Piece of Me is my new volume of poems comprising poems written since my first volume Houses of the Small Sea Dead, along with some earlier works and more song lyrics. It’s a reflection of an interesting and tough year – 2019 – where a brush with cancer really focused me on what was important and the power and importance of developing a coat of resilience, and a follow-up 2020 that shattered us with the monster that was COVID-19.
But there still feels to be a divide between lovers (and writers) of poetry and those who steer clear of it, don’t understand why it even exists, or actively disdain it.
Yet poets are no different to photographers or painters in the sense that they are simply trying to capture for posterity or pleasure, moments of experience, which they try to tell in a memorable way. That pleasure can be purely personal or may be shared – but it’s not like churning out widgets for sale. The “making” is a big part of the pleasure – for this poet at least – and the shared pleasure is a bonus.
Clearly, there will be shades of how well the poet captures the experience memorably. Writing is a craft with known raw materials – words, patterns of grammar and punctuation, figurative tools, rhythmic drivers and so on. How the poet takes those and does something interesting or beautiful with them is where the differentiation between dull, good, and great writing arises.
Just as in carving where there are master carvers whose abilities with the tools and creative vision of the carving to be created are at an advanced level, so too with poets. Prodigies can occur though; young people who write exceptionally well based on seemingly few years absorbing all this language and technique and experiencing poem-inspiring events.
I’m not sure poetry writing can be taught beyond simply revealing the techniques, because to me so much emerges from your own inner tutor – the muse (or more pertinently perhaps, your psyche) that dwells somewhere in your mind and (when allowed) plays with words and offers them to you pushing an inner agenda. Poets can and often do begin by being imitative of other poets they like, but that’s like flexing your muscles in preparation for the real wrestling bout.
Ultimately, you should latch onto your own voice and tell it how you see it – and want it to be remembered.
Having said that, the poet should curate his or her own works to some degree. For me, the first draft can sometimes feel complete, but generally there’s room for major or minor surgery at some point (a second wind). Can a poem ever be finished? There may be an endpoint when the poet feels it’s ready for an audience but how do we know it couldn’t be improved even more? It’s impossible to know.
When you write poems, what’s that decision point where you choose between filing it away, job done, or preparing it for public consumption? What drives that? Ego and the pursuit of fame – a literary name? Or that sense of sharing something useful interesting or fun, something you’re proud of, delivered in what you hope is a memorable way? For me it’s the latter. Poems are a kind of home-made gift.
And what makes for success in this craft? Book sales, glowing reviews? I’m sure most poets would love to make a living from their writing but I doubt many do – at least not from sales alone – teaching and readings probably bring in the main income for the average serious poet (or writer for that matter). A more achievable measure would be feedback that says your poem or poems made a difference – made someone think, laugh, nod, cry. Touched a chord.
Yeah, that’ll do.
Here in this place
I blow soot on my hands
put things on the wall
I hope will endure,
maybe others will see
and pause momentarily
when my own soot
And the shapes alongside
those five-fingered ghosts
that I sweat to contrive
may be runes to intrigue
a short line of minds
used to multiplied times
till antiquity fades
and in turn they reach out
for the reed and the dust
spread their fingers
This umbrella is small.
Portable and compact,
it covers my shoulders (just)
so drizzle merely fingers my lower legs
and speckles the suede of my shoes.
But my heart outgrows it.
So many wet people.
A large umbrella
is an obvious impediment, commuting;
Except when it really rains,
then it blossoms.
If you have the heart,
inviting a stranger to share it
is a big step
so much more
than a parasol.
Un Bon IED
On a road to Damascus
I strike an old IED;
from the smoke and debris
find a new kind of me
with a view of the sea
and a trim frame of reference,
underscoring my preference
for a debit of deference.
At last, learning the lessons
that are patiently taught
by a body that’s fraught,
a mind almost distraught,
I can safely report
certain things are now past us,
cope wherever they cast us,
whatever the task is.
Notes on Poems
A match is about beauty, or more accurately the trap of assuming great looks are a surrogate for character or personality. A fuller definition is always required.
Antiques roadshow is a little challenge to the reader: what are these relics? The clues are there and teasing them out reveals the story. A Milky Bar to the first person who can pick them all. Hint: think aurally.
Audition might be about writing or about dreaming or about romance. Forgive my slight obsession with the mind after hours – fascinates me, particularly the process of roughing out a piece of verse or a blog while you’re asleep.
Big game was prompted by my revulsion over the years at seeing large sharks on display after they’ve been reeled in. Sharks have bad PR anyway; the grotesque treatment only worsens it. But it’s not all one-way.
Booked up is a lament at the literature equation we face as keen readers: read one a week, while 50 more you’d probably love to read land on the shelves every day (or hour). Do the math. True of movies too (but less so).
By and large is a joust at politicians who are entrusted with so much but rarely seem to address what really needs to be sorted to make our communities well again.
I like cats (though not to a YouTube nutty extent) and Cheshire is a hat-tip to one of literature’s more curious fictional felines. But a bit deeper that that; how do we fare as time wears us down? What’s the thing you hang onto regardless?
Corrections is about social change; how does it happen? Less civilised places it can be bloody; you hope it’s orderly but patience is growing thin. The world – and Aotearoa is no different – needs to redefine humanity and look after people better.
Distant rumble was prompted by the thesis of this collection – massive events happening that made an impact. The earthquakes that tragically struck Christchurch in 2010 and 2011 were among many things that I saw and mourned but from a distance; I realised I’d been avoiding quakes most of my life. Charmed? But the signs were there – and complacency is folly.
Dogged is a riff on writing and how the idea can be like the pooch implied here, feverish, annoying, drooling, insistent, impatient and sometimes well-behaved.
Doors is about the choices and opportunities that can bombard us on our journey through life. How do you decide which ones to enter?
Dream-boat literally came ashore in a dream, with adornments inside the boat. So – co-written by my friend back there. About? Our life, our fears, our special places? Jury’s out… Jungians: enjoy the challenge…!
Five to nine is about the frantic game of writing poems. Almost utterly antithetical to the notion of running a business and making money.
Flamenco is a nod to my time in journalism and PR – more cousins than you may think – and what made a difference in those trades.
Good behaviour reflects lightly on prisons – houses of correction aren’t the only places to fit that category. We sometimes make our own.
Gratitude is (like Thank you Marcus) a poem about an aspect of the Stoic code, which was hugely important to me through 2018 and 2019. Say no more.
Headroom is an older poem I curated recently to make more sense; an attempt to understand one of the last truly mysterious places in our world.
In-flight service I wrote on a plane flight from Auckland to Tauranga with a window-seat view of terrain I knew well from ground level. But the experience was heightened in all senses of the word that day.
Journee is a reflection on reaching your “mature” (LOL) years; and the importance of having a resilience kit.
A friend asked me in 2020 where are the poems about surfing and while there are a couple in my first collection, Lilo life – a lyric play in five acts is my attempt to tell the story of that long love affair.
Missing Norm comes out of the early COVID period. There’s a play here on the loss of a loved one (based on a real Norm, my wife’s uncle – a lovely guy) but also the loss of norm-ality in general.
Modern sanitation came out of trifecta of nasty experiences (of varying severity) in 2019: a wave of vile hacker attacks, unwelcome lodgers in my morning paper and the big C.
Monkey mind is an homage to the simple-but-splendid art of meditation; simple, that is, when you work out how to wrestle into submission the part of you that does its best to upset your repose.
Moving day is as written and I’m not totally sure what it’s about. I went to curate it and it warned me off with a low growl. Help me here… 😊
My righthand man is about looking after yourself but also the power of having a very close friend (male or female). Inner strength can be in short supply at times but there are tools to build your reserves.
No, not a little departure into voyeurism (seriously), Nude beach is actually about a different kind of grooming – the removal by authorities of anything “icky” from the beach, which includes a lot that makes it the wonderful, natural place it is. A little environmental anxiety here too.
Nuts is actually about songs and how they can provide an essential form of spiritual nourishment in lean times. But like a squirrel we have to keep accumulating.
Offday was one of the last poems to make the cut in late 2020. Under pressure at work and health a bit wobbly as a result, I took a week off – a rarity for me. Paid off. And about the power of saying N-O.
Oh, Beehive! Well, it’s a bit of a whimsical reflection on our pollies. The references bear no relation to persons living or dead (from the neck up). Yeah, right…
One-three is wee middle-finger salute to a certain superstition; rears its head from time to time but I’m up for the fight.
Perfect pitch is an attempt to distill down a sublime moment from my choir years that has endured for nearly three decades. A nod to James Wright’s A Blessing too.
Pick me up is a companion song to Ghost people from HOTSSD. Don’t always judge a bloke by his overcoat; life isn’t that simple. Fortune’s wheel and all that.
Piece of me, the title piece, is another song from the days of OTEx and Pale Blue Dot (my bands). Might have mellowed on the sentiments here; written at a time when it was hard to get a moment’s respite from the demands of work and home and your own personal drivers. But its relevance has grown in the last year or so for obvious reasons. What you write for yourself is essentially a piece of you captured for posterity.
Poem for Anzac Day is a reflection on the annual 25 April commemoration – so hampered in 2020 – and the line going back of those we knew or knew of, who fought, including a nearly-grandad who died on The Somme.
Psyche. Ah well this is a bit of a coming-out poem (no not like that). The penny finally dropped that some if not all of my poems, that I’d semi-jokingly said were part-written by my “muse” – whoever that was – were really coming from…my psyche, pushing to be heard. Pondering on Jung and dreams brought that revelation. A powerful 2020 moment for me.
Rather be is another band song; about the folly of envy and the power of reaching a degree of peace over who and what you are.
Rules is a little whimsy loosely aligned to the advice a former boss gave me – “You know the rules Ron, break them.” Being flexible?
Self-contained has a bit of depth but is essentially a reflection (stop it Ron) on my first aqualung dive as a teen off Motuotau/Rabbit Island near the Mount. And other gatherings where I’ve become immersed.
I wrote Shelter after a train trip to work on a wet day thinking about the hassle of having to scramble from the station through deluged streets to work – not for me but for others who didn’t have a little Kathmandu brolly (only slightly bigger than a cocktail parasol) jammed in their pack.
Sleeping picks up on my abiding fascination with the dreamworld – an intellectual jousting partner for many years and we’re likely to keep sparring for many more (till dream and world start to look the same I guess).
Smokedreams picks up on that last poem; a riff on how frustrating it can be to try to make sense of dreams but also reflective of a change in how I saw dreams. Not so much the idling of a sleeping brain, but the machinations of something deeper and more urgent to the psyche – see poem by same name!
Soot is a little metaphysical riff sparked by pictures of cave drawings from many thousands of years ago. What did they mean? What will our abiding mark(s) be?
Soundbites can be read in conjunction with my other shark poem here (Big game). A bit of musing on Jaws and the story of “Bruce”, the shark in that movie – such a failure but such a success.
Spot-fixing is a shot at the naughty old sun. Keeps us warm and grows the plants but there’s a bit of a price for us Celtic ghosties.
Squaring off is mostly about travel; I’m not a great traveller and sometimes think it can be a tickbox thing… “if this is Tuesday, it must be Belgium”. But that’s just me.
I wrote Thank Christchurch not long after the 15 March massacre at the Christchurch mosques. Like most Kiwis, I just wanted to get on top of the emotion; this was an utterly unexpected schism in our modern history.
Thank you Marcus was (is) part of a sequence arising from my burgeoning faith in Stoic principles (so, Marcus Aurelius) – this about self-discipline and the importance of focusing on what you can control. Gratitude is the other of the completed poems in the sequence.
The faraway look captures another train moment, when I realised I’d become somewhat insular and internally preoccupied on my trips to and from work by train. Again, it’s that sense that it’s not a place to stand out (though the schoolkids have no such reservations). Written, I might add, at a more pensive time in my recent life.
The next Act just a wee shout-out for the wonderful balm that nature can be – seeing animals, hearing their song. This from a fleeting tui visit.
Twelve rounds is a bit of a commentary on the immunotherapy drug trial I entered in 2019, which probably significantly boosted my odds of getting past 70. Not a simple exercise though, and life-changing in many more ways than I expected.
Twenty-twenty as the title suggests reflects on the dramatic year 2020 is/was – the year COVID-19 rattled the planet like nothing before (in living memory).
Type O is a trade poem like Flamenco; a bit of a riff and a whimsy (hah) on editing, and on being (for better or worse) a slight savant around the minutiae of spellyng, grammah and punktuation.
Un bon IED is a poem about making a milestone decision, finally. Sometimes it takes a detonation to wake you up.
When and if is about a couple of my favourite writers. One of the disappointments in life is that you often (or generally) don’t get to meet people you deeply admire (from afar – the NZ problem) and would love to talk to. Bly and Burke are alive as I write, but Bly is 93 and Burke only 10 years younger. There’s also a wish here to connect with their world someday – even when they are gone.
Zounds is just a reverie on the pleasure of a soak in a spa pool – one of my abiding balms, along with music. The title? A very old word – read into it what you like.