Dispatches from the latest poetry class

Boeotian muse reading scrollHaving loads of fun with this latest class. We’ve got a really good group, with roughly half of them being people I’ve not taught before. Which can be quite nerve-wracking to begin with – you’re never quite sure what will and what won’t work, whether there will be personality clashes, or whether the differences in level and experience will mean you have rafts of people in each exercise either bored or floundering. But so far it’s been really great, with everyone seeming happy to be there and be involved. And we’ve had some absolutely stunning poems, usually preceded by a variation on the theme of “This is pretty rough, and way too long, and I didn’t do it properly”. Sigh!

The most recent exercise (and the one I’ve set them for homework) was to write a Sevenling. We did a collaborative one as a warm-up, and I reckon it’s a pretty damn fine first attempt:

Three Saturday regrets – getting married,
not getting married,
coming to poetry class.

Three Saturday wishes – getting married, not
getting married, coming to
poetry class.

A poem about divorce, but not a good one.

The key components of the form are the seven lines in three stanzas structure; the two groups of three in each of the first two stanzas; the ‘punchline’ or ‘key to the riddle’ nature of the final line; and the overall sense of something much bigger that the poem gives a taste of.To my mind, the last line of this poem does everything it’s meant to with considerable aplomb. e2809cdeliberatione2809d-by-bert-kiewiet-1998The ambiguity is important, I think – what does the ‘but not a good one’ refer to? The poem? The divorce? The poem’s I generally? All of the above? (And no, I didn’t come up with the last line. Amy, take a bow!) Is it likely to turn up on Best New Zealand Poems 2016? Probably not, (and not only because of questions of literary quality). But still, I’m thoroughly chuffed with the effort.

It’s a nifty form, and a good one I think to add to my repertoire for teaching purposes. And I’m really looking forward to seeing what they can come up with with a week to work on the task.


The Ministry of Sorrow

Build it of stone, of brick, of twisted
metal. Build it of shattering masonry.
Build it of glass. Build it of cards
of condolence. Build it of tears. Build it
of lives, of lies, of lying alone
with the stone of absence filling your belly.

Build it of stars. Build it of asphalt. Build it of shoes
by the bed. Build it of wounds. Build it
of sutures. Build it of sirens and smoke alarms,
build it of false alarms, build it of falling
and bruising and broken bones.
Build it of unanswered telephone calls
at four a.m., and the hours torn open till dawn.

Build it of sleeplessness. Build it of anxiousness.
Build it of thankfulness. Build it of guilt,
gild the lobby and marble stares. Build it
of doctors and firemen and mothers and teachers
and shopkeepers, build it of strangers,
some of them family. Build it of sky
in unfamiliar places.

Build it of faces, clouded
and fading from photos, from memory’s
unbolted store-room. Build it
of all the words left too late to be spoken,
lodged like thorns in your throat.
Build it of quietness, chinks of it spreading
like light from the edge of a shuttered window.
Build it of knowing that those days
are over. Build it of those days. Build it of these.
Build it of soldiers and shipping containers
and hard hats and high-vis vests.
Build it of trying to buy
the other kind of black dress.

Build it of trees, build it of weeds.
Build it of flowers sprouting from traffic cones.
Build it of voices embalmed on an answer-phone,
thinking you hear their laugh
when you’re on your own, missing
the punch line, skipping the deadline,
guarding the red-line, under the bread line.
Build it of madness and raving
and hurling your howl to the wind.

Build it of books with inscriptions that catch you off-guard
one night, late, browsing the shelves.
Build it of paper. Build it of paperwork. Build it of forms.
Build it of notices. Build it of random
diversions, phrases from surveys and polls
with boxes to tick, sometimes or yes.

Build it of failing hearts, build it of false starts,
build it of age and the dying of light.
Build it of rattling bars, build it of clubs, pubs heaving,
spilling their fear out onto the footpath,
build it of last drinks, build it of last toasts and last posts
and last rites, build it of last words, build it of lasting,
build it of finally sleeping the night.

Build it of gestures, futile and otherwise.
Build it of faces in rear-view mirrors,
build it of hands outstretched in the darkness, hands
falling to fists, gripping the phone, the frame of a door.
Build it of words, filling with smoke and concrete dust.
Build it of all the things still to be done.

Build it for all we have lost,
for all our losses to come.

first published in
Leaving the Red Zone – poems from the Canterbury Earthquakes
(Clerestory Press, 2016)

Anzac Day

anzac memorial poppies 2

All our fathers and uncles
going off to war
like going down to the pub.

Whirled away like paper dolls
painstakingly cut from khaki
by little girls,

confetti men tumbling
into rice paddies, into names
like Kokoda and Nui Dat.

See them scatter into the twigs
into the puddles, the rivers
into the villages

folding up clouds of nightmares,
locking them away in a green
metal box with a yellow lid,

bivouacked in dust
in the corner of the loft
– I can hear them stirring.

In memory of Ian Harris (1946 – 1994)

And so the year begins (… better late than never)

Aoba-yama park04s3872Hooray, I’ve just written my first poem for the year!

(Yes, I know it’s February already – return your gaze to the post title for a moment. See? I realise it may seem as though I create the titles first and then organise my life – or at least my posting schedule – to follow from that, but it’s actually the other way around.)

Ahem. As I was saying: the first computer-draft of the year’s first poem is sitting beside me, and looks pretty decent. More to the point, it feels really good to have written. Now it goes to the file, and will be presented to my first reader when we get together for our first session of the year. Then it will languish in a brand new folder, awaiting its turn in the editing queue. I’m not going to post the poor wobbly thing here (or not yet awhile), but as part of my plan to use providing updates as a motivating tool, I will give you some background to it, as well as the title, first two and last lines. (Yep, I’m a tease. And a wuss. But tease is the main aspect currently on show.)

The poem started from a translation by Tony Barnstone of Jorge Luis Borges“Music Box”, spun up from my Poetry Foundation app. (Seriously, if you have any sort of iDevice, you need to get this one. It’s free, and it’s brilliant.) I Chinese Whispered it (put it through several different languages in translation, making sure it got as many ‘errors’ as possible along the way), and then sat down to see what it suggested.

Sendai montage
The resulting poem was a lot of fun to write. It’s completely different to the source, although if you knew to look I suspect you’d probably be able to see some traces of its parentage. Somehow it ended up taking a glance at Japan after the earthquakes and tsunami of 2011, although it’s not really an earthquake poem as such – informed by the earthquakes, but not about them, if that makes sense. (Cantabrians, I hear you nodding.) I spent quite a bit of time Wikisurfing through Japanese history, and especially the history of the Sendai region of Japan.

One of the weird things that came up was a reference to a famous Japanese poem written by Doi Bansui, called “Kōjō no Tsuki” or “The Moon over the desolate castle”. Believe it or not, one of the best regarded recordings of it is by the German soft metal band, ‘Scorpions’ … (for a nice translation of the poem, have a look at Minako Watanabe’s site). I’m quite glad I had the draft complete before I went looking for this poem.

Anyway, that’s one down. Just another hrumhrumphindestinguishablehrumph to go.
Enjoy your ‘amuse bouche’. And remember – eat more vegetables! (Nothing to do with poetry: just good advice.)

Postcard from Sendai

When you speak of Japan, I hear temple bells,
their deep-throated song through morning air
past future, voices lifting in song, in laughter?

Oooh, such a tease!

Poem – Trumbull Stickney’s “Mnemosyne”


It’s autumn in the country I remember.

How warm a wind blew here about the ways!
And shadows on the hillside lay to slumber
During the long sun-sweetened summer-days.

It’s cold abroad the country I remember.

The swallows veering skimmed the golden grain
At midday with a wing aslant and limber;
And yellow cattle browsed upon the plain.

It’s empty down the country I remember.

I had a sister lovely in my sight:
Her hair was dark, her eyes were very sombre;
We sang together in the woods at night.

It’s lonely in the country I remember.

The babble of our children fills my ears,
And on our hearth I stare the perished ember
To flames that show all starry thro’ my tears.

It’s dark about the country I remember.

There are the mountains where I lived. The path
Is slushed with cattle-tracks and fallen timber,
The stumps are twisted by the tempests’ wrath.

But that I knew these places are my own,
I’d ask how came such wretchedness to cumber
The earth, and I to people it alone.

It rains across the country I remember.

– Trumbull Stickney
(1874 – 1904)

Mnemosyne DAMSince my previous Stickney offering met with such favour, I decided to try you all with another one. For those of you who have (very ironically) forgotten, Mnemosyne was the Greek personification of Memory, and the mother of the Nine Muses. Technically she was a giantess, rather than a goddess (these distinctions are important in god-society).

What I love about this poem is not just its bleakness (although that does have a certain appeal), but the way that semi-refrain plays out: it’s autumn; it’s cold; it’s empty; it’s lonely; it’s dark; and then that slight twist to end it rains. The other refrains all give us an emotional response – it’s autumn, it used to be warm, now it’s cold; there used to be swallows and harvests and cattle, now it’s empty; I loved, now it’s lonely; we had children and a hearth, now it’s dark; everything is ruined and wretched and if it wasn’t for the fact that I these places are my own (ah! these places could be metaphorical or psychological, not just geographical) I would badger god/the man/anyone to take responsibility for what has happened here, but it’s me, it’s mine, I’m alone in a world of my own making so let the rain draw its curtain across it all.

Without that turn at the end, this would be a very sorry-for-myself-boo-hoo-hoo-cue-the-world’s-smallest-violin poem. But that admission of culpability disarms you, and the fact that the ending doesn’t launch itself towards greater and greater loss, gives it a kind of integrity. (In The Poetry Home Repair Manual, American poet Ted Kooser refers to the alternative as (I think) the One – Two – Three – HEAVE! ending.) And how intelligent to start it with It’s autumn in the country I remember, setting you up with all those echoes of harvest and reward. The contrast between expectation and delivery is the whole point. If he’d started with winter it would have been too obvious, and spring too big a contrast. And no other season so readily summons the ghost of Keats. Or so perfectly trembles on the border between fulfillment and loss.