Thursday, October 26, 2017

Michele Leggott: Vanishing Points Launch

Michele Leggott: Vanishing Points (2017)

It’s an optical amusement, a punctured surface letting light pour through holes cut out of the picture. Moon, army tents and the windows of houses and St Mary’s church glow or flicker with luminance. Between them move women and children as well as soldiers. Steamers, a brig and a schooner ride on the moonlit sea. Part and not part of the scene is the artist’s son, who lies three days buried in the churchyard at the foot of the hill where his father sits sketching the arrival of imperial troops. Now walk away from the painting when it is lit up and see how light falls into the world on this side of the picture surface. Is this what the artist meant by his cut outs? Is this the meaning of every magic lantern slide?.

In all the excitement of Labour weekend, don’t miss the launch of Michele Leggot’s luminous new poetry collection on Tuesday evening!

7–8.30pm, Tuesday 24 October 2017
Devonport Library, 2 Victoria Road, Devonport, Auckland
Koha appreciated.

We had an excellent time on Tuesday night. The Devonport Library Associates once again gave us a rousing welcome: Jan Mason and Paul Beechman gave the opening speeches, and Ian Free presented Michele and myself with some lovely bottles of bubbly. Sam Ellworthy was there to represent Auckland University Press, her publisher, and closed off the evening with a few words.

Tim Page did his usual brilliant job as sound-master, as well as creating a wonderful animation of the book's cover image, Edwin Harris's 1860 painting 'New Plymouth under Siege.' The original has little holes in it which look like twinkling lights when illuminated from the other side. Tim got us as close to that as one can imagine with his screen projection of this strange, haunting, rather Gothic work:

Edwin Harris: ‘New Plymouth under Siege – 40th Regiment, Marsland Hill, Taranaki 1860’ (3 August 1860)

My job was twofold: first to introduce Michele and her book, and secondly to interview her about it. it's always a bit difficult to make these setpiece 'conversations' sound at all spontaneous, but various people told me afterwards that they thought we'd carried it off.

Michele really didn't know what I was going to ask in advance (I hardly did myself), but she certainly had a lot to say in response. My idea was to try and anticipate what questions people might have on looking into the book, and to try to cover as many as possible of those in advance. Here we are in full cry:

photograph: Bronwyn Lloyd

Of course there was also a reading. Michele read four sections from the closing sequence, 'Figures in the Distance,' immediately after my launch speech. Here she is reading, with the help of her ipod:

photograph: Bronwyn Lloyd

I was in two minds whether or not to include the text of my speech. It's hard to recover the spontaneity of a live event, but as long as you bear in mind that it is written to be spoken, not read, I don't suppose there's any harm in it:

Well, needless to say, I felt very flattered when Michele Leggott asked me to launch her latest book of poems, Vanishing Points. Flattered and somewhat terrified. It’s true that I’ve been reading and collecting her work for well over 20 years, and I’ve been teaching it at Massey University for almost a decade now, but I still felt quite a weight of responsibility pressing down on my shoulders!

One thing that Michele’s poetry is not, is simple. It’s hard to take anything in it precisely at face value: what seems like (and is) a beautiful lyrical phrase may be a borrowing from an unsung local poet – a tangle of Latin names can be a reference to an obsolete star-chart with pinpricks for the various constellations.

The first time I reviewed one of her books, as far as I can see, in 1999, I ended by saying “the reading has only begun.” At the time, I suspect I was just looking for a good line to finish on, but there was a truth there I didn’t yet suspect. Certainly, I’ve been reading in that book, and all her others, ever since.

But how should we read this particular book? “Read! Just keep reading. Understanding comes of itself,” was the answer German poet Paul Celan gave to critics who called his work obscure or difficult. With that in mind, I’ve chosen two touchstones from the volume I’m sure you’re all holding in your hands, or (if not) are planning to purchase presently.

The first is a phrase from the American poet Emily Dickinson, referred to in the notes at the back of the book: “If ever you need to say something … tell it slant.” [123] The second is a quote from the great, blind Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges: “I made a decision. I said to myself: since I have lost the beloved world of appearances, I must create something else.” [35]

With these two phrases in mind, I’d like you to look at the cover of Michele’s book. It’s a painting of the just-landed Imperial troops, camped near New Plymouth in August 1860. The wonderful thing about it is the way the light of the campfires shines through the painting: little holes cut in the canvas designed to give the illusion of life and movement.

“War feels to me an oblique place,” wrote the reclusive New England poet Emily Dickinson to Thomas Wentworth Higginson in February 1863, at one of the darkest points of the American Civil War. Higginson, a militant Abolitionist, was the Colonel of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, the first officially authorized black regiment in American history. He was, in short, a very important and admirable man in his own right. Perhaps it’s unfair of posterity to have largely forgotten him except as the recipient of these letters from one of America’s greatest poets.

New Zealand’s Land Wars of the 1860s may have been on a much smaller scale, but they were just as terrifying and devastating for the people of Taranaki – both Māori and Pakeha – in the early 1860s. In her sequence “The Fascicles,” Michele transforms a real distant relative into a poet in the Dickinson tradition. Just as Emily Dickinson left nearly 1800 poems behind her when she died in 1886, many collected in tidy sewn-up booklets or fascicles, so Dorcas (or Dorrie) Carrell “in Lyttelton, daughter of a soldier, wife of a gardener” [75] provides a pretext for “imagining a nineteenth-century woman writing on the outskirts of empire as bitter racial conflict erupts around her.” [123]

There’s an amazing corollary to this attempt to “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” (in Dickinson’s words). Having repurposed one of her family as a war poet, Michele was fortunate enough to discover the traces of a real poet, Emily Harris, the daughter of the Edwin Harris who painted the picture of Taranaki at war on the wall over there, whose collected works so far consist of copious letters and diaries, but also two very interesting poems. “Emily and her Sisters,” the seventh of the sequences collected here, tells certain aspects of that story.

It’s nothing but the strictest truth to say, then (as Michele does at the back of the book), that one should:
walk away from the painting when it is lit up and see how light falls into the world on this side of the picture surface. Is this what the artist meant by his cut-outs? Is this the meaning of every magic lantern slide? [124]
I despair of doing justice to the richness of this new collection of Michele’s – to my mind, her most daring and ambitious work since the NZ Book Award-winning DIA in 1994. There are eight sequences here, with a strong collective focus on the life and love-giving activities which go on alongside what Shakespeare calls in Othello “the big wars”: children, family, eating, painting, swimming. One of my favourites among them is the final sequence, “Figures in the Distance,” which offers a series of insights into the world of Michele’s guide-dog Olive – take a bow, Olive – amongst other family members, many of whom, I’m glad to see, have been able to come along here tonight.

This is a radiant, complex, yet very approachable book. It is, in its own way, I’m quite convinced, a masterpiece. We have a great poet among us. You’d be quite crazy to leave here tonight without a copy of Vanishing Points.

At this point, then, I’d like to hand over to Michele, who will read some pieces from the sequence “Figures in the Distance." After that the two of us will have a short conversation about the book, and I’ll try and ask, on your behalf, some of the questions I think you’d like to have answered about how it all connects and how the various parts of it came about.

photograph: Bronwyn Lloyd

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Dianne Firth: The 'Poetry and Place' Exhibition

Dianne Firth: Poetry and Place (2017)

Poetry and Place

Belconnen Arts Centre

26 August - 17 September 2017

Dianne Firth: Poetry and Place (2017)

So, a couple of days ago I received a very interesting email from textile artist Dianne Firth, in Australia. In it she said (among other things):
Dear Jack,

At the 2016 Poetry on the Move festival, at Paul [Munden]'s request, you wrote a poem about Canberra. For the 2017 festival I created a textile work in response to that poem and I would like to send you a catalogue book from the resulting exhibition 'Poetry and Place'.

Could you please send me your mail address.

I haven't yet received the catalogue - I'm looking forward to that very much - but I have managed to learn quite a lot about the exhibition by doing a bit of trawling around the internet.

It's not as if this came as a complete surprise. I remember the original request, and doing quite a lot of scrabbling around to put together something which might be construed as a poem about the Canberra landscape (quite unfamiliar to me until my visit to the 2016 Poetry on the Move Festival, as one of the judges of the University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor's Poetry Prize).

I did duly send off the poem, "Canberra Tales" (which you can read here, if you're curious) before the deadline in December last year, but then after that I don't think I heard any more about it. I assumed that it was a bit too weird and/or insufficiently concerned with landscape to be of much use, and so - instead - I received the lovely present last year of an art piece by Bronwyn based on the first part of the it!

Bronwyn Lloyd: 1942 (2016)

I have to say that I love art-poetry collaborations. It's always so exciting to see what an artist has made of your own crazy musings, and I do seem to have clocked up quite a few of them over the years (check it out here, if you don't believe me).

This one was a bit different, though: this one was international. For a start, Dianne Firth is pretty eminent among Australian artists. In fact, she was honoured with an Order of Australia Medal (OAM) in the 2017 Queen’s Birthday awards, which is no mean feat, and her work is clearly highly valued both in Australia and abroad. The brief for the show was as follows:
Inspired by her love of Canberra’s landscape and by contact with poets at the university’s Centre for Creative and Cultural Research, Firth invited poets from Australia and overseas who were in town for the summit to write about the beauty of our environment.

Some of them got carried away and came up with many poems. One British poet declined, Canberra was too far from the hedgerows of England.
I can't help wondering if I was the principal culprit among those 'who got carried away and came up with many poems' - as you can see from the list below, I seem to have been the only one whose poem got four separate works allotted to it!

The 14 poets in question, then, were:
From Canberra ... Jen Webb, Merlinda Bobis, Paul Hetherington, Subhash Jaireth, Penelope Layland, Paul Munden, Jen Crawford and Wiradjuri poet Jeanine Leane. From overseas ... Pamela Beasant (Scotland), Katharine Coles (US), Philip Gross (UK), Alvin Pang (Singapore) and Jack Ross and Elizabeth Smither (NZ).
And here are a few of the 34 works included in the exhibition:

Dianne Firth: Alvin Pang's "Icarus"

So there's the show (or the closest I can get to reconstructing it at present). Unfortunately I was too late to buy the works based on my poem, but Jen Crawford and Jen Webb were both kind enough to take photos of it, and no doubt there will be more about it in the catalogue.

So, all in all, I think I'd have to rate this as one of the nicest surprises I've ever had: entirely out of left field, but one of those serendipitous events which sometimes light up one's day. Thanks, above all, Dianne Firth - but thanks, too, to Paul Munden, for facilitating the choice of poems in the first place, and thanks to Jen Crawford, for reading out my poem at the end-of-exhibition event, and thanks to Jen Webb, for posting about it on facebook, and thus putting me on the right track!

Dianne Firth: Jen Crawford's "Call"

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Allen Curnow Symposium

Allen Curnow: Collected Poems (2017)

A Symposium on the Life and Works of
Allen Curnow

30 September 2017
University of Auckland, Arts 1: Room 220

9.30 – 10.45
Panel One: Remembering Allen Curnow (I).

Chair, Alex Calder

C. K. Stead
[photograph: Jan Kemp]

  • C. K. Stead: ‘AC: informal recollections’
  • Elizabeth Smither: ‘Allen & Jeny: a tribute’
  • Wystan Curnow: ‘Venice’

10.45 - 11.00: Morning tea

11.00 - 12.35
Panel two: New Zealand Perspectives
Chair, Tom Bishop
  • Hugh Roberts: Unsettler Poetry: Curnow’s Literary Nationalism Revisited
  • John Newton, ‘All the History that Did Not Happen’
  • Paul Millar: Curnow and Pearson
  • Philip Steer: Curnow and Environmentalism

12.35 - 1.15 Lunch

1.15 – 2.50
Panel three: Poetry and Poetics
Chair, Erin Carlson

Roger Horrocks
[photograph: Jan Kemp]

  • Roger Horrocks: ‘Trying to save poetry from poetry’
  • Dougal McNeill: ‘Abominable Tempers, Magic Makers: Allen Curnow, Earle Birney and Mid-Century Modernism’
  • Harry Ricketts: ‘Allen Curnow: A post-Christian Poet’
  • John Geraets: ‘Show and Tell: Curnow’s Stealth’

Dougal McNeill
[photograph: Jan Kemp]

Afternoon tea: 2.50 – 3.10

3.10 - 4.25
Panel four: Early days, Latter days.
Chair, Alex Calder
  • Mark Houlahan: Curnow at Sonnets
  • Peter Simpson: 'Contraries in two late Curnow poems: “A Busy Port” and “Looking West, Late Afternoon, Low Water”’.
  • Jack Ross: ‘Teaching Late Curnow’.

Short break

4.30 – 5.45
Panel five: Remembering Allen Curnow (II)
Chair, Alex Calder
  • Michael Hulse: ‘That can’t be it!’
  • Jan Kemp: Poems for Allen Curnow

Terry Sturm: Simply by Sailing in a New Direction (2017)

So guess where I was yesterday ... One always approaches these events with a certain trepidation, I fear. I think you'll agree that the above list represents a pretty packed programme, but - as the prime mover of the whole affair, Alex Calder, remarked at the end - all the presenters "brought their A-game," and there was really never a dull moment in the whole day (not to mention an excellent lunch, which is more important than one might think for morale on such occasions).

There were numerous biographical revelations: Curnow's defiant contempt for homophobia, marching down Princes Street arm in arm with his theatre producer, who'd just been convicted of 'lewd acts,' in full sight of Auckland University's powers-that-were, was a particular high point (thanks for that detail, Paul Millar); and many of C. K. Stead's points about the 'authorised' nature of the biography were also shrewd and to-the-point. Michael Hulse, Jan Kemp and Elizabeth Smither contributed fascinating accounts of their very different friendships with both Allen and Jeny Curnow.

Roger Horrocks, Jan Kemp, Mac Jackson, Michael Morrissey
[photograph courtesy of Jan Kemp]

The Academic papers were uniformly excellent. I particularly enjoyed the focus on his earlier work provided by Hugh Roberts, John Newton, Dougal McNeill and Mark Houlahan. At times they overlapped, at other times disagreed, but the combined picture they presented certainly helped me to understand a lot of aspects of his poetry which had hitherto been quite opaque to me.

My paper
[photograph: Jan Kemp]

It's the later poetry, from the 1970s onwards, for which I myself feel a real enthusiasm (as I hope I revealed in my own paper on my strategies for teaching some of these poems to local students). Even here, though, there was much to learn. Roger Horrocks' ringing defence of the first book Curnow published after his long silence throughout the 1960s, Tree, Effigies, Moving Objects (1972), from the various accusations of 'roughness' and 'excessive obscurity' which bedevilled it at the time, was very persuasive, and Peter Simpson's analysis of two of these later poems both informative and charming. It tied in very well with Wystan Curnow's account of his father's long love affair with Italy, and - in particular - la città del sogno [dream city] itself, Venice, which Wystan interestingly contrasted with the Lyttelton of his childhood.

The perils of explaining all the references as you go along ...
[photograph: Jan Kemp]

What else? My Massey Palmerston North colleague Philip Steer had many interesting things to say about the environmental concerns of the 1930s, and the ways in which they manifest in Curnow's early poetry; Harry Ricketts analysed the 'coldness' many have claimed to detect in Curnow's 'post-Christian' poetry - which (I guess) places it alongside the work of such precursors as Eliot and Montale, as well as the more overtly present Wallace Stevens. John Geraets contributed a condensed overview of his thinking about Curnow over the years, grouped around certain predominant themes.

Harry Ricketts
[photograph: Jan Kemp]

There were some other voices I would have liked to hear. I would have liked Elizabeth Caffin and Linda Cassells to talk some more about their work on (respectively) the new collected poems and the biography. But since I was unfortunately unable to attend the booklaunch on Friday night, I suspect that they may have already discussed the subject there. It would have been interesting to hear some more details about it, though.

Harry Ricketts
[photograph: Jan Kemp]

All in all, it was a great day out, and a very fitting tribute to one of our most important and (I suspect) enduring poets.

Another important presence there (albeit in absentia) was that of the late Professor Terry Sturm, whom I knew pretty well when I used to work in the English Department. He was a very kind as well as a very brilliant man, and I have nothing but good memories of him (including a rather surprising speech in the Senior Common Room one day, after probably all of us had had a bit too much to drink, on the improbability of some of the more surprising claims made routinely in Penthouse forum ...). He was a good boss and a straight-shooting talker. I greatly enjoyed reading his biography of pioneering novelist Edith Lyttleton, and anticipate the same enjoyment from his work on Allen Curnow.

Dieter Riemenschneider & Jan Riemenschneider-Kemp
[photograph courtesy of Jan Kemp]

Mangroves, Little Shoal Bay
[Photograph: Ray Tomes (2009)]

from A Small Room with Large Windows (1957)

To creak in tune, comfortable to damn
Slime-suckled mangrove for its muddy truckling
With time and tide, knotted to the vein it leeches.

- Allen Curnow

New Zealand is a very small country, still. It's strange how many connections you can find with people you hardly know at all (except by reputation). Does it matter? I guess not really. It's fun to table a few of them, though:

My father told me that as kids they stayed in a boarding house in Akaroa where the Curnow family were also guests. They didn't much take to Allen, he said, but they had a great time playing with his brother Tony (this must have been sometime in the late 20s, I imagine, when my grandfather was working as a teacher in Templeton, on the outskirts of Christchurch).

Then my English teacher at Rangitoto College, Mr. Lamb, had many reminiscences of Allen Curnow as a lecturer. He retired from Auckland University a few years before I got there, though. In fact the only time I ever spoke to him was one day in (I think) 1986, when I was in the English Department mailroom and he asked me for help with the fax machine. I had to admit that it was a mystery to me, too, so there went my chance of making a good impression.

The next time I remember seeing him was at a poetry booklaunch in the late 1990s, where my friend Leicester Kyle finally gave into our persuasions that he go over and speak to the great man. Leicester's father, Cecil, who also had poetic ambitions, had been a fellow reporter of Curnow's on the Press in Christchurch in the 1930s, and they had some nice chat about it. There was a suggestion that Allen might write a preface to a collection of Leicester's own poems, but nothing ever came of that.

Connections: I know that Shoal Bay seascape of "A Small Room with Large Windows" very well. My grandmother lived in Ngataringa Bay, just around the headland, and we grew up sailing around on boats and wading over the mudflats. I don't know the West Coast beaches nearly as intimately as Curnow did, mind you. Of course I've been to Karekare many times, but have only stayed overnight there once. Muriwai is my favourite of those wonderfully evocative beaches, perhaps because it's really just round the corner from Mairangi Bay.

[Photograph: Brad's pictures]

from A Dead Lamb (1972)

Never turn your back on the sea.
The mumble of the fall of time is continuous.

A billion billion broken waves deliver
a coloured glass globe at your feet, intact.

You say it is a Japanese fisherman's float.
It is a Japanese fisherman's float.

- Allen Curnow

[Photograph: Marti Friedlander]

Allen Curnow (1911-2001)


  • Valley of Decision: Poems. Auckland: Auckland University College Students' Association, 1933.
  • Enemies: Poems 1934-36. Christchurch: Caxton Press,1937.
  • Not in Narrow Seas: Poems with Prose. Christchurch: Caxton Press, 1939.
  • Island and Time. Christchurch: Caxton Press, 1941
  • Sailing or Drowning: Poems. Wellington: Progressive Publishing Society, [1946?]
  • Jack Without Magic: Poems. Christchurch: Caxton Press, 1946.
  • At Dead Low Water, and Sonnets. Christchurch: Caxton Press, 1949.
  • Poems 1949-57. Wellington: Mermaid Press, 1957.
  • A Small Room With Large Windows. London: Oxford University Press, 1962.
  • Trees, Effigies, Moving Objects: A Sequence. Wellington: Catspaw Press, 1972.
  • An Abominable Temper, and Other Poems. Wellington: Catspaw Press, 1973.
  • Collected Poems 1933-1973. Wellington: A.W. and A.H. Reed, 1974.
  • An Incorrigible Music. Dunedin: Auckland University Press, 1979.
  • Selected Poems. Auckland: Penguin, 1982.
  • You Will Know When You Get There: Poems 1979. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1982.
  • The Loop in Lone Kauri Road. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1986.
  • Continuum: New and Later Poems 1972-1988. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1988.
  • Selected Poems 1940-1989. London: Viking, 1990.
  • Early Days Yet: New and Collected Poems 1941-1997. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1997.
  • The Bells of Saint Babel’s. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2001.
  • Sturm, Terry, ed. Whim Wham’s New Zealand: The Best of Whim Wham, 1937-1988. A Vintage Book. Auckland: Random House New Zealand, 2005.
  • Collected Poems. Ed. Elizabeth Caffin & Terry Sturm. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2017.
  • [Appendix to Allen Curnow: Collected Poems. Ed. Elizabeth Caffin & Terry Sturm. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2017. Available at:].


  • The Axe: a Verse Tragedy. Christchurch: Caxton Press, 1949.
  • Four Plays: The Axe, The Overseas Expert, The Duke’s Miracle, Resident of Nowhere. Wellington: A.W. and A.H. Reed, 1972.


  • Look Back Harder: Critical Writings 1935-1984. Edited by Peter Simpson. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1987.


  • Book of New Zealand Verse: 1923-45. Christchurch: Caxton Press, 1945.
  • A Book of New Zealand Verse: 1923-50. Christchurch: The Caxton Press, 1951.
  • Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1960.


  • Simpson, Peter. Allen Curnow: The Loop in Lone Kauri Road. Titirangi: Lopdell House Gallery, 1995.
  • Sturm, Terry. Simply by Sailing in a New Direction. Allen Curnow: A Biography. Ed. Linda Cassells. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2017.