Poetry has always been the most challenging style of writing for me, both to write and to interpret. In high school English classes I would search for meaning that wasn’t there, missing the point again and again, and any attempts to write poetry felt forced and directionless. Brevity has never been a strong part of my writing, and it seemed that poetry should be brief, or at least economical.
Overall, my lack of engagement with poetry for most of my life is more directly a result of my own doubts and failings, and a sort of laziness: I don’t get it, so why even try? Occasionally this thought would take on a fanciful life of its own and I would dismiss poetry out of hand. Bloody exclusive club. Too lofty, too out of touch with reality to appeal to me and my firmly grounded brain. This, of course, is rubbish; I live in as much of a manufactured fantasy world as anyone else.
A few people have helped turn this around. A few months ago, I came across the poetry of Ashleigh Young, a Wellington-based poet and writer. It seemed accessible to me in a way that poetry generally hasn’t in the past, naturalistic in style and easy to relate to but still very graceful and lyrical. Have a look at ‘Afternoon with Simon’ or ‘Certain trees’ and you might see what I mean. I think what I like most about her poetry is the way she can describe places, people, and feelings in words that I can manage semantically without a second thought, then blows me away with one deeply poetic and resonant line — like this, from ‘Certain trees’:
Certain trees reach for a woman
who is handing washing to the wind, a shirt
by the arms, pants by the waist, socks
by the feet;
handing over parts of the body has never
been so easy.
The other heartening thing about Ashleigh’s poetry for me, a guy who felt bounced from the poetry club, is that she writes essays and blogs and tweets as well. As obvious as it may seem, this was a revelation to me: to write poems, you do not need only write poems. ‘Here, she also writes the same sorts of things I do!’ She’s much better and more practised at them than I am, of course, but the thing she demonstrates to a poetry philistine like me is that you don’t have to choose sides. You can write prose and poetry, if you wish, and you can certainly read and appreciate both.
In late 2012, Ashleigh organised Twitter Poetry Night NZ. The basic concept was that people would record themselves reading poems and then, over the course of a couple of hours on a Sunday night, she would tweet them from the @PoetryNightNZ Twitter account. This idea rather freaked me out — quite apart from the horror of trying to read poetry aloud, I find the sound of my own voice painful — but I wanted to branch out and give it a go, even if it turned out to be awful.
But what to read? Well, two other friends from Twitter made the decision easy. Sameera is from India, Kathleen is from Brisbane; both are great admirers of the late Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali and had frequently shared his lines. Ali’s poetry is beautiful and shattering, accessible even as it breaks you down with horrors you can’t imagine. From ‘A wrong turn‘:
I’m alone, walking among the atrocities,
gods stabbed at their altars,
dry wells piled with bones,
a curfew on ghosts.
Because Agha Shahid Ali’s poems had brought a notably strong response from me, I wanted to read something of his. By doing so, perhaps I would show Sameera and Kathleen how thankful I was that they had introduced his work into my life. And perhaps his stunning verse would sound good even when spoken in my flat, monotonous tones.
So, a few days before Twitter Poetry Night NZ, I sat down with a couple of glasses of red wine (because Muse singer Matthew Bellamy says red wine soothes his vocal cords and he does have a remarkable voice, even if Muse’s music is overblown and hilarious and the opposite of Agha Shahid Ali’s poetry) and recorded a few takes of ‘Snow on the Desert‘. I chose ‘Snow on the Desert’ because it seemed about the right length for a poetry reading — a little under four minutes — and unlike much of Ali’s work, I felt I could read it without feeling like a total impostor. His words often seem to speak for Kashmir to the world, and as such it seems right to me that they should only be read by a Kashmiri, or by someone who has experienced similar hardships, while the rest of the world ought to simply listen. With ‘Snow on the Desert’, though, I felt Ali’s voice was more general, so speaking the words aloud didn’t feel like such an intrusion.
You get a lot closer to words when you carry them from one medium to another. Writing down what someone is saying, for example, forces you to act as their representative in the transition from speech to text. There’s a kind of responsibility there, however meaningless the words may be, and your job is to process those words adequately so that you can represent them accurately. The difference with text to speech is that you are now using something more personal to you — your voice — and the exercise becomes as much about representing yourself as about representing the words and their writer.
By the fourth take, I had learned technicalities like where I wanted to pause during the reading, where to speak faster, how to keep my voice aimed at my laptop’s tiny in-built microphone. I had learned that even though I wasn’t there when Begum Akhtar sang in New Delhi and the lights went out, I was still able to read aloud Ali’s description of that event and remain comfortable that my voice was simply a vessel for his experience. I had also learned that the final few lines moved me every time I read them, and I couldn’t help but feel like I was speaking my own deepest thoughts, albeit dredged up and articulated by a superior wordsmith.
I uploaded the fourth take of ‘Snow on the Desert’ to Soundcloud…
…and sent Ashleigh the link. She said nice things about my reading, and when it was posted on Twitter on the night itself, lots of other people said nice things too. Even Sameera and Kathleen, who are worthy poets themselves, liked and shared it. I was pleasantly surprised by the positive feedback, but more than that, I was surprised at my own satisfaction in the whole thing. It felt like I had confronted something alien to me and engaged with it in a way that helped me understand it a little better.
The best feedback was still to come, though. A few months later, after I’d more or less forgotten about the whole thing, I was stumbling around Soundcloud listening to free electronic tracks and DJ mixes when I noticed I had received a message. Here are some of the words in that message:
I thought your reading of Shahid’s poem was lovely. [...] Did you know Shahid? I was a friend of his; we met in the late 70s, and I saw him often until he died. Even in Arizona.
This is one of my favorite of his poems, and my favorite book of his is that one which houses Snow on the Desert, A Nostalgist’s Map of America. The title poem is brilliant, and it breaks my heart each time I read it.
Anyway . . . thanks for recording this and putting it out into the world, for others to enjoy, and to discover Shahid.
Someone who had known Agha Shahid Ali personally (they even called him ‘Shahid’) had listened to my reading of one of his poems and enjoyed it enough to let me know. I had read the poem and put it online because some Twitter friends had helped me see the greatness of his work and given me a place to share it. If you spend enough time on the Internet, you have moments like this that make it all worthwhile.
Now there’s another NZ Twitter Poetry Night coming up on Sunday 10 March and I’m considering whether to have another go. I got a lot out of the first one, obviously, but I doubt the experience could be so positive the second time around. I have no idea what I would read. Most of all, I still doubt my capability as a reader. But it seems that doubt will likely always be there, and it would be worthwhile to re-engage with poetry in a deeper fashion than simple consumption. Whether I will ever try to write poems is another story — here’s another needlessly verbose blog post down — but I am glad these recent experiences have given me more of a connection with poetry than I used to have. Turns out the doors of the club were open all along; it just helped to know a couple of people inside.