Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Tuesday Poem: What they don't tell you on Food TV

the best fish is handed to you over the side
of the boat, the best fish is fried, bones and
all, and eaten in a sun so bright it’s white,

snapping off the ends of beans is like lips
popping, a pork cookbook is the best place
to find that picture of you and your mum

at Taupo in summer, a turkey too late
into the oven can make a grandmother
cry with hunger, come Easter in Crete

lambs are bloody sacks, here, their milky
mouths butt your hip, eggplant is purpler
when you call it aubergine, aubergine

is purpler when you call it melitzane, another
thing again when you call it Mellie-Jane, crack-
ing eggs is an act of belief whichever way

you look at it - each time the epiphany, there’s
no better breakfast than a three-dollar special
in a New York diner, watching her swallow

every shred of yellow from the yolk - every
lick of milk - every crumb, fasting is not all
its cracked up to be unless it’s in a monastery

in Stokes Valley under a gold stupa and dawn
brings porridge and bells, at the end of a long
day in the city there’s nothing better than

meat and tomato and oregano walking you
up the path and the eldest son at the kitchen
bench grating cheese, no better rice than his

brother’s unmoulded from a bowl to a white
plate, risotto is best measured in handfuls by
Marielle - uno due tre cuatro, zucchini flowers

must be carried in two palms like a prayer,
father and feta are from the same family of
words, you cannot make yorkshire puds as

good as your gran’s no matter how hot the oil,
an apple is sweetest from a tree, and if not that
then untucked from its tissue, its wooden box,

oysters are sweetest swallowed like shots
of seawater, beef is best on charcoal tended
by laughing men, ginger needs to be grated

in finger not thumb lengths, crushed olives
are the smell of the earth – all that history
of heating cooling burying spitting up, oil

rising of its own accord from the purple crush
is named after the yolk of the egg, asparagus
is just what asparagus is,  those apricots she

makes every summer are apricots blooming
in a bowl, and spooning yoghurt and honey
into a mouth on white-washed steps with

a turquoise sea and a donkey crowing and
someone calling kali mera into the bleaching
light, is like scooping up the sun and eating it

                                             Mary McCallum

I've been wanting to write a list poem ever since I set it as an assignment for my creative writing students at Massey University. I got the idea at one of our first Tuesday Poet drinks at the Library Bar. Helen Rickerby - poet and publisher of poets - had been talking there about a successful workshop she'd had with the students of Harvey Molloy's (also a Tuesday Poet) at Newlands College. She'd read the kids a list poem by Helen Lehndorf called Poem without the L Word and got them to write list poems of their own.

I asked Helen to promise to send me the poem as soon as she got home (she's publishing it in Helen L's out-this-week collection The Comforter), and the next day, I set my students the list poem to do and got some lovely stuff.

So last week, with uni over, I started up an adult writing workshop here in Eastbourne. The first assignment: the list poem. This is mine. There were seven others, every one different and astonishing in its own way. What impressed us all was the way the power of each poem grew with each listed thing, and the real subject of the poem elbowed its way through. It is what poetry's all about, really.

What's this poem really about then? Food and family - how they feed and make each other. How simple both can be, how complicated. It's about my family history too, how it spreads itself across many countries and generations, and how food in all those places and times is both different and the same.

Do check out the hub poem on Tuesday Poem. It's by Wellington poet Harry Ricketts.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Tuesday Poem: Sea Grapes by Derek Walcott

A friend of mine was taught poetry by this man. In fact, as with all the best students, he said he didn't teach her at all, she already had it in her, which I can believe. The 1992 Nobel Prize Laureate in Literature, Derek Walcott reads his poem Sea Grapes from "Collected Poems 1948-1984". To learn more about Derek Walcott,  visit:http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1992/index.html

Do check out the Tuesday Poem hub for an Iain Britton poem. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Magical realism and Dybek

Chicago short story writer and poet Stuart Dybek on the sensibility in his writing which feels European or could be Latin American or could just be magical realism.... 

Dybek: I shy away from a term like magical realism because it somehow implies to me that I read Marquez and decided, well, I'll take some of these supernatural elements and graft them on to what I've been working with. And in my case anyhow that is not the way it came about at all. It came about more out of a feeling like this: 

You're walking down a street, Twenty-Fifth Street say, and right on the corner there's a candy store and a bunch of kids are coming out of it. They're arguing about candy, calling each other sonofabitches. On the other side of the street there's a tavern. You can hear the jukebox music, and you see someone sneaking in for an early drink. Coming towards you is someone eating a bismarck, dripping jelly on their shirt, and there's a whole bunch of cars, guys cruising up and down, gunning their engines. A truck is going by, loaded with something that's making a clanking sound. And then there's a church. In it, a bunch of old ladies are saying the rosary in Polish--or in some language that you think might be Polish, you can't exactly figure out what it is--and there's this smell in that church that smells like something out of the fifteenth century. You look up. It's Lent. There are these crazy statues standing there with their eyes bulging with all kinds of weird visions, except now they've got purple shrouds over their heads. That jump from walking off that street and into that church and then back out again, I think, has made my style the way it is. After that, you read Kafka and you say, "Oh my God! Of course, I understand this." Or I read Ed Hirsch's poem about his grandmother's Murphy bed, that when she folds it back into the wall it's like putting away the night. I see that if I'm writing about my grandmother, who really believed that the dead came back and needed to nibble breadcrumbs off her table, then maybe instead of saying, "My grandmother thought so and so," I could have a dead person, in the middle of the story, sitting at her kitchen table.

From an interview on Artful Dodge - more here. Stuart Dybek is the author of a particularly wonderful short story called Pet Milk that is a set text for the students I tutor at Massey. Every year I get more out of it, and this year a student wrote a great essay on Pet Milk complete with a link to this interview. What a find! 

I am a big fan of magical realism in fiction and Dybek's explanation is as good a reason as I can think of for why... 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Tuesday Poem: All Together Now - A Digital Bridge for Auckland and Sydney

Kia Kotahi Rā: He Arawhata Ipurangi mō Tamaki Makau Rau me Poihākena         

In Auckland and in Sydney, in March and September last year, there were two poetry symposiums, and up online the nzepc (NZ Electronic Poetry Centre) built a DIGITAL BRIDGE between the two.

The site is PACKED WITH POEMS: text, video and audio from a stunning array of poets, and includes images and writings from the two meetings on either side of the Tasman.

The builders of this bridge appear to be NZEPC editors Michele Leggott and Brian Flaherty, Pam Brown and Martin Edmond. As they say on X-Factor - 'props' to you four. It's a stunning achievement. And what I love best is the fun everyone seems to be having!

I am especially in love with the poetry videos -- I was just thinking this week how we have too few of our NZ poets on film. Well here they are in full and glorious flight with the Aussies.

HERE it is. The videos here. Enjoy.

And another must-see Australian poet video is linked to from the Tuesday Poem hub - this time a performance poet posted by Australian Janet Jackson. This is poetry as you might not imagine it to be. Go and see.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Ever fresh with praise

'Let my mouth be ever fresh with praise.'

'Each morning new/each day shot through...'

'We inhale the frozen air/Lord send me a mechanic/ if I'm not beyond repair...'

I've had churches on my mind this week -- human mortality -- illness -- loss, so this song is a natural one to hunt for on youtube. Love those lyrics, the raw screamy way John Darnielle delivers them into corners of this beautiful church.

I was at a funeral at the local Presbyterian church for a woman called Nell Manchester who died aged 87 - hence the church thing. An autodidact and writer who always looked a million dollars and whose mind was crisp and curious until the moment she died, Nell went into the hospice with her favourite volume of Keats and the new Peter Bland collection 'Coming Ashore'. The last thing we talked about was the latest Woody Allen movie, and she told me how much she'd laughed at the first Woody Allen movies all those years ago (remember, before cell phones?). Manhattan was on Sky last week, so I watched it for Nell.

It was a lovely send-off at the local church masterminded by her daughters Anne and Catherine. I sat by the stained glass windows beside the woman from the 4-Square supermarket who'd dashed in in her 4-Square shirt. She said Nell had given her the famous Raleigh bicycle with a basket on the front she used to ride around Eastbourne. I like sitting in pews - they remind me of all the churches I've ever been in. The smell of wood, the stained-glass light, the organ wheezing, the sense of being made to sit still for a moment and listen. There were readings from Nell's books, some Shakespeare, a sing-along to Blue Moon and an older Judy Garland singing Somewhere over the Rainbow in a crackle of a voice that John Darnielle would have approved of (Nell loved Judy and loved movies). We also sang the hymn Jerusalem - now that's a song to belt out. Afterwards we ate tiny delicious sandwiches and cake. Go well, Nell. We'll miss you.

Human mortality -- I haven't just been thinking about this because of Nell. This cancer thing is everywhere. Women and men I know and love of all ages are fighting it courageously. One of them Harriet or Hat as she's known, is only 18. Her blog posts are monumental feats of courage. Yesterday's is no exception. It's titled 'The Fight' and here's an extract:

It's hard. I will never be able to say it isn't. This week is testament to that. It was supposed to be my easy week and just no. It was not, at all. I wish I could just fast forward the next year but hey! Life isn't like that. 
You get your ups, you get your downs. My life has been pretty easy. I can't believe the things I used to complain about. They seem so silly. So pathetic. Even now there are so many people who have it so much harder than me. 
I tried to make a wish today as it was 11:11 on the 11/11/11. I ended up just being thankful for all the things that I have in my life. I can't tell you my wish but it wasn't for me. It never will be.

The Mountain Goats song - for you, Harriet.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Tuesday Poem: About

About four in the afternoon they said,
which could be wrong, but my boys,
both men, were in the kitchen then,
helping themselves to slabs of bread

and ham, laughing at something they’d
seen on Family Guy, their bodies filling
the whole of the space between bench
and stove, fridge and dishwasher. And I

was complaining from the family room
(it was nearly time for a glass of wine)
about how I’d worked all day to fill
their well-fed stomachs, and they, well,

what had they done? How they’d laughed
at that, laughed and eaten of the bread
and the ham, and drunk of the milk
(straight from the bottle), and talked

about the episode of Family Guy with
Jesus dancing – funny, this Jesus, not
miraculous – talked in the cartoon voices
of Pete, Stewie, Brian the dog. Outside

in the thickening day in the thickening
water, the young man, really a boy, had

probably already fallen from the kayak, 
and was struggling to keep his head up,

the salt water thicker with each pull of his 
arms, the ragged bulk of the island dragging
him down, and back at the beach he’d left 
behind – houses with windows flaring,   

kitchens with people eating bread
and cake and pouring wine and frying
onions and thinking dully about taking
in the last of the light walking the dog. 

What did they do, my breathing boys,
my chewing men? They couldn’t have
heard the splash or cry, but saw perhaps
through the open window the failing

sun shining, as it had to, on white legs
in green water. Thought it a boy falling
out of the sky.  Something amazing. But
the sun shining on water can be anything

when you’re tipped back swallowing milk
in an untidy corner  with stacked  dishes
and an empty cornflake packet, waiting for
your brother to recall the irreverent dance

moves of a cartoon Jesus.   They’ve  sailed
now, the young masters, vessels navigating
choppy waters with a calm that belies their
private concerns about disaster. When I ask,

they don’t recall the sunlight catching on
anything that day or if the exact time they
inhabited the holy space  between  bench
and dishwasher was the same as the time

of the drowning, or even why they hung
around longer than usual when they
nearly always had somewhere to get to.

                                                             Mary McCallum

This poem. It's finished at last. It began with the death of a young man by drowning - in the part of the harbour we look out onto from our house. That day, my sons were in the kitchen. I was there, too. We weren't aware what was happening until later in the week, but that evening, we remember the helicopters and wondered if someone was stuck in the bush up behind us. They were looking for him. We didn't know. 

The poem is closely tied to Auden's Poem Musee des Beaux Arts - one of those poems that is never far from the place in my head where I start to write. It begins:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
The rest of it here with the Brueghel painting that inspired the poem. Worth checking out. 

Do go to the Tuesday Poem hub this week for a deliciously playful poem by Joan Fleming posted by Helen Heath.