Tag Archives: Victoria University Press

Poetry Shelf review: Michele Amas’s Walking Home

 

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Michele Amas Walking Home Victoria University Press 2020

 

 

Hold your own hand

Not the idea of it

or the theory of it

Hold your own hand

with your own hand

Hold it

See how confident

how knowing it feels

how held it feels

It will cross the road

with you

It will be your older brother

sister it will be your parent your lover

It says I’ve got you

relax now

 

from ‘Walking Home’

 

 

Michele Amas (1961 – 2016) was a poet and actor. In 2005 she completed an MA in Creative Writing at IIML and was awarded the Adam Prize. Her debut collection After the Dance appeared the following year and was shortlisted for the Jessie Mackay Best First Book of Poetry Award. Ken Duncum has edited a posthumous collection, Walking Home selecting poems from across the decade, including the final poem she wrote. In his introduction he writes:

Michele jotted down fragments, phrases, verses, anywhere and everywhere – it was how she did her thinking and feeling about things, herself, the world – and this effort to feel and understand was never more pressing than in the last two years of her life. Most of the poems in this book were written without thought of publication, but those in the last sequence, ‘Walking Home’, are particularly like bulletins from Michele’s soul, naked, without artistic pretence, reminder notes to live (in all senses of the word).

There is something immensely appealing about writing for the sake of writing, without publication or public attention, just as there is something enormously moving when a writer faces their own mortality. We approach the need to be published and to garner attention in so many different ways. Our relationship to writing, when faced with life-threatening illness, is unpredictable. I am deeply curious about writing as a way of warding off death, as a way of achieving equilibrium, and making connections in the most difficult circumstances. I found the final collections of Sarah Broom and Rachel Bush deeply gripping because they created poetry, at the edge of death, that is  luminescent with life. I am equally moved by Walking Home.

Reading Michele’s collection reminds me that reviewing can be so much more than a recap that reduces the magic of an unfolding book or critical judgement in terms of both success and failure. I am interested in the effect a book has upon me as reader, upon how it makes me think and feel, on how it affects relationships with the past and the present, with both the world at large and more intimate settings, with my private circumstances. The capability of poetry is vast. Yet what happens when we are reading work that the author never really intended for the public domain? In my extensive research for Wild Honey, I so often came across women who wrote for the sake of creating, and were disinclined to name it poetry / poems. I feel close to these issues, and agonise over what to put in a review of this book. I take this book personally. I write reviews as a form of intimate engagement with what I read.

The opening poem ‘The Documentary’ resonates sweetly with gaps and loops. It is both rich and economical, and the perfect entrance into a collection of such exquisite layering. The  poem becomes talisman.

 

A grandson takes a stone

from a southern Pacific coast

carries it in his wallet

across the world

to place on a grave

 

Poetry is also something we might carry. Here I am at the start of the book, brimming with both sadness and delight. We might carry the poem and the stone as solace, as keepsake, to mark the graves of those we lose, to hold when we are close to death. This feels like the hardest review I have ever written, and so yes, I will call it an engagement. The mark of a poem that catches is when you keep reading it over and over (like when you play an album or song over and over as only that will do). I keep playing this poem over and over, marveling at the scene. Here is the end of the poem:

 

Hear our chorus

our bony percussion

our grandson, our grandson’s sons

hear us claim our future

and our escape

Do not be caught unarmed

bring your film, your press, your theatre

your manuscript, your piano, your pencils

bring your keepsake gift, your promise

bring your stone

 

And so through the gate, into a collection that offers vignettes of prismatic life, from the way it is not easy to be happy to the story of an actress whose baby is taken because the courts decide an actress is less stable.  Perhaps by choosing to write for the sake of writing as opposed to the sake of publishing, you can eyeball dark and light without filter or expectation. Writing as a form of liberation.  ‘This Is About You – Isn’t It?’ is a poem of deliberate mishearings and imaginings, and accruing feeling.

 

He’d build things for you

like lakes

for your swans.

 

I wanted you to be married

so that I could be married –

I guess it’s as simple as that.

 

Many poems in Walking Home are written out of the flaws and complexities of living and loving as mother and lover. I adore the three ‘Tender Years’ poems, where mother addresses daughter, and exposes hurts, dislikes, yearnings, wisdom, epiphanies, experience. Poems cut through just diverse and distinctive experiences, often changing key memorably. Hanging out the everyday washing in ‘Separate Lines’, the two neighbours don’t discuss war or religion, but the poem takes us beyond ‘safe ground’:

 

Tonight at six we watch the war

think of the washing out

of mud, of blood, both sides

will dress from a laundry pile

a fence between them

two separate lines

 

Ah. I just want you to read this book. This multi-toned glorious book with every note pitch perfect, with roving subject matter and delving points of view. I have thunder and storm outside as I read, and a threatened national border, toxic political point scoring, and I am reading poems that fill me with joy and melancholy, and then more joy. Mostly joy. Transcendental. Transporting. I once read a review of Sarah Broom’s final collection Gleam that incensed me to the moon and back because the reviewer suggested the book’s relationship with near death would always affect the reader, and that was far more potent than the poems themselves. The reviewer had missed or eclipsed the exquisite poetic effects. Walking Home offers a equally breathtaking reading experience.

I get to the last poem, ‘Walking Home’, and this is broadcast from serious illness, drawing us to the way illness ripples out to affect those close by, to the way the poet learns to hold her own hand. The poet confesses she reads a poem backwards, but the poem is long, which means things are topsy turvey with answers arriving before questions, and admits she wants ‘to read this disease backwards’. The unease, the uncertainty is there in the fragments: the what to do and how to be, the entreaty to her daughter, the fear, the ‘age’ disappearing at arm’s length, the pain and lack of appetite, the writing, the writing of pieces that may or may not be called poetry, in the eye of the poet. What matters is the love of writing in these gleaming self exposures (to borrow Sarah’s title), and now, as I hold this book close in the storm, the love of reading matters. I adore this poem so much.

 

The idea being

we walk each other home

 

so let me

 

The idea being

there’s no physical address

it’s a concept, right

 

so let me

 

 

This is an astonishing book. Quiet, raw, physical, getting deep into the truth of things. Astonishing. I take this book personally and I will carry the poems with me and I am utterly grateful Ken Duncum and Victoria University Press have risked its publication.

 

Victoria University Press author page

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf in conversation with Oscar Upperton

 

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Oscar Upperton New Transgender Blockbusters Victoria University Press, 2020

 

 

Optimism is the idea that it not always will rain.

Leave home as soon as you are free,

for everyone comes back again—

 

just never board a train

without a member of family.

Optimism is the idea that it will not always rain,

 

that between sea and plain

will always sprout a city.

For everyone comes back again.

 

from ‘Dutch instruction’

 

 

Oscar Upperton was born in Christchurch in 1991, grew up in Whāngarei and Palmerston North, and now lives in Wellington. In 2019 he was awarded the Creative New Zealand Louis Johnson New Writer’s Bursary. His work has appeared in Sport, The Spinoff, Metro and Best New Zealand Poems. His debut collection New Transgender Blockbusters was one of two go-to poetry books for me in lockdown (Elizabeth Morton the other). It is fresh, witty, offbeat, surprising yet never loses sight of a lived-in world. As it says on the blurb: These poems are vitally human and consoling: they reframe the ordinary as something to yearn for’. This is the kind of book that I want to talk about with someone, the way the city and rural settings are both present, the way there is a degree of incantation at times, a sense of song, a jubilant relationship with words that might involve rhyme or repetition or silence. I am out of lockdown now but the world is still wobbly, I am still wobbly as both reader and writer, and I find this book the perfect retreat. Glorious is the word for it.

 

In conversation with Oscar Upperton

 

Paula: What poets, both here and overseas, have hooked your attention?

Oscar: I only really read Kiwi poets. I love Tayi Tibble’s writing. Also Jane Arthur and Ashleigh Young. My younger sibling Katrina Upperton is my favourite read at the moment though.

 

Paula: Poetry performers?

Oscar: I went on a road trip with my dad before the lockdown and read in Palmerston North, Whangārei and Kerikeri. I was lucky to see some awesome, awesome performers on that trip. I can’t name everyone (and some of the readings were private anyway) but I will single out Vera Hua Dong, who gave an amazing performance in Kerikeri. I’m looking forward to seeing her writing on the page in Ko Aotearoa Tātou when it comes out in August.

 

Years aren’t to blame. I was always old.

The garden gathers rain. I grew and grew

and broke the mould. I sat there in the rain.

 

from Garden beds’

 

Paula: Your book is like a breath of fresh air. I am drawn to the economy, the richness, the quirkiness, the surprise. What are key things when you write a poem?

Oscar: Thank you for all the compliments! I like to think I’m quirky. Sort of the manic pixie dream boy of New Zealand poetry.

Usually I start with a line or a sound I like, and just follow that. Or I start with an idea, like writing a poem with footnotes. I like to make up rules for myself, like this poem has to have every fourth line written backwards or in this poem the first word of every line rhymes. And I like to use prompts, like Pip Adam’s exercises from her podcast Better Off Read.

 

The dog is a book read over and over

The dog is a river that’s stopping for no one

The dog is a child who thinks hot is a colour

 

The book is a dog that’s waiting for water

The book is a river that cannot be forded

The book is a child who’s made out of silence

 

from ‘Song abut a child’

 

Paula: I like the appearance of lists in your poems, whether subtle or overt. What attracts you to poetry list making?

Oscar: It’s easy! Also I like repetition. Also I like juxtaposition. Like if you put one image beside another, unrelated image, what happens? Lists are useful for that.

 

Paula: Yes- I love the connections between things on a line and in the poem. That is where surprise and quirkiness can take root. I also like the musicality – the rhyme. Sometimes I am reminded of Bill Manhire’s poetry palette as I read your poems (final word in book might be referencing his poem ‘Kevin’). Any poets that feel like close writing relations?

Oscar: This is a funny question to me because some of my closest relations are poets (my dad Tim and my sibling Katrina) and they are probably the writers that I am the most similar to, for obvious genetic and environmental reasons. I definitely am very influenced by Bill Manhire. I like his relaxed approach to sound and rhythm, and how a lot of his poems are jokes or riddles. He seems to be having a lot of fun when he writes, and it’s infectious. I aspire to be like that.

 

Paula: I so see that in your writing! Your poetry seems assured to me, crafted with a deft hand, but do you suffer doubt as you write?

Oscar: Yes, all the time! But I chuck out poems or lines I don’t like, so I am usually happy with a poem by the time it is published. There are some lines in my poems I really don’t like. For example, I think the ending of ‘Child’s First Dictionary’ is really bad. And I even dedicated that poem to my sister! How rude.

 

 

We like mushrooms best when they taste of thieving.

At home we turn the Beatles up to eleven.

This bag of mushrooms was not a given.

We don’t like Kevin but we both like ‘Kevin’.

 

from ‘Two thieves’

 

Paula: Some poets currently favour massive self-exposure in poems – there are heart-punching examples I adore. I find your collection a complex weave of human experience that might be invented or real, intimate or restrained. How do you feel about revealing your private life in a poem?

Oscar: I have a lot of childhood poems in my book that I guess you could say are autobiographical, but they are more about mood or tone than describing a particular thing that happened. Although ‘Two thieves’ is entirely truthful.

I don’t think I’m interesting enough to merit too much self-exposure – all the poets I love who write about themselves, they seem to get out of the house much more often than I manage to. I’d much rather write about something I haven’t done or haven’t experienced, and I don’t tend to write in my own voice. The only poems I have written that I consider to be in my voice are ‘New transgender blockbusters’ and ‘Carmen’. I wrote them because I had two very specific emotional experiences (one after watching a terrible movie, one after listening to people talk about Carmen Rupe) and I was interested in the challenge of recording those experiences accurately. I like both those poems but I wouldn’t want to write a whole book like that.

 

A juggernaut is anything sour, sour cabbage.

Why do you hide your head beneath the bedclothes?

A juggernaut is anything at all, air and beans.

Why do you keen? Why throw yourself against the porch light?

A juggernaut is anything sitting on a rooftop not a bird.

 

from ‘Juggernaut’

 

Paula: Ha! Poetry is a way of writing yourself out of the house in any way or voice you care to invent. The blurb lists questions. ‘Juggernaut’ is a sequence of questions. I began musing on the idea of questions shadowing poems, like furtive ghosts that help bring something into being. What’s your take on poetry and questions?

Oscar: I like questions because they invite the reader in and suggest an answer without me actually having to come up with one. I don’t like being too definite or conclusive when I write, and questions are useful for that.

 

Paula: That is another plus about your poetry. In fact I could have used the word ‘openness’. Porous poetry that is like an open home for the reader. Was there a poem that was particularly tough to write?

Oscar: ‘Caroline’ was hard to write because it contains a lot of repetition. The same lines had to make sense in six different contexts, over six stanzas. I wrote it in Excel with formulas set up so that if I changed a line in one place the change would flow through the rest of the poem. It took ages and was a weird time but I really like that poem now.

‘Prudence’ was hard to write because it’s about a cat and therefore ran the risk of becoming too cute.

 

 

Last year’s trees are dropping.

They drop like sticky fruit.

They drop as the flies rise.

Last year I woke up differently.

This year is the same old mess.

 

from ‘Atlas’

 

Paula: Is there a particular poem – or two – where you feel you have nailed it?

Oscar: ‘Atlas’ is the first poem in the book because it’s my favourite. I wrote it about ten years ago, when I was at my peak.

 

Paula: Hmm! More peaks on the horizon please! Slowly we return to live poetry events. If you were to curate a session with poets from any time or place who would you invite?

Oscar: I would like to see Bashō and Sappho read. Also Robbie Burns. I wonder if they would be baffled by the experience of a modern poetry reading or if they would just go with it.

 

Paula: Wow. What a combination. I have no idea how Sappho would deliver a poem and we could get to see gaps filled if she moved beyond fragments. Finally there is more to life than writing poems. What else feeds you?

Oscar: Right now I’m helping out with an online writing workshop run by InsideOUT. Being the ‘teacher’ is super weird but has given me a new perspective on writing. And it is so cool to see what the writers are coming up with.

 

Victoria University Press page

Oscar in conversation with Karyn Hay RNZ

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf interview wth Nick Ascroft

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Nick Ascroft, Moral Sloth Victoria University Press, 2019

 

A heater heats

a Rita Angus, seen

through the steam from the langoustine

with mangosteen.

 

from ‘A Writer Wrongs’

 

‘Nick Ascroft’s Moral Sloth is among other things a virtuoso display of formal skills. He does a particularly classy line in sonnets. He can rhyme as tellingly as Alexander Pope or the Byron of Don Juan – and can match those poets in quickness of thought and even (it seems to me) outstrip them in richness of diction.’—Bill Manhire

 

Nick Ascroft’s latest poetry collection arrived at the end of last year – it had multiple effects upon me at the time and I was dead keen to do an interview with Nick – we started a conversation but then Covid 19 sidetracked everything. I return to the book and here I am again finding sweet rhyme comfort, linguistic agility, biting self exposure, equally biting wit, the humour, the poetic stretching out. Months ago I mentioned ‘a world gone mad’ in a question to Nick. That feels at odds now. Jarring in fact. This is a world off kilter trying to find equilibrium, solutions, ways forward. So many people working hard to care for so many other people. So much risk tasking. Yes there is madness on the ground and in certain leaderships. But there are also multiple comforts. When everything has spun and has seemed impossible to do – poetry has continued to hold my attention. Nick’s book has done just that.

 

Automating word noise from the stroller,

my son defines the wind in onomatopoeia:

‘Zheesh!’

Then he spies the moon, our little naked analogue,

and tells the secret of its abased name.

‘Zig zig zig,’ the bridging cicada agrees.

 

from ‘Naked Analogue’

 

 

Paula: Name three or four poetry books that mattered at different points in your life.

Nick: Sure. I think the ones I remember are the ones that brought me back in shock to the reminder that I love poetry. That it isn’t all just the same bag of grey Countdown sausages. Early on that’s easy. All poems seem great. But the more you read (and write) the harder it is to be impressed. These days I really enjoy certain books of poetry, but few actually get me excited. I am a cold-blooded egg, it must be said. But films, fiction, music are more likely to have me jazzed. I think Eunoia by Christian Bök of Canada was so shockingly good and novel and funny and well-executed that I ate it like a pavlova. All at once. For those who haven’t read it, the author set himself the task of writing five sections based on the five vowels with each section only using words that contained only that section’s vowel, so in the ‘E’ section words like ‘be’, ‘teehee’, ‘letter’ or ‘fecklessness’ could (and must) appear. This may sound like a pure exercise, but the result is just beautiful. Chapter I begins: ‘Writing is inhibiting. Sighing I sit, scribbling in ink this pidgin script. I sing with nihilistic witticism, disciplining signs with trifling gimmicks – impish hijinks which highlight stick sigils. Isn’t it glib? Isn’t it chic? …’ I could go on. The book is from 2001 but I got to it a few years later.

The other that comes to mind is In a Slant Light by Cilla McQueen from I think 2016. I’ve gushed about this elsewhere so I’ll hold back, but I was really captured by this one. It seemed the greatest use of Cilla’s talents to tell her own fascinating life story. I was struck both by the telling and the life in art. It felt empowering. Both those are single poem as whole book numbers. So to give a third I’ll say Byron’s Don Juan, which I finally got to two years ago. I really do prefer to read rhyming poetry, and no one has as much fun with it as Byron in the Don Juan cantos. More than that it showed me what a poet can be at their best. His use of persona and sensationalism and other needlessly frowned upon things, employed without giving a shit, and better still, sometimes pretending to give a shit. It inspired ‘The Plotz’ in Moral Sloth.

 

How loose and gauche.

How loose it goes;

my purple tongue

speaks weeks of prose.

 

from ‘Kay? Syrah? Shiraz?’

 

Paula: I am a big fan of In a Slant Light too – I had really wanted sessions at festivals featuring Cilla and using her poetry / autobiography as a starting point – but wasn’t to be!

I love your linguistic playfulness. Any poets you admire who also do this?

Nick: I am not quite sure what my linguistic playfulness is. It’s one of those things reviewers say of me and I feel my hackles and feckles rising. ‘Nick Ascroft, he plays with words.’ Plays?! PLAYS!? How dare you! I am not playing with language. I am working with it. This is high blinking art. But I do, I play with words. A play on words usually means delivering a pun right? Or some other rhetorical devices like zeugma (‘We stir: I my tea, and he in his grave’). I’m not sure how often I do such things. Not a lot I suspect.

So I presume the playing that is perceived relates more to my attitude to language. My attitude is: I like all the words. Any word can appear in a poem, it just needs a hospitable sentence that restricts its meaning in the right way. In the most delightful way ideally, to jack Mary Poppins. I find words joyous. Some chap smarter than me once said my work made him think of the ‘gay science’, that is the joyful spirit of Provencal troubadours as prized by Nietzsche or some such. So while my subject matter is often bleak, there is a joyfulness in the deployment of words that must come across as playful. I don’t know. Never try and analyse one’s own thing I say. That way boring pastiche lies.

But to the actual question, who else has a playfulness I admire? I think I see it in all the writers I like. David Eggleton’s parroting of the culture back at it relies on his repackaging of the phrases, buzzwords and clichés currently on the world’s lips. He seems to be both mocking the world and celebrating it. On the radio the other day he read a poem full of Z words. Love it. Richard Reeve too is playful, and what I like best is that he’s playful while being vicious, pointed, serious. The Irish and British poets of the last 30 years are lexically obsessed. Don Paterson can be my random exemplar.

 

Paula:  I love play because there are implications of risk tasking, discovery, the unexpected, surprise, less obligation to rules and limits, you can obey rules, reinvent them, abandon them. I am wondering if play can be serious!

I also love the way you move from infectious wit to an intense moment (love, for example). What matters when you write a poem?

Nick: What matters to me is that the idea and its phrasing are entertaining to me. I want to express whatever ideas I’m peddling in a way that gets them across. I want to be generous. That doesn’t always happen, because I also love obfuscation and nonsense. To me poetry is art with language, and language is a wonderful mess of things. I can’t sum up all poems, so I’ll try to think about what matters in particular instances. When I write a sonnet what matters is that I obey the rules: 14 × 5 iambs and a rhyme scheme. I want the rhymes to be novel, enjoyable in themselves while the poem works quietly around them. If a poem has jokes, they have to actually make me giggle. I have to laugh at my own jokes like an ass. I have a real problem with weakly jokey poems. And so a fear that I am writing them. It’s good fear.

 

Paula: I found myself laughing, feeling both comfort and discomfort, being moved in complex ways as I read you book. What hooks you in the poetry of others?

Nick: Many things. Too many things. But ultimately, invention. What comes to mind is the surreal brilliance in the similes of Hera Lindsay Bird. As most people likely to read this are writers themselves, I’m sure you will be familiar with the experience of reading a line and thinking, I never could have written that. That has a brilliance I will never attain. It’s bittersweet. And that’s how I feel about HLB. The intricacy of those similes. The sheer invention. Now I see everyone copying the style, the surreal and intricate and somehow true HLB simile. I don’t say that sneeringly. They are infectious. I feel the same way of Richard Reeve’s ease of invention, and his accuracy at depicting things. At the moment he is writing a poem about rain that I have seen the first few sections of and its makes you see the truths of rain anew. It makes you care about rain. I could never come up with those lines.

 

Not one to plotz, I’m private, careful, flaccid.

How did I change? One moment I wear blouses,

vinyl shoes, I’m pulverised on acid,

the next I’m at the bank discussing houses

or circling with a whiteboard marker ‘hazard

class’, a tucked-in shirt with belted trousers.

I want to understand, to tweeze this tuft.

Did I grow up? Or was my brightness snuffed?

 

from ‘The Plotz’

 

Paula: I saw Hera in a simile battle with USA poet Patricia Lockwood at the Wellington Writers Festival a couple of years ago. Each trying to out do the other, so the session was was like a gigantic poem. At the time it felt like there was a global wave of simile battles, every which way you looked.

Sometimes you get quite personal. There is a little confession in ‘The Plotz’: ‘I’m  private, careful, flaccid.’ Do you have lines you don’t cross? How do you feel about breaking down the privacy?

Nick: The whole of ‘The Plotz’ is uncomfortable confession … sprinkled with self-mythologising. This is not my natural mode, but something I have occasionally indulged in. And that’s how I always saw it, indulgence. Confession and making poems only about oneself were things I thought tired and distasteful. I have completely 180-ed on that. I admire the bravery of confession in other poets these days. It’s only in saying our oddest truths that others can recognise them and feel liberated by it being said elsewhere.

I can think of two lines I am uncomfortable crossing. The first relates to poems of fatherhood. I had a motto going in to the whole breeding business that ‘you become what you hate’. Constant gushing on Facebook: check. Dad dancing: check. I read Amy Brown’s brilliant evocation of those early hellish weeks of infancy, and in a similar vein Chris Stewart in the recent AUP New Poets 6. In the recognition of experience I really value these poems. I remember reading Graham Lindsay’s Lazy Wind Poems a decade ago and really enjoying it, but having a sense that his baby had poisoned his mind. He was now obsessed with this tot and it was suckling on his poetry like a parasite. I was afraid to become that thing. A dad poet fixated on his offspring. It’s a foolish fear and a few of the better poems in Moral Sloth relate to dadhood. But I remain uncomfortable with it. Perhaps it’s in the way ‘dad’ is used as a modifier to denote uncool or hopeless: ‘dad jokes’, ‘dadbod’, ‘dad pants’ (I made that up, but you can imagine what it might mean and it is not flattering).

My other discomfort is naming names. All of my best confessional anecdotes involve other people. I’ll shame myself happily – and certain others who it is humorous to shame – but not everyone.

 

And hello, I am a beaver.

To you my sincerest, I am a starfish

with an old-fashioned disposition.

Ever yours, a beetle, one of many, writing,

amid a rainstorm, of commas, to an eagle.

 

from ‘Good Day, I Am a Horse’

 

Paula: Are you drawn to particular things, subjects?

Nick: Moral philosophy. The human condition. Sanctimony. Hubris. My own pratfalls. Funny cats.

 

Paula: What attracts you to rhyme (I love your rhyme!)?

Nick: I enjoy rhyme more than anything in poetry. For a while that felt enormously unfashionable. It was OK to like the rhymesters of the past with a knowing wince, but rhyme’s time had passed. Or so we thought. People at NASA have a saying: ‘Space is hard’. Meaning it is always likely any mission will crash and burn and only the most meticulous planning will give you a hope in hell. No. Rhyme is hard. It crashes and burns by its very nature. It’s a real craft I think that takes some years of apprenticeship. I am still learning. It has to seem both obvious and invisible, blunt but subtle. That’s more in the lead up, perhaps, but the rhyme words themselves delight me. I recently rhymed ‘triplex’ and ‘shipwrecks’. Giddy. A good near-rhyme can be so rewarding too, for instance in ‘Art Is Weak’ the rhyme of ‘horsemen’ with ‘porcelain’. But I like metrical rhyming poetry ultimately for the puzzle. It’s like a crossword or Sudoku. You labour away at it trying to make it complete, and acceptable. But unlike a puzzle there is no final answer and always room for improvement. At one point in Moral Sloth there are 242 lines of iambic pentameter in a row (including a few sonnets and the 18 stanzas of ottava rima of ‘The Plotz’). I really worry this is off-putting. But it’s what I write.

 

A certain governmental agency

provisioning the arts suggested in

the aftermath that those invested in

opposing such disgusting vagrancy

of moral intellect should hashtag works

of art or prose on Twitter: ‘#CreateAroha’.

 

from The Mosque Attacks’

 

Paula: What good is poetry in a world gone mad?

Nick: The world hasn’t gone mad of course. It remains mad. I am not optimistic that poetry will help. It summons some of the forces in the world perhaps. There are forces for order, forces for chaos, forces that are just like fingers on the inside of a balloon trying to poke outwards, such as comfort. As to good – and evil –  these are such important girders of the human world that shape much of how we live our lives and who we feel it’s okay to look down on, but they are ultimately make-believe. That’s a meaningless thing to say as I’m speaking from within that make-believe world where good and evil are as real as music (also doesn’t exist) or mathematics (I’m on the fence). So the good of poetry? And its good to a mad world, where the word ‘good’ is some fantastical fudge? I am the wrong choice to pontificate on such a thing. I admire people who push the great worth of poetry to society, being someone who writes the darn-goshed stuff, and I also admire those who scoff and suggest poetry is the most worthless garbage.

My only sermon on this front is that if poetry is lowly garbage, which very few read, it has a secret strength. Poets can say anything. We can say the things others would rightly shy away from. There is no personal consequence. We’re already the lowest of the low. And we will never derive a living income from poetry, so the biggest risk is a few sales off a small total. We can say ugly truths and scary falsehoods. An example. I was going to cut a poem from Moral Sloth called ‘The Mosque Attacks’ for two very good reasons. The first being that the mosque attacks in Christchurch are still fresh, still appalling, still punch-to-the-gut sickening to even think about, and the response to them still complex and, to many, problematic. My poem is not even about the attacks. It’s about a Creative New Zealand tweet. The poem, a sonnet, tries to untangle my dislike of CNZ’s post-attacks call to hashtag works on social media with #CreateAroha. The upshot being that it was feelgood vomit. So yes, the first reason to cut, is that my rhymey poem is petty in the face of real tragedy. You all think: and you needed a second reason, man? The second reason was not to bite the hand that feeds. Why attack Creative New Zealand? They are my only chance to make a little money. I thought it absurd I would even consider putting the poem in the collection. I’d shown it to my email poet-circle. That was enough. But those readers didn’t blink or scold me. So I slipped it in the manuscript. I presumed Ashleigh Young would say, this is a bit on the nose, Nick. Nothing. Then I had to cut poems to get down to a slick 80 pages. Surely it would be cut now. I left it. And I left it because poetry sashays under the radar. It can waltz its way through the sacred and taboo. Poetry can say unwise things. This is the good of poetry. More people will read this interview than that poem.

 

Paula: If you were running this interview and wanted to take a swerve what would you ask yourself?

Nick: I’ve thought about this too much, but the question I would suggest is ‘Has success changed you?’ In fact, it would almost be great if you deleted your question and just asked this, so that people might pause and think, but he’s not successful at all is he? Why’s she asking that? Weird.

The reason I’d like the question is that success as a poet is a funny thing. No it really isn’t, actually. If one is celebrated, studied, one’s books sell in large numbers, one wins prizes, awards, fellowships, is asked to panel-beat festivals around the world, and one’s surname becomes sufficient identification, etc. etc., then one is successful. I nearly almost have a couple of those things. But I decided recently that I would think of myself as successful. Everyone can see someone more successful than themselves. So why not? Some people enjoy my poetry, and some people publish it. I’ll take that. And yes, success has changed me. I am much much worse.

 

Paula: Love the question. Might try it on someone else. It’s the stranger coming up to you and saying they liked your book. That’s something I rate. Everything else feels like white noise.

Is there a poem that particularly worked for you?

Nick: Difficult. They all worked enough to be included and all carried their flaws. I like ‘The Plotz’ the most, but a few lines bug me, and I’ll likely be rewriting it until I die. ‘I Coo Haiku High, Eh’, which squashes eight haiku into a sonnet, pleases me very much but it’s a bit of a grand folly. The one I wrote for my father’s funeral ‘A Good Heart’ using Dad’s stock phrases is special to me but similarly is a bit too personal to transcend that. I’ll choose ‘What to Avoid Calling My Next Poetry Collection’, simply because it involved the most work. It was much longer and continuously growing. Ashleigh helped me cull it back to something tighter and more manageable. One of the lines is entirely hers. Is it poetry? I’m not sure that it is. But meh.

 

 

What to Avoid calling the Next Collection

 

You’re Going to Need a Big Old Dictionary

What to Expectorate When Your Expectorating

Fanny Pack of Wolves

Words Good

Dry, Slow, Grinding, Unremitting, Desolate, Endless

 

Dwang Nibbler

Full Metal Jean Shorts

You Don’t Have Time for This

Treat Your Own Neck

Fey Canoes

 

Your Haircut Looks Like a Pauper’s Grave

Your Pauper’s Grave Is a Bit Ooh-Look-at-Me

Unstapleshuttable

People Who Bought This Also Bought Pornography

Smellybutton

 

I Preferred His Early Funny Poems

Just Thoughts Really

Limericks for Pubic Baldness

Charge Conjugation Parity Symmetry Violation for Dummies

Hang on, Nobody Wang Chung a Second

 

Impervious to Criticism

Found Poems of Financial Regulation

Away with Words

Fighting Fire with Fire Extinguishers

There Was an Old Lady from Lucknow

 

Most Eligible Lecturer

You People

Once Were Wordier

Cry Me ¡Arriba!

What to Ejaculate When You’re Ejaculating

 

Suckle on My Verse Teats

Emilio Estevez

10 Child Abduction Fails #3 Is Hilarious

Your Feet Honk Like Tofurkey

Wheeeeeeeee!

 

 

Nick Ascroft was born in Oamaru. His previous poetry collections are From the Author Of (2000), Nonsense (2003), and Back with the Human Condition (2016); in 2018 Boatwhistle published his Dandy Bogan: Selected Poems. He has edited Landfall, Glottis and Takahē and was all-too briefly the Burns Fellow at the University of Otago. He is also a non-fiction author, writing on music and football. Nick is an editor by trade, a linguist by training and a competitive Scrabble player by choice.

Victoria University Press author page

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf Lounge: VUP launches Natalie Morrison’s Pins

 

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If all the pins in the world were gathered together
you would be very much pleased.
But all the pins in the world
cannot be gathered
together.

 

 

Welcome to the Victoria University Press launch of Natalie Morrison’s Pins.

Time to pour that wine and draw in close to celebrate a book-length poem I am ultra excited to read.

First some words from editor Ashleigh Young:

 

 

 

Chris Price launches the book:

 

 

 

 

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Natalie gives us a wee taste of the book:

 

 

‘I found Pins extraordinarily witty, perceptive, and moving. The family narrative unspools around two sisters whose pointed obsessions bring us something that echoes Wallace Stevens’ ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ and Anne Kennedy’s 100 Traditional Smiles.’

—James Brown

 

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If you feel like me after these speeches and readings, you will have written down the title as a must-have book. I love the premise. I loved the intimate reading, with glimpses of the kitchen showing in the background. Oh and I love the cover by Todd Atticus.

Sadly you can’t stroll over and tell Natalie how much you loved the reading and get her to sign a copy.  But now that we can get books online from our magnificent independent booksellers – I highly recommend you order a copy of this!

PG

Poetry Shelf and Victoria University Press declare this spellbinding poetry book officially launched.

 

VUP author page

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf connections: my phone a NZ bookshop project

 

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Before we moved into Level 4 lockdown, I decided I would phone a NZ bookshop each week and get them to recommend a book and I would pick one to get sent out to me.

I didn’t get very far as bookshops had to close! But the day before lockdown I phoned Time Out Bookstore in Mt Eden and spoke to Kiran Dass. I so appreciated Kiran talking when the shop was packed with people stocking up on books.

I have saved the parcel until today because I wanted to hear that my big children’s poetry anthology I have been working on is ok. And it is! So I am very happy. And now I have my treat!

The books seem entirely perfect to be reading now.

In the middle of night recently I heard Rebecca Priestly in conversation with Kim Hill on RNZ National about her new book, Fifteen Million Years in Antarctica (VUP), and it was breathtaking. It was a podcast of their session at the VERB Wellington Writer’s Festival.  I can’t wait to read this book. I can’t seem to find a link to the podcast – will add if I do!

Kiran recommended Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City (Allen & Unwin). Very excited about this book.

 

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Like many bookshops, Time Out will start doing online orders from next week when we move into Level 3.

This is a time to go gently on ourselves, for some it is a time to read, and for some it is not, and that is ok.

Some of us are in positions to support small businesses again, and I plan to resume my support of independent NZ bookshops.

Here is the latest advice from Time Out:

 

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Poetry Shelf Lounge: VUP launches Mikaela Nyman’s Sado

 

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Welcome to the online book launch of Mikaela Nyman’s novel Sado (Victoria University Press). Settle back with a glass of wine before dinner and let’s raise our glasses!

 

Publisher Fergus Barrowman welcomes us and the book:

 

 

 

Mikaela Nyman introduces us to Sado with a reading:

 

 

 

From Kirsten McDougall, VUP publicist:

This launch was to be held in person with wine and food at Vic Books, Kelburn. We are sorry we don’t get to celebrate the launch of the book by supporting Vic Books and we ask that when business resumes, readers support them.

Here’s a link to our webpage – where people can buy the reader through Mebooks for kindle or any other ereader. People can also read the first chapter of Sado on PDF from a link on that page too.

 

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Four  questions for Mikaela (VUP Blog, March 2020)

 

Your debut novel, Sado, is set in Port Vila, Vanuatu, just after Cyclone Pam caused massive destruction in the islands. Can you tell us about the genesis for your story?

It grew out of the realisation that Vanuatu didn’t seem to feature on people’s radar in New Zealand – despite the fact that it is only a three-hour direct flight away, and we have thousands of Ni-Vanuatu come every year to work in our vineyards and orchards. The majority of New Zealanders I encountered who had visited Vanuatu, had only been there for a day, on a cruise ship holiday. They ‘had done Vanuatu,’ or so they kept telling me. The absoluteness of this statement threw me. I was privileged to spend four years in Vanuatu and feel I’ve barely dipped below the surface – thanks to the generosity of friends, colleagues, villagers, public officials and artists who have shared the richness of their respective cultures, experiences and languages with me over time. Vanuatu stretches over 80 islands and has more than 100 languages. There’s a lot more to it than Port Vila. Yet the exotic island holiday paradise narrative prevails.

Across the Pacific, entire populations brace themselves every year for the cyclone season. But for Vanuatu it wasn’t until Cyclone Pam radically transformed the landscape in 2015 that the outside world took notice. And even then it only lasted for a moment, until a greater natural disaster in another part of the world superseded Pam. And in a heartbeat the world’s attention on a suffering small Pacific island nation was gone. It could make you cynical. Or you could start writing about it … I guess as an islander (albeit from the Northern hemisphere), and as someone who has always tried to make sense of the world by writing about it, I wanted to share a more nuanced and complex reality that included the everyday desires, tragedies, joys, limitations and absurdities that tend to make up island life.

 

You have two main protagonists, Cathryn, a New Zealand national working in Port Vila, and Faia, a Ni-Vanuatu woman, and colleague of Cathryn. Can you talk about the relationship between these two characters and how you went about the creation of these two very different people?

Cathryn and Faia are amalgams of many people I’ve encountered. There are aspects of their personalities that are made up, because the story demanded it. They are both devoted mothers and have worked together for several years in a fictional non-governmental organisation, yet Cathryn remains more reliant on Faia than vice versa.

Faia is part of a larger and more complicated local scene, with more obligations and reciprocal relationships than Cathryn will ever have. Their relationship traverses that awkward territory where they are no longer merely work colleagues, but neither are they very close friends. I wanted to explore that tension – how far you can push friendship, what may break it; what you are able to forgive, and how.

From a young age, I was hooked on Toni Morrison’s novels. Decades later, I found her insightful lectures, published as Playing in the dark: whiteness and the literary imagination, where Toni Morrison speaks about the perils of writing ‘blackness’ (specifically African-American), and equally the perils of not writing about it enough, and thereby contributing to erasing part of the world’s population from historical records and literature. I did not wish to contribute to that erasure. And I did not want a single narrative that in its incompleteness reinforces stereotype, to paraphrase Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

I explored ways to include other voices and came across a helpful essay on Toni Morrison’s paired characters in her novels. It discusses how time and again Morrison’s perceived protagonist serves as an ironic anti-hero, while a secondary character, with a seemingly lesser role, demonstrates courage and overcomes immense personal and cultural obstacles. The ‘seemingly lesser role’ and the common assumption that there is only one protagonist, usually the one who takes up most space, resonated with me as an apt description of what I was trying to achieve. It confirmed to me that Cathryn, albeit the perceived protagonist, could indeed be the anti-hero. What I needed was a radical and tangible shift to physically wrestle authority from Cathryn and pass it to Faia.

 

There is a lot of discussion presently around the ethics of what stories a writer can write – can you talk about what it was like for you to write Sado? What considerations played into your writing and research of writing a novel set in Vanuatu? 

I don’t think I would ever have written a story set in Vanuatu without actually having lived there. The experience of being hammered by Cyclone Pam, a devastating Category 5+ super cyclone, is part of my own lived experience, it is my story to tell (although I hasten to add that my personal circumstances were not the same as Cathryn’s). Apart from the cyclone, there was a lot to consider. Vanuatu was never going to be reduced to mere setting, for a start.

The discovery that Vanuatu doesn’t really feature in New Zealander’s imagination was followed by a realisation that Ni-Vanuatu women’s voices and creative expressions are underrepresented, particularly in literature. I was fortunate to have Teresia Teaiwa read some of my early draft chapters and give me positive feedback before she unexpectedly passed away. It gave me the confidence to continue on this track. ‘We are tired of having to constantly explain ourselves to the outside world,’ Teresia said several times, talking about the Pasifika community in New Zealand, and more broadly about the experience of women of colour in various parts of the world. She handed me a copy of ‘Identity, Skin, Blood, Heart’ by Minnie Bruce Pratt, and Lisa King’s writing on rhetorical sovereignty and rhetorical alliance in the writing classroom.

And so I chose to become an ally and supporter, and perhaps a conduit for New Zealanders to glean a different perspective of their Pacific neighbour. To help explain what it feels like to be at the receiving end of such a natural disaster in our Pacific neighbourhood and to have to deal with an unprecedented influx of responders and well-intended, but perhaps misplaced, relief efforts.

In parallel, I’ve shared my writing, my knowledge and skills with emerging Ni-Vanuatu women writers, facilitating creative writing workshops and collaborative poetry events, in order to find my place in the world and enable Ni-Vanuatu writers to grow as writers and see their work published. ‘Nothing about us without us,’ one of my Māori colleagues said to me when we discussed the ethos informing my research and novel writing. It reinforced my decision that working in alliance and collaboration would be the best ethical choice. Taking heart from the fact that these Ni-Vanuatu women writers were among my first readers and encouraged me to keep writing this world that they recognised, while at the same time ensuring I left space for Ni-Vanuatu writers to tell their own stories. The kind of insider stories I couldn’t possibly tell.

 

You are also a published poet in your native language. How does your writing in different tongues as well as in different modes – poetry and prose – influence how you write?

I was told my alternative novel titles were too poetic, for a start! Writing in my own mother tongue was a project of writing myself out of personal grief and back to my own language universe. Through language I can belong to different worlds. I actually dream in different languages. I thought I had lost my Swedish and Finnish vocabulary, that they’d been erased by English. It doesn’t seem to be the case, although I know I haven’t been able to keep up with the slang and ever evolving obscene language.

I’ve found it’s more difficult to translate my own poetry than my prose. Language evolves according to its own logic and grammatical rules, complete with specific metaphors and implied subtexts. When I write I have to stay focused on the language I’m using in that moment to make it full justice. It can be quite tiring and takes time, with lots of cross-checking if my family keeps interrupting. Some scenes in the novel started as poems, other bits were cut from the novel but morphed into poems. At the end of the day, poetry and fiction are just different languages in which to express what matters most to me.

 

 

Thank you for coming. Please refresh your glass, make a note of the book, and enjoy the rest of your evening.

 

Next Poetry Shelf Lounge book launch will be Anna Jackson launching AUP New Poets 6 on Saturday around 5 pm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf audio spot: Lynn Davidson reads ‘Even though it’s not the beginning’

 

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Lynn Davidson reads ‘Even though it’s not the beginning’ from Islander (2109, Victoria University Press)

 

 

 

Lynn Davidson is the author of five collections of poetry and a novel, Ghost Net, along with essays and short stories. She grew up in Kāpiti, Wellington and currently lives in Edinburgh.

 

My review of Islander

Victoria University Press author page

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf audio poem: Bill Nelson reads ‘Red shift / blue shift’

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bill Nelson reads ‘Red shift / blue shift’.

 

 

 

I wrote this poem after reading a popular science book about the fringes of scientific knowledge. One of those fringes is the size and trajectory of the universe. In the early 20th Century, scientists measured the way light shifts red, or blue, from distant stars. And with this, they discovered that the universe we can see is expanding, that it is big, damn big, and that it probably started with something like the Big Bang. They also discovered that because of the speed of light, we can never know beyond what we can see, and that the universe is ultimately unknowable. All really interesting stuff, but mainly I just liked how the colours were like codes for something else, codes that we just had to observe to unlock their meaning.

Bill Nelson

 

 

Bill Nelson has just returned to Wellington from Scotland and France, where he was on the run from authority. His first book of poetry, Memorandum of Understanding, was published by VUP. He is a co-editor at Up Country: A Journal for the NZ Outdoors and his work has appeared in journals, dance performances and on billboards. You can find more about him here.

 

Book_cover

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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