Features - November 2011
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
When it comes to poetry anthologies, I agree with David Antin’s long-ago quip — “Anthologies are to poets as zoos are to animals” — and I think that journals and magazines are probably better indicators of what’s current in any country’s poetry than grand, often agenda-driven anthologies. Here I am presenting the work of fifty-one contemporary poets from Australia. My aim was to make it broadly representative by including innovation and experimentation alongside quasi-romanticism, elegy, and the almost-pastoral. No one in this group writes like another. The common link is simply that each poet is an Australian whether by birth, residence or citizenship.
This collection could probably be read as an anthology, and so I grant a comment on omission. There are many other poets writing and publishing in Australia, probably around four hundred, who aren’t included here. A problem for any editor assembling a collection of writing from Australia is the inclusion of multiracial poetries. At the outset, I should say that there are no Australian indigenous nor Torres Strait Islander poets in this selection of poems. One of the poets included here, Peter Minter, coedited, with Anita Heiss, a definitive anthology of indigenous Australian writing and I would urge readers of Jacket2 to seek it out — the Macquarie Pen Anthology of Aboriginal Literature. There are no “Asian” poets here either, although there are some who rightly claim part-Asian ethnicity. China is currently the main purchaser of Australia’s minerals and gas, and in the entire Asian region Australian governments (including state cultural organizations), universities and businesses are strenuously making links. In 2007, 101 Australian poets were translated from English by Melbourne-based poet Ouyang Yu in Contemporary Australian Poetry in Chinese (coedited with John Kinsella). The anthology is exclusively in Chinese. In 2008 John Kinsella and Alvin Pang coedited a collection that brought together the poetries of Singapore and Australia — Over There: Poems from Singapore and Australia. Kit Kelen, who lives and works in Macau, is active in publishing work in translation into and from Mandarin, Portuguese, and English. Association of Stories in Macau (ASM) has published two recent bilingual anthologies of large selections of Australian poetry translated into Mandarin, Fires Rumoured about the City and Wombats of Bundanon, both edited by Kit Kelen and Song Zijiang with translations by Song Jijiang, Vai Keng, Iris Fan Xing, and Debby Sou. Many Australian poets and artists have enjoyed residencies of several months duration in Asian countries, thanks to a state-sponsored agency called Asia Link. Some of those poets and several others who live and work in Asia are included here. There are many exchange visits between China, India, Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia, Japan, Macau, Indonesia, and Australia for poetry pursuits.
I also urge readers to keep an eye out for an upcoming Jacket2 feature on Aboriginal Australian poetry, which will focus on tabis, the individual songs composed by young men from the Pilbara region of Western Australia. The feature will have two parts: selections from Taruru, an important collection of song poetry compiled by the anthropologists Carl von Brandenstein and A. P. Thomas, and an interview between Robbie and Andrew Dowding, a Ngarluma ethnomusicologist and anthropologist from Australia’s northwest.
The preceding paragraphs respond to the almost obligatory compulsion inherent in Australian literary culture to ensure that everyone is included and that everything’s correct. This arises from the predicament of being such a young country that, these days, is constantly self-consciously thinking of and describing itself as a “multicultural” place. It has been only 223 years since the establishment of white settlement and its attendant officialdom. Obviously all nonindigenous Australians originate elsewhere. Australians are increasingly aware of postcoloniality and the country’s geographical position in the Asia-Pacific-Indian Ocean regions.
There is also a kind of persistent and impossible preoccupation in Australia — the quest for a national identity. This leads to the spurious question of what it is to be “an Australian poet.” Where else is this question asked of poets so frequently? “Do you think of yourself as an Australian poet?” Nobody knows how to answer it.
I’m not going to review these poems individually; I’ll let the presentation make its own opening for critical response. But there are some trends that can be mentioned to provide context for some of the work.
There has been a recent lyrical resurgence that has dragged the reception of postmodern projects back towards the formal without actually landing directly in intentional formal poetry. It is baffling to attempt to determine what this trend is a reaction against (possibly, it’s against the continuing influence of the liberal, anti-traditional poetics of late ’60s/early ’70s), but some discussion of it rears up from time to time on blogs and it’s evident in particular publishers’ editorial preferences. So, there is much lyricism in the poetry being written by younger Australian poets. You will find shreds of lyrical traces here, especially in some of the poems that could be called “life-writing.” Although some of the diaristic and subjective poems that could be called lyrical are definitely not part of the recent lyrical trend and are clearly conceptual.
Economic contingencies have institutionalized Australian poetry in the last decade. Many of the poets in this feature are receiving or have recently had postgraduate fellowships. As financial support for the arts dwindles the academies have become a refuge. Even some senior poets (like Jacket magazine’s founding editor) undertake doctorates in creative writing in order to secure an income for three years.
As in every other developed country economic and technological changes have meant that digital publishing and print on demand are becoming the norm. Chapbooks are thriving and small independent presses are doing all right in Australia. There’s a resurgence of poets using DIY methods to produce magazines and chapbooks.
Currently, there really aren’t any “schools” of Australian poetry though there are groups or coteries of like-minded poets who are likely to publish in the same journals and who recommend books and exchange ideas and concepts with each other. There is a kind of “leg-pulling school” of poetry that has a floating intergenerational noncommittal membership of experimenters and oppositionalists (is that a word?) who know very well that part of the function of their compulsive labors in poetry is not only to excite their readers by shaking up the status quo but also to fill in the time. In Australia, poets could be categorized in groups encompassing the social/political, or others that are conservative, ecological, post-avant and so on. But it is a smallish scene of literati and these days an elision of influences can be detected, rather than the strong factional groupings that occurred in Australia’s version of poetry wars — traditionalists vs. modernists in the late 1940s through the 1950s, continuing on into the 1960s and ’70s via a kind of urban/pastoral or bush/city divide and an opposition to late modernists, progressing to everyone else versus postmodernists and experimenters from the 1980s until today.
In these poems there are some crisscross references to local poets. Two names that recur are Michael Dransfield and John Forbes. Michael Dransfield is often imagined heroically. He was a prolific romantic, lyrical poet whose heroin addiction overtook him. He died at twenty-four in Sydney in 1973. John Forbes was an innovative, anti-parochial, parodic poet, crucially influenced by Frank O’Hara in the 1970s. Because of his brilliance as a poet John Forbes had and continues to have an enormous influence on twentieth-century and contemporary Australian poetry. He also died too soon, at forty-seven, of a heart attack, in 1998.
Five of the artists who generously provided drawings, paintings, prints and mixed media are also poets with poems included in the feature. Some of the artists, artbunker, Ian Friend, Robert Pulie and Paul Sloan, fall into the distinguished category of “friends-of-poets.” I am grateful to them for allowing reproduction of their work.
In the interest of objectivity I have grouped the work under the poets’ last names according to a recently invented “downunder” method — the reverse alphabet. This first batch of ten poets will be followed by four subsequent installments featuring the remaining forty-one poets and additional artists.
For more Australian poets and poetry, some of the poets represented in the feature edit online and print poetry magazines:
apoetic — edited by Peter Minter and Kate Fagan. Contributing editors: Chris Andrews, Michael Farrell, Jill Jones, Astrid Lorange, Ann Vickery (coming in 2012)
Cordite Poetry Review — edited by David Prater and reviews editor, Ali Alizadeh
foam:e — edited by Angela Gardner
HEAT poetry online — coedited by Fiona Wright
Island magazine — poetry editor John Kinsella
Journal of Poetics Research — edited by John Tranter
Mascara Literary Review — edited by Michelle Cahill and reviews editor, Adam Aitken
Otoliths — edited by Mark Young
Overland — poetry editor Peter Minter
Southerly — poetry editor Kate Lilley
1. Macquarie Pen Anthology of Aboriginal Literature (Allen & Unwin, 2008).
2. Contemporary Australian Poetry in Chinese (Australia-China Council, 2007).
3. Over There: Poems from Singapore and Australia (Ethos Books, 2008).
6. See Meaghan Morris, Ecstasy and Economics: American Essays for John Forbes (Sydney: emPress, 1992); Ken Bolton, Homage to John Forbes (Sydney: Brandl & Schlesinger, 2010).
A series of reviews of walking projects
A few years ago there was a thrilling article in the New York Times about Will Self’s arrival in the city for some literary event. It wasn’t the fact of his arrival that was thrilling, but how he arrived: on foot. Having walked from his home in London to Heathrow, he sat on a flight to JFK and then proceeded to walk the twenty miles from the airport to Manhattan. This simple act of practical psychogeography, which would have produced such a radically different experience from that of most airborne visitors, was a perfect illustration of the perceptual potential inherent in pedestrian travel. Walking, one of the most fundamental of human actions, is ahistorical, which becomes apparent even through Rebecca Solnit’s rigorous attempt to document its history in her book Wanderlust. There is, however, a long and rich history of walking as a subject of, as well as an inspiration and technique for, writing: from Socrates to Basho to William Wordsworth wandering lonely as a cloud, to Charles Baudelaire sauntering through Walter Benjamin’s streetscape of quotations, to Lisa Robertson’s ambulatory reports from the Office for Soft Architecture.
This particular parade of observations, which focuses on recently published books of poetry and prose — along with one film and one website — that reference walking, was inspired originally by one of those books, Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch’s Ten Walks / Two Talks, published in 2010 by Ugly Duckling Presse. Their methodology in producing that text was simple — it can basically be summed up in the four-word title — yet peculiarly evocative. Ten Walks / Two Talks explores the intersection and overlap of two vital poetic techniques, movement and conversation, like a cross between a flâneur and David Antin. As readers, we were both so engaged by the results of Cotner and Fitch’s collaborative, conversational procedures that we decided to go about writing a review of their book in roughly the same way: by recording and transcribing our peripatetic conversation about it. Having written this slant form of review, we began to think about conversation as a possible metaphor, or model, for artistic and intellectual engagement: that is, rather than making summative, authoritative judgments about a new book and its merits and appeal, it seemed more interesting to find ways to place ourselves in conversation with that book, to view it not as an event of greater or lesser literary import but as an occasion to initiate poetic, intellectual, political — even personal — dialogue. It seemed a way of getting off the highway and wandering through the residential areas around the airport.
In collecting reviews of recent walking projects, we therefore aimed to place these projects in conversation with one another, even if only implicitly. Rather than simply requesting reviews, however, we wanted to offer reviewers a chance to respond to the work under consideration as we had, by creating a slant form of review. Some reviewers took us up on this offer — to our delight and some degree of surprise — while others preferred to write more traditional reviews, not without surprises of their own. The result is an overview, necessarily inexhaustive, of recent work done in the realm of peripatetic art. Just as we encouraged reviewers to wander in their approach to reviewing, we also encouraged them to consider a diverse array of topics and texts in diverse forms. And the people we invited on this group excursion were writers we like who have also done some wandering on their own.
J. R. Carpenter, for example, immediately leapt to mind when we started to consider writers who have used geography and trajectory as structuring principles in their work. J.R., whose fictions often coalesce around walking the dog or hiking the hills, and whose electronic works often exist as points on a digital map, provided us not with a review of a single text but a meditative introduction to the subject in her Wanderkammer, a wide-ranging reconfiguration of the “Wunderkammer” or cabinet of curiosities. We encourage you to begin with a stroll down the forking paths that she has laid out for us in language; take these other pages with you, though, in case you don’t find your way back.
In the first review on our list, Eugene Lim attempts to avoid being exhausted by George Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, recently published by Wakefield Press in a translation by Marc Lowenthal. We thus begin with a respite from walking, because Perec’s Oulipian enumeration of the goings-on in a Paris square is not about moving as much as it is about sitting still while everything else moves. For a less static picture of Paris we turn to Under the Dome: Walks with Celan, by Jean Daive, translated by Rosmarie Waldrop (Burning Deck). This memoir of walking and poetry is reviewed by Gail Scott, whose own novel My Paris is, among other things, a brilliant evocation of how walking and translation intersect. The scene then shifts from the city of light to the city of brotherly love, and from prose to poetry, for Erica Kaufman’s (soma)tic review of The City Real and Imagined: Philadelphia Poems, by Frank Sherlock and CAConrad (Factory School), in which she creates a series of walking-based procedures in order to compose her review. Leah Souffrant reviews a series of Philadelphic poetry books by Kevin Varrone under the title g-point almanac — one from Duration, one from Instance Press, and most recently one from Ugly Duckling Presse.
Next is Not Blessed by Harold Abramowitz (Les Figues), in which twenty-eight chapters all tell the same story, differently each time, of a boy wandering into the woods and getting lost; it is reviewed, but only ten times, by Nikhil Bilwakesh. Shawn Micallef is a Toronto writer whose strolling essays have appeared in that city’s Eye Weekly and have now been collected in the book Stroll: Psychogeographical Walking Tours of Toronto (Coach House). Montreal-based poetic traveler Taien Ng followed Micallef — in the form of his prose — through the streets of Toronto and gave us a report on what she found. That’s followed by our own live-action review of Ten Walks / Two Talks by Andy Fitch and Jon Cotner (Ugly Duckling). We finish with reviews of two projects that wander off the page into multimedia territory. First, artist Yvette Poorter, whose ten-year project “Dwelling for Intervals” brought her and a small forest to various cities around the world, reviews the website of The Ministry of Walking. Finally, we have Rebekah Rutkoff’s lyrical essay “We Can’t Do It Without the Rose,” a response to Jason Livingston’s Under Foot and Overstory, a 16 mm film that documents attempts by the Friends of Hickory Hill Park, of which Livingston is a member, to protect some Iowa City park land from developers. And at that point in our stroll we reluctantly turn around and walk back.
Writer and architect Ben Jacks, who recently collaborated with poet Annie Finch on an exhibit entitled “Walking, Poems, Buildings,” has written that “there is no possibility of an architecture or a poetics that is not dependent on walking,” which could perhaps stand (or walk?) as the motto for this feature. Walking, in other words, is not just a time-honored topic for poetry but an integral condition of its saying: to move is to be moved, by a poem, a person, or our surroundings.