Monthly Archives: March 2016

On discovering Amy Leigh Wicks




I got to introduce Amy Leigh Wicks at the Rupaehu Writers Festival, but I had barely sighted her poetry. What a discovery! Like most people in the audience, she blew my socks off. Amy is an American from New York City whose debut collection is Orange Juice and Rooftops. She is currently enrolled in the PhD programme at IIML and will write the critical component of her thesis on the poetry of James K Baxter.

Listening to her read as opposing to reading her for the first time on the page offers quite a different poetry experience. I cheekily asked if could take away the printouts so I could write about the poems. Usually I just depend upon my scrawlings but as chair I tempered my notebook entries. Amy is one of those poets who really knows how to bring a poem to life in the air (she has a background as a slam poet). And in fact won the slam competition at Ruapehu.

This is what linked the the words in the air to the words on the page: space, silence,  pause, what is not said, mysterious bits, strangeness, poetic tilts.

What struck me on the page: these poems feed on questions, curiosity fizzes both above and below the surface. Alongside the the room to breathe, I rediscovered a clarity of voice, sometimes conversational, sometimes lyrical, always fluent. And then the effervescent detail that forms a little uplift in a line.


Here is an Amy Leigh Wicks poetry sampler:


from Honey Moon

The first time we climbed into bed

it seemed like there was no one


else in the world. Then we left New York

and by the time we reached California


we noticed an army of ghosts floating

like balloons above us each night


The word honeymoon is fractured in two  because although you might think this poem is about bed, love, marriage and travelling, those ghosts bust it apart so you shift a little. Often I enjoy strange presences without analysing their status as tropes in a poem. The ghosts float like balloons above the bed. Beautiful. Strange. They don’t need to mean anything. Yet the balloon-ghosts (or ghost-balloons) keep tugging me back to the poem as though I want to make a story for them and give them a part to play beyond the unsettled sleep of a honeymoon couple. This poem, excuse the pun, haunts me. Read the full poem here.


from Learning to Swim

When ____________happened it made me feel …

This is the first rule. It’s like swimming, our new game –

The facts are false, the world inside is real.


Am I still in Vienna, floating from Klimt’s kiss to Schiele?

No.We are at our dining room table, I am learning how not to blame.

When ____________happened it made me feel …


Usually the repetitive lure of a villanelle is like free flowing honey, and the sweetness of repetition infuses fluency. But here the repetition is like a set of judder bars that shakes you out of easy coasting.


from First Night in Aotearoa

I was sitting at a stone table

there was a fire behind me

and a candle before me and

it was raining all around and the papers

on the table were soaking wet

with black ink bleeding through


A few poems are part of a sequence entitled ‘Kiwi Dairy’ and touch upon Amy’s experience of New Zealand (she is from New York). With this poem, again you get the white space, the shiny detail, the strangeness and the multiple questions. It is addictive listening/reading.


Keep an eye out for Amy’s poetry. You will find some poems on Turbine.


Fabulous poetry covers this year: Here is another

As the Verb Tenses.jpg

‘As the Verb Tenses is the work of a reflective and sensitive poetic talent: one run with gleaming wires of joy. In poems that gather together the vivid details of childhood memory, the surreal juxtapositions of life in the contemporary West, the wry observations of a temporary expatriate, the deeply lodged pain of historical and personal loss, Lynley Edmeades speaks to us in delicately spun lines that press out ironies, dissonances and profound formative experience.’

from Otago University Press. Launched tonight with Chris Price.

Join us at Poets’ Night Out with CK Stead and friends


Join us at Poets’ Night Out with CK Stead and friends

CK Stead, the current New Zealand Poet Laureate, will be officially honoured at the Poets’ Night Out, at the Havelock North Function Centre, 7.30pm on Saturday 2 April.

CK (Karl) Stead has invited award winning poets Gregory O’Brien, Chris Price and Paula Green to share this evening with him as guest readers. Local youth singers Project Prima Volta will also perform.

Poets’ Night Out is a wonderful opportunity for Hawkes’ Bay to be part of this special occasion honouring the Poet Laureate in Havelock North, the birthplace of the Poet Laureate programme.

Mr Stead will receive his hand carved tokotoko during a special ceremony at Matahiwi marae earlier in the day. Each Laureate receives their own tokotoko – a ceremonial carved walking stick –symbolising their authority and status. The National Library holds the matua, or parent tokotoko, to signify their guardianship of the New Zealand Poet Laureate Award. The tokotoko is a link to the Hawke’s Bay origins of the award, and is created by Haumoana artist, Jacob Scott.

The National Library assumed responsibility for the New Zealand Poet Laureate Award from Te Mata Estate Winery in 2007.


Tickets, $20, are available from Creative Hastings, Hastings Libraries, Napier Libraries and Beattie and Forbes or online at Eventfinder.

This looks GOOD Wellingtonians! What I write about when I am not writing

Screen Shot 2016-03-29 at 7.16.01 PM.png


Preservatorium Cafe and Cannery  39 Webb Street Te Aro

We are getting absolutely constricted by the idea of writing as authenticity, i.e. autobiography…I’m clearly not a mad male psychiatrist or even Gil from the Monkey’s Mask, or an Egyptian Pharaoh, or the character in my next book who is an astrobiologist. I’m none of these people. I think that for me the most wonderful aspect of the imagination…is liberty and freedom. It’s not waving the flag of authenticity all the time. And for me, that is my authenticity, the power of my imagination.’
~Dorothy Porter

These days, poetry is generally seen as, by default, an autobiographical form, where we write lyric poems about what we’re feeling, or doing, or have observed. But sometimes we don’t want to write about ourselves. Poetry can be, and has been, broader than that, and can incorporate other forms such as fiction, creative non-fiction, journalism, biography, history and essay.

Join us for an evening of discussion and dinner with three poets, Helen Rickerby, Chris Tse and Stefanie Lash, who have experimented with using poetry for writing about things outside themselves–biography, fiction, film criticism, natural history. They’ll talk about their own work and the work of others that combines poetry with another non-autobiographical genre.

We will inevitably discuss what poetry brings to these other forms, the tensions and benefits of melding two genres, and the characteristics of poetry – just what is poetry anyway? And even when inhabiting another, are you still there anyway? Was Oscar Wilde right when he said: ‘Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.’


Helen Rickerby has published four collections of poetry, most recently Cinema, which took its inspiration from films and film-making. Her collection My Iron Spine, featured biographical poems about women, many of whom have been neglected by history. In 2014 she co-organised Truth or Beauty, a conference about biographical poetry. She is the managing editor of Seraph Press, and is co-managing editor of JAAM literary magazine. She’s currently working on her next collection (working title: How to Live), which attempts to grapple with the big philosophical issues, but will not attempt to answer them.

Chris Tse was born and raised in Lower Hutt. He studied film and English literature at Victoria University of Wellington, where he also completed an MA in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters. Chris’ poetry, short fiction, and non-fiction have been recorded for radio and published in numerous journals, magazines, and anthologies both in New Zealand and overseas. He was one of three poets included in the joint collection AUP New Poets 4 and his first full-length poetry collection How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes, was published by Auckland University Press in September 2014.

Stefanie Lash is a poet and archivist who lives in Aro Valley, Wellington. Bird Murder was her first book, published in 2014, and she is working on her second, in which she discovers the entrance to the underworld in Fiordland.

Dinner will be prepared by the wonderful team at Preservatorium and include vegetarian and gluten free options. If you have any other dietary requirements please let Kirsten know at

Tickets are on a scale between $25-35 depending on income.

You can pay by credit card via Eventfinda or via internet banking by depositing $35 into our account:

Kahini Oceania
Westpac Coastlands Parade

Any questions contact Kirsten –

Poetry Shelf review: Claire Orchard’s Cold Water Cure – This is the joy of poetry!

Cold_Water_Cure__43428.1448931921.220.220.jpg   Cold_Water_Cure__43428.1448931921.220.220.jpg   Cold_Water_Cure__43428.1448931921.220.220.jpg


Cold water cure Claire Orchard  Victoria University Press 2016

Lately I have been thinking about the bridges that occur between poem and reader. Some bridges are so surely established that the ensuing traffic is free flowing. Noisy. Exhilarating. On other occasions, the bridges falter and it is barely possible to cross.The poem remains at arm’s length. Reading can be viewed as a travel card of crossings, but it is also invigorated by countless sidetracks  and multiple rest stops.

Claire Orchard’s debut collection,  Cold water cure, affords rich crossings. It is a book in three parts with the long middle section, a  fitting centrepiece. The first section resembles a picnic spread where everyone brings a plate and it all seems to fit together perfectly. These opening poems bring family close to the surface of reading in ways that move you. Move you to laugh out loud, to wry grins, to feel something. Claire prunes the dross, and peels a poem back to the bare bones of incident. Then she adds a little kick, a curve, a tilt and the bare bones gleam so we take notice. This is the joy of poetry. The way it enables renewed attention to old things.

So many favourites in this first section but here are a few:



What people often don’t realise, my grandfather said abruptly,

while we were sitting on a bench at the playground,

is that parenting involves taking

a lot of split-second decisions.


This poem is a grandparent anecdote involving an egg. I had no idea where the poem was taking me and it made me laugh out loud, grin wryly and feel something. All in one little poem basket.

Several of the poems suggest that Claire was once a primary-school teacher. Very rarely do I come across poems written from the point-of a-view of a teacher. It sparked a whole train of thought. I taught in primary schools in my twenties (Auckland, Wellington, London), yet I have never written poetry about these experiences as though they are low-status material or too far back in time. Janet Charman wrote some tough poems about being a high-school teacher. Johanna Aitchison has written hilarious poems about teaching English as a second language. Claire’s poems catch a knife-edge delight I recognised.

Here is the ending of, ‘Sharpening,’ one of the teacher poems:


I ask these questions without thinking,

tearing open a band-aid.

He’s six, the number of perfection.


There are a few found poems in the bunch. Found poems work best when the poet considers how best to serve them. Sometimes found poems don’t shift beyond road sign or stolen conversation and the connection is one of indifference. Not here. I especially love the one that kick starts the collection with a recycled quote from Ali Williams during the All Blacks 2011 World Cup Campaign.


Hang on

I think we’re getting ahead of ourselves here.

Last time we got ahead of ourselves,

we shot ourselves in the foot

then we did it again a few years before that –

shot our other foot.

We’re just trying to leave our feet on.


I loved the poem that riffs stream-of-conscious like when the poet spots a young man wearing the exact same T-shirt at the next table (‘Don’t let me be misunderstood’). Equally funny is ‘Poetry master class.’ This is based on sharing a copy of the poems with a late arrival at Bill Manhire’s event at the Embassy Theatre. Just hilarious with an ending that nails it. Here is an early stanza:


She referred to the presiding poet as Bill and,

before he’d begun to address himself to the first poem,

had taken a pen and scored briskly through three of its lines.


Yes there is humour in the opening banquet but there are ample reasons to savour rest stops. The end lines. The shift of the eye. The look of the poem. The sound of the poem. Tropes that renovate things. This from ‘Legendary creature’:


Your many-winged laundry rack

resembles a pale, anorexic albatross

doubled over

in the boot of the car



The middle section constitutes the bulk of the book and sets up bridges like Russian dolls, chiefly between Claire and Darwin. Unlike most poetry collections, Claire has placed her detailed notes at the start of the book. A travel guide, if you like, that signposts the link between poem and original source. Many of the poems juxtapose the words of Darwin or those connected to him with the words of Claire. The poems thus promote conversation between then and now, him and us, this idea and that idea. His experience and her experience. It is quite the thing for poets to step back in time at the moment. To take a historical figure and see what happens when you transplant yourself or your subject or both.

Such transplantation raises questions about how we represent the past. How the past infects us and vice versa. What I loved about the Darwin poems is the way his ideas percolate in the gaps but he is placed in a context of living. The poems are infused with life.

In ‘Voyages,’ Darwin’s voice sits on the left-hand side of the page, Claire on the other. I am itching to put Claire in quotation marks to stress her collision of selves. And then I think Darwin is equally unstable, and want to do the same for him. In the end, I leave them to float at will. A word from Darwin on the left prompts a personal anecdote, a musing, an image from Claire on the right. I keep looking at the page and reading the tiny stanzas and seeing them as two hand-prints. He and she. The connections are electric.



Another poem, ‘Near Lima,’ provides new entries into the Darwin section.


Somewhere I read that, day to day, most of us

rarely raise our eyes more than fifteen degrees

above the horizon.


This is what the Darwin poems do. They lift us beyond the horizon line of fact, beyond the borrowed phrase or lines to reflect on how ideas rub against wife, child, animals, watches, ornaments, fish, ceremonies, death. So innovative. So stimulating.


The final section faltered for me. These poems venture out into the wider world, untethered by theme or style, which felt liberating. I am fascinated that I didn’t make it across the bridge for some of them. I don’t see these poems as failures. I see this as a failure on my part as reader. Sometimes it is like wine affected by mood, circumstances, company or context. One day a vintage hits your palate. The next day it misses. As a persistent reader of New Zealand poetry this interests me. Reading poetry is also susceptible to mood, the weather, what you have just read or done. I haven’t yet got what these poems are doing. I am planning a return visit.

I heard Claire read from ‘Voyages’ at the Lauris Edmond Poetry Prize in Wellington recently. What a treat. It could have been a disaster trying to read these two voices into audible life (do they need to be discrete?), but it was a highlight for me. Hearing the voice of the poet aloud, heightened the effect of her deft hand. I shivered with connections that I hadn’t spotted on the page. Some kind of spooky yet wonderful ventriloquism was taking place.


This book is a gift. It makes you laugh out loud. It rejuvenates. It challenges. I adore it.


Victoria University press page.











I agree! ‘Inaugural Ruapehu Writers Festival wildly successful’


Helen Rickerby has just posted a slide show from the Ruapehu Writers Festival. And this:

‘We’re still on a high from the fabulous experience that was the inaugural Ruapehu Writers Festival in Ohakune last weekend. We were pretty sure it would be a fun and worthwhile event, but it exceeded our expectations in every way. Several participants, including Elizabeth Knox and Paula Green, said it was the best festival they’ve ever been to!

From the opening event on Thursday, which was opened with a karakia by Hune Rapana of local iwi Ngati Rangi and was MCed by Johnny Greene, Head of English at Ruapehu College, we started to suspect we were in for something special. As those of you who were there will know, on Friday, as more and more people arrived, we enjoyed session after session of articulate and brilliant ideas and readings. By Friday afternoon, the room we used for most sessions had reached its capacity of 80–100, and the spill-over people were lounging in the hallway or sitting on the deck, listening through the open French doors. Also through open doors we could hear the bubbling of a stream across the road, and a couple of times a day the speakers needed to pause for a few moments while a train went past on the nearby Main Trunk Line.’

For the rest of the piece and the slide show see here.

On reviewing reviewing books

Social media can be a constructive part of life, especially as a writer. I am constantly falling upon articles that illuminate aspects of the book that I am writing. Discovering new voices. Events. Books. Poems. However, like so many people, I loathe the way social media becomes a tawdry and superficial venue to slap anyone who offends.

Eleanor Catton has promoted kindness as a significant factor in a writer’s kit. I heard her discuss this with a bunch of students at The National Library once and I felt it was both daring and apt.

How does kindness work when you are a reviewer? When I posted my riposte to Iain Sharp a few days ago, I was most certainly lacking kindness. I lacked kindness in my appraisal of Nicholas Reid’s ability to review books. I was not motivated by anger, nor revenge on Ian because he delegated me to a train station with dear Graham Beattie (a tireless promoter and ardent fan of NZ books). I laughed out loud in fact. I love train stations. I was motivated by Iain’s blinkered approach to our book world. It felt unhelpful when people are working so hard on a shoe string to make things better. Not that a currency of love suggests we can’t critique book reviewers. I just want a wider view.


We should be able to build criticism that never lets go of the fact we are all human beings who think and feel. We should be able to communicate with respect. Anything less seems to be self-serving; promoting the ego of the attacker.

When I undertook my doctoral thesis, it felt like I was renegotiating a patriarchal paradigm. Century upon century of representing thought in models that were not negotiable.

We have been trained to close read texts and deconstruct. To think about what the text does not do as much as what it does do.

I am fascinated by this persistent attraction to the negative. Yet if you think about it, what a text does not do, is like surrogate grief on the part of the reader. I mourn the lack of detail. I long for more lyricism. I cannot see the link between the cat and the moon. Fair enough. Poems establish all manner of bridges that some of us are unable to cross.

As a reviewer on this blog I am not interested in what a poem does not do. I am not interested in hunting for what I might deem as its potential failings. This bores me. It is not part of my health regime.

Instead I am interested in plunging, head and heart together, into the unknown. Where will I be lead? What will I discover about what this poem does. I might sing out when a poem catches hold of me, but I don’t carry a subjective yardstick to measure quality.

I never forget that the person that wrote the poem might read what I wrote. I want to have the guts to write and be prepared to say it to someone’s face over a glass of wine. It is not what you say but how you say it. Perhaps this is why Bill Manhire has such a good reputation as a ‘teacher’ of creative writer. I just had my first first-hand experience of this recently.

As authors we all react to reviews differently. I read my first review of my first book in a supermarket and was shocked that it was so mean. As I walked past the cornflakes and the frozen peas I made a choice. Reviews would belong to the reviewers.  Not me. I decided I would not take personal attacks personally, I would be able to sit on a panel next to a mean reviewer with extreme comfort. And I do. When the review is erudite, when the reviewer is so clearly engaged with my book on a deep level, I  welcome critical points (Emma Neale a case in point, thank you!). Countless authors do.

However some authors get tipped into varying degrees of depression or inability to write. This matters to me. Yes, we choose to exist in a public arena and therefore must accept public engagement and debate. But I am not sure we have to accept assassinations, minor or major. Historically, and in recent times, there are some despicable examples of this.



What got me more than anything though about Iain’s new-old view on reviewing is the lack of generosity in terms of our wider book world.

In this context, it is a matter of focusing on reviewing platforms (not what publishers, booksellers, authors and readers are trying to achieve to keep things thriving). Against all odds some places are working hard to showcase NZ books.The first and most important aim is to bring books to our attention as readers. I am lucky in that most publishers send me NZ poetry books. How on earth would I know what was going on otherwise? Where does poetry get widespread attention?

I applaud those places that are refusing to sever the cord between reader and NZ books: The Listener (Three cheers), North & South (three cheers!), Metro (not doing what it used to do sadly, but still a tad), The Spin Off (yes!), NZ Books (three cheers), Landfall, Landfall-on-line (again thank you!). I have just agreed to review books for Fairfax  because it will include NZ books (and poetry). Other blogs and websites.

The second aim is to generate avenues into a book for a reader to pursue. To connect book to reader.

The third aim is to foster ideas and debate. Here criticism flourishes. A drive on this blog to explore what poetry is capable of doing.

Finally, my personal aim is to contribute to a vibrant NZ poetry landscape. To find ways to connect poetry, poets and readers. To celebrate what we do here. To be prepared to challenge writing that erodes rather than augments our relations within the world of books. To challenge views that exhibit sexism, racism, classism, regionalism and so on.

To use this blog to be an ambassador for NZ poetry no matter the risks.


On Reviewing Books: Iain Sharp gets lippy

Ha! Iain Sharp has just ranted about reviewing books with no holds barred (well perhaps some! I bet some!) on The Spin Off. It is very easy and such fun to take swipes at the world in such a bolshy manner.

And it is very fitting that as a reviewer I am ‘waving at passing trains’ along with Graham Beattie (does Graham actually review books or mostly post reviews BTW?) as I am just back from the Ruapehu Writers Festival. We all had to stop talking whenever trains went by.


Iain’s favourite reviewer in NZ: the ultra toxic Nicholas Reid. Toxic, not just in view of the personal hits he takes at local authors but in his unfailing ability to miss by a universe what the book is doing. You might get seduced by his smart-alec train of thought but if you dig deeper he so often misses the whole point of a book. Gets feet-tied on the small details.What matters is his ego-driven need to demolish and show off. I find his reviewing intellectually and emotionally lazy. I have stopped reading him.

Yes, some reviewers might prefer reviews that show off a smarty-pants wit and the sharp  blade of the reviewer. Engagement with what the book is actually trying to do seems less of a priority. Such reviews too often demonstrate downright lazy thinking, soporific thought.

The flip side of a reviewer’s personal attack is when authors take criticism of aspects of their book personally!


Poetry Shelf is my site for reviews these days after Canvas has almost shut down its book pages (although I have just started doing a few for Fairfax, including poetry). My main aim on my blog is to review poetry books I have loved to varying degrees. To refresh the whole business of writing poetry. To explore what a book is doing.

Poetry rarely gets its time in media spotlight these days. I am trying to remedy that. To pick up the big names and scour the shadows for the less known.


At the Ruapehu Festival I got to talk about reviewing books with a number of people.Yes we mourn the paucity of NZ book reviews. Yes we learn to duck the hits and keep them in perspective. And yes, most of us welcome a critical review that engages with what our books are doing.

I have an enormous folder of letters and emails from authors that have thanked me for ‘getting’ their book. Quite extraordinary. I am always quite surprised. It is not my role to ‘get‘ their book in terms of their aims, because I want to articulate my own version of what the book is doing. Authors have thanked me for critical points because I don’t swipe the carpet from beneath their writing feet. That said, this is a small place and at least one author has been deeply offended by a point I have made. It’s a risky business – it can affect friendships.

Like many reviewers I am not afraid to speak out when a book demands it. My Metro review of AUP’s doorstop of a book on NZ Literature reflected my deep misgivings with its content. It failed on so many levels in terms of its grandiose claim, I needed to speak out. I crossed a line with this review and it affected my place in the literary community. Hundreds of people agreed with what I said, but it was my name on the page attracting the toxic flack on social media. I switched off. Got back to what is important.

This was a case of me potentially hurting other editors. I am not proud of that but I wanted to start a significant debate on what NZ literature stands for. What it embraces. Was I a bully? I hope not. Because that is what reviewers like Nicholas slip into. Being a bully. Smart alecs hurt people. Tip some authors over the edge. I loathe this. Half the time these throw-away claims are based on puff and fluff.

Criticism can be astute. It can be negative or positive but it should not get personal.

David Eggleton is a reviewer I admire enormously. His level of engagement with a book is exemplary. I read his review, relish the ideas, and track the book down in some cases.


YES!  We need to critique our reviewing landscape because at the moment we are poorly served. Without Poetry Shelf, your visibility of new poetry books would be unbearably diminished. I don’t care that Iain Sharp thinks I get up each day and wave at the passing trains of poetry like some witless female trainspotter.

But I do care that he undermines what some people are doing to make a difference against all odds when publishers, authors, booksellers and media are doing their utmost best to keep our communities of books alive.

Harriet Allen’s approach to reviewing books in NZ was an altogether different kettle of fish.


Fiona Farrell moved us at Ruapehu because she showed heart. Heart attached to life. To ideas. To writing. To books. Who didn’t weep?

Iain has handed us a fiery fun argumentative well-written challenging rant but ultimately we are short-changed.

Where is the heart?

The horizons of this rant are strait-jacked.

Where is the heart of NZ reviewing? The heart of NZ books? The ideas and reviewing terrain that sustain and move us.


I can no longer hear the trains, dear Ohakune.