Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2018 launched at Devonport Library


The Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2018 was launched in style last night at Devonport Library. Associate Professor Bryan Walpert’s opening speech is reproduced here:

As I’m here to launch a journal devoted to poetry, this seems an appropriate occasion to think about the poetics of the word ‘launch’. It is perhaps not something we consider often, but on this occasion it is worth recalling that the word first referred to setting a boat afloat on the water. The OED gives me its earliest example from around 1400 — and, happily, from a work of literature: Thomas Mallory’s ‘The Death of Arthur’. The idea of launching a publication first appeared several hundred years later, in 1870 — again, we can thank literature: the first written instance is attributed to Mark Twain.

This is metaphor, of course. We live in metaphor — so we live, though it is so often easy to forget, in poetry. What better way to begin this event than with a metaphor that reminds us of how fundamental poetry is, poetry being a particularly conscious attention to the language that we tend to treat in other contexts as transparent.

Of course, we need to give narrative its due. So I should mention that this launch is part a personal narrative for me. I have been in New Zealand going on 15 years now. My first submission of work here — shortly after my arrival — was to Poetry NZ. I sent a few poems and an essay to the editor at that time, Alistair Paterson.

That Alistair is here to read today and featured in this issue, now edited by my colleague at Massey, Jack Ross, with whom I teach creative writing, suggests the long journey in poetry that I have taken since making New Zealand my home.

So in that sense it is both a personal and professional pleasure to launch the Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2018.

I said poetry is a particularly conscious attention to language. There are so many wonderful engagements with language in this issue — attention to image and sound and connotation and figure and form. But what strikes me most is the variety on offer here — tight lyric poems, long prose poems, poems of intimacy and distance, poems of New Zealand and abroad.

The work they do, too, is of striking variety. These poems partake, in endlessly new ways, of the traditional work of the lyric poem. There are the poems of love, such as Bob Orr’s ‘A Woman in Red Slacks’, a poem I was so taken with I retyped it and sent it to someone; elegies, as in Mark Pirie’s ‘11 Memories of David’; and poems that move from strict elegy to the broader elegiac — surely poetry’s natural state — as in Heidi North’s ‘Goodbye, Goodbye This Time’.

The issue also includes the inevitable poems about poetry — a risky sort, but which, at their most successful, turn out to be about something else after all, as in Harold Coutt’s poem ‘there isn’t a manual on when you’re writing someone a love poem and they break up with you’.

And, too, there are the polemical poems, the poems about issues poems with messages — which are the riskiest of all, so risky I reflexively advise my own students against writing them. But from time to time they overcome their messages, as in Catherine Fitchett’s poem ‘Lead’ — a beautiful and surprising poem that is so perfectly timely, so movingly lyric and yet scientifically dispassionate — the author has worked as a forensic scientist — that it makes me rethink my advice.

Such variety suggests the broad taste and aesthetic pluralism of its editor. This is not, as in many anthologies, a strict record of the editor’s taste or dare I suggest it, friendships — but, rather, a clear effort to capture the diversity of New Zealand poems and thoughts on poems at the present moment.

What comes across particularly well in the issue we are celebrating today, though, is that the present moment is cut through — consciously — by an awareness of the past, which is so appropriate for the issue’s theme, which is tradition.

The essays cross generations: Owen Bullock on Alistair Patterson’s work, a personal essay by Reade Moore piecing together the life of a poet who was her great-great-aunt in early twentieth-century England. Their interests, too, cross continents: Ted Jenner’s essay on T. E. Hulme or Jeanita Cush-Hunter’s vigorous defence of the value of American Confessionalism.

And the poets here represent the very young and starting out — one is 19 years old — alongside, well, let’s just say alongside established poets. It seems fitting that the current editor, a poet of one generation, Jack Ross, should invite the former editor, of another generation, Alistair Paterson, to present a series of poems and to discuss his view of what it is to write poetry and to work toward that ever elusive and illusory goal of being a poet.

In its embrace not just of volume but of variety, this yearbook — a name perfectly apt — suggests that New Zealand poetry is not just a series of snapshots, work here or concerns there, but an ongoing flow of connected conversations: poems responding to poems — whether it is Alistair Paterson’s ‘Reading Alan Brunton’ or John Allison’s poem on Baudelaire; the essays and many reviews responding to poems; and, wonderfully, an essay responding to an essay — Robert McLean’s response to Janet Charman’s essay on Allen Curnow in the previous issue.

It is the sense that Poetry NZ catches such an interesting earful of this conversation in all its diversity — its aesthetic approaches, its concerns about history — that makes reading it feel as though I am moving through an interesting, vivacious and large poetry cocktail party, capturing, as I move, just enough to get a sense of all that occurs in poetry over the course of a year.

A yearbook of this sort is different in an important respect from an anthology along some theme of poems published elsewhere or a set of one author’s collected work, polished to a sheen. There is a clearer sense here of the attempt, of the struggle, of the work that has been sent out and might yet be returned to. In that way, they represent the life of poetry in progress. As Alistair Paterson notes in his interview in this issue, ‘we’re always becoming, we’re never there’.

It is this sense of becoming, of effort and struggle, that takes me to one last point: alongside the poems of these 87 poets sit the ghosts of poems by these same writers that Jack did not take — and the work of poets who submitted work but do not appear here at all. Jack notes in his introduction to this issue that he received some 300 submissions and asks those who did not make it into the issue not to be discouraged, counseling perseverance.

Alistair took my essay for Poetry NZ some 14 years ago, but he declined the poems. That, too, is part of the conversation of poetry, a conversation that can be as difficult as it can be pleasurable and rewarding. Every poem in this issue represents the failure and perseverance and inexplicable passion that this art requires.

With that — and in the anticipation of hearing some of the wonderful work on offer here — I’ll break my metaphorical bottle of bubbly against the side of this ship and pronounce it officially launched into the literary waters that in New Zealand seem to run so deep.