Metaphors for Community

Is there a word for this? I visualize a pale field crisscrossed by radiating lines, each representing some affiliation or influence. This web is speckled with nodes or tangled places where a great many lines converge, and of course the pattern isn’t fixed. Some nodes keep darkening, gathering power, pulling more threads through their hubs. Is that what I’m thinking of, those maps in airline magazines, full of red curves that indicate routes? In any case, the nodes in my imaginary model are people, and the busiest ones are the network-builders: editors, teachers, organizers of reading series, and also the less obviously powerful people who just persistently stay in conversation with other writers and readers.

That’s a variation on the familiar web/weaving/net metaphor, and it has become a cliché because it really is a helpful way to imagine the bonds in a social group. The tighter and denser the connections, the stronger the fabric. Images of mixture are another option: the melting pot or alloy versus the salad, quilt, choir, family, or sedimentary rock. The latter seem better figures for community because they preserve a sense of the individuals who comprise the whole. However, I was just reading an unpublished article by Victoria University scholar Heidi Thomson about Keats’ letters—how he seeks to create co-presence through his writing, an intimacy that can seem intensely physical even though it’s made of words. She highlights his portmanteau word “interassimulate.” The word suggests that as friends interact, they assimilate and simulate. Sympathies, interests, values converge.

On Monday I attended a lecture and a reading by Robert Sullivan. He discussed the figure that obsesses him: spirals in three dimensions, “two points connected in a curvilinear fashion.” He pointed out the ubiquity of spirals in far-flung artistic traditions, though Maori and Celtic versions are particularly important to him, and noted that the curves seem closer if you look down on the spiral from above. His poetry circles back spirally through the literary past and the history of his ancestors, demonstrating community with his family and teachers through time. Like my web-that-I-can’t-name-in-a-word, the spiral, too, keeps moving.

I’m puzzling over metaphors because I’m puzzling over structures. Arguments are linear, but writing about a community for an essay or book chapter, I want a way of organizing my thoughts that simulates the complicated interdependence of the elements in my case study. I don’t want to focus narrowly on one poet, or a pair of them, because communities contain multiple nodes. I could describe the network from multiple angles, but where do the actual poems come in? Communities aren’t of literary interest unless they germinate poems people want to read and hear, but individual pieces rarely encapsulate what a community is about and it can be hard to see the very fine silks of connection between them. Can an essay resemble a net or a spiral and still be a clear and useful bit of teaching/reporting/talking?

“heaviness of the cave, the hive”

In Bill Manhire’s poem “Kevin,” “the cave, the hive” is an imagined space: maybe the far origin of voices on the radio; maybe the room around you as you listen in the dark; maybe the old-fashioned cabinet housing mysterious machinery. In any case it’s dim, enclosed, and haunted. I first heard “Kevin” at a City Gallery reading shortly after the recent earthquake in Christchurch. The full text is here, along with a discussion by Alan Riach. Riach didn’t have the information Manhire provided at the reading—that his friend Kevin suffered from multiple sclerosis and was losing his vision—and I find the poem a little darker than Riach does, but his account of its compassion and resonance sounds right to me. “Kevin” is agnostic about what happens when the lights go out, suggesting, as it turns from terror to consolation, that “Eventually we shall all go / into the dark furniture of the radio.”

I chose the phrase as a blog title because it sounds good (slant-rhyme of buzzing v’s); because I love the poem; and because I’m working out the relations between place, poetry, and a sense of community, and the words “cave” and “hive” conjoin different ways of understanding lyric space. One suggests solitary hibernation and the other crowded industry—introspection versus connection and collaboration.

It also seemed apt because Bill Manhire is such a force in literary Wellington. I came here to study twenty-first-century poetic communities of various kinds, but the particular draw at Victoria University is the International Institute of Modern Letters, a creative writing program founded and directed by Manhire. He was the country’s first poet laureate; he ran an influential workshop long before the IIML was organized; and he’s been particularly resourceful about nurturing New Zealand literature and raising its international profile. Many of the nation’s best younger poets have some connection to the institute. Timing, location, and other factors contribute to its success, but Manhire seems responsible for a lot: the structure of courses and degree programs; strong hiring and selective admissions; canniness about fundraising, university politics, and literary markets; and dedication to fostering a sense of writing community that extends, for many, well past graduation.

Manhire created this poetic hive but in the caves of his poems, sociability is suspicious. When not wandering through a national park and thinking, “please God / no more Americans” (“Global Track”), he’s describing Wellington coolly as “full of distant figures on the street.” He’s companionable about isolation, if that makes sense, as when he writes “I live at the edge of the universe,/ like everybody else” (“Milky Way Bar”). The neighbors are always noisy and his frequent use of the second person creates intimacy on the scale of a letter or murmured conversation. What I’d say about them for now is that they’re porous but not sociable, except in the way that every published poem is a potential instrument of connection.

Meanwhile, Manhire just auctioned off a yet-to-be-written poem to benefit the children in Christchurch. Some IIML grads have new books out, including Chris Tse, who read at a launch party yesterday in the library’s center for Maori and Pasifika studies. The institute’s latest newsletter includes links to news on National Poetry Day and the value of solitude. And here I am in a closed office above Kelburn Parade with blog retention issues, because I can’t decide whether “poetic community” is an oxymoron or something I need, and whether poetry can be a cave and a hive at once.

Framing the House

The first poem I hear performed in Aotearoa New Zealand is by a loud Australian Spoken Word guy. He’s ginger-bearded, ruddy, wearing hiking boots and a hat he stole in Nepal. His poem, “Behemoth,” begins with a wordless roar. I recognize the cast that follows, more or less, from other open mics I’ve attended in the States: there are comic rhymes, plainspoken elegies, sexy daring poems, and clever thoughtful ones. A silver-haired woman reads with crisp elocution, but others mumble into their beards. Some have memorized their work. I stare at a sooty-clothed Hamlet because, backlit by sunny windows, I could swear his ears are pointed, but I must have Weta Workshop’s latex-lobed elves on the brain. People of diverse ages, races, and fashion sensibilities listen appreciatively.

It is Sunday February 20th, exactly a month after I arrived in Wellington to inhabit the role of Fulbright Senior Scholar for a season. It is less than two days before the 6.3 quake that devastates Christchurch. I have been drinking tea with poets, poring through the university library, and establishing an internet connection, finding the supermarket, and consoling my teary kids about their new schools. Suddenly I have three interesting readings to attend in one week: this one at the Ballroom Cafe in Newtown; a meeting of the New Zealand Poetry Society at the Thistle Inn in Thorndon; and “Poets in the City,” a splashy event at the City Gallery including poets laureate and other popular and well-known writers.

During a ten-minute intermission talk buzzes cheerfully up to the exposed rafters. I chat with the friendly strangers at my table: a Kiwi sculptor, a New England poet-photographer, and an antinuclear activist from Bolivia. The blackboard menu lists kumara soup and other items that suggest I may be in a foreign country. I order bruschetta and a local pilsner.

The main event, “Nga Ngaru Mai I te Moana Nui A Kiwa: Waves from the Pacific,” is convened in Maori by poet and storyteller Moira Wairama. A band of three male singers and musicians, The Whanau (“family”), occupies a window seat; the three other poets are women who know each other from Writer’s Block, a cross-genre Wellington workshop for Maori and Pacific writers. Their hour-long performance is an enactment of community. Poems alternate with songs in a prearranged flow; no one grandstands or tells anecdotes; the members of the group clearly know and enjoy one another’s work. I don’t realize until afterwards how differently arranged this reading is than others I have attended. Instead of one poet reading several pieces in a closed program, the focus moves from person to person, highlighting the conversation between different authors’ work.

I’ve known for a long time that I don’t know how much I don’t know, but this event drives that knowledge home. I’m sure I’m supposed to recognize “special guest Pikihuia” but I can only make wild surmises. Maraea Rakuraku delivers feisty poems about mispronunciations of her name, which I suspect I’m mispronouncing (I’m double-checking the spelling now). Alice Te Punga Somerville, a new colleague of mine at Victoria University (I’m the one who’s new), delivers a poem called “The measure of a man’s worth.” It’s full of references I have to look up later and ends with a hot local controversy: the Waitangi Day opening of a new wharewaka on the waterfront, without the waka it was built to showcase, because, as Alice puts it,

our ocean-going navigating vessels
will not fit
the whare you’ve built to house them

I’m listening to her pronouns, the mixture of languages, the tone that is both factually plain and sharply pointed. Community is defined by the social scientists I’ve been reading as a function of geographic proximity; relationships that generate social capital; member participation in defining norms; and frequent, substantive communication. Often nostalgic, even mythic, “community” sometimes seems to preclude difference and dissent. Certainly it is characterized more than anything by a “we-feeling,” a subjective experience of belonging. I have been warmly welcomed, and in some sense poets are always my tribe, but I barely speak the language and have a lot more reading and listening to do. This virtual space makes a pretty flimsy whare, but I hope it will be big enough to house some thinking about poetry and community in and beyond Wellington—why writers forge or join groups and institutions, how those networks interact with other groups, and the inclusions and exclusions implied by poems themselves.


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