Past informs present

Hawea Flat writer Liz Breslin and her Polish grandmother Sibiga. Photos: Mark Price/supplied.
Hawea Flat writer Liz Breslin. Photos: Mark Price/supplied.
Amid the noise and chatter of modern life, memories offer a way to stay grounded, Hawea poet and writer Liz Breslin tells Shane Gilchrist.

Liz Breslin has always been drawn to words.

As a child growing up in England, she first noticed them whispering for attention from works of art and/or signs. Now the Hawea Flat writer, editor and poet says they often take the form of a running commentary in her head.

"They’re not really a way of making sense of the world as such, more of poking at it and mining it ... My family tells me that my writing is not therapeutic or meditative because I am not very peaceful in the doing of it or the aftermath, but it is a total necessity for me."

Breslin is in a celebratory mood, keenly awaiting the publication of her first collection of poetry, Alzheimer’s and a Spoon, which will be launched in Dunedin and Wanaka next week.

The collection’s title, and various works within it, directly references the dementia she witnessed in her Polish grandmother (or "babcia"), as well as delving more widely into the notion of memory, relationships and how events take on different meanings depending on a person’s viewpoint.

Breslin first told her story of her grandmother, Sibiga, at a 2015 Aspiring Conversations event, "True Stories Told Live: Don’t Mention The War", recalling how the resident of Warsaw during World War 2 endured the German occupation before becoming a refugee in the United Kingdom. Sibiga did not return to Poland until the late 1980s.

Liz Breslin's grandmother Sibiga.
Liz Breslin's grandmother Sibiga.

"It was amazing to have the opportunity to share her story ... she’d died just a few days before the festival, and I knew I couldn’t go back for the funeral so it was a chance to honour her over here.

"I mentioned her having her nose measured by patrolling soldiers, to check for Jewishness, and eating doughnuts at Blikle cafe. Both those episodes made it in some form into the collection," Breslin says of a woman who took part in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, during which vastly outnumbered Polish troops and civilians fought German soldiers.

"The story of the uprising is very important to me in the context of the book. All those kids, all that fighting — and what impact does that have on the rest of your existence? And the idea that you can fight for freedom, even."

Memory is what keeps the dead alive, she maintains.

"Also, there’s so much data and noise and chatter in our world right now that unless we hold on to memory and perspective, we can get lost.

"I think distance plays a part in there as well — like the physical distance between me and my family," Breslin says of her decision to leave England 18 years ago and move to New Zealand.

She details this in the poem Allies, in which she recounts how she sought support from her grandmother at the time, only to receive eight words in response: "I had to leave, you have the choice."

"I had no idea how fortunate I was, how free," Breslin says, adding her grandmother’s experiences are shared by many.

"I see it played over again in the news today — people, some as young as she was, fighting and fleeting, not just for their nation, their ideals, their religion, but for a bit of a piece of quiet. And nobody lets them in and nobody lets them be.

"So her story is not just her story. Neither is it mine.

"She never wanted to discuss the war or any of her decisions in it in her lifetime and part of me quails at exposing her this way. But I feel like I’ve also exposed ... myself to a whole part of my own history, and that has been a very wonderful thing. So yeah, that’s the overriding ‘theme’, I guess."

Alzheimer’s and a Spoon offers plenty of lighter, deft touches, too, Breslin revelling in her playfulness.

In lab mice/suffering/two tests, she arranges words as if they were cuttings from a newspaper, their placement suggesting a rodent maze. Elsewhere, in The Lifestyle Creed, she deconstructs and rearranges a selection of dietary buzz-words (spinach, kale, virgin coconut oil ...) in a commentary about how such choices have been elevated to the pious.

"The first cut-and-paste poem I read was Adrian Henri’s New Fast Automatic Daffodils. They’re also the kind of poems I love getting people to make in workshops because it’s the sort of word-work that both frees and constrains you at the same time."

Breslin (42), who also writes a fortnightly column for the Otago Daily Times titled "Thinking Allowed", has appeared in various other publications, including Landfall, The Listener, The New Zealand Herald and Takahe, and some of her short stories have been developed for Radio New Zealand National.

A mother of 13-year-old twins Lauren and Dylan and partner of Jimmy, she also MCs at various events and works as a co-ordinator of Mount Aspiring College’s Students in the Community programme.

"I love performing and I do writing workshops as well as working on my own writing. A play of mine, Losing Faith, is about to do a regional tour.

"I’m so excited about the launches that I get a bit shouty when I talk about them ...  I also really love the energy of public speaking and being in buzzy groups of people.

"It’s a bit daunting that eyes will be on me, but I feel like they’ll be on my babcia, too, and I’m enormously proud of and in awe of her."


Get it

Alzheimer’s and a Spoon (Otago University Press) will be launched at the University Book Shop, Dunedin, on Wednesday, July 12 (at 5.30pm); and at Rhyme and Reason Brewery, Wanaka, on Thursday, July 13 (at 6pm, with Dominic Hoey, author of Iceland).


Memory is identity. Loss of memory is tragic, yet possibly a blessing if one cannot recall the really bad events of the past.

There is a form of dementia that gradually erases memory but leaves personality and character untouched. It is a gift to families with love for their parent.

All the best for your book.

Incidentally, I prefer films that show the Polish resistance fighting street by street, not 'Schindlers List' so much, which concentrates on the Nazi clearance.

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