Five years on … and a badly kept secret

Five years ago today that the earth decided it was time for a change, and went off exloring the surrounding areas. Five years since sleepy, flat, boring Canterbury became an altogether too exciting place to try and and do anything like “settle”. Five years since phrases like “terra firma” (I can’t be the only person who replaces the first ‘a’ with ‘or’) and “safe as houses” and “rock solid” became markers of strong irony. Five years since we got a forcible reminder that plate techtonics is not a study of the distant past, or of things that no-one actually notices happening. (Canterbury is, in very literal ways, a happening place.) Five long, dragging, silt- and dust- and liquefaction-filled, demolition-plagued, politician-hijacked, bureaucratically-buggered, wearing, soul-destroying, home-wrecking, limbo-clad years. It feels like vastly more. It feels like much less.

I’ve actually just deleted half a page, because I realised I was ranting again about the situation of Cantabrians living in the aftermath. And I know most of the rest of New Zealand are sick of hearing about it. (Fair enough. We’re sick of living in it. Wanna swap?) It still surprises us when something jolts us back into realising all over again how different things are AE (After the Quakes). If it catches us out, how could you be expected to get it?

Which is where art comes in. The point of art isn’t just to exist for its own sake, or to be a way of the artist staring into their own psyche and wallowing in their own internal world. That’s part of it, and can be an important part of how it is created. But it also has to be able to speak to someone else. To convey that experience, or at least some sort of facsimile of that  experience, to another person. Art works because it bypasses all the usual filters and barriers and speaks directly to the gut and the heart as well as the brain. Art that works is about as close to mind-melding as we humans have been able to come. Beyond words, even the genres that use language as their medium. To remind us. To make us look again. To make us remember. To use an entirely appropriate pun, to jolt us awake.

The earthquakes have produced a lot of art in response. Painting, photographs, street art, music, essays, and especially poems. People who haven’t even read a poem since being forced to do so at gunpoint in High School, felt compelled to try to frame their experience in patterned langauge. Some have been horrendous. Some have been amazing. (Plenty of poems — mine abundantly included — have even managed somehow to be both things simultaneously …) So now it’s time for me to finish outting the worst-kept secret of the local poetry scene: we (James Norcliffe and yours truly) are putting together an anthology of poetry from the Canterbury earthquakes, and are throwing it open to general submissions.

A couple of things to note. 

First, we are still negotiating for a publisher, so there are no guarantees that the project will go ahead. (There is some understandable caution regarding “earthquake fatigue”.) 

The second thing is that (as it stands at the moment, at least) contributors are being asked to waive their fee. In other words, you won’t be paid for being published. And we won’t be paid for our time and work putting the collection together. Instead we are intending all profits from the collection to go to a suitable earthquake charity. (All of which may get thrown out if the publisher decides they don’t like the idea, but this is where we’re starting from.)

Then there’s the question of who we are accepting poems from. Short answer: anyone. But the full answer is a bit more complicated. Lots of non-Cantabrian poets have written and published or performed earthquake poems. Some of the poems have been damn fine. But as the anger following Gaylene (no relation) Preston’s telemovie Hope and Wire showed, there is a line between being supportive and being exploitative, and not everyone stays on the right side of it. So by all means send in your poems, even if you don’t (or didn’t) live in Canterbury. But if you have no actual connection to the Canterbury of the earthquakes, unless your “outsiderness” creates a view that strikes us as valuable or interesting, your work isn’t likely to pass the sniff test.

One thing I’m especially interested in seeing is more poems about the experience outside the city. Darfield. Greendale. Prebbleton. Tai Tapu. Hororata. Kaiapoi. Lyttleton. Amberly. All you folk on the Peninsula. Way too many people forget that Christchurch was just the most populous area affected. We need the voices of the rest of Canterbury as well. And not just about the experience during the quakes — how life has changed. What has stayed the same. The EQC experience of having strangers walking through your house, measuring walls, noting damage. The unexpected kindness of neighbours. The changes to the landscape. How livestock coped, or didn’t. How you go about repairing huge cracks in the land, not just in the road or in building. Talk to me, people. Write it.

You can email your poems either to me (prestondotjoannaatgmaildotcom) or to James normelatcleardotnetdotnz). The deadline is October 30th 2015. Don’t flood us with screeds of everything you’ve ever written that vaguely fits — we’re after the best poems possible, and you will be competing for our attention with the best poets in New Zealand. Likewise, please don’t expect us to edit your poems for you — that’s your job. Be professional about it. 

Go well. And be kind to each other. Kia kaha.

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