Speculative spoken word

What to do during a class meeting in which you strongly suspect all the students will be sleep-deprived and unable to complete any assigned reading? Well, snacks, of course. Open-ended discussion, too, of the problems of research writing: my speculative poetry students are, I hope, revising like demons, because version one of their big essay is due tomorrow at 5. I’m also going to show them some speculative spoken word poems and use them to discuss whether speculative poetry is, like, a thing.

I know, of course, that by most measures, it is: fantastic poetry is fostered by multiple communities and has a history that’s decades or millennia long, depending on your perspective. However, some definitions of speculative fiction are potentially very wide, encompassing all kinds of fictionality. It’s “the literature of cognitive estrangement” (Suvin on science fiction). Hume labels as fantasy “any departure from consensus reality.” Calvino identifies fantasy’s theme as “the relationship between the reality of the world we live in…and the reality of the world of thought that lives in us.” Then I think: well, those are pretty good descriptions of poetry by Wallace Stevens, or Bill Manhire, or Mary Ruefle, right? So is speculative poetry just good poetry, or is there a sharper way of drawing the line?

We’ll see what they say tomorrow. Here are the poems I intend to spring on them (trusting that no student reads her professor’s blog to get a jump on the lesson plan). I’ve divided them into a few handy/ spurious categories. My criteria: the poem has to be a performance piece (meaning as much at home in the voice as on the page), and tropes or strategies from sf have to be pretty central (yes, I know that’s even more arguable than the first criterion). A recording also has to be easily available online.

Fan Poetry:

To find poems from fandom—except for “I Am That Nerd,” an influential poem I’ve shown to classes for years—I  ended up scrolling through WAY too many clips of Star Trek’s Data reciting “Ode to Spot” (it’s not the poem I mind, but the extended, painful reaction shots of other cast members). Most of them I found really depressing, but Rostad pointed out a few things about Cho Chang I hadn’t considered.

Shappy, “I Am That Nerd” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gJxZfpu-kG0.

Rachel Rostad, “To JK Rowling, from Cho Chang” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iFPWwx96Kew

Poetry is Magic:

And some slam poets are wizards, dude.

Saul Williams, “Ohm” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KJHquOEChRg

Megan Falley, “Long Island Medium” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SIHiDjFVplg

 

Dystopian Chronicles:

The scary future is happening right now. The implicit argument: realism IS sf. The world we live in is deeply, damagingly weird.

Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, “Crack Squirrels” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ngUa9HjKV8o

Reed Bobroff and Olivia Gatwood, “La Llorona” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LKxtq1_ebNg

Shira Lipkin, “Changeling’s Lament” http://stonetelling.com/issue5-sep2011/lipkin-changeling.html

 

Thanks to Max Chapnick, who scouted out many of these during a season attending New York City slams, and some friends who made suggestions over Facebook. If you’re not satisfied, enjoy a couple more. I listened to some Tracie Morris recordings because I really admire her sound poetry.  “Mother Earth” isn’t sound poetry, but it’s sf and I like it. And Tim Seibles’ poetry is pretty page-oriented, but “Natasha in a Mellow Mood” is pretty weird and man, he has a great voice. 

 

Remembering, foreseeing, and missing the Pacific

Three years ago, the flurry of Christmas was eclipsed by a blizzard of planning for a Fulbright fellowship. In January 2011, Chris, Madeleine, Cameron, and I departed for Wellington, New Zealand for nearly six bracing, gusty, exhilarating months. We arrived at our Cuba Street hotel on an overcast summer day. My photo album also documents the rain that came sheeting down shortly after, and, when we relocated to Nelson for a few beach days, a rainbow manifesting over the sea (only one visible here, but there were two—that year we became almost blase about rainbows). Nelson rainbow

When I look at those images now, I can’t believe how young the kids seem: my son was only shoulder-height and now he’s nearly as tall as I am, big and noisy enough to play the tenor sax. In poetry-time, though, the seasons are longer. The poems I drafted in the southern hemisphere, revised in the months after my return, and started sending out late in 2011 are just beginning to see publication. The sonnet crown that recently appeared in Valparaiso Poetry Review, “Damages,” took ages to get right (and maybe still needs tweaks, time will tell). Although the basic shape of it crystallized quickly and I read a section on Radio New Zealand during my stay in Wellington, there were blurry patches for a long time I couldn’t quite bring into focus: a single vague or clunky phrase can scuttle an entire poetry sequence, especially if it occurs early on so the reader loses confidence in your control. “Damages” is also the sort of outcome you can’t predict when you’re writing a grant proposal: “While watching a major national crisis unfold in the background, I will obsessively ponder the sudden, painful dissolution of my parents’ 45-year marriage.” This crown is a slant-rhymed companion to the prose piece that appeared in The Gettysburg Review and Poetry Daily, “Coffee with Poets in New Zealand,” itself an alternate-universe answer to the research I was undertaking (and don’t even get me started on the incubation period for scholarly publication).

The pace isn’t always glacial. A couple of other poems inspired by that trip appeared more quickly in print magazines. “In Other News” was taken by Poet Lore. “Inside the Bright,” formally modeled on Marianne Moore’s “The Fish” and responding to a visit to Kauai on the way home, was published by Subtropics. These pieces may or may not hold their ground in a book-length poetry manuscript, Radioland, I’m beginning to shop around to presses—an alarming amount of what I write never makes the magazine cut, and a lot of my journal publications get shut out of my books. The latter have to be really lean and limber to survive the current market. At any rate, the current version of Radioland begins with the New Zealand material and ends with poems from winter 2012-3, a season of more travel and slowly processing my father’s death, even as we rebuilt a large part of our house after catastrophic flooding. Expect my output for the next few years to be extremely damp, metaphorically.

Meanwhile, here are a couple more Aotearoan poems in the new Unsplendid. “Things That Move Forward” is based on an incident on a walking trail near our Virginia home, but I first drafted it during a workshop I ran for the New Zealand Poetry Society that culminated in terza-rima-writing (the goodhumored participants promptly rechristened the form “torture rima,” which sounds funnier in a kiwi accent). “It Is Difficult to Get the News from Poems” quotes the extremely American William Carlos Williams in the title, but otherwise responds to a powerful event I attended right after the Christchurch quake (the next day, I think). The poet who counts tuatara at the beginning is Harry Ricketts, whose comments on local species of sonnet in 99 Ways into New Zealand Poetry inspired my couplets. The poet whose understated reading moved me so much is Bill Manhire.

The other two selections in Unsplendid came later. “Past Meridian” was my first try at a fourteen-word sonnet in spring 2012—I remember because I drafted a poem a day that April and kept them together in a single folder. “Belief,” a random eruption from no occasion I can recall, is the poem Unsplendid’s editors have kindly nominated for a Pushcart. I’m so grateful to the editors of all these magazines for working so hard to bring poems to a world that doesn’t know it needs them. And grateful, too, to the Fulbright Foundation for granting me those wild, windy months. Everyone in my family was transformed by the undertaking.

Still, I hope the dramas of 2014 are more comic than the rather-too-epic adventures of the last few years. I can foresee some of them: we’re planning a couple of weeks in France in June, and touring universities in April and August. Madeleine will be a high school senior in September, biting her fingernails over SAT scores and applications. I’ve agreed to serve as interim department head in 2014-5 while the current chair takes a sabbatical, and I’ll be applying for a leave of my own in 2015-6 (here in Virginia, I think, given that I’ll likely be the cash-strapped parent of a first-year college student). While we all miss the climatically unpredictable Pacific, here’s to mild weather for all of us in the new year.

Poems and chapels

When Alice Te Punga Somerville walked out of Lee Chapel a week ago Sunday, she looked around for water and ended up rinsing her fingers in a puddle, flicking the water back over her head. “Don’t want to take anybody with me,” she remarked. I had forgotten that traditional gesture upon leaving a burial place. Robert E. Lee is below the chapel in his family crypt, his horse interred just outside; their graves are just a few steps from my office, and my office is above the room where the former confederate general was inaugurated president of Washington and Lee. It didn’t seem worth rinsing my own hands. I live with these ghosts. Each night Alice was here, in fact, I dreamed of the afterlife—in one case an eternal poetry conference on the beach near Nelson, New Zealand, run by Bill Manhire.

A couple of hours later, I returned to the chapel on my own for a memorial service for Severn Parker Costin Duvall III, a W&L professor of modern poetry who retired in the mid-nineties, when I was hired. Learned, eloquent, and sharp-witted, not to mention tall and good-looking, Severn could be intimidating in the classroom. To me, he was utterly charming, always greeting me with a cry of enthusiasm, inquiring about my well-being in a wonderful Tidewater accent, and reflecting on what a brilliant hire I had been.  When I was researching the history of literary readings in the U.S. for Voicing American Poetry, I interviewed Severn, who had been hired to start the Glasgow series, bringing Muriel Rukeyser, Ishmael Reed, Allen Ginsberg, Czeslaw Milosz, and many others. Severn spoke of standing-room-only crowds in that same chapel for James Dickey, and how the all-male student body was riveted in 1973 by a symposium of women writers: Mary McCarthy, Denise Levertov, Carolyn Kips, Barbara Deming, and Penelope Gilliat. He sipped coffee in Elrod Commons while I scribbled furiously, feeling star-struck, for a couple of hours. I would have loved to listen longer.

And a few days later, news of Adrienne Rich. The space in which I’ve been mourning her couldn’t be more different than Lee Chapel. I’m hearing testimonies through Wom-po, a virtual space full of women from different generations, backgrounds, life paths. It’s impressive how many of these poets felt authorized and inspired by Rich’s work. Many of them are already writing essays. I’ll leave them to it. My own experience of Rich isn’t unique or interesting. As a university student in the late eighties, I found her work, fell in love with it, and wrote an honors thesis partly based on “Twenty-One Love Poems.” I heard her read once at a Whitman centennial in Paterson, New Jersey. I teach her work in a range of classes and it always fully engages me—heart, brain, conscience.

What compelled me as an undergraduate reading “Twenty-One Love Poems” were her thoughts on the ethics of telling, of making one’s interior life exterior through words. There’s one scene of two women touching one another as they vomit over the rail of a ferry; diction linking love to pregnancy; and of course that sexy female volcano (which I finally climbed myself this past summer, thinking of Rich). Lots of pain and destruction in those metaphors, but in the end telling is better than keeping secrets.

I’m sorry Severn is gone. It was good, though, to hear one of Severn’s grown-up students talk to us about what he learned from his tough, generous teacher; he vividly conjured up one particular seminar in a room where I’ll teach this spring term. I’m one of Rich’s students, although I never met her, and I can still inhabit the space of thinking she made through poetry. Sometimes the virtual rooms are as vivid, as important, as the real ones.

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.

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.

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.

Milk and honey

Writing programs are often accused of producing homogenized, pasteurized work—whirring poems around in the workshop blender until the fat and flavor are consistent throughout, heating and cooling them to get rid of the interesting little microbes. Some strong teachers do produce student imitators. This can happen if your “teacher” is John Keats or Mina Loy, too, because when you fall in love with someone’s work the echoes tend to bounce around in your own lines.  I’m now reading books that resulted from MA theses at the International Institute of Modern Letters, listening for a house style and other family resemblances, but what I’m finding is as mixed as the metaphors in this dreadful paragraph. That is, IIML graduates are writing different kinds of poems. If there’s a common aesthetic it’s one of porousness and exchange. As one example, take the last poem in Hinemoana Baker’s first book, Mātui | Needle. 

“Whenua,” dedicated to “Ariki Noel Riley, b. 26.9.2003,” highlights the significance of place. Baker’s notes gloss the title as “land” and “placenta” in Te Reo Maori. Her mixture of languages roots the poem in Aotearoa. Further, the poem centers on the Maori practice of burying a newborn’s placenta and umbilical cord, a tradition emphasizing the relationship between human beings and the earth. The poem’s home is this moment—identified to the day—and its people are the “we” of the final stanza, participants in a resonant ceremony.

“Whenua” is also full of contrasts, though, between a commitment to place and the constant movement of the poem’s speaker and perspective. The poem begins

      Some other year on this day

      I paid forty-five thousand dinar

      for Season Fruit and when it came

      it was an apple on a plate.

Here is vagueness, reticence, imperfect communication, as the speaker travels through an unnamed Adriatic country. She walks by the sea; she mounts a train. Each of these moments is grounded and simultaneously shifty. The apple is “in season, utterly,” as are the local pears and radishes a few lines later; the sea is “without tides”; the train is “stationary.” The voice itself, though, is dislocating, mimicking travel’s weirdness. While Baker’s language is pared down and plain throughout most of the piece, her punctuation and capitalization are irregular and her narrative proceeds through fragmentary images.

 The fifth stanza produces the biggest dislocation. Suddenly Baker remembers a phrase pencilled by her father into a Bible—“may the earth swarm with you”—and she is examining a “sac”:

       we hold it up, each has a turn

       our ears sizzle, we make

       pronouns with our mouths, it hangs

       heavy as a beehive from our fingers.

 The poem is ebbing: from the wandering woman back through the sea to the placenta; from the apple back through the pollinated flower to the beehive; from I to we; from dispersion to Genesis. “Whenua”’s mystery makes it beautiful even if you don’t work out those correspondences, but its symmetry is deep and lovely too.

I wouldn’t say that Baker chooses home over travel in this poem. She juxtaposes them instead through image and diction, implicitly arguing for the importance of place and community wherever you are. In the 1991 essay “Dirty Silence,” her teacher Bill Manhire wrote that “poetry should embrace and welcome the great impure worlds of language and experience from which it makes itself” and that poems should be “sociable and surprising in their behavior.” Collage, conversation, code-switching, and multilingualism don’t belong to these islands alone, of course. Nevertheless, contemporary poems in New Zealand most seem akin to one another when they refuse to speak clearly or stand still.

Talk, talk

Several times since I arrived in New Zealand, people have characterized my manner as refreshing and open. Leaving aside my obscure alarm at the word “refreshing”—am I reminding people of American soft drinks?—I think a lot about what that comment means, especially since at home, on the east coast of the U.S., I’m told I seem reserved. Because the Kiwis I talk to are mainly poets, references to conversational style often lead to a discussion of American poetry versus poetry in New Zealand, sometimes with Australia or England thrown in as a third term.

Although these writers learned a British canon at school (if they were taught much poetry at all), they read a fair amount of American verse. It’s not the same selection you’d see on a U.S. shelf. Robert Creeley, who spent a fair amount of time in New Zealand, is important; poets identified with the Language School visited and influenced the Auckland scene; several women poets say that the daring verse of Sylvia Plath and Sharon Olds holds great power for them. American music reverberates in local writing. In Anna Jackson’s American Poetry and Poetics course at Victoria, a wavy line connects Ezra Pound to Elizabeth Bishop to Anne Carson. There are threads between those three, but one link is their expatriatism and ambivalence about national identity. I don’t know many U.S. poets and scholars who read Pacific verse as widely and thoughtfully, but when they do, it’s often in the context of postcolonial studies. I also see strong mutual interest between some indigenous American and Maori and Pacific writers, though getting the books across the water can be a challenge.

Since Bill Manhire has written about nearly every issue that interests me in New Zealand poetry, here’s an excerpt from his take on the relevance of U.S. poets to New Zealand writing, from the 1987 essay “Breaking the Line”: “I want to mention one other aspect of Whitman’s poetry which I find important – and this is the way in which he offers what he writes as a conversation with the reader… This idea of the poem as conversation, as intimate address from writer to reader, has been very important in American poetry. I think you can see signs of it in the work of several New Zealand writers since the 1960s.”  The rest of the essay is well-worth reading; it gives a useful account, for example, of the particular anthologies of American verse that reached these islands in the 60s and 70s. His comment about conversation, though, particularly interests me because it’s a key term in how I’ve come to define community. A sense of belonging is a side-effect of frequent, substantive talk among a group of people, often via multiple media. Talk might not always result in a “we-feeling,” but it’s probably a prerequisite.

 The problem with thinking about poetry as conversation is that it’s generally one-sided, not responsive to talk-back. Yes, living poets exchange drafts and those verses exhibit cross-influence. Page poets revise for their editors and performance poets adjust their set-lists for live audiences. I’m guessing that writers just as often get a charge of connection, though, from the solitary reading of printed text by authors long dead. Whitman, eerily, addresses future readers, reversing the usual flow, and perhaps Manhire is correct that this is an American way of writing. The talkiness of some contemporary U.S. verse owes a debt to Whitman. There’s a surreal, jumpy, elliptic mode that’s popular too, though. And a stream of sound-driven poetry that captures my ear.  

While I worry this over, I notice that I sound increasingly strange to myself, my vowels and r’s oddly exaggerated. Not bubbly and corn-syrup sweet, though, and I haven’t yet confessed any family traumas on syndicated talk shows or reality TV. Why are my poem-drafts developing that self-correcting tic that started with Bishop (say it!)? Who do I think I’m talking to?