This interview took place by email over a period of three weeks this winter. Wellington poet James Brown, Victoria University’s 2004 Writer-in-Residence, was sent questions from a group of writers, friends, and MA students at the Institute of Modern Letters. All interviewers remain anonymous.
James Brown lives in Wellington with his partner and two children. After a year as the 2004 Writer in Residence at Victoria University, Wellington, he has resumed life as a freelance copy-editor/writer. His fourth collection of poems – The Year of the Bicycle – is coming along.
Question One, 4 August: Why do you have a home-made high-school tattoo on your hand? Is it because you come from Palmerston North?
Only in that Palmerston North is near Foxton; it was definitely a Foxton influence. Punk probably had something to do with it too.
Question Two, 5 August: How did the Palmerston North Boys’ High School environment of rugby, blokiness, marching and homophobia affect your development as a poet?
I had no aspirations to being a poet at school (I’m not sure I’ve ever had any), but had I had PNBHS would certainly have killed them. I recall we studied ‘Stairway to Heaven’ as a poem in fifth form, read John Steinbeck’s The Pearl at some point, and had to memorise ‘Leisure’ by W. H. Davies in fourth form. The class found the lines ‘No time to see when woods we pass / where squirrels hide their nuts in grass’ riotously funny.
I enjoyed PNBHS in third and fourth form because our class kind of stuck together, but loathed it in fifth and sixth form. The culture was conservative, inward-looking and intolerant of difference (good preparation for New Zealand society, I guess). The first XV stalked the school like the sanctioned thugs they were. If I lived in Palmerston North now and had sons I’d never send them to PNBHS. I think single sex schools might be positive for girls, but for boys they can be disastrous – especially pseudo-British ‘Public’ schools like PNBHS.
I’m constantly surprised at how pervasive New Zealand’s brainless, blokey culture is, but then I see one of the sports commentators on TV3 was in my year at school, and there he is grunting and snorting his way through test matches, so I guess that’s how those sorts of attitudes perpetuate themselves.
There’s that great Sir John Betjeman poem ‘Slough’, and I sometimes fantasise about transposing ‘Slough’ with ‘PNBHS’. It wouldn’t scan though.
Question Three, 9 August: Some poets develop a fear of repeating themselves and attempt to keep moving on stylistically, others seem content to persevere in perfecting the one thing that they do – or ‘repeating the same trick over and over’, as your poem ‘Temple Head’ describes it. Have you set yourself any specific challenges as a writer this year, and if so what are they? (And incidentally, why is that poem called ‘Temple Head’?)
I usually don’t set out to write poems in particular ways. I generally start with a line, which may or may not be the first line, that has a particular voice or tone to it that appeals, and go from there. And because poems set up their own rules, the nature of the initial line will impose restraints on the other lines. Once the poem starts to evolve I’ll start to play round with the form. I like a poem’s form to suit its content in some way, even if it’s just a matter of having regular stanzas to make it more inviting to read.
Sometimes I do set myself little challenges, which are often based on a form or voice that’s appealed in a poem I’ve read somewhere. The main one I’ve tried this year is writing poems with endings that just seem to ‘drift’ away. I’m not exactly sure that ‘drift’ is the right word, but the effect I’ve been after is based on some of the endings I’ve encountered in Louis Simpson, which struck a chord. I’ve also completed a poem (‘The Wicked’) that came from a conscious attempt to write an angry poem, not because I was particularly angry (though it wasn’t hard to find things to be angry about), but because I think anger is a difficult thing to do well in poetry.
In the past I’ve had a go at a list poem based on the form of ‘The Holy Pail’ by Mark Levine, and I’ve used an AABBCC rhyme-scheme with irregular rhythm because I’ve been impressed by how Simon Armitage uses it. In Favourite Monsters I deliberately wrote some rhyming poems with almost regular rhythms because it’s a challenge to write like that and still sound conversational and contemporary.
This year I’ve mostly been writing accessible, conversational poems. It’s funny, I don’t mind reading more ‘obscure’ poetry, but I’m happy for it to be others pushing the boundaries. Sometimes I worry that my current poems are too ‘easy’, but I guess at some deep level I’d rather write like Philip Larkin than Michael Palmer, even though I really like Michael Palmer.
I do worry about repeating the same trick over and over; isn’t everyone naturally drawn to what’s worked for them before? Writing in the same voice is the thing I find most tedious – I don’t know how some poets don’t get sick of the sound of their own voices. I certainly get sick of mine, which is why I enjoy taking on other voices now and then.
‘Temple Head’ is so titled in order to undermine the speaker. While they’re not intended to sound especially stupid or arrogant – just someone doing their best to articulate a response to someone else’s work – the title is a reminder that all judgements are finally subjective – the temple of perfection, or whatever, is different for everyone. And, yes, it is pinched from the Transglobal Underground single, though, as with most of my pop music steals, I took it because it suited my purposes so knowing the source doesn’t add anything to the poem.
Question 4, 10 August: In the eighties you invented a persona for yourself – Batcave. You did a show on Radio Massey under this moniker – sort of bad goth music, Joy Division etc. Is there a little bit of Batcave left in James Brown the poet?
Who’s asking these friggin’ questions? Bad goth music? Okay, I’d probably have loved Jordan Reyne twenty years ago, whereas today I only really like her first two singles. Batcave did play some bad goth music, but there was a lot of other stuff – soul, sixties…alternative pop music really – and it’s all that ‘other stuff’ that probably still influences my writing in some way. I don‘t listen to guitar bands much anymore – especially anyone current. For example, I don’t own a single Pixies record, not because I don’t rate them, but because I’ve already got plenty of that sort of stuff. (Oops – I’ve just remembered I got both Neutral Milk Hotel CDs this year…though any band with an out-of-tune brass ensemble is not, perhaps, a typical alternative guitar band.) These days I mostly listen to gospel, American roots, some alt. country and Steve Reich. I got Fabriclive 07 (a John Peel compilation) second-hand the other day, largely because it had a Bad Livers song on it I don’t have. I like about half of it – the eccentric juxtapositions. The only goth band I still listen to sometimes is The Virgin Prunes, and that’s because they do good, genuinely weird, pop music at heart.
Question 4B, 10 August: Will poetry ever be the new rock and roll?
Poetry will never be the new rock and roll, and anyone who thinks it might be can’t tell the difference between the music of words and the music of instruments – which is huge. I once had to read a poem at a book launch immediately before Charlotte Yates, who got up with a guitar and sang her contribution. The difference couldn’t have been starker. She sang a song, I read a poem, and the two performances were worlds apart. Instruments are so much more forceful than words in their musicality. I know that as an audience member I would rather have listened to Charlotte Yates! That’s not to say that music is better than poetry, just more forceful in its effects. Pull the music away from Bob Dylan and he doesn’t seem half as good a poet. Similarly, poetry tends to be more musically forceful than prose, which is why it’s often more rewarding to listen to poets read than prose writers. I remember once doing a reading with a couple of novelists; they lumbered through their extracts and I read ‘The Language of the Future’ and, to put it bluntly, I blew them off stage. I know that sounds arrogant, but it’s one of the few readings I feel I really nailed. It’s a big ask for prose extracts to compete with words that are paying so much more attention to sound and rhythm.
Question Five: 11 August: Can you name three poems that you have published, and that you now hate, and explain exactly what you think is wrong with them?
I don’t hate things I’ve had published in their entirety because if I thought they were so bad in the first place I’d never have submitted them. I do, however, loath bits of poems, which, for various reasons, hindsight tells me I never got right. I think what makes me cringe most are bits that sound like they’re trying too hard to be poetry – that seem a tad too clever (I have a tendency toward cleverness, partly as a reaction against poetry’s tendency to be emotive), too pleased with themselves (actually, I think I manage to avoid this one, mostly) or too ‘poetic’.
Probably ‘Small Obligations’ (Sport 9) is the most complete failure. It’s a list of similes, with each comparison being carried down to the following line and compared to something else, and so on; ergo, the theory behind the poem is that anything can be yoked to anything if you try hard enough. I still get annoyed by far-fetched and excessively wordy or flowery similes and metaphors. As a device, they’re an easy poetic fallback and, badly or overly used, can push the reader further away from whatever is being described rather than enhancing it.
But ‘Small Obligations’ certainly doesn’t read like an attack on similes and metaphors! In fact much of the poem’s pleasure is going to come from whether the reader thinks its similes are up to much…and most of them aren’t. I clearly got carried away by the process of writing similes, of comparing ‘concrete’ things with abstractions and vice versa, and also playing around with common expressions.
The poem is far too long. I seem to recall I thought I was developing a sort of narrative, but that’s also hard to fathom. At some point I re-wrote it, cutting it drastically – I suppose I still thought the idea was a good one, even if I wasn’t able to make it work – but I’ve since lost the improved version. It was years later that I read ‘Not the Furniture Game’ by Simon Armitage, which is a poem structured as a list of metaphors. It makes ‘Small Obligations’ look even worse!
Question Six, August 14: How easily do you come by poems – is it like fishing in the creek for whatever comes past, or is it sometimes like hacking out lumps of coal in the dark, underground? Especially in that pretty Writer in Residence room where everyone thinks Poetry Is Happening?
Much to my amazement, when I have time and space to write I don’t seem to have any trouble producing poems that I’m reasonably confident are okay quality-wise. I mean it’s easy to just write crap, isn’t it?
When I don’t have a grant of some sort it’s a different story. Then I go for long periods – months – when I don’t write anything, largely because all my time and energy go toward trying to earn money. Most of the time I don’t think of myself as a poet, I see myself more as an exploited freelancer who occasionally writes poems. What tends to happen in those periods – which make up most of my life – is that the urge to write builds up and eventually I stay up half the night and get a poem going.
People also sometimes request poems and I’ve found that a good motivator. The ‘Spamtoum’ in Landfall 205, ‘Alt. Country’, ‘Judy Poem’, ‘The Crickets’, ‘A Great Day’ (in the Sargeson tribute anthology) and ‘Island Bay’, a poem in memory of Alan Brunton, all came about because I was asked to write something. It’s like being set a writing exercise, in that you get given a topic and a deadline (the form is usually up to you), and since I seem to be okay at writing poetry and, as a freelancer, good at following instructions and working to deadlines, it’s a happy marriage!
But perhaps I’m not answering the question. Is it a ‘where do your poems come from’ question? If so, they come from everywhere. Usually I start with a line that’s been singing away in my head and go from there. The line will have a certain music or tone or voice, and being able to hear it will help me progress the poem. Sometimes I’ll have an idea about form early on, sometimes I’ll play with various forms later. Sometimes the line will mean the poem has a certain agenda, sometimes I just follow to see where we end up.
I do have a few strategies that help me write. One is listening to music. Sometimes I listen specifically to the lyrics, but mostly I think it’s the music that works on me – let’s face it, if you don’t like the music, it doesn’t matter how good the words are, and naff lyrics can often seem perfectly acceptable if you like the music. I also read a lot of poetry and when I find a poem with something, often its music, that really works for me, I might try to write my version of it. Of course it won’t sound the same because what I’m mostly stealing is a tone, and even that’s going to be distorted by what might be an entirely different subject and setting etc. I also get inspired by prose, things people have told me and, occasionally, movies and TV. Language and stories. I guess it’s your ‘fishing’ metaphor initially; the hacking comes later when I’m trying to turn the lump of coal into a diamond.
Question Seven, 18 August: What is it that motivates you to write poetry – fear, ego, a desire to make something happen? And why poetry, not novels or other prose forms – something to do with music?
I would subscribe to the early part of ‘The Day I Stopped Writing Poetry’ by James Brown. But to elaborate…I like poetry because it’s short but can pack the punch of a novel. Perhaps the pleasure is more akin to listening a favourite song, one whose music and lyrics you really like. I definitely respond to the music of poetry; there are a number of poems I can’t read without bursting into tears! I also like poetry that’s clever, that makes you think – poetry seems to have a greater capacity for cleverness than prose, perhaps because of its love of ambiguity. I like the shapes and spaces in poetry – the ‘unsaidness’, maybe the ‘unsayableness’. It’s all about suggestion, and good poetry suggests much more than it says, and that’s how it gets inside you, or you get inside it, or something.
I write poetry because I just seem to think in poetry. It’s been said that you don’t choose poetry, poetry chooses you, and I think that’s true. I’m attracted to poetry’s compression, the tight control you have over the form and language. Maybe I’m a bit of a perfectionist, I suspect you might have to be a bit that way inclined to write poetry. I go over and over some lines, trying every conceivable combination. Likewise with certain words (often adjectives); sometimes my brain starts working like a computer as I try to get exactly the right effect within the constraints imposed by the form and tone.
I keep on writing poetry for the same reason anyone keeps doing something they think they’re okay at – you feel good when you think you’ve succeeded. It’s like any endeavour, there’s satisfaction in a job well done. Of course with poetry there’s the interminable question of what constitutes ‘a job well done’, but I think I’ve got a reasonable handle on how successful or not a poem is, and I get occasional gusts of encouragement from publication in literary magazines I rate and people whose judgements I respect.
I’m not motivated by a desire to change the world. Some of my poems may be political, but if I wanted to change the world I’d be writing in a more popular genre! Of course it’s nice if somebody reads a poem and likes it, but I basically write to satisfy myself. And I write for the page, not the stage, because I happen to be bookish and find most social stuff hard work.
I’ve written a few short stories, but I find them difficult. I end up angsting over every word and re-writing them to death. I doubt I could ever write a novel. For starters I just don’t have that much to say. And I think it takes a hefty dash of luck or genius (closely related, these) to write a good novel. It’s something to do with balance, getting the balance between description, dialogue, thought – all the bits which might make up a story – just right over a long haul. Judging those balances must be very difficult. Even once you reach the end, going back and altering them to good effect… Lord! There are plenty of serviceable novels out there, but very few good ones and I suspect I’d add to the pile of serviceable ones clogging the bookshelves of no return.
Question Eight, 20 August: How do you feel about the ‘business’ of being a poet (readings, interviews etc)? Do you feel like ‘a poet’? Do you think you have a ‘duty’ to give yourself over to the public part of poethood? Do you enjoy it?
A necessary evil. I do it because I think it’s consistent with the act of publishing – ie, sharing your work. If you really didn’t want to do any of that stuff presumably you wouldn’t even bother publishing. Once you’ve put a poem out in the public arena it’s not entirely yours anymore. If you publish then that implies awareness of an audience, and it would seem to go against the whole practice of sharing your work to turn down readings, interviews etc – which you could still do, I suppose, because a poem on the page is a different beast to a poet in the flesh. The bottom line is that poetry needs all the help it can get, so you’d have to be staunchly anti-publicity or very self-assured to eschew the public side of writing.
Sadly, also, I’m usually flattered to be asked to read. Doesn’t everyone like to be liked? Often when you’re asked to read you’re made to feel special…then you turn up for the reading and realise what a fool you’ve been! Sometimes I enjoy readings. I like going to hear other poets read, so I assume some people must enjoy hearing me read. And, precisely because I’m not a natural performer, I do put a bit of effort into a reading – psych myself into it, as it were – because I’ve been to too many readings where good poets have let themselves down by mumbling or excessive shyness as well as, though these are usually the bad poets, by grandiose strutting. So I work hard to overcome my natural aversion to public performance for the duration of the reading. Then I go home and sit by myself in a corner for a few hours.
But none of that public side of poetry is why I actually write. I write to satisfy something in myself. So although, to greater or lesser extents, I try to stay aware of how readers might respond to certain lines, I’m the reader I’m most trying to please.
I guess that in a world where money equates to legitimacy, being paid to write gives me permission to call myself a poet. Mostly though, I think of myself as a person who sometimes writes poetry, which is a different thing. I don’t know how people can consider that what they are above all else is ‘a poet’. What confidence! Maybe my problem stems partly from my background, where art didn’t much figure, so somehow I still see writing as indulgent or at least not a proper option (which, in a sense, poetry isn’t). There are certainly more essential things in my life – my partner and children, and paying the bills. Writing is important, but it’s probably even below mountain-biking on my scale of things.
Question Nine, 23 August: Against the prevailing notion perhaps that writers are people who are bad at sports, you appear to enjoy raising your own heart-rate. You’re a mountain-biker and until recently you played soccer. Can you talk about the relationship of your physical pursuits to your poetry? Bearing in mind, too, the minor tradition of New Zealand poet-cyclists – Brian Turner has written from the bike – is there any prospect of some James Brown bike poems?
Mountain-biking makes me feel good about myself, which is important for my writing. Mood has a big effect on creativity. Probably the nearest I come to being blocked is when I’m unhappy or really worried about something. Some writers can turn unhappiness into art, but I can’t. My glum poems aren’t usually written when I’m actually feeling that way.
There’s a great sense of freedom in mountain-biking. For large portions of my life – and I hardly think I’m unique in this – I do stuff mostly because I have to. The toad work, I guess. So it’s easy for me to feel powerless and in the grip of forces and necessities beyond my control. Mountain-biking, like any sport or game, allows me to step into a simpler world and pit myself – my bike, fitness and skill – against more tangible conditions. Of course luck comes into it, as it does with most things, but a ride is still like a game, with rules and odds that you have more control over than you do in the game of life. There’s something enormously rewarding and liberating about overcoming the physical and mental challenges of a ride. So those times when I feel I don’t have much control over my life or that I’m useless, I can always race up the tip track and say, well, at least I can do this okay.
Another attraction of mountain-biking is that it doesn’t have to involve other people (tolerating unlikeable personalities was one of the reasons I gave up soccer). Competition brings out the best and the worst in people. I do ride with someone each weekend, but I also spend a fair amount of time by myself a long way from anywhere and anyone, which I like. It’s not that I’m anti-social, but I do find social stuff drains rather than gives me energy. Writing is (usually) a solitary activity, so is it pushing things too far to say that the mental challenges of a long solo ride mirror those required of a writer? Probably. Maybe the only similarities are not minding your own company and the ability to stay focused.
We don’t have a car, so biking has hugely broadened my physical horizons – I can leave Island Bay and be on top of Hawkins Hill (the Golf Ball) in forty minutes. I know the South Coast – Wind Turbine – Wrights Hill – Makara Peak area intimately, and I like being able to witness the seasonal and climatic dramas. Somewhere in Winnie-the-Pooh there’s a line about Christopher Robin not really minding ‘what it [the weather] did tomorrow, so long as he was out in it’, and that’s pretty much my attitude too. It’s funny, because I’m hardly a nature poet – in fact I always tend to ‘people’ my poems – but mostly I do like my poems to be set somewhere – to have particular physical settings within which the stuff of the poem takes place.
Cycling also fits in with my thinking environmentally. I despise SUVs. I’m slightly more tolerant of cars – not everyone is able to use alternative ways of getting around and one also has to make allowances for the fat, the selfish and the stupid. I can’t wait till oil goes over $50 a barrel.
Yes, I’d love to go for a ride with Brian Turner! I’m sure he’d sort me out. I was proofing a soon-to-be-published book, Ride: The Story of Cycling in New Zealand, and was pleased to see one of his cycling poems included! And bikes are also finding their way into my poems. A poem called ‘The Bicycle’ will appear in Landfall 208. I’m thinking of calling my next collection The Year of the Bicycle, and there’s a great Edward Gorey image I’d like for a cover…
Question Ten, 24 August: Would you consider yourself an ‘élite’ poet, or a poet for the people, considering that a great many of ‘the people’ very much enjoy ‘the daffodils’?
Because I write in a lot of different styles, I think I live a little in both camps. Go Round Power Pleaseand Lemon are probably more ‘élitist’ in that I was younger and maybe more experimental, and maybe also trying a bit harder to be a ‘poet’, which to me, at the time, meant intelligence, so I was trying to stack my poems with ideas, my lines with multiple meanings etc. That’s not to say that there aren’t straightforward, emotional poems in those first two books – there are, plenty – but I remember being mildly surprised to hear how many people found the poems difficult. Favourite Monsters is, however, mostly more relaxed and accessible. Poems like ‘The Music of the Spheres’ aside, I found myself moving away from more ‘languagey’ aspects towards more conventional practices.
The poems I’m currently writing seem to be continuing in that line. I think I mentioned that although I enjoy reading ‘difficult’ poetry, I find myself writing it less and less. What I’m after is a sort of effortlessness, poems that seem conversational and ordinary in voice and form. Of course I still want them to pack a punch in some way, so that’s the trick, to get that poetic zing, or whatever it is you get when you read a poem you like, but not to push language to the limits of intelligibility to do it.
Just for the record: I think ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’ is a great poem, though it would be difficult to write a poem in that voice today and get away with it. The trick is to capture the daffodils without sounding like Wordsworth.
To return to the question, I’ve never wanted to be a poet of the people. Perhaps a better distinction might be between performance poet and élitist academic poet. (Nasty little term, isn’t it? Imagine if I turned it round and started referring to non-academic, non-élite poets as ‘unintelligent, poor quality poets’.) Well, I’m not a performance poet (in the poets’ pub/poetry slam sense). However accessible my poems might appear, I hope there’s still more going on than can be caught in a single reading, than can ever be caught.
Because I come from an academic background and have half a brain, I’m probably always going to be considered academic/élitist, which, along with my move toward more conventional poetry, will dismay those who really are pushing poetry’s boundaries. They probably see me as a writer of light verse. And good on them, poetry needs people to push language around – that’s the place where the really exciting things are going to happen…as well as the place where fakes are going to be able to find the best camouflage. Maybe that’s not quite true, poetry in general makes a pretty good nesting place for fakes and pseuds! ‘And this next one, which as some of you may recognise is after Catullus and Beckett and Bernstein, is called “I’m a fucking loser…”’
Question Eleven, 26 August: When women appear in your poems, there tend to be a lot of sexual references – why?
A lot? Really? Locker room anxiety. There are too many humorous ways I could respond to this question, so I’ll try and be serious and honest.
When I write relationship poems I’m conscious of often deliberately trying to write about sex because, as with anger (and the poem ‘The Wicked’), I think it’s a difficult area to write about well, so I see it as a challenge. The poem ‘Maintaining the Family Unit’ states this quite baldly: ‘Likewise, this sort of poem is easy to do / badly.’ The first stanza is explicitly self-referential in the way it announces the difficulties of writing about its subject. Although the poem obviously describes bonking, it’s actually more about maintaining a relationship once you’ve got a family. Readers who don’t have children might miss this and think the poem is only about sex, but anyone with a family will know how demanding children can be and how easy it is for parents to put all their energies into their kids and have nothing left for each other – which can lead to problems in their relationship. So the poem is actually about the parents making time for each other, and in so doing maintaining the family. ‘Family Planning’, a kind of companion poem, also deals with the issues of maintaining a relationship once children are on the scene and, yes, it does contain some explicit sexual references as well as an explicit description of childbirth. Again, I elected to be explicit, while still, hopefully, writing well, because I think it’s the more difficult option. I wanted to avoid the ‘all became a burning mist’, as Larkin sneeringly describes the standard poetic attempts to deal with sex.
Poetry is funny about sex: despite the large numbers of relationship poems poets churn out, it tends to have enormous problems successfully capturing sex, which, let’s face it, is a site of a lot of powerful feelings! For every successful explicitly sexual poem you read by Sharon Olds, or in the Best American Poetry anthologies, there must be a hundred appallingly over-wrought efforts full of goopy clichés.
What was the question? Oh women, yes, well I don’t know that they always appear as the object of sexual references in my poems but, because I consider sex an important part of a relationship and see writing well about it as a challenge, I guess maybe they might only ever seem to appear without clothes. I’m probably just reflecting the attitude of TV.
Interestingly, although I often write from different perspectives (the ‘I’ in my poems isn’t always me: I’ve never had sex on top of a dresser or while listening to a tennis match), it struck me recently when I wrote a poem called ‘My Flatmate’, in which the speaker is female, that I haven’t often written from a woman’s perspective. The speaker in ‘I Think One Last’ is a woman, but the voice is deliberately affected. Ditto with ‘As It Happens’. Both poems contain sexual references, but they’re not exclusively about sex. ‘Probing the Upper Reaches’ is exclusively about sex, or the possibility of it, and again I use an affected, OTT voice, which allows me to push the language about and come up with a more interesting poem (as mentioned, I get sick of my own voice, or the ‘voice of poetry’ sometimes), but can you tell if the speaker is male or female? Only the title might suggest male. Can you tell if the addressee is female? I don’t think so.
‘Pushing It’ and ‘Mansworn’ are both about young women moving toward independence. In ‘Mansworn’ (see the OED) the protagonist loses her virginity and the poem works hard to try and capture the range of emotions this might entail. ‘Pushing It’ is in the third person and ‘Mansworn’ is in the second person. ‘My Flatmate’ is in the first person and the female voice isn’t affected or OTT in any way. The poem isn’t overtly sexual, actually it’s a humorous courtship poem, but it does end with a sexual suggestion.
Last week I began a poem about the cork oaks in the Botanical Gardens, which I love, but I found I couldn’t just write about cork oaks! Before I knew it the poem had people in it, then they were having sex! Then I was able to suggest that this was their first time – so the poem became a celebration of that – an attempt to capture the couple’s experience as miraculous and positive. At one point I had the poem in the third person, but it was too distancing, so I changed it to the second person in the hope that that would allow readers to put themselves into the poem and for it to trigger their own positive sexual memories. If they don’t have any or think it’s all a bit yucky, well, how sad for them. I was careful, too, to keep the gender of the ‘you’ non-specific, so that the experience is theirs/yours, rather than exclusively his/yours or her/yours.
Question Twelve, 30 August: You’ve used your family in several poems – what are the limits of privacy here? Do you have to consider their feelings?
Of course, and there are poems I’ve kept from public eye because people may recognise themselves and be hurt. Those poems don’t actually involve members of my family (or ex-girlfriends!), and their intentions are honourable – trying to explore what it might be like to be in a certain situation etc. But nevertheless, people might feel exploited.
Again, for those bent on linking the author to the first person, very few of my poems are autobiographical and even fewer are about my family. As any novelist will tell you, characters, plots, incidents etc are very often composites of things an author has heard, seen and read as well as experienced. It is true that I have started to write marginally more autobiographically in the last few years. ‘I Come From Palmerston North’ is entirely autobiographical, and I did consider how my parents might feel about the reference to their separation, but decided that simply stating it as a fact is hardly exploitative or manipulative. I’m more concerned by a recent poem about the effects of a divorce. Although the details of the poem are not directly from my experience, because the poem is realist and painful and features a dad and two sons, my dad could conceivably be upset by it. But the poem doesn’t take sides or point a finger, it just details the pain of divorce for children and parents. So my inclination is to go with it. A recent Listener poem, ‘Garage’, features a Mrs Brown, who is my mum, but all that happens is that she takes her car into a garage and gets told a load of hogwash by the mechanics. The poem points the finger, in a humorous way, at dishonest tradesmen, and is entirely sympathetic to the vulnerability of Mr or Mrs Average Joe when dealing with tradespeople.
As a percentage, I’d say maybe two per cent of Go Round Power Please is autobiographical and maybe ten per cent of Lemon. In Lemon there are three poems featuring ‘Padre R____’, a friend who is a Catholic Priest in Italy. This is a bit dodgy because the words of Padre R____ are mine, not his, and only loosely based on actual conversations. Padre R____ also never gets the last word. But I didn’t think I’d grossly misrepresented him and as far as I’m aware he doesn’t feel misrepresented although he’d probably have preferred to speak for himself.
‘The Day I Stopped Writing Poetry’, ‘Terra Wellington’, ‘The Batcave Show’, ‘Loneliness’, ‘Beyond Repair’, ‘Feeding the Ducks’ and ‘Capitalism Explained’ are the most wholly autobiographical poems in Favourite Monsters, and only ‘Feeding the Ducks’ is about my family. ‘Maintaining the Family Unit’ and ‘Family Planning’ may express my sentiments, but the details by which they do so are almost entirely fiction. The voice in ‘Family Planning’ is obviously stylised, again because I get bored with the rational, restrained voice of contemporary poetry and sometimes like my speakers to seem a little off the wall.
My partner, however, is slightly embarrassed by the graphic birth description, which of course comes direct from my experience of the births of our children. Both were born at home without any drugs or forceps or c-sections or whatever and I’m really in awe of Catherine for being able to do that. Twice. It’s not like she’s Sporty Spice or Amazon Woman or anything. And because I rate the births as the two best days of my life, I always had them in the back of my mind as something I’ve wanted to write about. So far the lines in ‘Family Planning’ and the poem ‘Bauble’ are the closest I’ve got.
The constant assumption that any realist first person poem I write is autobiographical never ceases to amaze me. Thank goodness for Roland Barthes’ ‘The Death of the Author’ essay. When Favourite Monsters was reviewed in the Listener, the reviewer made reference to ‘The Cost of Living’ and said it was about my brother who’d committed suicide, which certainly surprised my actual brother. The poem is about dealing with death, but makes no reference to the relationship of the deceased to the speaker or cause of death. It actually tries to take mild issue with the claims made in ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ by Auden and ‘Where I Live’ by Billy Collins that the world remains unaltered by someone’s death and keeps on going. I believe the world does change, because your perception of it changes.
The reviewer may have become muddled by ‘The Ideal Present’, which has a similar first person speaker and is about two brothers attending another brother’s funeral. But again there’s no reference to cause of death – the poem is interested in those that are still living. There’s even a note, especially to correct the autobiographically minded, revealing that the source of the poem is in fact an essay in Granta 37, and that the poem ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’ (Lemon) is based on the same essay. I was very moved by the part of Mikal Gilmore’s story where he and his brother separate after attending their infamous brother’s funeral. They were then the only two family members left and, even though they’d always got on, when Mikal tried to contact his brother the next day, he couldn’t. His brother, apparently not wanting anything more to do with the family, had moved on, carefully covering his tracks. It just seemed such a sad sad thing.
A couple of other first-person poems that I’d just like to make clear aren’t me, especially with reference to the previous women and sex question, are ‘Outback’ and ‘Born Sandy Devotional’. The speaker in ‘Outback’ is actually based on whoever was responsible for the Peter Falconio disappearance. ‘Born Sandy Devotional’ (another oblique Aussie reference) is another creepy, possibly unsavoury poem. I don’t know exactly what it’s about or where it came from, but I think technically it’s one of the best poems I’ve written. I love the language in both poems, which is a consequence of writing from the points of view of two slightly unhinged speakers. Neither speaker is very nice – both poems mix a calm, rational tone with craziness, beauty with (suggested) violence, and sex with death in an extremely unsettling way. There’s nothing new in this strategy – the best villians are always clever and articulate and it’s the creative ways in which they interpret the world and their evil that are often so engaging.
Question Thirteen, 31 August: Does poetry fit naturally into the ‘book’ form as we see it today? Do you think it will take on other expressions? Is there any hope for poetry?
Poems written in books suit me. It was interesting to hear Glenn Colquhoun recently say that ‘books are the graveyard of poetry’ and extol the virtues of getting poems away from books and onto posters etc. He also spoke warmly of the oral tradition and of having been exposed to all sorts of wonderful language as a kid without realising it was poetry. It made me think that as a child I, too, was probably exposed to all sorts of language that had some of the qualities of poetry – through pop music and various articulate adults. However, finally I read poetry in books, so if books are the graveyard of poetry, I’ve spent a lot of time in graveyards.
Of course putting poetry on posters and buses and beer mats and in videos etc is going to be good for it – providing it’s good poetry. But the simple fact remains that books are still the most practical way for people, especially schools, to disseminate poetry. I remember Sam Hunt expressing similar misgivings about poetry books as Glenn Colquhoun, but the alternative – having poetry only read live (especially in schools) – isn’t always practical. Sam Hunt has also suggested that he should host a TV show on which he read favourite poems, which would be great, but so far, for some unfathomable reason, TV hasn’t taken up the idea.
There is a difference between hearing a poem live and reading it on the page. I’d argue that reading on the page gives the reader more power – to skip, reread, study, pause, think, go away, come back – and in so doing offers the poet greater opportunity for complexity, multilayeredness and subtlety because there’s less chance that the poem will seem incomprehensible – which it might if it were read live.
Poetry does tend to divide into (roughly) two camps in New Zealand: the so-called highbrow, academic, written-for-the-page poetry and the spoken, poets’ pub, written-for-performance poetry. And both are perfectly valid and vital. Poets’ Pubs are a vibrant part of poetry – as are poetry readings generally. Problems only tend to crop up when performance poets decide that they should also be recognised as highbrow, academic, writing-for-the-page poets (whom they also claim, paradoxically, to detest). Interestingly, this phenomenon doesn’t seem to work both ways; I don’t know of too many highbrow, academic, writing-for-the-page poets who also yearn to be the star turn at every poetry reading. But maybe I’m just speaking for myself here.
Online poetry magazines are probably the biggest change in ‘expression’ – is that what you mean? – that poetry will undergo. There’s that online magazine Jacket, which is apparently enormously popular, and some years ago Otis Rush, an Aussie lit mag, ceased its hardcopy and went online. I presume these moves have resulted in a huge increase in readership. That said, online sites measure their ‘readers’ by the number of ‘hits’ they get, and I often visit sites for, oooh, sometimes up to a minute or so. But I’m definitely past tense here, I like to cuddle up with a book, whereas anyone under thirty today is probably totally at home reading online.
There will no doubt be other changes in the way poetry is written and read – mainly due to the rise of electronic media. I’m thinking of hypertext offering apparent choices to the reader (really just an extension of those choose-your-own adventure stories) and poems with multiple authors (really just an extension of group poems). The processes of reading and writing could become much more like playing an elaborate video game. I’m not sure, though, that readers are going to want to participate in the production of meaning to the extent that they have to become authors. It seems to me that the apparently endless choice, or illusion of choice, that the free market now gleefully thrusts upon us is actually rather sinister. Half the time you don’t have the information or time to really make an informed decision, and with choice also comes the accusation of individual responsibility.
This is probably getting away from ‘expressions of poetry’, which I’ve probably misinterpreted anyway. Definitions of what constitutes poetry will certainly become broader. Last century saw poetry move closer to prose in an effort to sound more like everyday speech. We’re now quite comfortable with prose poems and found poems (I hope). And the most popular contemporary form is probably the list poem. Post-modern ideas have filtered into the mainstream, although because New Zealand tends to resist anything associated with intellectual endeavour and poetry is still the domain of the sensitive, its impact has been fairly marginal. The language movement is interesting, but sometimes seems to be rediscovering certain aspects of modernism. Will rap eventually be regarded as poetry? It probably already is in the performance scene (we have dub poetry). If jazz poetry is allowed to use instruments I don’t see why rhyme and rhythm shouldn’t be allowed to use beats. Those nasty highbrow, academic features like complexity, multilayeredness and subtlety might still need addressing though.
Hope for poetry? This is where I’m supposed to go ‘ra ra’ and talk about the renaissance of poetry etc. But I’m a realist. Poetry is no more popular now than it was twenty years ago or than it will be in twenty years time. I do believe, however, that a lot of people do reach for poetry at certain points in their lives – births, deaths and marriages being the obvious ones. And I think a lot of people also write poetry at some point in their lives, far more than actually read it, unfortunately. I don’t think poetry will become any less popular – it will always be there bubbling away.