Reading Poetry Around the World

All the seats were taken and the truly dedicated stood for an hour to listen to people talk about poetry at Scorpio Books on Thursday the 26th of January.

The chance to hear poet and world renowned poetry scholar Stephen Burt in a conversation with Victoria University Press editor Fergus Barrowman, chaired by University of Canterbury Professor of English Paul Millar, explained the impressive turnout and they did not disappoint.

Cover for New Selected Poems by James K BaxterIf you couldn’t make it these are the poets Burt read and rated before arriving in New Zealand: James K. Baxter – “one of the great poets of the 20th century”, Michelle Leggott, Bill Manhire, Andrew Johnston, Ian Wedde.

Those discovered after arriving: Bernadette Hall, Joanna Margaret Paul, Alistair Te Ariki Campbell.

Millar’s relaxed chairing – “I’m going to ask you a question and you can say whatever you like” –  let the conversation range freely and some interesting stuff emerged. The visits of American poet Robert Creeley influenced New Zealand poetry markedly; ” an accident of history that had unforeseen consequences”. I am ashamed to say I had never heard of him.

Cover for Hera Lindsay BirdSo how much does the Internet change poetry and reading? A lot. Burt and Barrowman agreed that current sensation Hera Lindsay Bird would not exist without the Internet and its international no cost distribution. But Unity Books in Wellington has also sold large numbers of print copies of her book.

Where will the ‘not hip’ poets be read? No-one knows. Burt is sure that the Internet makes it easier for everyone in the room last night to access poetry from other countries.

Burt was off to the The Bats (New Zealand poetry, with its “agreement groups not large enough to live in”,  was compared to the Flying Nun bands earlier in proceedings) so there was time for just a couple of questions. In the event there was only one and I can report that Bob Dylan was not shaped by Minnesota literary culture.

Thanks to the University of Canterbury College of Arts and WORD Christchurch for a very stimulating event. I’ll be keeping an eye out for others.

For Later: Stephen Burt, visiting poet

Cover for BelmontPermissible and not mad to add two poetry books by Stephen Burt, The Poem is You and Belmont, to the For Later Shelf this week because I’m giddying up to see them at a WORD event at Scorpio Books on Thursday 26th January at 6pm.

Good poet (at least I think so after attending a reading last year – perhaps I’ll know how to tell for sure after this event), Harvard Professor of Poetry and an engaging speaker, Burt will be in conversation with Fergus Barrowman from Victoria University Press.

I love poetry events – people are passionate about it so the questions tend to be on the intense side, and even better can spin out into wildly inappropriate statements of opinion. Somehow opinions on poetry are so much more interesting than opinions on non-fiction, which mostly centre on how much more the ‘questioner’ knows than the author.

“A lively discussion” is promised, but I’m hoping for a bit more than that.

Wilkins, Perkins classic Kiwi authors

Wilkins and PerkinsEmily Perkins and Damien Wilkins are classic New Zealand writers in the sense that writing isn’t the only thing they do. Both have other strings to their bow, other jobs – Perkins as host of The Good Word, and Wilkins as a lecturer at Victoria University.

Their careers also follow a similar path: major early success – Not her real name for Perkins and The Miserables for Wilkins. Both made careers overseas and both now work in New Zealand and both are published in New Zeland by Victoria University Press.

Fergus Barrowman, their publisher and former teacher, hosted, and was rightly proud of their success. An absorbing, and detailed session followed, which concentrated on the writing process, the challenging and invigorating process of teaching creative writing.

We discovered that Wilkins dislikes satirical writing, and prefers dialogue, which took him a long time to learn; Perkins dislikes protected characters The readings from each author were well chosen and appreciated by the audience.

The session could easily have gone on for another hour, as one of the audience landed a great topic, with the great question of what is the New Zealand story? Colm Toibin had written it was about children.
Wilkins agreed – as New Zealand is a young literary culture it made quite a lot of sense. Our films are also full of child’s commentary on the adult world. Janet Frame had a hotline to child fears, he said;  a child’s lack of power, lack of control. Perkins said for an author the child as agent is a thrilling kind of figure. Barrowman added that Katherine Mansfield  never created an adult relationship in her writing which was as interesting as the relationships of the children in her work and that she satirised adults.

What do you think – is the great New Zealand story set on a farm? Is all the emotion in the silences? Is it about childhood? Tell us your great New Zealand story.