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Monday 27 February 2023 10:48am

JamesreadingOn the 23rd of February, we gathered at the wonderful Scorpio Books in Christchurch to celebrate the launch of Letter to 'Oumuamua by award-winning poet and novelist, James Norcliffe. We were also able to celebrate some of James's incredible achievements, including being awarded the 2022 Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement for Poetry and the Storylines Margaret Mahy Medal and Lecture Award.

A huge thank you to everyone who came along to help us celebrate. It was a fantastic evening!

Erik Kennedy kindly launched the book for us and gave an amazing launch speech. Here's what he had to say ...

The Norcliffean Moment

Nau mai, haere mai. Kia ora kotou katoa. Ko Erik Kennedy ahau. I'm Erik Kennedy: a poet, critic, editor, and James Norcliffe fanboy. Welcome to the launch of Letter to ʻOumuamua, published by Otago University Press.

JamessigningI'd like to take advantage of our gathering here tonight to do a bit of thinking out loud about an important literary question. And that question is: what makes a poem Norcliffean? Because this is a question worth asking at this point. We have here with us a poet who has earned his own adjective. James Norcliffe has a substantial and well-regarded body of work behind him. He's a poet's poet, and he's also a poet who has earned official recognition. Some of you may be aware that James won the 2022 Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement in poetry. It's a big prize, with a big paycheque attached. I won't be so vulgar as to discuss how much money it is, but suffice it to say that with the PM's Award you could buy 50 iPhone 14s, or 461 Jobmate 100-litre wheelbarrows, or 30,000 tins of Wattie's baked beans. Or, at current prices, about a dozen eggs. Puts it in perspective.

But it's not just that James writes poems that are good and appreciated. (That's bloody hard.) It's that he writes poems that are distinctive. (And that's well-nigh impossible.) In preparing this speech, I thought I'd take a stab at defining a Norcliffe poem. I brainstormed a descriptor list. Norcliffean poems are:

not trendy
informed by form
rapier-like (or)

For me, the unifying vibe in this (incomplete and doubtless flawed) list is surprise. What kind of surprise? You're not getting hit by a water balloon of emotions, although James's poems are not arid metaphysics. You're not getting thumped with a thesaurus, although James is definitely choosing all the right words. No, in a Norcliffean poem, something unexpected is happening on the level of the idea.

EricKennedy2All poets will say they want to surprise you, but that's easier said than done. Cognitive scientists speculate that our brains are prediction machines, running a kind of neural autocomplete script, and surprise occurs when our predictions miss the mark. A Norcliffean poem can have the effect of bugging up the autocomplete. A typical James Norcliffe poem from the Letter to ʻOumuamua era is set in a warped or even sinister suburbia; the atmosphere created reminds me of the work of contemporary 'surrealist' painters like Lee Madgwick and John Currin: familiar but askew—realistic but distorted, unheimlich.

'The body in the bed' is a wonderful example. A third party is regularly joining a couple in the bedroom, 'lying between us / or lying beside us, unmoving, peaceful'. It is never called a 'person', only a 'body'. The speaker is aware of its presence, 'whereas I know it is quite unaware of mine'. Hints in the text suggest that the poem may be about dementia, or insomnia, or intrusive thoughts, or secrets, or a curious type of love, or even spirituality (the word 'visitation' is used), but no—it resists tidy metaphorical or symbolic readings. It is what it is. 'Art and confusion' presents, again, something that feels like a familiar scene—milling about with drinks in a cinema foyer, looking at film posters—and turns it into a disorienting mise-en-abyme, as the scene itself is 'a scene from a movie, a scene that must feature on a poster somewhere and you look around the walls again'. It's like when you imagine that your life is a movie (which we've probably all done), but in the movie there are posters for the movie. The reverie is broken up 'as bells begin to ring'. But since when do cinemas have bells?!

The characters in a Norcliffe poem often have incomplete information. 'The search party' is the story of a team of volunteers dispatched to a foggy forest to look for . . . something? The speaker is 'phlegmatic' and tries to remain unconcerned as the search loses coherence and perhaps puts the searchers themselves in danger, but he is right to be puzzled by the fact that no one has told them what they're searching for. This detail is deliciously withheld until the end, and then the poem snaps into focus as a haunting life allegory, a kind of Plato's cave story in which what seems to be reality and purpose is merely a fuzzy, poorly understood version of a higher intention.

Sue_James_FlowersSometimes the 'surprises' aren't all that surprising, if you're paying attention. The book's third section, 'Really Hot Soup', is all about climate change, a phenomenon that is surprising largely because it's worse and happening faster than most scientists expected. The weather is going apeshit, the sea levels are rising, but, as James says in 'Living in the entropics', 'It is said that love, though, is erosion free, / that love survives all. // We don't know if that is true. / We don't know if anything is true, / but part of us wants to believe it.'

With the examples I'm bringing up, you might be starting to think to yourself: 'This sounds a bit bleak.' Well . . . yeah, kinda! Is this James's bleakest book yet? Maybe! In earlier books, like 2003's Rat Tickling, I sensed that the universe was cold or even malicious, but this seemed almost like an academic assertion. Now . . . it feels up close and personal. The poem 'A day like no other' packs into just fifteen lines: the Christchurch mosque attacks, the Notre Dame fire, a personal bereavement, a kind of animal mass psychosis, and home repairs gone wrong. That's what life can feel like sometimes—like everything bad is happening at once.

In my correspondence with publisher Sue Wootton about Letter to ʻOumuamua, she wrote to me that it's 'deeply sad really. Loss. Loss. Loss. And stupid humanity! Yet also the book is warm, loving—tender as.' I think this is correct. Maybe that's the biggest surprise of all offered by the book: that despite everything there is still room for finer feelings. Don't get me wrong, I like bitter, scorched-earth poetry as much as the next anti-capitalist, but I've got a lot of time for the artful undercurrent of empathy, too, and James Norcliffe practises empathy the way a country doctor practises medicine: at all hours and wherever needed. So it's appropriate that the title poem of this book pleads humanity's case to ʻOumuamua, an interstellar object that is the first known visitor from beyond our solar system. The poem imagines the kind of impression Earthlings would likely make on a stranger and says, essentially: Okay, I know what you must be thinking, that humans are garbage, but please don't judge us too harshly. Or to use James's actual, better words: 'We're not all bad. We just can't help ourselves.'

So come for the surprises but stay for the generosity of spirit. We humans may not deserve much, and probably not the poetry of James Norcliffe, but perhaps we can have it all the same.

Now join me in welcoming the most Norcliffean poet I know: James Norcliffe!

Find out more about Letter to 'Oumuamua

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