Some Bird launched – about my second book and getting this far
Kia ora e te whānau pukapuka. It's some thing to launch a new book. Apart from the writing of it, the finding a publisher and the publishing process itself, there is the actual launch party to organise! I felt so happy when Michelle Elvy, poet, editor and wonderful friend said she would be happy to come all the way from Ōtepoti to fly my second poetry collection Some Bird into the world. The day before launch day, she texted from hospital in pain, physically but also stricken with worry that she could no longer drive to Christchurch to launch my book. Worried for my friend, I wondered who would now usher my bird in? It took all of five minutes to think of Jeni!
I first got to know Jeni Curtis really well when we worked together as co-poetry editors for takahē magazine. She's a sharp-eyed editor, witty and now a stablemate in the Sudden Valley Press list with her fabulous debut book stone men being published this year a month before mine. Bonus, she had already read Some Bird as her first proofreading assignment for Sudden Valley Press as she had become their latest editior
in their team. I emailed her, and she said 'I would be honoured' – and I promptly burst into tears.
It is me that is honoured actually. To have a friend who is an extraordinary poet and editor who can come up with a launch speech in a day, and one you will see below that is as profound and beautiful, launching my wee bird into outer space! I am humbled beyond words. Though also, having said that, I do respond with my own speech of thanks to this extraordinary poetry community of which we are both part of here in Ōtautahi. A community that is often overlooked nationally. If you're interested in hearing about how hard it is to have a book published as a South Islander and as a middle-aged woman, read on! The theme of underdogs (sorry birds) is a theme you'll also find across the poems in Some Bird.
As for Michelle, she's back home resting up, and working on turning her speech into a review for Some Bird. If that's not extraordinary manaakitanga from a extraordinary community, I don't know what is!
Launch speech Some Bird
– Jeni Curtis
I was delighted and honoured when Gail asked me to launch this wonderful collection. We have worked together for years, especially editing for takahē,
and I have always admired her poetry and its distinctive voice.
I helped as part of the editorial team for Sudden Valley Press and when I first read the book it took my breath away. That breathlessness you get when all the air you have left in your lungs can only come out with WOW! The poems are powerful and wide-ranging. Some tickle the ribs, some are a punch in the stomach (in the nicest possible way!), some make you want to go away and
look things up, and some are two hanky poems. And all are carefully crafted with clever and beautiful language.
This book is about women and their lives and the way they have been treated throughout history. Gail’s starting point is the archetypal arc of women’s lives, as seen in mythology and literature: the maiden, the mother and the crone. Youth, maturity and age and all that
symbolises. She acknowledges the feminist novel Dead Blondes
and Bad Mothers by Sady Doyle for the idea of. arrangement for this book
around the monstrous roles that women have been given to play throughout
the history of literature. The poem “Me Too” looks at the way women have
been the butt of derogatory names through time: “just some bird”. And
“hey chick”goes on to list these at each stage of a woman’s life:
she’s a tom-boy plays rugby
so butch, a lezo (behind hands)
come on, show us a little skirt, love
but don’t wear that dress – what a floozy
words you know for whore?
And so on! In an interesting aside, the words ‘harlot’, ‘wanton’ and ‘shrew’
could refer to men or women up to about the end of the Middle Ages but by
the end of the fifteenth century they were applied to women alone. The poem
“How I Witch 1692” explores the underlying fear of women, their bodies, their
power and their knowledge, the way this has been subdued and freedoms
lost with time. “finding the strength to point their crooked fingers at the house
on the edge of town – She did it! It was her!– the witch!”
But this book is far from a raging political polemic – or dare I say strident or any of those words used to designate a woman who has ideas for herself and speaks out of turn: “the pesky bird, the manipulative bird”. I am a seventies feminist. Our slogan was the personal is political. And Some Bird is also an intensely personal book. Gail deals with questions of how to make sense of her life, the who, the when and the why. It starts with childbirth, traces a trajectory through childhood, teenage years with growing awareness of sexual power, pleasant and unpleasant explorations of sexuality, falling in love, marriage, the difficulties of being a ‘good mother’, maturity and fulfillment while facing modern questions of race and gender. In “I am pākehā” Gail looks at the underlying duality of her life, recognising the pull within her:
I am pākehā
defined by my relationship to my sister
to the land given language by Māori
te wi, te kapowai, te roto
to the land stolen from Māori, te reo
ripped from Māori tongue
my language not my language
my whānau not my whānau
my mountain, I claimed, my mountain
Aoraki te maunga, I find I cannot let you go, I own
my torn history
And then there’s the birds. The poems are a forest of melodic sound. Each
section is named for a bird: shining cuckoo, chicky babe (in which the girl
reaches puberty and becomes attractive to peacocks), lovebird (in which the
bird attracts a mate), house sparrow, crow. Birds abound, real birds and
metaphorical birds: spirit owls and sparrows, gulls and crows, bitterns and
falcons. There are the rustle of wings, the meeting of beaks, and the
exhortation to flight: To her son Gail writes,
look up white-bellied bird,
wings of / perfect bone and
feathers, fly, go on, fly.
I will finish by quoting from the blurb of this exquisitely crafted book (I’m also talking of Rata’s cover here)
“Some Bird is a fearless, restless quest for answers, where someone is
always ready to throw stones at birds, and where some birds remember their wings - and their talons.”
As Fiona Farrell says, much more eloquently than me:
“In this superb collection, Gail Ingram takes up the terms of denigration used of women – chicks. birds – and makes them defiantly, exquisitely, her own. Autobiographical but never self-indulgent, profoundly moving but never sentimental, playful but deeply serious, personal yet resolutely political, this is a collection to respect, admire and savour.”
I now would like to officially launch Some Bird.
Gail's thank-you speech - "It's difficult to get published"
Tēnā koe, Jeni.
Tēnā koutou katoa.
Ko Gail tōku ingoa.
E mihi ana ki kā tohu o nehe o Kāi Tahu, e noho nei au.
I recognise the ancestral and spiritual landmarks of Kāi Tahu, here where I live.
Thank you so much to Jeni for stepping in so gallantly yesterday when Michelle texted from hospital. Michelle is on the mend now, resting up at home. Jeni is not only my very good friend but a fellow SVP poet and a terrific editor I’ve had the pleasure of working alongside at takahē. She is the newest editor on the SVP team, and a fellow Siren. Thank you to for Michelle for sharing her notes with Jeni. I count myself so lucky to have these phenomenal poets and editors as friends. Having both Jeni and Michelle to launch my book is a tremendous honour.
A huge thank you to the team at SVP for publishing my book. It’s really difficult to get a book published! I finished Some Bird in 2019. It did the round of the university publishers with the usual rejections. I say usual because though I have worked really hard over almost 20 years to become a ‘good’ poet, there are only 4 poetry publishers, that is the university presses, in NZ, that will publish a book without having to pay for at least some of the costs yourself, and of those, only one is in the South Island – Otago University Press – who takes around 4 to 5 books a year from 100s of submissions. This is not good for South Island writers, because everyone else in Aotearoa knows Wellington is where the writers are at ... Yeah, nah.
So on top of being an overlooked South Islander, I am also a middle-age woman. This is the biggest demographic of those writing poetry and buying poetry books in Aotearoa today. You might think this would work in our favour, publishers trying to represent the market etc, but it actually works against us, and it’s pretty obvious why especially if you are a middle-age woman. We all know that middle-age women are not going to be seen as the new best thing and that in fact we become magically invisible from about the age we start to feel like our mothers – invisible in the workplace, in starring roles in movies, or turning heads as we walk down the street. And in publishing houses. No matter how good our work, it’s not going to be a hot ticket for underfunded publishing companies, who these days are also trying their best to represent other under-represented groups, ironically now the men in poetry. And in about the last five years – finally - Māori and Pacific writers alongside the queer community are getting seen and getting published in the poetry world. This is not only about time but absolutely essential for a healthy arts community. But the problem is that instead of the pie being made bigger to bring in the groups that have been under-represented for far too long, the pie has stayed the same, and is actually shrinking – as you will have seen by the university layoffs in the news. In recent years, I’ve been told by three different uni publishers, ‘we love your work /I’m a fan of your work, but sorry’, and they're genuinely sorry.
Which meant that Some Bird went into a drawer for the next three years. Until ... up steps Joanna Preston, reminding me that SVP is active again and may be interested. I sent my collection off and voila, here I am almost a year on from that first conversation with Jo. This is where Sudden Valley Press and other independent publishers are so important. I did consider the independent presses at the time of looking for a publisher for Some Bird but most were closed for subs at that time (around 6 out of 7 not open). Also, I already had my first collection published by the fabulous Pūkeko Publications, but for my second collection I was aiming for the clout and recognition the university presses offer. Always the idealist! So having SVP open for business again was exciting for me. While, I end up taking some of the publishing and marketing costs, SVP, like the other independent presses, gives poets like me the chance at the extra pieces of the pie, which ultimately allows a truer representation of the voices in our communities, and, to note, with the same – if not better – attention given to the quality of the product – because, in order to survive in a competitive environment, it has to be.
And amazingly, it is done on the smell of an oily rag. Sudden Valley Press is non-profit and relies on the volunteers that run the house – I'll say that again – volunteers! They do this work to see the poets of Ōtautahi Christchurch being read, for the purpose of growing our poetry community and truely for the love of poetry.
So it is with real pleasure, I introduce you to these heroes:
David Gregory, publisher, Marisa Cappetta, treasurer, Jeni Curtis editor, and a special shout out to Joanna Preston, who was the main editor on Some Bird. How cool for my book to have the attention of this poet and teacher of renoun! She gave the sheen to this feathered piece, demanding every word and every line does its bit. I’m so sorry she was unable to be here tonight , but she’s certainly here in spirit, and in these pages. [Joanna actually surprised and overwhelmed me by turning up, literally off the plane from Tasmania, to attend the launch moments before it started!]
I thank Sudden Valley Press for not only this book, but also the opportunity this year has afforded to work together with my stablemates – the three other poets published this year with SVP – Janet Wainscott, Jeni Curtis and Marisa Cappetta.
With Jo as director, we put together a show of poems from our four books that debuted at WORD Writers Festival last month to a wonderfully appreciative audience, and tonight you will see a small preview of that show. It has been a pleasure working with these wise, witty and worldly women, whom I have learned so much – their knowledge of history, mythology and their way with words is extraordinary and if you haven’t read their books already, go buy them and support our independent presses and their poets!
There’s a lot of work that goes into bringing a book into the world! I also want to thank my writing community here in Ōtautahi for helping me grow as a writer and a person – Hagley Writers’ Institute, my SIWA writing buddies, CPC, Write On School for Young Writers, the Flash Fiction community, my two critique groups, the 3Js, the Canterbury journals takahē and Catalyst – it is a terrific community to be part of. I love the way we cross paths, collaborate and build each other – each of these groups have all grown me in some way, and I thank them for it.
This spirit of co-operation goes wider than ChCh too. I thought I would be fool enough to ask my poetry heroes Sarah-Jane Barnett from Wellington, Emma Neale and Fiona Farrell from Ōtipoti to read and write a blurb for the back cover of Some Bird. These women who write their feet off for a living all came back without one bit of hesitation and said yes. And then their names one by one appeared in my inbox with their generous recommendations, and I leapt around my living room, laughing and crying. They all send their apologies tonight. And I thank them all so much.
I will read from this book about a woman’s lot in a moment, but I can’t first without saying thank YOU all for coming. This is what it’s all about, the years of learning the craft, the angst of writing and those moments when you can’t, and all of you are here because you understand that, and that makes me happy. It’s the hardest thing in the world to live the dream when the world seems bent on keeping us down, paying us a pittance, or nothing, for our art, our mahi, so when people turn out to support a fellow artist, and say yes, we need to hear our local voices, it is no mean thing, and I thank you so much!
Some special thank yous! To Thendup and Amanda of Sherpa Kai for the wonderful meal tonight and the most excellent venue, most of all for supporting creatives! Vera and Paul for coming all the way from Northland. That is just wow! I meet Vera through Michelle and Flash Frontier and then through Michelle’s classes. Leane for taking time of work tonight. Helen and Richard for leaving their music classses. My uncle Richard and Barbara coming all the way from Wellington. My dad Ross and Renai coming from Auckland. My darling sister Phoenix and my nephew Cayden also coming all the way from Auckland!
My lovely family, without whom none of this would be possible. Rata, my amazing and talented daughter, who designed and illustrated the cover of my book (and found me this hat!) My gorgeous son, whose own song lyrics give me so much joy. Mick, my wing-man, for whom many of the poems were written.
And last, not least, I have dedicated Some Bird to my two mothers. Fern, my natural mother, here tonight from Blenhiem, who I first met at the age of 22, such a special mum to me, a person I’m guided by and aspire to be like. And my other mum who’s in Fairlie, who brought me up with a wise and generous heart and will be cheering me on as we speak. I’m probably the luckiest person in the world to have two mums, and this book is for them.
[Fern also gave a speech entitled "In Defence of Poetry", which I will share another time. It turns out, I come from a line of writers!]
You can purchase Some Bird here.