Palmerston North poet Paula Harris is the winner of the Janet B. McCabe Poetry Prize, a US poetry prize organised by literary journal Ruminate. The winning poem ‘you will dig me from the earth with your bare hands, in order to resurrect me’ was selected by judge Ilya Kaminsky, widely considered one of the great contemporary poets in the US today.
Ilya says of the winning piece “This poem is a rhapsody that can be humorous and heart-breaking, playful and emotive, intelligent and musical all at the same time. Marvellous.”
Paula says “When I read Ilya’s comment, I thought ‘oh, he got it, he really got it, awesome’ because that poem has been rejected by quite a few journals. And it is a sad piece, it’s painful, but there are deliberate moments in there to lighten it, to make the reader have a flicker of a smile or even an outright laugh. Right from the start, the title is about digging me from the earth, and then the first line says ‘this will be challenging, given that I intend to be cremated’ and that is there so that you can smile. And also so you know that things are going to be bumpy.”
“The poem basically lays out the complex steps that will need to be undertaken to resurrect me. I had been thinking about the loss of my closest friendship, and that point you reach when it’s too late to patch things up, or at least patch things up properly, when even if you both sit down and talk openly and honestly, the damage is done and too much time has passed for things to be healed. That precious thing you had has been destroyed and all the magic in the world can’t fix it. The poem was admitting to myself that things had reached that point, and also saying to him ‘you left it too long,’ so, yeah, not exactly a cheery poem.”
Paula receives prize money of US$1500 (“always useful for a full-time poet who is trying to avoid starvation”). ‘you will dig me from the earth with your bare hands, in order to resurrect me’ will be published in the winter issue of Ruminate, due out mid-December.
“If I’m honest, having a Russian-Jewish-American pick out a poem by a New Zealander as the winner does make me smile, possibly more than it should. There’s something kind of beautifully international about poetry in that though.”
Paula was the recipient of the New Zealand Society of Authors’ 2017 Lilian Ida Smith Award, given to a writer over the age of 35 who is still working to establish their writing career. Her poetry has been published in various New Zealand and Australian journals, including a fine line, The Spinoff, Poetry NZ Yearbook, Snorkel, takahē, Landfall, Broadsheet and several NZPS anthologies. Writing has been Paula’s primary occupation since the start of this year, when she closed her business due to “the inescapable severity and shittiness of my depression, as well as the new bonus shittiness of anxiety.”
“My hospital psychologist refers to poetry as my profession. It’s true that since I had to stop working I’m writing much more and the writing is going places I don’t think it would’ve if I was still having to juggle writing with working and feeling guilty if I was spending too much time on either.”
Paula will be heading to the US in October, having been offered a month-long writing residency at Vermont Studio Center. She’s currently running a givealittle campaign towards the travel costs to get her to Vermont, having missed out on grant funding. During the residency she plans to work on new writing (“I expect maple leaves will make it into at least one poem”) and putting together a new poetry collection about depression, relationships and loss. Anyone wanting to help support her make the most of the Vermont opportunity can donate at https://givealittle.co.nz/cause/paulapoet