Tuesday, May 6, 2008


Getting the Words Out:
The Collaborative Poetry of Catherine Mair and Patricia Prime

Correspondent: Patricia Prime
My friend, Catherine Mair, and I began writing and publishing traditional poetry at about the same time. Catherine was a dairy-farmer’s wife, bringing up four children in the rural town of Katikati in the Bay of Plenty, whilst I, widowed early, was bringing up four children and working as a teacher in Auckland.

Both Catherine’s and my poems were first published in the New Zealand magazine Spin. The editor of Spin, David Drummond, who has since died, encouraged his new writers to try various forms of poetry from mainstream poems to the Japanese short forms of poetry. A subscription to Spin also included membership to an orbit. Orbits contained poems written by members and passed around a group of four or more poets for criticism and feedback. Catherine and I were in the same orbit. When it failed to appear at one time I wrote to members asking what had happened to it and the only answer I received was from Catherine. I suggested that we correspond with one another and criticise each other’s work. We decided shortly afterwards to meet and a friendship was formed that has continued for twenty years.

Catherine went on to write haiku, tanka and haibun and later instigated, as part of the millennium project in her town, the Katikati Haiku Pathway. She also became involved in short short story writing, wrote the text for two books for school children with disabilities, judged poetry and haiku contests and has had her work published worldwide.

My writing career took a different path: I write poetry, the Japanese short forms of haiku, tanka and haibun, articles and reviews, and am now focussing on publishing interviews with poets and editors. I have also published a collection of poetry, Accepting Summer and edited an anthology of New Zealand verse, Something Between Breaths. I am the co-editor of the New Zealand haiku magazine Kokako, and reviews editor of the New Zealand journal Takahe and the online magazine Stylus. I began writing haiku at the time of the publication of the first New Zealand Haiku Anthology and have written tanka and haibun for the past seven years.

Our collaboration with each other began with the self-publication of a collection of our poetry in the place where . . ., the shortcut home, and other small publications. We have also published a collection of our haiku called Every Drop Stone Pebble with an Indian poet.

We began writing linked verse in collaboration with each other several years ago, and have since published several collections, including sweet penguin, last rays of the sun, East Cape and Morning Glory. Our linked poems contain lines which are “moments in time” captured in a haiku-like form. The links may be subtle, created by writing in the same place at the same time. For this informal type of linked verse to work there needs to be balance and empathy between the writers. In much the same way that renga evolved in Japan, as enjoyable entertainment and communication, so our collaborative verse began. We don’t see our linked verse as haiku or renku, but rather as “stream-of-consciousness” lines written when we are in close proximity: walking, talking, or visiting places of interest.

For those readers who haven’t seen our writing, I would suggest that our links follow certain themes of time, place, feeling and “togetherness,” rather than following the Japanese idea of the mind “leaping” from one image to something totally different. This, we have been told, is part of the “rebellious” nature of our work, and is what makes it different from the formal style of renga. It is what makes it popular, gives it a certain charm, and makes it more accessible to many readers. An example of one of our linked verses from first rays of the sun is the following poem that was composed on a visit to The Mount in the Bay of Plenty, an extremely popular place for visitors to walk around and enjoy panoramic views of the ocean:

The White Shell Path

from the historic stone jetty he casts his line
two boys – their bright yellow lifejackets
a backpack filled with mussels for bait
empty in the shade – carved bench seats
climbing the stile, I hold open the wire gate
standing at Stoney Point Reef, the warmth on our backs
from the cliff walk my shadow moves along the sand
sound of children’s footsteps behind us on the shell path
naked the bronze warrior crouches in spring sunshine
one white boulder among all the black ones
on a rock his suitcase full of video gear

Catherine Mair & Patricia Prime

In 2002, about the time that we thought of publishing a second collection of our linked verse, we began writing linked haiku, linked tanka and linked haibun.

Werner Reichold, editor of the online magazine Lynx, who has been particularly supportive of our work, published the first of our linked tanka. A poem of which I’m particularly fond for its memories and images is “The Perfumed Air,” which was written on the occasion of a visit to the Lavender Gardens in Katikati, during which we were looking for a small gift to send to Janice Bostok in Australia, who is both a friend and mentor, and is herself a world recognised haijin.

lavender fields
choosing a card to send her
from the display
I break a sprig of flowers
to carry home

a thin jet of water
from the lion’s mouth
into perfumed air
afterwards you caution me
parked on the bank’s brink

dusk approaches
you work-out at table tennis
in the garage
my first short story
takes shape on the computer

cooler now
wide flung windows
closed against mosquitoes
the photographers have gone
taking their talk & laughter

Patricia Prime & Catherine Mair
The idea of writing collaborative haibun came later. The idea was planted and wouldn’t go away. The narrative sometimes presents itself as a problem – a challenge; and the solution was for one person to begin with a paragraph (with or without the addition of a haiku), followed by a linking narrative paragraph, which would open out the haibun. We were thinking all these things out, and at the same time telling ourselves this was not something everyone could do. One has to have the right temperament to work with another poet, but the energy created by the input of ideas was astonishing. Our imaginations were set in motion and we couldn’t leave the idea alone.

We began by writing narrative, in a short story like way, but we felt that the pieces lacked something we wanted them to have. And once the poems (haiku, tanka or a short poem) were included, we felt that what had been missing had been supplied. There are some ideas that are purely instinctive in writing and one must follow what they tell you to do. In our case, it was a particularly strong feeling. One reason is that a narrative doesn’t want to deny anything that’s beyond the prosaic, the real, the factual, the mundane. It wants to acknowledge something “higher” – an element of the ideal if you like. Therefore, writing the prose and presenting the poems, which are not simply a repetition of ideas in the narrative but something more, seem to give the prose a lift and imbue it with a special resonance. For us, the arts – music and poetry in particular, but the arts in general – are, in our lives, what cooking, gardening, and so on, represent in other peoples’ lives.

It seems to me that we are pulling together two of the strands which define us as creative writers – our work in short stories, articles and reviews and our work as poets – and intertwining them. It was only when we began to write collaborative haibun that we realised for the first time we’d found a way of being both fiction writers and poets in a single work. We simply write down what we experience in our everyday lives as inspiration for the prose part of the haibun, then add the haiku to create a new dimension, to change or alter the scene, voice or time, in a similar way as the two parts of a tanka are related.

In 2003, Catherine and I were asked to be guest poets at a haiku reading, where many of the audience knew nothing about haiku, and the first collaborative haibun we wrote came from that gathering. It was published in the New Zealand magazine Takahe.

The Clapped-out Microphone

Several of the audience dressed as “poets” – flowers and ribbons in the women’s hair, a man with a goatee and beret.

Fred, the compere, not able to place Sarah (one of the guest poets), calls her by the wrong name again. For the first bracket of the evening the microphone remains obstinate: voices whisper around the room.
collapsing on the floor
the blackboard
listing readers
From the back of the group a little old lady comes forward to fill her five-minute slot and reads, with panache, one haiku. A bowl of hot chocolate splashes across a folder. In the corner some of the children are writing haiku at a table.

Shaking like a leaf, but not wanting to explain her Parkinson’s again, Sheila comes to the mike, nearly tripping over the leads on the floor.

a baby’s
for a lectern

Many of the audience have come to have their first experience of haiku. A chuckle is heard when a poet reads

bus terminal
a skateboarder
bounces off seats

Halfway through the evening they sort out the microphone and Moira says, “Our group nearly bought the temperamental thing!” Fred declares he’s having a bad hair day. “When things start to go wrong at the beginning, it’s hard to get them back on track!”

Pausing for effect, but merely losing the place in her notebook, Judy shows off her Library of Congress t-shirt. Exotic Tamsin (a nutritionist) reads her poem “The Sugar Demon”, whilst nearly swallowing the microphone.

Near the end Fred salvages his credibility by quoting one of the guest poet’s haiku without missing a beat.
tucked into the microphone
falls to the floor

Patricia Prime & Catherine Mair

As you can see from reading some of our collaborative haibun, we mine the quotidian. Detailing the typical emotional routines of life today – the dullness of work ameliorated by holidays and weekend excursions, the little longings and frustrations of family relations, the intersections and intrusions of the issues of the day, and the occasional time for thoughts about ill-health, mortality and the whole reason why we are here in the first place. Our introspective moments are triggered by stones, rocks, sky, ocean, flowers, birds, emblems usually for the desire to escape the drabness of daily life. Our style, not surprisingly, is lean, often employing prose/haiku, but sometimes we intersperse tanka or a short poem, a technique that makes poems contemporary in an accessible way.

We like to believe that we create an unusually nice effect in not suggesting to the reader any real notion of what is to come. We allow the reader to drift with us from thought to thought and insight to insight. The thoughts offered are sometimes sensitive and deep, sometimes emotional, often something to which the reader can relate. And we do not just hand them to you, but make a place for you beside us. Our poems are a challenge to see the world as a place of connections and connectedness; poems by two distinct writers.

by Patricia Prime
Auckland, New Zealand
first published, in an earlier form, in Simply Haiku, 2004

1 comment:

Ram Krishna Singh said...

Hi Pat, You are as usual brilliant in your reflection.
But you could have mentioned my name in the line dealing with EVERY STONE DROP PEBBLE.