The collection begins with a 1950's Richmond childhood, with the author’s family struggling in the aftermath of a war that took her father to Crete to fight and then Poland as a prisoner of war. At the Formica kitchen table, Maggie’s mother is reciting poems while chopping the veggies for tea. Maggie listens while tying her boots for marching practice. Poems follow her as she makes her way in the world – working as a typist, doing her OE, becoming a wife, a mother and grandmother.
At Read NZ, we know Maggie as a Writers in School author and also as a faithful participant in our #RāmereShorts creative writing game which takes place on Twitter on Fridays.
We asked her some questions about her latest book.
Kia ora Maggie, and congratulations on Formica. Can you tell us a bit about the process of writing this collection?
These poems started out as individual poems, over several years rather than with a collection In mind. Then I began to see that they were a kind of memoir. I used to wonder why poetry was in the non-fiction section of the library… and now I see why. These poems are my life in contrast to my fiction which has only parts of me.
These poems are special because many of them bring to life a time (and place) recently passed – 1950s and 60s provincial NZ. The reader can nearly smell the smoke on a frosty Richmond morning, sitting by the Conroy heater turned to medium! Can you tell us something about the act of writing about this world so evocatively? Did you talk to others to spark memories?
My childhood was post-war. We had no car, no phone, and no television. I lived at the movies and biked with my friends to the river on the weekends. I think the memories are so vibrant because there were no other distractions.
On the back jacket, there are quotes from Fiona Kidman and Rachel McAlpine, who both pay tribute to the people – especially a generation of NZ women - in your poems. How important has a writing community been to you in your work as a poet?
When I began writing, late in life (age 50), I joined NZSA and through my participation in this organisation (I was Chair of the Wellington branch for a few years), I met and became friends with many of my heroes in the writing community. The Wellington writing community is very generous and supportive. I’m very grateful to Fiona and Rachel for their endorsement, and friendship. Completing the undergraduate Poetry Course run by Greg O’Brien in 1998 was a highlight in my writing career. Here I met and formed a lasting friendship with fellow poets Jo Thorpe and Philippa Christmas.
Concepts of home and family play leading roles in this collection. What does ‘’home’’ mean to you, and how has that idea changed over time (and indeed, since the pandemic?)
We recently sold our old beach cottage in Days Bay where we had lived for over 32 years. We sub-divided and built a new house above the old cottage. In 2020, during the first lockdown, we were living in our garage. The home I grew up in, in Richmond, no longer holds me in sentimental attachment. Home for me now is torn between Eastbourne and Seoul, where we have grandchildren in both places.
The collection itself is a lovely object to hold in your hands, with its pale milkshake colours and swirling formica background. How did the cover design come to be, and can you tell us anything about the other design decisions in the book?
I am so grateful to The Cuba Press and Sophie Miller for the cover. Right from the get-go, Mary McCallum connected with the theme of my poems and the title. We went on a reckie together, Mary, Sophie and I, to look for artefacts from the 50’s. It was in a darling shop in Marion Street Add+Vintage, that we found the Formica we were seeking. Sophie chose the fabulous colours.
Some of the poems in Formica made me laugh out loud (‘News to me’) while others brought instant tears (‘Footsteps’). How important is humour to you in poetry?
I am so glad to have moved you to laugh and to cry. Thank you. I think humour underlies all my writing, both poetry and prose. This collection has some dark and sad poems, but I think it also has fun about being an older woman. Grief teaches you to laugh.
Which New Zealand books, poets or other writers have been special to you in your life?
This is such tricky question to answer. I have so many writer friends and to mention them all or leave anyone out… I love Robin Hyde, Katherine Mansfield and Janet Frame. I am also a huge fan of Patricia Grace, Renée, Alice Tawhai, Fiona Kidman, Owen Marshall and Charlotte Grimshaw. When it comes to poetry, I’m a big fan of Tayi Tibble and Chris Tse, the new young kids on the block… but I have been influenced by so many wonderful Kiwi poets over the years.
What are you reading right now, and have you got any book recommendations for us?
I am a big fan of Michelle de Kretser and have just finished Scary Monsters. I love Korean writers and Ae-ran Kim’s ‘My Brilliant Life’ is one of my most delightful reads in a long while. Utterly charming and highly recommended. I took Tayi Tibble’s Rangikura with me to Seoul last year and I read and re-read Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds.
A slightly self-serving questions, this: we love your #RāmereShorts entries every week, and wondered if the weekly practice of writing something small like RS and other similar games feed into a broader writing habit? What would you say to other writers considering taking part?
Oh, I just love #RāmereShorts! Thank you for hosting it. I look forward to it and love the challenge. I try to stick with the first ideas that pop into my head. Usually, my first thought are the most successful ones. I’d love it if more Kiwi writers joined in. The competitive element is fun even though creative writing isn’t a sport… it adds another fun layer to try to be original.
What’s next in store for you, Maggie?
I have another novel fermenting… I need to knuckle down.