Writer Crush: Khalid Warsame on Gregory Kan

Poet Gregory Kan is based in Auckland. An early version of his collection, This Paper Boat, was shortlisted for the Kathleen Grattan Poetry Prize in 2013.


KHALID WARSAME is a Brisbane-based writer, fiction editor at the Lifted Brow, and coordinator of the 2016 National Young Writers’ Festival. He tweets at @kldwarsame
His poem, ‘Secret Shame’ was published in The Suburban Review Vol. 7: Writers of Colour.


This great and present poet, whose work came into my life only last Saturday; whose first collection, This Paper Boat, could have been one of seven or eight books of poetry I considered on that cold and wet Wellington day; whose poetry book I chose to pick up, I am embarrassed to admit, because of its elegant and elegiac cover; whose first poem I read, on page fifty-one, re-awakened a long-dormant love of mine for plain poetry (that even cats and dogs can read)—it seems odd to me that this poet, Gregory Kan, has become, in less than a breath of a week, one of those poets whose work I cannot do without.


And there are the poems, yes, but there is also the voice, which is an altogether different thing from the poetry that this voice composes in—the voice writes the poem, yes, and everything in the poem comes from the voice (except perhaps the paper and the ink, which comes, according to the edition notice of the book, from Printlink Ltd and the cover design, which comes, according to the edition notice of the book, from Greg Simpson, and the funding for the book which comes, according to the edition notice of the book, from the Arts Council of New Zealand Toi Aotearoa)—and Kan’s voice which is transplanted (Singapore, Auckland, the past, the present), and transplants in turn, small and vital miscellany from the poet’s life (or lives?) and from the life (or lives?) of Iris Wilkinson (a person unknown to me) whom the poet helpfully mentions is better known under her alias, Robin Hyde, who is also unknown to me. The first thing I did after I read the book was to google Iris Wilkinson, who is better known under her alias, Robin Hyde.


This is what I’ve found:


‘Robin Hyde (19 January 1906 – 23 August 1939) is one of New Zealand’s major poets. She was born Iris Guiver Wilkinson in Cape Town, South Africa to an English father and an Australian mother and taken to Wellington, New Zealand before her first birthday.’—Wikipedia


The part of me that is sufficiently Australian to not know of things outside of Australia is ashamed that I did not immediately know that Robin Hyde was one of New Zealand’s major poets because I believe that to find oneself guilty of provincialism when it comes to literature is one of the greatest sins imaginable.


And then, I return, of course, to the poetry, which reminds me most of all of Eudora Welty’s famous words on V.S. Pritchett, of whose short stories she said, ‘is all of it alight and busy at once, like a well-going fire. Waste-less and at the same time well fed, it shoots up in flame from its own spark like a poem or a magic trick, self-consuming, with nothing left over.’ Kan’s poems seem all of them to be as close and as distant from oneself as the back of one’s own head, and all of it coalesces quietly:


My mother tells me that my great-aunt was actually
my grandfather’s first wife. He had moved
to Singapore for work, leaving her


in Guangzhou. He did not think
he would ever see her again.


What would one look for in the typical Gregory Kan poem? First of all, this is plain and life-giving poetry, the kind where the economy is unapparent until it suddenly is, in retrospect, on the third or fourth read, when you find your throat parched and return with this thirst that surprises you, and you realise, quite of a sudden, that you have been given all that you needed and not a drop more.


The poems follow several narrative threads, tracing moments in Kan’s parents lives and their parents lives (is there any poet who evokes small tragedies and tender detail like Kan?), his two-year stint in the National Service and, most compellingly, his search through the streets and hospitals of Wellington for a dear friend who has gone missing. Through this all, the ghost of Iris Wilkinson it woven into the blank spaces and gaps of the poems, the biographical trajectory of her lines often mirroring the poet’s own journey.


The poetry of Gregory Kan does not seek to dazzle you with linguistic contortions or present metaphor-as-achievement. Rather, there is a kind of plain virtue (as the Greeks had it) in lines such as this:


Beside a large river, I tore the head off a quail, as instructed.


And because of Gregory Kan’s welcoming style, I find myself more ready to enter the world of the poetry. And don’t get me wrong, this isn’t simplicity or simpleness I’m trumpeting, because there is a coiling undercurrent to these poems as well—these poems are wildly varied in tone, in style, in form, in content, but never in vitality (they are all of them vital).


And upon reading This Paper Boat (right now while waiting for my flight back to Brisbane, which has been delayed twice in one afternoon) I find myself returning to a specific stanza in one of the poems (they are all unnamed), which might as well describe every poem in the book:


The impact if each raindrop creates a small
crater in the soil, ejecting
soil particles up to five feet away.