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TMI: An essay on contemporary poetry in Aotearoa/New Zealand

Poet Steven Toussaint on the explosive, triumphant wizardry that is happening here and now.

This much is obvious: something electrifying is taking place in New Zealand poetry. I became a permanent resident of this country four years ago, and at that time I privately considered verse here to have grown a little stale. While stand-out collections frequently knocked me over – among them Amy Brown’s The Odour of Sanctity (2013), Chris Holdaway’s Six Melodies (2014), and John Dennison’s Otherwise (2015) – my general impression was that a nostalgic suburban quietism had captured the style, tone, and subject matter of New Zealand poetry, calling to mind James K. Baxter’s warning to denizens of this ‘Happy Island’ that ‘one of the functions of artists in a community is to provide a healthy and permanent element of rebellion; not to become a species of civil servant’. Since then, however, a talented cohort of writers in their 20s and 30s, many of them women, LGBTQ, and people of colour, have exploded onto the scene in a searching and incendiary spirit, and have transformed the literary landscape irrevocably.

The watershed moment, I think most would agree, was mid-2016, when Hera Lindsay Bird’s poem ‘Keats is Dead so Fuck me From Behind’ appeared on The Spinoff and quickly went viral. The poem is effectively a diss track, putting canonical male poets on blast, not so much for their wackness, but for their contemporary irrelevance:

Coleridge is dead and Auden too
Of laughing in an overcoat
Shelley died at sea and his heart wouldn’t burn
& Wordsworth……………………………………………..
They never found his body
His widow mad with grief, hammering nails into an empty meadow

Byron, Whitman, Stevens…one by one the great men die and turn to dust. Their demise, we learn, has absolutely zero bearing on this poet’s prerogative to get off. ‘Bend me over like a substitute teacher’, she writes, ‘& pump me full of shivering arrows’. The poem concludes with an ars poetica (‘Nobody, not even the dead can tell me what to do’) and, perhaps, a declaration that a season in New Zealand poetry has ended, a new one just begun (‘Bill Manhire’s not getting any younger’). The poem signals comradeship with a particular strain of postmodern feminism, with its sex-positivity, its emphasis on gender performance as a strategy for destabilising patriarchal norms; at the same time, it scoffs at the age-old pretension that poetry has a responsibility to rectify social injustices.

Vintage engraving from 1874 showing Lord Byron, Robert Southey, Walter Scott, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats and Robert Montgomery

As if timed for maximum effect, a number of reliably resentful men didn’t pick up on these rich tensions. They scolded Bird online for this or that offence to good taste, allowing her to extend the big joke of ‘Keats’ in blistering responses on her popular Twitter feed. When, shortly thereafter, Bird’s eponymous first collection launched to an overflowing Unity Books in Wellington, it seemed clear, as Steve Braunias writes in his introduction to The Friday Poem anthology, that ‘something exciting was going on with New Zealand poetry, that it was having, in that awful phrase, a moment’.

Braunias sees Bird as the forerunner of a poetic ‘revolution’ in New Zealand, a vanguard group of writers who ‘draw from stand-up, slam, listicles, and whatever low-falutin’ styles’ and whose poems seem ‘closer to prose than verse, chatty conversational, rabbiting’. Most excitingly of all, these writers are reaching audiences far beyond those that poetry traditionally attracts, taking advantage of a social media landscape that rewards ingenious and entertaining forms of self-promotion.

If I suggest the acronym TMI (‘too much information’) as a shared point of departure for these writers, and a useful heuristic for appreciating their distinctiveness, I am not being frivolous or dismissive: the phrase has been self-consciously employed by key members of the new wave. In early 2016, Bird ran a pop-up creative writing workshop at the Aro Valley Hall called ‘TMI’. Early last year, Pip Adam hosted an event at the National Library called ‘Personal Poetry: How Much Information is Too Much?’ in conversation with Bird, Tayi Tibble, and Freya Daly Sadgrove. Hannah Mettner, who organised the event, thanked Bird’s ‘TMI school’ in the acknowledgements page of her debut collection, Fully Clothed and So Forgetful (2017). TMI is commonly used pejoratively to describe those who ‘overshare’ the material details of their sexual adventures and bodily functions, or who recount, with painful specificity, the triumphs, transgressions, and traumas of their lives without considering the embarrassment or squeamishness of their audience. But for the poets who claim this label for themselves, flouting these taboos is precisely the point.

Hera Lindsay Bird (2016) opens with a public humiliation that is also an artist’s statement.

To be fourteen, and wet yourself extravagantly
At a supermarket checkout
As urine cascades down your black lace stocking
And onto the linoleum
Is to comprehend what it means to be a poet

Anyone who has studied poetry in school or has participated in a creative writing workshop will recall the reprimand you receive when, venturing an interpretation of a poem, you refer to the lyric ‘I’ as the author rather than the safely fictional ‘speaker’, ‘subject’, ‘protagonist’, or ‘persona’. The reader who projects autobiography onto the poem sins against hermeneutics, not to mention good manners, even when the poem itself tantalisingly points in that direction. Bird, both inside and outside her poems, has been at pains to obliterate this distinction, which she characterises as the kind of sanitised academic nicety that her aesthetic will not suffer. Yes, she has revealed in interviews with The Guardian and Vice, the supermarket scene really happened. The loves and fucks, the hates and heartbreaks are hers. A note of pre-emptive defiance, even slight annoyance, that something so obvious would need resaying or that such revelations would have to be defended is audible throughout the book. We also hear it in the book’s title, which the poems self-reflexively circle back on.

I wrote this book, and it is sentimental
Because I don’t have a right-sized reaction
To put all your bad thoughts on paper
And make someone else pay for them […]

My name is Hera Lindsay Bird
This book is called Hera Lindsay Bird

The elision of the poet and speaker is not an incidental detail of Bird’s work; it is fundamental to achieving the effect of her most poignant poems. ‘Monica’, another viral hit for Bird, begins by hilariously trashing the neurotic character ‘off popular sitcom F.R.I.E.N.D.S’ and the silly pretence that ‘friendship’ is a sincere concern of the show ‘when two of them were related / and the rest just fucked for ten seasons’. But then the poem starkly transitions into a private meditation on Bird’s own experience of friendship turned to romance, on the difficulty of sustaining, with the same person, platonic and erotic love. We encounter something rather different in the poem ‘Bisexuality’, which relies less on personal anecdote and more on elliptical riffs on a widely misunderstood subject.

To be bisexual is to be out of office, even to yourself
Like a rare sexual Narnia and no spring in sight
They won’t let you out of the closet to get back in again
Deep in the winter coats, a little snow starts falling…

The wisdom and humour of the poem (‘Everyone assumes you want to fuck them……and they’re right’) depend, at least to some extent, on the author’s own experience of objectification and alienation, of expressing desire in a way that sits uncomfortably between heterosexual and homosexual norms. If, in ‘Monica’, a necessary condition of the poem’s affective force was the factuality of the anecdote, in ‘Bisexuality’ it’s the authenticity of the author’s self-identification. What unites all the poems in the collection is the transgressive nature of the factual anecdotes recounted and the particular identity authenticated. Both Hera Lindsay Bird and Hera Lindsay Bird are self-consciously upending one shibboleth after another.

Hera Lindsay Bird (Photo by Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty Images)

Bird’s wicked comic sensibility and stylistic eccentricities are her own, but a great deal of contemporary New Zealand poetry is being written under similar self-imposed conditions. Recent books have often devoted considerable attention, if not all of it, to memorialising, without any pretence of fabrication, personal experiences of transgression. And they are answering, it seems, a popular demand. Jackson Nieuwland, for instance, has recently celebrated the particular queerness of poets like Bird, Courtney Sina Meredith, essa may ranapiri, Hannah Mettner, and Chris Tse, calling on publishers and reviewers to take more seriously poetry which, like theirs, portrays coming-out or gender transition narratives, reflects on the discovery and construction of sexual identity, and confronts social barriers to ‘normalising free self-expression’.

Tse’s debut collection, How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes (2014), investigated the racist murder of Cantonese goldminer Joe Kum Yung in 1905. (Another essay could be written about the tendency toward research-based, book-length ‘project poems’ in 21st century New Zealand literature). However, in his follow-up, he’s so MASC (2018), his style and thematic concerns have conspicuously transformed in ways that bear family resemblances to these newer poets. Early on in the collection, Tse declares

This is my blood oath with myself: the only
dead Chinese person I’ll write about from now on
is me.

Tse’s poems have become, like Bird’s, ostentatiously self-reflexive, with titles like ‘Chris Tse and His Imaginary Band’ and ‘I was a self-loathing poet’. The book comments frequently, often with a knowing wink to its audience, about the trials of its own composition, and speculates about its eventual reception as a gay man’s reflections on what counts as queer performance, in life and in poetry. At the beginning of the poem ‘MASC’, we find ourselves at a familiar institution of New Zealand literary life: the book launch.

The poem includes a footnote with a brief, frenetic excursus on the ‘history of the Asian male as an object of sexual desire’, and in the notes section at the back of the book we learn that ‘Another poet’ is Bill Nelson, whose Memorandum of Understanding (2016) really does feature a poem referencing John Coltrane. Expressing resentment or envy, or name-checking a colleague for purposes other than admiration, might seem at first like a breach of unspoken poetry etiquette; here it is framed as a necessary step toward revealing deep-seated double standards in how poets and poetry audiences receive and perpetuate gender norms. More than the elaborate metaphoric staging of Tse’s book (the poems revolve around the conceit that the poet is putting on a one-man musical) what stands out is its changeful tone, which ranges between the confident self-possession of one who believes that a life lived honestly is inherently more authentic than one lived in polite obeisance to received mores, and the nervy self-consciousness of one who knows that such candour racks up social costs. The transgressor, Tse implies, is just as often the transgressed upon.

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The poems in Tayi Tibble’s Poūkahangatus (2018) are similarly attuned. The title poem situates the authorial voice in a body, in a particular place and time, making clear that such an intersection is inescapable, even in bold acts of imagination.

When I lie in the bath, I fill up the tub with blue-black hair, bruised and swampy. I imagine that I am a nineteenth century body of a mother in the Waikato, forced from my pā, fleeing in the forest. I am found swollen in a watery grave […]

In 1995 I was born and Walt Disney’s Animated Classic Pocahontas was released. Have you ever heard a wolf cry to the blue corn moon? Mum has. I howled when my mother told me Pocahontas was real but went with John Smith to England and got a disease and died. Representation is important.

Self-awareness that the ‘representation’ of indigenous women has historically been dictated by colonising men makes TMI a subversive act. In Tibble’s poems this often takes the form of a theatrical materialism and vanity with parallels in contemporary hip-hop. She enumerates cosmetics and beauty products, announces her ‘bourgie’ desire for expensive clothes and jewellery, and acknowledges her ability to whet the sexual appetites of men, as in ‘Baptism’:

Wearing a La Perla G-String
that costs more than your weekly rent
you feel yourself reborn with every
dripping plastic dollar […]
The men stare with eyelids
heavy from alcohol, the same
half-shut way that God probably regards us all.

There are similarities to Bird’s poems, where images are frequently of women ‘behaving badly’ with luxury or hyper-sexualised props:

To wake each day in a snakeskin negligee
and light myself on fire with such ethical behaviours […]
To lie face-down in my catholic schoolgirl outfit
and pound the cobblestones of the Royal Albert Hall

or

I just want to lie naked on a deckchair, fanning myself with divorce papers […]
I just want to sit around in Swarovski earrings and let old men debate my literary merits

But Tibble’s poems, like Tse’s, are more ambivalent about the idea that taking ownership over one’s sexual expression truly escapes the forces of exploitation. They are sometimes sexually explicit, but these scenes take place in an atmosphere of menace. The poem ‘Red-blooded Males’ evocatively associates images of sex with images of game-hunting and hinges on the tragic irony that confident femininity is often treated as a provocation for sexual predation. A boyfriend’s hunter father, drunk at a bar

                             says, You strike me as a details girl
whatever that means. But coolly I said yeah.
I try to notice things. I’m a modern city woman.
I practice mindfulness. I’m trying to reach nirvana.
When it’s my turn to buy the drinks he tells his friend
to slip me a ngata, and he puts it in my bra.

Here, Tibble questions where the real transgression lies: in a poet writing about her body or in a man touching it without consent? The reader, in turn, is forced to consider what makes him or her more uncomfortable: the TMI, or the disclosure of sexual assault?

Tayi Tibble and her debut collection, Poūkahangatus

Fomenting discomfort, ‘wrong-footing’ the reader, is a common aim of the new poetry. Freya Daly Sadgrove, who has yet to publish a book but has built up a sizable following with a smattering of poems in journals like Sport, SCUM, and Sweet Mammalian and through memorable public performances, often pitches her poems as if addressed to particular people: a high school rival, a group of female friends, ex- and current lovers. The experience of reading lyric poetry has often been described as ‘overhearing’ someone speak. Sadgrove exploits this idea, forcing the reader into the position of stand-in, even voyeur, for personalised come-ons, indictments, and the kind of unfiltered conversations that couples have in private, as in the poem ‘If I had your baby in my uterus I would probably kill it with abortion’:

I was lucky enough to attend a LitCrawl event last year, featuring Sadgrove along with a number of other performers who work at the interstices of literature and stand-up comedy. It happened that a former partner of Sadgrove’s was also performing, and that his family was in the audience. Sadgrove announced this fact before beginning her poem, which was about her relationship with this guy, about the end of this relationship. Her delivery was flawless. She paused for audible gasps and groans from the audience at particularly sensational and exposing details, barely containing her laughter at the overwhelming awkwardness of the thing. Her ex-lover cringed in the corner. The reading was hilarious and painful and, unless those two share a stage again, unrepeatable. (Since I completed this essay, Sadgrove has published her own, less positive, account of the event.)

***

To say that the kind of poems I have been discussing are something we haven’t seen before is not to say that they are without precursors. Autobiographical anecdote, voiced in tones of emotional honesty and vulnerability, has long been a defining feature of New Zealand poetry, especially celebrated in the work of Jenny Bornholdt and, more recently, Tusiata Avia and Ashleigh Young. And New Zealand poetry has known its share of graphic sex, identity politics, profanity, and unashamed swagger; in fact, many of James K. Baxter’s late poems are built on these four pillars. More direct parallels can be drawn with recent developments in the United States, confirming John Newton’s observation in Hard Frost, his 2017 book on ‘structures of feeling’ in New Zealand literature, that millennial writers are less concerned with the continuity of a ‘national literature’ than previous generations of New Zealand writers and more likely to ‘align themselves with admired international contemporaries, but just as importantly with their immediate peers’. In interviews, Bird has revealed her debt to Chelsey Minnis, a poet associated with ‘The New Grrly’ movement and 2010’s Gurlesque anthology. These poets, according to Lara Glenum, ‘perform their femininity in a campy or overtly mocking way. Their work assaults the norms of acceptable female behaviour by irreverently deploying gender stereotypes to subversive ends’. More recently, Patricia Lockwood’s viral poem ‘Rape Joke’ (2013) explored the tension between poetry’s historical directive to ‘instruct and delight’ and the overwhelming need to disclose the traces of coercive power in the everyday and to hold abusers of that power publicly accountable. Slam poets around the world have long taken up these themes. ‘Auto-fiction’ continues to enthral readers and generate controversy (see, for example, the responses to the final volume of Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle). There is clearly a growing international consensus, fuelled by popular movements like #MeToo, Time’s Up, and Black Lives Matter, that ‘oversharing’ can be a politically useful act.

But it would be wrong, I think, to see Bird, Tse, Tibble, Sadgrove and their colleagues as simply imitating these tropes in a Kiwi accent. The emotional resonances of these tropes change when encountered in the New Zealand context, when one considers the legacy of colonisation, the fragile project of biculturalism, the relatively belated process of urbanisation, modern population and demographic shifts due to immigration, and an idiosyncratic poetic history still very much in the process of self-definition. I agree with John Newton that contemporary writers aren’t intentionally trying to write ‘New Zealand literature’, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t actively transforming what is imaginable as New Zealand literature. A ‘TMI school’ is, in many ways, easily imaginable in a country like the United States, with its long-standing ‘confessional’ tradition – a familiar species of poem which tracks, as William Carlos Williams witheringly put it, the ‘raw, psychoanalytic emesis of experience’ – not to mention its uninterrupted seasonal cycle of avant-garde insurrection, overthrow, and institutionalisation. It’s far more surprising and invigorating to read this poetry in ‘dour, undemonstrative New Zealand’, as C.K. Stead has called it, whose poetic innovators have often been dismissed, according to Murray Edmond, as ‘upstarts in this deeply conformist and monocultural colonial society’. If New Zealand poetry has known expressionism and psychosexual excess in the past, it’s fair to say that the intensity and self-consciousness with which these themes are explored in recent work, and their deployment as weapons in a struggle for cultural power and visibility, are novel developments in our literary history and justly applauded for their originality.

***

James K Baxter in 1971.

That being said, there’s another way in which the same poems read as entirely continuous with the customs and canons of New Zealand literature; that is to say, not ‘revolutionary’ at all, and arguably even ‘conservative’ with respect to certain societal assumptions about how New Zealand poems, and New Zealand people, are expected to behave.

I hope the reader will permit a brief, but relevant, tangent. In the 1979 essay ‘From Wystan to Carlos: Modern and Modernism in Recent New Zealand Poetry’, C.K. Stead influentially described New Zealand verse as having advanced from ‘closed form’, represented in the social realism and metrical stringency of the Caxton generation in the 1930s and 40s, to ‘open form’, epitomised in the Baxter of the ‘Jerusalem Sonnets’ and further developed by the poets of Freed and Islands. Ian Wedde, introducing The Penguin Book of New Zealand Poetry in 1985, echoes this narrative in slightly different terms, tracing an historical trajectory from the ‘hieratic’ to the ‘demotic’,

where ‘hieratic’ describes language that is received, self-referential, encoded elect, with a ‘high’ social threshold emphasising cultural and historical continuity; and where ‘demotic’ describes language with a spoken base, adaptable and exploratory codes, and a ‘lower’ and more inclusive social threshold emphasising cultural mobility and immediacy.

It is worth noting that both poet-critics, in tracing this shift, fixate on the ‘spoken’ character of contemporary New Zealand poetry, perhaps rehearsing Baxter’s enthusiasm for the ‘controlled lucid speech-rhythms’ and ‘technique [that] is almost that of prose’ discovered in the poetry of his own generation. Stead, in particular, explains this shift in terms of the belated importation of Anglo-American modernism to these shores. There was a new sense of the poem as ‘imaginative act’, learned from the example of poets like Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams, rather than as ‘vehicle’ for depicting some external reality or moral truth. However, in keeping with Wedde’s broad history, Stead downplays the decidedly ‘hieratic’ ambitions of the likes of Pound, Eliot, and Williams – e.g. their recovery of the mythopoetic resources of past ages; their promotion of an artisanal elitism over against shoddy mass production and middle-class values; their neoclassical concern for linguistic precision and vigorous rhythm; and their bracing formal experimentation – and exaggerates their ‘demotic’ bent: an ‘openness to experience as it occurs’ and an ‘emphasis on spoken language’. The New Zealand modernism Stead celebrates in the ‘freeing up’ of Baxter’s late poetry from ‘the artificial imposition of structures on experience’ relies on a narrow and highly selective definition of modernist innovation.

And yet this interpretation characterises the theoretical ambience in which New Zealand poetry has been written for the past several decades, underpinned by the belief that poetic innovation is synonymous with loosening; that the historical drift of poetry tends progressively away from metrical discipline, away from poetic artifice, impersonality, and ‘high’ culture, and toward naturalised speech, lived experience, and popular sentiment: the colloquial, the accessible, the familiar, the ‘free’. I’m not suggesting that this way of thinking is unique to New Zealand poetics, but this way of thinking is peculiarly ubiquitous here, and has not been rocked by significant counternarratives in recent years. We can detect practical consequences in the poems. The ‘prosy’, ‘anecdotal’, or ‘conversational’ character of much contemporary New Zealand poetry has been widely acknowledged. Too often this is dismissed as ‘formlessness’ or an unfortunate consequence of kid-gloved creative writing workshops, hasty conclusions which ignore the positive theoretical value that many poets place on minimising the distance between poetry and, for lack of a better word, ‘ordinary’ language. Iain Sharp, introducing the inaugural Best New Zealand Poems in 2001, put it this way: ‘An unbuttoned, vernacular style of writing suits the sort of country we are.’

This attitude, however, also implies its inverse: a ‘buttoned-up’ and ‘bookish’ style of writing does not suit the kind of country we are. Hence, we can observe another national quirk that has been less commented upon. Very often in New Zealand writing we encounter a ‘demotic’ species of meta-poetry – poems about poetry – expressing a pronounced distrust of those qualities that might scan as ‘hieratic’. Bill Manhire, though a poet of formidable erudition, has a long history of laconically teasing poetic seriousness, as in ‘Poem Against the Natural World’, which I quote in its entirety.

Oh star, you are wounded,
oh little pain.

Let us arise, and seek poetry.
Let us gather in a cloud

or rather let us gather
in a cloud of throats
or in the throats of birds.

Oh beaks! Suddenly poetry is a mirror
in which I see an empty cage
and in the cage a few stones.
Suddenly I enter a stone.

At once I am a stone
thrown against the mirror.
At once I am wings.

And I think:
Every night a poem,
every night this terrible wind.

And every night I piss into the wind,
oh little wound, oh remedy.

The poem, in its use of grandiose apostrophe and imperative, ironically gestures to the lofty Poundian view that poets are ‘the antennae of the race’ or Wallace Stevens’ humanist ambition that ‘Poetry / Exceeding music…take the place / Of empty heaven and its hymns’. Manhire cheerfully takes the gravity of these notions down a peg. Poetry is rather more like a diuretic: a meagre, even embarrassing, ‘remedy’ for existential pain, but all we have. In a 2011 essay for World Literature Today, Manhire, like Sharp, situates this attitude toward poetry in relation to the national temperament. ‘New Zealanders are doubtful in an entirely pragmatic way’, he writes, ‘They want to give most things, including poems, a bit of a kick to find out just what they’re for’.

The overwhelming anxiety that poems might not be good for much at all, handed down from previous generations of New Zealand poets, themselves inheritors of a scepticism radiating from the national superego, seems only to have exacerbated in recent work, the radically ‘demotic’ writing I have been referring to as the poetry of TMI. It is difficult to find a poet, writing in this style, who hasn’t at some point expressed a profound embarrassment, unease, or distaste with the cluster of types and antitypes by which ‘poetry’ is distinguishable from other forms of communication.

Most commentators have missed how Hera Lindsay Bird, in her continuous send-up of poetry, is so far Manhire’s clearest successor. His misgivings about the high-flown ambitions of poets take a sharper edge in Bird’s work. She is particularly reactive to the popular association of poetry with cultural elites and to poets who see themselves as courtly arbiters of good taste. Consequently, she seeds her poems with landmines and pitfalls for the presumptuous reader who, as she puts it, ‘tries to hold [her] accountable for [her] artistic wrongdoings’. She’s always one step ahead of judgment or pigeonholing. ‘You may think this book is ironic’, she writes, ‘But to me, it is deeply sentimental’, thus redefining, as a virtue, a quality more often considered a vice.

The most biting jokes in her first collection are reserved for ‘the poetry industrial complex’, that cabal of poets, publishers, professors, and reviewers who conspire to keep poetry respectable. Her poem ‘The Dad Joke is Over’ echoes the irreverence of ‘Keats’, this time by lampooning a familiar type of middle-aged dude poetry.

sometimes there are dad jokes, and they can’t take the heat
wandering from set-up to set-up, in their glistening barbecue aprons
their punchlines wither and dissolve, in the shimmering wetlands of
contemporary stand-up
like snowflakes upon the grill, leaving only………..questions
like how many women does it take to change a joke format???

We might interpret this as a righteous raid on the male stranglehold over definitions: of ‘poetry’, of ‘good poetry’, etc. But what really seems to induce Bird’s cringe is not dissimilar from what embarrasses Manhire: all the phony ‘set-up’, the stagecraft, the artifice. Bird’s poems are, of course, shot through with elaborate artifice. She is one of the most obviously gifted technicians writing poetry in New Zealand. And yet her rhetorical finesse, eye-popping similes, and psychological insights are encapsulated in a kind of satirical parenthesis. Her poems’ running meta-commentary on poetic affectation puts her own motivation for using traditional literary devices and conceits at a considerable distance from those ingenuous ‘dads’, who should really lighten up.

Photo: Samir Hussein/WireImage/Getty

Bird’s recent pamphlet, Pamper Me to Hell and Back (2018), makes similar moves, but its tone is darker. Her reflections about poetry, clearly informed by the success of her first book, orbit the problematic disconnect between how one conceives oneself and one’s work and how others receive it, the loss of control over one’s own image that comes with public exposure.

I’ve been making a lot of speeches recently because I published a book
And more than a book people like to hear you talk about your book
People don’t like books they like speeches […]

People don’t want to hear poetry, they want to hear people talking about poetry
People don’t want to hear poetry, they want to go home and not read poetry and so do I
The only reason for poetry is to have a meadow in which to burn yourself alive in

These lines convey frustration that once the poem enters the world it ceases to be only, or primarily, one’s own vital activity and becomes an artefact, held in common, whose ultimate significance is adjudicated by a fickle public, all-too-willing to curtail expressive freedom with a reifying interpretation. ‘The poem should never be a tourniquet,’ she adds, ‘You have to let the blood go where it wants’. That this critical conversation might itself be vital to the dialectical, historical life of art and culture doesn’t seem to impress Bird, who concludes another poem, ‘who said good art was the point’?

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Similar sentiments resound in recent work. Sam Duckor-Jones parodies the superciliousness of poetry enclaves in his debut collection, People from the Pit Stand Up (2018).

At the party last night somebody said

& leaves of grass by you know you know
till W said WW & we all got drunk & read aloud

felt bourgie & liked it
Well so oh cool I’m a poet then

I’ve written about lawns
grass […]

…apart from moths & love & loss
lawns seem to be the thing

for serious poets

Duckor-Jones shares with Bird a sense that self-congratulation over having read canonical writers is an occupational hazard, though a contemptible one. ‘I had been trying to write a feminist poem when you showed up / bearing gin and chips and something to watch’, begins a poem by Hannah Mettner, addressing the pressure women feel to charge their poems with political import, an artificial imposition which makes the actual writing of poems impossible. As the poem comically reveals, it is by turning away from such pretensions, toward the domestic and ready-to-hand (the speaker and her friend proceed to watch and discuss the TV show Firefly), that we create poetry. Chris Tse pokes fun at ‘Artistic men standing by with their motivations and fashionable / facial hair’. He finds comedy in their inflated sense of importance.

Reading this, I can’t help but recall John Key’s infamous non-compliment to New Zealand literature. ‘While our literary heroes may never challenge the glory and respect given to our All Blacks’, he said, ‘we still need role models to inspire us’.

There’s something admirable about poets confronting, with a sense of humour, their own inconsequence. The American author Ben Lerner has written that ‘the hatred of poetry’ is historically inseparable from the writing of poems. Poetry, he argues, has always been an art form uniquely attuned to its own failure and ineffectuality. And yet, in the poems above, I also detect a note of deference to the national essentialism conveyed in Key’s statement: that being well-read, asserting an ambitious artistic vision, aspiring to a uniquely ‘poetic’ eloquence are simply not conceivable Kiwi traits. These prejudices are not surprising in the mouth of a conservative politician, but it’s disconcerting when poets themselves play into them.

What I’m observing, then, is not so much the ‘hatred’ of poetry as its humiliation, a strong sense on the part of contemporary New Zealand writers that what they do is not prized by the culture at large, not because of something detestable in that culture but in themselves. If poetry is to be locally acceptable it mustn’t look like ‘poetry’. If it does, it at least has to submit to the popular understanding that poets are, very often, snobs and wankers, ‘up themselves’ and out of touch with ordinary people. Despite remarkable innovations in tone and subject matter, I don’t think the poets of TMI have evaded the pressure to conform to this, rather provincial and populist, standard. True, their digs at poetic delusions of grandeur might be seen as harmless, even healthy, doses of self-deprecation. But at a time when the ultimate insignificance of what we do is invoked to slash arts funding at every educational level, when the precarious status of ‘critical thinking’ in New Zealand is a steady fuel for anxious think-pieces, and when anti-intellectualism remains a powerful force in stifling political dissent, I worry that these jokes show an automatic, unthinking surrender to a very dangerous cynicism.

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I believe this is the challenge confronting the poetry of TMI going forward, if it is to avoid calcifying into an inert ‘period style’ too easily co-opted by a repressive status quo. Would not a truly transgressive and revolutionary poetry actively position itself against the compulsory nonchalance and bumptious inarticulacy that so many politicians and pundits sell to us as quintessentially Kiwi?

April 29: updated to include mention of a workshop held by Hera Lindsay Bird, called “TMI”.

Steven Toussaint is the author of the poetry collection, The Bellfounder (2015), and a chapbook, Fiddlehead (2014). He has studied poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the International Institute of Modern Letters, and philosophical theology at the University of Cambridge. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, most recently PoetryCommonwealThe SpinoffSport, and The Winter Anthology. His second collection, Lay Studies, will be released by Victoria University Press in July 2019.


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