from Southerly, Vol. 278 ‘Violence’, 2018
Wen-Juenn Lee writes and works in Melbourne. Her work has appeared in Landfall, Southerly, and other places.
from Southerly, Vol. 278 ‘Violence’, 2018
Wen-Juenn Lee writes and works in Melbourne. Her work has appeared in Landfall, Southerly, and other places.
Note from Wen-Juenn Lee:
I first read Joan Fleming’s ‘Husband and Wife Talk Without Talking At A Difficult Dinner Party’ at university, when something about the simple domesticity yet the ‘intolerable solitude’ of love (‘Translations VI’, Failed Love Poems) struck me – at a time when I was just beginning to read tragic, suburban love stories by Raymond Carver. (I liked the line, ‘He drinks more and she stops drinking. It is for the same reason’ and I did not know why, until later I realised that it reminded me of the wife in ‘The Student’s Wife’, who wakes up in the middle of the night and calls her husband’s name, but he does not answer.)
Love is different in ‘Husband and Wife Talk Without Talking At A Difficult Dinner Party’, different because it is not marked by suffocating drabness, but sleepy attentiveness, knowing the patterns of someone else with the instinctiveness you know it’s going to rain when storm clouds appear. (Simone Weil: ‘Attentiveness is the rarest form of generosity.’) It is with this attentiveness that the poem breathes: there is the hard brittleness of a wine glass, the clattering of forks, underpinned by the softness of silent communion. A couple sits, one drinks and one doesn’t, and they suffer quietly, and maybe they’ll leave and go to bed, alone with their griefs and little traumas. Maybe they will talk without saying anything important at all.
Here, we have the external actions of people, yang, and the inarticulate feelings they have, yin. This heartbeat of yin and yang underpins the very heartbeat of the poem. Yang, the boundaries in self between you and me, yang, the face I present to the wider world: of husband shredding his napkin, of wife touching her earlobes. In this, I am reminded of my parents who interact with the formality of Chinese tradition. My parents do not say, ‘I love you’, but ask ‘have you eaten?’ Yet. They know I talk loudly when I’m tired and they know when I’m irritated and trying to disguise it with forced cheer; they would just never tell me they know. To the outsider, someone walking past the window, a plus one at the party, anyone that isn’t the husband or wife, maybe they would notice the shredded napkin, the unnecessary earlobe-touching, but they can only guess; they can observe but never decode. This is a poem of extended people-watching, in the sense that we too, are outsiders with the privilege of understanding a couple’s private state, if only fleetingly.
When we are lucky enough to know people that know us intimately, that know us well, they will know the difference between your laugh and your forced laugh, and this is where the duality of yin and yang can occur. Husband and wife are having a conversation without using their words at all. She says, I have a headache. He says, I’m worried about my father. The dinner party is Difficult because maintaining your yang is Difficult in the face of your worries, because expressing your yin is near impossible. I found the last line in the poem so devastating, not because it ends with silence, but something of the frail and incomplete yin, ‘a soft space where speech can grow’. This tender, fragile possibility of communion (in whatever form that takes) is part of the larger love letter I see in Joan Fleming’s The Same As Yes. It struck me then, as it strikes me now, how ordinary intimacy and its limits can feel to me more concrete, more sorts of tragic, than anything else.
Wen-Juenn Lee works in Melbourne, and writes when she can. She writes about Wellington, her family, and her feelings. Her work has appeared in Landfall, Southerly, and other publications.
Joan Fleming is the author of two collections of poetry, The Same as Yes and Failed Love Poems, both from Victoria University Press, and the chapbook Two Dreams in Which Things Are Taken (Duets). Her new collection Dirt is forthcoming with Cordite Books. She holds a PhD in ethnopoetics from Monash University, Melbourne, and is the New Zealand/Aotearoa Commissioning Editor for Cordite Poetry Review. She currently lives in Madrid, and in 2020 she will travel to Honduras for the Our Little Roses Poetry Teaching Fellowship.
Victoria University Press author page
Rarotonga-based poet Jessica Le Bas is the winner of the Sarah Broom Poetry Prize 2019.
Sarah Broom website here with poems by the finalists and winner
On Saturday I had the honour of mc-ing the Sarah Broom Prize session, having acted as Prize Director for the past year. I welcomed international judge, Anne Michaels, the finalists, Michael Steven, Jessica Le Bas and poet Vana Manasiadis standing in for London-based Nina Mingya Powles, the Prize founder and Sarah Broom’s husband, Michael Gleissner, and their family, and a room packed to the rafters with poetry fans.
In 2014 when Michael established the award he told me he had created a financial prize to support writing time for a poet, as his wife Sarah had enjoyed. But the Sarah Broom Prize is more than this. It allows us to shine increased light on NZ poetry, local poets get to be read by an international judge and the finalists get to read at Auckland Writers Festival. This is a gift for our poetry communities and we are immensely grateful to you, and to the hardworking Sarah Ross and Greg Fahey. The Sarah Broom Trust has launched a new website and new plans for the future. This year there were over 320 entries. For the past six years The Sarah Broom Trust has worked in partnership with the Auckland Writers Festival.
Sarah Broom (1972 -2013)
The prize also enables an annual return to Sarah’s poetry and this is a joy. Sarah’s debut, Tigers at Awhitu, appeared post her Cambridge doctorate, at a time she dedicated her life to motherhood, poetry and managing lung cancer. Her second collection, Gleam, was published posthumously. I have found her poems shine with cadence and craft, exquisite wisdom and subtle movements. She wrote poetry for the well and for the dying; the world is to be cherished. Love is always intensely present. I carry her poetry next to my heart.
I read two of her poems: ‘anchor’ and ‘river come gently’ from Gleam Auckland University Press, 2013.
Nina Mingya Powles, of Pākehā and Malaysian-Chinese heritage is the author of field notes on a downpour (2018), two from Seraph Press Luminescent and Girls of the Drift She is the poetry editor of The Shanghai Literary Review and founding editor of Bitter Melon 苦瓜, a new poetry press. Her prose debut, a food memoir, will be published by The Emma Press in 2019. Poetry Shelf interview
Jessica Le Bas has published two collections of poetry with AUP, incognito and Walking to Africa and with Penguin, a novel for children, Staying Home. She currently lives in Rarotonga, working in schools throughout the Cook Islands to promote and support writing. Poetry Shelf interview here
Michael Steven is the author of four chapbooks and Walking to Jutland Street, a collection published by OUP, longlisted for the 2019 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. He was recipient of the 2018 Todd New Writer’s Bursary. He lives in West Auckland. Poetry Shelf interview
The Judge, Anne Michaels
Anne Michaels, poet and fiction writer, Toronto Poet Laureate, author of the beloved Fugitive Pieces among other splendid things, has produced breath-taking poetry. Poems that take up residency in your body, that savour silence alongside revelation, that tend to musical pitch and luminosity, that take you deep into human experience, both physical and imagined. These are some of her poetry treasures. [I held up All We Saw, Poems (her first three collections) and her magnificent children’s book, The Adventures of Miss Petitfour that I urged Kate De Goldi to read if she hasn’t already]. When I was in A & E on Sunday my daughter brought me Anne’s Infinite Gradations to reread. It transported me beyond injury, beyond hospital walls to the most glorious writing on poetry and art I know, on what it feels or means to write poetry or make art. So many lines felt utterly relevant in the wake of the Christchurch mosque attacks when we collectively asked and keep asking ‘what good poetry’ and collectively seek kindness, empathy and connection.
Let me share a few favourites.
We write and we read in order to hold another person close.
Sometimes language is the rescuer.
Poetry is the lonely radical precious expression of a single life.
Poetry suspends time. Poetry is time. Poetry gives us time.
We belong where love finds us.
Poetry Shelf interview with Anne Michaels
Anne Michaels spoke on poetry and the finalists entries – she has also selected two highly recommended poets – Jess Fiebig and Wen-Juenn Lee.
Anne told the audience it it was an honour to judge the prize – and that she paid absolute attention to every entry. She said the poems provided a glimpse of New Zealand one could never have in any other way, and that questions arose on home, exile, language, belonging. She saw the poems as kinds of ‘seeking voices’, and that poets are a tribe with a shared love of the word, a compulsion to write, solidarity – and that we are all in it for the enterprise of it.
Anne wanted everyone who entered a poem to understand and feel to their very soul that they are part of this enterprise. She then introduced each of the finalists (I have included her comments on highly recommended):
Jessica Le Bas (winner)
Jessica Le Bas’s poems are alive with detail acutely observed. In the poet’s disciplined language and perception is a kind of tenderness – for the natural world, and for human frailty. It is a poetic vision that understands how inextricable hope and despair, beauty and loss: of a cracked mango, Le Bas wisely advises, “eat it now”. In these poems, the world is passionately perceived.
Nina Mingya Powles (finalist)
These poems express both the power of memory and the grace of a present moment. They are a deeply felt exploration of language – how it separates us and holds us close; how it can become, sometimes, the only home we have. The best compassion is born of clear seeing, and this is the compassion that imbues Nina Mingya Powles’s poems – expressed with a generous, gentle, authority. These are poems of beautiful depth.
Michael Steven (finalist)
These poems speak of intimate encounters, often wordless, and of communions – through music, plums shared along a path, a circling hawk, a gravestone. There is a quietude in these poems that reminds us just how loud the world has become, and how valuable those moments, the “tiny benefactions” that gently restore our attention to what’s important.
Jess Fiebig (highly commended)
By not turning away from a moment, these poems insist on understanding, finding meaning where it hurts. These poems are full of compassionate detail, direct and wondering, and “finding treasures” in plain sight.
Wen-Juenn Lee (highly commended)
These are poems of witness – vivid and fierce, seeking a kind of justice. In their passion to name what it means to live in exile – from a place, from a language – these deeply felt poems assert the right to be seen and known, not forgotten. Their seeking is a kind of restoration. Wen-Juenn reads ‘Prologue’ for Poetry Shelf
In announcing the winner Anne underlined how she loved all three poets, and she urged the audience to follow their careers, to buy their books and to spread the word.
At the beginning I asked, what good poetry? I took up from Anne’s point and finished by saying, as this session so beautifully demonstrated, that we read and write to hold things close: life, love, loss, people, experience, knowledge, connections. Friends and strangers come up to me afterwards and said that this session was full of heart and soul. I agreed.
Grateful thanks to the Sarah Broom Trust and to the Auckland Writers Festival.
I wish you all the best for future years.
Vaughan Rapatahana presents Part 2 of his feature on New Zealand Asian women poets. He considers rage and alienation but stresses these women write so much more. The poets: Aiwa Pooamorn, Nina Powles, Vanessa Crofskey, Wen-Juenn Lee, Shasha Ali and Joanna Li .
You can read the full piece with poems here.
On Poetry Shelf:
You can read Vanessa’s poem ‘The Capital of My Mother’ here
You can hear Wen-Juenn read ‘Prologue’ here
You can hear Nina read ‘Mid-Autumn Moon Festival 2016’ here
‘Prologue‘ appeared in Three Lamps, an online journal from the University of Auckland, edited by Paula Morris.
Wen-Juenn Lee edits poetry for the Australian literary journal, Voiceworks. She works and lives in Melbourne, and writes of home and belonging.
Landfall 235 launches Emma Neale as the new editor. The cover aptly features ‘The House Party’; Kathryn Madill’s monoprint is strange and seductive with sunken black space and textured skin. It is like a poem that tempts and then holds you in an intricate grip. There is a Madill sequence inside that is equally sumptuous, surprising, lyrical.
This is an addictive issue – think of it as a musical composition that carries you through diverse and distinctive reading effects across an arc from first poem to final story. I do hope more Pasifika, Māori and Asian poets send in submissions for the next issue to increase the diversity of voice.
The two visual sequences (by Madill and photogapher Russ Flatt) are stunning. Flatt’s photographs reconstruct memories from the ‘subconscious grief’ and experience of growing up gay in Auckland in 1970s and 1980s. Wow. This is the power of art to take you some place that transcends ideas and feeling but that is ideas and feeling.
Landfall 235 also includes the winner of the Charles Brasch Young Writers’ Competition, Aimee-Jane Anderson-O’Connor, fiction (including a keenly observed piece by Airini Beautrais) and reviews. It welcomes established elders such as Elizabeth Smither and Bernadette Hall and barely published authors such as Sarah Scott and James Tremlett.
Here are a few poetry highlights:
Tracey Slaughter has turned from her dark, edgy must-read fiction to poetry. She was recently shortlisted for the 2018 Peter Porter Poetry Prize and I can see why. Her poem, ‘the mine wife’, with short-line fluidity, fictional momentum building, spiky detail, gritty feeling, is all about voice. A vulnerable, risking, space clearing, ‘self’ admitting voice:
the hand is a useless
surface for showing
the love it takes
to clear a path. Under
layers you wait for me to sift
your face from its mask.
from ‘the mine wife’
Lynley Edmeades‘ list poem, ‘The Age of Reason’, kicks off from Jean Paul Sartre’s title to move from ‘longing’ to ‘baby’, scooping up Simone de Beauvoir on the way, and all the staccato thoughts that propel a micro portrait: because why because how because who. I adore this!
Because fear of death
Because a dog might do
Because déjà vu
Because the trees
Because the population
from ‘The Age of Reason’
‘A Love Letter to My Mother: A work in progress’ by Wen-Juenn Lee is layered and probing and direct. I am wanting to read the whole work:
She takes astronomy classes at night.
I do not ask her why she stargazes
what she looks for in the oily darkness
we go to a poetry reading on migrant women
I do not tell her
I remember her crying on the plane
from ‘A Love Letter to My Mother: A work in progress’
Nick Ascroft’s playful word shenanigans in ‘A Writer Wrongs’ are a delicious shift in key as rhyme binds writer, hater and waiter:
So my fish is pallid.
So there’s a little pebble in my freekeh salad.
Is it necessary a balladeer batters
out a ballad?
from ‘A Writer Wrongs’
I haven’t encountered Rachel Connor‘s poetry before. She is a medievalist and a postgraduate student in Otago University’s Department of English. I want to read more of her poetry! Her poem, ‘Home’, captivates with its quirky tropes and agile pivots upon ‘swan’:
A swan like a carved radish kickstarts its way across the water.
It should be easier
to temper my words and make iron gates of them,
to remember the names picked out in gold
that echo a memorial garden.
Tim Vosper offers my favourite ending in ‘The False Way to the Real’
When it comes time to kill the lamp
the leaf will turn into a shade.
from ‘The False Way to the Real’
I am fan of Sugar Magnolia Wilson’s poetry and have fingers crossed she gets a book out soon. ‘Betty as a Boy’ is lush with detail and movement:
And you, outside the upmarket grocer’s, camouflaged top, khaki pants
slashed with a silk of red, a backpack strung with things that clink,
disappearing into your androgyny— the inverse of a newly minted drag queen,
appearing like a flaming comet, burning to be noticed.
from ‘Betty as a Boy’
Here is another unfamiliar poet I want to see a collection from. Susan Wardell’s poem pulsates with glorious surprising life. I will quote a piece but I urge you to read the whole thing: place rich, lithely troped, visually sparking, enigmatic, humane. I am drawn to the voice, to the word hunger, to the portrait built.
when meaning is gone, all that is left
is the grain
of the voice.
Well, hers sweeps the room like salt-flecked taffeta.
from ‘Grain of her Voice’
Writing journals, literary journals open up new avenues of reading and engagement. Landfall 235 is no exception. I have not finished, I have not yet read the reviews and all the fiction, but congratulations Emma Neale, you have taken the literary torch from David Eggleton, and the boost he gave, and turned your astute editorial eye to our advantage. I have new poets I am keen to track down. I have seen familiar poets with fresh eyes. Kind of like a poetry house party in my head.
You can also go to the Landfall Exhibition if you live in Dunedin. Opening is Thursday May 25 at 5.30 pm.