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Let us now praise Phantom Billstickers for sticking up really fucking big posters of New Zealand poetry

All week this week the Spinoff Review of Books devotes itself to poetry in the build-up to Phantom Billstickers National Poetry Day on Friday. Today: Kirsten Warner explores why it is that New Zealand poetry has such a friend in Phantom.

The first time I saw one of Phantom Billstickers’ poster poems I couldn’t believe it. A full A0 size poster of a Janet Frame poem bang in the middle of a wall in Grey Lynn. I remember feeling a bit like something portentous was about to happen and looking behind me. There were two more poems alongside.

Who on earth was doing this guerilla poetry? Whoever had thought of making poetry posters and sticking them up? Like poetry was a real thing, like it was important? Poetry was something that happened indoors, between me and the book, or me the writer and the page, or occasionally me and a poetry reading audience. This was so original, so surprising, this attitude, this making the poem larger than life. These posters were looking back at me.

I found out this was part of a poetry project by Phantom Billstickers, the company that sticks up music and entertainment posters commercially around New Zealand. Who was this Phantom character, the ghost who walks, and what was the mission?

“At the beginning, I was depressed after two heavy duty medical treatments wrung me out. I was nostalgic for my youth and reading a lot of Janet Frame,” says Phantom alter ego Jim Wilson. That was in about 2009. Since then 220 poems have been made into posters. That’s a shitload of printing if there are 100 or so printed of each, and then re-printed.

Jim is currently chugging around the US with Phantom Billstickers co-owner (and Jim’s wife) Kelly, sticking up poems in Chicago, Springfield, Illinois (Abe Lincoln’s town) and Atlantic City, Baltimore. A recent post on Facebook was from the famous Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It’s a little beauty, founded in 1927, America’s oldest continuous poetry bookshop and directly opposite Harvard University. The shop put two Phantom Billstickers poem posters by Kiwis up in the front window, Geoff Cochrane’s ‘For Lenny’ and David Merritt’s ‘Sad Rocks’.

Elizabeth Smither’s The heart heals itself between beats, at Amel drinking station in Rajastan, India (Image: Phantom)

Kelly and Jim Wilson have just completed a two week road trip through New York State, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine. America has a lot of old wooden telephone poles and they use a Rapid R13 heavy duty stapler and 8mm staples. It gets the job done quick and fast.

It’s back to how Jim’s probably started as a bill sticker. Which might be a bit ironic, given some people back in New Zealand are a bit pissed off that Phantom has bought up so much of the best space for postering. But it makes sense too, given that Jim came out of music – he was a very young and successful promoter in Christchurch and Dunedin – and to survive in the music biz was and is not easy.

Phantom Billstickers call the poems “flora for the concrete jungle”. I like Phantom’s little carousels and walls, I think they add colour and something cosmopolitan to our towns. As a poet and musician I am a regular poster sticker-upper (I’m out this week sticking up for a gig) and of course I see and feel the corporate presence of Phantom Billstickers with its framed and allocated spaces. Ponsonby Rd and side streets are virtually all off limits.

But life is change, and creativity will out – for now there are still plenty of other walls up on K’ Rd.

I’ve only met Jim a few times, after he reached out and offered to make me a poster poet. I’m now one of now over 100 – mostly Kiwis but with some notable American exceptions like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gerald Stern, Robert Creeley. Phantom obtains the rights either from the poets or their publishers.

It was such affirmation when I was struggling to be a creative writer. What I really liked was that I could see established poets like Tusiata Avia and Bill Manhire, but I could also see work by other people who Jim Wilson and his poetry project coordinator recognised as good writers who weren’t ‘literary’.

Gregory Kan, Lynley Edmeades, and Simone Kaho with their poems on giant posters around NZ (Image: Phantom)

One day my poem ‘It’s a Girl’ was stuck up in Barcelona and photos posted on Facebook. I was fizzing. It’s gone to other cities since including Tokyo and Amsterdam. A couple of weeks ago my second poster poem Upended was stuck up in Woodstock, of music festival fame. What a laugh: the poem was about drugs and a long-term relationship and it was up outside a head shop.

In the post a week later was a large envelope of American music and literary magazines and books and writing from prisoners, which happens a couple of times a year. Kaipara novelist Kelly Ana Morey told me that once when she was really on the bones of her arse, Phantom slipped her $150 in $50 notes inside a book, with a note saying “Register your car.”

Jim’s one of the few champions I’ve ever had, and being a poster poet and being published in Phantom Billstickers’ magazine Café Reader helped save my confidence. (My novel will be published next year by Makaro Press, the little Wellington publishing company that just won a NZ children’s book award).

Cafe Reader is a lively read, printed on nice thick paper, and available free in good bookshops and music stores. Unapologetically outsider, the magazine contains good writing that would probably never get published anywhere else and some gob-smacking reads like John Dix’s story about Scruff’s outrageous Auckland mayoralty campaign. It’s writing which chronicles our culture in a really valuable way.

Jim Wilson’s work office is lined with books and he has a lifetime of music running around in his head. He’s also a good writer; he’s finishing a book that will take a ride through his sometimes tumultuous life and times. He travels, he blogs, he writes, he sticks up for New Zealand poets, he keeps a pretty low profile. “It’s just doing as much as we can, never enough mind you, to spread the word about the voices in New Zealand. Drop a stone in the water and hope the circles spread out from there, eh?”

There are multiple live poetry events happening all around the country tomorrow to celebrate Phantom Billstickers nation poetry day. At Wellington Unity, the wildly exciting poet Nick Ascroft will read from his work alongside others from 12-1pm; for other readings and such, please consult exhaustive details here.


The Spinoff Review of Books is brought to you by Unity Books

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