Paula Green’s book Making Lists for Frances Hodgkins is described as a poetic memoir ‘in the light of art’. JOAN FLEMING and SARAH JANE BARNETT caught up with Green during Writers and Readers Week at the New Zealand International Arts Festival to ask about the process of writing, her love of Italy and the dialogue she has created between poetry and art.

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SARAH: What does a writing day look like for you? How does a poem progress from that seed of an idea to its completion and how do you know when it’s finished?

PAULA: I live in a great location at this point in my life. I’m not used to living in a city these days and this morning Wellington woke me up at twenty to five. At home we live on the west coast of Auckland and it’s wild. You have the sky and the Waitakere ranges, and both are spectacular. Not that I want to write all the time about what I see out the window, but it gets me in the right mood. I agree with Karl Stead that you cannot just sit down and write a poem, say, at ten o’clock every morning. Poems come to me as though I am a radio antenna. I don’t get a poem as such, but a governing idea or feeling or starting point. Sometimes I think ‘it’s too much’ but then set off on the journey of doing it. Paul Muldoon talked about the way in which writing poetry comes from within and is mediated through one’s being. I like that. I carry an idea within me for quite a while and then there’s a certain point I suddenly feel right, now I can write this! As for when I know it’s finished – that’s the hardest thing in the world. I will often say to students that I reach a line when I feel it’s ok to get published, but then I will find myself reading a poem at a festival and editing it on the spot [laughter] and thinking, I cannot bear that word in it any longer! It’s organic. I reach a point where I feel okay to let it go into the public space.

SARAH: So you’re happy to change a poem once it’s published?

PAULA: Yeah. I do.

SARAH: That’s really brave.

JOAN: What is it about Italy and the Italian language that you love, and how has it influenced your writing? Do you want to write poetry in Italian?

Paula: I have tried writing in Italian and it’s fun. There are clusters of Italian words in a lot of my books, but I don’t think I will sit down and write a complete work in Italian. I began my “Italian” life with writers like Italo Calvino. I read a novel by an Italian woman Francesca Duranti, called The House on Moon Lake (La casa sul lago della luna) and this book really haunted me. When I went to university I decided I would like to read these books in Italian which is why I studied the language, for that simple reason. It’s a musical language and operates in a different way than English.

SARAH: English can sound harsh some of the time.

PAULA: Yes. In some ways I went down a cul-de-sac. Absolutely fascinating and with infinite rewards though. I spent a lot of time at university doing a masters and a doctorate in Italian, and in the end, I decided that I was not going to be an academic, and I decided not to try and get my PhD published. I didn’t want to become an Italianist or work in that field. I felt the need to spend time with what happens here. I felt impatient with people – other writers and readers – who say, I don’t like New Zealand poetry or I don’t read New Zealand novels or I don’t look at New Zealand art. There is some kind of authority at work here that instils power in “internationalism” and its homogenising reach at the expense of the local. I spent the last year editing Best New Zealand Poems, and I got to read pretty much every poem that was published in New Zealand [2007]. There are so many good poems here, far more than my 25-poem limit. It may be that you have to open the way you read. It’s possible that people who are making these kinds of claims have a narrow view of what they see as being a good poem or a good novel or a good artwork.

SARAH: Do you think that because New Zealand is small, writers like to pigeonhole other writers? That if we were larger, that wouldn’t happen?

PAULA: Could be. I don’t know. I’m really cautious about making assumptions about why other people do this. Perhaps one of the things that puts certain readers off is an attachment to the everyday, or an accessible language. Perhaps they think the mark of a good poem is difficulty or experimentation. I love difficult poetry as I acknowledge in the pleasure I find in the poetry of Michele Leggott and Jack Ross, but I also like poetry that behaves in other ways. And I feel like there is much pleasure to be found in poems like Jenny Bornholdt’s. Her poems have their own way of singing to me. On the other hand some readers are repelled by difficulty. Poetry can be many things and I am resistant to anything or anyone that tries to pin a poem down to what it ought or ought not to do in terms of mechanical or technical attributes. Every rule of poetry is a rule to be broken in my view, and somewhere there is a poem that does just that. However I will say that a poem needs to matter, it needs to shimmer above its surface and capture your attention.

SARAH: During an interview you once said that you liked performing your work in public. Do you think it is important for poetry to be spoken?

PAULA: I do like performance. When I was a young girl I loved performing, I’d always be in the school shows, and I can remember doing solo songs in front of big audiences. I feel that poetry has its life on the page, but it also has its life in the air. When you get to hear Bill Manhire read “Hotel Emergencies,” it lifts you! For me, once you hear a poem read by the poet who wrote that poem, whenever you then read it for yourself, it’s like putting on an album. I’ve got that poet’s voice in my ear. I heard Fiona Farrell read from The Pop-up Book of Invasion last night, and I’ve read that book a number of times, but I’d never heard her read from it. It was so different, it really changed the way I came to the poems. I think the poem on the page has its white space, and poets have different ways of performing that white space.

“There’s a sentence on the blurb that says this is an autobiography in the light of art. I wrote that sentence once it was finished. I think it simplifies things, because it was the most difficult book I’ve ever written, and when I wrote it I felt like I had reached a stage where I never wanted to be published again.”

SARAH: I definitely know that when I heard Robert Hass read one of his poems at the last Writers and Readers, it was like a life-changing experience for me, I was so close to him, in the first row, and I’d read the poem before, but when he read it I really heard the poem.

PAULA: Another example for me is Michele Leggott. She read this long piece from As far as I can see once, the book where she really opens up her rawness about going blind, and I think just about every person in the room felt this huge sorrow and sadness, but at the same time, paradoxically, I felt this absolute joy in the way she uses words. It was a transporting experience.

SARAH: In your work the reader is brought back to consider the colour blue again and again. In Chrome “blue” had its own section of the book and in Making Lists it is the colour that is mentioned most often. What does blue symbolize for you?

PAULA: That’s a great question! In Chrome, I assigned four colours to particular things, and the whole book was about the idea of how I write myself at home in the world, but it also traced the more intellectual line of inquiry I presented in my PhD in view of Italian women writers. Chrome was written as a parallel to my PhD. I printed it on tracing paper, and inserted it between the pages of my doctorate. I really don’t know why I chose blue [for the final section in Chrome]. Each colour choice was intuitive, not academic. I cannot explain why unless, like I said, I love where I live because I have blue sky and the blue ocean. There is something fundamental about being outside in those kinds of spaces. I think in the chaotic world that we live in, it’s so good to be able to just stand at the beach.

SARAH: In Making Lists, it felt like the colour of hope. As you were responding to visual art it felt like every time blue came up these little bits of hope were coming through the poems.

PAULA: That’s a good way of looking at it. While my writing may reflect certain darknesses, I do not primarily engage in a poetry of the negative. My use of colour comes from my subconscious in some mysterious way but is open to after shocks. I use the word “blue,” and then when I come across it rereading a poem I feel slightly startled as though it is that far-off space or distant hill that can embrace all manner of things. I spent a lot of time reading about the historical and cultural significance of colours when I wrote Chrome. There are some great books such as Alexander Theroux’s The Primary Colours.

JOAN: Many of your landscape poems in Crosswind explore being awestruck by the wildness of the landscape. We are wondering if you are driven to write poetry from that feeling of awe, or is poetry a way of writing yourself into seeing the landscape anew?

PAULA: That’s another good question. I actually think it’s both! I don’t know that I sit down and think, I’m going to write poetry about the sea, but that environment puts me into a good state of being. It seeps in somehow. Over this festival lots of words keep cropping up, like mystery and discovery, and it’s very true. I think that you must find that too, that once you start writing, you are in “awe” as things keep presenting themselves to you.

SARAH: Your poetry creates a dialogue between the written word and other creative mediums - visual art, popular music, academic writing. Is this a conscious choice to create bridges into other forms or has it happened accidentally? I ask this because I think Making Lists was a very brave book that will shift how people write poetry in New Zealand. It does make those bridges where I don’t think they’ve always been made successfully before.

PAULA: There’s a sentence on the blurb that says this is an autobiography in the light of art. I wrote that sentence once it was finished. I think it simplifies things, because it was the most difficult book I’ve ever written, and when I wrote it I felt like I had reached a stage where I never wanted to be published again. The whole thing started when I got a phone call saying “will you do a poetic performance in the middle of a Frances Hodgkins exhibition?” I was bed-bound and I didn’t know how long I was going to be there. I had the reproductions all around me, and New Zealand poetry books, and I started to gather together the momentum and energy to write. I did not want to write descriptions of paintings. I was more concerned with what you take away from the painting, or photograph, that is very much affected by how your memory’s working, your emotional state, some intellectual activity. With this book I gave myself license to think or feel without constraint.

SARAH: That’s probably what I meant by brave. This book really had a huge range. I think New Zealand poetry is wonderful, but sometimes it can be safe and I liked that I felt slightly unsafe reading your book.

PAULA: Like I said in my session yesterday, there is a part of the book – and this is what shocked me – that is “me” at seventeen. Seventeen is a long time ago for me now. I was quite gauche then. I can remember saying “I will always paint”. That is what you can say when you’re seventeen. Whereas now I feel much more furtive and wouldn’t make a statement like that. There is this unwrapping of that young woman which I felt slightly vulnerable about because, in a way, I love whoever she was at seventeen. I feel quite fond of her. Part of the range of writing reflects the vulnerability of her voice.

The other thing I did was to address several writers and artists who had really mattered to me, the writers being Michele Leggott, Jenny Bornholdt and Anne Kennedy. I felt like I was going deep into what I wanted to say to these people which was partly to do with responding to their work but also partly responding to things going on in my head as a poet. I was writing from a point of illness but also writing from the ups and downs of writing itself. Writing a poem isn’t straightforward. It has all kinds of tough patches.

And finally I was writing from what I see as the cacophony of our restless world, sometimes the wars, the conflict, the poverty, the greed, and the inability to pay attention to the little things that surround us become too much.

JOAN: I think that that rawness, that depth and that real reaching to explore really quite big ideas, weighty ideas, comes across. I was wondering if you think if that is a prerequisite for poetry, for good poetry, for great poetry, that great poetry sound be preoccupied with Truth with a capital ‘T’?

PAULA: That’s funny because I am drawn to concepts that at times get scorned or are old fashioned. One of them is truth. I feel it is fundamental – bearing in mind that how we define truth is arbitrary – but I feel it’s quite significant. It’s there in the room when you are writing a poem. Paul Muldoon suggested a poem seeks to discover something beyond what is verifiable, some other truth. There are so many of these old-fashioned words such as lyricism or confession or difficulty or transcendentalism or authenticity or the personal.

“Writing a poem isn’t straight forward, it has all kinds of tough patches.”

SARAH: Almost like accusations.

PAULA: Like accusations. I felt that I was not going to be afraid of any of them whether it was confession or truth or beauty or subjectivity. I feel there is still something going for them. I recently read a review of the book [Making Lists] by someone who claimed not to be a poet and not to be an artist and who said she had read it three times and had found no meaning in it. And furthermore the book had, and I don’t want to misquote her, no universal truths but was full of particular details only accessible to a particular audience.

JOAN: Was she saying it was abstract?

PAULA: I don’t think so. The review reinforced the notion however that there are so many different responses to what a poem ought to be or do. In this case a poem seemed to need universal truth and meaning. Truth has many ways of taking up residency in writing and I am interested in the relationship between truth and the particular. I am not so drawn to the word “universal,” and I certainly am not attracted to universalising behaviours. Perhaps for some readers a lack of recognition of proper nouns such as the names of people, the names of books, the names of artworks or the names of places constitutes a point of alienation. The review rekindled an interesting notion for me – how does a book of poetry negotiate truths? I feel like it can which is one reason why I keep picking up yet another collection of poems to read. Poems are always on the move, shifting through things ordinary and things extraordinary.

JOAN: I wanted to ask about your experiences of writing in school. In various things I have read, your poetry and interviews, it seems that your writing in school was criticised and there was something in Making Lists about education, where you wanted nothing to do with it. I wondered how you have taken those experiences on board in your interactions with young writers?

Paula: At intermediate school I had a great teacher who was a poet, Frederick Parmee. He really inspired me to write. Auckland University Press published a collection of poems from the seventies called Big Smoke and he’s in it. They couldn’t track him down, but they put his poems in anyway. At a Big Smoke reading the editors asked me to read one of his poems - that was really amazing. Having a poet as a teacher set me off on a good path. Then at secondary school James K Baxter came and read to us a week before he died. That was profoundly moving to me, and I remember going home that night and doing a painting of James K Baxter and writing in the style of James K Baxter. I was really inspired by his reading. But then my fifth form teacher came to me, she used to shake her head and say, “you’ll never get anywhere with writing like that.”

JOAN: Was that crushing or did you bust through it?

Paula: It was crushing for me actually. As I said in “Appointment with Sophie Calle,” “education was death.” I have never ever thought about how those experiences have affected me going into a school, but I suspect it is why I advocate openings rather than closures in any teaching practice. I see my role as someone who signals options and possibilities rather than correct paths. The authoritative teacher who insists a poem ought to do this or that wears the “education-is-death” hat as far I am concerned. I absolutely love working with children – I love doing writing workshops with any age group, but I love going into schools. Even if it’s for an hour, I find myself establishing, and not wanting to let go, of that relationship. I feel like gosh if only we had another hour we could do this or we could take that further. You get a room full of young students and they just get this infectious spark of wanting to write. So I often, with secondary school students in particular, tell them that they can send me writing which feels like a slightly crazy thing to do.

SARAH: You could get a lot of writing!

PAULA: You don’t. Only the student that is extremely motivated would ever want to send me anything. And if I got really inundated then I would back off or I would find myself wanting to go back and give them more of my time. I feel like it is a two-way thing - I feel really stimulated by younger children and what’s coming out on the page. The growing enthusiasm they feel for the way this word is going to spark when you do that as opposed to stretching it out in other ways. It gives me energy to write.

SARAH: Have some kids sent you their work?

PAULA: Yeah! I went to this school in Auckland and it was probably Year Five. There was this one girl in there and she was astonishing. I only had an hour with them and I just felt there’s “such a writer in you”. She ended up sending me some poems through her teacher and they were wonderful so I wrote her a letter back. It’s not very often at that age they will do it.

JOAN: What’s the greatest surprise you have ever had in a kid’s workshop? Or a surprise that on going home and on starting to write you realise you were affected by?

PAULA: I think it is simply being surprised, and I don’t think I can see it in terms of greatest surprise, and not in a patronising way but in a sense of wonder, at the poems that the children wrote for Flamingo Bendalingo. When I go to other schools and read out the children’s poems, the other children go “wow”. There is this one poem that a boy wrote called Giraffe and it goes—

        They twist their heads like a swivel
        Their backs are brown like a sausage sizzle

[laughter] When I say that, it is delightful. I say “poems can be very little” and then I will read that poem to them. They light up. Part of it is that gorgeous rhyme. Rhyme drives that poem, children love rhyme and I have no truck with anybody that says to a child “poems don’t have to rhyme”. Sure they don’t, but there is such pleasure in rhyme and that’s where children start from.

JOAN: That’s great. Thank you so much.

See also:
» Making Lists for Frances Hodgkins, By Paula Green (Reviewed by Amy Brown)