50 Yrs of NZ Book Awards: Celebrating Our 2018 Ockham Poets with Hannah Mettner

In the lead up to Phantom Billstickers National Poetry Day we're celebrating 50 years of New Zealand Book Awards with a Q & A from your Ockham 2018 finalists and winners.

Hannah Mettner

Fully Clothed and So Forgetful (Victoria University Press)

Winner of the Jessie Mackay Best First Book Award for Poetry 2018

Hannah Mettner is a Wellington-based poet from Gisborne. Her poems have appeared widely in literary journals, including Sport, Turbine and Cordite. She is co-editor with Morgan Bach and Sugar Magnolia Wilson of Sweet Mammalian, an online poetry journal launched in 2014.

Why do you think poetry is so hot right now?

LOL, way to start this Q&A! I mean, part of me wants to argue that poetry's a constant, and that declaring that it's "hot right now" is a bit misleading. I mean, poetry has existed as a literary genre long before novels, for example. That said, I think that there's been a recent resurgence of public interest in poetry in New Zealand, and I'm going to go right ahead and say that I think that that's due to Hera! I think perhaps non-poetry readers were just assuming poetry was like that awful rhyming, nature stuff from the 'olden days' and irrelevant to their lives, and Hera kinda kicked down that door and showed people that poetry can be fun, and funny and outrageous. And that's given the reading public an 'in' I think.

Do you think that poetry can change lives and if so, how?

Well, can it? One thing I find interesting about poetry is that it always gets hauled out and dusted off at those big life events. Even if you're not into poetry, you're gonna turn to poetry to express yourself at a wedding, or a funeral or whatever. I don't think this is a coincidence eh? Like, same if you're going through a breakup, or falling in love, there's a sense of not being able to express the overwhelming way you feel adequately, so you turn to poetry and discover that people have felt like this, endured these things for centuries. Tapping into that universal experience can be super reassuring. More literally, I dunno, does it matter if it can actually change lives? Poetry, and art in general, makes life worth living doesn't it? Without art to elevate us above the daily business of of work, parenting, relationshipping, sleeping, eating, shitting etc what is there? That alone is enough to call it 'life changing' in my opinion.

What would you say to people who think that poetry is elitist?

Huh, well I get why people might think that. Literature in general is often looked at that way, and literacy, historically, has been the reserve of the wealthy: those with money to buy books and time to read them. Certainly, the 'canon' is made up of mostly white men, and the preferred themes and styles have been the ones developed by (and for) that elite group. Poetry's interesting though, because heaps of poetry, across heaps of cultures has been an oral tradition, and used as a way to share knowledge. I think there can still be a fear of 'not getting it' for people, like poetry is secretly some kind of trap. From my perspective, that's not what poets are aiming for at ALL. In fact, I (and I'm sure this is true for other poets) work really hard to look for those relatable moments. I love when I read a poem and I get that 'Yes!' moment of the author having described a thing so perfectly that it's kind of this emotional surge of recognition.

Do you think that poetry has a duty to be political/apolitical?

I kind of think poetry should be a bit political, yeah, tbh. Or at least, that's always in my mind a bit as something I'm striving for with a poem. Not necessarily in a 'Vote Green', slogan-y way (although...Vote Green!), but in a way that acknowledges the way that nearly everything we do is informed politically, and that what we choose to give attention to has weight. I feel like that old adage of being either useful or beautiful (preferably both) applies to poetry.

We grow up with poetry in our lives. How does poetry shape us?

Do we? I think I, personally, had quite an un-poetic upbringing. Or do you mean like nursery rhymes etc? I actually think that the medium poetry shares the most commonalities with now is marketing schtick...and comedy. Stand-up comedians do essentially the same work as poets in terms of finding those small, relatable, human moments and riffing on them, working outwards to some larger conclusion. God I wish I was funny! And, I guess this is what marketing does too, with the larger aim of convincing you to buy a thing. There's a lot of textual 'noise' in our world, and perhaps poetry's greatest gift is that it disregards that noise, operates on its own terms, and provides the reader a brief look away from their present without asking for anything in return. I know I've just said poetry isn't elitist, but there is still a quality of 'not real-life' about it.

How can poetry break its ‘hierarchical chains’ and reach new communities?

I mean, I think it's doing pretty well atm.

Who are some NZ poets you think more people should be reading?

Freya Daly Sadgrove because her poems are funny, rude, real, and outrageous and your mum will pretend she desn't like them, but she'll totally be into them too.

Jane Arthur because Eileen Myles just chose her as the winner of the Sarah Broom prize, and she has a simultaneously messy and mature voice, full of wisdom and lived experience and comfort with things being a bit chaotic. It's a really relatable mix. Plus lots of experimental kinds of poems that are fun.

Rebecca Hawkes because she's grown a lot in style since I first read her poems on Starling. I think she's pushing language out of the bounds of where she's been comfortable with it to see how it can refract her experience of the world, and they're beautiful, encompassing poems.

Tusiata Avia because her poems don't shy away from dirty truths, and don't strive to make the reader feel comfortable or safe. There's a musical way that she controls her information, and builds and releases tension in her work, and it's really something almost ecstatic, in the religious sense, to see her perform her poems.

Sugar Magnolia Wilson because she's not afraid of creating poems that are bop-you-over-the-head beautiful. I think it's perhaps quite trendy at the moment to turn the ugly into art, but thank god there are people who see the worth in creating beautiful, authentic things that transport you to another, better world when you experience them!

Tayi Tibble because her writing is this great mix of bogan and glam which really appeals to my Gisborne soul, but which I feel a lot of kiwis can relate to. I think she's really unafraid to put a lot of her life onto the page, and that boldness is really invigorating.

Nina Powles because I think she's suuuuper smart, and invested in an ongoing project of investigating what it means to be Chinese in New Zealand and in other parts of the world. Her poem 'The Great Wall (2016)' is a great example of this. Also because her book(s) Luminescent is a stunning triumph of chapbook-making. Also because she seems to be particularly prolific, so once you get hooked, there's quite a lot to hunt out!

There are heaps of others, of course, but that'll have to do for now!

This year marks 50 years of NZ Book Awards. How would you describe the value of the awards for our poets and our nation?

Uh, I think the value is, uh, money. I don't know if readers realise that writers (and especially poets) don't make money from their writing. For something that is so capable of resonating with people, sparking thoughts and feelings, illuminating moments in people's lives, you know, there's minimal recompense. Like, obviously you don't become a poet with financial success as your goal, cos, LOL, but for lots of writers, myself included, it's essentially a second career: I'm a librarian, a mum, and a poet, and I only get paid for one of those jobs. I was really surprised at how many of the winners at the Ockhams ceremony were openly gleeful about the cash component to the win! We have this shyness about talking about money in New Zealand in general, and then, among literary people there's this sense that perhaps it'll remove the mystique of the ethereal dreamer if there's any kind of financial interest attached. But writers need to pay the bills too, and the less time they have to spend at their day jobs to do that, the more time they have to get down to the business of writing, so in that sense the awards are vital!