Tuesday, June 24, 2014

'Chemotherapy' by Mary McCallum and 'In the corner of my mind, a boy' by Frankie McMillan

Chemotherapy by Mary McCallum

who knew she was there
hidden inside that thing that turns
her girl upside down and inside out
(poison, really, a small inefficient
killing field) let loose in a body still
young enough to smell of milk
in the morning, one the mother must
return to sit beside and stand over    
to stroke the soft cheek, catch the soft
vomit, be steel to all that softness — a shield —
and, when called upon, to scream
like a banshee         yet, for the most part,
sits beside is all she can do, hands in lap

but running the spellcheck just now
over the girl’s story — all those
words, sharp teeth biting at the last
of life’s full belly — there she is! mother
over and over:  the unexpected heart
of the matter, with key on one side,
and happy on the other

© Mary McCallum

In the corner of my mind, a boy by Frankie McMillan

This morning watching people in the street
I remembered the book I’d forgotten to write –  
The Boy Who Lived In A Wardrobe
which I promptly changed to
The Boy in the Wardrobe, this meant
it could be flash fiction as living implies
a day’s activities which in the case of the boy
would normally be kicking a ball
around the overgrown tennis court, or finding
a lost bird in the hedge
then there is the business of eating, licking fingers
washing and scrubbed knees all of which
are impractical in the dim wardrobe smelling
of furs and the indecision of shoes
and though I can present the child however
I wish a chance encounter might be best
say, a glimpse through a key hole 
to where a small boy sits 
playing with his fingers in what would be
my parents' wardrobe, the cotton dresses
falling on his shoulders
my father’s trousers a stack of chimneys
which brings me back to the parade of people –  
how they walk towards deeds   
they never knew they had within them

©Frankie McMillan, previously published in Sport

Poems posted with permission by the authors.
Editor: Michelle Elvy

I chose to share poems by Mary McCallum and Frankie McMillan today because they have just completed their tasks as judges for the 2014 National Flash Fiction Day competition, and this is a wonderful way to honour and thank these two individuals for their talents and efforts. NFFD prize-givings occurred simultaneously on Sunday, June 22, in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch -- and Mary attended the Wellington celebration while Frankie was at the Christchurch event.  

Besides being many other things -- publisher, editor, novelist, poet and generally enthusiastic supporter of many literary endeavours -- Mary is, of course, co-founder of Tuesday Poem as well. I got to know Frankie's writing from her poetry first, then from her flash fiction which won last year's National Flash Fiction Day competition -- whose title 'In the nick of time, a deer' should be noted here for its parallel rhythm to the poem posted today -- and then I was pleased to read it much more closely as I reviewed stacks of stories for the forthcoming Flash Fiction International (W. W. Norton, 2015), for which Frankie's story 'Truthful Lies' was selected for inclusion. This year, we were excited that both Frankie and Mary agreed to judge the NFFD  competition and present awards on Sunday. 

From the judges' astute commentary on the winning 2014 stories, readers can see how Mary and Frankie went about selecting the winners for this year's competition. And their poems featured here today demonstrate poetry that tells stories, stories that are poetic. 

In  'Chemotherapy', I particularly admire the opening lines, how we are plunged right into the middle of this story, with the uncertainty of 'who knew she was there' balanced by the details that show a constancy and a presence all along -- in the milk, in the soft moments, in the screams -- and then the ending with the attention to detail and care of spellchecking every letter, every small moment on the page and in her daughter's life. This poem is inspired by Mary's association and friendship with Jan, the mother of Harriet Rowland, who wrote The Book of Hat, which Mary's Makaro Press published earlier this year. It's an extraordinary story, and Mary's poem is a subtle tribute to a complicated mother-daughter relationship, full of love and even joy in the face of life and death. 

'In the corner of my mind, a boy' is similarly a glimpse at a life -- only this time it's the imaginative life in/of the mind of a writer, contemplating all the possibilities and small details of this boy whom we can see briefly but fully through a very few words on the page. I love how Frankie plays with the idea of poetry and flash here -- very compelling for me. And how we see the boy through the keyhole -- that is the very way writers of excellent flash may think about bringing a full story to realisation. It's a glimpse, a small moment of light through which we may see activity or thought or history or even dresses and trousers, gently swaying against each other. And the ending says it all -- how poetry and flash hold such tremendous energy and potential, like the parade of people that Frankie comes back to:

how they walk towards deeds   
they never knew they had within them

These poems reveal a fine line between poetry and storytelling, and finely tuned writing. Thank you, Mary and Frankie, for sharing your talents!

After you've read this week's Tuesday Poem, please check out some of the other poems offered by the Tuesday Poets who appear in the sidebar.


Mary McCallum (centre in the photo, with other Wellington writers from the NFFD celebration) is an award-winning poet and fiction writer with a children’s book Dappled Annie and the Tigrish newly published by Gecko Press. Her novel, The Blue, was published in 2007, reprinted twice in 2008 and translated into Hebrew in 2009. The Blue won the New Zealand Society of Authors Hubert Church Best First Book Award for Fiction and the Readers’ Choice Award at the Montana New Zealand Book Awards. She has won and been nominated for key awards and bursaries, including the Lillian Ida Smith Award in 2004. Her fiction and poetry have been published in a variety of literary journals.
Mary is a recent convert to flash fiction which she sees as a terrific hybrid of poetry and fiction. She placed third in the 2013 National Flash Fiction Day competition. She earns her living as a freelance writer and tutor, is the co-curator of online Tuesday Poem, and has recently started up a niche publisher Mākaro Press. She lives in Wellington with her family.

Frankie McMillan (far left in the photo, with the other Canterbury writers from the NFFD celebration) is a short story writer and poet. Her short story collection, The Bag Lady’s Picnic and other stories, was published by Shoal Bay Press. In 2005 she was awarded the CNZ Todd Bursary. In 2008 and 2009 her work was selected for the Best NZ Fiction anthologies. Many of her stories have also been broadcast on radio. In 2013 she was the winner of the National Flash Fiction Day award.
McMillan is also an award-winning poet. Her poetry collection, Dressing for the Cannibals, was published in 2009 and in that same year she won the NZ Poetry Society International competition. Recent poetry appears in TurbineJaamLandfallTroutSnorkelSportThe London GripShenandoah and Best NZ poems 2012, and her work will appear in the upcoming Flash Fiction International  (W. W. Norton, 2015).  This year she is the co-recipient of the Ursula Bethell writing residency at Canterbury University. Her next book of poetry, There Are No Horses in Heaven, is to be published by CUP in early 2015.

This week's editor, Michelle Elvy, is a writer, editor and manuscript assessor based in the Bay of Islands but currently in Indonesia aboard her sailboat, her home of more than ten years. She edits at Flash Frontier: An Adventure in Short FictionBlue Five Notebook and Awkword Paper Cut, where she curates a monthly column, Writers on Writing (which recently featured Tuesday Poets Harvey Molloy and PS Cottier She is also Associate Editor for the forthcoming Flash Fiction International (W.W. Norton, 2015) and co-ordinator of National Flash Fiction Day. Her poetry, fiction, travel writing, creative non-fiction and reviews have been published most recently or are forthcoming in Eastbourne: An AnthologyHtml GiantIkaJAAMJMWWPANK, Takahe and 2014: A Year of Stories.  

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Lucifer In Las Vegas by Joanna Preston

tortoise: from the Greek, tartarchos; ‘god of the underworld’

i. The Fall

As I fell, I burned
through shame and grief
and disbelief and love –
words that trail like smoke,
like broken wings.
Only rage was left –
its silken tongue, its
crystal shell. I fell
through night and time
into the morning
of this world, and
kept on falling.
Once, I lived
by passion’s flame,
but I learned
cold blood
is better.

ii. Shell

It’s been six thousand years,
give or take. This shape’s as good
as any other. I am fortress,
island, rock – a treasure chest
with a living lock no thief
can pick. I walk in armour,
plastron thicker than a tank.

The only mark of then
is a reflex twitch, a flinch,
a body thing I still can’t shake
beneath the fear of wings.

When I heard what happened
to Aeschylus, I laughed so hard
I nearly split my shell. Well,
I see He hasn’t lost His sense
of humour.

iii. Sand

Once, all this was sand. Sand and cactus,
sand and yuccas, sand and black brush,
gila monsters, sand and sand. Hell
of a place to land in,

    a dried out basin
in the mountains. Not a blade
of grass to graze on, not a flower
without thorns.

    I listened
to the blood-song of the desert

and dug down. 

iv Vegas

I built this kingdom for myself
from memories.

    The dry-bones chatter
of dice from a rattler’s tail, and the girls
pink and gold like gaudy birds.

The cardshoe started out an empty
tortoise shell (I bear no rivals),

baize-covered tables for the cropped
green fuzz that gave this town its name.
And the one-armed bandits – sheer genius,
like teaching cows to milk themselves.

The gambling chips began as skutes, then clay,
then plastic.
    Now I use men’s souls.
Why not? They’re light and plentiful, and have
no other value but my mark.

We do it all – the wedding, the divorce, the
post-loss suicide. If you want it,
you can get it.

At a price.

v. Lucifer

In the desert, the night sky
was endless. In the desert
the night sky was achingly near

but now it feels empty.
Abandoned. Mere clouds of dust
condensed into stars and space.
I stopped searching
its blank face for signs
of forgiveness aeons ago.

    Look down.
From the high-stakes room
the glitter of money
puts starshine to shame.
Look down. All the people
who flock to my shepherds, who pray
at my temples …

    Look down.
I hurl a handful
of orange chips into the air –
watch the sheep scrabble
and crawl at my feet.

    At night, look down
from space and Vegas is the
brightest thing on this world.

Look down, damn you, and see. 

© Joanna Preston

 Reproduced on The Tuesday Poem Hub with permission.

Editor: Helen Lowe

I am a great admirer of Joanna Preston's poetry and consider her award-winning, debut collection The Summer King (Otago University Press, 2009), one of the most interesting and integrated I have read in recent years. The poem I am featuring today, Lucifer In Las Vegas, is a new poem, but encapsulates a great many of the elements that first drew me to Joanna's work: wit, intellectual inquiry, the dexterous use of "voice" within the poem, and the unerring delivery of an emotional payoff for the reader.

Lucifer In Las Vegas offers all these elements, as well as quite stunning use of language, including the powerful opening:

"As I fell, I burned
through shame and grief
and disbelief and love –
words that trail like smoke,
like broken wings.
Only rage was left –
its silken tongue, its
crystal shell. I fell
through night and time
into the morning
of this world, and
kept on falling ..."

I also love poems that tell a story. As both a poet and Fantasy novelist, I really love a new, exciting take on an old story – and the moment of recognition when you first "hear" that new "voice", in this case of Lucifer, recounting the fall. There is pathos in the account, emotion that is framed, as well as contained, by the juxtaposition with the "archangel ruined" 's metamorphosis into a tortoise – and the subsequent transformation of the barren desert into Las Vegas. The transition is convincing, as is the unfolding of the "voice" – with the whole of the poem, as well as its diverse elements (e.g. the fall, the tortoise, the desert, Las Vegas) all pulled together by that final compelling, and revealing, line:

"Look down, damn you, and see."

I am honored to be able to feature Lucifer In Las Vegas on The Tuesday Poem Hub today. I am also a great believer in poems speaking for themselves, so I will now simply say that I hope you enjoy the read as much as I have.

Joanna Preston is an Australian-born poet, editor and freelance writing tutor who lives in a small rural town in Canterbury, New Zealand. In 2008 she won the inaugural Kathleen Grattan Award for Poetry. Her first collection, The Summer King, was published by Otago University Press in July 2009, and won the Mary Gilmore Award for the best first poetry collection by an Australian author in 2010. She has an MPhil in Creative Writing from the University of Glamorgan (Wales). She worked for three years as a part-time tutor in Creative Writing at Christchurch Polytech, and was co-editor of Kokako magazine from 2009 to 2012.

Today's editor, Helen Lowe, is a novelist, poet and interviewer whose work has been published, broadcast and anthologized in New Zealand and internationally. Her first novel, Thornspell, was published to critical praise in 2008, and her second, The Heir of Night (The Wall Of Night Series, Book One) won the Gemmell Morningstar Award 2012. The sequel, The Gathering Of The Lost, was shortlisted for the Gemmell Legend Award in 2013. Helen posts regularly on her Helen Lowe on Anything, Really blog and is also active on Twitter: @helenl0we

In addition to "Lucifer In Las Vegas", be sure to check out the wonderful poems featured by the other Tuesday Poets, using our blog roll to the left of this posting.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Bad Housekeeping by Emma Neale

The cat does a fine patriarchal stalk
his paws all rosebuds and thorns,
eyes a tender-censorious almost-blue
as he plays pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake
with the living room rug
which bubbles and bumps
like bread dough baking
until I lift its edge
to see a small, dark, anguished mouse
race the thread of its tail up and down
like a seamstress frantic to say least and mend soonest
the deep rift in time the cat’s mood gouges.

And now, and again now, the cat leaps victorious,
hurtles the mouse across the floor:
she’s a dainty stunned spool of nerves and blood,
her sequin-sized heart would fit on a fingertip
and beats fast as an edge-flipped coin,
the glittering of her minikin eyes
says terror plunges through her
in two black pins
and tells me, mute but clear,
that once upon seventy-five million years ago
we sprung (crept and hid) from one lost common ancestor.

And so as if she is a Thumbelina-Cinderella
in kohl-black eyeliner and gothic velvet coat,
I spirit her up and over the windowsill
out into the darkened garden that sways in the wind
like a boat briefly anchored;

she stumbles once, rouses,
then see, see how she runs:
free and easy, heel-kicking,
midnight’s ship-deck dance
safer than houses
for some little sisters.

Posted with permission from Emma Neale
Editor: Andrew M. Bell

I came upon this poem in Takahē 77, Summer 2012, in which it was first published. I was immediately struck by how the tone of the poem was, at once, both compassionate and playful. The title is well-chosen, a wry self-chastisement by the poet that implies that the mouse is present in her house through some fault of her own, some failing of her domestic standards. Also implicit in the title is the feminist counter-punch, a sly dig at the patriarchal ideal of the perfect homemaker.

The poem itself is a vivid portrait of a cat bringing a mouse into the house, one which many readers themselves would have experienced. Emma perfectly captures the callous indifference the cat shows in its protracted playing with the mouse before the inevitable kill. She beautifully counterpoints this with the abject terror of the mouse.

I love the way Emma has skilfully woven echoes of Beatrix Potter and Hans Christian Andersen through the poem with phrases like "her minikin eyes" and "as if she is a Thumbelina-Cinderella". This seems to lend the poem a dark underpinning such as that often found in fairy tales.

The poem is brimming with startling images that grab the reader's attention such as the depiction of the tossed mouse as "a dainty stunned spool of nerves and blood" whose heart "beats fast as an edge-flipped coin". With her poet's skill, Emma has taken a domestic incident to which many people would not give a second thought and imbued it with drama and humour. In doing so, she has created a folk tale of her own. And, in our heart of hearts, we all love a happy ending.

Photo Credit: Graham Warman

Emma Neale is a writer, editor and occasional creative writing tutor living in Dunedin. As a child she lived in Christchurch, California and Wellington; as an adult she spent 8 years working and studying in England where she gained a PhD in English Literature from University College London. She has received the Todd/CNZ Award, was the inaugural recipient of the NZSA Janet Frame Memorial Award for Literature in 2008, and in 2012 held the Robert Burns University of Otago Creative Writing Fellowship. Her novels are published by Random House. Her latest poetry collection, The Truth Garden (OUP), won the Kathleen Grattan Award for an unpublished manuscript in 2011. She was one of the three finalists for the inaugural Sarah Broom Poetry Award in 2014.

This week's editor, Andrew M. Bell, writes poetry, short fiction, plays, screenplays and non-fiction. His work has been published and broadcast in New Zealand/Aotearoa, Australia, England, Israel and USA. His most recent publications are Aotearoa Sunrise, a short story collection, and Clawed Rains, a poetry collection.

Andrew lives in Christchurch with his wife and two sons and loves to surf. Some of his poetry and flash fiction can be read at Bigger Than Ben Hur.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Quail Flat, 1960 by Kerry Popplewell

    for Brian

Five of us slept that night on the stone floor
of an old cob hut, close by the Clarence River –
our ears ringing still from the silence
of high screes, our eyes still burning
from hot snow, the bright shimmer of bugloss
and briar rose on the parched valley flats.

When I woke, cold, in that monochrome time
before colour seeps in, I saw you sprawled
quite motionless, eyes closed. Rough stubble
darkened planes of shadow on your face.
You could have been a nameless casualty,
you looked so spent, so vulnerable and young.

But you weren't called upon to fight and die
at twenty, under unfamiliar stars.
The sun came up. We took the river route,
then climbed a pass that led us down
to adulthood – terrain as yet empty,
brilliant as sea-dazzle; as sun-strike.

Published with the permission of the poet and the publisher.
Editor: Keith Westwater

The poem

"Quail Flat, 1960" was published in Kerry's first collection, Leaving the Tableland (Steele Roberts, 2010).

Kerry writes of this poem: In 1960 I was in a party of five on a University tramping club trip to the Kaikoura Ranges.  After climbing Mount Tapuaenuku on Christmas Day, we crossed Muzzle Saddle and dropped down to the Bluff Homestead on the Clarence River where we were treated to soft beds and rabbit stew. The next day we crossed the Clarence and went upstream to spend a night at Quail Flat before coming out over the Seaward Kaikoura Range.  The person addressed in the poem is still a close friend.

This poem is typical of Kerry's excellent writing - well-structured, with language that evokes feelings, emotions and memory, and based in the physical world of her tramping experiences. On the surface, this poem describes a memory from a tramp she was on with five others many years previously. Following the overnight interlude from what must have been a hard climb, Kerry (there is no doubt that she is the narrator) wakes to observe one of her companions who is still asleep. His vulnerability and youth reminds her of her parents' generation (perhaps) who, at his age, weren't quite so fortunate, because they were called upon to fight overseas. In the last stanza, when the tramp begins again, the party seems to still be undertaking their journey in the physical landscape, but with a surprising twist they "then climbed a pass that led us down/to adulthood – terrain as yet empty,". I was impressed with this re-framing of the tramp to focus on what youth feel when the bright future lies ahead. I also enjoyed the descriptive writing set in the Kaikouras and the Clarence.

The poet

Apart from four years while studying at the University of Chicago, Kerry Popplewell has lived in Wellington all her adult life. Despite this, she grew up in Hawke’s Bay and thinks of the Kaweka and Ruahine ranges as her home territory. Since she stopped teaching over ten years ago, her poems have appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies. This first (2010) collection would have happened sooner had she not been distracted by grandchildren and her interest in tramping.


I had the good fortune to share a writing class with Kerry in 2003. The class was taken by Dinah Hawken and was for a paper called "Writing the Landscape".

After you've read this week's Tuesday Poem, please check out some of the other poems offered by the Tuesday Poets who appear in the sidebar.

This week's editor, Keith Westwater, lives in Lower Hutt, New Zealand. His debut collection, Tongues of Ash (IP, 2011), was awarded 'Best First Book' in the publisher's IP Picks competition. More of his poetry can be found on his blog 'Some place else'.