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.

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).

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.

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.