my mother in this way mixing me wings and tongue

my mother in this way mixing me wings and tongue.

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Adverb-tising Break

It’s a new draft, and a new editing season! Our adverbs have been slashed — and now we want to give away the excess stock — for free!

We cater for all tastes and sizes. The following adverbs come in small, medium, large and super-size fonts, and in a wide range of colours. (We are over-supplied with purple.)

Abruptly x 3, abstractedly x2, actually, accusingly, anxiously, awkwardly x 5, bleakly, blithely, bravely, casually, cheekily, cheerfully, cooly, completely, deliberately, dourly, easily, ebulliently, energetically, fiercely, finally, flatly x 2, flippantly, funkily, gently x 6, gingerly, girlishly, goofily, goonishly, greedily, happily, heroically, husbandly, insinuatingly, intially, immediately, immorally, inhumanly, intensely x 2, lightly x 3, maddeningly, nuttily, nervously, overtly, patiently, perversely, physically, pointedly, precariously, protectively, questioningly, quickly, quietly x 5, rapidly, ravingly, readily x 2, rhythmically, scientifically, seriously, significantly, silently x2, skeptically, slightly x 6, slowly x 6, spontaneously x 2, stertorously, surreptitiously, swiftly, thoroughly, tightly x 2, uncharacteristically, unsuccessfully, uselessly, usually, vigorously, wearily, wryly

CONSUMER WARNING: Apply to manuscript in thin layer only. Always seek a professional editor’s advice.


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How to rekindle the spark with a disastrous first draft

Take it out to dinner? See a writer’s biopic movie with it? Buy it surprise airline tickets for a tropical holiday? Turn up at its office unexpectedly; say you thought you’d buy it a drink? Over daytime wine, in a crowded café, read it a poem written by someone else? Arrange a near death experience — stand in the road and give the fingers to a scaffolding truck — then return to the manuscript, shaky with gratitude that you are still alive, delirious over how screeny its screens are, how inky its ink is, how pagey its pages? Watch it at a distance while it leans its head in close enough to feel the warm touch of a rival’s breath at a party? Stage a flash mob of one at a spot you know it’s going to turn up (e.g. your desk)? Hire a mariachi band to come to its door? Tell it you think you’re pregnant — or that you think you got someone else pregnant? Buy it irises from a street vendor; present them to it even though it’s in a meeting with someone else far smarter, and clearly more charismatic than you? Wait at home looking after the children, grinding through the homework and the toileting accidents, cooking it a good healthy meal, having the laundry done and the table set in plenty of time? And when it walks in late (don’t mention the late) looking haggard and strained, be ready with a cheerful, “Hi, First Draft, how was the back-burner?” Ask the same thing, but recently moisturized (maybe even lipsticked and perfumed, if that’s your kind of thing), in a fresh outfit, when it walks in late with beer on its breath and a sly, wild animation in its eye, its eye that just — can’t — quite — meet yours? Announce you’ve had a promotion, a demotion, you’re up for relocation? Start seeing another project behind its back, then feel the searing shame and regret that make you reform and ask its forgiveness? Go on a diet, give up alcohol, start a night class in something entirely unlikely then present it with the New You? Take a break? Oh, you have. Take a longer break? Look it straight on and ask it what it’s really feeling, and is there something it has to tell you? Take it into the bush with only a pen knife, a pen light, and a water bottle; tell it to shred itself into crumbs and follow itself out? Discover someone else is writing exactly the same book, but they’ve only just started, so you might get there first if you would just snap out of this accidie, anomie, this very non X-factor je ne sais quoi? Let the self-loathing build up to the point where anything, anything would feel better than this, even getting back together with the disastrous first draft?

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Bewilderment and Wonder

I don’t envy literary editors in the shrinking print industry, no siree. Here is another review of poetry which was commissioned by a magazine, paid for and then fell victim to the passage of time, space constraints, job changes and other mysteries. Perhaps it was just spiked because it lacked verve? It’s a very hard call, writing about three dense and clever collections within a limit of 300 words… I think perhaps I held my fire too cautiously when I re-read this now. Oh well, what do you think? I’m willing to call this review an honourable failure. Fail again, fail better, as Beckett said…

Gathering Evidence Caoilinn Hughes VUP $28

The Limits Alice Miller AUP $24.99

Horse with Hat Marty Smith VUP $30

In densely packed poems bristling with knowledge, Hughes’s first collection shows a gift for delineating the empirical while simultaneously winnowing metaphorical value from it. Praised elsewhere for her precision, Hughes seems to me also a richly allusive poet. The span of her vocabulary, her ease with abstractions, metonymy, near-neologisms and heightened poetic rhetoric — (e.g. the “luciferean abdomen” of a firefly) — show a poet who both layers and layers, and tries to burrow ever deeper into her material, to really isolate its inner workings.

The book holds everything from an impish look at a game of Scrabble to narratives of scientific experiment and discovery. These in turn range from humanity’s first successful effort to begin and arrest a nuclear reaction, to the legal case taken up by the family of Henrietta Lacks, whose cervical cancer cells were cultivated without her permission into the ‘immortal’ HeLa line.

Hughes’s work manages to seem both compendious and yet compressed; each piece pulls in considerable, closely observed data, and yet avoids the prosey feel of Wikipedia entries, with spry, punning, psychologically apt metaphors, or the frequent tang of prosody: ‘slipping into the bullring of incandescence’; ‘launching Glory Bes/into the gluey hives and trenches of her head’; ‘plays chess with the evening’s reticence’.

Alice Miller’s book acts as a cool ‘mental palate’ cleanser if read immediately after the Hughes. The Limits pushes for new archetypes through old. One poem, “Antarctica II”, reiterates ‘This is what we used to call a fairy tale’ — a gloss that could apply to many of the delicately wrought poems here. They read like fragments of cautionary tales, of psychodramas spun from love and fear, aspirations and disappointments. The poems offer intense, dreamlike evocations of mood and relationship dynamics through crisp, clean, yet elliptical and elusive phrasing. Each line is like a single drop of water sending out sonic and visual ripples, rather than the joyously hyperactive torrent of facts and analysis in the Hughes.

There is often a sense with Miller’s work that the reader’s version of the subject of the poem can only inch towards a partial translation from the eerie, haunting language of dream, which itself is a translation of the unspoken or inarticulate in the daily. The poems carry the psychological ‘fragrance’ of new foundation myths; of recent —or near-future — cultural crises whittled back down into the primal nouns of body, earth, apple, skin, fire, ocean. The slightly apocalyptic tremor along the skin of some of the poems can either return us to crises of the past (as in ‘After Battle’) or project us into eerie fusions of the now and the any-moment-now. There are the landscapes and mindscapes of city, trucks, forests, ATMS, border-crossings and terror that suggests a beleaguered present-day Europe; there are two ‘Waiata’ that seem to ventriloquise 19th century settler variations upon, or infusions, of the Maori form; ‘Ocean’ has idealism, fear and ecological crisis lapping at its edges: “point to lands that reach beyond the myth/but soon the water’s pouring up the hills/because we cannot map the ocean still”.

Good at finding metaphor and image for the nebulous, the inchoate, the shift and slide of emotional response to the relatively removed or abstract, Miller’s work embodies the idea that a poem should leave the world both a little more illuminated and a little more mysterious at its close. This reminds me of the surrealism of Michael Harlow in its sense of what we might call the accurate strangeness not just of language, but also of the workings of the subconscious.

The tonal range in Marty Smith’s Horse with Hat is, I think, the widest of all three collections reviewed here. This is alternately comic, wry, downbeat, vernacular, lyrical: yet it is also at times dark, plangent and moving in its use of narratives distilled from extended family relationships. The collection gathers small yet vivid dramatic moments from the routines of farm work and a lost pre-digital world, where the children remember that “TV arrived like a Martian” (‘reception’) and ‘You only made phone calls if someone was sick or dead or married’ (as one typically long and cheekily, tartly inverted title has it).

With its imagery of “quicksilver silvery birds” and “eel thoughts” that “slide along our sides” (‘A mile here, a mile there’) the poems are gorgeously evocative of landscape and the sensation of, say, early dawn on the farm – where one natural observation infuses another with both physicality and emotion: “those horses talk to themselves/low, and tender as the fat wetness of roses” (‘dawn horses’).

The collection builds up the sense of how the vulnerable, sensitive child still sits inside the adult, and the animal or primal lingers inside the human. ‘Creature’ is a compellingly simple poem about the fusion between self and animal;

“I make the glorious mouth./It is a heart-blossom red I choose./I leave teeth marks.[….] The sun in my lungs/I put my tail up and go.”

Other poems slide into the animal voice, showing how close contact with working animals deeply influences the child’s sense of identity, time, imagination and land. The book also runs its fingers over the history of civilisation’s relationship with the horse (‘Lot 165’). It’s impressive to realise how much ground is covered in what is also a tightly themed collection. From Crusaders to gambling nuns and the fiery, unpredictable character of the poet’s returned serviceman father, the book dips in and out of the human use of horses, and the strange attractions and repulsions of family.

The father’s character bristles on the page with frustration, fury, and yet love; the poems weave and bob with the sense of complex individuals, and tangled, ingrown, or estranged relationships. All the while, the long contrail of war trauma chokes the family atmosphere.

Brendan O’Brien’s illustrations for the book are a dreamlike bricolage, with tumbled perspective and collisions of genre (Biblical engravings, coloured cigarette cards). The air of bewilderment and wonder, and of bizarre within the familiar, plays deft visual accompaniment to the poetry’s side-winding snippets of family feud and rural life.

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The Sarah Broom Poetry Award


Now that I am settling down a bit from the giddy whirl of the Auckland Readers and Writers Festival, I want to repeat here how much admiration I have for Michael Gleissner and the other trust members who set up the Sarah Broom Award. To do this so soon after losing Sarah must have taken an enormous amount of energy and focus at a very raw and vulnerable time. I know from all the positive feedback and well-wishing I was lucky enough to receive even as a short-listee, that the wider poetry community has been highly aware of the award and the chance it offers to local poets.

It was a hoot to meet Sam Hunt at the session, and Kirsti Whalen showed really professional slam-background confidence. I’ve owned Sam’s poems since I was 13: though back then I didn’t have a clue what all the fuss about love and desire was. Adults seemed tortured by such bizarre emotions. Sam not only takes poetry to the people but also does a mean tap dance — look him up on YouTube. Also his interview on National Radio about the Sarah Broom Award is a marvellous recording. It’s the kind of radio that makes you forget how to multi-task. You just end up frozen in place, dishcloth at the window, struck in an attitude of intense distraction.

Poet, editor, blogger, reviewer and judge Paula Green put an enormous amount of work into the publicity and the ‘bits and pieces’ of event planning too. Right down to making sure I had cash for the airport shuttle! I wouldn’t be surprised if Paula took to her bed for a week to recover from the hoop-la. If anyone else has to take to their beds after festival overdose, they should also take her latest collection, The Baker’s Thumbprint. One of my poetry favourites in 2013, it made me think how a traditional form like the sestina can seem so utterly revitalised and contemporary when unusual teleutons are chosen, and I really warmed to the way a wide cast of figures from literature and history accompany the voice in the poems. It seemed to capture the way certain ideas, concepts, books thread through and alter the ordinary day; we might seem to be eating a tomato sandwich at the beach, but on another level we’re chewing over the theory of relativity. The poems imagine the figures into contemporary contexts; they play surreal little private games; there’s also the sense in which some absences loom larger than whatever seems physically, tangibly present. So much of our life is in the elsewhere of memory, of imagination.

An odd confession now maybe: it gave me mixed feelings to be short-listed. I was lucky enough to have met Sarah in the very early days of motherhood for both of us. So each time someone mentions the award, I’ve felt sadness for everyone connected to her, as well as gratitude that the poems made it through to the final stage.

I dithered and delayed about entering, for all kinds of personal and artistic reasons, but in the end I took the plunge as a way of remembering Sarah, her friendship, and above all her writing: its combination of control and ardor, its lyricism and its powerful undertow of hard-won, bittersweet wisdom.

I first met Sarah when I sidled along to a friend’s mother and baby group shortly after giving birth to my first son —my own antenatal group hadn’t really cohered. It was a huge relief to find the group that Sarah and her husband Michael were part of: they were like-minded, able to laugh at parenting misadventures, and to be frank about many of the things that can make other new parents either uncomfortably competitive, or guarded for fear of losing face.

I suppose I’m trying to say they were honest both about the elation and the feeling that raising a baby is — as another poet has said — ‘like trying to build a ship while you’re already at sea’. (If anyone can let me know who said that, I’d be grateful! I know it was in a memoir of parenthood written by a British male poet, but Google is boggled by it and I can’t locate my copy…)

In Sarah’s case she entered motherhood while also still trying to have an academic career. So I suppose it was not only like trying to build a ship while already at sea, but also while having to sustain intelligent conversations about the theory of aviation and smoothly pilot a plane through air pockets. To an outsider she seemed to handle the pressures so gracefully. When I think back to those years, I visualise her first son Daniel’s white-blond hair — that almost translucent thistledown blond some children have — and Sarah’s smile. I reckon you could have taken a tape measure to and it would have won world-wide, wide grin competitions.

All the time, of course, alongside her teaching and parenting, Sarah also had the creative impulse thrumming away. Thank goodness she listened to it. We’re all the richer for her having focused on it when she and Michael had to move to Auckland. I only managed to meet up with her twice more in the seven years or so she was living in the north; but one of the poems from The Truth Garden (Otago University Press) was written in response to the bravery and directness of her emails to friends, family and the poetry community about her condition and medical treatment. It’s actually not a whizz-bang poem, I don’t think; but Sarah was gracious enough to accept it in the spirit I meant it —which was a kind of atheist’s prayer. (Actually I think Kirsti Whalen might have mentioned this as her  attitude to poetry overall: so this posting tunes itself to her oboe as well.) The poem starts off with the kind of blunt medical language Sarah dealt with in her letters.



Nodules, tumours, chemo, oncologist:

a harsh jargon it’s hard to think your way clear through

when pain closes in with its white haze.

We read your careful message

and find all we’re left with

is a primitive want

I wish, I wish, I wish ―

it’s the sound of the blood’s own steady breath,

the lungs’ airy wax and wane,

the heart’s secret metre.

Where is the shaman

to snip harmless cuttings

of seasonal luck,

coax rootlets of stubborn health

to stretch and grip

in the body’s winter bed?

I wish, I wish, I wish

words on tongue, page, screen

would seed a wellness as bold

as our kowhai in spring

when it stands proud-bellied

as a woman in pregnancy

and in its leaves a thousand yellow flowers

glitter and sway

as if the sun were a flock of pilgrims

who have pinned trinkets, bells, sequins to her skirts

Our Lady of Blossoms

Our Lady of Fantails and Waxeyes

Our Lady of Summers Past, and Now, and Still to Come.


Congratulations to Karl Stead on his win— a steady career indeed!

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Poetry Shelf interviews the finalists for the Sarah Broom Poetry Award: Today Emma Neale

Poetry Shelf interviews the finalists for the Sarah Broom Poetry Award: Today Emma Neale.

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