Why is poetry so powerful? Let me count the ways.

The wonders of words at the Outspoken Festival, Wanaka, New Zealand

The wonders of words at the Outspoken Festival, Wanaka, New Zealand

ANNABEL WILSON reflects on the importance of poetry after attending the second event of the Outspoken festival of words and storytelling at Bistro Gentil. Poetry has always been about relationships. Postmodern poetry, known for its fractures and reflexivity, often plays with the relationship between speaker and reader. The earliest poems in our literary landscape are the waiata composed for iwi to recount their whakapapa, linking present to past. Last night I joined an audience in awe of two Kiwi poets engaged in a playful tête-à-tête. Watching and listening to Sue Wootton and Liz Breslin in action confirmed my belief in the power of poetry. When a line – or an entire piece – works, it evokes a yesness in the beholder that is one of the most precious facets of human experience. Here’s five reasons why.

1. A poem packs a punch when it hits upon a universal truth. In her rhythmic incantation ‘Lovebird’, Sue summoned the fluttery feeling under the skin that falling in love brings. Through our collective sigh of recognition, the crowd showed we know just what she’s getting at as she shone new light on that familiar, giddy state of a new crush. Likewise, Liz demonstrated the tedium of office powerpoint presentations that are “neither art nor life” as she delivered a series of haiku in the deadpan robotic style of a ‘Team Leader’. In these works and others ranging in subject matter from school camp to crossing fords, both writers distilled the weirdness of the world with poignant clarity.

2. A poem can be a tribute. Sue and Liz both write poems for real people, about real things that have happened to them and those around them. ‘One Step At A Time’ (which Liz wrote for a friend whose partner was critically injured) resonates with raw honesty and sincerity, with her haunting repetition of the number, ‘one’. Sue’s rollicking and evocative ‘Side Saddle’ which is written ‘To the Lady Poet’, she dedicated to Liz. Whether providing hope, remembrance or inspiration, tribute poems can help us keep going, say goodbye, reflect and grow.

3. A poem can be a protest. Artists are often at their best when they are fired up. There is a long history of New Zealand poets utilising their artform to incite change, or simply to say this is not okay. James K. Baxter and Sam Hunt have protested against war, Hone Tuwhare and Lauris Edmond wrote to show their rage against nuclear testing in the Pacific. Liz explained “sometimes you have to say it ay” after she recited the harrowing poem she wrote about the Nia Glassie child abuse case. Sue’s ‘hatebird‘, a clever antithesis to ‘lovebird’, protests against the Nano Hummingbird video drone designed by the Pentagon to “flutter into enemy territory”. In Sue’s words, this technology has created a “bird of pry / unfriendly flyer”.

4. A poem can be a gift. During the interval, I was delighted to discover Sue had hand-typed some fresh poems on the day of the show, which could be purchased for $10.00, and signed by her. My favourite was ‘Take A Letter’, which reads as a dictation between a ‘He’ and ‘I’, and uses dexterous economy of language to convey the demise of a relationship in nine lines. A handwritten, personalised or recited poem can be a rare and treasured gift. In the final set, Sue and Liz each read two of each other’s poems, lending a different voice to familiar works. Like the performance of cover songs, the poets paid each other the compliment of  bringing their own nuances to their contemporary’s work.

5. A poem can be immortal. The magic of poetry is its ability to move us. Walking out of Bistro Gentil into a balmy Wanaka evening, I was struck by the sense that we die, but words don’t. The craft of poetry is an artform that predates literacy, and the publication of New Zealand poetry titles is currently flourishing. With these two factors on their side,  I’m fairly certain both Sue and Liz’s works will hang around for a while.

View Simon Darby’s photos of Sue Wootton and Liz Breslin at Bistro Gentil here:


Find out more about Outspoken and get yourself some tickets here:www.outspokenfestival.co.nz.

Words are ON.


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