It was a warm crowd for the launch of Frances Samuel's Sleeping on Horseback last week. Editor Ashleigh Young launched the book. Herewith, her speech:
"It is my very deep pleasure to hold Frances Samuel’s debut collection of poems, Sleeping on Horseback, in my hand. It is an exhilarating, singular book that in some ways I am still reeling from having the privilege to work on. The obvious first thing to say is that it has been a good year for horses at Victoria University Press, what with Marty Smith’s poetry collection Horse With Hat published earlier this year. I went back through the VUP archives to see if there had been other books about horses too, to see if perhaps there was a secret horse-book publishing plot going on under my nose, and I got distracted when I found a book by the shellfish research scientist John Booth about a kind of lobster called the packhorse lobster that, as a juvenile, is tiny and leaflike and helpless but, as an adult, can be as long as two school rulers and very strong and hardy with it.
I couldn’t help thinking that it was exactly the kind of creature that might appear in a Frances Samuel poem: an everyday, workaday, load-bearing creature but also, somehow, a magical, delicate, otherworldly creature. And it wouldn’t just be a straightforward description of some funny crustacean; it would be a luminous moment in time, or a collision, or a memory, concerning that crustacean. Because Frances is the master as taking something strange and revealing its everyday inner life, its daily routine, and also at taking the everyday and revealing its inherent strangeness. In this way this book is always gently jolting you awake, and … awaker. And for me personally, just like when I saw that lobster, a few times I’ve been walking along and I’ve caught myself saying to myself, ‘That man should be in a Frances Samuel poem’ or ‘There’s something very Frances Samuel about that pigeon.’ Frances Samuel has become an adjective, absorbed into my lexicon at a rapid rate.
Frances has been writing for a long time. She completed an MA in Creative Writing in 2003 under Bill Manhire’s stewardship, and a few of these poems began to take shape back then, and earlier, but many of them have come about in the years since, as she worked in a bookshop, and at the Book Council, and most recently on the writing team at Te Papa. The first time I came across Frances’s work was more than ten years ago. She was a good friend of my brother JP’s, and he showed me some of her poems, and I was transfixed by their electricity, their braininess. I remember wishing I could be inside her head, visit the world as she visited it. So I always remembered Frances’s poems and from time to time I’d search for her book, in vain, thinking it can’t be far away, not realising that Frances was actually very much like me in her approach to writing – in the nicest possible way – in that she takes ages to get things finished. It has been a great privilege to work with her on this book, years later.
I should clarify: Frances’s book has no lobsters. But it does have escaped zoo animals, and pigeons, and doubles waiting to board the ark, and friendly dogs, an elephant, a caterpillar, stones that speak, long grass that argues and laughs like an extended family. The book bristles with diverse life forms, many of them in surreal scenarios. As James Brown, a poet and Frances’s colleague at Te Papa, said to me about this book the other day, ‘I like seeing realism get a poke in the eye with a sharp sponge.’ I like the way these poems resist telling us things about our immediate reality, the way they resist what has been called the scourge of relatability, whereby the ability to see our ordinary selves reflected is a measure of the work’s value – Frances pokes all that in the eye. But gently. With a sponge. And, of course, we are reflected in this book, because in reading we map a world using our own experience and imagination, but my sense is that Frances wants us to take the longer route there, towards the inn, towards the mirrory experiences of music, of loneliness, of travel, of waiting, of festivals, of wanting to be remembered.
Along the way Frances makes the simplest scene somehow profoundly beautiful and/or profoundly strange, such as a zookeeper deciding one day to let all the animals go, or an elderly man sitting on his roof observing the passersby, or the fact of snow covering the ground. I sometimes feel a bit dubious when a poet is praised for simplicity or meditativeness, as if we should be relieved that poetry is giving us a break and not being too difficult for once. But Frances’s poems redefine simplicity – there is always a deeper story running through them; time reaching out on either side, even when we begin with ‘Morning: he thought he did not deserve it’ or ‘It is not always winter’ or ‘There are so many ways to write about dying’. Frances is a poet of the shining line that you always want to grab, like a magpie, and keep with you.
There are often details inside those simple scenes that pull the poem back from reassuring you too heartily that everything is quite normal and OK. So you have the zookeeper ducking his head as he gets into a police car; you have the elderly man whispering ‘Beautiful is more possible from a distance’ when he gets a puncture on his way to the sea; you have cheese and butter and wool and socks turning to snow. We think we’re on safe ground and then suddenly we’re not; we’re on this whole other ground that we didn’t know it was possible to stand on.
Beyond the first section of this book, when we see Po riding towards the sanctuary of the inn, there are few actual horses. It’s not a horsey book. Instead, what we get is a sense of moving ever onwards, or of pause and waiting to move again, the pull of journey beneath us, even an impossible journey like walking to the moon. It’s what I imagine it’s like to sleep on horseback, where the journey unfolds almost despite ourselves, where even rest is continuation. There is a line in ‘Duckshooting’ when a character named Johnny rides toward the speaker on a horse. The speaker stays where he is; thinks, ‘If someone is via horse, exit on foot is futile.’ It is a moment of entrapment, by horse. As if trying to escape the ever-onward movement of the horse is futile. Without wanting to resort to terrible horseplay puns, this graceful, funny, deeply peculiar and wonderful book, too, picks you up and carries you.
Finally, I’d like to make mention of ‘the elusive blue’. No editorial process is a completely hiccup-free, and during the layout process we found that the perfect shade of blue, for the cover, kept eluding us. There was a conversion problem with the files from the illustrator. We went back and forth, searching for solutions, trying to recreate this perfect shade of blue for the printers. There was endless, what we call in the publishing business, tinkering, and/or tweaking. What was this elusive blue? Did it even exist? Had it ever really existed? Frances argued that her shade of blue was slightly less childlike, was the more serious, more thoughtfully muted blue; I could almost see what she meant but at the last second my eyes would fail and all the blues would look the same; meanwhile, as we tinkered and tweaked, Fergus turned a whole other shade of blue with exasperation. But finally, and I’m not sure how, we achieved the blue, and now it was Frances’s book. It struck me that Frances is the kind of writer who will always determinedly follow the elusive blue, the blue that others can’t easily see, the blue that really means something. Which is what all good writers do."