Monthly Archives: November 2019

Poetry Shelf Classic Poem: Alison Glenny picks Rachel O’Neill’s ‘The Kafka Divers’





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Note from Alison:


The Kafka Divers comes from One Human in Height, the debut collection by poet, artist and film-maker Rachel O’Neill.  Published by Hue & Cry Press in 2013, the book contains a number of candidates for ‘classic poem’, including some that have been anthologised elswhere. I’ve chosen The Kafka Divers because I admire how much it fits into a small space, and because reading it always makes me smile.

The Kafka Divers is a prose poem – that deceptively simple form which is really a chameleon, with a sneaky ability to impersonate more apparently informational/straightforward kinds of prose. The poem’s style evokes taxonomy, a form of classificatory and descriptive writing associated with the natural sciences. It’s a genre with its own distinct language and way of looking at the world, which the author, who identifies as queer and non-binary, appropriates for her own purposes.

The poem invents a new thing – a plant called the Kafka Diver. At least it seems to be a plant, although it could be other things as well. A young person with a sense of isolation for instance, or even a poem that immerses its readers and draws them into its faintly ‘reptilian’ interior, an experience from which they will emerge after a period of time unscathed, if not unchanged.

I was curious about whether any particular model (field guide? botany lecture?) prompted The Kafka Divers, so I asked Rachel if she could comment on the poem’s origin. She replied that at the time she wrote it she was reading anthologies of nature, garden, and landscape writing published in the 1950s that she kept in her bathroom, and added:

‘In the anthology excerpts there is an exultation of the human longingly observing the non-human, yet the distinction between human and non-human collapses in the entanglement of gaze, mystery and desire, and in the tensions around whether order and/or chaos dictates attention and preference. I think The Kafka Divers taps into the whole mutual yet fragile (and potentially queer and erotic) performance of looking and being seen, bringing to the fore queer circuits of desire.’

In The Kafka Divers the potential for fascination to undermine the separation between observer and observed is figured as literal engulfment – the act of ‘diving in’.  But a sense of ambiguous or permeable boundaries is also conveyed by the description of the Kafka Diver as a kind of hairy plant/umbrella/reptile assemblage, with a human (and very queer) capacity to succumb to loneliness/isolation, learn patience, or startle strangers with its singular appearance.

A similar ambiguity surrounds the roles of host and visitor, hospitality and predation, the description of ‘diving in’, which makes it unclear who (or perhaps both) or these actors is the ‘Diver’, and the relating of their encounter, with its alternating shocks of disappearing and emergence, creepiness and delight, horror and comedy.

You could argue that the coexistence of these contrasting emotional possibilities, whose resolution is left to the attention and preference of the reader, is signalled by the plant/poem’s title. After all, ‘Kafkaesque’ is a term we use to evoke the kind of bizarre and disturbing world in which a man might conceivably wake to discover he is an insect – the human subject turned, by a mysterious act of identification, into an ‘object’. But if the name ‘Kafka’ evokes a somewhat nightmarish state in which humans can lose their humanity or be subjected to inexplicable persecution, ‘Diver’ has connotations of commitment, courage, strength and grace. As Rachel comments,

‘I . . . set about to queer observational details and centred everything in Aotearoa, while still recruiting Kafka – though in the poem I question what might be perceived as Kafkaesque/nightmarish, so what ‘nightmarish’ might look like from a queer perspective.’

Read queerly, The Kafka Divers turns what might have been a horror tale of abduction in the sub-alpine zone of Aotearoa into a fable about the quiet or even ‘secretive’ triumph of connection over loneliness, hairiness, and a sub-prime position.

For me, another pleasure provided by the form the poem uses to explore issues of seeing and being seen is its reminder that histories of queer identifications (like those of other minorities) are entangled with the classifying gaze of science – whether sexology, medicine, psychiatry, or biology – approaches that have characteristically viewed queerness as, at best, a puzzle to be explained (‘gay gene’ anyone?) and at its most damaging, an aberration to be condemned or ‘cured’. In this sense the poem’s queering of perspective includes the suggestion that viewing human sexuality through the same set of field glasses used to study other species has the potential not only to reinforce stigma, but to open an Aladdin’s cave of specialisations and oddness, whose diversity and utopic potential remind me of Bruce Bagemihl’s concept of ‘biological exuberance’:

‘an affirmation of life’s vitality and infinite possibilities. . . at once primordial and furturistic; in which gender is kaleidoscopic, sexualities are multiple, and the categories of male and female are fluid . . A world, in short, exactly like the one we inhabit.’



Bagemihl, Bruce: Biological Exuberance: animal homosexuality and natural diversity (1999) Profile Books, p 262.

O’Neill, Rachel: email



Alison Glenny’s Antarctic-themed collection of prose poems and fragments, The Farewell Tourist, was published by Otago University Press in 2018.

Rachel O’Neill (pronouns: she / her / hers / they / them / theirs) is a Pākehā Non-binary queer filmmaker, writer and artist who was raised in the Waikato and is now based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara, Aotearoa. Their debut book, One Human in Height (Hue & Cry Press) was published in 2013.


Hue & Cry Press author page


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Poetry Shelf on Tour with Storylines

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When Storylines invited me to do a children’s author tour from Bleheim to Timaru I instantly said yes after several years of saying no to things. Now that my big book Wild Honey is in the world I have more time for school visits, author tours and festivals. Exciting!

I was with Libby Limbrick (the Storylines rep), Anne Dickson (Manager of the Community Library at Mahurangi East and Storylines committee member) and three authors: Vana Usanti (picture book whizz), Philippa Werry (writer of fiction and nonfiction fascinations) and Eileen Merriman (who crafts YA and adult fictions that move you and make you think). It was a DREAM TEAM.

This was the best author Tour I have ever been on – every school (from Y0 to Y13) was a highlight and STORYLINES made sure we had comfy beds, full tummies, good coffee, yummy meals and quiet times.

So THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU to the Storylines crew, the authors and all the schools that made this a memorable week.


I have made a collage diary of poems (by both me and children), photos and three secret poetry challenges.

You can read it here.

Poetry Shelf noticeboard: Doc Drumheller at The 39th World Congress of Poets (WCP), “Compassion through Poetry” in India

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The Asia New Zealand Foundation kindly supported my travel to India this year, where Catalyst 16, Wireless Compassion, was first launched. The Foundation’s Arts Practitioners Fund gives support for experiential opportunities for New Zealand-based arts practitioners to deepen artistic and professional connections with Asia, including residencies, work placements, research tours and exchanges. I am very grateful to have the support of the foundation to enable me to have such and amazing experience.

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It was an honour for me to be invited to represent New Zealand at the XXXIX World Congress of Poets (WCP), based on the theme “Compassion through Poetry” that was held from the 2nd to 6th of October 2019, at Kalinga Institute of Industrial Technology and Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences (KIIT & KISS) in Bhubaneswar, Odisha, India.

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My invitation letter described the event as follows:

Based on the theme, “Compassion through Poetry”, World Congress of Poets in its XXXIX edition shall celebrate the power of poetry to create a more compassionate world. We are only as strong as is our compassion for those who are weak. For in strength must come the power of understanding and the wisdom to act with gentleness and kind concern for those who are not able to help themselves. Come, share your powerful thoughts and mighty words wrapped in an enigma, swathed in intimacy and gift yourself an “Ah-ha” experience, insight and revelation.

By assembling together at the spiritual land of India, historical state of Odisha, and path breaking educational institutions called KIIT and KISS, poets of the world will unite forming a single heart that beats for the love in our Universe and compassion for all.

Lectures from Nobel Laureates and book presentations will enrich us in this ever evolving genre. A perfect break from the academia of poetry, we shall dance and sing by the ocean and relive the history in the sun temple of Konark. The event will also be graced with the presence of authors, academicians and eminent personalities from all across the globe an amalgamation of literature, art, culture and tradition under one umbrella.

The Congress delivered all of this and more, with over 1,300 poets, and 700 youth poets participating, with representatives from 82 different countries.

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The President of the XXXIX World Congress of Poets, Prof. Achyuta Samanta, is a Member of Parliament, India (Upper House), and the Founder of Kalinga Institute of Industrial Technology (KIIT) and Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences (KISS), Bhubaneswar – the fully free and fully residential tribal institute. He is known as an iconic educationist, an emblem of service to humanity, and a beacon of light for social transformation.

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With huge contributions in the field of education, health, art, culture, literature, rural development, social service and spiritualism, his journey in life is awe-inspiring. His hobby is to give happiness and a smiling face to the millions of poor, and he has been working relentlessly for Zero Poverty, Zero Hunger, and Zero Illiteracy.


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Professor Samanta started this initiative with just 5,000 rupees. Now 30,000 children are being fed three times a day, receiving free education and are housed on the campus. The Congress coincided with the 150th Birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, known in India as “the father of the nation,” who was born on October 2, 1869. His birthday is a major national holiday called Gandhi Jayanti, and it is marked with a prayer for peace, ceremonies and events throughout the country. The spirit of Gandhi was alive and well at the KIIT and KISS campuses, and the work being done is an inspiration. Professor Samanta is the embodiment of one of Gandhi’s famous quotes: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

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We were graced to have the presence of The Honourable Vice President of India, Shri M. Venkaiah Naidu at the closing ceremony of the 39 World Congress of Poets. In his speech he made reference to the to the famous Mark Twain quote “This is indeed India”, when he described India as: the country of hundred nations and a hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two million gods, cradle of the human race, birthplace of human speech, mother of history, grandmother of legend, great-grandmother of traditions…

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The highlight for me when participating in any conference, festival or congress such as this, is always the people. For the poets I have had the privilege to call my friends, this event felt like a family gathering, with our fellow poets being more like our brothers, and sisters. For the people of India, they treated me with such kindness and grace, and we were all blessed by their hospitality, with a blend of gentleness and respect.
The same quote by Mark Twain begins: “The land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, of splendour and rags.” For me India is a remarkable land of contrasts, which inspired me to write over 250 haiku and many longer poems during my two week visit.
Thank you to the Asia New Zealand Foundation for making this possible.


Kolkata, The City of Joy

Before and after the congress, I visited Kolkata, and managed to see a great deal in a short amount of time. I enjoyed seeing the sights such as the Howrah Bridge, Victoria Memorial, Indian Museum, Dakshineswar Kali Temple, Belur Math, Marble Palace Mansion, and it was fascinating to see the Kumartuli Potter’s Town at the start of my trip, as the idols of Durga and Demons were being crafted for Durga Puja. Durga Puja is an annual Hindu festival originating in the Indian subcontinent which reveres and pays homage to the Hindu goddess, Durga.



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Highlights of my Kolkata tour included: Mother House, where the Tomb of Mother Teresa is present, and maintained by her missionaries and followers who have continued to promote her legacy; and Jorasanko Thakur Bari, the house in which the first non-European Nobel laureate and poet, Rabindranath Tagore was born.

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I went further afield and visited the Sundarbans, a National Park, tiger reserve, and biosphere reserve in West Bengal, India. It is part of the Sundarbans on the Ganges Delta, and adjacent to the Sundarban Reserve Forest in Bangladesh. The delta is densely covered by mangrove forests, and is one of the largest reserves for the Bengal tiger. It is also home to a variety of bird, reptile and invertebrate species, including the salt-water crocodile. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site inscribed in 1987.
Jorasanko Thakur Bari, the house
in which the first non-European Nobel laureate and poet, Rabindranath Tagore was born.

During my stay in Kolkata, I met with a group of Bengali poets, some of whom were published in Catalyst 16. We had a performance together on 30 September at Debovhasa, an Art Gallery, Bookshop and Publishing House. It was wonderful to hear the poets read their work, and I was delighted to sing waiata in Te Reo Maori, and perform my poetry as well.

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The event was hosted by Barnali Roy, a prominent editor, and translator of Bengali Literature. This event also marked the first in a series of launch events for Catalyst 16, including the 39 WCP, and a launch after my trip to India, at the monthly Catalyst Poetry Nights at the Space Academy in Christchurch.

Catalyst Volume 16 features the following seven poets from India:
Trina Chakraborti a Bengali writer, and an associate editor for a leading Bengali literary magazine, Yapanchitra.
Prabal Kumar Basu a prominent Bengali poet and editor, who was invited to the Writers in Residency program by The President of India to stay at Raisina Hills for two weeks as the President’s guest.
Dr. Santosh Kumar a poet, short-story writer, and editor from India. Editor of Taj Mahal Review, and Harvests of New Millennium Journals.
Philipose Michael, a Malayalam poet, and Film Song Writer from Kerala, who has won numerous awards for his poetry.
Jacob Isaac an award-winning and internationally acclaimed English poet. He is the founder, owner and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Good Shepherd Model High School in Marble Hall, South Africa.
Dr. Ramakanta Das, who received his Honorary Doctorate of Literature, and was named Poet Laureate at the 39 World Congress of Poets in Odisha.
P.L.Sreedharan Parokode who has published numerous books of poetry and has penned songs and poems for telefilm, professional dramas for the All India Radio.

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After the Congress, I met with Prabal Kumar Basu, Trina Chakraborti and Barnali Roy, and we discussed further projects and opportunities to collaborate and publish Bengali Poets and New Zealand Poets together.

We then enjoyed a drive around Kolkata to see the pandals, stage and structural decorations, and temporary temples for Durga Puja. The festival is observed in the months of September-October and is a ten-day festival, of which the last five are of significance. The festival is also marked by scripture recitations, performance arts, revelry, gift giving, family visits, feasting, and public processions.


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As per mythology, the festival marks the victory of goddess Durga in her battle against the shape-shifting demon, Mahishasura. Thus, the festival epitomises the victory of good over evil. Though the primary goddess revered during Durga puja is Durga, the celebrations also include other major deities of Hinduism such as Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesha , and Kartikeya. In Bengali traditions, these deities are considered to be Durga’s children and Durga puja is believed to commemorate Durga’s visit to her natal home with her children.

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The festival ends on the tenth day, when devotees embark on a procession, of rhythmic drumming, and music, carrying the worshipped clay sculpture-idols to a river, or other water body, and immerse them, symbolic of her return to the divine cosmos and her marital home with Shiva.
Kolkata is called the City of Joy, and I was certainly elated to witness this extraordinary festival, while enjoying the company of my fellow poets and friends, during a celebration I was privileged to enjoy.



Doc Drumheller
Poet and Editor of Catalyst

Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: James Brown’s ‘Lesson’



When was the last time you
washed a green apple – peeling
off the irksome sticker ­– and
quartered it on a chopping board?

Then sliced the quartered cores out
with two fine v-cuts
and threw them onto the lawn
for the birds? Then cut the quarters

into eighths and passed the eighths
around, eating two yourself
– the sharp fresh taste sweeter
than you’d expected?


James Brown



James Brown’s Selected Poems will be published by VUP in 2020.








Poetry Shelf noticeboard: Nina Mingya Powles wins inaugural Nan Shepherd Prize

Great news for this Seraph Press poet.

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Nina Mingya Powles has been announced as the winner of the inaugural Nan Shepherd Prize for her submission Small Bodies of Water which explores growing up between two different cultures.

The literary award, run by Canongate Books, was formed to discover and nurture underrepresented voices in nature writing.

Powles receives a publishing contract with Canongate and the book will be published in hardback in August 2021. She has already signed an agent in Kirsty McLachlan at David Godwin Associates.

The book’s synopsis reads: “Home is many people and places and languages, some separated by oceans. In experimental and lyrical prose that blends personal memories and dreams with nature writing, Small Bodies of Water examines a girlhood spent growing up between two cultures.

“From the rainforest waterfalls of Borneo to the wild coastline of New Zealand and the Ladies’ Pond in Hampstead Heath, this book explores migration, food, family and the bodies of water that separate and connect us.”

The idea for the prize came from Canongate’s rights manager Caroline Clarke and assistant editor Megan Reid, who said. Launched in May, it included a partnership with the Nan Shepherd Estate and the University of Aberdeen. It was inspired by, and in memory of, writer Nan Shepherd, whose book The Living Mountain remained unpublished for almost 40 years before being published in 1977 and selling 90,000 copies.

Reid said: “We were delighted to see such a warm response to the prize, and were blown away by the number and quality of the entries we received. We saw entries from all across the UK, from those already active within the nature writing community, to those who had never shared their writing before.”

Throughout the call-in period, Canongate offered online resources to help break down the publishing process, and discuss nature writing books by underrepresented writers. Each of the shortlisted and longlisted writers will receive feedback on their entries.

The winning entry was picked from a judging panel of Amy Liptrot, bestselling author of The Outrun (Canongate); Chitra Ramaswamy, award-winning journalist and author of Expecting; Nick Barley, director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival; Jenny Brown, literary agent and chair of Bloody Scotland Festival and Francis Bickmore, publishing director at Canongate Books.

Powles said: “It has been so wonderful and enriching to get the opportunity to take part in the Nan Shepherd Prize journey alongside so many talented shortlisted writers. I’m grateful to the judges for believing in my work, and feel completely overwhelmed that they have selected my submission. I can’t wait to start working with Canongate to bring my book out into the world.”

McLachlan said of Powles: “Her writing is exquisite and I’m so excited that Canongate will be publishing such a talented writer.”

“Everyone who read Small Bodies of Water – from Canongate readers to the judges – loved Nina’s wonderful, lyrical and poetic writing,” Reid said. “This is a beautiful first book that really captures the spirit of The Living Mountain, and I’m so excited to have found such a brilliant winner of the first Nan Shepherd Prize in Nina.”

Powles is a writer, editor and publisher of mixed Malaysian-Chinese heritage. She is the author of the poetry pamphlets, her essays have been published in various literary journals and she was joint winner of the 2019 Landfall Essay Competition and the 2018 Women Poets’ Prize. She was also a finalist for the 2019 Sarah Broom Poetry Prize, one of New Zealand’s richest poetry awards. She is the founding editor of Bitter Melon 苦瓜, a small press that publishes limited-edition poetry pamphlets by Asian diaspora writers. Her pamphlet of essays on food is forthcoming from Birmingham-based indie The Emma Press. Powles was born in New Zealand, partly grew up in China and now lives in London.




Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: Hebe Kearney’s ‘Clytemnestra Takes a Bath’


Clytemnestra Takes a Bath


Woman — cast your tyrannical spell upon the water,

heart of red dwarf star, fizzing wonder,

and to the seething foam pour your oils, aromatic offerings,

libations of rose petals. Let candles blaze in the dark,

a ring of ensnaring flame.


Woman — run the bath red,

drop by crimson drop, let the red tide flow

unsheathe the cold steel, let it slide in long strokes

and when it nicks it oozes,

draw it quick down beneath the scarlet waters,

and keep it there.


Woman — I know you,

you own the distant scream or two of flesh

dragged against white marble,

the sound behind the door of a call:

in another life, you betrayed a kingdom of nothing,

wrenched off an eagle’s wings, sprayed its black blood wide,

assumed the form of a snake.


Clytemnestra — in this life, relax;

the day is beginning.

Untangle the net of your dressing gown from the bathroom floor,

wrap your blushed flesh in silk,

apply a plaster to that bright-ooze, shaving cut,

and let the crimson bathwater all the way out.

Breathe deep, dry off, moisturise.

Fish the rose petals from the teeth of the bathtub’s drain

with your hands.


Hebe Kearney


Hebe Kearney is from Christchurch but now calls Auckland her home. She is currently studying to complete her Honours in Classics and Ancient History at the University of Auckland. She couldn’t stop writing poems if she tried, and her work has appeared in Starling, The Three Lamps and Oscen.







Poetry Shelf noticeboard: Next week I am on the Storylines National Festival Tour from Kaikoura to Timaru with three fabulous authors

I am off on a Storyline’s National Festival Tour of schools on the East Coast of the South Island with Eileen Merriman, Vasanti Unka and Phillipa Werry. We are doing ‘What’s My Story?’: an evening event in Christchurch where we discuss our work. Come and say hello!


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