Thursday, 23 July 2015

Some of Us Eat the Seeds launch speech

Last week we launched Morgan Bach's poetry collection, Some of Us Eat the Seeds, to a huge crowd at Unity Books in Wellington. Thanks to those who came to support this fantastic debut book, and to the book's editor, Ashleigh Young, whose launch speech is published below.

Morgan Bach (author photo: Grant Maiden)

Every author has their own special reaction when they see their published book for the first time. Everyone is pleased, usually in a proper, self-contained way. But my favourite so far has been Morgan’s reaction. There’s a photo of her holding a copy of this book for the first time – Kirsten had just given her a copy – and she’s holding it up with an expression of disbelief and bafflement and, finally, glee. It can be easy to become jaded in publishing. But we have to hold on to the glee of the arrival, the glee of making a thing that earlier was buried in the whole mess of experience and didn’t seem possible. So, she has done it, and here is a book of exciting, intelligent and extraordinarily affecting poems.
Can I just say, also, that Morgan has always been a big supporter of other people’s creative projects. She has a certain steely stamina when it comes to celebrating and enthusiastically sharing other people’s work. So it is satisfying to be able to celebrate her work now, at her book launch, when she can’t escape, like lecturing someone while in a moving car. 
I would admire Morgan’s work even if I didn’t know her well. She is also my oldest and dearest friend. Our friendship has miraculously survived the editing process, and it seems the last major hurdle our friendship must overcome is this speech. This book is strange and beautiful, to be savoured, and to be moved and unravelled by. It is about leaving and returning, uplift and descent. It’s a collection of some weird seeds of experience that some of us eat around or spit out but that some of us swallow whole, along with flesh, pith, peel. It examines what kinds of things grow in us.
I think Morgan has carried the makings of this book around for a long time, and thankfully, her tutors and classmates during her MA year in 2013 at the IIML seem to have persuaded her that yes, here at last could be its point of arrival. You can see a lifetime in this book – in family and friends and lovers, cities and flats lived in, hills climbed and parades walked through and night buses taken, alongside a no-less vivid dreamworld, in which fears, anxieties, and resolve take root. These poems have the poise and assurance of somebody whose way through has by no means been easy, but who has gathered up her boldness to tell it, as in her poem ‘The plot flaw’ where she tells us ‘I played defence, 
but I’m better at attack’ and ‘I angered blindly, now I harbor wild calm.’ This book harbours a wild calm. 
Morgan’s work is, remarkably I think, able to convey the storm, the refusal of events in our lives to stop growing in us, in poems that are very finely and skillfully drawn. I don’t think this is a dark book, but it wants to examine darkness, understand the anatomy of darkness – the same way an astronomer is interested in stars or a neurologist is interested in the brain – and in how the dark, rather than the light, reveals our character. And in fact it sometimes seems that in this world the light is foreign and abrasive, as in a poem that describes her father’s experience as a migrant to New Zealand: ‘the sunshine so bright / every eye in the family deteriorated’. These poems describe deep rifts between people, and in people. These rifts open, sometimes close again, sometimes just remain. In one poem, ‘Headless Men’, people mill around a deep crack in the earth.
They stare in,
bent forward, the winter skin showing above their collars.

Alone or in groups they stand beside the crack.
Sometimes they step over it, sometimes they leap.
This book seems to be doing just that: sometimes peering, sometimes stepping, sometimes leaping. And Morgan is always taking us by the hand and leading us down, or over, in her unflinching way.
In one poem she describes standing underneath a steel sculpture of a giant spider, ‘a poor shelter from the beating sun’. This narrator will always prefer a giant spider to the sun, a giant spider that’s not even very good at blocking out the sun. She’s the traveller who stops to look at the half-a-tarantula on the footpath instead of walking quickly by, the passenger in a small plane who wonders if punching the pilot in the face might be preferable to flying through turbulence. This gumption is set against the fears and traumas of childhood, as in her poem ‘Education’:

When I started school I was afraid
of all the other people in the world.

One boy bailed me up in the cloak bay
the hooks pressing into my back
and threatened to stick a pin in my eye.

And indeed this narrator shows us that fear of other people is completely justified. People are terrifying. They pair off around you, they go missing, they break your heart, they want to stick pins in your eye. But in many of these poems the narrator is challenging fear, staring it down.
I like to watch the things
I am afraid of

like planes
and weddings

and surfers on waves
bigger than buildings,

people running and perfect
tame gardens.

More viscerally, in one poem she describes, in scene after scene, her father’s many gruelling deaths on screen, as an actor: ‘I can’t recall what got him when I was twelve,
but I do remember that he put a meathook through a man’s throat before he was taken out.’ By staring down what is frightening, this narrator learns the world and herself more fully – and is not defeated. Morgan brings us intimately into her world and shows us someone turning spiders into shelter, darkness into strength.
Like most people our age now living in Wellington, Morgan has lived in flats all over the city. In one flat, that had sloping floors and amazing fungi in the bathroom (on Devon Street) there was this tall prickly conifer in the front garden, shooting straight up like a stalagmite, with no other trees around it. The opposite of a perfect tame garden. I wouldn’t have looked twice at this tree – it seemed to me pretty ordinary – but the way Morgan talked about this tree, giving it a personality and even a sound effect and a hand motion – ‘foom!’ – gave it a rebellious character. It was ‘the crazy conifer’. Her poems describe similar ways of looking. A human eye becomes an illuminated planet, with rivers and deserts. A cigarette has a little red tongue like a thirsty animal. ‘A dog running cold through the waves / is as happy as fire
/ ripping up the land.’ A culumus cloud is ‘brain-tissue white’, and streets ‘roll up like stockings’. In this world, every object has its own personal force. This is Morgan stopping and peering into that uncanny deep crack in the earth.
The poems contain less literal fruit than you would think. But there is some notable fruit in the cover artwork. The illustrator Rowan Heap had to be careful not to depict any kind of clustering seeds, as in the innards of a capsicum or a rockmelon. This is because Morgan has a peculiar phobia of clustering seeds, known as trypophobia. One loophole in this phobia, for Morgan, is pomegranate seeds. It is telling that the title and cover image of this book should be located so closely to the author’s own discomfort and trepidation – to the point where she was forced to send Morgan and me detailed descriptions, with images, of which seeds were OK and which seeds were definitely not OK, so that we could create a small safe space in the seed landscape. I wonder if for Morgan, the act of writing some of these poems was also to eke out small safe spaces. Of course, writing also entails risk. Choosing to write of our experience is a bit like the family in her poem ‘Vampires’, who always choose to watch a vampire movie because it makes them feel safe: ‘There is reassurance / 
in a vampire’s behaviour.
 / It will always go for the throat.’ Morgan’s work calmly embraces the certainty of bloodshed and turns it inside out, into a gift to others, and into generous connection.
So here’s to bloodsucking vampires and crazy conifers. Here’s to standing underneath giant spiders, to surfing six-storey waves and playing attack, to homesickness and homecoming. This is a wonderful and very beautiful book and I hope that you will celebrate it too. 

Morgan signs at Unity Books (photo credit: Matt Bialostocki)

Some of Us Eat the Seeds is available now at good bookshops and through VUP's online bookstore
$25, p/b

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