Ōrongohau | Best New Zealand Poems 2021, edited and introduced by Kate Camp
The trees stand solitary. Clouds wring
the odd star out of the dark. We’re
walking on nothing. We’re the road, unlined.
Pippi Jean from ‘11.11pm’
This week I spent days reading and replying to all the children who sent me bird poems for Poetry Box’s March challenge. It is a sad glad task as so many children didn’t get picked to be posted, yet there were so many gold nugget poems. My Poetry Box aim is to nourish poetry at the grass roots, to encourage children and teachers to play with poetry. To explore poetry as a way to liberate words, to say what we think and feel, to see and hear with words. To break rules, to create rules. To let imaginations go flying and to draw upon memory. For a start.
I know what is like picking poems for anthologies, for Best NZ Poems, even books for the NZ Book Awards, and it is a painful pleasure, because not everyone gets picked, no matter how many best books and poems there are.
I do squirm and recoil from the word best with its unavoidable hierarchies and exclusions, its biases and neglects – especially how we edited and selected in the past. But still today, these leanings exist.
Despite my aversion to the concept of best, I am also grateful. I pick up poetry anthologies, journals, I scan book award lists, and I delve into Best NZ Poems because there are always rewards. I get to encounter poems/books I have loved, I get to hunt down poems/books I am not familiar with but tempt me, and I sigh over and return to astonishing poems/books that have not made the selector’s cut.
I am a selector every week on Poetry Shelf! And I know from emails how some poets find it tough when I don’t review their books or post their poems. This choosing tug is not easy.
Here I am back at our kitchen table watching the kererū squat greedily in the cabbage tree and I’m musing on the wide fields of poems published in 2021. The luminescent communities of poets writing, exchanging, conversing, publishing. It was a bonanza year on Poetry Shelf as I sought to counter the personal and global challenges of the year with themes and readings, and as many poems, interviews and reviews as I could manage. The poetry luminosity in Aotearoa is to be celebrated. This poem aliveness.
Poetry now is ‘an urgent medium of conversation that takes place’, Anna Jackson said to Kim Hill on the radio this morning. On the page, in performance, in social media. I love this. So many poets are writing with this sense of urgency, a need to half understand why we are writing it, a need to shine lights, and get personal, hold a hand out to the past, and a hand forward to the future. To find stable ground to stop the heart and mind shaking. To shake and tilt and free float.
And so with this peculiar introduction I celebrate the arrival of Best NZ Poems 2021. There are poems from books I have loved and engaged with deeply, there are poems by poets I have not yet read. It is a weekend road trip. A getaway car. A time to linger and imbibe and stall.
You can read editor Kate Camp’s comments on why each poem delighted her.
You can read the poems selected, and treat as a weekend retreat.
You can listen to some of the poets read.