THE East Coast is the epicentre of a collaborative, global poetry project that will reach its zenith at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October. Wellington-based Hinemoana Baker is one of six poets — three from New Zealand and three from Germany — who descended on Gisborne and Tolaga Bay in June this year in search of inspiration for the unique literary experiment.
“Gisborne is going to be all over Europe,” says Baker. “We saw the best of all worlds there. We loved that the restored Tolaga Bay wharf was reopened at the same time as Venus made its way across the sun.
“At a community level, it was a warm experience. The locals owned the transit and were proud of it, and they really knew their history. They even took pride in the difficult parts.”
Baker says all six poets made lots of notes while they were here, and her own notes, memories, thoughts, feelings and shared ideas are percolating.
“If you ask me to write about something, I like to walk around it for a while and start with impressions. So my work around the transit will probably not be a straightforward narrative but more of a montage.”
New Zealand poet Bill Manhire said after their Transit of Venus experience, the six poets spent three days at the International Institute of Modern Letters in Wellington getting to know each other and their work.
“I hosted a presentation the poets gave at the Adam Gallery. It was a huge success — a big crowd. The poets read their work and also spoke about how powerful their experiences had been at Tolaga Bay.”
Baker says a Transit of Venus exhibition at the gallery featured an acoustic installation . . . in the elevator.
“You could ‘hear’ the surface of Venus. There was a deep, thudding sound like volcanic booms, and tinkling like dust hitting the side of the spacecraft. In a way we became part of the exhibition.
“The sounds we experienced with Tolaga Bay Area School children were very different. I’m a musician so sound is a big part of what I write. This is why my poems sometimes don’t open up at first reading.”
Each New Zealand poet has been paired with one of the German poets, says Manhire.
“They are keeping in touch with each other and producing new work from their experience of the transit.
“The subject matter isn’t prescribed. It may be historical — about early encounters between Europe and the Pacific — or it may be more generally about border crossings and cultural encounters. Or it may be about science, the environment — topics of the Gisborne transit of Venus forum.
“In late September the poets will meet again in Berlin at the Literaturwerkstatt, where there will be three days of intense translation as each poet translates their partner’s new work into their own language.”
The work will undergo a process initiated at Berliner Literaturwerkstatt (literature workshop) known as verschmuggel (verse-smuggling). This means each poet’s work is translated and interpreted through a different vernacular and world view.
The poets will be put into a room and will go through each other’s poems line-by-line, says Baker.
“My counterpart, Ullrike, kind of sings her speaking. It’s melodic and rhythmic. I’m interested in the sound of language too. It’s not just a matter of reading out a poem. How do you honour something created in silence? We’ll have a few days of intense reading and close translation. Sometimes the person who wrote the poem feels the translation process improves the poem.”
The results will be made available in public presentations and performances in Berlin and Hamburg, and at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
The work will also be published on German poetry website, Lyrikine.
This is the point of verschmuggel — to allow the works to reach readers all over the globe.