Monday, March 17, 2014

Writing Process Blog Tour - Felt Intensity

1) What am I working on?

As Kathy Ferber mentioned in her fascinating Writing Process Blog Tour post, I currently work for New Zealand’s Earthquake Commission. I have been employed there full-time since 6 September 2010, 2 days after the first of the really big Christchurch quakes struck.

It will be no surprise then, to learn that I have just completed a small collection of poems which focuses on the effects of Canterbury's seismic events of the last 3.5 years. Although I live in Wellington, not Christchurch, I travelled there frequently during 2010 - 2013 and so experienced enough of the tens of thousands of aftershocks (including the big and deadly Feb 22nd, 2011 quake) to gain some small understanding of what it has been like for Canterbury residents.


2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

During and since the Canterbury earthquakes a sub-genre of "quake" poetry emerged and a number of collections (for example, Things Lay in Pieces by Richard Langston) and many individual poems have been written. One of my favourite poems is Fault by Joannna Preston.

Quake poems are not new (which is not surprising, considering New Zealand has been known as the “Shaky Isles” since the 1800s). Before the Canterbury quakes, Sam Hunt wrote about one he experienced in South Taranaki. He called it Naming the Gods and he reads it as part of the song Cape Turnagain by the Warratahs. I use Sam’s poem as a start point for a sequence of poems in my collection – The Ruamoko Series (Ruamoko is the Maori god of earthquakes and volcanoes).

My as-yet unpublished collection probably differs a little from others in the quake genre because of the number of found poems (poems found in original text) it contains. The poem Headlines is a list of headlines from the Sunday Star Times of 5 September 2010, which was the day after the first big quake; February 22nd, 2011, Report 1 is a slightly abbreviated version of information about that quake published by GNS (New Zealand’s Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences) immediately after it happened; The Condensed Modified Mercalli Scale is a ‘Reader’s Digest’ version of this 12-point Scale, which is used by people to report how they experience an earthquake. The following is a stanza from that poem (the language is a bit ‘last century’ because the Scale was written in the early 1900s and the words and phrases are ‘as found’ in the Scale; I like the effect of the clipped, fore-shortened descriptors though - they jar just like an earthquake):

The Condensed Modified Mercalli Scale – VI - IX

Many frightened and run outdoors
Some chimneys broken
Noticed by persons driving motorcars
Fall of columns, monuments, walls
Heavy furniture overturned
Changes in well water
Ground cracked conspicuously

3) Why do I write what I do?

Tongues of Ash (see also the side bar) was my first full length collection. It contains poems which are mainly to do with place, reflections on place, memories of living in New Zealand in different localities, landscape, and the physical environment.

Felt Intensity is the working title of the small collection of quake poems which make up my reflections on the Christchurch earthquakes. It is also a term used to describe what the Modified Mercalli Scale actually measures. The titles of poems in this collection are (some of which have appeared in publications as shown below or in earlier posts on this blog):

The Condensed Modified Mercalli Scale
One might expect
Canterbury Groundworks Group
February 22nd, 2011, Report 1
February 22nd, 2011, Report 2 (JAAM 31)
Disaster Watch
Canterbury INTREP
Kia kaha Canterbury, October 2011
The Ruamoko Series
1.    Name-calling
2.    Grounds for a Protection Order
3.    Dear Ruamoko (JAAM 31)
4.    Canterbury Oblations
5.    Ruamoko, Trainwrecker
Richter meets Mercalli in Christchurch during the shallow aftershock years
Resilience (Tuesday Poem)
Accident at sea

In effect I write what I do because, like most if not all poets, I write what I feel.

4) How does your writing process work?

In answer to the first question of this post, I said that I don’t live in Christchurch. But I did once live there – as a student, for four years. When I left the city in 1970, I didn’t return for 12 years. The poem I wrote about that visit didn’t get written for another 20 years and is the opening poem of Tongues of Ash (see Canterbury Visit, Winter 1982 below).

This is evidence that in my writing process it can take a long time for a poem to ferment.

I am getting quicker though – the first of the Felt Intensity poems came along after brewing for only one year.

Canterbury Visit, Winter 1982

You clasp a shabby quilt
of dun and brown.

Memories from years before
at first stay locked away
like the snow water
in your mountains
marching north and south.

No storms call to your Port Hills
which are as bare as the trees
that trellis your sky.

But then, they always did.

Even as I enter the city
of my first true love
you get coy
clutch up a skirt of fog.

Once again
I have to fumble my way.

If you would like to follow the blogging tour, return to this blog next week (Mon 24 March), where I will be hosting Sandi Sartorelli’s Writing Process Blog Tour post.

Sandi Sartorelli recently shifted to live in the Cook Islands and is a graduate of New Zealand’s Whitireia Creative Writing Programme. Her poetry has appeared in a number of publications including JAAM, Blackmail Press, Penduline Press, Renee's Wednesday Blog and Shenandoah. Recently, two of her poems were highly commended in the Caselberg Trust International Poetry Prize and the New Zealand Poetry Society Competition.

Enjoy the trip.


  1. Thank you Keith - fascinating blog. I also wrote a Canterbury earthquake poem, published in the latest issue of The Interpreter's House. It seems that writing poetry is a natural response to big events. Good luck with the collection.

    1. Thanks Kathy. Let's hope neither of us needs to respond poetically to quakes in the future.


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