Ian Wedde visited Poetry off the Page students at the University of Auckland in September 2012 to talk about his role as NZ Poet Laureate and to read the first ten sections of his evolving poem 'Shadow Stands Up'. Later the 21 students formed up in groups to devise strategies for taking stanzas of Ian’s poem into a community of their choice. They spread out across the city, documenting their performances and distributions for upload to the course website as their final assignment for the semester.
Ian’s poem appeared in neighbourhood letterboxes, on the Link bus, on wine bottles in a local Glengarry store. It went to a city pub quiz, to Poetry Live at the Thirsty Dog in K Road, to Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, Fictionpress and Tumblr sites. It morphed through an email chain and it went to the beach in a beer bottle. Our students report that getting poetry into public places is (yes!) demanding but ultimately satisfying work, full of unexpected challenges and moments of sublime serendipity (the commuters who pulled out their phones to video the performers being videoed on the bus...).
We are proud to present a selection of work from the assignment, and we wish to thank Ian again for the generous use of his poem.
Michele Leggott and Helen Sword,
Convenors, English 347 Poetry off the Page at the University of Auckland.
'Shadow Stands Up' on the Link Bus at Rush Hour
Taking the poem into the community
When, in August 2011, Ian Wedde introduced in "hesitant draft form" these first two stanzas of his tentatively named sequence, Shadow Stands Up, he indicated that, thematically at least, the poem would be preoccupied with 'memory'; specifically, "how memory stitches time into patterns and narratives that can’t exist in rational ways". This theme of memory is subtly conjured by the imagery contained within these early stanzas, whose references to 'shadows', 'dreams', 'imprints', and 'outlines' seemingly denote the memories or residues of more tangible things. It occurs that the poem’s Link bus is the literal vehicle whereby these things are 'stitched' (or, perhaps more appropriately, 'linked') into a more rational narrative. It was, therefore, this same Link bus journey that my group sought to reproduce in taking the poem into the community.
As mapped out in my exhibit (comprised of seven photos and a video, all taken in-transit and attached as hotspots to the streets they depict), our Link bus moved us along Victoria Street and past Victoria Park — locations made all the more familiar to us by their presences in the poem. Travelling this route was thus comparable to travelling through the poem as a reader, with both activities evoking Alan Brunton’s work on walking, wandering, and the conception of poetry. In Remarks on the Future of Poetry, Brunton refers to the "intoxication [that] comes over those who wander through the streets", and, subsequently, the way a text grows "step by step as the poet walks". Although the sense of 'wandering' in Shadow Stands Up seems, at least in the opening stanzas, less to do with the feet than with the mind, it arises that Brunton’s sentiments are largely transferable to this more philosophical wandering that Wedde seems to specialise in. Having blogged about his tendency to always be 'looking at something in [his] head', it is unsurprising that Wedde’s poem is pervaded by the concept of interiority. The decision to simulate Wedde’s daily commute between Three Lamps and the University of Auckland would, we hoped, allow us into the interior spaces of both poet and poem, making our dissemination of it all the more meaningful.
The 'main event' of our dissemination strategy was exactly that—making the text, in the words of Alan Brunton, an 'event' through performance. As a kind of antithesis to this 'spectacle', however, we felt it was important to pay homage to the poem’s introspectiveness. We printed the poem onto an A4 transparency sheet and adhered it to the Link bus window, so that commuters such as the man featured in the 'Victoria Street West' photo were permitted a more intimate engagement with the text which, conveniently, served also as a lens through which the text’s landmarks could be viewed. Additionally, the use of the transparency was a reference to the ghostly presences that, according to Wedde, constitute another of the poem’s motifs. Levitating in the window of the bus, the 'ghost' of Wedde’s poem flitted around the city while my attempts to capture it in motion (see Victoria Street, Albert Street, and Britomart photos) produced only indistinct, ghostly blurs. It interested me to see that in both the 'Victoria Street' and 'Customs Street' photos the figures outside the bus were also reduced to ghostly blurs, and this caused me to consider how I too might be perceived as ghostly by those on the outside, looking in. At this point, I was drawn to a tension between two lines of the poem — "I see this from the Link bus window", whose 'I' implies a grounding in reality, and "a Link bus goes past with me in it", whose estranged, omniscient tone seems more suggestive of an out-of-body experience. This tension struck me as a version of the poem’s contrasting of tangible items with memories, shadows, and ghosts. In a larger sense though, I took it to represent the active/passive binary inherent in the text as a whole — a binary which was at the forefront of our minds when we took the poem out into the community.
As already implied via my exhibit and its emphasis on mapping and navigation, our means of taking the poem out into the community was inspired by the poem's very specific relationship to place. In Hannah's exegesis, she refers to the group's decision to "keep the poem within its established environment", this environment being, once again, the blocks between Three Lamps and the University. Echoing an idea of my own, Hannah addresses the importance of staying true to the poem's sense of 'the local'; as a matter of necessity, however, the poem was taken beyond its 'locale' of the Three Lamps area, traveling with me on my route home to Parnell after the group itself parted ways. Eerily, just like the voice in Stanza Two's "hollow chamber", I soon found myself to be the only passenger in the bus' "hollow chamber", and I documented this with the Beach Road photo captioning my image with the relevant line from the poem as was consistent with the rest of my exhibit. To me, this "eerie" experience epitomised, more than any other aspect of our 'performance', the senses of interiority and introspectiveness that we, as a group, had tried to evoke for the community. It was a shame, I thought, that this experience could not possibly have been staged for an entire bus full of commuters. Nothing, however, could take my moment from me.
Phoebe Watt is about to start the final semester of her BA, having majored in English and minored in Writing Studies. Upon completion of her degree she wants to study English at postgraduate level, the plan being to begin a BA(Hons) in mid-2013. Currently she is working on a research project entitled 'Frank Sargeson: Portrait of a Reader,' which she became involved with via the University’s Summer Research Scholarship programme.
Phoebe writes: "In 2011 I took Ian Wedde’s stage two English paper ‘Writing Selves’, and it remains one of the most memorable courses I have taken at university. It was a privilege to work with his poem ‘Shadow Stands Up’ as part of Poetry Off the Page."