Slam, slam ... & thank you Mams.
Slam, slam ... & thank you Mams.
Tetahi atu he mihi mahana ki a katoa (Another warm greeting to all.)
In this, my last commentary post of this series — apart from a brief Coda next week — I want to talk about two distinct areas of the Aotearoa-New Zealand poetry scene that I have alluded to previously, but nor really covered copiously as yet.
One is the vital and brimming Poetry Slam situation in this multicultural land — a scene that is really expanding fast, most particularly among younger poets, and certainly among Polynesian poets who tend not to live in stuffy urban areas, but more likely in places like Mangere, where I grew up. I reckon this bodes extremely well for the future of (their) primarily oral-delivery focussed work, for they seem less interested in being seen in print in established/mainstream journals and much more energized by the live performance, the audience, the competition, the sometimes Americano rap/hip-hop, often Pasifika, definite ngā mōteatea rhythms and beats running through their pieces. Mind you, some DO already have print collections out there … Kei te tino pai tēnei (This is very good.)
“Hang on, Rapatahana, what exactly is this poetry slam thing, anyway?” ‘A poetry slam is the competative event where poets perform their own original work and are judged by members of the audience. Typically, the host/organiser selects judges, who are instructed to give numerical scores (from 0–10) based on the poets’ content and performance. The audience plays an important role in cheering on the poets and attempting to sway the judges’ scores’ — this from the New Zealand Poetry Slam page. And it’s great to see the sheer interactivity going down here too — everyone participates in some way or another.
Now, I was going to write much more here, but all of my contacts apologized for a variety of reasons: Grace Tueila Taylor (below), a particularly significant instigator of live slam-poetry group performances, think South Auckland Poets Collective and Rising Voices, has been rather ill and very busy with her new drama production, My Own Darling. She was, then, unavailable.
Doug Poole, he of the fiercely independent Blackmail Press, and kommandant of Going West Festival’s annual Poetry Slam, meanwhile, has had pressing whanau issues. He too, was occupied with other things.
Te Kahu Rolleston, winner of Aotearoa’s Poetry Slam annual championship in 2013, found time to be a villain and we just couldn’t get the data from him ready in this time. Heiō ano (so be it): I will write much more on this scene at a later date, not too far away. Suffice to repeat however — Poetry Slams are already here and they are a direct, raw-boned counter to the generally WASP/WASRC, textualised, all-too-often soft marshmellow Centre of New Zealand poetry … as witness the poetry longlist for the 2016 Ockham Book Awards and given that there are some encouraging entries there — Leilani Tamu; Chris Tse — Anahera Press and Mākaro Press too. (An irony in the list is that some of the male poets are mates of mine, so I cannot be overly critical of such a list, eh — especially as they are actually rather good English language poets!)
What’s the word then? The SPOKEN WORD, dat’s da wurd. And when you think about it, eh, it’s always been the spoken word for Māori, for Sam Hunt, for a younger David Eggleton as the Mad Kiwi ranter: a point I have made frequently about the parallel chocolate-coated left-of-centre poetic in Aotearoa, whose time has surely come.
Speaking of which, ha-ha, then there is the annual New Zealand Poetry Day phantasmagoria of open readings nationwide; Tony Chad being just one example of a Trojan-like workman facilitating events then, ‘I organised National Poetry Day Events for some fourteen years in Upper Hutt. I received very good support from Creative Communities for that — running poetry competitions, producing an annual publication, attracting significant guest poets to Upper Hutt and also profiling local poets.’
Concomitantly, there are the long-established Live poetry readings throughout the land too, not so much competitive zappy slams, but vibrant monthly hui that enable all manner of poets to be seen and heard, and to often have their new collections launched. Poetry Live in Auckland is one such, as organized by the everywhere-girl, Kiri Piahana-Wong, while Travis Cottreau mounts the Wellington gathering, Poetry in Motion; and we have earlier encountered Doc Drumheller and Jim Norcliffe re: Christchurch poetry events. Let’s seriously not forget either, the Lounge readings at University of Auckland as organised by Michele Leggott.
Wairarapa Word gets a lot of information-dissemination from the sterling organisational efforts of Madeleine Marie Slavick; the Tauranga Writers Group, similarly from Jenny Argante, also editor of Freelance magazine. Provincial New Zealand is indeed blessed by having these committed individuals promoting poetry per se — Te Aroha, for example, now has its own monthly gathering as initiated by John Mullon and Josie Ashworth, while there are similar local hui all over the skinny country, from Whangarei to Bluff. As Mary McCallum wrote to me, ‘Poetry readings have always been an important part of the life of poetry societies and communities in this country, and these groups are strong supporters of their own people and the books they bring out. These groups appear to be largely self-referential — although I could be wrong about this — with the personal observation-based poem that so many people are impelled to write taking off in that environment like pingao grass at the beach.’ All of which leads on to my next kaupapa or topic.
So I also want to focus on another essential aspect of New Zealand’s poetry scene — the Stalwarts, the people — very often women, thank you Mams, who keep poetry in this country alive and kicking via their commitment to writing about it; reviewing it as in the several online blogs, like The Tuesday Poem as organised by Mary and Claire Beynon, which ‘carries a poem and commentary on the poet’s work every Tuesday’; publicizing it; organising it — often regionally: mostly unpaid and as dedicated labours of love.
One such example of sterling input is the invaluable Poetry Archive of New Zealand. As Mark Pirie points out to us, ‘I coorganise the Poetry Archive of New Zealand Aotearoa (with Dr Michael O’Leary and Dr Niel Wright, the founders) collecting poets back to the nineteenth century. There are more good poets than people realize reading mainstream historical anthologies of New Zealand poetry. I have realized this fairly recently after wasted years of looking at and learning from selective, academic anthologies ever since I was a student. Since 2010, I have edited the quarterly Poetry Archive newsletter Poetry Notes. This has featured many forgotten historical New Zealand poets and presented highly original research by myself, Rowan Gibbs, Niel Wright, and Michael O’Leary). The National Library of New Zealand online research tools like Papers Past have been vital to this rediscovery of early New Zealand poetry too. Poets like Robert J Pope, Ivy Gibbs, and A. Stanley Sherratt have had their work republished.’ It needs to be made clear that these three guys receive no emolument for their earnest endeavours and do rely on donations of both funds and poetry texts to proliferate their resource, ‘so very good historical and contemporary poets don’t get missed.’ Stalwarts all, indeed.
Another is Paula Green, a mighty voice for a wide cross-section of poets in the country via her two colourful and optimistic blogs, Poetry Shelf and New Zealand Poetry Box. As she describes them, so cogently and consecutively here, ‘Poetry Shelf is a blog dedicated to New Zealand poetry. It features interviews, reviews, poems, occasional pieces on poetry along with details of events, awards, and poetry news. I established the blog in response to the paucity of poetry reviews in national media. It seemed harder and harder to keep a finger on a poetry pulse beyond local communities. My aim was to create a forum for poetry without attachment to a singular institution and to maintain an eclectic approach rather than form a club with limitations. Thus, I showcase a range of poets from a range of geographical locations, cultural backgrounds, university attachments (or not) who are writing in a range of styles. That I run this blog without external assistance gives me the delicious freedom to write however and whatever I like. When I feature a poet or a poetry book in depth, it has to matter to me. I have to love it some way because my motivation as a writer is to build rather than tear apart (this was a subterranean objective in my Doctoral thesis). When I cast an eye across the New Zealand poetry landscape, I fall upon vital hubs of activity — little poetry communities that nourish cities and towns. Mainstream presses and boutique presses are producing outstanding poetry. The schedule of events on National Poetry Day demonstrates the inventive reach of poetry. Yet only a handful of bookshops (usually independent) stock New Zealand poetry to a satisfactory degree and only a handful of print-media outlets feature new poetry books.’ All of which, I — Vaughan Rapatahana — fully agree with: Paula Green does not merely munch on the marshmellow in the middle, but chews on the coverings outside. She also pens damned good poems too — as located below.
And again, ‘I run a second blog, NZ Poetry Box, in order to promote poetry to children, teachers, and parents. As an unofficial ambassador for children’s poetry in New Zealand [Paula is frequently visiting schools as a poetry imprimatur person], I aim to show that poetry is a perfect tool to spark the reluctant young writer and advance the more able. My aim is to create a poetry buzz in New Zealand classrooms and families, and spark children to fall in love with the possibilities of words. I post poems, poetry tips, reviews and interviews, and set challenges. Again, without external support, I am able to run this blog with absolute freedom.’ Excellent, excellent, excellent, and thank you, Mam.
I now mention Laurice Gilbert, a Wellington-based poetry zealot. For many years the National Coordinator of The New Zealand Poetry Society (‘the only organisation in NZ that focuses entirely on poetry’) and editor of its fine newsletter a fine line, Laurice has recently retired from these strenuous roles. Of course the NZPS is in itself an invaluable resource mechanism for poets of all ilks viz-a-viz promotion, publicity, promulgation of rights and views and opportunities, but it really needed Laurice’s efforts over a considerable period of time, to be such a force. And like all of these hard-working verse toilers, she is so self-effacingly modest too. And not stuck in the school classroom of prescribing/proscribing postmodern language games as the only bona fide poetry available, either! I know this from personal experience of her positive editorship of my manifestly non-mainstream work, eh. As she stresses, ‘What I would like to see for poetry in NZ in general is a general acceptance of just how widely the poetry net can be spread. It does us no good to define poetry so narrowly that different practitioners fail to recognise the value of each others’ work. You shouldn’t have to be an academic poet to get published; you shouldn’t have to be a page poet to be recognised as talented; you shouldn’t have to be from South Auckland to be damn good at political and protest poetry that awakens the social conscience (though it does seem to help).’
Let’s leave it to Laurice for a bit of background of NZPS, ‘Irene Adcock, mother of Fleur Adcock and Marilyn Duckworth and a writer herself, was responsible for the foundation of the New Zealand Poetry Society (NZPS), which in its early days was known simply as The Poetry Society. In 1973 Irene organised a meeting at her home to talk about setting up a regular event for poets to share work. Attendants at that meeting included Denis and Lyn Glover, Alistair Campbell, Earle Spencer (not Princess Diana’s brother, I suspect), Dennis List, Harry Orsman, Marilyn Duckworth, Dan Donovan, Tilly Hunter, Bernard Kemp, and “others,” with a ‘best wishes’ phone call from Sam Hunt during the meeting. The Inaugural General Meeting at The Wellington Settlement … in May 1973 unanimously elected Irene as the first President, and she remained in that position until 1975, returning in 1977, 1979, and 1981. During the in-between years the position was held by Peter Read, Lauris Edmond and Denis Glover, with Alistair Campbell taking over from Irene in 1982. He was succeeded by Harry Ricketts in 1987, and in 1989 Harry oversaw the formalisation of the organisation as an Incorporated Society, when it became The New Zealand Poetry Society. He was followed by Bill Sewell, Tom Beard, Cyril Childs, Vivienne Plumb, Nelson Wattie, Chris Orsman, Johanna Aitchison, Gillian Cameron (twice), Margaret Vos, James Norcliffe, and Laurice Gilbert (2007–2014). I feel truly honoured to have followed in the footsteps of such an illustrious line-up. In my time as President we achieved charitable status, and the NZPS became registered with the Charities Commission. We’ve also had some impressive Patrons, including Ruth Dallas, Lauris Edmond, Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, and Meg Campbell, and currently Dame Fiona Kidman and Vincent O’Sullivan, DCNZM and recent Poet Laureate.’
She continues and in so doing stresses that NZPS hui are also live microphone reading events — not only do Kiwis seem to NEED poetry, they seem to need to READ it too, ‘Though the founding group’s objective was simply to hold local poetry readings, the projects completed over the years have featured many New Zealand poets, and been mutually beneficial for visiting international poets. It was in Harry Ricketts’ time that the open mic was introduced, an unusual idea back then, and various members of the committees over the years have provided a wide variety of public services: national tours by both local and international poets, many workshops with widely-published poets … two national haiku anthologies, Poetry on the Buses (Wellington), a Poets in the Workplace pilot which saw poets attached to the Wellington Botanic Gardens and Wellington Hospital, and (with the Canterbury Poets Collective) the introduction of the Lauris Edmond Award for Distinguished Contribution to Poetry in New Zealand. The [NZPS]website was started by Margaret Vos in the early 00s as a Yahoo group and gradually developed into a resource-rich independent site visited from around the world. Our website-based connection with the international haiku community, established in 2005 and ably managed by Sandra Simpson, added more visitors to the site from many diverse countries, and we average over 2000 unique visitors every month — more in competition season. Our mission to promote, develop and support New Zealand poets and poetry is very well-served in this way.’ [My stresses throughout.]
And just to show how much actual mahi [work] Laurice did of behalf on New Zealand poetry, here is her humble summary of her duties, ‘When I accepted the job as National Coordinator, my job description covered: management and secretarial services, website services, fundraising, publicity and promotion, magazine production, Wellington event management and coordination with other poetry groups around the country. Along with arranging committee meetings and the AGM, hidden in ‘management’ was the somewhat demanding role of ensuring compliance (ie fulfilling our responsibilities to the Companies Office and later to the Charities Commission). I soon proved to be inept at fundraising and gave that up, taking a pay cut in the process. I was already running the annual competition, which is self-funded, and added overseeing the production, sales and distribution of the anthology to my workload. In 2010 I also took over managing membership, and in 2013 the role of Treasurer fell to me as well, after the last one didn’t work out. All in all, what was a sixteen-hour a week job when I started became almost full-time, with a significant number of extra hours around the end of the competition. Despite the increased workload as time went on, I loved the job, as evidenced by my carrying on doing it at a pay rate that made the minimum wage look overly generous. I especially relished contact with the poets and other literary figures I met around the country — people I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of meeting if I hadn’t resigned from a lucrative health career to focus on poetry. However, once I reached the seven year mark, I was ready for a break. When I first started, our then President, James Norcliffe, described the creation of the National Coordinator position as an “elegant solution” to the reduction in available volunteers and mass resignation of the paid help. It was time to look for another solution, and I resigned as National Coordinator after the annual anthology launch in November 2013, standing down as President at the 2014 AGM. Over the years I worked hard to promote the Society and to somehow shed the impression many people had that we were a bit ‘highbrow’ and out of touch. I’m not sure I ever succeeded at that. However, I was always happy to see my role as a place holder, until others, younger and more ‘in touch’ came along to take the Society forward, to make it more contemporary and relevant. I have been delighted to be replaced by Lonnard Dean Watkins, a stalwart in the local performance poetry scene, and he is gradually making more and more connections with the performance and slam communities.’ All good, as the wheel churns to orality. A poem from Laurice lies below too.
A woman joins The New York School for an afternoon
A woman puts her ear to the underground
as though she can still hear the pulsating rhythm
of John Ashbery — he’s part crystal pool
and part locked door — a sleepy greasy hollow
where she slips and trips over her feet
and lands on the pavement and looks
up at the sky. From this angle it seems
to be broken and she can’t make sense of the ducks
flying out of formation or the steaming hills
that might be clouds. It is not as though she feels pain.
It feels draughty and she has goose bumps so she starts to count
bits of sky until she reaches a hundred. She keeps grabbing hold
of things hanging in the air in fits and starts — violins, chestnuts,
a field of clovers, black and white tiles, exotic colours that
fade and scatter, a deep blue that whispers impractical poems.
(from A New York Pocket Book (Seraph Press, forthcoming 2016)
Fangs for the Memory
We held our Christmas party in January
and missed the rush
We talked of fanged cows and kunekune pigs
who favour the flavour of foreigners
We learned of the perils of herd-testing in the dark,
posing below drooling camels, and attending Mensa meetings
We ate fish balls and kebabs, discussing
the one ton testicles and twelve foot penises of Blue Whales
My gumboot tea tasted like Earl Grey
and I drank it anyway
I declined nut-studded chocolate balls
and chocolate coffee beans
then hid the After Dinner Mint wrappers under the tea tray
so you wouldn’t know how many I’d eaten
The party ended at six
I left at ten
(from: Aotearoa Rocks! with Hugo Kauri Justo (Academy Aotearoa Press, Wellington, 2015)
To emphasize just how much poetry means across the country, I would also like to mention a poetry group that meets every month in Hamilton, namely Poets Alive — a typical, if I may use that word, gathering of keen poets who hone and prime their shared work in convivial surroundings, but are so low-key as to not have their own web site. As in the photo below, featuring Rapatahana and Mere Taito, fresh from her recent inclusion in Landfall.
Here we meet people such as Judy McDonald, who organises Poets Alive, but who completely disdains any publicity for her work! Amazing, for without her, the hui wouldn’t fire anywhere near as well as it does. Such are the behind-the-scenes heroines who quite literally do keep poetry alive in the country.
Judy tells us about the background to this regional group, ‘Poets Alive was begun in 2004, following a University of Waikato Continuing Education weekend course in poetry-writing run by Tauranga poet Jenny Argante … Following the workshop, Barry, Celia, and Sue Edmonds, who are still members today, decided along with some others to form Poets Alive, initially under the umbrella of the Continuing Education unit at the University of Waikato. From 2004 until 2009, the group met at the Ruakura Satellite Campus on Ruakura Rd, and were provided with the rooms free of charge by the Continuing Education unit. To begin with, group members took turns sending out the emails and facilitating the six-weekly meetings, but this wasn’t totally successful and after a short while Celia became the primary organiser … Some workshops with visiting poets were held during this time, often funded by Continuing Education, but sometimes with the help of grants applied for directly by the group. The last weekend workshop held at the Ruakura Rd site was with Owen Bullock, in August 2009, and this was when I first became involved.’
She continues, ‘The following year, the group moved to the university main campus, meeting in the LAN building off Knighton Rd on a monthly basis, and remained there until the end of 2011, at which point the declining funding for Continuing Education (the same cuts that hit all adult education across the country) meant that the Continuing Education Unit could no longer support the poetry group … Sue Edmonds found us a home for the next two years at the Hearing Association rooms in Wellington St. It came with the huge advantage of plenty of off-street parking right at the door of the meeting room, which made it much easier to access for some members — the university site had been on a hill and only accessible at night down a flight of stairs. Its only oddity was an extremely low ceiling height, which made for an exceptional feeling of togetherness! Unfortunately, at the end of 2013, the Hearing Association had to move from the Wellington St site and their new premises didn’t have a meeting room available. This was the stage at which we moved to our current site, at the Migrant Resource Centre in Boundary Rd. We have been very fortunate to again have a very modest hireage as a community group, and to have excellent facilities available, with a kitchen next door to our meeting room, plenty of off-street parking, and a magnificent view over Claudelands Park.’
Finally Judy highlights just how fiscally difficult it always is to run such dedicated poetry hui, everywhere, I might add, ‘Essentially, we have been self-funding since 2012, which means we are reliant on members paying a small annual sub to cover our room hire costs. So far, we’ve always managed to break even, but we lack the funds to be able to stage workshops. To do this, we would need to apply for community grants — a slightly daunting task for a group with a membership that is largely very busy doing other things, including working full-time in many cases.’ Yet still these groupings meet, poeticize in often — but not always — quite mainstream a fashion, fulfill a definite creative need in the community.
Kia ora mo tēnei (Thank you for this) Judy.
Kia ora hoki ki nga tāngata o Aotearoa mo te tautoko nui mo te toikupu kei konei. (Thank you again to the people of Aotearoa for the great support for poetry here.) And the poster at right depicts live poetry performances in Turanga-nui-a-Kiwa (Gisborne), 2015 … with me, eh. Yes, poetry is big there too, thanks to stalwarts like Pene Walsh and Gillian Cowperthwaite.
KIA ORA KATOA!!!