50 Yrs of NZ Book Awards: Celebrating Our 2018 Ockham Poets with Sue Wootton

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.

Sue Wootton

The Yield (Otago University Press)

2018 Ockham Poetry Finalist

Poet and fiction writer Sue Wootton has published five volumes of poetry for which she has received several awards including the 2015 Caselberg Trust International Poetry Prize. Her latest collection, The Yield, (Otago University Press, 2017) was shortlisted for the 2018 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.

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

Yes I sure do. A good poem is life, compressed. Once it gets inside you, it unfolds and unfolds, and you are reinvigorated. Poetry quickens the desire to live a truer life - once you start reading poetry you'll never be the same again. (Poets are disliked by totalitarian regimes precisely because poetry is this potent.)

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

First I would gently point them to some poetry readings and to the poetry shelves of their local bookshop and library. They would quickly realise that poetry is of the people, for the people and by the people. In every available voice.

But I'd also say that it's important to distinguish between elitist (ie exclusionary) behaviour and elite skills. We don't seem to have any problem in New Zealand celebrating our elite athletes - we praise them and reward them for their natural gift honed by hours and hours of training. Similarly, when I read someone who's writing at the top of their game, I celebrate their ability and marvel at their control of the craft. We need elite practitioners in every field.

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

I don't think that poetry owes any duty to express anything except what the poem needs to say, but I do think that writing poetry is inherently a political act. Every poem, even it is ostensibly a sweet wee lyric about a flower, is a stake in the ground for the right to speak. You can tell a lot about the health of a society by the way it supports and honours (or doesn't) its poets and its poetry readers.

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

We need to encourage as many forums for poets as possible, and be much more out and proud about being a nation of poets and lovers of language. In fact I that think there are probably already thousands more New Zealanders who write poetry than play rugby. There are spoken word and open mic events happening all over the country, plus lively literary journals and poetry competitions that regularly attract hundreds of submissions. I've just finished a four-and-a-half year stint editing the weekly poetry column in the Otago Daily Times (hooray for the last newspaper in the country that still publishes poetry!), and I know that this column is a really, really popular read. A challenging read for some at times, but it's important to get the chance to experience lots of different voices in poetry, not just get stuck on a few familiar favourites .... and so to the next question:

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

I think everyone needs to make up their own minds on this. Explore. Go to poetry readings, slams and gigs. Go to the library. Go to a bookshop. Browse the poetry section. (If there is no New Zealand poetry section, or it is very small and limited, make a fuss before you leave, then find a proper bookshop who knows how to do it.) If you like the look of something, don't hesitate, get it out of the library or (better still for the poet) buy it. Then take your time and savour the poems. Read slowly, feeling for the rhythms, hearing the sounds, allowing images to come and connections to be made. Reread the things you like, and also the things you didn't like. Learn something off by heart.

Get hold of literary journals like Poetry NZ Yearbook, Landfall and Takahe. These all publish new poems, and also review recent poetry collections. There are plenty of online journals, periodicals and blogs, like Starling, Minaret, Sweet Mammalian, Turbine, Best NZ Poems, and Paula Green's excellent Poetry Shelf. This is a far from inclusive list - my apologies for those I've left out.

How significant is Phantom Billstickers National Poetry Day for poets? The wider community?

Phantom Billstickers National Poetry Day is hugely significant and welcome for poets and the community. It's fantastic for poets to know that what we do is considered valuable, and it's fantastic for the community to get the chance to hear poets voice their work. And the Billsticker posters are brilliant additions to our streets and walls and alleyways, a wonderful way to bring the mystery and magic of poetry into daily life.