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Curing sloppy thinking and confronting fascism are among poetry’s much-needed powers, Sue Wootton tells Bruce Munro ahead of National Poetry Day.
Phoebe Holt sits on the carpeted floor of the Karitane School classroom, exercise book in hand, reading aloud her poem First Day of School.
"I step out of the car. I step on to the tar.
"I thrust my bag out of the boot.
"My bag is filled with my precious loot ... "
The Dunedin poet, whose latest collection The Yield was published in March, believes poetry has a vital and enduring role to play.
"A lot of people don’t think they need poetry", Wootton says.
"But I’ll bet they listen to music. You don’t hear people asking, is music or science necessary?
"Poetry is a powerful way of finding meaning and connecting with others and ourselves."
Yes, poetry is certainly fun, Wootton says. It is enjoyable to play with patterned language. But it also has significant benefits for the poet, the audience and wider society.
As a mode of expression, poetry forces its creators to craft their language tightly, she says.
"Words are selected, distilled and the meaning intensified.
"That is important because we are often sloppy with our thoughts and thinking."
This is why poetry written hundreds of years ago is still known and recited today, she says.
"It has been finely crafted. Every word, line and stanza has earned its place. It becomes a solid entity in its own right."
Sharper thinking was a benefit that began to accrue as soon as someone started wrestling with poetry.
"With the children, we always begin the writing process with questions. They are thinking hard about what they really mean.
"So, poetry is a resource, because it helps us communicate clearly."
That feeds in to our sense of self, Wootton says.
"It’s deeply linked to our identity. We shore up our personal identities when we use that sort of language."
It also has the power to restore some of the truths adults knew as children. Such as, the importance of paying attention to the world around us using all our senses.
"As we get older, we forget we are thinking, but also sensory, animals. Poetry is visceral and highly cognitive, too."
No-one need be afraid of poetry, because among all its different forms "there is one for you".
"I think of poems as little creatures. Once they have a heartbeat, they start growing into themselves.
"Listening to poetry and finding if, and how, it relates to you is also a creative act.
"It’s exciting to discover that for yourself."
Wootton says poetry is a powerful tool through which to reflect and comment on society.
"It’s incredibly democratic. Which is why fascist societies hate poets. It’s why they hunt and hang them."
Poetry has a long and healthy history in Otago. Janet Frame, James K Baxter, Hone Tuwhare . . . all lived and wrote here. It is an enduring tradition that will be celebrated on Friday when the nation marks National Poetry Day.
That evening, 10 published Otago poets - Brian Turner, Jillian Sullivan, Peter Olds, David Howard, Fiona Farrell, Liz Breslin, Victor Billot, Sue Wootton, Jenny Powell and Kay Cooke - will read their work at a Dunedin Public Libraries event hosted by the Otago-Southland NZ Society of Authors.
At the same event, young poets Molly Crighton and Mia Parsons will receive their prizes for winning the senior and junior sections, respectively, of the 2017 WriteNow competition.
Earlier that day, at lunchtime on the University of Otago campus, 20 people will each be reading a short poem. People will be encouraged to share their own poems in chalk or on sticky notes.
An hour later, in Queenstown, Ian Loughran, a Dunedin-based poet, writer and performer, will present a poetry-writing workshop at the Queenstown Library.
Also in the tourist town, at 3.30pm, the Letterman Poetry Collective will run a youth writing workshop at the Youth Booth, on Stanley St.
Rounding out a busy National Poetry Day, Loughran and the Collective will deliver an evening of performance poetry at the Queenstown Arts Centre.
The day’s opening event in the region, however, belongs to the children of Karitane School. They are busy polishing verse and voice for a visual and oral presentation of their poetry at the Waikouaiti Library, at 10am.
The classmates of Phoebe (8) listen as she finishes reading her poem.
"... I get distracted by the ribbon tied to my neck.
"It lappers and laces through the air.
"I step into the nightmare.
"Please, get me out of here."
Her peers chuckle their appreciation. Hands shoot into the air, eager for their turn.
National Poetry Day
• For further information about National Poetry Day visit online at www.nzbookawards.nz/national-poetry-day/calendar-of-events/#otago