Tuesday, February 7, 2012


I'm really pleased to be interviewing award winning New Zealand poet Keith Westwater today.

First of all, Keith, a big welcome to you – it’s great to have you on the blog – to talk about your first poetry collection Tongues of Ash. 

I want to start by saying I love the jacket design – the very small made landscape. It’s an apt metaphor for your work. And, landscape being the theme, I want to ask what your thoughts are about poetry as travel guide; the tramping poet’s Baedeker? I see travel comes before poetry in the cataloguing entry.

Thanks Rachel but first let me pay tribute to you on the quality of your blog – attractive, interesting, and great posts.

The cover has a story all of its own and is actually a painting by Turi Park based on a photo he took at dawn from Mt Taranaki of Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe. The painting is overlain with a puka leaf, shellac, and bitumen! As I lived for a number of years in Waiouru, I was used to seeing the mirror image at dusk of Mt Taranaki in the distance (minus the mixed media overlay) with the other two mountains in close proximity.

I think the painting also serves as a metaphor for what we remember – with the distance of time, our memories down-size and become fuzzy around the edges.

The use of travel as a descriptor for my work was one that had not one had occurred to me and I was a little startled when the publisher used it. On reflection, I think he has picked up on the journeys that are woven into the fabric of the collection ­ – my personal journey through time and place and my travels within New Zealand and overseas. I think I would have preferred poetry to have come before travel in the cataloguing entry, but hey, if it leads to more sales in these days of the major bookshops big ignore of poetry as a genre, what the heck.

Poetry as a travel guide? Only through the landscapes of memory and the imagination, but take a look at Kerry Popplewell’s work – now she is a real tramping poet.

There’s a line in “Winds and Time” which brought Wordsworth to mind:

“Wind on sand makes seas of crescent moons/ and sand on winds of time all life assails.”

(Westwater, 2011, p19)

And I wondered which poets/other writers influence your work and who are your literary heroes?

I always thought I was borrowing from Shakespeare when I wrote those lines in Winds and Time (though I now can’t source precisely which work), but attribution to Wordsworth will do almost as well. My other favourites from the Romantics are Browning and Hopkins (see River Talk’s first stanza) and the moderns include Eliot (I still can’t believe he was only 23 when he wrote Prufrock), Auden, Hass and Billy Collins. The Kiwis include Glover, Fairburn, Baxter, Dallas, Tuwhare, Adcock, Turner, Hunt, and Hawken. No post-moderns yet, but I have been influenced by them to sometimes experiment with form, for example Petone Beach is both a haibun and a concrete poem.

I get an image of you tramping about the landscape, notebook in hand, arriving back home with a pocketful of stones. What is the process of writing for you specific to these poems; what was the timescale?

I gave the game away in an earlier answer – tramping for me in this collection is largely through memories of landscape and place. The genesis of the poems wasn’t necessarily significant events in my life but ones that seemed to hold a modicum of poetic germ. Sometimes the poems took a long time to write (I think Coming home from leave began life in about 1980) while others got written on waking up in the morning.  The poems were spawned mainly over the period 2003 – 2010 and most were polished with the assistance of others – writing group colleagues, my wife Margret, innocent bystanders.

You write of the land underpinning the poet, but also the geology underpinning the geography as if in search of the ultimate foundation. I’m thinking of “The Love of Rocks and Water”, stanzas four through six:

At times, within their journey’s pitch and fall

Water sets rocks at rest, caresses, waits.

The pair are troubled too

By turbulence and flood, but not for long.

Though finally, when water

Reaches sea, she releases rocks

so the issue of their closeness and rocks

themselves into the depths can gently fall.

At last reposed, they start to bear water’s

Load. In the chrysalis of sea’s weight

Through echelons of time as long

As time itself, they are reborn to

Form sandstone, siltstone, mudstone, to

Begin, with the patience of rocks

That other tectonic feat, the long

Crossing through the passing fall

Of ages that presses, folds, lifts their weight

As mountains above the ocean’s waters.

(Westwater, 2011, p20)

What drives your poetry? Do you see yourself as a poetic environmental activist? (Thinking of “Song of the Climate Canaries” here).

I was a student of geography during my undergraduate degree years (in Christchurch and mainly at the old town site, which has suffered so much in the quakes). Geography (always a jackdaw of a discipline) in those days was still heavily into regional descriptions and analysis and was just beginning to gather the lens of environmental studies to its nest. I think I just missed the wave of early activism in this area and have come late to an appreciation of the issues of climate change and colonisation’s effect on the environment.  When it comes to leading the poetic charge in this area, I think I am more of an organic wine foot soldier than a greenpeace warrior.

Tongues of Ash charts a passage of time for both poet and New Zealand, subject and subject matter: a growing together?

Where do you see New Zealand years from now; onwards to what? Do you think the land can hold its own?

I’m not sure, usually I’m a half glass full person, but we seem to be taking one step forward and two steps back with respect to making progress on global warming, sustainability, and fending off the worst aspects of globalisation. The way things are heading, in 10 years the MacKenzie basin will be one big dairy farm (its half there already) and Mataura will be a lignite-mined hole in the ground. It was good to see Central Otago fight off the environmental values-deficient corporate wind farmers the other day (with the help of Brian Turner and an ex-Army colleague of mine, Graye Shattky).

In “The Sinews of Ohau Bay”, in placing experience – the self – in landscape (such as “The Goose Egg Rock”) you are following the tradition of myth: creation and folk/fairy tale. What are your thoughts on this? (Though I suspect the best answer may be in “Landscape is…”).

Possibly – but I’d like to answer this question and the next together.

How lived is your poetry? Is there a Spark Notes route to writing landscape poetry; can one bluff it with a stack of Craig Pottons*; (I’m being cheeky here – I note the refs to Potton – I have a few myself!) or must it come from a place of experience. For eg, could you have written about anywhere else as you have New Zealand?

I have a theory – some might say half-baked – that when we enter a landscape, even if we are just looking at it, the landscape is also entering us. This reciprocity, the entering of the person by the landscape, is akin to the way in which the terroir of a wine develops. (Terroir is that peculiar mix of soil type, climate, aspect, and water availability which is said to provide a wine with its unique character. Interestingly, terroir broadly means 'a sense of place'.) I think we are all collectors of the terroir of landscapes or places that enter us, whether we are aware that they have done so or not.

When we leave a place that has entered us in this way, it is always with us. Maybe when we return, even in our imagination, we are sampling from the collection of terroir that has accumulated in our memory. In my case, poems (sometimes a bit 'corked'), rather than bottles of wine result.

Also, I am not a great fan of admiration of the uninhabited wilderness for its own sake. I think this approach helped fuel the now out-of-favour landscape and nature poetry writing typical of the Romantics. My leaning is more towards poetically interpreting the human-landscape association, the exploration of the historical ecology of place and people espoused by the late Geoff Park in his seminal work Ngä Uruora: the groves of life.

Whether or not these approaches add up to a guide to writing landscape poetry, I am not sure, but the answer to the question whether I could have written about anywhere else as I have New Zealand is yes and I have (see Facial impressions, a poem about the Florida Peninsula, to which I have never been). My take on this is that ‘experiencing’ a place can happen in the imagination and that a place’s terroir can develop in the mind from experiencing music, literature, movies, etc. relevant to that place.

Finally, the lasting image I have of Tongues of Ash is of a collection of newspaper clippings: obituaries of New Zealand scenery/landmarks. Not quite memento mori but something similar; perhaps an acknowledgement of mortality, of seeing school friends names in the grey pages.

It’s a beautiful and touching book, Keith, where is it available to buy? And what’s next?

Thanks for the compliment, Rachel and I’m glad you can’t see my blushes.

Tongues of Ash is available in hard copy and eBook forms through online booksellers such as Amazon, Fishpond, and The Book Depository. If you want to buy it through your local bookstore, I suggest placing an order for it (it can be sourced by them directly with the Brisbane-based publisher, Interactive Publications, or through Ingrams or Wheelers). If you want to try before you buy, my blog has a number of poems from the collection and the National, Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch libraries hold copies.

What’s next? I actually write other than landscape poetry and am currently working on poems that are more to do with social critique (child abuse, domestic violence) and natural violence (earthquakes – funny that). I have in mind a next collection that will pull together these poems and some others of a more satirical bent that I have written in the past.

I also want to pick up again a fictionalized memoir that I started some time ago and put down when working on Tongues of Ash.

Ah, if there were only more hours…

There are never enough hours, agreed. Thanks so much, Keith, for your generous answers and time.

* Craig Potton is New Zealand's pre-eminent landscape photographer, best known for his powerful and evocative images of New Zealand's wild places. He has photographed extensively throughout and the rest of the world, and more recently, worked as a Location/Stills Photographer on The Lord of the Rings, Peter Pan, and The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe movies. (http://www.craigpotton.co.nz/photolibrary)


@parridhlantern said...

great interview of a poet I was unaware of, will have to explore more. thanks to you and Keith Westwater for this addition to my poetry knowledge.

Rachel Fenton said...

Cheers, Parrish - glad to have introduced you to Keith and his wonderful work.

Dave King said...

I have a theory – some might say half-baked – that when we enter a landscape, even if we are just looking at it, the landscape is also entering us.

I don't think this half baked. It is something I have felt strongly for a long time. I think, too, that there is an inner landscape that responds to certain features in the external one - and is maybe modified by it.

Like Parrish, I am getting excited at the prospect of meeting up with a body of work previously unknown to me.

My thanks to you both for a great dialogue.

Rachel Fenton said...

Dave, it's a stunning and strong debut collection. From what you say, I'm certain you'll connect with it. Thanks for your comments.

Kass said...

Even his name speaks of geography - this Keith Westwater. We have a Westwater Canyon here in Utah. It is made up of Precambrian rock and the Colorado River creates class III and IV rapids along its bends. His poetry is intimately inviting and accessible. I was as struck with the ease of my entry into riding the rapids of his mind as I was his poetic entrance into place.

Phrases That Jumped Out
(from reading his blog poetry):
unruly tomfoolery - a reference to breaking the rule of interacting with the audience, from The Ordinance of clowns.

From Kia Kaha Canterbury: "...a severance of peace from place..." (in reference to the earthquake).

Another earthquake reference - "...writhe in your Mother's womb - rail against Gods of mayhem, destruction, and death." - I particularly like this idea of the earth writhing against what goes on superficially.

The homeless man who "...went bush in the city."

"...hearing pianissimo in
passages of snow."
-"...sipped the wind...
ran his fingers over the sky."

Speaking of lonely books - "...thin-spined - less popular, lean on each other - take bets on who will be - the last one standing."

Hearing Keith read Winds of Time gave more weight to his love of place, his love of New Zealand.

An excellent interview, Rachel.

Rachel Fenton said...

Kass, thanks so much - your engagement with poetry is always whole hearted and visceral; a reader who lives the words.

I really like that you mapped Keith into your own geography - Westwater Canyon - made an understanding of his work part of your own landscape. That's given me lots to think about.

Thank you, Kass.

Lori said...

I was sure I had left a comment here because I loved this interview. I am sorry it got lost (Or maybe I wrote something so stupid that you had to delete it, Rachel? I hope not, but I am really worried about the possibility.) Anyway I wanted to thank you both for being so profound and dragging us with you also into worlds that maybe would not have occurred to us otherwise. I felt really uplifted and inspired reading the interview.

Rachel Fenton said...

Hey Lori - there were three comments from you - all up on the various posts, and I replied to them all. No neeed to apologise - I'm sorry your comment got lost. You've never written anything stupid!

Thanks so much for reading the interview.