Category Archives: NZ poetry event

Poetry Shelf interviews the 2019 Sarah Broom Prize finalists: Jessica Le Bas






If you were to map your poetry reading history, what books would act as key co-ordinates?

I couldn’t read as a child. I didn’t read a book till I was 20. My father read me all sorts of crazy stuff. However, I did read poetry. Because it was short and the sounds were wonderful. I read Keats and Shakespeare and the war poets very young, maybe around ten. It’s slow music, really, poetry. I had no idea what many of the words meant. I liked the beat, the rhythms and the small stories of those poems. I remember carrying little poetry books around everywhere, like they held some secret. And they did!

Around that time my mother sent me to an old woman in Avondale for elocution lessons. My mother thought I was swearing too much! ‘Ain’t’ and ‘not never’ etc. Old Mrs Davy was paid to ‘straighten me out.’ Huh! What she did was teach me the beauty of reading poetry, aloud. She made The Highwayman provocative and wild and fun!

C.K. Stead and Allen Curnow were milestones too, because they read to me at university, and made poetry go beyond the page into a life. And Riemke Ensing because she was wildly passionate, and she unpicked poetry like my father ate flounder; sucking the juice around every small bone.

Later I found a seductive freedom in the voice of Hone Tuwhare’s No Ordinary Sun – in Jenny Bornholdt and Paul Muldoon, and Simon Armitage’s Seeing Stars. Check out his poem, Song – perfect beauty.


What do you want your poems to do?

I guess I write to see and hear more about the world I’m in, to be surprised and bear witness to its wonders. I want these poems to be true to their geography, and their people.

When I wrote Walking to Africa, I wanted the poems to stand tall and be loud, and tell the world that adolescent depression is Shit!

In this Large Ocean Islands sequence I want the poems to go beyond the cliché of Pacific Islands, beyond the beachside resorts, to their stronger, truer and older heart.


Which poem in your selection particularly falls into place. Why?

For me each poem is loaded with the story of its writing, and the wider events that surround it. ‘Large Ocean Islands’ is part of a bigger work in progress, and I’m still being challenged to balance the whole, and to give each poem its place and an integrity of its own too.

‘The White Chairs’ is the ‘oldest’ poem of the sequence. You could say it belongs.






In reply to C K Wright’s The Obscure Lives of Poets; Revelation lives on a large ocean island


Three serve time in New Zealand. Two in fruit canneries

where golden peaches become the names of their children; Queenie

and Bonnie, who is really Bonanza. One mama brings a nectarine

stone through airport customs in her underwear. Another time,

between two breasts of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Neither flourish.

One thousand roosters with insomnia. One survives the storm that takes

his only son, spends his days in view of the sea, much of it riding.

The sound of one mango falling. Three named after the fathers

of the fathers of monolingual seafarers who came ashore, and left

behind narrow eyes and a new mode of cranial wiring. One of ten

is taken and becomes one of fifteen, unrelated; family ties mapped

back to uplift and shift and fire. One too many three legged dogs.

One joins the police because he believes he can take his dog to work.

One walks around Avatiu harbour at night looking for stars

that have slipped their leash, fallen into the sea. He will be there

to rescue them. One family, the size of fifteen islands connected

by ocean currents. One dances in the lagoon, waist high

in blue, and bouncing for the effect it could have on his waistline,

but only after sunset, and only on the neap tide. One big family.

One maintenance man is sent to prison for acquiring money

that did not belong to him. He has a penchant for high

performance running shoes and real diamonds.

One teaspoon of pawpaw seeds alleviates diarrhoea, and maybe hook worm.

One hands a machete to his son, says just get on with it boy,

not meaning the taro patch or the elephant grass or the palm fronds

hanging over the windows, pulling a blackness over his house.

One Ian George painting is not enough; one stone turtle on the rough grass.

One stays on even after his wife and kids leave, sleeps on a mat

on a friend’s deck, till the mosquitos find him, and immigration says

there is a fine for that sort of behaviour. One wave after one wave.

One island is all one needs to join the dots. One small paradise

emerges in the path of the old navigator, and sets the scene

for growing silent heroes in spectacular sunlight.


There is no blueprint for writing poems. What might act as a poem trigger for you? 

I remember Jenny Bornholdt saying how a poem’s form finds itself in the writing, and I think that’s true. In Cyclone Season, the unrelenting heat and the way it lingers for weeks here, triggered a list of observations, repetitive and often banal.

Every day I write ‘stuff’ on my phone. Anything. Sometimes I’m amazed how something so ordinary here is spectacular, and starts a chain of surprise and insight. Like seeing a man at the lagoon at dusk with two small turtles in a tub of water. Watching him later taking them out swimming with him, like they were his children.

Poems are like vehicles; they have doors and windows, and they take you places.

Listening and watching, closely, ruminating, tasting, breathing them in – and sometimes being courageous – that triggers poetry.


If you were reviewing your entry poems, what three words would characterise their allure?

I’m not sure I am seeking to be ‘alluring’ in the poems I write.

In Large Ocean Islands I’d like the reader to see the wonder of the Cook Islands, and honour it. Each small island is big, and delicate and vibrant, and heavy with old wisdom. Sometimes I get a glimpse of something here that is so far removed from where I come from it feels like I’ve moved in time to what ‘we’ were before consumerism and capitalism and industrial economies. There’s a deep truth and a beauty here, that’s both joyous and heart-breaking.


You are going to read together at the Auckland Writers Festival. If you could pick a dream team of poets to read – who would we see?

Seamus Heaney, Robin Hyde, Yehuda Amichai Hone Tuwhare … OK, not a ‘real’ dream then? So many great poets to choose from! Let’s go with… Selina Tusiatala Marsh, Chris Tse, Tusiata Avia, Glenn Colquhoun …



Jessica Le Bas has published two collections of poetry, incognito (AUP, 2007) and Walking to Africa (Auckland University Press, 2009), and a novel for children, Staying Home (Penguin, 2010). She currently lives in Rarotonga, where she works in schools throughout the Cook Islands to promote and support writing.






Poetry Shelf noticeboard: Gail Ingram launches new collection

Contents Under Pressure a new poetry collection by Gail Ingram illustrated by Rata Ingram published by Pūkeko Publications 5.30-7.00pm Spark Room, Ground Floor at Tūranga New Central Library, Christchurch.


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Poetry Shelf noticeboard: an evening with Vivienne Plumb


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Award Winning Writer of Poetry, Drama and Fiction. 2018 Creative New Zealand Berlin Writing Resident.

Vivienne Plumb recently held the 2018 Creative New Zealand Berlin Writing Residency, and lived in Berlin for almost a year while researching and working on her new creative nonfiction book.

She is based in Wellington and writes poetry, drama and fiction. She has published twenty books in these three fields of writing.

She has held many writing residences, including the 2016 University of Auckland/Michael King Writing Residency and a University of Iowa residency; and has been the recipient of many awards including the Bruce Mason Playwrighting Award, the Hubert Church First Best Book Award, the Sargeson Fellowship, and an Australian post-graduate scholarship. She has acted as a judge for numerous poetry competitions and for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.

Her plays have been produced all over New Zealand and translated and published in Poland and Italy.

She is a member of the Academy of New Zealand Literature.

Her most recent book, a compilation of her past-published readers’ favourites, As Much Gold as an Ass Could Carry, has been translated into Italian and published in Italy.

Vivienne’s North Island reading tour is supported by the New Zealand Book Council.








Going to Wild Dogs Under My Skirt in Auckland

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Photo credit: Raymond Sagapolutele


Last night I went to the opening night of Wild Dogs Under My Skirt (a Silo Theatre production) after a collision of a day (no not trucks and cars like last year) and was feeling like a wet dish rag. I had a lively poetry conversation with Vana Manasiadis as I ate tasty falafels in the Q theatre café before the show. And that felt good. My Wild Heart page proofs were back home looking amazing but demanding every inch of me for the next ten days. I was wondering where my next foot would go.

I am sitting in the dark when five women appear on stage; they sing and move and welcome us into the space and connections of their performance: the full cast (one is unable to make this season) is Vaimaila Urale Baker, Saane Green, Petmal Lam, Stacey Leilua, Joanna Mika-Toloa, Anapela Polata‘ivao. I have goosebumps. Their voices instil the room with exquisite musical harmony – a singing threshold that transports us into an hour or so of discomfort, pain, warmth and much laughter.


Tusiata Avia’s debut poetry collection, Wild Dogs Under My Skirt, has been with poetry fans since 2004; it has inspired young Pasifika women to tell their stories in poetry vessels, it has inspired poets to perform from the heart, to allow darkness and risk and edge. It has inspired us to write poetry that makes us laugh and weep at the same time. It is an Aotearoa classic and it is much loved.

The Wild Dog performance, steered by experienced and much lauded director and actor, Anapela Polata‘ivao, is simply astonishing. You are taken into the pages of a poetry book and then carried beyond, you are whisked on the lyrical echoes and gestures of a Tusiata performance and then born into the theatrical space and the wider world.


There are gods and wild dogs and the talk of sex and aunty’s advice on how to be a good Samoan girl and corned beef and chop suey and the tied up hair and the image of Jesus and always Jesus and the size of feet and a personalised alphabet and still Jesus and the palangi man and the dancing women and the dusky maidens and more sex and the women – always the women, how I love these women – poking fun and being deadly serious and strong.

We are taken into the raw and exposed and cutting and loved and beloved lives of Samoan women and for many in the audience it is a searing hit of recognition.

For me in white skin – my dish rag skin – it is a hit of pain – the influenza, the intolerable shootings, the shoddy treatment by NZ, the shame and but and and

it is also an utter uplift through the joy of words –it’s what Tusiata and the actors can do with words that transform your skin and heart and gut because they dance and they bite and they etch indelible stories on your legs and arms as though we are poetry tattooed.


Six chairs, props to a table or a church or a desiring man, become part of the poetry – for there is always poetry, intricate and moving. The live drums enlivening (Leki Jackson-Bourke), the soundtrack enlivening, the dancing bodies prompting rollercoaster emotions.

And the final piece, the fierce wild dog ending, the women growling teeth bared, cutting opening the issues that have shaped them, the love and the violence and place to call home, offering the bloodied past, the familiar home  ground, the love that binds, the love that binds women, the love that stands proud on this stage and sings out. Fiercely.


The song ‘Telesa’, composed and sung by Aivale Cole, is the end note – haunting, reverberating. Our bodies become echo chambers for every word, every gesture we have just absorbed. I feel like I have had a blood transfusion. I feel like I can take the next step.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.



You wan da Ode?

OK, I give you

Here my Ode to da life

Ia, da life is happy an perfek

Everybodys smile, everybodys laugh

Lot of food like Pisupo, Macdonal an Sapasui

Even da dog dey fat

You hear me, suga? Even da dog!


from ‘Ode to da life’

 Wild Dogs under My Skirt Victoria University Press, 2004



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Photo credit: Raymond Sagapolutele






Poetry Shelf noticeboard: Geoff Cochrane launch



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Unity Books & Victoria University Press warmly invite you to hear Geoff Cochrane discuss his new poetry book ‘The Black and the White’ with fellow author Carl Shuker.

‘The Black and the White’ is a new work – witty, fearless, formidably concise – from one of the most distinctive voices in New Zealand poetry.

Geoff Cochrane is the author of seventeen collections of poetry, two novels, and Astonished Dice: Collected Short Stories (2014). In 2009 he was awarded the Janet Frame Prize for Poetry, and in 2010 the inaugural Nigel Cox Unity Books Award. Geoff received an Arts Foundation of New Zealand Laureate Award in 2014.


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