New York Pocket Book: An interview with Paula Green

pocket_bookPaula Green is a poet, reviewer, children’s author, NZ Book Award judge and anthologist. She has published six previous collections of poetry, plus three collections for children, most recently The Letterbox Cat & Other Poems (Scholastic, 2014). She edited the anthologies A Treasury of NZ Poems for Children (Random House, 2014) and Dear Heart: 150 New Zealand Love Poems (Random House, 2012), and co-authored 99 Ways into New Zealand Poetry (Random House, 2010) with Harry Ricketts. Paula also runs two popular poetry blogs: NZ Poetry Box for children and NZ Poetry Shelf for adults. She is currently working on a book about New Zealand women’s poetry. I interviewed Paula about her collection, New York Pocket Book, which was launched in June by Seraph Press. As always, she is eloquent and inspiring about what poetry and poets can do.

Sarah Jane Barnett: I was intrigued by the title of the collection and also the small size and square shape. It reminded me somewhat of a guide book! I imagined walking around New York and experiencing the Lower East Side or Ellis Island through these poems. First, what was the impetus for the collection, and second, do you see the collection as another way for people to experience New York?

Paula Green: My family and I spent ten nights in New York a few years ago (Michael and our two teenage daughters). Michael went when he was young and poor and lived off a pretzel a day, but it was my first time. New York had grown in my head out of the bricks and mortar of film and television. I am really fascinated with the way we carry different versions of a place whether we live there or not. My version blasted apart and then reformed in a way that surprised me. Partly it was the sense of neighbourhood, the way a big city can still relish a snail’s pace, the miniature physical containment, the explosion of ideas and connections in my head as I walked.

I like the idea of different kinds of guides to a city. I love the look of the book so much (thanks to my publisher, Helen Rickerby), I feel like doing a little series of poetry guide books. So yes, readers can follow my tourist itinerary that is as much a physical route as it is meandering through less tangible New Yorks. The idea of a tourist using this as a guidebook appeals; making their own notes in the margin. I agonised over whether to leave my tipping poem in for that very reason. A warning-about-tipping poem! Sadly it didn’t make my ruthless cut.

Paula Green at the launch of New York Pocket Book

Paula Green at the Wellington launch of New York Pocket Book

SJB: The poems in New York Pocket Book touch on the idea that the experience of being a tourist can give us a new way to see and experience ourselves. The collection’s main character, Josephine, closely observes her new experiences – the ‘American accent dipping and pausing,’ the ‘Manhattan sky.’ The idea works on two levels, with Josephine experiencing New York and with the reader experiencing Josephine. Can you speak to this idea in terms of your poetry? Do you see the poem as a way to provide a reader with a new experience of themselves?

PG: Perhaps any book refreshes our view of ourselves to varying degrees, but I really like the multiple reading experiences you have spotted. Learning another language for years, I always felt I wore my clothes slightly differently, that I had licence to be a slightly different person. I get that feeling when I stay in foreign cities. I am both myself and not myself. I eat things I might not normally eat. My daily routine goes out the window. So is it a stretch to say the reader in entering a book that is anchored in an iconic place, triggers different relations with the world and self? I don’t know but it’s a fascinating idea. One of the upshots of learning another language, is the way you learn more about your own language. Conversely, when someone speaks a foreign language they always leave clues about their mother tongue. When we experience a new city, we open windows on the familiar as much as we do the unfamiliar. So perhaps the poem is the surrogate new city, the surrogate new language.

Josephine is somewhat elusive. You are right in that you view her through a New York filter (and vice versa) and everything else lands in accidental traces. Some readers might crave more of her backstory but I resisted that. There are some red-hot traces though hiding away. This is a pocket book after all.

SJB: The poems set on Ellis Island explore issues of ‘freedom and nonfreedoms’ in terms of immigration, but also in terms of imagination. At one point Josephine imagines herself being a range of other people – ‘that person in the bright green suit / or this person slumped in the shade.’ She is moved to tears when seeing a list of ‘aliens’ who were ‘forbidden entry’ and asks, ‘but how to assess / that alien mind when English was a foreign / tongue.’ Do you think that literature is a vehicle for inhabiting an ‘alien mind’?

PG: Absolutely. I have drafted a chapter on how poets step into the shoes of others for my book on New Zealand women poets and I was surprised at the directions my thinking took. The significant word here, though, is ‘alien’ and it seems pertinent in view of the current fracas in the world about immigration and difference. I was utterly moved by my trip to Ellis Island and encountering thorny notions of the Great American Dream. In these poems, Josephine never lets go of the fact she is outside peering in. I felt like an alien. I felt like I was trespassing. I felt like my ink was imbued with a volatile mix of fact and imagination. Every which way you look is the magnetic tug of hope. When I think back to those poems and my trip to the island it makes the mishmash of British hope so unbearable. The ability to understand one another seems so rusted apart. That’s how I felt on the island. That’s what I wanted to translate.

Image: 'Drowning in thoughts,' Kathrin Honesta, 2015

Image: ‘Drowning in thoughts’ by Kathrin Honesta, 2015

SJB: A few years ago I read Robert Hass’s ‘Iowa, January,’ and since then I’ve been obsessed with the two-line poem. You have quite a few in the collection. Can you talk about the pressure of a two-line poem, and what you wanted them to achieve?

PG: I like the way a two-line poem changes the melody of a book as a whole. I think Bill Manhire is a local whizz at this –he delivers little couplets that sizzle on the tongue and leave an effervescent after-taste like a shot of vitamins. They are like little lozenges of wit and song. Gregory O’Brien achieves the same delicious result. When I write two-line poems, I want a shift in melodic effect. I guess I am drawn to the way small things hold larger things: complexity, narrative, memory, mystery, even seeds of magnitude, tantalising reserve. As a teenager I was really into Eastern philosophy. Sometime it is just a matter of pausing to look at a leaf and seeing the way it foxtrots rather than waltzes.

SJB: New York Pocket Book shows your love for New York, and also for American poetry. Your poems feature poets such as Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, Louise Glück (who grew up in New York), and Alan Ginsberg. Has American poetry influenced your own writing?

PG: I think my debut collection, Cookhouse, was enormously affected by American poetry because I was enormously affected by American poetry at the time. I wrote it while I was doing my Italian Masters so poetry felt like a necessary counterpoint to inhabiting another language. I was drawn to an eclectic range of poets from Gertrude Stein to Susan Howe, from Robert Creeley to Frank O’Hara, from Robert Hass to Emily Dickinson, from H. D. to Wallace Stevens. Oh Louise Glück and Lyn Hejinian. My first book got some pretty scathing reviews and I felt at the time they were attacking American poetry as much as they were attacking my book. Murray Edmond wrote an extraordinary counter letter for Landfall. It was a vital lesson for a poet starting out. I immediately constructed a mental venue for the white noise of writing. The reviews, award seasons and so on can never erode what matters: writing itself.

My love of American poetry never left me, but my counterpoint to my Italian Doctorate shifted to New Zealand poetry. I wanted an increased familiarity with the communities from which I wrote. What American poetry gifted me, with that delicious knot of writing threads and poetry rebellions, is the courage to write in ways that suit me.

On being cowardly & ‘LITANIES TO MY HEAVENLY BROWN BODY’ by Mark Aguhar

Most of us feel heartbroken for the people killed in Orlando, and for the families of those people. I was vacuuming and listening to Dan Savage talk about meeting his husband in a gay club, and his voice kept on cracking. This is a man who in over 500 podcasts I’ve never heard break. As well as sadness, I’ve felt personally shaken by the murders. As though someone has twiddled a dial and my own life has come into focus.

If you’ve read some of my poems, you’ll know I grew up with a transgender father. Dad hid her womanhood until both my sister and I had long left home. The result of Dad having to hide – in the most general terms – was my dysfunctional childhood. I’ve always carried anger about that childhood. I’ve always felt a sense of entitlement, rightly or wrongly, to the chocolate box childhood of white suburbia.

Image: Art Hoe

Image: Art Hoe

On an intellectual level I know that Dad, as a trans woman, wasn’t hiding from me, my sister, or my mother. She was hiding because her identity would not be accepted let alone celebrated. She was hiding because she wanted to lecture at the university, and to provide for her family, and because she’d been taught a deep shame for who she was. After Orlando I started to emotionally understand my Dad’s choices, and to understand they’d become my own choices. I wanted to stand in grief with the LGBT community, but I couldn’t because I was hiding. Over the years I’ve referred to myself as ‘subtly subversive,’ but Orlando has made me realise ‘subtly’ is another word for ‘cowardly.’ As a white woman who appears straight and gender-typical, I’ve never had to say, beyond my close friends and family: I am bisexual. I am non-monogamous. I love both men and women.

As Owen Jones said, ‘This isn’t about me, so let’s just use it as a case study.’ This morning I was reading Olivia Laing’s piece on Orlando and erasure and she said:

You come out and you get pushed back in again. I summarised some of this in my last book, The Lonely City. Later, a journalist interviewing me asked if I’d had “trans pushback” for my comments. For a minute I didn’t know what she meant and then – that familiar, drenching rush of shame – I understood. She meant I wasn’t a real trans person because I wasn’t, as far as she could see, transitioning from one gender to another. We can’t see you, therefore you don’t exist. Straight people erasing queers for not fitting into their assumptions of how things should be. All of this came back to me when I watched the footage of Jones on TV. Forty-nine queer people dead, many of them Latinx, queer people of colour, their sexuality and race erased in an instant. Hardly any wonder Jones walked out. I can’t bear it any more, this arrogant, hateful refusal to see.

Unlike those who died in Orlando, no one tries to kill me. No one denies my existence. No one, that is, apart from myself. The one thing I can do for those who died in Orlando, and those of us who are straight appearing LGBT+ people, is to stop participating in LGBT+ erasure, and to stand up and be seen. It is an almost meaningless gesture in the liberal utopia that is Wellington, but it’s all that I’ve got. It’s what my Dad finally did, and continues to do each day. So this poem by Mark Aguhar, a trans poet of colour who committed suicide at the age of 24, this one’s for my Dad, and for all of those who won’t be erased.

Dad reading to my son over the holidays.

Dad reading to my son over the holidays.

LITANIES TO MY HEAVENLY BROWN BODY

FUCK YOUR WHITENESS
FUCK YOUR BEAUTY
FUCK YOUR CHEST HAIR
FUCK YOUR BEARD
FUCK YOUR PRIVILEGE
FUCK THAT YOU AREN’T MADE TO FEEL SHAME ALWAYS
FUCK YOUR THINNESS
FUCK YOUR MUSCLES
FUCK YOUR ATTRACTIVE FATNESS
FUCK YOUR SHAMING ME FOR NOTHING
FUCK YOUR ACCUSATIONS THAT I PRODUCE SHAME
FUCK YOUR READING ME AS A CARICATURE
FUCK YOUR DESTRUCTION OF MY PERSONHOOD
FUCK YOUR MARGINALIZATION OF MY IDENTITY
FUCK YOUR JUDGING ME FOR SELF CARE
FUCK YOUR ABILITY TO BE ASSERTIVE
FUCK YOUR LACK OF SOCIALIZATION TO BE A SUBMISSIVE
FUCK YOUR ASKING ME TO PRODUCE SAFETY FOR YOU AND NOT MYSELF
FUCK THE AMOUNT OF EFFORT I EXERT TO GET LESS THAN ENOUGH CONSIDERATION
FUCK THAT THE AMOUNT OF SPACE I TAKE UP IN THE WORLD IS CONSTANTLY QUESTIONED
FUCK THAT PEOPLE THINK I’M A SLUT
FUCK THAT YOU CAN DEMAND ATTENTION
FUCK THAT I’M WILLING TO GIVE YOU WHAT I CAN’T HAVE
FUCK THAT YOUR VALUES AND YOUR ACTIONS NEVER MATCH UP WHEN IT COMES TO ME
FUCK THAT I CAN’T EXPECT ANYTHING FROM ANYONE
FUCK THAT THE AMOUNT OF WORK I PUT INTO THE BEAUTY OF MY INTELLECT AND MY TALENT IS STILL NEVER ENOUGH

AMEN

BLESSED ARE THE SISSIES
BLESSED ARE THE BOI DYKES
BLESSED ARE THE PEOPLE OF COLOR MY BELOVED KITH AND KIN
BLESSED ARE THE TRANS
BLESSED ARE THE HIGH FEMMES
BLESSED ARE THE SEX WORKERS
BLESSED ARE THE AUTHENTIC
BLESSED ARE THE DIS-IDENTIFIERS
BLESSED ARE THE GENDER ILLUSIONISTS
BLESSED ARE THE NON-NORMATIVE
BLESSED ARE THE GENDERQUEERS
BLESSED ARE THE KINKSTERS
BLESSED ARE THE DISABLED
BLESSED ARE THE HOT FAT GIRLS
BLESSED ARE THE WEIRDO-QUEERS
BLESSED IS THE SPECTRUM
BLESSED IS CONSENT
BLESSED IS RESPECT
BLESSED ARE THE BELOVED WHO I DIDN’T DESCRIBE, I COULDN’T DESCRIBE, WILL LEARN TO DESCRIBE AND RESPECT AND LOVE

AMEN

The abseiling aunty: An interview with Ashleigh Young

Fits & StartsI like to read and review New Zealand poetry, and because I live in Wellington quite a few of these collections come from Victoria University Press. When Ashleigh Young began working as their editor, I began to notice her careful hand on the collections. I asked Ashleigh a few questions about being an editor.

Sarah Jane Barnett: I was watching the show Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee and Jerry Seinfeld asked Barack Obama, ‘If politics was a sport, what sport would it be?’ So, if editing was a sport, what sport would it be?

Ashleigh Young: I was about to say cricket – long bouts of brooding interrupted by sudden bouts of high-speed action and head-clutching – but you can say that about almost anything. About life. I wonder if maybe editing is a bit like tenpin bowling. Every bit of editorial interference is a small act of violence, essentially trying to knock things down – but there’s this attempt at elegance, at the graceful flourish. And then there’s the stubborn beauty of the pins that remain standing. Also, tenpin bowling is the sport of grudging office team-building that ends up being quite fun.

Just contradicting myself, though, I think there’s something intrinsically un-sporty about editing. The writer and the editor shouldn’t feel like they’re adversaries grappling for ultimate power. No one should be spraying champagne around if they ‘win’. They can do that at the book launch.

SJB: When I’m reviewing a collection of poetry I try to differentiate between my taste and poetic craft. The hardest to review are collections which are beautifully crafted, but are not the type of poetry I’m drawn to. Do you have a similar experience when editing? As in, how do you balance your own taste with what the writer is trying to achieve, or more so, with the vision of the publisher? How do you argue for a change that a writer may not want?

AY: I do have that experience sometimes. But even with a book that I wouldn’t ordinarily seek out, when I’m spending time with it I always discover something I like or admire or find funny. Editing is great for pushing you past your first impressions and limbering you up, testing your flexibility, as a reader.

As for how I’ll argue for an unwanted change, it depends what sort of change it is. If it’s a matter of style, like a decision to use macrons for te reo Māori or to spell out numbers one to ten, I’m not going to back down unless there’s a good reason for departing from an agreed rule (and, to be fair, in poetry there often is). But if the change is more a matter of content, such as rewriting a line because I think it’s too sentimental, that’s not something I can baldly insist on, no matter how much I’d like to. I can state my case once or twice, but if the writer doesn’t want it, you’re doing them a disservice by carrying on arguing. It’s the writer’s prerogative to not take your advice. There’s this phrase that comes up in publishing: ‘Sometimes you need to save an author from themselves.’ But you can’t every time. Who says they want saving, anyway? It’s a bit like giving someone advice on their dance routine. ‘Don’t do those jazz hands yet! It’s too soon! Do them at the end!’ Some writers will give you a withering look and do their jazz hands more energetically. I’ve had this experience when being edited myself.

As for the vision of the publisher, well. The publishing company I work for is interested, above all, in making vital contributions to people’s reading lives. That makes it easy for me because I want that too, and so does the writer. But I have been on jobs where I’ve had to compromise a writer’s work to meet a publisher’s or client’s demands, and that’s quite tough. Carol Fisher Saller, who wrote The Subversive Copy Editor and who runs a great blog with the same name, talks about ‘the most productive order of an editor’s loyalties’, and she believes that the writer should sit very close to the top of the list, and the publisher close to the bottom. Both of them are working together in the service of the reader, who sits at the very top. This might get me into trouble but I think that’s about right.

VUP Collections

Two VUP collections that Ashleigh’s edited.

SJB: I was having a conversation the other day about the difference between detail thinkers and big picture thinkers. I can imagine that line editing needs someone who can focus on detail, but the feel of a book must require big picture thinking. Can you talk to that idea?

AY: Technically this is the difference between substantive (or structural) editing, and copyediting. The substantive work is your big picture: which poems to keep and which to leave out, whether to have sections or no sections, whether the story (if a story is consciously being told) is coherent, and so on. And at the most basic level it’s what the book is ‘about’: its preoccupations and discoveries, its emotional register, its recurring images and characters, how the poems speak to one another. I see a lot of poetry collections where there’s no need for me to interfere greatly at that level, because the writer has already done a lot of deep thinking (… or unconscious thinking). Having said that, another collection might start out as a daunting morass that needs to be coaxed into a shape, and that’s a process of suggestion and refinement.

With both editing and writing poetry, the hard graft tends to happen inside the detail – I guess because that’s where the poetry is. As well as getting the mathematics of the work in place (spelling, spacing, quotations from other sources, etc.), I interrogate the language. The guiding question is always simply: is the language working hard? Other questions come from that. Could this image be sharper; is this abstraction too cryptic; is this adjective earning its keep; is this first line throat-clearing? A few days ago Bill Manhire tweeted this micro-poem:

The Weeping Poet

can’t see
the page
for the seepage

Sometimes the editor’s job is to get in there and clean up the seepage.

SJB: Writers often have funny routines to get themselves into the process of writing such as laying out snacks on the table, or making tea in a particular mug. Do you have routines to prepare yourself for editing? I suppose what I’m wondering is how does the emotional work of editing compare to that of writing?

AY: Getting my brain to wake up is my challenge. It’s like trying to get a cat off my lap – I just don’t want to disturb it. I was reading Sarah Bakewell’s biography of Michel de Montaigne recently, How To Live, and it was interesting how he perceived himself as sluggish, lax and forgetful at times. ‘I am nearly always in place, like heavy and inert bodies.’ I related strongly. I need a lot of exercise to wake my brain up before I settle in to work. After that, I need a lot of tea. Then I’m ready.

Editing tends to use different emotional muscles to those of writing. I get intensely caught up in other writers’ work, and I want the best for each and every one of them, but this feels different from living with my own stuff. It’s a bit like the difference between an aunty who abseils in and makes a fuss of everyone and then, satisfied, abseils out – and an actual parent, who, on top of the joy of creating something from nothing, gets all the sleeplessness and the vomit and the anxiety about the future.

Jerry, who often features on Ashleigh's Twitter feed.

Jerry, who often features on Ashleigh’s Twitter feed.

SJB: What already published work do you wish you’d been able to edit?

AY: This is tough! Honestly, I’ve never come across a book where I’ve thought I wish I could’ve got my hands on this. When I’m reading a book I’m just reading. There are certain authors I would love to work with, though. I would love to be one of their first readers, and to exchange emails with them and meet them for coffee and become their friends and be invited to their parties. I would’ve loved to work with Frederick Seidel on Ooga-Booga.

As well as being an editor Ashleigh also writes poetry and essays, and co-teaches science writing at the IIML. Her first book was Magnificent Moon (VUP, 2012) and she has a collection of essays, Can You Tolerate This? forthcoming in 2016. She also writes beautiful essay-like posts about ‘memory, mental health, cycling, and inconsequential things’ on her blog eyelashroaming.com. You can read a great interview with Ashleigh as part of the What Do People Do All Day? series.

Tuesday Poem: ‘Settling for Action Man’ by Claire Orchard

Settling for Action Man

That summer, blond Cindy (mine),
and blonder Barbie (borrowed,
belonging to my absent older sister)
spent many a weekend afternoon
on Niamh Guinness’s back lawn, partying hard
with Niamh’s brunette Cindy.
Yes, we keenly felt the lack
of a Ken doll. A Ken would have
brought us closer to a gender balance,
but Kens were in short supply
in our neighbourhood.
A Ken, with his blond hair and permasmile,
would have provided the perfect foil
for any, indeed all, of the female dolls,
despite his squishy head.
Without a Ken, we had to make do
with an Action Man borrowed
from Niamh’s oblivious older brother.
Action Man, although ruggedly handsome,
had visible hinges on his elbows and knees,
and his unwavering expression
of utter disdain made it harder for us
to pretend he fancied any of the girls.
Still, we had him plant long, hot, plastic kisses
upon their small, pink-painted mouths,
all the while pressing his camo-clad body
suggestively against them. Of course
the anatomical deviations of the participants
their obvious shortcomings and exaggerations
meant from the outset any action we choreographed
fell well short of our cherished romantic notions.
We made do. It proved valuable preparation.

‘Settling for Action Man’ is part of Claire Orchard’s debut collection, Cold Water Cure.  The collection will be launched at the Writers Week VUP Launch Party on Thursday 10 March (alongside Dad Art by Damien Wilkins and Fits and Starts by Andrew Johnston). It’s an event I don’t want to miss! You can read a Q&A with Claire about her collection and its ‘main character,’ Charles Darwin on These Rough Notes. You can read my review of the collection on The Pantograph Punch.

‘Beautiful and imperfect plans’: An interview with Gregory Kan

This Paper BoatA few years ago a publisher friend talked to me about Gregory Kan’s work. ‘It’s new – interesting,’ she said, and then, ‘you should read it.’ Some time later Kan’s first manuscript was shortlisted for the Kathleen Grattan Poetry Prize, and not long after I read his essay ‘Borrowed Lungs: My Life as a Conscript’ about Kan’s compulsory military service in Singapore. This is all to say that I’ve been waiting for This Paper Boat to come into the world.

This Paper Boat follows the author as he traces his own history through the lives and written fragments of Iris Wilkinson (aka Robin Hyde), his parents, and their parents. Hyde had a difficult life – she experienced the death of a lover and a child, near constant poverty, and mental illness. She also wrote some of New Zealand’s most exceptional novels and poetry, up until her suicide in 1939. I read This Paper Boat over two days, moving between the kitchen table where I work and lying on the couch in the evening sun. I finished the book late at night, reading the final sequence twice. It was dark by then. I moved to the bedroom where my partner was working and climbed on the bed and covered my face with a pillow. Some collections happen in the mind — others are an experience of the body. Such was the ache of the book that I had to hide my face.

The current movement in New Zealand poetry towards sequences and prose poems can be seen in This Paper Boat. The form slowly builds meaning and challenges the need for a transformational lyric moment. It’s satisfying and complex. The book’s acknowledgements thank poet Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle whose collection Autobiography of a Marguerite sequences autobiographical poems about family and identity, much like Kan. There’s something happening in Auckland with ‘All Tomorrow’s Poets,’ which is how I think of them after a National Poetry Day event of the same name (which included, among others, Alex Mitcalfe Wilson, Ya-Wen Ho and Alex Wild). It’s getting exciting. A few weeks before the launch of This Paper Boat I had the pleasure to talk to Greg about his collection.

Sarah Jane Barnett: Your collection describes difficult events that you, your family, and Robin Hyde went through such as military service, the loss of a child, and the way your great-aunt was abandoned by your grandfather. You write about these events with gentle and beautiful imagery. Do you see a relationship between gentleness or beauty and trauma?

Gregory Kan: I think for me the relationship is more that between trauma and silence or absence. When I read the book now, I can’t help but notice this tension between still surface and turbulent depth. There is a sense in which trauma is a kind of vanishing point — it resists witness or representation. One is therefore left to feel one’s way around the edges of the crater, in the sense that trauma is traced in its unfolding, its residue, not as an origin or event. In this book, any attempt to access trauma is deferred or displaced. I feel that the book attempts to complicate the writing of trauma or violence, in the same way that it complicates the writing of linear histories on a more general level. Beauty perhaps carries the sense in which this finitude, this incompleteness, is not something to be feared or avoided, but celebrated, as we are limited beings! I really wanted to shore up and pay tribute to the fact that we are finite agents with fallible modes of understanding. I do not believe that ‘the poet’ is some kind of omnipotent seer with interpreting powers beyond that of other people. It was very hard to toe this line. I have an inclination to write spectacular, maximal imagery, and this book was one of my first attempts to allow the absence and the arrangement to encourage the reader to participate as much as the visible text does.

SJB: When I read poetry I can’t help but notice the mechanics and craft. In your book the line breaks are disruptive and refuse to end somewhere expected. When reading some of Hyde’s poetry for this interview, I noticed that she did the same thing. Did you purposefully use any of her style, language, or techniques?

GK: Ha! In my extended seance with Hyde I would have absorbed many things from her work that I wouldn’t have been aware of. It was a surrender. I wanted Hyde to take me and the work to places I could never have anticipated. Since this book, it has been very important for me to disrupt my conscious intention and anticipatory planning in the process of writing. The writing was open to Hyde in a way that was not ‘affordable’ to me. One of my favourite ideas is that the outside is not something you ‘invite’ inside; the outside rather is something that butchers you open. This is the force of contingency that I think plays out both in the narratives of the book and also in its process of composition. When I was writing, I was often led by my hands more than my mind, so to speak. Sometimes I felt more like an engineer or sculptor than a writer. Hyde’s texts and mine fused together irreversibly as a block of raw marble that I then had the task of chipping away at.

SJB: I found the sections about your relationship with your parents very touching, especially the idea that when a child reaches adulthood, the child and the parents can reflect back on the relationship and see each other from a distance. The type of life your parents and grandparents have lived is quite different from your own, even with your military service. One passage I kept on coming back to was when the poet observes his mother’s relationship with religion, disclosure, and the ability to speak:

As she talks she looks off
to the right, where her Bible study notes have
amassed like leaves against the roots of a tree.

There are details I know she has hidden
from me. It is difficult to see my time
as removed or separate from that of my

parents’. I draw the boughs
downwards in the thickets
behind her eyes. A verbal tic, she cycles

through my siblings’
names – Joel, Sarah – before she gets to mine.

Last week I was reading about survivor’s guilt, and how it often comes out in grandchildren. At one point the speaker in your book states: ‘It is sometimes the least / personal thing, to want to renew one’s openness / to the outside.’ Was the collection in part a way to record your family and their stories, but also to understand and reveal your own experience of being part of this family – your way to speak? Was it both personal and impersonal?

GK: Absolutely. One way I think about this process is through the power of permission. I never thought I would be prepared to delve into my family narratives as I did in this book. Yet I had to as a way of coping with the world at the time. Working with Hyde’s work as a lens or path gave me a permission that I would have struggled to grant myself in any other context. It was both personal and impersonal in the sense that I was both my conscious intentional self and a heavily-distanced witness looking at these worlds through a series of refractory lenses. Again, this displacement of direct access to the past, and the world in general, was a way to gather a robust kind of understanding through (more than in spite of) the many partial perspectives.

SJB: Throughout the collection you use ‘I.’ as an abbreviation for Iris. It almost seems like a nickname which suggests a certain closeness. At the same time, the use of ‘I’ happens when writing in the first person, so it points towards the poet, or at least the poet inhabiting Hyde’s view of the world. As the book progresses, Hyde and the poet often blur and – in the most beautiful way – it’s unclear who we’re reading. The book also suggests a common experience between yourself and Hyde. For example, living between places and cultures, or out of culture; the way both of your voices stood out to others – you as the ‘potato eater’ and her who was told by a teacher she had ‘swallowed a potato.’ In short, how do you see your connection to Hyde?

GK: Certainly one thing that drew me to Hyde was her experience of bridging (or being torn across) many different worlds. While of course passing between worlds has been a major part of my experience of migration, I also wanted to emphasize how this is something that everyone encounters in their day-to-day experiences of the world. It is not an experience exclusive to someone who’s moved between countries, although of course it is perhaps very explicit and violent in the process of migration. Each one of us is many, and we experience our different selves when we are out on the street, or at work, or at home, or with a particular group of friends, etc. I think it is unnecessarily reductive to posit that there is a true self underlying all these others; rather I like to believe that each of us is in fact the entire constellation of our selves, and perhaps even more than that! I discerned some understanding of this in Hyde, this notion of boundedness, or more accurately, boundlessness. One is an extremely complex system that cannot easily be distinguished from its environment. Problematizing the concept of the self in this way is not very surprising in this day. The challenge was to have the text actually embody this concept as opposed to talk explicitly about it. I attempted various methods to achieve this – perhaps with varying levels of success – and referring to Hyde as “I.” was one (no pun intended?).

SJB: The book’s final section describes the rituals performed as part of ‘The Hungry Ghost Festival,’ such as ‘releasing paper / boats and lanterns on water, to ensure // that the ghosts find their way / back.’ This is the only segment of the book where the poet addresses Hyde directly as ‘you.’ Since reading the book I keep on returning to that moment, as though it’s rooted itself in my body. Do you see the book as a ‘paper boat’ that you are sending to her?

GK: Oh shit! You’ve pointed out the most disgustingly explicit POMO moment in the book. I’m blushing, but, yes, self-reference is being self-referenced. On a less apologetic note, I wanted it to point to how the past is constantly in conversation with the present, through all its traces, whether as writing, or the layers of sediment in rock formations, or stray hair collected in the corners of rooms. There is no linear arrow of time.

This Paper Boat was launched on 25 February at Time Out Bookstore in Auckland.
Find the book at Auckland University Press or good independent bookstores such as Unity Books.
Hear Greg talk about his work in the short film Paper Boat: Moments in the Life of a Book by Alex Mitcalfe Wilson

Tuesday Poem: ‘Shipwrecker’ by Nina Powles

Shipwrecker
Kaikoura, 1844

She plants daisies in a corner plotted out with bones
pulled from the ribcage of a sperm whale.

Her favourite thing hangs by the front door –
a string of whale’s teeth polished wonderfully bright.
Her father brought them home for her eighth birthday

which was a particularly good day
for whaling. A pod of dolphin-eating whales chased
a humpback calf, breaking its jaw quite rapidly.
They are baby’s teeth, he said, that’s why they are so
white just like yours.

When whales forget their maps they strand. The first time
she thought they were rocks but the funny shapes spat air,
little cloud prints floating just above. By tea-time they had died.
The whole place smelled like sea-monster said her mother.
They had white patches on their skin where big eyes ought to be.

Her father always says a whale’s tail can knock you
right out of your boat. The most dangerous part is just when
the harpoon goes in – you can see the white of the eye,
then blood and whale-groans and big waves. So it’s very
important he says, not to scare the whale suddenly.
She wonders how you kill a whale without
scaring it suddenly, and if down there
on the beach
is the least sudden place to die.

‘Shipwrecker’ is from the chapbook Girls of the Drift (Seraph Press 2014), which I read over the summer. The book features poems about real and fictional women from New Zealand history and literature, including Katherine Mansfield and some of her creations, the first permanent lighthouse keeper, the daughter of a whaler, poets Jessie Mackay and Blanche Baughan, and a school ghost. You can read some of Powles’ poems about Mansfield in issue #1 of Starling. She certainly has a gift for creating tension in a poem, and then making that tension turn or transform at the end. I’m often surprised and always hooked.

Nina Powles recently completed her MA in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters for which she won the 2015 Biggs Family Prize for Poetry. Her writing has appeared in Best New Zealand Poems, Salient, Turbine, and Sweet Mammalian.