New Zealand’s longest-running poetry magazine, edited by Jack Ross, showcases new writing from this country and overseas. It presents the work of talented newcomers and developing writers as well as that of established leaders in the field. This issue features the poetry of Lisa Samuels, an especially innovative and experimental American poet now living in New Zealand, where she teaches at the University of Auckland. Two sample poems can be found here: Life is Unfair by Dagmara Rudolph, and Gesamtkunstwerk by Lisa Samuels.
Sitting on a park bench is a form of publishing
So says Lisa Samuels in her poem “A Bird in a Plane.” Exactly what she means by that is another question. I suppose, in a sense, that sitting out in the sun is as good a way as any of making yourself publicly available, conspicuous, which is after all the basic meaning of “publication.”
“Seventeen copies sold, of which eleven at trade price to libraries beyond the seas. Getting known.” Samuel Beckett’s bitter words in Krapp’s Last Tape have struck a chord with many writers, I’m sure. Publication, after all, is scarcely a value-neutral term for either professors or poets in today’s “publish or perish” Academic landscape. Lisa is both.
I knew in advance that choosing her to be the first poet featured under the new regime at Poetry NZ might be somewhat controversial. She is, for one thing, American – a fairly recent immigrant to these shores, though one who’s hopefully now put down roots here for good. And even some poetry connoisseurs have commented to me on the “difficulty” of her work. As if being easy were some kind of duty for writers, to be ignored at their peril!
As so many poets, local and international, have done over the past decades, I sought the wise counsel of Alistair Paterson on the matter. He is, after all, the outgoing Managing Editor of Poetry NZ, and can be forgiven for still feeling a proprietary interest in the journal to which he’s contributed so much time and love for so long.
“Excellent idea, Jack,“ he told me. “I was intending to do it myself if I edited another issue.” So there you go.
But why? Why Lisa Samuels? It’s not as if she needs the exposure. She’s already very well thought of in her twin communities of experimental post-Language American poetry, and the Academic teaching of literature and creative writing. No, it’s not that she needs it – it’s that we do.
I said in my review of her book Wild Dialectics (2012):
The best analogy I can come up with for what Samuels does with language is what Charlie Parker and the other prophets of Bebop did with the preset idioms of Jazz. They got inside the phrases, turned them over, referenced and looped around them, and the result was a newly self-conscious, airy, tightrope-walker’s music. [brief 50 (2014): 152-53].
That description may or may not give an accurate idea of the surface appearance of a Lisa Samuels poem, but it certainly leaves to one side the whole question of just why she writes in this way.
That, of course, is where we get into larger questions of what poetry – and poetics – are actually for: the transference of content, or the interrogation of mode? The idea that how we communicate is at least as important as what we communicate is a truism in the post-McLuhan world. It’s actually quite hard to guess what a poetry entirely uninterested in the former would look like. Chopped-up prose, presumably – naiveté speaking to naiveté.
The brute discourses of power are familiar to all of us from the six o’clock news, but it’s the more subtle variants of misinformation and occluded truth in every other form of contemporary language, oral or printed or streamed, which cry out so urgently to be interrogated. And that, it seems to me, is Lisa’s special skill: the reason for the complex soundscapes and Babel-like confusion of her unique and idiosyncratic idiom.
One innovation in this new bumper format for PNZ is the space to include a reasonably lengthy interview with each featured poet. I suspect that you’ll find Lisa’s answers to some of these questions extremely interesting – not just as a series of suggested approaches to her poems, but as a window on her whole project, the intentions behind her multifarious encounters with language.
Another poet I’m especially happy to see in this first issue of PNZ under my editorship, and under the auspices of Massey University’s School of English and Media Studies, is Dagmara Rudolph.
Dagmara wrote to us earlier this year enclosing a poem entitled “Life is Unfair.” Her covering letter included the information that she was an 11-year-old girl, and that she had her parents’ permission to send us her poem. The poem is about bullying, and tyranny, and being misunderstood. It seems to me to achieve exactly what it sets out to achieve, with minimal curlicues and poeticisms.
The moment I read it I was impatient to see it in print, in the hope (I suppose) that its publication might persuade Dagmara that the world is not always an entirely malign place, and that the best way to react to injustice is to put it on record – to do, in short, precisely what Dagmara has done. Or Lisa Samuels, for that matter. It’s no particular accident that these two poets appear to be writing about essentially the same thing. I should emphasise that I didn’t think Dagmara’s poem was “good for an 11-year-old” or a “good start” – I thought it was a good poem. End of story. All the other poems in this journal are here for the same reason: because I thought each of them, in its own unique way, was just that: a good poem.
There are a number of vital acknowledgements and thanks to put on record here: First of all, to my Creative Writing colleagues at Massey’s School of English and Media Studies, Thom Conroy, Ingrid Horrocks, and Bryan Walpert, who – together with our Head of School A/Prof Joe Grixti – have helped so much with settling Poetry NZ into its new institutional home. The same goes for the other members of the new Poetry NZ Advisory Board: Jen Crawford in Canberra, David Howard in Dunedin, and Tracey Slaughter in Hamilton.
Secondly, to Alistair Paterson and John Denny of Puriri Press, respectively managing editor and publisher of Poetry NZ since well before the turn of the millennium, for allowing us the opportunity to take it over earlier this year.
Thirdly, to the production team: our Administrator Bronwyn Lloyd, cover designers Ellen Portch and Brett Cross, not to mention the able assistance of Rob Roberts, Marian Thompson and their team at the Massey Printery.
Finally, to all the subscribers and contributors – most noble of all, the subscriber-contributors – who’ve kept this journal in all its multiple guises alive for over sixty years, and look set to keep on doing so for the foreseeable future.
The cover image for this issue, Renee Bevan’s “Stream of thoughts, a whole year’s work” (2012), expertly photographed by Caryline Boreham, shows what happens when you burn a whole year’s worth of your own carefully crafted journals, pulverise the ashes to dust, and then tip the results over your head.
It’s an arresting notion, certainly – a kind of blaze of glory: a moment of confusion and blindness succeeded by light.
I hope you can see the analogy with the kinds of poems included here: sparks of light in an ocean of stultifying babble, laser-beams penetrating the Stygian darkness of our contemporary linguistic wasteland.
This first Yearbook issue of Poetry NZ since 1964 is dedicated to three illustrious predecessors:
Louis Johnson (Managing Editor, NZ Poetry Yearbook, 1951-64)
Frank McKay (Managing Editor, Poetry New Zealand, 1971-84)
Alistair Paterson (Managing Editor, Poetry NZ, 1994-2014)
— Dr Jack Ross, Massey University, 14-17 September 2014
I walk behind two ‘popular girls’.
They go onto a freshly paved path.
So do I.
One turns around
“Don’t walk on that path”
You did too,
I want to say.
Life is unfair
I inspect a huge tree.
A ‘popular girl’ does as well.
The tree is humongous!
Her friends walk up to me
“Don’t look at that tree”
She did too,
I want to say.
Life is unfair
I take a cookie out of my lunchbox.
The ‘popular girls’ see it.
I bring it to my mouth
Their leader snatches
“No it isn’t. It’s mine” I say
A teacher walks up to the crowd that has formed.
“Whose is it?”
To their Queen, the ‘popular girl’.
I get told off for dishonesty.
Life shouldn’t be like this: unfair
© Dagmara Rudolph, 2014
People talk about the vanguard
takes a turn: its conscript energy
acts on macro-particles
as though you choose or resolute
you’re given mesh back to the deal
Your limbs eye dim harmonics
rise for tiny ones
crash at you: crash at me
“give us a family look”
the ice cream salt licks
for the ground your ears forget
That little town’s an Uproar
over animals superadded
in the red: tearing around
in the gardens agua del baño de calor
de los surcos sin palabras
de su mente putting at you
with a tinny bravura: so altissima
hoochie coochie folds
enveloped so most comfortable
Emphatically on the “fort”
amidst impacted trees pretty
much willing to be in agreement
with the local: flowered in demise glass
objects balls a series of
eggs swooped down
by a devotion to the lungs
Smiling with your organs
and arterial skim you move
a dovey blankness
toward corridors not fit yet
particulating more like License
or a flat curve cotton minded vent
or convert axe rendition with
Another Chance: fresh positions
wooing out the planes
around the lips a lucid sphere
dimension billow: start it here
© Lisa Samuels, 2014