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Spring 2007, vol 5 no 1

An Interview with Patricia Prime
by Beverley George


BG: Patricia, you are well known as a reviewer, interviewer and editor of substance but I would like the focus of the interview to be on your own writing, although we may touch on some of these other aspects later. Is this all right with you?

PP: I'm delighted to be able to focus on my own writing for this interview.

 

BG: How has migration from England to New Zealand in your youth affected your feelings for landscape? Does the natural world around feel like home to you or do you sometimes miss the landscape you grew up in?

PP: The New Zealand landscape is very similar to that of some parts of the UK. For instance, the South Island's mountains and lakes are often compared with the scenery of Scotland. I'm a Londoner by birth and grew up in the city. I now live in Auckland, which is New Zealand's largest city, though not the capital. In Auckland we are only a stone's throw away from two magnificent harbours: the Waitemata and the Manakau. There are several good beaches only half an hour's drive from the city: on the west coast there is black sand and surf and on the east coast white sandy bays with opportunities for swimming, picnics and family outings. Our scenery, wildlife and natural resources are among the best in the world. We have ski slopes, good fishing and other outdoor pursuits. Auckland itself is situated on seven extinct volcanoes and there is a dormant volcano in the Hauraki Gulf called Rangitoto (blood-red sky). There is plenty of inspiration for writing to be gained from the New Zealand landscape (although many overseas readers might be mystified by the use of Maori words and the names of the New Zealand flora and fauna). When I use Maori words in haiku, tanka or haibun, I provide a glossary for readers.

 

BG: Can you see advantages in having lived in different countries - different hemispheres? How might this have influenced the way in which you write.

PP: There are advantages from having lived in two hemispheres. I have a good knowledge of the Northern Hemisphere: its climate, mores, traditions, culture, history etc., and I now have a useful knowledge and experience of the Southern Hemisphere: a grounding in New Zealand history and traditions, a knowledge of Maori culture, traditions, history, music and language, and I also have a knowledge of Pacific Island culture. I usually write for a target audience, which might be a British, American, Indian or New Zealand one.

 

BG: Was poetry the first genre you wrote?

PP: I began writing by attending a creative writing course with my daughter who was then aged 14. Later on I did a creative writing course with the Wellington Writing School, which covered short stories, poetry, articles and novels. I started by writing articles and the first one I wrote was published in the New Zealand magazine, Metro.

 

BG: Can you remember what the first poem you wrote was about? How do you feel about it now?

PP: The first successful poem I wrote was called "Street Kids" and was published in a New Zealand magazine by the editor Bernard Gadd, whom I later worked with editing Kokako. I thought it was a good "modern" story and something I was familiar with as, since the early death of my husband, I was bringing up four teenagers on my own.

 

BG: What drew you to the Japanese poetic genres? Which did you write first, haiku or tanka?

PP: My introduction to the Japanese forms was through an editor, David Drummond, who has since died. David was the founder and editor of Spin and was married to a Malaysian lady. I believe they travelled and worked in Japan. I sent some of my first traditional poems to him in 1987 for publication in his journal and learned that the magazine also contained haiku.

Tanka came several years later after an on-going correspondence with Michael Dylan Welch who edited Tundra, which contained both haiku and tanka. Michael recommended some books of tanka for me to read. He later became President of the Tanka Society of America and I submitted some of my first tanka to him for the newsletter.

 

BG: When you started to write haiku who influenced your writing and in what way?

PP: Before I began writing haiku my friend Catherine Mair was already a proficient writer of the form and I decided after seeing her work that it was something I could do. Catherine later went on to edit (with Bernard Gadd) the New Zealand haiku magazine winterSPIN (an offshoot of the poetry magazine Spin). This later became Kokako, which Owen Bullock and I now co-edit. Kokako is New Zealand's only haiku magazine and is published twice a year, in April and September. Email submissions are welcome: pprime@ihug.co.nz.

 

BG: What is your personal favourite among the haiku you have written? Not necessarily a well-known or published one. And can you say why?

PP: One of my personal favourite haiku is one I wrote a short time ago

rock pool –
stepping into his reflection
the small boy

For me this epitomizes all that is wonderful about living in New Zealand: the sand, sea and sun, the outdoors and the well being of children. The child lives in the moment unaware of those around him, happily playing by himself whilst his mother looks on. The rock pool symbolizes adventure and discovery. All children seem to love exploring rock pools, discovering crabs, barnacles, sea anemones and splashing about in the water. The little boy is innocent and is about to step forward into life to discover not only its beauty, but also its danger.

 

BG: Would you tell us about your involvement in the Katikati Pathway? What it is. How it came about. And what did you do, or what have you done since, to help?

PP: The Haiku Pathway is Katikati's unique millennium project currently being developed by the Katikati Haiku Pathway Focus Committee. The path flows down to the Uretara Stream, follows the stream, then zigzags up to the back of the library. Along the way are 27 river boulders on which have been carved haiku by poets from New Zealand and around the world, including the Japanese Masters. The names of individual poets are included on plaques set into the rocks. The haiku on themes such as the river, wildlife, trees, etc. were carefully selected by Katikati haijin Catherine Mair to harmonise with their situation. A further 72 boulders have been used for landscaping. The haiku are carved in stone and the spiritual dimension of the work is an enduring gift for future generations.

I was present at some of the first construction work and saw many of the huge boulders being lowered into place. I also attended the Maori blessing of the footbridge across the stream. I've judged (with Catherine) one of the Katikati haiku competitions and I have an inscribed boulder on the pathway that reads

on the farmland
new homes
slowly rising

The land on which the pathway is situated is on council land adjoining the farm that has been in Catherine's family for several generations, but is now a flourishing housing development. The Haiku Pathway is also developing and there are plans ahead for more inscribed boulders. The Katikati Haiku Contest will take place again next year and it is hoped that many fine haiku will result.

A committee has been established to oversee the maintenance and future development of the pathway.

 

BG: When I think about the many dimensions of the poetry world with which you are involved, I would instinctively include your collaborative work with Catherine Mair. How did this come about? How does it work?

PP: Our collaboration began with the self-publication of a collection of our separate traditional poetry in the place where, the shortcut home, and other small publications. We published a collection of our haiku with Indian poet R. K. Singh, in a book called Every Drop Stone Pebble, and I published a book of haiku, Duet, with Kanwar Dinesh Singh.

We began writing linked verse in collaboration with each other several years ago, and have since self-published many collections encompassing the Japanese short forms in chapbooks under the impress Highfields 19, such as sweet penguin, last rays of the sun, East Cape, Stolen Time and Morning Glory.

We envision our linked verse as "moments in time" captured in a haiku-like form. The links may be subtle, created by writing in the same place at the same time. For this informal type of linked verse to work there needs to be balance and empathy between the writers. In much the same way that renga evolved in Japan as enjoyable entertainment and communication, so our collaborative verse began, and continues. We don't see our linked verse as haiku or renga, but rather as "stream-of-consciousness" lines written when we are in close proximity: walking, talking, visiting places of interest.

For those readers who haven't seen our writing, I would suggest that our links follow certain themes of time, place, feeling and "togetherness", rather than the Japanese idea of the mind "leaping" from one image to something totally different. This, we have been told, is part of the "rebellious" nature of our work, and what makes it different from the formal style of renga.

An example of one of our linked verses is the following poem to be published in a forthcoming issue of LYNX

Gnats

mosaic wall plaques – the sun's smile
rosemary – the bees remember
"I'm a believer" from the fire officer's 4-wheel drive
"prickles no more" – the cheetah machine
on the lawn an outcrop of miniature pansies
looking at the sky disc through a cloud of gnats
in front of the open garage a gardening glove
past No. 51 – a cherry blossom petal drifts
from the aerial, the bird's warble
accomplished – the changeover of annuals

Patricia Prime
Catherine Mair

Since I first began writing with Catherine I have published a renku with British poet, John Carley and Irish poet, Norman Darlington, and have published work with Tasmanian poet, Ron Moss.

 

BG: If Catherine were here too and I put this question to both of you, what would you both agree is your most personally satisfying example of collaborative writing? Would you care to quote it here?

PP: After giving a poetry reading in which few of the poets had heard of haiku, we wrote a humorous haibun called "The Clapped-out Microphone", which was published in the New Zealand magazine Takahe.


The Clapped-out Microphone

Several of the audience are dressed as 'poets' – flowers and ribbons in the women's hair, a man with a goatee and beret.

Fred, the compere, not able to place Sarah (one of the guest poets), calls her by the wrong name again. For the first bracket of the evening the microphone remains obstinate: voices whisper around the room

collapsing on the floor
the blackboard
listing readers

From the back of the group a little old lady comes forward to fill her five-minute slot and reads, with panache, one haiku. A bowl of hot chocolate splashes across a folder. In the corner some of the children are writing haiku at a table.

Shaking like a leaf, but not wanting to explain her Parkinson's again, Sheila comes to the mike, nearly tripping over leads on the floor

a baby's
highchair
for a lectern

Many of the audience are enjoying their first experience of haiku. A chuckle is heard when a poet reads

bus terminal
a skateboarder
bounces off seats

Halfway through the evening they sort out the microphone and the organizer Moira exclaims, "Our group nearly bought the temperamental thing!" Fred declares he's having a bad hair day. "When things start to go wrong at the beginning, it's hard to get them back on track!"

Pausing for effect, but merely losing the place in her notebook, Judy shows off her Library of Congress T-shirt. Exotic Tamsin (a nutritionist) reads her poem "The Sugar Demon", whilst nearly swallowing the microphone.

Near the end Fred salvages his credibility by quoting one of the guest poet's haiku without missing a beat

dahlia
tucked into the microphone
falls to the floor

 

BG: Would you agree that you are probably best known internationally as a tanka poet?

PP: I have written tanka only for the past few years and I think I'm better known internationally as a reviewer. I review for Gerald England's New Hope International: www.newhopeinternational.org, the New Zealand journals JAAM and Takahe, the Australian online journal Stylus www.styluspoetryjournal.com, Poets International (India), Metverse Muse (India), the Belgium review of translations, babel, and the Tasmanian journal Famous Reporter. I've been writing mainstream poetry since 1986 and my poems have been published in New Zealand, Britain, Australia, USA, Canada, India, and more.

 

BG: One of my favorite tanka of yours which was published in Yellow Moon years ago but which I often quote in my workshops is

leaving home
fog over the harbour
makes all shapes one
I carry a thin mist
into the warm building

It resonates well with many people, poets and poetry readers alike. If I were to ask you for a tanka of your own that you feel happiest with, what might you say?

PP: A favourite tanka of mine was published in Kokako 5, 2006

her new house –
as we rip up the carpet
to reveal kauri boards
we find an old newspaper
and frame it for the kitchen

My daughter recently became the proud possessor of her first home, an 80 year-old cottage she is renovating. One of the first jobs she tackled was ripping out the ancient carpet, covered by the dirt and dust of many years, to uncover the kauri floorboards. Beneath the carpet she discovered an old newspaper containing some advertisements and articles dating back over half a century: bread for a penny a loaf, milk for tuppence a pint, that kind of thing. She decided to keep it and frame it as part of the house's history.

 

BG: I've had the pleasure of publishing several of your haibun in Yellow Moon, most recently "Slipper Baths". This haibun harks back to memories of England. Are they your own memories or ones passed on by family? What do you think of immediacy as opposed to reminiscence in haibun?

PP: Haibun can encompass many moods, landscapes, travel, etc. and there's no subject that is taboo. As Lee Gurga states in his book Haiku: A Poet's Guide, 2003, "Haibun is a sort of verbal collage that contains passages of narrative or imaginative prose combined with haiku." Therefore I believe that a haibun can tell a story from the past, can recount something that is happening in the present or can be entirely imaginative.

Many of my haibun are written from my memories of growing up in post-war Britain: I find this is a minefield of untapped material. It was a time of economic depression in a landscape of depressing sights of rows of house huddled among rubbish, a patchwork of ripped off roofs, filthy plaster walls, bombed sites and potholes. These were potential hazards but still there was freedom for children to wander the streets, bombed-out buildings and parks unsupervised. It was a time of happiness too as people could take stock of their lives, slow down, simplify, find new jobs, assist those less privileged and expose their children to a new way of life. Neighbours were friendly and did their best to help one another, whereas nowadays, people tend to stay within the confines of their houses.

I like to think about a way of life that has almost disappeared. There are not many people who have experienced things such as street vendors, public baths, the nurse who, every six months, checked children for head lice (she was nicknamed "nitty-nora"), schooldays growing up in a Catholic convent taught by strict nuns, Saturday morning pictures, pocket-money that provided small treats for children accustomed to poverty, allotments, trams and so much more. You notice things that are no longer here. I want to deal with absence and what was absent in the place where I grew up. It's like translating a foreign environment into an artistic place.

There's also a place in my haibun for immediacy: a piece of writing that captures the moment as it is unfolding (or shortly afterwards). In one haibun I capture the unbelievable fairytale dress of a lady at her thirty-sixth birthday party; in another, the delight of a child watching giant excavators in a goldmine; and in a third, the recent death of a small child.

The following is an example of an "immediate" haibun:

Thirty-sixth Birthday

She arrives in a pea-green crinoline and brown boots with a tiara in her hair, bearing a gift box that contains heart-shaped chocolates.

behind her ear
a dandelion
from her two-year old niece

She waltzes round the room with a can of coke in her hand demonstrating the way the hoops move beneath her skirts. "I can glide," she laughs. This is a mother with two young sons, but she is still a child at heart. I tell her that I used to wear hoops underneath my petticoat when I was a teenager. It was embarrassing to sit down as they stuck up in the air and revealed everything, and one had to hold them down with both hands.

On her last birthday she hired a Queen of Hearts costume to wear at the restaurant. People came up to her, admiring her dress, asking where she had hired it.

an asthma attack –
trying to catch her breath
between laughs

 

BG: Which of your own haibun is your favourite?

PP: One of my favourite haibun is one I wrote about one of the little boys at the kindergarten where I worked who was killed in a tragic accident. It was published in Contemporary Haibun Online, June, 2006.

Tangi for Nate – Age 3

summer rain
beneath a blue tarpaulin
our tears

"Wait here five minutes," the tupuna says, "then we'll call you on." He signals for us to wait out of the rain. The powhiri begins. A bunch of leaves is laid at our feet as a mark of respect and welcome. I pick them up.

We leave our shoes on the porch and cross the doorstep. In the darkened room mattresses lie on the floor and the tiny white coffin, draped with the child's new clothing and toys, sits in the middle. Grandmother, mother, aunts, cousins and sisters rest on the mattresses, while the men, some carrying guitars, stand against the wall.

A karakia is sung by a wahine and the tupuna asks us to sit down while he makes a speech in Maori. He follows with a translation and asks us if we would like to reply. As the little boy's kindergarten teachers for three months of his brief life, we make an effort to say something about Nate's great qualities: his laugh, his smile, the way he was always first (and last) with his kai. An uncle brandishes his guitar and begins a song that he says is for all tamariki. We follow with a song about love we've taught the kindy children, "Te Aroha."

Afterwards we move to the casket. Nate wears his beloved blue hat and a pair of Batman pyjamas. His small cousin pokes him with a finger, "Wake up, bro. Wake up. You've been sleeping too long!" Two young girls are busy weaving friendship bracelets and Nate's mother gently smoothes her son's face with cold cream.

at the foot
of the child's casket
his Christmas presents

The family gather for one final song and then we make our farewells. The horizon's semi-precious, the rain is past, the children smile and wait to see us off. "Haere ra!" they call. "Thank you for coming."

on the porch
my shoes full
of hail stones

Tangi: lamentation
Wahine: woman
Tupuna: grandparent
Powhiri: welcome
Karakia: lament
Kai: food
Tamariki: children
Aroha: love
Haere ra: farewell

 

BG: That is so moving, Patricia, and an important example of your own work.

You have become well-respected in poetry circles for the time and effort you devote to other poets' work in the form of interviews and reviews, as well as the editing roles we have touched on lightly. It's not easy to produce balanced reviews and sometimes honesty is not appreciated. Would you care to discuss your motivation for writing them and how you approach the task?

PP: I've always enjoyed reading and have written for the past twenty years. I think reading must be an important part of a writer's and a reviewer's life. I have to be willing to delve into the background of the author in order to enrich my knowledge: discover which other books they have written and perhaps read them. As a change from writing poetry, I enjoy writing clear, persuasive prose that gives an accurate picture of a book I'm discussing and try to write with a sense of fairness and responsibility to the author and reader and do it in a balanced and objective way.

I think one should convey to the reader the news of the book, the who, what, where, when, and how of the book, and the why. Very often this information is more important to the reader than my own judgment of the worth of the book. Praise or blame doesn't mean much without communicating a sense of what the book is trying to convey.

Reviewing is a critical activity. That is, informed judgments are expected of a reviewer. Reflective, judicious assessment is possible if one writes at some distance from the material. I find that the unconscious mind is very helpful in this regard. After reading, I give my response to the book some time to settle. An immediate review after reading, I have found, is more likely to be either unfairly deprecating or extravagant in its praise.

 


Patricia Prime recently retired from teaching in an early childhood center. She now works part-time as a relief teacher and is also involved in assisting children in the reading recovery programme at her local school. She is co-editor of the New Zealand haiku magazine Kokako and reviews editor of the Australian online magazine Stylus. Besides writing poetry, reviewing, interviewing and writing articles, she also writes haiku, tanka, renga, linked verse, cheritas and haibun, sometimes in collaboration with other poets. She has won several awards for haiku, tanka and haibun.

Patricia has published several books of collaborative poetry with her friend and fellow-poet, Catherine Mair: sweet penguins, the place where, Every Drop Stone Pebble (a haiku collaboration with two other poets). Duet (haiku with an Indian poet). She has published a collection of her poetry, Accepting Summer, and has edited an anthology of new and established writers from New Zealand called Something Between Breaths. Patricia has produced many interviews with poets and editors and written several articles on the work of other poets, including the Canadian poet Michael Ondaatje, the New Zealand author Katherine Mansfield, and the French poet Arthur Rimbaud. Her most recent publications are three chapbooks in collaboration with Catherine Mair: East Cape (haiku, tanka and haibun), Stolen Time (tanka) and a collection of haibun called Morning Glory.