Monthly Archives: October 2013

The winner of Lousie Wallace’s Enough, thanks to VUP

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Thanks to Victoria University Press, Poetry Shelf has randomly selected Emma Neale to receive the giveaway copy of Lousie Wallace’s Enough.

For my review see here.

More giveaway copies of new NZ poetry books coming up in next few weeks as I post reviews.

A Poetry-Shelf Toast: Michele Leggott is a poet to be celebrated


Michele Leggott was awarded the Prime Minister’s Award for Poetry in 2013. She has published a substantial body of work including seven volumes of poetry. She edited Young Knowledge: The Poems of Robin Hyde. Michele is a Professor of English at The University of Auckland, she co-founded The New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre, has mentored countless emerging poets, and was The National Library’s inaugural Poet Laureate (2008-9). Her poetry has accompanied her through the extraordinary challenges of losing her sight, an experience that has not diminished her commitment to New Zealand poetry in any way whatsoever. Her poetry is, as she attests, in debt to a long line of women writers; it engages with heart and intellect, along with eye and ear. There is difficulty, there is musicality, there is silence, there is autobiography, there is the real world, there is mythology, there is history, there is the world of writing, there are homages to others, there is acute and sweet lyricism, there is family, there is love, there is laughter, there is song, there is a shifting vocabulary, there are foreign words, there is experimentation, there is tradition, there is pain, there is sadness, there is joy, there is empathy, there is movement, there is poetry that haunts and there is poetry that holds you close so you lean in and listen.

Congratulations Michele on this well deserved honour.

To celebrate the PM’s Award for Poetry Michele answers twelve questions for The NZ Herald.


New Zealand Book Council page

Auckland University Press

My review of Mirabile Dictu


LisaSamuelsAntiM   LisaSamuelsAntiM

Lisa Samuels, Anti M, Chax Press, 2013

Lisa Samuels teaches Creative Writing, Literature and Theory at The University of Auckland. Born in Boston, she has also lived in the Middle East and Europe. She has a PhD from the University of Virginia and has published seven poetry collections and a recording of Tomorrowland with soundscapes (2012).

Lisa’s new book, Anti M, is presented as anti-memoir or omitted prose. Pick up the book, start reading, and you can use those labels as you will. For me, the writing wittingly or unwittingly navigates poetry as much as it does narrative, and yes, there is the governing rule of omission or erasure at work. You enter a realm of heightened or exaggerated selectiveness (bearing in mind an author is always selective), exclusion and perhaps even interference with memory. As you read questions arise, images surface and story and poetry produce electric connections. If the writer takes away, for example, what does she create?

Three terrific quotations provide gateways into the writing. I especially loved Bernard of Clairvaux (1140): ‘what keen edge can both clean my memory and keep it intact? Only the living and effective Word which is sharper than a two-edged sword …’

Holding the book, with that quotation ringing so beautifully in my ears, and flicking through the pages where the words float dreamlike, scattered, suspended, I am struck that the gap, the pause, the lure of silence will be a key part of my reading. Numerous other poets spring to mind: Michele Leggott, Susan Howe, Kathleen Fraser, Lisa Robertson, Lyn Hejinian, Gertrude Stein, the erasure art of Mary Ruefle.

Firstly, the gap or the pause. The opening lines of the book: ‘today we walk an outer ring/ around the borrowed house.’  A fitting entry into writing that is in so many ways (subversive or otherwise) an autobiographical passage. The ‘we,’ ambiguous at the outset, may be the poet, the reader, the narrator-I, Daisy, family. The book is divided into nine parts like nine concentric circles, but the passage is interrupted. There are syntactical  gaps, gaps of information or recollection. At times it is like a movie jump cut (‘the music makes people adult veil’), but for me it was as though I were listening to a story being told where the teller is reserved, circumspect or bumping up against pockets of amnesia. At times it is like poetry of the pause where an interruption (or withholding) in the narrative flow elbows room for the reader to stop and meditate (to fill in the narrative gap, to make personal connections, to tinker with the syntax, to sidetrack and daydream). For example: ‘The train robbery      in a balloon/ language before I could swear something fretted over.’ The omitted text also keeps altering the course of narration as though the circumspect narrator cannot maintain a single thread but keeps swerving from a single word or phrase to elsewhere. The gaps skew grammar, verb agreements go awry. Phrases are left dangling in mid air and questions  come to the surface. Is this a matter of concealment, shyness, artistry, craft, deferral, sidetracking? Is it a case where the writer re-enacts the inability of words to represent a life (a memoir) adequately? Would the book be better or worse (more comforting, more estranging) with the gaps filled in?

It might seem like this is a vertiginous book to read as you navigate cliffs and gullies, but it reminded me of standing in front of a patchy fresco in Italy. So much missing but somehow, in that prolonged moment of looking, you experience something coming together, gloriously, surprisingly. The reading isn’t disorienting, it doesn’t leave you bereft of anchor, it embeds you in a world that absorbs and moves. Lisa leaves gem-like clues to the writing that haunt and puzzle, such as ‘narrative order as/ the paint thinner of consciousness.’ Or ‘sometimes when one is unifying reality/ the patchwork humming outside the air/ communicates/ the bed contains.’ The word ‘patchwork’ leads to that Italian mosaic or patchy fresco, and signals the centuries-old ambition of unifying miniature pieces. What to do with these pieces? The word ‘humming’ leads us to the power of the musical note to work on the body and the heart. Another clue to the methodology of the writer: ‘a    little/assemble band/ which lyrics    blanked/ of independent words.’ And this, which suggests the process is not methodical but steered by intuition and gut feelings: ‘Tripping a little on the stairs of relation.’ ‘Relation’ makes a faint line to family connection but more importantly exposes an image of the making of story — in steps and stages with leaps and bounds and stumbles and falls (ah, the risk of reading and writing).

What is visible upon the page matters. You leapfrog the words. You manage the pauses. There is an attentiveness to sound (as there is with the other poets I listed), a sustained lyricism that might be intuitive or might be deliberately composed. There are shifting aural links, delicious and subtle shifts in sound that create harmonious chords. This is pleasurable — to read from ‘shock’ to ‘corral.’ There is sweet, compounding alliteration: ‘The shiny summer window sentences / stands to think.’ Or the way this ‘sound’ is caught in an aural fishnet with that ‘sound’: ‘swishing     looking with a     room/ the wall/ by day, and glistening.’ Phrases leap out at you and stick (whether musically or semantically): ‘People are the whole house.’ Words echo, again in semantic and musical ripples. For example, red. You move from red pills to red-like coals to red mouth to red dates.

Daisy is like a cypher, a puzzle. Is she the buried girl of the poet, the narrating-I? Or a white board to absorb memory in all its frailty and strength?

At intervals, there are luminous photographs that seem lifted from the past. Deep-set, colour images with a tangible sheen like lush memory pockets. They serve as a perfect metaphor for the writing. Lisa has served memory with a tangible sheen that attains poignancy, momentum, and audible lyricism. I can’t think of a single ‘anti’ word that suits my reading of this astonishing book. The final photograph (now black and white) is a baby on hands and knees looking at him or herself in a mirror. The surprise. The puzzlement. The mystery. The magic. The self discovery that is never complete, distorted yet vital.

In this book (however you choose to define it will depend upon your passage as a reader), the words are indeed keen. No cutting edge here though — instead a liveliness, an attentiveness to shades of change, a quickness. This luminous book represents the swoop and soar of memory through noise, silence, presence, absence, nostalgia, joy, interruption, love, longing, forgetting. The key undercurrent, and the one that keeps you attached to each line, is that this poet writes out of an unflagging and infectious love of words. For me, the gap (the omission, the white space, the ringing silence) transforms interrupted narrative into poetry.

Chax Press page

Rob McLennan’s interview

Spain Journey at ka mate ka ora

Shearsman Books page

epc at Buffalo page

nzepc Tapa Notebook page

Louise Wallace’s Enough: Wherever you look there is energy

Louise Wallace (Rory Mearns 2013)

Louise Wallace’s debut poetry collection, Since June, was a delight. In my Herald review I saw it as ‘a satisfying mix of economy, elegance, strangeness, lightness, boldness and different personae.’  Louise was awarded the Briggs Prize in 2008 at The International Institute of Modern Letters. Since then her poems have been published in New Zealand (including The Best of Best New Zealand Poems), Australia and Germany. She has taught Creative Writing at Massey University and the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology for the past five years.

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Victoria University Press has just released Louise’s second book of poems, Enough. This new collection reflects the geographical movement of the poet (she was raised in Gisborne, recently spent three years in Nelson and has returned to Wellington). It is a terrific follow-on in both scope and sensibility. Her poems have points of origin in diverse places — from the random-article function in Wikipedia (thus poems on Cooper County, Missouri, Breakfast Television, Whaling in the Faroe Islands to name a few) to Lynn Davidson’s lines in a collaborative artwork to Dorothy in Emily Perkin’s The Forrests. Such a vivacious mix of subject matter adds texture to poems that are light footed and sure. Again, Louise finds little kinks in reality, in experience and in anecdote to produce a collection that surprises and takes risks, but that also relishes large patches of calm and ordinariness.

The title itself stalls you. ‘Enough.’ Enough what. Enough how. The word twitches and trembles in its multiplicity of meaning, from the hand raised to stay stop, to the arms outstretched that signal plenty, to (as the title poem itself suggests) the fearsome possibility that nothing is ever enough. Placing that particular  title on the cover of the book, also whispers (oh so quietly) that to write poems is sometimes –provisionally and momentarily– enough (in the face of all other meanings). Perhaps reading and writing poetry can make the world, for an hour or an afternoon, more bearable.

I don’t see this collection as trying to fit or suit poetic trends. It is a collection written out of shifting movement, out of hurt and honesty and love. Alongside a mind inventing and imagining, this is a poet engaged with ‘the gestation of a second difficult book.’ The traces of living are hot spots. One poem, ‘Getting things done,’ is like a secret, narrative undercurrent throughout the book. The narrator moves, the narrator arrives, the narrator unpacks, the narrator gets things done. Having listed the visible signs of ‘doing’ the narrator climbs in a box with her cup of tea and ‘starts’: ‘She shuts the curtains on the outside world/ even though it’s very nice weather/ and there are sounds of children playing/ and then screaming and then she starts.’

This poem reverberated for me on so many levels. The little mantra ‘I will get things done‘ was followed by the isolated last line ‘she writes.’ The poem is testimony to the stamina required by women to maintain the domestic sphere and then to make space for themselves (to do, if not to be). Making the box is making room in the head, away from domestic routine, the clutter and the demands to a moment of stillness and quiet. Making the box is also making the poem. The poet can climb into the poem with her blocked ears and her inky pen. The acute register of the final line is in the way the two words echo and rebound in the cavity of history — in the way women have always had to make a box (a room, a space, a moment) from which and in which to write (Louise’s first collection poignantly acknowledged the women who had preceded her). This simple poem opens out into marvelousness.

Louise’s poems can sidestep out of doubt and anxiety with such poetic agility the dark feeling exposes something completely other – a quirky image, a surprising ending, humour, startling detail. In ‘In the end,’ the detail of the head being stoked opens a new view of the grandmother, and it is very moving.

You fall upon juxtapositions that add to the humour, anecdote or heart of the poem. In ‘A hand’ an old woman refuses the narrator’s help, so the latter imagines herself (bitterly at first) as an old woman and then laughs: ‘The round of my head/ against the car park grey.’ I love the way ‘grey’ is the miniature prefigurement of old age and grey hair. In ‘Well how would you be about it’ someone watches the meals on wheels being buried in the garden: ‘Her neighbour watches and reports back — / the no-good little tell-tale tit.’ Or the delicious leap from ‘a grisly stew’ of worry to a hat made of peacock’s feathers in ‘The feathered hat.’

The structure of Louise’s collection works beautifully, with its movement from prose poem to poem to little poem to bite-size poem and hither and thither. Wherever you look there is energy — whether in the plainness, the heart, the anecdotal swivels, the hesitations, the repetitions or the idiosyncratic detail. This is a poetry collection to savour.

Thanks to Victoria University Press I have a copy of Enough to give away to someone who comments on this post by Thursday 31st October.

Victoria University Press page

New Zealand Book Council page

Interview with Louise Wallace on Radio NZ

Review of Since June in the Otago Daily Times

Poems in Snorkel

Best New Zealand Poems page

An Interview: Anne Kennedy ‘everything was up for question, and so the thing was to keep on searching”

Anne Kennedy mugshot

Anne Kennedy has many strings to her writing bow. She writes fiction, poetry and screenplays, and has gathered wide readership with her ability to draw upon a keen intellect, empathy, humour and a musical ear. This year she won the Poetry Category of The New Zealand Post Book Awards, with her collection The Darling North (Auckland University Press, 2012); a decision that delighted her poetry fans (Sarah Jane Barnett, who was also shortlisted, sung the praises of Anne’s poetry in a Listener interview). Anne’s debut collection, Sing-song (AUP, 2003)  won The Montana New Zealand Book Awards and her follow-up, The Time of the Giants (AUP, 2005), was short-listed. Very few New Zealand poets have received such sustained honours (perhaps Cilla McQueen?). This year also saw the release of her critically acclaimed novel, The Last Days of the National Costume. Anne has spent a number of years teaching fiction and screenwriting at the University of Hawai’i, as well as teaching part-time at Manukau Institute of Technology.

cp-sing-song cp-the-time-of-the-giants cp-the-darling-north

Anne’s poetry is a joy to read. While you might find traces of similarity, her poetry is unlike  that of any other New Zealand poet. Narrative energy is at the heart of her poems, poems that range from long to longer to book length. Her poems emerge from a life of reading and the reading of life. In ‘The Darling North’ poem there is a strong debt to Frederick E Manning’s Old New Zealand along with North by Seamus Heaney (she acknowledges these debts in her endnote), but the poem reaches deep into other experiences. There is a vivacity of detail, words that tremble and surprise on the line, a movement that is as much onwards as it is hesitation. Onwards, because you are in the sway and swerve of narrative motion, hesitation because the elasticity and surprise of words stalls you. Each line is a musical haven, where a note is struck and then counterbalanced or echoed or augmented:

I put my coat on over my nightdress and navigate

the trembling upper veranda, its nervous


kauri planks penned like wild horses under my feet

and I bounce down the foaming moonlit steps


to the garden, where a cat scallops, and hedgehog

snuffles obliquely into flax. It is cool.


Anne kindly agreed to an interview for Poetry Shelf:

Did your childhood shape you as a poet? What did you like to read? Did you write as a child? What else did you like to do?

To me, writing is partly about searching, and that’s what I was brought up to do. There were always books, and they were treasured (from Paradise Lost to A Town Like Alice), but I don’t know how anyone got time to read them because the house was busy with people, debate, drama. Looking back, we contended with philosophical gulfs on a daily basis: My parents came from different social classes, the Sixties happened, and in those days the Catholic schools peddled a sense of difference from mainstream society. (I don’t know if this was good or bad, but the artist needs to stand apart some of the time, if we are to believe Bourdieu). Overall, everything was up for question, and so the thing was to keep on searching.

One day, not long after I started school I, realized with a rush that if you could write, you could write a book. I threw a sickie (easy in our house), and wrote a tiny poem book (in Anne Carson’s ‘off hours’) in which every page ended in the sound ‘ee’. I was very proud of it and after that never stopped writing.

I don’t think we can underestimate how important literacy is, ‘in the first place’ (to quote Janet Frame), for creative writing. A while back, people were chuckling over John Key handing out Prime Minister’s awards for ‘literacy’ to three of our most eminent writers. No doubt he meant literature, but there’s some truth in the mistake. It all begins with being given the power to read and write well, yet more and more children miss out. I’m lucky that being taught early on meant the page represented freedom, only freedom. I’ve taught students who are intensely creative and great wordsmiths but struggle to translate that into writing because they’ve been failed by the education system.

Poetry on the page begins when you are five.

I was never without a novel (Rosemary Sutcliffe, C. S Lewis, Dodie Smith) , but when I was about seven I was given Peacock Pie, a collection of little story poems for children by Walter de la Mare, which I loved, and worse, copied. Later I was given an anthology for kids called This or That or Nothing, which was more confronting, with poems about nuclear bombs and suicide. It had an assortment of wonky fonts and a bright orange cover – very 1968. Poetry suddenly seemed subversive and shocking. I lived in that book for a year – and also copied it shamelessly. This is how people learn, I just didn’t know it then. (This is why your work with children’s poetry is so important, Paula.)

There was also the Bible, listened to at Mass. (‘Consider the lilies of the field, they toil not neither do they spin.’) I don’t remember anyone ever cracking open the text themself: it was always aural, and the rhythms and the far-fetched stories are still with me. That might seem contradictory to my point about literacy, but literature is the spoken written down.

You had developed a substantial reputation as a fiction writer (innovative, musical, poetic, complex, with strong relations with the real world, imagined worlds, and literary worlds), before you published poetry. What drew you to this different form?

I always wrote poetry. My first two fiction books are partly in poem form, but yes, I did leap over a kind of doorstep. My fiction seemed to be being read by a poetry audience which is strangely more accepting. Also I felt like my fiction was a failure, and I needed to stop!

I agree that your fiction is sumptuous and poetic (no way a failure!) and generates a reading experience that is quite breathtaking. Your poems are narrative driven — as a reader I get caught up in the arc and sidetracks of the narrative impulse, but there is so much more going on (as with your fiction). On so many occasions, musicality is the poem’s lifeblood, along with luminous and often surprising detail, light-footed and shifting syntax, and snatches of story that draw people and places close. What are key things for you when you write a poem?

One of the key things is a kind of key, or a tonal centre. As a reader, I find myself looking for a departure from a central idea or theme and a return to it – there’s a glorious tension in that. I’m drawn to modern and contemporary narrative poets like Anne Carson, Albert Wendt, W. S. Merwin, Williams Carlos Williams, T.S. Elliot, and also and especially Virgil, who daringly stray a long way from ‘home’, but inevitably return. When Vela travels away from his time, his people, his seriousness, even his story, coming back is all the better.

While I can admire a short poem that is a thing in itself but not a story, I couldn’t write one to save myself. There would be so much pressure on it! A poem only lives for me if it is part of a network, a litany.

On a line level, I love the element of surprise, but also plainness, because surprise is only interesting when it is set like a gem. Ian Wedde is very good at this.

Yes! I think it is the plainness that elbows room in the surprise and the surprise that makes little leaps in the plainness. You continue to write poetry, you continue to write fiction. Is this a supportive relationship? What is different about doing one rather than the other?

I wish I knew, and I’d stick to one or the other, probably fiction! Sometimes I try to work out the differences between the genres but can never get very far.

What poets have mattered to you over the past decades? Some may have mattered as a reader and others may have been crucial in your development as a writer.

            My brother, Philip, was the first adult poet I read. Most of what we still have of his was written in his teens. He died at 22. I’m working on a sequence grouped around one of his poems, which I find a very moving experience. It’s taking me a long time. (I hope I haven’t jinxed it by talking about it.)

There were poetry books in the house because of Philip: Hone Tuwhare, James K Baxter, Sam Hunt, who were so important for their New Zealand vernacular – and because they are incredibly good. But they’re all men, and as I got older I sought out women poets – Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Maya Angelou, and imagist poets like H. D.

When I first read Gertrude Stein, it was like a wall crashing down. But another went up, a Steinish wall: I think I embarked on a years-long phase of not caring about the reader. I put it down to not caring enough about people. Emotional maturity is important in a writer.

All these poets I read as a reader and as a writer. I don’t separate the two.

Perhaps this emotional maturing strengths the presence of heart in the risks you take as a writer. What New Zealand poets are you drawn to now?

Some young poets I’ve noticed recently make you swell with the knowledge that this business is in good hands: Sarah Jane Barnett, Amy Brown, Ya-Wen Ho, Courtney Sina Meredith, Steven Toussaint, Ashleigh Young. And Ellie Catton’s The Luminaries is intensely poetic. I read it in the same way as I do a poem.

I agree with you on The Luminaries. A number of reviews have used the word ‘luminous.’ Poetically luminous, at the level of the sentence for a start. Do you think your poetry writing has changed since Sing-song was published in 2003?

I hope so. I hope I’ve got better, but you can never really know. As Flannery O’Connor says, ‘Mystery isn’t something that is gradually evaporating. It grows along with knowledge.’


You have spent the past decade living between New Zealand and Hawaii. Is a sense of home an important factor as you write?  I wonder if your writing is a way of laying down roots, both familial and literary. Or do you feel torn between places and thus restless as a writer?

            I laid down roots through writing a long time ago, and moved on from that. I think that’s quite a common pattern. But moving between countries, having two realities, has undoubtedly played into the collision of worlds that the imagination continues to be.

Do you think the poetry writing landscape in New Zealand is vastly different than that in Hawaii? Is ethnicity or race an issue?

Ah, this is all so complicated! Ethnicity is a hot issue in Hawai`i. People talk about it constantly, and are defined by it (‘that Chinese girl’ kind of thing), which is at once refreshing and difficult. And of course poetry lives in that world. One of the big recent movements is Pidgin poetry, which has such a gorgeous sound because it is essentially a spoken language. Two of my favourite Local poets who write in Pidgin are Lois Ann Yamanaka (who also writes novels), and Ann Inoshita: ‘Going come dark so my madda call me / fo go back inside da house’ (‘TV’). Indigenous Pacific poetry with a political drive is also strong in Hawai`i, with poets like Brandy McDougall, Craig Santos Perez, and Robert Sullivan, being part of the Pacific-wide picture. (See my piece on Hawai`i poetry in Ka Mate Ka Ora:

On returning to Aotearoa, I remembered that ethnicity is like sex, you can’t talk about it publicly. And yet, this is a very racist country. Maori and Polynesian poetry, and in fact all non-white poetry, is largely ghettoized. I’ve been shocked to be involved in event after event that is entirely white. I’d forgotten that could even happen. So while it is considered tasteless to mention ethnicity, people happily exclude based on it.

I put this racism down to a reluctance to entertain different aesthetics. The kind of poetry I like is ABOUT being open to difference, to different codes, to different musics.

Pakeha writers have got to hope that when they are in the minority, which will happen eventually, the people in the majority remain open to the aesthetics of other.

What irks you in poetry?

The ‘isn’t-my-life-lovely’ poem.

What delights you?

Curious narrative. Hidden form. Tossed-offness. Humour. And the thing I didn’t know would delight me until I read it.


Name three NZ poetry books that you have loved.

It’s probably too nepotistic of me to mention Voice Carried My Family, by Robert Sullivan, so: Wild Dogs Under My Skirt, by Tusiata Avia; Thicket, by Anna Jackson; The Lifeguard, by Ian Wedde.

Name three overseas poetry books that you have loved.

I’ll limit myself to North America for now: Glass, Irony, and God, by Anne Carson; Povel, by Geraldine Kim; Rebellion is the Circle of a Lover’s Hands, by Martín Espada.

The constant mantra to be a better writer is to write, write, write and read read read. You also need to live! What activities enrich your writing life?

Being with family trumps everything.

But lots of other things. If you feed only off creative writing and its world, you might end up with the literary equivalent of mad cow disease.

Some poets argue that there are no rules in poetry and all rules are to be broken. Do you agree? Do you have cardinal rules?

Form is a kind of gravity. If there wasn’t any, everything would fly away. I enjoy formal constraints and the freedom to muck them up. For instance, in The Family Songbook John Newton’s handling of meter is spectacular, and yet the lines on the surface seem roughed up in best possible sense. That kind of controlled spokenness I can only dream of writing.

In the end, the elements of a poem are there for the greater good. I like Eavan Boland’s quite essentialist take on what images do in a poem: ‘Images are not ornaments; they are truths.’

Do you find social media an entertaining and useful tool or white noise?

How could we live without it now? It brings people together in new configurations. Also, the written word is lifeblood again. It was languishing for a while there.

You have dedicated significant time to teaching creative writing at The University of Hawaii and, in a more part time role, at Manukau Institute of Technology. What do you see as important in your role as mentor?

I think I’m there to open some conceptual doors. It took me a while to work out process. Teaching is like constructing a narrative – in what order should you introduce ideas so they make sense? I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get this right, usually using close readings of texts. It’s exhilarating to have a class share a text, to get it, enjoy it, learn from it. (I got some of that just from reading and talking to people, but you don’t get a degree from hanging out with friends!)

I was surprised to find that I like teaching students who will probably not end up as writers, it’s just something that will enrich their lives. But of course it is also incredibly exciting to work with someone who is dripping with talent.

Women writers have often managed a writing life along with domestic demands and have been denigrated for writing that embraces domestic concerns. Any thoughts on this? Is there still a case for feminist appraisals of writing and the institutions that both reproduce and critique it?

Poetry isn’t sealed off from daily life, so until women have equal pay, equal opportunity, and don’t have to live in fear, feminist principles must have a place in writing and criticism. Although women poets are published in greater numbers now in Aotearoa (it could hardly be fewer than when it was just Jan Kemp!), there’s still chauvinism, still old farts and not so old farts who view women’s domestic-themed poetry as ‘soft’.

The big names of poetry are still mostly men, and the theorists we revert to are men even though there’ve been generations of feminist theorists now.

When I was young, feminist poets and theorists were vital to my vision of myself as a writer. To my list above I could add Denise Levertov, Anna Akhmatova, Anne Waldman, and Hélène Cixous, Elaine Showalter, and Simone de Beauvoir. I don’t think I would be in print without them. I’m worried we may have stopped making consciously feminist poetry too soon. But Pasifika women seem to not have forgotten the struggle. Tusiata Avia, Selina Tusitala Marsh, Courtney Sina Meredith are inspiring a new generation of young women.

Finally if you were to be trapped (in a waiting room, on a mountain, inside on a rainy day) for hours what poetry book would you read?

As long as I can be trapped from November on, Bernadette Hall’s forthcoming book, Life & Customs.

Thank you, Paula.

Thank’s Anne. Bernadette’s book is due in November and is published by Victoria University Press. I will review it on Poetry Shelf.


Auckland University Press page

New Zealand Book Council page

Scottish Poetry Library introduction to Anne Kennedy

Anne Kennedy on the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre

Anne Kennedy’s author page at Allen and Unwin

Anne Kennedy on the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre

Anne Kennedy in Best New Zealand Poems 2005

Anne Kennedy’s bibliography in the Auckland University Library’s New Zealand Literature File

NZ on Screen page

Interview for Unity Books

Review of The Darling North in Metro

Review of The Darling North in Landfall

Review of The Darling North in NZ Books

Review of The Darling North in The Listener

Eleanor Catton Every now and then you get to read a novel that elevates you far beyond the bric-a-brac of everyday routine


Earlier this year I got a proof copy of Eleanor’s book to review for the Herald. It was, as my review attests, an extraordinary reading experience. It seemed to be a significant and vital contribution to the local literary landscape let alone the wider global setting. To sit glued to the TV this morning, with twitter alongside, to hear her announced as winner and to follow her speech (so composed, thoughtful, inspirational) was pinch-your-self-material. Even from this far, from out from the city and its hubbub of life, from bookshops and libraries and book chat, I wanted to leap for joy. This is a marvelous book, and its author inhabits this world with a rare mix of graciousness, humility, courage, outspokenness, daring, warmth and kindness. These qualities mark her as a person (as they did with Margaret Mahy), but they also mark her writing. In her speech, she contrasted the need to write for money and the need to write with other values in mind. Eleanor writes out of love — out of a love of writing and words, but equally importantly, out of a love of humanity, her close friends and family, and then beyond. Cheers!


The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
(Victoria University Press hardback $45/paperback $35)

Every now and then you get to read a novel that elevates you far beyond the bric-a-brac of everyday routine, takes you apart, reassembles you, and leaves you feeling as though you have been on holiday with a genius.

Eleanor Catton’s astonishing new novel, The Luminaries, does just that. It was no surprise to me, really, because her debut novel, The Rehearsal, was daring, fresh, beautifully crafted and award-winning. It has been translated into 12 languages.

Don’t let the hefty size put you off (more than 800 pages) because you enter the world of a novelist who, in her late 20s, writes with such wisdom, compassion, elegance and craft you don’t want to depart that world in a hurry.

See the rest of my Herald review here.

Lorde: there’s poetry in these lyrics


Sometimes you put an album on for the first time and you sink back into the sumptuous layers and soak up every musical note with pleasure, without analysis, almost without thinking. The body takes over as you transcend the domestic and psychological clutter and you exist for that brief moment without anchor.

A friend put on Lorde’s ‘Royals’ sometime last year before the single had gone global, so I had no expectations at work; I was blown away by the voice and by the song at a gut level. Now, with her debut album, Pure Heroine, out, I want to see if my instincts were right, and that there is poetry in these lyrics.

A number of years ago, Don McGlashan was awarded The University of Auckland Literary Fellowship, to the delight of some and the horror of others. What was a songwriter doing taking up a literary spot? Could a song be accepted as literature? My family and I have been big fans of Don’s music — whenever we drive up a mountain we also put on one of his albums (it is a family ritual and it feels odd if we don’t). From 2005 we played Warm Hand and then from 2009 Marvellous Year. The lyrics are infectious on both the level of meaning and poetic (musical) effects.

This from Don’s song, ‘Marvellous Year’: ‘We had democracy, dentistry, waist-band-elastic, rhythmic gymnastics, the rule of law, the rule of thumb, fire, the wheel, rugby union, the petrol engine, the old-age pension, the fire of Hades, the Briscoes lady, dental floss, motor cross, the Koran, the Torah, Interflora.’ His lyrics are complex, layered, subtle, rich in poetic effect and stick in your head, particularly when you are driving up terrifying mountain roads in the snow or mist!

Some music mesmerises you in terms of sweet melodies and even sweeter production, but  with some songs, the lyrics draw you in so close, you just want to stay. So what does the lyric do in a song? I am a poet, and neither a musicologist nor musician, but to me words can assume the role of musical notes (as they can do in poems). Thus the lyric can make delicious aural links through alliteration, assonance, rhyme, repetition. Words, you could say, form musical chords in a lyric (or poem) that might generate harmony or disharmony. I have often experienced the poems of Bernadette Hall and Bill Manhire in this way.

Some poets are reluctant to put poems to music as they fear the music will drown out the poetry. So what about the lyric, which is competing with other instruments? To me, the lyric in partnership with the voice is like a musical instrument; and like poetry, the lyric might have its own internal music along with meaning, ideas, feeling, politics, self-confession and so on.

The first thing that strikes me about Lorde’s songs is the subtle and gorgeous layering of music hiding in the words. It is as though her words are musical notes first and foremost, and  after that honeyed ringing in your ear are ready to lead you elsewhere. Take ‘Tennis Court’ for example. Here there is a rippling of ‘i’ notes creating secret chords, as in kill, million, thrill, minute, it, little, tennis, pictures, wicked, window. I love the way, in the first verse, amidst these sounds, ‘bright’ strikes out, shifting the sound and reinforcing the image. Such musical effects are what hook you in and soothe the body, but there is more. This is a layered song with gaps and miniature self-confessions (‘how can I fuck with the fun again when I’m known’) that tug at you. Lorde doesn’t spell everything out but leaves clues (‘It looked all right in the pictures/ getting caught’s half the trip of it, though isn’t it?’).

Then there is the word play in words that rhyme and almost rhyme. In ‘Glory and Gore,’ your ear falls upon: gladiators, saviours, contagious, gladiate. In the heart of ‘Royals’ there is the refrain or magnetic list that pulses hot. Again the rhymes feed the poetry of the lyric: time piece, gold leash, teeth. Or islands, tiger, diamonds, like, driving. Really the lines are musical treasure troves that you can pick apart but that in their glorious shift and fall of sound make poetry spark in your ear (‘hollow like the bottles that we drain’).

When I was judge for the NZ Post Secondary School Poetry Competition, a tremendous number of poems were caught up in teenage angst (no reason not to!), heartache and death. What often let the poems down was the floodgate of feeling that drowned the poetry. What I love about Lorde’s lyrics is that while they skid and skate through teenage angst they do so with edgy detail, political bite, surprising turns, mysteriousness, cutting insight, splinters of self confession.  Detail does a lot. Here it summons a season so beautifully: ‘now we’re wearing long sleeves and the heating comes on.’ The edgy detail leads us into the overlapping realities that make the songs so vital: the real world where you pay money and catch the bus, the film world where you drive Cadillacs and get married, the virtual world where you keep in touch with friends, the dream world where you hold onto ideals.

New Zealand poetry has a history of political engagement, but it is often in the ‘personal is political’ vein. Lorde, though, is boldly giving her lyrics political edge. Do poets consider the effect of their poems on society? Do poets challenge the way whatever we represent (in any public form) can be consumed without interrogation? To the extent we become immune to the ideas circulated (the ideology that unwittingly sustains and shapes us)? Lorde, might be weaving magic with her word notes, but these notes are also doing other jobs. The themes that dart and leap out of her lyrics draw attention to a crazy world that is unattainable for many of us (impossible to-be-women), the gap between rich and poor, the mind numbing and   gut wrenching global consumption, our different realities, political hierarchies. To stand up amidst the barrage of images of sexualised young women and say ‘I am a feminist’ is like a long, overdue tonic. Perhaps this announcement, ricocheting around the world, will prompt a mini revolution. I applaud Lorde for this.

Lorde’s lyrics are there for all to hear (and see), but we are not going to hear (and see) everything. She tells and she does not tell. The economy of production allows great room for the voice and the word-notes to breath and resonate. There are masks (the clown, who am I?), there is bad behaviour (trashing hotel rooms) and there is contemplation (getting old). Lorde says in her album notes that she ‘poured her brain and her heart into this’ (and I would add ear) and it shows. Put this album on and you can enter the lyric with your brain, heart and ear and discover (again) the power of words to make your body move. It’s poetry.

On Poetry: Airini Beautrais relishes the fulfilment of intent

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Airini Beautrais is currently enrolled in a PhD in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters, where she is exploring Australia and New Zealand narrative poems. Airini has a background in ecological science and has worked as a secondary-school teacher. Her debut poetry collection, Secret Heart, was awarded Best First Book at the Montana Book Awards in 2007. Her second, standout collection, Western Line, filled me ‘with joy – through what words can do and through the avenues poetry makes available’ (my NZ Herald review).  The initial sequences of love and charm poems took miniature, imaginative leaps, trailed footprints in the everyday, relished musical lifts and were unafraid of humour. As I said in my review, there was no other New Zealand collection quite like it: daring, fresh, agile.

Airini has generously agreed to contribute to the ongoing series of small pieces ‘On Poetry.’

Here is a quote I came across recently:

“Poetry is the fulfilment of intent; what dwells in the mind is intent, what comes forth in words is poetry. Emotions move in the core of one’s being and take form in words. When speaking them does not suffice, then one sighs them or chants them; if sighing and chanting do not suffice, then one sings them; if singing them does not suffice, then unconsciously one taps them out with the hands, dances them, treads them and stamps them

Emotions come forth in sounds, and when the sounds fulfil patterns they are called musical tones. The musical tones of an age of peace are tranquil and incline to joy; their regulation is harmonious. The musical tones of an age of disorder are dissonant and incline to anger; their regulation is perverted. The musical tones of a kingdom in ruins are mournful and incline to nostalgia; their people are suffering. Therefore, to keep order in success or failure, to move Heaven and Earth, to touch the feelings of ghosts and spirits, nothing can approach poetry.”

This was written in the 1st century AD, in a preface to the Shih Ching anthology of Chinese poetry. It is attributed to a writer named Wei Hung. The translation above is by Dore Levy, and I found it in her book on Chinese narrative poetry.

The first thing that struck me about this passage was the statement “Poetry is the fulfilment of intent.” I had never thought of it like that, but the idea made sense. We do bring our intent forth in words – for better or worse. Intent is the beginning of the poem – but where might a poem end up? What work will it do? Moving heaven and earth, touching the feelings of spirits; these are no mean feats. Would we attempt such things?

Recently I have been thinking a lot about the work of poetry. Largely based on my own experience, I have a suspicion that as poets we have a tendency to make too many rules for ourselves, or to internalise the rules we interpret from what we read. Often these rules seem to involve the work poetry may or may not do. Such as: poetry may involve clever word-play. It may be obscure. It may be unintelligible. It may be funny. It may confess. It may not articulate an opinion. It may not teach. It may not preach, prophesy, challenge, condemn, tell, etc.

Maybe these are what have been my rules. I like to tell people I only have one rule in my poetry: Never write about cats (a rule I am of course prepared to break if the right occasion arises). But underneath are the bigger rules. In my work at the moment, I am staring them down, and it terrifies me. I am terrified of two things: If I break those rules, I will never be a poet. If I don’t break those rules, I will never be a poet.

I am not a chanter or a dancer. I write with a page, and silent reading, in mind. If I write anything that stamps, it will be in a metaphorical sense. But I do, in spite of my rules, have intentions. Are they honourable? I’m not sure. I feel that poetry needs a 1980’s bumper sticker: Poetry can do anything!

Victoria University Press page

Twenty-three love poems

Poetry With Airini on National Radio

On Tuesday Poems

Otago Daily Times review

NZ Books review

IIML student page

Bernadette Hall talks to Poetry Shelf: All I know is that I’m more in love with poetry, whatever it is, than ever


Bernadette Hall is an award-winning poet, editor and teacher living at a beach north of Christchurch. She has published numerous collections of poetry, but is one of those poets who gives more to the community than just her marvelous poems. Bernadette co-founded the Hagley Writers’ Institute in Christchurch and has continued to mentor young writers. As editor she has placed two New Zealand women poets under a welcome spotlight. She edited Like Love Poems: Selected Poems of Joanna Margaret Paul (2006) and The Judas Tree: Poems by Lorna Staveley Anker (2013). Both are terrific additions to the local, poetry landscape.

With a new collection about to be launched by Victoria University Press on November 1st, it seemed the perfect time to interview Bernadette. I will post a review of Life & Customs at the beginning of November.

Bernadette’s poems are lyrical havens, where musical chords are words that chime and where rhythms shift in undercurrents of beat. As you read, your body unwittingly absorbs the music, the delicious flecks of assonance, alliteration and rhyme. Her poems lead you back out into the world, to the detail that makes the poet’s experience shine not just at a physical level but at a level where things less easily put into words take root (beauty, love, grief, despair, doubt, intuition, compassion, kindness, thought). She is not afraid to use similes and when she uses them they refresh the poem (‘The rain is like mice scrabbling in the ceiling’ and ‘It’s like walking into a room that’s full/ of McCahons, you know, the way the air changes’). Sometimes a poem is a home for anecdote (much came from her six-month residency in Ireland for The Lustre Jug). Sometimes it is a home for sights and sounds and information that the poet with her eyes and ears open to the world has gleaned (a little like a poet-magpie). If you haven’t yet discovered the luminous attractions of Bernadette’s poems, her collection The Lustre Jug (VUP, 2009) is the perfect place to start (find a hammock, add The Ponies (VUP, 2007) and The Merino Princess: Selected Poems (VUP, 2004) and you will be set!).

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The interview:

Dear Paula

Here’s a little something, a sort of reply to your questions.

I haven’t really got a lot to say about poetry at the moment. I think the teaching gene has finally been extinguished in me.  I’m not so sure about things that I used to be sure of a year or so ago.  I have to think that this is a healthy state of affairs.

All I know is that I’m more in love with poetry, whatever it is, than ever.


My mother loved language.

Her conversation sparkled with word play and old sayings from Central Otago and from her Irish family. These sayings were rich and dangerous, they had everyone laughing. There was a sharp wit and scathing irony in them. If we complained about a petticoat that hung down a little or a spot that had turned up on our chins just before we went up town with our friends, she’d say ‘A blind man on a galloping horse wouldn’t see that.’ An expression of high praise from her sister, my aunt, was ‘Why you’re the girl your mother forgot to drown.’ Haha, it was outrageous and dangerous  and full of affection.  Heehee, saying one thing and meaning another, isn’t that supposed to be a definition of poetry?

My mother’s mother had a few words of the Irish. My two sisters and I have inherited an affection for what we call the Irish gift of charming, scurrilous repartee. ‘My arse to you and that’s behind me’ my grandmother would say, apparently.  But never to her grand-children.  My mother would quote her if we were playing up, digging our heels in.  ‘Oh, bum through the letterbox,’ she’d say. And that was that. It might have been an acknowledgement of being rendered speechless but it was also a declaration of authority. There were to be no more arguments or protestations. We’d have to laugh but we’d also have to do what we were told.  Even more so after my father died, felled by a heart attack, right in front of me, I’d just arrived home from school and I was sixteen.

To be grief-stricken. To speak to no-one in my family, not my mother or my sisters, for a year                 ( something I’d ‘forgotten’ until one of my sisters reminded me and then I was amazed that something in my own inexplicable private life as I had experienced it, had had an impact on someone else, that it had been visible when all that time I had thought I was invisible.)  To be so angry.

At Holy Name School in Dunedin ( site now of the Students Union, only a huge walnut tree remains)  I learnt language as mystery in the Latin Mass. I learnt musical rhythms in the repetitions of the Litany of the Saints many of whom had the most remarkable names, Cosmas and Chrosogynus for example.  Ora pro nobis, we’d chorus, ‘pray for us.’  And if two saints were invoked in the same breath, we’d use the plural orate pro nobis. Not one word of Maori passed our lips but plenty of the language of the Roman Empire, of civilisation and theological sureties.

We performed poems in a poetry choir conducted by Miss Molly Randall.  ‘I must go down to the sea again / to the lonely sea and the sky’ and ‘one of them two of them three of them four of them / seabirds on the shore.’ We copied out poems by Rupert Brooke, Scottish ballads (so marvellously tragic), Milton on his blindness and Elizabeth Barrett Browning on love.  Eileen Duggan was a Catholic so of course we learnt her poems. I loved especially her lines about the little silver consecration bell ringing in the untamed darkness of the New Zealand bush. Now it’s her doubting poems that I admire.

Belief and unbelief, the tension between them being a virtue, I have been told, in the poems I wrote in response to the sculptures by Llew Summers,  the Stations of the Cross, which remain sound but imprisoned in the destructed Catholic Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Christchurch. Anthony Ritchie has written a symphony for full orchestra and solo soprano in which he uses words from these poems. The work will be premiered in Christchurch on February 22, 2014.

As a child, I wrote poems for my friend Annette. She set me a topic and paid me a penny and I gave her a poem.  On things like Dogs ( I was passionately in love with dogs, desperate to have one but I don’t think we could have afforded one) and Spring and The Circus.  I wrote a long essay on The Sea.  It delighted Mother St Joan and got me a straight A. But the real pleasure was in sitting at the little table in the window of the spare room, looking out at the poplars and the willows and the river, the Leith.  Being solitary and absorbed. Silent, lost to myself and fully alive. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-forties that the desire for this kind of internal ‘room of my own’ awoke in me again.

I always loved the sea. My dad and I were the bravest when it came to swimming. He’d float on his back, going up and down on the waves. I played tennis. I played the cello, in the King Edward Tech orchestra conducted by Mr Waldon Mills. Later on I was in the Otago University orchestra led by Bill Southgate. Music and Latin and freedom.  I climbed trees with my friend Nicki. I ran wild along the track to the Gardens, I spent hours puddling around in the Leith, catching cockabullies and tiny weedy lobsters. I planted flower seeds – I was born to do manual work, to be a gardener, digging, pruning, lugging, mulching, turning the compost heap, raking the little pebble paths that go for grass out here in the droughty Hurunui. I can remember my Dad’s mother, a little Northern Irish migrant, a farmer, a prohibitionist, running out onto the road in Leith Valley behind the milkman’s cart.  I helped her shovel up the horse’s droppings to feed the pansies in the garden.

I have spent a lifetime immersed in the language of poetry and plays as a high school teacher, specialising in English, Latin and Classical Studies. The poet, Iain Lonie, tried to teach me Greek. His poetry and he himself, transfigured by his love for Judith, were more successful in teaching me ‘to prize what is of value’ than anything else.  John Dickson’s presence, the way he reads his poems, the fact that like Geoff Cochrane, he makes poetry visible and desirable in his very being, the fact that in conversation with these two and with Joanna Margaret Paul, I felt/feel myself getting nourishment for that sometimes hidden part of my life, the way, by my given nature, I tend to hide what I treasure the most.

When I read essays by Adrienne Rich, Seamus Heaney and Nuala Ni Dhomnhaill, poems by Wallace Stevens and Michele Leggott, John Berryman and  Hone Tuwhare, I am often going around the same traps but each time I find something new, something that I need, something that changes the work I am doing at the time.

I admire the poems that Tusiata Avia is writing at the moment. ‘The beauty of the husband’ by Anne Carson and The Big Music by Kirsty Gunn.  Novels by John Coetzee, Nigel Cox and Janet Frame. The Bath Fugues by Brian Castro. I have just started on Jorge Luis Borges, better late than never.  Max Gate by Damien Wilkins and The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton are on my to be read list. Time and again I read Dia by Michele Leggott,  The Rocky Shore by Jenny Bornholdt and The Palm at the End of the Mind by Wallace Stevens.  This week I’m in love with some wonderful, edgy poems written by a student I’m currently mentoring, they make me laugh out loud. And with a few lines from Thomas Merton’s ‘Book of Hours’ – a book which was given to me as a rather surprising gift :

‘No matter how simple discourse may be

     it is never simple enough.

     No matter how simple thought may be,

     it is never simple enough.

     No matter how simple love may be,

     it is never simple enough.’

That’s how I want to write this week, with simplicitas. Next week it might be all about elaborations.

When I was a teenager I worked in the school holidays in Buntings Brush Factory, operating machines that made toilet brushes and hair-curlers. I was very happy working there.  The mix of people was a real eye-opener   For some of the workers, Buntings offered the safety and respect of a sheltered workshop.  On my last day in the December just before I turned eighteen, before I headed off to university in the following year because I didn’t want to work in a bank as the Career Adviser who visited our school had advised, a gentle older man called Bruce gave me a copy of Allen Curnow’s The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (1960) as a farewell present. I still have it. There’s a poem there that said everything I could have imagined at the time about love and sex and longing.

‘Beloved your love is poured to enchant all the land

         the great bull falls still the opossum turns from his chatter

         and the thin nervous cats pause and the strong oak-trees stand

         entranced and the gum’s restless bark-strip is stilled from its clatter.

from ‘Flow at Full Moon’ by R. A. K. Mason.

The poem spoke to me and for me. It was like a voice from another planet.

When I write a poem, I want to break through. To be completely lost. So that the words aren’t mine, so that the flow is automatic. It’s like flying if it’s going well and that’s just the first flush of it. That’s when the best, the strangest lines make their appearance. But the whole usually takes more time and patience, allowing everything and then letting it all settle and find itself.  The aim being to make something that’s truthful and brave and beautiful. I like to give myself a bit of a fright, to push out beyond what I’d thought was possible. Poetry is the ground on which I can let myself go.  I can throw myself away and hope in a mad kind of way that I’ll be found and how liberating is that.

Victoria University Press page

New Zealand Book Council page

New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre page

Canterbury University Press page

Best NZ Poems edited by Bernadette Hall here

My review of The Lustre Jug in The NZ Herald