Nelson born artist and poet Charles Olsen (pictured above) tells how migrating, a love of poetry and some chance encounters led him to create the Given Words poetry competition and he introduces this year’s winners.
I’m sitting here in my attic flat in Madrid, Spain, where the hallway thermometer didn’t drop below 35 degrees Celsius all August, reading some of the two hundred poems I’ve received from the antipodes (and a handful of New Zealanders overseas) for the Given Words competition I ran this year for National Poetry Day in collaboration with Landing Press and poets from the collection More of Us.
The spark for this came about on holiday in Sardinia when my then girlfriend (now my wife), the Colombian poet Lilián Pallares, asked me to select any five words and she chose five for me in return with which we had to write poems. I found it a fun way to play with the Spanish language and I thought it was great how the same five words could arrive at very different destinations. Then in 2011, shortly after the publication of my first collection of poems in Spain, Sr Citizen (Where ‘Sr’ is short for Señor, the Spanish for Mr.), I had the bright idea of setting up a Spanish poetry competition online which I called Palabras Prestadas (Given Words). We were lookng for a flatmate and it just so happened a publisher from Granada, Miguel Ángel Arcas, came to live with us and was supportive from the start. I love the serendipity of such things falling into place as though showing me I’m on the right path. My knowledge of Spanish poetry being next to nothing he took on the role of judging the poems and also donated books from his press Cuadernos del Vigía as prizes.
It began very modestly with eleven poems in the first edition, mainly friends from our small literary circle and slowly it grew with entries arriving from Argentina and Colombia and across Spain. Seven years later we had published six anthologies of winning poems and counted on the support of four more Spanish and Mexican poetry presses for the prizes. I had also invited a number of New Zealand poets – Hinemoana Baker, Tayi Tibble, Doug Poole, C.K. Stead, Jack Ross and Penelope Todd among others – to donate words to the project and I took the opportunity to translate one or two of their poems to share with the Spanish audience. Then by chance on the first of August 2016 I found out about the National Poetry Day in New Zealand. I happened to be running a competition in Spanish with the late Australian poet Les Murray’s selection of words and fired off an email to the then National Coordinator, Miriam Barr, who was excited to include the first edition of Given Words with Murray’s words.
Five words: Cat, tree, water, stone and balcony – donated by Jack Ross, from the sixth book in the collection ''Palabras Prestadas''.
Then last year I came across a call for poems by migrants and refugees in New Zealand for a book to be published by Landing Press in Wellington. A little cheekily I wrote pointing out I am a migrant – but going the other way from New Zealand to the antipodes, Spain – and would they consider my poems. I sent two, based on personal experiences in New Zealand and overseas, and I was delighted that they were both included in the book.
With my experience of living in Europe and being able to travel freely and work across borders, I really appreciate the opportunities this has brought me. I know what it is like when one moves to a country without knowing the language and the complexities of having to navigate different bureaucratic systems, but also the joys of learning and connecting with other ways of life it can bring. I recognised all these things in the poems included in More of Us and I thought it would be interesting to invite the poets to choose the words for the competition. They were free to choose any word, which they introduced in a short video. These were: solitude, pulse, moving, circles and self-acceptance, chosen by Mikaela Nyman, Sevgi Ikinci, Razan El Fares, Huberta Hellendoorn and Nicky Subono.
So this last month poems have been filling my inbox like strange birds migrating from the depths of winter to the summer furnace of Spain. I am very happy to have had the invaluable help of my co-judges Mikaela Nyman and Clare Arnot in choosing the ‘Best Poem’ and ‘Best Poem by Under-16s’.
We were not only looking for the quality of the poems but also wanted to be surprised by original and unexpected uses of the five words. Of the poems up for ‘Best Poem’ commuting with angela stood out, hooking us emotionally with its visual presentation echoing the creatures, ‘those grey spotted tongues’, that frame the narrative, along with the multiple details and references that add a sense of place and time, and link the personal and the universal. Here is commuting with angela by Lily Holloway:
commuting with angela
last night i walked her dog boots scuffing concrete solitude
glistening in puddles pissing on laingholm poles
she is scared of slugs those grey spotted tongues
inching under porchlight
towards her door invasion moving morning perspiration
hold her thigh —not hard or that’s charlie’s horse
i’m driving but slips hand into yours
circle your pulse to the backstreet boys
frida on her back staring mirror ceilings strokes
skinny west auckland signs
it is what it is
she says, slugs pop like blisters rat lungworm burst forth confetti larvae
and we cannot survive it
For ‘Best Poem by Under-16s’ we chose Vines. The whisper and circle of S and R sounds through the poem invoke the curl, grasp and unfurl of the growing vine, immersing us in its magical internal world. Here is Vines by Thalia Peterson, aged 12:
A mellow, silent song whispers through,
Fingers grasping the sides, spindly and moist.
Solitude seeping through its veins
Forever hugging its dying hope,
The pulse of pattering paws below,
Creeping past, ignored.
A blind slick form, no moving to and fro
But the roll of the dark and light
Wrapped in delicate furls of emerald skin,
Self-acceptance churning in the stems as molten gold.
Circling its way around the limbs of its life,
We had a hard time picking just two winners and we encourage you to take time to read the rest of the poems on Given Words.
I am grateful to Read NZ Te Pou Muramura, who let schools around the country know about the competition, Landing Press, for their support and donating the prizes, and the Phantom Billstickers National Poetry Day organisers. I have been particularly encouraged by the increased participation of children and schools this year and hope to build on this next year, not least because together with Colombian poet Lilián Pallares we have been awarded a year-long residency in the Matadero Madrid, Centre for Contemporary Creation on the theme of ‘Childhood, Play and Public Spaces’ and plan to do a project linking Spanish and New Zealand children.
About the winners
Lily Holloway is a 20-year old undergraduate student studying English and Ancient History at the University of Auckland. They are an active member of the queer community and are passionate about New Zealand literature, op-shopping, and Teletubbies. In 2019 they were shortlisted for the Monash Undergraduate Writing Prize and won highly commended in the Divine Muses - New Voices, Emerging Poets competition. Their academic essay on The Lord of the Rings is to be published in the university's Interesting Journal and they have a short story coming out in the October edition of Mindfood magazine.
Thalia Peterson is a happy-go-lucky 12 year old home-schooled girl. She lives in rural Canterbury with her parents and twin sister, Saphra. Her passions include reading, writing, piano, art and of course, chickens. Thalia spends every waking moment being ‘arty’. When she is not being creative, she is outside with her precious pet chickens, whilst listening for the little brown owl in the neighbouring orchard.
The winning and selected poems from Given Words for National Poetry Day 2019 can be read here.
More of Us, edited by Adrienne Jansen, is published by Landing Press.
Charles Olsen’s article ‘On Being Sanguine: Two Years of Panic and a Response to Terror in Christchurch’ mentioning his two poems from ‘More of Us’ is published in the Cordite Poetry Review.
The winner’s prizes were kindly provided by Landing Press.