From Sisi to Minnie Dean – poet Helen Rickerby reports back on what it was like to read her poetry across the globe in Austria and the readers she met along the way.
‘If you’re ever in Vienna, let me know and I’ll organise a poetry reading for you,’ she wrote. Well, it’s a long way to go just for a reading, but I was planning a trip to Europe (for a significant birthday) and Vienna isn’t so far from Venice – they even sound almost the same. Of course, for a New Zealander, all parts of Europe seem pretty close together when you’ve just spent more than 24 hours travelling there, and a reading in Vienna was definitely something to make an effort for.
She was Julia Lajta-Novak, a professor of English at Vienna University. And, like a lot of things these days, this all began through the internet. Julia’s postdoctoral research is about fictional biographies and she was about to teach a course on it. She had come across a mention of my poem ‘Artemisia Gentileschi, 1593–circa 1642’, about an Italian baroque painter, and she wondered if she could get hold of a copy. I said I had a whole book of biographical poems, My Iron Spine, which I sent her. She said it was exactly what she was after and would include some of my poems in her course. I was pretty excited about the prospect of my poetry being taught on the other side of the world, and even more delighted a few years later when one of her students tweeted me to say that he was writing an essay about Sylvia Plath’s ‘Lady Lazarus’ and my two poems about Sylvia Plath. Esteemed company indeed!
So, this year I finally got to meet Julia, and some of those students. The reading was part of a general literature class, taught by Julia’s colleague, Professor Margarete Rubik (a couple of my poems had been included in the course reader, and they’d spent the previous week’s session discussing them), but they’d widened the invitation, and the audience included other students and a few ex-pat New Zealanders. One was a woman, originally from Christchurch, who had been living in Vienna for 35 years, but who clearly still took an interest in New Zealand. Another was Neal from Papakura, who now lived in Vienna and worked at the New Zealand Embassy. He’d turned up with a bag heavy with clinking bottles of New Zealand wine that the embassy kindly supplied for the occasion. I certainly don’t remember having wine at the end of any of my mid-afternoon university classes, but it was very convivial.
At home in New Zealand I feel like we live in such a global culture – so much of it is imported – most of our films, television, books, news. But suddenly, standing in a room full of Austrians (or so I assumed – apart from the New Zealanders there were also, I found out later, several exchange students from other parts of Europe), I became acutely aware that the cultural references I make in the poems might not be shared – especially in the poems about films and film-making I was planning to read from my new book, Cinema. Would they have heard of directors like Ken Russell and David Lynch? Would they get my sense of humour? Certainly, there were some New Zealand-isms I couldn’t expect them to understand – I stopped mid-poem to explain what Jaffas are (the lolly variety rather than the other kind).
That said, despite only one of them having ever been to New Zealand – apart, of course, from the ex-pats – they responded well to the poems I read about New Zealand: our New-Zealand-gothic films, our ‘celebrated’ murderess Minnie Dean, and Katherine Mansfield, who they all knew about and had studied. (And Austrians obviously do watch American movies, because one young woman came up to me afterwards to tell me how my Minnie Dean poem reminded her of Nightmare on Elm Street.)
But the poem they responded to the most, and that they asked the most questions about, focused on one of their own – ‘Empress Elizabeth’, the last empress of the Austrian Empire. Although she was originally from Bavaria, Elisabethof Austria lived in Vienna after her marriage to Emperor Franz Josef in 1854. ‘Sisi’ as they call her is obviously much-loved in Vienna still, based on all the souvenirs and the (somewhat creepy) Sisi Museum at the Hofburg Palace. I had been a bit unsure about reading this poem to this audience – worried that it was cultural appropriation. I mean, how would we feel if an Austrian poet turned up and read their poem about Kate Sheppard or Te Rauparaha? But when I consulted about this over a pre-reading lunch with the professors, they said ‘Oh, no, you must read it!’ Perhaps, like New Zealanders, Austrians are keen to hear how the rest of the world views them, and are excited when other people pay them some attention.
‘How did you learn about Sisi?’ (Random chance and a second-hand book.)
‘Do other people in your country know about her?’ (No, not really that many.)
Question time was pretty lively – I suspect the students there were more willing to jump in and ask something than those in an average New Zealand class. And, during the post-reading New Zealand-wine time (they drank all the white, but left some red) they were very friendly and kept asking me questions about my poetry and publishing, and about New Zealand. I might possibly have cleared up one older student’s confusion. Or maybe I added to it:
‘I notice you say New Zeeland,’ she said. ‘I always thought it was New Zeeland, but we had another New Zealander visit last year, and she said New Zuhlund.’
‘Ah,’ I said, ‘that’d be her accent.’
‘Fush and chups!’ the Scottish exchange student, who had once visited New Zealand, piped up, helpfully.
Helen Rickerby is a poet and publisher from Wellington. She has published four collections of poetry – her most recent, Cinema, was published by Mākaro Press in March. She runs Seraph Press, a boutique publishing company with a growing reputation for publishing high-quality poetry books, and she is co-managing editor of JAAM literary journal. She blogs irregularly at wingedink.blogspot.com and has a day job as a web editor.
All photographs by Helen Rickerby.