New Zealand Poetry Mixtape 2014
For National Poetry Day, resident wonders Hera Lindsay Bird and Ashleigh Young have curated a mixtape of their favourite New Zealand poets. Play, enjoy, and contribute your own reading to our New Zealand-themed Poetry Night this Sunday.
One problem with poetry readings is that they are always at lunchtime or dinnertime. It is not easy to focus on poetry when you are hungry. The nibbles are never enough. When I am hungry, my attention wanders to hands, clothing, facial expressions, fluttering eyelids, radical trousers, plosive blasts in a microphone, the sound of the voice rather than its substance, the person sitting beside me who has a jiggly knee or a whistling nose. There were other reasons for creating a poetry mix-tape, but one of the big ones was so you could listen to some great poems while eating dinner and not going anywhere.
The poetry mix-tape that Hera Lindsay Bird and I have curated is a simple showcase of twelve New Zealand poets reading their own work or others’. The writers I asked to contribute were Uther Dean, Frances Samuel, Morgan Bach, Lindsay Pope, Tim Upperton, and James Brown, all of whom have recorded one of their own poems, and whose work has the effect I always hope for when encountering a poem: that of a piece of light slanting across my brain, helping me see what I couldn’t before, or just helping me see. A bonus is that they all have interesting voices. ‘Now, if you could just put this recording through ProTools and convert my voice from frog to George Ezra, that would be appreciated,’ James Brown said on submitting his recording, and I said I would try, but I didn't, because then it would be a completely different poem. In a recording, the voice becomes as much a part of the poem as the title, the line breaks, the rhythm.
Lindsay’s poem, ‘Self-portrait’, from his recently published first book Headwinds (Mākaro Press), is one of my favourite self-portrait poems. I remember Lindsay once saying, ‘I live alone and patrol the boundary between doubt and certainty, offering a tentative bark occasionally’, and I think that habitual patrolling is evidenced in this poem, where we see Lindsay wavering between a soft-focused gaze and a totally unforgiving one. Whenever I pass a St. Vincent de Paul’s, I think of Lindsay’s line: ‘I look like a cardigan from St. Vincent de Paul’s.’ A soft scratchiness.
I came across Uther’s poetry on his blog, where he'd post occasional haiku. The haiku were addictive, like hearing soundbites of the internal dialogue of various people (relevant: Uther is a well-known playwright and actor) and I could imagine each one opening out on a whole rich story. Ordinarily I can’t stomach haiku, but he managed to inject life and spontaneity into the form.
I want to release
The entire planet’s stress.
I’ll make all things sky.
Instead of a haiku, though, he went and wrote this great, questing long poem ‘What You Will Do When You Are Invincible’, especially for this mix-tape, and it's a revelation.
Frances writes surreal, clever, funny poems. 'Sleeping on Horseback' is the eponymous poem of her very first book. There is sometimes a profound sadness and longing in her writing, shining from every detail, and then suddenly the poem will dissolve into optimism, then back again. Frances makes poems that remind me of seeing stop-start animations for the first time as a kid – they were simple but weirdly sophisticated and wondrous at the same time.
James is of course James Brown. It feels a bit embarrassing to say it, but whenever I read a James Brown poem, even a bleak James Brown poem, like ‘Mercy’, I feel less alone. His poems are exactly like Elvis in his well-known 2001 poem 'Loneliness', who walks across a university campus one autumn, in no particular hurry, and people start snapping their fingers. ‘There was a palpable / happiness, for once you’ve seen Elvis you are never alone.’
Morgan's poem 'Headless Men' gave me a chilly buzz of recognition. It's the sort of poem that feels like it could be a scene out of your life, or a past life. Last year Morgan won the Biggs Family Prize in Poetry for her MA manuscript Some Of Us Eat the Seeds, and her poems are both beautiful and unsettling, as if an electric current runs through them. After you listen to 'Headless Men', you should go and read her poem 'In Pictures'.
And finally, Tim writes acerbic yet elegant, plain-spoken yet rich, ugly yet beautiful poems and his ‘My Lazy Eye’, from his second book The Night We Ate the Baby, is a terrific example. Tim’s poems often stretch an analogy right to its limit, right to that bald, confronting point before everything breaks down. The last line of 'My Lazy Eye' always makes me laugh and also shriek a little bit.
I think there is an intimacy about poetry recordings that is sometimes missing in live poetry readings. The poems feel closer and warmer. I hope you enjoy these ones.
As a child, there was a period of time when our dad didn’t live in the same city as us. Once a week he would call my brother and I, and read Frank Herbert or Tolkien over speakerphone, in any accent we requested, and I never got over my disappointment of watching the films, and hearing Gandalf’s thick German accent traded in for Oxfordian English, and Boromir emphatically un-Jamaican.
Sound always alters sense – and for this reason I’m sometimes wary of live readings, (my own or otherwise) because giving voice to something intended to be silent is always an act of translation. Reading someone else’s work out loud always makes me feel like an embattled high school music teacher, sitting alone in the staff room rewriting 'When Doves Cry' for three-part kazoo. But translation can also be an illumination. Besides, there’s no point being precious about these things. It’s one of my greatest pleasures in life to sit in the kitchen with the recipe book while my girlfriend is cooking and read the instructions to her in my Dorothea Lasky Poetry voice.
As I was making my selection, I was thinking of these poems as time capsules. The last poems I’d want recorded before the economy collapses, and we’re forced to retreat to the jungle, or live out the rest of our days in the abandoned shopping complexes of Hamilton East. These are six of my favourite poets, and I hope their voices will be the ones you read mee goreng recipes to your loved ones in for many years to come.
Emma Barnes is the co-founder of Cats and Spaghetti Press and new lit journal Rejectamenta. Here she reads her poem 'Rhyme Scheme'. Emma’s word has a fluidity and a deep attention to sound that can seem alien amongst the conversational lull of NZ poetry, and I always appreciate the emotional/linguistic risks she takes. I first encountered her work in this poem and have been enjoying her recent series of Sigourney Weaver poems, one of which you can read here.
Jessica Hansell aka Coco Solid aka all round genius and poetry champion wrote 'Battles of Children' read by poetry night veteran Kris Wehipeihana. Jess has a list of accolades and side projects too long to recite (you can find them all here) but she’s lighting up the artistic switchboard, taking no prisoners. I first read this poem in Jess’s zine Philiosofly Girl . It’s the shortest poem of the six I chose, but like the smallest firework in the box, it has one of the biggest explosions.
'Disturber' read by Chris Tse is a poem from his upcoming book How to Be Dead in a Year of Snakes, which is soon to be released by AUP. This poem is from a collection about the murder of Cantonese goldminer Joe Kum Yung, and I’d encourage everyone to go and read the sample pages on the AUP website. I’m so excited to see this in print!
'Compost' by Therese Lloyd is probably my favourite New Zealand poem. This is the kind of writing I aspire to always. It’s also a poem that carries with it all the light you need to read it by, so I won’t waste time trying to illuminate it. We also have a small pot of compost under the sink which neither of us have touched for many months, which so far isn’t a metaphor for anything, but I hope to always be as brave in my work as Therese Lloyd is in hers.
I’ve already talked about Lee Posna here, almost two years ago and while the list has dated slightly (replace Zachary Schomburg with Chelsey Minnis, Christopher DeWeese with Dorothea Lasky and James Wright with Marilyn Hacker) everything I said then still stands. I’m still here in the forest with my hands above my head. Alex Mitcalfe Wilson reads his poem ‘Perseus’ and you can read along with him here like awkward literary karaoke. Lee’s website is here.
I’m not going to talk about Gregory Kan online, and nobody can make me. He burns all my castles down. You can hear my introduction to his poems if you buy me a bottle of tequila and drive me around in one of those limousines with a spa pool in the back. Until then, you can listen to him read 'When in Backyards' or visit his website here.