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Guy Somerset interviews poet Helen Heath

Helen Heath’s labours have won her this year’s Best First Book Award for Poetry.

Helen Heath New Zealand Post Book Awards
Helen Heath: “It’s safe to lose something or throw it away, because it’s never really gone.” Photo/David White

On the back cover of Helen Heath’s Graft, announced this week as Best First Book for Poetry in the New Zealand Post Book Awards, we are told: “To graft something is to fix two things together like tree branches or skin to heal or grow something new. The word graft originates from the Old Norse groftr, meaning to dig, and is also linked with the verb grave, an ancient Germanic one also meaning to dig.”

Grafting things together, digging – sometimes “in tough or broken terrain”, as Bill Manhire notes, also on the back cover – and the word grave’s intimations of death: Heath’s book certainly encompasses all these things.

But graft is important in one of its other senses, too: that of hard work. Because poems as good as Heath’s and a collection so well thought out and cohesive – with its themes of science, motherhood and grief intertwined in so many ways and looked at from all sorts of angles – need plenty of that.

The title “was a bit of a wink, yeah”, says Heath, followed by one of what prove to be frequent big-hearted laughs.

“You can put a collection together, sure, that’s disparate poems, but it’s far more satisfying to me to have something bigger that is a shaped collection,” she says.

“When I applied to do the masters [in creative writing at Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters], my proposal was to do a collection of science poetry … but it didn’t end up the way I thought it would – for the good of the collection in the end – because things about my family life kept creeping in. Trying to keep them separate in the beginning really held me back and then when it did all start to feed into each other, that’s when the good stuff really started to happen.”

A fan of Elizabeth Bishop, Heath often thinks “about how many drafts she went through to perfect her craft”. Her own poems “sit in my head for a long time and don’t really get on to paper for quite a while”.

One thing she learnt during her MA was it was all right to ditch a poem. “It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s lost forever and is never going to resurface. The opening poem in Graft, the one about Sir Isaac Newton, I had a lot of previous Newton poems, one in particular I’d worked on and worked on and really struggled with and it wasn’t working and wasn’t working and in the end I just threw it away.

“The existing poem in the book I wrote extremely quickly in a day with just a few little edits. [Poet] Chris Price was my supervisor and I remember sitting down with her and her saying, ‘This one is great’, and me going, ‘But, but … I only wrote it in a day and the other one you didn’t like I slaved over for months.’ She laughed and said, ‘Actually, you didn’t write it in a day. This is that same poem you did the hard graft on for months and months.’ This was an epiphany for me: that it’s safe to lose something or throw it away, because it’s never really gone.”

It was always going to be poetry for Heath – “there are terrible little scribbles dating a long way back” – although she admits to torturing friends and family with “little humorous plays” when she was growing up in Lower Hutt.

As for the science aspect of Graft and the second collection she is now working on as part of a PhD, you only have to look at her parents: an entomologist father whose “big thing during the 70s was fly strikes, so there was a lot of maggot talk over the dinner table” and a mother who studied zoology as an undergraduate, although went on to be a teacher: “She was a very small woman and was terrified of anyone very big, so she taught new entrants. That way they’d be guaranteed to be smaller than her. She was a funny woman.”

A formidable one, too, judging by poems such as The whole woman: “Although her mouth couldn’t praise/sometimes it showed in her eyes.//Her tongue drew back a defined/Cupid’s bow, spitting out the sounds/of her elocution lessons. Hard words,/for us to be better, go further./Talk meant nothing to her,/she needed actions to prove love.”

And a complicated relationship between daughter and mother: “wishing/her away, cutting her out/of photos with a pair/of nail scissors so carelessly/the little blades’ snip, snip/gouging her flesh surely//until she was no longer/where I looked for her” (I killed my mother).

Heath cautions that although Graft “has definitely got autobiographical aspects to it, I have completely mashed it up and made it into a fiction”. But the poems about her mother, who died of cancer in 1991, aged 49, “are probably the most true to life”. As such, they offer a gloss on neither grief nor the woman whose loss prompted it.

“They were a working through of our relationship. I think having my own daughter forced me to look back on my relationship with my mother and think about what it is to be a mother and how hard we are on our mothers, expecting some sort of saintly motherhood.

“My mother came from England in the 50s and was very English. She was very contained and reserved. She wasn’t a very affectionate woman, but I’ve come to realise she was fiercely proud of us and loved us deeply. She just thought you didn’t go around saying those things.”

Less true to the facts is Sackcloth, one of five poems exploring fairy-tale themes, in this case that of the stepmother.

“My poor stepmother,” says Heath. “That did cause some pain. Because I didn’t live at home when my father remarried, so there was no climbing out of windows [as there is in the poem]. That was my attempt at a kind of modern Sylvia Plath poem – playing around with ideas about stereotypes of how we’re expected to react when your parents remarry. My long-suffering stepmother has been very good!”

Graft was a finalist for this year’s Royal Society of New Zealand Science Book Prize, which gratified Heath immensely. “I felt they’d really gotten what I was trying to do.”

She was also pleased at the response when she gave a talk to the New Zealand Association of Scientists that sought to illustrate “the ability of poetry to condense [scientific] information and the importance of metaphor to aid communication, obviously not the full complexity, but a foot in the door to engaging readers”.Helen Heath New Zealand Post Book Awards

“Their eyes lit up and it was great,” says Heath.

During the talk, she spoke of the Romantic age and how – in one telling at least – it was poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge who invented the term “scientist” as an alternative to “natural philosopher”.

“There wasn’t the same kind of separation between poets and scientists during that period,” she says. “All those gentlemen scientists were dabbling around in everything. So it’s not really surprising a poet came up with the term. Poets like to name things. It’s a key thing about poets. They are always trying to put words to the world, aren’t they?”

GRAFT, by Helen Heath (VUP, $28).

Guy Somerset is one of the judges of this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards.