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Tuesday, 26 September 2017

E.A. Gleeson Explores Values, Beauty & Mortality

Small Acts of Purpose is a new poetry book by E.A. Gleeson, a funeral celebrant with an exotic Irish background. Her poems touch on key issues from everyday life in a personal, accessible and sometimes humorous style, as you’ll see from her interview with Assistant Editor Wai Ying Wong.  

WYW: What led you to write Small Acts of Purpose?

EAG: I cannot not write poems, I almost always have a poem "on the go" so this is a compilation of the work from the last four years. it seems to take me about four years to put a collection together.

WYW: Since you have published two poetry books before, what differences were there in composing this new volume?
EAG: In this new volume, I think I am much more attuned to the magic and power of land/waterscapes. It's a more interesting collection, less about me ;) more about others and how we interact with each other and the natural world.
WYW: Your book comprises several parts, most notably the one about Northern Ireland. How do you see the other parts working with the Belfast one?
EAG: Each of the four parts engages with the way we relate to our world whether it's an urban environment or an emotional landscape. But the Belfast section is also distinctive. I LOVE Belfast and I wanted to acknowledge its beauty as well as its troubled history.
WYB: What messages are you trying to convey with Small Acts of Purpose?
EAG: The ideas I am exploring vary:

  •  reflecting on the choices made by inspiring people
  • attending to places of power and beauty
  •  examining things we value 
  •  accepting notions of change and mortality
WYW: We can see you are playful in the structure of certain poems with spacing between lines and words. Why did you choose to adopt this format?
EAG: I try to use the rhythm, line structure and word choice to add to the concepts of a poem. With the early Belfast poems, I was trying to add visual weight to the poetry. Similarly with the last poem in the book, "Peonies". I wrote that as a love poem, but I feel it's a blessing poem and the layout emphasises the action of petals and the underlying concept of the collection, transience.
WYW: What are the key themes and values expressed in your poems? How does your Irish heritage influence your writing?
EAG: Brendan Ryan says these are ‘poems of witness and empathy’. Speaking for the voices is something I want to do with my writing. Mike Ladd described the collection as inquisitive, philosophical with a sly sense of humour.  I think that is so apt pertaining to me as a person and a poet. 

My Irish heritage is a fundamental part of who I am so I think that comes through some of the poems quite specifically but it is also a cultural thing. Many of the poets who have had greatest influence on me are Irish.

WYW: How does your experience as a funeral celebrant affect your perspectives on life?

EAG: My funeral work keeps me 'in the real'. A lot of us will not get three score years and ten. It is also a constant reminder of the power of words and the value of honouring lives that have been lived.

WYW: Which is your favourite poem in this book, and why?
EAG: That's like asking which is my favourite child – 'I love them all the most'.
But if I had to pick one poem, I'd say “Radio Ulster”. That poem came like a gift just as described, But then I worked so hard to get the rhythm and rhyme to add to the energy. Rosie is a composite fictional character but she's as real to me as the people in my family.

If you allowed me a second choice, it would be “Short Life, Long Death” because it is ironically realistic and the crowds love it!
Small Acts of Purpose

Monday, 28 August 2017

Poetry without a GPS

New Zealand poet Jane Simpson is attracting excellent reviews for her latest book, A world without maps. We were so delighted with them that we're including the entire reviews here from Takahe and the Poetry Society of New Zealand Newsletter.

The reference subject list on the title page verso of Jane Simpson’s latest collection, A world without maps, mentions ‘Autobiographical poetry/Grief-Poetry/United Arab Emirates-Poetry’. A no-doubt efficient summation, but one that gives little hint of this publication’s scope.

In 43 poems, divided into three sections, Simpson guides the reader on several intimate yet wide-ranging journeys, first hinted at in the cover photograph of a row of young women, their long hair loose and dishevelled by a dusty wind. From an initial glance, it is a disturbing image, though it is in fact a row of young Emirati women preparing to dance the khaliji, that frenzied, hair-tossing dance of Bedouin women, when restraint and inhibition are flung aside.

The first third of this collection, Desert logic, contains poems prompted by the author’s time teaching at a girls’ school in Dubai, travelling the region bordering the Arabian Gulf. For the author, this is a journey into the unknown. Her destination unrecorded on Google Earth, she sets out, the sensation of confusion and dislocation perfectly captured in the collection’s opening poem, “A world without maps”: ‘for those who don’t read maps / no maps exist’.

That sense of confusion, of entering strange worlds and the sustained attempt to locate one’s self within them becomes a metaphor unifying, not just this section and its exploration of the strangeness of another culture, but the entire collection. In poem after poem, the author creates maps to guide her through the territory of grief following her mother’s death and the deaths of friends, as well as the fractured social and political landscape in which she finds herself living.

The second poem in Desert logic takes its start from the difficulty of speaking with a taxi driver, upon arrival in Dubai:

We keep missing 
each other 
Kiwi mixed with Buraimi 
broken English

Again, this sets in motion a recurrent theme within the collection: the attempt to find language, not just for intercultural communication, but to define complex feelings of loss, love, and the vivid awareness of beauty in transient existence. Words open small windows that widen into moments of perception, even as a glimpse of the desert widens to an awareness of the immensity of time:

the millennia melt dishes point to the sky a purple smudge… 
scientists study on the bridge for crocodiles 
when the Himalayas were young

A row of girls dancing broadens similarly into realising another version of the role of women:

Girls unspring buns let tresses fall 
move as hair airborne flies from side to side as if in defiance 
the Principal looks on in her eagle face, aristocratic, before the dervishes

Poems set in New Zealand offer other versions of femininity. In “The Prof’s wife”, a thumbnail sketch of a kind of woman is deftly worked: ‘Her armoury was wood and steel, clanking / in tired drawers, full of crumbs.’ And here is a poem about recipes:

My grandmother lives In my kitchen cupboard 
In pressed pages. Granny Irene, fresh air and her 
Froebel training, raw not refined…

The work is delicate, poised, meditative, the voice that of a woman of gentle faith and social conviction. The final poem concerns the writer’s home city, Christchurch, and its loss and destruction.
the city’s old body has gone young couples gently touch, peace and justice rise, kiss.

How appropriate then that, as another reviewer, Bernardette Hall, has so perceptively written, A world without maps is ‘the work of a peacemaker’, one that ‘concludes with a kiss.’

– Fiona Farrell, New Zealand Poetry Society Newsletter

Jane Simpson has taught social history and religious studies in universities in Australia and New Zealand. Her poems have been published in journals including takahē, Poetry NZ, Meniscus and Social Alternatives, and in several anthologies. A world without maps is based on Simpson’s experience of living and working in the United Arab Emirates, teaching English to Muslim women teachers in a desert school.

A world without maps is divided into three sections: ‘Desert logic’, ‘The sky between leaves’ and ‘Like fantails in the forest’. In the collection, Jane Simpson offers a range of moments, perceptive experiences and memories, which are always felt and personal. The first section, ‘Desert logic’ features poems about her experiences overseas, which begins with the title poem, “A world without maps”, in which she searches on Google Earth for the school she is to visit:

searching for my school from the Cathedral 
city on the hill, medieval Ely 
with a view of the lantern, 
on Google Earth 
the lines 

These are poems that make the reader work: they are unpunctuated, opaque in denotation, and expressing, as they do, her inner thoughts and feelings. They are nonetheless, or perhaps therefore, intriguing and exciting to read. And they do have their song.

The first stanza of “English only please”, takes the reader immediately to the scene of the desert school:

the first lesson in 
the old desert 
school, the national 
anthem insistent 
as tinnitus

Images and scenes are engaging and surprising. There is this description of the classroom in “Gentle subtraction”:

my classroom dances 
to newly found vowels 
in minimal pairs

The charm of this section lies in its clusters of images with their obvious connections relaying place, emotion or mood in short lines and phrases, as in “At Spinneys”, where she searches for familiar items:

people like me 
search labels for old friends

Lapsang Souchong Twinings

find them gone, turnover 
faster than stock on the shelf.

“In the Church Compound, Abu Dhabi” is a longer, more traditional poem with greater use of punctuation, as it describes the church, the mosque and the courtyard:

the Anglican church is stripped 
down, anonymous as a lecture theatre. 
Crossless from the street, it squats 
under the landmark of the mosque.

“Passing” is also a more traditional poem, describing the place “where widows meet”. The poem ends:

Palms play, dresses flame vermillion. No 
black abaya, where no men go.

“Flood-lit plains” is also a lengthier, traditional poem, where people wait for the rains to come:

Outside the oasis – 
a distant music deep 
in the sands – time-lapsed 
roots twist, tribulus 
are speckled with flowers.

The second section, ‘The sky between the leaves’ concentrates on poems about home. In the poem “Planting Lemonwoods in Tui St”, for example, we see ‘a two-bedroomed nest / of rimu and brick’ and ‘the paper road / never built’. In the poem in view of the Māori cemetery, “Purau”, Simpson takes her readers to a site that achieves her aim of revealing her native town. She sees it as ‘A place for cast-off kitchen / equipment, preserving / pans for memories …’. She juxtaposes this poem against “Family archive”, a poem about ordinary women: her grandmother, an ‘unnamed Hungarian neighbour’, Amish women, and Gisela who she describes as

… all elegance and silver, 
threads beads with women friends – 
the hand-painted wedding silk 
ravishes us from across the bed.

In these poems, the poet is keeping track of her surroundings. For example, in “Silent lullaby”, she is a mother watching her baby sleep and reminding herself that one day he will be a man with children of his own. She writes:

When I’m old and cranky, your children on my knee, 
I won’t hold back, I’ll claim my own – raucous, strong and free.

For Simpson, the family is a powerful prism, giving freedom to explore culture through intimate relationships. It is an enlightening experience to read “Last communion” (in memory of my mother, Ming) in which

Diana, in the living room 
gazes across from her frame 
past purples and greens, washes 
on expensive paper, out 
from her morphine sea.

In the final poem in this section, “Inarticulate”, the focus is once again on Simpson’s mother: this time as she is dying, the poet asks the question: ‘Why were the male nurse and I, her only daughter, / chosen, and I the one, now, speaking to you?’ Thus, Simpson enables her readers to eavesdrop on her private life and the vernacular of these poems in comparison to those in the first section of the book.

Reading the poems in the third section, ‘Like fantails in the forest’, the reader’s attention is drawn to the detail used as a metaphor for Simpson’s theme of discovering beauty in the environment. In “flower”, for instance, the poet compares the roughness of a stone to the beauty of a flower. The poem ends:

The stone is rough 
in the stonemason’s hand. 
Flints speckle the earth 
where weeds will sprout 
and flowers grow.

“Twist” is a relatively simple descriptive poem about a mermaid and a merman, but it makes interesting reading:

She wears paua 
and turquoise silk, gliding as if 
through water, the chamber 
ultramarine, her fish-mouth 
firm against the metal, gulps 
his eyes on her – mermaid.

Simpson’s poem “Found at sea” is a good example of her style in this section:

Fishers cast on 
in multiples of two 
keep the line taut, carry it 
over, then ease, slide, 
purl into the back, knit one 
from below.

Here is a poet with an apparently facile use of form, and often skilled at their adaptation to contemporary life. In a poem like “Tutu” images tumble in abundance and have a rightness that delights:

Tutu quivers then 
blurs like fantails 
in the forest, startling 
from behind.

“After the earthquake” (Christchurch, 22 February 2011) is a poem in four parts and begins:

an aquifer cracked near 
graffitied walls 
round the closed St Albans 
Surf Lifesaving Club 
laughs and plays …

The final poem “Behind the cordon, Cashel Mall” captures perfectly the strange fascination for us of a desolate shop, destroyed by the earthquake, its scents remaining and the fact that there are

no looters 
nothing worth taking 
bamboo flutes played 
by the wind …

There is in general an easy command of tone and register in the volume which is characteristic of Simpson’s writing. There is no sense of difficulty; the art comes across as play. The words do not strain and there is charm in both words and ideas. The poet is always in command and she is never at a loss for words to communicate her thoughts, feelings and experiences.

– Patricia Prime, takahē 90, August 2017

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Basil Eliades: Renaissance Man

Basil Eliades is certainly a Renaissance Man when it comes to the arts. He's a painter, as well as a poet, performance artist and most recently an author of travel fiction. Speaking in Tongues is his most recent IP title. His previous poetry with IP is 3rd i and 50IV

Assistant Editor Imogen Sloss caught up with him as he was packing his bags for the Venice Biennial.

IS:  Basil, how would you best describe the nature of your book? 

BE:  Possibly because of my strange life, I tend not to see what everyone else is seeing. And I guess I'd prefer not to! Speaking in Tongues is a collection of short stories about the weirder aspects of travel – the kind of journeys you may read about, possibly dream about, but rarely experience. It is (hopefully!) intense, funny, sensual, and always offering a kind of heightened experience.

IS:  In your writing, how do you choose what should remain factual and what can be fiction? How important is the truth

BE:  Given that these are all fictional stories grounded in fact, it's pretty easy to choose what should remain factual – virtually nothing! Fiction allows enormous licence. But I have to say, life offers more bizarre experiences than I can invent. You can begin a story from any single point you choose – John Marsden famously gives character-writing lessons beginning with a single button. So on the road any one fact can be the basis for a whole story, but one relies on the real world to ground the rest of the story, to keep it located in time and space.

IS:  What sparked the inception of Speaking in Tongues?
Basil Eliades

BE:  I've been very blessed with opportunities to travel, and I have always written, and always written whilst on the road. It was inevitable that the stories would come together at some stage.

IS: What was overall the most interesting place you've visited around the world?

BE:  I think the interesting bit is inside our heads! Nearly everywhere I go I am thrilled and mesmerised by newness.  I don't know that any one place is intrinsically more interesting than any other. But despite all that... Venice Venice Venice for the light, the feel, the stonework, the water. Paris because it's Paris. Japan because it's amazing, and Jane shared it with me. For sheer interesting-ness, however – India!

IS:  As a painter and writer, what is the difference in recording your experience in images or text?

BE: Text allows me more room to play over time, to evolve subtle images through suggestion and play. Painting for me is more about an internal experience, less about the external world. But the images I draw whilst travelling might feed into a story, and equally they might evolve into a painting.

IS:  What is your #1 piece of advice for someone who wants to reflect on their travels through writing?

BE: Do it!

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

A Sweet Tooth for Australia

Lois Shepheard is the author of several IP titles, including The Rag Boiler's Daughter, Memories of Shinichi Suzuki: Son of His Environment and Black McIntosh to Gold. An accomplished music teacher based in Melbourne, Lois has researched and written extensively on the migrant experience from Scotland to Australia.

Assistant Editor Imogen Sloss interviews her here about her latest book, The Sugar Doctor, which provides fascinating insights into 19th century Australian society and the foundations of the sugar industry.

IS:  You have an interest in stories of migrants – what first drew you towards writing about Dr Skinner in particular?

LS: Dr Skinner brought my great-grandmother to Australia from Scotland. He himself arrived in 1839 and became the 62nd medical doctor to be registered in New South Wales. I was intrigued as to why he had come and interested even more when I found him listed in government records as buying quantities of land. He is documented as having lived in the Philippines and again I wondered why.

IS:  Other than the Sugar Doctor himself, in this book, who was your favourite character to research and write about?

LS: I don’t have favourite characters! I have stated historical facts and tried to envisage what life would have been like in Dr Skinner’s varying circumstances.  

IS: What was the most surprising discovery you made while researching 19th century Scotland and Australia?

LS: In Dr Skinner’s case, it was research into his first wife’s background which led me to understand why he was interested in sugar-growing. He was already documented in some books on early New South Wales – as a doctor, never as a sugar grower. It was more a confirmation than a surprising discovery that all our early settlers came here for a reason and that we have to be very careful to research all available data before we write ‘historical’ facts.

IS:    How have Dr Skinner and his actions impacted Australia as we live in it today?

LSThe energy, vision, forethought and planning of such settlers as Dr Skinner laid the foundation of today’s Australia.  

IS:    How do you think attitudes towards immigration have changed from the 19th century to now? 

LS: Most Australians are the descendants of migrants. When those migrants arrived, this country welcomed them as much as it could. My own father came, with his parents, brothers and sisters, because of lack of work in Scotland. My grandfather quickly found work in New South Wales. I feel so sad when I think of today’s migrants who have fled difficulties in their own countries and are not welcomed here.

IS: How would Dr Alexander Skinner rate as a businessman compared to other nationally successful entrepreneurs of today?

LS: One could say he doesn’t rate highly beside a businessman of today  - given that he moved from place to place and from profession to profession, seemingly without due thought to circumstances. Today’s businessmen would be sure of the financial consequences of their actions. But Alexander Skinner lived at a time when there was no financial security. The very fact that he boarded a boat in the north of Scotland and sailed 10,422 miles to an unknown land proves how courageous he was and how convinced that he could make his vision a reality. If he had lived today, he would doubtless be a very wealthy entrepreneur.