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Paula Green's epic collection of 150 years of NZ women's poetry

Paula Green wanted her book to “create room for the women to speak”. Photo/Getty Images and supplied

Groundbreaking new book Wild Honey puts a new spotlight on writers once derided for their domestic focus and includes figures from outside literature.

A more cautious anthologist would have delivered a chronological selection of women’s poetry. A less imaginative academic would have charted the history of women’s invisibility in our literary canon.

Instead, in her groundbreaking new book, Wild Honey, award-winning poet, critic, anthologist, judge and all-round poetry champion Paula Green has built a house, a metaphorical open home crammed with 201 poets from the past 150 years grouped in different “rooms” of shared themes, techniques and interests. Milling about in the kitchen, for example, we find Cilla McQueen, Morgan Bach and Jill Chan. In the nursery, Emma Neale, Margaret Mahy, Joy Cowley and Tayi Tibble; in the music room, Aldous Harding, Jenny Bornholdt and Bernadette Hall; in the lounge, Karen Zelas, Ruth Carr and Helen Rickerby; wandering through the garden, Ursula Bethell, Anna Smaill, Sue Wootton and Dinah Hawken.

It is noisy, refreshing and proudly anchored in the domestic.

“When I was looking back to the 20th century, I was feeling troubled by the way women were shunted into the shade, undermined and devalued and criticised for writing domestic poems,” says Green, at the home near Te Henga (Bethells Beach) that she shares with her husband, artist Michael Hight. She points to Eileen Duggan, neglected by Allen Curnow in his anthology A Book of New Zealand Verse 1923-45, vanishing into the shadows after publishing five remarkable collections of poems “with only a trail of disparaging criticism to mark her passing”.

Aldous Harding. Photo/Alamy

“And it still goes on. You still see women – and men – being criticised for the tedium of domestic poetry, where I feel this is a subject that is never redundant. So I wanted to write a book that brought women into the light. I didn’t want the book to be theoretical – I so often see women poets being hijacked to back theory – but I wanted it to show there are no rules when it comes to poetry, that there are many pathways into that house. I wanted to open all the windows and all the doors to create as much movement as possible. Poetry is so open and that is what makes it glorious for me – the openness and open-spiritedness of it.”

Green is an engaging host, throwing open the curtains, whisking off the dust sheets, coursing through different poetic traditions in animated homage to women’s writing. She describes Hannah Mettner’s poem about her father, a man who “scuttles between cut grass and God, two dedications that shape her father’s day”. She explores the tension between “distance and intimacy” in Ingrid Horrocks’ second collection of poetry, the rich layering in Anne Kennedy’s words that “tracks like a narrative yet sidetracks like a baroque painting”, the “musical intensity” of Neale, the “sonic fluency” of Bornholdt, the political ferocity and poetic daring of Blanche Baughan and Jessie Mackay, the raw untamedness implicit in the book’s title.

Honey has that sense of sweetness but it is also bitter and rough and textured. And it is out there in the wild – that is where women’s poetry began.”

Green avoids the “toxic anecdotes” on what men have done to the detriment of women poets, including her own experience of being “sidelined and belittled”. Rather, she says, “I am laying down a challenge with this book but I am laying it down in a different kind of way. I wanted to write a book that is hopefully intelligent and full of utter human warmth. And I wanted to create room for the women to speak.”

Margaret Mahy. Photo/Martin Hunter

In 570 pages, they do speak, in interviews, journals, essays and, of course, poetry: voices from rural Canterbury and South Auckland, from historical Scottish traditions to new Māori and Pasifika traditions, from children’s chants to contemporary lyrics.

“I am suspicious of people claiming some people as not poets. Children’s poets like Margaret Mahy and Joy Cowley – how often are they brought into the poetry discussion? But if you think about the agility and the layering [of their poems] – it is absolutely exquisite. And musicians. We love hearing Lorde sing but there is so much music in her lyrics, as there is in Aldous Harding and Nadia Reid. When you hear Selina Tusitala Marsh performing her poetry – it is the music that works on your body.”

There are new names, such as Evelyn Patuawa-Nathan – “I was so disappointed I could only find one book” – and new insights into more familiar names, such as Ursula Bethell. “It was extraordinary to read all her books and to take on board the fact she wrote poetry for just 10 years of her life during this intense love for Effie [Pollen] and for gardening, then when Effie died, she stopped writing, she stopped gardening.”

There are shared experiences (including the persistent white noise of self-doubt “that erodes a writer’s equilibrium”) and uncommon connections. Mackay and Hera Lindsay Bird, for example, one intensely private, the other raised on a “currency of confession”, both setting out to shake down complacency and mediocrity.

Hera Lindsay Bird. Photo/Alamy

“On the surface, they speak different languages, but when you set up camp in the poems, they have much in common.”

This is what Green does and what she invites us to do: wander into the world of the poem, marvel at language and rhythm, poke around the corners, peer under the veiled references, revel in the breaks, the continuities, the bravery, the recklessness, “the thrill of travelling without a road map”.

Green’s own path is strewn with books, art, music. Her poetry-writing mother grew up in Mapua, where Colin McCahon worked in the shed at the bottom of the garden. Toss Woollaston has a perch in the family tree; her great-uncle encouraged young Paula to paint. She still recalls the sermons of her father, a church minister before he left to teach music. “The pitch of the voice, the music, the storytelling – there’s a persuasive thing happening that affects you in lots of different ways.”

As a student at Kamo High School in Whangārei, she heard James K Baxter read his poetry. Awestruck, she rushed home to write her own Baxter-informed poems. Seven days later, he died.

For years she wrote, amassing a pile of notebooks. Then, in 1997, came Cookhouse, her first published collection of poetry drawing on recipe titles and her earlier doctorate on Italian women writers.

Robin Hyde. Photo/ATL 1/2-043599-F, Coloured by Harry Burgess/Listener

“Through a lucky collision of stars, everything aligned for me to become a published poet, and from then my career took off, but I could have remained a woman in the shadows with her secret notebooks. There are so many women like that. If you take the case of Mary Stanley, who published one book in the 1950s – it is the most extraordinary book of the most extraordinary poems. In a sense, the book is a puzzle, but it is also illuminating of a woman trying to find her place in the world as a mother and a writer.”

Since then, Green has maintained a prodigious output of adult and children’s poetry. Some are autobiographical. Slip Stream charts her experience of breast cancer. This year’s The Track chronicles her hike along Queen Charlotte Track in the Marlborough Sounds with a fractured foot.

It may be a collection of other poets’ work, but there are traces of Green’s own life in Wild Honey. “The fact I had a child and had her adopted and she is now part of my life again. I look back at that young woman who chose to give birth to her and give her to parents who couldn’t have children – I was 19, turning 20, and I can’t believe how I did that. Then when I read the poetry of Robin Hyde and what she had to go through to look after her son – it affects me so much more because of my history. And having had breast cancer – it brings death closer and it is always going to stay closer, but it made me realise what is important. So even though it made me feel quite vulnerable, I like the idea of saying that in public.”

After a hectic three launches in three months (as well as The Track and Wild Honey, she has also released a new collection of poems for children, called Groovy Fish and Other Poems), Green is back at home waiting for the long queue of new ideas to jostle into some kind of order.

Since her ordeal on Queen Charlotte Track, she has broken her other foot – she won’t be going for her morning run on the beach anytime soon – but she is happy to clear her desk and open a new page.

“In a sense I have all these rooms in my head where I have all these ideas germinating and I never talk about them. It is only when I start to put them on my laptop or computer, I might tell someone what I am working on. So, after the next couple of months, I will see which things become most insistent.”

Wild Honey: Reading New Zealand Women’s Poetry (Massey University Press, $45); The Track (Seraph Press $25); Groovy Fish and Other Poems (The Cuba Press, $25)

This article was first published in the August 24, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.