Before I say anything else, I loved the cover of this new poetry collection by well-known music journalist – and performer, and blogger, and poet – Simon Sweetman. The cover of The Death of Music Journalism is both highly informative and ever-so-slightly surreal, which really appeals to me.
I’m not sure whether he’d take this a compliment, but I think of Simon Sweetman as an old-school music journalist, the kind who could conceivably have stepped out of the pages of Rolling Stone magazine, a local and latter-day Robert Christgau or Lester Bangs. I think of him writing passionately in favour of bands and albums I like (Bowie!), and equally passionately against other bands and albums I like.
So I had a little trepidation prior to opening this volume – oh my god is he going to have another go at St Vincent?, but my fears were quickly laid to rest. These poems are still passionate about music and life, but they’re also reflective, funny, discursive, and really, really well written. They’re about Simon’s relationship with music – favourite songs, favourite bands, favourite musicians – but also how music has reflected and influenced his relationship with his family, as in “Father and Son”, which isn’t just, or even mainly, about the Cat Stevens song.
You don’t have to know your paradiddles from your palm muting to enjoy this book. Music is the kicking-off point for many of these poems, but they’re mostly about people. If you know who Steve Gadd is or have an opinion about Mark Knopfler’s guitar solos, then that might add a little frisson to your response, but such knowledge is far from essential. The Death of Music Journalism is a sprawling, generous, entertaining and moving collection of poems, and I recommend it.
I’ve heard Richard Langston read a number of times over the years, and always enjoyed his work, but at the Southern Writers at Te Awe Brandon Library event in October 2020 I was particularly struck by how much I enjoyed the poems from his new collection Five O’Clock Shadows, published by The Cuba Press. So I was keen to read them as well as hear them – and Five O’Clock Shadows, Richard’s sixth collection, doesn’t disappoint.
Richard enjoys a lot of stuff I also enjoy: Dunedin, Wellington, cricket, music. A collection that includes a poem about Brendon McCullum’s 302 vs India at the Basin Reserve, and a poem about how marvellous Dunedin is, has already gone a long way towards securing my loyalty. But it’s some of the poems I’m not pre-wired to enjoy that most stand out for me here – such as “Bsharri, Lebanon” and “Sons”. This is a fine, humanistic collection.
(For the avoidance of doubt: I do not in any way identify with the subject matter of the poem “Snoring”. Not at all.)
I’ve been catching up with my reading over the holidays – here are two new books worth your attention, both published by The Cuba Press.
Upturned is a new poetry collection by one of my favourite poets. I Wish, I Wish is the second volume in the Cuba Press Novella series – my climate fiction novella Where We Land was the first in this series.
Upturned by Kay McKenzie Cooke.
Kay McKenzie Cooke is one of my favourite poets. Her poetry connects with me on both levels that really matter to me: emotion and language. For me, there’s an extra level of connection in that Kay was born in Murihiku / Southland, where I grew up, and some of her poems feature places I know well and times I’ve experienced.
But even if you have no connection with Southland – or for that matter Berlin, where a section of this collection is set – these poems are likely to speak to anyone who enjoys beautiful, resonant writing that is strongly connected with land, people and memory.
These poems are both highly skilled and very welcoming – this is poetry that invites you in rather than fences you out. So even if you don’t usually read poetry, give Upturned a try. You won’t regret it.
I Wish, I Wish by Zirk Van Den Berg
As the title signifies, I Wish, I Wish is a fairy tale – but it’s a very down-to-earth one. Mortician Seb’s monotonous life is abruptly upturned after he meets a dying young boy called Gabe. At the start of the novella, Seb is thoroughly stuck in an unsatisfying life that’s going nowhere, and by the end … well, read it and find out.
This novella works because Zirk Van Den Berg steers away from sentiment while communicating the protagonist’s emotions effectively. This is a very well-written book, with neat touches of humour that offset what could otherwise be too moralistic a narrative. I wasn’t sure I wanted to start 2021 by reading another story about death, but before long I was caught up in this novella, and I think you will be too.