from the past)
The edge is
and the focus. Where
to lead the eye
the terror of passing trains,
the ground all wasteland and boots,
fear splintered like glass.
and the track runs on
In the dark
wounds are developed.
Chaos is exposed
and fixed. The pictures
are silent and speak of winter.
too dark to resolve.
old and weary
with too much sight.
A shatter of
(photo credit: James Ensing-Trussell)
I first met
Riemke Ensing, I think, at a poetry reading. I remember being amazed when she came over to
talk to me. We’d studied her poetry at
school, I’d seen her name in anthologies, I knew her as a prominent Kiwi
writer. Why would she be interested in a baby poet like me?
But that was
before I knew Riemke as a generous friend and mentor, as she is to many. I’ve
been welcomed into her home and had the pleasure of long lunches chatting about
writing, poetry and the NZ literary landscape. (Riemke is an excellent cook.) I’ve
learnt, too, to be wary of the wicked glint in her eye – she says what she
thinks and loves to get a reaction. But the intent is always kind.
‘Transport’ is a visceral poem, touching on the nerve
endings many of us have as migrants or the children of migrants. It
superimposes the clinical process of taking a photograph (“where/to lead the
eye”) over the raw wounds of forced exit from a homeland (“fear splintered like
glass.”). Short though the poem is, it spans more than a generation. It says
just enough to suggest the hidden pain that survivors of war must live with and
try not to pass down to their children.
It also offers commentary on how photographs perpetuate, but
inadequately describe, the horrors of conflict (“Shadows/too dark to resolve.”)
Riemke’s poetry has such immediacy. There is the sense of the person behind it.
Even where the subject matter is dark, as in this poem, there is also a feeling
of life, of the importance of being alive to feel, to sense, to think. Whether she’s describing the events of
history or a morning shower, she has the ability to pull the reader in, to
include them in the frame.
Riemke has been very busy in the past few years, writing and keeping up
a busy timetable of poetry readings and writer’s talks. She was recently
honoured for her lifelong work as a writer, editor and mentor by being given the
Edmond Memorial Award for Poetry. This
year she also won the NZ Society of Authors Kevin Ireland Poetry Competition,
coming top of the field over more than a hundred entries. Her work has been included in the UK-based
a repository of some of the most significant works in poetry. In between
running around fulfilling all her obligations Riemke also found the time to
answer some questions from me for this week’s post.
When did you first realise you were a poet?
I always feel reluctant and even
somewhat embarrassed to think of myself as a 'poet'. I write, and some of my
output is poetry, but if I compare myself to Yeats or Eliot , Wallace Stevens,
Lorca - in fact any of the myriad of wonderful poets all over the world
over the many centuries, my attempts are pretty minimal and insignificant.
I started writing 'poetry'
when I first came to NZ at the age of about twelve. I had no models at that
stage, other than church hymns, so you can imagine the rather dismal attempts
to improve on Wesley and Co.
All rhyme, of course, and written in
Our Presbyterian minister wouldn't
have a bar of them and declined my suggestion he put them to music and have
them sung in church. I couldn't see why he was so unsupportive, but it took the
gloss off it for a while and I concentrated on painting instead.
I started writing again at Ardmore
Teachers' Training College and continued through 'varsity as a
student. By then I suppose it had become a 'habit'. I had a few poems published
now and then but was never very avid about sending things away.
Ian Wedde used a couple in the New
Zealand Universities Arts Festival Yearbook 1968 and that was a
thrill, and Karl Stead sent me a congratulatory 'cheering on' note when I had
some poems published in Arena, which was then a handset and printed
labour of love and dedication by Noel Hoggard at The Handcraft Press. When
I think of all the work and time that went into that publication it was astonishing,
What is your favourite place and time of day for
I am not at all systematic or
organized or 'timetabled'. I note things down and keep a notebook handy.
Sometimes the scraps become poems. It depends. If I feel a particular idea or
concept is worth pursuing, I keep at it, but I'm just as likely to leave it as
a note to myself. Sometimes I write for particular occasions or people,
and that is usually an impetus to put something together and mostly works quite
well for me.
People have written of the visual, focussed nature of
your poems. For you, is writing a poem like taking a photograph?
For me, a poem is not at all like
taking a photograph. Not 'taking a photograph' as I know it, which is taking a
sight and clicking a button. The writing of a poem for me is very exacting and
exhausting. That's probably why I don't write a lot.
When I finish a poem, I'm usually
'washed out'. I don't know why that should be. Some poets speak of the thrill,
the excitement and joy of writing, but for me it is mostly the opposite. I do
at times have a sense of achievement or accomplishment, but it seems to come at
‘Transport’ reads like a very intimate, personal poem,
and you dedicate it to your son James. Did you ever experience the displacement
voiced in the poem?
I dedicated 'Transport' to James
because he was (if I remember correctly) just starting his career as a
photographer, having been a teacher of the violin for many years. He of course,
thinks the poem is 'very dark'.
In fact, like my mother, who would
have preferred poems about flowers and the more lighthearted aspects of life,
he think most of my poems are rather too sombre. And I suppose it has to
do with the age. I was born just before the war in Europe began.
My parents had experienced the First
World War and the Depression of the thirties. My first years were war and all
the anxieties afterwards. Then there was the migration to NZ and the subsequent
sense of being other and different - but no, the 'displacement' I write of in
the poem is not something I personally experienced other than through other
people's stories, books, films, etc. One lives in the imagination and in that
sense the 'experience' can be as 'real' as the actual.
What are you working on at the moment?
Presently I am still trying to come
to terms with ongoing 'presence' of death. Bill died 3 and a half years ago and
although he was considerably older than myself, I still can't quite reconcile
myself to the idea of his no longer being here.
My brother died a short while ago,
as did a cousin of my age, and there seem to be constant, almost daily
reminders, of mortality. So my present work concerns itself primarily with
loss. Perhaps that's somewhat depressing, but I think it has produced some good
poems - one of which won the recent 2012 NZSA Kevin Ireland Poetry
This week's editor is Renee Liang,usually from Auckland, NZ, although this week she is posting from Kalgoorlie, Western Australia where she is doing a paediatric locum. Renee writes poetry, plays, fiction and non-fiction, blogs for The Big Idea, and organises community arts initiatives. In her spare time she works as a doctor and is mum to Sofia (nearly 4 months.)