Image design by Archi Banal.
Image design by Archi Banal.

BooksApril 30, 2024

‘When the ship docks’: Publishing the poetry of the late Schaeffer Lemalu

Image design by Archi Banal.
Image design by Archi Banal.

Publisher Chris Holdaway reflects on the unique project of collecting the work of the late, terrific poet Schaeffer Lemalu.

One of the nice things you can do as a truly independent publisher is to make the books that writers want to make, whatever they happen to be. That’s how I’ve always tried to work at the helm of Compound Press: the editing process taking place more at the level of choosing who to work with rather than driving a project in any particular direction.

With the prism and the rose and the late poems by Schaeffer Lemalu (1983–2021) there was however no such opportunity.

In February 2022, Schaeffer’s partner Abbey arrived at my home with a jammed filing box containing, in order, every poem he had sent to her over the long years of their relationship. Immense emotional weight aside, we were faced with a number of practical problems deciding how to arrive at a published legacy for the author and the work.

Search and you will find little published by Schaeffer in the conventional manner. Notoriously humble, he saw his poems appear in journals only reluctantly, and declined to give readings despite invitations. With Abbey, he made two slight booklets — sleeptalker and sleeptalker 2 — in runs of a few dozen each, which were distributed personally to valued friends and confidants. Indeed, Schaeffer’s preferred method of publication was to email his poems as they were composed directly to those he wished to see them. These were stirring occasions for anyone in this broad catchment, and in a world of fast communication they left lasting impressions even on those for whom poetry was not a part of daily life.

For Schaeffer, these connections were part of the writing of poetry itself, to the point where he was uncomfortable with forms of publication that got away from his own hands reaching — virtually or otherwise — for someone else. Before even speculating about what he might have intended for a book, we had to admit that such a format would never quite capture his way of writing and moving in the world.

Yet, in the way they say that funerals are for the living, it was clear to those remaining that something needed to continue the circulation of Schaeffer’s wistfully enigmatic yet unmistakably moving words.

The last offering many had received (via email) was a substantial document titled “the prism and the rose a digital manifesto”; a sprawling collage of largely direct quotes from movies like Titanic, They Live, Full Metal Jacket, The Sound of Music, West Side Story, and the Nolan Batman films. On its own this posed a tough initiation into Schaeffer’s work, even for those familiar with his thinking, let alone for the poetry scene of Aotearoa, which has never really embraced works of such hard-nosed appropriation.

And so we wavered.

By contrast, the unguarded intimacy and the pages of beautifully sculpted text in the lyrical sleeptalker chapbooks would make for a much gentler introduction. With their extremely limited original circulation, it would have been so easy to “reissue” them together and still have something “new”; many friends and fellow artists don’t have their own copies. But there was a sense in which these had already been “done” the way Schaeffer wanted. The first sleeptalker in particular is an exquisite piece of book-art printed on wafer-thin translucent paper: a fragile yet singular object clearly destined for passing tenderly from one hand to another. It didn’t seem quite right — at first — to retread or second guess how this work was supposed to inhabit the world.

Eventually, under the steam and support of a community of advisors — including many of those valued friends and confidants, as well as Schaeffer’s family — we returned with courage to what the common threads of the correspondence could tell us: “the prism and the rose” was to be introduced by the shorter poems Schaeffer had emailed out over the course of his final year — something of a sleeptalker 3 sequence.

You may not receive these poems in the body of an email, but in the prism and the rose and the late poems, you’ll come to know a unique literary talent in Aotearoa, quite unlike any of our poets in any scene, whether mainstream, independent, or underground. You’ll experience something of how his writing could reach straight into so many hearts and minds even without the traditional apparatus of publishing.

The poet is no longer with us to do things his way, so we’ll have to be content with books like this for now. There may be future publications, other ways to offer the poems — of which there are a great many — to express a career and pay tribute to their author. As renowned US poet and translator Donald Revell — with whom Schaeffer had a longstanding correspondence of the highest mutual regard — puts it in his introduction to this book: “Schaeffer Lemalu was not the prophet of himself alone. His word is among us, travelling still.”

As Schaeffer puts it himself: “when the ship docks / im getting off w u”.

the prism and the rose and the late poems by Schaeffer Lemalu ($30, Compound Press) is available online here

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