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'Maybe I'll Become Your Favourite Poet': Launching 'People Person' by Joanna Cho

This week we launched Joanna Cho's wonderful first poetry collection, People Person, at Unity Books Wellington. We launched alongside the jointly authored poetry collection Crude Common Denominator Pleb Trash Baseline Urge Ass Poetry: Confessions from the Sick Bay by Max and Olive from 5everbooks. Thanks to everyone who came along for this event, it was awesome.

Olly Clifton, a fiction writer and Jo's classmate from the 2020 MA workshop at the IIML, launched People Person for us and had this to say about it...

Olly Clifton in full flight at Unity Books Wellington

Kia ora tātou,

If you don’t know me, I am the vastly famous author Olly Clifton.

You might know me from…

OK, so even though I am a vastly successful author, you might be wondering why I have been asked to launch this book.

Good question. It’s one I’ve been asking myself.

Despite having written and read lots of it, I don’t actually know much about poetry at all. In fact I received a B minus in Harry Ricketts' modern poetry class in 2017.

Yet here I am, at the focal point of NZ poetry, Unity Books Wellington. You might say, the joke's on you, Mr Ricketts.

Although I only understand poetry at a B-minus level, one thing I do know quite a lot about is poets. Particularly of the Wellington variety. I’ve lived with some, partied with some, and even made enemies of a couple. (You know who you are.)

But let me tell you, good people of Unity Books, Joanna Cho is my favourite of them all.

And there’s even a poet laureate in the room. Incidentally, number two on my list. You’re welcome Chris.

So rather than talking about poetry at a B-minus level, I figured I’d do better talking about Joanna as a person. I’ll tell a couple stories about the period of time I lived with Jo, when we were both doing our MAs and a lot of People Person was written.

So this speech can serve as a sort of making-of documentary bonus feature disc to Joanna’s book, and me the Costa Botes to Jo’s Peter Jackson.

The reason I'm so sure Joanna is my favourite poet is because she told me this was the case. I remember one Thursday afternoon, walking down Riddiford Street. We were on our way to a poetry launch. (Much less interesting than this one.)

And I said, ‘You know Joanna, I just don’t really get it.’

To which she replied, ‘What?’

‘Poetry,’ I said.

‘Hmmm,’ said Joanna, in a way that implied I was wasting her time. Which I was. And then she said, ‘Maybe you just haven’t found a poet you like yet.’

And I said, ‘Joanna, I’ve read Siegfried Sassoon, I’ve read T.S. Eliot, I’ve read Yeats, I’ve read Keats I’ve even read that Hera Lindsay Bird poem about Yeats and Keats. But I didn’t understand it at all!’

And Joanna said, ‘Well, maybe I’ll become your favourite poet.’ And she was right.

Something about Joanna’s poetry ticks all the boxes, for me at least. I’ve always found the writing I enjoy the most tends to communicate the greatest amount of emotional information in the clearest possible way.

And from conversations in the lounge I know this is also part of Joanna’s writing philosophy. But you don’t have to know her to feel the egalitarian nature of her writing. The first one I read must have been 'Dig Deep!', which appears in this book. A piece that feels so much a part of the world I live in. There’s State Highway 1 existentialism, protein shake masculinity, basketball banter and an ex-boyfriend who would literally show up on my porch just a few months later.

Not in a weird way of course.

He was helping Joanna move. Out of their shared room. So maybe it was a bit weird. But that’s neither here nor there.

Incidentally, I remember another related conversation, in which Joanna said, ‘I don’t understand why people try so hard to avoid their ex-partners.’

As a serial avoider, I could not relate at all.

But I think this highlights another wonderful thing about this collection, and Joanna. Jo might pretend she’s shy and all that – and maybe she is on a superficial level – but I don’t think she’s afraid of people in the slightest.

Every interaction seems precious to Jo. Even the most painful ones. Every shared experience, moment of silence, every person seems worthy of her complete attention.

There’s an urgent humanity about this writing that I think the cover captures perfectly. A sense that the most profound moments might occur between the bites of a poolside sausage.

I feel very lucky to have come within Joanna’s orbit. As did everyone in the 2020 MA. The IIML is a lot more like American Idol or the X-Factor than you might realise, and it was no surprise to me that Joanna took on the role of an Adam Lambert or Chris Rene – the people’s champion.

There’s also a lot of heady stuff in this collection that continues to elude me. But never in an annoying way. Pieces like 'The Magic Sock' are infinitely re-readable. Even though I don’t understand entirely what it’s about, the moment when the sock speaks back hits me somewhere deep. And it makes me laugh, every time.

I think this humanity and headiness comes together best in the parts about Joanna’s family. I know Joanna’s taken the utmost care with this content, and I don’t want to cheapen her work by trying to capture it in a few sentences. So maybe it will suffice to say, if there were an ending scene to this making-of documentary it would be the day Joanna found out her book was coming out.

She was in tears in our lounge, and I remember the first thing she said, so stoked, was, ‘My mum’s pictures are gonna be published.’

So that’s pretty much me, thanks Te Herenga Waka University Press for putting it out – an excellent decision. And congratulations Joanna, you rock.

Joanna Cho reading from People Person