Wednesday, July 22, 2009

lighter than the medium you walk on - cilla mcqueen is the new poet laureate

It's one of those days when there is poetry in the air. You hear of it being read out loud in broad daylight in a car park in Cuba Street, and later - as night closes in - you hear it aired in the large lit foyer of the National Library. And you find them gathered: poets who walk on water, poets nimble in the littoral, poets who hop with burnt feet on the sand, poets who sit on towels and watch the waves, poets who - I dunno - lick ice-creams?

Outgoing NZ Poet Laureate Michele Leggott is the car park reader it seems [TV3's resident poet Richard Langston caught her at it] - and she might have been standing near a fish shop. I'm not sure about that bit but it fits. She reads now at the National Library, 'Poetry is a crayfish or two packed in wood shavings flying home in a chilly box with my name on it...'

Then it's time for the announcement of the newest laureate, Cilla McQueen from Bluff, whose first meeting with a live poet was at a bus-stop. His name was James K Baxter. When she's called to accept the tokotoko of laureateship, there's a small bashful pause in proceedings. At last she steps from the crowd, quietly in a kilt, and takes the tokotoko and speaks to it: 'Bless you, Hone, I know you're in there somewhere.'

All around me the poets and others make sounds of the sea: yes, yes, Cilla McQueeeeeen. Richard Langston is standing next to me and 'yessing' along with the rest. He says that when he lived down south she was one of the big three of poetry along with Brian Turner and the late Hone Tuwhare, 'the three of them like Easter Island statues.'

McQueen reads a handful of poems then. One of the lines goes: 'poetry takes you apart, puts you back different', and another - about a lake - says, 'it is a matter of ensuring you are lighter than the medium you walk on'. Ah-ha! They do walk on water, then, or aspire to - insects in this case. Poets, too, perhaps - not only Leggott and McQueen and other kiwi lit-luminaries but the likes of Faber & Faber poet and former poetry editor, Christopher Reid. He's standing off to one side watching. We talk for a moment, him and I, about his friend Ted Hughes.

There's more poetry on Friday - stacks of it - everywhere. It's National Poetry Day. You might find Leggott in a car park somewhere down South if you're lucky, and you'll certainly find more poets in Cuba Street - this time in Cuba Mall as part of an all-day poetry marathon. If I had my way, I'd get to Unity's poetry readings at 12.30, Christopher Reid at the IIML in the afternoon and the launch of Tim Upperton's accomplished first collection A House on Fire at Palmerston North City Library at 7.

However, I might just have to stay working at Rona Books in Eastbourne and sell poetry instead. It does happen.

Postscript: It's Cilla - more from the NZ Poet Laureate site.


Rachel Fenton said...

She's going to get paid - finally!
I have my doubts about NZ sometimes - not looking after it's literary greats me thinks...sure everyone likes to talk about how great writers are here, but where's the money that goes where the mouth is?

Vanda Symon said...

We're all rapt with her appointment down this end of the country!

Mary McCallum said...

Oh yes Vanda the Mainlanders at the ceremony were all pretty excited. And Rachel, I agree it seems crazy that someone like McQueen is not more comfortable financially given the pleasure she's given NZ readers. I think the Laureateship and the PM Awards are ways to support the literary greats in this country. And Creative NZ not only offers flat amounts for writing it also supports such things as writer residencies which in turn support writers ... So there are means, they're just not in the form of regular payments for life, which would be lovely but probably too expensive to sustain... said...

Happy Poets Day everyone... like you, Mary, I'll be in a bookshop, hopefully selling poetry (Hone's 'Rain' might be a best-seller today).
My,my... in our midst was a man who knew Ted Hughes... I am impressed, and you kept him to yourself Mary :)
I for one, am fascinated by the man and his women, as much as his poetry.

The Paradoxical Cat said...

An excellent decision (as usual).

Cilla so deserves this recognition for her career.

And nice to see Jenny Bornholdt getting the Montana Poetry prize too.