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.

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