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The Friday Poem by Louise Wallace PLUS BONUS ESSAY!

New verse by Starling editor Louise Wallace PLUS BONUS EXTRA essay on attending a poetry festival in Mexico. Mexico!

Best actress in a supporting role

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But in the end, I have to be the one who shouts all those bad words
down the telephone.
I have to be the one who goes to the jail to spit
at the glass.
Didn’t know you had it in you. Well, you never asked.


On attending the Mexico City Poetry Festival

Most things happen to writers through hard work and a little bit of luck. My little bit of luck was connecting with the Auckland-based poet and all-round fantastic woman, Courtney Sina Meredith.

In 2015, I established Starling, an online journal publishing work by young New Zealand writers. For the journal’s second issue, I asked Courtney to be our guest writer. She then included me in a series of New Zealand woman poets whose work would be translated into Spanish, as a result of her attending the Mexico City Poetry Festival the year before. And when she was asked to recommend a New Zealand poet to attend the 2016 festival, she put forward my name. In a field as niche as New Zealand poetry, it would have been far easier and possibly more beneficial for Courtney personally, to recommend a friend or a poet of greater stature and/or influence. It was a gesture of support that has meant a lot to me – I still feel kind of overwhelmed by it.

The festival is a five-day programme of literary events, run by the online journal Círculo de Poesía in conjunction with Mexico’s Ministry of Culture. Writers from all over the world are flown to the capital to take part in a variety of events open to the public and held in some of the most picturesque and culturally significant venues Mexico City has to offer.

Panel Discussion at the Museo del Estanquillo

I participated in poetry readings, a panel discussion and one of the highlights– a workshop session with young local writers. It should also be noted that Círculo de Poesía has an incredible and generous eye for global poetry, and have posted the work of numerous New Zealand poets.

Language and translation was an interesting facet of the festival. I was one of the few poets who read in English, and in addition to the Spanish-speaking poets, there were also poets from China and Romania reading their work in the original language, followed by a Spanish translation. I didn’t know what style of poetry the audience were used to or enjoyed, and I worried about New Zealand references. How do you convey the cultural significance of pounamu in a single word? How about feijoas?

I could hear the audience sigh audibly as the Spanish poets Raquel Lanseros and Fernando Valverde read their work – masters of the heartstrings, I guessed. What was their secret, I wondered? But even more terrifyingly, I could not tell what was being read before me – I didn’t want to get up and read a bizarro piece about being trapped on a lifeboat with Robert Redford after someone had read an elegy for their father.

I mentioned this to Gustavo Chaves, a poet from Costa Rica who has indeed written a wonderful book of poetry called Wallau, centred on his father. Gustavo’s advice was to be myself. The audiences were not there to hear the same thing they always hear. They wanted to hear something different, and that was what I should provide. It was excellent advice and I followed it, though I skipped the Robert Redford poem just in case.

The audiences turned out to be one of the best parts of the festival. At some of the readings, the crowd listened attentively and enthusiastically to poetry for over two hours. It was difficult to imagine any New Zealand audience doing the same. I felt there was a deep level of respect for an ancient tradition, something that asked people to stop and listen – and they did. At the end of the readings there were of course the book signings, but also students who would come up and ask for selfies – with poets!

As soon as the festival began we quickly left the capital in a mini-van, to read in a neighbouring city. This set the pace for the rest of the festival, which my body clock struggled to adjust to. Every day, we would leave the hotel mid-morning, and not return until late at night. Our hosts never seemed to rest – small windows in the schedule were an opportunity to showcase the architecture of the city, the food, music and culture. There were long lunches in lively eateries.

I would find myself eating chicken mole or flautas next to Duoduo, the legendary Chinese poet and guest of honour at the festival that year. In addition to a career of huge political importance, Duoduo also turned out to be humble, kind, genuine and funny – like, really funny.

Raquel Lanseros

The time spent in transit each day was a great chance to talk shop and get to know the many young Mexican poets who were also serving as translators or ushers at the festival. I spoke with Roberto Amézquita about the current climate for poetry in Mexico, where much like in New Zealand it exists on the fringes but with a strong uprising through independent projects. Mariel Damián, my primary translator, would assist me with Spanish introductions and translations en route to the readings –passing papers back and forth across the seats between us in the mini-van – and we would speak about women’s writing in Mexico. Mariel has recently won the Almuñecar International Poetry Prize for her own work, which is a blend of poetry and science.

It was exciting to see this new generation of poets, who treat their art very seriously and are unified in their belief of poetry’s power to create change and generate discussion. The editors of Círculo de Poesía, poets Alí Calderón and Mario Bojórquez, along with Mijail Lamas, have done much to foster and encourage the work of Mexico’s young poets. Awareness of these poets themselves in Australasia is growing – in January, the excellent Australian journal The Lifted Brow published two poems by Alí.

The event I had been the most nervous about in the lead-up to the festival was the panel discussion. As I get older I feel less and less equipped to speak about my own work and explain what I am trying to achieve in it. Which is weird. You always think you’ll become more confident as you get older, not the reverse. There are so many more influences and sources of inspiration feeding into my work now, than when I was younger – my work was more insular then. Often a poem can end up so far from the original seed, you can barely remember what that was let alone trying to explain the links to others. I find it difficult to sum things up in a bite-sized piece for interviews or discussions. Sometimes this difficulty can feel like hard work and that can take over everything else.

When I was 19, fresh out of Gisborne and first beginning to write poetry seriously, all I wanted was to work towards having a book published. In my mind that was the greatest thing I could possibly achieve as a poet. An experience like attending the Mexico City Poetry Festival is more than my 19-year-old-brain could have imagined. That young writer would have made any kind of dark deal for an opportunity like that. So it’s all about perspective, right?

And that hit me as I walked up the stairs to the venue for the panel discussion – the terrace of the Museo del Estanquillo. The view was incredible. The chairs and table where we would sit were framed by an outlook over the historical centre of the city – ornate stone buildings and roofs in rich, earthy hues. There was late afternoon sun and a warm breeze moving across the room.