Monthly Archives: November 2013

Favourite poetry books of 2013 — make your pick

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The New Zealand Listener devotes vital attention to New Zealand writing throughout the year and this is to be applauded — reviews, interviews, features that cover a range of genres. However I was disappointed to see the slim selection of poetry in their recent Top 100 Books (November 30th issue) considering Chief Judge John Campbell had picked poetry as a particular strength of NZ writing at the NZ Post Book Awards this year:  ‘It is a reflection of the extraordinary strength of the new and young writers we read, particularly in poetry, where New Zealand is blessed by so many fine writers (at all ages and stages) that we respectfully suggest poetry could stand beside rugby as our national sport.’

It was a list of 6: I was delighted to spot three favourite books of mine (those of Selina Tusitala Marsh, Amy Brown and Ian Wedde).

Disclaimer: This post might be picked up as sour grapes on my part as I had a book of poetry released in the past year (The Baker’s Thumbprint, Seraph Press), but I have zero expectation of my books being on lists, being reviewed or gaining awards. It is not what matters to me. I focus on writing and all the things I love in life which is why I run two blogs dedicated to a celebration of poetry.

To make up for the Listener’s inattentiveness to the fabulous poetry published both in New Zealand and abroad I invite you to celebrate a favourite poetry book of 2013 (excluding mine). I don’t mind where the book was published. I would love to publish a series of these picks over the next month. Just select your book (you can do more than one if you like) and write a few sentences or a paragraph on what you love about it.

Perhaps these picks will send us hunting for poetry books to put in our summer reading bags.

I have a little bundle of NZ poetry books to send to a random contributor or two.

Send to

I say let’s invent, cultivate and nourish new ways to talk and write about poetry — Emma Neale raises a question

In a new post Emma Neale wonders if poetry reviews are ever obsolete. It’s a good question. She then posts reviews of two fabulous books.

Print media is in such strife these days poetry reviews have almost become an endangered species (which is partly why I started Poetry Shelf). Some newspapers such as The ODT and the Nelson Mail show a strong commitment to poetry and I still manage to get two or three published in The Herald. Landfall-on-line  is another source, as is the NZ Listener.

So perhaps we have to invent, cultivate and nourish new ways to talk and write about poetry (in new places). A blog like this is only ever going to hook the attention of our small enclave of poetry fans. A newspaper review might capture the attention of someone quite different (it happens!) and give a book a new readership.

What can we do?


Winner of Kathleen Grattan Award for Poetry 2013


Congratulations to Siobhan Harvey who is the winner of the 2013 Kathleen Grattan Award for Poetry. She was one of ninety entries. This year’s judge was Christchurch-based poet, Jeffrey Paparoa Holman. Siobhan receives $16,000. Here is the Radio NZ piece from Arts on Sunday.

New Zealand Book Council Page

Siobhan Harvey’s profile on the Random House website

Lost Relatives on Steele Roberts’ website

Siobhan Harvey on the The Poetry Archive (U.K.), featuring audio recordings of her work

Selina Tusitala Marsh’s Dark Sparring: this collection takes you to the sun and the moon and the clouds

Selina KBox Image

Selina Tusitala Marsh, Dark Sparring, Auckland University Press, 2013  photo credit: Emma Hughes Photography

Selina Tusitala Marsh is of Samoan, Tuvaluan, English and French descent and teaches at The University of Auckland. She was the first Pacific Islander to graduate from its English Department with a PhD. Her debut poetry collection, Fast Talkin’ PI, was awarded the Jessie MacKay Award for Best First Book of Poetry in 2010. She represented Tuvalu at the London Olympics Parnassus event in 2012.

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Selina’s second collection, Dark Sparring, lifts off from her debut in extraordinary ways. The poems embrace a variety of subject matter and forms, but they are held together by a voice that has grown in both strength and lightness. Selina writes out of two experiences that might seem opposed but that are equally linked both in life and on the line — the death of her mother and her adoption of Muay Thai kickboxing.

I have heard Selina perform these new poems twice in the past week or so. On each occasion, the strength of the poetry resonated in the air. At her launch, Selina was accompanied by Tim Page’s musical layerings, and she interrupted a kickboxing poem with a round or two of sparring in the room. The music and words fed upon each other with infectious energy, and the kickboxing was like a trope for the poems — graceful, startling, strong. Her performance was energised and entertaining (a definite wow factor). On the second occasion, Selina read at the Ladies Litera-Tea without musical accompaniment and without a round or two of sparring. What struck me about this performance was the way silence was a significant part of the poetry palette. The little and longer pauses heightened the emotional, personal and political kick.

The poems in this new collection embrace both the personal and the political; the former reaches out and draws you in close to private moments (a poetry of intimacy) while the latter is a voice that probes and exposes (a poetry of conscience). Both are fueled by Selina’s ear; by her attentiveness to the musicality of the line.

In the terrific opening poem, ‘Matariki,’ the poet is guiding a young writer named Matariki (who has no idea of the constellation and its meaning) in a writing workshop. The poet’s response on what to write serves as a perfect gateway into the book: ‘write what you remember/ write your lost and found/ write the toiling of the year’s grief/ write the seeding of new ground.’

Sound is always paramount. In ‘Chant from Matiatia to Orapiu,’ the words are like present-participle, daisy chains between the two locations with rhyme building the linking stems. The words zigzag down the page like bird flight or like an autobiography of movement. Then there are the single lines, without rhyme and without present participle that check you momentarily. Selina’s fondness for the present tense (a kind of be-here-now philosophy) accentuates the moment and movement.

The political poems (as with Selina’s first book) explore notions of identity, representation, genealogy, tradition, ethnicity and so on. There is always an acknowledgement of the line of writers (mostly women) from which Selina writes. Albert Wendt is there in ‘Emailing Albert.’ There is the poem about the Somali refugees that make words ache and rebound in new ways in the poetry workshop. This poem’s structure is handled beautifully so that it becomes an occasion for both poetry and politics with elegance and a sharp edge. There is the poem, ‘NZ, the Lucky Country,’ that is like a homage to here, unblinkered, incantatory, thankful. It is like a breath of fresh air.

The poems that centre upon the death of her mother, are deeply personal, utterly moving, and stall you, but they have a touch of the grace and strength of the kickboxer. These poems are highly original as Selina has moved about her boxing ring falling upon different shapes and forms to house her experience. The titles suggest this terrific movement; ’30 ways to Look at a Mother,’ ’13 Ways of Looking at Mourning,’ ‘To War with Story,’ ‘On Plagarism’ (which is after Bill Manhire and is all for killing off cancer and breaching copyright). ‘Genesis’ is like a biblical tale or parable on the origins of cancer, on cell warfare. These poems tug at you, stop you, soothe you, make you laugh out loud, and they feed empathy. In ‘A Formal Dinner,’ Selina moves you from smiling at the need to provide so much food at the funeral to a heart twinge at the absence of the table setter. These poems work as glorious symphonies of sound on the page but they also work as acute and tender tributes to a beloved.

In the debut collection, ‘Fast Talkin’ Pi,’ became a vital mantra for Pacific-Island women and women in general. In this second collection, Selina has returned to the poem by way of ‘Kickboxing Cancer’, but now the poem opens it arms wider to take in all women and a more personalised, particular woman. And then the poem holds its arms close in an intimate hug as this is a poem that comes out of love and death and loss.

Selina’s second collection lifts you out of your senses. She lifts her grief out of her body and  translates it into word music on the page and in the air (there is A CD in the back). Reading this collection takes you to the sun and the moon and the clouds, and then returns you to your own patch of ground to grieve and celebrate and challenge. I adore it.

Thanks To Auckland University Press I have a copy of this book to someone who likes or comments on this post or either of the two interviews. Thanks AUP!

Poetry Shelf Interview

Auckland University Press page

nzepc page

New Zealand Book Council page

Radio NZ interview

Best New Zealand Poems here

Blackmail Press page

A poetry of reading: Pip Adam’s I’m Working on a Building

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Poetry Shelf is not adverse to looking sideways and finding poetry in unexpected things: a building, an experience, a novel. Thus, I want to talk about reading Pip Adam’s new novel, I’m Working on a Building (Victoria University Press, 2013.

Within the first few sentences I was transported momentarily to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. This is a book where Marco Polo diverts Kublai Khan by describing the numerous wondrous cities to him (as though they are the cities of his exotic travels). What makes these extraordinary cities even more so is the fact that they are versions of the same place. Each story is a story of Venice, reinforcing the notion that place is in the eye of a beholder, and even then, place is on the move.

Pip has not recast Italo’s fictional flower bud (each city an overlapping petal) within her own context and structure, but her novel has absorbed a ‘Calvino’ sensibility. Pip’s novel is a novel of flux, not just in the shifting, fracturing, and at times smashed cityscapes, but also in the shifting, fracturing and smashed relations. As Italo did on so many occasions, Pip has shifted and cracked the very act of reading.

The novel commences at the story’s end and then makes its way in episodic leaps to the story’s beginning. In Pip’s narrative structure, I fell upon a poetry of reading. The rhythm of story shifted in its inversion so that it became unsettling, dizzying. It was a bit like following water down a plug hole from full bath to empty bath. Yet while such an analogy might describe the initial reading experience (I always find the movement of water a little disconcerting), it does not fit the whole. The rhythm of the reading altered the revelation of character and thus the emotional, psychological and narrative effects.

Usually (and we do seem so literary-model dependent), a narrative produces an accumulation of detail and revelation that develops character, setting, themes and cultural contexts across a narrative arc. So if we proceed in the opposite direction, will that also produce character development (along with all else)? Or is it a denuding; a striping back to an early version of protagonist? Is it flower-bud fiction, where we get to see various versions of a protagonist and his or her sidekicks reflecting and refracting ( a bit like life, really)?

What I loved about this Calvinoesque reading experience was the way it imitated the way we get to know people (even our parents, especially our parents); the way we move back in time as they reveal different versions of themselves (our parents slowly reveal the versions that existed before us). Each revelation smudges and shifts the one before and then the one after.

I have used the word ‘poetry’ to signal the delight I took in this reading experience, but I could also have used the word ‘architecture’ or even ‘engineering’. Buildings, as the title suggests, play a big role in the book. Evocative buildings such as the Pompidou Centre in Paris or Dubai’s Burj or a building about to collapse in an earthquake in Wellington. Both architecture and engineering resonate in the light of the building of self; self as edifice with foundations, fortifications and points of vulnerability. Yet the building and the act of building are also to be enjoyed outside the enriching life of the trope. Pip’s novel explores how a life is built, but also how buildings come into being and are part of the lifeblood of cities. Thus the architecture of this novel (and therefore the reading of this novel) is one of complexity.

At one point a character declares, ‘It’s an empty city anyway.’ Nasif responds, ‘It’s what you think.’

This novel is not an empty city, but like the overlapping versions of Italo’s Venice, it both confounds you and astounds you. There is poetry in its reading.


Victoria University Press page

NZ Booksellers review

National Radio interview

NZ Society of Authors page

NZ Arts Foundation page


Jenny Bornholdt’s A Book is a Book is the loveliest book I have read in years

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Sometimes a book arrives in the world and you know that it is a very special thing. It is a book you want to give everyone for Christmas and for birthdays and on days when you just feeling like giving someone a book.

A Book is a Book by Jenny Bornholdt (one of my favourite New Zealand poets) with illustrations by Sarah Wilkins is one such precious thing (Whitireia Publishing and Gecko Press, 2013). It is a little, hardcover book with a paper-dust jacket and exquisite drawings. It feels like it is from another age, perhaps the 1960s, so it takes me right back to when I was a young girl and I loved the magic of a new book (I still do!).

As the title tells us, this book is all about books — about reading books. Each page only has one or two sentences, but each page shimmers with wisdom, humour and truthfulness (I kept thinking that is so exactly right as I read!). Such a mix means that it is a very happy book! To sit down with a book that is so HAPPY it makes you feel HAPPY which is a very good thing.

To be honest, I couldn’t bear to finish this book for ages (in fact I left a little bit for today); like a box of chocolates I wanted to go on and on. Every page is a favourite page, but here is one I love:

‘If it’s Sunday and it’s raining,

a book is the perfect thing.

Even a small book, because

boredom can be very big.’

You will find places to read books, what to do if you don’t have a book, what’s inside books, about a -glow–in-the-dark book, games you can play with books …

… but as soon as I start to describe what the book describes, I know I have to stop because all Jenny’s word magic is gone.

This, my number-one-book-I-have-read-in-a-very-long-time book, you just have to read for yourself, and then get another copy to give your best friend. Because it is the perfect book to read when you want to feel good about life.

Thank you Whitireia Publishing and Gecko Press for the gorgeous production, thank you Jenny for the terrific words and thank you Sarah for the delicious, little paintings that are just perfect.

To celebrate my love of this book that has filled me with such book joy, I am going to host a three-week READING FESTIVAL on NZ Poetry Box starting on Monday with all kinds of prizes and surprises. If you want to paint a picture of your reading life as a child in 500 words or less let me know.

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Rachel O’Neill’s One Human in Height: Sent me searching for a new word to signal the kind of writing that takes flight


Rachel O’Neill, One Human in Height, Hue & Cry Press, 2013

Rachel O’Neill‘s debut poetry collection sent me searching for a new word to signal the kind of writing that takes flight within its pages. Yes, this is poetry that finds life in sentences, so you fall upon little prose poems (like embroidered pocket handkerchiefs on the page), but that seems barely adequate. Yes, these exquisite sentences have toes in the surreal, but again that falls short of the way each piece pivots upon an axis of the real. I think I have opted for poetry prisms.

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I was reminded of an extraordinary mix of things as I read: Anne Kennedy’s debut novel, 101 Traditional Smiles, Lyn Hejinian’s sentences, Fanny Howe’s sentences, Richard Brautigan, Gertrude Stein, Gregory O’Brien’s early poetic slants with magical drops, Gianni Celati’s Narratori delle pianure (for a start).

These poems are poetry prisms because they are shape-shifters (not on the page as they maintain the uniformity of squares and rectangles). They are kaleidescopic, anecdotal, twisty, askew, stream-of-consciousness-like, uncanny, colourful, incantatory, shiny. Each poem shifted in the light as I read, so the anecdotal world became less settled, more surprising, yet never loosing its anchorage in the real.

One of the first poems, ‘Waking early in the marigolds,’ is the perfect entry into the book. The poet takes an idea and then playfully jams with it in slightly off-beat ways (the poem is about waking up in surprising places — ‘I came into the world with nothing bar a capacity for waking in unexpected places.’). It is almost (oh, at a stretch!) a metaphor for how these poems work; as perhaps these poems awake in surprising places, a little to the left of right of expectation. I loved the ending, where the poet yearns to be lying in bed ‘with some authority despite being out of my depth.’

The collection’s subject matter seems to be driven by both real life and the imagination, by a poet who is mindful of the world about her, but who is willingly to filter that world through imaginative excursions. Thus, you get transported from behind the eyelids of a man to what you tell and don’t people to someone arriving at a family reunion by parachute to a compass that is dropped and multiplied 200 million times.

Rachel’s sentences have a pitch perfect economy (‘The sea’s pale back’) that generate musical tones. The quirkiness, the off-beatness, the flashes of the surreal, however, are not embedded in skewed syntax or word choices but in the anecdotal revelations (fictional or otherwise). For me, Rachel’s graceful language heightens the narrative twists and turns.

Endings can be the ruination of a poem, but Rachel has a light touch, a surprising touch. She concludes ‘My father’s memories’ with this: ‘He shunted past me muttering, “My father’s memories,” as if every year he bore them on that stretcher down to the water.’ Rachel’s beginnings are equally nimble and fresh: ‘She sits down at the kitchen table to wait out the remainder of April.’

This is a glorious debut. These poems show the way you can hold any occasion, object, person or place in your mind and, like a prism, watch it shimmer and shine with little stories that hook tufts of truth and fabrication, self and knowing, illusions and strange kinks, and everyday bric-a-brac. I am in love with this book.

Thanks to Hue & Cry I have a copy of this book to give to someone who likes or comments on this post.