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!