Look and look again
Twelve New Zealand poets
I once heard a story about a biology teacher who asked a student to look closely at a fish, then write a description of it. The student took a good look at the fish, then wrote down everything he could think of to say about it.
After the student had brought back his description, the teacher told him to look at the fish again, and to write another description of it. This time the student took it home and went into real depth about everything he could find out about that species of fish, as well as this particular specimen.
After he had brought back his second description, the teacher told him to look at the fish again and write another description of it.
By now the student must have been starting to get the point.
1. I say that I “once heard” the story. Actually I heard it from Richard von Sturmer, who told it to a group of us when I was doing his evening class on Japanese poetry a few years ago. Richard spent a decade working at the Zen Center in Rochester, New York, so he certainly knows a lot about how to observe things intensely. He made us do the same exercise in class with an object of our choice.
2. Now that I come to think of it, Richard didn’t simply attribute the anecdote to an anonymous teacher. He told us that it was a story about Louis Agassiz, the great Swiss naturalist, and specified (as I recall) that what Agassiz actually said was, “Look.” Then, “Look.” And finally, “Look.”
3. Actually, if you want to take it a bit further, you’ll find this very same story at the beginning of Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading (which is presumably where Richard got it from in the first place):
No man is equipped for modern thinking until he has understood the anecdote of Agassiz and the fish:
A post-graduate student equipped with honors and diplomas went to Agassiz to receive the final and finishing touches. The great man offered him a small fish and told him to describe it.
Post-Graduate Student: ‘That’s only a sunfish.’
Agassiz: ‘I know that. Write a description of it.’
After a few minutes the student returned with the description of the Ichthus Heliodiplodokus, or whatever term is used to conceal the common sunfish from vulgar knowledge, family of Heliichtherinkus, etc., as found in textbooks of the subject.
Agassiz again told the student to describe the fish.
The student produced a four-page essay. Agassiz then told him to look at the fish. At the end of three weeks the fish was in an advanced state of decomposition, but the student knew something about it. 
No doubt you’ve deduced the analogy I’m trying to draw by now. “It’s not a ... subtle point you’re making,” as Greg Kinnear says to Jack Nicholson in As Good as It Gets. No, not at all a subtle point.
1. If one were to try to give a quick overview of New Zealand poetry today, there are a number of important and prominent names — mostly published by the major university presses — who would spring immediately to mind. This is, I suppose, the kind of view-from-a-distance perspective very ably provided by Robyn Marsack and Andrew Johnston’s 2009 Carcanet anthology Twenty Contemporary New Zealand Poets. (You can find them all listed here, if you’re curious.)
2. If one wanted to look at the subject again, in a bit more depth, quite a lot more names would come up: some senior poets a little faded from the public eye, but still eminent; up-and-comers of various shades; an assortment of travelling bards and troubadours; nests of Academic poets. This is roughly the view attempted by the three Auckland University Press anthologies (Classic, Contemporary and New NZ Poets) edited by Jan Kemp and myself between 2006 and 2008. Our canon would thus grow to eighty-odd poets — many of them, admittedly, now deceased.
(You can find more details about these books and the larger set of materials they were drawn from at the AoNZPSA [Aotearoa NZ Poetry Sound Archive] site.)
3. The third view, the one I’m trying to represent here, would disclose a far more complex picture: an immensely varied undergrowth of experimentalists, zealots, eccentrics, and prophets of various stripes: amateurs (in the very best sense of the word), people often highly respected in other fields, but dabbling with an alchemist’s fervor in the murky waters of modern poetics and poetry.
Attempting to map this constituency would be a far more difficult task than either of the two projects above (though I have to acknowledge that no one has yet got closer to that objective than Paula Green and Harry Ricketts in their excellent 2010 Vintage book 99 Ways into New Zealand Poetry).
The aim of my own small sampling of twelve poets, then, is to avoid the easier choices and instead opt deliberately for the less visible: the undersung — as one might call them — since it’s my contention that each of the writers included here deserves to be far better known.
None of these twelve poets is included in the Carcanet anthology, but some of them do feature in the AUP anthologies — as well as the AoNZPSA (not to mention that immensely useful Green / Ricketts compendium):
One of them, John Adams, works as a judge, but has recently taken a year off to do a masters of creative writing in poetry at Auckland University;
Another, Raewyn Alexander, is an artist and fashion designer as well as a poet and novelist;
Another, Dr. Jen Crawford, tries to combine being a fulltime academic with her own disquieting brand of poetic perfectionism;
Another of them, the Rev. Leicester Kyle, was an Anglican priest turned poet and ecological activist who died in 2006 before his work could gain the hearing I still strongly believe it deserves;
Another, Aleksandra Lane, is a young Serbian poet turned Kiwi surrealist;
Another, Thérèse Lloyd, is an art gallery administrator who’s studied poetry at both the IIML in Wellington and the Writer’s Workshop in Iowa;
Another, Dr. Richard Reeve, after finishing a PhD dissertation on Heidegger, is presently studying to become an environmental lawyer;
Another, Michael Steven, combines his job as an industrial electrician with his vocation as a poetic craftsman and translator;
Another, Apirana Taylor, is a popular and internationally acclaimed Māori poet and storyteller;
Another, Richard Taylor, is a chess master as well as a devotee of the cutting edge in contemporary poetics;
Yet another, Richard von Sturmer, teaches on Zen retreats as well as working as an educational administration.
I’ve made no attempt to popularize or soften the character of the poems presented here. Of course it’s impossible to be truly representative of the character of each individual poet’s work in such a small space, any more than one can hope to represent more than a few of the complex crosscurrents of writing in New Zealand at present, but I’ve done my best (in each case) to provide a sample which may help to lead sympathetic readers onwards.
One of the contributors, John Adams, asked at an early stage of the editing process:
Jack, for an international audience, I wonder if “snicker …” should have an explanatory note that “taniwha” refers to ancient gods/ancestors traditionally recognised by Māori, New Zealand’s indigenous people. And maybe explanation that the first part of the title refers to an incident where the Māori demi-god, Maui, disguised as a lizard, was betrayed by the snicker of a fantail (piwakawaka) whilst he attempted to conquer death by entering the body of his fearsome goddess grandmother, Hinenuitepo, in order to extract her heart. The piwakawaka found the sight so ridiculous that mirth could not be contained and Maui was crushed between the thighs of the goddess.
He goes on to speculate that “perhaps these things should be left as mysteries for those who don’t have the background — or maybe they should be discarded for an international audience?”
I don’t believe that it does any harm to include such information, but I’m not sure that it does much good, either. One of the interesting things about writing in New Zealand, about New Zealand subjects, is that we are constantly being told that our work “won’t export” — due, for the most part (allegedly), to the large number of Māori terms included in the local brand of English.
It’s true that Ibsen’s first readers were forced to encounter his work in German translation, due to a lack of familiarity with the Norwegian language, and that a good many misunderstandings were the result, but I think that people will always take the trouble to study the intricacies of a foreign culture if they think the reward will be worth it.
In other words, if we make a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to our door — if we write well and interestingly enough, readers will bother to hunt out our works, however rooted in the local and particular they may be. Native Spanish speakers continue to have a good deal of difficulty with the Indian dialect included in Augusto Roa Bastos’s classic Paraguayan dictator novel I the Supreme (not to mention the Qechua in the work of his Peruvian contemporary José María Arguedas) — but it hasn’t stopped their books from reaching an audience of millions.
(If, parenthetically, one were to posit director Peter Jackson as our own NZ Ibsen, our one internationally acclaimed and instantly recognisable artist, then the analogy becomes a rather disquieting one. Maybe we don’t want to be branded quite so irrevocably as the fitting backdrop for the ahistorical fantasy world of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and (now) The Hobbit …)
So, if these twelve poets can be said to represent anything in particular as a group, then I hope they stand for the variety, excitement, and passion of at least some of the poetry being produced in New Zealand today. Beyond that, none of them is particularly easy to classify, and none of them seems readily interchangeable with any of the others.
I’ve accompanied each set of poems with an image by one of my favorite New Zealand artists, Emma Smith. There’s a lyrical emotiveness about Emma’s work — imbued as it is with strands of mythology and folklore — which I think matches well with the poets I’ve chosen.
One motive was certainly to give as consistent as possible a tone to this otherwise rather diverse troupe of poets, but I have to admit that I also wanted to avoid touristic clichés about the beauty of the natural landscapes hereabouts: don’t imagine for a moment that we clean green New Zealanders are not just as capable of dumping toxic waste in a stream or overfishing an ocean as the greediest Humvee-driving consumers anywhere. Hobbiton / Wellington — Middle-Earth / Aotearoa? I fear not …
Albany, Auckland, New Zealand