‘Beautiful and imperfect plans’: A Conversation with Gregory Kan

This Paper BoatA few years ago a publisher friend talked to me about Gregory Kan’s work. ‘It’s new – interesting,’ she said, and then, ‘you should read it.’ Some time later Kan’s first manuscript was shortlisted for the Kathleen Grattan Poetry Prize, and not long after I read his essay ‘Borrowed Lungs: My Life as a Conscript’ about Kan’s compulsory military service in Singapore. This is all to say that I’ve been waiting for This Paper Boat to come into the world.

This Paper Boat follows the author as he traces his own history through the lives and written fragments of Iris Wilkinson (aka Robin Hyde), his parents, and their parents. Hyde had a difficult life – she experienced the death of a lover and a child, near constant poverty, and mental illness. She also wrote some of New Zealand’s most exceptional novels and poetry, up until her suicide in 1939. I read This Paper Boat over two days, moving between the kitchen table where I work and lying on the couch in the evening sun. I finished the book late at night, reading the final sequence twice. It was dark by then. I moved to the bedroom where my partner was working and climbed on the bed and covered my face with a pillow. Some collections happen in the mind — others are an experience of the body. Such was the ache of the book that I had to hide my face.

The current movement in New Zealand poetry towards sequences and prose poems can be seen in This Paper Boat. The form slowly builds meaning and challenges the need for a transformational lyric moment. It’s satisfying and complex. The book’s acknowledgements thank poet Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle whose collection Autobiography of a Marguerite sequences autobiographical poems about family and identity, much like Kan. There’s something happening in Auckland with ‘All Tomorrow’s Poets,’ which is how I think of them after a National Poetry Day event of the same name (which included, among others, Alex Mitcalfe Wilson, Ya-Wen Ho and Alex Wild). It’s getting exciting. A few weeks before the launch of This Paper Boat I had the pleasure to talk to Greg about his collection.

Sarah Jane Barnett: Your collection describes difficult events that you, your family, and Robin Hyde went through such as military service, the loss of a child, and the way your great-aunt was abandoned by your grandfather. You write about these events with gentle and beautiful imagery. Do you see a relationship between gentleness or beauty and trauma?

Gregory Kan: I think for me the relationship is more that between trauma and silence or absence. When I read the book now, I can’t help but notice this tension between still surface and turbulent depth. There is a sense in which trauma is a kind of vanishing point — it resists witness or representation. One is therefore left to feel one’s way around the edges of the crater, in the sense that trauma is traced in its unfolding, its residue, not as an origin or event. In this book, any attempt to access trauma is deferred or displaced. I feel that the book attempts to complicate the writing of trauma or violence, in the same way that it complicates the writing of linear histories on a more general level. Beauty perhaps carries the sense in which this finitude, this incompleteness, is not something to be feared or avoided, but celebrated, as we are limited beings! I really wanted to shore up and pay tribute to the fact that we are finite agents with fallible modes of understanding. I do not believe that ‘the poet’ is some kind of omnipotent seer with interpreting powers beyond that of other people. It was very hard to toe this line. I have an inclination to write spectacular, maximal imagery, and this book was one of my first attempts to allow the absence and the arrangement to encourage the reader to participate as much as the visible text does.

SJB: When I read poetry I can’t help but notice the mechanics and craft. In your book the line breaks are disruptive and refuse to end somewhere expected. When reading some of Hyde’s poetry for this interview, I noticed that she did the same thing. Did you purposefully use any of her style, language, or techniques?

GK: Ha! In my extended seance with Hyde I would have absorbed many things from her work that I wouldn’t have been aware of. It was a surrender. I wanted Hyde to take me and the work to places I could never have anticipated. Since this book, it has been very important for me to disrupt my conscious intention and anticipatory planning in the process of writing. The writing was open to Hyde in a way that was not ‘affordable’ to me. One of my favourite ideas is that the outside is not something you ‘invite’ inside; the outside rather is something that butchers you open. This is the force of contingency that I think plays out both in the narratives of the book and also in its process of composition. When I was writing, I was often led by my hands more than my mind, so to speak. Sometimes I felt more like an engineer or sculptor than a writer. Hyde’s texts and mine fused together irreversibly as a block of raw marble that I then had the task of chipping away at.

SJB: I found the sections about your relationship with your parents very touching, especially the idea that when a child reaches adulthood, the child and the parents can reflect back on the relationship and see each other from a distance. The type of life your parents and grandparents have lived is quite different from your own, even with your military service. One passage I kept on coming back to was when the poet observes his mother’s relationship with religion, disclosure, and the ability to speak:

As she talks she looks off
to the right, where her Bible study notes have
amassed like leaves against the roots of a tree.

There are details I know she has hidden
from me. It is difficult to see my time
as removed or separate from that of my

parents’. I draw the boughs
downwards in the thickets
behind her eyes. A verbal tic, she cycles

through my siblings’
names – Joel, Sarah – before she gets to mine.

Last week I was reading about survivor’s guilt, and how it often comes out in grandchildren. At one point the speaker in your book states: ‘It is sometimes the least / personal thing, to want to renew one’s openness / to the outside.’ Was the collection in part a way to record your family and their stories, but also to understand and reveal your own experience of being part of this family – your way to speak? Was it both personal and impersonal?

GK: Absolutely. One way I think about this process is through the power of permission. I never thought I would be prepared to delve into my family narratives as I did in this book. Yet I had to as a way of coping with the world at the time. Working with Hyde’s work as a lens or path gave me a permission that I would have struggled to grant myself in any other context. It was both personal and impersonal in the sense that I was both my conscious intentional self and a heavily-distanced witness looking at these worlds through a series of refractory lenses. Again, this displacement of direct access to the past, and the world in general, was a way to gather a robust kind of understanding through (more than in spite of) the many partial perspectives.

SJB: Throughout the collection you use ‘I.’ as an abbreviation for Iris. It almost seems like a nickname which suggests a certain closeness. At the same time, the use of ‘I’ happens when writing in the first person, so it points towards the poet, or at least the poet inhabiting Hyde’s view of the world. As the book progresses, Hyde and the poet often blur and – in the most beautiful way – it’s unclear who we’re reading. The book also suggests a common experience between yourself and Hyde. For example, living between places and cultures, or out of culture; the way both of your voices stood out to others – you as the ‘potato eater’ and her who was told by a teacher she had ‘swallowed a potato.’ In short, how do you see your connection to Hyde?

GK: Certainly one thing that drew me to Hyde was her experience of bridging (or being torn across) many different worlds. While of course passing between worlds has been a major part of my experience of migration, I also wanted to emphasize how this is something that everyone encounters in their day-to-day experiences of the world. It is not an experience exclusive to someone who’s moved between countries, although of course it is perhaps very explicit and violent in the process of migration. Each one of us is many, and we experience our different selves when we are out on the street, or at work, or at home, or with a particular group of friends, etc. I think it is unnecessarily reductive to posit that there is a true self underlying all these others; rather I like to believe that each of us is in fact the entire constellation of our selves, and perhaps even more than that! I discerned some understanding of this in Hyde, this notion of boundedness, or more accurately, boundlessness. One is an extremely complex system that cannot easily be distinguished from its environment. Problematizing the concept of the self in this way is not very surprising in this day. The challenge was to have the text actually embody this concept as opposed to talk explicitly about it. I attempted various methods to achieve this – perhaps with varying levels of success – and referring to Hyde as “I.” was one (no pun intended?).

SJB: The book’s final section describes the rituals performed as part of ‘The Hungry Ghost Festival,’ such as ‘releasing paper / boats and lanterns on water, to ensure // that the ghosts find their way / back.’ This is the only segment of the book where the poet addresses Hyde directly as ‘you.’ Since reading the book I keep on returning to that moment, as though it’s rooted itself in my body. Do you see the book as a ‘paper boat’ that you are sending to her?

GK: Oh shit! You’ve pointed out the most disgustingly explicit POMO moment in the book. I’m blushing, but, yes, self-reference is being self-referenced. On a less apologetic note, I wanted it to point to how the past is constantly in conversation with the present, through all its traces, whether as writing, or the layers of sediment in rock formations, or stray hair collected in the corners of rooms. There is no linear arrow of time.

This Paper Boat was launched on 25 February at Time Out Bookstore in Auckland.
Find the book at Auckland University Press or good independent bookstores such as Unity Books.
Hear Greg talk about his work in the short film Paper Boat: Moments in the Life of a Book by Alex Mitcalfe Wilson

4 thoughts on “‘Beautiful and imperfect plans’: A Conversation with Gregory Kan

  1. I love how your response to finishing reading This Paper Boat, echoes Gregory’s lines:

    I want to cover my face with something soft
    and the sound of my breath that
    goes on the whole time, under everything.

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