Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Bryan Walpert, "Foreword"

Bryan Walpert


This foreword emerges from an acute awareness that, depending on your perspective, I could well be viewed as precisely the wrong person to present a group of New Zealand poems in English to an international audience. Born and educated in the United States, I’ve been writing and teaching in New Zealand for only six years, and I am only very slowly catching up on the history of NZ poetry, which makes me an outsider. Just in case I forget this—the way I routinely forget I have an accent until someone asks me, kindly I suppose, whether I’m Canadian—I’m occasionally reminded that I am in some ways among but not of, not just in my accent, but in my poems. “You write differently to [sic: NZ idiomatic] most New Zealanders,” is something I’ve heard on more than one occasion, though not always dismissively.

On the other hand, I am nevertheless selecting these poems from the geographical inside, which makes me, to those living outside New Zealand, a kind of insider. Because I teach New Zealand students about writing poetry and am the poetry editor of a New Zealand journal, Bravado, I am also a part of (albeit a very marginal figure in) the poetry power structure, and it would be disingenuous to suggest I know nothing at this stage about New Zealand poetry and its history. To make things more complicated, New Zealand is so small, self-contained and far away (from so many places) that in a sense to be a New Zealand poet is to be an outsider on the world stage. The New Zealand poet Gregory O’Brien mulled over this very issue in his preface to Land of Seas: An Anthology of New Zealand Poetry, another compilation of poetry meant for an international audience (in this case, poems translated into Russian):

“The conundrum remains: are we a nation of outsiders trying to get in, or of insiders trying to get out? Do we live in darkness or, as was much touted on New Year’s Eve 2000, are we ‘the first to see the light’? (A hilltop near New Zealand’s East Cape was the first landmass to soak up the dawn of the new millennium.) Or are we balanced precariously – and brilliantly in the case of Janet Frame – between the inside and the outside, the local and the global, the darkness and the light?”

So to be considered an outsider among outsiders is, I suppose, to be some sort of insider. It’s all a bit disorienting, like those maps, popular for while, that made a political point of perspective by flipping the globe, placing south up and north down.

So it was with self-conscious trepidation that I accepted the invitation by the powers-that-be at Reconfigurations to put out a call for poems and then to select, from the 150 or so I received, only a handful (my selections were vetted for Reconfigurations by two outside readers who had the option to reject any of them—though in the end they rejected none). I had to make that selection without full regard for the history of either these particular poets or the traditions—literary and cultural—from which their poems might stem. That the most seemingly innocent contemporary NZ poem might suggest the complex history of literature and culture here is made clear by Jenny Bornholdt, Gregory O’Brien, and Mark Williams, the editors of An Anthology of New Zealand Poetry in English. They begin their introduction to that volume by quoting the first poem in the anthology, a 1994 poem by Chris Orsman called “Ornamental Gorse.” They note, “Behind this poem lies a whole history of poetry reflecting on the nature and usefulness of the cultural baggage brought with settlement” (baggage and settlement raising important questions, of course, about what it means in NZ to be an insider or outsider), adding that Orsman “is reflecting on the history not only of settlement and adjustment but also on the terms in which poetry has sought to register and be part of that process” (xxi). So no doubt in the poems I’ve chosen, I was missing something, or many things, of some importance. To remedy this, once I’d chosen the poems for this issue, I asked the poets a few questions. One question was simply to what extent each considered himself or herself a “New Zealand poet.” Several affirmed their comfort with that label—including Jennifer Compton, a Kiwi who lives in Australia. Shona-Ellen Barnett responded, “Of course I see myself primarily as a NZ poet. How can I be anything but? My culture is everything New Zealand—my ancestors arrived with Abel Tasman and also on the Te Arawa Waka. My writing reflects my heritage.” But others were less sanguine about such labels. André Surridge said, “On a good day, I think of myself as an international poet and lucky to live in NZ.” And Tim Upperton noted:

“I don't find national or regional identities in poetry particularly useful or interesting. Language (and therefore poetry) is less and less tethered within geographic boundaries. I am a poet, and I live in New Zealand; no doubt my New Zealandness conditions the way I see the world, but so do any number of other factors—the pervasiveness of a certain kind of American culture that I see every night on TV, for example.”

As someone to whom a preference here (among publishers and journals) for literature that is self-consciously New Zealand in its settings seems self-evident, I suggested to Tim that perhaps he was being more hopeful than descriptive. In response he cited a number of counter-examples (a book reviewer as well as poet and teacher, he’s reading Bernadette Hall's The Lustre Jug, in which, he notes, nearly all the poems are set in Ireland; he observes as well that her last collection was set in Antarctica), and noted that the preference of book publishers is hardly sufficient to characterize contemporary NZ writing as a whole.

Regardless, I still think it was worth asking the poets here to characterize NZ poetry. A particular sense of place came up frequently, in the form of interest both in the country’s natural settings (Orsman’s attention to gorse, for example) and in New Zealand’s distance from centres of power. “Landscape, flora and fauna, isolation” is how Surridge economically put it. Jan FitzGerald responded, “There is that distinct flavour that comes from our mix of mountain, beach and forest and the peculiarity of the sea never being too far away (from whichever of NZ's three main islands you live on), that sings its own tune in the blood of its poets and speaks directly of and to the land.” And Helen Lehndorf observed, “New Zealanders often write about the landscape and the various neuroses which come from being a small island nation on the bottom of the world.” Sometimes, from the perspective of an outsider, it seems quite clear to me that New Zealanders are too caught up in this notion of isolation. As I prepared to move here in 2004, several friends expressed outright envy—New Zealand is seen, from what I can tell, as a kind of idyllic place in both its landscape and its culture. In other words, I got the sense from a number of people that heading down here was a in some ways a step up.

And geographical isolation has hardly impeded influence. Elizabeth Smither, a poet featured here and a former NZ poet laureate, responded to my question “What distinguishes NZ poetry in particular?” with, “A boldness in assimilation and form.” And back to Tim Upperton, reading me only too well:

“This seems to me an anxious question, one that concerned poets here mightily in the 1930s and '40s, but not any more. When I read New Zealand poets, I see how they feed off each other, but also how they feed off other sources, other traditions. You read the early Baxter, for example, and you see the influence of Dylan Thomas; read the late Baxter, you see the influence of Lowell. Robert Creeley had an enormous influence on New Zealand poetry in the 1970s and '80s. If anything distinguishes New Zealand poetry, I'd say it's a magpie alertness to whatever's shiny and useful.”

Really, Tim is much nicer than his responses to me might make him seem—I’m teasing him just a bit by making him my foil. (That I know Tim personally should not be taken as a sign of bias in selecting his work—in a place of this intimate size, such concerns might lead to no one publishing anyone.) At any rate, the editors of An Anthology of New Zealand Poetry in English make a similar point to his in their introduction. Writing in 1996, they noted:

“In the last three decades, local poets have turned more and more to American models, enriching and complicating the notion of tradition. Robert Lowell is at work in James K. Baxter, Wallace Stevens in Allen Curnow, Adrienne Rich and John Ashbery in Dinah Hawken. With the progressive disintegration since the sixties of residual loyalties to Britain, possible sources of influence have broadened so that the whole decentred world can be a rejuvenating force. Thus we sense the presence of the Yugoslav-born American poet, Charles Simic, in the work of Andrew Johnston, of the French poet, René Char, in the prose poetry of Richard von Sturmer, and of the Russian, Osip Mandelstam, in Brian Turner’s poetry.” (xxxi-xxxii)

I asked the writers here which poets most influenced their work. Several mentioned such iconic NZ figures as James Baxter, Janet Frame, Hone Tuwhare, and Allen Curnow. Others mentioned such NZ poets as Bill Manhire, Vincent O’Sullivan, Michele Leggott, Dinah Hawken, Sam Hunt, and Emily Dobson. A number of international poets were influences on the writers whose work you will read here: Paul Celan in one case, and in another “Rilke, Rumi, and Rimbaud”—first names apparently not required. Smither has taken an interest in Australian poets. But in fact, after New Zealanders (and I say this merely as observation), Americans were the most-cited influence by the poets here, which seems to me symptomatic of the love-hate relationship Kiwis have with the U.S. On the whole, these tend to be U.S. writers who made their names from the 1950s through the 1980s: Sylvia Plath came up more than once. Others included Charles Bukowski, Adrienne Rich, Mary Oliver, Jane Kenyon, Theodore Roethke, Gary Snyder, and Frank O’Hara. One of the poets here, Mercedes Webb-Pullman, did mention the more contemporary poets Mary Szybist and Mark Levine.

Ross Brighton, another of the poets featured here, commented on someone else’s blog that he was looking forward with some fascination to this issue of Reconfigurations, given its “innovative” slant. But I fear he will be disappointed. Though Webb-Pullman was reading William Bronk when she wrote the poem published here, Brighton was the only poet here whose cited influences truly departed in their lineage from “official verse culture” (a phrase I don’t particularly like, but it beats, albeit barely, “experimental” and “innovative” since at least “official verse culture” makes its politics explicit). He cited Gertrude Stein, “Zukofsky of 80 Flowers and the Catullus translations,” Ronald Johnson, Robin Blaser, and Language poets (or are we still meant to put quotation marks around “Language”?) such as Lyn Hejinian, Susan Howe and Myung Mi Kim. On his own blog, Brighton republished a review he wrote for The Press (Christchurch) this year about a recent anthology of New Zealand poetry, 20 Contemporary New Zealand Poets (Victoria University Press). In that fairly critical review, he in turn quoted Wystan Curnow’s critique of the Oxford anthology I’ve cited above. As Brighton put it, “these criticisms can equally be levelled at this more recent one.” Here is part of Curnow’s critique of the Oxford anthology, from “High Culture Now! A Manifesto,” a document written originally in 2000 but which is, according to the website on which it appears, sometimes updated:

“The new forms of thought and feeling proposed by L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry were a response to corruption of public language in America, and yet the editors of the Oxford dismiss them as another foreign fad. In this they are not alone. Policing the boundaries of the ruling forms with cheap passing shots at L=poetry is as close as we get to serious debate in the poetry world these days.”

That Brighton would apply the same concerns to the more recent anthology suggests that innovative poetry, as Brighton might characterize it, remains another kind of outsider in New Zealand, and its seemingly token appearance in this selection suggests that my contribution to such marginalization is yet something else I should feel self-conscious about. In my defense (my spell-check says that should be “defence”): Unlike an anthology editor, I didn’t pick and choose from among published poems. Rather, I put out a call and took what I considered the best material from what I received—there was not a plethora of Language-influenced poetry from which to choose. As an editor, I don’t like to think that I choose or reject poems on the basis of their aesthetic position. That is, it doesn’t matter to me, really, whether a poem’s loyalties are to formalist or free verse, neo-romantic or postmodernist, official verse culture or oppositional poetics, so long as it’s good. I try to judge “good” on the basis of the standards suggested by a poem’s aesthetic as I understand it. Of course, some would say my understanding of an aesthetic position quite different from my own is determined by and determines my sense of good, such that distinguishing my idea of good from my own aesthetic leanings as a writer/reader is a self-indulgent fantasy. Well, one does the best one can. It’s been a pleasure and a privilege to read all the submissions I received and to present the work of these poets in Reconfigurations. Enjoy these poems from this wonderful, surprising country at the bottom of the world, or the top, depending on your perspective.

Works Cited

Bornholdt, Jenny, Gregory O’Brien, and Mark Williams, eds. An Anthology of New Zealand Poetry in English. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Brighton, Ross. “The Politics of Anthologising.” A Pelt, a shrub, a soil sample: A Poetics Blog, Noise, Comment, Theory. N.p., 27 April 2009. Web. 12 October 2009.

Curnow, Wystan. High Culture Now! A Manifesto. New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre, n.d. Web. 12 October 2009.

O’Brien, Gregory. Preface. Zemlia morei: antologiia poezii Novoi Zelandii (Land of Seas: an Anthology of New Zealand Poetry [in Russian Translations]). Eds. Evgeny Pavlov and Mark Williams. Trans. Arkadii Aragomoshchenko. Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2005. Turbine 05. Web. 12 October 2009.

Orsman, Chris. “Ornamental Gorse.” An Anthology of New Zealand Poetry in English. Eds. Jenny Bornholdt, Gregory O’Brien, and Mark Williams. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1997. 1.

Links for NZ poets:

James Baxter

Janet Frame

Hone Tuwhare

Allen Curnow

Bill Manhire

Vincent O’Sullivan

Michele Leggott

Dinah Hawken

Sam Hunt

Emily Dobson

Wystan Curnow

Bryan Walpert is the author of a collection of poetry, Etymology (Cinnamon Press), and of a collection of short fiction, Ephraim’s Eyes, forthcoming with Pewter Rose Press on 15 November, 2009. His poems have appeared widely in the United States, in such journals as AGNI, Crab Orchard Review, and Tar River Poetry. In 2007 he won the James Wright Poetry Award from the Mid-American Review and the New Zealand Poetry Society’s International Poetry Competition. He teaches creative writing at Massey University in Palmerston North, New Zealand.

RECONFIGURATIONS: A Journal for Poetics & Poetry / Literature & Culture,
http://reconfigurations.blogspot.com/, ISSN: 1938-3592, Volume Three (2009): Immanence/ Imminence

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