Monthly Archives: February 2023

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

Love Poem

A chair is a good place to sit.
You spend a week with a poem.
Then another week. Not your poem. 
Somebody else’s. 

You become friends, then
very good friends.
You like the poem a lot. Maybe 
you are a little in love with the poem.

Every morning, the poem washes its limbs
in a mountain spring. 
You close your eyes and watch.
Then you talk to one another like water. 

This probably goes without saying
but you say it anyway.

James Brown

James Brown’s poems have been widely published in New Zealand and overseas. James’s most recent poetry collection is The Tip Shop (2022), and his Selected Poems were published in 2020. Previous books include Floods Another Chamber (2017); Warm Auditorium (2012); The Year of the Bicycle (2006), which was a finalist in the Montana New Zealand Book Awards 2007; Favourite Monsters (2002); Lemon; and Go Round Power Please (1996), which won the Best First Book Award for Poetry. His poems are widely anthologised and frequently appear in the annual online anthology Best New Zealand Poems.

Poetry Shelf favourites: Khadro Mohamed’s ‘Pink Lakes’



all they know is the familiar site 
of unturned stomachs
sand-caked faces 
oversized, bloated bellies 
jet-black eyes
sticky lashes
tinted curls with dust caught in between
broken tomato fields
houses made of earth
a heat that rises slowly 
with an intensity that distorts the footprints
and turns leaves into coffee powder and
dehydrated calderas where lakes used to be
even now, the feeling of emptiness sticks to me
like the skeleton of wisteria on the inside of my veranda in winter
like the deep brown undertones of my skin
if only baba could tell them that the earth that once
covered our home gave birth to flower fields 
and entire forests that could swallow science whole
gravity-defying vines with pepper growing on the ends
that the sky dances only for us, leading us through 
oceans, the long-winded spine of our coast and capsized ships

if only they knew the kingdom that once ruled
this rich and vibrant land

has remnants scattered along the earth 
feeding the mouths of goats
that carry stars in their bellies and 
oud string in their U-shaped shoes
if only they could land on the shores 
of pink lakes, baobab silhouettes
and lion calls.


Khadro Mohamed

from We’re All Made of Lightning, We Are Babies Press, 2022

This poem ‘Pink Lakes’ was published in Starling last year and also features in my poetry collection, it remains as one of my favourites because of the imagery and the emotion behind each word. One of my favourite ways to write is through imagery and I think this poem does a good job at using a range of different images to evoke strong feelings. I like that it’s a mix of anger and awe, a mix of darkness and light and that balance creates an immersive experience. It is one that I often return to when I want inspiration to write something new that follows a similar flow. Khadro Mohamed

Khadro Mohamed is a writer and poet from Wellington. Her work often speaks to her own unique experiences as a Somali-New Zealander. Her work has appeared in various online magazines, notably: Starling, Pantograph Punch, The SpinOff and more. Her debut collection of poetry, “We’re All Made of Lightning” can be found in all good bookstores across the motu. 

Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: Selina Tusitala Marsh’s ‘Tualima’


Inked blue-black birds
On back of hands
Soar skies
Then land to strut
Over sands leaving
V tracks towards
The malo
The centrepiece
Diamond protector
Where two fishes kiss
Then split
Into diamonds again
Dug deep from skin
Porous mythic origin
Framed by centipedes
They follow, they lead
Along the line
Of spaces in between
The seen unseen.

Fetu mark skies 
And the insides of fale
Rafters of heaven
They number seven generations
Passed down and along
Inked songs sung of the jellyfish
Women’s own symbol
Beautiful to touch
Deadly if crushed
Tatau mark wisdom past 
Tatau are mirrors for today.

Selina Tusitala Marsh


Tualima: Tattoos placed on the back of hands, reserved for Samoan women
Malu: Diamond shape symbolising women’s ability to provide for and protect her loved ones
Fetu: Stars
Fake: Traditional open walled Samoan house

Professor Selina Tusitala Marsh is of Samoan, Tuvaluan, English and French descent. She was the first Pacific Islander to graduate with a PhD in English from The University of Auckland and is now a lecturer in the English Department, specialising in Pasifika literature. Her first collection, the bestselling Fast Talking PI, won the NZSA Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poetry in 2010. Marsh represented Tuvalu at the London Olympics Poetry Parnassus event in 2012; her work has been translated into Ukrainian and Spanish and has appeared in numerous forms live in schools, museums, parks, billboards, print and online literary journals. As Commonwealth Poet (2016), she composed and performed for the Queen at Westminster Abbey. She became New Zealand’s Poet Laureate in 2017. Her debut children’s book and memoir, Mophead: How Your Difference Makes a Difference, was awarded the Margaret Mahy Book of the Year – 2020 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.

Poetry Shelf review: A Runner’s Guide to Rakiura by Jessica Howland Kany

A Runner’s Guide to Rakiura: A Novel, Jessica Howland Kany
Quentin Wilson Publishing 2022

Jessica Howland Kany grew up on Manhattan Island, New York City, and has lived on Rakiura Stewart Island for twenty years. She edits Stewart Island News, does desk work for her fisherman husband, raises her sons, and runs. She has worked in the local pub, in various libraries, trapping rats, running a myths and legends club for local children. Her writing has appeared in a number of magazines: Running Times, North & South, New Zealand Geographic, New Zealand Gardener, Wilderness Magazine, Sky & Telescope, The Island Review.

A Runner’s Guide to Rakiura is Jessica’s first novel, and I find it gripping on a number of surprising levels. It’s one of those rare occasions where I would like to sit in a cafe, preferably on Rakiura, and talk about the novel with other readers. It seems to have achieved scant attention in the media bar a few interviews, and didn’t make the NZ Book Award Fiction longlist. I find it rich, complex, thrilling. Lynn Freeman enthused about it, as one of three favourite books of 2022 (see RNZ link below).

For me, the first gripping hook is location. It grips through its succulent depiction of place. That I have been to Rakiura on two occasions makes a difference. Once with a bunch of poets to share a feast of food and to perform to locals in the hall. On that visit, I got up before the sun and watched daylight appear, sat next to the lapping tide, just me in the dark with the stretching beauty. Wonderful visit! And once with my partner, to stay in a cottage courtesy of friends, go for walks, eat mouthwatering fish and chips on the waterfront, go to the Sunday pub quiz, eat in the sublime restaurant up the hill, go for more long walks, chill and recharge. Both occasions were memorable.

The depiction of place and people feels achingly real in the novel, to the point I wondered if the characters were based on Rakiura locals. But in an interview for Stuff, Jessica underlines that the community was too small to go borrowing real people for her characters. She told Susy Ferguson that the only “real” person she mined was herself, and that bits of her appear in all the characters. I spent a weekend reading the book, and it was like I spent a weekend on the island. I could smell, taste and sense it.

Books can be a glorious form of travel.

The second gripping hook is the structure of the novel. The title suggests it is a running guide, but it is also a guide to the island, to history, to life and living, to food, to love. Don’t expect a traditional narrative structure with a beginning, middle and end, and a steady plot line. It is a fabulous compendium of various writings that range from activities to do on the island, poetry, Moby Dick, a set of clues, a genealogy, a treasure map. Sentences are crafted in exquisite ways from the traditional to the linguistically playful. Individual words matter: piquant, puzzling, powerful. Punctuation is also playful – and it works! I feel like I am in the company of someone who adores language and what language can do.

The third gripping hook is that the protagonist, like the author herself, is an outsider who has moved in, who engages with the community in various ways, and sees things in prismatic lights. “Things” become both strange and familiar as I read. Jessica is fascinated with language because the local jargon is often near incomprehensible. She keeps a notebook. She rolls the words on her tongue and in her ear, and the vernacular becomes a treasury. Language is an entry point to an else or otherwhere. For me, it reinforces the notion that place (think people and physical location) is never singular. Place offers multiple fascinating narratives.

The fourth gripping hook is the way a treasure hunt adds to the magnetic pull of reading. Herein lies the need for clues and maps, discovery and a compulsion to search, the links to war and loss. I became more and more gripped by the hunt but I also realised that that the treasure was not just a buried box. It was treasure of the heart, the treasure of finding one’s place in the world, and in a small community.

Yes, this is a guide to running, but it is a guide to so much more. I found it addictive and affecting, it lifted me out of self isolation, and took me to Rakiura for a weekend retreat, for my third “visit”. I loved it.

RNZ interview with Susy Ferguson, Nine to Noon

RNZ Lynn Freeman picks the novel as one of her favourite books of 2022

Interview with Michael Fallow for Stuff

Poetry Shelf poem: Jenny Powell’s ‘Unbuttoning’


Under angry sea under cut of coast
under arctic melt under winter sleet
under webs under leaves under nests under shells
under songs under psalms under cigarette butts
under worn coats under Sunday church
under smeared glass under dawn chants
under pursed lips under empty purses
under white sheets under bleached stains
under negative photos of holiday shots
under take potluck under take your pick
under leaving traces of DNA
under swirling hawks under plucked feathers
under forest cover undercover drones
under glacial husks under breathless dives
under mountain divides under dammed rivers     
under mounting debt under hard labour
under worked to your bones under bankruptcy
under overworked flocks of undertakers
under social upheaval under critical protest
under secret surveillance under constant reprisals                   
under circling cyclonic anxiety
under spewing volcanic uncertainty

under landslide delays under floods of dismay
underneath the unbuttoning of us our grieving hearts.

Jenny Powell

Jenny Powell lives in Dunedin. Her last poetry collection Meeting Rita, (2021) was published by Cold Hub Press. When working on South Dunedin poetry projects she is known as the ‘Dunedin City of Literature South D Poet Lorikeet’.

Poetry Shelf review: ‘like a heart’ – poetry by Louise Wallace, paintings by Anna Perry

(… ) this is the sound of your voice
/ sounding off at the sound / at fascination / the sound of
learning / of signals / the sound of so much potential / this
is the sound of light / and need / this is how it sounds to be
tender / this is the sound of your own skin

Louise Wallace, from ‘talk to your baby’

like a heart is a slim chapbook that accompanied a collaborative exhibition between Louise Wallace and Anna Perry. It was held at Bowen Galley in Wellington during VERB Readers & Writers Festival 2022.

The chapbook is an exquisite compendium of the mundane and the marvellous, through both image and word. It includes a terrific introduction by Sarah Jane Barnett. Daily life is a starting point, a launch pad into the intricate and the complex. Here I am at home occupying the domestic space, the bush, the country roads, and the only real travel beyond these margins is by way of reading and writing. like a heart is both anchor and travel. It is domestic space and it is beyond domestic space.

I am holding the catalogue, standing in the “gallery” with helter-skelter ideas and slow paced absorption. Here I go musing on how poetry is painting and painting is poetry, on how you get a still life that holds you still, and then fills you with body movement: the bowl of fruit, the vase of flowers, a chequered table cloth, bathroom basin, half-open window curtained, the half-drunk cup of tea. There is ripple, reaction, and of course memory. Floods of memory. Heart.

The paintings bring to mind the work of Berta Hansson (1910 – 1994), Frances Hodgkins (1869 – 1940), Giorgio Morandi (1890 – 1964), Maya Kopitseva (1924 – 2005). I am led to the poetry of Jenny Bornholdt, Blanche Baughan, Alison Wong, Ian Wedde, Fiona Kidman, Cilla McQueen, Sue Wootton, Jill Chan, Angela Andrews, Michele Leggott.

The paintings (oil on wood) are warm, sensual, textured, colour rich, utterly alive. Confessional.

The poems are nuanced, steady-rhythmed like a heart beat, quiet, vital, exposed and exposing, utterly alive. Confessional.

There are gaps and there are bridges, within poem, within painting, and between the one and the other. The domestic space exudes life, physical detail that unlocks anecdote, anecdote that heightens physical detail. Mood swells. I feel like I am holding the collaboration in the palm of my hand, and the travel is glorious.

Bowen Gallery page

Anna Perry is an Elam School of Fine Arts graduate who has exhibited in a range of Aotearoa venues. She has been a finalist in the Wallace Art Awards and the Parkin Drawing Prize. She currently lives in Ōtepoti Dunedin where she works as an early childhood teacher and mother.

Louise Wallace has published three poetry collections with Te Herenga Waka Press, with a new book due May 2023. Louise founded and edits the online journal Starling, and was the 2015 Burns Fellow at the University of Otago. She lives in Ōtepoti Dunedin with husband and young son.

Poetry Shelf favourites: Robert Sullivan picks ‘Waka 100’

Waka 100

Stroke past line 1642 into European time.
Stroke past 1769 and the introduction of the West

Stroke on the approach to 1835
and formal Northern Maori sovereignty.

Stroke into the New World and stop.

Crews alight, consign waka
to memory, family trees, remove the prowed
tauihu, drape the feathered mana
around the whare-womb
of the next crew

who are to remember waka into the beginning
of centuries years minutes hours seconds
long and short hands centred on Greenwich

each person
of waka memory to hold their thoughts,
each person of seagoing
and waterborn descent whose hard waka
are taken away.

And years later,
we ask our ancestors to wake,
whose mokopuna are carving in eyes,
restoring chiselled features, mouths
coming out of wood, genitals, feet planted
on shoulders winding into stars on ceilings,
our ancestors of a culture that has held
its breath through the age of Dominion.
They’ve adzed waka out for them –
the memories, intricate knowledge,
fleet leaders, their reasons for being –
shoulders that carried so many waka –
summoning souls of myriads of names
above hundreds of waka names.

And you waka, who have seen heaven,
the guts of the ocean, brought terror and pleasure,
who have exhausted your crews of home thoughts
who have lifted songs above the waves
of the greatest and deepest ocean,
rise – rise into the air – rise to the breath –
rise above valleys into light and recognition –
rise where all who have risen sing your names.

And you, Urizen, Jupiter, Io Matua Kore,
holder of the compasses – wind compass,
solar compass, compass encompassing known
currents, breather of the first breath
in every breathing creature,
guide the waka between islands,
between years and eyes of the Pacific
out of mythologies to consciousness.

And you stars, the ancestors,
nuclear orbs, red giants, white dwarves,
burn brilliantly, burn on the waka down there,
burn on waka riding valleys,
burn on waka on mountain summits,
burn on waka in the night,
burn on waka past the end of light.

Robert Sullivan from Star Waka

“I think the poem I go back to a lot is ‘Waka 100’ from Star Waka, the one that walks through periods of colonisation to decolonisation. It’s one of the ‘ones’ I think of when I think of the collection, although the 2001st line in the collection is at the end of the back cover poem, ‘A Cover Sail’. The repetition of the word ‘stroke’ is really a reference to the word ‘hoe’ or ‘hoea’ which also means to stroke or to paddle. These words are used in canoe chants to keep time. I’m getting quite close to explaining my own poem so I’ll stop there, except to say that I have been slowly adding poems to Star Waka in my other collections, including my newest one, Tūnui / Comet (AUP, 2022).” Robert Sullivan

Robert Sullivan (he/him/ia, Ngāpuhi and Kāi Tahu) has won awards for his poetry, editing, and writing for children, including the 2022 Lauris Edmond Memorial Award for a distinguished contribution to New Zealand poetry. Tunui Comet is his eighth collection of poetry. His book Star Waka (Auckland University Press 1999) has been reprinted eight times, also with a German language edition. Robert’s an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Massey University. He is a great fan of all kinds of decolonisation.

Poetry Shelf Monday poem: essa may ranapiri’s ‘cracked or crackling or splitting down the sides’ 

cracked or crackling or splitting down the sides 

(after Robert Sullivan’s ‘the crackling page’) 

if it is a fire then i know it is a fire if there is
warmth coming from that fire then it is
warmth in my mouth if my mouth is really
there and i know it is because it is open it is
open with fire streaming through my teeth
with heat lining my gums if my tongue is
moving in my mouth then sound is coming
 out if sound is coming out and surely i know
this because it is my mouth and my sound it is
a fire and i know it is a fire because of
how it burns 

essa may ranapiri (Ngaati Raukawa, Te Arawa, Ngaati Pukeko, Clan Gunn) is a poet who lives on Ngaati Wairere whenua on the island of Te Ika a Maaui. Author of ransack (VUP, 2019) and ECHIDNA (THWUP, 2022). They have a great love for language, LAND BACK and hot chips. They will write until they’re dead.

Poetry Shelf celebrates the NZ Book Awards Poetry Longlist

Warm congratulations to all the books on this brilliant poetry longlist – and warm commiserations to the equally brilliant poetry books that didn’t make it. Poetry awards are a time for joy and whoops for some, and slump and self doubt for others. I never forget this. I always say that good books attract readers and good books endure, regardless of awards.

But today I celebrate the longlisted books I have read so far (deep apologies I haven’t yet reviewed Anahera Gildea’s and Michael Steven’s fabulous collections on Poetry Shelf). I have included links to my reviews/conversations.

Reading back through my reviews, I was reminded of the incredible reach and range of our poets. So many books to hold to our hearts.

Grateful thanks to the publishers, booksellers, book reviewers and readers who continue to support our vibrant and essential poetry communities in Aotearoa.

The Longlist

Always Italicise: how to write while colonised, Alice Te Punga Somerville, Auckland University Press, 2022

Alice Te Punga Somerville’s new collection offers four vital sections: reo / invisible ink / mahi / aroha. Sections in their own right but the discrete boundaries blur as movement and connections abound. The categories strike a chord, deep seated, poignant, as though this exquisitely designed book becomes a register of life – how we speak, how we are unseen and unspoken, how we work, and how we love. Importantly, how we become.

The overturned italics convention, carried across the length of a book, is an insistence. It is personal, it is political and it is ancestral. We are what and how and why and where and who we speak. The historical and contemporary silencing, the historical and contemporary othering of language is inexcusable.

Alice’s poems are writing on the breath, breathpoetry, utterly fluid; it is writing on the breath of memory, story, change, ideas, feeling. Her poems carry the rhythm of life – of reo, invisible ink, mahi, aroha. There is the rhythm of prayer and the rhythm of waiata. The poetic rhythms and crafted fluencies carry the reader across eclectic subject matter.

Books reach us at different times and in different ways. As readers we establish myriad travel routes through a book, we bring our own experience close or hold at a vulnerable distance. Books are my life rafts at the moment. With the road ahead still bumpy, still uncertain, I hold language and love close, I work and take little steps each day. I see Alice’s glorious, ground-establishing poetry collection as her mahi, her aroha. It is a book spiked with anger and it is a book stitched with love. It has made me smile and it has gripped my heart. It is the most affecting book I have read this year.

my review

Echidna, essa may ranapiri, Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2022

Spending extended time with essa may ranapiri’s new collection Echidna is a catalyst for contemplation, deep-seated musing, sinking into the knowable, wallowing in the unknowable, brushing against the light, scratching at the dark. All this and more. essa is writing in the present tense, that intimate prolonged precious moment when their words meet screen or page but, as their dedication indicates, are writing – for to from – their ancestors (past) and descendants (future). And past present future become weave. And writing becomes weave. And weave becomes writing.

essa offers sensual hooks so poems become tactile, aromatic, igniting taste buds. There is the physical and there is the intangible. The form of the poems shift like the shifting voice of the storyteller, the point of view swivelling. Sometimes a poem might appear like two salt pillars, sometimes ravined with space and ache, sometimes wider gaps punctuate the line, allowing room for float and drift.

And the sound. There is the music of the storytelling voice, a voice attuned to holding a listener entranced, to composing aural connections, undulating chords. Yes, it is music for the entranced listener.

Books find you. You find books. Poetry, like storytelling, has an incredible ability to invigorate every body pore, in ways that both heal and challenge. We need poetry in these turbulent times. We need this book. This remarkable groundbreaking Echidna.

my review

Meat Lovers, Rebecca Hawkes, Auckland University Press, 2022

Rebecca Hawkes’s debut full-length collection is a triumphant display of the power of words. The book is in two halves, Meat and Lovers; two sides to a beating heart, both dependent upon the other.

I am a vegetarian who cooks meat for my family and I wondered whether I would hold the ‘meatiness’ of Rebecca’s collection at arm’s length. The first poem, The Flexitarian, begins in a supermarket meat aisle and ends with meat sizzling in a pan. The sensual dexterity, the aural finesse, are so compelling I am transfixed. Assonance meets alliteration meets addictive rhythm. It’s like falling upon a song you love that you keep on replay. This poet can write.

She moves from the density of the opening poem to the lush detail of stealing sweets in Countdown (Help yourself) to the sweet economy of Sighting. The movement between spare and opulent is a trait of the collection as a whole. At times, the poems draw upon distant memories, using distinctive and shifting chords to translate the past.

I am hard pressed to think of a poetry collection that has affected me as much as this one has. I welcome the ‘meat’ and the ‘lovers.’ The poetic craft captivates, yet it is the glint and gleam of life, as young girl and as young woman, at times macabre, at times lust, at times vulnerable, always astonishing, that transports and impales. Meat lovers is a significant arrival in our poetry landscapes. Glorious.

my review / my conversation

People Person, Joanna Cho, Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2022

Joanna Cho’s debut poetry collection, People Person, is poetry pleasure. I experience a sequence of poetic delights, poems that offer multiple rewards, poems to read again and again. The presence of Joanna’s mother’s ephemeral paintings is an exquisite addition: fleeting, hinting, translucent palette, subject rich. I adore them.

More than anything I am pulled into the pleats and folds of Joanna’s writing because it is personal. It is humorous and witty and revealing. It is confessional and withholding, gifting and gifted. Each time you read from cover to cover, you will discover new reading tracks, fresh possibilities for what we want and need from poetry. Each poem a provisional portrait, a self excursion, a self reckoning.

Joanna’s poetry relishes narrative, whether fractured, curtailed, elongated. The power of story, invented or recalled, attracts me as reader. Think fable or anecdote or ranging subject matter. I savour this collection on so many levels, on its ability to startle and sidetrack, on its use of loops, repetition, echoes.

People Person is a triumph – I have quoted more excepts than I would normally do (in my review) because it is the poetry that matters here, poetry that delivers myriad reading tracks that are so utterly satisfying. Glorious.

my review

Super Model Minority, Chris Tse, Auckland University Press, 2022

Paula: Inspired and comforted seem crucial for both readers and writers. Your new collection is body shattering and heart repairing. And yes, both inspiring and of comfort. The book includes the best endorsements ever (Nina Mingya Powles, Helen Rickerby, Rose Lu). They catch how the reading experience affected me perfectly. Would you couch the writing experience in similar terms?

Chris: Writing this book caught me off-guard, in a number of ways. First, I didn’t think I’d have a manuscript ready so soon after HE’S SO MASC – I was happy to take my time with the next book. Then a few things happened that set off something in me – an urgency to write and respond: the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, the aftermath of the Christchurch mosque attacks, and the rise of anti-Asian sentiment as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. These events all triggered powerful emotions, but the overriding frustration I felt was that things seem to stay the same no matter how much we push for societal change and equality. I was overcome by anger, sadness, and helplessness, so I decided to write myself out of that state and turn it into energy. The poems kept coming and I found myself confronting a lot that I’ve left unspoken for so long­ – some of it out of guilt, some of it out of fear. Overall, the writing process taught me a lot about myself because of these responses and the realisation that it’s important to hold on to hope throughout the dark times – I’m not as nihilistic as I thought I once was, even if that’s how it may come across in the book!

Paula: I wrote down ‘a bath bomb effect’ in my notebook as I was reading. The whole book really. A slow release of effervescence. The kind of poetry that you think and feel. That inspires and comforts! This comes through when you perform or record your poetry. The poems you recorded from the book for Poetry Shelf. Your performances with the Show Ponies. Your readings have got a whole lot of love on the blog. Mesmerising! Does it affect the writing? The future performances in the air? 

Chris: Sometimes I’ll have a feeling as I’m writing as to whether or not a poem will be one suited for performances. ‘The Magician’, ‘What’s fun until it gets weird?’ and ‘Poetry to make boys cry’ were written to be performed at particular events so I was conscious about how they flow and build during a performance. Having that embedded into the poem really helps me when it comes to performing it, and hopefully that effect comes across on the page when others are reading it. Reading my work out loud, either at home or to a crowd, has become a much more integral part of my writing and revision process in recent years, even if it isn’t necessarily a poem that I think will make it into high rotation as a ‘live’ poem. This wasn’t really a major consideration when I was writing Snakes because the thought of sharing my work in that way wasn’t really front of mind, although I do love the opportunities that book presents when I’m asked to do a long set and have the chance to read a substantial selection from it.

Paula: I agree that what you write must be a big deal for the queer and POC communities. I am heartened by an increased visibility of Asian writers not just as poets but as editors. But at times I am also disheartened. How do you feel?

Chris: It really is heartening to see so many POC and queer writers getting published and stepping into editing and leadership roles, but there’s still a long way to go to undo decades of erasure and disengagement with the industry, and to not feel like we exist only to be a tick in the diversity box. When it feels like we’re not getting anywhere, I hold on to as many moments of joy as I can and celebrate our achievements. I’ll never forget being on the bus home after the last event at Verb 2019 and being overwhelmed with emotion after spending the weekend attending events featuring so many Asian authors. It felt like such a turning point to have so many writers I could consider contemporaries, and to be graced by the presence of US poet Chen Chen, who has been a major inspiration. The other time I’ve had the same feeling was while rehearsing for a staged reading of Nathan Joe’s play Scenes from a Yellow Peril – the entire cast and crew were Asian. It’s the dual power of being seen and finding your people! When I started writing, the concept of ‘a Chinese New Zealand writer’ felt so murky and out of reach, and I also wasn’t even sure if it was a role I particularly wanted to inhabit. The word ‘whakama’ comes to mind when I think about who I was at that time, and it’s taken me literally decades to push back against that shame and unpack the effect of racism on my life to understand why I need to be loud and proud about who I am.

full conversation

Surrender: Poems, michaela keeble, Karaheke | Bush Lawyer, 2022

michaela’s book is cradled in a nest of other books. You can follow the thread to other writers, to books she has read, to your own reading connections. The short lines, self exposure, the lower case ‘i’, the vital political currents lead me to Janet Charman. I read the word ‘intertidal’, and I am back in the pages of Kiri Piahana-Wong. The white space around each poem establishes essential breathing room, new starts. It is writing out of white and not forgetting, searching for the ‘white tongue’, the ‘shame tongue’, seeking and discovering syllables, medicine, stories, communication lines, dialogue, metaphors. What does the ‘half tide’ stand for? Or the conference poem or the guilt poem? Or the throat or the river? The country? Or the person writing and reading next to you? What does the metaphor stand for, instead of, against? The poems face the earth, the sick earth, the beloved earth, the damaged state of affairs where hierarchies continue to gulf and elevate the privileged. They rattle complacency, my steady feet on the ground. Where I am? Who am I am? How I am?

And while the collection navigates an imperative of wider human stories, especially of belonging, it also brings an intimate core to the surface. A writing self. A mother father daughter. And there is pain. Heartache. Grief. The mother becomes ill. The mother is no longer here. The daughter becomes ill. Heart and wound and writing move close to the bone. So yes, wherever the poems lead me, there is heart, there is searing heart, and I feel this book turns interior ignition keys.

This need for community, this need to write and to speak, to be private and to share. That is exactly what Surrender does, in writing so sweetly crafted the hairs lift on my skin. The lines economical, yet satisfyingly rich. Pip Adams wrote on the cover: ‘One of the most welcome and important collections I’ve read.’ I agree. This book is both humble and extraordinary, and I love it to the moon and back.

my review

The Pistils Janet Charman, Otago University Press, 2022

Janet’s new collection The Pistils opens with a terrific sequence, ‘High days and holy days’. Twelve poems that mark holidays or significant occasions (Waitangi Day, Parihaka Day Guy Fawkes Night, Wahine Day, Matariki, Picnic Days). Each poem contributes to a life – within a sequence of panels. Bare bones. Ample white space. A miniature narrative of excavation. Remember when. Remember how. Remember why. The sequence opens scenes, moments, places – and we enter the collection grounded.

Move into the heart of the book, and the mind leaps and bounds along the rhythm of the line. Exquisitely crafted. Scored. Composed. In ‘Mrs Valentine’s instructions’, the rhythm of revelation shapes memory. On the next page, in ‘hometime’, attention to the sound of the line is equally arresting. Memory is translated into music and image. It is a portrait of the child but it is also a portrait of the mother. In parings and traces. Surprising arrivals. It is religion and Freud, a mother lost in a novel, it is fingers worn to the bone, the news on the radio, family dinners, walking home. Life and death. It is home.

I speak of rhythm in such glowing terms but it is of course part of a sonic festival. Janet’s poetry strikes the ear (as Rebecca Hawke’s debut collection does). This leaning in to listen is rewarding: the leapfrogging alliteration, assonance, short lines, slightly longer lines, punctuating breath, free flowing currents. Again Janet’s agile music enhances my engagement with her roving subject matter. With the sharp edges and the necessary subterranean questions. How to live? How to live and love on planet Earth? How to speak against subjugation based on gender or skin colour? How to see your parents? How to go on when your beloved is no longer there? How to continue probing and resisting? How to be yourself? Ah. Such layerings.

Reading Pistil is exhilarating. I am loving this book because it is vulnerable and open, it is edgy and crafted, and because it shines a light on how it is for women. We still need that persistent light. We still need poetry that misbehaves as much as it makes music on the line. The poems call out and call for, stand out and stand for. It is a stunning collection.

my review

We’re All Made of Lightning, Khadro Mohamed, We Are Babies, 2022

Khadro’s debut collection is prismatic, probing, resonant with heart pulse. The book is still sitting beside me on the bed sparking multiple lights into the room. The lights of elsewhere which are infused with the lights of here, the lights of here which are boosted by the lights of elsewhere. Each poem is tethered in some glorious and moving way to whakapapa, to homelands, to self. To the awkwardness of speaking another tongue. To the life that is etched, tattooed, imprinted upon skin. Feelings. Longings. Epiphanies.

The book is sitting bedside, and I am thinking home is a state of mind we carry in our hearts as well as on our skin, and that it is relationships, and it is the physicality of place that feeds all senses and that can be so badly missed.

Khadro is asking for story and song. How to speak? And she is speaking within the honeyed fluency of her lines, with recurring motifs: herbs and tea, storm, typhoon and hurricane, ghosts and rain, ash and pain, chocolate and dates, drownings and rescue.

She is showing the searing wound, the challenges of being a young Muslim woman in a different home. She is responding to the barely pronounceable impact of March 15th. And there it is. The intolerable virus: a hatred that is fuelled by the colour of skin, a language spoken, one’s lineage, one’s dress or food or religion. Here in Aotearoa and across the world.

The book is beside me on the bed, and I am willing poetry to make a difference. And for me it does. To pick up this astonishing book of vulnerability and strength, of journey and vision, is to take up Khadro’s invitation and step into her home, into her poems, to share her tea and listen to her songs, her stories, her hope and her comfort. In her endnote, which she admits she had trouble writing, she thanks the reader. I am thanking Khadro and We Are Baby Press for a book ‘worth holding onto’, in multiple milky star ways.

my review

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