Paula Green is a poet, reviewer, children’s author, NZ Book Award judge and anthologist. She has published six previous collections of poetry, plus three collections for children, most recently The Letterbox Cat & Other Poems (Scholastic, 2014). She edited the anthologies A Treasury of NZ Poems for Children (Random House, 2014) and Dear Heart: 150 New Zealand Love Poems (Random House, 2012), and co-authored 99 Ways into New Zealand Poetry (Random House, 2010) with Harry Ricketts. Paula also runs two popular poetry blogs: NZ Poetry Box for children and NZ Poetry Shelf for adults. She is currently working on a book about New Zealand women’s poetry. I interviewed Paula about her collection, New York Pocket Book, which was launched in June by Seraph Press. As always, she is eloquent and inspiring about what poetry and poets can do.
Sarah Jane Barnett: I was intrigued by the title of the collection and also the small size and square shape. It reminded me somewhat of a guide book! I imagined walking around New York and experiencing the Lower East Side or Ellis Island through these poems. First, what was the impetus for the collection, and second, do you see the collection as another way for people to experience New York?
Paula Green: My family and I spent ten nights in New York a few years ago (Michael and our two teenage daughters). Michael went when he was young and poor and lived off a pretzel a day, but it was my first time. New York had grown in my head out of the bricks and mortar of film and television. I am really fascinated with the way we carry different versions of a place whether we live there or not. My version blasted apart and then reformed in a way that surprised me. Partly it was the sense of neighbourhood, the way a big city can still relish a snail’s pace, the miniature physical containment, the explosion of ideas and connections in my head as I walked.
I like the idea of different kinds of guides to a city. I love the look of the book so much (thanks to my publisher, Helen Rickerby), I feel like doing a little series of poetry guide books. So yes, readers can follow my tourist itinerary that is as much a physical route as it is meandering through less tangible New Yorks. The idea of a tourist using this as a guidebook appeals; making their own notes in the margin. I agonised over whether to leave my tipping poem in for that very reason. A warning-about-tipping poem! Sadly it didn’t make my ruthless cut.
SJB: The poems in New York Pocket Book touch on the idea that the experience of being a tourist can give us a new way to see and experience ourselves. The collection’s main character, Josephine, closely observes her new experiences – the ‘American accent dipping and pausing,’ the ‘Manhattan sky.’ The idea works on two levels, with Josephine experiencing New York and with the reader experiencing Josephine. Can you speak to this idea in terms of your poetry? Do you see the poem as a way to provide a reader with a new experience of themselves?
PG: Perhaps any book refreshes our view of ourselves to varying degrees, but I really like the multiple reading experiences you have spotted. Learning another language for years, I always felt I wore my clothes slightly differently, that I had licence to be a slightly different person. I get that feeling when I stay in foreign cities. I am both myself and not myself. I eat things I might not normally eat. My daily routine goes out the window. So is it a stretch to say the reader in entering a book that is anchored in an iconic place, triggers different relations with the world and self? I don’t know but it’s a fascinating idea. One of the upshots of learning another language, is the way you learn more about your own language. Conversely, when someone speaks a foreign language they always leave clues about their mother tongue. When we experience a new city, we open windows on the familiar as much as we do the unfamiliar. So perhaps the poem is the surrogate new city, the surrogate new language.
Josephine is somewhat elusive. You are right in that you view her through a New York filter (and vice versa) and everything else lands in accidental traces. Some readers might crave more of her backstory but I resisted that. There are some red-hot traces though hiding away. This is a pocket book after all.
SJB: The poems set on Ellis Island explore issues of ‘freedom and nonfreedoms’ in terms of immigration, but also in terms of imagination. At one point Josephine imagines herself being a range of other people – ‘that person in the bright green suit / or this person slumped in the shade.’ She is moved to tears when seeing a list of ‘aliens’ who were ‘forbidden entry’ and asks, ‘but how to assess / that alien mind when English was a foreign / tongue.’ Do you think that literature is a vehicle for inhabiting an ‘alien mind’?
PG: Absolutely. I have drafted a chapter on how poets step into the shoes of others for my book on New Zealand women poets and I was surprised at the directions my thinking took. The significant word here, though, is ‘alien’ and it seems pertinent in view of the current fracas in the world about immigration and difference. I was utterly moved by my trip to Ellis Island and encountering thorny notions of the Great American Dream. In these poems, Josephine never lets go of the fact she is outside peering in. I felt like an alien. I felt like I was trespassing. I felt like my ink was imbued with a volatile mix of fact and imagination. Every which way you look is the magnetic tug of hope. When I think back to those poems and my trip to the island it makes the mishmash of British hope so unbearable. The ability to understand one another seems so rusted apart. That’s how I felt on the island. That’s what I wanted to translate.
SJB: A few years ago I read Robert Hass’s ‘Iowa, January,’ and since then I’ve been obsessed with the two-line poem. You have quite a few in the collection. Can you talk about the pressure of a two-line poem, and what you wanted them to achieve?
PG: I like the way a two-line poem changes the melody of a book as a whole. I think Bill Manhire is a local whizz at this –he delivers little couplets that sizzle on the tongue and leave an effervescent after-taste like a shot of vitamins. They are like little lozenges of wit and song. Gregory O’Brien achieves the same delicious result. When I write two-line poems, I want a shift in melodic effect. I guess I am drawn to the way small things hold larger things: complexity, narrative, memory, mystery, even seeds of magnitude, tantalising reserve. As a teenager I was really into Eastern philosophy. Sometime it is just a matter of pausing to look at a leaf and seeing the way it foxtrots rather than waltzes.
SJB: New York Pocket Book shows your love for New York, and also for American poetry. Your poems feature poets such as Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, Louise Glück (who grew up in New York), and Alan Ginsberg. Has American poetry influenced your own writing?
PG: I think my debut collection, Cookhouse, was enormously affected by American poetry because I was enormously affected by American poetry at the time. I wrote it while I was doing my Italian Masters so poetry felt like a necessary counterpoint to inhabiting another language. I was drawn to an eclectic range of poets from Gertrude Stein to Susan Howe, from Robert Creeley to Frank O’Hara, from Robert Hass to Emily Dickinson, from H. D. to Wallace Stevens. Oh Louise Glück and Lyn Hejinian. My first book got some pretty scathing reviews and I felt at the time they were attacking American poetry as much as they were attacking my book. Murray Edmond wrote an extraordinary counter letter for Landfall. It was a vital lesson for a poet starting out. I immediately constructed a mental venue for the white noise of writing. The reviews, award seasons and so on can never erode what matters: writing itself.
My love of American poetry never left me, but my counterpoint to my Italian Doctorate shifted to New Zealand poetry. I wanted an increased familiarity with the communities from which I wrote. What American poetry gifted me, with that delicious knot of writing threads and poetry rebellions, is the courage to write in ways that suit me.