Flash Frontier editor Rachel Smith talks with Gail Ingram about navigating female roles, inspiration and identity in her new poetry collection.
Rachel Smith: Congratulations on the publication of your second book of poetry, Some Bird (Sudden Valley Press, 2023). Can you tell us about how this book came about – what was the first piece that became this collection, what were your intentions when you began writing and how did this change as you got deeper into the process?
Gail Ingram: I compiled this book after writing my first collection around 2018, so it’s hard to remember how it came about! Though it started with poems I’d already written and others I was writing at the time, a lot coming out of Joanna Preston’s poetry classes I was attending. Many were personal, as poems are wont to be; I was dealing with family stuff, the painful process of kids turning into adults and a marriage rediscovering itself as my husband and I examined what it was to be a couple again, and at some point I read Sady Doyle’s feminist book Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers, which gave me a way into organising the poems. Once I had ordered the poems into sections, I eliminated some poems and wrote new ones to flesh out the gaps. Thinking about poems as a collection for me is always its own kind of inspiration!
I began seeing the poems as little explorations into the ways I had navigated roles that Doyle had talked about in her book. She gave examples of how the classic female roles of virgin, whore, mother and the crone had played out in literature and continued to play out in the media to serve the patriarchy. How the victims of horror and crime-stories would typically be young beautiful blonde women. The way mothers, who dared to step out of their role of looking after children, would be demonised. I realised a good deal of my poems were trying to answer the question of how my life had played out around these roles, first living as an adopted daughter, as a girl growing up in the sexist seventies, as a young woman searching for a mate, then as a mother – a role I had wanted but nevertheless found difficult – and then as a middle-aged woman, and the invisibility that comes with female aging in a capitalist society that is in love with youth. Did I mention it took five years for Some Bird to find a publisher despite my working the last 15 years in the industry to improve my craft? There are other factors of course, but I believe part of the reason for this is because I was a middle-aged woman and therefore would be considered no longer relevant to the buying-public (despite the largest demographic of poetry book-buyers being middle-aged women). Luckily in 2022, Sudden Valley Press, boutique Canterbury publisher, came out of a ten-year hiatus and Some Bird was accepted for publication.
RS: Both your new book and your previous Contents Under Pressure (Pūkeko Publication, 2019) look at ideas of identity and feminism, although in quite different ways. In Some Bird, you have this powerful poem about identity ‘I am pākehā’ and your stunning opening piece ‘Me too’, which looks at the place of women. Can you tell us why and how these recurring themes make their way into your work, and more about these poems in particular?
GI: ‘Me too’ came out of one of Joanna Preston’s poetry exercises! It was a golden-shovel – a poem where you take a line from a poem and use each word in the line as the end word for each of your own lines. The line I used was ‘For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird’ from ‘Good Bones’ by American poet Maggie Smith. I learned that this poem is oft-quoted, from 2016 when it went viral after the nightclub shooting in Orlando to the world-wide women’s marches in 2018. It expresses a mother’s fear of bringing up children in a daunting world. The word ‘bird’ struck a chord. For me ‘Bird’ was less a metaphor for a child than a woman. It was an easy poem to write. I knew the subject matter because I lived it. I grew up with the boys in their noisy Holdens picking up ‘blonde birds’, elbows hanging out the window. The #MeToo movement had just started. I remember having a conversation with you, Rachel, shyly asking if you could use the hashtag MeToo? Yes. Me too. It seemed like a wonder so many women I knew had been sexually assaulted as I had. I had never talked about my experience since it had happened in my 20s – probably out of shame. One of my male friends scoffed at this movement a couple of years ago – how are women like you (white, middle-class) really affected? How is your life any worse off than mine as a man? The Me Too movement brought to the surface some of the questions I was grappling with in my poetry. ‘On the tube’ is the poem where I directly address the assault on me.
Other ways I address ‘how am I disadvantaged as a woman?’ are through poems about my adoption. I was brought up in a family ‘of strangers’ as Barbara Sumner puts it in her fabulous memoir Tree of Strangers (Massey Uni Press 2020) because my mother got pregnant ‘out of wedlock’. Given no choice, she was made to give her baby up, ‘never to be seen again’ – a hell of a punishment for anyone, and though that law seems archaic now, I was that baby, it is my life and that of 80,000 NZers in my generation. Although I was one of the rare cases that was brought up by a caring mum and dad, I didn’t understand how much of my identity came down to the genes I was born with until I met my natural family at age 22 and began to catch up on my family lines and have been catching up ever since. My first book Contents Under Pressure features a modern-day Lady Godiva graffiti artist on the cover. I am fascinated by her because apparently my ancestral bloodline goes back to her. But until recently, I hadn’t thought about the ancestors I’d potentially lost contact with by being adopted and how this leaves you disconnected from yourself, floating without a cord. This is one of the themes that comes out in ‘I am pākehā’.
‘I am pākehā’ is one of the most recent poems in the collection. Through the publication process early this year, I brought some new poems in. Though ostensibly the poem is a response to the ridiculous media attacks on Tusiata Avia’s so-called ‘racist’ poem ‘250th anniversary of James Cook’s arrival in New Zealand’, it is actually exploring duality, as a person of this land but not native to this land, as a member of two families but also none. What it means to live on this land with its violent colonial history at the same time as having a heart-claim to it and how to do that as a pākehā. What it means to be part of an adopted family not knowing your ancestors, and a birth family you didn’t grow up with, and how I try to navigate that through my love for the land and its people. This poem comes in the final section – the ‘crow’ (or ‘crone’) – because as we get older, we have more of a perspective on ourselves and our identity; we also ask questions of the wider world. It seems to be with the rise of te reo Māori and acknowledgements of our past, Aotearoa New Zealand too is coming of age, as well as experiencing the associated backlash, which unfortunately seems to be part of the painful process of growth and identity.
RS: The structure of Some Bird has sections titled with bird names, from shining cuckoo through to crow, each a progression of both the collection and your life, or the life of any woman. What were your ideas when finding the final form of the book? Did the imagery of birds lead you through this?
GI: Once I knew I wanted to arrange my poems around the roles that women have been shoved into throughout history, I struck on the idea of re-labelling these with bird names. I’ve always been fascinated by bird-people – from Bill Hammond’s paintings to the story of Hatupatu and the Birdwoman I read to my children. I had already written a poem about this fascination and it included a description of Kurangaituku and one of Alma, a painting on a tray of a European bird-woman that my natural mother had on her living room wall. I like their strangeness, their scariness, their beauty. And I’m a Kiwi (or maybe a shining cuckoo!) and like all good kiwis, we love our birds.
RS: Can you tell us about the wonderful cover art of Some Bird?
GI: The wonderful cover art is the work of my wonderful daughter Rata Ingram! Rata is self-taught but has always had an eye for design. She recently bought a drawing programme and had been coming up with all sorts of new styles of illustrating. It is her fourth book cover. She designed my last collection and two other anthologies I edited. Each one striking and unique, she has an eye for contemporary design. I wanted Some Bird to look different from Contents Under Pressure and we talked about some ideas. After a few goes, she came up with the idea of a kea-woman on a swing (her and my favourite bird). You can also find the shining cuckoo, a bat (another one of Rata’s favourite birds, wink), a dragonfly (a favourite friend of mine) and the NZ mountain daisies (wait till you see my next book!). I love that the head of the bird-woman at first glance may be just a woman with her head turned aside, her hair down her back, or maybe that she shares a resemblance to the Egyptian god Horus, god of the sky. Strange and beautiful, don’t you think?
A sampling from the book
after Joan Fleming
my son hugs me too close to his chest
swaggers when he walks away
the days react with my daughter’s skin
as if the lie of a billion trees would help
that I bear my children
like a weapon
and our neural pathways form
the hard cracked lines of mum and dad
the unbearable gap between us
when we spoon
not the endless blue in your eyes I come back to
in this poem
What is it about birdwomen?
The magpie head, a glossy cap,
the beak is a peak, a dead part of her,
the feathers hang in stalks
down her long white neck;
her left hand is cupped over the right
in the shape of the beak. A mosquito
with proboscis-beak has landed
on her peridot ring. She is French, both ancient
and young; her skin is smooth;
she wears a green velvet gown, holds
potential for pecking.
She might have the bones of moa
to set her hair up, and the wings of a kāhu;
she’s naked, except for the tattoo
decorating her buttocks, her calves.
She keeps a dwarf, imprisoned
in the cave of fantails and king-
fisher; Hatupatu taunts her, she flares up
in the steam of a geyser.
It might be the dreams of flying
that stalk my waking, and the claws,
the monstrous deeds she does with her mouth.
But how she drops hard-little seeds
into the palms of so many leafy hands
that we may understand the wind,
Gail Ingram is an award-winning writer from Ōtautahi, author of Some Bird (SVP 2023) and Contents Under Pressure (Pūkeko Publications 2019). Winner of both Caselberg and NZPS International Poetry Competitions, her work has appeared across Aotearoa and in Australia, Africa, UK and USA. She is a creative writing teacher and editor for a fine line and Flash Frontier. https://www.theseventhletter.nz/