Rebecca Hawkes grew up on a sheep and beef farm near Methven and now maintains a tenuous work/work balance in Wellington city. With poems widely published in Aotearoa journals, Rebecca’s debut chapbook ‘Softcore coldsores’ was published in AUP New Poets 5 for the reignition of the series in 2019. Meat Lovers is her first full-length collection. Rebecca talks to NZ Booklovers.
Tell us a little about Meat Lovers.
This collection of poems is framed around the pleasures and grossness of food, farming, and romantic folly. It’s my first real book, which is nerve-wracking! It’s a bit sadistic and a bit funny. It is sexy and weird like an orchid mantis. It is devotedly queer. It is hangry. It gives hot (yet nuanced and informed) takes on our agricultural industries, and also contains multiple poems about werewolves. It has sharp teeth but will lick your hands without biting.
What inspired you to write this collection of poetry?
I grew up on a sheep and beef farm nestled in the foothills of the Southern Alps, and hold my rural upbringing close to my heart. The longer I live in the city the more I cling to my country gal identity – something I never really thought about when I was living it for real. But I wanted to write a book for the rural bisexuals of Mid-Canterbury. Landscape poetry in this country is well-trodden ground but there’s always room for a sexy remix on the theme. Plus, poems are a good bite-sized way to play with the big questions in life – am I living right? Am I a good person? Am I what I eat? Am I in true love or comforted by convenience? Am I a dream of a single brain cell in a vat of lab-grown meat?
What was your routine or process when writing this book?
Like most poets, I also have to work for money to live. Mainly I write poems in the cracks of my life. So, my ‘routine’ is more a drowsy panic when some event or deadline is coming up. This fractured attention span works alright for individual poems, but makes composing a coherent book much harder. I was very lucky to be offered time to work on this book on residencies in Dunedin and the Wairarapa – the time I had to focus on only the manuscript was critical. It allowed me the headspace to pull my many itsy-bitsy poems together and start assembling them into a whole house of cards. It also gave me plenty of time to read – looking to how other authors played with the structures of their books was important to work out how I could approach what became the bisected halves of Meat Lovers.
If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.
I often listen to one song or album on repeat when I’m writing or painting. It keeps me in a repetitive flow mode, uninterrupted by surprise vibes or lyrics I haven’t already memorised. My taste in music is bleak tbh so there was a lot of The Veils, Orville Peck, and Mother Mother. One of these poems was specifically written in response to Pressure to party by Julia Jacklin – it’s titled after her lyrics (I know where you live / I used to live there too) and imagines a scene following on from the narrative of the song, set in the dank flats of the Aro Valley.
What did you enjoy the most about writing Meat Lovers?
There was a lot of joy in seeing the book become something more overall than the sum of its parts. I’m used to writing stand-alone poems, but it’s interesting to see how poems behave differently depending on their sequence in a manuscript. Each poem becomes one twinkling polyp in a bodacious coral reef.
In writing the individual poems, I enjoyed the immersive experience of reinhabiting past selves, or getting glimpses of the meaner but more interesting people I could have been in my fantasy lives… this book is critically nostalgic for my actual farming upbringing, and also takes some sucker punches at ex-lovers that never were. I like my poems to feel true, but reserve my right to tell lies – not every confession needs to be nonfiction lol. I just go where the poems take me!
If you had to select your favourite poem from the book, what would it be, and why?
I have a soft spot for Mad Butcher’s Love Song – it’s one of the last poems I wrote for the book, and has never been published anywhere else so it only lives in Meat Lovers. I think it’s got my best joke about testicles so far.
What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?
Chris Tse and I co-launched our books on stage at Meow in late April, which was largely an excuse to have two beers and do a dramatic recital of Rob Zombie’s Dragula to an unsuspecting audience of literati. Gathering to celebrate a book’s release is so important, given how solitary writing is, though obviously the pandemic has placed a damper on in-person releases… so Chris and I were hankering for a party by the time Covid restrictions finally allowed us to host our launch. Also, no celebration is complete without karaoke (I do a singularly abysmal cover of Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man so it was fun to subject everyone to it again).
What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?
Picking favourites is difficult enough for me, and half of my friends have stupendously, alarmingly, stupefyingly beautiful books out right now, so for the purposes of this question I have become illiterate.
What’s next on the agenda for you?
Firstly, I’m excited to get back to sharing work by other writers rather than just honking my own horn! Nikki-Lee and I have just opened this year’s Sweet Mammalian submissions (shoot your shot until we close again on 30 June: www.sweetmammalian.com/submissions).
Also, for the last three years I’ve been editing an anthology of climate poetry with Jordan Hamel, Essa Ranapiri, and Erik Kennedy. In a twist of pandemic timing, all three of my co-editors are also releasing their own (brilliant!!!) books this year – and the anthology has recently gone off to print.
The anthology, titled No Other Place to Stand, contains work from more than 90 writers – poet laureates, established authors, school students and rising stars. We were honoured and humbled to receive hundreds of submissions to this project. Climate change is a huge topic, and the poets take all sorts of angles on it – fire and flood, bureaucratic inertia and front-line activism, comedy and grief, colonial violence and indigenous activism, Frankenstein’s monster awakening from melting sea-ice and Hinemoana swimming through oil-slicked waters.
We haven’t seen the necessary climate action with the speed and urgency needed in the time we’ve been working on this anthology – so these poems are as essential, provocative and moving as they were when we first read them. I’m excited to share this book with you. It’s an important testament to how writers in Aotearoa have approached climate issues recently, and an entry point into deeper discussions of climate crisis in our poetics and politics.
Auckland University Press