Tess Redgrave profiles the University’s 2005 Writer-in-Residence, Paula Green
First published in University of Auckland News (June 2005):
On the busy corner at Victoria Street East and one-way Kitchener Street, a poem is hand-painted on the pavement.
Called ‘Intersection’ it is one of the last remaining in Auckland’s CBD as part of the Council-sponsored summer ‘Poetry on the Pavement’ event.
And perhaps appropriately so, because its author, Paula Green, curated the project choosing a range of New Zealand voices including Hone Tuwhare, Jenny Bornholdt and David Eggleton and deciding where their poems would go.
Exploring intersections and crossings between places, people, memory, art, music, and writing is central to Paula’s work.
‘Out of the crossings come different kinds of conversations,’ she says.
In the early 1990s, I saw her perform her poetry at The Alba Readings – a series of literary evenings she organised for poets and fiction writers at Lorne Street’s Alba Café. After that our paths diverged and didn’t cross again until earlier this year when I literally found myself stepping across her words every morning as I hopped off my bus in Queen Street and walked up Victoria East to the University.
When I discovered that, as well as being the University’s 2005 writing fellow, Paula also graduated in autumn with her PhD in Italian, I decided it was time to catch up.
‘It’s just so wonderful having this room,’ she tells me as we sit sipping take-away coffee in her narrow, book-lined office on the 5 th floor of the Arts 1 Building – a view out the window stretching west up the throat of Grafton gully and on towards the high rises in Symonds Street and sky beyond.
‘At home all I’ve got is a little space (between the bed and the wall) to write – I don’t even have my own room.
‘I can’t imagine going back to that.’ A grin slowly spreads across her face and the years since we last spoke dissolve as I am reminded again of her distinctive smile.
Paula, 49, grew up in Whangarei where her father was a minister and music teacher, and her mother a librarian. After an education at Kamo High School she trained as a primary school teacher at Wellington Teachers College.
In 1989 she enrolled at The University of Auckland and after her interest in Italian was sparked by stage one Italian language and literature papers, she went on to major in Italian. As her grasp of the language grew, so did her love of Italian literature.
‘I just loved reading writers like Italo Calvino and Dante –
reading Dante in Italian is just fantastic.’
She studied contemporary Italian novelist Francesca Duranti for her masters, then in 1997, embarked on a doctoral thesis. In the context of feminist thought and cultural theories, Paula’s thesis explores the constructions of the maternal and paternal in Italian society and literature through a close examination of two contemporary Italian novels Fabrizia Ramondino’s Althénopis (1981) and Clara Sereni’s Casalinghitudine (1987).
‘I was looking at the case of women,’ she tells me, ‘and proposing that in writing versions of home, writing becomes a negotiation of the mother and father and the maternal and paternal.’
At the same time as she was on this academic journey, Paula was exploring new ground as a mother and finding her feet as a published poet.
In 1997 her first collection of poems Cookhouse was published by Auckland University Press. Dedicated to her three daughters and accompanied by Hight’s drawings, it came out of early research for her thesis. ‘Sereni’s novelrecipebookautobiography inspired me to write Cookhouse,’ she says in her thesis.
Infused with metaphors of food, domesticity and mothering, fragments of poems in the long opening sequence have seductive titles like ‘lemon cheese cake slowly baked’, ‘spaghetti all’aglio’ and ‘rolling out biscuit mix for you to cut’.
‘Musical, sensuous, tender, and quick-witted …,’ wrote Gerry Webb in a review of Cookhouse in the NZ Listener.
Paula pays homage to other female poets in Cookhouse including friend and mentor Associate-Professor Michele Leggott (English).
‘Paula’s poetry is fabulous, ‘ says Michele when I talk to her on the phone. ‘I first came across her writing when she took my American poetry paper in 1991. What I saw then was a fully formed poet … I thought yes you are somebody!’
In 2000, AUP published Paula’s second poetry collection chrome, which also came out of her thesis research – this time Fabrizia Ramondino’s ‘novelautobiography’, Althénopis – and is divided into four sections: Yellow, Red, Green and Blue.
‘Each colour relates to a different section in my thesis,’ she explains.
‘Yellow is about home as a kind of state of mind or starting with oneself as opposed to a geographical location. Red is the link between writing home and the Mother, while Green is the father. Blue relates to the final section where I talk about the way in which we make ourselves at home in the text.
When Paula completed her thesis she layered what she calls a ‘shadow text – a collage of poetic complements, tangents and resistances’ over it.
‘I felt I was negotiating a paradigm,’ she says. ‘The thesis comes out of a canon that has a particular kind of history and way of being and I wanted to overlay it with different voices.’
Turning the pages of Paula’s thesis ‘Writing home to her Mother and Father’ is simultaneously unsettling and captivating, a little like reading ‘Intersection’ on the busy street corner as other pedestrians’ shoes thud over the words and trucks screech to a halt at the traffic lights.
Bound between each of the 190 pages of the thesis’s academic argument are an equal number of pages of tracing paper with words – poems (particularly from Cookhouse and chrome), fragments of writing, discussions of other contemporary Italian writers’ work, biographical notes – printed on them. Some pages even have re-prints of old black and white, presumably, family photos.
‘The poetic text sets out to haunt the argument,’ she writes in the thesis introduction, ‘ …and in that haunting, to reposition my thought, not courageously, as an exception to the academic rule, but as a series of choral interventions, provisional and subjective.’
On one page I read an academic discussion citing Sigmund Freud and French feminist Hélène Cixous, on the next I am in a wall of lyrical, unpunctuated writing.
‘….Daughter tall enough to stand out as she leant back against the back wall her long hair an edging of lace her blue jeans the Mother seeing herself seen and given out of heart intersilient Daughter emerging from a great many pleats and they laugh they laugh.’
Paula also lays out the beginnings of a novel she is now working on in the thesis’s shadow text. It too has its wellspring in her thesis research.
‘It comes out of my analysis of how writing becomes a negotiation of the father,’ she says. ‘For the last number of decades much theory has focused on the mother and the maternal. That’s been really important for women but now there’s a growing need to pay attention to the father.
‘My novel is an exploration and search for the father on many levels. It privileges the father and becomes steeped in traces and experiences of the father.’
‘I think it would be fair to say Paula is an experimental writer who pushes boundaries using a broad range of themes and devices,’ says Associate-Professor Peter Simpson, (English). ‘Her poetry is never literal and quite often is challenging for the reader. But if you get on her wavelength, her work offers rich rewards.’
‘ Paula’s poetry polarises people,’ says Dr Leggott, ‘that’s the price she pays for being an experimentalist – some people just don’t get it.’
But many do. Paula’s work has featured in British literary journal Fire and Anna Jackson, the guest editor of the November 2000 issue of JAAM: just another art movement, a national literary journal, called her ‘the most original and distinctive voice writing in New Zealand today’.
In a recent review of Paula’s third collection Crosswind (AUP 2004) in English in Aotearoa (the professional journal of New Zealand English teachers), Waikato University-based poet Terry Locke says he likes her work ‘immensely’.
Crosswind shows the ‘experimentalist’ at work, particularly in the middle section ‘Lounge Suite’, where 15 original artworks by contemporary New Zealand artists are printed in black and white opposite one of Paula’s poems.
‘I would encounter a work of art in my daily life,’ she says of the ‘Lounge Suite’ process. ‘At an exhibition, in a book – a haphazard process – then I wrote a poem and sent it off to the artist and said I’ve written a poem in response to your work, would you like to read my poem and produce a new work and the image will go in my book.’
So, take the example of ‘Intersection’. Paula wrote it in April 2002 after being ‘haunted’ by artist Elizabeth Rees’ painting ‘Intersection’ which, in a nice piece of symmetry, she saw hanging in Milford Galleries – also on the corner of Victoria and Kitchener.
She sent the poem to Rees who responded with ‘The Crossing’ – a new painting (black ink on rag paper).
Terry Locke likens the ‘Lounge Suite’ process to Ekphrasis poetry where ‘words don’t just describe the artwork they are relating to, but transform it …the reader is drawn into the conversation as a kind of artist reader.’
This notion of conversing with visual artists features in an exhibition The North Western Line Paula is curating for the September Going West Literary Festival.
She has written a one-line poem, which will be printed as a continuous track around the walls of two rooms of Corban Estate Arts Centre.
She’s then broken the line down into sections and chosen ten artists – all with some connection to the West Coast or West Auckland (Paula lives in Swanson) – who will each be given a section of wall space to respond to as they please.
‘I like having these public writing activities that bring poetry out into the world in a different kind of way and give it a different life,’ she says.
The day I interview Paula she has just received a phone call from AUP confirming that another of her public writing projects is about to bear fruit. Last year she took her ‘poetry tool kit (some of the things I use: rhythm, different figures of speech, line breaks)’ into her daughters’ school, Swanson Primary School.
‘I held two two-hour workshops with every class. They loved it. They loved playing around with technique. I felt like I raised the bar. I raised my expectations of what they could do and they leapt higher.’
She then designed a poetry trail at Auckland Zoo – a booklet with technical pointers and triggers – for two groups of the Swanson children ages 7 to 12.
The children ‘wrote hard all day’ and Paula has since selected about 48 of their poems, along with her own, which AUP will publish early next year as a children’s poetry anthology with an accompanying glossary and drawings by Michael Hight.
As our interview comes to an end Paula and I chat about writing generally.
‘I think I’m loving writing the novel more than anything else I’ve written,’ she says ‘but as with everything I write, I feel like I’m taking a risk and I don’t know if it will ever be published.
‘Nothing matches the writing process,’ she adds.
‘It probably sounds really corny but the act of writing is just the most addictive and restorative buzz in the world. I’ve found when I get tired in my domestic life writing is my way out of that tiredness.’
In August an author’s page on Paula Green will be published on the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre (nzepc) website. See wwww.nzepc.auckland.ac.nz