Paula Green, madwoman, took it upon herself to launch three (3) books this month. The biggie is Wild Honey, a deeply-researched but accessible tribute to women poets in New Zealand. We’ve a review underway, but for now, let’s talk about the cover – the bit that hits you first. It’s a painting by artist and writer Sarah Laing, bright and stingingly gorgeous. Somehow, amid the maelstrom, Paula managed to write this piece about how the cover came to be, and how it connects with the pages inside.
When I began musing upon ideas for Wild Honey – before it had a title or I had started researching and writing – I pictured a house and then movement into the wider world. Later, as I read my way through women’s poetry in Aotearoa / New Zealand, I took a handful of poets into different rooms and was ready for surprise and discovery. Having adored her book Mansfield and Me, I always pictured a Sarah Laing painting for the cover – some kind of scene featuring women poets. I thought maybe a picnic because it felt like I had been picnicking with women’s poetry for decades, always drawn to engagements with poems and poets. I sent Sarah a list of poets and we discussed possible settings over the phone.
I got goose bumps when I saw the cover drafts. I especially loved the alluring colour palette: warm, bold, inviting. I also loved the way the painting shows multiple conversations and musings. Robin Hyde is chatting to Blanche Baughan, Ursula Bethell and Alison Wong are conversing, as are Tusiata Avia and Hinemoana Baker, and Elizabeth Smither, Fleur Adcock and Airini Beautrias. My book is all about conversations between poets and among poems. For me reading a poem becomes a conversation, just as writing a poem is. I found myself talking to the women from the past in my study and in the archives – trying to get closer to them as they held their pens and wrote. I wanted to draw them from the shadows without hijacking them in theory. Their life stories intrigued and at times startled me; as did their poems. I wanted to move into as many communities as possible; through generations, into geographical centres whether small or large, across poetic tastes and inventions. Sarah’s cover gets that.
Sarah also catches the way poetry is a form of musing. Jenny Bornholdt is under the tree dreaming and writing, Anna Jackson is stretched along a branch reading, Eileen Duggan nibbles her cookie lost in thought, Selina Tusitala Marsh is sky drifting. Michele Leggott sits with her guide dog locked in thought. This is how poetry begins. We all do it differently; we all feel it differently.
There are hidden things for us to discover in the painting; such as Katherine Mansfield’s home. The bush is mānuka and the trees are beech (the very best for the bees), the women are eating honey cake, while the hive with its industrious bees forms a bridge to the title. I choose ‘Wild Honey’ because poetry, like honey, produces infinite transformations, and is a catalyst of movement between light and dark. Also, the fact women’s poetry has been denigrated for sweetness and domesticity (it still happens!) irks me beyond belief. Poetry can be and do anything. So the little honey pot celebrates sweetness along with fluidity, sting along with texture. And when you consider the way women were sidelined, misread, under-read and scarcely studied for much of the twentieth century, their poetry largely took root in the wild. Added to this is my motivation to write in the wild – outside the academy, theoretical cul de sacs and expectations of how critics and poets should behave. I feel like I have spent my whole awkward life writing in the wild. The cover is the perfect entry into my discoveries.
Wild Honey: Reading New Zealand Women’s Poetry by Paula Green (Massey University Press, $45) is available at Unity Books.