I’ve always believed that one of the great pleasures in life is finding the time – choosing to allocate the time – to read a book in a single sitting. Take a book from the shelf, turn off the phone, close the lid of the laptop, put some tunes on if that’s your thing (currently I’m all about Bonnie Raitt’s phenomenal run of great 1970s albums) and maybe make a cuppa. Then you get that book and make no further plans – beyond hoping to learn about something new; experience a whole new world.
It’s getting harder to find and allocate this time – and though it sometimes still happens, the one way I can always guarantee it is by reading a volume of poetry. Wait, come back, I know poetry is a dirty word for some – but it’s also never been cooler than right now. And my shelf heaves with so many new slim volumes. Sometimes a book arrives in the post – or I buy one on a trip to town – and I don’t get to reading it for a few months. I have to have it; I’m pleased it arrived. But I have many other things on the go. Poetry books are always part of the reading list – and I dip in and out of them most often. But I’ll also read one cover to cover sometimes. Because you experience not just a world – but several. Each poem (when it’s a good one) is its own world. A book of poems by more than one poet absolutely guarantees this.
The book is a collection of poems by the YP (young people) of Te Puna Wai o Tūhinapō, Youth Justice Residence under Oranga Tamariki. Next door to this facility is Rolleston Prison. Christchurch.
The book features the work of 13-18yo boys and men. They were asked to reflect on one thing: How Did I Get Here?
Asking them that question was the book’s editor and “Creative Writing Man” Ben Brown.
Perhaps you read last week’s news that Brown has been named New Zealand’s first Reading Ambassador.
Consider the volume he edited late last year to be his job application; the first proof that he is the perfect person for this new role. Ben has in fact been rehearsing for this job across many years, as a very visible performer of words and as a writer of books for all ages, a conjurer of tales and teacher of creative writing. A person so willing to share his own story and the stories that made the man he now is, sometimes those stories aren’t happy – but always there’s a lesson.
Over four days in January of last year Brown visited Te Puna Wai o Tūhinapō and collected up the stories from some of the residents. They were angry, sad, boastful, embarrassed, shy, confused and many other things. They were articulate, bright, philosophical and their words were powerful, heartbreaking and encouraging. The worlds you will read about in this book are sad sometimes, sure. Certainly. But we read to learn. There is so much in this volume.
It closes with a poem by Ben. But the rest of the work is by the young kids. Their names are included if they wanted them to be. Sometimes it’s a pseudonym. Sometimes there’s not a name at all.
Some of these poems have – on first read – stopped me in my tracks. I can’t wait to read this book again. To leaf through it and pick and choose at random. To read it cover to cover again. And again.
It’s a beautifully designed book too – its cover in white with black type, inside it is the reverse – striking with white text on black pages.
I don’t know Ben at all well – but I know his work and have loved it for some time now. I got to meet him last year on two occasions. The first was to record this podcast – I’m very proud of this episode. It’s a great chat about poetry and his life. And it goes deep.
A few weeks later we bumped into each other by fluke – sharing the same publisher, we happened to be there at the same time for different reasons and did a good old book-swap, signing copies for each other.
Just last weekend I saw him, across the road in Featherston. We were there for the Booktown Festival. My visit was fleeting, a 5-minute pop-up poetry slot. In the main hall, among bookseller frenzy. Ben was part of panels and other readings and I didn’t get to see any of the great work he no doubt delivered. But in that moment when he called out, I heard my name and looked over, saw Ben waving like an old friend. It took me a second to recognise him from behind my sunglasses. I waved and that was that. But I was proud to know him. I stopped short of shouting my congratulations across the street for his recent appointment as our country’s reading ambassador. I wish I had.
And then today I want to shout congratulations once again, this time for the book that he has facilitated, How Did I Get Here? It is a brilliant, moving, must-read collection of stories by and about New Zealanders. Yes, it’s poetry. But don’t be frightened. Let that be the agent that delivers these stories. For me, always, the best poetry is a story. The rules have been removed, the words get to dance about the page. They catch your eye – and hopefully they sit with your heart. They occupy a space in your mind. There are so many incredibly written stories in this book. It’s beautiful.