Category Archives: NZ poetry

Poetry Shelf Occasional Poems: Dinah Hawken’s Speaking of Trees

Speaking of Trees

What does it take to break ground?
What does it take to carry yourself
with dignity through mist and rise?

You can see the fragility of trees
and the forbearance of trees.
You can see the agility of trees.

You know where you stand with a tree:
sheltered and strengthened,
beholden to the nature and network

of trees; the assembly of trees,
the farmland haunted by trees  
and the regiment of trees.

You can see the bearing of trees,
the felling and falling of trees,
the shipment of trees, the return on trees.

The return of trees.

What does it take to carry yourself into a forest
one valley over
from the one, right now, on fire?

                                           

Dinah Hawken

Dinah Hawken’s ninth collection of poems, Sea-light, was published by THWUP in 2021. ‘Speaking of Trees’ was written for Gerda Leenard’s exhibition of paintings at Pataka in Porirua : Regeneration – A Story of Trees

Poetry Shelf review: Frankie McMillan’s The Wandering Nature of Us Girls

The Wandering Nature of Us Girls, Frankie McMillan, Canterbury University Press, 2022

The feel of a book in hand matters. Holding Frankie McMillan’s new collection, The Wandering Nature of Us Girls, is immensely satisfying. The size and shape, the paper stock, the pale blue title pages, the choice of font and font size, the breathing space. A perfect alchemy of design and production.

The dedication page: “For Marvin, / who taught me how to wander. / Without you, I would never have gotten lost.” This is the keyhole entry into a book where wandering becomes wondering; we get lost in wonder and wander, whether reader or writer. The collection of small stories performs bridges between both, in so many delicious ways. Even me naming the pieces is a mental excursion through form and label; how we tag what we write from poetry to prose to essay to fiction to short story, and any number of hybrid marriages.

The book is offered as small stories so I am running with that. Think mouthfuls of narrative or let’s say fiction. Think past and present. Think stepping stones from the miniature to wider issues, issues hungry for human attention: love, death, loss, violence, curiosity. Think anchors in the real, and offshoots in the hyperreal, sidelines in the surreal.

Water is the connective tissue, and if you think of the ever-changing appearance and movement of water, it is extremely apt. Frankie often crafts long sentences, sentences an Italian novelist might favour, sentences that showcase the currency of water. Extended tidal rhythms, the water breathing in and out. It makes me think again of wander, and the flâneur comes to mind, the bricoleuer, with both reader and writer meandering, amassing detail, absorbing atmosphere.

Water is the connective tissue and like the ocean it is a meeting ground of dark and light. The grandmother goes swimming, others go swimming, but there are drownings, there are bodies missing at sea. This is a collection of mystery, of gaps in the narrative, of surprising turn of events, of tragedy. Most definitely tragedy, terrible twists in events. The aunt who loves sweeping stays home in the flood, sweeping out the water, until the point she is on the roof, still sweeping, still sweeping, until she and broom and house are swept away.

There is such power in Frankie’s imagination. A beaked mouth, an antlered head. A baby under a tree writing a thesis on “aerial domesticity”. There are the acrobatics of circuses, of putting on a show. There are the subcurrents of our planet under grave threat. The tragedy we must face. Along with violence against women, ‘us girls’, and suddenly, slowly, the meandering takes on a greater insistent force. We are wandering and wondering, and there are consequences, cause and effect.

The mood and ideas a book generates matters. The Wandering Nature of Us Girls is less concerned with geography than with movement, with action, with human connections. It is a handbook of curious and gut smacking things. It is a book you feel as well as a book you think. It is a book of catastrophe and a book of epiphany. Small story brilliance.

Frankie McMillan is the author of five books of poetry and short fiction. Her most recent collection, The Father of Octopus Wrestling, was listed by The Spinoff as one of the 10 best New Zealand fiction books of 2019 and shortlisted for the NZSA Heritage Book Awards, and her 2016 collection, My Mother and the Hungarians, was longlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. She has twice won the New Zealand Flash Fiction Day competition and has been the recipient of numerous awards and residencies, including the NZSA Peter and Dianne Beatson Fellowship (2019), the Michael King writing residency at the University of Auckland (2017), and the Ursula Bethell residency in creative writing at the University of Canterbury (2014). McMillan spends her time between Ōtautahi Christchurch and Mohua Golden Bay.

Canterbury University Press page

Girls Raised by Swans on Poetry Shelf (‘Accounts of Girls Raised by Swans’)

Poetry Shelf review Tate Fountain’s Short Films

Short Films, Tate Fountain, We Are Babies, 2022

and I, well, I have had practice at this; I am far
better attuned to wanting things than I have ever
been to having them, and the day is clear, and the
scent of the kitchen of each nearby restaurant is
carrying. I am alive, and I am settling in, and I have 
in my hand at last something I could not bear to lose, 
some fibrous imperfect gift of a life in the place of
theoretical triumph: blistered heels and my mother’s 
old dress and a self I can face in the mirror; three 
long-stemmed lilies wrapped in cellophane, an 
unripe blushing hydra, five dust-pink tongues 
unfurled to catch the light.

from ‘SUNDAY, 7 NOVEMBER’

Love the idea of a poetry collection called Short Films, especially when it isn’t lifted from a poem title in the book. At the back is the director’s commentary, a HEX index and credits. Rhythm is a vital ingredient in the collection as a whole, the poet’s editing suite has resisted long slow panning camerawork. Instead there are jumpcuts and oblique camera angles, fascinating montage and hypnotic soundtracks. It is an opulent surprising reading experience, that depends upon the visual as much as the aural.

For some reason I made a leap from activated hazelnuts to activated language. Tate’s linguistic agility is spellbinding. Her language is alive, mobile, playful, inventive, active. The word activate is counterbalanced by bracketed space that is rich in possibility. At times it is a blank slate for the reader to scrawl upon, a foyer for musing points, a series of silent beats, a signpost to the unsayable, the unsaid, the gaps in the telling. They strike the eye and they resonate in the ear.

Colour is ubiquitous. Colour pops on the line, sparks across the wider scope of the book. There are individual colour poem clusters. You move from yellow-rayed blossoms to summer to pineapple, and housed in that yellow embrace is ‘a riverside lunch with my mother / We are learning again / / how to be around each other’ (from ‘Yellow’). It is the heightened power of metonymy where you place this shot next to that shot next to this shot. This frame next to that frame next to this frame. Feeling, experience, reaction is heightened.

A stripped back blackout poem uses a prose poem we have just read. I was reminded of how certain words pierced and stuck as I read. And there they were, isolated in the dark black shapes. Tate is taking a form, a convention and then playing with it, pushing it further.

In the inside blurb, the book is aptly compared to ‘a lush bouquet of poems’. I step from the flowers and the fruit, like brocaded still life, like kinetic life, finding mouth and heart, finding float and drift, the light and dark of chiaroscuro. The poetry is bouquet, held out to ignite the senses, but it is also mirror, looking glass for both reader and writer. Love is paramount. YES! These are love poems, heart poems, little outings with glints of self exposure. One poem, ‘LOVE POEM’, plays with ‘I want’, think light and serious, and you move to and fro, between need and desire.

Short films is, as Anna Jackson and Emma Barnes say on the back of the book, wonderful. It is a terrific cinematic experience, Maya Deren flashed in my head, where rhyme feeds motifs and subject matter, and rhythm performs the syncopation of daily life, of love life, of heart life. Utterly wonderful.

stop looking for me in my work /
I am not there /
you are in a hall of funhouse mirrors

from ‘ORANGE’

Tate Fountain is a writer, theatremaker, and DVD Special Features advocate splitting her time between Tāmaki Makaurau and Tauranga. She is a current member of the Starlingeditorial committee, and also works as the coordinator for samesame but different, Aotearoa New Zealand’s LGBTQIA+ Writers and Readers Festival. As an assistant director, actor, and stage manager, she’s worked with Auckland Theatre Company, Binge Culture, and the Pop-up Globe, as well as at Basement Theatre. Her poetry has been published in eel, Aniko Press Magazine, and Min-a-rets (Annexe), among others, and her screenwriting has been recognised by several feature development initiatives. She completed her Master of Arts (First Class Honours) at the University of Auckland, with a thesis on appropriations of the Eurydice myth by H.D., Carol Ann Duffy, and Céline Sciamma. Each month, she releases a new bouquet on Substack. She’s pretty much always thinking about films.

We Are Babies page

Poetry Shelf Occasional Poems: Emma Neale’s ‘Little Fibs’

Little Fibs

Let us praise
the small evasions:
the missed call
the slight sore throat,
the prior engagement;
the short works of fiction
that act like the turn of a key,
the snib of a front door’s fly screen
which mean we can try to forge the silence
that ferries us to the hinterland of the wildest interior.

Emma Neale

Emma Neale is the author of six novels,  six collections of poetry, and a collection of short stories. Her novel, Billy Bird (2016) was short-listed for the Acorn Prize at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards and long-listed for the Dublin International Literary Award. Emma has received a number of literary fellowships, residencies and awards, including the Lauris Edmond Memorial Award for a Distinguished Contribution to New Zealand Poetry 2020. Her first collection of short stories,  The Pink Jumpsuit (Quentin Wilson Publishing, 2021) was long-listed for the Acorn Prize at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. The mother of two sons, Emma lives in Ōtepoti/Dunedin, where she works as a freelance editor.

Poetry Shelf Occasional Reviews: James Brown’s The Tip Shop

The Tip Shop, James Brown, Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2022

Alex Grace writes on the back of The Tip Shop: “Funny, dark, insightful and nothing close to a chore to read. Poetry, but it doesn’t suck.” Ha! Some poetry must suck, even be a chore to read, like a school assignment! James Brown’s poetry is cool – ok a lazy-tag adjective children are often forbidden to use as what does it actually mean? It means James’s poetry is hip, electric, agile on its poem toes, lithe on its heart beat, and is immensely readable.

The opening poem, ‘A Calm Day with Undulations’, places visual waves on the page and sets you up for all manner of undulations as you read the collection: wit, heart, life. In the poem, James uses an ocean metaphor to write about cycling which is a way of writing about living. Think surf / swell / naval surface / roll up and down / wave length / lull / pool.

It’s a calm day with undulations.
My tyres flow freely
across the naval surface.

The Tip Shop appraises and pays attention to scenes, moments, events, potential memory, language. The detail ranges from measured to madcap. Questions percolate. Poetry rules are invented. Words are played with. Dialogue is found. Poems stretch and poems repeat. Herein lies the pleasure of poetry in general, and a James Brown collection in particular: there is no single restrictive model when it comes to writing a poem. Within the collection as a whole, and within the frame of an individual poem, James resists stasis.

A poem that epitomises intricate delights is ‘Schrödinger’s Wife’. It delivers a miniature story laced with wit and puzzle. Here is the first stanza:

Mary didn’t walk with us Sundays. She ran.
With earbuds, she could keep reading. Her shop,
Schrödinger’s Books, was a tough mistress.
‘Are you working today?’ we’d ask. ‘Yes and no,’
she’d reply. She just needed to ‘finish the books’.
Can the books ever be finished? They wink at us
as though there are uncertain things
they think we ought to know.

I am drawn to repetition, to a concatenation of detail, especially in list poems, overtly so or nuanced. Three examples in The Tip Shop, establish A to Z lists. Another poem juxtaposes ‘I must not’ and ‘I must’. A found poem, like a form of canine play, lists dog owner dialogue. And then the delight in repetition dissolves, and time concentrates on the washing and peeling of fruit. In ‘Lesson’, a single elongated moment becomes luminous when caught in the poem’s frame. We are implicated, and are returned to an (our) apple: “When was the last time you / washed a green apple”.

Three longer poems stretch into telling a yarn, spinning a story, as the repeated indents mark the intake of a storyteller’s breath. Glorious.

‘Waiheke’ pares back to an ocean moment, and I am imagining the scene imbued with love. So much going on beneath, on and above the surface of the poem, whether in the breaststroking, in the prolonged looking.

You yearn so much
you could be a yacht.
Your mind has already
set sail. It takes a few days
to arrive

at island pace,
but soon you are barefoot
on the sand,
the slim waves testing
your feet

The Tip Shop is piquant in its fleet of arrivals and departures. It is poetry as one-hundred-percent pleasure – it makes you laugh and it makes you feel. It encourages sidetracks and lets you rollercoast on language. What a poetry treat.

James Brown’s poems have been widely published in New Zealand and overseas. His Selected Poems were published in 2020. Previous books include The Year of the Bicycle (2006), which was a finalist in the Montana New Zealand Book Awards 2007, 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. James has been the recipient of several writing fellowships and residencies, including the 1994 Louis Johnson New Writers Bursary, a share of the 2000 Buddle Findlay Sargeson Fellowship, the Canterbury University Writer in Residence, the Victoria University of Wellington Writer in Residence. James works as an editor and teaches the Poetry Workshop at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington. 

Te Herenga Waka University Press page

Poetry Shelf Occasional Reviews: Sudha Rao’s On elephant’s shoulders

On elephant’s shoulders, Sudha Rao, The Cuba Press, 2022

Poetry books are so often objects to treasure, physical treats to hold.

Sudha Rao’s On elephant’s shoulders is exactly this, with its exquisite, embroidered cover image (sorry no acknowledgement of source or creator). The interior design is equally appealing; a perfectly sized font with ample space for the poems to breathe and readers to sojourn. The title also captivates, and I especially love the fact there is neither definite nor indefinite article to support ‘elephant’. I am pirouetting on the title, imagining elephant as both anchor and viewing platform. Falling into the title, over and over. I am both grounded and liberated.

The opening poem, ‘Warp and weft’, establishes the collection as a book of arrivals and departures. It sets the scene for recurrent motifs, ideas, words, images – and I love that. The poem is divided into three parts: passages, shadows and braids. The three terms are an excellent guide to the book as a whole. I am particularly captivated by the recurring ‘braids: there are plaits, the father’s hands, the grandmother’s hair, the South Island rivers, a way of writing, a way of living between here and there, this home and that home.

“I am a bracelet of memories bearing the weight of your bones.”

from ‘Threads across waters’

The poetry, in keeping with braid notions, exudes both economy and perfumed richness, an evocative serving of detail. The detail enhances a scene, a series of relationships, poetry as musical score. The detail may be repeated, as in echoey ‘braid’, you might move from the scent of turmeric to a ‘sunflower flowering’.

What renders the collection poignant, especially in its poetic tracing of a migrant’s experience, is the presence/absence braid, whether we are talking geography, kin, food, gestures, memories. Everything feeds into a braided version of home that is near and far, intimate and longed for.

[…] When you crossed

old waters, did you know

how cold new waters would be?

from ‘Cradle’

I talked about stitching when I recently reviewed Elizabeth Morton’s terrific collection Naming the Beasts, and stitching seems appropriate here, especially bearing in mind the sublime cover. Stitching is a way of talking about poetic craft, about the little threads that are both visible and invisible parts of the art and craft of a work, in the edge and the tension. Sudha has stitched her poetry in threads that gleam of the everyday, the detail so alive with living, epiphany, challenge, but that also work behind the scenes as the poems flow like little exhalations. Measured. Mesmerising. Magnificent.

This is a collection to treasure.

“‘There is rhythm in the cabbage tree when it combs clouds.”

from ‘Keeping time’

Originally from South India, Sudha Rao migrated to Dunedin with her parents and trained in classical South Indian dance. She moved to Wellington to establish Dance Aotearoa New Zealand (DANZ). Sudha’s poems have appeared in literary journals and anthologies in New Zealand and overseas, including Ko Aotearoa Tātou | We Are New Zealand and Best New Zealand Poems. Sudha was a participant in the International Bengaluru Poetry Festival 2019 and performs in Wellington with Meow Gurrrls.

The Cuba Press page

Poetry Shelf Occasional Reviews: Elizabeth Morton’s Naming the Beast

Naming the Beast, Elizabeth Morton, Otago University Press, 2022

You don’t want book reviews to diminish your reading experience, to lead you up the garden path of expectation, to lay false trails and unreliable hopes. Imagine the review as a tasting room where you let a morsel of the book swirl on your tongue, releasing flavour, leaving a vital aftertaste. You don’t want book jargon, you just want an aromatic taste (precursor) of the writing, the ideas, the feelings, the connections.

Elizabeth Morton’s Naming the Beast is poetry gold. It is the kind of book you savour slowly, absorbing brocade textures, the sumptuous threads, the surprising patterns, satisfying layers. This is poetry that is sonorous, sensual, startling. It got me thinking about how enmeshed I become in certain poetry collections. How I am laid bare as a reader. How I am spiked and soothed. I get caught in a poem, no question.

Elizabeth writes about being in someone else’s poem:

In somebody else’s poem it’s goddamned desolate. I’m in a house
with no windows; just venetian blinds on blank walls. The rotary phone
bleats hircine, and I hold a real gun to my head. In a poem, the gun goes off.
I wake in another poem, planting succulents because love goes as far
as my toes, and no further.

from ‘We write what we know when we run out of things we don’t’

I could simply pitch this as a collection of beasts and wild(er)ness, because beasts and wildness are an integral part, but it is also a collection of time, mothers, luck, castles, fire, relatives. The subject matter roves and ranges, at times resembling stream of consciousness connections, lily pad leaps, edgeways writing. The music is symphonic. The lexicon is extraordinary; words feed subterranean narratives and dreamscapes, pungent fields of details. There is plainness and there is opulence. There is the off-real and there is the hyperreal.

Celebrate the richness of poetry, the allure of detail thickets, but there is too the invitation of the unsaid, the vibrating space, the reading alcoves.

I admire the collection’s invisible stitching, the behind-the-scenes craft of the poet that produces such poetic fluency. Yet at other times, the making of poetry is poignantly visible. Poetry comes protagonist, a character moving in and out of shadow and light.

Ah, I have used book jargon, kindled your expectations crazily, so I return to my idea of a tasting room – I will hold out a tasting platter for you, and let some of Elizabeth’s lines spark your reading tastebuds.

First, bark the moon. Make ceremony from a stammer,
from a steaming crockpot of two-minute noodles,
from the way the taxi driver sucks his bottom teeth as he drives you north.

from ‘Instructions on how to lose a mind’

My mother is the night owl. My father is the tussock,
I own memories, alone. My celestial object is done for.
The rust core of a lamp that was already out – a red star coughing
though light-years of average days, days spent picking lemons
and walking average suburbs, nodding at ordinary dogs.

from ‘Stolen pepeha’

We pipette soluble proteins like mothers do. Mothers are no minor characters,
who arrange herbs like rubrics, under the soft light of a kettle stove.
Home is a fume-cupboard where legend is filtered like breath.
Our mothers huddle around pantries of cod liver oils, vitamins, and bleach.
Their hands haul the sun over the eastern hillocks, like an axiom.

from ‘Immunohistochemistry’

I want to say I know this place with my eyes closed.
I can run, butt naked, through cabbage rows and dairy cows,
and the Waikato will annunciate my name with a branding iron
and an ear tag that speaks to a bloodline sniffed out by regret.
I am writing in my first language. My second is shame.
When I dream I dream words I cannot spell.

from ‘God of nations’

If I were a robot, I would be in a better poem.
If I were a person, I’d want the telephone wires to hum like stars,
and the stars to be unavoidable.

form ‘Hard sell’

Get a copy of this book, open it, pick a poem, take a road trip within its lines, inhabit as a small retreat, sojourn in a series of alcoves. This collection is gold.

Elizabeth Morton grew up in suburban Auckland. Her poetry and prose have been published in New Zealand, the UK, the USA, Canada, Ireland, Australia and online. She holds an MLitt in Creative Writing from the University of Glasgow. Morton has accrued many literary acknowledgements for her work, and her previous collection of poetry, This is Your Real Name (OUP, 2020), was longlisted for the Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry in the 2021 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. The manuscript of Naming the Beasts was shortlisted for the 2021 Kathleen Grattan Poetry Award.

Otago University Press author page

Poetry Shelf Occasional Poems: Rebecca Hawkes’ CEMETERY LAWNMOWER

CEMETERY LAWNMOWER


“When viewed in deep time, things come alive that seemed inert. … Ice breathes. Rock has tides. Mountains ebb and flow. Stone pulses. We live on a restless Earth.”

—Robert Macfarlane in Underlands

tomb with a view – earthed on a volcano’s seaward slope
I kneel in fresh-cut lawn – not knowing whose bones
decompose below – only interested in the sheen
of this headstone – a slab of flashing feldspar
hewn in loving memory – my mother the geologist

surveys well-kempt lanes – reading the names
on strangers’ graves – the cemetery lawnmower
hums around us – clippers licking to and fro
constant as the waves – eroding the basalt cliff below
that threatens all our bones – even diamond gravestones aren’t forever

nor this rich labradorite – it births aurora borealis
in the right light – glints of scintillating indigo
blue morpho – sips of methylated lavender
a happenstance of kissing crystal facings – turned brilliant
in crushing heat – how we are all made

anew through strain – the only constant thing is change
in this restless earth – my mother sees these shifts
like a slow-motion picture – technicolour aeons
on the geological map – this is her gift to her children
she invented two new deaths – but gave us all of time

etched on a headstone – if we can learn to read igneous
glints of a frenzied planetary history – continents stretch like cats
and we are very small fleas – we do not live for long
we make our homes – in the fertile shadow
of the volcano – we build cities on fault lines

that fell cathedrals – we pray for everyone we love to live forever
then where there are graves – the lawnmowers graze
where there are cemeteries – there are rising stones
and women – who want to know the names not written on those monuments
but inside their very substance– ancient incantations in crystal language

tonight after the wake – we will gather on this hillside
to light fireworks – with a stray roman candle
the dry cut grass will blaze – brilliant as lava on this dormant caldera
and through it all the cemetery lawnmower – will hum darkly among the graves
tending to them – until the real volcano wakens

from a dream beyond all naming – reclaims the fallen and their stones
sowed like seeds beneath the lawn – returns us all
to the molten cradle – where the start of all life flows in liquid light
the sound of shifting continents – sure and steady as a mother’s heartbeat

Rebecca Hawkes

Rebecca Hawkes is a poet, painter, editor. Her first chapbook of poems Softcore coldsores appeared in the reignition of the AUP New Poets series (2019). Her debut collection Meat Lovers (AUP 2022) was awarded The Laurel Prize Best International First Collection 2022. Rachel edits the poetry journal Sweet Mammalian with Nikki-Lee Birdsey, and has co-edited an anthology of poetry on climate change, No Other Place To Stand (AUP 2022). Raised on a Mid-Canterbury sheep and beef farm, Rebecca now lives in Te Whanganui-a-Tara / Wellington. She is a founding member of popstar poets’ posse Show Ponies and holds a Masters degree in nonfiction creative writing with Distinction from the International Institute of Modern Letters. 

Rebecca Hawkes website

Auckland University Press author page

Poetry Shelf conversations: Helen Rickerby

How to live through this

We will make sure we get a good night’s sleep. We will eat a decent breakfast, probably involving eggs and bacon. We will make sure we drink enough water. We will go for a walk, preferably in the sunshine. We will gently inhale lungsful of air. We will try to not gulp in the lungsful of air. We will go to the sea. We will watch the waves. We will phone our mothers. We will phone our fathers. We will phone our friends. We will sit on the couch with our friends. We will hold hands with our friends while sitting on the couch. We will cry on the couch with our friends. We will watch movies without tension – comedies or concert movies – on the couch with our friends while holding hands and crying. We will think about running away and hiding. We will think about fighting, both metaphorically and actually. We will consider bricks. We will buy a sturdy padlock. We will lock the gate with the sturdy padlock, even though the gate isn’t really high enough. We will lock our doors. We will screen our calls. We will unlist our phone numbers. We will wait. We will make appointments with our doctors. We will make sure to eat our vegetables. We will read comforting books before bedtime. We will make sure our sheets are clean. We will make sure our room is aired. We will make plans. We will talk around it and talk through it and talk it out. We will try to be grateful. We will be grateful. We will make sure we get a good night’s sleep.

Helen Rickerby, from How to Live

I am stuck at home, not doing author trips, not catching up with friends in person, never hanging out in cafes, so I’ve been doing email conversations with poets whose work I have loved. A couple have sublime new books out, but with others it was an excuse to revisit writing I have carried with me.

Last up in this series is Helen Rickerby. Helen is a writer, editor and publisher. She has published a number of poetry collections, including Cinema (Mākaro Press, 2014) and How to Live, which won the 2020 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards – Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry (Auckland University Press, 2019). Helen was co-managing editor of the literary journal JAAM from 2005–2015 and single-handedly runs Seraph Press, the boutique poetry press.

I have been a fan of Helen’s poetry for a long time, but she has also published a number of my own collections (The Baker’s Thumbprint 2013, New York Pocket Book 2016 and The Track 2019). I have loved working on each book with her.

Seraph Press’s list of publications include some of my favourite poets in Aotearoa: Anna Jackson, Bernadette Hall, Nina Mingya Powles, Anahera Gildea, Vana Manasiadis, Helen Llendorf, Maria McMillan, Johanna Aitchison, Vivienne Plumb – plus the terrific anthology, Tātai Whetū: Seven Māori Poets in Translation (2018).

It has been such a pleasure to touch base with books and poetry in email conversations..

Paula: In these tilted and jagged times diversions are so important. For me, reading and secret writing projects are essential. So many sublime books are being published in Aotearoa and around the world at the moment, of all genres. What has helped you? Any books that have lifted or anchored or transported you? I can so identify with your words in Chris Tse’s new Auckland University Press book, Super Model Minority (‘these poems cut my heart before warming it’).

Helen: Yes, I’m also sticking pretty close to home just now, and while I am still seeing my friends, mostly in our own homes, I am also needing to find my joys near at hand. Over the last week while I’ve been finding a lot of comfort and joy, and also a bit of challenge, in creative non-fiction – particularly in books that could loosely be described as memoir, but which are much more. There’s something about the mixture of narrative, life, ideas and poetic writing (if not actual poetry) that’s my thing right now. Recent highlights include Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, Daniel Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic, Patricia Grace’s From the Centre and especially Deborah Levy’s autobiographical trilogy.

During last year’s lockdown a friend left a care package of books in my letterbox. One of the books was Real Estate, the third (red) volume in Deborah Levy’s trilogy. It’s kind of about her making a new life for herself after her daughters leave home, but it’s so much more than a memoir, as are the other two books in the trilogy. It’s poetic and philosophical and, collage-like, full of quotes from other works of literature that she’s having conversations with – I felt an affinity, it felt allied with what I’ve been doing in poetry in recent years. I read my way backwards through the trilogy, borrowing the second (yellow) volume, The Cost of Living, from a friend who lives downstairs and, as soon as we got to Level 3, buying the first (blue) book, Things I Don’t Want to Know, from the lovely Volume bookshop in Nelson (because no Wellington bookshops had it and I knew Volume could get it to me quickly, and I needed it immediately). And then when I finished that, I started reading them all again, forwards this time. I found them so calming, like the eye of a storm. I was finding everything a bit hard at the time, mainly in my head, and I would just take a little bit of time with these books and I could feel myself calming down. Even though her experiences were very different to mine, I loved the way in these books she kind of rises up above her life and looks down on it, and writes about it, from a calm height. It made me feel like I could do the same.

I confess to being someone who is looking for quite a lot of comfort in life and literature, but I also know that growth doesn’t usually come from comfort, and a bit of discomfort is really important. Super Model Minority is a fabulous book, and one that did at times make me feel uncomfortable. Some of the things he’s writing about are uncomfortable and even painful, and there’s definitely anger. But the poems make you think, and make you see and appreciate, and in the midst of it all there’s humour and hope and beauty. I’m always keen on some humour and hope and beauty.

Paula: Ah – now I am dead keen to read the Levy trilogy. And yes! That’s exactly what Chris’s collection does. And you do come away with the word hope.

I want to talk about how I love your poetry, but first, which poets would you choose to have conversations with (let’s say dead or alive, home or abroad). Poets who have affected your travels and engagements as a writer and a reader.

Helen: Hmmm, that’s a tricky question. I have a bit of a fear of meeting my heroes, in case it’s terribly disappointing, or they don’t like me (or I don’t like them), or we had a mediocre conversation. So much pressure! Also, quite a few of my heroes are women I don’t think I would get along with very well: Katherine Mansfield, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, etc… I also feel that if I really love someone’s work, I don’t necessarily want to talk to them about it, I wouldn’t want to break the magic. So I would be very nervous to talk to Anne Carson, for example, even though her work has been very important and inspiring to me in showing the breadth of what poetry can do. I was reminded today of the wonderful book-length poem Memorial by Alice Oswald today, and I would be interested in talking to her about that. While it was Heather Cristle’s The Crying Book, which is not strictly speaking poetry, that really got me, she is a poet I might risk talking to. I have had great conversations about poetry with poets who are my actual friends, perhaps particularly with Anna Jackson, who I’ve run a few conferences with, though we talk about other things too. From the past, Sappho would be very interesting to converse with, though we’d need to use some kind of translator. I would be intrigued to meet Byron, but it might not be poetry we’d talk about.

Paula: Ha! I never thought of that. Yes, I feel nervous when I review a book as that feels like a conversation that could go terribly wrong on my part. I want to navigate the paths, corridors, alcoves, wide open windows of a book and make discoveries. No interest in listing all the things a poetry collection doesn’t do.

What matters to you when you write a poem? What do you want your poem to do or be or feel or activate (I keep coming up with more and more verbs)?

Helen: I probably have as many answers to that question as poems I’ve written  possibly more! And what matters to me changes over time, and maybe changes back. But some things that come to mind are to capture something   a thought, a feeling, an experience, the thinking through of an idea, an image, a memory. I want to communicate, but not too clearly or simply, I want to create layers and textures and possibly contradictions. I want the reader to get something out of my poem, but I don’t want them to necessarily be able to decode the whole poem. I don’t want to be able to decode the whole poem. I want the sound and language to feel right for the poem, and I want the words to be beautiful, even if only ugly beautiful. I want it to feel fresh to me and/or the reader, but I want it to feel true to them in some way, which is not the same thing as factual. I want the poem to be more than the sum of its parts, and I want the poem to be a bit bigger than me, maybe wiser?  I want to open some doors or windows in my own head, and the heads of at least some of my readers. I want to feel like the poem doesn’t have too much, or too little – I have a bit of a thing for a long, spacious poem, when appropriate. I want to feel that it’s a bit worthwhile, in some or other way. I don’t want to reread it and think ‘Yeah, and so?’ I want to have learned something, through writing the poem, even if only about myself. I’m not sure I can do all of these things at once!

from ‘How to Live’, in How to Live

Paula: How to Live (Auckland University Press, 2019) is one of my all time favourite poetry collections. It is a book I am taking to hospital with me. I so loved reviewing it on Poetry Shelf. Like many contemporary poets you are cracking open poetic forms – widening what a poem can do – as though taking a cue from art and its ability both to make art from anything and in any way imaginable. So richly layered. In fact everything you say above!

‘How to live’ is a question open to interpretation as it ripples through the poems; and it makes poetry a significant part of the myriad answers. I haven’t read a book quite like this and I love that. The writing is lucid, uplifting, provocative, revealing, acidic, groundbreaking. The subject matter offers breadth and depth, illuminations, little anchors, liberations, shadows. I am all the better for having read this book. I just love it. (Poetry Shelf)

If windows and doors open in your head as you write a poem they open in mine as I read the collection. Particularly in view of the presence of women. What did you discover writing this book?

Helen: Aww, thank you Paula! I learned a lot while writing this book, though I finished it more than three years ago, and so have forgotten a lot! It was definitely a book of thinking through –  and feeling through – and making connections. So there’s a lot of me in there, and my own thoughts and experiences and attempts at figuring things out, but there’s also a lot of research. I learned quite a bit about philosophy and about philosophers, and that got me thinking about why I didn’t really know of many, if any, women philosophers. Turns out the main reason is the same reason we don’t know about a lot of women from the past: because they’ve been erased and forgotten. I am always quite delighted to discover women from the past who have done cool things – there are lots of them. It was also while writing this book that I started thinking about the way my poetry, and the work of other poets that I’d been noticing, was crossing over with essay, and I got quite excited about that. I’m really interested in poetry that explores and thinks through ideas – that journey – I’m probably less interested in the destination. I love the way poetry can leap over gaps and fragments, happily hold contradictions and layers and non-binaries. Both/And.

Palimpsest is a word I have to look up every time
A palimpsest is a parchment from which the words have been scraped off so it could be used again
but the old words still show through

Earth / late summer

This is the place of intersection your life
my life
my time
and the little I know about yours the little I know about mine
the little I know

from ‘Ban Zhao’

Paula: I so love the title and the poem it references. I am wondering if poetry so often responds to this question, overtly or opaquely. It made me want to write my own version, borrowing your title. Did anything in particular prompt the poem?

Helen: It’s a question I think we all need to keep asking ourselves all the time, for our whole lives. There’s no one answer, and the answer for each of us keeps changing, but in order to be a good person in society and a happy person in our own lives, I think we need to think about this, and also to act. Everyone could write a book of this title, and I would love to read yours! Multiple books probably – I have continued developing my ideas about how to live since I finished writing this book. They now involve more fun and dancing.

My original idea for this book was quite different, but with the same title. About a decade ago Sean, my husband, was diagnosed with cancer. It turned out to be of a very treatable kind, which was very fortunate, but the whole dealing with the medical system, let alone mortality, was a bit of a thing. I was also becoming increasingly aware that I was no longer a youth, and of the finiteness of time, and wanting to make the most of that time. During all of this, especially during Sean’s treatment and recovery, I was writing poems about this experience and exploring the idea of living as in not dying, and living as in really living. These poems weren’t entirely successful, but they had something in them, and I ended up cutting them up and using them as the basis of the long title poem, which explores these same ideas, as well considering ideas about what poetry is, and, you know, everything!

Paula: Is there a poem (or two) which has fallen into charismatic place for you? Two longer poems are particularly magnetic: ‘Notes on the unsilent woman’ and ‘George Eliot: a life’. Both function as fascination assemblages. They allow the reader to absorb lyrical phrases, humour, biography, autobiography, insistent questions. Biography is enlivened by such an approach, as is poetry. Ah, really the whole collection, magnetic, eclectic, electrifying.

Helen: I’m not quite sure what you mean by this question. Of my own work? This might not be what you mean, but I had a similar experience with both the first poem in the book ‘Notes on the unsilent woman’ (which was the last poem I wrote for the book) and the last poem in the book ‘How to live’, where I had this idea of what I wanted to do in the poem, and I had all these fragments, but I didn’t know how to make the poem I wanted it to be. But with each, while feeling like I would NEVER get there, I had a kind of epiphany about the form, which gave me the tone, which made everything else fall into place. I have found this encouraging since – that you can feel completely hopeless, but if you keep on going you might be quite close to creating the thing you want to. I think this recent tweet by Heather Cristle evokes this beautifully: ‘I love it when form writes the book for you. It is like you are trying to screw something together and form is watching you impatiently until it says ‘just give it to me’ and you do and form puts everything together so fast while you lie down admiring its movement and shape.’

from ‘Notes on the unsilent woman‘ Hipparchia of Maroneia c. 350–c. 280 BC

Paula: I was over the moon when it won the 2020 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards – Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry. Did the judges recognise something in the book you hadn’t seen? I love it when that happens – when you look through the open windows of a poem and things surprise you. And how was it winning the award?

Helen: It was all a bit of a blur! Google photos tells me it was two years ago this week. It was also at the end of the first lockdown – quite a nice way to end it. I was in complete shock – I was pretty certain that Anne Kennedy would win, and when they said my name there was quite a lot of screaming (and a little bit of swearing) at my house. Book awards are weird things. I’m fully aware that they’re never an objective ranking, which isn’t even possible, but are just what those three judges managed to agree on at that time, but it was still very lovely that it was my book they agreed on. I don’t think there was anything the judges said about my book that surprised me, but I appreciated that they got what I was exploring. And winning meant that more people sought out my book, which was also lovely.

Paula: I find myself drawn to poems of all lengths – for a while I favoured the long poem as I could carry it in my pocket and keep adding to it as I mothered and worked and cooked. Now I quite like small poems, sweet mouthfuls that are verging on stream of consciousness. What do you like about the long poem?

Helen: There is something nice about a little gem of a poem, but I do love a good long poem the most. I love the way it has space to breathe and move and meander and be a bit messy. To look at things from a bunch of angles and maybe not favour any of them. I have come to accept that I’m a digressive conversationalist, perhaps a digressive person in pretty much everything except my day job (I’m an editor/technical writer, which is all about plain-language, clear structure, unambiguity – basically the opposite of poetry), and I really enjoy interesting digression in what I’m reading, and what I’m writing. Though, it won’t be entirely a digression, because it will almost certainly connect to everything else in some kind of way. A long poem has enough time to set up resonances within itself, it can tell stories rather than just capture moments. Not that I don’t love a great poem that just captures a moment! And because I’ve been interested in the essay poem, longer poems have more space for the essaying, the thinking through, the exploration. And I guess they have the space to be about several things at once, and about the connections between those things. Probably I should give some examples, but I’m immediately struck by everything I would miss out! Possibly my all-time favourite long poem, and all-time favourite poem, is ‘The Glass Essay’ by Anne Carson, which isn’t quite book length (it comes in at 45 pages), but which manages to be about the end of a relationship, Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights, a visit to the narrator’s mother, and the decline of a father with dementia, and some other stuff, and is all beautifully written.

Paula: I am delighted to see so many boutique presses springing up – bringing us such a wider range of voices. You have published a number of my poetry collections though Seraph Press, and it has been a special relationship. I have loved the look of each book, am grateful for your editing. The collections are all so different. I love that! And I discovered Nina Mingya Powles through you! How does publishing the work of poetry impact on your own writing? You put so much love in to the books you published. What matters to you when you make the book of someone else?  [do you think publishing is something you are moving away from now to give more time to your own work?] 

Helen: I do love making books, both as collections of words and ideas, and also as physical objects. And I have loved working with different writers to get their words out into the world. Some of them, like you, were fully formed poets when I started working with you, while others – such as Nina, who was only 21 when I published her first chapbook containing some of the very first poems she’d written – were just beginning and I’ve got to see them bloom in close quarters. I have made some great connections and am really proud of making books that I think are beautiful and worthwhile. I try to work with each author so we’re both happy with what we’re putting out, and happy with how it looks. Because it’s something that I do in my own time and almost entirely with my own money, I have had to basically be in love with the books to make it worthwhile. It has taken a bit of a toll on my own writing sometimes, because when I’m working on someone else’s book, that has obligations and deadlines, whereas my own writing doesn’t and gets pushed back. Especially as I’m not an especially great multi-tasker, am usually also working a day job or two, and am by nature quite lazy and so my inclination is generally to just muck around instead. As much as I love publishing, or rather some aspects of publishing (because I do pretty much everything, there are definitely things I’m less interested in and less skilled at – like marketing, for example), after getting a bit burned out I am having a hiatus on the publishing front, and focusing on my own writing, and my own life, for a while. I’m sure I haven’t published my last book though!

Meanwhile, I’m really excited to see the new publishers coming through, doing things their own way, getting important work out there, and increasingly being noticed by mainstream awards. This not at all an exhaustive list, but I’m thinking right now of Anahera Press, Compound Press, We Are Babies and new kid on the block Taraheke | Bushlawyer. Exciting times!

Paula: Indeed – so exciting to see the new presses supporting terrific new voices. I feel like we have had a very long lunch, with the most delicious food and roving conversation. It means a lot, to be part of wide stretching poetry communities.

Helen reads ‘How to Live Through This’

Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: Helen Rickerby’s ‘Mr Anderson, you heartbreaker you’

Poem ‘How to die’ at the Spin Off

Seraph Press

Auckland University Press page

Mākaro Press page

Poetry Shelf review: Robert Sullivan’s Tūnui | Comet

Tūnui | Comet, Robert Sullivan, Auckland University Press, 2022

6.

I’d written ‘Decolonisation Wiki Entries’
because it reminded me of buses in Honolulu

at the airport and Waikiki. The open-air buses
aren’t like decolonisation though. Decolonisation

is not worrying about cultural identity,
and not translating and not having to explain

things like a family and hapū do such as wānanga
because the wānanga is the explanation

or learning mōteatea by our ancestors,
or prophecies of our spiritual tūpuna, or sadness

at the fighting on the other side. These
decolonisations make up life.

 

from ‘Te Tāhuhu Nui’

Robert Sullivan belongs to the iwi Ngāpuhi Nui Tonu and Kāi Tahu. His debut collection, Star Waka (Auckland University Press, 1999), marked the arrival of a significant poet, and has been numerously reprinted. Robert has published a number of collections since, and with Reina Whaitiri edited Puna wai Kōrero, an anthology of Māori poetry, and with Reina and Albert Wendt, Whetu Moana and Mauri Ola, anthologies of Polynesian poetry in English.

Robert’s new collection, Tūnui | Comet, stands on the shoulders (hearts, lungs, mind) of everything he has written and edited to date. Voice has carried his poetry, his family, his whakapapa. Voice is the weave that remembers the touchstones of his previous collections: Tāmaki Makaura, the Far North, colonisation, Cook, family. I have never forgotten his premise that voice carries us. And voices carries this collection, all that it holds close, all that it challenges. It is there in ‘Kawe Reo / Voices Carry’:

Voice carries us from the foot of Rangipuke / Sky Hill / Albert Park
to the Wai Horotiu stream chuckling down Queen Street carrying
a hii-haa-hii story—from prams and seats with names and rhymes,
words from books and kitchen tables.

In writing poetry, Robert is speaking to for with from. He is conversing and he is voyaging, and his writing is the river flowing, the currency of water and air vital. Each poem sits in generous space on the page, each poem given ample room in which to breathe, in an open font, allowing space for the reader to pause and reflect.

The collection weaves in past, present, and future – who he is, was and will be – mythologies, histories. There is the drive to write in te reo Māori, to nourish the language’s roots, to write poems without English translations, to insist upon a need to speak and grow with his own language.

Robert acknowledges he writes within a community of poets who have shaped him. He carries a history of reading, of considering the work of others, particularly Māori and Pasifika poets. There’s a homage to Alistair Te Ariki Campbell. An imagined barbecue with Hone Tuwhare. A reminder the notDeclaration of Independence was actually yes, an assertion of mana by the rangatira (for Moana Jackson). There’s walking on Moeraki sand to remember Keri Hulme’s place names.

Voicing: colonisation decolonisation. The poem ‘Decolonisation Wiki Entries’ reminded me of the caution I bring to facts and figures, to encyclopaedic entries, to the way statistics can be hijacked, research findings manipulated. I am reminded of the hidden narratives, the misrepresented experiences, the sidelined voices.

2. Ruapekapeka

I have visited once and seen a hilly field
from memory—hard to take the scene in
without props. There was a church service
and worshippers fled out beyond. Never
swarmed the bunkers and trenches.
Flicked between ancestor Wynyard
and out neighbouring great chief Kawiti.
I do not know the buried knives. We gathered
in this hill of ash, dead bees and pollen.
We left carvings in the earth and flowers there.

 

from ‘Decolonisation Wiki Entries’

Tūnui | Comet is poetry of acknowledgement. It is poetry of challenge. And it is profoundly moving. In ‘A.O.U’, the poem sings a mihi for Ihumātao. In ‘Feather’s’, the speaker is wearing blood and mud splattered trousers at Parihaka (‘we’re a little band of brothers /marching hundreds strong’) and the feather is in flight:

Whiteness
of the mountain
the ploughs
and feathers
the children’s
singing
witness

I say challenge, do I mean voice? Voicing different versions. Wanting to wrap Old Government House in Treaty pages and lavalavas and knock on the door and ‘say open sesame’. Or stepping back into the sailing boots of Captain James Cook and twisting the eyeglass to imagine afresh the what if.

Or what if I stayed in Aotearoa
and shared our science,
our medical knowledge,
our carpentry and animal husbandry,
our love of books
and conservation values?
What if we had gained the friendship,
love and trust of the Natives,
and returned that equally
at the time, not needing
to constantly gaslight
and to make amends?

 

from ‘Cooking with Gas’

Reading Robert’s intricate, sweetly crafted poetry affects me on so many levels. There is aroha in the pen’s ink, there is fortitude and insight, there is history and there is future. There is uplift, and the need to refresh the eyeglass, the mouthpiece. Read the excellent reviews of Anton Blank and David Eggleton (links below); they celebrate the arrival of a new book by a significant poet in multiple ways, and how it inspires on so many levels. My head is all over the show now, and reviews are getting harder and harder to write, but I hold this book out to you. It is a beacon of light on the horizon, and I am grateful for its presence.

Auckland University Press page
Anton Blank review at ANZL
David Eggleton review at Kete Books