Shadow Stands Up #12

Last Friday was National Poetry Day and I was invited to take part in the celebration organised by Tony Chad at the Upper Hutt Public Library. I like going to events organised around community centres that are outside or on the edges of larger metropolitan organisations. They’re usually friendly, without the protocol complications of large bureaucracies, and, not least, their hospitality usually knocks the socks off high-end catering consisting of very small things on toothpicks.

Friday night at Upper Hutt was no exception. Tony, a marvellously sociable and at-ease MC and organiser, and himself a poet and musician (he plays in a Celtic band), introduced the mayor of Upper Hutt, Wayne Guppy, who was on a busy round of functions that night but took time to welcome the local poets, and to greet many people he obviously knew by name. In May this year the national news media reported that Mayor Guppy’s Council had rejected a pay rise; its unanimity in response to tough times wasn’t the national norm. I get email news from environmental action groups about the Council’s river restoration programmes; when we lived in Wellington I used to spend a fair amount of time in the hills and rivers around the Hutt catchment.

In the back of my mind is a cultural history that associates Hutt Valley High with the legendary art teacher, artist, and designer James Coe, whose revolutionary art classes from 1945 to 1959 included Bill Culbert as one of several gifted students; Bill is representing New Zealand at the Venice Biennale in 2013. The high school may also take some responsibility for producing writers including Damien Wilkins, Lloyd Jones, and Nigel Cox, not to mention the Nobel Prize winner Alan McDiarmid. Right now it’s the Hutt Valley alumnus Nick Willis who’s in the news; at this time of writing he’s one of New Zealand’s best Olympic medal prospects.

The National Poetry Day evening included a poetry competition around the theme of Upper Hutt as a gateway to the hills, bush, and rivers that partially encircle the city. Ten poets read poems variously extolling the beauties of this place, fearing for its future, or lamenting the harsh treatment it had received in the past. The poems were judged by an audience ballot; one poet had submitted the first poem she’d ever written – partly in response to an encounter with Persian Sufi poetry and the tradition of colour-coding found there. Her poem won the popular choice award, and her children applauded loudly.

In the breaks between these readings, the presentations, and my own contributions, people drank the plentiful supply of very good wine, helped themselves to a generous spread, and talked a lot. Just beyond the function area, the library’s stacks revealed a magnificent poetry collection. I can’t think of a better place to have been on the night.


Through spring-green leaves on the tree
outside our place I can see
the green Link bus putter past
Cartune Auto, in Albert
Park graduates are blooming
in their extravagant silks,
Cook Island fafafine
bedecked with flowers are singing
outside the student food-court
at the university,
my spring-time cough is yelping
like an excited young pup,
likening, get over it,
I can’t, 1968,
the year I packed up and went
in search of the life I was
just going to go on having
the time of my life with,
and here I am having it
now, just look at those flowers,
the way I remember them.

Shadow Stands Up #11

I’ve just read 296 poems by young poets in New Zealand, for the annual New Zealand High School Poetry Competition. This was an amazing experience, perhaps at the ethnographic margin of reading. The quality of the work was uneven if judged by standard measures of correct writing, and the poems’ default mode was probably personal, anecdotal lyrics addressing a few familiar themes; but what was much more important and interesting was the variety of ways in which these poems were uttered, and at the same time their collective energy, which was overwhelming. It would be silly to claim I encountered some kind of aggregated self here, and equally silly to claim that each poet had a totally distinctive ‘voice’, though there were some marvellous, smart, and original poems in the pile. We speak and write using comprehensive common languages and, within those, in argots and accents that identify us tribally; what distinguishes our individual utterance involves variation rather than uniqueness. The effect of reading so many poems by poets within an age-span of thirteen to seventeen was of being within a dense texture, a layering of variations – a complex social chord; or, as Roland Barthes would have described it half a century ago, reminding us of the etymology of ‘Text’, a woven fabric, a textile. Of course I’m not suggesting that there is a single tribal language for New Zealand high school poets, god forbid: I encountered a great many interlocking variations within the span of English, and even within the span of English as a second language. Rather, what I think I was experiencing was a kind of poetic socio-biology, a situation in which the tensions between diverse tribals and distinct individuals generated extraordinary energy.

I had to choose ten distinct threads from this interweaving of poems, and from that ten a single winner. These are the rules of the competition, which is, after all, a competition; which admirably aims to encourage young poets to write, to enter their poems in the competition, and perhaps to experience the satisfaction and encouragement of making the short list or winning. I think the short listed poems I’ve selected are terrific, and though there could have been other winners chosen, I also think the winning poem is a good one. Pulling these threads out of the collective text does highlight their distinctions, and I hope other readers will enjoy them on that basis; but I was lucky enough to encounter these individuals first-off within a larger, denser, richly textured, highly-strung, sometimes chaotic energy fabric. The ethnographer in me observed this ritualised face-off between cultural loyalty and individual subversion. Then I could look at the best results. That was a special, slightly illicit pleasure, and a privilege.


If I wanted to translate
silence I would have to be
deaf, to remember silence
I would have to recognise
its opposite, for instance
singing, a miracle, not
too much to ask I hope, and
why wouldn’t I hope, why not?