Paula Green, poet, anthologist reviewer, children’s author and general one-woman literary workforce is enormously generous with the time and effort she puts in to promoting other writers’ work. It was a privilege to read with her and Siobhan Harvey last night at the Pah Homestead. She read spirited, playful, tongue-twistingly comic new poems for children due out later this year, and tough, funny, lyrical work from The Baker’s Thumbprint about the 1970s protest movement, beach walks, and imagined encounters between other writers. There’s a sly wit; a sensuous response to colour and line; an eye for the quirks, foibles and also the virtues of an era. Paula handled that sticky question ‘is there a woman’s voice’ insightfully and deftly.
Of course any answer worth its salt takes years of research: Paula answered robustly: yes, there is a woman’s voice, she argued; yes there has been historical bias and denigration of subject areas traditionally perceived of as female. (To this I add, young women editors can also dismiss aspects of writing about motherhood and the home: it’s not just a guy thing.) The bias in reviewing and anthologising may be shifting – yet discussion of one bias may also conceal another: when we get the balance of women and men in an anthology, will we also get the balance of of north island versus south island writers, not to mention a balance of sexualities, of white/Maori/Pasifika/Asian? How do these things affect our sense of aesthetic quality? Should we see through them as if through clear glass to the poem? Or should work be actively selected on the basis of the writer’s provenance? My own off the cuff answer last night to the gender question was that there may be women’s concerns, and women’s work has definitely been shaped by historical circumstances, but if we’re talking about the technical components of style, then no. To expand: place a Lisa Samuels poem alongside an Anna Jackson poem, for example; place a Paula Green poem alongside an Emily Dickinson; place an Ann Carson alongside a Marianne Moore. Chalk, cheese, wine, milk, scoria, astronaut. (No particular link between the lists!).
I always dread the question component of any public reading: yet here I am, on a Friday night, still chewing over it all. And it was a fierce line of questioning at another arts panel that got under my skin enough for me to write a poem about art and social responsibility – ‘Polemic’, which has appeared in Landfall and Jennifer Compton’s blog Stillcraic, and performed by other poets (Lionel Sharman in Wellington and Blondie Suede in California). So I guess that even though extemporising on these things never feels satisfactory, the long mull afterwards is deeply enriching.
Thanks to the University of Otago and the James Wallace Arts Trust for funding and supporting events like these – and thanks again to Siobhan Harvey and Paula Green for their illuminating readings.
Special Offer: As a nod to – a quotation from – Paula Green’s great giveaways on her blog: the first reader to correctly spot the fictionalist’s trick here will get a free copy of Spark (Steele Roberts).