Terrestrial Molluscs: An interview with Tim Upperton

Tim Upperton, in knitted form (from Cheezombie on Etsy)
Some facts about poet Tim Upperton:
  • He comes from Palmerston North.
  • His first collection of poems is called A House on Fire.
  • He has just bought a new house.
  • His poems and fiction have appeared in: AGNI, Bravado (of which he is former poetry editor), Dreamcatcher, Landfall, New Zealand Books, the Listener, North & South, Reconfigurations, Sport, Takahe, Turbine and Best New Zealand Poems.
  • He has a fine appreciation of puns. Puns of all kinds and for all occasions. If you need a pun for a speech or something, ask Tim Upperton.
  • He tutors creative writing at Massey University. 
  • He is currently growing a beard: “It’s a regular Lear beard, with two owls and a hen, four larks and a wren, etc.” It is just as we feared.

AY: So you’ve had a poem in this Best of the Best New Zealand Poems anthology (edited by Damien Wilkins and Bill Manhire; published by the estimable Victoria University Press). Congratulations! Now, I don’t want to be a downer, but don’t you think “best of the best” is a highly questionable category?

TU: Thanks, and congratulations yourself! Yeah, of course you’re right. All the same, I’m glad I’m in there. “Best of the best” is one of those handy marketing labels used to push product, but it’s not entirely meaningless. The book is a selection from ten years of The
Best New Zealand Poems series, and each year the editor has had a word to say about that superlative: that another editor would have come up with a different selection, etc. “Best” is always a point of debate, but do we allow that some poems are better than others? I’m judging a poetry competition right now, and if I didn’t allow that, there would
be 679 winning poems. I’m pretty sure there aren’t 679 winning poems. And every time an editor accepts or rejects a poem for publication, a qualitative judgement is being made. I like the declarative boldness of “Best of the best”. What’s the alternative? “Poems I liked rather a lot”? I suspect people who don’t ordinarily read poems will buy this book, and although I’m not evangelical about increasing poetry’s audience, that’s a Good Thing, isn’t it?

AY: I like the declarative boldness too – I sense that it knows it’s problematic but it’s saying, the hell with it, New Zealand! I’d like to think the poems that have made it in there are the durable ones that will stick around with us, weathering away. When you start judging those 679 poems, what will you be looking for? Or have you no preconceived criteria?

TU: I like the way Damien Wilkins puts it in his introduction: “Bottom-line: these are the poems that most excited us. These are the ones that most consistently brought pleasure. These are the ones.” I’m also running with the excitement and pleasure principle. The danger there is that I’ll look favourably at the kind of poem that attracts me, and that I try to write myself. I’d like to think a winning poem announces itself – that it succeeds outstandingly on its own terms. So I’ve just dived straight in. What a mess  – poems everywhere. I have to say a lot of them are very angsty. But why can’t a winning poem be angsty? I don’t think angst is off-limits, do you?

AY: No way – but it’s easy to be cynical unless the angst is expressed in some unexpected way, or translated into something surprising. When and how did you get into poetry? When did you write your first poem?

Carrier pigeon (via Nathan Abels)

TU: I remember reciting to my grandmother and various assembled aunts a poem I’d written – about ten, I would’ve been. Something about a carrier pigeon with a message tied to its leg. The pigeon was called Meg – rhymed with leg, you see. I had a cleft palate at the time, which wouldn’t have helped the recitation, but my grandmother and aunts seemed pretty satisfied with it. My first real poem was written much later, when I was a public libraries manager. 1999, that was. I sent it off to Sport, and was lucky – Fergus Barrowman accepted it. I say lucky, because it wasn’t much of a poem, but I guess it was a real one. I studied English

A carrier pigeon reports for duty (via Nathan Abels)

and I teach it in a stop and start sort of way at Massey University, so I’ve always read poetry. By the way, anyone who thinks poetry enjoyed a golden age a hundred years ago, or four hundred years ago, should dip into dusty old anthologies sometime. The amount of dross published in every era is incredible. For every Tennyson there are fifty William Cullen Bryants.

AY: Can you recommend a particularly bad (or good) William Cullen Bryant poem?

TU: It’s never fair to judge poets by their worst poems, so I’ll recommend WCB’s “Thanatopsis“: following the forbidding title is a blank verse meditation on death that steers clear of Christian sentiment, and has lines that Wordsworth would have been proud to own.

AY: I’ve heard you say that you really can’t stand the work of Billy Collins. What is it about the Collins you don’t like? Some say he’s the loveable “class clown in the schoolhouse of American poetry”! 

TU: No doubt I have said that about Collins, and it’s an injustice, really – he’s written some very fine poems. It’s his schtick I can’t stand. That homespun quality, the twinkle in his poems’ eye. He’s often praised for the large numbers of readers he has won over to poetry – that evangelical thing again – but that’s PR, not poetry. And isn’t the loveable class clown usually a bit of a dickhead?

William Cullen Bryant, angsting (Robert Castro, via Phototèque Homéopathique)
Have you read his poem “Litany“? It’s pretty funny, but it mocks a poem by the Belgian writer, Jacques Crickillon. Both poems (Crickillon’s is in French) begin: “You are the bread and the knife…” Collins then goes on to satirise such metaphoric flights – I guess it’s a modern take on Shakespeare’s “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”. But he does it at the expense of a relatively unknown Belgian poet, who actually writes good poems. A typical reaction to Collins’s work that I saw on the Web is this one: he “takes the wind and bluster and pomposity out of the pretentious sails of most other poets”. I’d say he’s got enough wind and bluster and pomposity of his own, beneath that kindly demeanour.

AY: You could argue, though, that the loveable class clown sort of does the work for the rest of us, on the dickhead front. When they launch into their performance, we see what it’s possible to get away with. They put themselves on the line for us, have their self-esteem messed with by being simultaneously loathed and loved, so that we can see where the boundaries lie. You COULD say that Billy Collins is a martyr. A martyr for the poets. But maybe let’s not go too far down that road …

TU: Billy Collins – a poet on the edge? I don’t think so. Not that there is an edge, really. I’m sure his self-esteem’s intact, in any case. The house of poetry has many mansions – there’s room for a Billy Collins, I guess.

AY: I notice that you use the word “murmuration” in your poem “The Starlings”. Tell us some more interesting collective nouns for animals.

TU: A murmuration of starlings – yes. I like those old collective nouns for animals – they suggest an engagement with and observation of our fellow creatures that isn’t so evident today. We talk about “the environment” as if it were something we might visit occasionally, like a national park. I have a dictionary of collective nouns, but as I’m
moving house again (third time in a year), I can’t lay my hands on it. I suspect most people with an interest in language have a fondness for them – a clamour of rooks, a sneak of weasels, an implausibility of gnus (not sure of the provenance of that one) – in the same way they’re fond of Scrabble and cryptic crosswords.

A formidable murmuration of starlings (by Owen Humphreys, via Guardian)

AY: A “sneak of weasels” is great. One of my favourites is “a flange of baboons”. Why a “flange”?! It sounds like some kind of dessert. 

When can we expect your next book (and does it have a tentative title)? Maybe the title of could be: “Billy Collins’s Self Esteem Is Intact”. It’s a bit clunky though. Maybe just “Billy Collins’s Self Esteem.” 

TU: Mmm, a flange of baboons. Your suggested title blows any tentative ideas I had in mind out of the water. Actually I don’t have any in mind. I’m about a third of the way towards my next collection, and a friend suggested after a poetry reading the other day that I call it “Mean”. And it’s true, there is a mean streak running through the poems so far. I do like a mean poem. I once visited Harlech, a mining town in Wales, where shops sold these figurines made of slate: they were squat, glossy and rather ugly, heavy in the hand. I bought several. I want the poems I’m writing now to be sort of like those figurines.

AY: Careful. You’ll be stepping on Frederick Seidel‘s toes. But I’ve never thought of your poems as ugly, I’m afraid. They have a hard streak – I wouldn’t call it mean – that speaks of an awareness of bleakness and decay, and that doesn’t turn away from it. Like the rotting garden you describe in “Seasonal” – “the slug’s rank kingdom”. Complete this sentence: “Tim Upperton is the _______________ of New Zealand poetry.”

TU: You know I like Seidel, though that louche decadence of his is mostly
a pose, I think. As for your sentence, I don’t know… I don’t know. Maybe: “Tim Upperton is the slug in the rotting garden of New Zealand poetry”.

AY: Thanks, Tim. I will leave you with this remark from a 1982 article “How to Be Sluggish” by the zoologist D. W. Burton of Victoria University of Wellington: “Terrestrial molluscs have evolved satisfactory answers to the daunting array of potential disaster which confronts them, and have done it so successfully that they can be found in large numbers in an extraordinary variety of habitats all over the world.”

via Cheezombie on Etsy

About ashleighlou

Person, usually on bike
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