Poetic jus­tice

Paula Green’s epic col­lec­tion of 150 years of NZ women’s po­etry puts a new spot­light on writ­ers once de­rided for their do­mes­tic fo­cus and in­cludes fig­ures from out­side lit­er­a­ture.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - By Sally Blun­dell

Paula Green’s epic col­lec­tion of 150 years of NZ women’s po­etry puts a new spot­light on writ­ers once de­rided for their do­mes­tic fo­cus and in­cludes fig­ures from out­side lit­er­a­ture.

Amore cau­tious an­thol­o­gist would have de­liv­ered a chrono­log­i­cal se­lec­tion of women’s po­etry. A less imag­i­na­tive aca­demic would have charted the his­tory of women’s in­vis­i­bil­ity in our lit­er­ary canon. In­stead, in her ground­break­ing new book, Wild Honey, award-win­ning poet, critic, an­thol­o­gist, judge and all-round po­etry cham­pion Paula Green has built a house, a metaphor­i­cal open home crammed with 201 po­ets from the past 150 years grouped in dif­fer­ent “rooms” of shared themes, tech­niques and in­ter­ests. Milling about in the kitchen, for ex­am­ple, we find Cilla McQueen, Mor­gan Bach and Jill Chan. In the nurs­ery, Emma Neale, Mar­garet Mahy, Joy Cow­ley and Tayi Tib­ble; in the mu­sic room, Al­dous Hard­ing, Jenny Born­holdt and Ber­nadette Hall; in the lounge, Karen Ze­las, Ruth Carr and He­len Rickerby; wan­der­ing through the gar­den, Ur­sula Bethell, Anna Smaill, Sue Woot­ton and Di­nah Hawken.

It is noisy, re­fresh­ing and proudly an­chored in the do­mes­tic.

“When I was look­ing back to the 20th cen­tury, I was feel­ing trou­bled by the way women were shunted into the shade, un­der­mined and de­val­ued and crit­i­cised for writ­ing do­mes­tic po­ems,” says Green, at the home near Te Henga (Bethells Beach) that she shares with her hus­band, artist Michael Hight. She points to Eileen Dug­gan, ne­glected by Allen

Curnow in his an­thol­ogy

A Book of New Zealand Verse 1923-45, van­ish­ing into the shad­ows af­ter pub­lish­ing five re­mark­able col­lec­tions of po­ems “with only a trail of dis­parag­ing crit­i­cism to mark her pass­ing”.

“And it still goes on. You still see women – and men – be­ing crit­i­cised for the te­dium of do­mes­tic po­etry, where I feel this is a sub­ject that is never re­dun­dant. So I wanted to write a book that brought women into the light. I didn’t want the book to be the­o­ret­i­cal – I so of­ten see women po­ets be­ing hi­jacked to back the­ory – but I wanted it to show

“I wanted it to show there are no rules when it comes to po­etry, that there are many path­ways into that house … Po­etry is so open and that is what makes it glo­ri­ous.”

there are no rules when it comes to po­etry, that there are many path­ways into that house. I wanted to open all the win­dows and all the doors to cre­ate as much move­ment as pos­si­ble. Po­etry is so open and that is what makes it glo­ri­ous for me – the open­ness and open-spirit­ed­ness of it.”

Green is an en­gag­ing host, throw­ing open the cur­tains, whisk­ing off the dust sheets, cours­ing through dif­fer­ent poetic tra­di­tions in an­i­mated homage to women’s writ­ing. She de­scribes Han­nah Met­tner’s poem about her fa­ther, a man who “scut­tles be­tween cut grass and God, two ded­i­ca­tions that shape her fa­ther’s day”. She ex­plores the ten­sion be­tween “dis­tance and in­ti­macy” in In­grid Hor­rocks’ sec­ond col­lec­tion of po­etry, the rich lay­er­ing in Anne Kennedy’s words that “tracks like a nar­ra­tive yet side­tracks like a baroque paint­ing”, the “mu­si­cal in­ten­sity” of Neale, the “sonic flu­ency” of Born­holdt, the po­lit­i­cal fe­roc­ity and poetic dar­ing of Blanche Baughan and Jessie Mackay, the raw un­tamed­ness im­plicit in the book’s ti­tle.

“Honey has that sense of sweet­ness but it is also bit­ter and rough and textured. And it is out there in the wild – that is where women’s po­etry be­gan.”

Green avoids the “toxic anec­dotes” on what men have done to the detri­ment of women po­ets, in­clud­ing her own ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing “side­lined and be­lit­tled”. Rather, she says, “I am lay­ing down a chal­lenge

with this book but I am lay­ing it down in a dif­fer­ent kind of way. I wanted to write a book that is hope­fully in­tel­li­gent and full of ut­ter hu­man warmth. And I wanted to cre­ate room for the women to speak.”

In 570 pages, they do speak, in in­ter­views, jour­nals, es­says and, of course, po­etry: voices from ru­ral Can­ter­bury and South Auck­land, from his­tor­i­cal Scot­tish tra­di­tions to new Māori and Pasi­fika tra­di­tions, from chil­dren’s chants to con­tem­po­rary lyrics.

“I am sus­pi­cious of peo­ple claim­ing some peo­ple as not po­ets. Chil­dren’s po­ets like Mar­garet Mahy and Joy Cow­ley – how of­ten are they brought into the po­etry dis­cus­sion? But if you think about the agility and the lay­er­ing [of their po­ems] – it is ab­so­lutely exquisite. And mu­si­cians. We love hear­ing Lorde sing but there is so much mu­sic in her lyrics, as there is in Al­dous Hard­ing and Na­dia Reid. When you hear Selina Tusi­tala Marsh per­form­ing her po­etry – it is the mu­sic that works on your body.”

There are new names, such as Eve­lyn Pat­u­awa-Nathan – “I was so dis­ap­pointed I could only find one book” – and new in­sights into more fa­mil­iar names, such as Ur­sula Bethell. “It was ex­tra­or­di­nary to read all her books and to take on board the fact she wrote po­etry for just 10 years of her life dur­ing this in­tense love for

Effie [Pollen] and for gar­den­ing, then when Effie died, she stopped writ­ing, she stopped gar­den­ing.”

There are shared ex­pe­ri­ences (in­clud­ing the per­sis­tent white noise of self-doubt “that erodes a writer’s equilib­rium”) and un­com­mon con­nec­tions. Mackay and Hera Lind­say Bird, for ex­am­ple, one in­tensely pri­vate, the other raised on a “cur­rency of con­fes­sion”, both set­ting out to shake down com­pla­cency and medi­ocrity.

“On the sur­face, they speak dif­fer­ent lan­guages, but when you set up camp in the po­ems, they have much in com­mon.”

This is what Green does and what she in­vites us to do: wander into the world of the poem, mar­vel at lan­guage and rhythm, poke around the corners, peer un­der the veiled ref­er­ences, revel in the breaks, the con­ti­nu­ities, the brav­ery, the reck­less­ness, “the thrill of trav­el­ling with­out a road map”.

Green’s own path is strewn with books, art, mu­sic. Her po­etry-writ­ing mother grew up in Ma­pua, where Colin McCa­hon worked in the shed at the bot­tom of the gar­den. Toss Wool­las­ton has a perch in the fam­ily tree; her great-un­cle en­cour­aged

“Through a lucky col­li­sion of stars, ev­ery­thing aligned for me to be­come a pub­lished poet, and from then my ca­reer took off.”

young Paula to paint. She still re­calls the ser­mons of her fa­ther, a church min­is­ter be­fore he left to teach mu­sic. “The pitch of the voice, the mu­sic, the sto­ry­telling – there’s a per­sua­sive thing hap­pen­ing that af­fects you in lots of dif­fer­ent ways.”

As a stu­dent at Kamo High School in Whangārei, she heard James K Bax­ter read his po­etry. Awestruck, she rushed home to write her own Bax­ter­in­formed po­ems. Seven days later, he died.

For years she wrote, amass­ing a pile of note­books. Then, in 1997, came Cook­house, her first pub­lished col­lec­tion of po­etry drawing on recipe ti­tles and her ear­lier doc­tor­ate on Ital­ian women writ­ers.

“Through a lucky col­li­sion of stars, ev­ery­thing aligned for me to be­come a pub­lished poet, and from then my ca­reer took off, but I could have re­mained a woman in the shad­ows with her se­cret note­books. There are so many women like that. If you take the case of Mary Stan­ley, who pub­lished one book in the 1950s – it is the most ex­tra­or­di­nary book of the most ex­tra­or­di­nary po­ems. In a sense, the book is a puz­zle, but it is also il­lu­mi­nat­ing of a woman try­ing to find her place in the world as a mother and a writer.”

Since then, Green has main­tained a prodi­gious out­put of adult and chil­dren’s

po­etry. Some are au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal. Slip Stream charts her ex­pe­ri­ence of breast cancer. This year’s The Track chron­i­cles her hike along Queen Char­lotte Track in the Marl­bor­ough Sounds with a frac­tured foot.

It may be a col­lec­tion of other po­ets’ work, but there are traces of Green’s own life in Wild Honey. “The fact I had a child and had her adopted and she is now part of my life again. I look back at that young woman who chose to give birth to her and give her to par­ents who couldn’t have chil­dren – I was 19, turn­ing 20, and I can’t be­lieve how I did that. Then when I read the po­etry of Robin Hyde and what she had to go through to look af­ter her son – it af­fects me so much more be­cause of my his­tory. And hav­ing had breast cancer – it brings death closer and it is al­ways go­ing to stay closer, but it made me re­alise what is im­por­tant. So even though it made me feel quite vul­ner­a­ble, I like the idea of say­ing that in public.”

Af­ter a hec­tic three launches in three months (as well as The Track and Wild Honey, she has also re­leased a new col­lec­tion of po­ems for chil­dren, called Groovy Fish and Other Po­ems), Green is back at home wait­ing for the long queue of new ideas to jos­tle into some kind of or­der.

Since her ordeal on Queen Char­lotte Track, she has bro­ken her other foot – she won’t be go­ing for her morn­ing run on the beach any­time soon – but she is happy to clear her desk and open a new page.

“In a sense I have all these rooms in my head where I have all these ideas ger­mi­nat­ing and I never talk about them. It is only when I start to put them on my lap­top or com­puter, I might tell some­one what I am work­ing on. So, af­ter the next cou­ple of months, I will see which things be­come most in­sis­tent.” l WILD HONEY: Read­ing New Zealand Women’s Po­etry (Massey Univer­sity Press,

$45); THE TRACK (Ser­aph Press $25); GROOVY FISH AND OTHER

PO­EMS (The Cuba Press, $25)

Paula Green wanted her book to “cre­ate room for the women to speak”. Op­po­site: Lorde, left,and Selina Tusi­tala Marsh.

From top: Robin Hyde, Hera Lind­say Bird, Mar­garet Mahy, Al­dous Hard­ing.

Read­ings from Wild Honey fea­ture in a Na­tional Po­etry Day Event at Unity Books, Welling­ton, mid­day, Au­gust 23.

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