Paula Green: The Life of a Poem

At the end of 2013, Te Papa started working on a series of creative responses to Colin McCahon’s Walk (Series C) (1973) – long an artistic trigger. We approached poet and writer Greg O’Brien who agreed to work with us. Greg contacted some of New Zealand’s most well-known poets. Over the summer, they wrote and Greg emailed us their completed poems. As a non-writer, who has always battled words, I was privately delighted by my strong reaction to them all. Here, Paula Green discusses her involvement in the project:

The life of a poem: ‘Into the Wild’

I was delighted to be invited by Gregory O’Brien to respond to Colin McCahon’s ‘Walk’ in the form of a poem. For two reasons. First delight: Colin McCahon plays a part in my family stories. He lived in a shed at the bottom of my mother’s garden in Mapua and he painted paintings on the walls of a house he rented from a relative in the same area. As a young girl, these stories shimmered and expanded in my imagination, particularly when I looked at one of his paintings (and when many people around me didn’t get McCahon!). Second delight: I live near Te Henga (Bethells Beach on Auckland’s West Coast) and go running on the beach most mornings, so when I walked into McCahon’s painting, I was walking into the black sand and the wild waves and the ocean debris of Te Henga.

Walking the length of ‘Walk,’ you are entering glorious patches of colour and the wildness and the beauty stall you, just as it does at Te Henga, when it’s just you, sand, sea and sky in every direction. Extraordinary. But some days the everyday minutiae clamour and fracture your transcendental state. And so it did when I stood in front of ‘Walk.’ I experienced a cacophony of noise and colliding images. Personal. Elsewhere. And then, again, I entered the colour (sea or cloud or sand) and the world stalled.

Last week, at the Auckland Writers Festival, I did a poetry session with around 2000 students ranging from Year 7 to Year 10 and I read my McCahon poem. I didn’t make the event at Te Papa (because I was at WOMAD), so I didn’t get to read my poem in public in front of the painting. My poem had disappeared into the mysterious shades and light of the world to live its own life! Standing on the stage in the ASB Theatre I was blinded by the spotlights and had scant idea what the audience thought of it. At the end of my session, I offered my copy of the ‘Walk with Me’ brochure to anyone in my signing queue who wanted it. I had my biggest signing queue ever and student after student wanted the brochure. I almost fell over—yes I was moved the students wanted to read my poem on the page having heard it in the air—but I almost fell over because this queue of students expressed such a heartfelt love of poetry to me. ‘I just love poetry,’ was the common thread. It was utterly moving, especially as I had just followed and was signing next to two electrifying comedians from Britain. I am sure ‘I just love comedy’ was running down the length of their queue!

When I was in Year 12, James K Baxter came to my school. He stood on the stage in his shabby suit, bare feet, scruffy beard and long hair, and read his poems. I thought poetry was it! I could hardly breathe! I went home and wrote poems in the manner of Baxter (I am sure they were terrible). I bought a copy of Jerusalem Daybook and Autumn Testament. Seven days later he died. I was heart broken. I wrote more poems and painted a portrait of Baxter in blue that I pinned to my wall (I have a poem in The Baker’s Thumbprint on this entitled ‘Beam’). When I visit Secondary Schools as a poet, I often think back to that earlier me—to that awkward adolescent in the audience. Baxter would have had no idea how he sparked my enthusiasm for poetry.

Paula Green

Read Paula’s poem

Walk (Series C)

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