Testing for a house style

Had to face up to it sooner or later: if I want to generalize about the work produced in a creative writing program, I have to get quantitative. So I identified, read, reread, and cross-referenced eleven books—all the first collections I know by poets who have received the Master in Arts in Creative Writing from the IIML. Here are some generalizations*:

My sense that these poets are interested in transnational exchange, the play of languages: confirmed. That the range of styles/ forms is narrower than in the field of contemporary poetry at large: yes. (These poets write quite differently from one another, yet free verse is dominant, prose poetry common, inherited forms nearly nonexistent.) The often-heard characterization of Wellington poetry as domestic: partly true, but domestic does not equal safe for the best of these books. Home can be a war zone. Ironic: not really. Some poems are oblique or witty, others devastatingly open—the variety of tones and moods is dramatic.

I do think some books are much better than others, but if you want to know which you have to take me out for a drink and confirm that you’re not wearing a wire.

SOME NOTES ON RANGE OF REFERENCE: TRAVEL, LANGUAGE, READING

  1. Geographical: cities and towns in Africa, Australia, Asia, Europe, North America, and the Pacific.
  2. Languages other than English: Dutch, French, German, Greek, Māori, Sāmoan, Swahili.
  3. Literary allusions and borrowings (a selection): the Bible, the Rubai’yat, The Upanishads, Māori waiata, Baxter, Blake, Heaney, Keats, Longfellow, Mansfield, Olds, Ovid, Plath, Sappho, Shakespeare. High quotient of 19th and 20th century writers in English.  
  4. Popular culture allusions, historical and contemporary: the All Blacks, Helen Clark, The Clash, Bing Crosby, Bob Dylan, Gore-Tex, Mata Hari, Hoovermatic, Harry Houdini, La-Z-Boy, Lucky Strikes, New World Market, Qantas, Return to Paradise, River Phoenix, Sir Edmund Hillary, sudoku, The Tatler, texting, Times New Roman, Woman’s Day magazine. Heavy reference to WWI era in Jenner and to mid-century New Zealand life in Amas. Contemporary pop culture references densest in Avia and Baker (music).

WHAT THE BOOKS HAVE IN COMMON: STYLE, FORM, MODE

  1. Most are mostly free verse. There is some rhyme (see Smaill especially); many poems are arranged into symmetrical-looking stanzas. Fell includes an acrostic and Avia uses litany. Fell and Andrews include fourteen-liners that allude to sonnets. I found no poem using a regular pattern of rhyme and meter.
  2. Many use free verse in experimental ways. Jenner and Tse manipulate the visual element of spacing. Fell’s book begins with a mock-interview. Avia, Jenner, and Livesey use lists to generate form. 
  3. The most common variation is the prose poem, in many flavors: narrative, lyric-associative, historical, autobiographical, epistolary. Only Smaill’s book contains no prose poetry.
  4. Most poems use conventional grammar and standard punctuation: they are comprised of intelligible sentences, not fragments in unresolved relation to one another. Sometimes spacing and lineation substitute for punctuation. Avia’s poems often use dialect spelling and Sāmoan words but the underlying syntax is clear. Baker and Jenner deploy fragmentary language and a collage aesthetic most often.
  5. Several books include long poems and sequences. I’d call Jenner’s book a long poem.

 OTHER OBSERVATIONS OF VARYING USEFULNESS

  1. Immigration and travel are significant themes in most (not so much Amas, Wallace).
  2. Corresponding point: Baker and Avia produce bilingual poems, but there are other kinds of linguistic shiftiness here: dialogue, scraps of song or news, the play of multiple voices.
  3. Many books emphasize family and domestic spaces but those spaces are often dangerous or imperilled, invaded, under siege (Andrews, Amas, Avia, Dobson, Fell).
  4. Piles of food everywhere: samosas, Spam, grapefruit, bacon, wild lettuce, manuka honey, tea, black pudding, Tui beer, rice wine, figs, mutton pie, chanterelles, ginger biscuits, mangoes, gin, coconuts, Big Macs, and more. But then, I’m hungry today.

 *The books published do not necessarily constitute a representative sample of the work generated by IIML poetry students, for a range of reasons. Here are the books I read (I’m including Tse’s chapbook-length selection). I would be grateful to hear about mistakes and omissions!

Michele Amas, After the Dance (VUP 2006); Angela Andrews, Echolocation (VUP 2007); Hinemoana Baker, Mātui/ Needle (Perceval and VUP 2004); AUP New Poets 4, Chris Tse’s “Sing Joe” (2011); Tusiata Avia, Wild Dogs Under My Skirt (VUP 2004); Emily Dobson, A Box of Bees (VUP 2005); Cliff Fell, The Adulterer’s Bible (VUP 2005); Lynn Jenner, Dear Sweet Harry (AUP 2010); Anna Livesey, Good Luck (VUP 2003); Anna Smaill, The Violinist in Spring (VUP 2005); Louise Wallace, Since June (VUP 2009).

Community’s opposite

English departments are “hostile territory, dangerous turf.” That’s from an essay by George Garrett, but that notion permeates the 1970 collection Writers as Teachers: Teachers as Writers, edited by Jonathan Baumbach. Bill Manhire told me that he picked up this book in the early 70s in London, and he seems to have the only copy in the country of New Zealand, so the paperback on my desk is borrowed from him. Baumbach’s book arises from and reflects sympathy between 1960s expressivist or “Authentic Voice” composition pedagogy and Creative Writing programs then springing up in North America and Britain. Students are “secret outlaws, shooting the deer of the king in private Sherwood Forest,” as Baumbach puts it. To write powerfully is to be empowered. This radical activity, necessarily nurtured under the radar, requires unlearning whatever rules the “cops and teachers” have handed down.

Dated, yes. The cover illustration is pretty trippy: a pipe-smoking bearded hippy guy is strolling across a giant pencil, while mirrored below him, a pipe-smoking bearded professorial guy totes his briefcase in the other direction. Are they arch-enemies or the same person? Might the one in the suit pop into a classroom-phone booth and transform into the one in the fringed sweater, hands free so that he may liberate the masses? It’s a wonderfully passionate book, though, idealistic and caustic and flippant and practical. You can see why it energized a young English professor from New Zealand as he worked up his course in “Original Composition.” (That sort of course title was a common way of avoiding the taint of Americanness attached to “creative writing” as an academic field—and thereby of playing Robin Hood with university resources.)

Any community, no matter how positive and empowering, requires an opposite: we-feeling is defined by exclusion as well as inclusion. Many of the people who founded creative writing programs did so by breaking away from English departments structurally, fiscally, and ideologically. Having earned my own Ph.D. after the hottest battles died down, at some level I personally don’t get it; the worlds of academic English studies and academic creative writing seem more alike than different. I know many who feel that universities—creative writers, English professors, whatever—dominate the resources available to U.S. poets; that it’s difficult to keep going outside of the contemporary system of academic patronage; and that M.F.A. programs in particular favor certain aesthetics and identities. It isn’t a neat binary opposition—people move in and out of university affiliation, there are enormous differences among institutions, and there are plenty of other intersecting battles to fight over region, race, politics, etc.—but in the U.S., to me, being inside or outside of academe seems like a more significant divide than what department you’re in.

It’s different here. First of all, at least theoretically, New Zealand universities are equal in prestige and resources, so many people go to school where they live. You don’t have to stop attending that reading series you love because you decided to study creative writing full-time. While tuition remains a big barrier for many potential students, costs aren’t as astronomical as in the States; access to education seems wider, more democratic. The “other” of a New Zealand writing community is often regional: there’s the Wellington/ Auckland thing, and more powerfully the South Island/ North Island thing, never mind New Zealand/ Australia or Australasian-Pacific-Southern Hemisphere/ All Those People Up North Who Forget About Us. A writing community’s opposite isn’t so much defined by university affiliation because academe and regional identity intersect more than in the U.S. At least, that’s what I think this week.

In any case, one’s elsewhere shifts according to where one’s standing at the moment. Plus, individuals bring their own elsewheres to any communal enterprise. For the year you’re in a workshop you think: I identify with this group because we’re obsessed with the same things and we’re helping each other, as opposed to those other people (employers, friends, family) who don’t care if we get the writing done. But at times you also think you don’t quite fit, that you’re different from everyone else, or you’re in irritated awe of the person who’s emerging as a star. It’s when it’s almost over or in retrospect that a warm glow softens those edges and the sense of belonging really takes hold. Sometimes. It’s slippery, this idea of community, says the pipeless beardless woman sitting high up in the English Department, thinking about the creative writers in the Glenn Schaeffer house, on the other side of the giant pencil.

Writers’ notebooks

I returned to Wellington yesterday from Auckland where, during the wonderful “Poetry Off the Page” course she co-teaches with Helen Sword, Michele Leggott presented me with a Tapa Notebook. This practice is a part of an ongoing nzepc project: visiting writers are presented with an empty, unlined spiral notebook and asked to fill up the pages and send it back at their convenience. It then becomes part of the library archive and scanned excerpts are posted on nzepc. Tapa is a cloth made in the Pacific from pounded bark; the tapa rectangle on my book’s cover is painted with black-lined, persimmon-red petals.

The instructions suggest inscribing it with “poetry or other notations of value.” Drawings and pasted-in items are fine, although I was told anecdotally that Helen’s inclusion of a French muffin-wrapper, buttery crumbs and all, was a bit traumatic for the librarians. I just toted mine to a staff seminar on Keats’ letters. Heidi Thomson argued that Keats is never unconscious of his interlocutors, in letters or poems, but what kind of audience do notebook-keepers imagine? I have been scrawling bits and pieces in little pads all through this trip, sometimes going back to pull out and type up some information I’ve been given or a poem I began to draft in an airport, but I can’t imagine some student poring over them in an archive one day. If that ever happens: Reader, I apologize abjectly.

From my notes on Auckland:

13 May, Laureate reading in the Aotea Centre: During Manhire’s “Hotel Emergencies,” Michele’s guide dog Olive, also up on stage, puts her head down on her paws & begins to look bored.

14 May, festival panel on publishing: one of the editors says that, historically, the invention of a cheaper format (steam-powered rotary printing press, the e-book) always catalyzes an explosion in reading & publishing. Another says that traditional books will continue to be published as “beautiful objects.” There will be fewer of them & they will increase in price. All agree mass market paperbacks are out: Kindle goes to the beach instead.

Best of the Best NZ Poems reading: Emma Neale gives an electric performance of “Spark,” about a child learning how to say “light.” Throughout, a little patch of brightness bobs across her cheek, a reflection from an earring. You can’t see it on the monitors.

My father John Keats eases a scalpel between the cork and the bottle.

My father Langston Hughes gives his camel jacket to the coat-check girl.

My father Allen Ginsberg insists I must eat my broccoli broccoli broccoli

15 May, Mauri Ola reading: Tusiata Avia: “It’s a big poem & this is a small stage so I’m going to read it in a contained way so I don’t fall off or burst into flames.” A tattoo keeps flashing out from the cuff of her blazer.

Kiwi expression from Richard: “to pack a sad.”

Love-dirty and almost bald, / the animals peer down from their high shelf.

17 May, Auckland University: Chris (student-blogger) is at the front of the room discussing Chinese dissident poetry with Helen & Michele. Michele is saying something like, “Well, we don’t want this assignment to instigate a crackdown on an artist by an authoritarian government.” Beautiful Olive is sprawled across the blue-beige carpet. I imagine she wants to go outside and smell things, but maybe that’s me.

Excess sugars

“At some profound level,” writes Damien Wilkins in “American Microphone,” a very funny story about a dismal public reading, “I think of Americans as dangerously carbonated people.” This confirms my U.S.-Soft Drink Association Hypothesis as to why New Zealanders keep calling me “refreshing.”

Wilkins was the person who told me to look for Emily Dobson’s first book, A Box of Beesthis as I dissolved sugar into a cup of Earl Grey in his office and tried not to get lost in his spectacular view of the harbor, framed by a blooming tree that neither of us could name. Dobson, like Hinemoana Baker (see “Milk and honey,” April 13, 2011), was an MA student at the International Institute of Modern Letters a few years ago. As Damien and I talked about how workshops affect writers, he described how Dobson’s classmates nudged her prize-winning portfolio towards the topic of bee-keeping. Dobson was born into a family of apiarists in Hawkes Bay and, at least as I remember the story, didn’t initially see poetic gold in what were, to her, the ordinary details of childhood. Whether or not this particular workshop tale is quite true, it suggests one positive effect of belonging to a community of smart readers. They help you recognize your most urgently interesting material.

A Box of Bees, based on this portfolio, was published by Victoria University Press in 2005. Its epigraph from Sappho highlights a fragmentary and sensuous quality in the untitled poems that follow, all in couplets (this made me think of H.D., also ambivalent about sweetness). In fact, the poem-cells fit together in a patterned comb. The hive of the family is central to this book; Dobson portrays it as both fragile and dangerously powerful. The speaker also makes many flights outward. Narratives of desire and travel intersect with a portrayal of domestic enclosure. Hives protect but they are also open, and here I return to an aesthetic of porousness or seepage that I keep noticing. There are several examples I could choose—“The blue sign beside the hot road,” for one, involves invading German soldiers, scraps of Greek, and goats in the house—but the best is probably the poem near the end that is framed by the lines:

Sylvia Plath and Sir Edmund Hillary both kept bees.

Oh yes, the air is full of honey and

the seas are dripping honey.

I am saturated with bees.

I have nothing to do with bees.

I have just about had enough

of the whole damned business.

This piece begins by invoking Plath, unsaintly patron of so many women writers, and the New Zealand mountaineer who’s a demi-god in these parts. As Dobson tells us in the book’s brief “Notes,” the rest of the poem collages quotes from The Upanishads and novels by Englishman Peter Ackroyd and Canadian Elizabeth Smart (source of the book’s fiercest swear word) in an artistic genealogy parallel to the family migrations traced here. The language zinging around has travelled great distances before melting into Dobson’s lines.

Seepage becomes suffusion in “Sylvia Plath and Sir Edmund Hillary both kept bees.” Bees have a reputation for diligence and subordination to the good of the community, and this is all a little too sweet for Dobson. Her tone of protest is, in fact, probably what makes me love this poem—I recognize that sick-to-death feeling when you’ve been too immersed in a writing project, plus I’ve been in a polite country long enough to be nostalgic for four-letter stingers. Dobson’s poem struggles against its own debts but is too sharp to get trapped in stickiness.

Myself the only kangaroo among the beauty

Researching poetic networks is making me feel anomalous. Partly this is just the familiar unfamiliarity of living in a different country, where every friendship is new and you’re never quite sure whether you understand people or they understand you. Some of my disorientation is minor and funny, like realizing in the middle of reciting “Spring-Sick” in Dunedin that oh, I have a northern hemisphere bias: April does not equal spring here. That was during an event at Circadian Rhythm organized by Emma Neale. She smiled down the long room, gave a brilliant mock flight-attendant introduction, and passed out candy in case our ears popped. When Diane Brown read some engaging sonnets about being an Aucklander dating a southerner and the possible local meanings of “southerner” began to explode in my brain, the psychic jet lag caught up with me. I had spent the morning wandering around a cloud-ridden city that reminded me of Liverpool, England; eaten terrific Korean food for lunch; watched the day turn brilliant from the tip of the Otago Peninsula, among yellow-eyed penguins and baby fur seals who gazed back at me curiously; and ended the day in an imaginary airplane, avoiding poems of mine containing swear-words, because New Zealanders are much more polite than people from New Jersey.

Being the featured reader at a poetry event in a city you’re visiting for the first time feels incredibly presumptuous. Here everybody is in the middle of their own long-running conversations, among friendships and rivalries and hierarchies you cannot detect. Even if you research the scene in advance, which I rarely find time to do well, you don’t figure out the important things until you’re driving away, or much later. How can you choose poems that will make those audience members glad they came?

After gawking at the stupendously scenic south island of New Zealand for much of the second half of April, I spent three days in Melbourne, Australia, giving scholarly talks and finishing with a reading among the mirrors and leopard-spotted throw rugs at Animal Orchestra. My visit was initiated by Jess Wilkinson, whom I met in San Diego, California at the Contemporary Women Writers conference in July 2010 (note how I don’t say “last summer”). I attended as many poetry sessions as I could, and so did she. We sipped wine by the hotel fireplace while Linda Kinnahan and Cynthia Hogue told us about the funniest crises they’d had to field as university administrators. We exchanged email addresses; although Jess was just finishing her doctorate at the time, she was hopeful that she could tap university funds to get me across the Tasman while I was down under. She seemed sparkly with delight during the whole conference, although she told me later what a rough year she’d had personally. When I met her again last week she wined and dined me with poets whose terrific work I should have known beforehand and didn’t, but they were nice to me anyway. After the reading I spent an hour talking about birth order, how to get work done, and what one should do with one’s life with Jess’ student, Daniel, and his friend, Hans, who is in medical school and aspires to practice anaesthesiology in disaster zones. Hans said this was his first poetry reading since his mother made him recite verses as a child to visitors, but he connected with Heterotopia after living in England, the Netherlands, Kuala Lumpur, and now Australia. As I anxiously prepared to read to poets whose work is quite different than mine, I could not have imagined Hans as a member of the audience.

Ann Vickery, who has published some of the most important scholarship on poetry networks, arranged a symposium while I was in Melbourne. Her very sharp paper on friendship both overlaps with and challenges my research into that slippery term community; I’m now thinking about whether friendship influences poetry itself more profoundly while community participation shapes the poetry’s dispersal and reception. And what are the boundaries of friendship anyway—is it fundamentally about feeling, the way community comes down to a subjective sense of belonging?  Reading poetry by a person you know has an intimate charge but it’s all refracted through literary imperatives, mixed up with fiction, and anyway, that leaves out most of the basic stuff that entangles you in another human being’s life. Most friendships revolve around shared attitudes towards work and family and politics and religion, what you like to eat and drink, what media you’ll admit to consuming, what you like to do on Saturday. Maybe those relationships are figments too, but they feel less illusory.

Among kangaroos, one’s American weirdness is brightly illuminated. I went back to the hotel after the reading and watched the royal wedding on television while typing in passport numbers for online check-in. I flew to Cairns and came back from snorkelling to pictures of other U.S. citizens cheering the death of an infamous terrorist. I still think that fish are real but the mask is so estranging and all you can hear is your own respiration, a Darth Vader-ish heavy breathing. The animals are watching me watch them and I probably don’t want to know what they’ll tell their real friends about me later.