Last night I took on the role of compere for a poetry reading initiated by Professor Barbara Brookes from the History Department at the University of Otago. The reading was held to showcase Jeffrey Paparoa Holman, who is in Dunedin to give the Michael King Memorial Lecture at the University of Otago (6 October, 6pm, Burns 2 Lecture Theatre). His support cast of co-readers last night included Diane Brown, David Eggleton, Fiona Farrell, David Howard, and Sue Wootton. Circadian Rhythm Café was the host venue again – famous for its rhyming cuppas, its veritable villanelles of vegan and vegetarian food. There was a fantastic turn out; warm sponsorship from the Literary Society at the university; and typically irresistible desserts.
This post is an edited version of the MC notes.
Diane is a poet, a novelist and memoirist, and the co-ordinator and tutor for the (currently threatened) Aoraki Polytechnic Creative Writing Course in Dunedin. As Diane expressed it last night, the projected funding cuts seem to be aimed at ‘courses that teach people how to think, not what to think’. Her publications include two collections of poetry, including Before The Divorce We Go To Disneyland, winner of the NZSA Best First Book of Poetry at the Montana Awards in 1997; two novels, one of which, Eight Stages of Grace was the first verse novel written by a New Zealander, and a finalist in the Montana Book Awards 2003. She’s also written two travel memoirs and is currently writing a novel, which she says may or may not be called Hooked.
It’s a title which could equally well apply to her poems: sharp, sometimes barbed, they pull you in quickly. They’re compelling, addictive. Their apparently casual, conversational surfaces are actually impeccably timed and cadenced. Although they carry themselves lightly, often with a sly and dry wit, they mine deeply into human entanglements of all kinds.
Diane’s poetry always makes me starkly aware of the human heart’s deceptions, vulnerabilities, its incorrigible hopes. Her poems catch the moments of illumination and correspondence, of dissonance, betrayal, and of petty yet piercing cruelty in all possible combinations of a couple: be it two friends, parent and child, or lovers. Again and again, her work reminds us not how foolish, but how brave it is, to love.
David Eggleton is so well-known to Dunedin audiences that it might seem redundant to introduce him. But then we’d be in danger of taking a local living treasure for granted. He is of course a poet, but also an art reviewer, a non-fiction author, an historian of popular culture, and the current editor of Landfall. He’s a much-sought-after live performer; the transformation that takes place when the apparently diffident, quiet-mannered Eggleton takes the stage makes me think both of old notions of the alter-ego – he changes from mild on-looking Clark Kent to wild SuperBard – and of possession. Sometimes it seems the creative force picks David up and broadcasts through him as its vessel. His theatrical energy is infectious. His poems can achieve either a frantic pitch and pace or a subdued lyricism; it’s socially satirical; it captures New Zealand in all its class and racial variety and divisions. Its use of rhythm, rhyme, and all the other musical tools of the poet’s trade can carry an acerbic comic lilt for the disaffected, cerebral adult listener. He could almost be the time and genre-warping love child of Jonathon Swift and Margaret Mahy; perhaps raised by punk poet John Cooper Clark and a gentle taniwha. Prepare to feel super-caffeinated.
While I was pulling together notes for tonight’s reading I had to also pull myself together several times, as I realised afresh what a stunning line up we have. Preparing to write up Fiona Farrell’s background was one of those get-a-grip moments.
Fiona is one of New Zealand’s leading writers; she has published prize-winning novels, short fiction, poetry and memoir. Her short fiction has been anthologised alongside writers like Alice Munro, William Boyd and Nadine Gordimer. She has held several prestigious residencies, awards, and has spoken at festivals around the world.
I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog that I was lucky enough to hear Fiona at the Auckland Writers’ and Readers’ Festival earlier this year. There, she talked about her experiences in the Christchurch earthquakes, and the sort of iron-willed tenderness people showed each other during the crisis. Fiona tells a story as if it’s a spontaneous force – yet what she says has shapeliness and echoing refrains, so artistry sews it all together. Her poetry is a similarly deft fusion of the apparently instantaneous and the profoundly contemplated. Her most recent collection, The Pop-up Book of Invasions, calls on Irish history, myth, anecdote, family history, and her experiences of living in Ireland. The work in it is both direct and sly; plangent yet tough; deeply aware of literary and mythic tradition, yet grounded in fresh, contemporary idiom and post-colonial perspectives. It was a somewhat tremulous privilege to ask Fiona up to the mike.
Our next poet is David Howard; whose other career, as a pyro-technician and special effects supervisor makes metaphors of dazzlement, fiery iconoclast, and scorching insight impossible to resist. I’m always half hoping he’ll bring sparklers and silver rain cascades along to a reading, but the thing about David is that he insists on the words and the audience working in concentrated tandem: no flashy distractions from the words themselves.
David, the founding editor of literary magazine Takahe, has collaborated with international visual and musical artists, and his poetry has been translated into at least 5 languages. His new collection, The In-complete Poems, is due out from Cold Hub Press this month.
David’s work is lyrical, tender; it can be poignantly and strategically elliptical; it can leap from work riddled with loss, to work that cherishes sensuous memory; it embraces the fine arts, ranges over historical incident, teases out the complexities of fatherhood. It plays with white space on the page as if it’s a sculptural and expressive presence; it believes in the reader’s intelligence.
Sue Wootton, named at the edge of the alphabet, had to take the role of penultimate wordsmith last night. Sue herself has been a warm and generous co-organiser of several poetry readings in Dunedin; and she’s quickly gained a reputation as an inspiring speaker for young or novice writers. She has written prize-winning short fiction for adults, as well as Cloudcatcher, an illustrated book for children; and her two collections of poetry, Hourglass and Magnetic South are soon to be joined by a third, titled By Birdlight.
Sue’s poems follow the implications in the title of her first collection: Hourglass. They’re shapely, self-contained, have a precise, clear sense of timing, and they often offer sprightly inversions of the expectations they seem to set up. One of her many strengths is poetry that talks about the complex elations and deflations of love – be it parental or sexual – poems that undercut the romantic even as they describe the ache of desire. She also writes beautifully about the natural world: there’s a clarity and crispness here that make readers feel their own connection to the south more strongly.
Jeffrey Paparoa Holman
Jeffrey, our feature guest on this occasion, is another poly-scribe. He dances across a number of genres – poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. I decided to break my own rules, and give Jeffrey the special guest treatment by being specific about some of the awards he has garnered. His first full poetry collection, called As Big as a Father (2002) was long-listed for the Poetry Category of the 2003 Montana New Zealand Book Awards. In 2007, he won the Copyright Licensing Limited Award, which led to his work Best of Both Worlds: The Story of Elsdon Best and Tutakangahau. This book has gone on to be shortlisted for the University of Melbourne Ernest Scott History Prize this year. Usually Jeffrey works as a Senior Adjunct Fellow in Humanities at the University of Canterbury, but this year, he is the writer in residence at Waikato University. There he is working on a collection of earthquake poems, and a memoir about his father’s war in the Pacific, and the Japanese Kamikaze pilots who died in an attack intended for his father’s naval ship.
Jeffrey’s two recent collections of poetry are Autumn Waiata (Cold Hub Press) and Fly Boy (Steele Roberts). His work is embedded in te manawa, the heart; te whenua, the land. It slides effortlessly from dreamlike lyrics to mordant puns and a sober contemplation of mortality; from ee Cummings-like linguistic and typographical warnings to rollicking, ballad-like poems; from the voice of a lost child, to that of the wry, wise, yet still bereft adult man. His work digs down deep into both personal and public history; it is lit and glistening with roimata tangata; yet alongside its elegiac moments it can be jaunty, blues-y, crooning, even mischievous.
If we were in Nicaragua, these poets would have filled a stadium. Anyone got sponsorship for poets to read at the Giant Dunedin Glasshouse?