The 92nd in this increasingly occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the March 1995 issue. The portrait above of Jenny Bornholdt is by Annelies van der Poel. The poem below, which ran alongside the story and is from the collection How We Met, is reproduced by permission of Victoria University Press.
The intro read:
Jenny Bornholdt writes poems that are instantly accessible but can be read in a number of ways. “l like telling stories,” she tells RUTH NICHOL.
ON THE LEVEL
For most of us, the portable typewriter has taken on the status, of a relic. It’s a quaint reminder of simpler times, something to drag out to entertain the kids — providing the ribbon hasn’t
dried up. But as to actually using one, forget it. We’d be lost without the delete button.
For Wellington poet Jenny Bornholdt, though, the portable typewriter is an integral part of the writing process. She uses her little Brother machine (a 21st-birthday present) to type up the ﬁnal copies of her poems, having written them in longhand ﬁrst. And the whole, time-consuming ritual of typing — inserting a new page, ripping it out to start again, getting out the Twink — often helps her to reﬁne a poem in ways she hadn’t thought of.
“Because I want to get a clean copy I often have to type them over and over again,” she says. “It’s often when I’m correcting a mistake that I realise I should do something else. I really can’t imagine writing onto a computer. Using the typewriter is really part of the process.”
The method may be a little old-fashioned in these days of CD-Rom and RAM, but the results are refreshingly accessible. Bornholdt’s work is a tonic for all those poetryphobes who were force-fed ﬁelds of golden daffodils at an early age. It’s user-friendly and popular. So popular that her ﬁrst three collections, This Big Face, Moving House and Waiting Shelter have sold out.
That accessibility comes to a large extent from the subject matter. Bornholdt tends to write about the familiar, the everyday, in some cases the positively prosaic. “Then Murray Came”, from her new collection How We Met, for example, is about selling a car. The dramatis personae include Ray, the man from the AA (summoned, yet again, to start the car), and the prospective buyer, Murray. Bornholdt’s husband, fellow poet Gregory O’Brien, makes a cameo appearance, biking off to buy petrol:
. . . Ray came down and took over
holding up the bonnet of the car.
What’s your name? he asked Murray.
Murray, said Murray. Well I’m
Ray, this is Greg and this is
Jen. Hello Murray, we said.
And then the car started.
It’s a far cry from golden daffodils.
“I love narrative,” says Bornholdt. “I know it’s not really fashionable any more, but I like stories, and I’m interested in telling stories.”
However, she is far more than an intellectual Pam Ayers. Her work may be readable and unthreatening, but it is more than that. “People say it’s accessible, and I like that. I also like the fact that it works on a number of different levels.”
Bornholdt doesn’t know why she started writing poetry. In fact, she’s not really sure why she started writing at all. It began tentatively; the teenager who “loved English” took up journalism because it seemed a way to write. However, a year as a reporter on the Waimate Daily Advertiser turned out to be not quite what she had in mind.
But she did start writing poems, just a few. Not that she ever thought that she might become a “writer”: “When you’re young you have this idea of writers being romantic creatures who are in no way related to anyone you might know.”
However, several years later, and by now armed with most of a degree in English literature, she felt conﬁdent enough to apply — and be accepted — for Bill Manhire’s writing course at Victoria University. That was the turning point.
“It deﬁnitely started something. The course is terriﬁc, it’s started lots of people off. It gave me the conﬁdence to keep writing, and put me in contact with other people who were doing the same thing, and all of them were just like you.”
She soon realised that she wanted to do more than just write poetry; she wanted it to be read by other people, and she began sending her work to publications such as Landfall and Islands. “You do get to the point where you want to do that. If you think something’s good enough, you want people to read it.”
Eventually her ﬁrst collection, This Big Face, was published by Victoria University Press in 1988, followed the next year by Moving House and Waiting Shelter in 1991.
Both have now sold out, no mean feat in the poetry publishing business. However, the print runs were small — just 750 each — and Bornholdt knows she will never make her fortune from writing poetry. She currently works fulltime as a copywriter with a Wellington recruitment agency, and is also working, along with Gregory O’Brien and Canterbury University academic Mark Williams on editing the Oxford Anthology Of New Zealand Poetry.
Those two jobs leave her with little time or energy for writing poetry, but she tries to get up early every morning, so that she can spend several hours writing. “That’s just enough to keep something going. It really helps to keep writing every day. The times that I actually get things done are the times when I write regularly.”
She admits that writing poetry takes less sustained creative energy than writing prose. However, it is far from the easy process that many people seem to think. “People have this idea that writing poetry is really easy, that you can just ﬁt it in between having breakfast and doing the dishes. It probably does need less time than writing prose, but I think with poetry it is not so much the time that you’re actually sitting down writing it that’s important, it’s the time that you spend thinking about things.”
Often by the time she actually sits down to write a poem, much of it is already formed in her head — or jotted down on scraps of paper. She’s leamed that it pays to write down ideas as they come to her, rather than relying on .her memory: “If you don’t write it down you can spend ages trying to think what on earth it was.”
Inevitably she goes through periods when she stops writing. The 18 poems which make up Estonian Songs in her latest collection, for example, came after just such a period.‘ She was looking for something to get her started again, and was intrigued by the song titles on the cover of a CD she was listening to — such as “Sang The Mother, Sang Her Daughter” and “My Mouth Was Singing, My Heart Was Worrying”.
She decided to use them as a way of getting back into writing again. “They just seemed to be incredibly suggestive. But it turned into more than just an exercise — it kind of fed off itself. The titles suggested things to me, and I found that things I’d written down over the last year or so actually ﬁtted themselves into it.”
Bornholdt is rather pleased with the title of her latest collection, How We Met. It came to her after all the poems were ﬁnished, and it wasn’t until later that she realised it was also the title of a column she very much enjoys in the Independent On Sunday magazine. She thinks it’s very apt: “The book is about relationships, relationships between people, and between people and things, about meetings.”
Like her previous collections it will have a small print run. The poetry-reading public is small, but Bornholdt believes it is getting bigger. She points to England, where poetry festivals are now becoming popular. And while writing prose — short stories or a novel — might bring her a bigger readership, she has no intention of ‘switching allegiances. Poetry offers all the freedom she needs.
“I’ve written really short poems, I’ve written longer poems, I have written prose poems which are somewhere between poetry and prose. I don’t feel constrained at all. That’s what’s so wonderful about it, it’s really liberating.”
A son or a daughter
On a night when the
moon moved solemnly
about the sky
a third daughter was born.
The unhappy doctor
went to the father
I’m sorry, he said,
it’s another girl.
Girls are good luck
said the father.
If you don’t have a daughter
you only know you’re alive
because your shoes move.