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).

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.