All Tomorrow's Poets 2016: Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle

Next in our poet interview series, Cait meets her absolute favourite: Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle. The pair discuss starting out, performance art and Autobiography of a Marguerite.

C: How did you find yourself writing poetry, Zarah?
Z: When I was little I was always writing–– I think I probably started out with stories, kind of mimicking stories I found and then passing them off as my own [laughs]. I feel like I probably got into poetry around age 8 or 9, and properly into it around 13 or 14… I always wanted to put a book together. I had a document on my computer called ‘Poems for my poetry book,’ of which I think the working title at the time was Thoughts in a Box. Oh god. From about that age I had this poetry book as a goal, and I would send my work off to writing competitions for high schoolers. When I was about seventeen I sent some poems to Turbine. I got one published and I think that was the first time I was involved in this adult literary world.

C: Tell me about the process of writing Autobiography of a Marguerite.
Z: I think the year before I started writing it I was thinking a lot about autobiography, and I was doing a course at Auckland Uni about Writing Selves. We had to do writing exercises as part of the course which made me start thinking about memory and trauma. I was reading Georges Perec, W or The Memory of Childhood, which has two narratives going on at the same time. One is quite a normal autobiography with plain language and the other is a fictional story. As it goes on you realise it’s kind of allegorical and the worlds start to get closer and closer. You realise the trauma there, and it mirrors the way that memory or trauma can work–– coming back, interrupting the present. I think my interest in autobiography started around 2010 when Greg [Kan] showed me a book called My Life by Lyn Hejinian. It was one of the first times I was introduced to experimental language writing. That, and the teachers I had at the time, changed things for me. It really started me off on a different track. I felt interested in writing something that has autobiographical elements, but also in interrogating the genre itself––  trying to understand more about identity, and how the past and present influence each other.

But also importantly: part of the process of writing the book was probably working on another manuscript [currently unpublished] the year before, and the reading done around that. The manuscript was a collection of experimental prose poems, dealing with themes of illness and life patterns and beliefs and identity. I was influenced a lot by [Eric Berne’s] transactional analysis, a book called “Love Your Disease: It’s Keeping You Healthy” by John Harrison, and a book called “You Can Heal Your Life” by Louise Hay.  Harrison’s book was pretty important to Autobiography of a Marguerite. It inspired me a lot when I was writing the first section of the book. Also, I didn’t want to write a journey of a specific illness with medical details but I wanted to explore illness in relation to family and identity, and how they all interact..How does a person deal with their illness? How do other people react, and how does the reaction of others alter the way someone deals with their illness? Does illness become part of a performance? Is illness (socially) rewarded or punished? What value do we give illness x or y? How does it affect relationship dynamics?

C: There’s a parallel there with Greg’s work in This Paper Boat. Do you influence one another?
Z: We were in the same MA class, and we became interested in quite similar things, both in content and form, as the year went on. Greg and I have been ‘poetry buddies’ since about 2010. We’d talk about this stuff a lot and show each other our work.

C: Do you have any other influences you constantly return to?
Z: There are a lot of books that I re-read. Allison Carter, and Amina Cain, and Leslie Scalapino are very important to me. Also R.D Laing. I feel like this year I’ve mainly been re-reading things and haven’t been able to finish anything new. Last year when I was feeling blocked, I started looking for things outside of the writing sphere. I took a printmaking class. And I became really interested in performance art and conceptual art, and I spent a lot of time on the internet looking at video/performance art online. Molly Soda, Hana Pera Aoake, Marina Abramovic, Sophie Calle. I think music, as well, has been quite a big influence over the last year or so. Actually, a giant influence. Also Twitter and Instagram. I think they’ve been a greater influence lately than any particular writing.

C: How do those performance artists influence your writing practice?
Z: I feel like I’ve been interested in intimacy, and artifice, and sincerity, and that these artists encourage my thinking around those things. I started recording conversations with people I was seeing in a romantic/sexual context. I’d put the dictaphone on with the hope we’d forget it was there. I wanted to capture intimate conversations, partly because maybe I could use them in some way later, for writing or another project.  Performances can feel very intimate and sincere, but they are also very artificial. But the artist makes a space, and they are bold in doing so. I like the assured energy. I want my writing to feel quietly assured. Watching a performance can feel very intimate..especially when you are alone...I suppose I want to create a similar kind of intimate atmosphere with a poem.

Zarah will be reading for us at All Tomorrow’s Poets on the 26th of August at 6pm.
Autobiography of a Marguerite is available here
All Tomorrow's Poets 2016: Dominic Hoey aka Tourettes

Dominic Hoey (AKA Tourettes) is an Auckland-based poet and rapper. Suri caught up with him to talk sex, politics, rap, and the burgeoning Auckland poetry scene. 

Suri: What is it like to be a poet in New Zealand?

Dominic: I think it’s changed a lot. For a long time it was something that I just did, like a lot of teenagers, and then when I was about 20, I started performing at the Poetry Live scene. It’s always been a marginalised discipline but recently, with the explosion of spoken word, there’s so many different practitioners and collectives. I’ve definitely noticed that if you have an academic pedigree, there’s doors that open to you, which are maybe a bit harder to get through otherwise- especially if you’re criticising power structures, which I always end up doing.

Suri: When I read your work it didn’t feel like you had to censor yourself, but do you have that at the back of your mind sometimes? Is it difficult to straddle the line between being honest and protecting yourself?
Dominic: What I’m very aware of is talking about sex as a hetero man. I would probably talk about it a lot more if I wasn’t. My friend is queer and he has a lot of poems about sex, degrading sex, and it’s amazing, but for me to do that... My friend thinks I’m a coward, and that I should do it anyway. I was reading Hera Lindsay Bird’s poem [Suri: Ah, she’s so good!], yeah she’s amazing, but I was thinking “Fuck, there’s a lot of poems about sex that I haven’t put out." My partner’s also pretty prominent in her community and I don’t want to jeopardise her or her work. Those are the only times, and it’s really to my detriment sometimes. I’ve really burned a lot of bridges.

Suri: You reckon?
Dominic: Fuck yeah, I’ve never gotten funding. But I think it’s really important to criticise, or at least be analytical of the narratives around New Zealand. I have a poem about Richie McCaw and on the one hand, I’m making fun of that rugby culture, but on the other hand I’m saying “Why is this the narrative? This isn’t my life”. We shot a video for it recently, and there were a dozen people there passing around a rugby ball, and my friend was telling me that he'd never held a rugby ball before. I don’t think anyone in that room had, but if you look at everyone in that room, they were all quite prominent in their various disciplines- and yet they don’t fit into that narrative.

Suri: That’s a really interesting point. I once wrote a piece for my friend which he refused to publish. I was really surprised, but he had said to me “I don’t know if you making fun of these quintessential New Zealand things is particularly productive” and that was really important for me to hear, and I feel like you do it in a really interesting way where it doesn’t feel condescending.
Dominic: I really believe in punching up. If you’re just contributing to the status quo, then that’s an issue, but I think if you’re punching up and you’re questioning the power structures and status quo, that can only be a good thing right?

Suri: Yeah, I thought what I was writing was this piece interrogating a really insular white New Zealand community, and trying to grapple with where the fuck I fit in, if I fit in at all. So much of the narrative around New Zealand being a ‘chill’ place where people love beer and rugby might at times be untrue, but it’s also an understandable escape for people who really have nothing else to hold onto in an economy and society that doesn’t care about them. 
Dominic: Totally. I think if you’re not lucky enough to be politicised either through education or through experience, you end up in a situation where that’s all you’ve got. That’s why people cling to these things. It’s interesting that you talk about class, because I feel like for a while, it was really hard to talk about it. There’s something that’s been really bugging me recently- There’s that talk about young people saying “Fuck baby boomers, they’re all rich and own lots of houses and destroyed the environment.” Then there’s older people saying “Fuck millennials, they all just eat out every meal and they’re on their phones all the time”. What they’re talking about is people from those generations who are wealthy.

Suri: I also think that those things are so interconnected, class and identity. 
Dominic: Totally. I’m definitely not like some Marxists who think class trumps everything, but I think it’s a really important part of the conversation and I think it’s to any activist’s detriment that they don’t include that in their critiques. I guess I’m lucky in a sense that I grew up in a community where there was a lot of talk about Marx and anarchism, so I had that understanding pretty early on.

Suri: What sort of poetry did you grow up with? Was it reflective of your political background?
Dominic: Not really. I guess the Beats had some left-leaning stuff, like Bukowski… and obviously he’s politically abhorrent, but I think he’s one of the poets that you read and think “I could do this”, even though, in reality, there’s quite a lot of complicated technique to some of his stuff. From the outset it gives you that confidence. My dad used to read me a lot of classic poetry like Blake, and Pound. I really got into it through bFM. They used to play King Missile, you know, Detachable Penis and Jesus Was Way Cool? 

Suri: No, but that sounds great
Dominic: You should check it out. Some of it’s pretty dated now, though. And then rapping, obviously.

Suri: Do you find those two practices things quite linked?
Dominic: Yes and no. Some rappers are poets, some aren’t. I’m not saying that it’s necessarily a bad thing if you aren’t [a poetic rapper]. I was always obsessed with words. I couldn’t read until I was 8 and I guess to me it was this unattainable thing, which gave it this exotic quality. I can remember a time where I couldn’t read, whereas most people can’t.

Suri: I don’t want to ask you too much about dyslexia…
Dominic: That’s ok, everyone always does.

Suri: What do you think brought you around to the idea of literature and poetry- often people who are affected by dyslexia understandably struggle to maintain an interest.
Dominic: I think it was just my parents. The teachers at my school told me I’d never learn to read, which my parents thought was bullshit, so they really educated me. We’d also watch arthouse films, and that sort of work really introduces you to alternative narratives and scripts that use interesting language. Apparently when I was a little kid, I was always using quite big vocabulary, so I guess it was always there. Once I got it, I was an insatiable reader.

Suri: Like you said, there’s this kind of explosive, new poetry scene that involves a lot of really bright, young New Zealanders. It seems like a lot of the funding still goes to older, established New Zealand poets though. Do you find the official banner of New Zealand poetry is still a little archaic?
Dominic: To be honest, I don’t pay a lot of attention to it [older established poets]. I don’t feel like we’re doing the same thing- and that’s not to say that I’m better- it’s just different. Sometimes I feel like, and my girlfriend says this, “Maybe you should just play the game, because you could stop having to struggle so much”. I know that if I went back and got my Masters and studied under Bill Manhire or one of those poets, it would open a lot of doors.

Suri: Did you read much New Zealand poetry growing up?
Dominic: I read a lot of my friends’ stuff- and Baxter as well obviously, I think he’s incredible. My friend’s mother as well- Owen Stewart- have you heard of her? She’s not super well-known, but she was incredible. It wasn’t like it is now; there’s a lot of pride in New Zealand art in general.

Suri: Totally. I think it’s also really interesting how upper middle-class consumers of poetry and literature have become more receptive to different narratives of New Zealand life.
Dominic: Yeah, I’m so excited about all these young poets coming up from all different scenes, because they’re all telling different stories. I taught a workshop at the Art Gallery a little while ago, and most of the poets were Polynesian, and most of them were women. It’s exciting. In regards to the funding, maybe it will change, but not until those people are adults. Hopefully. I don’t want to bag on academia too much, because I have studied at an academic level, and I've learned a lot. I guess it’s only natural if you’re from that world, that you’re going to tend to favour people who’ve trained in the same way that you have.

Suri: I feel like academia’s at a point where it’s slowly changing as well. I don’t know if some these young people of colour who are expanding upon the New Zealand experience would have been published say, ten years ago.
Dominic: I guess that’s the only way it’s going to happen- talented people constantly pushing. There’s strength in numbers too. I did an Auckland Speaks event where there were about 70-80 people in the audience, and at the same time there was an event in the backroom, and apparently there were over 100 people there. I think it’s crazy that you can have two events on the same night, with wildly different poets drawing in different crowds.

Suri: Party Tricks included a lot of sex, but it was written in this really honest, and almost spiritual way. Do you feel exposed when you write so honestly?
Dominic: I feel like growing up, you hear these narratives about men enjoying sex, and women hating sex and having to be tricked into it, that kind of bullshit. I think that when you finally start having sex, you realize it’s just a beautiful and awesome experience- or it can be. It’s never portrayed like that, you know? It’s either this cartoonish, nudge-you-in-the ribs, or it’s men saying awful things about women. I just try to present it exciting and awesome. I was single when I wrote that book as well.

Suri: Yeah, it just felt like this way of talking about sex that wasn’t tied in up in super misogynistic language, or even in a really slick, commercial way where it’s just attractive people having sex. 
Dominic: Yeah, I feel like it’s honest, but it’s not overly graphic or anything. I think the reality of a lot of things that we’re told to desire, but then are told are also bad, are just simple and fun. Drugs are the same, or even things like travel. We’re all supposed to idolise travel, but travel can actually be really stressful. I think it’s about trying to talk about the reality of those things- positive and negative. I’m always fascinated by these narratives that we’re sold, these stories that get repeated over and over again, and when you finally experience them, you feel left out. 90% of people are having this other experience that’s similar to yours, but you end up feeling isolated.

Suri: Do you think poetry’s becoming more accessible for more marginalised communities?
Dominic: Totally. The readings you go to now aren’t just full of old white people. The only thing I’m worried about is [poetry] becoming more popular, and having the work become watered down. This is the second wave of popularity of spoken word.  Hip-hop was totally like that. It got so huge. I always tell this story about when we played Rising Sun, and there were about 500 people there- it was sold out. Six months later, I was playing at Kuja lounge to like six people.

Suri: Do you feel like those cyclical trends are interlinked a little bit between the hip-hop community and poetry? Or do you find they’re just quite different altogether?
Dominic: There’s definitely a little bit of cross-over, but not really. There’s a few rappers who I think could be amazing poets if they wanted to- like Tom Scott, Bronson from Third Eye- but I don’t think it’s really their passion. Both are pretty full-time disciplines. I’m definitely a much better poet than I am a rapper, from a technical point of view.

Suri: Have you ever watched that documentary on Lil Wayne (The Carter)?
Dominic: Yeah, yeah

Suri: And when that French journalist is super insistent on asking him if he considers himself a poet, and he’s like “I’m a fucking rapper”? I found that really interesting, whether people from the hip-hop community feel like if in order to be legitimised they have to be considered poets as well as rappers?
Dominic: Definitely. I think poet was a dirty word for a long time, and that’s changing too. It’s funny because for me growing up, I always felt like you had to earn that title, and I never called myself one until I felt like I’d earned it. I used to do poems at hip-hop gigs, and people’d be into it, but it was still weird. It was kind of like a secret weapon, because it was a really good way to engage the audience. I’d usually start the set with a poem, and then you’d drop the beat and it’d have this really cool event. There’s definitely some cross-over.

Suri: Do you have any thoughts on how to maintain the up-spike in the poetry community, or ensure some sort of longevity? 
Dominic: I think it’s really important that collectives work together. The other thing that I saw with hip-hop, was the importance of not chasing after numbers and having some quality control and having artists who take the practice seriously. If there’s some kind of a bar, or if you maintain some kind of quality, it makes people improve. I think when you’re starting, you don’t realise how shit you are, and I’m totally guilty of that. I’m so glad the internet wasn’t around when I was starting out.

Suri: Do you think that part of what might be hard for younger poets and rappers is, to a certain extent, being immortalised by your early work online?

Dominic: Yeah, I think especially if you have work that becomes popular, people want you to continue that on. Whatever happens might be annoying or set you back, but you keep doing it.

Suri: We’ll wrap up on a very cheesy note. Do you have any advice for young poets? 
Dominic: Go wide, don’t just look to what’s happening immediately around you. You’ve got to read widely. You can learn from people that you don’t necessarily like, but look at the different techniques that they’re using. I think doing uni and short courses is really helpful. Also, don’t be ashamed to ask questions.

Dominic will be reading for us at All Tomorrow’s Poets on the 26th of August at 6pm.
Party Tricks and Boring Secrets is available here