A QUINCE AND THE SEA

We are getting closer and closer to being ‘on the road’ and here at Rocky Outcrop Central we are very excited.

From about 5.30pm on Tuesday March 14  we’ll be at Beattie and Forbes Booksellers in Napier. The wonderful Lizzie Russell, who works locally in the arts and as a freelance writer, and is involved in organising June’s HB Readers and Writers Festival, will be chairing the event.

We’ll also be joined by local writer Marty Smith. Marty teaches English and Creative Writing at Taradale High School in Hawkes Bay, as Marty Schofield. Her poems have been published in literary journals such as Sport, Landfall and Turbine; on the international website The Page: Poetry, Essays and Ideas, in Best New Zealand Poems 2009, and Best of Best New Zealand Poems. The manuscript for her debut collection Horse with Hat was shortlisted for the 2011 Kathleen Grattan Award (Marty shares some extremely exciting news about her manuscript in this interview.)

Marty 1

Marty, a quince and the sea.

Photo taken by John Goodhind

Recently, in the Rocky Outcrop tradition, I sent Marty some questions about poetry and teaching and the weather. Here’s what she said:

What’s the best thing about being a writer in Napier?

It can be hard being away from my writing community in Wellington, but the best thing about being a writer in Napier right now is that that my first collection of poetry, Horse with Hat, has just been accepted for publication with Victoria University Press – so the answer is – two launch parties! Out of consideration for my friends in both cities, I think I should have two.

Does your job as a high school teacher influence or help your work in any way?

It makes my writing much harder to do, because teachers have a big workload, and I always put my students first. My school is very good about letting me have negotiated time for writing. It’s the other way round, really, my writing makes me a better teacher. But I do have a half-plan to write a series of sketches of school in not-quite-literary prose. (No one should worry about this; there will be no names). It’s a part of my experiment with putting small snapshots together until they suddenly, sharply, make a whole new picture. Horse with Hat works like an interactive puzzle – all the poems talk to each other, and some repeat lines to make the connections very clear. I have some ideas about working like this in prose.

What advice do you give to any of your students who say they want to be poets?

I think it’s exciting and scary for kids who want to be poets and I walk a delicate line between encouraging them to work it really hard, and scaring them off.

These are some things I tell them:

  • Be prepared to go past first drafts, and be prepared to write and rewrite, and not to accept less than your best. I throw away 80-90% of my first drafts. I threw away published poems, too, if they weren’t good enough to make it into the collection.
  • Be prepared to work really, really hard. Taradale High School regularly has finalists in the National Schools Poetry Award, as does Karamu High, and the student poets who get there have to go way beyond their first impulses. I’m glad students are going to hear Ashleigh’s poems, because her work is a perfect example of how poems seem to do one thing on the surface, then do something completely different underneath. I gave some of her poems to the English teachers and I watched them laugh, then go – Oh. I’m thinking about Mr. Muir in the poem about teachers in the garden.
  • Have fun. Play with words and sounds; use syllable lengths and the sounds and stresses of words to make music, the way a musician uses notes and chords.
  • Never let go of your sense of humour.

 

Marty 2 editted

As well as poetry Marty teaches her students the importance of a good author photo.

Photo taken by Amanda le May

Do you think living somewhere with great weather influences your work?

I do, but I’m married into the wrong weather. I crave rain, and I work really well if the odd (very odd) day when it rains coincides with a day when I have time to write. It seems to be easier to disconnect from the hundreds of conversations and teaching interactions that are still echoing round in my head.

I come from terrible rain and wind – I grew up on a remote farm out towards the sea from Dannevirke. My father, who is central to the collection with his horses and his swearing, seemed to think that the weather was a personal vendetta from God against him, but I cherish rain and wind (not North-Westerlies in Hawkes Bay) and my spirits rise if the weather forecast is South-Westerly or South-Easterly. The weather makes frequent appearances in my collection because it seems to personify some of the struggles of being one man on a two-man farm. Great weather? Roll on March and a bit of sting in the air.

What is a poem?
Ah. How do I know what I think till I see what I say? I didn’t write that, but it’s as good a way as any of showing how difficult or exciting it is to catch a poem. Hmm. A poem is multi-faceted like a jewel; you shouldn’t get it all in one coherent hit. You should be able to go back and back and get something new each time. My favourite definitions of what poetry is come from Marianne Moore, who says, ‘Poetry is real toads in an imaginary garden.’ and because I love mixing sound and sense, Carl Sandburg: ‘Poetry is the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits.’

What is not a poem?
A poem is not pretty words with not much driving them; it is not an outpouring of emotion with no control; it is not lacking a shape, or something that provides pressure. Like geometric shapes, a poem is a complex structure that relies on certain pressures and angles to hold it together, otherwise the centre collapses.

What’s more important in a poem – sound or sense?
I love to make sounds echo through two or three lines at once, but I don’t want to privilege sound over sense. Kate Camp taught me to read my lines aloud to check that the rhythm hasn’t dropped out, and I’m always listening to the sounds the lines are making. Sounds carry the sense, sometimes they hurtle it through, I guess, like coming in over the surf to a calm sea.
My writing group always lets me know when I’ve gone too far. Kirsten is my first reader and she never lets me off anything. If I’m being too flash, or the artifice is showing, or if the writing is too self-conscious, she sends it back to me highlighted in yellow – I don’t get this. What’s going on?

It’s not that everything has to be explicated, but there has to be some kind of intuitive sense, otherwise the sounds are just a collection of words that usually seem like they’re trying too hard to be clever.

I sometimes use very lyrical language and push it up against sounds that turn sharp and either have beats or repeat in complex ways – or have someone say something that’s completely at odds, so the abrupt change can be startling, or very funny. I like to put something funny right after something consciously beautiful, because I think that serious messages can also rest in humour.

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