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Somewhere a cleaner

Although possessed of a fine turn of phrase, even in a brief phone conversation, Gisborne woman Anna Dolan’s attempts at writing poetry have not gone much further than little ditties.

Until now, that is.

Two poems Ms Dolan submitted to Landing Press have been included in the anthology, Somewhere a cleaner, a collection of poetry and prose written by 93 Kiwis who have worked as, or are still, cleaners.

As the title suggests, the focus of the collection is the voices of people who work in the essential but mostly overlooked service.

Ms Dolan was inspired to write her two contributions — The wonky cleaner, and Hazards — while listening to a Radio New Zealand item as she drove from Gisborne to Hawke’s Bay.

Radio host Jesse Mulligan called out for people who had been a cleaner, or had ever done cleaning, to submit poems for publication in the anthology.

“I thought ‘I could do that’ and a few ideas came into my head,” says Ms Dolan.

“When I got to my motel I drafted something up, finalised my ideas that night and edited what I had written over a few weeks.”

Although the born-again poet has “only played around with ditties”, she is a long-time reader of fiction and poetry. She cites American poet Sylvia Plath, New Zealand writer Janet Frame and English comic poet Pam Ayres as influences on her poetry writing voice.

Confessionalism, the movement Plath was part of during the late 1950s and early 60s, has been described as poetry of the personal, or “I”, and focuses on extreme moments of individual experience. The Confessional style can be seen in Dolan’s personal perspective but is tempered with wry humour reminscent of Ayres’ comic outlook.

“Dark stuff, funny stuff, Irish stuff with a bit of X thrown in there as well.”

Ms Dolan’s experience as a cleaner is largely the work she did for a friend, then a friend of the friend.

“When I did it I can’t say it was vocational,” she says.

“I’m the sort of person who picks up things and transfers them.”

Despite her non-vocational encounter with cleaning, Ms Dolan has nothing but respect for cleaners — the odd hours they work, the low pay, the often laborious nature of their work, and having to deal with some really thoughtless messes left behind by people.

The advent of Covid-19 brought about a new respect for people who worked in essential services such as front-line healthcare, supermarkets and in cleaning.

As poet and doctor Glenn Colquhoun writes, “Like the heart and lungs, cleaners do their work to some great rhythm and beat. When they do it well, they are invisible. The sun rises and the world is fresh and clean”.

This was the year of Covid-19, says the preface to Somewhere a cleaner.

“The year we started talking about essential services that we all depend on but usually think so little about. Including cleaning.

“So here at Landing Press we thought, let’s listen to the cleaners themselves. Let’s bring together some of the many and varied voices of cleaners across the country, in the way we know best — through poetry.”

The anthology’s editors had the foundation for an excellent collection, but felt it didn’t yet reflect the remarkable diversity of the cleaning population. To find, or create, poems with cleaners from diverse backgrounds, the editors visited railway stations, churches, cleaning companies, talked to neighbours, and ran small workshops.

“Poems and small stories came from conversations about long hours, low pay, the living wage, good managers, racist managers, manageable workloads, impossible workloads. We learned about how vulnerable many cleaners feel, and how risky it is for them to speak out. And how funny the job can be, too.”

Somewhere a cleaner is available in bookshops and online at Nationwide Book Distributors and Landing Press.

NEW BROOM: An avid reader, Anna Dolan explored her talent for writing poetry when she heard editors of a planned anthology dedicated to cleaners sought submissions. Picture by Paul Rickard