Three poets, three bikes, and one noisy bird. Liz Breslin revisits Rail:lines, a pedal-powered poetry tour of the Otago Central Rail Trail.
MOST PEOPLE DON’T LIKE MOST POEMS BECAUSE MOST POEMS DON’T LIKE MOST PEOPLE. THOUGH THIS IS AN APPROXIMATION OF SOMETHING POET ADRIAN MITCHELL ONCE SAID, APPROXIMATELY 50 YEARS AGO AND 19,000 KILOMETRES AWAY, WE TOOK IT ON TOUR WITH US ANYWAY, THE DESIRE TO BRING THE POEMS THAT LIKE THE PEOPLE TO THE PEOPLE WHO MAY NOT KNOW YET THEY LIKE THE POEMS.
We are Liz Breslin, Annabel Wilson and Laura Williamson, and the tour was called Rail:lines: A spoke’n’word tour of the Otago Central Rail Trail. It took us to five old halls along the Otago Central Rail Trail – in Clyde, in Ophir, in Oturehua, in
Ranfurly and in Middlemarch. And there we performed our poems each night, along with local guest poets and, in Ophir’s case, a friendly rodent or winged beast in the walls.
Other things we took on tour included an amp, a microphone, a film crew (appropriately called The Film Crew), a roadie with an excellent recipe for herb mayonnaise, a spinning bike wheel filled with poems and, last but definitely not least, a lychee-sized secret.
Since this was quite a bit to carry and since we wanted to travel emissions-free, e-bikes were the obvious solution, with panniers, and those wheeled carriers some people think are for small children, but are perfect for technical equipment too. Fletch and Lisa of Clyde’s Bike It Now! provided these for us, once they’d Googled us to check out we were legit. “I knew Laura, of course,” said Fletch, “but nothing about the other two of you. For us, the sustainability side was the key. It wasn’t just the poetry message. And no, I’d never heard of anything like it down the trail, Mel Parsons maybe? But nobody else I don’t think.”
Shane Norton, who hosts an Arts Hour on Radio Central every Saturday morning at 9am, corroborates our first-in-the-field status. We spoke with Shane the morning after our first show in Clyde. Later that evening in Ophir (which we made with half an hour to spare thanks to a wrong turn and a loose nut), we met him face to face when he not only came to the show, but wrote us an impromptu poem to celebrate the tour and commemorate the creature in the walls. (We’ve recreated this here as faithfully as we can. Between us, though, we can’t quite make out one or two words from the scribbled sheet, and this is a lesson to poets everywhere about note-taking on the road.)
Noisy starling in the wall
The wall of the hall
Imagine the gall
When it goes quiet
A flapping riot
Wish it would take flight
This morning I talked to three poets
& wouldn’t you know it
We decided to go to it
A flapping starling
Not a darling
In fact rather gnarly
Shane, it turns out, learned his craft from some of the best. When we got chatting, he casually revealed that he’d been schooled in the art of writing by none other than legendary New Zealand songwriter Graham Brazier. He stalked Graham at his mum’s bookshop.
“I’d read that Graham was domiciled there and looking after the place because she was poorly. Hello Sailor, The Legionnaires and The Pink Flamingos had been a big
part of my growing up on the North Shore of Auckland, so rather cheekily I went to the bookstore when I was up there staying with a friend, and had a chat to Graham.I’d recently written what I’d hoped would be a song, about my time at school and relationship with one person in particular. It turned out to be a really long poem, which I showed to Graham. We sat in the alleyway next to the bookshop making this poem into lyrics for a song.”
From one legend to more. “So wonderful to have other poets come to our hall,” says Oturehua poet Jillian Sullivan, before reading us the poem about the knitting, or was it the rhubarb, “and organising it for us.” Frankly, it was a pleasure and a dream for the three of us to perform there with Jillian and her partner, former Poet Laureate Brian Turner. To us they are a kind of poetry royalty and nice it was to feature alongside them, as well as with emerging poets at each of the halls.
As well as wraps made with her own home-made mayonnaise, our roadie Prue brought a strong appreciation for the built histories of the trail. “I have travelled the route through the Maniototo so many times, the wide skies, the countryside in all its seasons. I remember travelling on the railcar to Ranfurly from Dunedin when family was small! I’ve loved meeting the folk along the way, like the custodians of the halls. The stories they could tell of the history, the restorations.” Our roadie with the mostess didn’t know for sure about the lychee-sized secret that Annabel was carrying on tour, though she suspected. Prue helped us eat, and move, and see.
Ranfurly, or Furl, where some of the audience came out in Art Deco clothes to welcome us, was a show that showed, or should we say unfurled, more people with more poetry stories. Ida Jopp shared ‘The Rabbit’, a poem she’d written out in her notebook when she was a trainee teacher in the 1940s. “I can’t remember just when,” she says, “but my father, I think, had it in an agricultural magazine.” (Google let us know that it’s by an American writer called Georgia Roberts Durton, who wrote articles about deer hunting and fly fishing, as well as poems about rabbits, which makes her an ideal inclusion in this magazine.) Ida’s notebook also contained a very relatable (to me at least) ditty about how Elizabeth Ann likes sympathy and breakfast in bed when she’s sick.
“And why a haiku? Because it’s short”
Emily Menzies, our second guest poet in Ranfurly, was conveniently already on tour with us as the sound operator for The Film Crew. She had caught the poem bug. To be fair, we said, at least seven hundred times a day, “there’s a poem in that”. And then there was. In the Ranfurly Art Deco Gallery among the historic regalia, Emily shared a haiku she’d written about, well, Strava, which was as popular in Ranvegas as it is bound to be with the adventure crowd.
Download Strava now.
If you don’t record your run
then did it happen?
Emily gives me credit for the emergence of her poem. “You kept saying anyone can write a poem, and we’d been talking about Strava so I was like, OK, a Strava poem. Let’s do this.” And why a haiku? “Because it’s short.”
“I had preconceptions”, says Emily, “of poetry itself. Listening to you kind of changed that concept. I think it’s a combination of having it spoken out loud by a person, especially the person who’s written it, and the style. Previously I would have likened poetry more to like a painting, whereas after hearing what you guys write, it’s more like, not a mini novel, but telling a story.”
Being a sound operator, Emily is used to listening closely, attuned to timbre and time, and she also talked about what she called our “vocal autographs”, the noticeable and specific ways in which we speak.
“Annabel’s is the easiest to characterise”, says Emily, “and I would say lilting, she has a very floaty, lyrical way of speaking. Laura. Oh, how would I describe Laura? I was going to say angelic, and then I went absolutely not. Liz I would describe as animated. Like, vocally animated, because you can be physically animated and vocally animated. Descriptive. And Laura. Laura is confident. I’m trying to think of the right word. Not precise, not direct. Honest and open. Solid. That’s the word I’m looking for. What she says. That’s what goes. Laura says something, and I believe it.”
“ her poem … also references the Canadian Prime Minister’s forearms”
By Middlemarch we were in our stride. Rushi Vyas, a poet studying poetry, made the trip from Ōtepoti to watch our final show and found that our “collaborative style and intimate knowledge of one another’s work centres the connective aspect of poetic practice. As ‘weird’ as poetry can get, ultimately, the work is about speaking to each other in ways that ordinary conversation often wards off.”
I mean, gosh we hope they did. Our whole hope, for the decade since we’ve been doing poems together, on the road and off, is to have them be part of a conversation. This tour was that and more. As Laura says, solidly (in her poem that also references the Canadian Prime Minister’s forearms), “These are the high points.”
Distance lends itself well to poetry. It’s been six months since we took the tour. Much has moved on. Annabel’s lychee grew into an apricot, a grapefruit and then into Leo Matthew Robert Wilson Dykes. Laura’s been on at least a million other bike trips, though none with amp and mic, and I got the girl. The film of the the Rail:lines tour has been shown in a festival in Canada, and, before lockdown locked us down again, was programmed to have its Aotearoa premiere at the WORD Christchurch Festival in August 2021. We’re hoping to take it, one day, back down the trail. Because we think most people liked most poems they heard along the way.
WORDS: LIZ BRESLIN
PHOTOS (EXCEPT WHERE NOTED): LAURA WILLIAMSON