Drumming to your own march, the Sword is mightier than the pen.
In the tradition of iconoclastic South Island, Aotearoa-New Zealand publishing independence is the innovative and invaluable work of long-term Americano expatriate, Doc Drumheller — through his own poetic experimentalism as personified in his recent book, 10 x (10 + -10) = 0, as well as via his steersmanship and stewardship of the idiosyncratic and instigative Catalyst. I will let him give us a potted (and necessarily selective) history of this significant journal in his own words and also directly from his editorials — 'Catalyst [and here]is a literary arts journal originally published by a collective of artists known as Neoismist Press inside an old volcano in Whakaraupo/Lyttelton, NZ. Without significant funding support it is largely produced on innovation, guts and enthusiasm, quietly spewing literary lava since 2003, often innovative in format and always editorially daring...[it]is one of only two literary magazines published in Christchurch. It differs in that it focuses solely on creative writing and does not publish reviews, criticism or other non-fiction articles. Graphic design, visual art and unusual formatting also contribute to the unique Catalyst aesthetic...[With] a steadfast commitment to presenting emerging/young writers alongside established voices...Catalyst has a continuing interest in experimental and non-traditional forms often neglected in literary journals...[and] has become ever more international and regularly features poetry in translation...'
Drumheller continues, here stressing the importance of his and his creative cronies' work in what I will summarise as three key areas - the steady incorporation of CD versions of textual work; the promotion of live poetry events, in particular poetry slams; as well as a vital interest in involving overseas artists both as contributors to the publication and in being involved with international literary, poetry, events in Christchurch and overseas, as for example Lithuania, Romania, Cuba. All key roles s t r e t c h i n g well beyond a poetry journal and out through the community.
'Alongside the print journal, Catalyst has actively promoted a renewed interest in spoken word. Before Volume 1 was published in 2003 Catalyst had established a fortnightly open mic performance poetry night. This forum has continued to run ever since, switching to monthly in 2007, making it one of the longest continuously running poetry nights in New Zealand, spawning an annual poetry slam - Poetry Idol - in 2004 and leading to the development of a CD of spoken word/music collaboration eventually published in the spring of 2005 with Catalyst volume 4...This was the first time a literary journal in NZ launched a regular spoken word recording...[with] seamless mixing of original NZ music (submitted especially for the album) with a range of emerging and well known NZ poets’ original work, under the visionary production skills of Jody Lloyd aka Trillion...[it] marked its seventh edition with another CD, this time examining the voice of the songwriter and their relationship with poetry [as] Catalyst volume 7: The Original Branch Manual...enabling it to be distributed widely in NZ and also in Australia via music outlets as well as the traditional independent book shops. The launch event for Catalyst 7 was featured in The Press Christchurch Writers Festival 2008...[and] led to an approach to present a major new performance poetry work in the 2009 Christchurch Arts Festival - 'Love Letters in the Margin' .
'[In 2013] we began a new initiative called the Catalyst Road Show...[This] is a performance poetry and musical experience where poets and songwriters collaborate on the stage. The focus of these events is to provide opportunities for emerging artists to present their work in a setting different from Catalyst’s monthly open mic and to help raise their profile....As part of the 3rd Woman Scream International Poetry Festival, the Catalyst Road Show rolled on in... [and] featured in the WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival 2014...The future of poetry is in the hands of young people, and it is a great pleasure to be able to feature...Rising Voices from New Zealand....[which] is the only youth poetry slam in New Zealand. Birthed in 2011 by spoken word poets Grace Taylor (Niu Navigations), and Jai MacDonald - Rising Voices has provided the platform for 30 emerging spoken word poets’ careers. This is a slam with a difference, as poets go through 6 weeks of intensive writing and performance workshops...' It has to be noted here, that Drumheller is particularly interested also on having young poets give voice: 'I love the work I am seeing by young people, as it tends to be very brave and not afraid to tackle important issues.'
More, 'We have decided to feature a different Latin American country in each of the future issues of Catalyst...In February 2015, I had the privilege to participate in theeleventh edition of the Festival Internacional de Poesía de Granada. Once again Nicaragua hosted one of the most extraordinary celebrations of poetry in the Americas...The festival is the most important cultural event in Nicaragua and is widely covered by national and international press...[in 2015] I am preparing for the Mexico City International Poetry Festival, and the International Book Fair in Mexico. I manage to stay broke without funding or financial support to participate in these events...Our community of poets at the many Catalyst events have been extremely supportive, participating in my crazy book auctions, never to be repeated book sales, and last minute raffles, and for this I am eternally grateful. Thanks also to Creative Communities Christchurch for their continued support of this journal, as we continue to publish some of the world’s leading poets alongside Canterbury’s new and emerging voices.'
The editor then zooms out a little - 'Poetry in New Zealand has numerous outlets and scenes within scenes. There are the university presses, that all have their own scenes from either university creative writing courses, or bullpen of established writers. In Auckland alone, you could say there is a different scene from suburb to suburb. In some ways each region is like our rugby teams, fiercely territorial, and parochial. I started Catalyst as a way to provide a platform for young and emerging poets in Canterbury, as I saw there was a need for new voices to be heard, in terms of publishing in literary journals, and in performance. We introduced slam poetry to NZ and had a focus on performance and experimental writing. This was back in late 2002-2003...Now more than ten years later, poetry is becoming more popular with slams and poetry events becoming common place in festivals.'
'New Zealand poetry has a tendency to be very personal and often with a strong sense of place... I like to see poetry that expands awareness...I also like to see poets that can deliver their work confidently to an audience, two of the best in NZ are Tusiata Avia, and Ben Brown, and both present work with a cultural focus, and aren’t afraid to get political.'
'We are very grateful to have received much support from Creative Communities Christchurch City, they have supported us from the beginning. We had CNZ support for volumes 8 and 9, and this enabled us to improve our production values and also to make a special issue with a CD for volume 9, I am very proud of this volume as it was seriously delayed due to the earthquakes in Christchurch, and we managed to persevere and create something unique amongst literary journals. I think too many poets complain about funding issues, and I would rather roll up my sleeves, work hard and find a way to make things happen.'
'I would like to see more bravery as I mentioned earlier...the courage to create no matter what the circumstances...I would like to see attitudes change towards self-publishing...Royalties for poets are slim pickings all over the world, and here in New Zealand we have a DIY attitude, for everything but publishing. I think if a poet can pass the trial by fire and publish a significant amount of their potential collection in magazines, and journals, then it shouldn’t be viewed as self-publishing...Finally I would like to see more financial support for poets to represent their country at international festivals. I have had the honour to represent NZ all over the world, but have never received a penny...[I] have no regrets as the poets I have met and the places I have seen have enriched my life...Travel humbles you, when you see how other poets live in poor countries, and their poetry tends to be full of vitality and in fact essential to life. I don’t like to complain about funding because of this. My friend in Cuba told me: “My hard work is my good luck”, and “If you dream big, you get big, if you dream little, you get little”. I have applied his wisdom to my personal philosophy and I have decided to start my own republic (see poem below) and have a designed a flag that only cost $50 to make! It is a republic based on becoming self-sufficient, and I think the more you can do for yourself, in both life and art, the less you have to rely on others.'
The Republic of Oma Rāpeti
I planted a fruit and vegetable garden
out of protest against the rise in GST.
The finance minister disguised as a rat
hides in the corn row counting my kernels.
The opposition leader is a bumblebee
passed out drunk from the marigold’s nectar.
The minister of education is a caterpillar
growing fat off the cabbage patch kids.
But I refuse to use sprays or lay poison
because all are welcome in my garden.
To all the urban hippies waging invisible wars
go and plant a cucumber in your combat boots.
Sow a field of carrots to fuel your rebellion
like a roving republic of running rabbits.
Now, in Helen Sword seen mentoring, left) we are fortunate to sight - often in a multilayered, multi-genred performance - more digital experimentalism at play and in work, often to the extent that Helen herself is streched beyond herself, as is an audience eclipsed by what they are involving themselves with. She began her recent korero to me in reflective mode, 'I’ve sometimes found myself wondering whether there are really any poetic frontiers left for us to cross today...But it seems that poets can always find ways to ‘Make it new!’, in Pound’s famous phrase...As a digital poet, I’ve been frequently reminded at the [monthly, Auckland] Lounge readings ['organised by Michele Leggott, arguably one of the first experimental poets in New Zealand and still one of the most influential'] how live performance can create ephemeral experiences that elude capture in any medium, whether on or off the printed page. A decade or so ago, I created my hypermedia digital poetry website The Stoneflower Path as an experimental venue for probing the relationship ‘between word and thing, between reader and audience, between idea and performance, between the solid material world (but is it really?) and the vasty deep of cyberspace'...Each poem on the site exists in at least three different forms – as plain text, as audio recording and as multimedia hypertext – and each is designed to be interactive and experiential, allowing the reader to create his or her unique version of the poem. Interestingly, however, I’ve found that many of these poems also work well as performance pieces: by projecting them onto a screen and engaging the audience in my own verbal-visual navigations, I enact, in essence, my own dual role as naïve reader and knowing author.'
Two of her, perhaps most effective Stoneflower Path poetic experiences are Reinga and Elegy to Ilinca - and you (the follower) are requested to follow the instructions to most fully appreciate them, because they are not one stage events...
She continues, 'Lately I’ve been seeking out collaborative projects that expand my experimental horizons by pushing me outside my own comfort zone both as poet and performer...[Such as] two such recent occasions, both of which involved collaborations with digital media artist Mark Pulsford. The first was a 2014 Lounge reading at which Mark and I worked with dancer and choreographer Maya Wyatt to animate my hypertextual poem ‘Heartwave’ through voice, dance and moving light. The second was a 2015 multimedia dance extravaganza at the Q Theatre called Pacific Skin: in a collaborative piece called ‘Baku’, the stylised yet energetic performance of Japanese dancers and choreographers Tomomi Watanabe, Aska Suzuki and Yoshihiro Hori was accompanied by Mark Pulsford’s dancing light, my imagistic verbalisations and the abstract vocalising of jazz singer Caitlin Smith. ..You can watch and listen to the whole performance here.' I - Rapatahana - stress this word listen, for - as in my recent reference to the work of Makyla Curtis and Lynley Edmeades - listening is the key; it is just that Helen (and her creative peers) are also incorporating - literally, eh - several other vibrant modes of presentation.
Finally, Helen Sword describes a further work, namely, '‘Archipelago’, an interactive hypermedia digipoem for which, with the help of Michele Leggott and digital media specialist Tim Page, I choreographed and curated the poetic and material contributions of 50 New Zealand and Australian poets who had gathered in Auckland for the 2010 ‘Home and Away’ symposium. Such collaborative occasions, I’ve found, often generate an exciting experimental buzz of their own, confounding my fantasies of directorial control and engendering genuinely serendipitous moments of creative chaos – which for me is what experimental poetry is really all about, despite all my intellectualisations and intentionality.' Helen is seen below.
I will leave the last words to Drumheller, here with specific reference to his determinedly experimental 10 set, cover as displayed in the introductory picture of this commentary. He talks about its genesis and rationales as follows, 'I found one of Leonard Cohen’s poems to have an interesting rhyme scheme that was a mirror image of itself, eg: A, B, C, D, E, D, C, B, A. The poem was only nine lines long, but I found it to be very stimulating. As an experiment I invented my own structure for a longer poem, which played with classical rhyme structure. The result looked like this and become a 94 line poem called: Inside Out...AA ABA ABBA ABCBA ABCCBA ABCDCBA ABCDDCBA ABCDEDCBA ABCDEEDCBA ABCDEDCBA ABCDDCBA ABCDCBA ABCCBA ABCBA ABBA ABA AA The structure works as a mirror image and then I split the structure in half like this on the next page: AA ABA ABBA ABCBA ABCCBA ABCDCBA ABCDDCBA ABCDEDCBA ABCDEEDCBA ABCDEDCBA ABCDDCBA ABCDCBA ABCCBA ABCBA ABBA ABA AA From there I kept expanding the structures to form mirror images: AA ABA ABBA ABCBA ABCCBA ABCDCBA ABCDDCBA ABCDEDCBA ABCDEEDCBA ABCDEDCBA ABCDDCBA ABCDCBA ABCCBA ABCBA ABBA ABA AA. Then I made mirror images of each shape on an old second hand typewriter and rode my bicycle to the Rotherham [Christchurch]dairy to photocopy the shapes. When I returned to the hospital, I pasted two columns of twenty shapes onto black builder’s paper; the whole structure was a mirror image of itself, which I thought looked like strands of DNA. The two columns were mirror images as well. Once I finished the poem and the structure, I thought the job was done...'
He continues, 'Until a few years later when I read an article about the OULIPO and discovered palindromes, and I realised that was what I had created with my structure, since it was a mirror image, it read the same backwards as forwards. I then realised I could create a poetic formula for each of the twenty shapes in the columns. There could be restrictions on the amount of words per line in some shapes and syllable restrictions in the others. The two parts in the middle were in my mind the double helix, where DNA unzips, these parts would be palindromes and the mirror line of the book. Numerically the poems would be numbered: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10. Then at the centre it would turn to negatives: -10, -9, -8, -7, -6, -5, -4, -3, -2, and -1. Thus creating 1-10 on the positive end of the spectrum and -10- -1 on the negative end. There is a concept from the OULIPO called going for the limit, and so I decided to create ten books, one per year, over a ten year period, based on my DNA structure and this is how I created the equation: 10 x (10 + ˉ10) = 0. My interest in visual art inspired a vision for the work as a whole. I would use the CMYK, print colour process, (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) for the first four books. Each book according to the structure would be a mirror image of itself, but book one would also be a mirror image of book two, book three a mirror image of book two, and book four a mirror of book three. At the centre is where the double helix would fit, books five and six would be mirror images of the original structure and I decided these books should be grey. From there the next four books would also be mirror images of the first four and the colours would again turn backwards, KYMC...'
As for an 'overall' rationale, Drumheller offers up, 'I'll write backwards and forwards if I want to,' cocking a snook - whatever the Hell that 'means' - to those who insist a poet 'has' to write in arbitrary, academic-exercise-drill verses, in language scrubbed clean of poet. Good on you, mate.
You know, as I reflect myself, Aotearoa-New Zealand is actually LUCKY to have such creative, collegial & co-operative experimentalist poets as Doc Drumheller and Helen Sword. Shouldn't 'we' as a sometimes schismatic set of separate striates of ethnicities, lingoes and cultural divergence pause to congratulate ourselves on having this mightily inventive, collaborative wairua flowing through the nation's veins? Ka nui te pai.