Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Tuesday Poem: The Hospital

sliced fingertip, blood on the Sleeping Beauty dress: they take me for her mother
polite brother, polite sister beside the dying father: they take me for their mother

wild boy at the bedside, humming, painted hair: they take me for his mother
child with child, flat as, thin as, white as a sheet: they take me for her mother

tired boy with whooping cough : they take me for his mother
wired man with harried heart: they take me for his mother

thumb, crushed, a foul mouth: they take me for his mother
numb, glutted  with  pills: they take me for her mother

breath ricochets like spent laughter
death ricochets  a spent balloon

they  take  me  for  its  mother
they know me for its daughter

                                                                   Mary McCallum

For more Tuesday Poems click on the quill in the sidebar. Anna Livesey's the moonmen is at the hub this week, and you'd be crazy not to follow the live blog roll to more treats. 

Friday, August 27, 2010

A boxer and a poem

The creative writing class I teach is compulsory for Communications students at Massey University, so not everyone in the class (read: most of them) want to be there. Many have either never written a poem or written one only once somewhere in the dim past. Somehow their high school teachers managed to skirt poetry and focus on prose because it's 'easier'. There are always one or two self-selected writers per class even if they're not prepared to fess up to it, and there are those who are writers even if they don't know it.

I love seeing a student's face when he or she reads out a poem and the class applauds or I say 'wow' or 'that's a poem!'  or something teacherly like that. There's always a small shift upwards in the bones under the young skin in front of me, the eyes seem wider, the face brighter. Then they look around, concerned that perhaps we're making fun, that it's not good after all.

A young man in that situation will almost always dart a glance sideways concerned he'll be ribbed, and of course he is - his mates' eyebrows will raise, there'll be nudging, a giggle.

There's the young woman who tells me she wrote her poem when she was sitting in front of a movie. She just wrote and wrote whatever came into her head while watching what was in front of her - two pages of 'stuff' - thinks it must be too long for a poem, cuts it down to a page, realises a lot of it makes no sense, is not even sure it is a poem, but hands it in anyway. What 'it' is is an astonishing piece of language poetry. She has never written a poem before.

There's the young boxer who isn't 'getting' poetry, asks his Dad about it, so his Dad gets down his favourite poems, and together they read Rudyard Kipling's If.

Another bloke, the boxer's friend, who still doesn't appear to believe that his fine observations of a house he used to live in once are a poem. The original is restrained and poignant. Every revision is great. He keeps looking down at the ground and shaking his head like I'm a bit cracked.

The mature student, a man, who writes about a miscarriage from his wife's point of view. Astonishing for that reason alone. Another mature student who uses the name of a jazz musician as a verb. Wonders if that's 'ok'.

A woman who describes the heart in such a way that it's never been described before. I cannot remove the image from my mind.

Poet and teacher Mark Doty's latest blog post inspired me to blog on this subject, here's how it begins:
Teachers have no right to pride, really, when it comes to their students' work. All I can claim to have done is ask questions and make some statements about what I saw in the poems before me. I try to be a friendly, interested advocate for what seems most alive in the work at hand. My ideal is for the writer I'm working with to feel thoroughly SEEN -- that someone (me) is looking very closely at what they've made and are trying to make, and attempting to articulate that project with them.
Yes! That absolutely is it! 'Seeing' what's there, and polishing up one's eyes to do the seeing is what takes the time and the energy. Doty goes on to express pride (after all) in three of his students who are having their collections published. I have seen a couple of my students go on to study poetry further and to continue to write it. One has joined Tuesday Poem. Who knows, one day a collection may come from a poet who never dreamed he or she would be a poet. Now that would be something.

Finally, the winners of the NZ Post Book Awards are being announced today - poets, fiction writers, the lot. Good luck to all the finalists. Two years ago, that was me. It was one of the most exciting nights of my life.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Apples and Frost

I have been thinking about Frost's poem After Apple Picking since Tuesday when I read it on Seattle poet T Clear's blog - as part of the Tuesday Poem - and watched Frost read it there (thanks to a crazy digital animator on youtube). It is unbelievably moving and an example of the sort of poetry I am currently smitten with - poetry that appears personal but really is a hand grabbing your throat ...

Such images here, such writing. The extract below, for example, has risen up before me unexpectedly throughout the day today ... that 'shimmer' in the sight ... the 's' and 'm' sounds that hum between lines...the poignancy of 'I am drowsing off' (the whole poem and a lovely photo of picked apples can be found at T Clear's blog).

I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples; I am drowsing off.
I cannot shake the shimmer from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the water-trough,
And held against the world of hoary grass.

Some other wonderful poems that are 'shimmers' of nature can be found on Tuesday Poem this week - HERE and HERE.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Tuesday Poem: Try One

Try one on me
see how it sells.
I smile a lot,
I'm a bit gullibell.
I don't make decisions,
I just drift along,
say you like music,
I'll sing you a song,
my dear.

We say that it's love - 
we have no other word - 
this straining and scraping
should be so absurd.
We can't do without,
now we've started so strong,
there's no question now
of the right and the wrong,
my darling.

Is it me that you want, 
or do you want me?
Can we sit without touching
when we watch the TV?
I feel an imposter,
so please make it dark,
it's your night on the roster,
my dear,
my darling,
my heart.

Mary McCallum

Oh this is so old, written so long ago, from the point of view of someone I knew once. Can't tell you much about it really, except that it is stuck word for word inside my head. That's the way with old poems I guess, good or bad. I like the contrasts of tone and subject matter in Try One, the tacked on endearments which are multiplied at the end and slightly off-key (who says 'my dear'?), the word 'gullibell', and the fact that back then people I knew (me too) just drifted along. Otherwise, I find it very hard to approach the poem. It's become ineluctable, an object; it just is.

For more Tuesday Poems go here or click on the quill in the sidebar (more fun). 

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Sixty thousand books and more

THIS WEEKEND SAT 9-5 PM, SUN 10-4 PM Wellington Events Centre

This post is partly for fellow Tuesday Poet and KM biographer Kathleen Jones who is visiting New Zealand from the UK, and is interested in Wellington's magnificent annual 60-thousand book book fair. Kathleen called to say she was in Wellington and could we meet up, so I suggested Saturday after a trip to the fair. 

I have never met her but have had the pleasure of getting to know her via the Tuesday Poem blog - a NZ-created hub where poets from all over post poems on a Tuesday. I also have, to my joy, a copy of Kathleen's brand new biography Katherine Mansfield The Storyteller (Penguin). Here she is on how her book updates what we already know about KM. 

“It’s the only biography to be written since all the documents relating to Katherine and her husband John Murry became available in the public domain. Katherine’s letters and notebooks have all been transcribed and printed and the diaries and letters of John Murry are now also in the Alexander Turnbull Library. Additionally I’ve had the help of the family who still have quite a lot of material relating to both Mansfield and Murry. There’s a lot of new information. It’s significant that most of the leading figures in the story are now dead, so information is less likely to be withheld to protect people.” More from the interview by Tim Jones HERE. 

There's more on Kathleen Jones I've gleaned: she lives in the Lake District with her sculptor husband and has written 11 books especially biographies of women writers like Catherine Cookson, appears to translate Spanish, travels a bit (Italy, Cuba, NZ) and writes poems. And here she is promoting her new book. All rather exotic, really. But on the phone she simply sounds nice and Lake District. 

Kathleen spoke in Wellington this evening to, I hope, a good-sized audience, but unfortunately I had another can't-be-missed meeting so wasn't there. Wonderfully, we have organised to meet the day of the Book Fair. She has to visit KM's birthplace first so isn't up for the all-important early fair forage (it's become a ritual), but later, she might. I wonder how much space she's got in her suitcase . . . 

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Tuesday Poem: Element


He slipped into it the way a man with ruddy
cheeks and cupped hands can find himself
with an orchard.

Henry Cavendish, whose only extant portrait
is an ink sketch of him hurrying from the room,
who hesitated

in speech, and refused to meet a person’s eye,
or to stand brilliant in the public gaze, made a name
measuring the unseen.

As a man with broad back and steady eye
sizes up a wall, the elusive Cavendish
was in his element

with factitious air. He measured with precision the
constancy of the atmosphere, discovered hydrogen,
put his finger

on the freezing point of quicksilver and felt the pulse
of gravity. He gauged the phenomena of electricity
in a time of candles.

Then, out of thin air, this man who trod so lightly, who
was – even in his own home – barely there, measured
without fanfare

the density  of the Earth. 

                                                 Mary McCallum

I wrote this after helping my daughter with a science project. I was so fascinated by Cavendish I kept  researching him long after she'd stuck in her last hydrogen atom and gone to bed. For more Tuesday Poems click the quill in the sidebar. The hub poem this week is chosen by Philadelphian poet Eileen Moeller, and there's so much more besides...

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Careful or you'll end up in my next novel

"Careful or you'll end up in my novel" T-shirt
Oh, yes, the perfect T-shirt for a writer. If you can't read the writing - it's in the title of the post. 

Not at all what I do of course - I prefer to invent rather than steal people for my novel(s), so much more fun. So much more Godlike. So much safer. Of course I still nick bits and pieces of people - a gesture of joy, a way of acting under stress, a mannerism of age, a nose ... and it's surprising how many people spot a mate or someone they think they know in a novel, even when the author's never met them. 

Anyway, you can buy this T-shirt HERE at the Literary Gift Company. There's a fab little Virginia Woolf pin, too, in the shape of a red typewriter and a perfume that smells like a paperback and a cup that says 'Go Away I'm Writing.' 

Thanks to Christchurch poet Joanna Preston for this link. And do check out her blog - she's just won the prestigious Mary Gilmore Prize for a first book of poetry in Australia, and her blog is insightful and inspiring. It's called the Dark Feathered Art, adapting a line from one of her poems:


Monday, August 9, 2010

Tuesday Poem: Stowage by Chris Price

for Jonathan Besser

The sadness of bells sitting silent
shelved like a library of hearts
old salts in their retirement.
Tap one on the lip and a ship
comes ghosting out of the fog
everything passing and human
held in a resonant vessel.
The submarine cathedral
of its ribs still echoes though the ship
is long since flensed and rendered
down – this spare music
the last thing that lingers
the songs of our youth
always the last to go.

Stowage was written about 22 abandoned ship's bells, as part of an installation at the Wellington Museum of the City and the Sea which combined music and poetry inspired by the bells.
The poem is part of Chris Price's collection The Blind Singer (AUP) and was selected for Best NZ Poems 2009. Chris explains on that website where her mind went as she wrote the poem. This explanation is a real treat. She says she visited the bells 'on the shelf' in a warehouse not far from where she lived, and they appeared to her to be 'a very melancholy thing'. And she goes on:

Somewhere behind the ‘library of hearts’ is a story that had been in the news some time before about a local hospital that had collected and stored the hearts of infants who had died – without the knowledge or consent of the parents. I was also thinking of a photograph I’d seen of poverty-stricken ship-breakers living on a beach in India (I think it was) amongst the rusting hulks of ships that looked like giant carcasses. Then there were the Celtic and Russian folk stories of sunken churches whose bells can sometimes be heard tolling. And lastly there’s the curious aspect of human memory experienced by some Alzheimer’s patients, that while they may be unable to remember what happened yesterday or even minutes ago, music can sometimes unlock the complete recall of the words to tunes they knew when they were young. 
More here.

Chris Price, it seems to me, is a poet's poet, in that she not only writes poetry, but she also leads the way for poets to follow along a certain path: rigorous, eventful, erudite, intersecting wildly with a range of characters and situations - and in her hand a bell. She is a poet who has a deep involvement with music which is why this poem, her recent collection and her magnificent book launch resonate(d) with the sound of music.  
Chris is co-convenor of the MA at the International Institute of Modern Letters in Wellington, co-editor of the online journal Turbine and one-time editor of LandfallChris' collection Husk won the NZSA Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poems in 2002, and Brief Lives was short-listed in the biography category of the 2007 Book Awards.  
Stowage is used here with the author's permission. Ask for The Blind Singer at all good independent bookstores who can order it from AUP. 
For more Tuesday Poems click on the quill in the sidebar. Today's Tuesday Poem at the hub is selected by US poet Melissa Shook, but that's just the start. There are thirty other poets to read in the live blog roll. 

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Books in the Trees by Tim Jones

Oh, I have just read simply the best short story. It's short - the sort of thing I think of as 'Sandwich Fiction': sandwiched between prose and poetry, and you can read it with a sandwich in hand. It's a story for all those who love the P-Book - the physical book - and fear its demise. Here's how the story begins:

Books in the Trees
by Tim Jones

As soon as I understood what a book was, I resolved to become a bookkeeper. To the dismay of my parents, I was forever climbing trees in hopes of catching an unwary volume. Of course, I never did; they were far above me, flapping unmolested from branch to branch.

My proudest achievement was to bear back to earth a whole egg, but my pride turned to dismay when my mother scolded me and insisted that I put it back in the nest immediately. "That might be another Calvino or Bulgakov!" she told me. 


Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Tuesday Poem: Oes and Spangs by Michele Leggott

A poem that has no beginning and no end ...

Click to view a digital treasure by former NZ Poet Laureate Michele Leggott, and Andrew Forsberg....

Leggott's sight is failing her so this magnificent language poet has been experimenting with digital poems.

Thanks to the NZ Electronic Poetry Centre

For more Tuesday Poems go here. I recommend Tuesday Poet Claire Beynon's blog especially - she has an interesting 'live' poem going on there, and she talks about how she and I got to meet finally after working on Tuesday Poem since March and reading each other's blogs for months before that. It really was terribly exciting. Still is.