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Q&A with Rata Gordon

This month we were happy to publish Second Person, the debut poetry collection by Rata Gordon. Rata answered some questions about the collection and the writing process.

There is a noticeable amount of flora and fauna references and images in this collection; gorse and moss and ferns and swan plants and kauri trees. What is the significance of this imagery?

The land, the trees, the birds and insects of Aotearoa are so deeply imprinted on my psyche, I don’t think I could stop that stuff coming out onto the page if I tried. I’ve had access to lots of green spaces in my life and I consider that a huge privilege, and also a necessity for feeling well. I can be having a crappy day, and head into the bush for a walk: I’ll be grinning from ear to ear within minutes.

I feel like us humans get so easily caught up in our own heads and forget that other life forms even exist. That makes us depressed, and makes us create destructive and self-destructive systems. I think there is so much to be gained from connecting with the natural world, and I don’t just mean learning about it on the internet. I mean physically putting your feet on the ground and listening. That has been a really important part of my life and work. I actually think it’s kind of urgent that we, as a species, practice paying attention in that way.

The title of your collection ‘Second Person’ seems to have been lifted from the poem ‘Mango’ where the narrator, who seems relatively upset and borderline existential lol, sets out to buy a mango in Dehli. Can you unpack this poem for us and why the title the collection, Second Person?

I had been working with a different title ‘Thumb and Tongue’ for quite a while, but it occurred to me at some point that it sounded like a hipster sex club or slaughterhouse. I couldn’t shake those associations. Ashleigh Young (who edited the book) suggested a few alternatives and ‘Second Person’ was among them. I liked that it opened out into multiple meanings and associations. For me, it brings to mind the narrative perspective of second person, also the way that we can become another person when we travel. There is also the association of the ‘second person’ of the lover, and the child. There is also an echo of ‘second people’ in relation to ‘first people’. And I enjoyed the process of handing the poems over to a second person to be edited.

I wrote ‘Mango’ about a time when I had been travelling in India for close to a year. I felt like I had done a lot of shedding of my past identifications which had felt really good. But then I found myself in this free-floating disoriented space. I was asking, Who is the new person I’m becoming? Where do I belong and what do I care about? I didn’t really have any answers. Wanting a mango was about as far I could get in terms of creating a sense of forward momentum at that time.

What is the significance of ‘The Pregnant Pioneer’ who opens the collection, and returns towards the end of the collection?

For me, she’s an ancestral figure of sorts. Some of my ancestors arrived in Aotearoa in the late 1800s from Britain, and ‘The Pregnant Pioneer’ is of that era. She emerged from time I spent sitting with some of the impacts my ancestors had on a newly-colonised Aotearoa. I don’t feel like I’m finished with her, to be honest. We have plenty more to chat about.

What poem was the most difficult in the collection to write? And which poem are you proudest of?

None of them were that hard to write, once I actually sat down. Some of them came out of a more vulnerable emotional state, I guess, like ‘Until’ and ‘Into the Midst’. My partner tells me I often seem infuriated by the editing process. I think editing is hardest at the beginning when I’m trying to do it on my own. I really appreciate input from others.

‘Hair’ was the first poem that I wrote in this collection and it was the first poem I ever got published. I remember how satisfying it was to write. I sat down with someone I was close to and we did some timed writing exercises together, which wasn’t something I had done before. I had been journaling and doing ‘morning pages’ for years and my writing would often just go around in circles. I didn’t really share any of it.

I found that when I sat down with someone I trusted, with the intention of immediately reading aloud what we had both written, my writing had so much more energy in it. These days, most of my poems begin their lives in the company of someone else, and they come out pretty easily.-

I have been leading writing groups for a few years now because I love giving the experience to other people of writing freely while being warmly witnessed. Over lockdown I ran a series of online writing and movement sessions called ‘Writing from the Body’, which was my first time doing that online.

I have found it frequently jaw-dropping what comes out for people when they write in those conditions. Not everyone always feels comfortable sharing straight away, but I feel like something magical happens when, as a group, you commit to listening to whatever shows up on the page for each person: whether it’s strange, raw, boring, hilarious, whatever. The sense of intimacy that gets built is inspiring. We are writing to get to know ourselves and each other ‘beyond our polished selves’ as one of my teachers Lori Saltzman says. I love that.

What books were you reading while you were writing this collection?

This collection grew over several years, so a lot of reading happened in that time! If I listen back for the writers who were really ringing in my ears, I think of Ruth Ozeki, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, Kiran Desai, Sharon Olds, Kei Miller, Annelyse Gelman, Mary Renault, Mary Oliver, Angela Carter, NoViolet Bulawayo. Johann Hari’s Lost Connections made an impression.

I loved finding Anna Livesey’s Ordinary Time soon after I gave birth. I also read Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts around that time, and Jess Arndt’s Large Animals. I was in hospital with pre-eclampsia for a while before I gave birth and I took a stack of Tove Jansson books with me. I never read them as a kid, but I have become quite obsessed, especially with Tales from Moominvalley which is where the epigraph in Second Person came from. I was stoked when I found out that my child was born on Tove Jansson’s birthday.

I’ve been doing my Masters in Arts Therapy for the past three and a half years, so a lot of what I have been reading has been about expressive arts therapy, arts-based research and autoethnography.

Also, this is your debut collection! Congratulations e hoa! How are you feeling?

I feel relieved because it has felt like a very long labour. It also feels like quite a strange time to release a book. There is some really important stuff calling our attention in the world right now: racial inequality, gender inequality, climate change, the pandemic. I’m out of breath before I even get out of bed in the morning, and part of me has been asking what’s the point of poetry right now? Does my poetry really matter?

One answer that I come to is that reading and writing poetry has been such a refuge for me in my life. It’s such an important way that I digest and metabolise the world. Sitting down, especially with other people, and writing weird words on paper makes me feel good. It’s exciting to be able to send little pieces of evidence of that out into the world through this book.

Second Person, p/b, $25