Ockham Winner 2020: How to Live by Helen Rickerby
Below is an excerpt from the poetry collection How to Live by Helen Rickerby, which won this year’s Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. NEW bonus read: Helen’s Ockham ceremony acceptance speech.
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About the poet:
Helen Rickerby is a writer, editor and publisher. She has published three previous poetry collections, most recently Cinema (Mākaro Press, 2014), and her work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Essential New Zealand Poems: Facing the Empty Page (Godwit, 2012). Rickerby was co-managing editor of literary journal JAAM from 2005–2015 and single-handedly runs Seraph Press, a boutique but increasingly significant publisher of New Zealand poetry.
Helen’s Ockham acceptance speech:
‘Kia ora koutou. Wow, thank you so much – to the awards trust and the sponsors – especially Mary and Peter Biggs, who sponsor this award – thank you for caring about poetry. I also want to acknowledge my fellow finalists – Anne, Ashleigh and Steve – all lovely people as well as fine poets, and I’m very sad we can’t hang out tonight.
I thought a lot about how to live while writing this book, but I haven’t stopped, and I know it’s a topic many of us have been thinking a lot about over this very strange last couple of months. I hope it’s something we never stop thinking about – how we can do it better, as individuals and also as a collective. I think this crazy time has made us realise what matters to us – how much lives matter – and has also made us really creative and inventive in how we can do things differently – things like working, housing homeless people, communicating and running book awards. I am hopeful we won’t go back to everything about normal life as it was, but will instead try to live a bit better.’ (12 May, 2020)
About the book:
Where are the female philosophers? Why are women silenced? Who can tell us how to live? In her fourth collection of poetry, Helen Rickerby takes readers on a journey into women’s writing, a quest for philosophical answers, and an investigation of poetic form.
The poems in How to Live engage in a conversation with ‘the unsilent women’ – Hipparchia and George Eliot, Ban Zhao and Mary Shelley. They do so in order to explore philosophical and practical questions: how one could or should live a good life, how to be happy, how to not die, how to live. Rickerby thinks through the ways that poetry can build up and deconstruct a life, how the subtext and layers inherent in poetry can add to the telling of a life story, and how different perspectives can be incorporated into one work – the place where poetry meets essay, where fiction meets non-fiction, where biography meets autobiography, where plain-speaking meets lyricism, where form pushes against digression.
The work is witty (‘Perhaps I should ban “perhaps”.’) and self-reflexive (‘Am I afraid that if I let the words leak out, they’ll mix with oxygen and become prose?’) as Rickerby draws on the intensity, symbolism and layering of poetic form, using poetry as a space of exploration of ideas, of thinking, of essaying.
From ‘George Eliot: a life – a deconstructed biography’
12.… ….On screaming
12.1.…..In March 1840, during her puritan phase, Mary Ann went to a party given by an old family friend. Presumably disapproving of all the dancing, laughing, flirting and general fun-having of the other guests, or perhaps attracted by them, she first retreated to the edges and complained of a headache; but then she started screaming hysterically. One biographer suggests it was because of an internal war between piousness and music, which was making her want to get outside of herself and dance. But perhaps she just didn’t like loud music and crowds.
12.2. .. Another occasion on which she is reported as screaming hysterically was on a trip across the Alps on a donkey – she was terrified of falling off the mountain to her death. Her travelling companions found her outbursts upsetting. What the donkey thought is not recorded.
12.3. .. A search of the Complete Works of George Eliot on Google Books reveals that the word.‘scream’ occurs fifteen times and ‘screaming’ sixteen times. There are also twelve occurrences of ‘screamed’ and seven of ‘screams’. This seems quite reasonable over seven novels, five shorter stories, quite a lot of poetry (which no one now reads), a.couple of translations and some non-fiction.
12.3.1...Most of the screamers are women and girls, but men also scream, as do geese, guinea fowl, water fowl and violins.
12.3.2. The humans’ reasons for screaming range from seeing their child covered in mud, finding their gold stolen, a runaway monkey, revealed secrets, discovering a dead body, thinking their husband has died, and with rage while dancing.
12.4.….When George Lewes died, Marian broke down, screaming.
12.4.1...I hope that, in similar circumstances, I too would be courageous enough to let go.
© Helen Rickerby, 2019, published in How to Live, Auckland University Press.
'Novels stand outside time, with their narrative structure of beginning, middle and end. They outlast politics, which are by nature ephemeral, swift and changeable and can quickly become invisible, detectable only to the skilled eye. ' - Fiona Farrell