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”.


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.

Reasons not to go online – # 2,447

ferris-wheel-by-mariana-figueroaSometimes the universe seems to line things up, so that it feels as though you are receiving a domino-chain of affirmation – random things, unrelated or only tangentially so, that fall into place with a sound like yes! Yes. Yes. See, we’re aligning for you! Yes. Yes. Yes. Synchronicity, in other words. I try not to be superstitious (or at least no more so than any other person who bases quite a big chunk of their personal happiness on creativity of some sort) (which doesn’t sound healthy, now I see it in type). But this is something I do believe in. That the universe does occasionally give nudges, hints, little shoves even. And it doesn’t have to be mystical – just a matter of circumstance and your perception of it making a particular goal or path seem more simple than usual. It is a Good Thing.

Aaaaaaaah!!!... 1 by ‘weatherbox’And then there’s the dark side. You know, when a perfectly ordinary activity suddenly, for no apparent reason, accumulates difficulty. So despite really really looking forward to teaching this new class, having a lot of the material ready to go, all good, I find myself feeling somewhat wary. Think long-tailed cat in a rocking-chair shop. This week Has Not Been Great. Not bad, but … Lots of little things. A (brief) power-cut when I was trying to pull class materials together. Phone calls from people trying to sell me something. Bread going mouldy. Losing a book I needed for four days. Thunder and lightning on two seperate days, meaning I have to unplug everything and wait for it to pass before I can get back into my work. Like I said, all very minor.Hands by Christer Rønning Austad

But then, while doing a bit of online research to finalise the first class, I came across this post on the Best American Poetry blog about Bad Workshops.



Teaching poetry – Kate Clanchy article

from Aristotle Teaching cI was recently sent a link to a gorgeous article in The Guardian written by Kate Clanchy: the story of The Very Quiet Foreign Girls poetry group. Having spent the weekend revisiting the deep pleasure of being a student (despite nearly dislocating myself trying not to butt in and teach over the top of poor Jo), it just felt like the perfect article to sum up What Is Very Right about the whole thing of teaching poetry, and why, despite it also being quite exhausting, it is incredibly satisfying. Even if I haven’t (yet) managed to shape someone to win awards and glory. (Surely it can only be a matter of time?!)

It also tapped into the same place as a lot of our pleasure in putting Leaving the Red Zone together – being able to help people voice things that otherwise stay locked up. (And we got a very nice review to that effect on the NZ Booksellers blog too.)

Things like this give me moments of hope for the human race. (Which will almost certainly curdle as soon as the next round of funding applications has to go in, but there you go.)

Hurray for good people, good teachers, and poetry!

Inertia is a thing with stacks of paper

I’m now at the point where shame has tipped me past grief, and I’ve actually started the tangible work of putting together Helen’s final collection.Helen cropped photo

I know, I’ve “started work” on this many many times in the months since she died. But it’s incredible how physically as well as mentally difficult it is to get myself past the point of just sitting on the floor, surrounded by bits of paper with her writing on them. Her words. Her poems. Many of which I’ve known intimately, since Helen first drafted them. Amongst her papers are poems covered with notes from our crit group sessions, as well as the notes we made working together, just the two of us. And her own notes to herself, underlining something someone had commented on, or suggesting a possible new word or phrase, or approach. Or occasionally just a small, neat blue cross, where she didn’t agree with whoever it was. Even in her dissent, she was compassionate. (You don’t want to know the sorts of things that I write in those situations.)

Helen, November 2011 sliceThe thing that finally broke through the inertia was other day, when I realised I’d been sitting there reading through her poems and saying the same phrase over and over for about an hour. Not something from her poems. Not even “I miss you”, which would make sense. Just “I love you”. Over and over. Strange, isn’t it? I wasn’t doing it intentionally. Just … that’s what kept tumbling from my lips. I love you. The last words we said to each other. Not sure who was saying them to whom this time round. But there are worse things to take as nudge from the universe.

So I now have A Plan, and A Timetable, and A Set of Tasks To Work Through Systematically. Lots of concerns still – I need to make this as strong a collection as is possible. I need to balance the edits I think need making with the edits she would have made herself – it’s her book, not mine, and I have to keep it that way. I need to shape it to make the most of every poem. I need to find a way of dealing with the fact that 90% of the poems have birds in them …

But I have a working title. And an opening epigraph. I found it by chance, on the back of an old bank statement. It’s incredibly Helen:

Helen’s epigraph

When you hear the birds’ urgent evening clatter
then you know it’s time to sing before the dark.

So that’s my working title: Time to Sing Before the Dark. Hard not to  read it as (at least a little) valedictory, but that’s ok. The dark isn’t always frightening. And song isn’t always happy. Helen’s poems are full of light and song and fierceness and shadows and flight and dance and lust and death and joy … life.

Now I just have to do them justice.