What I did on the weekend …

Way back in December last year, as I was first wallowing in the delights of Canadian poetry and checking out the magazines that had published poems I particularly enjoyed, I came across something that sounded interesting: the Contemporary Verse 2 Two-Day Poem Competition. Very simple – you sign up, and at midnight on the first day of the contest you would be emailed a list of ten words which you must then use in a new poem. Everyone gets the same words, and you have to use them all, in the exact form provided (so no changing the tense, that sort of thing). And you had two days in which to do it.

One of the things that sold the competition to me was the way they choose winners – a First, Second and Third place (quite usual), plus an Editor’s Choice (ooh, bonus!) and a People’s Choice (double bonus!) and an Editor’s Dad’s Choice. At which point I fell hopelessly in love and decided that I had to give it a go. The fact that you could also get a heavily discounted subscription to the magazine along with your entry was the chocolate sprinkles on the whipped cream on the icing on the cake.

But that was back in December. I had completely forgotten about the competition, so it came as somethig of a surprise when I receieved the first email about it, counting down the last few days to go until it all kicked off. Crikey. A complicating factor was that we were looking at a fine weekend here, after yet another week of heavy rain. My garden needed me in ways that weren’t really easy to put off. Plus we’re in the middle of trying to replace our old logburner, so I was also sending emails off to tradesmen and suppliers and so on. Not an atmosphere entirely conducive to creativity. writingmugBut hey, my students manage to come up with poems in half an hour, and I was going to have two days. Previous years’ words had been really interesting and evocative – salt, becoming, furuncle, bearded, fortune, hinky, animate, fervent, prune, and emerald in 2016; satellite, ham, soaking, lapsed, stencil, mirrored, before, pyrite, faked, and appliances in 2015; and booster, timbres, cramp, unlocked, putative, wolf, barge, versions, probably and tag in 2014. So interesting mixtures of tense and form, with one tricky word thrown in to stretch you. But lots of possibility. (As was proven repeatedly by the quality of the winning poems.)

Yep. Like to guess the words we got, 5 pm Saturday afternoon, New Zealand time? They were:

  • bunk – ok, noun or verb, quite casual;
  • dank – again, interesting word, lots of possibility although likely to head down a slightly Gothic path;
  • stippled – nice adjective, just have to avoid pairing it with ‘shadow’ and miring myself in cliche;
  • begets – cool bananas, lots to do with this one;
  • unroofed – oooh, yes! this is starting to take shape;
  • foundling – hmm, definitely nudging me towards the Gothic (but lets be honest: it doesn’t take much);
  • bombastic – a bit of a challenge. But I can work with that;
  • daguerreotype – hmm, another tricky one,  but againI think I can work with it;
  • copacetic – what? Where did that come from? I don’t even know what it means. (whimper)
  • absquatulated – you’re making this up! WTF?! Abwhatsulated?!!

It was at this point that I started having a small panic attack.

Four stonklingly long, overly-complicatated words. I mean, I could manage bombastic and daguerreotype, but the other two how-the-hell-do-you-even-use-this-in-a-sentence words … no idea. (For those who are wondering, “copacetic” means ‘in excellent order’, and “absquatulated” means ‘buggered off’. Apparently. Although I may be paraphrasing the latter.)

So began two days of writing hell. And vast quantities of avoidance. On the other hand, I did make a new compost heap. And cleaned the toilet. Both toilets, actually. And got a fresh coat of paint on the cupboard doors.

I tried everything. Freewriting (you don’t want to know how many pages were just ARGH!!!!!! and a random assortment of swear words), defining parts of speech and doing a noun-to-noun verb-to-verb substitution into a handy poem by someone else, researching the etymology of the words, coming up with rhymes (good luck with that), trying to use a form of some sort … I just couldn’t find a way in. Saturday night turned into Sunday morning, which turned into Sunday afternoon, which turned into Sunday night … the whole time my poor brain was doing a hamster-wheel thing, churning the words over and over – Dank! churn churn churn Bombastic! churn churn churn Copacetic! churn churn churn squeak churn Foundling! churn churn … Eventually Monday morning came, and I was facing something even worse than a blank page: a page with lots of scribble, but nothing even remotely resembling a poem.

I tried to comfort myself with the words of Thomas Edison – I have not failed. I’ve just found 10000 ways that won’t work – but that didn’t help much. Ultimately I just had to do the hardest thing of all – sit there, and write. And keep writing. And writing. And writing. Brute force and bloody-mindedness. To the accompaniment of Ludovico Einaudi’s Experience (a really great piece of music: enjoy!):

Eventually it all did – sorta – work. I ended up needing to break into the Easter egg stash for fuel, but I got something done. Something that could, if you screwed your eyes up and squinted the right way, having first adopted an open, friendly and enthusiastic mood, have passed for a poem. So at 2pm I went outside for the first time since feeding the chooks, and pottered for half an hour. Then came back inside to try and edit some sense into the damn poem, and make copacestic and absquatulated less like the mutt’s nuts. By which I mean I hid them amongst other words of similar bombast, and hoped for the best.

All the time I’m doing this, the clock is ticking down. A fact that I suddenly realised with five minutes to the deadline.

They were not pretty minutes. I had to quickly bang it all into MS Word, check the contest rules for how exactly it was meant to be formatted (and I have a horrible feeling that I cocked at least one of the requirements up … argh), open an email, attach the document, add my contact details and title of the entry to the body of the email, and hit “send”.

I heard the swoosh sound of the email being sent as the clock on my computer ticked over to 5 pm. Immediately after which, my “you’ve got mail!” sound played, and a cheery email from the competition organisers appeared, announcing the competition closed for another year.

I have no idea if I managed to squeak in under the deadline by the narrowest of all possible margins, or if I did the face-palm opposite, and miss by the narrowest of possible margins. Either way, I thik we’re talking Planck units.

So there you have it. My crit groups will have the opportunity to see the carnage for themselves. I think there may be a worthwhile poem in there, somewhere.

But I suspect it won’t include the words “copacetic” or “absquatuated”.

Hooray for Rattle (without the Shake and Roll)

Confetti By nathanmac87A lovely bit of news – I’ve been selected as the Editor’s Choice in the latest iteration of the Rattle Monthly Ekphrastic Challenge! Hooray!

And what makes it even sweeter is that it was the first poem I managed to write this year, so I’m choosing to take it as an omen of Good Writing to Come.

I’d come across the competition a month or so earlier, while perusing listings on Duotrope as part of my vow to Be Good and Get More Poems Out There. I’ve got a couple of ekphrastic poems that have yet to find their home, so that was part of my searching. Rattle is one of those magazines that’s been on my radar for quite a while, so I leaped at the chance. I had a read through previous winners, and really liked what I saw. A mixture of formal and free, a huge range of styles and themes. And there are actually two winners each month: an Editor’s Choice and an Artist’s choice, which seemed like a really nice approach – both parties are coming at the question of which poem to choose from different angles, and it’s been fascinating to see the differences between the two selections in past competitions.

“Reloj de cuco” by ArchivaldoMy (likely-to-be-broken-but-hey-why-not-at-least-try) resolution for this year is to try and write a poem for each monthly chllenge. I’m sure I won’t manage it (and probably shouldn’t enter again, at least for a little while), but it’s a good thing to aim at.

In the case of this poem, I played around with various Ekphrastic and/or photo-based exercises for a bit, but wasn’t sure what the tone was going to be. (I did, at one stage, have it beginning “Come, all ye people of San Francisco, and see /…”) What eventually gave me the way in to the poem was a bit of research on the etymology of the word calendar:

calendar: Middle English from Latin kalendarium; “moneylender’s account book”,  from kalendae “calends”, the first day of each month, when accounts were traditionally settled.

coin hoard aSo it would seem that the idea of time being money has always been around.

This got me thinking about the way that we talk about time – we spend it, we waste it, we wish we had more. And how the passage of time is represented – leaves turning colour, falling leaves, pages fluttering, wrinkles and aging, and dust accumulating … I began to see the woman in the picture as some kind of magician, pulling extra time out of the air and trying to hang on to it by pinning it to her clothes. (Go have a look at the image yourself on the website – I’m not sure about the copyright issues of my attaching it to this page directly, so go and have a look. I’ll wait.)

I also had a lot of fun trying to work out what coin to use – florin was the placeholder, but krugerrand is perfect, both in sound and sense. (For those who don’t know and don’t want to go looking – it’s a bullion coin, something created to be a investment, not ever currency. Ultimate bling. And for my generation at least, the association of krugerrands with apartheid also adds an element of suspect morality which I enjoyed echoing in the bankers reference).

I originally had the poem ending with the first line, but I kept stumbling back to it. So eventually I gave in, and had to wrack my brains for a new way to end the flipping thing. (Always tricky when you’re working on a lyric – rather than narrative – poem. The story is no help to you.) I think I managed to get the ending at around 11 pm on the night before it had to be in.

Jokes aside, I really am thrilled about this. I liked the poem, but although it got positive – and slightly solicitous – responses from my husband and crit group (not the same thing), I wasn’t sure it would work for other people as well. I don’t write lyric poems very often. And I was waaay too close to this one to be able to judge it yet – forget about nine months in the bottom drawer, this one barely got nine minutes. So Tim’s enthusiastic response was gratifying and reassuring in equal measure.

Moral of the story: try, even if you don’t have high expectations, because the muse may just be watching …

takahē: the exit interview

from Bosch’s Allegory of IntemperanceJoanna Preston re-interviews Joanna Preston

Today, once again, I’ll be interviewing poet, editor, chicken-keeper, creative writing tutor and masochistic glutton-for-punishment, Joanna Preston. Joanna, good morning.

Good morning, Joanna. Lovely to be here again. Love what you’ve done with the curtains.

I haven’t done anything with the curtains.

I know. This is the way I love them. Just the way they are.

Um, yes. Right. Joanna, I understand—

Did you get the Billy Joel reference there? “I love you juuust the waa-aay you aaaaaaaarrrre …” Billy Joel.

Yes, I did pick up the reference.

Well done.

Shall we get on with the interview?


Thank you.

Fabulous. Heh heh heh.

Now I know you didn’t watch Absolutely Fabulous, so that particular dropped reference is—

Pushing it?

I was going to say “cheesy” and “gratuitous”, possibly also “not interesting”, but we can certainly sum those things up with “pushing it”.

Please not that I am not invoking Salt-N-Pepa here.

Your self-restraint is a constant source of wonderment to me.

Or any other sort of condiment.

I think I’ve got it out of my system now.

Shall we try the interview?

Yes please.

Joanna, the last time we spoke, you had just taken the step, some would even say the insane step, of becoming the new poetry editor at takahē magazine.

Heavens, time goes by quickly, doesn‘t it?

It does. A little under three years.

Seems much longer.


Coulda sworn it was more like … more than three.

No, I’m afraid not.

I’m sure I’ve got more grey hairs than three years could account for.
Well, yes, but the grey hairs have more to do with your being [CENSORED] years old, not just your stint with takahē.

I refuse to accept that.

Die, then.

I beg your pardon?

from Bosch’s Allegory of IntemperanceSorry, Freudian autocorrect: dye then. Hair dye. Although the other is the more permanent solution. Not to mention inevitable. Dye or die. Up to you.


But also not.

This has gotten dark a lot faster than I had anticipated.

You may have a point.

Shall we move on?

Yes, let’s.

Good. The only way is up.

Very possibly.

For yoouuu and meee, babeeeee … 

Oh god …

Ahem. Sorry. My apologies. Won’t happen again.

Thank you.


[Deep breath and a bright voice] Joanna, you’ve just stepped down from your role as Poetry Editor for takahē. How was it?

Generally good. I got to read some fabulous poems.

Any particular highlights?

There were a couple of poets who made their first appearance in publication with us, which is great. I remember how wonderful it felt when I got my first yes, so I’m really chuffed to have been able to give that nod to a few other people. And we got a poem into Best New Zealand Poems 2014Brian Turner’s “You Could Say”. So that was another nice little nod of affirmation. 

Any bad experiences?

Really only two. One was a poet who took umbrage at my rejection of their work including a sentence saying which poem was closest and why it ultimately didn’t make it in.

And they took umbrage? In what way?

Something along the lines of it being well understood that when sending a rejection it was inappropriate to include a critique when not asked to do so. I can sort of understand the poet’s point, in that a rant about the poem’s shortcomings can be quite a confronting thing to receive. Except that’s not what I sent – I don‘t remember the exact words, but it was along the lines of “Poem X was the closest, but I felt that Y didn’t quite work.”

Hmm, I think I see what you mean. But why did you do that amount of comment? Why not just “No, thank you”?

I did, in some cases. When I ran out of energy, or it didn’t seem appropriate, or when there wasn’t anything much I could think of to say. But it can be really frustrating to just get a blanket “No”. It’s good to get some idea of what it was that they did like, even if not quite enough to say yes to. What nearly made it, and why it ultimately didn’t. If nothing else, it helps you refine your future submissions. Bernadette Hall used to send me wonderful rejections, picking out the one thing I’d done well and gently guiding me away from the things that I was doing badly. And I’ve had other editors who have offered me comments – for acceptances as well as rejections – which have been wonderfully insightful, and have helped me see something in the work that I hadn’t noticed. I wanted to be able to pay back some of that generosity.

And, presumably, to guide future submissions in such a way that they’d be more rather than less likely to make the cut? To pre-whittle some of the chaff, as it were?

Nice metaphor! Yes, that too.

from Bosch’s Allegory of IntemperanceYou said there were two bad experiences. What was the other?

Oh yes. A really good example of someone doing what you Absolutely Don’t Do. They’d submitted some three-line poems that they called haiku. They weren’t haiku, and weren’t publication-standard as poems, but I sent what I thought was a fairly friendly rejection, explaining fairly briefly what it was that meant they didn’t work as haiku, and suggesting a few places for the poet to go to find more information about the form. Quite brief, but trying to be helpful. I remember I finished by saying “Haiku are deceptively hard to write well, but are a wonderfully rewarding form. Good luck!”.

Sounds reasonable. So what happened next?

I pressed “Send” on my email. And within five minutes – genuinely five minutes, because I couldn’t quite believe it and I checked – I got a response from the poet. Two words.

Oh. I’m assuming those two words weren’t “thank you”?

No. Very much the opposite of “thank you”.


Yes, although not the ones you’re thinking of. The words were “get stuffed”.

Interesting …

Yes, I thought so. The person had enough self-control not to go into a long, sweary rant in response, but still thought that it was worth being that rude. I half expected that I’d get an apologetic email later, when the person calmed down. In which case they might have redeemed themselves somewhat. But no. 

Just so we’re clear: this person thought it was perfectly fine to tell an editor to get stuffed?

Oh yes.

Were they an adult, or a child?

An adult. With children, according to the bio.

There’s really nothing more to be said about that, is there? Other than possibly “alert CYFs”.


A good editing horror-story.

Moving on. I recall that when we spoke last, you were looking forward to being able to just concentrate on the editing side, with none of the admin. How did that work out for you?

This is about the website, isn’t it?

Yes, this is about the website. Tell the nice people about the website.

I ended up doing the new website for takahē.

And by “doing”, you mean …

Creating. Designing. Teaching the other editors to use. Running it.

And you have experience in website design?

Not … as such, no.

So why you?

Becuase mumble mumble mumble mumble.

Speak up.

It just happened! Alright, it just happened! Jane said she’d take over marketing if someone else took over the website, and one minute we were talking about possibilities and how much easier it would be if we were using WordPress for it and that most of the work was already done by the templates and so on and it was simple and anyone could do it and someone said oh alright I’ll set it up then and somehow it turned out that it was me mumble mumble

from Bosch’s Allegory of Intemperance“Somehow”? In what way? Precisely how, “somehow”? Someone else said it and threw the words out of your mouth? You were having an out-of-body experience? You were possessed? You were drunk? Or the others slipped you something in your coffee and then told you that’s what you’d said when you came round again?


Sigh … ok. You set up the website. And now you’ve found someone else to take over running it for you.

Yes, Rata Ingram has taken over the web stuff, and James Norcliffe has taken over the poetry editing. So I am free. Freeeeeeee! Frrrrrrreeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!

So finally back to getting Janus finished, yes?

Well … sort of. I have to get Helen Bascand’s final collection done first. And then I have a few more poems that I need to write for Janus. But that’s pretty much it.

Ok, good.

And then I need to edit them.

The poems?


The ones you haven’t written yet.

y…es. Yes. Them too.

How far into the process are you with the new poems you have to write?

Going really well! I’m already well up on last year’s output, and the year is only just beginning!

That is good news! So, you’ve written, what, a dozen new poems?

I’m two-thirds of the way to last year’s total!

Ah. I’m getting a familiar feeling.So. You’re working on Helen’s collection, you’re getting ready to complete Janus, and you are surprisingly, and, dare I say it, enterprisingly vague about actual numbers. Let me make a guess. A wild stab-in-the-dark. You’ve moved on from takahē in order to have more time for your own work. Logically then, with those two commitments – Time to Sing and Janus – a sensible person would also be pulling back from other time-absorbing things.

I don’t like where this is going.

And yet here we are. So. My guess. You’re teaching again, aren’t you?

I’m teaching again, yes, as well. But you know, I did last year too, as well as takahē editing. It‘s rewarding. I like it. It makes me feel useful.

Ok, It makes you feel useful.

It makes me feel useful.

And it keeps you in touch with other poets.

And it keeps me in touch with other poets.

And it makes you do lots of reading.

And it makes me do lots of reading.

And it gives you an excuse to not write any of your own poems.

And it gives me an excuse to not write —wait, no, I’m not falling for that one.

Which brings us full circle. You’ve written two-thirds as many poems this year as you did last year.
You’ve written only two poems, haven’t you.


Joanna Preston …

I am an idiot?

You took the words right out of my mouth.

Signing off for 2016

Having done bugger-all blogging in 2016, it feels a bit rich to be signing off for the year (what, you’re still around?! I thought you’d been ossified), but none the less, I am so doing.

Pohutukawa aIt’s been a funny one. Again. We had the Earthquake anthology, plus quite a few more big shakes. Takahē, and leaving takahē. Quite a few personal upheavals and stresses, at least one of which involved me assuming what my doctor referred to as The Hostage Position for an extended period of time. But some great things too – three book launches in the latter part of the year for poetry collections that had at least some of their genesis in my classes (Karen Zelas’s I Am Minerva, Jane Simpson’s A world without maps, and Marisa Cappetta’s How to tour the world on a flying fox) – quite apart from my personal feelings of pride, all three are crackingly good, and you definitely should get your hands on copies. And I’ve met a lot of new people in my classes, and have probably enjoyed teaching this year more than any other year to date – hard work to prepare, but all of the groups really clicked together, and we all had an absolute ball. (I do feel ridiculously lucky to be able to do this sort of thing and be paid for it. What, dedicate a few months to reading lots of interesting books, and then talk about them? At length? To a captive audience? And they pay me?!) And I got to read Fare at the final evening for the CPC, which was really good. And although I was feeling anything but confident during the reading itself, I had a number of people come up to me afterwards to say how much they’d enjoyed hearing it. It’s actually been a wee while since I’ve read through it, and I had the thoroughly pleasant experience of going through and saying ooh, that’s a lovely bit of imagery! Wow, I got that bit really right! and feeling surprised by it in a good way. Not an experience you get often, and one I’m very grateful for.

Speaking of my own poems, the poems-written count is a bit sad though – three. Just three. Only one of which is publication-ready. (Editors? Anyone?) At best a … fallow … year. But I am clearing a lot of the extraneous things away, so next year should be a bit better for my own writing. And I have come to terms with the fact that the universe will always give me dramas or disasters or distractions, so waiting until my life is clear and smooth before I knuckle down and focus on writing will just give me even less reason to think of myself as an actual writer.

I did have another couple of paragraphs making witty references to global disasters such as the one that sounds like a racist version of breakfast, or the one beginning with T and ending in arse or something very like that … but frankly it’s all too depressing. And there is always something depressing. Not to mention genuinely tragic. I believe the situation was best summed up by Forest Gump:

Shit Happens.

(Did you think I was going to give you the one about life being like a box of chocolates, and how you never know what you’re going to get? I always know what I’m going to get in a box of chocolates. That‘s why I get ones with little maps and colour-coded wrappers. And threaten to cut the hands off anyone who rummages around in said box without permission.) (Written permission.)

So as the year 2016 wanders drunkenly to its conclusion – assuming we do make it that far, which I accept is not a given – the best I can offer you is: be kind to each other. And enjoy the good bits – the wonderful poems, the laughs, the early morning cups of coffee, the amazing books, the late-night strolls around the garden or a park or just down the hall to bed. Tell at least one person that you love them. Wear sunscreen. And when the walls start shaking – drop, cover, and hold. On to a book of poetry, for preference. But a table-leg will do.


Free session – An Introduction to Close Reading

from Aristotle Teaching bAs a final little flourish before we all pack things up for the year, I’m offering a free short seminar-style class immediately after the final session of Reading for Writing on December 3rd – an Introduction to Close Reading, focusing exclusively on Don Paterson’s poem Imperial.

I talk a bit about the practice of close reading on my Commentaries page, and it is the fundamental underpinning of all my Reading for Writing classes. I used to spend quite a bit of time at the beginning of each new workshop series in going through the whys and wherefores of it all, but with most of my students these days being people who have been through multiple classes with me, I’ve pared the explanations right back. (Plus I do have a couple of people who have threatened mutiny if I bring Imperial out again …) But it’s such an important skill (and such an amazingly deep and complex poem) that I’ve decided I need to offer this as a stand-alone session, and make it as widely available as I can. (Possibly I should always have my first R4W class be a more formal introductory class, to give my newbies a good foundation to build from. Hmm. Shall have to think about that.)from Aristotle Teaching c

Anyhow, if you’re interested in attending this session, we’ll be starting between 1.30 and 2 pm (depending on how late our final R4W class runs), and will go until 3 pm. It’s mostly going to be me standing in front of the white board and talking, so no writing exercises or anything like that. The session is completely free, but I do need you to tell me that you plan to be there so I have enough handouts printed (and don’t have to keep getting up every few minutes to let yet another person in). Either email me directly, or leave a comment below (I get to see your email address, but it shouldn’t be visible to anyone else).

Looking forward to it!


What: An Introduction to Close Reading
Where: The Sydenham Room,
South Christchurch Library Learning Centre
When: 1.30 to 3 pm
Saturday 3rd December 2016
Cost: Free!