Poetry Podcast: Interview with poet Paula Green

Hey guys Anna from girlsonkey.com we do videos
and podcasts about poetry for you guys. Today’s podcast is a focus on New Zealand
poet Paula Green. [music]
Hey everyone Anna here from Girls on Key today’s podcast is an interview I did with Paula Green
from New Zealand she has a new book coming out
shortly called Wild Honey, reading New Zealand women’s poetry. That’s coming out this year
So here’s a little bit about Paula. So Paula Green is a poet blogger from the
New Zealand Poetry Shelf and Poetry Box. She’s an anthologist and a children’s author. She received the 2017 Prime Minister’s award
for poetry and was made a member of the New Zealand order of merit for services to poetry
in literature, she’s published and edited over 15 books, including 99 ways into New
Zealand poetry with Harry Rickets and Dear Heart, 150 New Zealand love poems. Her latest poetry collections include New
York Pocket book, The Letterbox Cat and other poems and of course Wild Honey Reading New
Zealand women’s poetry, which will be out later this year. So here’s an excerpt from an interview I did
with Paula around the time of the Auckland Writer’s Festival in 2016, so I hope you enjoy. Hi Paula thanks for agreeing to do this interview
today, tell me a bit about how you started in poetry because I know you studied Italian. What sparked your interest in poetry? Well I’ve always written since I was little
so and from before I went to school I would write in my father’s books in his study. And so in the end he put books on the lower
shelf where I could write, which was just indecipherable but I felt like I was, you
know, doing something engaging and then I just went on this, I developed a writing life
from an early age. and I think there were kind of key things
that happened to me when I was in year 8 my teacher was a poet, form two, and that was
quite marvellous and he really allowed my writing to flourish. And he’s actually in Big Smoke, which was
quite interesting as an adult to pick up Big Smoke and see my intermediate teacher, who
is actually now untraceable, no-one knows where he is and he had a really exotic name,
Frederic Palmee with two EEs on the end and an accent. So I thought it was wonderful. Was he from New Zealand? No but I didn’t, but you don’t know these
about your intermediate school teachers do you? No that’s right yeah those formative years,
it’s interesting how they can have an impact isn’t it? Then when I hit high school, my high school
English teachers were not that good and so they didn’t contribute much to my writing
life. Two things happened to me and one of them
was I discovered the poetry of Hone Tuwhare, which was liberated and showed you what words
can do in so many different ways and you know like, Hone can leap high and kind of leap
low so I loved everything and all the bits in between. James K Baxter came to our secondary school. I was in the sixth form and he stood on the
stage in scruffy clothes and bare feet and it was 1952 so it was hippy
time and he had long scraggy hair and then when he opened his mouth and he read and this
was like, this would never happen now. This was to the whole school. Now when I visit a secondary school it’s to
like, you know, one class here and year 12 but this was the whole school in the hall
and you know I would say the majority of the students were kind of looking out of the window
and catching the odd phrase, but I was just hooked. It was just so transporting for me and I went
home, I hid his book Jerusalem Sonnets and I just wrote in the manner of James K Baxter,
which seems ludicrous that this seventeen year old girl in Whangarei
writing in the manner of James K Baxter Meantime sort of loving Hone and but then
seven days later he was dead, so it was just like heartbreaking. But it kind of, I never, I don’t think I consciously
said i want to be a poet but I knew that I wanted to write and that whatever I did I
wanted to write and there’s a famous story about some film directors in Italy called
the Traviani brothers who one day went to the cinema you know, somehow they scraped
the money sat in this dark, intimate space, looked up on the screen and saw this film
and they saw their life reflected on the film by a director who was giving him their world
and they just said Cinema or death. You know and I just felt with James K Baxter,
I wasn’t, I don’t think I said poetry or death but I know and he wasn’t entirely reflecting
my world back to me, as a seventeen year old girl adolescent you know in Northland, but
I knew that it was poetry or else. You know and so from then on every choice
I made, writing was the most significant part of it, whether it was teaching or travelling
the world, whatever, so that’s how I went on and I ended up going to university at a
late age and loving it so much that I just kept saying, oh well I’ll go back for another
year, I’ll go back and do another degree and I stayed there until I did all the degrees
and I think, what it did for me, I was actually hearing some people talking about doing PHD
last night and why they were doing it and I did my degree out of love and it gave me
the time and the privileged space to work in a world of ideas and to write. And I wasn’t to go up the corporate ladder
to make more money it was out of the love of writing. And tell me a bit about from Cookhouse through
to your latest collection, which is the Baker’s Thumbprint. Tell me about your progression through those
books. Well Cookhouse I wrote when I was at university
and I guess that gave me the reputation for being a somewhat difficult poet and I was
at that time really in love with American women poets, such as Susan Howe, Lisa Robertson,
those kinds of women Anne Carson and so on, Cookhouse was far more challenging and demanding
than I think my latest books are but I actually think that every poetry book I write is an
autobiography but in a different shape, different form but whether it’s fashionable or unfashionable
it becomes another version of my life. But at the same time I only say so much. And I keep most of my life private. I’m not prepared to share that much of it
but at the same time it’s always some kind of autobiographical version of something that’s
happening. Yes and my favourite one is Making Lists for
Frances Hodgkins and so the role of art obviously art plays a large role in your life tell me
a bit more about that. That’s interesting ’cause that’s kind of like
in the middle of my collection that book and there’s always a kind of starting point for
a book a launchpad and so that book I had felt like I was in an episode of House and
I had a mysterious illness and I ended up in hospital and no-one knew what was wrong
with me. It transpired that i had an extreme reaction
to an antibiotic and so I couldn’t eat or do anything for quite a long time, maybe a
year and to start with i was, I could just have sips of juice and I was in and out of
hospital and I was invited to write a poem to read in the middle of the Frances Hodgkins
exhibition that was going to be mounted in Auckland. So I just said ok you know, here I am lying
in bed, unable to move, unable to eat and I thought, ok I’ll do it and at that point
I was really ambivalent about working with her and I didn’t particularly like it so I
got Michael to bring me all these books of her art and I just lay in bed looking at the
paintings and the more I looked the more I fell in love with them and I decided that
I would write my way in and out of the paintings. Your partner Michael’s an artist as well,
if you saw a beautiful landscape and you were told you had to write a poem how would you
approach that? What’s your approach to looking at this landscape? If I were told to write a poem of that landscape,
for example, I was commissioned to write a poem which is kind of like a one-step removed
landscape to go with Colin McCann’s big walking painting which is on show at Te Papa at the
moment. So I was invited, commissioned to write a
poem for it and that painting is from Murawai which is just down the road from me and so
I decided well I’m not going to write a poem exactly about that painting or exactly about
that beachscape but I’m just going to use the starting point of me walking on Bethel’s
beach and so that was my starting point and then I had no idea how the poem was going
to turn out. I didn’t think I mean I’m going to write a
sonnet or I’m going to get my ear working so it’s a musical poem I just like launched
myself into it. So being open to that mystery of what’s going
to unfold and I think that comes across to the reader too because you take us to surprising
places often in your work so I think that really comes across. Thank you. I really really strongly feel that there is
no paradigm for poetry. I mean there are models that you can explore
and love and dislike and reject and so on but you know there are quite a lot of didactic
statements about poetry. A poem ought to…it ought to tell a story,
a poem ought to be mysterious or musical or whatever you know and also there are people,
particularly in reviews who claim this is a poem that’s not a poem, whereas I never
do that and I think that if something’s been put in a book and that book is clearly a book
of poetry then I’m not going to question the status of whether that thing on the page is
a poem or not. I’m going to delve into it and try and explore
it on its own terms and at the end of it I might think well it doesn’t work for me or
it’s not my cup of tea but I’m not going to discredit it as not poetry. ’cause to me that is setting up unfortunate
limits. Yes and what about the recent discussion around
the performative aspect of spoken word and poetry. Do you want to weigh in on that at all? It’s an old debate but. Yeah. ’cause you’ve performed a little bit I know
but. Yeah well I’m not a performance poet but I
do love reading my poetry and I do like memorising poems too. But I do think that some people reject performance
poetry without really retuning their ear to what’s going on. And I think that I think it’s really wrong
to sit in front of a performance poet and view it through the lens of traditional poetry
on the page because I think what’s happening here is something quite different so if you
go to a performance by Tusiata Avia, which transports you and leads you into all kinds
of different places, it’s like watching opera. You have a multiple experience. and so if you sit in front of opera if you
like opera, if you don’t it will be a disaster, but if you like opera, you know, your body
starts to move and tingle. You feel the hairs on your arms standing on
end and your body moves and your heart starts beating faster and so the first thing is that
the performance poet is going to hit your ear and if you listen to a good performance
poet they are taking charge of the breath of the musical notes, rhyme which cuts right
through you ’cause it’s so sweet or sharp or just cordinate there are all different
kinds of harmonies and discords going on, so this is when it’s good. I mean like all poetry, it can be good and
it can be bad. And a bad performance poetry to me is dreadful
and then you know so you’ve got the first thing is you’ve got your body responding at
the level of music and then a good performance poet will take you on other journeys and it
might be political because there might be strong ideas, forcefully sometimes addressed
in the poem. Then there might be ways in which that piece
comes from the heart there might be emotional events like Grace Taylor for example, who
writes a number of poems that have really hooked my heart and Tusiata but you know you’re
just moved by it, so it’s a kind of like full package experience and you know I don’t think
you should be related it in terms of what James K Baxter does or. And there’s also the transience as well of
the performative art. It’s a whole different art form in a way. To me it’s organic because you know I don’t
know that any performance would ever be exactly the same and that’s quite glorious. ’cause in a way it’s a bit like reading a
poem. If you sit down and read you know a poem that
you liked in the Frances Hodgkins book, the next day you read it, you know your reading
of it will, I mean that’s basic reader theory. It will shift and change. Yes and it shifts in a different way to when
you’re sitting experiencing a performance and there’s that theatrical aspect. It’s great isn’t it and I think as well, poetry
is quite a wide banner over a whole art form. So there is such a spectrum isn’t there? Usually when you read a book of poetry it’s
a private experience, it’s intimate and it’s you and the page but when you are at a performance
poetry event it’s like it’s very kind of community strengthening and like that person said you
know, everyone’s clicking their fingers and okay they’re clicking their fingers but it
kind of strengthens the poetry community and there’s a real kind of acknowledgement a real
attentiveness as to what your peers are doing and I just think that’s truly wonderful. That shared experience. Fantastic and I know that you also do so you’re
an editor and you do anthologies, what else? reviewing. If you had to choose you know all of the things
you do if you lined them up and you were only allowed to do one what would it be? For children or adults? what’s your preference? Both. And tell me a bit about the difference in
approach when you’re writing for children as opposed to when you’re writing for adults. Whenever I write and I’ve been thinking about
it cause I’ve just started writing a new book and I’ve had reviews of my most recent book
and you know there’ve been some critical points and then and you have them buzzing around
in your head like little nagging bees thinking what should I do about that and you have to
get through that and the way to get through those buzzing bees is to just get writing
and you write through the swarm and then they’re gone and you’re in that writing zone again
and that’s what you do but I was thinking about the whole idea of voice and that you
know you do find your voice and I think I found my voice and this is it. This is who I am and you know at the end of
the day it’s what I love to do more than anything so I want to write this thing that I’m loving
and of course I’ll craft it and I’ll reflect on it and I’ll leave it and I’ll go back to
it but at the end of the day I’m not going to compromise what I love in order to get
published so I would rather not be published, I would rather not be having to shape something
for a market. I would write what I love. So that’s what I do as an adult writer. When I’m writing for children I have a slightly
different approach and I write for children and my study fills up with children and I
test out my poems on children. I go into my poems for children but it’s got
to affect them so that it’s like that whole thing of being told stories when you’re little
the sounds filter into your head you feel comfortable, excited, amused whatever you
go on a whole kind of gamut of emotional journeys that’s what I want my poems to do so sometimes
when I write a poem that’s going to make a child cry or ponder and puzzle you know and
be stunned and stalled but primarily I want my collection to just delight in the sense
of play and words so that when a child picks up that book they wanna read it not because
their teacher tells them to or their parent tells them to but because they want to more
than anything in the world they want to have that fun and play. And so tell me some stories about when you’ve
connected with some kids who have really connected with your work. When I started testing out poems for Macaroni
Moon, which is my book of when I started to try and write funny poems, and I read them
out to a school and they laughed and I was shocked you know because and I have written
a few things in my adult collections where people laugh particularly at the back of Making
Lists of Frances Hodgkins and I’ve got these pieces that people laugh but I’m quite un-used
to it. The children were laughing. I was quite surprised. So that was really pleasing. and then I’ve
also got a poem where I’ve written about, I turn the tables on people being cruel I’ve
witnessed people being cruel to an orangutan at Auckland Zoo so I turn the table and in
my poem I’ve got people paid to come to my house and be cruel to me, throw things through
my window and all that and so you know I tell a story and then I read from the poem and
the whole school feels sad and sometimes there might be a tear. And I just say you know this is what poetry
can do because when I saw I was angry and upset and I wasn’t sure what to do so what
I did was I wrote a poem and then that gives me the chance to talk about it with you. so it goes on that little trip. And thinking about that idea of art and poetry
as catharsis, do you find that that is the case for you? If there’s events in your life kind of outworking
themselves through poetry? I don’t know that it is. I mean coz I’ve written Slipstream which comes
about a cancer experience, so you could think of it as that but really mmm…I do it after
the fact a few years down the track when that’s no longer I do it it’s kind of a reflective
thing and I think any kind of emotional intensity has dissipated so and but interestingly with
Slipstream I didn’t ever think of each thing on the page as a poem and in fact I never
gave each piece on the page a title ’cause I never thought they were worthy of a title. But I felt the whole thing together would
form some kind of poetry. I wasn’t quite sure what but yeah. Is that the closest you’ve come to a long
poem? What’s your longest poem that you’ve done? Well that’s a long poem definitely, so that’s
a whole book and I guess most of my other books have been quite thematic. Any tips for people who want to write poetry? I would say don’t be bound by rules. Rules you can break any rule in poetry and
there is no given. And I think it’s really good to try writing
outside your comfort zone and it’s also good to recognise the growing strength of your
own voice and have confidence in it. i think it is and if you look across the,
you know a cross section of New Zealand poetry it’s quite a diverse community and I don’t
think that we can say there is one particular kind of writing in this country. I think it’s eclectic and I think that’s good. And I don’t think that anywhere whether it’s
Victoria or anywhere is promoting one kind of writing.

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