Poets share their journeys

Three poets will pass on their knowledge at the New Zealand Young Writers Festival in Dunedin next week. They tell Rebecca Fox about their journey.

Gregory Kan.
Gregory Kan.

Gregory Kan

Programmer and web developer Gregory Kan has a not-so-secret life as a poet.

How did you discover poetry?

I picked up a small anthology of Emily Dickinson's poems when I was back in Singapore for national service. I had no idea what they meant a lot of the time, and I loved their beautiful opacity.

It was a world away from the world, and I clung to it. I think I picked writing up with few aspirations; it was simply a way to cope, although I'm not sure I realised that at the time.

What attracted you to the form?

I don't think there was a protracted consideration to write poetry per se. There was more a slow, gradual shift towards poetry, from initially being interested in music and songwriting.

If I had to guess, I was drawn to the expressive power in or despite its concision and fragmentation. My lean towards poetry also may be inseparable from the cultural anxiety I was feeling as a teenage immigrant in New Zealand.

Having a degree of proficiency in the English language, by way of writing poetry, is one of the few ways I could feel empowered in (what was then) a very alien country.

What do you like to write about most?

I'm invested in having the process guide me to a destination, as opposed to the other way around, so often it's not about what I want but where I am.

Looking back though, there are certainly questions that stand out. What is a world? How does language build worlds? How does language connect all these different people and things in the world?

What was it like to have your first book of poetry published?

Overwhelming. I was very lucky that the work received as much press as it did. I don't know if I have many words for what it's like. It's profound and terrifyingly haunting at the same time.

The book was largely finished three or four years ago, so having to continually return to it has been both gratifying and frustrating.

I sometimes worry it will be difficult to move on from it, although in many ways I already have. I suppose we are always straddling the past and the future!

Where do you get your inspiration?

From all over the place! There are usually a couple of poets I am obsessed with at any time, but also I draw inspiration from music producers, visual artists, drainage systems, heavy industrial processes, my partner's cat, abandoned hospitals, etc.

How do you write?

On the computer, often at home, in bed!

What advice would you give young people who also have a love of writing poetry?

One of the most difficult things about writing is having a community you feel safe engaging with. It can often be a lonely, isolating project.

Try to find people you trust to witness and support you and your work. Also, try to feel out what it is about writing that gets you going.

Hold on to that, because everyone has an opinion on what writing should and shouldn't be. Be open to these opinions, but also be strong about where you are and what you need to do.

What is it like to be a poet in today's world?

I think people are writing more than ever before. We interact with so many streams of information day to day that writing is becoming increasingly ubiquitous.

It has certainly morphed from what one might traditionally consider poetry, literature or writing in general to be, but I love that. I enjoy seeing writers and writing demystified, made open to others.

Perhaps because of socio-economic and technological constraints, writers have enjoyed their status as part of the cultural elite for a large part of Western history.

I want to see that change, and I think we are seeing it now. I like that more and more people feel like they have the permission to write on their own terms. It is a powerful tool that many of us are fortunate to have access to.

Lynley Edmeades.
Lynley Edmeades.
Lynley Edmeades

Lynley Edmeades is working on her doctorate at the University of Otago.

How did you discover poetry?

I first started reading and writing poetry about 10 years ago. I was studying photography in Wellington, and I found myself taking pictures of words, my own or others. I began to realise I was more attracted to concepts and ideas than realism.

What attracted you to the form?

I guess it is something to do with concepts and ideas. It's a way to talk about the stuff that doesn't normally get talked about.

What do you like to write about most?

I'm interested in time and memory and, above all, language. I love playing with language and I love the potential for play that can be found in conceptual poetry, between languages, between sound and sense.

What was it like to have your first book of poetry published?

It was a real buzz, actually. I had so many rejections before I finally got my first poem published, so it was both an honour and a huge relief.

Where do you get your inspiration?

From reading and listening and conversing.

How do you write?

All of the above. I carry a notebook, like most writers I know, to get down ideas if they (ever!) come. I love the tactility of pen and paper, so I often start there (in a journal or workbook).

Then, once things are starting to formulate, I will type it out and play around with it on the screen.

What advice would you give young poets?

Read everything. Read all the poetry you can get your hands on. Go to the library. Go online. Join a writers' group and get your work critiqued by others. Also, critique other people's writing: it helps in developing a critical voice.

What is it like to be a poet in today's world?

It's hard work. It's difficult to get established as a poet. There are lots of people writing, and not many people wanting to publish what we write.

There is a lot of support if you know where to look for it, and if you have the confidence in your own voice. The confidence bit takes a lot of work though.

Where do you see the future of poetry going?

I'd like to think more people are reading poetry these days, but I don't know all the people. I know John Key probably doesn't, and never will, read poetry, for example. It might help him if he did.

Hera Lindsay Bird.
Hera Lindsay Bird.
Hera Lindsay Bird

Hera Lindsay Bird’s day job is in a book store.

How did you discover poetry?

I grew up with and around poetry - it wasn't uncommon for my father to write (and laminate) me a poem on my birthday, but started writing seriously when I got to university and took a course with US poet Lauren Barrier Gould, who introduced me to the work of some of contemporary American poets, and then it was too late.

What attracted you to the form?

Poetry as a form is so often elitist and boring, but unfortunately it just makes the most emotional sense to me.

I'm not sure what it is specifically that appeals about poetry and it almost doesn't matter now - almost all artistic mediums are flexible enough to accommodate the kind of interests and preoccupations you have with the world.

It's probably familiarity more than anything, I never remember it being a conscious decision.

What do you like to write about most?

Sex, often. Jokes usually. Love always.

I probably should develop more of an emotional range, but New Zealand has a quiet horror of the romantic, the explicit and the florid, and I was always made to feel that writing about love and sex was in bad taste, so of course I pushed myself to the thematic limits.

I like to see how many violets and snow-covered pine trees I can make people cheerfully endure. It usually helps if you're a little bit crass, just to balance things out.

What was it like to have your first book of poetry published?

It was unreal. I was prepared for it to be pleasant and underwhelming, but it's become the catalyst for so many weird interactions and opportunities.

I woke up one morning and it was on the Guardian and there were hundreds of furious comments from elderly British men. It exceeded all my expectations, because my expectations were very low. They have to be if you write poetry in this country

Where do you get your inspiration?

Most of my writing is autobiographical, so I just make sure to sabotage all my romantic relationships once every couple of years. Actually, most of my inspiration comes from reading other poets and getting competitive.

How do you write?

Always in bed on my laptop. I do so much work in bed that once I bought an extra bed so I could still work in bed when my partner was asleep.

What advice would you give young poets?

Read widely, write about things you're not allowed to in ways you're not allowed to, don't publish a collection too early, measure your work up against your favourite writers, not your contemporaries, don't listen to old men unless those old men are (A) George Saunders or (B) telling you not to touch the threshing machine.

 

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