An Interview With Kerry Popplewell

Kerry Popplewell has lived in Ngaio, Wellington, with her husband Bruce for many years in a house that looks over to the hills running south from Mount Kaukau; it gets all of the sun and most of the wind. They have two adult children and more grandchildren than they ever anticipated, though the only other permanent residents aat the moment are a large black Labrador called Louis and a Burmese cat called Bailey – both ‘hand-me-ups’ from one of their children. (Their home has always had cat(s) or dog(s) or some combination of both.)

Born near the end of 1940, Kerry spent the war years with her mother at her grandmother’s home in Pahiatua. When her father returned from the Pacific theatre, the family moved to Napier where she grew up. She still feels a real connection with Hawke’s Bay, especially with the Kaweka and Ruahine ranges where she and her husband have often tramped. Both her parents were teachers, her father Jim Reidy being the first principal of Colenso High School. She thinks teaching must be a form of hereditary insanity since, having gained an MA in English at VUW and studied at the University of Chicago, she returned to lecture in English for nearly ten years before resigning to care for her children; and, once they started school, she taught Mathematics as well as English at Onslow College for fifteen years.

In 1995 she took a year’s leave without pay, travelled overseas for some months and decided to retire early. It was then she started to write poems: “I’d always meant to be a poet but it took me a while to realise that to be one you had to complete poems!” Several courses she took at the International Institute of Modern Letters helped her start to do so.

Leaving The Tableland was launched in May 2010. I think that was the best-attended book launch I’ve been to – there must have been over 100 people there. For those who were not present, what led you to choose that particular venue, and what made it such a success?

I thought that if I were to have a launch, I’d like it to be a party for friends as well – and, as many of those we know well are trampers, the choice of the Tararua Tramping Club hall seemed fitting. One of my friends suggested it, possibly in jest, and I thought ‘Why not?’ It felt good being in a familiar place, even if the absence of an oven meant we had to buy a small portable one for $8 on Trade Me to heat the pastries! Roger Steele, my publisher, said he’d never had a launch in a tramping club hall before but he got keen on the idea and insisted we heat cheerios in a billy over a primus.

Do your work on your poetry in your head as you walk, or are the two – writing poetry and tramping – quite separate activities?

Mostly separate, though I do remember composing a haiku climbing up a ridge above Gollan’s Valley. Odd phrases, rhythms or ideas may come to me tramping but as for a poem, I need – literally – to have a pen in hand. But of course the places I tramp in and the experiences I have in the mountains provide material for my poems – as do all the other facets of my life, be it family, friends or faith.

If it isn’t an indelicate question, when did you first think of putting a collection of your poetry together?

Hmm. The really indelicate question would be asking why it took me so long to do so! Right from around 1996 when I started not just to write but also to submit poems for publication I thought I’d get round to collecting them sometime.

Was the path from initial idea to published collection straightforward?

No, but mostly because of my advanced skills in procrastination. Then, in 2006, a friend suggested I apply for one of the Manuscript Assessment Awards the New Zealand Society of Authors offer each year. I was fortunate enough to be given one and even more fortunate in getting James Norcliffe as my assessor. After all the detailed advice he gave me, I felt I really had to get moving. Even so, it was probably a year after Roger Steele agreed to take on my book that the collection came out – I needed to do a good deal more work on it myself.

You taught for many years. Was teaching something that helped or hindered your poetry – or is that too simplistic a question?

In my case, I think ‘hindered’ as teaching, no matter the subject matter or level, will absorb every bit of time and creative energy you are prepared to give it. But then teaching was something I truly enjoyed, so I’m not consumed with regret for all those unwritten poems! Other poets are able to combine writing and teaching very successfully.

Did a particular person inspire you to start writing poetry?

I think the poets I read did that – but certainly Helen Hill, the teacher to whose memory my collection is dedicated, encouraged my own efforts. I must have been a trial to her in some ways, pestering her to read the whole of Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” and “Lycidas” to our fourth form (Year 10) English class. Later I appreciated her reluctance! Helen Hill was also responsible for introducing me to tramping so she certainly had a big influence on my life.

Which poets do you feel have had the most influence on your own work?

Keats truly floored me when I was 14 – not only was I going to be a poet, I was sure I too would die at 25. A year or so later, it was Hopkins who had me giddy on words and rhythm. Then, in my MA year, Joan Stevens introduced us to Philip Larkin and if I had to single out one poet whose work has almost surely influenced mine, it would be him; but then, behind Larkin as it were, is Wordsworth whose attraction for me grew slowly but surely. On the other hand, the poet on whose work I intended to do my doctoral dissertation (something I never quite got round to!) was the Orkney poet, Edwin Muir. Of course there are all the other poets whom I have at one time or another ‘discovered’ – Edward Thomas, Dickinson, Auden, Herbert – not to mention New Zealand poets from Bethell to Bill Manhire. I’d find it hard to say though whether or not they’ve influenced my own work in a particular way.

Has having a book published changed how you feel about the role of poetry in your life?

Not really. Though I’d like to think I might become more disciplined in setting aside time to write and more diligent in sending work off for publication. I remember Elizabeth Smither at a workshop some years ago advising us to ‘Send Something Somewhere’ every month – I wish I did.

Now that Leaving The Tableland has been published, do you have another collection, or some other writing project, under way?

Well, I’m probably at least a third of the way towards having enough poems for a second collection – very few of the poems in Leaving the Tableland were written after 2005 and they’ve slowly been accumulating since then. Also, because I left it so long to get out a book, there were a number of other poems I’d like to have included but couldn’t. I recall Roger Steele saying that a volume the size I’d had in mind was “a little immodest for a first collection”. I’m sure he was right. (He was kind enough to suggest I could save some of them for next time!)

Book Availability

Kerry’s collection Leaving the Tableland is published by Steele Roberts (2010) and available from the publisher or in selected bookshops for $19.99 (RRP).

A poem from Leaving the Tableland, Take me back to the Bay, was my Tuesday Poem this week.

3 thoughts on “An Interview With Kerry Popplewell

  1. A wonderful interview with a fascinating person – whom I was lucky enough to meet a couple of weeks back. It's so good to see behind the first volume of poetry … where it came from and the influences. Thank you Tim – you give so much to NZ writers with your series of interviews.

  2. Thanks, Mary and Harvey!I do enjoy doing these interviews, although I find that of all the things I do on my blog, they take the most time to organise – which means that a frequency of about one per month works well for me.

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