Reading room

A feminist reading of a stunning memoir

I am writing this at a time that none of us could have imagined could happen. The United States Supreme Court is challenging and seeking to overturn the Roe v. Wade abortion law. After decades of feminist energy, it’s almost unimaginable that this is possible. And one of the reasons to mention this is in the title of the memoirs of the poet Jan Kemp, Clothestracing his childhood and university years, from 1949 to 1974.

After Jan’s husband practically forced her to have an abortion, saying it didn’t suit their hippie lifestyle, and more importantly, her freedom, she felt deeply compelled to go ahead. with this act, despite his own apprehensions about it, common at the time.

Earlier in the book, she thanks a friend for sending her a list of poem titles, stating that they were her children. She writes: “And it was true – these were the sounds in my head that I heard, listened to and sometimes wrote about, escaping Papatuanuku, which I adored as a concept of Mother Earth, but to whom I did not didn’t want to be physically bound by having offspring to give to her. I was extremely grateful when [a friend] sent me a homemade Christmas card on which she had written the titles of all my poems up to that date, and inscribed Dear Kempi, Merry Christmas, with the love of all your poems. It was a real revelation for me. My poems were my offspring.

Later in the book, after she suffers a horrible coerced abortion attempt, which goes wrong, sending her back to the abortion pit a second time, after the same husband takes her on a beach vacation which went terribly wrong when she bled, she writes: “And I had my education, such as it was, and my poems. That last one was something no one could take away from me. It could never be aborted. Because they came to me without my asking and they were my gift to the world. I would wear them all, whatever that means, wherever it takes me, always. I would never murder them, nor leave anyone else. I defended them, read them, presented them and represented them, whenever they needed me to do so. It was my wish. They were part of me, my clothes.

Some will say that this is a plea against the right to abortion. Or it could be a plea for the right to be honored for all the ways we can give birth, creatively as well as in actual motherhood. I am persuaded of the latter by the content of Kemp’s earlier statement that he was so happy that a supporter of his poetry could honor his poems with the notion that they are, in fact, his children, that she gave birth to and nurtured. I leave the larger argument to each reader to assess.

Jan Kemp and her husband Johannes, 1970

It’s a very nice, very beautiful memoir. Kemp has an amazing memory for the details of his childhood in semi-rural New Zealand in a largely caring family. It’s also a memoir cut with stories from the dark, dank days of the college apartment, trials with sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, or in this case poetry and philosophy school. It documents the time when poets such as Allen Curnow, Karl Stead, Mac Jackson and Riemke Ensing taught us in college, and her trials as the only female poet during the famous “Gang of Four” poets’ tour. ” in New Zealand.

They are stories of not being taken seriously but pushing forward boldly and boldly and being determined to be counted as a poet, despite your gender. You have to have lived those moments to even imagine how difficult it was for Kemp and the others. I was teaching in the English department at the University of Auckland at the time and there were 30 male lecturers, two female lecturers and a few junior female lecturers. There have been sex scandals and sexism. And racism. It was the time of Tim Shadbolt and the infamous arrest for saying “bullshit” on campus and having Germaine Greer say it on stage too. I was in the audience that day. It’s laughable now that you could be arrested for that. But it happened.

The New Zealand described by Kemp in Clothes comes vividly to life in all its blandness, sameness, sense of security, but biting at the edges is the beginning of a change in attitude, a new sense of a sexual revolution. The second wave of feminism was still in its infancy but was beginning to make itself heard. It was radical for a poetess to tour with male poets and for her to claim her place on stage as an equal. Kemp admits she was not a feminist warrior. But she was also determined to act on the same stage as male poets and to be respected as a writer. This paved the way for many more to follow.

She recognizes the influence of a great New Zealand poet of the time who also taught at the University of Auckland: Riemke Ensing. She was a strong and powerful woman with a commanding presence and was an important poet and tutor in college. She encouraged other women to be creative and to write and held her ground on a campus filled with male lecturers, authors and poets. His influence on Kemp’s work was strong and it will be interesting to see how this develops in the final series of these memoirs.

Massey University Press has created a beautifully produced hardcover book here that will go down as an important testament to the history of New Zealand literature and the beginning of a new era when women’s voices could be heard on stage as equals. It’s unusual for publishers to include so much poetry in a non-fiction book, but it plays to Jan Kemp’s strength as a poet and the text is all the richer for its inclusion.

Kemp is extremely honest in this book. She never seeks to push her own ego or shirk the responsibility of telling it like it really is, with all of our insecurities intact. She’s a poet about to explore a world most of us had been banished to or never imagined we could explore except in our dreams. Her work gave voice to many women who would later find the courage to speak about their own reality with their own voice. Women who pushed the boundaries even further and weren’t afraid to be outspoken feminists.

It was not until the 1990s, many years after these memoirs were completed, that I was invited by New Womens Press, run by Wendy Harrex, to edit the first anthology of New Zealand women’s writing. This led to the first Australia/New Zealand lesbian anthology and a series of five anthologies of New Zealand women’s literature, with Penguin’s Geoff Walker taking the reins for Subversive actsfeaturing one of the most reprinted stories commissioned by us, “Hinekaro” by Keri Hulme, which was later made into a film by Chrissie Parker.

I first saw the work of Jan Kemp for Landing. His collection of poetry Against the sweetness of women struck me then as a brave new world opening up to women writers. Fortunately, women’s writing has flourished in Aotearoa since then and through these crucial anthologies in the 1990s. The full background and history of this literary movement has yet to be written down and embedded in the annals of New Zealand literature. But little by little, memoirs are beginning to fill this space and talk about these different perspectives. Clothes is just one of those crucial books. Hopefully there are many more.

Clothing: a memoir by Jan Kemp (Massey University Press, $30) is available in bookstores nationwide. Cathie Dunsford’s review (she’s the friend who sent Kemp the Christmas card, as detailed above) concludes our week-long coverage of the book (Monday, a review; Tuesday, an excerpt; yesterday, an amazing evocation of the era Kemp also writes about) – but wait, there’s a bit more. Below is a series of photos taken during the famous 1979 poetry tour of Jan Kemp, Sam Hunt, Hone Tuwhare and Alistair Campbell. The photos appear on the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Center website.

The gang of four
Photo by Jan Kemp, who writes: “Hone and Alistair are waiting at a radio station that we’re all on – every time we come to town, Sam said – first stop, the radio station to let everyone know everyone that we’re here.”
Photo by Jan Kemp: “Hone concentrating on her oysters at one of our restaurants along the way”.
Sam Hunt, with Alistair Campbell modeling the coolest hat in the history of New Zealand letters.
The tour begins, at Death’s Corner