Departing Friday Poem editor Ashleigh Young talks to incoming Friday Poem editor Chris Tse.
The concept was always simple: on Friday, publish a poem. A new poem or an old poem, but always a good poem. It could be by anyone. When Friday Poem founding editor Steve Braunias invited me to take up the post, I said yes, thinking it would be a nice rambling detour on the long-haul trip that is reading and writing and editing poetry.
But then I began to receive submissions. I can’t believe I’d thought this would be easy. People wrote with their pain, their joy, their defiance, their satires and calls to arms and revenge sonnets and grief. There was a period of about two weeks when I swear I received a poem a day about “lockdown cuisine”. New books were launched, overseas writers came to town, or didn’t, and the world repeatedly crumbled. Poetry kept happening. I wanted the Friday Poem to respond to all of these things. I considered a plea for more poetry days but realised it would only make Fridays less meaningful. The relative scarcity of Fridays was the point.
A while ago I started to worry. Was I hogging poetry? My day job is editing books at Victoria University Press and a lot of that work is poetry-related. Increasingly, it felt unbalanced. It was also a question of keeping it fresh. Fridays come around fast and there are so many good things happening in poetry that unless I grew several more brains I knew I would be missing too much.
So I decided to pass the baton. I couldn’t have asked for a better or cooler new editor and I’m thrilled that Chris said yes. Chris Tse is a brilliant poet – he’s the author of the award-winning How to Be Dead in a Year of Snakes (AUP, 2014) and He’s so MASC (AUP, 2018) – and his work appears all over the show, from Best New Zealand Poems to Landfall and Mimicry. He’s a champion of poetry and the arts and he also has a spreadsheet. I talked to him over email.
Ashleigh: I’m excited that you’re taking up the helm of the Friday Poem. Thank you and godspeed. Have you decided yet what your first Friday Poem will be? You don’t have to say what it is. Yes or no is fine. But I will be watching, and waiting.
Chris: Thank you for leaving it in such a great shape! It’s a real honour to be taking over from you. I’ve created my scheduling spreadsheet and I’ve got my first few poems lined up. My first Friday Poem is from a new poet whose work I’m very excited to share.
A: You have a spreadsheet?! I’m glad it’s going into such organised hands. I confess, I tried to keep one myself but it quickly disintegrated, or Poetry broke it. Anyway, you’ve been selecting and editing an anthology of takatāpui and/or LGBTQIA+ writers, with co-editor Emma Barnes, for Auckland University Press. Can you say a bit about the collection, or what that process has been like?
C: We’re so, so close to having our manuscript finalised. That’s our focus at the moment. The process has been equal parts exciting and terrifying – it’s hard to ignore the responsibility attached to a project like this. Emma and I have had many conversations about what the final anthology will look like, and I feel it’s shifted a little from our original proposal, but mostly because we had so much more writing to choose from than we anticipated. When we put our proposal together we had done a bit of work to identify potential writers, but the open call introduced us to so many writers we’d either not come across before or who we didn’t know identified as takatāpui or LGBTQIA+.
A: I can’t wait to read it. I’m really grateful that you and Emma are pulling it together. It must be a huge task and also the kind of work that never feels finished. I wanted to ask you about editing other people’s work – sometimes people ask me whether editing interferes with or influences my own writing. I find this really hard to answer. (Though, I realised the other day that when I was editing a nonfiction book about wasps, a few more wasps than usual turned up in my writing.) I think there’s a perception that editing is a more analytical, cold-blooded task while writing is a more spontaneous, mammalian (?) one. To some extent that’s true, but there’s lots of overlap. As you worked on the anthology, were you able to keep writing at the same time?
C: I agree that there’s lots of overlap. Some of the work I’ve done as an editor has seeped into my work in some unusual ways, but I wonder if that’s because I really like seeing, and learning about, how different occupations and areas of expertise use words and language, and finding ways to explore that with poetry. I feel like I’m a slower writer because the editor in me is correcting and questioning as I write. I need to find a way to mute that voice while I write! I don’t know whether it was working on the anthology or the lockdown (or maybe a combination of both) but I was able to keep writing at the same time, much to my surprise. However, sometimes I had to tell myself to stop working on a poem and go back to the anthology because it was more pressing!
A: Do you ever have moments of feeling a bit disconnected from poetry? Maybe I’m giving away too much here. But, I do, and in my darker moments I think, “I never want to read a poem ever again.” But then I do, obviously, and I find things that I like and love again. Have you ever had a really bad day of poetry? What can be done to recover?
C: Absolutely. I feel the same sometimes about music and movies, and TV shows and books in general. I get overwhelmed by just how much stuff there is out there to consume, and when people are always saying “you must watch this show” or “why haven’t you listened to that album yet?” my brain goes into retreat mode. I often tell myself I don’t have to read/watch/listen to everything, and to give myself time and space to just enjoy one thing at a time. Funnily enough, I find that really great poems hit harder when I’m having those moments of disconnection because you’re not expecting. It leaves me thinking, “oh yeah, poetry’s pretty damn cool”. What do you think is cool about New Zealand poetry right now?
A: I was mulling over this question at work (skiving from my actual, um, editing job) and Fergus Barrowman was wandering past with a cup of tea so I asked him what he thought was cool about New Zealand poetry right now. He quoted Craig Raine’s remarks upon retiring, something like, “From now on, the only poetry for me is anti-poetry.” Which – I mean, maybe it’s not wise to publicly identify with Craig Raine. But it resonated. The more poetry I read, the more I want to be surprised and dragged away from capital P Poetry – but, somehow, too, to be kept close by it at the same time. It’s like Bill Manhire wrote about Jenny Bornholdt’s latest collection: “I like poets when they change gear without swerving off the road.” And more and more NZ poets are changing gears in ways that probably shouldn’t work but that do, because there is energy and intelligence and defiance in it. And that’s endlessly cool. But I’m not sure if it’s new – there have always been anti-poets in poetry. Maybe I am finding this question hard because I am not sure anymore what is cool.
I like that more people in New Zealand seem to be reading poetry – and maybe to have realised that you don’t need to have studied poetry, or even to have liked poetry in school, in order to like it now. The other specific thing that’s cool to me is students getting into poetry. Some of my favourite poems in the past year or two have been by high school or university students, including one called “My Dogs” by Kongpop Puakprom. (And I was reading this morning that a four-year-old boy in the UK just got a poetry book deal. I’m not sure how I feel about that yet. Not that it matters. The poems seemed pretty good . . . ?)
C: You’ve published a lot of incredible and unforgettable poetry over the last couple of years (I can still remember reading Tusiata Avia’s “Massacre” on the site for the first time). Without asking you to choose your favourite child (but really I’m asking you to choose your favourite child) which was the most surprising or memorable poem that you published?
A: Tusiata’s poem is one of them. I feel like the hardest part of editing the Friday Poem is responding to terrible and/or world-changing events when they happen. You can search and search and search and never feel satisfied. But there has to be something; there can never be silence. Tusiata’s poem was exactly the right thing. A lot of people sent me poems about the massacre, in the days and weeks following. I really grappled with how to respond to so much pain. I think the rule is always to be human first, editor second.
But to your actual question: the favourite. Tusiata, but can I have three more? I mean, there are heaps more. But just to start: I love Mohamed Al Mansour’s “The Best Football Day”, from the 2019 Landing Press collection More of Us. Its simplicity and straightforwardness is just really beautiful to me. I also think Sam Duckor-Jones’s poem “Party Legend” is an outrageous achievement. Sam read this poem to me aloud, in full, in the pub one time. It took about fifteen minutes and I was fully sober by the end. And I have to mention Uther Dean’s fantastic series of haiku that prompted this quite heated debate about what deserves to be called haiku and what is just, like, a short poem. This is my favourite kind of drama in poetry – small but somehow huge.
When you choose poems for the Friday Poem, what will you be looking for? I have never been able to answer this question very well, because I’d always think I knew what it was I was looking for and then it would be something else altogether – but, do you have any guiding ideas yet?
C: Your earlier comment about poets “changing gears” kind of sums up how I’ll be approaching it (for now, at least). I saw a lot of this happening while I was reading for the anthology and in the work that was being published by Stasis over the lockdown. It feels like anything is possible when it comes to poetry right now, so I want to capture how poets are creating or making the most of those possibilities. I want drama to get in the ring with dumb jokes, and landscapes to mingle with pop culture references. But ultimately I’ll be looking for poems that I can’t wait to tell everybody about, which is just as well given the position I find myself in now! One last question for you: did Steve give you any advice when you took over from him as Friday Poem editor? Do you have any advice for me?!
A: I can’t remember Steve giving me advice … perhaps he sensed it would be futile. I think you just have to make it your own. I ended up thinking of the Friday Poem as a small offering to people each week, something that might even help them dig in and keep going. Like Bernadette Mayer’s poem “The Way to Keep Going in Antarctica”: “Look at very small things with your eyes / & stay warm”. I was going to say that the Friday Poem can offer a kind of sanctuary away from the commotion. But then I remembered that sometimes poetry is right where the commotion is at, and we should all get right in it.
Submissions to the Friday Poem will be open until the end of September. Please send your poems to email@example.com
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.