TROUT   [ 3 ] 

I stay home
The Auckland University Press Poetry Festival 1997


I had a cold and stayed home for a week. By the time the weekend came around, I had convinced myself that staying at home in the middle of a wet winter was not a healthy experience at all. My brain seemed to shrink and my nose ran like Pha Lap, a consistent pounding gallop of what one friend calls "nasal mucus". Having reached a limit in my experience as an invalid, the Spartan in me decided to go out into the elements. I drove across town to Newmarket to the first Auckland University Press Poetry Festival, wrapped up like a Yupik but with the added protection of four handkerchiefs and a packet of cough lozenges.

As more than one speaker mentioned, poetry is probably the only literary genre where writers outnumber readers. So it was not that surprising to find myself surrounded by poets of one degree or another. What amused me was that I should be mistaken for one as well. I firmly rebutted the suggestion on at least two occasions, stating that I worked for a publishing firm which had NEVER PUBLISHED POETRY. I was left alone after that, popped another cough lozenge, blew my nose and turned my attention to the stage.

A qwirky array of seminars and "poetry games" (how else can I describe them?) punctuated the festival, which began mid-week with such populist events as a poetry reading in the middle of Saint Luke's Mall, which I understand is the oldest establishment of its type in New Zealand. It also has acoustics like a wrestler's armpit and on a Thursday night resembles nothing so much as an ant's nest bowled over by an unkind gumboot. Readings were also held in more sedate environments: art galleries, cafés, etc, but the hard graft of the poetry festival went on at the Jubilee Hall on the weekend. Here, for openers, five or six poets -- Michael Morrissey, Alan Brunton, Kapka Kassabova, David Eggleton and others -- quickly ripped through a poem each in three circuits. It was a good way to start, clearly differentiating between the performance oriented poets and their meeker cousins. And of course the emphasis of such a session is variety. Right at the outset this series of brief performances reminded us just how broad and individually determined the idea of poetry is.

In some attempt to follow "fun" with "glum", the next item was a panel discussion on the "avant garde". Anne French, Alan Loney, Alan Brunton and a severely jet-lagged Carl Stead got absolutely nowhere with a topic which almost made no sense. French made some claim which seemed to me to suggest, in my influenza-bound stupor, that poetry"s "moving power" was running on empty; while Stead talked about modernism in a way that reminded me of his New Poetic ... did I still have a copy of the book somewhere in my library and had I ever finished it? Loney went on about poetry and typography -- as if the two were always inextricably linked -- and Brunton seemed to suggest that it was the poet's life which was important, not their poetry at all. I was glad at the end of this session that there was FREE hot coffee on hand.

For me there were two highlights in the festival. The first of these was a session chaired by Alan Riach about the immigrant experience. Along with Riach, who hails from Scotland, this event featured Kapka Kassabova, Diana Bridge and Albert Wendt. Wendt read from his last book of poetry, Photographs, and talked sensibly about the "new world" that we all live in, that world where we are all of us immigrants of one sort or another. Kapka Kassabova's poems from All roads lead to the sea, seem to almost exclusively focus on this idea of not being at home ... anywhere. What was most noticeable about her comments during this discussion and the poems she read, was her focus on the details of particular places. It was almost as if the details of places which she was foreign to were being evoked as nostalgia ... as if, in fact, she did actually belong to them. It made for complete revision of any concept I might have had of "immigrant" culture. Lastly, Diana Bridge, a New Zealander who has spent many years in both China and India, showed us the delicacy of cultural appropriation. Whether it is by way of incorporating Indian mythology or insight into China's history in their work, most white New Zealanders would feel some apprehension in taking on aspects of another culture in order express their own thoughts. Yet, it seems simply wrong not to, when living in a country not your own, learn something of the way people of that place live and to permit that experience to have some personal impact on your life. At a time when issues of cultural ownership are heightened, it was good to see that paths to a wider self were still open, that we aren't all expected to fit into tidy pigeon-holes assigned for us by anthropologists or policy analysts.

My second highlight was a session shared by Dennis McEldowney, Auckland University Press's first publishing director, and his successor, Elizabeth Caffin. Between them they provided a history of the press, and through that a portal to the greater publishing of poetry in New Zealand. Caffin also spoke at length on the publishing procedures AUP have in place for poetry. They choose roughly four poetry books a year from submissions generally exceeding one hundred. Each has to go out to a review reader and gain approval from the university press board. To highlight the depth and quality of the press's publication, the two segments of this session were bridged by readings from Elizabeth Nannestad. To be there for those few short poems, to hear a voice which so clearly mapped the lines of her poems, that was a fine privilege. It was to witness exceptional beauty.

Most awkward session. That would have to be the one where I ran out of cough lozenges -- the "complete my poem" session. Victims of this exercise -- Lauris Edmond, Robert Sullivan, Elizabeth Smither and Bill Manhire -- were supposed to present incomplete poems and pass them over to the audience for suggestions and general criticisms. There were some nervous poets on the podium. Bill Manhire claimed he wasn't writing poetry (why was he there then?) and submitted a piece he had written in the seventies ... no risks there. The other three, the ones that did as they were supposed to, were quite well received by the audience, but first-up Lauris Edmond happened to present a poem on eels which unearthed at least two eel experts in the audience. No matter of her claims to artistic license, the eel experts were insistent that particular facts were acknowledged and even suggested that little know eel-info would give the work the "depth" is so badly needed. Robert Sullivan, who was next, pleaded at length with the audience to be kinder with him than they had been to Edmond. By the time it was Manhire"s turn, the auditorium had been properly reminded of some courtesies and poetic sensitivies. Still, I thought him to be remarkably smug and unmoved. Perhaps his choice of a twenty-plus year old poem enabled that. (Was there any attendee at the festival who was younger than that Manhire poem?)

There was perhaps too much emphasis on "proper" poetry when most of the audience seemed most interested in "poetry of the self", in expressing themselves through words on their own terms. With so many "poets" in the audience, I did wonder from time to time why there was a dividing line between the podium and the auditorium at all. Kids know that anyone can write poetry. They also know that that not everyone can write poetry well. That's one of the ways they learn to read and write at school. I wonder if next year instead of Saint Luke's Mall, the poets would consider visiting a few secondary schools.

If next year's festival -- there is going to be one, isn't there? -- is to be held in the middle of winter, might I also put in a request for tissues to made available? Or is that asking too much?


—Tony Murrow 
   © 1997