‘Featuring local featured poets Hera Lindsay Bird, Anahera Gildea, Bill Manhire, Courtney Sina Meredith and Anna Jackson together with international poetry guests Jeet Thayil, Patricia Lockwood, Harry Giles and Mike Ladd.’
Honestly, I’ve never been really sure where I stand with poetry. I remember Dad reading us Edward Lear as children, and memorising Wilfred Owen’s sonnet in high school (which I can still recite – ask me next time you see me). At uni I studied English, including poetry, and submitted to the belief that poetry was difficult on purpose and only those with the right number of degrees could hope to correctly interpret it.
Since returning to Aotearoa and wiggling my way into booky spaces here I’ve put my hand up to review NZ poetry several times. I always have to take a deep breath first, to try and shake off the terrible lessons of my formal education. To trust myself and my ability to read at least thoughtfully, if not expertly.
So it was with trepidation – plus a good dollop of end-of-the-festival, mind-spinning fatigue – that I turned up to review Poetry International. I hadn’t been scheduled to review it, but I was keen to see as much of Harry Josephine Giles and Patricia Lockwood as I could before they left.
Poetry International was inspired by the February 2018 edition of Poetry magazine that celebrates NZ poets. It was a rather disjointed and long-winded event. The poets came on stage in two lots, since there were nine of them and only six seats. The chair, Chris Price, had come straight from the hospital and added a note of muted medical emergency to the proceedings by holding a bandage up to her face as she listened.
First up were Anahera Gildea, Mike Ladd, Anna Jackson, Harry Josephine Giles, and Hera Lindsay Bird. They all performed their poetry and made some remarks, and then Price briefly interviewed them. The two stand-outs for me were Gildea and Giles, who both spoke with great power. Gildea – like Emma Espiner at Tikanga Now – talked in English and Te Reo about the erasure of wāhine Māori from NZ’s Suffrage 125 celebrations. Her poem was written as a kōrero with C19th suffrage activist Meri Te Tai Mangakahia.
Also on the theme of (de)colonisation, Scottish poet Giles said that most of the places they go around the world they’re following their people, who ‘chose to steal and murder and orchestrate genocide’. Giles is trying to remake the world, but acknowledged that they were doing so ‘in and through system of racialised capitalism from which I benefit’. They then blew up the earnestness of the event by enthusiastically performing a poem in the Scots language about butt plugs. Hashtag festival highlight.
The next tranche of poets comprised Patricia Lockwood, Courtney Sina Meredith, Jeet Thayil, and Bill Manhire. Meredith spoke with understandable exasperation of being constantly required to ‘diversity up’ the place a bit, since she is a queer Samoan-Kiwi woman (triple whammy!). I was particularly struck by her remark that ‘opportunities are often just mountains of hard work’. Too true.
I had been looking forward to seeing more of Lockwood, and enjoyed her poem about being on the plane where John Ashbery no longer exists – although, due to my aforementioned lack of poetry expertise, I didn’t know who Ashbery was or why I should care. Unfortunately Price’s brief interview with Lockwood fell flat: a mismatch between Price’s earnest intellect and Lockwood’s acerbic wit. I had managed to catch the first half of Blazing Stars (Charlotte Graham-McLay chairing Lockwood and Bird) and noticed a similar thing. Lockwood and Bird together were hilarious and I would have preferred to see them by themselves just riffing off each other without the chair interrupting with serious questions.
Thayil, an Indian poet and musician, was the only person I noticed in this festival to mention rats (an extremely underappreciated literary topic – festival organisers please note I have a keynote prepared to remedy this lack). He performed a poem called How To Be A Bandicoot and explained that bandicoots are ‘large unkillable rats’, which of course prejudiced me immediately in favour of them. He also performed a poem called The Consolations of Ageing which comprised him standing on the stage in silence. Do you get it, it’s because there aren’t any. He helpfully held up his book of poetry to demonstrate the blank page.
After three solid days of performing, talking, tweeting, and reviewing, my note-taking skills were faltering. (Under Bill Manhire I’ve written ‘dead All Black’.) I had failed to read the programme correctly and wasn’t prepared for Poetry International to last longer than an hour. Towards the end I slid off my chair and typed rather forlornly on the floor. Emily Perkins smiled at me kindly. Later, Elizabeth Knox very generously described my festival reviewing as ‘a service to humanity’. Over and out, my friends. Ka kite anō au i a koutou.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage
Available in bookshops nationwide.
There has been a surge in recent culture, and across disciplines, of what we could term as biographical impulse. Objects, diseases and cities, through to created historical figures in art works, have all been examined through this lens, which involves interpreting a range of material to construct a narrative. This surge has also led to increasing awareness of the tension in biographical enterprise: there is a constant process of resurrection and modification.
Both impulse and tension are reflected, and even cultivated, in the emergence of a new genre, which is subject to critical discussion in Truth and Beauty: Verse Biography in Canada, Australia and New Zealand edited by Anna Jackson, Helen Rickerby and Angelina Sbroma. ‘Verse biography’ melds biography and poetry to produce works where ‘the competing and complementary claims of truth and beauty’ find home in historical figures, whose lives are rendered in poetry.
Biography often favours chronology as the driving narrative force or main thread of work, which is then fleshed out with anecdotes and facts, reliable accounts, and investigations of identity. But verse presents another way of looking at things – ‘a freedom from the concerns of conventional biography’. It emphasises moments, highlights omissions, plays with chronology and is free from the burden of establishing authority or authenticity. We see this tendency in Anne Carson’s lyrical treatment of Sappho’s fragments, where she plays with square brackets to indicate omission: ‘Brackets are an aesthetic gesture toward the papyrological event rather than an accurate record of it.’
There is an inevitable jousting between the autobiographical and biographical in any act of interpretation or reconstruction, but verse biography stands apart in its approach – it is deliberate and self-aware, conscious of its subjectivity. Not only does verse biography provide another framing for the story of a historical person – for example a look at Billy the Kid in Michael Ondjaate’s work focuses on Billy’s later years, his intimates, what drives him to violence – his ‘trials and tribulations in New Mexico’. But there is also a framing of the relationship between subject and writer, which propels us to consider whose voice is speaking through these works? In Margaret Atwood’s rendering of Susanna Moodie we are unsure whether it is writer or subject: ‘The mouth produces words/I said I created/ myself, and these/frames, comma, calendars/ that enclose me’.
Through various poets’ treatments of figures such as Emile Bronte, Captain Cook and Akhenaten, the cycle of destruction and renewal – of resurrection and modification – ‘reminds us that historical figures are but characters marked beneath our current selves.’ With contributions from academics and poets (sometimes both), the essays survey the concerns of voice, palimpsests, masks, mythologising, characters as vehicles for contemporary messages – and bring this ‘construction of life’ to the reader’s attention – revealing the awareness of these verse biographers carry in their works.
Although this academic text is by no means light reading, Truth and Beauty holds a certain unruly appeal in that it captures a moment in time in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, where the emerging cultural practice of verse biography sits on the cusp of becoming something in particular. The collection of ten essays, which form this satisfying tome from Victoria University Press, critically analyses important verse biographers and captures this lively diversity, where ‘individual works are so variously influenced, so eclectic in approach to the idea of verse biography, and so various in form’. The range of possibilities before the institution of a canon or genre settles, and the freedom this entails, is exciting to consider. Indeed ‘verse biography expands the possibilities for both biography and lyric’.
Reviewed by Emma Johnson
Truth and Beauty: Verse Biography in Canada, Australia and New Zealand
edited by Anna Jackson, Helen Rickerby and Angelina Sbroma
Published by VUP
Elizabeth Heritage asked for recommended reading lists from each of the people she interviewed in relation to our article on feminist themes at NZ literary festivals. Please feel free to add your own recommended reading at the bottom, and we will incorporate this gradually into the main list.
Our respondents were: Carole Beu, from The Women’s Bookshop, Ponsonby; Matthew Simpson from publisher HarperCollins NZ; Tilly Lloyd, from Unity Bookshop, Wellington; Writer and Lecturer Anna Jackson; Nicola Strawbridge, from Going West Festival; Kathryn Carmody, from NZ Book Council, and Rachael King, from WORD Christchurch.
• A History of NZ Women, by Barbara Brookes (BWB) Recommended by Tilly Lloyd.
• Animal: The Autobiograpghy of a Female Body, by Sara Pascoe (Faber) Recommended by Tilly Lloyd.
• Bad Feminist, by Roxanne Gay (Little, Brown) Recommended by Tilly Lloyd.
• Colour of Food: a Memoir of Life, Love and Dinner, by Anne Else (Awa) Recommended by Tilly Lloyd.
• Do It Like a Woman – and change the world, by Caroline Crido-Perez (Portobello)
• Everywhere I Look, by Helen Garner. Helen Garner is one of my favourite feminist essayists – whose feminism, and humanism, and personality inform everything she writes on every topic. Recommended by Anna Jackson.
• Fat is a feminist issue, by Susie Orbach. Orbach’s book made me see that, unless something was done urgently, what was going on around me would continue indefinitely. Highly motivating. Recommended by Maria McMillan.
• Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, by Bell Hooks is a must. Recommended by Nicola Strawbridge.
• Fictional Woman, by Australian crime novelist Tara Moss. (HarperCollins) This 2014 book focuses among other things on the under-representation of women in modern entertainment, media, advertising and politics. It was a #1 Nonfiction bestseller in Australia. Recommended by Matthew Simpson.
• Fifty Shades of Feminism, edited by Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes & Susie Orbach (Virago, 2013)
Published as a response to Fifty Shades of Grey – it is a brilliant collection of 50 stunning essays by a wide variety of feminists, young & old – and it has a grey cover! Recommended by Carole Beu
• Fighting to Choose: the Abortion Rights Struggle in NZ, by Alison McCulloch (VUP) Recommended by Carole Beu.
• Freedom Train: The story of Harriet Tubman, by Dorothy Sterling.() I loved that Harriet Tubman, who herself escaped slavery and returned many times to help others escape, was short, not physically beautiful and plagued by narcolepsy. I knew the stakes were as big as could be and every time I read was stirred by the fact one woman, through cunning and cleverness and stubborness was responsible for life and death. Recommended by Maria McMillan.
• Fury: Women Write About Sex, Power and Violence, edited by Samantha Trenoweth (Hardie Grant) Recommended by Carole Beu.
• Headscarves & Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution, by Mona Eltahawy (Wiedenfeld & Nicolson) Recommended by Carole Beu.
• How to Be A Woman, by Caitlin Moran (Ebury Press). As she says: “We need to reclaim the word ‘feminism’. We need the word ‘feminism’ back real bad. When statistics come in saying that only 29% of American women would describe themselves as feminist – and only 42% of British women – I used to think, What do you think feminism IS, ladies? What part of ‘liberation for women’ is not for you? Is it freedom to vote? The right not to be owned by the man you marry? The campaign for equal pay? ‘Vogue’ by Madonna? Jeans? Did all that good shit GET ON YOUR NERVES? Or were you just DRUNK AT THE TIME OF THE SURVEY?” Recommended by Nicola Strawbridge.
• How to be Both, by Ali Smith. This is one of the loveliest novels I’ve read, about art, ambition, identity, and relationships including the relationship between a daughter and a mother. Recommended by Anna Jackson.
• How to Win at Feminism (HarperCollins), the new book from the editors of the Reductress feminist satirical website, is another one we love. Never let it be said that feminists are a humourless bunch. Recommended by Matthew Simpson.
• I Call Myself a Feminist :The View from Twenty-Five Women Under Thirty, edited by Victoria Pepe (Virago)
Virago followed Fifty Shades of Feminism up in 2015 with this great collection. Recommended by Carole Beu.
• In Gratitude, by Jenny Diski (Bloomsbury) Recommended by Tilly Lloyd.
• Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, by Sheryl Sandberg (W H Allen)
A more controversial, alarming book, which may start arguments that are surely worth having. Recommended by Anna Jackson.
• Mary Anning’s Treasure, by Helen Bush. Like Harriet Tubman, Mary Anning was no beauty. She was gruff, proud, and as strong as a man. Once with an unexpected tide, she hoisted a woman across her shoulders and carried her to safety. I was going to be a paleontologist when I grew up because of Mary Anning. Recommended by Maria McMillan.
• Men Explain Things to Me, by Rebecca Solnit (Granta) Recommended by Carole Beu, Tilly Lloyd
• Moranifesto , by Caitlin Moran (Ebury press)
Then there is the wonderful Caitlin Moran. She is the first of a whole range of young women who don’t give a stuff what people think of them. Recommended by Carole Beu and Anna Jackson, who says, “I find Caitlin Moran terrifically funny and magnificently sensible.”
• Not That Kind of Girl, by Lena Dunham. Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer are figures from popular culture whose frank and unapologetic feminism is completely central to their fame and genius. This was a huge bestseller. Recommended by Matthew Simpson.
• Roll on the revolution . . . but not until after Xmas! : Selected Feminist Writing
A collection of years of feminist essays, many of them originally published in Broadsheet Magazine, from 95-year-old New Zealander Margot Roth, now living in Melbourne. The project was begun by the late great Pat Rosier (former Broadsheet editor) & has been completed by The Margot Collective (available from PDL, via Paul Greenberg). Recommended by Carole Beu, Tilly Lloyd
• Sex Object, by Jessica Valenti (HarperCollins) , founder of Feministing and columnist/staff writer with The Guardian (US), is a confronting and forthright memoir about how she came to be a leading voice in third wave feminism. Recommended by Matthew Simpson.
• Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, by Lindy West (Quercus) Recommended by Carole Beu.
• So Sad Today, by Melissa Broder (Scribe) Recommended by Carole Beu.
• Speaking Out, by Tara Moss (HarperCollins). This is the follow up to Fictional Woman, and is a practical handbook for women and girls on speaking out safely and confidently in a world that marginalises them. Recommended by Matthew Simpson.
• Stuff I Forgot To Tell My Daughter, by Michele A’Court (HarperCollins). A’Court is one of NZ’s pre-eminent and funniest feminists. Recommended by Matthew Simpson.
• The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson (Text) Recommended by Tilly Lloyd and Anna Jackson, who says, “this is a brilliant mix of essay, memoir and lyric about the difficulty of negotiating parenthood, gender roles and relationship issues in a marriage with a transgender partner.”
• The Blazing World, by Siri Hustvedt (Sceptre) This brilliant novel looks at the career of a woman artist who devised an art project to expose the bias against women artists: she set up a young, male imposter to pretend to have made the art works she herself would produce, then reveal her identity; as she anticipated, there was an excitement around his work her own work had never generated even though this work was very much a development of her own ideas. What she didn’t anticipate is that he would claim the work as his own, and no one would believe it was hers, despite all the proof of her workings. It is a brilliant premise and the novel draws out the twists and turns of a gripping story brilliantly, but what is ultimately so moving about the novel is its complex representation of relationships between difficult people, and the difficulty of managing personal relationships alongside ambition. Recommended by Anna Jackson.
• The Changeover, by Margaret Mahy () I had no brother to save but, as the world revealed itself to me at 14 as ethically bereft and deeply women-hating, I realised I had my own personal and intergalactic crisis to deal with. There was only one thing for it. Hmm, thought I was a mere human? Pyeouw! Take that, patriarchy. Recommended by Maria McMillan.
• The Fact of a Doorframe, by Adrienne Rich () Rich seemed to capture perfectly our own struggles in dealing with the horror of a world that seemed particularly violent towards women, and a desire, despite it all, to love, laugh and celebrate. Recommended by Maria McMillan.
• The Female Eunuch, by Germaine Greer (HarperCollins). This was published over 40 years ago and it’s never been out of print. It is still a go-to work about how 20th century western society was taking away women’s agency on so many levels. Recommended by Matthew Simpson.
• The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, by Amy Schumer will certainly be just as big a smash as Lena Dunham’s book, if not bigger. Recommended by Matthew Simpson.
• The Natural Way of Things, by Charlotte Wood () Recommended by Maria McMillan.
• Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution, by Laurie Penny (Bloomsbury). This is the book that I’d recommend to get anyone fired up about feminism. Recommended by Kathryn Carmody.
• We Should All Be Feminists, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (4th Estate) Recommended by Carole Beu, Matthew Simpson, Tilly Lloyd. Matthew adds, “We should all be feminists is something every young woman and man should be afforded the chance to hear or read.”
• Who was that Woman Anyway: Snapshots of a Lesbian Life, by Aorewa McLeod (VUP) Recommended by Tilly Lloyd.
• Why Science is Sexist, by Nicola Gaston (BWB Texts) Recommended by Tilly Lloyd.
• Witches: Salem 1692, by Stacy Schiff (Weidenfeld) Recommended by Tilly Lloyd.
And some online recommendations, from Rachael King, WORD Christchurch Director:
I love On the Rag, The Spinoff’s podcast which is run by Alex Casey, who is writing some fantastic commentary on the representation of women in the media. The Spinoff is publishing a lot of good feminist writing. Alex will be at the festival of course, along with three other Spinoff editors.
I also recommend BUST, which isn’t widely available in New Zealand but which can be found online. It was started in the Riot Grrl era and has kept on going. When I first was introduced to it by my friend Gemma Gracewood, I found it incredibly refreshing and encouraging. So of course I had to take Gemma with me when I met with Debbie Stoller in New York – it was a wonderful meeting of minds.
Two feminist writers are visiting for WORD Christchurch in a week or so: Tara Moss, noted earlier; and Nadia Hashimi, whom Matthew Simpson says is “an Afghan-American novelist whose stories of the intimate lives and struggles of women in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan are imbued with a strong message of female solidarity across national and cultural divides.”
Tell us your favourite feminist reads below, and we’ll add them to the list.
The title would suggest a nature theme, but it is more the Thicket of human relationships Anna Jackson explores in this short collection, her fifth.
Fairy tales run a red thread through the book. Quite befitting the 200th anniversary of the publication of the Grimm’s fairytales – and Grimm’s fairy tales they all are. Be it Hansel’s abandonment issues, Red Riding Hood discovering in two juxtaposed poems that her mother was a wild child, or the man from The Fisherman and his Wife lamenting his predicament.
In one of my favourite poems Not looking, Feeling Jackson follows a mother into the pit of dust and Lego pieces that is her children’s room:
“Down past everything soft
and forgotten to the very bottom
where I hit the dust and paper scraps
and where I grasp a dream, or a dream
grasps me, entering my fingertips / like sap …”.
I could swear she was talking about my children’s room. It’s like going through the rabbit hole behind paper scraps and odd socks.
My inner linguist was quite taken by the imagery in the poem Indexing. “You index achievements, I index my dreams[..]” and then the last lines “Well. I am in your index / and you are in mine”. I liked the idea of the presence of other people in the inventory of our lives.
Envelope closes with the words:
“But where am I being sent?
And when I arrive, who will open me?
Roughly with a finger or gently with a knife?”.
A threat enveloped in beauty.
How do you approach a collection of poetry? Apart from a strictly academic (metre counting, metaphor categorising) way, I think it can only be approached by the effect it has on the reader, on every individual one. The way it bounces back off us or enters us and grabs hold of us, tells us secrets about ourselves we did not yet know .
Reviewing poetry from the perspective of the reader is always a personal act. In a good collection of poetry we will find what we are looking for, but it will also challenge us to follow new paths down into the depth of our imagination. I invite you to read Thicket and see what it has on offer for you. There is plenty to discover in this Thicket. A deserving finalist for the New Zealand Post Book Award 2012.
Reviewed by Melanie Wittwer
Auckland University Press