The Burns Fellowship has turned up some unexpected requests lately. One was from a woman I’d never met who wanted advice on how to read an ee cummings poem at her brother’s wedding: the request was passed on to me by admin staff in the English Department. The poem was “[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]” – a link is given in an earlier post here.

It was an odd experience, reading cummings aloud down the phone to a complete stranger, and feeling the electricity of someone else’s desire crackle across the decades. There was the momentary sensation that I was wooing the invisible listener … which only felt reinforced by the silence from her for several beats afterwards, before she said a stunned thank you. My nine-year-old was eavesdropping at the time: he asked me who wrote the poem. “Was it a man? Is he famous?” he said. “Because he should be.” That was as giddy as reading the poem itself: to witness cummings reaching out way down the generations, and stirring something nascent in this child who hasn’t, he tells me, duh, really been in love yet.

Another request was from Thomas McLean in the English Department at Otago, who asked me to talk about poetry to his group of medical elective students. After touching briefly on how the physician and the writer share a professional interest in empathy, and how both need to be conscientious, alert listeners, I read some poems that I hoped might cross over into the students’ disciplines.

After I read ‘Exposure’, one very skeptical, serious looking young man wanted to ask a question. I braced myself for something dismissive. He was sitting in a languid, long-legged, stretched-out posture, semi-slumped in his chair; the pose that seems to say whatever you’ve presented hasn’t even been worth sitting up for. (It’s about as far from a standing ovation as you can get while still actually in a chair, not horizontal, asleep.) Then he said that when he’d read the poem earlier, on his own, he’d felt so sad, that it made him wonder how I could bear to write it. “Does writing this kind of thing really get you down?” It seemed to tweak and reverse the usual questions about how closely the poems trace the life: although I suppose that the initial manual-like register of the poem might be one reason the question was asked in this way. So we discussed how form can be like protective gloves, that help a writer to handle otherwise scalding or painful material: the way both established forms, and the search for new structures, can help to shape and hone experience, and provide some distance, and even some internal alteration. I’d guess that the notion of having to balance at least three elements — a certain detachment, inner composure, and intense feelings or correspondence with others — is something that both the writer and the medical professional constantly have to work at.

I’ll include ‘Exposure’ here. It’s appeared in Sport and in the collection Spark (Wellington: Steele Roberts, 2008).


Specific Fear: Spiders

1. Look at a picture of a spider.
2. Touch the picture.
3. Look at a spider in a jar.
4. Handle a rubber spider.
5. Touch a jar containing a live spider.
6. Imagine how it feels to touch a live spider.
7. Briefly touch a live spider.
8. Allow a spider to remain in the palm of your hand.

Specific Fear: Heights

1. Look out your bedroom window, alone.
2. Look out a second storey window, with company.
3. Look out a second storey window, alone.
4. Look out a third storey window, with company.
5. Continue ascending until you can turn
(a spinning top, arms flung wide as a weathercock’s)
in a high, open, wild space

Specific fear: Loss

1. Tap the outside of a rinsed, clean glass. Catch the hollow note.
2. Look at a photo of someone walking out of shot.
3. Touch the photo of someone walking out of shot.
4. Look at pictures of places where someone you love is not. (Pay close attention to doorframe, park bench, fountain edge.)
5. Touching the loved one, imagine how it feels not to touch the loved one.
6. Momentarily stop holding the loved one.
7. Allow the absence to remain in the palms of your hands.

In a serendipitous bit of timing, I’d heard just before talking to these prospective doctors that a new poem, ‘An Inward Sun’ has won the inaugural Poems in the Waiting Room competition. It’s due out in the winter issue of the leaflets distributed around doctors’ surgeries and hospitals by poet and editor Ruth Arnison and her volunteers. I’d seen the entry fee as way of supporting an excellent cause: a no-lose situation, I reckoned. When I’ve somehow left the house without a good book to read (disaster!!! Almost as bad as losing the house keys!!) I’ve read the poetry leaflets with relief that there was more on offer than celebrity thighs/cleavage/facelift shots that seem like a kind of live taxidermy. (This is what a startled greater primate in denial looked like in 2012! Caitlin Moran is so totally right – this is not how to be a woman, nor a human!!)

Some happy news: Fosterling has been shortlisted in the Youth Fiction category of the Sir Julius Vogel Awards for Science Fiction and Fantasy. I still feel an oddly maternal protectiveness for Bu, and want him to find his way in the world, want him to find his niche. I hope he meets some more keen readers willing to take him into their homes and give him a warm, dry place to stay…

Some crabby news: the equation that says creative work is 99% sweat, 1% inspiration, is out. When you’re struggling with a first draft, and the words are only inching along the page, it’s more like 100% sweat and sulk. Even surprise news about previous work doesn’t dispel the nibbling rats of dissatisfaction. But I guess, when you are lucky enough to have a fellowship, you can say, hey, the self-doubt’s on salary this year…

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7 Responses to Journalese

  1. You describe things so well, Emma – a pleasure to read.

  2. Claire G says:

    Wonderful post, wonderful poem (Exposure). Now there’s just one thing lacking: hearing your reading of the ee cummings! (Reading poetry to someone over the phone can be quite something. I discovered this when I read a Glenn Colquhoun poem to a friend across the telephone wire.)

    • ejneale says:

      Wow, thanks Claire…I can see why the caller struggled with the cummings at first: all the closed up punctuation, trying to transcribe breathlessness, intimacy, heart-race, maybe nervous stops and starts… I can imagine all kinds of different ways of reading it aloud. Did your friend swoon for you after you read to them?!

  3. jen says:

    thanks –

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