Kerrin P. Sharpe is a poet and creative writing teacher who lives in Christchurch. rabbit rabbit is her third collection of poetry.
Your poems often seem to exist in what I think of as a dream space and a time-travelling space; where your mother’s Astrakhan coat is remembered as ‘the angels of stillborn lambs’, or in ‘the mary blanche in situ’ where she builds a ship in her stomach. The descriptions do seem to reach beyond metaphor into a strange wonderland. Can you explain this?
Yes, I suppose they do, though I don't think I have ever thought of it in that way! My poems often seem to me to have a life of their own; I'm a bit like a midwife coaxing and nurturing them into the world and then I'm a little surprised at what has arrived!
I generally begin a poem with an initial idea or image that keeps recurring in my imagination; often it's some memory or image from the past which grows on me or alternatively it may be a story or news item that takes hold of my imagination until I begin to feel I need to write about it. From then on I follow the rough path the poem offers me into that 'dream space'.
When I am writing a poem I often ask myself, 'What is this poem telling me?' I allow the poem's arms to lure me in until the poem suddenly jumps into something else. It is almost as if a new life has emerged and it has become a different poem from the one I first started out with.
My mother did have an Astrakhan coat during the war, and years later she replaced it with a more up-market black one but she still loyally kept the brown Astrakhan one stored away. When she died I remember looking at her old Astrakhan coat and thinking sadly to myself that it had somehow lost the early significance it once had for me, and it was out of those memories that my poem ‘when a crayfish could feed 6 men’ was written.
Many of the poems seem to be different characters speaking—is this how you think about voice in your poetry?
That’s true and I'm rather pleased that you picked that up from reading my poems. I like to think of different characters speaking in my poems with different voices. I want my poems to be faithful to themselves so their individual voices—their characters, if you like—not only need to be authentic but they also need to change, move and adapt as they interact with the main idea or theme of the poem.
For example the woman in my poem ‘the mary blanche in situ’, who builds a ship in her stomach, has a very different voice from the woman who describes her mother's funeral in 'the morning of my mother's funeral her cup is sober-minded', and they are both very different from the voice (or lack of one) of the redundant blacksmith in 'why talk to the bellows' boy when you can speak to the blacksmith', who no longer speaks at all.
The overall theme in my latest collection of poems, rabbit rabbit, is of poems telling stories, and I hope each poem speaks of the power of language and translation. The poems rabbit on, if you like!
Images of the human body (especially the lungs) recur or are used for metaphor in rabbit rabbit, which give the poems a sense of being ‘earthed’ or at least contained. Can you explain your poetry’s fascination with the body?
I'm very interested in medicine; in fact my husband jokes about my taking a medical health diagnosis book to bed with me for a little quiet reading before I go to sleep! A bit weird, I suppose.
Yes the lungs do often occur in my poems in rabbit rabbit. But when you think of it, lungs are so important to us as human beings and of course we need our lungs for the breath that enables us to talk. As you no doubt have already guessed, rabbit rabbit is a play on the term we often use for someone who is a great talker, as in 'rabbiting on'.
I had a good friend who used to say something like, 'She went rabbit rabbit all day long,' of a mutual acquaintance who she disapprovingly believed talked too much. The phrase always used to make me laugh—I could just imagine these rabbits talking their heads off.
Many of my poems in rabbit rabbit share my fascination with the body and how it works, and I think this is because they too are thinking about and interested in how our bodies work
You’ve put out three collections since 2012—what is with this sudden burst of creative energy?
It was Bill Manhire who originally inspired my love of poetry as a young student in the 1970s. He welcomed me into his creative writing class 'Original Composition' at Victoria University and in doing so he lit a fire that flamed and has never died. Over the following 35 years as I married, had children and focused my life on bringing up my family, the creative writing flame continued to flicker, but as I concentrated on other priorities the flame hibernated (to mix metaphors) over that period.
Eight years ago, with family leaving home and more time for writing, that original flame has roared back into life, and I love my current life of writing and teaching creative writing. I feel as if I am once again fully awake and alive, with lots of memories, ideas and new experiences all clamouring for me to think and write about.
To complete the circle: it was a chance meeting with Bill Manhire in 2011 at my daughter's Victoria University graduation that led to the publication of my first book with VUP. He told me it was time I put a manuscript together for submission, which I did. Fergus Barrowman then accepted my first book and encouraged me to carry on—and I haven't looked back since!
Kerrin P. Sharpe's third collection of poetry, rabbit rabbit, was launched last week in Christchurch. You can buy it at good bookshops or through our online bookstore here.