Monday, February 27, 2017

Off the Page

Poetry is for Everyone
A Review of Off the Page, Hamilton Gardens

On Saturday I went to watch Steve Toussaint, Hera Lindsay-Bird and Robert Sullivan read at the “Off the Page” poetry event. The reading took place in the Japanese Garden, a peaceful and somewhat intimate space within the larger Hamilton Gardens, and was emceed by Matthew Harvey.

Harvey, a Yorkshire man by heritage and nature, introduced the event in what could be described as a gregarious variety show style or Michael Parkinson on speed, though he was obviously, and endearingly, nervous too. It was an appealing combination. However, in his paying deference to the poets as he introduced them:


Are modern letters different from the old ones we use?*  (To Toussaint)

"The Guardian, ladies and gentlemen" (Re: Lindsay-Bird)

            "A proper poet" (Re: Sullivan)

he managed to simultaneously pay respect and pierce the bubble of pretension that has developed about their reputations through the various media and review coverage their works have attracted.
Far from deflating the event, however, the irreverence set the perfect tone for this public event in the semi-open air, on a day that was so humid it might otherwise have been remembered limply as a gathering of sweaty poets. The beers helped too.

Lubricated by Harvey’s one-style-fits-all introductions, the audience were equally as receptive to Toussaint’s eloquent, understated political poems and pared-down language as they were to Lindsay-Bird’s replete-with-expletives past pop-culture cynical skits, and Sullivan’s wry, perceptive and persistently politically prescient lyricism. 

Toussaint’s poetry contrasted so keenly with his introduction that the audience appeared utterly stunned by his sombre delivery of what is the most accessible and elegiac of his poetry I’ve heard to date, poems covering his recent return to his native Chicago in the days leading up to Donald Trump’s inauguration, to the linguistic specificity of an Italian word close in meaning to re-vision yet aeons away in terms of poetics. 

Hera, Hera, Hera, Hera, Hera, the mother of the young girl in next-to-back row might have uttered, given the content of Lindsay-Bird’s self-titled debut poems. But this was an event Shakespearian in scope and audience demographics, and far from clashing, Lindsay Bird’s poems were the best fit with Matthew’s bawdy bier haus interlude pieces. To recommission a line from his sausage poem, If Lindsay Bird’s linked the best, his were the wurst. 

Sullivan demonstrated the full spectrum of emotions over the poems he chose to read and recite from his various collections, and showed the most flexibility to adapt to the audience, perhaps because as a Māori poet (and probably the only Māori in the event?), he is the most at ease with the oral tradition and adaptability is a staple of his public reading survival kit. Indeed, a little resuscitation felt in order as he was being introduced (“Is that how you pronounce it?”). 

The most startling result of this event was that it showed that much of what one perceives poetry to be is down to hot air and a lot of waffle, which is to say, it’s whatever people want it to be. There’s little actual difference between a slim volume and words spoken at volume to a room of people receptive to poetry. 

Whatever I say today is art (Matthew, on poetry). And so it is.


Thursday, February 9, 2017

New Yorkshire

I arrive in New York on Friday afternoon. The sky is blue but the weather report says it's five below zero, in case I hadn't felt the cold's bite on my rump, in my nose that bleeds every time I sneeze. I get to where I think I'm supposed to be only to be told abruptly "Go outside and cross the road". 

Across the road - how could I have missed this?

 New York Public Library is a palace. I'm ecstatic. For today and tomorrow I will be working in here, eating lunch in here, drinking tea (yes, somewhere in NYC that offers HOT tea), and generally feeling I am in a fairy-tale in here.

I turn to look at the ceilings, walls, artworks, from every angle. 

I write a post-it note and add it to the wall.

After my bag is searched I go to check it and my outerwear into the cloakroom, before I look for the Berg Collection Reading Room.

 But before I can enter the Berg Collection Reading Room, I have to register for a library card and an entry pass.

 The library cards are issued from this room with a mural of sky overhead.

 And the door panels were carved into beautiful reliefs.

 The Berg Collection was waiting for me at the end of a long red corridor lined with illustrations.

Perhaps because it reminded me of my subject, this was my favourite.

Then I was lost in my research for the rest of the day, and when I reentered it, the city was a blur.


Saturday disappeared the same way. I transcribed, made notes, wrote questions. Strained my eyes at Mary Taylor's finely wrought handwriting, each letter so uniformly drawn, brown ink on blue paper, like old buildings against ice-blue sky.

And the sun shone again for my trip to the Morgan Library and Museum, a place that is to New York Public Library what James Bond is to Buckingham Palace, as I describe it to a friend.

Though both libraries allowed me to photograph Mary Taylor's correspondence with Charlotte Bron, I'm not allowed to share the pictures I took. But here's a taster of what they had in their Charlotte Bronte Exhibition. You'll have to wait a little longer to see what I discovered form their archive, but I think it will be worth it.

 I had travelled half way round the world from my New Zealand home, and half again from where both I and Mary Taylor originated from in Yorkshire, to read her letters in New York. We had grown up just an hour apart by train, yet I had flown for sixteen hours to find her and now her words are in my head where I feel they always have been. If not my Yorkshire, a New Yorkshire. If I can transport even a scratch of that feeling onto the page, this research trip will have been worth every nosebleed.

This research trip was funded by a Creative New Zealand Arts Grant.