Monday, 16 November 2015

4 Questions for Brent Kininmont

Brent Kininmont's debut collection of poetry Thuds Underneath is released this month. Ahead of a trip back to New Zealand from his home in Japan we asked him some questions about his book.

Brent Kininmont (photo by Hana Kininmont)

Thuds Underneath travels all over the world, and one of its preoccupations is flight. The perspective is sometimes that of a nervous flier, sometimes that of someone curious about the act of flying and the world seen from 30 000 feet. Where does your interest in flight come from?

‘Flight’, in the sense of ‘running away’, seems to crop up throughout the collection, though it’s an interest shared by a lot of New Zealanders. Regarding a preoccupation with the other, more obvious sense: in my teens I went to sleep surrounded by pictures of aircraft Blu-Tacked to my wall, though daydreams of becoming an RNZAF pilot were eventually dispelled by my worsening eyesight and remarkably inept science results. That devotion to aircraft was quite superficial – I could name an awful lot of planes on sight, and I took out the same large library books over and over for the intricate cutaway diagrams inside, but I didn't feel compelled to learn the parts of planes or to study how they stayed in the air.

Much later the idea began to take hold that those hurtling metal objects sometimes fell out of the sky. It might have been when airline pilots started looking my age, and an image of them as guardians began to crumble. Although the book’s title can be interpreted several ways, it’s lifted from the opening poem in which the ‘thuds underneath’ are bags being loaded into an airliner’s hold, as heard from the passenger seats. Rather than those noises filling somebody with dread, they suggest order and reassurance. That my father was a baggage handler for three decades is not incidental to that poem and a handful of others in the collection.

The perspective of the speaker in many of these poems seems to be from in the skies – as if they’re hovering above physical places and events, rather than being located in any one place. Is this a consequence of you living away from NZ or is it part of the flight theme?

It’s probably linked to the theme of flight, though it may also have something to do with an outsider only skimming the surface of a culture and relationships. I wasn't conscious of how often poems in the collection look down from up high until I started thinking about how to order them. A god’s eye view from an airliner window seems to mesh with ideas in the book of how people relate to some kind of colossus ­– a dormant volcano, a typhoon, the Parthenon, a Hercules, and others. At one stage I considered calling the collection ‘The God Zones’ due to the recurring views from above, but also because the main settings in the book (the classical lands, the South Island, Japan) could be considered distinct god ‘zones’ where giants and temples appear now and then.

The frequency of that angle from above was also a reason for the Maurice Askew picture on the cover. It looks over a vibrant Colonial Williamsburg, but the straight roads, the cathedral, the hills at the back, and the windmill (read: airport) are strongly suggestive of Christchurch – the place from which I took ‘flight’, I suppose, quite a few years ago. The barren green spaces between buildings in the picture imply a town still being built. Or a post-quake landscape ­– after the broken structures have been swept away.

There is an occasional suggestion in the poems – and perhaps in the book’s title – of the Christchurch quake, though they are usually accidental because so many of the poems were written before the tragedy. Admittedly, those echoes became a lot less ‘accidental’ after I noticed them but chose not to silence them. The most obvious example is a line that compares a father’s glasshouse to a ‘chapel without a steeple’ – an allusion to the quake, except it was written before the spire and tower of the Anglican cathedral were toppled. I considered rewriting that line, out of a concern it might muddy the poem, but I caved to a sense it was meant to be there.

Some of the poems are about your mother’s death. Was it hard to find an angle from which to write about that?

Some poets are able to write very candidly about the serious illness of a parent – Sharon Olds in her book ‘The Father’ is an example of somebody who has done it well. The poems about a mother slipping away that appear in my collection weren’t composed in a straightforward manner; three of the four key poems weren’t even initially written with a mother or an illness in mind. (And the event in the fourth poem didn't actually happen – but poetry is very forgiving.) This includes the poem called ‘Morphine’, which was fully formed, and about a baby daughter drifting off, when I noticed something else in it. I changed the title and suddenly the words were about sitting at a very ill mother’s bedside. In another poem I’m cycling the long straights from Christchurch Airport to my girlfriend’s house in the middle of the city, but where that poem is positioned in the book, and because of the characters appearing in poems either side, the poem suggests a father racing home to his sick wife. Those three poems I mentioned are better, I believe, because of the new readings. Importantly, they are true to an experience of watching a parent fade away ­– something I didn't think I could achieve by walking through the front door into the subject. I also like that those poems retain a lot of their original meaning, even if I’m the only one who recognizes that.

You live in Japan – what’s the poetry scene like there? Do you follow publications in NZ or is your reading focused elsewhere? Does Japanese poetry influence your own writing?

I mostly pay attention to poetry written in English and coming out of New Zealand – the only place where I have submitted poems. I read a bit of what appears online, and I get back home once a year and visit the bookshops for the latest local poetry releases and for used editions. The shops in Tokyo, however, aren’t a total loss for New Zealand poetry. I once picked up a secondhand copy of Jenny Bornholdt’s terrific first collection, This Big Face, for 200 yen (about $2.40). It’s an out-of-print VUP title that I hadn’t been able to unearth at home. On my shelves I also have a hardback edition of James K. Baxter’s collected poems that I found at a used-book sale for 900 yen ($11)­. Probably I was the only person in that hall who would have recognized its worth, in both the literary and financial sense.

I don't know with any authority what the Japanese poetry scene is like. I get by in the local language, but poems written in even quite spare Japanese remain at arms length for me because the contextual differences are still profound. I can’t imagine writing poems in Japanese – it’s a struggle just to get the words right in English. There are expatriate writing groups in Tokyo that gather writers from all over, but I’m a little suspicious of feedback that isn’t grounded in a reliable sense of my home culture. I suspect quite a few of the poems in the collection would only resonate with New Zealanders, and a handful only with fellow readers of New Zealand poetry.

I used to be a newspaper sub-editor, and likely that has had more influence on my own somewhat spare poetic style. One of the biggest influences from Japan is how I go about rewriting. Thanks to a first-rate train system, I get a lot done using the Notes feature on my iPhone while zipping around. Probably every poem in the collection has been tweaked to some degree while riding on bullet trains or sitting elbow-to-elbow with commuters on the subway. 

Thuds Underneath is available at good bookshops and through our online bookstore.
$25, p/b.

You can read some of Brent's work online at Turbine, Best New Zealand Poems and Trout.

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