Universal Reboot

I’ve been packing and unpacking houses and offices for weeks. And poem drafts, book ideas, changed relationships, grocery bags—I even dream about trying to stuff vacation clothes into duffels in time to make the plane. The other night, instead of half-empty tubes of sunscreen, my nightmare double had to gather up every toy our kids had ever owned, all of which were somehow crammed into a hotel room. Fisher-Price farmers, time to collect your human-sized chickens and close up the barn! (My daughter starts high school next month.)

I figured that since my life is in total disarray, I might as well redesign the blog too. I’ve added that third term, “conversation,” to the subtitle, as previously threatened. Given the hemispheric shift, too—it feels like passing through a mirror to me, Aotearoa to Virginia, winter to summer, sabbatical to real life—I flipped the color scheme from dark to light. I was worried that the old format was a bit hard to read. If you have trouble with this one, please let me know.

I’m also scouting for poems and essays that somehow address the notions of poetry as conversation, poems in conversation, and conversation in poems—suggestions and alternative prepositions welcome. I’ve been circling around these ideas like the buzzards over Washington and Lee’s law school and it’s time to swoop, although I don’t like where this simile is going.

For starters, although poets are thinner on the ground here, these are some of the poetic conversations I’m in, starting with the local: I just finished poet Margo Solod’s vivid memoir, Cuttyhunk: Life on the Rock, so I’m hearing her voice in my head; I hope it’s not mutual. I met Mattie Quesenberry Smith in Lexington Coffee on Friday to sip iced tea, perspire profusely, and strategize about how to generate a stronger sense of community among town and university writers—what reading venues and authors might attract both audiences, how to schedule and advertise. Rod Smith and I are emailing across the few hot blocks separating our new work spaces and I’m browsing the next issue of Shenandoah, on the verge of its launch. Walking into work today I chatted with Suzanne Keen about writing amid boxes and with Christopher Matthews about negotiating change in the poetry weather. He feels inspired to finish, arrange, and send. Right now all I want to do is draft, hopping from stanza to stanza without looking back. And I’m reading Deborah Miranda’s Facebook posts, since she’s in Cuttyhunk with Margo, and envying her evident immersion.

Ireland and Texas were waiting on my desk when I returned, in the form of an interview with Paula Meehan in the final print Shenandoah and Meta DuEwa Jones’s brand new poetry study, The Muse is Music: Jazz Poetry from the Harlem Renaissance to Spoken Word. My attention, however, is also floating above the Pacific: I’m listening to Hinemoana Baker’s gorgeous CDs and deciding what to send her by way of recompense, finishing an email interview with Bill Manhire, preparing to revise and polish the essays I wrote in New Zealand. First, though, I’m thinking these broad new windowsills need a paua shell brought back from Makara Beach and some succulent desert plant, a kind that’s never heard of the ocean.

Lunch Poem

It is 10:21 in Wellington a Thursday

last day on Fulbright’s payroll, ticket

to fly out on Saturday the 8:30 to Auckland that is if

Air New Zealand will bully past the ash

plume, volcanoes the only smokers in my poems.

In Moore Wilson’s I buy horopito for Atin and Tinni

and spend my last token in Unity on Jenny Bornholdt’s

The Rocky Shore, deciding that I want to write

about poetic conversations maybe instead of having them.

 

I stroll through a cloud on Kelburn Parade

and get out of the spit and wind into Murphy

where I can count tuatara for the second to last time

as Harry taught me, but red heat-lamps warm

blank rocks, the reptiles are hiding, it’s June

in a southerly for Chrissake. Bad omen.

 

Anna’s Thicket, advance copy’s woven shade,

is light in my pocket, most of it second-person

and italic gesticulation, that’s what I like about it,

that and the bits about sad teenagers and feeling

middle-of-the-wood (we’re older than Frank O’Hara

ever got) and her in-the-know references to evade

Americans though I could level a few guesses—

dedications, that’s another post, because this blog

does have a northern hemisphere future, probably after

two weeks in Hawai’i baking the creases

out of my forehead from packing selling cars and

 

saying goodbye to too many people, who goes

with Fergus now not me, no more flat white with Annemarie,

Bernadette’s in Australia I hear, Lex Luthor alias

Jonathan retreats to his icy lair on Mount Victoria,

no more books to trade with Rob or information

with Alice soon to be shrunk hehe to her cackle on FB,

still breathing, Frank, and listening, but for love

of you and some others, omitting terminal punctuation

Order, disorder

“I love coming to a marae because everything is orderly.” That was Albert Wendt yesterday at Te Herenga Waka, the marae at Victoria University and the site of a conference I’ve been attending, “Reading and Writing in the Pacific.” A first for me: attending an academic meeting in stocking feet, wearing a blue lei, and listening to papers while lounging on cushions. All those details change the conversation, as does the magnificent space of the wharenui, a talking house covered by carved and woven genealogies in red, black, bone-white, gold. I am not well-read yet in Pacific literature, but the current of feeling at this event has very strong, carrying me along with it. Orderly spaces—not only sacred ones but some homes and schools and poems too—have some mysterious power to straighten out the hooks and tangles inside people. These emotional or spiritual chiropractics, or whatever’s happening, are a little painful, especially as dammed-up confusions begin to break loose. The conference presenters keep choking up and I’m right there with them.

                    On order, from my disordered notes:

Thursday morning, Session 1: Teresia Teaiwa discusses problems with gathering and disseminating oral histories. Intimacy becomes reportage, even gossip, amongst us about them. The result for her own work: she has been writing not about Fijian women soldiers or for them but to them, in the second person. She read a segment written under pressure—her interviewee had terminal cancer and wanted to read Teresia’s take on the material before she died. Audience members blow their noses for a good five minutes afterwards.

I am leaning against an ancestor from Kapiti; I don’t catch his name. His wife’s head, tilted like the moon, has my back.

Genealogies: I know a lot about my mother’s family and almost nothing about my father’s. William the engineer, behind him William the lawyer, and the next layer blurred. William the lawyer’s mother was French-Canadian, and when her ship captain husband died, she and her children moved over the border to Syracuse, New York and married a math professor. Was my grandfather named after his professor-father? Or was he Guillaume, adopted, name changed? I asked my father the captain’s name and he said “something like Le Pongenet.” That isn’t a French name, as far as I can find. L’éponge is “sponge.” Éponger means “to wipe up or absorb a loss.”

Friday morning, Session 3: Tina Makereti describes a belated revelation that she had written her own motherlessness into her novel. But wait: she realizes this makes thematic sense, too—she is writing about the Moriori, an effaced mother culture. Conclusion: “It could still be autobiographical. But I wonder: are we bequeathed our personal circumstances so that we can tell the stories that need to be told?”

Tina talks about being led by the story, surrendering control. Order arises, but it may not be the order you would have chosen, imposed. When a character’s voice started waking her up at four in the morning, she resisted listening for a while. I am so thankful to hear another writer say that. In domestic life, professional life, you fight to keep up that appearance of order: it’s hard to let the chaos flow.

Coffee with poets in New Zealand

The Katherine Mansfield Birthplace was very, very cold on Friday morning. It’s small, furnished in dark woods with all the Victorian trappings, and of course unheated. Quotes from Mansfield typed up on the visitor’s guide call it “a little dark piggy house,” or something similar. Chris and I toured it on a sort of birthday outing before going out for an upscale lunch. We huddled by the restaurant heater with hot drinks, watching through a window as rain coursed down Tinakori Road, and talked about work. “You know the essay you should write?” he said. “‘Coffee with Poets in New Zealand.’ Just write up all the stories you’ve been telling me.” He recounted a couple of funny ones, still fizzy with the refreshing American frankness I’m often accused of, and I said, “But I couldn’t write that. Even if I didn’t use names, every poet in New Zealand would know who I was talking about.” He shrugged and answered, “Just draft it however you want to, and worry about it later.”

So, dear reader, I drafted it, half on Friday afternoon and half on Monday afternoon (that’s when the real work always happens for me: mornings, bah). I drew heavily from my notebooks and datebooks and while there are bits that might be touchy, it turns out to be quite autobiographical, really, and not otherwise professionally dangerous (I think). Now I have to let it ferment while we head out on a roadtrip around the North Island, but that’s just as well. Here’s a sip:

Early February: Nothing is working, not my email or phone at work or at my rental home. I don’t yet understand that no sensible New Zealander would be wasting these precious few summery days pestering IT. So I make an appointment to meet Bill Manhire, the country’s first Poet Laureate, in his office in the Glenn Schaeffer House. This is my job for the five months of my grant, I will tell people over and over. To have coffee with poets, go to their readings, pore over their books. When the person I’m talking to clucks enviously I admit, yes, I feel very pleased with myself. But sooner or later I will actually have to write something.

Somehow I arrive at Bill’s office without my notebook and must scramble for pen and paper. Later I lose these untethered notes. What’s left: the glitter of the harbor beyond the window; wanting to sit on the floor and read the spines of his books; sipping sugared Earl Grey from a glass mug; poet Chris Price joining us from her neighboring office… Bill is very friendly but uses Jedi mind-control to erase most particulars of the meeting from my memory.

Several days later, in the middle of the Fulbright orientation program, I come home from Waiwhetu Marae to actual internet access. One of the first messages I read is from my mother, explaining her very recent discovery that my father has been spending down their savings to conduct affairs and she has kicked him out of the house. Would I please not tell anyone yet, she writes. Evening in Wellington means very early morning in Pennsylvania so between my heavily loaded schedule and tech problems, I can’t call for days.

 ***

18 Feb: Anna Jackson and I have agreed to meet at two o’clock for coffee so I delay my caffeine consumption in anticipation. When she puts her head around my office door, she says, “Shall we take a walk instead?” It is another beautiful day and I am still failing to comprehend that there will be few of these. The walk involves many damp steps up to the Botanic Gardens, itself a collection of steep, intimidating paths—the kind I’d turn away from at home with a shrug, remarking, “Well, obviously we can’t walk there.” Anna is much fitter than I am; she can chat nonchalantly while I can barely conceal my pathetic wheezing…

***

22 Feb: Kerry Hines recommends Ti Kouka, across from Unity Books. I print out walking directions from Google Maps but still end up going the stupid way…

            Lunch is particularly delicious. I can’t always order what sounds best because I seem to be allergic to dairy and corn—the former a major liability when you’re living on a cattle-grazed island with fabulous butter, cheese, and ice cream. I order a messy, juicy burger, sliding out of its Turkish roll on a slick of aioli, and try not to lick my fingers.

            I devour information about Kerry’s work and experiences but what I remember most vividly is paying the bill nearly two hours later. “Did you hear about Christchurch?” the cashier asks as I swipe my debit card and eye the dessert case. It was a big one, she says.

Travel dictionaries

     That’s how it goes some days,

     don’t you reckon.

     You wander the streets of a city

     that’s no longer your own.

     You look at a map

     and all the words are in German.

     You ask a stranger

     where the hills have gone

     and he bursts out laughing.

          from “Lost” by Bernadette Hall in The Lustre Jug (Victoria U P, 2009)

Every poetry collection I pick up seems to be about miscommunication and displacement—what happens to language as you barrel through time zones. I don’t know if it’s accident, a New Zealand thing, or a widespread twenty-first century poetic obsession. Probably it’s the way I’m reading, what I’m looking for. The Fulbright Scholar sits down to write reports about how the grant changed her work and disorientation ensues.

The books I’ve been reading keep getting recalled to the library (sad consequence of blogging about them?), and I ought to start bringing them back anyway because I only have three more weeks here, but some of them are hard to part with. Bernadette Hall’s The Lustre Jug is in the latter category. I picked it up early on, when I learned that Hall was convening the poetry-focused MA workshop this year, while Chris Price is on leave. Many of its poems arose from six months Hall spent in Ireland, although there are shards of Australia and New Zealand in there as well. Hall is away from home even while in Wellington. I asked her once if she identified with the label “New Zealand poet” and she answered with hardly any hesitation: “I’m a South Island poet” (the book jacket says she “lives in North Canterbury”). I noticed her omnipresence at Wellington literary events all through this southern fall, but it only recently sank in: she may seem local to a visiting American, but she’s a literary tourist too, soaking it all up while she has a chance.  

When I first read The Lustre Jug I was taken with its southern-hemispheric second half. I had been going to open mics and was intrigued by “The Strenuous Life,” a piece that skewers macho poetry readers:

     See how this one stretches up on his tippy toes,

     cranes forward over the high page,

     crooks one leg behind him as if he’s in the starting blocks,

     rocking himself into the finals of the national hurdles.

The poem goes on to quote a sexist remark by a “famous writer,” to which Hall belatedly responds with a very satisfying four-letter-word. I love how precisely observed, funny, and unsparing this poem is.

Books change, though, as if it’s impossible to step into the same poem twice. I recognize myself more now in those Ireland poems—although Ireland is only an imagined landscape for me, where my grandfather’s parents were born, where some favorite poets live or have lived, but where I’ve never been. What seems familiarly strange is thickness of detail in a new place, accumulating in your brain/notebook like receipts in your pocket; the superimposition of two landscapes, absent home and present alienness; the stickiness of place names and other local words. Ireland and New Zealand in this collection; New Zealand and Virginia for me, with echoes of New York, New Jersey, and England (especially from a January-to-July stint studying abroad twenty-three years ago).

“Lost” is the book’s penultimate poem, and like many others here, it’s epistolary, a poetic note to a friend to whom she gave lousy directions (someday soon I’ll write here about poetic dedications). A turn-left-after-the-zebra crossing poem seems to require a place-based orientation, but the setting is cleverly muddled, involving multiple times and cities. Hall describes herself Yeats-fashion as “all flustered, crazy Jane,/ can’t tell my arse from my elbow.” Her directions refer to streets in Prague, Paris, and a couple of places Google Maps isn’t helping me with. She also remembers a winter night in Fidel’s on Cuba—that’s Wellington, for anybody who hasn’t tasted the coffee. Confused yet? “Lost” translates that predicament into a feeling worth extending, parsing, and remembering. It also zeroes in at the end on hieroglyphs for home:

     n gr8 2 gt yr txt:

     ‘loved LOVED Christchurch’

Heroes in trouble

My baseball-playing-son’s choice of “Casey at the Bat” for school recitation made sense. I noticed in his practice sessions that he read the line “Kill the umpire!” with intense personal feeling; he tossed off “That ain’t my style” a little less confidently, but he clearly aspires to such flair. We had fun looking up the slang in “The former was a lulu and the latter was a cake.” It turns out that he didn’t even have to choose a poem for this three-minute speech: he elected to, he said, “because my mom is a poet.” His next public speaking assignment is to memorize and recite a poem of at least twelve lines. I thought maybe “Invictus,” but he said no, a funny one; he was disappointed that Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” wasn’t long enough. Out of the sheaf I presented as possibilities he chose Stevie Smith’s cheerful song about cruel loneliness and death, “Not Waving but Drowning.”

Both Thayer’s poem and Smith’s are about solitary men set against what Sylvia Plath calls “peanut-crunching crowds.” Five thousand fans in Mudville cheer in unison for arrogant Casey; Smith’s drowned man moans about being misunderstood while obtuse beachgoers exclaim, “Poor chap, he always loved larking / And now he’s dead.” Cameron loves brainy, wise-cracking heroes in the movies he watches and he books he devours, but seems to understand that even stars strike out and Holmes doesn’t always find his Watson. The boy is way too clear-eyed, in short, so I hope he keeps that dark, dark sense of humor.

As he mumbles rhymes under his breath, I’m revising essays about poetry and community and once again feeling the perversity of the whole project. In Cameron’s recitation pieces, crowds are either alarming or wilfully stupid. Dickinson’s “admiring bog” isn’t a club you’d want to join, either. Remember how John Stuart Mill described lyric poetry as utterance overheard? Dickinson’s poem, like many others, performs privacy: I sort of really hope somebody might be listening, but I’m over here pretending I’m talking to myself, so don’t bother me. Poetry is a funny way to be sociable, even when there’s a substantial readership or listening audience at hand. It’s a mode of conversation, yes, but incredibly slow and indirect, less like mailing letters than broadcasting greetings to hypothetical space aliens.

Of course, producing scholarship about poems may be even crazier if conversation is something you care about. This is why I’m now plotting a more narrative approach to this poetry and community project—wondering if I can write a book informed by research but driven by reflections about process, and possibly the story of why I’m interested, as much as by argument. What I need to decide before I pick up speed, though, is who would read this imaginary book and what they would want from it. The nature of the crowd, I guess, and what its taste in peanuts might be.

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.

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