'My Poems Have Kept Me Alive'
This one has all the feels
Events of the recent past have introduced us to new and unknown feelings that are still hard to define, and even harder to resolve. Nothing was nimble, all was heavy, and it often still is.
Burst Kisses on the Actual Wind (BKOTAW) is the third poetry collection by Courtney Sina Meredith, author, performer and the Director of Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust. It’s a collection that gently ransacks our past and present times, while simultaneously blurring, rendering, and unearthing the atlas of our lives.
Reading it felt like an anchoring of my displaced memories.
Being an artist is as tough now as it always has been. This is a collection of poems that stays true to what it means to pursue passion, to tell stories that are complicated, challenging, and in recognition of often dark memories.
“I’ll be honest, somewhere in between great suffering and great joy – I found a place within that is not governed by fear, or the anxiety that was always a monkey on my back in the beginning.” explains Meredith.
“I don’t know if I made peace with my truth, or if I made a truth out of my peace – perhaps both – but letting go of what I had been trained to expect of myself as a ‘writer’ and embracing what I knew of my inner world in connection to the outer world, I found a freedom there, greater than my pain.”
Pain is poetry
As a reader, I love women writers and their books. We are the sum of our literary and lived experiences and the reason why many readers have specific relationships with specific books. As Courtney Sina Meredith points out, women are often the ones to reveal their difficult lives, personal suffering and pain.
“Any woman, every woman, suffers. Often in silence. I have a chronic condition that is never going away, and that is the shared truth of the closest women in my family. I became so good at living around it, and with it, – this ongoing, endless trauma. I look back over the last decade and I see that poetry has kept me alive. It has healed me. Poured light into the darkest of times.
“To think that BKOTAW made it through a living sieve of heartbreak, chronic fatigue, depression, anxiety, unbelievable physical pain – all while I chipped away steadily at my craft and my career – proud isn’t the right word to describe the way this book makes me feel. It’s a little miracle.”
In the hours spent reading the collection, I relived so many fragments of my life littered with feelings I know so well. It’s all mood. Meredith is not trying to trick you. She’s doing the opposite through uncluttering the memories contained over a decade, she is sharing her narrative that somehow just happens to intertwine with yours. Time is no longer linear, there is a lack of definition that suggests infinitude and an offering of endless possibilities and lives lived. It is also a reminder that past is not really past.
“That’s something I’ve been discovering along the way really, the connection and disconnection between the works – between different moments and times in my life, learning the links and honouring the voids. I remember reading poetry collections written over the period of a decade in my early 20s, wondering what it would feel like to attempt a body of work like that – to approach one’s craft as this presence alongside you always - as opposed to the detached notion of the artist conjuring craft from thin air.
“There is a tension in the distance of that reality, writing across years, growing, learning and re-learning life – but I think I can attest with a full heart that this is, in my view, my finest work – because of that tension.
“In Brown Girls in Bright Red Lipstick (BGIBRL), I had a lot of ideas about the world, relationships, emotions, and injustice - it was a great big ol’ prayer to the universe! BKOTAW is a totally different creature. I have had to live every word in this book in order to write it – each sentence is a journey, the residencies overseas, the ups and downs of great love, the everyday truth of being in this body, at this moment in time.
“So how do the poems all sit together? How a family does, I suppose, comfortably and messily, they are related to one another – but crucially independent too.”
Excerpt from Burnt Kisses on the Actual Wind by Courtney Sina Meredith.
Like scrapbooking but without the unnecessary kitsch, and sprinkled with all the necessary cliches worth recollection and reminiscence, BKOTAW uncovers the perils of modern life and misadventure.
The conjuring of these moods is so expertly achieved, some of the time you might even be fooled that the words on these pages are extensions of yourself, your loves, your losses, your joys, your pains. Not quite like owning the writer’s histories but more like clever recall of false memories.
At times, the words flow effortlessly from page to page like a moving image. At other times, each poem is contained as its own memory, unfrozen from the trappings of time.
Although a decade in the making, this poetry collection is not about looking back or looking forward, but instead reading it as if it is the present.
“I wrote this book in so many different places, from mountain tops in Indonesia to grey wintry ‘summer’ mornings in London – to lying in bed, lifeless with terrible endometriosis pains in Alaska, and home again – where I grounded myself critically and committed to centring Aotearoa as my big apple. I committed myself to cultural leadership long before I began my role at Tautai. I saw the tide turning and rushed into the waters.”
She continues “the last leg of this path was especially tough, I had already finished the manuscript before my surgeries at the end of 2020 – but I did polish off my final edits before it went to my amazing editor and mother Kim Meredith – bedridden.
“So, reading the book now, feeling the weight of it in my hands, it literally was a feat of blood, sweat and tears at the end. The end game is where you have to bring it, and all I had left by then was just pure instinct and pure love – I had no strength. In some ways it was the best frame of mind, unencumbered, with no excuses.
“My partner Janet and our kids really got me through, family lifted me through – it was a village effort, and completely down to my own stubborn ambition. I have a publisher – Sally Greer at Beatnik - who is like family, there’s a trust we’ve built over years. I could not have created this piece of art without Janet, Kim, and Sally. Their ideas, diligence and passion were everything.”
Love conquers all
BKOTAW is an interlocutor. It’s a vessel of our personal joy and laughter, passion and grief. Those special characteristics that make us feel human.
Like all the aspects that are contained in our imagination, often they remain unarticulated until someone like Meredith casts a spell with characters that we can place ourselves within.
This is why art and poetry matter.
They exist to feed our soul at times when we need it the most. It is a reminder that we are all capable of creating beauty, absorbing and transmitting it. The art of poetry is to remind us of that, and in the process alter, inspire and provoke a meaningful existence. Unsurprisingly, there is no holding back when talking about love and her relationship with artist Janet Lilo.
“I’m blessed to be marrying someone I just fancy the pants off! Writing about my love, the rawness of this great, terrifying, delicious, all-consuming love – yes, it surprised me when it came to the page. My artist is in love with her artist. It’s pretty special to have this kind of connection, this once-in-a-lifetime electric alignment. We share a lot of the same values – our kids always come first, and the community is our river.
“She is my muse in the truest sense. Dedicating the book to her was very natural.”
There are endless sounds all over these pages, as an indication of life and music that is so very present in this writer’s life. Listening to Meredith read poems is an experience. You lean closer, and it feels as if she is right beside you. There is rhythmic precision and room for pause that creates reverberating silences. It is so precise that you strain to commit the beat to memory, like a map of words on the sheet of music.
“It’s been so long now – 14 years of performing, reading, speaking, teaching, reciting, and publishing poetry – that my poems have become a part of me. I feel them in my body. I feel them move through me the way I imagine athletes trust their muscles to know what lies before them at the beginning of a sprint or when the archer releases the arrow. I trust the works to know what lies before them.
“When I launched BGIBRL in Frankfurt, I practised poetry all the way there, on every flight. I had so many notes, so many ways I wanted to honour every word. In launching BKOTAW, I made no notes. I had no idea what would come when I stood at the mic. The works that surfaced surprised me. I felt the enormity of that decade and the lightness of everyone in the room.
“My poems have kept me alive. Healed me in ways I cannot articulate. BKOTAW says it all.”
Just like in life, so much more happens, and yet nothing much at all. There are people, there are kisses, there is smoking and most importantly the feelings are all there and it is everything. As it turns out, finding the books you love and wish to read over is like finding your people or feeling at home. Burst Kisses feels like home to me.