Five questions for the editors of Manifesto Aotearoa
28 July 2017
Guy Somerset asks Emma Neale and Philip Temple about the joys and challenges of choosing 101 political poems for their new poetry anthology, Manifesto Aotearoa.
Manifesto Aotearoa: 101 Political Poems is published by Otago University Press.
Why 101 poems? It’s not some sly allusion to George Orwell, is it? You know, Nineteen Eighty-Four and its Room 101.
EN: That’s a frightening and apt allusion, but it wasn’t conscious on my part – rather it was an act of generosity. Originally, we aimed for 100 poems, but the quality of work submitted was so high that we decided we had to squeeze in an extra.
PT: Pure serendipity – in any case I would not like to be associated with Erich Mielke, head of the East German STASI who cynically numbered his room 101 – like, er … here we start the first-year course in interrogation.
If our Prime Minister, a man not averse to the reading life, were to pick up a copy of Manifesto Aotearoa, what might he take from it? What would you like him to take from it?
EN: I’d like the collective voices here to persuade him that the issues that are most pressing for New Zealand voters are how to put citizens’ quality of life before corporate and personal profit. I’d like him to discover the call for compassion here, and realise how much pain and suffering has resulted from decades of the state withdrawing from its responsibility to look after its weakest citizens – to hear the voices of real individuals calling out from the statistics. I’d also like him to be reminded afresh of how powerful art is as a means to help humanity understand itself, and to imagine a better future.
PT: I’d like him to just read it and realise there are people out there beyond the beltway, the Beehive, the farm paddock and the business suits and, that if he doesn't watch out, the animals might just take over the farm.
What did you yourself take from reading all these political poems and the 400 more submitted but not selected?
EN: I took heart that there were so many voices seeking change; agreeing that the enormous ecological issues facing us are paramount and must be dealt with; that there were many voices crying out against the poverty and inequality that is increasing in Aotearoa. And that these voices came right across the spectrum of age, gender, and ethnicity. I also took heart from how many people find poetry the best conduit for powerful feeling and clear thinking!
“I took heart from how many people find poetry the best conduit for powerful feeling and clear thinking!”
PT: Marvellous to know that there are so many writers out there who care, who are on to it, who know that words, poetry can make a difference, can provide the ideas, the lines, the phrases that catch the imagination of a better world.
There's not much of a showing here for your National Party, New Zealand First or ACT voters, the forces of conservatism and the right. Do they not write poems? Did they not submit? Were they not welcome? What are we to make of this absence?
EN: I don’t recall a single poem from anyone advocating “more of the same, things are working, let’s just stick with the programme, guys” – perhaps Nat, New Zealand First and ACT voters have been too busy in their counting houses, counting out their money? Perhaps they have cut themselves off from the capacity to imagine?
PT: I think that most of the people “on the right” want to maintain or enhance a status quo that benefits their own interest groups, believe that you deserve what you get, and that the poets in the anthology are whingers. I doubt if there are many among them who would have the imagination to write a poem. That said, if a good poem “from the right” had turned up, of course we would have used it. If nothing else, Manifesto Aotearoa was compiled on a completely democratic basis.
You raise the idea of another anthology, of political poems past. That's a great suggestion. Is one or both of you on for that?
EN: I think ideally an anthology like that would be edited by a team of, say, three editors: comprising a couple of practitioners, perhaps a political historian, and a literary scholar. It would be a massive job, requiring a lot of research time and access to good library resources – so I think the people game enough to take it on would need a decent income to do it well. As humanities departments at universities around the country are experiencing short-sighted slash and burn tactics from management, I think the people with the skills and time to take it on would come from an increasingly small and beleaguered pool. (Yes, every question is political.) I think it would be a brilliant project, but too big for a couple of freelancers on their own.
PT: It would be a huge, if worthwhile, task. This is the second anthology I have edited/co-edited and they involve an enormous amount of time and effort and minimal financial reward. Emma and I did not keep a count of the hours we spent on Manifesto Aotearoa and the amount of admin work required, otherwise it would have been too discouraging. Ask me again in another year or two!