A stunning book, Wild Honey is published by Massey University Press, with cover design and illustrations by Sarah Laing.
Amid a very busy month in which Paula launched no less than three new poetry books, the author found time to answer our questions about this very special publication.
The title of the book is delicious! How did you decide on it?
Living with artist Michael Hight means beehives are often in my sightline but it seemed the perfect image. Like a poem the hive is a place of transformation, of light and dark, of sweetness and sting. And in the twentieth century women poets often wrote in the shadow of men, in the wild so to speak; so often misread and devalued.
Wild Honey is 572 pages long and takes the reader through the work of 201 writers. What was it like to make decisions about what would – and wouldn’t – be included in the book?
Let me count my sleepless nights! I had a queue of women in my head waiting to enter my ‘house’ and kept adding women until the last possible moment. But not all beloved poets made it. Not all rooms made it! I read and researched widely, made so many discoveries, but I know I missed things. I’m holding Tracey Slaughter’s magnificent first full poetry collection (just out) and am heartbroken she’s not in my book. There are other poets I admire not here. So I don’t want to claim Wild Honey as an author-ity text as men did in the past.
You’ve been championing and celebrating NZ poetry through your blogs and in other ways for a number of years now. What does it mean to you to have this substantial volume completed?
It feels like all roads led to this book: my writing life, my university life (my doctoral thesis considered Italian women novelists), my musing and personal life. Now I am this strange mix of anxiety, nerves, gladness, pride, doubt, braveness, sadness, love mixed together with the leftover thrill I experienced in the present tense of writing and researching.
It’s often assumed that writing poetry is a solitary act. How important is community to you when it comes to your work, and how do you think it has shaped your own poetry?
Writing is a private engagement and that’s what I love as most of the time I’m intensely private, awkward almost. But writing is also fed by community and literary whānau. I am thinking of the way I have a publishing family along with the booksellers, the critics, the readers. But poets are also part of writing communities that stretch from the present to the past and Wild Honey is a way of celebrating these connections. I am in debt both to the women who preceded me and those who write alongside me; and to anthologists such as Riemke Ensing, Lydia Wevers and Michele Leggott who insisted on bringing women poets to our attention.
Wild Honey is a very beautiful book and demands to be picked up and opened. How did the cover design and illustrations come to be, and can you tell us anything about the other design and/or formatting decisions in the book?
I love the work of Sarah Laing and always pictured a painting by her on the cover; we discussed a few ideas and then she ran with them. The end result is sublime. The painting underlines the book (and poetry) as conversation and connection. My publisher Nicola Legat has an astute eye when it comes to making books look good and designer Megan van Staden gave the words and poems room to breathe. Just what poetry needs!
Which New Zealand books, poets or other writers have been special to you in your life?
I need a whole book for this, an autobiography of reading and conversations, so I won’t mention fiction or nonfiction. Discovering Hone Tuwhare’s No Ordinary Sun in my secondary-school library was a poetry-wow moment. From the 1970s Margaret Mahy showed me the power of imagination, the agility of words and how to inhabit the world as a writer with grace; at university Fiona Farrell and Dinah Hawken showed me writing can pay attention, be still, show heart and put women centre stage while Michele Leggott’s poetic ear, heart and complexity made writing an essential choice for me; Anne Kennedy’s writing (fiction and poetry) showed how love and risk create an extraordinary voice; Bill Manhire’s breath-taking poetry coupled with his generosity as both poet and teacher has been inspirational; the writing and presence of Albert Wendt equally so; the musicality, wit and intricacy of Ian Wedde and Murray Edmond’s poetry affected my own writing; Anna Jackson’s poems have guided me over hurdles; Helen Rickerby has helped my poetry into the world so beautifully, with her own poetry equally crafted; Emma Neale’s poetry is the pinnacle of how good a poem can be; as is Jenny Bornholdt’s poetic translation of the everyday; and finally two beloved poets who have my back and who inspire with everything they write and do: Selina Tusitala Marsh and Tusiata Avia.
What are you reading right now, and have you got any book recommendations for us?
I have over 20 local poetry books I’m reading/reviewing for my blog (2019 is a spectacular year!), plus a tower of novels and children’s books. Starling 8 online is a goldmine of new poets under 25. Meanwhile I loved Amber Moffat’s debut picture book I Would Dangle the Moon, Kate DiCamilo’s Louisiana’s Way Home, Eva Lindström My Dog Mouse and Gecko’s new edition of Joy Cowley’s Song of the River.I also adored Anne Michael’s The Adventures of Miss Petitfour (plus her poetry books). My 2018 fiction bouquet went to Tina Makereti’s The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke. My 2018 poetry bouquet went to Chris Tse’s He’s so MASC. Most recent love: Mary Kisler’s Finding Frances Hodgkins.
What’s next in store for you, Paula?
I need to sort my study so I can start new things. It definitely looks like the room of someone who worked for four years on a book. I have a queue of secret projects to write (both adult and children’s) but can’t wait to plant summer veggies, try making ricotta and invent new things for my poetry blogs.
Find Wild Honey here, or at your favourite bookshop.