Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Kate Camp's launch speech for Bill Nelson's Memorandum of Understanding

Kate Camp gave this speech at Bill Nelson's launch last week. Thanks Kate for letting us reproduce it here. 
Kate Camp giving her launch speech

 I used to like annoying Bill by referring to him as my ‘mentee’ – because I was his mentor on a poetry course. I guess I still like annoying him by saying that.
Of course it’s because I want to take whatever credit I can for him and his great poems.
(It’s also because ‘mentee’ sounds a bit like ‘manatee’ and manatees are just really weird.)
Even though now we have moved on from our mentor/manatee relationship, and I really can’t take any credit for Bill’s poems whatsoever, it’s still a real pleasure to be able to launch Memorandum of Understanding.
To me, as a poet, there are two tests of a really great image or phrase:
1.     It suddenly makes me see something that was under my nose in a completely new way, but which seems obvious and inevitable as soon as I hear it.
2.     I wish I came up with it.
The title of Bill’s book meets both criteria.
It’s clever, it’s surprising, it feels good to say aloud, it’s both technical and tender.
I think it’s a great title for the collection that really captures some of the book’s themes: memory, understanding the world and each other, and how both of these things are problematic when we attempt to codify them in language.
I also really like the poem, and maybe Bill’s going to read it tonight so I’ll just quote from it:
Understand, that this is a bridging agreement / just a placeholder / until the full programme of individual projects that need to occur to realise the full potential of the programme which addresses all the individual and specific concerns and develops a full and proper understanding of all the aforementioned concerns, is in place. / Understand, / that there are no placeholders.

Now this is a bit of a weird thing to say, but I find this a very masculine book. It’s manly.
I guess what I mean is that its subject matter covers a lot of traditional male territory: one day cricket, John Coltrane, big screen televisions, “I first touched your breast / accidentally”, “How to change the oil in a 1979 Ford Escort”....
And of course there is fantastic sequence of poems about the grandfather ‘How to do just about anything’.
But these masculine tropes always appear in new guises, in a new tone. If I was an academic  I’d be talking about contemporary masculinities.
But the way it feels to me as a reader and as a woman is just really great, like yay I’m so glad we’re past the John Mulgan / Barry Crump kiwi bloke, and can just enjoy being in the company of an intelligent New Zealand man who is comfortable in his own skin, even if it’s the skin of John Coltrane.
Bill Nelson reads from Memorandum of Understanding

I once gave a Masters tutorial presentation titled ‘My favourite bits of Moby Dick and why they are so great’ and I just want to finish off tonight by doing the same for Bill’s book.
I absolutely love the final sequence of poems in the book, about the poet and his grandfather.
As one of the poems says: “Sometimes it seems you’re the only two people / in an absorbing, character-based mystery.”
I love the way the poems in this sequence are like tiny short stories, even like miniature novels – when I re-read the sequence I’m surprised how short they are, because they seem to contain so much.
How’s this for an opening of a poem:
One-day cricket
Like origami, oyster soup
and obscene phone calls
this is something your grandfather
was never into. 
Origami, oyster soup and obscene phone calls! God that’s good!
And even more clever in context of the sequence, which has a guiding principle which I won’t reveal – because the book has a fantastic ending which I don’t want to give away.

There are just so many wonderful lines in these poems:
“listening in the dark like icebergs”
“Listened to the clock
click its thin metal parts
into place, each second
finding its home
and then leaving it.”
“trying to read the road signs
all you see is a diamond
stuffed with impurities”
I think that last one sums up the particular magic of these poems. It’s only once you hear “impurities” that you go back and re-cast the diamond shape of the road sign as the other kind of diamond.
So the moment you recognise the flaws is also the moment you recognise the value.
I know Bill finished this manuscript a year ago and it probably feels like ages since he really inhabited these poems.
But hopefully now that everyone will be reading it, and finding those lines that make them think – I wish I’d written that – Bill, you’ll get a chance to appreciate what a great body of work it is. 
Congratulations to a very talented manatee.
Memorandum of Understanding can be purchased in quality bookshops or through our online bookstore. $25, p/b.
Sarah Jane Barnett, Nick Ascroft and Bill Nelson

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Four questions for Bill Nelson

Bill Nelson's debut poetry collection, Memorandum of Understanding, is launched tonight at The Southern Cross (all welcome!). We asked him four questions about his new book.

Bill Nelson 2016 (Grant Maiden Photography)
In ‘Vocal’ the speaker is getting singing lessons. Is this an autobiographical poem? And if so, has learning how to sing influenced your writing – or your poetry readings?

I did do singing lessons for a couple of years. It was a real struggle, like trying to unlearn and then relearn how to walk. I was taught by a man named Charles who was fantastic at coming up with strange new exercises to shock my voice into forgetting itself. It was slow going but I did learn early on that singing is a physical act and if you place your body in the right position it all just flows from there. That struck me as something to say about poetry as well. His favourite saying was 'sing into your boots.' I'm still trying to figure out exactly what that means.

I'm sure learning to sing has influenced how I write. In the dedication to practice and training if nothing else. Writing is a craft that takes muscle memory and patience. It's easy to forget that when reading a finished poem. It's the same with singing, people get discouraged when they hear a great singer but they had to practice too!

As for readings, I do try and slow down as much as possible. And the rhythm is important thing to concentrate on. Actually singing in a reading though? I'll leave that for others to do. Although I should try and figure out how to read a poem into my boots.

There are quite a few love poems in the book (‘All the love poems’, ‘Pins and needles’, the title poem, and, ‘In geological time') where you seem aware that you're writing a love poem, but you’re careful to avoid making any outright declarations. It’s almost a discomfort with the whole idea of the love poem. What is that discomfort about? 

I would describe 'In geological time' as more of a rocky sex poem than a love poem. And 'Pins and needles' is about the discomfort of a failed love more than anything else. I guess love can be a complicated beast and the poems reflect that.

Hinemoana Baker said to me once, when talking about one of my poems, 'Where is the love?' By which I think she meant that the intention of the poem should be celebration. I like that idea and I think that's true of the poems in this book. They are all in love with something and all declaring that love one way or another. Even if the L word doesn't appear directly, it's in there somewhere. I think that's how love works in real life too; it slips in when you're not looking for it.

'All the love poems' started out as a deliberate attempt at mockery. But then a reference to one of my favourite love poems, 'Strawberries' by Edwin Morgan, derailed the whole thing. So I guess that poem fell in love with me despite me doing my best to give it the cold shoulder. I feel redeemed by that one.

There are lots of characters in the poems (John Coltrane, Chalky George, Russell, the goats, Charlie in ‘Charlie’s shed’, the grandfather), and some poems in which you take on someone else’s character (e.g.  ‘Giant steps’, 'Starbuck Island’). Do you consciously borrow from fiction or drama? 

A lot of those poems are like little biographies. I'm interested in biography because the speaker often gives away more about themselves than the subject. In the John Coltrane poem that happened quite literally. I became him, or he became me. My Mum keeps asking me why it had to be so dark though. It's a good question and I think John Coltrane should answer it.

Russell is a place, Chalky George is a tortoise, and they both have great sounding names. Poems often start with nothing more than a phrase or a name that hooks me in. When I started the Coltrane poem, based on it being the coolest name I'd ever heard, I made the deliberate choice to do absolutely no research on him. I later found that I'd scribbled something years earlier that also had John Coltrane in it. I'm obviously obsessed with John Coltrane.

‘Starbuck Island’ borrows from a memoir that my great-great-great-grandfather wrote about being left on that island for a year. He was there to collect bird shit which was used as a fertiliser at the time. I later learnt that the man who named the island (after himself) came from Nantucket where Moby-Dick was set. So I had to throw some Moby-Dick style drama in there. My great-great-great-grandfather was an old man when he wrote it too and I like to think he added a bit of fiction and drama himself.

‘The pigeon history of New Zealand’, sets out an alternative, but kind of baffling version of NZ history, told in a variety of voices (e.g. there’s one where Jesus gets shot between the eyes). How did you go about writing it? Do any of the poems in that sequence have a source text, i.e. are found poems? Where did the voices come from?

That one definitely went to places that I wasn't planning on which is always a good thing.

The section titles came from The Penguin History of New Zealand by Michael King; 'Prehistory', 'Settlement', 'Consolidation', 'Unsettlement' and 'Posthistory'. I used those as launching points for little language experiments, some of which were modelled on the tone of King's prose and others I tried to take in a completely different direction. It was the language and the novelistic prose that drew me in. In the end I think it's a little shrine of language in dedication to that book.

Memorandum of Understanding is released today! April 14, 2016. Available at quality bookshops and through our online store. $25, p/b.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Rachel Bush

It is with great sadness we learned that our good friend Rachel Bush died yesterday. Rachel was a wonderful poet, an astute reader and a warm supporter of other writers. She will be greatly missed. Our thoughts are with her family and close friends.
Thought Horses, Rachel's newest collection of poetry, will be published in April. We are so pleased that Rachel was well enough to work on her book with editor Ashleigh Young, and that she also got to see and hold her book. 
We will be holding a reading and celebration of Rachel at Vic Books on Tuesday 19 April.

Sing Them

Because I need to sew me 
a composer and knit me 
a singer who will wrap me
in the sounds of the words.


Because in this house I hear
sparrows in the fan palm and tui that
hang out in pink camellia flowers but
these voices have no words.


Because we lived with their questions 
when our mothers sang to us.
Who is Sylvia, what is she?
When our mothers sang,
the words became us
and the songs became us.
Where have you been
all the day, Billie Boy, Billie Boy?


Because this was a congealed
day at the cold leftover end 
of the rind of winter but when 
you said you’d sing the poems,
they put on their warm clothes
and went out walking.


Because every day the poems 
stay folded and pressed flat in 
a suitcase of their pages 
till the composer unfolds
them in sound lines and when
you sing them, they float.

From Thought Horses by Rachel Bush (VUP, April 2016)
Rachel is also the author of The Hungry Woman (1997), The Unfortunate Singer (2002) and Nice Pretty Things (2011).

Monday, 14 March 2016

Fits and Starts – an interview with Andrew Johnston

Andrew Johnston (photo supplied)

In your day job you work both as an editor and as a teacher of ‘plain English’. Poetry is the opposite of plain English isn’t it – thinking here of the way you play with words and their sound, with language’s slippery meanings?

It’s all about language, that’s for sure. I guess you could say that the day job, unlike poetry, is about making things happen – I teach people in the United Nations and in aid organisations how to write policy that is more likely to get results with decision-makers. Plain English is part of it, because they have to learn to ditch the jargon. But I take them up close to language, too – we talk about Shakespeare! We talk about noticing the Anglo-Saxon and the Latin inside English, about saying things as simply as possible.

When it comes to poetry, I’ve always been more interested in language as substance, as sound and form, rather than any idea of language as a transparent, purely utilitarian medium. I like listening to the way language pushes back when we want it to say something. It says less than we want it to, and it says more than we want it to. I’m interested in the “more”. Like many poets, I love what Wallace Stevens said: “There is a sense in sounds beyond their meaning”. Language is incredibly musical. It’s a whole orchestra. Some poetry sticks to just one instrument – the speaking voice, the narrator. I like poetry that tries out lots of instruments.

In ‘The Otorhinolaryngologist’, a light in the speaker’s mouth gives them a god-like perspective, before they’re pushed into the ‘hollow places’ of the street – does poetry give you a scope to move between the sublime and the mundane to a certain extent?

The light-in-the-mouth thing actually happened, in the sense that I went to this old-fashioned specialist who stuck a light bulb in my mouth that apparently illuminated my sinuses. It was a bizarre experience, because the light was coming out of my head. It felt like knowledge, and it felt like delusion, so I put the two together in the poem (Perhaps knowledge is always a kind of delusion.) It’s partly a poem about imagination. Imagination has to cope with the mundane, too – I think that shuttling between imagination and reality is one of the engines of poetry.

Echo, the Greek nymph, is a recurring character in the book – walking through poems named after Old Testament characters. What made you want to write these characters from ancient literature into your new poems?

It’s all a bit accidental and obsessive so I think the only true explanation is in the poems themselves. But this is how it happened: I started a sequence based on the radio alphabet (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, etc) because I like the words. When I got to the E word, Echo, I started reading about the Echo myth. Echo is condemned to repeat the last words of what others say. And then she falls in love with Narcissus, who as we all know was in love with himself, so that wasn’t going anywhere. She wastes away till all that is left is her bones and then just her voice.

What was it that drew me to the Echo myth? Perhaps I thought I could use Echo to evoke the sense that something extremely important is missing from your life but you don’t quite know what it is (I tend to have this feeling most of the time, in spades). As a poet, it’s easy, too, to have a sense that you’re condemned to repeat what others have said.

Then I started another sequence, based on the books of the Old Testament. Echo wanted to be part of that, too. I’m not a believer, but I’m intrigued by the ancient weirdness of the Old Testament stories, so full of loss and exile. Perhaps I’m interested in how missingness is part of being human. Also, the Old Testament is at the root of both Judaism and Christianity – and living in Europe, you can’t get away from that. The Holocaust never went away. But that’s another story.

You’ve lived in Paris for a number of years now. Has becoming fluent in another language affected the way you write in your native English? And has French poetry had any influence on your own poetry?

France has a strong myth of integration – the idea that if you do things right, you too can become French. (“How’s your integration coming along?” my wife’s great-grandmother used to ask me.) Whereas the experience of migration is more often one of realising how much you have been formed by the place you came from – and the language you came from. So being in France has pushed me deeper into English, paradoxically.

As for the influence of French poetry, I just don’t know. I like poets such as Jacques Roubaud and Jacques Jouet who can shift from being playful to being serious (and back again). But much French poetry is just deadly serious, even fatally so. It’s terribly abstract and philosophical – whereas the great precursor for much New Zealand poetry is William Carlos Williams, who wrote “No ideas but in things.” I love the thinginess of New Zealand poetry.

I like John Ashbery’s response to the same question (he lived in Paris for 10 years – and the scene he describes hasn’t changed):
“I found my poetry being more influenced by the sight of clear water flowing in the street gutters, where it is (or was) diverted or dammed by burlap sandbags moved about by workmen, than it was by the French poetry I was learning to read at the time.”

Fits and Starts by Andrew Johnston is available from good bookshops and through our online bookstore now.
p/b, $25.

Monday, 7 March 2016

Dad Art – an interview with Damien Wilkins

Dad Art is Damien Wilkins eighth novel. It will be launched on Thursday 10 March during Writers Week in Wellington.

Damien Wilkins (Grant Maiden photography)

I heard I rumour you wrote this book in a matter of weeks? How did you do that? What influence did this rapid writing have on the shape of the book?

If I knew how I did it, I’d do it all the time. At the moment I’m not sure if it was a lightning strike or a working method. But let me just praise speed for a moment. I teach creative writing and one of the themes of that world is that it’s very hard to write a book. You’re working with people for whom writing is new. They struggle. You struggle with their struggle. I believe in that struggle. But there are other ways to go about things. I was impressed that César Aira says he never revises. He’s published something like eighty books. The other thing on my mind was the work of painter Euan Macleod. I’d written a piece for Art New Zealand on his big retrospective show. One thing amazed me: the speed of his composition. I really envy painters their brushes and their splatter, their approximateness. Language isn’t paint. It’s a world of care and creeping along. But what would it be like to run ahead instead of go my usual sideways?

My one rule was that the action of the book had be commensurate with the time in which I was writing it—meaning the main character and I lived through the same day, the same news cycle, the same weather. Which, come to think of it, makes it sound like a diary. It has more shape than that. Anyway I wanted it to be unabashed about its contemporaneity. Partly that was helpful in overthrowing the disabling idea that I was writing A NOVEL. People can start to stiffen up when they think of writing a novel, as if you’re entering a fancy Great Hall with Henry James at the top table—mentally you put on a bowtie, your best shoes. No, I was just writing. When I sent it to Fergus, my publisher, I said it was ‘ranty’. By the way, I do actually have Henry James at the top table.

Dad Art takes as its main character a recently divorced, white, middle-aged, middle-class man – who is very aware of his middle-ness and tries to open himself up to new experiences by taking Te Reo classes, trying out online dating. Michael’s certainly quite self-aware of where he sits in society, and his daughter’s art project goes someway to upsetting his perch a little. Was the ‘middle-class/age’ issue very much on your mind as you wrote this?

Yeah it’s a great burden to be the repository of so much historical advantage! The world needs more novels from dudes like me.

Actually what interests me is the dynamism of New Zealand society, the feeling that things aren’t static. I’m talking about changes in the wider culture and the ways they register in our lives. Our national life turns out to be very much like our private life in that the things a lot of us want ‘to put behind us’ are exactly the things that keep popping up. Let me give you a tiny example which doesn’t come from the world of politics or talkback. Last week my father-in-law stayed with us. He’s a retired South Canterbury farmer who left school at age 15. He was in Wellington to attend the Edinburgh Tattoo with his daughter and was in a suit and tie—unusual for him. Before they left for the event, he showed me the tie which had a pattern vaguely like a koru. ‘This is pretty cultural, isn’t it,’ he said. Then at the Tattoo there was a moment when the large choir sang ‘Pokarekare Ana’, and my wife turned to look at him and he was wiping away a tear. I don’t want to be silly about it but I do think that the path from his slightly uneasy joke about the tie to his helpless emotional response to the song describes a dynamic that’s worth thinking about, even dramatising. I think that would make a very New Zealand short story. My father-in-law, like me, lives a basically contented life with a pulsing vein of anxiety; or maybe we both live basically anxious lives with a pulsing vein of contentment. Anyway, this is the sort of territory I was trying to get at in Dad Art—the push and pull of change; how, for instance, a big idea such as biculturalism shows up in what we say to each other about some tie we had to put on for a show.

Your writing in this novel is funny and I’m always interested in how writers approach humour – it’s not something you want to come at head-on, I reckon. Is humour an important part of what you want in a novel?

It’s an important part of what I want from life. I remember Colm Tóibín at the Auckland Writers Festival saying that in his family you could be the worst person, a real reprobate with a very bad history, but the greatest crime was to be boring; that was unforgiveable. I’m with him. My favourite fiction doesn’t have to be ‘a laugh riot’—Herta Müller and Christa Wolf aren’t full of jokes—but I think the best novels dissolve solemnity. It’s something to do with fiction’s relationship to authority. Power of course doesn’t like humour. A national flag can’t be funny. (Dad Art features a running gag about the flag debate.)

Your last novel, Max Gate, was set in the early part of the 20th century but you generally focus on contemporary times, like you do in Dad Art. What have you noticed as the differences or restraints between writing ‘historical’ and ‘contemporary’ fiction, aside from the research you might have to do for historical fiction? Do you have a preference for contemporary settings?

The difference is this: you don’t need to get anything right in historical fiction; whereas you need to get everything right in a contemporary story.

One of my favourite passages about fiction comes from Charles Newman, who was my workshop teacher at Washington University for a semester back in the early 90s. He wrote a great bad-tempered book of criticism called The Post-Modern Aura. In it he talks about fiction’s uniqueness being that it remains ‘ineffably amateur’: ‘It violates every principle by which responsible interpreters try to legitimize a subject matter by limiting its scope and thus make it epistemologically responsible.’ Newman says that fiction doesn’t limit itself in advance. That’s why it’s amateur—it’s sloppy and that’s its strength. In Montaigne’s words, you’re ‘an investigator without knowledge’. I re-read this passage regularly whenever I feel too dumb to write something. What did I know about Thomas Hardy? Who cares! I am an investigator without knowledge! However, I always notice that Newman is no simple cheerleader for the imagination’s wildness. He points out that because fiction can’t limit itself in advance, it has what he calls ‘an unprededented failure rate’. Yep.

Dad Art is available for purchase at good bookshops and through our online bookstore from Thursday 10 March. p/b, $30.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Cold Water Cure: Q&A with poet Claire Orchard

Claire Orchard's debut poetry collection, Cold Water Cure, will be published and launched at our Writers Week publisher's party next week. Ahead of the launch, we asked Claire about her collection and its 'main character'Charles Darwin.

Claire Orchard (photo by Grant Maiden)

The central part of your book draws its ideas from Charles Darwin’s diaries while on his long exploratory trip on the Beagle, then following the publication of On the Origin of Species. Darwin does offer some fantastic material for a writer (he was himself a good writer), but what was the attraction of his life for you specifically?
From my first encounters with Darwin’s writings it was obvious he was a man deeply committed to his many research projects, one who was able to keep his mind open to new understandings, however challenging they were to existing thinking. But for me as a writer the primary attraction became exploring the parallels I detected between the life he was leading in his society then and the one I’m leading now. Of course, he was a gifted and ground-breaking scientist and I’m most definitely not. But he was also a person who, like many of us, spent his down time working on his marriage, on his relationships with friends and extended family, on writing letters and playing games with his children. He was a very hands-on and engaged parent to his – I get exhausted just thinking about this bit – ten children. He does not at all fit the stereotype of a stern, distant Victorian family man. Charles Darwin is a gigantic public figure; I wanted to get past those images of him as Father of Evolutionary Biology and Challenger of the Myth of Creation, to find the person that lived behind all that.

Not only do you cover his scientific work, but his home life – the death of his eldest daughter, his penchant for billiards – and his musings on the decision to marry: ‘a wife will be a vast help in organising notes.' Did you end up liking Darwin? Does it matter for the purposes of the project whether you like your subject or not?
Yes, the scientific work is so much an integral part of the man it is inevitably present in many of the poems but as you say, it is the family man and his home life – as billiards enthusiast, as doting dad – that I particularly wanted to open up to view. In the process I did grow to like him very much. It feels almost as if we’re acquainted now, in some weird way. ‘Voyages’, the long poem sequence in which Darwin speaks and a 21st century speaker responds, is the closest I managed to get to holding a conversation with him. I’d got quite into it the idea of knowing him personally at that point. Of course I knew I couldn’t actually pull that off, but it was fun trying. I don’t believe you have to like your subject, but I think there has to be something about them that fascinates or intrigues you, something to sustain your interest. Much as I came to like and admire Darwin, in some of the poems he is represented in a less than flattering light and that’s as it should be – we’re none of us paragons of virtue and are all products of our time and society.

What do you think a poetic project of Darwin’s work and life might offer over a straight biographical work?
One thing I think a poetic project can offer is an imaginative (and by this I mean at least in part inventive) interpretation of a life. In the case of this project that meant employing biographic material in an attempt to consider, feel or experience what it might have been like to be Charles Darwin at particular moments in his life. Initially I was very concerned to not put words in Darwin’s mouth, but to allow him to speak for himself, so many of the poems I wrote earlier in the project integrate phrases lifted directly from his books and letters. The haiku, for example, were found with the aid of a haiku-seeking computer programme my brother kindly wrote for me, which I applied to an electronic text copy of On the Origin of Species. Mind you, I did have to trawl through a lot of very gnarly seventeen syllable phrases to unearth a few rare gems. However, as my research progressed I decided I needed to have the confidence to speak for Darwin at times or risk stalling the project. Very little is known, for instance, about his personal reaction to the death of his daughter Annie, who died – most likely of tuberculosis – aged ten. Darwin left very little written record of his thoughts about Annie after her loss and, according to his other children, he never spoke of her again, thus the poems concerning the traumatic aftermath of this event are not informed by a primary source from that time in his life. There are also poems from the points of view of Darwin’s contemporaries, whilst in others the speaker is essentially me, looking back at his life from my perch in the 21st century.

There are a lot of children in your book – witnessing their sometimes crazy, hilarious minds – but also wanting peace from them, to get on with your work, like Darwin. How did so many children end up in your collection?
Yes, I often wonder how Darwin managed his workload. He worked from home, and I’m sure must have found it difficult on sunny days to resist the temptation to head outside and join his children in the garden instead of once more hunkering down alone in his study, chipping away at the riddles of life on earth. For myself, I find having other people (also known as my family) milling around in, or near, my workspace (as I’ve taken to designating the dinner table) is not generally conducive to getting a lot done. Frankly, I believe the children in my poems just burrowed their way in – they would not be denied! My own two children are grown now but when I’m not writing I work at a primary school, so it feels inevitable and appropriate that the people I spend a significant part of my day with will occasionally infiltrate my poetry. Children often say the most outlandish things in the most interesting ways and have a talent for coming up with the greatest, most out-there ideas – perfect raw material for poetry.

Cold Water Cure will be available for purchase from March 10 at good bookstores and through VUP's online bookstore. p/b, $25.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Found in translation: The Transit of Venus Poetry Exchange

This week we launched Transit of Venus | Venustransit at the Royal Society. One of the poets involved, Chris Price, has written about her approach to writing poetry for this unique project.

An unlikely but marvelous conjunction: three New Zealand and three German poets, a bunch of high-flying scientists and the Tolaga Bay Area School and its community, all of us staring at the sun through our various lenses and filters.  When Bill Manhire outlined the parameters of this project with the local poets, he suggested that we might like to write about ‘first contact’.  My version of that entailed bringing a rather fuzzy historical understanding into focus, as well as trying to acquire at least a basic grasp of the science of the Transit observations.  I turned to Anne Salmond’s Between Worlds (Allen Lane) as my first historical source, where, predictably perhaps, I was drawn to the languages of the colonial and scientific enterprise, and what happened when they met the indigenous language.   Alison Jones and Kuni Jenkins’ beautiful book Words Between Us – He Kōrero: First Māori-Pākehā conversations on paper (Huia Publishers) arrived just in time to provide a more fine-grained account. 

Hindsight and historians tell us that it all ended badly for the local contingent in so many ways, but at the point of first contact nothing was fixed or settled, everything was open, all of it was surprising.  Of course good intentions proved wholly inadequate to the actualities of cross-cultural encounter back then, and while those intentions have had a few centuries to become more nuanced, I was interested in the sometimes uneasily prescriptive tone in which they are still voiced today. As well as the one found poem that made its way into the book, there was another reworking the Earl of Morton’s instructions on how to behave towards indigenous people, and a third that cut up the mission statement of the Hamburg Museum of Ethnology, where the poets performed. The ‘circle of least confusion’ is a phrase early Transit observers used to describe what they hoped to see in order to make precise drawings of the first contact between Venus and the circumference of the sun, but it had and has applications on the ground as well as in the sky. 

My own good intentions about not writing ‘history poems’ quickly foundered on the fascinations of research.  What I wasn’t prepared for, though, was the positive-spirited ways in which the present-day community of Uawa /Tolaga Bay owned and expressed their part in the long experiment in biculturalism that began in 1769, which had the effect – as if Paul Callaghan, who was behind the Transit of Venus Forum, had somehow managed to engineer a momentary shift in the laws of cultural physics – of clearing a space in which the best available version of New Zealand could shine for a day, in the same way that the clouds parted at Tolaga Bay just in time to see the 2012 Transit.   Maybe we all went back to being our unreconstructed selves next morning, but boy, it sure did generate a blast of hopefulness.

Of course attention wandered to the peripheries.  The poets’ visit to the Dark Sky exhibition at the Adam Art Gallery provided the raw data for both a solo mash-up (‘Venera: Fictions at an exhibition’), and a collaborative cadavre exquis poem-on-postcards that became ‘Dear Venus’. I sneakily initiated the poem with the opening lines of ‘Poedua’, which I’d already written, to find out where it might end up with two navigators at the helm rather than one: an experiment in giving up control of the story, at least in part.   Elements of that exhibition found their way into other poets’ work as well.  A front-of-house and behind-the-scenes visit to Te Papa yielded a response to John Webber’s painting of Tahitian princess Poedua. Somewhere between the Pacific and Webber’s Greenwich studio she acquired a rather English face and demeanour.  It could be said that I have now matched that English face with an English voice by putting words in her mouth.  The difficult negotiations continue.

The poems were to be translated in Berlin and performed at the reopening, in Hamburg, of the Ngāti Tarawhai (Te Arawa) meeting house Rauru.  A little digging – the excellent Otago University Press book Rauru provides superb images and insightful commentary – revealed that Rauru has a sister house, Hinemihi, that stands not far from where I spent my early infancy in England.  It was brought there by a governor whose name graces the Wellington street in which I now live. At the suggestion of Ngāti Huia (a Ngāti Raukawa sub-tribe), Lord Onslow’s New-Zealand-born son was christened Huia – although I rather like the resonances of an earlier proposal that he be called Taihoa (hold on! no hurry!), because it sounded like Onslow.  Huia was adopted as a chief, and his
father was subsequently responsible for promoting Buller’s belated legislation to protect native birds. 

Although the Onslow family returned to England when Huia was a small child, he revisited New Zealand and was ceremonially received by his Ngāti Raukawa
whanau when he was fourteen.  He became a passionate scientist who conducted research from his bed after an accident on a climbing expedition left him paralysed from the neck down at the age of 21. He died at 32, and there’s an (as yet) unfinished piece of writing for Huia Onslow that haunts this selection.   

I hadn’t expected to find myself engaging with personal issues of (un)belonging as a result of my own Transit observations.  It was both enlarging and unsettling – and being an observer-participant in the version of New Zealand culture showcased at the Frankfurt Book Fair, where the poets performed in an appropriately starry New Zealand pavilion, only extended the lines of questioning.

Reading the poems in Germany proved a cross-cultural challenge, too. So much historical and scientific information that our audience would not have to help them make sense of the work.  So much explaining to do, three languages, six poets, so little time.  Mostly we had to just put the poems out there and hope they’d jump the language/culture barrier.  But working with the three German poets, and in particular with my ‘partner’ Brigitte Oleschinski and our interlinear translator Catherine Hales was challenge as pure delight.  All of us quite different, and yet in a way we all spoke dialects of the same language.  Translation was an intensely pleasurable activity, especially with the support of the literaturwerkstatt’s sociable ‘VERSchmuggel / reVERSible’ process.  None of this would have been possible without the complex interactions and efforts of the many organisations and individuals mentioned in the Acknowledgements of this book.  Kia ora, a toast, and Prost to them all. Wunderbar.

Chris Price

Transit of Venus | Venustransit is available for purchase at good bookstores and through VUP's website

Watch It wasn't me || und du warst es auch nicht, a short film with Hinemoana Baker and Ulrike Ulmut Sandig from the Transit of Venus poetry project.