Five Poets And A Prize

Five Poets And A Prize involved the reading of five poets’ work plus the presentation of the 2016 winner of the Lauris Edmond Memorial Award. Funded by Victoria University Press and the New Zealand Poetry Society, this award is given to a poet who has contributed greatly to New Zealand poetry.

Frances Edmond, Lauris’ daughter, starts the readings with one of Lauris’ own pieces: a poem titled In Position. She then introduces Dinah Hawken, a past recipient of the prize, as the first reader. Her poems are exact yet grand, and she explains that many of the poems she’s reading are about women and children, since they remind her of Lauris.

It is this threading of Lauris’ memory with each writer that makes the event feel whole. Bob Orr, the next poet, knew Lauris personally and reads samples of his latest book, Odysseus in Woolloomooloo. I loved the way he introduced his poems, sometimes giving an insight into the story and inspiration behind his pieces.

I especially loved listening to Claire Orchard read, since I enjoyed her debut poetry collection, Cold Water Cure, which was inspired by the life of Charles Darwin. Orchard reads snippets from this collection while also expanding the reason for this focus on Darwin: an interest in comparing the similarities between Victorian life and her own.It is this imaginary correspondence between Orchard and Darwin that fuels her pieces.

The fourth poet, Chris Tse, recently had his poetry collection How to be dead in a year of snakes shortlisted for the New Zealand Book Awards. Before the event, I’d never read his work, but such a striking title promises good poetry. Tse definitely delivers; his voice is strong and steady, detailing the metaphor of the snake found in man and humanity.

Next up is Harry Ricketts, and his first poem is a fitting piece that’s both about Lauris and BATS,the theme and venue of the event. In between his readings are small interludes where he talks about his own interactions with Lauris, including a little story about how someone in a café declared that Lauris definitely looked like someone famous… before deciding that she had to be Janet Frame.

The variation between these five poets covered a stunning breadth of place and time from both well-seasoned and newer writers. And when Frances Edmond announces that the 2016 winner of the award is Bob Orr, the audience bursts into applause. Shocked and humbled, Orr gives his thank yous. Like all great writers, he simply loves to write, stating, “I thought I’d just come here to read some poetry”. Overall, the event was a lovely selection of five poets who I will definitely be reading more of, including the worthy winner of a brilliant prize.

Attended and reviewed by Emma Shi

Five Poets and a Prize: Dinah Hawken, Bob Orr, Claire Orchard, Chris Tse and Harry Ricketts
BATS, Saturday 12 March
NZ Festival Writer’s Week

Book Review: Ocean and Stone, by Dinah Hawken

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_Ocean_and_Stone‘Our world floats like a pebble in the universe. / Have we become, as predicted,
unconceivably lonely?’

Dinah Hawken is one of New Zealand’s most critically acclaimed and well-known poets, and Ocean and Stone is her seventh collection of poetry. She’s often cited as a nature poet, although Hawken took some time to see herself as such. In one interview, she states: ‘I’m amused when I look back to the launch of my third book, where Greg O’Brien described me as a “nature poet.” I was amazed – I hadn’t thought of it, but realised it was true. I should have known since the book was called Water, Leaves, Stones!

Hawken’s last collection The Leaf Ride (VUP, 2011) was one of the most affecting collections published that year, so I was glad to return to her sharp observational and meditative style in Ocean and Stone. Hawken shines most brightly when writing sequence poems as they allow her simple language to build in force. And forceful they are – few writers have the skill to return to the land and the sea with such originality and genuine knowing as Hawken: ‘The land is like a knife, out / of it’s sheath and glinting in the sun.’

Structurally, the collection falls into three parts. The book opens with the speaker as a grandmother, and the poems beautifully explore our differing perceptions of the world. In ‘The lake, the bloke and the bike’ the speaker talks to a group of men about the unwelcome noise they’re making on the lake. The poem states, ‘We all have our own interests, / he said. I agreed.’ The sequence of poems ‘The small boy’ recounts activities between the speaker and her grandson, Nate. Together they make the world through play, Nate with his dough and trains, and the poet with her language. Eventually play and language combine: ‘“Push,” he said and the word and action / clicked together.’ Both Nate and the reader see how to place language, and how language in turn places us.

These poems are followed by two sequences: ‘The young woman, Inanna’ and ‘The uprising.’ The first retells the story of the female Mesopotamian deity Inanna (Hawken used information from clay tablets to write this poem). Inanna’s story of female power – ‘She leaned back against the apple tree / and her vulva was wondrous to behold’ – sits strangely and evocatively beside the poems about the kindly grandparent. The two women are both creating their world, and when read with ‘The uprising,’ a masterful and unapologetic political poem about rising sea levels and human carelessness, the idea that our actions and voices are important comes forth.

The central part of the collection is the thirty page sequence, ‘page : stone : leaf.’ The sequence was created in collaboration with stone sculptor John Edgar, and his drawings work well with Hawken’s poems. Edgar’s drawings use words from an old Irish alphabet, and they remind me of cave drawings or stone rubbings. There’s something essential about their roughness, and the way the sit alongside Hawken’s poetic investigation of the materials. Together, the poems and drawings create a dream-like sequence that’s hard to define: it evokes some deeper, subconscious connection between humans and the earth.

The last third of the book feels more haphazard in it’s themes, and I wonder if it needed to be a few poems shorter. It encompasses the retelling of the Sumerian flood myth, poems about connection, and a sequence of poems about a friend with dementia. It also contains the most beautiful poem of the collection, ‘Tidal,’ which is a six part sequence about aging and acceptance:

They cannot always stay.
You cannot predict the clot, or bleed,
in the branching circle

of your circulation, the accretion
that blocks the way. Yet something
carries on in the ocean:

a memory, a carry, a swell
encircling the ones you leave and love,
rotation after rotation.

The experience of reading Hawken is to be lulled and then shocked awake, to see the land and the sea with such freshness you taste salt, and to feel her poems rise in your body. Even though she’s a ‘nature writer’ and these poems often have environmental themes, they are never overwritten or polemic; the politics arise naturally from the speaker’s concerns, and her concerns are many.

Reviewed by Sarah Jane Barnett

Ocean and Stone
by Dinah Hawken
Published by Victoria University Press, 2015
ISBN 9781776560448