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.