Monthly Archives: June 2014

Friday Poem: Anna Jackson’s ‘To my hen-flock’ –the hen is a transcendental stepping stone

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To my hen-flock

Blithe they are, but spirits?

Birds they hardly are,

calling not in lyrics,

but with prosaic care

to put on record every moment’s find or fear,


grounded throughout, perching

awkwardly at evening

on their roosts, and lurching

squawking, wings wild-beating,

as soon as morning breaks, back to the earth’s receiving.


Far from here, the sky is

no threat, not forbidding

but no temptation either;

like the softest wing

of a mother hen it holds itself above them, brooding,


keeping all below it

close.   Not for my birds

the rapture of a poet

by the sublime stirred

to reach beyond the mundane to put into words


thoughts beyond his thoughts,

song beyond his song;

sweetly from their throats

my hens cluck all day long

about the smaller pleasures that to them belong.


Should the world not listen

nothing would be lost,

still the earthworm glistens,

still flies by the moth,

and to the hen beside her each hen murmurs as they roost;


should the world not listen

I will still be soothed,

learning some small lesson

best put into prose,

that beauty’s not the only thing that counts as truth.



Author bio: Anna Jackson is a poet, essayist, and fiction and academic writer. She teaches in the English Department at Victoria University. Author of five collections, her most recent volume of poetry, Thicket (Auckland University Press), was shortlisted for the New Zealand Post Book Awards in 2012.

Note from Anna: This ode to a hen-flock is a response to Shelley’s ode, “To a Sky-lark,” which begins

Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!

Bird though never wert –

That from Heaven or near it

Pourest thy full heart

In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.

It is a poem that again and again seems to me poised on the brink of silliness – “bird thou never wert”? – and yet every stanza lifts and falls its way towards the wonderful out-pouring of its last, long, alexandrine line in a way that I find beautiful. So when my friend Sonia Johnson, whose year-long project “A Formal Year” involves writing a poem in a different form every week, took on the challenge to write a poem using the alexandrine, I thought I would try writing in Shelley’s metre.

I have four hens I am very fond of, and I thought it would be funny to see what happened if Shelley’s beautiful verse form were used to write about hens rather than a skylark. The skylark becomes, in Shelley’s poem, a symbol for the poetic ambition to transcend the self in song, to give the self over to the creation of beauty, and yet, paradoxically, through doing so, to make a name for oneself forever, so that “the world should listen then, as I should listen now.” In contrast, an ode to hens can only celebrate more mundane, more humble pleasures – prose not poetry, ordinary conversation (or clucking) not elevated song, a grounded aesthetic not the soaring transcendence of the lark.

Here is a link to Shelley’s poem:

And here is a link to Sonia Johnson’s project blog:


Note from Paula: My eye first took in the visual flitter of lines on the page, scanning to and fro, before settling in to the words themselves. Shelley’s alexandrine form gives an other-worldly pitch for the ear, syntactical choices that mark a time elsewhere. That is one lure. Then there is the way you are drawn into an intimate space (the poem itself, and that of the hens in the backyard). The form’s regularity, that delicious metrical pattern, sings the regularity of day in day out, of the routine of hens. On the one hand, this is a celebration (the joy) of the mundane, of daily business but the hen is also a transcendental stepping stone to poetic musings. And then. And then it is the hen in all its beauty (a hen is a hen is a hen). The poem is replete with aural lures (moth/lost; birds/ stirred) and the lure of tropes (the sky likened to the wing of a mother hen). Above all, it is a poem of terrific movement– aurally, visually, linguistically, philosophically and temporally (pulling Shelley into a contemporary backyard). The poem is a work of beauty.


NZ Book Council author page

AUP page

Poetry Archive page

Arts on Sunday interview

Carla Harryman and Barrett Watten in Auckland 14 July 2014

Carla Harryman and Barrett Watten in Auckland 14 July 2014

You are warmly invited to attend talks and readings by distinguished North American poets Carla Harryman and Barrett Watten on Monday 14 July at the University of Auckland and the Central City Library. All events are free and public.

Carla Harryman, ‘The Obituary of the Many, a talk on Gail Scott’s The Obituary.’

Arts 1 (14a Symonds St), Level 5 Common Room, University of Auckland, 10am-12 noon.

Barrett Watten, ‘Regions of Practice: On the Advantages of Negativity.’

Arts 1 (14a Symonds St), Level 5 Common Room, University of Auckland, 2- 4pm.

Carla Harryman and Barrett Watten  Poetry Reading at Auckland Central City Library, 5.30-7pm.

44-46 Lorne St, CBD. Poster:

Carla Harryman is a poet, essayist, novelist, and playwright. She has published thirteen single-authored works, including Adorno’s Noise (Essay Press, 2008), Open Box (Belladonna, 2007), Baby (2005), and Gardener of Stars (2001) and has received numerous grants and awards including from the Foundation for Contemporary Art, Opera America, the American Embassy in Romania, and the Fund for Poetry. A frequent collaborator, she is co-contributor to the multi-authored experiment in autobiography The Grand Piano, a project that focuses on the emergence of Language Writing, art, politics, and culture of the San Francisco Bay Area between 1975-1980. The Wide Road, a multi-genre collaboration with poet Lyn Hejinian was released in 2011 from Belladonna Press. Her poets’ theater and interdisciplinary performance works have been performed nationally and internationally, while her writing has been translated into a number of European languages. Her work is widely anthologized including in The Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater, Great American Prose Poems, The Norton Anthology of Postmodern Poetry, Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative and in international collections such as La Lengua Radical, Action Poétique: Etats-Unis Nouveaux Poétique, and Out of Everywhere: linguistically innovative poetry by women in North America and the UK.

 Barrett Watten is a language-centered poet, critic, editor, and publisher. His collected early poems, Frame: 1971–1990, appeared from Sun & Moon in 1997; Bad History, a nonnarrative prose poem “including history,” from Atelos in 1998; and Progress/Under Erasure, in a combined edition, from Green Integer in 2004. He edited This, one of the central publications of the Language school of poetry (1971-82), and co-edited Poetics Journal with Lyn Hejinian, featuring writing on poetics by poets and academics. He collaborated on two multi-authored projects: Leningrad: American Writers in the Soviet Union (1991) and The Grand Piano: An Experiment in Collective Autobiography (2006–10). With Carrie Noland, he coedited Diasporic Avant-Gardes: Experimental Poetics and Cultural Displacement (Palgrave, 2009); Wesleyan University Press is in the process of publishing a combined print/digital Guide to Poetics Journal and Poetics Journal Digital Archive in 2013-14.

For further information please contact Michele Leggott ( or visit Carla Harryman and Barrett Watten in New Zealand at

Māori poets celebrate Matariki

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An exciting group of Māori poets – several of the country’s leading poets and some emerging writers – will come together to celebrate Matariki with readings and korero at a free event on Saturday June 28.

Māori Poets Celebrate Matariki features Ben Brown from Lyttelton, Apirana Taylor from Kapiti, with Auckland’s own Robert Sullivan, and social historian, novelist and poet, Kelly Ana Morey, from Mangawhai. It also features writer Te Awhina Arahanga, publisher and poet Kiri Piahana-Wong, and an emerging young poet Amber Esau.

This is a rare opportunity to hear some of the leading Māori poets in Aotearoa today, together with the next generation of talented young writers. It is a free event, part of the 2014 Matariki Festival, supported by Auckland Council and the Michael King Writers’ Centre.

Where:  Depot Artspace, 28 Clarence St, Devonport, Auckland
When:   Saturday, June 28, 2014, 4 pm

Poem Friday: Cliff Fell’s ‘Once’ absorbs the pitch and shfts of Dante




Once when I was living in Florence

cycling home in the early hours

I heard an owl high in the campanile

and took a wrong turn down a wooden ramp,

an excavation in the Piazza Signoria—

and found myself in the city beneath the city

cycling between small ancient houses,

through alleys vaulted by the world of light

and the paving stones I knew.

They say we go into the ground

to know where Death will take us,

but I had entered this other world

in lively wonder— for I was in love with poetry

and the spectral light it casts over

the past and present and perhaps even the future,

though it is hard to say for sure what light

poems will cast over the time that is yet to come

or even that they will survive.

I only knew and cared that I was alive

in the catacombs and tumble

of a lost city, and that what I thought an alley

was really a thoroughfare leading to the river

between small shop fronts

such as you might find today

in cities like Herat or the Byculla backstreets

of Bombay— Mumbai as we must say.

Now I had to dismount to push the bike

and it seemed I had been heading

somewhere beneath the Uffizzi

for I had come to the waterside, though still

on a stratum below this world—

I could hear cars moving above me

on the via Lungarno,

the swish of their tyres on the cobble street,

close to the corner of Pontevecchio

and the nook where Dante once waited, alone and forlorn,

hoping to catch a glimpse of Beatrice,

as the pall-bearers carried her away.

Nothing ever happens twice,

and yet as I stood in the dank and must

of that underworld scene,

in what was once the Etruscan city,

I felt those old stones tensing up,

as though they could sense the poet in the shadows

waiting for the cortege to pass him once more,

and then to pass again.


Cliff Fell lives near Motueka. His latest publication is the illustrated poem, The Good Husbandwoman’s Alphabet, which is available in good bookshops or through messaging him on his Facebook page.

Cliff’s note: I can’t remember now exactly why or how I came to write ‘Once’,  but I think it must have been after a trawl through old notebooks and finding an entry from my Florence diary, where I lived in 1983 and ’84. I know it all sounds imagined, but in fact it’s based on a real event. I really did take a wrong turn on a bicycle down an archaeological excavation ramp in the Piazza della Signoria and find myself in the Etruscan city. Perhaps I didn’t get as far as the river, though. And there was an owl, too – but that was in the Piazza San Carmine, where I lived in my little car, an Allegro, through the autumn of 1983.

Paula’s note: Reading this poem I was taken right into the throbbing heart of Firenze with the shining detail of place, but I was also taken into the heart of Dante’s Inferno. It as though the narrating voice has absorbed the pitch and shifts of Dante as he (whichever) journeys deep into the underworld. This air of another poem accentuates the way Cliff’s poem is rich in strata. It is a physical journey located in time and place, but the poem also layers other travels. The old poet standing in the shadows awaiting his Beatrice is companion to the new poet on his bicycle (new world, contemporary time, young, alive). There is the way the movement into wrong turns and unexpected places yields mnemonic connections, and the way this physical and cerebral movement can be likened to the process of writing. The writing trope fits the poet perfectly (and I am also reminded of the freewheeling link between cycling and writing a poem). The way when you write a poem you stumble, take wrong turns, enter dark and light, emerge from dark and light, notice that things are not always as they initially seem. Each line of Cliff’s poem is handled with a deft touch, and each line takes you into the translucent sheen and surprise of the world with one stroke and into the lyrical beauty of Dante with another.

Zarah Butcher McGunnigle’s Autobiography of a Marguerite– out of illness, lacework poems, kinetic poems


Photo courtesy of Hue & Cry Press

Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle’s debut collection, Autobiography of a Marguerite (Hue & Cry Press, 2014) sent me in search of a new terms to describe the effect it had upon me. This book-length poem is poetry in pieces—poems that piece together an experience of illness, family relations and the need to write. Yet as much as there are threads and mood and revelation, this is lacework poetry. You see enough to experience the whole, and more importantly, to acquire new ways of reading and writing poems.

The book is in three parts and each part works a little differently in terms of writing choices. The first part consists of prose-like poems. The poems in the second part are given more breathing space, but they are interrupted, wonderfully so, by footnotes (and not conventional footnotes, I might add). In the final part, there is a return to poetic prose, or prose-like poetry, that is offset by photographs that take you back to mother and daughter (amongst other things).

It is a book of illness, anonymous illness, as the details of diagnosis are only ever hinted at. This is poetry of the gap, of the hinted at, and of silence. Names are left off the line. Questions are laid down as statements (no question marks) as though answers are elusive (as indeed they so often are in illness). The silence and the gap suggest that illness is unfathomable at times, hard to tell, exhausting to tell—so much better to divert and filter so it becomes poetic lacework. In the second part, sentences are truncated and left hanging on the line as though the poet is breathless, weary of the full story. To me it is also akin to memory—the way it is spasmodic, episodic, shard-like. If this is lacework, it is a lacework of beginnings. And then life—lifegoes on, uncomfortably, differently with the arrival of illness, as the narrator moves in and out of family and school routines, friendships, her writing.

Each section is full of poetic rewards, but I was particularly taken with the middle section where footnotes interrupt and introduce a different way of reading. Astonishing. These footnotes are taken from books by Marguerite Duras and Marguerite Yourcenar. You physically move your head in and out, up and down—crossing an unexpected bridge between Zarah’s line and the line of a Marguerite (you never know which one). That movement across the bridge is glorious—it produces a tremble and ripple of connections and meaning. This poetry is unlike anything I have seen. I am calling it kinetic poetry. There is the movement across the little footbridges, but there is also the way each discrete line vibrates. Like a little earth tremor. And in these little vibrations, there are miniature collisions between this line and that. Side stepping. Side dancing. Side tracking.

There is so much to love about this book. A thousand movements to take you elsewhere and then return you to the moment, to the page. There is the watch that is often looked at but is not on the wrist—as though illness is a state of not-time, unreal-time, faked-time, thwarted time, longed-for time. Or there is the way the delicious word play takes me to Gertrude Stein  (‘poured system’ then ‘Poor system’; ‘weekend’ then ‘weak end of’). It comes back to the way a word stretches to accommodate the nuances and implications of a body ill at ease. Or the way the mother, a Marguerite, flickers and trembles like the narrating I (‘Her mother used to say I don’t know what I’d do without you’ and its footnote ‘You’re right, this is not normal weather for this time of year’). Where does she begin and where does she move to next? Her illness, her illness. Her discomfort, her discomfort. The way words puff out with the need to get things right (‘the filling is not always filling,’ ‘is progress slower than you expected or slower than you hoped’). And the way in illness, and in the memory and physical deposits of illness, writing is vital. An essential anchor. A lifeline.

So much more to write and think which means it is a book of returns.

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


Rachel O’Neill has  an illuminating interview with Zarah here.

Zarah’s Hue & Cry author page here .


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Poem Friday: Rata Gordon’s ‘Thumb in a House’ meaning and narrative spin on tiptoe surprisingly

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Photo credit: Amber McLennan


Thumb in a House

pinching flakes for gold

fish two piglets nose

my palm pink cheeks in

the light of a hut

bamboo poles and sheets

with pansies and holes


blue rope swing a stick

to sit on dust up

my nose when a car

speeds past a red streak

in our dog’s fur where

the neighbor shot her


polar bears live in

the toilet’s white ice

rabbits as big as

your thumb in a house

boat floating in the

hall the cat ate my

mouse and a fantail


swam through the window

to say our granddad

has gone somewhere else

but warm pajamas

by the fire a sip

of rain before bed



Rata Gordon is a seventh generation New Zealander who lives in Grey Lynn. Her life at the moment involves writing, drawing, dancing, and planting trees. Rata’s poems have appeared in LandfallDeep South and JAAM (forthcoming).

Rata’s note: This poem is built from memories of my childhood home in Waimauku, West Auckland. I wrote it while I was in Begnas tal, a wee village in Nepal. I noticed that the physical distance from home made some things float to the surface that I hadn’t thought about for years.

It was an exercise piece for Whitireia’s Online Creative Writing Diploma and was my first attempt at a syllabic poem. I enjoyed the way that the syllabic constraints broke up and stitched together my memories in strange ways. It seemed like a good match for swift and bewildered childhood perception.

Paula’s note: The title of this poem hooked me. Incongruous. Puzzling. The accumulation of detail is the second hook. Sensual. Vibrant. Strange. Earthy. I love the way the lack of punctuation amplifies the momentum of the poem—both the ambiguity and the surprise. This is the gold nugget in this poem. The way each line break holds you back and then in delivering you smashes your expectation. Glorious. For example, follow this thread: ‘the cat ate my/ mouse and a fantail/ swam through the window.’ Constant little dance flurries in your head as the meaning and narrative spin on tiptoe surprisingly. There is also a elastic stretch between home and elsewhere (‘warm pajamas’ and ‘hut/bamboo poles’). You stall and you pirouette as you read, but there is a honeyed fluency. Just wonderful!

Lovely to hear Zarah and Rachel read in Auckland last night

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Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle and Rachel O’Neill read from their debut collections in Auckland last night. What a stellar job Hue & Cry Press is doing (Publisher Chloe Lane and editors Amy Brown and Lawrence Pratchett). These collections offer much for the reader both on the page and in the air—I will post a review of Zarah’s Autobiography of a Marguerite early next week. My review of Rachel’s One Human in Height is  here.