It was an odd experience, reading cummings aloud down the phone to a complete stranger, and feeling the electricity of someone else’s desire crackle across the decades. There was the momentary sensation that I was wooing the invisible listener … which only felt reinforced by the silence from her for several beats afterwards, before she said a stunned thank you. My nine-year-old was eavesdropping at the time: he asked me who wrote the poem. “Was it a man? Is he famous?” he said. “Because he should be.” That was as giddy as reading the poem itself: to witness cummings reaching out way down the generations, and stirring something nascent in this child who hasn’t, he tells me, duh, really been in love yet.
Another request was from Thomas McLean in the English Department at Otago, who asked me to talk about poetry to his group of medical elective students. After touching briefly on how the physician and the writer share a professional interest in empathy, and how both need to be conscientious, alert listeners, I read some poems that I hoped might cross over into the students’ disciplines.
After I read ‘Exposure’, one very skeptical, serious looking young man wanted to ask a question. I braced myself for something dismissive. He was sitting in a languid, long-legged, stretched-out posture, semi-slumped in his chair; the pose that seems to say whatever you’ve presented hasn’t even been worth sitting up for. (It’s about as far from a standing ovation as you can get while still actually in a chair, not horizontal, asleep.) Then he said that when he’d read the poem earlier, on his own, he’d felt so sad, that it made him wonder how I could bear to write it. “Does writing this kind of thing really get you down?” It seemed to tweak and reverse the usual questions about how closely the poems trace the life: although I suppose that the initial manual-like register of the poem might be one reason the question was asked in this way. So we discussed how form can be like protective gloves, that help a writer to handle otherwise scalding or painful material: the way both established forms, and the search for new structures, can help to shape and hone experience, and provide some distance, and even some internal alteration. I’d guess that the notion of having to balance at least three elements — a certain detachment, inner composure, and intense feelings or correspondence with others — is something that both the writer and the medical professional constantly have to work at.
Emma goes on to include ‘Exposure’ which she says has appeared in Sport and in the collection Spark (Wellington: Steele Roberts, 2008). She then adds further interesting remarks.
To read the full piece link to her blog here.