Shirley Deuchrass,  Wanaka, April 2018

As an adult student, studying English at Otago University was both challenging and nerve wracking in equal measure. The longer I was there, the more I learned and the more I loved the learning.

I had already started writing poetry so the poetry writing paper was a must. However, the lecturer and many of the other students didn’t really get my nice country poems. Some, like the one comparing society today to my teens, suggesting the young men of today should straddle the raddle so everyone knew where they’d been, were met with a blank stare. No one got it, yet I thought it was rather funny. It sure beat their poems, many which I thought were a bit sensational or grubby.

I passed that paper, but I left feeling like I hadn’t achieved my own goals or expectation. So, from there I joined a writers group and at their suggestion applied for a poetry mentorship with NZSA. I was accepted and then began to learn and understand fully what was required to become a better poet. Alistair Paterson (ONZM) a NZ born writer, poet and editor of PoetryNZ, was my mentor.

I wrote a poem every week for a very long time and Alistair would guide me, suggesting improvements and discussing my bad writing habits. One of the biggest issues was the telling. Alistair would say, Don’t give me like or as, give me the thing itself, for example, the river was like a lizard’s tail swinging down the valley could be changed into, the river was a lizard’s tail swinging down the valley floor.

Another debate was the post-modern era and what exactly that meant. Eventually I described it thus … when you think of a dead rabbit your mind also thinks about a number of other things such as a rabbit fur coat, the rabbit virus, the millions of rabbits on the hills, or a rabbit town under the hill, or it might wander to sheep or cattle upsetting the environment and many other ideas. Post modernism is about bringing these other ideas into the poem. It doesn’t have to make sense to everyone, people will always find something to connect with the thoughts and feelings of the poet.

I’m still working on it but if you’re feeling shy about applying for a mentorship, shake it out and go for it. It’s well worth the effort. I often think about Alistair when I’m writing and really appreciate his support and encouragement. It was a great start and gave me confidence to keep trying. Here is one of the poems I wrote as a result of that mentorship.

Today the sea is an angry child 


Today the sea is an angry child
a southerly wind
blows washing down the bank
 
I retrieve it, think of a tropical island
where the sunrise is pink flambé
& the ocean licks the sand
 
    Tuvaluan soil is being swallowed
    by a thirsty sea
 
bones of the ancestors will dissolve
in salt, weary spirits lost in a storm
of flotillas. Perhaps wood
from a playhouse
will drift on the current
yesterday’s lunch, morsels
for marine creatures
a car, for a conger eel
 
elders will show children
a brown-edged picture to prove
it was there.
 
First published in the ODT
Republished in River Calls Me Home