27 November 2012

My Guest Post On Poetic Inspirations: The Swells Of The Quiet Ocean

No Tuesday Poem from me this week, but I've included several poems and extracts from poems in my guest post on the Poetic Inspirations blog, The Swells of the Quiet Ocean, which talks about my uneasy relationship with the sea in general and the Pacific Ocean in particular.

I'm very grateful to Maryanne Pale for giving me the opportunity to write this guest post for Poetic Inspirations - and I encourage everyone to follow her excellent blog.

20 November 2012

Tuesday Poem: One's One And Only Haiku

King Arthur today
a sofa, two chairs
an occasional table

Credit note: First published in Learning a Language: New Zealand Poetry Society Anthology 2005, edited by Margaret Vos.

Tim says: Frantically busy. Running late. No Tuesday Poem posted last week - little chance of one this week. Facing being drummed out of the regiment,* possible court-martial. What to do?

Then - inspiration strikes in the form of P.S. Cottier posting a haiku. Note to self - adopt same policy - post a haiku! RSM McCallum thereby satisfied, honour of regiment intact. One problem: self not a noted writer of haiku, little inspiration to write one.

But! Chap rummages around in old files, finds the above - one and only haiku ever attempted, and by Jove, published too. Matter of Britain - most satisfactory. Not really a haiku in the strict sense but as Padre says, there are no atheists in a fox-hole. (Note to self: must ask Padre if he has experimental evidence of same. Poss. of survey, troops answering questions on religious belief or lack of while taking shelter from live fire. Would take troops' minds off their troubles, buck them up. Good for morale.)

*The regiment of Tuesday Poets. Jolly good show, everyone!

08 November 2012

An Interview With Gerry Te Kapa Coates

Gerry Te Kapa Coates (Ngāi Tahu) was born in Oamaru, but has lived in Wellington for most of his working life. He has been a writer since schooldays, initially concentrating on poetry with work published in journals like Landfall. He works as an engineer and company director, but has done many varied and creative things in his career - from journalism and stage lighting design to working with Ngāi Tahu and Te Tau Ihu on their Treaty claim settlements. A past published finalist in the Māori Literature (Pikihuia) Awards in 2001, 2003 and 2007, his book of poetry and short stories The View From Up There was published in 2011. He is now working on further collections and longer works including a novel. An engineer/poet is a rare breed. He still finds that working − and looking after mokopuna – takes its creative toll.

How long has The View From Up There been in preparation, and is it a satisfying feeling that the book has now published?

When I started writing, being published was only a vague notion, although I submitted a poem in 1961 to Canta (the University newspaper) that was published under my pseudonym at the time ‘Jerez’. In a burst of enthusiasm in the early 80s I submitted – and was mostly rejected − by the literary periodicals of the time such as Landfall, Islands, Poetry NZ etc. The advice I was given by publishers later was that ‘poetry didn’t pay’ and to look at self-publishing, which always seemed to me to be rather self-seeking. It’s always a salutary feeling to walk into a library – or a book remainder shop – and see the attempts of the thousands of authors seeking fame. So when Roger Steele, who had previously given me advice to self-publish, offered to publish my collection I was very happy, and even happier with the result and the feedback. But getting any acclaim through reviews is still difficult for New Zealand authors, especially for poetry.

How would you describe your fiction and your poetry to readers unfamiliar with your work?

I’m never sure whether ‘accessible’ is a good attribute, but I think my poems are. They are relatively straightforward and rely on the use of words to evoke a feeling, rather than fancy devices. The same reviewer who called them accessible also said ‘I suspect the true test of a "good" poem is when the reader is able to pick up a poem and find something of their own life experience in it.’ Another well-read friend of mine said ‘I find many modern poems hard to understand. The poet is so close to his or her subject that it is impossible for an outsider to gain entry to his thought process. But your poems are not like this. They have depth, but I was able to enter just a little of your world, and share your feelings.’

My stories often tend to have a Māori flavour, but again I want them to be a ‘good tale’ whatever the reader’s background. If I see myself as an indigenous writer – which I do – then I make sure the ‘politics of difference’ as Witi Ihimaera says, is evident. But sometimes I’m just a writer – as in love poems for example.

You have had a long and successful career as an engineer, sustainability consultant, and director of Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu. Do each of these feed into your writing, or is your writing something apart from any of these?

Yes, many of my poems and stories are loosely based on my life-experience, but not necessarily autobiographical – for example I didn’t fight in Vietnam, but I was a protester against the war. Being deeply involved with Ngāi Tahu politics and its Treaty Claim settlement process meant I was in touch with my roots, and also aware of the red-neck anti-Māori sentiment that the settlement generated in the form of Letters to the Editor. Apparently John Huria asked me at a panel discussion at the Christchurch Writers’ Festival ‘Is writing a poem like lighting an airstrip?’ according to Fergus Barrowman. I probably didn’t hear him because the sound system on stage was so bad, but my answer (to Fergus) was ‘Maybe more like lighting a play - which I do as well!’ Everything – life, career, reading – all feed into my work in some way.

The View From Up There includes both stories and poems. Was it an easy decision to include both in the collection, and are you satisfied with how this combined approach has worked out?

It was the publisher’s decision, but I hadn’t thought it through and the difficulties it would provide for libraries and bibliographic listings to adequately categorise it. In future I think that despite the book being more interesting with a variety of genre, I will do poems and fiction separately.

In commenting on The View From Up There, author Phillip Mann says:

“I admire the grace of these poems, and the carefulness which keeps them clear and direct. I also appreciate the ease with which they are able to bring together the Maori language and English, achieving a synthesis that is uniquely true to the country.” – Phillip Mann
Can you tell us about the ways you have bought Te Reo Māori and English together in your work?

When I first assembled the selection, I hadn’t realised how much Te Reo was implicit in many of the poems. In the end I did a glossary that spread to 70 words and two pages. Ideally a poem should be able to include Te Reo and English seamlessly. But even a poem needs a footnote to put it in context. I can’t recall how many readers have said they were so glad to discover the ‘Notes on the Poems’ at the end, but usually after they needed it. Maybe next time they’ll be footnotes.

Phil also said after the book was published, ‘I think it is an excellent collection. Your poems achieve what poetry does best. They explore those moments of  realization and change which occur when life suddenly opens up before us, sometimes terrifyingly so − as a when a loved one dies, or a car crash reminds us of our own mortality or when suddenly we know we are happy and in love or we confront a distasteful political reality. While the poems are personal, they encourage us to see the universal in the moment for, as has often been said, Death is our only certainty as in grief, and a car crash in New Zealand is very like one in Finland or Peru, and love, it seems to me, is a flower which thrives despite barbed wire, pollution, economic downturn or our own tongue-tied silence. Which things said, I also admire the patient craftsman who works on the words until they shine.’ I thank him for those insights.

You were a guest at the Christchurch Writers Festival 2012. Do you enjoy reading at such events, and the ‘public performance’ aspects of being a writer?

That was the first Festival where I’d been an invited ‘official writer’ although I have read publicly before. I enjoy both the reading, and the selection of what to read. At Christchurch, because it was a Ngāi Tahu writers’ panel, I chose to read poems with a Māori context but at the end I read a new love poem I’d just written the previous week. I was blown away by several responses including from an out of town couple who felt deeply connected to the poem. Those interactions make it all worth it.

Who are some of your favourite authors of fiction and poetry, and in particular, are there authors and poets you particularly enjoy whom you feel haven’t received the attention they deserve from critics and the public?

The poets I have been influenced by include (apart from the ones everyone has been influenced by like T S Eliot etc) Robert Graves, e e cummings, Philip Larkin, James K Baxter, Alastair Campbell and latterly Glen Colquhoun. At the Christchurch Writers Festival I was also reacquainted with Riemke Ensing, Bernadette Hall and Cilla McQueen whom I’ve admired. Also an amazing Māori poet Ben Brown (Ngāti Pāoa, Ngāti Māhuta) whose performance readings are fantastic.

Fiction is more difficult to pin down. Short stories by kiwis Owen Marshall or Maurice Duggan, and by Alice Munro and Lydia Davis. And novels by authors from many countries. The Nobel prizewinners are a good start – the Norwegian Knut Hamsun’s epic Growth of the Soil or Sigrid Undset’s even grander Kristin Lavransdatter were a great influence. Also the so-called ‘Angry Brigade’ of British writers in the 60s.

The Steele Roberts website mentions that you are working on a novel – would you care to say more about this?

An extract from its early stages entitled ‘The Exploration of Space’ was published in Huia Short Stories 5 (2003). It’s about a Māori rower who goes to Munich in 1972 with the Olympic team and has a love affair with an Israeli team member who is killed, and how this, and his whakapapa history, affects his later life. After mulling it around and writing more chapters I’m still quite a way from finishing it. I need to deal with the ‘Enemies of Promise’ and start working on it again, rather than my erstwhile career. Roger Steele said after my book launch ‘This will change your life, Gerry.’ Although it’s less than 12 months now, he was right. One of them is that writing has become more of a priority, and hopefully some opportunities to become a writer in residence and have the space to concentrate will arise. 

Book availability details

The book is available at Steele Roberts’ website http://steeleroberts.co.nz/books/isbn/978-1-877577-64-2 or elsewhere online by Googling the title or my name.

It’s also available in New Zealand at quality bookshops such as Unity Books and the University Book shop in Christchurch.

In addition to his Ulysses 2012, which was my Tuesday Poem this week, Gerry kindly allowed me to use another poem from The View From Up There to conclude this post.


Nothing like a tube in your neck
to make a grown man look fragile.
“Yes -I’m a part time plumber,” joked Pania
the vivacious nurse, ideal to buck up
tired spirits, except you looked a bit
too tired to be bothered with flirting
for the fun of it, despite your strength
and your manly chest - not the chest of  a
middle-aged man (as they would put in the papers)
You, at this time, in this place
this home away from home
can only be described as looking wan.

There’s nothing like hospital food
to push you back to life and remembering
what it was like to be eating with gusto
be well again, able to race up stairs
pee over a fence and do all those things
that being in bed proscribes - a catheter
and a bed pan in the wings do inhibit
freedom of movement, of action.
Sorry about the strawberries - I forgot
you’d not be eating right away
but partly they’re there for titillation
if not for you, for Pania and her laughing eyes.

And you, out of the privacy of the
operating theatre back in the light
(although it’s really blinding in there -
just seems dark with the loss of consciousness
and the mystery of it all) with your tripes only
partly intact, what now. Can you recapture that
zest for life and use your libido in other ways?
I admire your strength and acceptance,
for in the end we all have to face it alone
whatever ‘it’ is - things that stop working,
sensations that dull, appetites that get lost
strawberries that crumble into dust.

05 November 2012

Tuesday Poem: Ulysses 2012, by Gerry Te Kapa Coates

You and I are not now that strength
which in the old days could
move earth and heaven

But we have grown old together
rather than matching each in aging
which is our strength and comfort.

What happened to your body
happened to my eyes and I
no longer see you getting old.

You are still just a version of 33
though there are times when my
rose tinted glasses fail, but seldom.

We can still move the earth, maybe
not heaven at the same time, except
perhaps in the morning on a good day.

We can forgive each other much
now that nothing − yet everything − still
matters in this, the journey of the souls.

Something ere the end may yet be done,
be realised, that this life was indeed a bed
of roses of which we could not get enough.

- 2012

Credit note: This poem is not previously published, and is reproduced by permission of Gerry Te Kapa Coates, whom I'll be interviewing on this blog later this week.

Tim says: "Ulysses", by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, is one of my favourite poems - certainly my favourite 19th-century poem - and I have previously used it as a Tuesday Poem on my blog. So, when I asked Gerry to supply a Tuesday Poem as a teaser for my interview of him later this week, I was delighted when he sent "Ulysses 2012", which is full of ingenious references to its great original as well as being a lovely poem in its own right.

The Tuesday Poem: Is justified and ancient, and it travels across the land but usually winds up here.

02 November 2012

Book Review: Triptych Poets, Issue Three

First of all, a disclaimer: P.S. Cottier, one of the three poets represented in this collection, is a friend of mine. I'd actually turned down an opportunity to review her recent collection The Cancellation of Clouds for this very reason, but I decided I felt comfortable - to use a John Key-ism - with reviewing a book in which her contribution makes up a third: hence this review!

A few years ago, I reviewed AUP New Poets 3, which included chapbook-sized contributions from Janis Freegard, Reihana Robinson, and Katherine Liddy. Triptych Poets: Issue Three, published by Blemish Books in Canberra, follows the same pattern. Here the three poets are P.S. Cottier, Joan Kerr, and J.C. Inman.

I liked two of the three sections of the book a great deal, and though I didn't enjoy J.C. Inman's section as much overall, I think it contains some fine poems. So let's look at each section in turn.

P.S. Cottier: "Selection criteria for death"

What can I say? I really like P.S. Cottier's poetry, and I like this selection just as much - in fact, maybe a little more - than her collection The Cancellation of Clouds.

Her poetry is a powerful and inimitable (at least, I haven't ready anything else quite like them) concoction of dark humour - humour that often seems powered by an underlying anger - vivid and often witty description, and most of all intelligence. Sometimes, as in the political poetry of "Abbott's Booby", that anger steams off the page.

"Intelligence" can be a double-edged sword in poetry - too often, poets confuse it for academicese and an excessive devotion to critical theory - but that is not a problem here. There is no sense of deliberate obscurity in these poems, but there is the sense of a powerful mind at work, teasing out the poems' diverse strands.

Because P.S. Cottier often uses long stanzas, it can be hard to excerpt a few lines of poetry to show you what I mean, but these lines from "How To Wrestle An Angel" give you some idea:

Clutching is advised; hold him tight as an idea,
well-loved and convenient. Wriggling will occur,
and it is imperative that the wings be kept from play.
What ring could hold an angel, should he unfold,
flex and soar? No ropes will ever net him.
He will reach out with as many arms
as Kali, as many voices as there are prophets,
hoping to flick slow minds into new holds.

Don't let the title mislead you. There is plenty of life here.

Joan Kerr: "Dying Languages"

Though Joan Kerr's poetry is quite different from P.S. Cottier's in many ways - the stanzas are often shorter, the point of view cooler and more detached - her poems share the first selection's virtues of intelligence and imagination. I found her poetry a little more opaque than P. S. Cottier's - at times I didn't know what she was getting at, but I think that is because a lot of her poems refer to colonial and post-colonial moments I don't have the historical background to fully appreciate.

Perhaps because its subject matter is closer to my own experience, my favourite poem in this selection is "My Father's Steps", which in two-line stanzas ranges freely over 80 years of the life of the narrator's father, with these beautiful closing lines that expand the scope of the poem:

His mind was the world we lived in once,

from Aeschylus to Xenophon, the Odyssey
to Soapey Sponge's Sporting Tour,

Dante to Beachcomber, Pepys to Perelman.
Ninety years, spanning three thousand years

close into distance, silence and the moon
going its way across this little world.

But there are striking and memorable lines in many of the other poems. How about this, from "Prizegiving":

My friend has won a prize for twenty years
of hanging on:
her fingers whiten
on the edges of the world.

Images like this show what a talented poet Joan Kerr is.

J.C. Inman: "Lovers and Brothers"

The bio at the front of J.C. Inman's entry lists him as a "frequenter of the Canberra poetry slam scene" and frequent performer at festivals. The poems in "Lovers and Brothers" are good poems, and I can see them working really well in a performance setting, but for the most part I didn't find these poems as satisfying as I did the poems by P.S. Cottier and Joan Kerr.

That's the easy part - the hard part is to say why. I think it's because poems that go across well when performed because of their directness and impact can sometimes be less interesting when read.

The opening of "I Dream Of Fidelity" is, I think, a good showcase for J.C. Inman's poetry:

In the dark I could not separate the snores from the sobs
The smell of love hung dank in the spaces between us
Like semi liquid steam.

You were already sleeping when I met you in your dreams
Half formed and imperfect, standing in the Field of Infidelity,
(a field of impatiens and forget-me-nots)
               where the only sport is fucking

It's got vigour and energy, and a good image in the "field of impatiens and forget-me-nots", but I don't think it's as rich as P.S. Cottier's or Joan Kerr's work.

This is J.C. Inman's first published (part of a) collection. As he adjusts his work from what works best in performance to what works best on the page, I think there will be more and better to come.


I'm hard to please, aren't I? I want to read poetry that is neither obvious nor obscure, poetry I can at once understand without too much extra reading and not entirely 'get' on the first attempt. It's a pretty narrow sweet spot, and if I applied these criteria to my own poems, I'm sure that a good number of them would fail the test.

As the poet said, don't be sad 'cos two out of three ain't bad, and in this case, I'm going to say two-and-a-half out of three ain't bad. Triptych Poets: Issue 3 is worth your time and attention.