I have with pleasure been following fellow Tuesday poet Helen Lowe’s blog as she radiates excitement at the launch of her science fantasy novel The Heir of Night [fantastic title]. I understand her feeling. It doesn’t matter whether it’s your first launch or twenty-first. Each brings its own mixture of delight and apprehension. All those months of labour resulting in a book which you now hold in your hands – your words, ideas, thoughts, images in print, the feel of the book, its weight, its smell, its appearance, its cover. What will friends think? And strangers? It’s no longer solely yours. It’s out in the marketplace.
Tomorrow I am receiving advance copies of my new poetry anthology These I Have Loved: My Favourite New Zealand Poems. It will be launched next Sunday by Fiona Kidman here in Wellington. Kate Camp and Vince O’Sullivan will read a poem apiece. I am excited, indeed thrilled. It represents over five years' work. In some respects it represents a lifetime of teaching and reading poetry.
The book has 100 New Zealand poems that I have loved - a selection of poems which (as I say in the Introduction), 'down the years or in some cases only recently, have settled in my mental household, comfortable and available, a satisfactory source of reflection and contemplation. To a considerable extent they represent who I am, or maybe, more honestly, the person I would like to be. They represent my upbringing, my temperament, my interests, and my hopes.’
As well as the poems I have linking descriptions as to why I’ve chosen them. For example, Ruth Dallas’s ‘Milking Before Dawn’ represents an early school lesson from 1960, a success that shaped my career. As a school-boy myself I had three idyllic years at Akaroa District High School. So for the cover I helped select an aerial photograph of Akaroa Harbour with Onawe peninsula. The volcanic plug on the old weathered crater was the subject of the first New Zealand poem I was ever introduced to. And so on. With my ill-health it is likely to be my swan-song collection. I am delighted to have compiled it.
At one stage Helen expressed thoughts about reviews – every author has such hopes and fears; though many deny it. I was going to comment on her blog and then I decided to wait and write about reviews on my own. Reviews can make or break a book. They can have immense power. I’ve had bad reviews and good reviews. When my first collection of my own poetry, Against the Maelstrom, came out, one reviewer said ‘I should stick to school inspectoring’. That stung. It was advice I ignored. Had I accepted it the rest of my life would have been different. Had I been more diffident and followed it would I have had such a good life? Such questions are unanswerable. But just raising them shows the power of a review.
John Weir, reviewing the same volume, wrote something wise. Which is the best poem in a first collection? Seek it out, praise it, for it represents the poet’s potential - a sentiment I have tried to follow in my own reviewing. (He chose my poem 'Helen' as illustrating that potential. It's on my blog 17 Nov 2009).
I have one main request of any reviewer. Please review the book that is – not the book that you wanted it to have been or thought it should have been. Apart from that, in your judgement remember the author is also human, a creature of flesh and blood. It is easier to destroy than create. Criticism can be positive as well as negative.
These I Have Loved will be available after 10 October, published by Steele Roberts. For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org