Chopped Nervousness: The “International Regionalism”
        of New Zealand Poet Sam Sampson

Sam Sampson was born in Auckland, New Zealand, and grew up in South Titirangi, next to Little Muddy Creek. His poetry has been published in chapbooks and journals, including: Jacket, Poetry Review, The Iowa Review and Stand Magazine. He has collaborated on a number of publications and exhibitions with NZ artist Peter Madden, and in 2007, was the (Allen) Curnow Reader at the Going West Books and Writers Festival. Everything Talks, his first collection of poems, was published by Auckland University Press (NZ), and Shearsman Books (UK) in June 2008. It won the Jessie McKay NZSA Best First Book of Poetry at the 2009 Montana New Zealand Book Awards. For more information visit his website.

Zach Savich's first book, Full Catastrophe Living, won the Iowa Poetry Prize. He has recent poems in Boston Review, Kenyon Review, and Denver Quarterly. He was recently honored as a New American Poet by the Poetry Society of America.

Q: Place names and more abstract allusions to geography appear throughout your poetry. How has place influenced your work?
A: I grew up in West Auckland, in a place called Titirangi (Fringe of Heaven) and described by the New Zealand essayist Eric McCormick as a “sylvan slum.” Titirangi is part of the Waitakere Ranges, a lush subtropical forest which leads to the black sand ocean beaches of the West Coast. My childhood and teenage years were spent at the bottom of South Titirangi Road, next to Little Muddy Creek (Paruiti). From there, I had easy access to the beaches of the Manukau Harbour, the West Coat, and the Tasman Sea.

Later, I discovered my great-uncles were early members of the Karekare Surf Patrol, and my grandfather (a mechanic) repaired the surf club trucks, which gave a gravitas of sorts to the environs I grew up in. This spatial sense of “Coast,” of water, and, more specifically, West Coast seascapes is omnipresent in my work and there is certainly ocean, with a capital “O” (literal and guttural) at the initial compositional stage. While this regional presence may surface in different ways, the imaginary sea is also at play in the work.
Q: Have other writers from the region informed this perspective?
A: Some of the pioneering New Zealand poets, writers, and artists I have been influenced by lived in or created work connected to the West Coast. As the NZ critic and poet C. K. Stead has said, “While there could never be a ‘double standard’ favoring local work, there is a sense in which, wherever you come from, the poetry of your own region speaks with a voice, an accent, and a quiver of references which make it special.” For me, those references were the Waitakere Ranges and Karekare.

The major practioner of Karakare and NZ poetry was Allen Curnow (1911 – 2001). Especially in his later poems, he made many references to familiar West Coast landmarks, but also used a discursive mode of “word and world” which I found both fascinating and addictive. For example, from the opening lines from his poem, “The Loop in Lone Kauri Road:” “By the same road to the same / sea, in the same two minds, / to run the last mile blind or / save it for later. These / are not alternatives.”
Q: Is there a risk in regionalism being too particular, too personal?
A: While stressing the importance of regional identity, my poems are never constructed to celebrate the landscape. The language itself, even when identifying a locale, is (I believe) universal in scope, and accessible and inaccessible at many different levels. For example: Orpheus, Zion, Watchman, Hamilton, Union Bay are all part of the English language, whether Anglicized place names, mythological figures, or proper nouns, which locate personal touchstones within a landscape, but at the same time offer, as language, departure points for the international reader.

The Australian poet John Kinsella made some interesting points when he coined the term “International regionalism” – how, in respecting the integrity of place, of a region, we are at the same time opening avenues for communication and discourse. That regional identity is enhanced and best preserved by being part of the global community. I believe, as I feel he does, that internationalism, and writing about place specifically, are not mutually exclusive, and major poetry that contains strong regional characteristics is also international in its influence. My interest has always been about a blending of the two.
Q: I’m curious about how this blending might extend to Everything Talks’ unique publication details. Has simultaneously working with publishers in NZ and the UK felt displacing?
A: I think the feeling of displacement, of being in some way alienated by the duality, soon evaporated as the book was nurtured into existence by presses who are professional and passionate. I suppose I’m trying to explain away the negative connotations associated with the word “displacement.” If there is a feeling of a dual life in two hemispheres, I think it’s a positive thing – the book has left home, shifted from its place, is residing in another part of the world, and has, hopefully found others outside of its immediate friends and family. Notions of globalism, and displacement, I feel enhance and preserve the book through it being part of a global community.
Q: You’ve done collaborations with visual artists and incorporated other writers’ words into your own. How have these activities changed your writing?
A: Initially, when one starts out writing there is an impulse to assert a strong sense of the lyric “I,” to make one’s self the center of the poem. At some point I think you have to decide whether to enact a type of “lyric negation,” inhabiting and disrupting the word’s ability to normalize personal narrative. I felt that Modernism, and modernists such as Pound in The Cantos, opened up a field and made it okay to include lines from a multiplicity of sources in constructing a poem. Although appropriative writing and list poems intrigue me, I’m more interested in striking up a conversation, taking another writer’s words as departure points, whether that includes breaking them up to create rhythmic tension, or responding to the words in the writer’s mode through a rearrangement of their words.

Concerning collaborations with artists who work in visual media, I think even today in the 21st century the experimental poet is still constrained by how language and poems are perceived. The poem, unlike the painting, collage, or other visual media, is made up of words which correspond to meanings and the reader inevitably feels a need to make sense of the poem. When the poem is not easily accessible, the reader feels tricked or short-changed and abandons the work. The experimental visual artist, on the other hand, is much more acceptable, or assimilated, into our general culture (which in some respects is a visual culture). I think of a NZ example, the artist Len Lye, whose kinetic artworks and experimental films are now visited and celebrated by thousands of people each year, while his poetry is hardly recognized.
Q: I remember receiving your delightful series of postcard poems, The Deep End, done with artist Peter Madden. In combining words and images, did the physicality of the medium affect the physicality of your language?
A: It’s difficult to say exactly how the germination of collaborative works evolve. In the case of The Deep End postcard poems, they were part of a larger exhibition of the same name but were at the same time the original template for further works. As a collage artist, Peter Madden is not just interested in cutting out images to reassemble, but releasing the invisible image, the space which the cut-out image has inhabited. This absence and re-arrangement of images over different time zones (given the dates of different publications he cuts from), and the juxtaposition of what some may call “disparate frames of reference” interests me. I feel a number of my poems were doing similar things to Peter’s collage work (but in a much more minimalist way) before we started collaborating, but the collaboration gave me the mandate to glean some of his techniques and fuse these with my own musical sense, letting the poems breathe a little more. The way the lines are arranged on the page (I’ve subsequently discovered) have a number of parallels with Mallarme. Cole Swensen talks of Mallarme’s preface to Un Coup de des, where he states: “nothing new except a certain distribution of space made within the reading.”

Swensen also talks of his inherent move towards a fusion of sequential perception and simultaneous perception, to fully engage the eye and ear, as a result pushing poetry in two directions – toward visual art and toward musical perfromance. I like this distinction, how the physicality of the language – this chopped nervousness, how the line is broken, the spatial repetitions, cause and effect, conflict and displacement – is essential to how the poem is laid out. I feel some of my longer works allow the reader to access the poem at many different points, but once inside the poem, the sonic components, whether it’s a single word filling a gap, or a vowel or half-rhyme sitting directly below a corresponding sound structure are complete in themselves – the idea of a beginning or end neither here nor there.
Q: This sounds very orchestral.
A: I came to poetry through song-writing, and later, papers in philosophy and ethnomusicology while studying at Auckland University. While studying, I took a part-time job as a roadie and stage assistant for the local orchestra (The Auckland Philharmonia). For eight years I had access to a wonderful roster of orchestral rehearsals and performances. I couldn’t tell you exactly how it influenced my work, but talking and listening to musicians, conductors, and composers gave me a sense of how music, in this case the Classical tradition, could lift the notes off the page. I felt that as poetry is built around shifts of tempo and modulations of pitch, every gesture was connected to meaning and is an intuitive way of sound sculpting.

To articulate the work (and, here, I mean on the page, as well as in performance) the poet, composer, conductor, musician is making a drawing, creating a dynamic space rather than detailing a linear framework. For me, this idea/ideal of a dynamic space was then transferred to the practice of playing tabla (North Indian/Hindustani drums). Although never reaching any expertise on the instrument, I found it intriguing the way musicians would recite rhythmic patterns (taals) breaking apart meters to achieve the exact rhythmical fit. This is not to say I felt poetry (my poetry especially) should ever purely be of the sound poetry tradition. I felt meaning inherently tied at the initial compositional stage, but this structure could be extended, until in some cases only a shimmer of the original meaning was left behind. I always hoped (if interested) the reader would work to solve conundrums, to supply transitions, to make out of a haphazard assortment of building materials, a habitable dwelling.
Q: Is this “habitable dwelling” similar to the places from childhood you mentioned earlier? I’m curious about the tones of retrospection in your work, which is often, at the same time, very fixed on the present moment.
A: Themes of existence and recollection do run through my poems. While I don’t consciously shift the poem from the present into a mode of retrospection (or vice-versa) I’m aware at the compositional stage that the poem may lead to a re-imagining of place, event, or sensory layer. Each word, phrase, naming, is a re-creation, at some level, of the environment I grew up in, the people known or known about. As some say, to create the present we re-create a past. But this also realigns the past in the present moment. I believe many writers’ lives are haunted by the lost idyll of childhood.

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761