A Wreath of Laureates

Following on from my post last week about New Zealand’s Poets Laureate – Poetry Personified – I’ll Drink To That! – I went along to this session at the 2011 Auckland Writers and Readers Festival expecting to be informed, entertained and transported to imaginary worlds via the spoken word. It was all that, and so much more.

Fiona Farrell, herself an internationally renowned poet, fiction writer and playwright, calmly chaired the event, introducing each P.L. in order.

First up was Bill Manhire (inaugural P.L. 1997-99), so well known he doesn’t need an introduction. Many New Zealand poets and authors have him to thank for launching their international careers. He read ‘Because Of The Lucky Lotto Shop’ a commissioned work that had the beautiful line ‘after a time of drought, the whole heart dances’. This was followed by ‘Hotel Emergencies’ a clever, repetitive poem, then finished with ‘Erebus Voices’ that was read out by Sir Edmund Hillary at the 25th anniversary of the Erebus disaster in Antarctica (apparently Sir Ed ‘quite liked it’).

Unfortunately one Poet Laureate (hereinafter known as P.L.) has already passed on to the great writing room in the sky (Hone Tuwhare – P.L. 1999-2001) and his memory was honoured with Auckland poet Robert Sullivan reading some of his works. These  included his most famous poem No Ordinary Sun (the poetry collection of the same name is the most widely read collection in New Zealand), and my personal favourite ‘Rain’.

Elizabeth Smither (P.L. 2001-03) treated us to poetry that was prose-like but mesmerising. These included ‘The Nurses Are Coming’, ‘The Birth Dressing Gown’, ‘Gargoyles’, and the tender ‘Fatherhood’. One line from a poem about Mozart stuck in my mind – ‘a complexity so alive it is still working itself out’.

Brian Turner is overseas at the moment (P.L. 2003-05) so Bill Manhire stepped in to read on his behalf. Apparently Brian didn’t mind what was to be read out and said “gidday” from London to everyone. Bill chose a classic selection of poems – ‘Chevvy’, ‘Semi Kiwi’, ‘Some reasons why I got this job – to be taken with a grain of salt’ (written with a hangover, the day before his inauguration as P.L. – it was impressive), and the shortest poem he’s written –

New Zealanders – A Definition/born here/buggered it up

Jenny Bornholdt (P.L. 2005-07) is quietly spoken, but her intense observations of daily life are still powerful. She read ‘Summer’ with the line ‘my husband glowing in the dark’ (sunburn), ‘Medical’ where she imagines that a doctor can hear the story of her life, by listening to her chest, ‘Inner Life’ (from new book ‘Hill Of Wool‘) and ‘Time’ – ‘we woke to Spring nuzzling at the window’.

Michele Leggott (P.L. 2008-09 and co-founder of the NZ electronic poetry) chose a different method of delivery, performing what she called ‘MP3 karaoke’. She is vision impaired and had her new guide dog Olive on stage with her. Her oration was outstanding, belting out her poetry as if they were songs to be heard at the back of a concert hall. She spoke ‘Dear Heart’, ‘Wonderful To Relate’ (a poignant piece about a ‘lost’ niece being welcomed into the family) and concluded with Olive – a piece that combined the Pike River disaster with the arrival of Olive into her life. As incongruous as this sounds, it worked well – ‘fear waits with its next fuse’.

Cilla McQueen is the current New Zealand Poet Laureate (2009-11) and read two pieces, both with long time friend Hone Tuwhare as part of the subject matter. The first ‘Letter To Hone’ imagined them sitting by the fire together and drinking whiskey, and ‘Ripples’ also mentioned the late Joanna Paul. A well-crafted line was ‘cabbage trees – green faced wild cats’ (wind blown).

All different, all very talented, and everyone in the audience entranced by this rare opportunity to see the stars of the New Zealand poetry scene performing together.

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