Tag Archives: Victoria University Press

Poetry Shelf summer reading: Sport 47

 

I’m not angry—I’m just writing

a new book, thrusting my hands

into the dying earth

until I have enough coffins to burn

for warmth. I finger the jars of teeth

buried for luck. I pocket the coins.

 

Chris Tse from ‘It’s a metaphor’

 

 

Hard to believe we are moving into a change of season and here I am still celebrating books from 2019 in my summer reading. Sport 47 appeared last year and was much loved on social media. I can see why.

The editor is Tayi Tibble – her debut collection Pōukahangatus won the Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poetry in the 2019 Ockham NZ Book Awards. Apparently this is her debut in Sport, it’s as editor and she has done a cracking job. The eye-popping cover by Miriama Grace-Smith is the perfect hook for the ear-popping, heart-sizzling, mind-flipping content. I love the different effects on me as reader. It’s a shake-up, it’s balm, music, politics, self exposure, and I love love love it.

So many poets thrilled (I want to follow up on some of these that are new to me): Aimee-Jane Anderson-O’Connor, Hana Pera Aoake, Airini Beautrais, Vanessa Crofskey, Sam Duckor-Jones, Eliana Gray, Rebecca Hawkes, Nicole Titihuia Hawkins, Joy Holley, Talia Marshall, Fardowsa Mohamed, Aiwa Pooamorn, Meg Prasad, Ruby Solly, Anne Marie Te Whiu, Chris Tse, Eefa Yasir Jauhary.

Apart from the exquisite blast of poetry, two other features stood out: Tayi’s introduction and Anahera Gildea’s conversation with Patricia Grace.

Reading Tayi’s deeply personal intro reminded me there are neither wrongs nor rights when it comes to poetry. Heart and mind are active ingredients, writing and speaking from one’s experience and choices will never be redundant. It is ok to embrace confidence. I was especially moved by the importance Tayi gifted the writers and mentors that preceded her. In Tayi’s case: ‘a wise tohunga (my mum)’. And women writers, especially and above all Māori writers. If you haven’t yet read this glorious piece of writing, hunt it down now. Hold it to your heart.

The second treasure is the warm, generous, insightful conversation between Anahera and Patricia. It travels deep into reading and writing, into reading, writing and facing challenges and epiphanies (and everything in between) as a writer who is Māori. If you haven’t yet read this glorious piece of writing, hunt it down now. Hold it to your heart.

essa may ranapiri’s tribute to their kuia is luminous with love.

There is a blinding scene (excuse the pun as blinds do get spotted) in Anne-Marie Te Whiu’s ‘hood/ie’. I held my breath as I read.

Ash Davida Jane’s ‘hot bodies’ is poetry with the thermostat turned up. Wow!

Sam Duckor-Jones’s ‘Night’ and ‘Gut Health’ and are visual and sound triumphs.

I can’t get the last line of Eliana Gray’s poem (which is a version of the title) out of my head: ‘You’ve got to write like your life depends on it.’ That’s exactly how I feel sometimes.

The whole book is just glorious.

We are all the better for Sport 47 arriving in the world. Sport 48 must be just around the corner!

 

VUP Sport 47 page

 

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Poetry Shelf interviews Nikki-Lee Birdsey

 

 

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Night as Day, Nikki-Lee Birdsey, Victoria University Press, 2019

 

 

All the words I could write for you,

the darkness rising through darkness

the gleam-rich sea, a movie theatre

we went to.

 

from ‘The Long Nineteenth Century’

 

 

Nikki-Lee Birdsey’s poetry has appeared in a number of local and international journals, she holds a MFA from Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a BA from New York University. In 2015 she was a visiting faculty fellow at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington where she is now a PhD candidate. Victoria University Press published her debut collection Night as Day last year.

Night as Day struck multiple chords with me, particularly in the way poetry can inhabit the present tense, build sumptuous layers of feelings, ideas, things, relationships and buried secrets. Movement accumulates between places that both unsettles and anchors. Self exposure is tested, how we make poems is equally so. Pronouns are open homes: ‘you’ could be anyone. It is the kind of book that settles deep inside through its complexity, its quietness and its subterranean questions. I adore it.

We have spent perhaps a year conversing and I feel I have barely scraped the surface in what I want to talk about. And that is good – it shows the rich reading experience this poet offers.

 

(…)   As I drive

through the valleys, silky plumes of smoke rise

from the trees at random intervals, different rooms,

and I, frantic at the moment’s undoing.

 

The wind always working against us

and the scattered remainders, the past’s

shallow artefacts; somewhere whole cities

covered in ash, that legacy of fire and burning.

 

It just means someone’s home.

Your birthplace perhaps the only

kind of destiny. To know where you begin

and where you return.

 

from ‘The Great Western Hotel’

 

 

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Paula: As my introduction makes clear, your debut collection Night as Day was a rich reading experience for me. When did you first begin writing poetry? Was it as far back as childhood? What compelled you? Did any poets influence you?

 

Nikki-Lee: Thank you so much Paula. That’s a great question—compelled is a good way to describe writing.

I first began writing poetry in high school two years after I moved from Piha to a town thirty minutes outside of New York City. Growing up, I was moved around a lot and was never given a lot of information about what was happening to me. Reading was an escape, but also I can remember this early compulsion of note-taking, of trying to learn and order the information. I don’t remember reading or learning anything in schools in New Zealand. I’m not sure if it was because I moved a lot or was a terrible student or the schools were terrible. I remember being bored, nervous, and acting out because we didn’t seem to do anything. But I read on my own from books from the library. As a kid, and a girl-kid, I read monster and magic and fairy books in New Zealand. Like a lot of kids I read Harry Potter, and I would reread and reread to get lost in it. The idea that there was a magical world you couldn’t see that could choose you and take you away from what was happening to you. It was very appealing. I didn’t care about sentences, and I wasn’t taught any skills about identifying what’s a good sentence. I don’t have a lot of clear memories as a child because when you deal with instability, discontinuity, trauma you forget stuff out of necessity.

I was talking to a friend recently about this—the early love of fantasy. I remember as a girl I thought if I could just be a were-witch or a werewolf or a faerie-king or a freaking animorph! Anything to explain this incredible power I felt while reading—it felt like a hawk soaring if you can try to imagine what that feels like, and I did a lot—and this powerlessness I felt all the time as a child. I don’t read fantasy anymore but I think I should. I had to let that go in American high school to make room for algebra and bio and history. But dark, Victorian-like stories of the fallen still hold their sway.

When I got to a New Jersey public school I became conscious of the first thing: September 11 happened and the school was evacuated. I’m just now at the end of my twenties understanding how that affected me, not just moving countries with no explanation, but that sense of danger; words like terrorism, war, entering my vocabulary but not understanding really what they meant. The second thing I became conscious of in high school was the system of knowledge was completely different. I took all of these required subjects like American/ Colonial history, European/ Colonial history, Algebra, AP bio, AP physics, but the classes where I didn’t feel the burning anxiety of knowing nothing and feeling like a fraud, or an idiot, or an interloper were English classes. Books I were familiar with. So even though I was reading for the first time the very western canon, I was open to it: Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, Hawthorne, Hardy, August Wilson, Harper Lee, Milton, Melville. Stuff you would find in a high school English class. It was a lot of information but I was kind of learning my own world through those worlds in the books, i.e. making sense of what the mid-west is, this is what Dean Moriarty means by Colorado and here it is on the map and that is in the country I now live in, etc. And I had a teacher who taught a poetry class and that was it for me, I was off!

Poetry for me was fragmented in a way, like how I saw the world, in pieces, trying to make sense of it, and so I felt weirdly that it understood me and I understood it. It was also a way for me to not really express myself but express that I was there when I felt this sense of incoherence as my New Zealand past was disappearing. By the end of high school at 17 I had caught up, but while I closed this big gap in knowledge I knew there was so much more, and during this time too I figured out how to sit the SATs and applied to college and financial aid applications and buried a parent and so on.

I read a lot of Keats, Hardy, Brontes, Plath, as I would Animporphs. That sense of transformation. In university, I had to repeat the process of high school but with a lot more reading and working in bars to pay rent and then the Global Financial Crisis/ Great Recession happened by the time I graduated in New York in 2010. I think now, as I finish my PhD once again in the institution, the world in crisis, how much those big early events like 9/11, the Great Recession, really influenced my personality. Man, how child and teen years and your early self-becoming years are radioactive; they are so so crucial. It was like I was there but I was too close to it so I couldn’t see it, or if I looked at it directly it might swallow me up, as it did many people, and it was affecting me in all these ways physically and emotionally. How I handle stress and a sort of constant anxiety and nervousness, etc.

I’m just now getting more time to read separate from my doctorate, even though it’s not done yet but I have the sense of an ending, and for instance I’m writing this at 7:13 a.m. and I’ve been up since 3 a.m. reading Rilke for actually no reason other than I saw it on the bookshelf lit by the full moon, shadow journaling, thinking maybe this is who I am, this is who I’ve always been ha. It’s finally light enough to make a cup of tea without waking anyone.

 

Paula: Reading this is like reading a miniature and evocative biography where books and learning have shaped a life. I am full to the brim with questions! Your debut collection Night As Day embodies writing and subsequently reading as a way of existing, just for that provisional moment. As your title suggests: in the dark of night and light of day, and in the light of night and dark of day. What attracts you to writing? Does it make a difference if it is poetry, academic writing or something else altogether?

Nikki-Lee: What a lovely reading of Night as Day! Writing is a part of me, I think, one of the most consistent parts, my long-time companion. I came to writing as a teen in dark times, like many people. I’d write in diaries, which actually turned out to be long catalogues of what I was reading at the time. I don’t know why I did this. I also wrote these long “dictionary lists”. Oh man. But writing in diaries or in notebooks is very different to writing poems. When I first went to graduate school in Iowa I got really overwhelmed with composition. I was getting paid to write and learn but I was in a competitive environment, and younger than I am now and full of self-loathing and a lack of confidence. So I spent a lot of time burying my impulses with writing and then finding them again towards the end of my time there. And then I first came to Wellington shortly after Iowa and discovered another deep lack of confidence: not being New Zealander (for lack of a better word) enough.

So I wrote Night as Day in an academic environment, but then sort of just said fuck it. If people want to know what “Conedison” means or what I mean by “100s” I’m going to annotate these poems and I’m sure they won’t like that either. But readers responded to the biographical (poem-ographical?) end notes, and also the tone of them, I just tried to be as earnest as possible even if being earnest isn’t necessarily interesting. So in a way it does matter if it’s poetry or academic or something else but if it feels right to me then it is always me—contains that part of me that is shaped by writing continually, ever-changingly, through my life. The insistence on writing that for me says: I am here, I am new here, and tries to refuse that displaced self that is untethered to place.

Also, when I’m not writing I feel like shit. But I can’t force it. I’ve heard this is a common problem.

Is it ok to swear in this interview? Sorry.

 

I have no idea how you see me.

I think about this a lot tonight

in the purple-dark sky, the sun

falling suddenly, broken up

 by hills. I’m in the office

scrawling over the whiteboard

impossible notes and perambulations.

We never look at just one thing.

I throw my phone in the bin

too many images—

it’s just a piece of junk aglint

in the plastic folds of the liner.

 

from ‘Objects 7’

 

Paula: YES! And you can choose whether to read the annotations. I like the way they provide different illuminations and send me back rereading. Reading your collection, I felt like I was inhabiting a moment, a provisional glorious moment that was shaped by me and affected so deeply by the poems. Every time I inhabit the poem it is different. How does poetry affect as you reader and / or as writer?

Nikki-Lee: I love the idea of inhabiting a moment in a poem. What I love about poetry is that if you respond to it as the reader, you are shaping the poem. Poetry can make you give something of yourself to the poem, if just for a second. But that is such a gift. When you’re reading a poem, and you feel like it sees you, that’s the goal, the hope of the poet. One of the many reasons why it’s so vital to have different writers represented in literature.

 

Paula: Do you have key motifs, themes, symbols that you can’t get away from, that you simple love?

Nikki-Lee: I have always loved the colour of the sky and how it changes. The light of the day subsiding, the day rising. And a million other things.

 

Paula: Ah I love the appearance of sky in poems too for all kinds for reasons. Poetry is a form of wonder in all its connotations. I also love the way you take us outside the poem to the wider context of its own making. How important is this?

Nikki-Lee: I wanted to draw attention to the moment, or act, of writing the poem as a way to open the poem up. I think there should be multiple ways into a poem, why not? There are no rules. I spend so much time thinking about this. There are literally no rules, less is not more, more is not less. You just do everything you can to make connections, to reach a hand out, to make anything — maybe even especially the thing that is most painful — beautiful.

 

She said, ‘I believe in being a poet

in all moments of life.’ She wrote

of machine guns planted in courtyard gardens,

of the breaths of silk-tasselled acacias,

and she asked if she would dance

once more on wine glasses. Her repeated

phrase an echo, ‘Why should I stop?

Why should I stop?’

She divorced her husband,

she bore a bright son

and I think she loved her mother.

Is it obvious that she was beautiful?

Her books were banned

and she said, ‘Being a poet means

being human.’

 

from ‘Objects 9’

 

(a composite biography of Iranian poet, Forugh Farrokhzad, 1935 – 1967)

 

Paula: I totally agree. Poetry equals no rules. Multiple pathways. I find your poems to be pitch perfect on the line (I would love an audio version of the book), while the arrival of detail adds texture to feeling, ideas, storytelling. What matters when you write a poem?

Nikki-Lee: Wow thank you! What matters when I write a poem? I dunno. I left my life in New York City in my mid twenties to move back here and write this book Night as Day. Write a book about the place I’m from. Sometimes writing feels like the thing that keeps me going, keeps me alive. I know it sounds maybe over the top but this is a dramatic, consequential year. So I’m feeling it a lot.

 

Look, I’ll show you around

this condensed symbol of a place.

It’s true, its everything

and nothing specific,

and everything to me

and always specific.

It’s impossible to understand

how we got from there to here.

One place after another.

You come close

to a home.

 

from ‘Objects 12’

 

Paula: Do you have tension between reserve and admission?

Nikki-Lee: Yeah, considering the answer to the last question ha. I’m all tension. Constantly wondering if I’ll regret being open. People don’t like that always — I get that vibe here more than in other places I’ve lived. Hey Nikki-Lee how’s it going?

Me: Let me talk to you about how we have the highest homelessness rate in the OECD.

 

Paula: Yes! To what degree do we put the filter on when we write or go out in public. Is it something that keeps poets awake at night I wonder.

Is there a poem in the collection that particularly resonates with you? I am particularly drawn to the object poems, ‘The Blue Hour’, the notes at the back!

Nikki-Lee: They’re all a snapshot of me at a certain time. You gotta learn to love the past versions of yourself (I’m writing like I wrote this book years ago as opposed to finishing it last year and publishing it a few months later but it’s early and I have to catch the bus to work, sorry!). In Night as Day I’m working through a lot of difficult memories, things that were spurred by moving back here, and other stuff.

The poem ‘The Blue Hour’ is one people talk to me about. I’m proud because I was so afraid writing that poem and I want people who might read it to think it’s okay to have parents who can be toxic and that reject you. It’s nothing to do with you. There’s this really privileged tyrannical notion of upholding this family ideal when the people who are your parents, who are supposed to protect you, are, like, annihilating you with their generational greed.

 

You need a human to love in this awful

human endeavour. You look at all the

sad, dark things I can write long after his death.

 

You are reading this introduction

to my life now, I wish it were closer

to happiness, but then it wouldn’t be

 

close to me.

That light most

like New Zealand—

 

even I couldn’t tell the difference—

the blue hour lit up her piano

that she never played in front of us,

 

just as her mother never did, whom she

loathed and then nursed. I do not want

to loathe and then nurse.

 

Mum, please, don’t hate this,

 

I love you.

 

from ‘The Blue Hour’

 

 

 

Paula: Ah ‘The Blue Hour’ really affected me and seems connected to a maternal undercurrent hiding in the book. All the poems in this section map a life (and as you say in the whole book) and in this example the mother-daughter relationship is in the foreground. The poem’s larger indents on the first lines of stanzas are like breath intakes, the writer’s hiccups, hesitancies, with a filter at work and the fertility of pause.

You were born in Piha – I live near Te Henga on the West Coast and it anchors and lightens me in so many ways. How does your birthplace matter?

Nikki-Lee: It’s a place that both anchors and unmoors. It stands in for the flood of the past when you’re trying and failing and living a life where your past doesn’t have to define you. And then I go back there and I stand at the cliffs at the end of the road and I want to scream but I also know how that place is always a part of me. How honoured I am to be in that place. To have been taken so far away, and then to find my way back.

 

You craved the sea so long

but this is the first time you

look at it for a long time. You

wonder at the names of boats.

 

from ‘The Undergraduate’

 

Paula: What other activities enhance your life as writer?

Nikki-Lee: Occasionally crying while working out. Saunas. Skincare. Cardi B. Asking politicians at events about how’s it possible we have so many people living in poverty in a wealthy country with no tax on wealth.

 

 

The Blue Hour

  It’s the blue hour of an August

five o’clock, unlike any other I’ve seen.

I’ve made worse this worst time of year

 

for me, haven’t spoken to my mother

in a whole year. Longer? Words

compound, then run away from you.

 

That’s a cliché, but so is everything.

How many times I could barely

look to see the light streaming through

 

the windows of her New Jersey apartment.

No difference between the filmy curtains

and gauzy air. She’d bring me broccoli soup

 

from Panera Bread™, she’d say one can

never understand the sadness of you,

which explains not all, but some, of our problems.

 

From the rooftop garden

I would focus on the peak of the church

steeple across the street, and the early summer

 

moon just behind it, while the cat Lily,

deceased recently, slunk over to my deck chair

sunk in the faux-grass. My mother says

 

you need an animal to love,

but in that garden state I could see only

the ordered treetops, below the brown bees

 

swarming the dirt in the revolutionary war

cemetery. I walked through their hum once

and found four in my shoes; couldn’t tell the graves

 

from the broken headstones;

didn’t feel the sting till much later.

What do you put on bee stings? She asked,

 

I think vinegar, I said. She, beautiful

and smaller, somehow, walking out

of the bathroom wrapped in a purple sarong,

 

make-upless, wet hair made her

more definite; the light on her gold curls

a real halo, slight smile, curve of a tiny hand.

 

She was so beautiful I didn’t

think I could ever be beautiful because

some beautiful mothers never tell

 

            their daughters in time. I built myself

from the ground to that rooftop, waking in my spot

amongst the trees, the spotted leaves.

 

You need a human to love in this awful

human endeavour. You look at all the

sad, dark things I can write long after his death.

 

You are reading this introduction

to my life now, I wish it were closer

to happiness, but then it wouldn’t be

 

close to me.

That light most

like New Zealand—

 

even I couldn’t tell the difference—

the blue hour lit up her piano

that she never played in front of us,

 

just as her mother never did, whom she

loathed and then nursed. I do not want

to loathe and then nurse.

 

            Mum, please, don’t hate this,

 

I love you.

 

Nikki-Lee Birdsey

 

 

Victoria University Press author page

Poetry Shelf audio: Nikki-Lee reads ‘Foreign and Domestic’

Poetry Shelf poem festival (trees):  ‘Objects 4’

Best NZ Poems 2018: ‘Mutuwhenua

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf summer reading: Jane Arthur’s Craven

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Craven, Jane Arthur, Victoria University Press, 2019

 

 

 

I have a broth at a simmer on the stove.

Salty water like I’ve scooped up some ocean

and am cooking it in my home. Here,

gulp it back like a whale sieving plankton.

Anything can be a weapon if you

swallow hard enough:

nail scissors, a butter knife, dental floss,

a kindergarten guillotine, hot soup,

waves, whales.

 

from ‘Circles of Lassitude’

 

 

Jane Arthur’s debut collection Craven inhabits moments until they shine – brilliantly, surprisingly, refractingly, bitingly. Present-tense poetry is somewhat addictive. With her free floating pronouns (I, you, we) poetry becomes a way of being, of inhabiting the moment, as you either reader or poet, from shifting points of view.

It is not surprising it has been longlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.

The collection title references lack of courage, but it is as though Jane’s debut collection steps across a line into poetic forms of grit. This is a book of unabashed feeling; of showing the underseam, the awkward stitching, the rips and tears. Of daring to expose. The poems are always travelling and I delight in every surprising step. You move from taxidermy to piano lessons to heart checks and heart beats, but there is always a core of exposed self. And that moves me. You shift from a thing such as a plastic rose to Brad Pitt to parental quarrels. One poem speaks from the point of view of a ship’s figurehead, another from that of Constance. There is anxiety – there are dilemmas and epiphanies. The poetic movement is honeyed, fluid, divinely crafted – no matter where the subject travels, no matter the anxious veins, the tough knots.

An early poem, ‘Idiots’, is like an ode to life, to ways of being. I keep crossing between the title and the poem, the spare arrival of words punctuated by ample white space, elongated silent beats that fill with the links between brokenness, strength and pressing on.

 

Idiots

I’ve known people who decided

to carry their brokenness like strength

idiots

I’m a tree

I mean I’m tall, I sway

I don’t say, treat me gently

No¾I say, cool cool cool cool

I say, that really sucks but I guess I’ll survive it

or, that wind’s really strong

but so are my roots, so are my thighs

my branches my lungs my leaves my capacity to wait things out

I can get up in the morning

I do things

 

 

I heard Jane read for the first time at the Sarah Broom Poetry Prize session at the Auckland Writers Festival in 2018. Her reading blew my socks off, just as her poems had delighted American judge, Eileen Myles, and it was with great pleasure I announced her as the winner. Eileen described Jane’s poetry: ‘poetry’s a connection to everything which I felt in all these [shortlisted] poets but in this final winning one the most. There’s an unperturbed confident “real” here.’ In her report, Eileen wrote:

The poet shocked me. I was thrust into their work right away and it evoked the very situation of the poem and the cold suddenness of the clinical encounter, the matter of fact weirdness of being female though so many in the world are us. And still we are a ‘peculiarity’ here and this poet manages to instantly say that in poetry. They more than caught me. I like exactly how they do this – shifting from body to macro, celestial, clinical, and maybe even speaking a little out of an official history. She seems to me a poet of scale and embodiment. Her moves are clean and well-choreographed & delivers each poem’s end & abruptly and deeply I think. There’s a from the hip authority that inhabits each and all of these poems.

 

I am revisiting these words in view of Craven’s multiple poetry thrills. So often we talk about the way a poem steps off from the ordinary and blasts your heart and senses, if not your mind, with such a gust of freshness everything becomes out of the ordinary. This is what happens with Craven. A sense of verve and outspokenness is both intoxicating and necessary:

 

I’m entertaining the idea of never being silent again,

of walking into a room and shouting, You Fuckers Better Toe the Line

like a prophylactic.

from ‘Sit Down’

A sense of brittleness, vulnerability and self-testing is equally present:

I’ve been preoccupied with what others think again.

I’ve been trying not to let people down.

Nights are not long enough.

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

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

From ‘Situation’

 

The movement between edge and smooth sailing, between light and dark, puzzle and resolution, and all shades within any dichotomy you might spot – enhances the reading experience. This is a book to treasure – its complexities and its economies, its confession and its reserve. It never fails to surprise. I am so excited she will be reading at my Poetry Shelf Live session at Wellington’s Writers Festival in March (see below). Triple yeah!

 

 

Jane Arthur was the recipient of the Sarah Broom Poetry Prize  (2018). She has worked in the book industry as a bookseller and a book editor for over fifteen years. She has a master of Arts in Creative Writing from IIML at Victoria University of wellington. She was co-founder of the The Sapling, an online site for children’s literature. She lives in Wellington.

Jane will be appearing in my Poetry Shelf Live session at NZ Festival of the Arts,

Michael Fowler Centre,  Sunday 8 March 2020 12:30pm – 1:30pm

 

Victoria University Press page

Poetry Shelf Monday poem: ‘Situation’ by Jane Arthur

Poetry Shelf audio spot: Jane Arthur reads ‘Snowglobe’

Poetry Shelf: Conversation with Sarah Broom Prize finalist, Jane Arthur

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf summer reading: essa may ranapiri’s ransack

 

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ransack, essa may ranapiri, Victoria University, 2019

 

 

 

he is like a bumblebee stinger on my tongue when I say it’

from ‘Dear Orlando’

 

 

 

essa may ranapiri begins their debut poetry collection ransack with a quote from Virginia Woolf’s gender-switching Orlando: ‘Ransack the language as he might, words failed him. He wanted another landscape, and another tongue.’

When I was doing my doctoral thesis (Italian) I carried a Virginia Woolf quote from A Room of One’s Own with me and I still do: ‘Mary is tampering with the expected sequence.  First she broke the sentence; now she has broken the sequence. Very well, she has every right to do both these things if she does them not for the sake of breaking, but for the sake of creating.’

Sometimes we need to break language, to smash how we do things in order to begin again, in order to find form and fluidity for our voices. Sometime language fails us. Sometimes we have to smash muteness and test our way into a new musicality, a new sequence of connections. We may be fierce and we may be vulnerable.

I dipped in and out of ransack last year, and loved every snatched moment, but a few weekends ago I sat down in the cool shade and read the book slowly, cover to cover, and felt myself upturn, overturn, inturn and sideturn as the poetry pulsed through my being (I am thinking of that as a verb). This is what a book can do.

essa’s book is a glorious sequence of creating – of ransacking what has been, in order to refresh what will be. Letters written to Orlando make an appearance – like a epistle spine for the collection or a poetry pivot for both reader and writer.

The opening poem ‘my tongue as rope’ lays down a thicket image – the kind of image that hooks you, especially when you think of  writing, speaking and even self as braid. The braided rope is the anchor, the preserver, the tough knot, ‘the single knot’, the finder.

essa writes: to pull in sound / draw in lists / the endeavour hits the land’. Can the poems be a form of rope? ‘my tongue-rope wraps itself until it is a single knot.’

A single poem breaks apart in my mouth and heart. The break in the flow creates a new current.

 

 

fetal

 

a mothe

r returnin

g to the grown ground like a gow

n of weeds got a stretching motion

n to stil

l body corps

e the wood in the wax in the flowe

r chains a bab

y stil

l bor

n rattling i

n the mutton skie

s chubby in the loa

m to no mor

e

 

Reading ransack allows me to absorb the nonbinary experience afresh. Unsettling the line on the page unsettles the line of thought, the entrenched dichotomies of either / or / male / female / she / he / soft / hard / weak / strong

A long poem ‘Con-ception’ is dedicated to essa’s mother and is a reading explosion of arrival, pregnancy, forming embryo, forming mother. I have never read a piece that breaks into and out of the maternal that has affected me so much. I am going to give you a quote that is also right-hand margin justified, but not all the book is (the forms are dancing on their toes in an exuberant display of variousness:

 

in the world and into the world of tubes

ride the machine

incubate in plastic

and drench in yellow light

the air is whole new in-the-world

and out of the old world

recognise voices

am i

an i?

 

put in

alove?

When she finally has a shower afterwards she is crying.

 

Reading the ransack sequences and I am feeling poetry. essa tells Orlando ‘You never had to discover yourself in a book. You never questioned your gendered nature – you moved from one perfect set of genitalia to another according to Aristophanes and the great round people of concave and convex, of female and male.’

essa places body and experience at its white hot core – a gift in its sharpness, its broken cutting lines and its sweet fluencies as the writer navigates how to be, how to be body, how to be bodymindheart in the world. Part of the writing of experience, with that backstory sting of ‘he’, is claiming name, celebrating a pronoun:

 

u said you liked the ‘th’ sound in they and them the softening of it

and how it fitted around my rage

made it/for it

to be okay to touch

i talk you through other constructions

ones that subverted phonetics

me as a slice of not that

when expecting this

the xe sound like zay

 

from ‘a phone call about the nature of pronouns gendered and otherwise’

 

ransack is a skin-prickling, heart-blasting, mind-opening glorious feast of a book that in the spirit of Virginia breaks up language in order to create something breathtakingly new.

 

 

 

essa may ranapiri, Ngāti Raukawa, is a poet from Kirikiriroa, Aotearoa. They graduated with an MA in Creative Writing from Victoria University of Wellington (2018) and their work has appeared in many local journals. They are the featured poet in Poetry Yearbook 2020 (Massey University Press). ransack has been longlisted for the Ockham NZ Book Awards 2020.

 

essa may ranapiri website

Victoria University Press page

The Pantograph Punch Jackson Nieuwland reviews ransack

RNZ interview

Poetry Shelf: essa reads ‘Glass Breaking’

essa on being at IIML with Tayi Tibble

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf summer reading: Amy Brown’s neon daze

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neon daze, Amy Brown, Victoria University Press, 2019

 

 

 

The title of Amy Brown’s new collection neon daze hooked me. Having published extracts from the book on the blog, I knew the collection came out of motherhood. I mused on the way you can be caught in a blazing daze as you invent your own mother role. How moments can also gleam with light, the miracle of a newborn baby you are responsible for. Not everyone chooses or can be mothers and there is no standardised mothering role. Thanks heavens. Women have written mother poems for centuries despite denigration from men. I came across the denigration in my Wild Honey travels, but I also came across a rich harvest of mother poems that shed light on the multiplicity of experience, experience that shaped the way poems were written as well as the content. I also encountered relentless doubt – doubt about whether what women were writing could be claimed as poetry when it retained a domestic or maternal focus.

I still encounter this!

At the Poetry & Essay conference in Wellington (2017), I sat with Amy, Joan Fleming and Brian Blanchfield over lunch and we talked about how being a mother does not shut down the option of being a poet, of being a published poet, of being read and valued. And most importantly, about the significance of publishing poems about motherhood, about sons and daughters and domestic matters.

Amy’s glorious evocation of motherhood tests how poems form on the page. neon daze raises questions about both writing and mothering and resists turning away from the difficult, the intensely private. There is a sense of inquiry, contemplation and play, along with the doubt and constrained time. Amy discusses the genesis of the title – she had ‘Neonatal’ to being with and then began playing:

 

(…) Too clinical to be appropriate now,

I play with the cursor, like the baby plays with the

nipple when he wants comfort rather than food.

I keep Neon: a bright, new, elemental word

like a swipe of highlighter over these days

in the calendar. I add Days, then change it

to Daze. This is where I am, in a floodlit

stupor, so bright I can barely see, like in Dante’s

Paradise, shadowless knowledge so pure it’s empty.

 

from ‘9 October 2016’

 

Amy admitted she told people she was writing even when she privately thought ‘this writing didn’t count’. She kept a verse journal for three months after her baby was born – subsequently editing and adding footnotes which pick up on a word or idea prompted by the poem.  The footnote titles track a mind musing, raising questions, allowing doubt to surface and resettle. They are like an infinitive-verb poem:

to admit, to edit, to push, to sate, to repeat, to define, to expect, to hallucinate, to dream, to dance, to address, to winter, to resolve , to heal, to regret, to visit, to abstract, to doubt, to donate, to sever, to touch, to cringe, to name, to eat, to earn, to permit, to wake, to care, to wean, to wave, to finish

The footnotes ( I want to call them something else) form their own vital presence, not as asides, but as a sequence of numbered prose pieces that enervate the poetry.

I cross the bridges between poems and prose. Sometimes I make a clearing for the poem and surround it with silent beats like the white space on the page. Sometimes I dwell on the pirouetting trains of thought in the prose and let the questions gain momentum. I am particularly interested in Amy’s double self-exposure in both poetry and prose. The writing is called into question. Is it poetry? Is it poetry of value? Does it make a difference that the writer is a woman? A mother? What lines are crossed? What lines are tested?

I am affected by this collection because it draws me deep into the challenges of writing and motherhood. How can I write when I am so depleted? How can I write anything of worth? I still feel this.

The poetry exposes both physical and emotional realities. At times it underlines the relentless day-in-day-out routines that both exhaust and provide uplift, while at other times the poetry holds a scene (still, luminous) for us to absorb. This is a personal record of mothering: of baby stages, breastfeeding, a need to avoid baby bragging, to settle baby to sleep, to listen to baby coos and baby cries. This is a personal record of climbing to the rock summit, behind baby and father, like a baby mountain goat up the less than easy walk. The poem reverberates with feeling (sharp, understated, complicated)

 

(…) I have seen you fall, your father replies.

And I think it has something too do with you thinking

you are a mountain goat. The words are said tensely

as he holds his left arm around you and balances

with his right palm against a rock. The sky is

granite too – shimmering, hard and slick.

 

from ’16 0ctober 2016′

 

For me neon daze satisfies on so many levels. Lines spring out with musical and visual agility. Scenes shimmer with a sensual underlay. The poetry is fluent, intricate, detail-rich. A question could stall me all day such as the thorny issue of writing the lives of others; of making public what is intimate and private. Amy admitted when she was younger she ‘had no qualms / about giving air and light to what now / seems better off private’. But now she is more inclined to keep secrets yet is compelled still ‘to expose private parts of life’. She claims: ‘now I see that even if it is just / me on display, there is still a problem: / I no longer own myself’. After Amy heard Jenny Bornholdt read a poem about the death of her father and her friend Nigel Cox at the Poetry & Essay conference she asked Jenny a question:

 

During the reading, Jenny invited questions, so I asked about the responsibility of writing about loved ones – Where I asked, do you draw a line? I don’t, she replied, firm and gentle at once. I don’t draw a line.

 

from ’26 To Permit’

 

Ah, this is a question pertinent to the making of neon daze. But the strongest presence is the mother poet, the poet mother. I am drawn into her world, her challenges, her delights, her epiphanies. She has placed herself on show but she had to think equally hard about putting her son and husband in the poetry frame. This questioning of the line Amy may or may not cross, and the various revelations she makes that place family and friends in good and bad lights, affected me as I read. How to write those closest to us?

I love this book. I love navigating the alleys and the undergrowth. I love coming across the hard stuff and then falling into a piquant scene. The mother rests on the sofa with her baby sleeping and watches the men in the garden working. This exquisite juxtaposition of stillness and movement is heightened by the poet’s movement of thought. She meanders from clods of earth and labour to dreams of the future, of what may or may not be. It enters me like the wind. I am replete with the movement of this book. Grateful this book exists.

 

What if, I wondered, looking at Alison Lester’s illustrations

of things parents want to give their child – a cosy bedroom

with a view of a tree full of wattlebirds; a garden rippling

with tulips and roses; a perfectly weeded vegetable patch

with benign insects for a child to discover; friendly cats,

dogs and horses; a rock pool full of rainbow-coloured fish;

a kaola above us in a tree; a woollen blanket and a steaming

mug of tea at the fireside. What if we never have a garden?

Or pets. or perfect holidays. At least he will know

that we wished such pleasures would be his. This book

is a petitionary prayer of sorts, and I realise now

that the answer to these requests is here, dilapidated

and overgrown and snake-infested, but here.

 

from ‘8 October 2016’

 

 

 

Amy Brown is a poet, novelist and teacher. In 2012 she completed a PhD in creative writing at the University of Melbourne. She is the author of The Propoganda Girl (VUP, 2018), which was shortlisted in the 2009 NZ Book Awards, and The Odour of Sanctity (VUP, 2013), a contemporary epic poem. She is also the author of Pony Tales, a series of children’s novels.

 

The Spin Off – ‘Turning on the Light Ladder: Amy Brown on motherhood and writing neon daze

Radio NZ – Harry Ricketts reviews neon daze

Poetry Shelf – excerpt from neon daze

Victoria University Press author page

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf summer reading: Lawrence Patchett’s The Burning River

 

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The Burning River Lawrence Patchett, Victoria University Press, 2019

 

 

Complete immersion in a novel is a wonderful thing. A precious thing. I have just spent the past few days inhabiting Lawrence Patchett’s The Burning River and it feels like I will carry this gripping book with me for a long time. It is exquisitely crafted, the sentences flow like honey, the rhythms are perfectly in tune with the subject matter. But it is the way this novel represents narrative as a form of listening that has affected me so much. It takes place in the unsettling and hazardous future of a re-imagined Aotearoa New Zealand. However, this strange and estranging future, with near dead rivers and herbs that heal, is dependent upon the author paying close and astute attention to our past. Especially to the past narratives of Māori and Pākehā, both entwined and in conflict. Different groups of people are connected by bloodlines, languages, cultural rituals and behaviours, and a fierce need to survive and protect family. The novel foreshadows the ominous state of the world, yet it offers hope, bridges, restorative moves. It maps the state of an individual heart. I am so affected as I read – reading is both despair and joy.

Let me say this again: I have never read a work of such acute listening, of attending to whānau language song trading nurturing nourishing planting remembering singing kõrero.

In his acknowledgements, Lawrence thanks Araon Randell  for assistance in making ‘the altered “patchwork” world of this world deeper and richer.’ The Burning River is like a patchwork quilt, comprising many luminous and connected pieces, stitched together with such caution, feeling, integrity, vulnerability, aroha, enduring mahi, attentiveness. It becomes a narrative quilt that you hold about your shoulders as you face a world that is burning and flooding, that is wounding and maiming, that is hungry and overfed, that is tending and loving.

I adore the presence of te reo because it is part of the fabric of the storytelling – not as an exercise, not as an exotic frill – but as an essential and uplifting belonging.

This novel is a significant arrival. Find a stretch of time and immerse yourself in its extraordinary currents. If you only read one book this month make it The Burning River. I have written this very small tribute off the cuff of finishing the book, in that half-mourning state where the real world seems unreal, because I still occupy the burning river, because now I am longing even more for everything to be good and fair and humane.

 

Ngā mihi nui Lawrence

thank you, thank you, thank you

 

Victoria University Press author page