Tag Archives: Victoria University Press

Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: Brian Turner – an unpublished poem and a new book

 

In the Middle of Nowhere

 

On a late winter morning when driving east towards Ranfurly

pale grey fog’s smothering most of the land from Wedderburn

to Naseby, Kyeburn, Kokonga, Waipiata, Hamilton’s, Patearoa

and beyond. And I’m thinking how often we’re told we live

in the middle of nowhere: that nowadays people everywhere

are categorised, seen as somewheres, anywheres, or nowheres,

and that, in particular, this place is empty, needs more people.

So it goes. In ‘Furl’ I shop at the corner Four Square, pluck

some cash from a money machine, buy a long black and two

thick egg and chive sandwiches at the E-Café, fill up with gas

at the garage and set off homewards. Then, when re-entering

the Ida Valley and emerging into sharp sunlight, and wondering,

yet again, whether what is ever present always feels burdened

by the past, everywhere one looks – north south east and west –

bulky hills and shining mountains glisten with heavy snow.

And, oddly perhaps, so-called nowhere’s nowhere to be found.

 

Brian Turner

 

Brian Turner was born in Dunedin in 1944. His debut collection Ladders of Rain (1978) won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize. He has published a number of collections including Just This which won the NZ Post Book Award for Poetry in 2010. He has received the Prime Minister’s Award for Poetry (2009) and was NZ Poet Laureate (2003-5).  He lives in Central Otago.

In April Victoria University Press published Brian’s Selected Poems, a hardback treasury of poetry that gains life from southern skies and soil, and so much more. When I am longing to retreat to the beauty of the south, I find refuge in one of Brian’s poems. The economy on the line, the exquisite images, the braided rhythms. Read a poem and your feet are in the current of a gleaming river, your eyes fixed on a purple gold horizon line.

 

Once in a while

you may come across a place

where everything

seems as close to perfection

as you will ever need.

from ‘Place’

 

Yet the joy of reading the Selected Poems is also in the diverse subject matter: the acerbic political bite when he considers a world under threat, the love poems, poems of his mother and his father, the elegies, the humour, the storms, the seasons. In ‘The mixing bowl’ the mother is kneading, she feeds her son cakes and scones, along with ‘a rough and tart / unstinting love’. The final stanzas catch my heart:

 

But I did not know

it would be so hard

to watch her grow,

enfeebled, toward oblivion,

her hands and face

yellow as floury

butter, her arms

white as gentled flour.

 

I love ‘In Ladbroke Grove’: a woman in a London cafe is surprised he is writer because she didn’t ‘know there were any in New Zealand.’ When she asked where New Zealand was ‘he refused to answer that because too many know anyway’. Ha!

I emailed Brain earlier in the year to see if had any new poems -and he said he had hundreds. ‘In the middle of nowhere’ is one of them – a Turner taste before you read the glorious Selected Poems. His poetry might carry you to the middle of nowhere (a fiction of course!) but his poems are rich in the sumptuous experience of somewhere. His poetry somewhere is vital, humane, illuminating. His Selected Poems is an essential volume for me and I want to keep quoting poems to you because they are so rewarding. Instead I  recommend you pack the book in your bag and take time out for a Turner retreat.

 

The dead do

sing in us, in

us and through

us, and to themselves

under their mounds of earth

swelling  in the sun, or in their

ashes that shine

as they depart on the wind.

from ‘After’ for Grahame

 

Victoria University Press page

 

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Poetry Shelf Classic Poem: Sugar Magnolia Wilson picks Hera Lindsay Bird’s ‘ Kiss me harder, Abraham Lincoln’

 

Kiss me harder, Abraham Lincoln

 

In poems you can do anything you like. You can start fires, or break the law. You can break the law by starting fires. You can set fire to the house of your worst enemy. In poetry, you can have worst enemies. In real life, I’m still working on it. In terms of candidates there’s that dickhead at the salad bar, not to mention the girl who used to ring me up and scream at me, but I’ve got a new phone number now and as much as I hate the salad guy, I’d like to think that I’m a contentious citizen who wouldn’t intentionally try to burn his house down. Besides, I don’t have his address. But I’m totally onto you, salad man! In poems you can make out with whoever you like, even if they died forever ago. In poems you can say, ‘Oh Abraham Lincoln, kiss me harder.’ I have a friend who’s angry at poetry because he says it makes life more beautiful than it really is, which is a dumb reason to hate anything. Hating poetry because it makes life more beautiful is like hating ketchup on your burger because it makes your burger more delicious than it really is, or hating the swans on the lake, for making the lake seem more peaceful. Fuck off swans! How am I supposed to make an accurate emotional assessment of the lake with you gliding around like a toilet paper commercial? Sometimes all I want is a poem that feels like real life. Something directionless and frightened, without any literary subtext, or clever double meanings. Clever double meanings are like those magic eye puzzle. You can get really good at seeing the hidden picture, but in the end you’re still the asshole sitting in the library at lunchtime saying ‘I can’t believe you guys can’t see the dolphins,’ to no-one, because your friends all left hours ago. Sometimes all I want is the poet to come clean and say, ‘I have no idea how to live.’ Sometimes I just want to list some things that I like. That song ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King.’ The names of lipsticks. Poached eggs on a stack of potato cakes. Houses. Flowers. Swamps and the monsters who live in them.  The internet.

 

Hera Lindsey Bird

The poem originally appeared in Sport 40, 2012 in a slightly different version.

 

 

Sugar Magnolia Wilson on ‘Kiss me harder, Abraham Lincoln’

I had a dream a few weeks ago that I asked Hera why she’d changed the line “Fuck off swans! How am I supposed to make an accurate emotional assessment of the lake with you gliding around all serene?” to “Fuck off swans! How am I supposed to make an accurate emotional assessment of the lake with you gliding around like a toilet paper commercial”. The first iteration comes from an issue of Sport back yonky-donks ago, I think 2011 or 2012. So, I assume it was a poem written in her MA year at the IIML. It was the first time I’d read anything by Hera, and I think the first time I’d really read anything by a young New Zealand poet that really spoke to me. In fact, I’m not sure I even knew that people under 300 could have poems published in New Zealand.

I think the toilet paper version is what’s in her book, and I feel like that line got snazzed up, but, I wish it hadn’t been snazzed. I love how not loud this poem is, how it’s almost bored. I read this line in a book once that said all beautiful girls are bored. And I think this is the poem version of that, a beautiful, bored girl. I love how it’s not trying to prove anything big or deep, but at the same time it stands up and says ‘you fucking know what? Poetry can be whatever the hell you want it to be” – it hits right at the heart of what old white dudes have been telling us poetry shouldn’t be since forever. But I’m totally onto you, poetry book guy! I think I took this poem too literally. I literally wrote a poem for my MA manuscript which was JUST a list of things I liked – my friend Ada, miso soup, small glittery things in dusty corners. No one in my class liked it. But I did and it was a confusing time.

I also love that this poem is like Dorian Gray, and Keats is Dead so Fuck Me From Behind is like his bloated painting in the attic. Or maybe this poem is like Charlie Sheen in Two and a Half Men, and Keats is Dead is like his coked-out body lying on a velvet bed with a neon orange party hat on? See? It’s way harder than she makes it seem.

Anyway. It’s one of my all-time favourite classic NZ poems. It’s changed the way I write and I am so grateful to have encountered it when I did. I also love the poem Hooting, but Paula says I’m only allowed to write about one (she didn’t, I’m just too lazy). But read it here

 

 

Sugar Magnolia Wilson is from a valley called Fern Flat in the Far North of New Zealand. She completed her MA in creative writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington in 2012. Her work has been published in literary journals such as Turbine, Shenandoah, Cordite, Landfall and Sport. She is co-editing an anthology of the new generation of New Zealand poets with Hannah Mettner for AUP. Auckland University Press published her debut collection Because a Woman’s Heart Is Like a Needle at the Bottom of the Ocean earlier this year.

 

Hera Lindsay Bird is a poet from Wellington. Her debut collection Hera Lindsay Bird was published with Victoria University Press in 2016, and Penguin UK in 2017, and a Laureate’s Choice Pamphlet ‘Pamper Me to Hell & Back’ came out in 2018. She is an Arts Foundation new generation recipient, winner of the 2011 Adam Prize, the 2017 Jessie McKay Prize for Best First Book, and the 2017 Sarah Broom Prize.

 

 

Poetry Shelf audio spot: Tracey Slaughter reads ‘She is currently living’

 

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‘She is currently living’ appears in Conventional Weapons, Victoria University Press, 2019

 

 

Conventional Weapons is Tracey’s first full poetry collection but she has been publishing poetry for over two decades. She was the featured poet in Poetry NZ 25 (2002) and has published Her body rises: stories & poems (2005). She has received multiple awards including the international Bridport Prize in 2014, a 2007 New Zealand Book Month Award, and Katherine Mansfield Awards in 2004 and 2001. She also won the 2015 Landfall Essay Competition, and was the recipient of the 2010 Louis Johnson New Writers Bursary.

 

Poetry Shelf reviews Conventional Weapons.

Victoria University Press author page

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf audio spot: Steven Toussaint reads ‘Aevum Measures’

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Steven Toussaint reads ‘Aevum Measures’

from Lay Studies, Victoria University Press, 2019

 

Steven Toussaint was born in Chicago in 1986. He immigrated to New Zealand in 2011. He is the author of the poetry collections, Lay Studies (2019) and The Bellfounder (2015), and a chapbook, Fiddlehead. 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 and 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 page

Steven Toussaint in conversation with Karyn Hay RNZ Lately

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf review: Tracey Slaughter’s Conventional Weapons

 

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Tracey Slaughter, Conventional Weapons, Victoria University Press, 2019

 

Tracey Slaughter came to my attention as a fiction writer; I adored deleted scenes for lovers VUP, 2016) and lauded it in my SST review:

Tracey Slaughter’s daring short fiction deposits you on a rollercoaster, hoists you in the air, puts you in a dank, dark cupboard to eavesdrop, spins you round and round, makes you feel things to the nth degree.

 

Conventional Weapons is Tracey’s first full poetry collection but she has been publishing poetry for over two decades. She was the featured poet in Poetry NZ 25 (2002) and has published Her body rises: stories & poems (2005). She has received multiple awards including the international Bridport Prize in 2014, a 2007 New Zealand Book Month Award, and Katherine Mansfield Awards in 2004 and 2001. She also won the 2015 Landfall Essay Competition, and was the recipient of the 2010 Louis Johnson New Writers Bursary.

Like her fiction Tracey’s poetry is unafraid of dark subject matter: violence lament teenage eating teenage not eating abortion trauma. You will also find sex need desire love. The subject matter is important but it is the poetic effects that first strike me. There is an intensity of rhythm, an insistent beat that holds a poem together like a subterranean heartdrum, a breath metronome. It is no surprise that Tracey was (and is?) a drummer.

 

We deepdish kiss in the purple of your parents’ lounge,

a bunker plump with buttoned vinyl, fringed

 

with cocktail lamps. Your little brother doctors himself

a tower of afterschool toast and shovels into the corduroy

 

beanbag, watching claptrap TV—we’ll lip-sync those jingles

with their punchline chords the rest of our lives;

 

from ‘archaeological’

 

The beat in this two-and-a-bit page poem catches the intensity of after-school kissing, the heightened breath as the poem ‘sucks’ in detail of tongues and pashing, with an eye looking sideways to make the citrine kitchen and the purple lounge pulsatingly real. I am bowled over by the syntax, by the surprising juxtapositions of words, the lithe rhyme. I need to let the sonic impact sink in deep and savour the exquisite word play. Yes the young kissers are ‘archaeological’ but so too is the poet as she digs deep for flakes of the past and reposits them in the present tense.

The poem ‘the bridge’ also employs lithe syntax and rhythms to replay the urgency of kiss and touch:

 

Let feet slip on

sills of shell, a spiral

perimeter of crush.

Currents eel

 the light into

muscled canals we need

to oar & plough, tough-thighed

in the bridge’s underworld.

 

Often the poems are made electric by the present tense. The opening poem ‘she is currently living’ is a startling portrait, written like a mantra, all lower case, even after the full stops, so you are compelled to keep listening to ‘where’ she is currently living:

 

in a dead-end off jellicoe. in the waiting room of blue vinyl fear. she is currently

living in supermarket flowers that whisper buy me in their middle-class plastic.

she is currently living in a red metal playpen riding her stepsister’s rocking horse.

 

 

If Tracey’s aural dexterity keeps you on your reading toes so do her shifting forms. There are long form poems, bite-size pieces, block prose, fractured lines, lists, multiple choice. The poem ‘how to solve and 18-year sadness’ sits on the page like heart break – the heart hinted at, the break holding apart past and present, the sadness hiding in the crevice. Another poem ‘horoscope (the cougar speaks)’ sets word clusters against left and right hand margins. The poem with its film-noir lighting centres desire, attraction, loneliness, suicide drifting song lyrics that are cut off short as the speaker finds her way:

 

there are girls to pick

the wings off

 

but I’m not one of them

 

And now the subject matter. For me Conventional Weapons foregrounds character, women characters, which makes this book dig even deeper under my skin. The experience is often attached to trauma, the settings lit up in neon detail, the emotional core razor sharp. I posted a piece on Poetry Shelf from ‘it was the 70s when me & Karen Carpenter hung out’ and even in that brief extract the effects were incandescent. This is a poem of youth, song lyrics and singing, macramé, neon lights, freezer food, the backseats of cars, orange lounges, soap operas, instant things but it is also a poem of vomit and of bodies eating and starving, of the traumatic smash of eating disorders.

 

me & Karen carpenter

blu-tacked heartthrobs

to the hangout

wall & lay down

under our own gatefold

smiles. The ridges of our mouths

tasted like corduroy & the hangout

door was a polygon of unhinged

ultra-violet. We stole lines from stones

& rolled them like acid

checkers on each

other’s tongues, testing

the discs of our tucked spines as we

swallowed. (…)

 

When I return to the poem ‘horoscope (the cougar speaks)’, I return to the spike in the poem’s flow, the suicide that cuts into you as you trace the portrait of a woman:

 

& that last verse

is chloroform

*

don’t come

back with your bad

translations of love

one writs italicised

with scars

 

 

‘the mine wife’ is another imagined portrait; a long poem that features the wife of a miner lost in the Pike River disaster and the wife’s ‘grief is opencast’. In Wild Honey I write about the way poets might step into the shoes of another’s trauma, tragedy, loss, grievance, dislocation, wrongs, grief in order to make public horrific things both as a distant and/or close witness. Is this trespass? Is this keeping trauma and human wrongs in public view? For centuries writers have imagined beyond their own experience. In this poem I am heart struck by the way a woman continues to live alongside death, in the fist of life once lived, in the daily routines of food and laundry, in the coming up for air from the dark.

 

to stand at the mouth

takes a long journey. It’s like

a cathedral to all

we’ve done wrong. I thought

seeing it would cave me in. But it’s the peace

of the place that doubles me over.

 

The birds go on dialling

God. Even without you, the trees

don’t come to a standstill. Healing is

not clearcut. Air makes the sound of where

you were last seen. I listen

for scraps in the hush.

 

Grief is opencast.

 

Tracey’s poetry reaches me just as her short fiction has: her daring poems deposit you on a rollercoaster, hoist you in the air, put you in a dank, dark cupboard to eavesdrop, spin you round and round, make you feel things to the nth degree. I can think of no other local poet who has this effect on me. The collection will slip under my clothes and travel with me for months. It is a book I feel and it is a book I think and I adore it.

 

Victoria University page

Rae McGregor review at RNZ National

Jack Ross launch speech  (with images)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf interviews Fleur Adcock

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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 review: Ashleigh Young’s How I Get Ready

How I Get Ready.jpg

 

Ashleigh Young, How I Get Ready, Victoria University Press, 2019

 

 

A woman smiles out of a plastic coat

its yellow turning rain to torches.

 

Light rests on a man waiting to cross,

coats his dog.

 

Light crosses a man

waiting to rest.

 

The hills pull fog around themselves

and trudge to the sea,

carrying all our houses.

 

from ‘Lifted’

 

 

I like the shape of this book – this matters with poetry – because when a poetry book is good to hold it makes you want to linger even more, to stall upon a page. The book looks good, the paper feels good, and the cover drawing by Sam Duckor-Jones is a perfect fit. His idiosyncratic artwork moves in and out of reality, a person tilted by anxiety, the wind, both exposed and screened. A little like the poems inside the book. This is a collection of waiting, breathing, of curious things, anxieties, anecdotes, lists, found things, recycled words; little starts in your head as you read. It is extremely satisfying.

The Notes acknowledge the jump-off points of a number of poems – a line in a letter from Andrew Johnston turns into ‘Turn Out to Be Something’. Poems spring from epigraphs, a contents page, Margery Kempe, psychiatric cases, other poems. Where the poems shift to is perhaps a blend of the fictional and the personal. The speaker is always on the move.

One of the joys of reading these poems is the way connective tissue or an invisible thread holds the poems together; it might be the way you stay with one character or situation or mood. Yet the doubled reading joy is in the glorious little leaps: from an idea, admission, description or trope to another idea, admission, description or trope. Surprising, startling, fascinating and always feeding the invisible thread. Take ‘Ghost Bear’ for example. Eliot pulls me through the poem. He is the mystery and the guide. You will move from a ritual where someone tests themselves against a ghost bear with a skull head to a boy who gets electrocuted but survives then scores a try (‘He’s just showing off  / because he got electrocuted’)  to an inappropriate kiss. Before the strange, goosebump ending, I got stuck on this verse which feels like an intrusion from the poet herself:

 

 

When there are two frail old women together, there is always one

who is visibly stronger.

I have an old friend and I think about whether we will be old together

and which of us will be stronger, holding up the other

which of us the wind will push over first

for a good joke

 

 

The opening poem, ‘Spring’, begins with an eye-catching image : ‘I saw a horse lying on the street / and people were trying to help it up.’  It is a poem of little fascinations (forgive me if I keep using that word!) but it is also a poem of breath, of holding and releasing breath, of waiting. The words form little exhalations on the page. I am standing with the person (the ‘I’) standing in the street thinking random things as they wait to see that the horse will stand. I am fascinated by the little admissions (they have waited so long it is too late to go to work). I am fascinated by the personal truisms (‘When I am satisfied with one thing / I want something else’).  I am fascinated by the biography of the speaker.

 

My mother   assured me

that when I feel     that I am not wel-

come at home and everybody has

hatred towards me that it is       only

my imagination. This statement

made me feel very good;

I went to bed    and

slept sound

 

 

The poem arrives in surprising increments – in bursts of unsettling strangeness. Who is this speaker who must keep revealing things? I look at the Notes, only after musing on the poem awhile, and discover it is a found poem, with the words borrowed from the study of a young man with compulsion neurosis who transforms his life into bizarre distortions. (published in 1918).

‘Turn Out to Be Something’ is also a poem that involves waiting;  the speaker waits for things and then modifies the admissions; waiting is fine as long as waiting is not in vain and something is at the end, although not necessarily what is first expected.

 

I can wait for a layer of sandstone to form over me

and freeze and thaw and freeze and be shattered

and be piped into the sea            as long

as that turns out to be something.

 

Many of the poems play with lists, repeating the beginnings of stanzas before swerving or drifting in myriad directions. Take ‘Guide’ for example. A poem written for an exhibition of Colin McCahon’s Walk (Series C) at Te Papa. I love this poem; I love the way it builds upon ‘what if’ and gathers heart,  wisdom and downright surprise. Ashleigh steps off from Colin’s ‘walk’ along Muriwai Beach and walks through meditations on water (the sea, fresh water, a river mouth, waterfalls). Her poem walks us into the physical and then catapults us elsewhere. It makes my heart ache.

 

If a girl is lost, someone will walk a long way to get her.

If her hand is held all the way back, it will be a short walk.

 

I have to share the ending with you because it gets right to the heart of what makes an Ashleigh Young poem so darn good.

 

If a waterfall no longer has water, it is a groove

that suggests a falling motion, just as this trail

suggests a walking motion

 

but if a person keeps walking until there is no more walk to take

they will no longer look forward to it, so will turn back.

 

Pretty much every poem is a poem I want to talk about. I want to talk about ‘Driving’ because it feels like a miniature autobiography that goes deep into experience. It gets personal but it’s prismatic in image and ideas. Somehow in this mix of riding a bicycle, learning to drive and imaginative leaps, the poem feels acutely human. Like it is breathing life back into me. When I stop on this double page I am thinking you could swap ‘driving’ and ‘riding’ for any number of things. The way the things we do conjure anxious thinking and random thoughts. I read the poem and replace all the driving/ riding words for ‘writing’. For example:  I write along the street outside your house / with my heart floating loose and getting chain grease on it.

Yes this poem is a gem – it builds and ducks and freewheels. Here is the start:

 

They tell me any idiot can do it and I tell them

I’m not just any idiot, I’m specific. Even when my lungs

are bursting – properly bursting

like things dragged up by a deep-sea fisherman

I keep riding.                  I get tired.                      I just keep riding!

 

I have written about this book in Wild Honey so have tried not to repeat myself or even refer to the poems I picked to talk about in the book! But Ashleigh became one of my sky poets for all kinds of reasons.

Every poem catches me! Some books you pick up, scan a few pages and then put down because you just can’t traverse the bridge into the poems. Not this one. It is as exhilarating as riding a bicycle into terrain that is both intensely familiar and breathtaking not. The speaker is both screened and exposed. The writing feels like it comes out of slow gestation and astutely measured craft. I say this because I have read this andante, at a snail’s pace. Glorious!

 

What song will they play if I don’t come home tonight?

I wished  someone would write a song for me, then someone did

but it was a song berating me; it was called ‘Actually, Ashleigh’

 

and I think of the cruelty of songwriters as I get ready

how their music makes their words sound better than they really are

how our feelings make music seem better than it really is

 

and how the difficulty of getting ready is a pure, bitter difficulty

like calculus. In the back row a once-promising student cries.

What will my face become? Strings of demi-semi quavers.

 

from ‘How I Get Ready’

 

 

Victoria University Press page

Read ‘If So How’ from How I Get Ready

 

Ashleigh Young is the author of the poetry collection Magnificent Moon (VUP, 2012), and the essay collection Can You Tolerate This? (VUP, 2016) which won a Windham-Campbell Prize from Yale University and the Royal Society Te Apārangi Award for General Non-Fiction in 2017. She works as an editor and lives in Wellington.