Paula Green is one of New Zealand’s most (probably the most) energetic and passionate ambassadors for poetry ever. She has published (as writer or editor) nearly 20 books and runs two fascinating blogs, NZ Poetry Shelf (for adults) and NZ Poetry Box (for children). She has received the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement and the New Zealand Order of Merit for Services to Poetry, and often tours the country promoting the reading and writing of poetry for all ages.
Jane Arthur was very pleased to pin her down for this very generous interview in the midst of the release of Paula’s THREE new books: The Track (a poetry collection for adults, published by Seraph Press), Wild Honey: Reading New Zealand Women’s Poetry (an important and stunning non-fiction book, published by Massey University Press), and Groovy Fish (poetry for children, published by Ahoy! Press) – something for everyone! A bonus heads-up for booksellers: Paula’s also the keynote speaker at the 2019 Booksellers Conference, later this month.
Poetry is an enormous part of your life! So I ask: why poetry? What’s so great about it?
Ah, I have loved poems since I was very, very young, because I loved writing that sounded good when I performed it.
No matter what has been going on in my life (all the peaks and hurdles), poetry fits in beautifully, like a little knapsack I can take anywhere. Poetry can do anything: it can be small like breath on a fogged window or big like a storm. For me, reading and writing poetry is like an energy boost that makes me feel good.
What do you do in your life that’s not poetry?
I love reading children’s books and novels for all ages, watching movies and listening to music. I am a big fan of outside things, like running on the beach, boogie boarding, going on really long walks in the wild. I love doing really tricky art jigsaw puzzles that take at least a month. I love planting veggies and cooking meals. Doing the illustrations for Groovy Fish reminded me how much I love drawing.
Why should we want children to read and write poetry?
Poetry is a playground for children – there are no rules and it can begin in the air/ear without crippling expectations. The sophisticated reader and writer can advance; the struggling reader and writer falls in love with words.
Poetry can open windows on the world, take risks, harness imagination, tap into things that matter to the child, boost confidence, be serious, be fun.
What would you say to a child who says they don’t like poetry? Or one who says they can’t write it?
I ask them if they like music (they usually do) and say, ‘Poetry is music’. I ask them if they like playing (they usually do) and say, ‘Poetry is play’.
I show how you don’t need to write poetry in the beginning; you can sing, leap, whisper, rollercoaster it. You can make it laugh and you can make it growl. Once you have done this, then you might find there is a poem inside you itching to get on the page.
What differentiates poetry for kids from poetry for adults? Is it more of the absurd, less of the abstract?
For some people there is no difference, but for me there is. I would hope Groovy Fish will get children itching to read and write poetry – my new adult collection, The Track, will not.
I think about this a lot. Like many children’s authors, I will not ‘write down’ to children – I want to challenge them – but that doesn’t mean I aim for age-neutral poetry. Like my adult writing, there is an essential mix of the personal and the imagined, with layerings of poetic techniques, ideas and moods. However, the subject matter is a key point of difference.
My children’s poetry often involves animals, make-believe characters, crazy things that have happened to me, zany what-ifs, humour. But the poems can also slow down and look at the sun setting, a bird in flight, or the moon in the sky.
How would you describe the “poetry for children” situation in New Zealand? Are there other champions out there (or is it just you…)?
Sometimes it just feels like me and I am treading water, as it is really hard getting children’s poetry published and showing poetry is utterly accessible and engaging. Very few New Zealand children’s poetry books appear each year – if any. If I were rich and had multiple selves I would start up a little press for children’s poetry and run poetry celebrations for children.
The poems in your new book Groovy Fish came from title suggestions given to you by children around New Zealand through your Hot Spot Poetry tour of New Zealand. How was that process? Were you pleased to have lots of possible starting points, or was it more of a challenge than usual?
I went on a nationwide tour to celebrate A Treasury of NZ Poetry for Children (Random House NZ) and The Letterbox Cat (Scholastic). I did events in schools, halls, libraries, bookshops and museums – drawing in children, whānau and book fans. I got given so many titles, I think I had enough for 50 books! And yes, I loved the way it took me in different directions. I would pick a title and think where is that going to lead me? Definitely a challenge but in a good way.
I gave the titles to the children who came to my Groovy Fish launches and my Poetry Box blog followers to see what they could come up with. Nothing like me!
A question you once asked of me: what do you want your poems to do?
Ha! To sound good, to take risks (there are many ways poetry can take risks that range from the experimental to the personal), to surprise me as they hit the page. To keep tuning my voice (regardless of current poetry trends and my insistent doubt), and to keep hold of a world that matters.
By Paula Green
Published by Ahoy!
By Paula Green
Published by Seraph Press
Wild Honey: Reading New Zealand Women’s Poetry
By Paula Green
Published by Massey University Press
Jane Arthur co-owns and manages GOOD BOOKS, a small independent bookshop in Pōneke Wellington. She twice judged the NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, in 2019 and 2020. Her debut poetry collection, Craven (VUP) won the Jessie Mackay Prize for best first book of poetry at the 2020 Ockham NZ Book Awards, and a second collection will appear in 2023. Jane is also co-founder of The Sapling.