Eager to Break by Eliana Gray, Girls on Key Press 2019 was launched by Emma Neale at the Olga Gallery, Dunedin, on 22 August 2019
Tena kotou katoa – ko Emma Neale toku ingoa
… the publisher, Girls on Key Press, and Eli, have asked me to give the official launch speech tonight. It’s a joy and a privilege to be the one to smash the metaphorical bottle of champagne over the sailing ship Eager to Break. I’m definitely eager to break open the real thing myself. I was lucky enough to see early proofs, but there’s nothing like this moment, when you finally get to hold the shiny, smooth, freshly-pressed physical object.
Some of you might be wondering why I was asked to launch the book. Basically I’d say it’s because Eli and I share a poetry addiction. I first met Eliana when she enrolled in a creative writing course I was convening at the University of Otago. It was one of those astonishing years, where the number of talented writers and strong, unforgettable personalities seemed like a freak storm of talent. Yet Eli still stood out for her enthusiasm and productivity. Every week she produced fresh, new, emotionally rich and ‘elastic’ work; sometimes elliptical, yet compellingly so. Her work on relationship dynamics in particular had a striking sense of maturity for a young writer; it was poetry that was often laced with a seeping, frosty unease at how often we misunderstand each other, even at our most intimate.
With many students, writing even one poem a week is challenging, for all kinds of valid personal and artistic reasons. Eli, in contrast, often brought in several new pieces to our sessions, and sent more to our Facebook group between classes. I couldn’t keep up! She approached every aspect of the creative writing paper with enough vitality and grit to compensate for maybe five students of meh commitment.
One of the most rewarding things as a poetry tutor is to see students both blossom in confidence under your feedback, and yet also carry on in absolutely their own way and with their own sense of what a poem can and should be. Eli was one of those writers. It’s been wonderful to see the determination and focus that has led to this first collection.
I want to use an incident from an unexpected encounter I had once to illustrate what I think these poems are, and do.
One sunny day, a couple of years ago now, I was hurrying on foot to an appointment, running downhill, with my head feeling like a basket of steaming noodles. All the you have-tos, you shoulds, you musts, get goings, get on with it, get it done, and so on were tangling their heads and tails together. I could feel a stress line in my forehead deepening, like someone was already putting the shovel for my grave in my head. Worry, worry, worry – and I suddenly saw a car that had pulled hard over to the side of the road, straddling the curb, its hazard lights on, its passenger door swung open to the footpath – and a young person on the ground, body hunched, head bowed.
My train of thought went something like — shit! Accident! Injury! Vulnerable victim! Call the ambulance, call the cops, call the AA, run home, get blankets, bandages, Savlon! As I came hurtling up, the young person lifted their head, totally unconcerned. In memory they were sitting on a picnic rug – which might just be a happy embellishment – but I do remember their ankles were neatly crossed, feet in Docs doing a bobbing little dance, and as I looked into their face, they said, ‘Hey Em, how ya doing?’ And it was Eli. When I babbled at her, asking was she okay, did she need help, she said, ‘Oh I’m totally fine!’ explaining that someone — her brother, I think — was on their way to help her out with the rebellious car. Of course I asked again if she was sure, and she grinned, said absolutely! and gave the book on her lap a little lift, as if to say, “I’ve got everything I need.” So eventually I went away, thinking — wow. Eli is — extraordinary! So cool, so collected!
I know that this was just a minute sliver of Eli’s life, a tiny rosy bead of time — but that image I have of her, making the best of a frustrating situation — finding the sunshine and a place of contemplation in the midst of apparent chaos and breakdown — taking the less-than-perfect experiences and finding the illumination, making something contained out of them — seems like the perfect metaphor for her poetry. It reminds me too of my favourite quotation from Katherine Mansfield’s Collected Letters, which I’ve had pinned to my study wall for decades now. It dates from almost exactly 100 years ago – it was written in October 1919 – and it reads –
Hanging in our little cages on the awful wall over the gulf of eternity we must sing – sing.
Eli does that. She sees the cliff edge – and she lifts her voice. As I’ve said on the back cover blurb, these are deliberately raw poems that show a young writer testing that voice, pushing the work to confront tough subjects, including anxiety and extreme challenges to mental health. They’re also very honest about the simultaneous urges for independence and yet intimacy. They deal with internalized traumas, and sharply capture the particular vulnerability of our first years of adult self-reliance.
To expand on that blurb a bit: their honesty is courageous; the language is clear, frank, sometimes confronting – the poems are open, both in terms of what subjects they choose to address, and open in the sense of refusing to play obscure linguistic or intellectual games with the reader – though there are often also funny, quirky swerves into unanticip
ated subjects, which remind me of the rapid-fire conversations you can have with one of those lively minds you realize just works at a faster rate then your own.
There is much more I want to say, and could say, but part of the brief from Eli is that all of the speakers tonight read some of their own work – which I think is yet another mark of her openness. I did think of reading one of Eli’s own poems too, but I’d rather hear them in her voice, not mine. So my sign-off is a poem that I once workshopped with another group of students, and I’ve chosen it partly because I wanted something festive to mark tonight. The poem’s title is ‘Teen Genie’.
Against the solemn tiers of male choristers
dressed in waiters’ black and white,
red binders of their song sheets held aloft
so the scene serves a formal music for the eye,
one tall, sweet, lanky teen calmly queens it
on to stage; perches at the glittery drum kit;
invited to give these good old boys a rock beat
for their concert’s one ‘edgy’ modern piece.
His pale-blue denim jacket, skinny jeans, DM boots,
lip gloss, mascara, the dark blond, afro-dahlia of his hair
stir squawks and eddies of disturbance in the audience
as if a toddler mock airbombs a flock of drowsy pigeons.
Yet his long spine still straightens for the count;
he hits the rhythm’s clip, smooth and tight—
so at the song’s end, after storms of applause,
whooped delight, and above the widening pool of quiet
even the thin, sky-pitched whistles
conjured from someone’s failing hearing-aids
seem like the cries of tiny, pink-throated larks
First published in Geometry.
From To the Occupant (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2019)
– Emma Neale
Author of six novels and five collections of poetry, Emma Neale currently edits Landfall. Her new collection, To the Occupant, appeared from Otago University Press this year. Her most recent novel, Billy Bird (2016) was short-listed in the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards and long-listed for the International Dublin Literary Award 2018.
Eager to Break is available from https://www.girlsonkey.com/poetryportalshop/Eager-to-Break-Eliana-Gray-p127089532
Eliana can be found on the internet @foxfoxxfox
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