The Ockham NZ Book Awards hosted a fine night celebrating books and authors. Great speeches, great readings, great music, great MC. Warm congratulations to everyone.
Every year I read a swag of local poetry books and every year I celebrate a sizable number on Poetry Shelf. New Zealand poetry is in good heart. We are writing and publishing poetry brilliance. Poetry books are making best seller lists! Festivals are featuring poetry in all kinds of innovative ways. Publishers are publishing superb collections and groundbreaking anthologies. The 2023 Ockham NZ Book Award poetry long list was terrific as was the short list. Check out the lists here.
Awards produce such mixed-bag feelings but I stand behind my claim that books have greater lives than winning and losing. Brilliant books endure, and I rated the shortlisted books as four forms of brilliance.
The Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry went to Alice Te Punga Somerville for the sublime Always Italicise: how to write while colonised, while Khadro Mohamed’s equally sublime We’re all made of Lightning won the Jessie Mackay Prize for Best First Book for Poetry.
Here are my reviews of the winning collections.
Always Italicise: how to write while colonised, Alice Te Punga Somerville
Auckland University Press, 2022
And then you skype with me late one afternoon to practise your speech
which begins with your pepeha as if that is the most ordinary way to start
when you’re eleven years old.
How were we to know – even to guess – that this language would be your weapon
Your bullet-proof vest
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.
Alice was once told foreign words need to be italicised, to be rendered apart from standard English. This alienating process includes te reo Māori. Yet some words are adopted by English and slip off tongues without e-strange-ment: think pizza, pasta, cappuccino. Think haka and marae. Inconsistent. Alice puts the shoe on the other foot and italicises the English language leaving te reo Māori as notforeign. It is poem performance yes, but more importantly it is action.
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.
Alice is spotlighting indigenous worlds, an indigenous presence, replying to colonised worlds. She is building a poem space and a poetry home. Many poems are dedicated to other people, underlying the idea we write within nourishing communities of readers, writers, thinkers, mentors. And for Alice, this includes the academic, acknowledging her poetry is in debt to her life as an academic. The academy is joy but it is also challenge, with settings that are racist, privileged, biased.
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.
Pick up coffee cup and printed pages, open the screen door, walk back inside.
My eyes take longer to arrive than the rest of me:
they’re still adjusted for the brightness outside;
I bump into things, blind, while I wait for my whole self to arrive,
and realise this is the only worthwhile way to proceed anyway –
All of me, all at once:
anger, frustration, cynicism, hope
and, in the centre as well as the outer reaches, love.
Alice Te Punga Somerville, Te Āti Awa, Taranaki, is a scholar, poet and irredentist. She researches and teaches Māori, Pacific and Indigenous texts in order to centre Indigenous expansiveness and de-centre colonialism. Alice is a professor in the Department of English Language and Literatures and the Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies at the University of British Columbia. She studied at the University of Auckland, earned a PhD at Cornell University, is a Fulbright scholar and Marsden recipient and has held academic appointments in New Zealand, Canada, Hawai‘i and Australia. Her first book Once Were Pacific: Māori Connections to Oceania (University of Minnesota Press, 2012) won Best First Book from the Native American & Indigenous Studies Association. Her most recent book is Two Hundred and Fifty Ways to Start an Essay about Captain Cook (BWB, 2020).
Auckland University Press page
We’re All Made of Lightning, Khadro Mohamed, We Are Babies, 2022
Khadro Mohamed, originally from Somalia, lives in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. Her writing has appeared in a number of Aotearoa online journals. She acknowledges her attachments to Somalia, Aotearoa and Egypt in her poetry, and her writing becomes a form of home.
I have finished reading We’re All Made of Lightning and I am still breathing in the poetry. I am making lists for the months ahead of me, packing my emotional and physical bags, finding nourishment in the writing of others. Willing poetry to make a difference to the way we inhabit the world, to the way we move through the day. Willing poetry to be the window that opens up the wide expanse of who we are. How we are.
You are not violet
You are not hands filled with morning light
You are not skin made of bone
Of tears pooling int the corners of my eyes
You are not the pāua shells that cling to the end of your hair
from ‘You Are Not’
An early poem, ‘The Second Time’, opens upon Egypt, and I am immediately transported to an aunt’s home, to the physicality of place that ignites all senses, to the food shared, the conversations, the evocative writing that compares an Egyptian autumn to ‘ripened sweet corn and sweet potato skin’.
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.
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.
We Are Babies page
Congratulations to both poets – great collections and achievements.