November 2003, Volume 1, Number 5


Getting the Words Out
The Collaborative Poetry of Catherine Mair and Patricia Prime

My friend, Catherine Mair, and I began writing and publishing mainstream poetry at about the same time. Catherine was a dairy-farmer°s wife, bringing up four children in the rural town of Katikati in the Bay of Plenty, whilst I was widowed early, bringing up four children and working as a teacher in Auckland.

Both Catherine°s and my poetry was first published in the New Zealand magazine Spin. The editor of Spin, David Drummond, who has since died, encouraged his new writers to try various forms of poetry from mainstream poems to haiku. A subscription to Spin also included membership to an orbit. Orbits are collections of recent poetry written by members and passed around a group of four or more poets for criticism and feedback. Catherine and I were in the same orbit. When it failed to appear at one time I wrote to members asking what had happened to it and the only answer I received was from Catherine. I suggested that we correspond with one another and criticize each other°s work. We decided shortly afterwards to meet and thus a friendship was born that has continued for fourteen years.

Catherine went on to write haiku, tanka and haibun and later instigated, as part of the millennium project in her town, the Katikati Haiku Pathway. She also became involved in short short story writing, wrote the text for two books for school children with disabilities, judged poetry and haiku contests and has had her work published worldwide.

My writing career took a different path: I write mainstream poetry, articles and reviews, and am now focusing on publishing interviews with New Zealand poets and editors. I began writing haiku at the time of the publication of the first New Zealand Haiku Anthology and have written tanka and haibun for the past three years.

Our collaboration with each other began with the publication of a collection of our poetry in the place where . . ., the shortcut home, and other small publications. We published a collection of our haiku with an Indian poet in a book called Every Drop Stone Pebble.

We began writing linked verse in collaboration with each other several years ago, and have since published two collections: sweet penguin and last rays of the sun. These are lines which are ¿moments in timeî captured in a haiku-like form. The links may be subtle, created by writing in the same place at the same time. For this informal type of linked verse to work there needs to be balance and empathy between the writers. In much the same way that renga evolved in Japan, as enjoyable entertainment and communication, so our collaborative verse began, and continues. We don°t see our linked verse as haiku or renku, but rather as ¿stream-of-consciousnessî lines written when we are in close proximity: walking, talking, visiting places of interest.

For those readers who haven°t seen a lot of our writing, I would suggest that our links follow certain themes of time, place, feeling and ¿togethernessî, rather than following the Japanese idea of the mind ¿leapingî from one image to something totally different. This, we have been told, is part of the ¿rebelliousî nature of our work, and is what makes it different from the formal style of renga. It is what makes it popular and gives it a certain charm, and makes it more accessible to many readers. An example of one of our linked verses from first rays of the sun is the following poem which was composed on a visit to the Mount in the Bay of Plenty: an extremely popular place for visitors to walk around and enjoy panoramic views:

The White Shell Path

from the historic stone jetty he casts his line
two boys è their bright yellow life jackets
a backpack filled with mussels for bait
empty in the shade è carved bench seats
climbing the stile, I hold open the wire gate
standing at Stoney Point Reef, the warmth on our backs
from the cliff walk my shadow moves along the sand
sound of children°s footsteps behind us on the shell path
naked the bronze warrior crouches in spring sunshine
one white boulder among all the black ones
on a rock his suitcase full of video gear

In 2002, about the time that we thought of publishing a second collection of our linked verse, we began writing linked tanka and linked haibun.

Numerically, a tanka is similar to a haiku with two seven-syllable lines added on. The form is less concentrated than haiku, more casual and conversational, less mysterious, less spiritual. Image is important, but there is room for statement and metaphor.

Influenced by Chinese poetry a few centuries old, tanka succeeded the long poem (or choka). The new form gained popularity in the seventh and eighth centuries. Tanka was often used as a means of communication between lovers, and it is this communication, one with the other, that we seek to emulate.

Werner Reichold, editor of the online magazine LYNX, who has been particularly supportive of our work, published the first of our linked tanka. A poem of which I°m particularly fond for its memories and images is ¿The Perfumed Airî, which was written on the occasion of a visit to the Lavender Gardens in Katikati, during which we were looking for a small gift to send to Janice Bostok in Australia, who is both a friend and mentor, and is herself a world recognized haijin.

lavender fields
choosing a card to send her
from the display
I break a sprig of flowers
to carry home

a thin jet of water
from the lion°s mouth
into perfumed air
afterwards you caution me
parked on the bank°s brink

dusk approaches
you work-out at table tennis
in the garage
my first short story
takes shape on the computer

cooler now
wide flung windows
closed against mosquitoes
the photographers have gone
taking their talk & laughter

Catherine and I next decided to try our hands at writing linked haibun. Haibun is a Japanese form in which prose is interspersed with verse, specifically haiku, although other forms of short verse have been successfully employed. Haibun often takes the form of a diary or travel journey.

We simply write down what we experience as inspiration for the prose part of the haibun, then add the haiku to create a new dimension, to change or alter the scene, voice or time, in a similar way as the two parts of a tanka are related.

In 2003, Catherine and I were asked to be guest poets at a haiku reading, where most of the audience knew nothing about haiku, and the following collaborative haibun came from that gathering. It was published in the New Zealand magazine Takahe.

The Clapped-out Microphone

Several of the audience dressed as ¿poetsî è flowers and ribbons in the women°s hair, a man with a goatee and beret. Fred, the compere, not able to place Sarah (one of the guest poets), calls her by the wrong name again. For the first bracket of the evening the microphone remains obstinate: voices whisper around the room.

collapsing on the floor
the blackboard
listing readers

From the back of the group a little old lady comes forward to fill her five-minute slot and reads, with panache, one haiku. A bowl of hot chocolate splashes across a folder. In the corner some of the children are writing haiku at a table. Shaking like a leaf, but not wanting to explain her Parkinson°s again, Sheila comes to the mike, nearly tripping over the leads on the floor.

a baby°s
for a lectern

Many of the audience have come to have their first experience of haiku. A chuckle is heard when a poet reads

bus terminal
a skateboarder
bounces off seats

Halfway through the evening they sort out the microphone and Moira says, ¿Our group nearly bought the temperamental thing!î Fred declares he°s having a bad hair day. ¿When things start to go wrong at the beginning, it°s hard to get them back on track!î

Pausing for effect, but merely losing the place in her notebook, Judy shows off her Library of Congress t-shirt. Exotic Tamsin (a nutritionist) reads her poem ¿The Sugar Demonî, whilst nearly swallowing the microphone.

Near the end Fred salvages his credibility by quoting one of the guest poet°s haiku without missing a beat.

tucked into the microphone
falls to the floor

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Copyright 2003 Simply Haiku