Rangikura, Tayi Tibble, Victoria University Press, 2021
Cover: Xoë Hall
‘I love words so much they blind me.’
Tayi Tibble caught my poetry heart with her debut collection – Poūkahangatus – and the hearts of a galaxy of poetry fans. Rangikura is snaring my heart again. Gloriously so.
Why is it so good to read this book? It is stepping into liquid currents of words, river currents of ideas, images, feelings: incandescent, life-affirming, fast flowing. The poem is the water current and the lightness current, and it is the vessel-on-the-water current. I am climbing in, word splashed, and drenched in joy. The poet is deep diving, skimming the shallows, riding the rough, revelling, honouring, exposing.
Feel the vernacular, the te reo, the melodies along the line, and it is so skin-prickling good.
The first part reclaims the girl. This is girlhood and it is feminism. It is dangerous and vulnerable, mermaid girls racing the boys in the water, girl bonding, girl bounding, the step-brother test, horoscopes, delivering kittens, armouring the danger-girl, becoming winter, the East Coast map carried inside. A road map of adolescence. And always the scintillating rapids of writing. Bliss.
And I remember the year we were the two strongest ‘girl swimmers’ in our syndicate. This meant we were forever forced to race the boys for Western feminism and you would always win, even against the boys who were so like men the teachers treated them as if they were more muscle than human.
from ‘Lil Mermaidz’
The middle section is a sequence of she he prose poems, a shift in key, a miniature novel in verse, where love is threaded at a distance, and we all might have different things to say about the he, about the she, the tyranny of separation, and the tyranny of waiting. The sexiness of everything. Hierarchies. The love affair, the love relationship, ah what to call this, as dialogue and desire unfold in restaurants and hotel rooms, and the restaurants are sweet and soured with taste and preference. I am almost eating the rice and peanuts (well not the meat), relishing the ‘tacky’ surroundings. And it is sharp edge reading this love, this like love like suite. Think of the way you might look at a photograph and everything is sharp edged with life. And light. And yes the dark shadow jags.
The third section returns to free verse, freedom to break the line, to make it clear that sometimes politics is personal, and that maybe politics is always personal, and that poetry is the the whenua, the maunga, the ocean, the awa. Poetry is sky and breath and beating heart. Tayi’s poetry is grounding liberating speaking out singing. This is what I get when I read Rangikura. It is poetry, but it is also life, more than anything this is poetry as life.
Tayi’s collection is framed by an opening poem and a last poem, ancestor poems, like two palms holding the poetry tenderly, lovingly. Hold this book in your reading hands and check out the electricity when you stand in the river, the ocean. Reading Tayi spins you so sweetly, so sharply, along the line, off the line. I love this book so much.
I sat in the lap of my great-grandmother until the flax of her couldn’t take it. So she unravelled herself and wrapped around me like a blanket and at her touch the privilege of me was a headrush as I remember making dresses out of sugar packets, my bro getting blown up in Forlì, my grandfather commemorated under one tree even though he forced himself into our bloodline and then abandoned me and me and me.
from ‘My Ancestors Ride with Me’
Tayi Tibble (Te Whānau ā Apanui/Ngāti Porou) was born in 1995 and lives in Wellington. Her first book, Poūkahangatus, won the Jessie Mackay Best First Book of Poetry Award in 2019.
Meeting Rita is poetry as sumptuous brocade, rich in detail and shifting views. The writing is measured, finely-crafted, lyrical. Individual words, phrases and the building lines surprise and delight. Endnotes offer background contexts for each poem, fascinating detail acquired from the poet’s research.
Catherine Woulfe from The Spinoff invited six women to write a short piece celebrating Karlo Mila’s Goddess Muscle: Selina Tusitala Marsh, Leilani Tamu, Nadine Anne Hura, Kirsten Lacy, director of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, Rebecca Sinclair, deputy pro-vice chancellor at the college of creative arts, Massey University and me. We each contributed a paragraph and a photograph.
I so loved this book. It is the kind of book that rises above your reading shelves and sticks, and was one of my top poetry reads of 2020. I was also privileged to hear Karlo read at my Wild Honey session at VERB. Such charisma on the page and in the air.
I got my daughter to take a photo of me with the book and before I could stop myself I lost in a poem, savouring the poetry richness, forgetting to smile for the camera, transported, uplifted a universe away from the lounge. If you haven’t read Goddess Muscle yet please do. Check out the celebration here. This is my piece:
Goddess Muscle is a gift. I can barely account for how it will stretch your reading muscles, your beating heart, your enquiring mind, your compassion, your music cravings, your empathy. Karlo has extended her own poetic muscle and offered poetry that is wisdom, strength, refreshed humaneness. I am all the better for having read it.
The collection is crafted like a symphony, an experience of shifting life, seasons and subject matter, so as you read the effects are wide reaching. Karlo faces significant political issues: climate change, the Commonwealth, colonialism, racism, Ihumātao, “the daily politics of being a woman, partner and mother”. She faces these global and individual challenges without flinching. The resulting poems are essential reading, never losing touch with song and heart, always insisting in poetic form how we can do better. How we can be a better world, recharge humanity. I would like to see these poems read in secondary school. You can read Moemoeā: (composed for poets for Ihumātao) here.
Ian Wedde was born in 1946. He has published sixteen collections of poetry, most recently Selected Poems (2017). He was New Zealand’s Poet Laureate in 2011 and shared the New Zealand Book Award for poetry in 1978. The Little Ache — a German Notebook was begun while he had the Creative New Zealand Berlin Writer’s Residency 2013/2014 and often notes research done during that time, especially into his German great-grandmother Maria Josephine Catharina née Reepen who became the ghost that haunts the story of the character Josephina in Wedde’s novel The Reed Warbler.
gaps in the light, Iona Winter, Ad Hoc Fiction, 2021
‘Gaps in the Light uses form in innovative ways to express deeply the experience of loss and joy in ways I can’t remember reading anywhere else. Nothing is binary here – everything feels multidimensional, so perfectly complicated, like echoes off multiple surfaces. It’s simply astounding!’
Pip Adam, author of Nothing to See, The New Animals, I’m Working on a Building, and Everything We Hoped For
Iona Winter, Waitaha/Kāi Tahu, lives on the East Otago Coast. She holds a Masters in Creative Writing and has published two previous collections, Te Hau Kaika (2019) and then the wind came (2018). Iona’s latest work gaps in the light comes with ‘advance praise’, tributes from other writers that include Helen Lehndorf, Kirstie McKinnon and Pip Adam. I so loved this suite of endorsements I have shared an extract from Pip Adam’s comments above. If I had read these words browsing in a bookshop, I would have bought the book, resisted all chores and distractions, and started reading. I too adore this book , and like Pip, know of no other quite like it. The slow-building embrace of loss and joy sets up long-term residency as you read.
The collection is dedicated to Iona’s son Reuben (20.5.1994 – 17.9.2020), and the dedication page becomes a pause a prayer a bouquet of sadness before you turn the page. I stalled here. I waited at this border between life and death. And then I entered a peopled glade: characters voices circumstances. Iona lays her own pain and loss beneath the surface of every scene, the hybrid writing stretching delving recovering above the subterranean ache. Writing becomes preservation, connection, ebb and flow, fighting against and fighting for. It is writing as lament and it is writing as meditation.
I dwell on the phrase ‘Streams of consciousness like gaps in the light’. What does it mean, but more importantly what does it feel? The writing is leaning in and listening to the dark without letting go of the framing light. A little like the mother and daughter in ‘Swallows’:
When we go walking, I tell our daughter what it means when the raupō are bent and spiders have crafted cocoons — white flags signalling peace. We inhale autumnal pine needle paths that smell of Christmas too early.
Little deceptions we tell one another make the intolerable less so.
When on the beach a heart stone is picked up, just one from the cluster, to hold and to carry. The sentence is smooth like the heart stone, but a few lines later the sound shifts and hits your ear sharply: ‘When mildew and salt scratched at my insides, and my back hit the stippled deck — life met decay once again.’ You will move from terminal illness to birdsong, from what you do to keep going to what you see out the window. There is a muscular thread of grandmother and grandfather wisdom. There is the way you get thrown off balance, expectedly, unexpectedly. The recurring thoughts of a loved one, the sight of the moon that startles: ‘it throws me off balance / that look of yours / an unexpected full moon in daylight showing herself on the horizon’ (from ‘Whorls’).
Iona is translating personal experience into hybrid writing and it is incredibly potent. I can’t imagine how hard this book was to write, but it is a gift, a glorious taonga, a gift of aroha. Thank you, Iona, thank you.
I prefer to expose the greying strands of my hair.
I prefer kōrero in person as opposed to communicating
via the Internet.
I prefer to sing aloud in the car.
I don’t prefer silent unspoken things.
I prefer non-martyred compromise.
I prefer to tend my wounds before creating them for
I prefer compassion to witch-hunts.
I prefer to believe in the possibility of something
beautiful, rather than fear the inevitable pain of loss.
What a delight to see Selected Poems from James Brown arrive in 2020 (Victoria University Press). Like a number of poetry books out in the first year of COVID, I am not sure it got the attention it deserved (see below for some reviews and poem links). James’s debut collection, the terrific Go Round Power Please (1995), won the Jessie Mackay Best First Book Award for Poetry, and like so many recipients of this award, he has published a number of further collections and has gathered a significant fan club. Me included. Pick up a James Brown collection and expect to laugh out loud and feel a heart twinge in the same glorious reading breath. He has edited Sport (1993 – 2000), an issue of Best New Zealand Poems (2008) and The Nature of things: Poems from the New Zealand Landscape (Craig Potton, 2005). He teaches creative writing at the International institute of Modern Letters.
Paula: Reading your Selected Poems has been like catching up with old friends. I have loved moving through samples from your terrific debut collection Go Round Power Please (1995) through Lemon (1999), Favourite Monsters (2002), The Year of theBicycle (2006), Warm Auditorium (2012) to the most recent Floods Another Chamber (2017). Plus the nonfiction booklet Instructions for Poetry Readings (2005). I kept wanting to tap someone on the shoulder and say, hey listen to this!
What were the delights and challenges in making the book?
James: It was mostly a challenge. I was hellish busy at the time and it was difficult to immerse myself in the process, which probably wouldn’t have made that much difference to the end result, but would’ve been more fun for me. Nothing like a good wallow in your own missteps. There were a few delights. ‘University Open Day’. And, much to my surprise, I was pleased with Warm Auditorium and Floods Another Chamber, which I’d kind of turned on. I was disappointed by ‘The Language of the Future’, which is a flagship poem in Lemon.
People kept saying Vet was the best.
It had the cow with the glass panel.
Actually, the panel wasn’t that interesting,
sort of dark and red. The cow
was eating hay in a small concrete room.
Mostly it just ate. but now and then
it would look sadly round at everyone,
and that’s when I got to thinking
The department wasn’t easy to find.
It turned out to be a single office
down a badly lit corridor.
A faded note on the door said
‘Back in 10’. And so
my education began.
from ‘University Open Day’
The process confirmed for me that what I enjoy most about poetry is writing it. And I’m happy for that process to take forever. I even updated a stanza about the Palmerston North Panthers stockcar team in ‘I Come from Palmerston North’. My past self would’ve written poems and sent them to literary outlets and they wouldn’t have become quite real until they were published. My present self is content with the writing.
Paula: I feel the same way. Patricia Grace said a similar thing at AWF this year. It is the writing that matters. In your first collection you were a whizz at similes. I liken them to picnic clearings. I just wanted to let them reverberate visually, semantically, surprisingly. And then they become less and less of a feature in your writing. Do you think your poetry has changed over the decades?
Now the light breaks
across his shoulders like
pieces of some great glass elevator
he may have been waiting for
James: It surprises me to hear that because I’ve never thought of myself as a simile poet – in fact, quite the opposite. So much so that when I do drop one in I feel all pleased and writerly, like wow, a simile, I’m a proper writer. I’m sometimes a bit suspicious of similes because you can link almost anything to an abstraction. The poem ‘Their Feelings’ you published plays on that: feelings can be like anything. I once wrote a long poem called ‘Small Obligations’ (Sport 9) that was an endless list of similes which all joined to each other. It’s a catastrophic failure. Hera could probably make the idea work.
What was the question? Has my poetry changed? Some earlier poems were obsessed with notions of representation – postmodern stuff I’d studied at uni. Compiling the Selected, I was shocked to see how often self-referential moments appear in my poems. Power relations – how power doesn’t always flow in clichéd, expected directions – were another early interest. I’m still fascinated by power, but less so about representation.
I’ve always loved narrative and I think I’ve got better at it. A lot of my poems are little stories. Stuff happens.
Humour is also an important part of my poetry. There are so many things jokes can teach writers. I worry my poetry has become less funny. Maybe I’ve become sadder.
But my poems don’t always reflect my feelings or attitudes. People always assume poems are autobiographical, but mine are a mixture of my life, other people’s lives, and pure invention. My relationship poems often involve fictional characters, but try convincing people of that. More of my later poems are autobiographical – and I worry they’re the worse for it.
Paula: I find humour is a constant. So many times I laugh out loud. As Bill Manhire says, you are adept at being funny and serious in the one poem (take ‘Willie’s First English Book’ for instance). So many examples – loved ‘Loneliness’ in which the speaker spots Elvis walking across the quad; ‘Identifying New Zealand Birdsong’ with not a bird to be heard; or the wicked lesson with wine gums in ‘Capitalism Explained’. And I laughed out loud at the small poem ‘Flying Fuck’.
James: Thank you, it’s nice you see the humour as a constant. I worry it’s diminished. I’ve sometimes purposely structured poems as jokes (eg, ‘Maintenance’). ‘Willie’s First English Book’ is actually a found poem, and I’ve transcribed the 100 Mahi from two of William Colenso’s books, and think they’d make a great little book of found prose poems. ‘Flying Fuck’ struck a chord with people. One good thing about writing different styles of poems, which I do, is that some throwaway experiment or off-quilter gag might become someone’s favourite poem!
Paula: I love Emma Barnes’s recent debut I Am in Bed with You that is funny, serious and surreal in equal measures. And Erik Kennedy. Any New Zealand poets who make you laugh?
James: Ha – I took a simile of Erik Kennedy’s and built a poem called Liking Similes around it. At first, I found his simile ‘Here, the cicadas sing like Christian women’s choirs / in a disused cotton mill’ slightly ridiculous, so I decided to unpack it, to try to make it work, and by the time I got to the end of the poem, it did! Now I can’t hear cicadas without thinking of Christian women’s choirs in a disused cotton mill. Very annoying.
I can reel off some overseas poets who’ve make me laugh recently: Louis Jenkins (Where Your House is Now), Miles Burrows (Waiting for the Nightingale), Kimmy Walters (Killers), and Joe Dunthorne (O Positive).
Ashleigh Young’s poems are very funny! Bill Manhire’s latest book Wow. Hinemoana Baker’s funkhaus juggles humour and seriousness without dropping either. That’s a sign of a good, funny poem: if I read it and think it’s hilarious, then I read it again another time and think it’s actually really sad or serious. Nick Ascroft. Tayi Tibble. Sam Duckor-Jones. Am eagerly awaiting Rangikura and Party Legend (love the title poem!) to arrive in my letterbox.
The sun was clouded
—but it wasn’t gonna rain.
The sky was the colour of water
from ‘Statement After the Fact’
Paula: I like the continuing presence of rain and birdsong – little anchors no matter what else the poem is doing. Any motifs that persist?
James: Rain is probably ubiquitous in poetry. I like weather generally. As I am a carless person, I have to deal with it directly. Cars maybe – because I’m not a fan of them. Water is probably a big recurring element. Light, for sure. But these are hardly exceptional to me. I’m not that conscious of my motifs. Each poem has its own world that requires its own details. As I become an older poet, ahem, I’ve become aware of maybe writing a poem similar to one I’ve already written, which is maybe why I like to take on different characters and forms.
The day I stopped writing poetry
I felt strangely serene.
Back when I started, I had no idea
what I was trying to do: get something out, perhaps,
and I suppose ‘art’ had something
to do with it. There’s a tempting simplicity
about poetry; you don’t necessarily need
the room, the desk, the glowing typewriter
—a scrap of paper and pencil will suffice.
Some of my tidier lines often came to me
on the bus or while I was just lumping along;
they’d be dancing or singing away in my head
while I grinned helplessly at the passing world
until I could arrange to meet them somewhere.
from ‘The Day I Stopped Writing Poetry’
Paula: I also like the way the making of poetry is not kept hidden. I just love ‘The Day I stopped Writing Poetry’. I got curious. What do poems need? Any rules? Anything?
James: Hmmm. Poems have no rules, and yet they set up their own rules, usually really quickly – as in the first few lines. Things like tone, layout, punctuation. It’s quite hard for a poem to deviate too far from its initial ‘rules’, and if it does, it either feels wrong or abrupt shifts in register become one of its rules.
What do poems need? Can I take that back to the source and answer what do poets need? An ear for the intricate registers of language. The ability to read and be moved by poetry. If you don’t like reading poetry, how can you write it? So writing poetry is as much about being able to hear as it is about making yourself heard. Some poets perhaps focus too much on the latter …
Paula: Sometimes you question whether a particular poem is actually a poem. I so know that feeling even though I am trying not to follow in a long line of self-doubting women. Is it a playful choice suggesting poetry can be anything or perhaps a signpost to doubt?
James: The Guardian once posed this question to readers:
tell me if this
is a poem
My answer is, yes (it has line-breaks), but it’s not a particularly good one. The line between poetry and prose is blurred, and some of my efforts certainly lean more toward prose. It’s not possible to say whether something is or isn’t a poem. Sometimes I read prose poems and think they’re actually prose, whereas sometimes I read prose (eg, Willie’s First English Book) and hear poetry. Lots of odd books get called poetry simply because publishers are unsure how to categorise them. Kenneth Goldsmith’s, for example. Finally, there’s just good writing and bad writing, by which I mean writing you like and writing you don’t like and the vast continuum between those poles.
‘Son,’ he kept saying, ‘son’. Then he turned to me to see
how I was doing. I was concentrating on the fogged up world
out the fogged up window, but his wet, hopeless face
somehow found a way through and got deep inside me, and,
try as I might, I have never been able to shake it out
my whole life long.
from ‘The End of the Runway’
Paula: I was really affected by the poems that get personal but are all quite different. Take ‘The Bicycle’ for example, a poem that highlights a beloved childhood gift. Am I imagining this but did you once compare writing a poem to riding a bicycle? I love the poignant scene of parents tending to a wet toddler in ‘Feeding the Ducks’. Oh and the glorious comic / raw-edged thread in ‘Family Planning’. And more than anything, the heart ripping ‘The End of the Runway’. OMG this poem tore. I have no idea what the personal – fiction mix is but it is a little beauty.
Do you have no-go zones when it comes to personal subject matter? Confession?
James: I have compared riding up a hill to writing poetry – the link being suffering. There are lots of things I wouldn’t write about. I feel it’s unfair to write about friends and family in ways that might hurt them. Well, I might write a poem, but I wouldn’t publish it. I’ve certainly got poems I think are good that I’ll never publish.
As said, my poetry is less autobiographical than people think. ‘The Bicycle’, for example, is based on experience, but isn’t entirely true. I did not love my bicycle as a kid, but I had one I really liked as an adult. The feelings in ‘The End of the Runway’ are genuine, but many of the details I use to generate them are imagined.
My new book that VUP are publishing next year is anchored around three long, confessional poems. They were hard for me to write. I’d tried to write about one incident on and off for years. I’m very reliant on VUP as to whether they’re successful as poems because for me writing them was really a kind of therapy.
Paula: Anne French likens you to a bricoleur and I can see why. Under your guidance a poem can hold many things. I wonder how it could possibly work and then the poem becomes an effervescent tablet on the tongue. Are you still drawn to this?
James: Do you mean am I still drawn to bricolage? Well, I think the English language is a bricolage. Sometimes I set out to hijack certain registers – like the official names of Barbie dolls in ‘Ken, Barbie, and Me’. ‘Alt. Country’ mimics the ‘straight talkin’ voice of Americana music. Perhaps my poems are bricolages because my own voice is an assemblage of different language registers – song lyrics, advertising speak, clichés, and very occasionally an original turn of phrase.
Paula: Perhaps the funniest piece was the booklet, Instructions for Poetry Readings. I kept thinking of excruciating occasions where a poet hogs everyone else’s time, or has no idea what they are going to read so have to shuffle through pages and books, or spends twenty times longer on an intro than the poem itself. What prompted you to write this booklet?
James: I wrote it at a time when I was going to a lot of poetry readings. They are, as I’m sure you know, strangely ritualistic events. No matter where you are in the country, they follow similar formats, and the characters you meet are strangely familiar. The haiku writer, the political poet, the lustful poet, the poems about cats. You encounter the same highs and lows, so I thought it was about time someone wrote a booklet outlining how everyone ought to behave. So I created a pseudonym, Dr Ernest M. Bluespire (after the James Tate poem ‘Teaching the Ape to Write Poems’), and Fergus published it as a chapbook. Some people thought the author was Steve Braunias because the publisher we concocted was Braunias University Press. I somehow forgot to put any of this in the Notes in the Selected Poems.
I’m actually a big fan of poetry readings and those who organise them.
Paula: Have you been to memorable poetry readings (in a good way)? I am thinking of Bill Manhire at Going West (sublime!). Tusiata Avia (I just get split into heart atoms). Listening to Emma Neale (the music mesmerising).
James: They start to blur now. Bill Manhire is always worth crossing the road for. I was transfixed by Mary Ruefle’s reading; it was like an incantation. James Fenton was great. Robert Hass. Dinah Hawken brings a quiet power to her readings. Tusiata Avia is a great performer of her poems. I’m not usually a fan of performance poetry. The poetry needs to stand on its own.
Paula: Oh envious of hearing Mary. This feels like an impossible question but any poems in the selection that have really hit the mark for you over the decades?
Paula: Are you a voracious reader? Any poetry books that have affected you in the last few years?
James: I dunno about voracious. Actual Air by David Berman really affected me. It took me a month to read it. Pins by Natalie Morrison. There’s a new poetry book by Tim Grgec called All Tito’s Children that has the most beautiful, effortless writing.
Paula: Ah Pins is sublime. When you first started writing?
James: Do you mean influences when I first started writing? Bill Manhire and Jenny Bornholdt. Charles Simic. Lots of people.
Paula: Any books in other genres you have loved in the past year?
James: A couple of novels I’ve liked: Elif Batuman (The Idiot) and, less so, Jenny Offill (Weather). I reread John Steinbeck’s novella ‘The Pearl’ over the weekend, and thought it a masterful piece of storytelling. The tension! Also The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. And I’m a secret member of the South Wellington Branch of the Magnus Mill’s Fan Club.
Paula: If you were able to curate a poetry reading inviting poets from any time or place who would you line up?
James: Joe Dunthorne, Emily Dickinson, Philip Larkin, Jorie Graham, Alice Oswald, Gertrude Stein. Which is why I’d never be allowed to curate a poetry reading.
Paula: Oh i would go to that one in a flash! There is more to life than poetry. What else gives you comfort, stimulation, mind and heart boosts?
James: I still get out for a mountain-bike ride once a week, though in the last few years I’ve exchanged mountain-biking at weekends for walking with friends. I listen to a lot of music and odd audio. I read, but not enough. I find reading hard to do around other things because for me it’s immersive. I work from home so spend my days by myself, which I don’t mind, but it does mean I get out of practice speaking.
Paula: Of all writing forms poetry is least likely to put food in the cupboards, pay a mortgage (as you muse on in poems). It is scantly reviewed, is side-staged at festivals, sells less. Yet on the other hand I find our poetry communities are thriving. Exciting. Any thoughts on life as a poet in 2021?
James: The Wellington poetry communities (and I love that there are a number of them) are abuzz with activity. Anyone who writes poetry for fame and/or fortune has taken a wrong turn. So poets need jobs. But poetry is easier to fit around a job than longer forms of writing. Yes, you might work on a poem for years, but they sometimes arrive in your head almost fully formed. Mostly though, poetry is hard work. I suspect life as a poet in 2021 isn’t that different from life as a poet in 1991 (when I was finding my feet), except for rent. New Zealand’s investor-encouraging property market and extortionist rents are probably impacting on reading and writing by forcing people to work longer hours. A lot of New Zealand’s problems go back to land in the end.
Min-a-rets 10, Compound Press, editor Sarah Jane Barnett
Poetry Shelf has put me in the sublime position of receiving pretty much every poetry book and journal published in Aotearoa NZ – but I never have enough time or energy to review everything. Yes I only review books I love, but I don’t get a chance to feature all of them. There is always a hopeful pile of books and journals that have enchanted me but that I have not yet shared. I guess it is even worse this year as I have cleared space for my own writing in the mornings and I don’t want to encroach upon that. I am really grateful that most poets don’t badger me and expect superhuman efforts on a blog that runs on the currency of love and my fluctuating energy levels. I have decided to make little returns to that hopeful stack and, every now and then, share something that you might want track it down.
I sometimes pick a poetry book hoping it will offer the right dose of rescue remedy – a mix of poetic inspiration along with heart and mind sustenance. My return to Min-a-rets10 did exactly that. Poet Sarah Jane Barnett has edited an issue that is supremely satisfying. In her introduction she expresses anxiety at not being ‘cool’ or young enough to edit a journal that is to date cutting edge, experimental, younger rather older. But once she had read the 100 or so submissions, her fears were allayed. I totally agree with her summation of the Min-a-ret gathering:
In the end I had nothing to worry about. The poems I’ve selected are beautiful, painful, challenging, thought-provoking, heartbreaking and funny. They reminded me that good poems shine no matter their genre or when they were written. They make life feel intense and bright. While this issue includes mid-career poets, there’s definitely a new generation stepping forward, and I have admiration for their commitment to craft, and to sharing an authentic experience—to not conforming. That’s cool.
10 poets with art by Toyah Webb. A slender hand-bound object published by Compound Press. Within a handful of pages, the poetry prompts such diverse reactions, it is like the very best reading vacation. I laughed out loud, I stalled and mused, I felt my heart crack. Above all I felt inspired to write. That exquisite moment when you read the poetry of others that is so good you feel compelled to write a poem.
essa may ranapiri has written a counting poem from tahi to iwa, with deep-rooted personal threads that underline there are myriad ways to count self and the world and experience. Memory. Then the honeyed currents of Elizabeth Welsh’s mother poem that free floats because motherhood cannot be limited. And yes Erik Kennedy made me laugh inside and then laugh out loud as the ending took me by surprise. Aimee-Jane Anderson-O’Connor transports me from the optician leaning in to staring at strangers to probability to ‘wow’. I am so loving the little leaps that intensify the scene.
Oh the aural genius of a Louise Wallace poem, especially when she pivots upon the word ‘trying’.
Or Joan Fleming’s line ‘Some confessions stick like stove filth’. Or Travis Tate: ‘Love is the sky, pitched black, radiant dot / of white to guide young hearts to this spot’. Or Eliana Gray’s: ‘We can’t save the people we love from drowning when it / happens on sand’.
Two list poems from Jackson Nieuwland, a witty serious funny precursor to their sublime award-winning collection I am a human being (Compound Press). And finally the laugh-out loud glorious prose poem by Rachel O’Neill where reason becomes raisin: ‘If only there was one good raisin left in the world, you think.’
Read this body-jolting issue and you will surely be inspired to get a subscription.
I Am in Bed with You, Emma Barnes, Auckland University Press, 2021
I am in bed with you. The room varies. But I’m always on the
left. I am pulling the pieces of myself into myself. In the winter
I left myself behind in the 90s. I’m coming back now. You
can see the light touching me. I can see layers of tissue finally
making a body. And once I have a body I have a head. And in
my head are these thoughts. I can’t tell you what it is like with
words. You can hold my hand and feel my pulse, but I was in
1994. I didn’t like
it there. When I am getting through days I don’t even know I
am making it. I am the legume in that story about royalty. And
then on the other side I open up like a lake into a river. I can
survey the lean fields of my insides as if I am owner of all
those glistening blades. In 1994 I was fourteen. I buried some-
thing back there. I buried it alive in a biscuit tin. This winter
makes choices I’d have made differently. Your mother cooked
a roast chicken every
Saturday unless a larger animal had died. (…)
from ‘I am in bed with you’
Emma Barnes’s debut collection I Am in Bed with You is a sublime read. Their poems hit such pitch-perfect notes any attempt to share my reading engagements will fall short. It’s like when someone asks why you like this painting or this song or this poem and all you can say I love it. Get the book. Find your own engagements.
And yet this book haunts me to the degree I want to talk about it with you. There are three sections: ‘This is a creation myth’, ‘Sigourney Weaver in your dreams’ and ‘The Run-Around’.
There is a moving acknowledgements page. I love this page. In fact I am loving this choice in a number of recent publications – tributes paid to the communities and individuals that a book is in debt to. Emma begins by saying: ‘The most important thank you for any Pākehā writer is to mihi the mana whenua of Aotearoa for their generosity in the face of continued acts non-consent and disrespect by us, their Treaty partners. I am truly privileged to be a treaty partner, to have this place to stand and to receive repeated gifts and offerings of manaakitanga.’
Emma thanks a high-school teacher and her publisher Sam Elworthy (Auckland University Press) who prompted her ‘to transform reluctance into curiosity’. I love this too. A publisher who is nurturing all manner of vital poetry collections and connections into the world (think A Clear Dawn, AUP New Poets 8). And of course friends and family. Taking time to offer such a heartfelt mihi matters.
Emma’s collection refreshes a joy in sentences. This is a book where sentences are the exquisite building blocks of poetry. Crafted with an ear attuned to sound, rhythm and chords, and an eye for movement that may startle, dazzle, draw you in closer.
The opening poem in the opening section is akin to a creation myth; an original origin story: inventive funny fabulous. The poems that follow resemble creation episodes; the speaker is vulnerable and bold in their self exposures, in the creating and making of self, dismissed body, gendered self, self expectation. The mother is missing, longed for or discounted. Being woman being man being another is faced. The sentences are off-real surreal cloaked hyper-real skating and free-sliding from feeling to nothing to question to admission to nothing to strange detail to wounding edge to invisibility to laugh out loud. To being unbearably moved.
Sigourney Weaver tells me that desire has a hard edge. The end. The
limit it enforces by virtue of its own inevitability. She’s been reading
the internet again. Sigourney Weaver says that our bodies are wishes
made from DNA and that time and time again we defeat ourselves with
our limited thinking. Always imagining edges. The edge of desire
is only there because we out it there. And we put it there because we
can’t make sense of a world where we could desire and act in equal
measure. Trust Sigourney Weaver to get me tied up in knots without any
rope. Not even the tiniest string around my finger. I like a boundary,
Sigourney Weaver. I like clear statements. I like small words. (…)
from ‘Sigourney Weaver confronts the limits of desire’
The middle section of poems stars Sigourney Weaver. If you want to hang out with a famous film star you can do it in a sequence of poems and then you get to choose how things will pan out. The speaker is hanging out with Sigourney in Aro Valley. They rent movies, kiss, take ecstasy, kiss, have an android baby. It is wickedly funny, so so funny, with a twist of weird and strange and creepy. Sigourney buys a place, a van, becomes a citizen, and in all the curious surreal twists – exhilarating, hilarious, uplifting – your heart is consistently tugged. Look to the weird and you find the ordinary: house-moving cartons, dresses and pigtails, ballgowns, mint-flavoured life savers. This sweetly crafted sequence also finds sustenance in the joy of the sentence.
The final section’s refrain is love. Love poems that are like prismatic love songs with shifting chords and rhythms, the ‘you’ elusive and on the move. In the other sections poems are given breathing-space as they break apart into stanzas. Here the poems appear as dense paragraphs – framed by the white space of breath yes – but catching love’s intensity, love as unfathomable, physical, intimate, complicated, hard to say. Again there is a glorious sway between the weird and the surreal and a familiar heart-grasp of relationships, aloneness, closeness. You can’t breathe as you read, as you feel.
Emma has produced a collection unlike any other I know with its unifying addiction to the sentence, and motifs that go deeper than surface beacons: think age, body expectations, gender, the making of self, the lasting effects of childhood, experiences that bite, disappearing acts, love, desire, more love, more desire. You will meet dreams and demons and epiphanies. Writing is musing, reflecting back, side-drifting, inventing, confessing. You will revel in the joy (and pain) of writing, and yes writing becomes, and yes writing is a form of becoming. Extraordinary.
Emma Barnes studied at the University of Canterbury and lives in Aro Valley, Wellington. Their poetry has been widely published for more than a decade in journals including Landfall, Turbine | Kapohau, Cordite and Best New Zealand Poems. They are currently co-editing with Chris Tse an anthology of LGBTQIA+ and takatāpui writing from Aotearoa New Zealand for Auckland University Press.
The Wilder Years: Selected Poems, Otago University Press, 2021
David Eggleton is a poet and writer of Palagi, Rotuman and Tongan descent based in Dunedin. He has published a number of poetry collections, and has also released a number of recordings with his poetry set to music by a variety of musicians and composers. He is the former Editor of Landfall and Landfall Review Online as well as the Phantom Billstickers Cafe Reader. His book The Conch Trumpet won the 2016 Ockham New Zealand Book Award for Poetry. In 2016, he received the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry. His most recent poetry collection is The Wilder Years: Selected Poems, published by Otago University Press in May 2021. He is the Aotearoa New Zealand Poet Laureate for 2019 – 2022.
‘A poem is / a ripple of words / on water wind-huffed’
from ‘Wind, Song and Rain’ in Sap-wood & Milk, Caveman Press, 1972
The ocean is my go-to salve. Before we went into level-four lockdown last year, I went to Te Henga Bethells Beach near where I live. I stood by the water’s edge as the sun was coming up. The air was clear and salty. Not a soul in sight. I breathed in and I breathed out, and I saved that sublime moment for later. Like a screen shot. Over the ensuing weeks in lockdown, I was able to return to that spot, my eyes on the water, my senses feeding on wildness and beauty. Look through my poetry collections and you will see I can’t keep the ocean out. It is always there somewhere.
Unsurprisingly there is a profusion of water poems in Aotearoa – think the ocean yes, but lakes and rivers and floods and dripping taps. This was an impossible challenge: whittling all the poems I loved down to a handful. I hadn’t factored in leaving poems out when I came up with my theme-season plan. Some poets are particularly drawn to water. Kiri Piahana-Wong’s sublime collection Night Swimming is like an ode to water. The same can be said of Lynn Davidson’s glorious collections How to Live by the Sea and The Islander. Or read your way through Apirana Taylor’s poems and you will find they are water rich – and his poetry flows like water currents. As does the poetry of Hone Tuwhare. Again water rich. And of course the poetry of Dinah Hawken, with her lyrical eye bringing the natural world closer, water a constant companion.
I have so loved this water sojourn. The poems are not so much about water but have a water presence. I am grateful to all the poets and publishers who continue to support my season of themes.
Girl from Tuvalu
girl sits on porch
back of house
salt water skimming
like her nation
nowhere to go
held up by
An Inconvenient Truth
this week her name is Siligia
next week her name will be
Girl from Tuvalu: Environmental Refugee
her face is 10,000
her land is 10 square miles
she is a dot
below someone’s accidental finger
the bare-chested boys
bravado in sea spray
running on tar-seal
they are cars
they are bikes
they are fish out of water
moana waves a hand
a yellow median strip
moana laps at pole houses
in spring tide
gulping lost piglets
and flapping washing
girl sits on porch
Selina Tusitala Marsh
from Dark Sparring, Auckland University Press, 2013, picked by Amy Brown
The body began to balance itself
It started to rain
and it was not clear
if this would last a short time
or a long time
so I got my husband
and the librarian
and the owner of the local chip shop
and the humourless lady who failed me
on eyesight at the driver licence testing station
into a boat
though it was extremely cramped
and they rowed
out to the open ocean
and sat quiet
from Bad Things, Victoria University Press, 2017
The Lid Slides Back
Let me open
my pencil-case made of native woods.
It is light and dark in bits and pieces.
The lid slides back.
The seven pencils are there, called Lakeland.
I could draw a sunset.
I could draw the stars.
I could draw this quiet tree beside the water.
from The Victims of Lightning, Victoria University Press, 2010
Train of thought
I thought of vitality,
I thought of course of a spring.
I thought of the give inherent
in the abiding nature of things.
I thought of the curve of a hammock
between amenable trees.
I thought of the lake beyond it
calm and inwardly fluent
and then I was thinking of you.
You appeared out of the water
like a saint appearing from nowhere
as bright as a shining cuckoo
then dripping you stood in the doorway
as delighted by friendship as water
and beaming welcomed us in.
The ripples are small enough. The lake surface is the lake surface is the lake surface. All lakes exist in the same space of memory. Deep dark water. The scent of stones. I think of a swift angle to depth. I think of the sound when you’re underwater and the gravel shifts beneath your feet. I think of all the colours of water that look black, that look wine dark, that look like youth looking back at me. I can barely take it. I can see the lake breathing. I am the lake breathing. The lake breathes and I breathe and the depth of both of us is able to be felt by finger, by phone, by feeling. Don’t ask what you don’t want to know. I ask everything. I want to know nothing, everything, just tell it all to me. The gravel shifts again with the long-range round echo of stones underwater. I am separate parts breathing together. You say that I am a little secret. You say, as your brain seizes, that you have lost the way. Your eyes flicker and flutter under your eyelids as you try to find what’s lost, what’s gone forever. Nothing can really be found. I am never located when I want to be located the most. I am instead still that teenager on the side of the road with a cello hard case for company. I forget I exist. You forget I exist. I’ve forgotten I’ve believed I’ve not existed before. I’ve not forgotten you. Never forgotten your face. Could never. Would never. I don’t know how to communicate this with you in a way that you’ll understand. My mouth waters. I am back in the lake again. Except I’m the lake and I’m water myself.
To the stone, to the hill, to the heap, to the seep,
to the drip, to the weep, to the rock, to the rill,
to the fell, to the wash, to the splash, to the rush,
to the bush, to the creep, to the hush;
to the down, to the plain, to the green, to the drift,
to the rift, to the graft, to the shift, to the break,
to the shake, to the lift, to the fall, to the wall,
to the heft, to the cleft, to the call;
to the bend, to the wend, to the wind, to the run,
to the roam, to the rend, to the seam, to the foam,
to the scum, to the moss, to the mist, to the grist,
to the grind, to the grain, to the dust;
to the core, to the gorge, to the grove, to the cave,
to the dive, to the shore, to the grave, to the give,
to the leave, to the oar, to the spring, to the tongue,
to the ring, to the roar, to the song;
to the surge, to the flood, to the blood, to the urge
to the rage, to the rod, to the rood, to the vein,
to the chain, to the town, to the side, to the slide,
to the breadth, to the depth, to the tide;
to the neap, to the deep, to the drag, to the fog,
to the stick, to the slick, to the sweep, to the twig,
to the roll, to the tug, to the roil, to the shell,
to the swell, to the ebb, to the well, to the sea.
from Flow, Victoria University Press, 2017, picked by Amy Brown
as the tide
i am walking the path
around hobson bay point
nasturtiums grow up the cliff face
and the pitted mud has a scattering
of thick jagged pottery, bricks
faded edam cheese packaging
and a rusty dish rack
all of the green algae
is swept in one direction
i am only aware of the blanketed crabs
when a cloud passes overhead
and they escape in unison
into their corresponding homes
claws nestling under aprons
my dad talks about my depression
as if it were the tide
he says, ‘well, you know,
the water is bound to go in and out’
and to ‘hunker down’
he’s trying to make sense of it
in a way he understands
so he can show me his working
i look out to that expanse,
bare now to the beaks of grey herons, which i realise is me
in this metaphor
Ode to the water molecule
‘Our body is a moulded river.’ Novalis
Promiscuous, by some accounts,
or simply playing the field—
indecisive, yet so decidedly
yourself, you are
all these things: ice flow,
bend of a river,
on an aeroplane window, fire-
bucket or drop
in the ocean, dissolver of a morning’s
mountain range. We envy you
the way you get along
with yourself, as glacier
or humidity of
an overheated afternoon. A glass
of pitch-black water
drunk at night.
Catchment and run-off. Water,
we allow you
your flat roof and rocky bed
but there are also
tricks we have taught you:
papal fountain, water
feature, liquid chandelier and
boiling jug. It is, however,
your own mind
you make up, adept as you are
—‘the universal solvent’—
at both piecing together
and tearing apart. With or
without us, you find your own
structure, an O and two H’s
in the infinity
of your three-sidedness, your
triangulation, at once trinity
and tricycle. Two oars
and a dinghy, rowed.
Colourless, but for
‘an inherent hint of blue’,
molecule in which
we are made soluble, the sum
of our water-based parts—
resourceful, exemplary friend
kindred spirit – not one to jump to
as you would traverse a stream, but rather
as you would leap in. Fluid,
by nature—given to swimming more than
with rain as your spokesperson,
tattooed surface of a river’s
snowfall and drift,
you enter the flow
of each of us, turn us around
as you turn yourself around
first appeared (in a typeset and ‘drawn’ version) in PN Review 252, in the UK, March-April 2020.
First dusk of autumn here and i swim
through fish flicker through
little erasing tails
that rub the seafloor’s light-net out
that ink in night
down south winter warms to her task and
will arrive smelling of wet shale in
a veil of rain
bats flicker into leaves
to rub the tree-cast light-net from the grass
to ink in night
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
like health professionals. You toe shells, sea glass, and odd things that have drifted for years and finally washed up here.
You drop your towel and step out of your togs, ungainly, first your right foot, then
the other stepping down the sand to stand in the water.
There is no discernible difference in temperature. You breaststroke in the lazy blue.
A guy passing in a rowboat says, ‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’ And it is. Your body afloat in salt as if cured.
from Poetry, 2018, picked by Frankie McMillan
Write the sea in your heart, write the rain.
Only that. Words are a poor habit. Let
the wind slide under your ribs let the rain,
for no one will love you the way
you write to be loved,
and your name only a name – but the green
edge of a wave made knifish by light
or some hurtful winter clarity in the water:
a bright sheet of sky against the horizon as if
breathing, as if the air itself
is your own self, waiting. Only there.
And know how your heart is the green deep sea,
dark and clear and untame,
and its chambers are salt and the beating
of waves, and the waves breaking,
and the waves.
from Takahē, issue 90
Deep water talk
In honour of Hone Tuwhare
& no-one knows
if your eyes are
blurred red from
the wind, too
much sun, or the
tears streaking your
face that could be
tears or just lines of
dried salt, who
& you never can tell
if you are seasick,
drunk, or just
symptoms are the
& sea and sky merge
until the horizon is
nothing but an
endless blue line
in every direction,
so that you are sailing,
not on the sea, as you
thought, but in a
perfectly blue, circular
bowl, never leaving
& you wonder who
is moving, you or
the clouds racing
by the mast-head
& you wonder if
those dark shapes
in the water are
sharks, shadows, or
nothing but old fears
chasing along behind
& the great mass of
land recedes, you
forget you were
feeling the pull
of ancient genes
—in every tide, your
blood sings against
& food never tasted
so good, or water
never conserved water
by drinking wine
and coke; and rum
and coke; and can
after can of cold
& your sleep is
by the roar of traffic
on the highway,
but by the creaks
and twangs of your
ship as she pitches
and moans through
the dark ocean,
& you wonder—
where did that bird,
that great gull perching
on the bowsprit,
from Night Swimming, Anahera Press, 2013
Emma Barnes lives and writes in Pōneke / Wellington. They have just released their first book I Am In Bed With You. For the last two years they’ve been working with Chris Tse on an anthology of LGBTQIA+ and Takatāpui writing to be released this year by Auckland University Press. They work in Tech and spend a lot of time picking heavy things up and putting them back down again.
Airini Beautrais lives in Whanganui and is the author of four poetry collections and a collection of short fiction. Her most recent poetry collection is Flow: Whanganui River Poems (VUP 2017). Bug Week and Other Stories recently won the Ockham NZ Book Fiction Award 2021.
James Brown’sSelected Poems was published by VUP in 2020. He is working on a new book.
Lynn Davidson’s latest poetry collection Islander is published by Shearsman Books and Victoria University Press. She had a Hawthornden Fellowship in 2013 and a Bothy Project Residency at Inshriach Bothy in the Cairngorms in 2016. In 2011 she was Visiting Artist at Massey University. She won the Poetry New Zealand Poetry Award, 2020 and is the 2021 Randell Cottage Writer in Residence. Lynn has a doctorate in creative writing and teaches creative writing. She recently returned to New Zealand after four years living and writing in Edinburgh.
Dinah Hawken lives and writes in Paekakariki. Her ninth collection of poetry, Sea-light, will be published by Victoria University Press in August, 2021.
Lily Holloway is a queer nacho-enthusiast. She is forthcoming in AUP New Poets 8 and you can find her work here.
Olivia Macassey’s poems have appeared in Poetry New Zealand, Takahē, Landfall, Brief, Otoliths, Rabbit and other places. She is the author of two collections of poetry, Love in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and The Burnt Hotel (Titus). Her website
Bill Manhire founded the creative writing programme at Victoria University of Wellington, which a little over 20 years ago became the International Institute of Modern Letters. His new book Wow is published by Victoria University Press in New Zealand and Carcanet in the UK.
Selina Tusitala Marsh (ONZM, FRSNZ) is the former New Zealand Poet Laureate and has performed poetry for primary schoolers and presidents (Obama), queers and Queens (HRH Elizabeth II). She has published three critically acclaimed collections of poetry, Fast Talking PI (2009), Dark Sparring (2013), Tightrope (2017) and an award-winning graphic memoir, Mophead (Auckland University Press, 2019) followed by Mophead TU (2020), dubbed as ‘colonialism 101 for kids’.
Gregory O’Brien recently completed a new collection of poems Streets and Mountains and is presently working on a monograph about artist Don Binney for AUP.
Kiri Piahana-Wong is a poet and editor, and she is the publisher at Anahera Press. She lives in Auckland.
Mere Taito is a poet living and working in Kirikiriroa. She is interested in the way poetry can be used to revitalise minority Indigenous languages like Fäeag Rotuạm ta.
Louise Wallace is the author of three collections of poetry published by Victoria University Press, most recently Bad Things. She is the founder and editor of Starling, and is currently working on a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Otago.