‘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