Elizabeth Heritage reviews Harry Giles’ poetry session at the NZ Festival Writers & Readers Week.
Sometimes at literary festivals you get those HOLY CRAP moments. I had one at Auckland Writers Festival in the signing queue when I thanked Gloria Steinem for helping make me who I am and she said “someday, someone will thank you in the same way”. I had one at WORD Christchurch when Ivan Coyote ripped my heart out, made it better, and gave it back to me. And I had another at this year’s Writers and Readers gala night when Harry Josephine Giles performed their poem about the bodily experience of being trans.
This is the first festival where I’ve been both a chair and a reviewer, and so I had the cool but awkward experience of seeing the people I’ve been reviewing backstage in the green room. I bumped into Harry a few times and they were so friendly and pleasant to me; but all I was able to say were anodyne phrases such as ‘your poem was really good’. That isn’t what I meant. Harry: your poem wasn’t really good, it was a bloody revelation. In those few moments you had on stage at the gala night you performed that poem with your entire body and I could feel mine moving in response. All the little hairs on my neck stood up. I shivered. In the silence immediately following someone near me quietly said ‘Fuck’. Like the end of a prayer.
The purpose of the gala night, as well to open the festival, is to make you immediately rearrange your schedule to spend as much time as possible with your new favourite writers. I was gutted to realise I had clashes with nearly all of Giles’ events. But on Sunday I got to squeeze myself into the hot and uncomfortable small theatre at Circa to see Chris Tse interview Giles.
Word had got around: the theatre was full. (Good news for Cantabrians – Giles is coming to Christchurch next.) Wellington poet Tse was a good interviewer, obviously very familiar with Giles’ work and asking short, interesting questions.
Giles grew up in Orkney and writes in English and Scots. The decision to write in Scots – a ‘minority recovering language’ – is conscious and political. They are trying to escape from the idea that you can only discuss local things in the local language, and are instead writing on all kinds of topics in Scots. They performed a few of their poems. Scots is a sister language to English, and after a while we could pick up the meaning of most of it. It’s easier to understand out loud than written down, so Giles provides free audio downloads with their poetry books.
The challenge to become bilingual or multilingual is a theme that has run throughout Writers and Readers. Giles said our nation states are formed through the erasure of language and identity, and the state finds it threatening when the languages want their existence back (*cough* Don Brash RNZ *cough*). Our brains are made to know multiple languages: ‘it’s a crime to squeeze your brain into just one language’. On the downside, writing in a minority language can limit your audience. Giles said ‘I write what I want to write and the audience is either there or it isn’t.’
Giles said they struggle to write good personal poetry (the poem they performed at the gala is unusual in that regard). Instead, they channel it through someone else – for example, a series of poems written from the perspective of a drone. ‘I was figuring myself out during that book.’ Now they have a lot more questions about gender and identity to ask: ‘poems should start with questions. Poems that start with answers are terrible.’ Giles says they’re ‘itching to write about that drone again.’ A show based on the drone poems will be touring next year.
Tse asked about Giles’ performance work, related to the ways in which queerness is often performative. Giles said ‘I’ve never really tried to hide that to be honest.’ When your body and your life is at odds with what normal is – ‘not that anyone is normal really’ – you recognise that everyone is performing all the time. ‘And I realised, oh, I can play with this.’
Giles also wants to bring something queerer into Scottish poetry. ‘What’s been published and celebrated in the Scots language has been incredibly masculine and macho – but the kids are so over that.’ Instead, Giles wants to bring in a more feminist sensibility, and acknowledge the women poets who have always been writing in Scots.
Harry Josephine Giles: ngā mihi nui ki a koe. Nearly everyone I’ve spoken to about Writers and Readers so far has named you as their stand-out experience. Please come back soon. Arohanui.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage
Harry Giles was brought to New Zealand by LitCrawl with the support of International Literature Showcase and Writers’ Centre Norwich.