Poetry Shelf interviews the 2019 Sarah Broom Poetry Prize Judge: Anne Michaels

between your touch

and my cry

between the sea

and the dream of the sea


from ‘Sea of Lanterns’, All We Saw, Bloomsbury, 2017



Anne Michaels lives in Toronto where she is the city’s Poet Laureate. Her internationally bestselling novel, Fugitive Pieces (1996), was awarded the Orange Prize and the Guardian Fiction Prize among other awards. The Winter Vault (2009), her second novel, was awarded the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and was shortlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. She has written a number of highly acclaimed poetry collections, including the collaborative Correspondences (2013), which was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize and the selected volume Poems (2000). I read Fugitive Pieces when it first came out and the poetic layerings took my breath away. It moved into the room in my head for books that haunt and stay with me. I have since fallen in love with Anne’s poetry: the melodies, the intensities, the insistent refrain of love.

Anne is appearing at the 2019 Auckland Writers Festival. She is presenting the finalists (and winner) of the Sarah Broom Poetry Prize, appearing in conversation with Michael Williams and on a WWII panel.

Friday 17 May, 10 – 11 am, ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre: A Life’s Work: Anne Michaels

Saturday 18 May, 1 -2 pm, Waitākere Room, Aotea Centre: Sarah Broom Poetry Prize 2019

Sunday 19 May, 11.30 – 12.30 pm, Limelight Room, Aotea Centre: The Aftermath with Vincent O’Sullivan, Maria Tumarkin and Kirsten Warner introduced by Catriona Ferguson.


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Anne kindly agreed to an interview for Poetry Shelf.



Somewhere rain is falling

Somewhere a man is repairing the night, one word at a time



from ‘Somewhere Night Is Falling’, All We Saw



Paula: If you were to map your poetry reading history, name 3 or 4 books that would act as key co-ordinates?


T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.

Rilke – Selected Poems (translated by Stephen Mitchell).

And the poetry of Nazim Hikmet (translated by Randy Blasing, Mutlu Konuk), Pablo Neruda (translated by Ben Belitt and Alastair Reid), Osip Mandelstam (various translators), Anna Akhmatova (various translators)


Paula: For me your poetry is the kind of poetry that lingers, demanding to be read and then to be read again. The musicality, repetition, the silences and white space, the luminous detail, the layered feeling, the loss, the love – all etch a pattern on the skin. I call it goosebumps. What do you want your poems to do?

Anne: By its very nature, a poem witnesses and, in that witnessing, seeks a kind of justice – not only for the lives or events described by the poem, but witnesses also the reader’s life. Witnesses both what is painful and what is inexpressibly beautiful. I long for a poem to answer an experience, to honour what must be remembered, to honour what cannot be expressed. I long for a poem to name a mystery, to break us open, to wake us. Every poem is part of a greater collaboration, a collaboration of writer to writer, writer and reader, adding its small witnessing to what it means to be alive. To give each other courage. There is no witnessing that does not include the listener. Even if that listener is only the page itself. And I long for the poem to listen to the reader.


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Paula: Your collection, All We Saw, carries me deep into humanity, into humanness. The poem, ‘Somewhere Night is Falling’, came at me in waves, prodding me to to feel the wider scope of life and living. I am deeply moved by it and I hope you read this in Auckland. Actually ‘To Write’ hit me in a similar way. What surprised you as you wrote this collection? What questions arose?


and where

you are

is where you have

always been,

looking to the edge of paper   that torn edge

of sea


from ‘All We Saw’, All We Saw


Anne: Within a short span, most of those closest to me died, intimates of 30 years or more, and my parents. I wanted to understand what language there could possibly be for desire so extreme it is rendered chaste. When desire is forced to become grief. No words are restrained or spare enough to express the difference between silence and muteness. All my work is an attempt to render language chaste and these poems especially. I wanted to know how we might find a place in ourselves to assert that “death must give/not only take from us”.


Paula: There is no blueprint for writing poems. What might act as a poem trigger for you?

Anne: A poem can emerge from what haunts us, what insists: an event or a life that insists on being spoken, a question that has no answer. A poem should give more than it takes – i.e. open us in such way that we are left asking a deeper question. Language itself is inconsolable – it exists in time and yet longs to express what is beyond our grasp: what is lost, what is incomprehensible, what might be, what is ineffable. I write to hold another human being close.


Paula: You are the 2019 Judge of the Sarah Broom Poetry Prize. As a reader what draws you into a poem?

Anne: I am immediately drawn by a disciplined use of language – discipline, rather than manipulation – by a poet who knows a line is not a sentence. A poet who uses language to manipulate will never escape their own certainty; but discipline, however, requires a profound humility – to content, to technique – and an essential respect for and acknowledgement of the inexpressibility of experience. A poet who acknowledges the innate failure of language reaches beyond the self. I am drawn by clarity, not cleverness. I am drawn by a poet unafraid of emotion – the absolute asceticism of emotion – a poet who understands that emotion is somehow irreducible.


in that turning of the page

inside out, in the scarf

of shadow, in the message



you wanted death to give

not only take from us


from ‘Late August’, All We Saw



Anne Michaels’s website.

Listen to Anne in conversation with Kim Hill on RNZ National

Sarah Broom Prize


Sarah Broom Prize finalists: Jessica Le Bas, Nina Mingya Powles, Michael Steven

1 thought on “Poetry Shelf interviews the 2019 Sarah Broom Poetry Prize Judge: Anne Michaels

  1. Pingback: The 2019 Sarah Broom Prize session @AWF: a celebration of poetry | NZ Poetry Shelf

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