What are our words coming to?

WarningI recently took part in an event which was a video interview with Manus Island refugee Behrouz Boochani – the prize-winning author of No Friend but the Mountain – and his translator Omid Tofighian. Neil Vallelly, author, academic and the event’s organiser and interviewer, invited four local poets to read work on migration or exile, partly as poetry is such a vital part of Kurdish culture, and as a way of honouring Behrouz’s extraordinary prison memoir. (The other poets were Rhian Gallagher, Lynley Edmeades and Fiona Farrell, all of whom read potent and confronting work.) I was still reeling from and absorbing No Friend but the Mountains so found I couldn’t write anything in immediate response. I was still absorbing its shocks, stoicism, lyricism and courage – and the gross injustice of his and other refugees’ detention without trial. Instead I read ‘Warning’, a poem which was in response both to an image of the tiny boy, Alan Kurdi, or Shenu, from the refugee crisis in 2015 – and to the way an article in The Guardian about his death was framed.

I wrote the poem in 2015,  but hadn’t published it until the new collection came out. There is no explanatory note in the back of To the Occupant; I subconsciously assumed people would never forget the image. I hope I was right – desensitising,  numbing and denial as part of the reaction to refugees’ plight seem all too prevalent.

Now, of course, the photo of Alan is freshly in people’s minds, because of recent comparisons between the equally distressing images in world media of Óscar Martínez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, from El Salvador, who also drowned while seeking a better life.

Crisis, disaster or public poetry is a notoriously risky genre. React too soon, and a poem can seem like a tone-deaf misappropriation. Don’t react, and your work can be accused of being ‘too domestic’, ‘too trivial’, ‘not political enough’.

In the current climate, looking away feels like the grosser of two evils.

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Poetry Shelf review: Landfall 237

Celebrating New Zealand writers and art. Hats in the air!

NZ Poetry Shelf

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Landfall 237 offers rich pickings for the poetry fans: familiar names (Peter Bland, David Eggleton, Elizabeth Smither, Ria Masae, Lynley Edmeades and Cilla McQueen) to emerging poets (Rebecca Hawkes, Claudia Jardine, essa may ranapiri) and those I am reading for the first time (Robynanne Milford, Jeremy Roberts, Catherine Trundle to name a few). The reading experience is kaleidoscopic, pulling you in different directions, towards both lightness and darkness, risk and comfort. And that is exactly what a literary journal can do. I was tempted to say should, but literary journals can do anything.

Landfall has a history of showcasing quirky artwork – and this issue is no exception. Sharon Singer’s sequence, “Everyday Calamities’ with its potent colour, surreal juxtapositions, strange and estranging narratives, and thematic bridges, is an addictive puzzle for heart and mind. I am circling humanity, the power of connection, the individual…

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Mystery Envelope

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My new poetry collection was launched – sent out hitching on the information highway – earlier this month. David Eggleton gave a rocking, almost chanting speech that felt like a performance work in its own right, and which I revisit in my head when first-draft anxiety ambushes me again.

Quite a few of the pieces in this new collection play with the idea of the poem as a letter, or correspondence, addressed to some ideal imaginary reader. In fact, the book’s title means it is directly addressed to the reader, even though, as the Argentinan poet Antonio Porchia expresses it in his work Voces‘I know what I have given you. I do not know what you have received.’

When this collection finally shook down into some kind of shape, a visual memory of artist Nick Austin’s ‘Travelling Envelope’ series instantly zoomed up — like a film clip rather than a single picture. The sense of physical movement was palpable. You can see it here on the final cover image (designed by Fiona Moffat) in the rolling hills and all the jaunty angles, but I also think the feeling of animation is helped by Nick’s playful wit; the absurd and hopeful stoicism of this little bare-armed paper freeloader.

I love the way, if you linger on the image, there’s also a sense of the unknown, of risk; a potential twist of the untoward, which is also what I wanted some of the poems here to approach. I love the element of masking and possible vulnerability in both the invisible driver and the potential passenger — whose face we also don’t see. There’s a game of conceal and reveal here, which is a bit like the reader-writer relationship too.

That edge of anticipation, maybe even a frisson of fear, remind me of sending poetry, or any writing, out into the world … not knowing whether it will be accepted, rejected, well-received, misunderstood, or maybe even have empty beer bottles flung at it from a speeding window. I love having Nick Austin’s beguiling, comedic work on the cover. It somehow balances both an attractive simplicity and yet something eerie and enigmatic too.

For readers interested in other work by Nick, there is another title – Personal Address – which reproduces more of his paintings in this series, and which includes letters  between Nick and art writer Wystan Curnow. More information on that title is available from http://www.hopkinsonmossman.com.

For any readers curious about To the Occupant, there is a deliciously easy and efficient bright blue Buy Now Button at this link:

https://www.otago.ac.nz/press/books/otago710449.html

 

 

 

 

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Poetry Shelf audio spot: Emma Neale reads ‘Affidavit’

A reading from my new collection. Thanks to Paula Green & NZ Poetry Shelf!

NZ Poetry Shelf

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‘Affadavit’ was published in the most recent Poetry NZ Yearbook and also appears in To the Occupant.

Emma Neale is the current editor of Landfall. Her new collection, To the Occupant, with cover art by Nick Austin, has just been published by Otago University Press.

Otago University Press author page

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NZ Poetry Shelf

Paula Green has started up regular publication of poems, reviews, and interviews with poets again on her generous blog. The relative silence of this blog lately makes me even more amazed at her energy. But then, as it takes me so long to feel happy with a draft poem these days, perhaps it’s no surprise I’m shirking ‘bloggery’: blogging would mean yet more eighteenth drafts to be disappointed in, to abandon, to tackle at from another angle. If you follow the link below to a poem I’ve been reworking on and off for 3 years (!), you’ll also find new interviews and poems from many other NZ writers. It’s a bright and healthy crop. I’ve just finished compiling the May issue of Landfall, my first as incoming editor, and this makes me very appreciative that Paula is also providing an outlet for new poetry. There was so much high quality work I couldn’t fit in to the upcoming issue: it underlined that we need as many avenues for recent work as we can get. I hope you enjoy the poem and get throughly addicted to Paula’s site too!  Monday Poem: Emma Neale’s ‘Called’

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The Space Between

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The young poet and journalist Rhys Brookbanks (1985-2011), has just had a booklet of his poetry and non-fiction work published by his family.  I taught Rhys in my rookie year running a poetry workshop at the University of Otago; he was killed in the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, in his first week working for CTV.

A few years ago I wrote a fuller piece about him for Ka Mate ka Ora; but now The Space Between: To remember Rhys Brookbanks gives people a chance to see his early work. The booklet contains poetry, journalism, photos of the young Rhys and a short biography written by family. Rhys’s parents also asked me to write   a foreword for the publication; it was one of the toughest, and saddest commissions I’ve ever taken on.

There are still a few booklets available from the Brookbanks family. Any readers interested in purchasing a copy, can contact me here at this blog; I’ll forward details of the cost and how to order it. 

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Goose Pimples

 

Cover Modesty has just stripped off all its clothes and gone skinny-dipping. I much prefer to swim in a bathing suit. Or even to be wheeled down to the sea in a little changing caravan. But in this age of shrinking marketing budgets and overworked publicity staff, sometimes writers have to be bare-faced, bare-legged, and take the leap. Shyness – so retro, right?

I’m grateful to Barbara Larson for permission to post her response to the book here.

Billy Bird launch speech: Barbara Larson, 31 August, 2016

There’s a poem in Emma’s book Tender Machines – many of you here will know it – it’s called ‘Stoic’ and starts with:
‘We couldn’t cry about love
because you just have to get on with it
and of course there were the children.’
And it continues: ‘We couldn’t cry about a lot of things…’
When I first heard Emma read this startling and magnificent poem, and later read it for myself, I thought, wow, therein lies a novel.
And Billy Bird may just be that novel.
Billy Bird is at once familiar territory. The main characters, Iris and Liam, are young and hopeful and invite us into a story full of love and promise. They have a child they call Billy, and begin to live life dominated by the small boy, as one does. But then, as so often happens, life sideswipes them and suddenly they have another child to raise. An older boy – he’s all of six – and they lovingly embrace the child – he doesn’t make it easy – and for a while, it all looks as if things are going to be okay. Not perfect but okay.
Then the inexplicable happens causing this small, fragile family to fray at the seams. Iris becomes overly anxious, Liam withdraws into his man cave, and Billy, dear Billy, escapes the only way he knows how.
The novel is a brilliant and imaginative leap into a world where life is altered by forces outside our control, of being different, of being Billy, of learning to cope with enormous loss and the often dark gaping spaces that open between us.
Billy is an original. (Emma he’s truly a wonderful character).
He’s at once adorable, and alarmingly articulate, and smart, and inventive, yet also loud and disorderly and he can instantly turn himself into an expertly-drawn ratbag of a kid. He feels his grief deeply, finds his parents difficult to understand; no make that impossible to understand, and with terrifying passion can channel his anger and confusion and energy into Billy Bird.
Billy Bird’s behavior is disruptive and shambolic. He squawks and stomps and shouts and escapes into an avian culture completely of his own making, spending time in trees, trying to fly, wanting to eat like a bird … you get the picture.
All of this is very upsetting and disturbing for everyone but especially for his parents, of course, who can barely hold themselves together. Theirs is the classic situation. Both need a great deal from each other but neither is able to oblige. Iris’s ‘overthinking’ and cleaning mania drives her into an isolated place, and Liam literally takes off every chance he gets. They desperately need help.
The novel is a delicate and exceptional exploration of what it means to be a parent, a member of a family, of being married. The slight nuances and shifts in everyday occurrences are documented with electrical accuracy. So much so, that we experience the profound isolation of each member of Billy’s family, as well as their struggle towards finding some semblance of what they once had.
Emma cleverly draws on several writing styles and forms throughout this novel but always with just the right touch. She’s never intrusive nor contrived; and her genius – that of astonishingly fresh images and playful, inventive language – delights on all fronts.
I love Billy Bird for its honesty, its intelligence, its glorious exuberance. I first read the book in page proof form while overseas and when I returned home the physical novel arrived and I started to read it again – the second time with even more admiration for the writer of such a splendid story.
Congratulations to Penguin Random House for producing such a handsome book and to Abe Baillie for his apt and quirky cover illustration.
And congratulations to you, Emma. Billy Bird is masterly.
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