Steve Braunias reveals his tortured, gummy past as a poet manqué.
He creeps in shadows, avoiding sunlight – not an easy thing to do in a seaside town where it's always summer and the sun is pinned high in the sky, a fire blazing on the hot golden sand. His skin is white as fleece. He imagines he has intense, dark eyes and black shoulder-length hair. In fact he has pretty blue eyes and his blond hair tends to grow up, not down. His mum buys him handkerchiefs on his birthday. She cooks lamb chops and peas for his dinner. "Thanks, Mum," he says and, after the dishes are done, they watch TV.
Yet he retains an idea of himself as a tragic and certainly very interesting figure, austere, distant, remote, mysterious, unknowable, a keeper of secrets, an author in possession of literary genius – no, wait, hear him out on that latter wild claim, he has evidence, proof. He can provide the necessary documents. He is a published poet.
His work features in You Can't Eat A Poem, an anthology of poems written by New Zealand school pupils and edited by Helen M. Hogan. It was published by Whitcoulls in 1980. In her introduction, Hogan writes, "The poems in this anthology have been written during 1978 and 1979 and have been selected from nearly 2000 poems submitted for consideration."
He's New Zealand's next top poet. He's made the grade. He's up there with the best; over 50 schools are represented in the book, including the silver spoon academies of Dio and Nga Tawa, but also Gore High School, Ruapehu College, Blue Mountains College in Tapanui. He's the sole representative from Mt Maunganui College.
He was 19 when he wrote it, 20 when it was published. So tender, so pale! He's very fine-featured - thin wrists, narrow waist, long eyelashes. He's in possession of very fine feelings, although most of them are about himself, the usual frenzy of teenage self-regard and self-loathing. He hears voices in his head, and that makes things interesting, may even resemble mental illness, but they're all just his own voice, eager to remind himself of his many and varied failings. But the book tells another story. The fact that he has been selected and included in You Can't Eat A Poem is a statement of success.
He considers the possibility that he stands with the immortals. "I greet you at the beginning of a great career," Ralph Waldo Emerson famously wrote to Walt Whitman in 1855, upon reading Leaves of Grass, a book of poems Emerson described as "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed." Exactly 100 years later, City Lights publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti borrowed the line in a telegram he sent to a young and as yet unknown Allen Ginsberg, upon hearing Ginsberg read "Howl", that epic vision of America as a madhouse.
Whitman, Ginsberg … the brooding poet from Mt Maunganui, young and as yet unknown, waits to join them. What word of greeting and acclaim will follow his appearance in You Can't Eat A Poem? He waits. He waits. He waits in Wellington, where he has moved to and found a job wrapping up plates in a kitchen supplies warehouse. He starts on the ground floor and never gets anywhere further but he earns money to buy his first typewriter. He sits in a small room in a hostel at nights, and learns to type by copying the first 100 pages of The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath: "It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York. I'm stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that's all there was to read about in the papers - goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway...."
He types and waits. He waits and writes poems, carefully worded, inscrutable, vague, brittle, thin poems. He posts them to literary journals, magazines, newspapers. He has a Picasso drawing of French poet Arthur Rimbaud pinned to his wall; he ripped it out of a book. He makes peasant meals of bread and cheese at his writing desk, and sweeps the crumbs under his bed. He stays up late reading Kafka, Dostoevsky, Auden, Baxter, the literary journal Landfall, Phantom comics. The window opens on to a small ledge, where he sits on summer evenings and watches shadows lengthen on the grass.
The waiting ends. He stops writing poems: he quits while he's behind. He turns his attention to practical matters and enrolls in a school of journalism. He establishes a career. He grows old. He coarsens.
In late 2018, he publishes an anthology of New Zealand poetry, and dedicates it to Helen M. Hogan. He writes, "To Helen Hogan, who published anthologies of poems by college students throughout the 1970s. It meant the world for Mt Maunganui College student Stephen Braunias to have his poetry published for the first time. It was also the last time."
The boy I used to be was a no-hoper and a drag but I miss him sometimes. He was sensitive. He took poetry seriously, and his mission was to create art, one line at a time. He had something resembling talent. It just wasn't a very good likeness. Certainly no one recognised it – no one except Helen M. Hogan, perhaps, who thought well enough of my 1978 poem "Gum Trees" to choose it for her anthology You Can't Eat A Poem. It really did mean the world. It felt as though my life had been saved.
Forty years later the least I could do when I published my own anthology, The Friday Poem, was to dedicate it to Hogan. I had failed as a poet but I never stopped reading the poetry of others; if it became Hogan's mission to publish six anthologies of poetry by New Zealand college students throughout the 1970s, it became my mission to record what I think of as an especially exciting time in New Zealand poetry these past four years, and publish the evidence in The Friday Poem.
The 100 poems first appeared at the Spinoff, where I serve as books editor. I've posted a new poem at the site every Friday since 2015. The book is a best-of, with established writers (Bill Manhire, Sam Hunt, Fleur Adcock, poet laureate Selina Tusitala Marsh), rising stars (Tayi Tibble, Claudia Jardine, Joy Holley, Hera Lindsay Bird), complete nobodies, and Colin Craig.
The youngest poet is Mira Karunanidhi. She was a Year 12 student in Wellington when she wrote "Universe". It's very good, a simply-put Dear John goodbye letter, quietly devastating – it's nothing like "Gum Trees", by that windy, verbose 18-year-old from another age, in Mt Maunganui. It begins:
A wrinkled, wrapped-up tree Dressed-down for the day
"Wrapped-up", "Dressed-down" – that's actually not bad. I was crazy about hyphens that year. We were taught Gerald Manley Hopkins in English. I loved his way with a hyphen – "couple-colour", "white-fiery". His hyphens were like little sharp nails; he used them to hammer two words together.
Casual and as-you-were Obeys the rays and winds Who bite the bark and sound it.
More hyphens, and that last line is actually quite good. There's a hardness to those monosyllables, something raw, physical, belonging to the natural world.
Solid and rock-ready, It slopes, slacks, waves and sees, Palms the stars in spindly fingers, Baits the hook dangled down To drown it in buoyant branches.
I have no idea what any of that means. What "hook", how are branches of a tree even remotely "buoyant"? Is the tree underwater or something? I think I remember the tree that inspired the poem, or row of trees; they were on the edge of a field at my school. I liked trees. I remember another row of trees on another edge of a field, where I played in a game of soccer one day in Tauranga – the trees were in front of a bay, the tide was out, it was a cold, grey, windless day in winter, and I was really enchanted by those trees, how bare they were, with their message of death. I stopped and studied them before kick-off. My best friend walked over and said, "What are you looking at?" He had a very strong shot, he was our leading goalscorer. My role, as I saw it, was to ghost into good positions in the midfield and thread the ball to his feet. I said, "Those trees ...They're really beautiful." He looked at the trees, and then he looked at me, and said, "I worry about you sometimes."
This enjoyment of coupling sticks and stars Is the light with firm, A company fit to waltz rings Around the finger of life, Prettying a digital dusk.
No idea what that means either, not that I ever look for meaning in poetry. As a poetry editor, I try not to look for anything – the poem should do the finding, whether it creeps up on you or whether it announces its intentions right from the start. I think of the immediacy and the challenge of a poem by Liz Breslin in The Friday Poem, which begins: "They're all on P in Timaru". Then there's a poem by Harry Ricketts, written in the form of a limerick, with the repeated line, "I once had a stepson called Max" – I kept thinking, this is silly, why is he writing a limerick for God's sake, but right at the end he leaves a blank line and the terrible knowledge dawns on you that he's left a space for Max's death.
I wish "Gum Trees" had blank lines.
Crinkling its boughs, and winking Its flashes soon to bloom And disguises the bare bones for one season, One season to rekindle its brittle grace, To lose face, To hide, to stay inside and let flowers Attract us with petals And a petite appearance.
Oh God that's just awful. There are some reasonable attempts at internal rhyme and I kind of admire the sheer stupid doggedness of its seemingly endless search to describe a tree, but it's boring. It's just words. It's not life and what's in it, there's no imagery or music or tension or mystery, nothing is happening and nothing ever will – of course I failed as a poet. I wasn't a poet. I was a poet manqué. A poet is Elizabeth Smither, who contributes a terrifying poem in The Friday Poem anthology about writing someone's name on a slip of paper and keeping it in the freezer, like a curse. A poet is Kevin Ireland, who writes of adding wine to a lamb stew, and drinking what's left over. A poet is Courtney Sina Meredith, who writes a kind of mystery novel with letters of the alphabet as clues. A poet is Rachel McAlpine, who writes, "I asked my sister, When/ will I be ready to die?/ She said, When you die."
There are poems in the book about death, love, sex, children, small towns, drinking, the lives of women, the lives of Maori, pigs in Tonga, dogs in Samoa, heartbreak, happiness. There are even poems about trees. Ian Wedde describes the jacaranda flowers that fall on to pavements of Herne Bay like "negligent mauve litter". You can see that, can't you? The sidewalk littered with limp, scattered flowers, a confetti of purple.
You can't see the flowers in my poem "Gum Trees" on account of the fact gum trees don't have flowers. Was I even looking at a gum tree? That line of trees on the edge of a field – were they gums, or something else? What's the good of a poem if it doesn't observe, doesn't see?
One season, One transparent season.
And that, thankfully, is the end – of the poem, of my career as a poet. No further trace exists. Good. I'll leave it to the experts, to the poets who hammer in the nail between language and the world.
The Friday Poem: 100 New Zealand poems edited and introduced by Steve Braunias (Luncheon Sausage Books, $25)