September 28, 2010

Talking Poetry

The launch of 99 Ways into New Zealand Poetry

syndetics-lcPaula Green and Harry Ricketts have been incubating this wonderful book for a long time and on September 17th ten invited poets, plus Paula and Harry, very good poets themselves, spent an evening at the library to celebrate its arrival by talking poetry and reading poetry for an assorted public of fans and friends (also fans).

I am rarely able to truly take in poems I hear being read (an exception might be the old recordings of Yeats sonorously tolling his beautiful lines, one by one, like majestic breakers rolling in, not to mention the dramatic rolling of the r's) because I’m one of those people who has to see the poem on the page. I need to be able to gaze at the whole as I zoom in on the part, visualize the verses and slip from one to the next rather the way falling leaves descend floating first to one side then to the other, to finally catch and hold perfectly still for a fraction of a second before landing just there and nowhere else.

But Paula’s genial idea of having everyone mix talk and poetry unexpectedly made it work for me. It should be de rigueur for readings – although I suppose you’d need to  have poets who are interesting talkers, like Sonja Yelich, whose chosen topic was erotica (I loved it and I bought her book Get Some, the only book of poetry I’ve ever owned with a US Marine on the cover), or Anna Jackson, offbeat and tender, or Robert Sullivan being wry about our setting, Central Library, where he once worked, and offering up several surprising poems, including this one which stole my heart, from his new book Cassino City of Martyrs / CittĂ  Martire:

The Dalai Lama’s Smile
brings one to me when I think about him

99 Ways is a gorgeous book, thick and heavy, a bright orange cover pleasingly devoid of rural highways and sombre beaches – against that orange? -- nothing figurative at all, in fact, just giant white handwriting as if a mad housepainter suddenly decided to write a scrap of poetry on the wall with his huge whitewash brush (the lettering is the work of Athena Sommerfeld, who designed one of my favourite last year's book covers, the little book from AUP of 50 James K. Baxter poems selected by Sam Hunt). When you open it, the paper is sweet-smelling and shiny, a photograph-type quality which amazingly doesn't glare at me when I put the book on my kitchen table under the old hanging lamp we keep meaning to replace. It is dense with text in a small but classic font, poems in a more rarified and artful font which slows your reading down just the right amount, and photos of poets and their books.

As I skip around in it – the only way most of us can approach a book like this -- I keep encountering the moments which have marked the chapters of my New Zealand life.

“Oh look, there’s CK Stead’s book with the writing in the shape of a dog that I always chose for the new books display."

“Oh look, The loop in Lone Kauri Road, that I photocopied the poem from, when Jen was living on Lone Kauri Road...”

“Oh look, Rain, the first New Zealand poem I read which took my breath away.” 


“Oh look, The Long Road to Tea Time”, that had the poem about Ursula and Gudrun in their Minnie Cooper shoes which had just been used for a poetry display when I came to work at Central, and I was wearing Minnie Cooper shoes at the time, and I pinned the poem up on the wall by my desk.”

“Oh look, a photo of Bob Orr without his cap. And look at this poem from Valparaiso, watermelons cut in half revealing ‘the cool pink of dawn and small dark boats a long way out to sea’!  I have to get Valparaiso!” 

Here is how Paula opens the last chapter of the book, which she calls "Ways into Writing (New Zealand) Poetry". I like it because I have something like this too, mine is when I'm driving home and cross the Ponsonby ridge at sunset, heading down into Grey Lynn, and suddenly see the view out over the water towards Te Atatu, every day a free show, unexpected and utterly unlike the one of the day before.

“Whenever I leave home I have to drive along a ridge with Auckland City and the Sky Tower visible in the distance on one side and a smidgeon of Tasman Sea on the other. My eyes are always drawn to the ocean because it seems like two tablespoons of poetry on the horizon. Like a poem, this visual magnet depends upon set ingredients (water, salt, sky) and then transforms them to strikingly different effect each day. And like so many poets facing something utterly magnificent, I wonder how words can do justice when the view itself seems to be poetry enough. My body tingles, my breath catches and I feel moved as I absorb the ocean, yet I have never written a Tasman Sea poem."

"Each day I pass this sea view, I choose a single word that captures its essence: bloated, translucent, smudged, skinny, gone, swollen, blue. How then does the world become poetry? How do we face the unsayable – the world’s largenesses (love, death, beauty, truth, tragedy (and the world’s particulars (things, daily routines, daily relations) – and produce poems? Trawling through the writings of poets, it is clear that the ways into writing are as rich and varied as the ways into reading poetry.”

Although the back of the book says the 100th way is “your own unique take” on appreciating poetry, I like what Elizabeth Smither said in the Sunday Star Times:

“Inspiration is unconfined. You write with all you’ve got in order to find out what it is you’ve seen or felt or experienced… New Zealand needs poets and this book leaves a gap for you. You could be the 100th.”

Ditulis Oleh : tosca // 04:30
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