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

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