Book Review: Sam Hunt – Off the Road, by Colin Hogg

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_sam_hunt_off_the_road.jpg‘Tell the story. Tell it true. Charm it crazy’. So says Sam Hunt as his maxim for writing. In Off the Road we have an extended conversation between the author, Colin Hogg and the subject, Sam Hunt. But this book is not just ‘this is your life’, oh, but you’re not dead yet.

Colin Hogg has been a long-time friend and has already written about Sam Hunt in Angel Gear: On the Road with Sam Hunt. This was 30 years ago and the book cleverly includes some chapters from Angel Gear telling background stories and on the road tales. The friendship between Hogg and Hunt is the basis of the book and their interviews range from deep thinking introspection to alcohol-induced babble. It is all here.

But it is wonderful. The gems start on the title page with a 1987 photo of author and subject. The black and white photos support the rambling text. There are images of Sam, the sea, the shelf, his toes, the trees and his poems. The poems are right through the text, old and new. The references to other poets, to writers, to academics to drinkers and to inspiring women. This book is a celebration of the collection of things which give us meaning and beauty.

While there is biographical information included, it is part of a story and not just a listing in the dictionary. Hogg allows Hunt to recall his Father, and his Grandfather, but keeps him on track with questions to shape the responses. I learnt a lot about Sam Hunt but also began to see that the poems were part of who he is, not apart from him. As Hogg commented ‘poems fall from him like leaves from a tree’.

There is a darker side to the book. The process of aging is a constant companion and Hunt seems to see death stalking him. Sam Hunt’s decision to stop touring was a huge one. Over half his life has been lived on the road. His gigs cover every possible dot on the New Zealand map. Solitude is also mentioned as he lives almost as a recluse. As Hogg says, ‘mortality bounces through his conversation like a big black beach ball’.

And this leads to the parting comment at the end of the book. After reading the first drafts, Hogg received a phone call with a clear instruction from Hunt.

‘Sam is happier than earlier reported. Put that at the end.’ So he did.

I enjoyed catching up with a poet who has greatly influenced my life. As a young writer, I sent him my offerings, along with every young aspiring schoolkid. He replied a number of times, and some poems were published. Those letters are my treasure, much to my adult children’s amusement. Is Sam Hunt a National Treasure? You just need to listen to the lilt and lift of that voice to know the answer.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Sam Hunt – Off the Road
by Colin Hogg
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9781775541226

Book Review: A Passage of Yellow Red Birds, by Robin Peace

Available in bookshops.

cv_a_passage_of_yellow_red_birdsRobin Peace’s A Passage of Yellow Red Birds is a wonderful collection immersed within nature. Peace also explores how human life is intertwined with the landscape.

Traveller’s tales is a stand out poem that pulls at the heart with talks of departure. It starts with a description of how it feels like to leave:

the pull away south, the tug of earth,
the lift into night sky somewhere
far from stars, metal wings tilting
flash the city braceleted below.

Here, Peace presents such a brilliant image of a city seen from the air, lit up by the hum of civilisation. After leaving, Peace moves to explaining the feeling of arrival. But, as it is with travelling, it is soon time to leave again. In this way, Peace explores that bittersweet loop of having to leave just as you’ve started to become familiar with a new place. And then Peace presents a string of further images from the plane that are just as wonderful:

Mongolian deserts: hectares of sand,
brown arms flung out with salt-encrusted sores.
Small waters fingered by trickling, dry stories,
ephemerally bright.

Peace is so very in touch with her landscapes, as she also shows in her poem Oslo autumn. She describes falling autumn leaves as:

emissaries, summoned
down to litter boats,
slide boots on pavements

And Peace delicately references her own home as she stares at the autumn around her. To her, Oslo is

A hemisphere excess
of naked trees that
draws up all I know
of southern green.

Since Peace is so in tune with the nature around her, she also builds up the idea that nature is symbolic of a world that is flourishing and at peace. As long as nature thrives, then us humans live happily amongst it, too. In The dove wait, Peace waits for these birds and what they represent. Without them,

Your fingers blue. Your breath
comes in gasps and stalls and
starts again.

And the tenderness of Peace’s love of nature truly shows in her poem All of it. The setting is a funeral and nature makes a wonderful appearance throughout different parts of the scene. There is an Indian cloth, earth in colour and embroided with flowers. Then Peace describes a multitude of flowers, all in layers. These seem to be the flowers of the “your” that was evoked in The dove wait:

magnolia, rangiora; purple-blue
lavender, bluebell, iris, ranunculi;
pink-red rose, poppy, primula

The list of flowers goes on and on. And since they come from someone’s garden, I can imagine that there are a whole host of memories that can be evoked from each flower. Memories of planting the flowers intially, to caring for them and watching them bloom. Nature lives alongside human life and accompanies it. And Peace wonderfully ends the poem with this connection again. She explains how there, they stood

and looked to release your view across the plain
toward that forest of your embattled love.

Peace’s love of nature fills her life and others with such colour. A Passage of Yellow Red Birds is a wonderful read for anyone who loves the delicate way the earth creates such beautiful backdrops to human life.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

A Passage of Yellow Red Birds
by Robin Peace
Published by Submarine
ISBN 9780995109261

Book Review: poeta, by Cilla McQueen

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_poetaThere are two things which I think make a great selected works collection and they are nothing to do with the metric foot or rhyme; they are much more prosaic. When I open a selected works of poetry I want to see initial publication information and notes. The poems don’t have to be in chronological order, thematic organisation is often more interesting, but I like to know where they fit. And I want the gossip behind the poems.  Cilla McQueen’s selected and new poems collection, poeta, wonderfully provides both.

Selected poetry books which collect and gather a poet’s work are important. They give new life to work which might be out of print and are great for those studying the poet.  They are however often lengthy, the poetry doesn’t necessarily propel you through the pages and I approach the reading of them more to discover the poet than the poetry. poeta is very much like this – what stood out to me most while reading it is the quality and length of McQueen’s career and her continuous experimentation with form.

From her first collection, Homing In in 1982, McQueen has constantly produced work.  The first decade of her career in particular seemed to be jam-packed, with work appearing in poeta from five collections printed during that time. This opportunity, fueled no doubt by McQueen’s own hard work but also by an ongoing commitment from her publisher at the time, allowed her to build a body of work and an identity as a poet. Reading poeta I found myself wondering whether a poet writing in New Zealand today could develop the same career and sheer body of work over their 30 years of writing.  New Zealand will be the poorer if the answer to that question is ‘no’.

McQueen’s experimentation and her desire for her poetry to embody all possibilities is clear in this collection. Older poems experiment with aspects like punctuation (or the lack of it) and building narrative, while the new poems clearly play with internal white space and the page. Though most poems are free verse and many are lyrics, you also occasionally see her mastering traditional forms.

McQueen’s poetry is rich in metaphor and image and ranges across many concerns and themes. Often strongly grounded in place, from Bluff to Berlin, poems such as ‘Living Here’ capture a New Zealand condition, an isolation and complacency which remains even if we are no longer ‘just one big city with 3 million people with / a little flock of sheep each so we’re all sort of / shepherds.’ ‘Crikey’ is an example of a fun love poem while ‘Fuse’ is a powerful political poem without being overtly angry. McQueen has the skill of taking poems in unexpected directions.

poeta is a book for those who enjoy deep dives into New Zealand poetry. But more than that it is a book whose very ability to exist creates reflection. How can we ensure that poets today can continue to flourish, to WORK, in New Zealand across a lifetime career?

Reviewed by Libby Kirkby-McLeod

poeta
by Cilla McQueen
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9781988531281

 

Book Review: Coming to it, by Sam Hunt

Available from bookshops nationwide.

cv_coming_to_it.jpgComing To It is a collection of selected poems from throughout Sam Hunt’s career (though it also includes many new poems). To review a poet who’s been working for over 50 years, who’s so well known, who’s been recognised by the Prime Minister and the Queen is a funny thing. So much is already established. Most reviews of it so far have been as much reviews of the man − his touring, his drinking, his remote eccentric lifestyle. They become reviews of Hunt’s contribution to New Zealand literature and identity.

But I’m not able to write a review like that. So let’s put it all − the man, the history, the career − to one side and look only at the poems which are in turns clever, lovely, funny, questioning and, the smallest of handfuls, out of step with the times.

Hunt is thought of as a poet whose lines aim to reflect natural speech yet they are full of rhyme and craft; it is not everyone who can overhear a conversation in a pub and turn it into a poem.

Most of the poems in the collection are grounded in Aotearoa − in the natural and manmade paths in Rangitikei; in the choppy waters of Cook Strait; in the salt of tidal rivers in Oterei and Kaipara. They are proudly focused on our communities, our place and the travels of the poet throughout it. The poem Notes from a journey is an example where the towns, the waters and the people all embody Hunt’s pride in this country.

He returns throughout the poems to those he loves − his mother, father and brothers; his sons. These are in turn touching and enchanting. In ‘No bells’ for example, the loss of his mother on the same night as the bamboo windbells on his verandah break are tied together to portray an irreparable sudden silencing. In the last poem, Brothers (which is perfectly placed) we find Hunt in the gaps, the white space around his brothers.

His poems about his lovers, and his descriptions of women generally, generate less delight for me. Women who love him in the poems are expected to accept that he will never be completely available to them; to be with him is to accept a level of loneliness. I find this especially difficult, this ‘arm’s reach’ attitude, from a poet and performer who treasures a deep connection with his audiences. While he is charming spectators, those who most deserve his attention are, like the partner in the poem My white ship, expected to accept:

The ethic of my love
For you remains that I
Am a lone sailor of
The night; captain of my
White ship: and though you be
A good day’s mate, your fight’s
Too weak to rise with me…

In another poem a desirable woman is compared to an unbroken horse; in another a woman’s domestic violence scars are mused over but hey, despite that black eye she is still a ‘sort of mystic hooker’. I wish these poem, and the rest of the poems in the collection, were labelled with a first publication date. Rightly or wrongly, it matters to me whether this was a view from decades ago or from today.

Oh dear, I haven’t managed to review just the poetry have I? I have, like most other reviewers of Coming To It, come back to Hunt himself. And perhaps that was inevitable, because Hunt has always said his subject is his experience and this opening up of a New Zealand life for decade after decade is the ultimate gift his poetry has given us.

Reviewed by Libby Kirby-McLeod

Coming to it
by Sam Hunt
Published by Potton & Burton
ISBN 9780947503802

WORD Christchurch: Fast Burning Women – Selina Tusitala Marsh and Tusiata Avia

Fast Burning Women
featuring Selina Tusitala Marsh and Tusiata Avia

Selina Tusitala Marsh’s list of accomplishments needs a fair amount of time allocated to it’s recitation. Marsh is no layabout, and as her friend Tusiata Avia says after introducing her, ‘That CV is from earlier this year so you probably have to add about ten more things to it.’ tusiata selina.JPG

The focus of this session was on the juggling required of a woman in Selina’s position: Poet Laureate, lecturer and researcher, mother, runner, Writers in Schools ambassador, traveller, friend, wife, aunty….the list goes on. How does one keep so many plates spinning? How to stay a multi-tasking fast-burning woman without becoming a burnt out woman?

The pairing of Avia and Marsh meant we got a personal insight into just how Marsh is able to keep going. The two are friends, very similar in lifestyles and values, perfectionists who push themselves hard. Their closeness was evident in the easy manner in which they joked with each other, while championing and advocating for each other at the same time.

Avia opened up about her own story of burn out that saw her bedridden for 18 months. Incredibly, on the days she was able to get out of bed, she would still force herself to work. It wasn’t until the exhaustion started affecting her mentally and emotionally that she started turning down work. But how does someone get to this stage? A statement by Jesse Jackson that resonated with Marsh goes some way to explaining: ‘If you want to succeed as a person of colour you have to be excellent all the time.’ Avia points out that women of colour need to be doubly excellent.

And so how does Marsh not burn out? What tools and tips does she have for those of us who feel the mother guilt, who battle perfectionism, who are working under the weight of the communities we represent? Who does she look to for inspiration? Her answer came in the form of Oprah Winfrey’s book What I Know For Sure. As Marsh read it she realised what was missing from her own life, in comparison to Oprah, was a trusted friend, a sister to call on, and most importantly, a soundboard. Someone who got it. ‘I was Oprah without a Gayle.’ So Marsh and Avia embarked on what they call their earbud relationship. One where they call each other almost every day, sometimes multiple times a day, and check in, providing advice and counsel.

With Avia at the end of the telephone, Marsh is able to carry the tokotoko of the Poet Laureate wherever it takes her. She is able to ask for what she needs. She is able to share her load. Marsh noted: ‘When I was able to redefine what support means to me and my life, that’s when I found support.’

Both Marsh and Avia continue to write and create through the many challenges they face. An audience member asked Avia how her illness had affected her writing and she begins with coyness, saying she hasn’t written much. ‘That’s not true,’ Marsh corrects her. She knows Avia is working on a new book, and you can see the pride she has in her friend, Shine Theory in action. Marsh is working on a graphic novel (‘I’ve always doodled; Spike Milligan is my idol.’). She wants to make poetry accessible to all communities.

Leaving the session my friend remarked that most New Zealanders don’t know how lucky we are to have Selina Tusitala Marsh as our Poet Laureate. Everyone who attended Fast Burning Women knows, and we also know how lucky Marsh is to have Tusiata Avia at the end of the phone line, spurring her on.

Reviewed by Gem Wilder

Tusiata Avia will appear in two more events during WORD Christchurch 2018: 

Black Marks on the White Page: A Roundtable
Sonya Renee Taylor: The Body is not an Apology

Book Review: XYZ of Happiness, by Mary McCallum

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_xyz_of_happinessThe title of Mary McCallum’s poetry collection, XYZ of Happiness, explains just what this book is about: those feelings of happiness that colour our lives. Each letter of the alphabet is used as the first letter of each poem. The first poem is titled, After reading Auden, the second, Bee story, the third, C, and on the poems go in alphabetical order until the final piece, Zambia.

The poem After Reading Auden won the Caselberg International Poetry Prize and it’s a wonderful start to the sequence. Happiness here is found in the midst of nature. McCallum describes the force

of the river’s intimacy, its deep
soundless need—not sour,
not shiftless, but lucid, expressive,
sweet.

It seems the river is something full of power and emotion, yet still carries a softness. She goes on to describe the sensation of being in the river and falling into all that beauty:

we, the girls
and I, dissolving

And we dissolve with her into the bliss of the moment.

The poem Things they don’t tell you on Food TV was one of my favourites in the collection. In the piece, McCallum shows how food is a great conjurer of happy memories. McCallum talks about the

sun blooming in a bowl, and spooning
yoghurt and honey into a hungry mouth
on whitewashed steps with a turquoise sea

and a donkey crowing and someone calling
kalimera into the bleaching light is just like
scooping up the sun and eating it.

As I read the poem, I was instantly in Greece. The things that McCallum highlights in this poem are beautiful moments that I remember from my time there too. The combination of yoghurt and honey is a wonderful image, and her description of eating the sun and swallowing up that light perfectly describes how heart-warming such a scene can to be. As McCallum states, these memories are things that they don’t tell you on Food TV. They are personal stories.

The danger of writing with such a deep focus on happiness is that it can seem excessive and overdone. Some poems tipped a little to this side. In her poem Just Happiness, McCallum talks about a shop selling ‘Happiness Bowls’ and the image feels overwrought.

But for the most part, McCallum presents happiness in a subtle way. There are poems about when happiness is missing too, and when it’s something that’s being searched for. In the poem C, McCallum talks about a tender subject. The second part of the piece is titled 2. CHEMOTHERAPY. Here, she describes a body

young enough to smell of milk
in the morning, one the mother must
return to sit beside and stand over

McCallum shows a scene of vulnerability and presents the protection that the mother brings. Part of this section’s title is in bold for a reason. Chemotherapy, mother. And from here, McCallum highlights a great little wordplay within the word:

How could we not see it? Listen closely
now for the rest, say the word with soft
mouth lest you miss them: first and last
and barely there, but holding mother like
ribs, the key to (almost) happy.

It leaves you rolling the word chemotherapy in your mouth. She’s right, the mother is always there. Trying to hold things together like ribs, trying to create safe spaces of contentment. Complex poems that explore the different kinds of satisfaction we can feel and create, like this one, gave a true depth to the collection beyond simple bliss.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

XYZ of Happiness
by Mary McCallum
Published by Mākaro Press
ISBN 9780995109223