Emma Neale

by Siobhan Harvey / 26 April, 2008
Writer Emma Neale puts parenting centre stage in two new works.
It's a Wednesday afternoon in Dunedin, and author and anthologist Emma Neale is enthusing about one particular aspect of her life. "It's renewed the world for me," she says. Whatever can the source of this rejuvenation be? Alternative therapy? Religion? A makeover? "No," Neale laughs. "Motherhood." The very word makes her smile. As she continues, I notice the numerous photographs of Neale's five-year-old-son, Abe, that decorate the walls and shelves of her home.

"For one thing, Abe helped me heal the grief I felt when my father died in 1994. Having Abe has let joy re-enter my life."

Looking at Neale's curriculum vitae, which lists two poetry collections and four novels, including the much-lauded Little Moon (2001), one might think that the 38-year-old already had a lot of joy in her life. But so passionate has Neale become about the marvels of parenthood, she has spent the past four years devoting her creative energies to the writing of a newly released poetry collection, Spark, which charts Abe's infancy.

Four years to write a book of verse might seem like a mammoth undertaking, but Neale doesn't mind. "The reason that it took me so long to write, draft and edit Spark," she explains, "was that I was devoted towards something far more important - raising another human being. Looking back on it, I think I was fortunate to write anything while Abe was a baby. For me, though, writing Spark was manageable because poetry is so succinct and concentrated it readily adapted itself to those times when, as a new parent, I had limited time to be creative. Also, I think that, because poetry is a much more portable creative form, I found I could write it on the hoof, as it were, while I was raising Abe."

Written on the hoof Spark may have been, but the result is an accessible and well-crafted collection whose themes - birth, child-rearing, the pleasures and travails of parenthood - are sure to resonate with mothers, fathers and grandparents.

"I hope the book does reach out to people, that was my intention," Neale says. "When I was writing Spark, I was deeply conscious of the fact that the poems were voicing a common experience. I think poetry is best able to do that when the reader can most easily access what the writer is saying. It's a two-way process, though, because motherhood has definitely shaped the accessibility of my work. Since Abe came along, watching him learn how to speak and form sentences has placed a magnifying lens over the music of language and phrasing. For instance, Abe's a child who enjoys the ironies, double meanings and peculiarities of language. I know that Abe's delight of such things filtered back into my writing of Spark's poems."

For Neale, her new collection's potential to reach out to its readers is one thing; its capacity to have longer-term personal implications for her family another. "Writing Spark has been my version of taking photographs, of trying to arrest memorable moments during Abe's infancy and preserve them for all time. On a personal level, Spark will remain the framework for many intense experiences Abe and I had during his early years."

Suddenly, Neale appears such a convert to the cause of parenting that you fear her enthusiasm may, at any moment, spill over into soppiness.

"Never," she says. "With Spark, I quickly realised that the real danger with voicing your passion for your child is that it can so easily become saccharine. Because parenting is such a primal experience and is full of real highs and lows, when I came to write about it I saw that it would have been easy for me to forget about craft and believe that the emotion was powerful enough to carry the poem through. So I always had my alarm bells ringing when I was crafting a poem based upon personal parental experience. As it happens," she adds, "I encountered the same danger when it came to choosing the poems for Swings + Roundabouts."

Like Spark, Swings + Roundabouts has to do with parenting. Due out in May, it's an anthology of verse about motherhood and fatherhood that Neale started to edit once she'd completed Spark.

"Swings + Roundabouts overwhelmed me for quite sometime," she says. "My study burst at the seams with submissions, but what drove me was remembering the poems about parenting and childhood I'd read before becoming a mother. Evocative and powerful poems, like Bill Manhire's Children and the work of poets Sharon Olds and Louise Gluck. It was these poets who helped me compile Swings + Roundabouts because they made me see that when you go through a major life change, such as parenthood, if you read poetry you turn to poems like theirs for your own solace or to guide through the maelstrom of early parenthood."

If the emphasis upon family seems particularly acute in Neale's work at present, in truth, she says, it's nothing new. "I've always been fascinated by how families mould our identities: for good or ill. I think this all started with my parents, who were the reason why I became a writer. Dad, for instance, sat me down and gave me a stern talking-to in my teens when I mentioned wanting to follow in his footsteps and become a doctor. Basically, he said he wouldn't want me to become a doctor because it ruins your family life."

And Neale's mother, the accomplished author Barbara Else? "Well, having a mother who wrote was definitely a help and an influence in my career-choice. Right from our primary school days, my mother was actively writing, voraciously reading, and involving me in reading drafts of her stories and early novels. Also it was Mum and Chris [Else, author and Neale's stepfather] who, through their literary agency Total Fiction Services, helped to sell my first book, Night Swimming, to Random House."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Neale's interest in childhood shows no signs of abatement. Take her next book, for instance. "I can't say too much, but it's a novel and is about something which fascinates all kids - the yeti."

At the mention of the mythical snow-monster, our conversation is disrupted as Abe roars into the room, fresh from school. Seeing Neale's son makes me want to ask his mother a hypothetical question. If, when Abe is older, he says that he wants to be a writer, would she encourage or caution him?

Neale laughs. "I'd probably do a mixture of both, actually. I'd tell him that he has to have a decent day job, but I think it would also be delightful to watch someone you've raised find their voice and their passion in life. The one thing I do deeply want for my son is for him to find the thing that drives him, whatever that might be - if he's happy doing it, that's all that concerns me."

Looking at the pleasure on Neale's face at Abe's return home, you know she means it.

Siobhan Harvey is an Auckland writer and tutor.
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