Major prize for 'Tender' poems to a father


Janet Newman with International Writers' Workshop judge and poet Robert Sullivan


After ten years, Massey University PhD student Janet Newman decided to stop writing about her father - and winning a literary prize for a sequence of poems about him felt like a fitting end to the process.

Ms Newman, who is currently studying a PhD in Creative Writing on the history of ecopoetry in New Zealand while managing a farm near Levin, won the 2017 International Writers’ Workshop (IWW) Kathleen Grattan Prize for a Sequence of Poems (worth $1000) for her sequence, titled Tender.

The seven-poem set about her father, Doug Newman (1919-2008), show him as a farmer, a former WWII soldier, and in old age, revealing both his tough exterior and a covert tenderness. By tracing his life from her childhood to his death at 89 years, the sequence explores the ways in which war invades the lives of veterans and their children. The seven poems are part of a larger body of work about her dad, 

Ms Newman, who completed a Master of Creative Writing through Massey’s School of English and Media Studies before starting on her doctoral study in 2016, says writing poems was a way of trying to understand a changing relationship with her father – particularly in the years since her mother died and she spent more time with him. But she feels they say a lot about herself too – something the competition judge, Auckland poet Robert Sullivan pointed out.

In that light, poems should not be read as entirely factual, she says, but rather as ways to illuminate perceptions, “there’s my real father, and the other father [in the poems]. They are inspired by him and there’s some truth to them,” she says, but they are not necessarily biographical. “Poetry is like fiction – it can be close to the truth, but it is a piece of art.”

NZ ecopoetry in focus

Living near, and working on, the 25-hectare family beef farm in Koputaroa, Horowhenua, is the backdrop to her doing doctoral research on the history of New Zealand ecopoetry – which is nature poetry that is concerned with environmental issues.

It is a relatively new field of literary study, better known in Britain and the United States where numerous anthologies dedicated to the genre have been published since it first emerged in the 1990s. While much New Zealand poetry is about our natural places, Ms Newman is most interested in those poets whose work acknowledges environmental degradation and values nature not only as a resource, including Hone Tuwhare, Brian Turner, Dinah Hawken, Anna Jackson and Emma Neale.

Although it may not always overtly set out to be political, she says that like all poetry, ecopoetry works on an individual basis ­– it has the potential to make us see things in different ways and to question our assumptions. If that sparks a change in one person’s consciousness about how we relate to nature, therein lies the possibility of change in a wider sense.

The PhD is structured around critical and creative components and Ms Newman is working on her own collection of ecopoems to fulfil the creative requirements of the degree. The combination of academic investigation for her thesis coupled with artistic endeavour makes for a rich and rewarding study experience, she says, adding that the critical side of her work nurtures her poetry writing, and vice versa.

She’s already been recognised for her efforts in the genre, winning the Open Category of the New Zealand Poetry Society’s 2015 International Poetry Award for her poem, Biking to the Manawatū River, in which she was commended for the way she evoked environmental impacts on the river and its surroundings.

Two poems from Janet Newman’s prize-winning Tender series:

Talking to my Father

Most people called him Doug

and he did,

 

held a shovel as though

it were a limb

 

or a spoon, bowl blade

worn as a mouth.

 

Head on his shoulder,

boot on its head.

 

Tree holes, post holes, drains,

a swimming pool,

 

graves for chooks, dogs, calves.

Trenches.

 

To cut square edges

he used a spade,

 

called it

a spade.

 

Tender

  

When my father said the rabbit

was tough my mother promised

to boil it longer.

A shame to waste good meat,

he told my sister it was chicken,

said our pet lambs

went back to their mothers.

It was kindness. He seemed

to have always known

the truth of things.

 

Every time he found a burrow

he tramped back to the shed

for the spade, a length of chicken wire,

swearing like a sergeant.

He would always come in

from the paddocks

like a soldier

shouldering the shovel or grubber

 

except the day he lifted from his pocket

the kit spared from the hay mower

by his Geneva Convention

and held it out to me in cupped palms

as trembling proof of his boyhood.

 

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