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Interview: Tim Upperton talks about A Riderless Horse

Tim Upperton lives in Palmerston North. He has published two previous poetry collections, A House on Fire (Steele Roberts, 2009) and The Night We Ate the Baby (HauNui Press, 2014), which was a finalist in the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. He won the Bronwyn Tate Memorial International Poetry Competition in 2011 and the Caselberg International Poetry Competition in 2012, 2013 and 2020. His poems have been widely published in magazines including Agni, Poetry, Shenandoah, Sport, takahē and Landfall, and have been anthologised. He is a landscape gardener, creative writing teacher and freelance writer. Tim talks to NZ Booklovers.

Tell us a little about A Riderless Horse.

A Riderless Horse is a collection of the poems I’ve written since the publication of my last book in 2014. It’s a kinder, more reflective book, I think, than my last one. The title is from one of the poems which describes an incident from my childhood, when a runaway horse galloped down our road – but it also describes the way a poem escapes your own intentions, and gets away on you. The better poems do, anyway.

What inspired you to write this collection of poetry?

It didn’t start out as a collection – I just wrote one poem, and then another one, and another one, and published them in magazines as I went along, until one day I had enough for a book. So I don’t think the collection as a whole has a single inspiration – each poem had its own prompt or reason for being. A story my mum told me, a dream I had, childhood memories, movies and TV series I’ve watched, books I’ve read… Some of the poems were commissioned for specific occasions: for example, there’s one I wrote for an anthology to commemorate the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante; another was for an anthology of poems for schoolchildren.

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

I think if I had a routine or a process, I’d have written this book a lot faster! But I had other things going on, including freelance writing and teaching to pay the bills, and a PhD that I finally finished a couple of years ago. I don’t write every day, but I read poetry every day, and I think about it. I feel like I have to roll words around in my head for a while before I write them down, and this makes me a very slow writer.

If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.

The Stones’ Wild Horses would be an obvious one. I do like that song. It’s kind of an end-of-the-evening song, when the party’s winding up and people are saying goodbye and heading off into the night, or falling asleep on couches.

What did you enjoy the most about writing this collection?

I have some favourite poems in the book, and I think what makes them my favourites is that after I’d worked on them for a while, they clicked into place. That’s a good feeling, when you hear that click, especially at the end of a poem. Endings are hard. At the end of one poem, for instance, a drowned mayfly is described as a “tiny, swaddled Ophelia” – and I like that comparison of an insignificant, drowned insect with a tragic figure from a play. It’s kind of funny, but sad too.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

It didn’t really feel finished until advance copies arrived from the publisher, and I held it in my hand. The public library held a launch for it last week here in Palmerston North, and I got some of my writer friends to read their poems along with me, including my son Oscar. That was such a warm, lovely experience. My old flatmates from decades ago came up from Wellington and the South Island for it, and Sam Elworthy, the director at Auckland University Press, flew down. It was great.

What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

I was going to say Karl Ove Knausgaard’s The Morning Star, and it is a beautiful, strange novel. But I think my favourite would be John Irving’s new novel, The Last Chairlift. It’s an enormous, hospitable, humane novel – nearly 900 pages – and spans eighty years. Irving himself is eighty this year. I feel like I’ve grown up with the novels of John Irving – I read The World According to Garp in my teens.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

I wish I knew! More poems, probably. I wrote a new one a few days ago that I quite like.

Auckland University Press


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