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Jane Arthur and Louise Wallace (Photos: Ebony Lamb / Design: Archi Banal)
Jane Arthur and Louise Wallace (Photos: Ebony Lamb / Design: Archi Banal)

BooksMay 16, 2023

Birth, death and love poems: A conversation between Louise Wallace and Jane Arthur

Jane Arthur and Louise Wallace (Photos: Ebony Lamb / Design: Archi Banal)
Jane Arthur and Louise Wallace (Photos: Ebony Lamb / Design: Archi Banal)

Poets Louise Wallace and Jane Arthur talk their new collections, writing about motherhood, birth, death, love poems… and exclamation marks!

take, by Louise Wallace

care of cortisol take all offers of transport take a bra so big it has its own special challenges take anyone else’s take and kick it into place take pace take a place in the movement of the queue it takes practice it takes nerve to be inside another life take every noise as a sign that it’s all taking place it takes time it takes sleep it takes girlfriends and little gestures take connection take off to a restorative little world take hope in shying away take a voice that sounds generally thoughtful take peace in activity take insulation in household lives take repetitious time and chart each hour take as much quiet as the world can give until you can take your circulation and turn it into music 

Jane Arthur: Much of This is a story about your mother relates to moments from early pregnancy to early motherhood. Did you write the poems during the moments they are speaking of, or were some reflecting back? How was it to edit them later, and read them back now?

Louise Wallace: The poem ‘take’ is from the pregnancy sequence that’s the core of the book, and I wrote that sequence looking back – my son had been born and it was around the four-five month mark that I started constructing the poems in earnest. I was writing about pregnancy, but with the full knowledge of how difficult that early motherhood period was. Reading them back now that my son is nearly five, I think it has meant the poems are able to carry the full flavour of those dual experiences – the looking forward of pregnancy, with the hindsight of new motherhood.

JA: Why did you write a book about ‘motherhood’?

LW: I want motherhood to take up space in the creative arts, in the ‘professional’ creative arts. Sometimes, it feels like there’s a quota on how much people are willing to publish about motherhood, or how much they think an audience is willing to consume on the topic, but so many people are parents and so much of the work going on in the world is raising children or the admin around raising children. When I was working with Sarah Jane Barnett to try and refine the manuscript, she talked about the importance of trying to disrupt the idea that motherhood is a straightforward and uninteresting thing not worth reading about, even through something as simple as the word ‘mother’ being in the book’s title. Parenthood deserves to be more visible – artists who are also parents need to be able to express that aspect of their lives, and readers who are also parents deserve to see their own experiences reflected back at them. I don’t want to always write about being a mother, but I did want to write about it at that time.

JA: Can you explain the different writing methods you used for the different sections of the book, and why you took that approach?

LW: The pregnancy sequence ‘like a heart’, is made from words and phrases I lifted from the Huggies week-by-week pregnancy guide, and then fed through poet Gregory Kan’s text manipulation app glass leaves (of which he’s just released a new and more fabulous version), trialling different manipulations until I saw a pattern emerging that seemed to make some sense in regards to that stage of pregnancy – I could shape and edit it from there. There are 40 poems for the 40 weeks. The practical reason for approaching it this way was that I could break the work down into one small task each day (either selecting the found text from the Huggies guide or manipulating it into a poem) that I could achieve one-handed, while my baby napped on me. The conceptual reason was to counter or highlight the labels that are often assigned to writing about parenthood in order to discredit it – domestic, as in lesser, or worse still, sentimental.  

JA: The second poem of the book, ‘yesterday’, is, whoa, one of the best things I’ve read in a long time, and I imagine it was very hard to write (and live), revisit and edit. It talks about being a daughter, while a lot of the rest of the book is about being a parent. How was it to include this in your book?

LW: It felt quite natural to include it, in the sense that although the book is largely about becoming a mother via childbirth, there’s also a lot more going on in the lives of people who happen to be parents, than just parenting. At the same time I was pregnant, my Dad was going through the process of being officially diagnosed with early-onset dementia. It seemed to speak to life’s cyclical nature to include the poem – birth and death being wound up together. Watching the late stages of my dad’s decline and losing him at only 67 years old, made me feel deeply sad that his chance to know his grandson would never be realised, and sad for my son that he’s lost the chance to know my dad. I also felt angry, really angry. And with dementia or illness, that’s difficult because there’s nothing physical you can direct that anger at. It feels like anger or rage is something we’re not meant to be OK sitting with. It’s uncomfortable in many ways. But not all rage can be fixed or healed, and I think that’s OK. It doesn’t have to be something you ‘get better’ from. It felt good to have a house for that rage in the book. 

JA: What is your relationship to poetry, and how has it changed over the years? How did writing this book differ from writing your three others?

LW: My relationship to poetry is that for whatever reason, I can’t stop – it is a compulsion, a driving force – and that has remained the same. But, writing this book felt like a marathon. An incredibly slow marathon. Writing was the only thing that made me feel like myself when I was a new mum and when everything else felt so alien. It’s also the most personal book I’ve written. The more I write, the more deeply interested I am in craft. I’d like to think I’m always improving poetically, always learning by reading the work of others, and pushing myself further with each collection. I hope the results will still be of interest to readers. I think I always had things I wanted to say – and still do – I’ve just found and continue to find more varied ways to say them.

Poet Louise Wallace. Photo by Ebony Lamb.

Princes and Priests, by Jane Arthur

The celebrities are having mental
health breakdowns and people
are lining up for tickets.

Princes and priests have done
and do things they

Television shows
get cancelled
and uncancelled.

The disinformation activists have muddied the lawn.

Some professions can be heroic
and they can be cruel.
What is the alternative?
Always, always a life
without cruelty.

Everybody wants to be special,
it’s a pandemic
of the individual.
It’s quite incredible
how many experts we have among us.
How many self-appointed

Like flies on shit.
Like flies, on shit!

Louise Wallace: ‘Princes and Priests’ seems to capture the sense of despair (at the world) and resulting apathy that underpins the book. How did this poem come together?

Jane Arthur: Writing poems, for me, can be a way to constructively process what I observe in my mind, memory, or life but, increasingly, in the world. For the first time, with this book I have been writing ‘political’ poetry – about climate change and the pandemic – because honestly, these days, how could you not? Yes, there’s despair, and there’s me despairing at my despair, and there’s despair at the apathy around me, and there’s me admitting to apathy, or hopelessness. And some poems that are nothing to do with any of that, to lighten the mood.

‘Princes and Priests’ was written in real time while some big things were in the headlines internationally and locally. You can probably work them out. I am endlessly fascinated by the impetus to value an individual, often privileged life over the lives of the many. It’s an equation that doesn’t compute for me, but I also acknowledge there are depths of disenfranchisement I’ll never understand either, and nothing is simple. These grey areas are good fodder for poetry, and endless fodder for anxious existentialists. 

LW: This is your second poetry collection, which are famously difficult to write. How did you find the process this time around?

JA: I realised a few years had passed since Craven, which was published in 2019, and thought, ‘I need to get this second book out of my system so it’s done and I can move on.’ I know that sounds glib but honestly, otherwise I was going to suffocate with the stupid pressure I was putting on myself. I was forever raising the bar in my mind of what I needed to achieve, especially having won the best first book award, which was amazing of course, but I’d worked myself into such a silly state I’d only written one poem – literally – in three years. I decided, maybe my second book is going to be bad but I will just get it out of the way so I can write better ones after that. I don’t think the book turned out bad (I trust the publishers to have standards), but allowing myself to think that way through the writing process was pretty liberating.

LW: ‘The Bear’ is an extended sequence in the middle of the book, very different to both the rest of Calamities! and your first collection, Craven. A sparse layout, a narrative that feels more like allegory – what does the encounter with ‘the bear’ mean to you and how did you decide on this form?

JA: I hoped no one would ever ask me about this. I don’t really know what it means. I see it as a weird little semi-gothic tale, where nature is all mixed up – a bear is there (or is it?), but so are New Zealand paddocks; seasons are slipping oddly and quickly. It’s probably about climate change. I wanted to write something surprising to me, in tone and form, to get away from the very-me ‘I’ of many of the other poems, and this is what came out. I felt a little possessed as I wrote it. It was a bit spooky, so let’s not dig too deep.

LW: Talk to me about exclamation marks.

JA: My first response to this question was to laugh, because how silly and frivolous and naughty are they!? Then I felt a bit defensive. Like, excuse me, what are you getting at, Louise. Then I felt deeply serious about their place in my craft (my craft! how deeply serious!), and I suppose my answer is all of that. 

One of the things I think is cool about poems is how poets can control the reader’s experience in a relatively unique way, via the way we can manipulate the pacing of the reading (arguably only bested by children’s picture books, which have the wonderful added tension of the page-turn). A million years ago I studied music, and I love that poetry, too, lets you compose rhythm and rests in this way. Prose is a block of text read however fast or slow or skimmed the reader reads; poetry forces pacing and pauses, with spaces, line breaks, stanza breaks and so on. Punctuation comes into this, and while writing Calamities! (yes, I even put one in the title, because I have always had a soft spot for ironic hyperbole), I was enjoying how completely ramped-up exclamation marks could make things – you’ll see I even pile them on in consecutive phrases sometimes, when I was getting particularly excited about something. 

The other thing I boldly stamp exclamation marks all over is the old tradition that you’re not ‘allowed’ to use them. Like how women aren’t ‘allowed’ to cry because it’s feminine and weak. Does that make sense? I’m reclaiming the power of crying all over my poems for womankind lol. But also, they’re my poems and I wrote them so … um … I can do what I want??? I think? Can’t I? Can I? May I?

LW: ‘The Sky is Bigger’ is one of my favourite poems in the book, because it’s a love poem! What do you hope a reader will get from the book?

JA: I tried very hard to write some poems that were not bleak, and that was one of them: me writing about the wonderfully mundane romantic moments of a comfortable, healthy relationship after being together for years. Did you see the other romantic thing I did was dedicate the book to my partner? I am a pretty unromantic person usually, so he will probably never recover from me making two loving gestures at him in one book.

I guess I hope that the more specific my weirdnesses, the more relatable and therefore consoling they may be for someone out there. I hadn’t known that’s what I hoped, but several people told me that’s what they felt about Craven, that my very particular worries put their own into words – which in turn made me feel less alone! Bloody beautiful. This book looks more outward, perhaps at how an anxious person can fit with care and compassion into a world that is pretty much falling apart. No answers, often with despair – but sometimes finding like-minds helps a bit, eh.

Poet Jane Arthur. Photo by Ebony Lamb.

This is a story about your mother by Louise Wallace (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $25) can be ordered from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland. and Calamities! by Jane Arthur (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $25) can be ordered from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland.

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