Such noise! So many voices!
Steven Toussaint investigates the contemporary New Zealand poetry scene, and discovers much more than a tale of two cities.
Earlier this year, the Aotearoa/New Zealand literary community celebrated nearly twenty years of its Poet Laureateship with a sold-out gala event in Wellington. The laureates took turns at the podium, in the order of appointment, to read selections from their work, but also to reflect on the laureateship itself, on lives dedicated to poetry. In his opening remarks, the inaugural laureate Bill Manhire joked about English laureates like Robert Southey who ‘turned out poems for royal birthdays’. ‘Fortunately in New Zealand,’ he added, ‘there’s no requirement or expectation that you produce poems for the Queen or Prime Minister.’
Manhire’s remarks and the reading that followed presented a picture of the New Zealand laureate as public servant of the average reader—maybe even one uninitiated to the mysteries of poetry. This isn’t to denigrate the position, only to demystify it a little,tempering some of the pomp and circumstance.
‘New Zealanders are doubtful in an entirely pragmatic way,’ Manhire wrote in a 2011 essay for World Literature Today. ‘They want to give most things, including poems, a bit of a kick to find out just what they’re for.’ He characterises recent New Zealand poetry as ‘very happy with daily life’, and points to fellow laureate Jenny Bornholdt as a master of quotidian lyrics ‘where tradesmen call, children and recipes and baking are often on your mind, and neighbors behave in slightly quirky ways.’ Bornholdt enjoys an immense influence over the current landscape, he suggests, because ‘many of us recognise our lives in her poems.’
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Congratulations on the site and the initiative! Anything that will showcase our writers and writing, across both genre and region, is to be applauded. Bravo Paula Morris and team.
And thanks for acknowledging Poetry Shelf, Steven.