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lighthouse All Together Now: A Digital Bridge for Auckland and Sydney          

Kia Kotahi Rā: He Arawhata Ipurangi mō Tamaki Makau Rau me Poihākena          

March-September 2010               

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Symposium Poetics

It’s the 21st century, a decade in and we should be able to do it differently, with more reach and greater interest in who is listening when we read or write. At nzepc we’ve watched the platforms for poetry expand and evolve since 2001, and as we are an experiment ourselves we’ve tried out various ways of convening poets and poetry electronically and in the round. We don’t feel particularly confined by our New Zealand base which is permeable and outward looking. On the other hand we do like getting poets together on the ground, to perform alongside students at the regular campus series that has been STRATA and TRANSLATE and is now LOUNGE, or to push along conversation around poetry and poetics at symposiums devised for the purpose.

We’ve done five of them now – Auckland, Christchurch, Bluff, Auckland and Sydney – so it’s probably time to look at what we have learned and how, economies of scale notwithstanding, we might carry the project further.

There are some protocols for an nzepc symposium. It needs to stay small and informal, a meeting of practitioners and readers which has the capacity to range across scholarly discourse while remaining always performative and exploratory. It welcomes all expressions of interest in attending and asks that individuals find their own means of getting there. Each programme does its best to reflect a range of participants’ interests over two or three days, all sessions are public and there is some kind of digital aftermath that archives the event online. Lastly, there is a tradition of going somewhere else on the final day that balances the pre-symposium get-together of the first night. It’s not quite Red Mole’s 1974 manifesto but it’s not dissimilar either. Alan Brunton and Sally Rodwell projected their itinerant, shape-shifting collection of performers over thirty years as an experiment:

1. to keep the romance alive;
2. to escape programmed behaviour by remaining erratic;
3. to preserve the unclear and inexplicit idioms of everyday speech; 
4. to abhor the domination of any person over any other; 
5. to expend energy.

Today we might call it rhizomatic; networked opportunism, not forgetting the potential for serious fun (‘collegiality’) and the pleasure of being on the move.

But of course we started at home.

Celebrations and a symposium for the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre (nzepc) at the Gus Fisher Gallery, Auckland. 16-17 July 2004.
Martin Edmond was Auckland University’s writer in residence for 2004; nzepc author pages had been uploaded for Graham Lindsay and Mark Young who came from Christchurch and Rockhampton respectively; Jan Kemp and Jack Ross were working on the Aotearoa NZ Poetry Sound Archive; David Howard had assembled a selection of poetry and music from Dunedin; Robert Sullivan read and spoke to selections from Whetu Moana: Contemporary Polynesian Poems in English. Genevieve McClean and John Newton had new projects to report on; Murray Edmond and Sonja Yelich launched poetry books, and Murray announced plans fof nzepc’s Ka Mate Ka Ora: A NZ Journal of Poetry and Poetics. We called the evening reading a public anthology and put video clips of it on the web. John Newton offered to host the next meeting at Canterbury and left town as the Rangitoto ferry was diverted to the landing at Islington Bay because of the gale force southerly.

A poetry symposium at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch. 21-23 April 2005.
THIRD BIRTHDAY was timed to coincide with Montana National Poetry Day. FUGACITY 05 took place in term time because we wanted to involve Claire Hero’s creative writing class as well as local Canterbury poets in the evening readings at SOFA Gallery in the Arts Centre. The symposium was focused historically around Ursula Bethell and digitally around papers on web poetics and the launch of author pages for Bethell, Bernadette Hall and Michael Harlow. The programme kicked off with a poetic collaboration led by Michael which became the opening contribution of the online poetry anthology (send a file, submit a disk) being compiled over the three days of the symposium as its digital outreach. When everyone trooped out of the New Brighton Library after the open mic on Saturday morning, Bronwyn Lloyd and her assistants were putting finishing touches to a huge FUGACITY gridded and dug out of the sand by the pier. The tide came in and took away the letters on cue, with poets and the strolling public standing by. The photos show Selina Tusitala Marsh and Tusiata Avia deep in a conversation that had begun two days previously as Selina handed a copy of her thesis to Konai Helu Thaman. Later that afternoon we visited Rise Cottage on the Cashmere hills and walked around Bethell’s famous garden. Later still the weather turned and a spectacular ice storm rolled across the plains. There was snow on the ground at New Brighton next morning.

A poetry symposium in Southland. 21-24 April 2006.
The Christchurch base team for FUGACITY was John Newton, Claire Hero, Graham Lindsay and Bernadette Hall. When someone suggested Bluff for the next symposium, it wasn’t just because of the Oyster Festival; David Howard was aware that Cilla McQueen had been giving some thought to a poetry event in her home town. Te Rau Aroha Marae told Cilla they would host the visiting poets and David organised the excursion to Rakiura (Stewart Island) where we launched OBAN 06, the second online anthology built around the duration of a symposium. Nobody who was there will forget either place: you haven’t read a poem or given a paper until you’ve read in your socks under Cliff Whiting’s carvings or bounced across the strait on the Foveaux Express. Jeanette King led us onto the marae and Jeffrey Paparoa Holman spoke for us; Jack Ross led the collaborative translation workshop; Selina Tusitala Marsh launched Pasifika Poetry Web, and author pages went up for David Eggleton, David Howard and Cilla herself. This was the symposium where Brian Flaherty and I realised the full difficulty of trying to present digital ventures in far away places; everything worked but the piece of string was knotted many times. What we did evolve from BLUFF 06 was a more coherent digital presentation of the symposium and its outcomes, including web posts from participants as well as an event with Cilla at the Auckland City Library in July.

After Bluff there was a hiatus. We had planned to go to Sydney in 2007 but called off preparations when the death of a close friend intervened. In 2008 Brian and I constructed a digital bridge that linked Auckland and Florence by means of audio and video files and presented it at the New Zealand Studies Association conference in Florence that July. Mindful of the World War II heritage that has been underplayed in canonical versions of New Zealand poetry, we called our bridge LOVE, WAR AND LAST THINGS and invited people at the conference to choose virtual paths between poets located on street corners in Florence or Auckland. When you finish listening to one digital voice, you’re in the other city, ready to choose another poet to travel with. The Florence grid is in daylight (black text, white ground); Auckland is in darkness (white on black). We went for a variety of contemporary and historical interpretations of our theme. Among other things the bridge carries a homage to Alan Brunton and Sally Rodwell, and Rore Hapipi’s anthem for the men of the Maori Battalion. It also features young voices of students reading poems by Mary Stanley and John Male, and the voice of veteran Graham Perkins reading a wartime letter and poems by his old friend Kendrick Smithyman. Rachel Blau DuPlessis parachutes in from Umbria; Robert Sullivan and Anne Kennedy from Cassino and Florence via Honolulu.

When Chris Pugsley took the Florence conference on a bus ride into the hills south of the city to the site of the battle of San Michele, virtual and historical space became suddenly commensurate. There wasn’t a dry eye as Pat Grace, Barbara Ewing and their partners sang a waiata in front of the memorial to the New Zealand soldiers and villagers who died there in July 1944.

HOME & AWAY 2010
A trans Tasman poetry symposium at the University of Auckland (30-31 March) and the University of Technology, Sydney (1-2 September).
Pam Brown and Martin Edmond were game when I suggested restarting symposium plans for Sydney halfway through 2009. This time we settled on a reciprocal format: invite the Australians here in one half of the year and go to Sydney in the other. To link the two parts of the engagement we established another digital bridge, this time to carry creative work and the multiple traces of the two symposiums. Our aim was to make the bridge home to travelling poets and poetics over the months between meetings; accessible anywhere at any time, company on the road. Like the Florence bridge, ALL TOGETHER NOW is full of voices. With the help of Tim Page at both symposiums we collected and uploaded audio and video recordings of sessions and readings. They are raw data, preserving some of our unclear and inexplicit speech as well as scripted performances. And on the screen the eye crosses and recrosses, March to September, texts to images, poetry to prose and back, and more.

Auckland concentrated on trans Tasman relations, the launch of David Mitchell’s author page and Selected Poems, and the making of a collaborative digital poem with students and symposium poets led by Helen Sword. At the Gus Fisher Gallery skyped images of Dave Mitchell and daughter Sara looked out at us from the back wall as daughter Genevieve turned the camera on Elsebeth Nielsen and the crowd launching Steal Away Boy. Sara’s voice from Sydney (‘It’s Mum! It’s Mum!’) closed distance in a heartbeat. Michael Farrell, wrapped in a towel on the white sand at Onetangi, reprised his wordless cloud poem for those who went to Waiheke on the last day.

In Sydney Martin Harrison and Jill Jones joined the organising team and we tried panels in which poets presented recent work and engaged each other and the audience in discussion. This turned out to be a good way of spotlighting poetics and reception (reading and talking), and is worth another go. The second part of the collaborative digital poem turned islands into improvised constellations, book and CD trades were the order of the day and both evening readings were packed. It was interesting listening to the patterns of laughter as Australian jokes missed New Zealand ears and vice versa. I heard translations whispered in the aisles and there were asides from the stage as speakers stopped to gloss something for the other team. Not everyone was present for the final hurrah at Cockatoo Island but from the talk there and at the plenary it is clear that our Australian friends like the idea of future meetings on one side of the water or the other.

Robert Creeley called it ‘the locating company,’ that shifting band of comrades with whom you feel affinity and want to be doing things. His Electronic Poetry Center (EPC) was our template for nzepc and it was in Buffalo, at symposiums organised by Creeley on the work of Robert Duncan and Louis Zukofsky, that I saw poets and readers (including a trusty corps of postgraduate students) brought together for short, intense and productive encounters that everyone seemed to enjoy and where specific problems were addressed. (Creeley was trying to resolve some longstanding publication issues at both gatherings; he was partially successful.) Symposium poetics, now as then, are perhaps this simple; find your conversations across print and digital space then continue them in real time and actual places as and when you can.

Michele Leggott
Auckland, 19 November 2010



©Michele Leggott

Last updated 24 November, 2010