Paula Harris: "heartbreak can literally break your heart"

She wrote about sex, depression, her stoma, small town New Zealand, men, the good, the bad and the ugly.  Off Kilter was her Twitter handle. She was Paula Harris.

I met Paula back in the late 1990s when we were attending Greg O’Brien’s undergraduate poetry course at Victoria University. I was a late starter, just turning 50, and Paula would have been a young thing in her 20s. We barely got to know one another. I forged friendships with two other women more my age, middleclass like me.

Years went by and Paula and I reconnected on social media. I didn’t know it was the same Paula from the poetry workshop, but we hit it off and liked one another’s tweets and chatted now and then on private message.  She often tweeted her despair and sometimes I found myself checking with one of her friends on Twitter to see if we all thought Paula would be okay. And she was, she always was.

Back she would come with verve and vitality, a new poem, or a link to a piece of writing about her battle with depression.  So often you read about people battling cancer and people rail against this description. But with Paula and depression, it was a real and vivid battle that played out from day to day.  Sometimes we wanted to avert our eyes, those of us fortunate enough not to be crippled with depression, but Paula was having none of that. She wrote so we would hear and see her. I had some interesting private messages with her where we talked as poets and writers about rejection, gatekeepers, editors. I’ll confess my chats often began as what I saw as a rescue mission worried about her depression, but she repaid with conversation and it wasn’t a rescue but reciprocal, two poets talking about rejection, the gatekeepers, the not fitting the cliques that inevitably exist.

Paula’s writing could be raw and confronting. She railed against rejection letters from literary journals who said her work didn’t fit. Her sexy poems were like instructions to an unpractised lover. In her essay “The lovely Harry, Philip Larkin and me”, she wrote, “I tell people that I’m a simple reader, that I’m not interested in decoding poems or untangling them like an algebra problem.” Of the lovely Harry who was her psychiatrist, she wrote about his black beard speckled with white, his enduring support for her, and his love of poetry. How they chuckled together at her reckless scattering of male genitalia in her provocative poetry. Harry introduced her to Stevie Smith. I was always so glad to know Harry had her back. Another essay was about her shocking experience of being sectioned, held in a psych ward against her will. That she received an apology, that it was a breach of the legislation, is unbearable to read.

I reconnected in person with Paula in late 2018 at Unity Books in Willis St, when the anthology The Friday Poem was launched. We both had work selected for the book. This was when I realised that Paula Off Kilter was the same Paula from the poetry workshops of the 90s. We bonded.

She went quiet on Twitter in the last year or so and was much more visible on Instagram. I chatted with her back in January when she was railing against rejections. We chatted once again on private message and she shared her despair at the number of rejections – an insane number like 59 in a few months. But the point she missed was that none of us were writing that many poems, that she was extraordinary, and courageous, because she continued to send her work out into the world. I told her of my own experience having an editor phone me about some poems and asking me to rewrite them and resubmit, which I did, and they were then all rejected yet again. She told me that having him phone me was a sign he thought I was a good poet. I never sent another poem to him. I think we laughed in our own way at our misconceptions if you can laugh between the lines of an Instagram private message. She was cheering me on, when I was meaning to cheer her on.

And then late June, the news on Twitter threads and private message and in the papers. Paula was missing. Her car had been found.  Poets who knew her retweeted her missing person poster. We messaged each other privately, full of doubts and worry. The weeks went by and then almost a relief, Paula’s body was found on Waitārere Beach on Monday, July 10. It shouldn’t be a relief to find a body, but for the time she was missing, we thought of her every day and worried she might never be found. I think we all knew that this time Paula was serious.

Postscript from ReadingRoom literary editor Steve Braunias: Maggie is right to dwell on gatekeepers and rejection in her tribute. They were a theme, a subject, a motif of so many emails that I received from Paula. When I created The Friday Poem series at the Spinoff, in 2015, I became one of those gatekeepers, too, who left her outside the gate; looking back on our emails, I’m reminded that I said no thanks to her poetry submissions for about a year. And then in November 2017 she sent in a fresh set of poems “in response to recently being sectioned to the secure unit of a psychiatric ward, due to my suicidality”, and I took the final poem in the series, “the life expectancy of a cloud”, for publication. It was classic Paula, which is to say it had many of the hallmarks of the poems she continued to submit and I continued to publish – she got on a roll, she got everything right, the register and the pitch, the too-much-information, the presence of a poet right on the brink of mental collapse but able to look around her on that windowledge and bring back observations of the distant, thinning world around her. She got funnier, too, in poems like “there is no one fuckable in Palmerston North” (even funnier, editors refused to publish it on the grounds it was “classist” – Paula wrote about not wishing to have sex with “drunk / gormless / inbred” tradies). I thought of her as one of the best poets in New Zealand in those years and chose three of her poems in The Friday Poem anthology (including “the life expectancy of a cloud”, below). Her work appeared in journals, she won prizes, she collaborated with film-makers who made short films of her poems – Charles Olsen wrote about them just two weeks before she went missing. But she remained an outsider, unwelcome in the more established houses. Her too-much-information monologues were an acquired taste and too few acquired it. She emailed,  “I won’t see any of my collections published in my lifetime. I think I’ve been turned down by every poetry publisher in the country.” A month later, she wrote, “Last week I got a no from the last remaining NZ publisher for my collection Love Poems for Pessimists.” Writing is a hard business. It’s tough, it’s brutal; it’s a long, lonely field of disappointment. Paula continued to slog it. She said her psychiatrist told her that her poetry was maybe 20 years ahead of its time. She never seemed to think she’d be around that long. She emailed, “I’m aware that my mental health is on a fairly steady decline and that there are no treatment options left, and so basically I’m trying to write all the poems I have left in me while I’m still here.” So much of her poetry was a dark prescience. Her writing read like a matter of life and death. Death wanted the last word.

the life expectancy of a cloud

I try to calculate if there is any point to health insurance

or retirement savings or planning ahead

women in New Zealand have an average life expectancy of 83.3 years

giving us 3.3 years more than men

recurrent depression reduces life expectancy by 7 to 11 years

(smokers only lose 8 to 10 years, which seems messed up)

poets live on average 62.2 years (66.2 if they’re American)

compared to the longevity of novelists and their 66 years

while nonfiction writers flaunt their 67.9

no one writes about the implications of Crohn’s disease

or an ileostomy, but surely nine years of being malnourished

has had some effect? now I live with the threat of kidney stones

and mesh infections and feel the constant yearning for a night where my sleep

isn’t disturbed by my ostomy bag needing attention

loneliness is a predictor of premature death

while marriage will shorten a woman’s life by a year;

having a much younger husband will shorten it even more

(although maybe it’d be worth it);

heartbreak can literally break your heart or cells into a thousand pieces

that can never be put back together

my cells are turning on me at an ever-increasing rate

Paula Harris’s published work includes a stand-out essay about being sectioned (“I was admitted, under the Mental Health Compulsory Assessment and Treatment Act, to the secure unit of the psychiatric ward just after noon on Friday the 13th”) in Headlands: New Stories of Anxiety edited by Naomi Arnold (Victoria University Press, 2018) and three really great poems in The Friday Poem edited by Steve Braunias (Luncheon Sausage Books, 2018).

Where to get help

1737, Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor

Lifeline – 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland

Youthline – 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email or online chat

Samaritans – 0800 726 666

Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)

What’s Up – 0800 942 8787 (for 5–19-year-olds). Phone and online chat counselling is available seven days a week from 11am-11pm. – or email or free text 5626

Anxiety New Zealand – 0800 ANXIETY (0800 269 4389)

Rural Support Trust – 0800 787 254 (0800 RURAL HELP)

Supporting Families in Mental Illness – 0800 732 825

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