Avia places herself – her ravaged heart, her experience, wounds, scars, thinking, feeling, her urge to speak, sing, perform, make poetry, no matter the price, the energy needed, holding history out, with tempered rage, with unadulterated rage, quietly, loudly, singing, shining, her heart on the travesties, the coloniser, the colonised, on the Pākehā who crossed lines into abuse, and into the light there, right there the unspeakable abuse that needs to be heard, whacking Captain Cook from his pedestal, sighting Ihumātao, the Australian bush fires, ‘The white fella houses go up in smoke. // They start living in caravans / like they’re the dispossessed’, and the refugees, in lines of sight, heart lines ear lines, ah the point of the blade when you hear the Manus Island refugees, the plundering of lives and loves and dreams and ways of being across time, the plundering of the land, the living growing nurturing land, ‘you might even have to remove a mountain’ to get to the ore, Jacinda’s house colonised by a Polynesian family, worried daughter listening to Jacinda and her daily Covid briefing, translating for worried mother, worried daughter, finding her mother’s Broadsheets, the gutted woman, the abortioned woman, her lovers, her daughter who wants her mother to be more specific, but she is disabled with epilepsy, saying thingy to beloved daughter, disinfectant wiping surfaces for her beloved mother, in the time of Covid, in the time of reckoning, the near death, again the near death, epilepsy on the floor, her passed father a presence, the white people who claim white as colour, and more, and worse, and notes for the critic with their suffocating paradigms and agendas, racism, and standing in the room with the white people who are finding it hard to be white and just won’t shut up, and she places a prayer, a prayer for water, her daughter, the stars, lungs, child, air, the reader and more – in her poems, in these necessary poems.

dear Tusiata

hold your book to my ear

hold your book to my eye

hold your book to my lungs

hold your book in my bloodstream

hold your book up for my forebears

hold your book up for my friends and family

hold your book in my heart

hold your book, hold your book

love Paula

Selina Tusitala Marsh’s review at ANZL

Poetry Shelf: Tusiata‘s ‘Love in the Time of Primeminiscinda’ (The Savage Coloniser Book)

Tusiata reads ‘Massacre’ (The Savage Coloniser Book)

Leilani Tamu review at KeteBooks

Faith Wilson review at RNZ National

Victoria University Press page

‘Protest is telling the truth in public … We use our bodies, our words, our art and our sounds both to tell the truth about the pain we endure and to demand the justice that we know is possible.’ DeRay Mckesson, On the Other Side of Freedom  (quoted at front of book)

Poetry Shelf review: Bill Manhire’s Wow

Bill Manhire, Wow, Victoria University Press, 2020

Excuse me if I laugh.

The roads are dark and large books block our path.

The air we breathe is made of evening air.

The world is longer than the road that brings us here.

from ‘The Armchair Traveller’

Over my decades of reading New Zealand poetry, some poets stand out. To my discovery of Hone Tuwhare in my secondary-school library in the early 1970s, I add the joy of reading Jenny Bornholdt, Bernadette Hall, JC Sturm, Michele Leggott, Emma Neale, Tusiata Avia, Cilla McQueen, Anna jackson, Bill Manhire. So many other poets have given me goosebumps across the decades, poets who have made me pick up a pen and write, who have hooked my attention and then kept me listening. What is it that makes a particular poet, such as Bill Manhire, our first national poet laureate, a favoured return over years? For me it starts with music, moves through heart, silence, mystery, ideas, wit. I seem to favour bridges into poetry thickets, and these thickets might appear within a handful of words or a book-long sequence.

At WORD Christchurch a few weeks ago, I went to some excellent sessions. I have already written about the miracle of being there in the time of Covid, along with my festival highlights – but how fitting one favourite was the Bill Manhire / John Campbell conversation celebrating Bill’s new collection, Wow. John discussed the lasting effect of being in a Bill Manhire class at university and reading his poetry. I carried away such warmth and enthusiasm for poems and what poetry can do. John launched the conversation by explaining Bill’s impact on him: ‘A light went on in my head and heart which has never gone out’. This line has stuck with me. Poetry turns on internal lights. Gifts us an internal galaxy system. Coincidentally the house lights are always up in WORD sessions so it felt like a living-room or café conversation without the usual audience / speaker barrier at work. I kept wanting to join in! Afterwards fans lined up with the book to get signed and I pictured the queue of people racing home to find their own Wow enthusiasms. I will barely scrape the surface of how many paths through the collection.

Wow, co-published by Carcanet in the UK and Victoria University Press here, is one of four winter recommendations by the Poetry Book Society, an organisation TS Eliot and friends founded in 1953.

I begin with Wow’s preface: ‘they’ve cleared away / the clearings’.

The mystery is potent. The image haunting. I was sitting in my Ōtautahi hotel room, looking out at the parking-lot clearings, with Wow in hand, and I couldn’t stop leapfrogging from city clearings to bush clearings to mental clearings to poem clearings. And I couldn’t stop wondering what replaces the clearing, and the word bounced about in my head so much it lost sense. And then it became vital: we need clearings. We need clearings in the city, and the bush, and in our heads. Maybe we need clearings in poems, where the the light and dark intermingle, and the glints sit next to the ominous.

Thickets and clearings. The first poem is a song of the extinct huia, a fitting call onto the book’s musical terrain, and to uncertain and unsettling presents and futures. Such a poignant note to enter a collection with:

I lived among you once

and now I can’t be found

I’m made of things that vanish

a feather on the ground

from ‘Huia’

Turn the page and ‘Untitled’, a short poem, is an altogether different form of song. The dark edges are prominent, the silence (the unspoken, the withheld) a hook. This poem is the complete Manhire package: you get music, silence, mystery, dark edges, light turns.

Untitled

This book about extinct birds is heavier than any bird:

heavier than the dark bird eating my heart,

page after page of abandoned wings.

I lift it up and sit it on my lap

and listen to it purring.

Bill Manhire

John invited Bill to read the four-lined ‘A Really Nice Trip’, where the speaker visits several ‘Pleasant’ places: ‘Then we went all the way out to Pleasant Point.’ The audience laughed and loved it, and I pictured everyone picturing a mindstream of pleasant places. The poem is a wee joke. The poem turns up in reviews and on festival stages. The poem is also like a clearing for our own pleasant places, in my case, reeking of summer and green tea in a flask. Ah such a tongue-in-cheek, underrated word that scoots over how a Valley or a Flat or a Point can be satisfying, pleasing, a downright pleasure.

Yes! Bill is the maestro of ordinariness (a bit like Jenny Bornholdt is too) where an economy of words releases any number of treats. There is comfort in the ordinary – that pleasant place – that is sometimes so ordinary it becomes unreal, super-real. This kind of poetic ordinariness makes pinpricks on your eyelids, and you settle back in your chair or hammock as the armchair traveller, the poetry traveller, and it is altogether wonderful. I quoted the first stanza from ‘The Armchair Traveller’ at the start of this review, because it is this one of those classic Manhire poems that is going to haunt like ‘Kevin’ haunts you, or ‘The Ladder’ or ‘Erebus Voices’ or ‘Hotel Emergencies’ or ‘The Victims of Lightning’. Here is the last verse:

Time now to let the story take its course,

just settle back and let the driver drive.

Bliss is it late at night to be alive,

learning to yield, and not to strive.

from ‘The Armchair Traveller’

‘The Armchair Traveller’ is a poetry thicket at its very best – you get the light and dark, the mystery, the silence and the exquisite music. There is comfort but there is also discomfort. Perhaps the comfort –for me even in the darkest threats – is expanded by Bill’s fondness for rhyme and repetition. At times the rhyme resembles an incantation, a list, or repeating sounds, an insistent beat, but at other times, rhyme feeds the mysterious business of being human. ‘Warm Ocean’ is full of repetition and rhyme, assonance and alliteration, a sweet concatenation of musical effects and human connections, both within hearing and at a whisper.

Don’t play the music don’t play the music

says the man

who walks around town saying

over and over don’t play the music

all songs being made

as we know from things that hurt

ice that melts flames that fall from the sky

yes all of that and more

and the father goes on singing

long after his daughter leaves the church

from ‘Warm Ocean’

Yes! Wow offers multiple impacts as you read. Three poems in a row are heart catchers: ‘Knots’, ‘Our Teacher’, ‘The Sky’. Things are missed and missing. So poignant. Such treasures. How to tear yourself apart from the magical movement of ‘The Sky’? Impossible:

A man comes by with coal in a wheelbarrow,

muttering, muttering. He wants

to sell us warmth, his feet don’t leave the ground.

We think that we will always miss the sky.

It says look up whenever we look down.

from ‘The Sky’

Read Wow and you get story and song, light and dark, the surreal, constant surprise, but there is also always wit and humour. I laughed out loud at the indignant woman who thought she had phoned the cattery to get her vegetarian cat named Coleslaw back, and the bemused listener couldn’t get a word in edgeways. ‘The Lazy Poet’ is hilarious as it overlays cricket and poetry (‘He wonders about the word “thicket” …/ then turns on the cricket’) until ‘rain stops play’. I also laughed out loud at ‘The Deerculler’s Wife’, as it signals a poem that might be drowning, or yelling to get attention, or even blowing a yellow whistle.

Like many poets, Bill uses a roving speaker, who may or may not be autobiographical, invented, borrowed, an amalgamation of voices, experiences, imaginings. In a blog he wrote for Carcanet, he talks about the action between the speaker in the poem and the person who writes, and the way characters, one in particular, who keep turning up in his poetry. This nimble voice keeps us on our reading toes. Bill’s vagabond ‘I’ is best friends with an inquisitive and acquisitive eye and ear as it gathers in the world, real or imagined.

Wow will haunt you – so many of these poems have joined my list of memorable poetry encounters (see my list above to add to). The baby in the title poem says ‘wow’ while the big brother says ‘also’. This new collection sparks both the ‘wow’ moments and the ‘also’ moments. Get lost in its glorious thickets and then find your way out to take stock of the ordinary (and out-of-the-ordinary) world about you.

Bill closed his WORD session by reading ‘Little Prayers’, written in response to the Christchurch terrorist attack, 15 March 2019. This is a poem to hold in your heart. I will leave you with the opening verse, in the hope you will open the book, in your armchair or hammock, and begin reading:

Let the closing line be the opening line

Let us open ourselves to grief and shame

Let pain be felt and be felt again

May our eyes see when they cease crying

Let the closing line be the opening line

from ‘Little Prayers’

Bill Manhire’s most recent books include Some Things to Place in a Coffin (2017), Tell Me My Name (with Hannah Griffin and Norman Meehan, 2017) and The Stories of Bill Manhire (2015). He was New Zealand’s inaugural poet laureate, and founded and until recently directed the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington. He has edited major anthologies, including, with Marion McLeod, the now classic Some Other Country: New Zealand’s Best Short Stories (1984).

Victoria University Press page

Poetry Shelf plays favourites: Freya Daly Sadgrove’s ‘THIN AIR’

Freya Daly Sadgrove (Head Girl, Victoria University Press, 2020)

Freya Daly Sadgrove’s debut collection, Head Girl, arrived in the world in February, and like a number of local poetry books missed a featured spot on Poetry Shelf as Covid affected my concentration and ability to write. I read Head Girl when it came out and was in the grip of its searing self exposures, the cracking lines, the glints, the lightning, the darknesses, the dread, the anger. This is poetry that tears, that is torn apart, that is so utterly alive it hurts. Freya was part of my Wild Honey session at Christchurch’s WORD festival and unsurprisingly was an audience hit.

During one of Auckland’s Covid lockdowns, I decided to share poems that have haunted me from new books – the kind of poem that pulls you back because on each reading it grips. I am thinking of how I play a new album I love over and over – thinking of the way Reb Fountain and Nadia Reid’s new music has been on repeat this year.

Freya’s ‘THIN AIR’ has got under my skin, oxygenating my blood with its surprising skids and smashes. Like the skid and smash from ‘stillness’ to ‘barb’. Like the terror of asthmatic ways and the stench of papier-mâchéing. Like the word ‘breathe’ and the word ‘survived’. But I find I don’t want to dissect these poems for you. These welcome poem hauntings. They just are. Little poem magnets. Little vitamin shots. Little head trips. Nebuliser albums.

Freya Daly Sadgrove is a writer, performer and theatre maker from Pōneke. She has a Master of Arts from the International Institute of Modern Letters, and her work has appeared in various publications in Aotearoa, Australia and the US. Head Girl is her first book. She is also the architect of Show Ponies, an ongoing poetry extravaganza that appeared at both VERB literary festivals in Pōneke this year.

Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: Tusiata Avia’s ‘Covid in the time of Primeminiscinda’

Covid in the time of Primeminiscinda

I’m not listening to Jacinda

I’m going to my friend’s party and all the herbalists are there

listing all the things:

Thieves Oil, whiteywood, kānuka, honeysuckle, pōhutukawa,

horopito, elderberry syrup.

It’s really easy, they say, all you have to do is go for many

miles into the wilds, recognise the right things, pick them,

dry them in a confusing and special way, boil them, decant

them, strain them into pure glass bottles and seal them.

You’ll be lucky to find them for sale anymore.

This freaks me out so I go home.

Level 1

I’m listening to Jacinda

I’m telling myself that I’m staying the hell away from herbalists

and Facebook

I’m sitting in cafés with the panickers, the terrified and the lonely.

I know there is plenty to panic about.

I’m staying six feet away

chatting to the old man with the stroke in his arm and his leg.

How are you? he asks. I’m good, I answer.

I’m watching the surprise in his droopy eye

and his lopsided smile.

I’m talking to the German Hare Krishna, who owns the café,

and asking her how she copes with everyone coming in

and eating their anxiety and leaving saliva on the plates.

They’re just stimulated by all of this, she says, but I have Krishna

and I will be all right.

Level 2

I’m waking up at five in the morning and I’m thinking maybe

Jacinda has become my Krishna

Hare Jacinda

Rama Primeminiscinda

I take her picture down and light my incense to nothing at all.

I’m asking my eighty-six-year-old mother to ring me half

an hour before she comes into the same room as

me and my daughter, so I can disinfect:

the light switches and the door knobs and the cupboard handles

and the fridge door and the microwave door and the knife-

drawer handle and the taps and the dishwasher door and the

bench and the tabletop and her dining-room chair and the

back of her chair and the landline phone and the TV remote

and the heat-pump remote

and then I walk quickly to the other end of the house

and disinfect the toilet and the flush button and all the light

switches and the taps and the empty towel rail.

I keep reminding my daughter:

Imagine Uncle is lying on the floor with his feet here and

his head there, that’s how far you have to stay away from Granny.

I speak loudly to Mum (cos she’s pretty deaf):

Stay away Mum, stay away.

Before my brother and my niece arrive for the last time,

my daughter is deep-frying panikeke

I say the word dangerous more than fifteen times

then I’m standing under the shower and forcing myself to

breathe

just leaving her with the boiling oil and standing under

the water and trying to breathe. I am just having a shower I am just

having a shower I am just having a shower.

I’m listening to Jacinda and clicking on her message to the nation

and the full media briefing she does afterwards

and the science woman with bright pink hair who shows us how

to wash our hands.

I am calling a briefing for my mother and daughter.

I am Jacinda

I’m plugging myself in to the TV and turning the volume up

loud enough that my daughter

has to cover her ears

and my mum can hear.

Are you ready, I ask them? Are you ready?

Level 3

Jacinda is saying tomorrow is lockdown

I know my daughter is out of sanitary pads and I’m not sure

if the taxis will keep running, so, I’m going to Wainoni

Pak’nSave with six zillion other people.

Jacinda told us to shop normally.

I’m telling myself: Shop normally shop normally shop normally

I’m forcing myself to buy one packet of toilet paper

and four cans of baby beetroot. A woman is taking photos of all

the different kinds of sanitary pads to send to her daughter.

She steps back and bumps into me. I’m trying not to freak out,

I’m forcing myself to walk slowly around the supermarket

walk slowly walk slowly walk slowly.

I’m going back to the health and beauty aisle and searching for

Rescue Remedy and not finding it

I see a guy I met on Tinder ages ago and didn’t sleep with

and he says, Well, how do you tell the story?

and gives me a look as if it is a thing that neither of us

could know, as if it is a thing perhaps no one could know.

In the carpark a couple of young bogans

stick their heads out of the car window

and cough as loud as they can, laugh and drive off.

I’m reading what the microbiologist has said about

disinfecting.

You have to let it sit for ten minutes

or you’re just moving the bacteria around.

I thought I was doing a good job keeping my mum safe.

I thought I was keeping her safe, so if she does die,

at least I will know I did all the right things

but I’ve just been moving it around.

Level 4

I’m listening to the bugle call in the kitchen.

Jesus isn’t coming back or Armageddon

or even the end of Level 4

but here is the moment of silence, so I stop

whatever ten-minute meal I am making

and remember those who have fallen: the Anzacs and the Covid

cluster down the road at the Rosewood Rest Home.

Tusiata Avia from The Savage Coloniser Book Victoria University Press, 2020

Tusiata Avia is an acclaimed poet, performer and children’s writer. Her previous poetry collections are Wild Dogs Under My Skirt (2004; also staged as a theatre show, most recently Off-Broadway, winning the 2019 Outstanding Production of the Year), Bloodclot (2009) and the Ockham-shortlisted Fale Aitu | Spirit House (2016). Tusiata has held the Fulbright Pacific Writer’s Fellowship at the University of Hawai‘i in 2005 and the Ursula Bethell Writer in Residence at University of Canterbury in 2010. She was the 2013 recipient of the Janet Frame Literary Trust Award, and in 2020 was appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to poetry and the arts. Her latest collection, The Savage Coloniser Book, has just been published by Victoria University Press.

Victoria University Press page

Poetry Shelf interview with Kate Camp

Photo credit: Grant Maiden

‘And I think it is this sense of connection, in all Kate’s poems, which sent me scrambling for a word like spiritual. Because what I feel when I read Kate’s work is that the great mysteries of the world, the omnipresent magnificence, the unexplainable and the truly awesome, rest in being human among humans. Take your ley lines and chakras and give me the oesophagus and the eyeball, the memory of a dusty school hall, that night, that party, remember the small blasts of happiness, our bloody painful hearts.’

Maria McMillan, launch speech for Kate Camp’s How to Be Happy Though Human

Poet, essayist and literary commentator, Kate Camp has published six previous poetry collections. Her debut collection, Unfamiliar Legends of the Stars, won the NZSA Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poetry at the 1999 Montana NZ Book Awards. Her fourth, The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls, won the 2011 NZ Post Book Awards Best Book of Poetry. Her poems have appeared in magazines and journals in New Zealand and internationally. For a number of years she has discussed classic literature – Kate’s Klassics – on with Kim Hill’s Saturday spot on Radio NZ.

To mark Victoria University Press’s publication of Kate’s How to Be Happy Though Human, Kate answered a few questions for Poetry Shelf.

So many things can go wrong

inside a human life, it’s almost comical.

You find yourself in a house,

in a night, with everyone you love

breathing in and out somewhere

and if you thought about it properly

you’d just throw up in terror.

 

from ‘Panic button’

 

Paula: Have you always been an avid reader and writer?

Kate: Family legend is that I came home from my first day of school and told my mother I could read. She said, oh ok read this. I replied, well I don’t know any words yet.

I didn’t learn to read particularly early, but once I did I quickly became obsessive about it, all the usual reading under the covers, walking down the street with a book on my way to school, re-reading books over and over again.

Paula: Can you name a few poets that have caught your attention across the decades?

Kate: Lauris Edmond is a key one for me among New Zealand poets. I’m reading Fleur Adcock’s selected poems at the moment and remembering what an important influence she was for me early on. And Jenny Bornholdt, her work and mine are so different, and yet I always feel such an affinity with her poems.

In more recent years / decades I’ve got into a lot of poetry in translation. Czesław Miłosz is one I come back to again and again, and Wisława Szymborska. Like Bornholdt, Mary Oliver is a poet I feel is very different from me, but I love her.

Paula: You acknowledge your writing group. How important is it to be part of this as a poet?

Kate: My whole career I’ve had a writing group. When I first started writing seriously I was on the creative writing course at Victoria in 1995, so I was in a weekly workshop. After that finished, around half the course members formed a group together and we met for years. Then in 2003 I joined my current group and it’s been going that whole time.

They are my first readers, my best readers, my greatest motivators. We follow the “Iowa workshop” style where we read our poem aloud, the others talk about it, and the poet just listens and says nothing. It’s such a brilliant, powerful way to understand how a poem is landing.

A liquorice cable

wires hand to mouth.

 

Proud magpies

raced the dawn home.

 

Asphalt remains lively

weeks after its laying.

 

from ‘Unfamiliar Legends of the Stars’

Paula: Your debut collection Unfamiliar Legend of the Stars came out in 1998. Were you writing poetry much before this?

Kate: I’d always written poems in a notebook but never really shown them to anyone or thought I’d do anything with them. I knew about the creative writing course at Victoria, I was a student there studying English and I knew that Emily Perkins, who was the older sister of a school friend, had done the course and become a published author.

I thought, I’ll apply for the course three times, if I don’t get in I’ll just give up on it. I got in the first time I applied and it was really only then that I started writing with any focus or seriousness.

Paula: That first book really caught my attention – it felt fresh and rendered the world alive with possibilities. Can you remember what motivated you as a poet then, what mattered when you shaped a poem?

Kate: I think what motivated me then was a sense that I saw the world in a certain way and I wanted to share that way of seeing with others. And I guess I felt the power of poetry, and I wanted to wield that power myself.

What mattered to me then was to write a poem that was clever, surprising, and made you feel something.

Having said that, when I’m actually writing a poem I try not to think at all. About anything. I find that gets in the way. The Canadian poet Christian Bok said “take care of the sound and the sense will take care of itself.” That’s how I’ve always written, just going with what comes up and trying not to switch my thinking brain on until I’ve finished the draft, and it’s time to edit.

Violin was out the back of my flat when I was nineteen.

I would put the speakers in the garden

and play ‘Be Mine Tonight’ again and again

running inside to rewind the tape.

He’s shocked to find I am middle aged.

I’m not shocked. Inside me are Russian dolls

of the women and girls I’ve been before

each more beautiful and unhappy than the current.

 

from ‘One train may hide another’

Paula: Your new collection How to Be Happy Though Human (you have a deft hand with titles!) is a gathering of new and selected poems. I like the way you have placed the new poems first and then we move through your books from the debut to the most recent. Often the new poems go at the end. I love this choice! Any comments?

Kate: I read a lot of selected poems and I tend to read them backwards, in chunks, so that I’m reading the poet’s most recent poems first. Otherwise with a poet like Milosz you’re starting in the 1940s and the poems can feel really dated. But if you start with the new ones, by the time you get back there you’re kind of in the zone.

That doesn’t really apply to my selected though as my career hasn’t been that long, at least not by Milosz standards! I just wanted to start with new poems because, you know, new poems are always the ones you love the most. The best poem is the next one.

And I go back to Saturday

we dance with other people

other people’s children,

create community with physics.

 

Memory is a kind of  mourning.

We take each other’s hands

as if they were made for that

and we form a circle.

 

from ‘How to be happy though human’

 

Paula: Your new book offers perfect routes through the rewards of your poetry. The physical world is refreshed, relationships between things and people are made visible, there are surprising connections, and always a glorious poetic fluency. Did you encounter any poetry stumbling blocks or epiphanies across the decades?

Kate: There was a fairly big gap between Beauty Sleep and The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls. I was having a crap time in my personal life, and I felt really stuck creatively. I was scared to write about my failures, my despair, my loneliness, my fucked up life. And I was scared to write about “the human condition” like a Milosz or a Mary Oliver, I felt – who am I  to write about the meaning of life? On both fronts my ego and my vulnerability was in the way.

But then I realised, the artists I most admired were writing poems and songs of utter devastation and heartbreak and disaster. And I didn’t think they were losers, I thought they were magnificent.

And I realised that I was never going to be anything other than a middle class New Zealand woman who grew up on Timbacryl adverts and 70s singer songwriters, and that I had just as much right as the next poet to plumb the depths of the human psyche.

I think that book marked a “fuck it” point for me where I decided just to write the poems that are in me, however depressing, distasteful or megalomaniacal they may be.

I take the last few turns in darkness

steep, short of breath

these legs have been mine all my life.

Hot hands. Small nights within my lungs.

 

We are fortunate to live in a world.

We are fortunate to live in a world

where some person, some man

is painting railings on the zig zag

 

and when he finished

he could have raised his eyes

and seen, beyond the black-tree hills

some ragged and fast-moving clouds.

 

from ‘Walking up the zig zag’

Paula: I just adore the new poems housed under the title ‘How to Be Happy Though Human’. Now and then I post a poem that has really haunted me in a new collection – and this whole section haunts me. The poems stick to me – I think the title is a key. These poems are intimate and revelatory, physical and movement-rich. Again the surprising juxtapositions: hanging out the washing, Watergate, your mother. Scenes become luminous. Family matters. There is a poetic heartbeat. Would you see any changes in the poetry process?

Kate: Almost all of these poems have been written since I came back from the Menton fellowship, where I was writing prose – a collection of memoir essays. I can definitely see the influence of that. These poems are looser, more prosy in style, and in many cases are straightforwardly autobiographical. They’re also long. Pulling together this book made me realise that my poems have got very long lately!

Paula: Do you have doubt tagging along? Is there a particular poem that was hard to write?

Kate: Most poems I try to write either don’t happen at all, or turn out to be not that good and get abandoned. But every poem I write that turns out good, I write in one go, in an hour or so. I will revise it later but usually not a huge amount. That’s just my process, it’s kind of scattershot but when it’s working, it’s easy, so I don’t really find any poem hard to write. I just throw away a lot of attempted poems.  

My main doubt is whether I will ever write a good poem again. The first sensation when I write something I like is relief.

Tom Waits records the sound of frying chicken

that’s how he achieves his pops and crackles

Our old unit had a crooked arm,

it was a trunk of wood with woven speakers.

 

As I child I worried about forgetting:

the hexagonal handle, a creamy honey cell,

that flaw in the lino resembling Donald Duck

while the others of its kind looked like grey bells.

 

sometimes life would seem too big, even then

an empty Sunday when you drifted as a ghost.

I saw Bonnie and Clyde on such a day,

as I recall, in black and white

 

from ‘Snow White’s coffin’

Paula: What poem really works or matters to you?

Kate: The poem “Snow White’s Coffin” is an important poem for me. It covers a lot of abiding interests for me – found facts, childhood memories, what makes life meaningful when you’re an atheist. It draws on something I thought on a lot when I was living in Berlin, the tension between intellect as the most human thing of all and the intellect as dehumanising. There’s also a tone of anger and despair in it which is quite primal – the word “howling” is in it, which is not a word anyone puts in a poem lightly.

In my last few books, the title poem is a poem that is really important to me – one that functions as a kind of tuning fork for the whole collection.

Paula: Do you have any tips for emerging poets?

Kate: Read poetry by other people. If you don’t like reading poetry, you’re not a poet, you’re just a bit of a dick.

Paula: What else do you love to do apart from writing?

Kate: Conversations and laughing are my favourite things. I love to sing with my choir. I love to watch Netflix. I love to dance. I love to drink to excess, rarely but with gusto. I love doing escape rooms with my nephew. I love looking out the window while drinking tea and listing to podcasts about American politics.

Victoria University Press author page

Poetry Shelf poets on poems: Rachel Lockwood on essa may ranapiri’s ‘she cut her face shaving’

                             ‘She Cut Her Face Shaving’ essa may ranapiri

(from ransack, Victoria University Press, 2019)

essa may ranapiri’s work frequently explores the uncomfortable boundaries that exist in binary gender, and uses form and technique to push readers away from conventional approaches to both gender and poetry.  Everything in their piece ‘she cut her face shaving’ works to push the reader towards a new space, from the vocabulary and imagery to the way the lines are arranged on the page.

The arrangement of the work on the page exemplifies the subtle ways that ranapiri affects the reader. Rather than proceeding straight down the page, ‘she cut her face shaving’ begins to drift right from the second line. The final shape evokes images that reflect those in the poem – the drip of blood, the curve of a neck- but also reflect a preoccupation with resisting convention.  Throughout their collection ransack, words drift and explode across the page in varying arrangements. The visual aspect connects to the subject matter, which centres on ranapiri’s identity as a takatapui and non-binary individual. This poem is a microcosm of an effect found throughout this work- the reader’s eye is physically drawn away from conventional pattern, into a new space and shape that ranapiri has created.

Form and content collide again in the fifth line. Ending this line with the word testosterone is a confirmation of a non-cis experience that is only hinted at the beginning of the poem. Positioned at half-way, this line offers an opportunity to the reader to consider the first section in a new light, and prepares them for the impact of the second section. The deliberate use of pronoun  immediately afterwards reinforces this transitionary moment. The pronoun use is sparing throughout this work, but rich with meaning, drawing connection between ownership and the body. The title itself gives context to the poem, ‘her chin’ positions the reader as an outsider in this situation. Garments and body parts that could be ascribed ownership are not, instead they become ‘the pencil skirt’, ‘the hair’, ‘the jaw’. Ownership appears again in this vital fifth line- ‘that testosterone/ bought her’. After this moment, both the Adam’s apple and the ‘lateness’ become hers again. The pronouns here own this experience, and are unafraid to do so. 

The slash is a dominant feature of this poem, and serves multiple purposes. One that immediately pushes itself forward is the echo, again,  of the ink on the page and the action of the work. Lines that are not broken up by the slash are broken up instead by the line break. Nothing goes on for longer than four words. These short, sharp lines, remind the reader of the pattern of shaving, the short strokes, and in one particularly poignant use – the ‘/cut/’ of hair seems at once to reference the ‘cut’ of the title. Additionally, it breaks the flow of the reader. There appears to be no particular rhythm to the slashes or line breaks, simply a disruption. The disruption to the face by the cut, perhaps, or the disruption to the presumed reader represented by a non-binary figure.

Another strong use of the slash is the way it abstracts the body. Every part of the body, down to the clothes being worn, have their own line. Here the body is represented not as a whole, but as separate pieces. The reader is invited to consider the way we read these pieces as masculine or feminine within the context of the poem and its title. The limited pronoun use works in conjunction with this, separating the pieces not only from each other, but also from a singular ownership of this body. Once this space between body and self is established, ranapiri jams the masculine and feminine together, setting the reader off balance. Gender has remained ambiguous before this moment, and could be intentionally misread to provide a more cis-normative view. ranapiri quashes this in the seventh line, bringing that all important ‘her adam’s apple’ into play. Immediately the subject of the poem comes into view, shedding new light on to the readers experience, and preparing us for the final two lines.

What all of these techniques have in common are the spaces both literal and figurative in the story. ranapiri seems to be again referencing the final part of their work. What is missed out, what we are ‘late’ to, preoccupies this poem, haunting every line and every sparing word. ranapiri creates in this work a space where identity can be celebrated and mourned in the same breath, the past and present as well as hopes for the future tumbled up together.

Rachel Lockwood

Rachel Lockwood is Hawke’s Bay born and bred but now living in Wellington and studying a BA at VUW. She was a 2019 National Schools Poetry Award finalist, and has previously been published in Starling.

You can hear Rachel read her poem in Starling 10 here

essa may ranapiri (Ngāti Raukawa/Tainui/Ngāti Takatāpui/Clan Gunn/Highgate) is a person or some shit / or whatever / they wrote a book of poems called ransack / it’s still in th world / the only time they use they/them pronouns for themselves is in these bios / isn’t that funny / thx goes out to their ancestors / who are as big as everything / just wow / just everything / they will write until they’re dead

Monday Poem: You can read essa’s poem ‘when i was born i didn’t say anything’ here

Poetry Shelf poets on poems: Anna Jackson on Bill Manhire’s ‘Across Brooklyn’

One of the things I like about what poetry can allow is the holding open of a sense of mystery even when there is nothing obvious that needs to be solved.  I find this in Bill Manhire’s elliptical “Across Brooklyn.”  That it is a poem about mortality is no mystery: the very first line places the speaker of the poem in “the street where they still make coffins.”  We are given, in fact, a very vividly realised scene, with concrete details we can visualise, and hear – planks and nails, darkening entrances, the sound of someone whistling.  Yet the significance of these details doesn’t seem quite limited to the literal meaning of them, though it is hard in this poem to point to any obvious symbolic meaning they might hold.  The mystery of the poem is, perhaps, simply the mystery of our unease about our own mortality, in this poem figured as a kind of uncanny tourism:

Across Brooklyn

This is the street where they still make coffins:

the little workshops, side by side.

I pass them with my daughter on our walk to the river.

Are we seeking the bridge itself,

Or the famous, much-reported view?

A few planks and nails lie around,

And each of the entrances seems to darken.

Far back, out of sight, someone is whistling.

Yes, I suppose we do walk a little faster.

There is a faint noise of hammering, too.

Bill Manhire 

from Lifted Victoria University Press, 2005, reissued as a VUP Classic in 2018

The first line of the poem introduces the coffins that the rest of the poem seems to try to run away from, passing the coffins by on the way to the bridge.  Brooklyn Bridge is well known for its view – these are tourists, looking for well-known sights – but this is a bridge well known in poetry too, so well known that I misremembered the title of the poem not as “Across Brooklyn” but as the more expected “Across Brooklyn Bridge.”  I might have been thinking of Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” or Hart Crane’s “To Brooklyn Bridge.”  Even reading poetry we can read like tourists, wanting to keep revisiting familiar or famous sites, seeing what we expect to find, getting ahead of ourselves.  But in our search for the already-famous, we might find something unexpected, something unsettling – though what could be more famous than death? 

The coupling together of tourism and mortality does something strange to the sense of audience, too, that this poem evokes.  Lyric poetry often involves a certain strangeness of address, so that reading a poem can be like eavesdropping on an improbable relationship, as a poet addresses a rose, or talks to themselves, or addresses a lover whose replies can only be imagined.  This poem seems to draw particular attention to the strangeness of lyric address, the last couplet in particular throwing a sense of address somehow off kilter.  The ending, with the introduction of “a faint noise of hammering, too,” is curiously inconclusive, bringing in one more additional detail, as if in a hurry to get it in before the poem ends.  It comes as the second line of a couplet that seems to have been already interrupted by its own first line, “Yes, I suppose we do walk a little faster.”  This seems to be a reply – but no one has asked a question.  Yet there is a sense, perhaps, of someone else present, someone this anecdote is being reported to.  Perhaps this sense of someone else there, but not there (are we, the readers, beginning to feel a little ghostly ourselves?) might add to the unease of the poem, a poem that seems to speed up as if hurrying past its own subject matter.  This is no ordinary tourism anecdote, that we might expect to be told in the past tense, perhaps with some pictures to accompany it.  If this is a tourism anecdote, why is it being told in the present tense?  Is it still happening?  Are we ever going to get across Brooklyn to the bridge, let alone to the other side?

Anna Jackson

Anna Jackson made her debut in AUP New Poets 1 before publishing six collections with Auckland University Press, including I, Clodia, and Other Portraits (2014). She has a DPhil from Oxford and is now an associate professor in English literature at Victoria University of Wellington. Jackson is the author of Diary Poetics: Form and Style in Writers’ Diaries 1915–1962 (Routledge, 2010) and, with Charles Ferrall, British Juvenile Fiction 1850–1950: The Age of Adolescence (Routledge, 2009).

Bill Manhire’s most recent books include Some Things to Place in a Coffin (2017), Tell Me My Name (with Hannah Griffin and Norman Meehan, 2017) and The Stories of Bill Manhire (2015). He was New Zealand’s inaugural poet laureate, and founded and until recently directed the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington. He has edited major anthologies, including, with Marion McLeod, the now classic Some Other Country: New Zealand’s Best Short Stories (1984).

Poetry Shelf Lounge: A National Poetry Day gathering

Kia ora poets and poetry fans

Welcome to the Poetry Shelf gathering on National Poetry Day. One of my favourite Poetry Days was in Wellington when I jumped in a taxi and went from one event to the next: Vic Books, the National Library, Unity Books, the Book Hound, Miaow. Listening to others read, reading a snippet myself or mc-ing, it felt like the best thing in the world (well right up there with early morning beach walks, and cooking meals, writing secret things, reading books for hours on end).

These days it feels good to count blessings because there is so much toxic stuff out there. I feel utterly privileged to get sent loads of poetry books published in Aotearoa, and to celebrate some of them on the blog. So many times this year I have picked up a new book and felt goosebumps as I settled into the poem thickets and clearings. You know the feeling – when the music and the mystery and the freshness, the challenges and the sensualness and the connective currents – make you feel so darn good.

I invited a handful of poets to send me an audio or video to celebrate National Poetry Day – it was over to them what they did: read their own poems, read the poems of others, share a favourite book or poet, muse on poetry. Bernadette Hall drove 30 km to hook up with Doc Drumheller and Rangiora Library staff at the band rotunda to create her video. Amy Brown did two versions, one with interruptions and a wee poem from her son Robin. I posted both for you! Student E Wen Wong recorded a poem by Cilla McQueen.

I have been getting these files as Auckland is in level 3 – and everyone else level 2 – and what a treat to listen to them. Poetry can do so much! The past few months it has been of immense comfort, and the way so many of you say yes to my requests.

As some of you know I had a melt down yesterday as WordPress has put us onto a new system that I find hard to manage yet. My daughter helped me a bit, but I had to make a few compromises, and one poet will make a future appearance. Thank you for the boosts on social media.

Happy National Poetry Day everyone. Dip and delve into this glorious and utterly special poetry gathering.

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Amy Brown reads two poems of her own: ’16 August 2016′ and ‘Pacing Poem’ from Neon Daze Victoria University Press, 2019. She also reads Airini Beautrais’s ‘Flow’ from Victoria University Press, 2017. Amy sent me two versions, one with interruptions by her son Robin (he does a poem at the end) and one without Robin present. I couldn’t pick as I loved so both, so you get to choose which one to listen to. I think the Robin one is rather special.

Amy Brown reads two poems with the help of Robin

Amy Brown reads the two poems without help

David Eggleton reads ‘The Sound and the Fury’ filmed by Richard C. Wallis in Waikouaiti, North Otago, on Wednesday 19.08.20. Not his tokotoko but a walking stick. Still waiting for the tokotoko ceremony at Matahiwi marae.

Erik Kennedy reads ‘There Is a Man Dancing on the Rudder of an Enormous Cargo Ship’

Bernadette Hall reads two sonnets, one published in Aotearotica and the other in Landfall 239. Her guest Doc Drumheller reads his haiku in Landfall 239. Bernadette had travelled 30 kms to the band rotunda in Rangiora to film this reading with the help of Paula and Daniel from Rangiora Library.

You can listen to Bill read here

You can find texts of the original poem and Bill’s translation here

Emma Neale reads ‘Polemic’ from Tender Machines Otago University Press, 2015

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You can listen to Marty read here

Marty Smith reads ‘Agnus Dei’ from Horse with Hat, Victoria University Press, 2013

Ruby Solly reads two poems, a very early one and a very new one

Chris Tse reads ‘(Green-Nature)’

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Louise Wallace reads three poems on a women/mother/daughter theme: by herself, (from Bad Things Victoria University Press, 2017), and by Naomii Seah and Modi Deng (from the latest issue of Starling).

E Wen Wong reads ‘Vegetable Garden Poem iv’ by Cilla McQueen from Axis: Poems and drawings Otago University Press 2001

The Poets

Amy Brown is a New Zealand poet, novelist and teacher, living in Melbourne. In 2012 she completed a PhD in creative writing at the University of Melbourne. She is the author of The Propaganda Poster Girl (VUP, 2008), which was shortlisted at the 2009 New Zealand Book Awards, The Odour of Sanctity (VUP, 2013), a contemporary epic poem, and Neon Daze (VUP, 2019), a verse journal of the first four months of motherhood. She is also the author of Pony Tales, a series of children’s novels.

Doc Drumheller was born in South Carolina and has lived in NZ for more than half his life. He has worked in award-winning groups for theatre and music and has published 10 collections of poetry. His poems have been translated into more than 20 languages. He lives in Oxford, where he edits and publishes the literary journal, Catalyst.

David Eggleton is a Dunedin-based poet and writer. He is the current Aotearoa New Zealand Poet Laureate. His Selected Poems is forthcoming.

Bernadette Hall is Otago born and bred. Following a long career as a high school teacher in Dunedin and Christchurch, she has now lived 17 years in a renovated bach at Amberley Beach in the Hurunui, North Canterbury where she has built up a beautiful garden. Her 12th collection of poetry, Fancy Dancing (VUP), will be launched at the WORD festival in Christchurch in November. ‘It’s as close as I’ll ever get to writing an autobiography,’ she says, laughing. And as for the wilful sonnets that explode in the final pages of this book, she wonders where on earth they came from. ‘It was such fun writing them,’ she says, ‘as if I‘d kicked down the stable doors and taken to the hills.’ In 2015 she collaborated with Robyn Webster on Matakaea, Shag Point, an art /text installation exhibited at the Ashburton ArGallery. In the same year she was awarded the Prime Minister’s Award for outstanding achievement in Poetry. In 2017 she was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to New Zealand literature.

Erik Kennedy is the author of There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime (Victoria University Press, 2018), and he is co-editing a book of climate change poetry from Aotearoa New Zealand and the Pacific forthcoming from Auckland University Press in 2021. His poems and criticism have recently been published in places like FENCE, Landfall, Poetry, Poetry Ireland Review, the TLS, and Western Humanities Review. Originally from New Jersey, he lives in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Bill Manhire Aside from publishing his own widely acclaimed poetry, Bill Manhire has edited a number of anthologies and written extensively on New Zealand literature. He was New Zealand’s first Poet Laureate. His most recent collections include Tell Me My Name and Things to Place in a Coffin.  Victoria University Press are publishing his new collection Wow November 2020.

Emma Neale is the author of six novels and six collections of poetry. Her most recent novel, Billy Bird (2016) was short-listed for the Acorn Prize at the Ockham NZ Book Awards and long-listed for the Dublin International Literary Award. Emma has received a number of literary fellowships, residencies and awards, the most recent of which is the Lauris Edmond Memorial Award for 2020. Her first collection of short stories, Party Games, is due out late 2020/early 2021. Emma lives and works in Ōtepoti/Dunedin, and she is the current editor of Landfall, New Zealand’s longest-running literary journal.

Marty Smith’s Horse with hat won the 2014 Jesse Mackay award for Best First Book of Poetry. Some of the book looks at the cost to her father of not talking about the war. ‘Agnus Dei’ is a poem that crosses religion over into war, although it looks like farming. She grew up riding beside her father, hence the horse strand in Horse with hat, hence the book she is writing about the obsession of people who risk their lives to ride racehorses. She would risk her life right now to ride a racehorse, if she were allowed.

Ruby Solly is a Kai Tahu / Waitaha writer and musician from Aotearoa, New Zealand. She has had poetry and creative non-fiction published in Landfall, Sport, Poetry NZ, Starling, Mimicry, Minarets, E-Tangata, The Spinoff, and Pantograph Punch amongst others. Victoria University Press will be publishing her debut book of poetry ‘Tōku Pāpā’ in 2021. Ruby is also a scriptwriter and her film ‘Super Special’ which aims to share knowledge around traditional Māori views and practices around menstruation has been featured in film festivals within New Zealand and the US. As a musician, she has played with artists such as Yo-yo Ma as part of his Bach Project, Trinity Roots, Whirimako Black, Rikki Gooch, and Ariana Tikao. Ruby is a taonga puoro (traditional Māori musical instruments) player and therapist with a first-class master’s in music therapy where she conducted kaupapa Māori research into the use of taonga puoro in acute mental health. As a taonga puoro player and therapist, she is privileged to work around Aotearoa with people from all walks of life sharing the taonga of her ancestors. She will be beginning a PhD to further her research this year. Her first album, ‘Pōneke’, which also features poetry, is available from rubysolly.bandcamp.cpm

Chris Tse is the author of How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes and HE’S SO MASC, both published by Auckland University Press. He is a regular book reviewer on Radio New Zealand and contributor to Capital’s Re-Verse column. He is currently co-editing an anthology of queer writers from Aotearoa.

Louise Wallace is the author of three collections of poetry published by Victoria University Press, most recently Bad Things. She is the founder and editor of Starling, and is currently working on a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Otago on women, [domestic] paralysis and poetic form.

E Wen Wong is in her final year at Burnside High School, where she is Head Girl for 2020. Last year, her poem Boston Building Blockswon first prize in the Year 12 category of the Poetry New Zealand Student Yearbook Competition.