Out of a city's silence flows poetry

POETRY IN THE RUBBLE: Kristy Rusher reads to a Gap Filler audience in Colombo St last month.
POETRY IN THE RUBBLE: Kristy Rusher reads to a Gap Filler audience in Colombo St last month.

Christchurch citizens are not just rebuilding their homes, they are looking for the chance to express their artistic needs, writes Jeffrey Paparoa Holman.

In November last year at a coffee house in Addington, a group of poets under the umbrella of the Phantom Billstickers poster company gathered to launch a bunch of poetry posters before a warmly appreciative crowd hungry for any kind of artistic event in a city bashed about and almost silenced by the disastrous series of earthquakes shaking the city since September 2010.

The reading had been postponed after the killer February 22 earthquake; it wrecked the premises of the poster company and forced Jim Wilson, its founder and poetry lover, to move up north. He never gave up on us, and earlier this year, sent some of those same poets to New York to launch the posters there at Saatchi and Saatchi's headquarters on Hudson Street.

Most recently on National Poetry Day, July 27, a reading took place at the University Book Shop, where a number of winners in a poetry competition arranged for the occasion received prizes and read their works to an appreciative crowd.

Some were old hands, others first-timers - all had been set the task of writing a poem on the subject of 'My Quake Nightmare'.

On the same day in Colombo St near the site of the old Beggs music store, the irrepressible Gap Filler Project had an open-air poetry reading where writers arrived to chalk their work on the wall and read to the brave souls weathering the winter chill.

Everywhere it seems in our broken city, Christchurch citizens are not just rebuilding their homes and getting to work in their imaginatively resited workplaces - they are looking for the chance to express their artistic needs, finding all sorts of wonderful ways and strange places to do it.

Anyone who has driven past the NG Gallery in Madras Street - a proud surviving heritage building - and seen Michael Parekowhai's magnificent iron bull statues on one of the outdoor waste spaces that blanket our city will know what I mean.

One day recently, leather- clad Harley-Davidson motorbike riders drove off the road and up to the great metal beasts, offering a kind of homage perhaps to artworks that were moving them in a way no machine ever could.

Everywhere, our conversation is scripted by the after-effects of these shocks: from what the EQC and the insurers are not doing, to the machinations of government officials local and national; from which building was once where to what do we think of a new tilt-slab edifice that has popped up overnight?

None of us can avoid it. In the midst of such pressing concerns, it is heartening to see fresh initiatives in arts and culture going ahead. They remind us of how much there is to do and to say in the wake of what we have experienced. Now, we even have a new city to contemplate.

Poetry is a way to re- imagine the world and put our communal jigsaw slowly back together.

James Norcliffe, the senior poetry editor of The Press has reported that since September 2010, the number of submissions to his weekly space in the Go section of Friday's paper has shot up exponentially. People, in extremis, are turning to poetry as an effective way of getting what they feel out there. Through poetry, we are letting each other know what our inner worlds are struggling to express in the midst of nagging grief, daily stresses and ongoing trials of patience.

And now we read in The Press of the paper's storytelling initiative, Zone Life, an online platform where stories of our disappearing suburbs can be uploaded and retold perpetually: family roots, home security, beloved trees, demolition and local wildlife are just some of the areas we can write about there. As well, the wonderful Student Volunteer Army is holding a series of local forums for older residents to tell their tales, an intergenerational dialogue that will preserve local memories in danger of being lost.

These forms and forums are surely a unique experience of disaster recovery in New Zealand history and a healing experience for us all - a necessary response from the creative arts.

Yet I wonder sometimes if beyond the city and its hinterland, the rest of the country might just have had enough of our troubles, and might not appreciate the need here to tell what has happened?

In a recent review of a book of earthquake poetry in Your Weekend, the reviewer concluded with this conversation stopper: 'What after all, is there to say? The earth shook, people died'. What does he mean? Was it just the poetry that brought forth this response, or as somebody responded in discussing this strange comment, 'Is there no scope for anyone, poet or otherwise, to say or write anything about the quakes?'

Of course language cannot turn back time or alter events, nor can it reproduce realities such as earthquakes, or war. Louis Simpson, a poet who served in the US 101st Airborne Division in World War II has argued that one reason combatants don't often render their experiences in written form is that warfare silences them: 'Language seems to falsify physical life and to betray those who have experienced it absolutely - the dead'.

Of course it is true. Any poem about combat or burial under a fallen building is just that: it's a poem, made of words.

But another US soldier from the same company with the same battle experience, the literary historian Paul Fussell, argues the opposite: the real reason service personnel fall silent when they return from combat zones is that 'no-one is very interested in the bad news they have to report. What listener wants to be torn and shaken when he doesn't have to be?'

Any form of language is inadequate to convey the violence of war, or the terror of being trapped in a burning building, but if I was so bombarded and so trapped, if I came through alive, I would want to talk to you. If I had died, it would be a comfort to know that survivors continued to live - and to write about their experiences of coming through the earthquake that had taken my life.

All who have survived such events need listening ears and the dead need our remembrances - else they disappear even more completely.

That is what we are all learning to do in Christchurch: to listen to the earth and each other, to take a more realistic view of our tenure here, to work in community with what we have, and to cherish the memories of the victims.

It doesn't matter if those whose lives have not been so shaken don't respond to us, or even advocate silence, as this reviewer appears to do.

While we cannot recapitulate the earth's power when it slips and slides and rattles our foundations, we can tell each other what it felt like - and anyone else who possesses sufficient empathy to listen.

The Press