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Thursday, 24 May 2012

Perfect Blue: An introduction to the poetry of Kona Macphee

Perfect Blue

[T]he older I get, the more I value sincerity and directness. I think it’s tragic that “sincere”, at least in the context of the arts, seems to have become a euphemism for “naïve”, typically trotted out in a pejorative way to suggest “well-meaning but amateurish”. What is sincerity, if not simply meaning what you say? – and thus quite the opposite of sophistry, spin and relentless post-modern “irony” (which seems to be euphemistic for “all a big, knowingly self-referential in-joke”). – Kona Macphee

There are not many things in this life I believe in. I believe lots of things but that little preposition makes all the difference as it does with love. I believe that poetry is important—it’s certainly important to me—and I also think I believe in poetry as a force for good. I’m talking here more as a poet as opposed to being a reader of poetry. If no one read any of my poetry it’s still done its job for me; it’s got what’s been going on in my head onto a piece of paper where it’s much easier to deal with it. Over the past few years I’ve talked a fair bit about my process of writing not because I think mine is the right way to go about writing poems but because mine is the only one I have a handle on. I know many writers don’t like to talk about their writing process or even what sparked the idea that grew into a poem and that’s fine but how are new poets to learn anything unless more experienced poets talk about how they write?

Some people have some funny ideas about how one should go about writing. The most obvious one is: Write about what you know. That’s never been why I’ve written. I’m interested in exploring what I don’t know or at least what I don’t know well enough to distil into a few words. The better advice is: Write about what you care about. I suspect that poet Kona Macphee might agree with me here; she strikes me as a caring person. I don’t know her—never met the woman—but I do own a copy of her poetry collection Perfect Blue. She didn’t send me a review copy or anything like that; I actually put my hand in my pocket and bought a copy which is a rare thing for me to do, not because I’m mean or anything (although I am careful with my pennies) but because there are so many older poets whose works I’ve not read that I’m more likely to go for. But clearly there was something about the few samples I read online that piqued my interest. That said the book has been lying around for a good year waiting on me getting round to it. My bad. (To put that into perspective I’ve had Seamus Heaney’s New Selected Poems 1966-1987 sitting beside me for a good six months and have only glanced inside once so she’s in good company.) But now I have and I’d like to tell you a bit about it and her.

The book tells us a wee bit about her:

Kona MacpheeKona Macphee was born in London and grew up in Australia, where she worked as a waitress, shop assistant and apprentice motorbike mechanic. She studied musical composition at the Sydney Conservatorium, violin at the University of Sydney, and computer science and robotics at Monash University, later taking an M.Sc. at Cambridge as a Commonwealth Scholar. She received an Eric Gregory Award for her poetry in 1998, and has published two collections with Bloodaxe, Tails (2004), and Perfect Blue (2010), which won her the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize in 2011.

She is a freelance writer and software developer, and lives in Crieff, Perthshire.

Kona Macphee's website has a microsite linked to it featuring her own commentaries on the poems in Perfect Blue as well as sample poems and audio recordings of her readings

The microsite is of particular interest because there you can download The Perfect Blue Companion, a 58-page booklet in which she talks about poetry in general but specifically provides a commentary to every poem in the collection. I think this is inspired and wish I’d thought to do the same with my own poetry collection in fact I might just do that some time in the future.

I don’t go to poetry readings. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number I have been to in my life. I like the idea of them but the poems just come to quickly—bam! bam! bam!—and you have one go at getting the piece and then they’re onto the next one but I like the idea of poetry readings. I could actually enjoy a reading, were he still alive, by Larkin (not that he gave poetry readings), because I’m already very familiar with the work; I can now enjoy the reading as an experience unique to itself. What Kona noticed was this:

My own interest in audience development is relatively recent. In 2008 I started selling the remaining copies of my first collection to raise money for UNICEF. As part of this fundraising drive, I cozened various "real-world" friends and acquaintances – people who would never normally read poetry – into buying a copy and coming to readings. They often commented that they were able to get into poems more easily at readings because of the preambles: those little bits of background context, or explanation of motivation, that a poet will typically provide when introducing a poem. Even that small amount of informally-delivered information was enough to give this somewhat ambivalent new audience a "way in" to poetry (and yes, some of them retained this newfound interest, borrowing anthologies and exploring further in their own time).

I think this is a very valid point because when I think about being taught poetry at school it wasn’t until the teacher started talking a bit about the poem—its context, where the poet was at in his life, something—that I started to sit up and take some interest; before that I didn’t know how to, as Kona puts it, find my “way in.”

So what’s she’s done in her companion is, in effect, type up the kind of things she might say in between poems. Of course by the time I got round to downloading the pamphlet I’d already been through the collection on my own, not that much stuck, but still that’s more my fault than hers; memory like a sieve.

The collection is broken into three parts, ‘Perfect Blue I’ and ‘Perfect Blue II’ bookend the collection; ‘The Book of Diseases’ is sandwiched in the middle. In his review of Perfect Blue Tim Love is quick to point out that “[a]bout a third of the poems are end-rhymed, and several others are metered in some way, with the elevated diction traditionally associated with sonnets. Patterns abound.” He’s right and if you click over and read what he has to say he provides plenty of examples but in these days when free verse feels like the only verse I’m always delighted to find another poet who, like me, is interested in structure. In an old blog entry she talks about this:

When I’m teaching creative writing, I often like to do an exercise involving constraints – a poem in a highly rigid form, for example, or a set of prescriptive (“Use all these words”) or proscriptive (“Don’t use any adjectives”) rules. It’s one of the most exciting paradoxes of creativity that constraints can actually enhance creative output […] The constraints of something like sestina form can have a similar effect, being both focussing and oddly liberating, and frequently allowing writers to produce a completed 39-line poem in the tight timescale of a workshop exercise.

This reminded me of something I mentioned in my review of Imagine: How Creativity Works:

Unless poets are stumped by the form, unless they are forced to look beyond the obvious associations, they'll never invent an original line. They'll be stuck with clichés and conventions, with predictable adjectives and boring verbs. And this is why poetic forms are so important.

Which brings me to the first poem I’d like to highlight from the collection: ‘The problem of the bees’ which opens with this verse:

beeInside the templed city, writers tend
the stone-walled gardens of their cleverness,
and flaunt them, with the air of pioneers,
who think they’ve mapped the limits of the west,

You can read her commentary on the poem here where you’ll see the poem is not all about writers but this opening stanza also reflects some of the feelings Kona has about academia:

Too often, formal education leaves people with the impression that contemporary poems are cryptic, mocking little devils with (only) complex meanings that must be tortuously unpicked. Combine this perception with the cultural mysticalisation of the poet as a tormented and unstable artiste inhabiting some exotic bohemian niche – wholly "other" – and it's not surprising that people consider poetry with a sense of mistrust, expecting to be tricked by it and made to feel stupid and excluded.

It’s clearly important to her that she finds a balance between stretching herself as a poet whilst still producing accessible work without resorting to poeticisms. I started talking about believing in stuff. A suitable synonym would be ‘trust’ and this is what Kona is aiming at with her commentaries:

It seems to me that a poetry reading will sometimes help to overcome this mistrust precisely because an engaging and informative preamble, delivered in an honest and open way, gives new readers a reason to trust: they can see that the poet is just another ordinary person, who is not attempting to deceive, mock or belittle them but rather to communicate. This allows them to listen neutrally – or even positively – rather than defensively, and be pleasantly surprised by their own enjoyment.

e__e__cummingsIt seems not unreasonable that E E Cummings would be a poet she would be drawn to because, as she said in this old interview, “Cummings captures many of the things I most like in poetry – a distinct individual voice, an incantatory quality, a spiritual and emotional intensity, an absence of heavy-handed ‘look-how-clever-I-am’ erudition.” All you have to do is read her blog to see that she is as down to earth as they come. The first poem in the collection, for example, is about shopping and there’s nothing more everyday than that. Here’s how ‘Iubilate’ opens:

Laden as they were with plastic bags
of all the usual crap they harvested
and carted home, enmazed

within the polished, repetitious panes
of shop displays tricked up like sideshow mirrors
to proffer different selves,

not one amongst the weekend shoppers raised
their eyes beyond that retail paradise
into the vaulted space

starbucks1above the Main Arcade, where one lone pane
of Perspex near the Starbucks end revealed
a colouring of sky

unmired by moss, or weathering, or grime,
a rectangle of clarity restored

In the commentary here Kona talks about how much she hates shopping and “the spiritual emptiness of the shopping-mall” but she never actually explains the title which I thought was remiss of her even though in the commentary on the next poem in the collection she does tell us that a “Pietà (Italian for "pity") is the Christian symbol of Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus in her arms.” I found ‘iubilate’ finally in the Latin expression ‘Iubilate Deo’ (Rejoice in God) but it did cause me to stall right there in the starting blocks.

There are a number of religious images in the book but I’m sure she references them because that’s what she’s familiar with. The poem ‘Addiction’, for example, ends with:

Across the clear-skied coldness of the town,
a starched cathedral cancels its assurances;
the pinned moon suffers on its pointed spire.

and there are plenty of instances where she could have proselytised had that been her inclination but God is more noticeable for His absence than anything else. She’s just as likely to reference Jet Li (‘The short answer’), Chuang-Tze (‘The earthworm’) or Al Capone (‘Syphilis’) as she is God although I did quite appreciate the tiny poem with which she ends the middle section:


Your span’s prescribed by hands unknown;
as to the rest, you’re on your own.
The time is nigh, the hour is close:
you won’t exceed the stated dose.

The Epilogue is a programme most British television viewers of a certain age will be very familiar with. It was a five minute sermonette broadcast at the end of the night (when TV actually signed off); in Scotland we had our own version called Late Call. At least that’s what it reminded me of.

Now for a lot of people a quatrain made up of iambic quadrameters with masculine end rhymes is very old fashioned. And it is. No doubt about it. But is it appropriate to the material? It’s like the poem ‘Self-portrait aged 8 with electric fence’ which begins:

warningI steeled myself
and touched the wire:
it turned my hand
from flesh to fire,

In this case iambic dimeters but exactly the kind of sing-songy verse you would expect from a eight-year-old. But would that eight-year-old have ended with:

and now I reach
for words that sound
each arc of hurt
from hand to ground?

Okay, if the book was full of poems like this I wouldn’t have bought it nor would I be recommending Kona as a poet you should check out but they have their place in her canon just as my own nursery rhyme (‘Nursery Crime’) has its place in mine.

But why write poems like this in the first place? In the introduction to her commentary she’s hinted at it but in this old blog entry she states it in a clearer fashion:

I often wonder how many writers have been driven to write out of a deep and unsatisfied need to be heard. I’m pretty sure it’s true of me, and of many other writers I’ve spoken with or read about. Certainly, it’s easy for creative, introspective types who “march to a different drummer” to end up feeling alienated and misunderstood; perhaps writing is partly an attempt to find an audience (or, in one’s writerly solitude, the fantasy of an audience) that is truly able to receive what one needs to say.


I find the most troublesome kind of not-listening, though, is the kind engendered by defensiveness (for example, in the face of criticism, or some well-worn and seemingly [irresolvable] conflict). In situations like this, where my own feelings of woundedness are pushing me towards self-preservation, towards closing in and shutting out, it takes an incredible effort of will to listen, to really hear what’s being said – and this never seems to get any easier (nor I to get any better at it, sadly).

She wants to be heard. Being heard doesn’t necessarily mean kowtowing to ones audience—i.e. dumbing down—but making them feel comfortable enough to raise their game.

Kona Macphee is a recovering perfectionist and self-declared “slow writer”—it took her years to produce enough poems for her first collection and after seeing it published she found she’s seemingly lost the ability to write:

My not-writing staved off the perfectionist fear of writing badly, but my creative silence nagged at me. In the end, inspired (or perhaps needled) by my husband’s prolific invention blog, I decided to take a risk: I set up a blog of my own, and committed to publishing a poem on it every week. Now, I don’t know if anyone can write an excellent poem every week, but I certainly can’t: therefore, in committing to the blog, I had to give myself permission to fail, and to fail publicly. At the time this required a huge leap of faith, but three years, 158 poems (some good, some marginal and some dreadful) and a new book later, the ability to tolerate my own intermittent crappiness has emerged as the single most useful skill I’ve acquired as a writer.

This is a very honest thing to admit—and a brave thing to attempt (and, no, I’m not following her down that path; I’m perfectly happy writing at a snail’s pace)—because it puts this collection in context. But again it also reveals something about her that she mentions in an interview:

I also like to hope it’s encouraging for new writers to see so-called professionals producing spectacular failures on a regular basis.  None of us should ever be afraid to experiment; a failure’s just a failure, not a huge black stain on one’s character.

She doesn’t actually talk much in her blogs about her creative process which I think is a shame and, of course, the daily poems have all disappeared now but it must have been an interesting experience to see poems you might have read in draft appear, years later, in polished form behind a glossy cover.

Poems should stand on their own and not rely on footnotes or commentary or knowing the author’s life history and these do but once you do know a bit about a writer it’s never a bad thing because you start to look again at pieces you thought larkinyou got not that you got them wrong, it’s just that there’s more to get. When I read her post ‘Love and loneliness’ which ends with her recalling, as a young girl of fifteen or sixteen copying out Philip Larkin’s ‘Talking in Bed’ in her notebook and, as she puts it “already sensing some of its dark veracity”, I couldn't help but remember what I was like at that age and I realised that perhaps not all the sadness I was seeing in the poems was me reading into stuff.

I’ve already said that structure is a big thing with Kona. Here’s one that uses a palindromic word count to shape its stanzas: 1-2-3-4-3-2-1. It first appeared as poem of the week in May 2008. It reminds me both of Larkin in tone and a very old poem I also wrote about a worm in a similar vein. Here is hers:

The earthworm

one imagines
an earthworm dreaming
it might become a
butterfly or even
just Chuang-

share its
urge to fashion
finer dirt from dirt,
to pass what
it passes

the ground
earthworm-info0encompassing what’s left
of life’s green surge
and ebb, what’s
left of

You can read the commentary to the poem here. Word-count forms are not common in the west so the nod to Chuang-Tzu is obviously contrived but this is the kind of poem teachers would encourage kids to write; counting words is much easier than syllables and let’s not go anywhere near meter. The triple-diamante structure is interesting even if it’s not centre-justified on the page. I’m not a big fan of shaped poems but that doesn’t mean I haven’t attempted a few.

There are lots of different kinds of poets out there, all with their own agendas. So why does Kona write? In an article in Poetry Express she writes:

It goes without saying that opinions differ wildly on what poetry is “for”. For me, at least some of the time, writing a poem is about communicating an emotion by recreating that emotion in the mind of the reader – the poetic equivalent, perhaps, of the “Show, don’t tell” dictum beloved of prose writers. In my own experience, the poems most likely to evoke a visible emotional response in readers are those wondrously satisfying ones that had a similar effect on me as I wrote them. I’m certainly not the first poet to notice this; Robert Frost once said:

“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”

At its most absorbing and enjoyable, writing poetry can feel more like archaeology than construction; rather than creating something new, the poet is delicately dusting and probing to reveal some wondrous artefact that already exists. When a poem is emerging like this, I’ll sometimes uncover something – occasionally an image or metaphor, but most often a line, particularly a closing line – that instantly releases a wave of emotion (in my case, usually grief). Inevitably, it’s these poems that seem to have the most impact on other readers, inducing a similar emotional response.

The best way, of course, to get to know any poet is to read their poetry. The poems I’ve cited or quoted from up until now are not her strongest work. I’ve not included these here because there is a goodly amount accessible online. Five poems from Perfect Blue are available on her website and I found a few elsewhere:

From Perfect Blue

Other poems

As I mentioned above Perfect Blue won The Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize in 2010. Here’s what the judges said about why they chose it:

Her compassion, seriousness and technical accomplishment were all evident over a wide range of subjects and forms. She can also describe moments of vulnerability directly and with courage. It was a book that we found ourselves returning to. What impressed us most of all was the way that Macphee’s work combined clarity and depth with a surprising and sometimes unsettling view of the world.

I don’t have any problems with that description. I am not entirely convinced that all the poems in this collection work and if you’ve read Tim Love’s review mentioned above or this one in Osprey Journal you’ll see some other reservations but she is definitely one to watch.

Let me leave you with a filmed interpretation of her poem ‘Prodigal’, a commission for the Impossible Journeys exhibition for Edinburgh’s Hidden Door 2 festival, which highlights the depth of her writing. It’s not part of this particular collection though. You can find the text here along with four other poems.

Filmpoem 12/ Prodigal from Alastair Cook on Vimeo.


Art Durkee said...

I appreciate this introduction. And I have a dilemma. I completely agree with the quote you start off with: the complaint that sincerity is seen as a bad thing, and that it is replaced with relentless post-modern irony. I have complained along these lines myself. So I start out in agreement.

But then the dilemma arrives. Here it is in a nutshell:

Why does this valid complaint about where modern poetry has gone of the rails, and replaced sincerity with irony, clarity and connection with irony and obscurity—why does this valid complaint so often end up in a kind of reactionary neo-formalist poetry? The dilemma I have here, which is one I keep falling into whenever this topic comes up, is that I quite agree with the poet's stated desire for sincerity and directness; and yet the poems that result from that I find to be not at all interesting or compelling, but rather predictable and cliched.

Why does rejection of where poetry has gone off the rails always lead to reactionary neo-formalism? It almost always seems to.

Now, I have no objection to writing poetry in forms. And I totally agree that writing within a set of constraints is often quite liberating creatively. I've written very recently in support of that very idea. But I also know the difference between running scales and playing Chopin; all too often the classroom exercise of writing within constraints, which is valuable in itself as an exercise, leads to a kind of poetry that is much more about form than content.

And therefore here's the paradox of the dilemma, which I have also written about before: to my mind the neo-formalist poets and the "post-avant-garde" postmodern poets of disjunction and language play end up in exactly the same place—because in fact they are two sides of the same coin. Both kinds of poetry pay attention to form than content. In fact, often both sides of this creative argument state that they are reacting to the other side. (And endless cycle of reaction rather than a cycle of creation.) Which means, in the end, that both kinds of poetry are Mannerist, and symptomatic of the late decadent period of an artistic era.

The thing is, I agree with Macphee's ideas about creativity here. But her actual poetry comes across to me as quite Mannerist and reactionary.

And that's the recurring dilemma.

Tim Love said...

Some poets who write neat little poems feel the need to "develop" by writing longer pieces. Sometimes they do this by stringing short poems together, sometimes (not always successfully) they develop new styles. Ian Hamilton is an example of a poet who remained concise.

Rather like Art, I like Kona Macphee's stated approach. And I'd like there to be more routes out of post-modernism than the route back..

On a tangent, let me mention The Death of Postmodernism And Beyond

Jim Murdoch said...

Mannerist suggest work that lacks authenticity but that doesn’t exempt it from being sincere, Art. One has to wonder if there is any room left for a truly original work in any medium; everything is derivative and we should stop using it as a pejorative term because it’s just a fact of life. There are no new forms and nothing is being said within those forms that hasn’t been said before in some other form or maybe much the same form. There is the suggestion that Mannerists prefer style over substance. I can see how some might get tarred with that brush but I don’t think that’s the case here. I don’t honestly think most readers care to label their poetry. I’ve never, not for one instant, considered where my writing stands in relation to the Modernists or the Postmodernists or the Post-postmodernists; I just wrote and any nods to any of them are more likely to be unconscious than conscious.

Intent is a good thing and you get bonus points for it. Intent can also hold you back because it limits you; you don’t always soar as high as you might but not everyone is an Icarus and let’s face it, if it weren’t for Daedalus, how would any of us know about his son going out in a blaze of glory? So I agree with you, Tim, there’s more than one way out of postmodernism. And I think Kona is finding her way under the radar.

Marion McCready said...

I enjoyed that, Jim. I read Kona's blog so I'm not entirely new to her poetry. I love the idea of posting publicly a poem weekly. I'm a slow writer too, struggle to get past a crap line, but I really want to up my output.

Art Durkee said...

Well, I'm quite willing to be convinced that I'm wrong, Jim, which is why I stated that it's a dilemma. I see potential in Kona's verse, I just wish I saw more being done with it. Of course, I feel that way a lot.

The problem with familiar subject matters and familiar little forms is that, like clichés, like sentimentality, they are hard to make new and authentic. If you want to be sincere, write from the heart. Sentiment is what people use to avoid writing about real feelings; it's lace curtains instead of blood and bone. Sentimentality may be quite sincere but as you say it lacks authenticity. That's why it doesn't go very deep as art.

I totally disagree that there are no new forms. You've invented new forms. I've invented new forms, and used them several times. It may be true that finding new ways to say the same old human feelings like love, death, etc., can be a challenge, but I can cite more than one poet who states that that's the whole point: to say the familiar in a new way (rather than an old way) so that it becomes an "aha!" or gives a new angle on life. That's sort of the whole point of the game. I don't seriously believe you've given up on that, despite what you say about not trying to be original anymore.

Despair itself is a manifestation of postmodern mannerism. Anyone who has studied the history of art knows that mannerism appears at the end of a cycle, usually at the same time that new life is springing up under the radar, so to speak. The Baroque period had its mannerist period, before the Classic period brought new life to art. Classicism was in turn revitalized by Romanticism. Postmodernism is the end stage of Modernism, its mannerist period. Just as Tim says, i would like there to be more routes out of postmodernism than the routes that go backwards in time—which routes are themselves symptomatic of mannerism, which was the point I was trying to make in comparing neo-formalism and the post-avant as being two sides of the same coin.

The thing is, I do believe that there are other routes, and I've seen examples of them, even in formalist poetry. Judith Wright comes to mind. So do several "regional" poets I have read.

I'm willing to be convinced about Kona and others, because as I said I like her stated approach. I just haven't been as yet. Hence the dilemma. And it is a dilemma, I don't expect perfect answers or clear resolutions. I think in some ways it's the dilemma of our age, writ small in poems.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’ve not finished a poem this year, Marion. I’ve had one sitting beside my chair in the office for weeks which I keep picking up and putting back down again. The idea of committing to posting a poem a week sound terrifying. That said there was a site a while back that I used to follow—it didn’t last long—and I did respond to her prompts. Not all the poems made their way into the big red folder but there was one particularly good one about writing poems with scissors which a friend in New York is turning to a work of art so I’m not totally against the idea. It’s the commitment I don’t like. It’s why I never talk about what I’m writing or how I’m doing or anything like that because it changes everything for me. I don’t believe in jinxes but I act as if I do just in case. I really should review more poetry. I find it very hard to do. I’ve committed to review one in the middle of June and I’ll make it but the six weeks I was given didn’t feel like nearly enough time.

Art Durkee said...

P.S. Tim, very interesting article. I've read it once, but will need to spend more time on it before I see how fully I agree with it. Like you, I don't think the best routes out of postmodernism go backwards, so I'm not convinced that a return to classicism is any different than a return to formalism.

In reply, here's an article on contemporary mannerism that I found quite convincing:

The dustbin of art history

Jim Murdoch said...

I was being somewhat facetious when I said there were no new forms. Art. A lot of new forms do feel like variations on old forms and the fact is there are so many old forms now. There was a time there were no sestinas, no concerti, no triptychs, no novels but it does feel like it’s been a while since there was a truly new form that others have embraced. I suppose flash fiction might count but short-short stories have been written since forever; just because they have their own brand now doesn’t make them new.

Aren’t we about due a new -ism though? I never liked Modernism as a title. Historians in the 24th century will look back on the term and shake their heads at its arrogance and smile at the stupidity of naming anything Postmodernism. Why not call it Tomorrowism? Or is that what Futurism was? Makes as much sense. The past is continually reappraised and reinvented; that’s what the present is. It’s all just fashion. I watched a programme on Lucian Freud last week and just how much he was out of step with his peers but now he’s a revered master; not sure if he’s old enough to be an ‘old master’ yet.

Is Kona a poet of her time is probably the question one needs to ask not that, as I’ve proved with Lucian Freud, that makes much of a difference in the long run. I think the answer is that she is. I would not have spent what was an awful lot of time researching her—I literally read every single post still live written by or about her—unless there was something there. She has her own style—is style a form of form? (again I’m being facetious)—and that’s what makes her readable, her way of stating the bleedin’ obvious which is all that’s left to any of us to do.

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