Category Archives: NZ poetry

Poetry Shelf Review: Gregory Kan’s This Paper Boat floats on an ethereal current so that poetry finds its way back to us all


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Gregory Kan This Paper Boat Auckland University Press 2016


Gregory Kan’s debut poetry collection, This Paper Boat, is a joy to read on so many levels.

Kan’s poetry has featured in a number of literary journals and an early version of the book was shortlisted for the Kathleen Grattan Poetry Prize in 2013. He lives in Auckland.

Paper Boat traces ghosts. We hold onto Kan’s coat tails as he tracks family and the spirit of poet, Robin Hyde (Iris Wilkinson). The gateway to family becomes the gateway to Iris and the gateway to Iris becomes the gateway to family. There is overlap between family and missing poet but there is also a deep channel. The channel of difficulty, hard knocks, the tough to decipher. There is the creek of foreignness. The abrasiveness of the world when the world is not singular.

Kan enters the thicket of memory as he sets out to recover the family stories. He shows the father as son fishing in the drains, the mother as daughter obedient at school. Yet while he fills his pockets with parental anecdotes, there is too, the poignant way his parents remain other, mysterious, a gap that can never be completely filled:


In the past when I thought about people my parents

were somehow

not among them. But some wound stayed


wide in all of us, and now I see in their faces

strange rivers and waterfalls, tilted over with broom.


The familial stands are immensely moving, but so too is the search for Iris. Kan untangles Iris in the traces she has left – in her poems, her writings, her letters. He stands outside the gate to Wellington house, listening hard, or beside the rock pool. There is something that sets hairs on end when you stand in the footsteps of ghosts, the exact stone, the exact spot, and at times it is though they become both audible and visible. Hyde’s poems in Houses by the Sea, are sumptuous in detail. I think of this as Kan muses on the rock-pool bounty. When he stands at her gate:


I have to hear you to keep you

here, and I have to keep you

here to keep coming back.


I think too of Michele Leggott’s plea at the back of DIA to listen hard to the lost matrix of women poets, the early poets. To find ways to bring them close.

Kan brings Iris (Robin) close. His traces. Iris becomes woman as much as she does poet and the channel of difficulty fills with her darknesses as much as it does Kan’s. There is an aching core of confinement: her pregnancy, her loss of the baby, her second pregnancy, her placement of the baby elsewhere, her mental illness. His confinement in a jungle. His great-aunt’s abandonment as a baby.


The strands of love, foreignness and of difficulty are amplified by the look of the book. The way you aren’t reading a singular river of text that conforms to some kind of pattern. A singular narrative. It is like static, like hiccups, like stutters across the width of reading. I love this. Forms change. Forms make much of the white space. A page looks beautiful, but the white space becomes a transmission point for the voices barely heard.

At one point the blocks of text resemble the silhouettes of photographs in a family album. At another point, poems masquerade as censored Facebook entries.Later still, a fable-like poem tumbles across pages in italics.

The writing is understated, graceful, fluent, visually alive.

I want to pick up Hyde again. I want to stand by that Wellington rock pool and see what I can hear. I have read this book three times and it won’t be the last.


In the final pages, as part a ritual for The Hungry Ghost Festival, Kan sends a paper boat down the river ‘to ensure// that the ghosts find their way/ back.’

The book with its heartfelt offerings is like a paper boat, floating on an ethereal current so that poetry finds its way back to us all (or Hyde, or family).


Auckland University Press page

A terrific interview with Sarah Jane Barnett

Sequence in Sport










Poetry Shelf review — Emma Neale’s Tender Machines takes you into a deep private space in her writing; in ways that sing and challenge, that move and muster every poetic muscle and tendon as you read

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Emma Neale Tender Machines Otago University Press 2015

Emma Neale’s new poetry collection features a striking drawing by her son, Abe. Surprising, inventive, poetic even. The poetry is Emma’s best yet, dare I say it. To step off from the title, tenderness meets sharp edges meets exquisite moving parts, small yet perfectly formed. The collection holds you in the intimate embrace of home, yet takes you out into the wider allure of the wider world. Issues, ideas, preoccupations.

The first section, ‘Bad Housekeeping,’ is where poet tends hearth. Mostly, and movingly, Emma navigates her relations with her young son.  She is up against the elbows of insistence, demands, resistance. The mind of the mother is anchoring, roving, admitting. She is in the heart of a toddler tantrum and in the palm of world issues. These poems affect you. You can savour the poetic craft that is honey for the ear. Such musical harmonies and schisms. That is one joy of reading. You can enter the toughness and rewards of motherhood. It is as though maternal experience is the stock pot that is simmered and concentrated to a syrup that is both sweet and tart on the tongue.  The poems become the kind of poems you can hang stories upon; of this child and that child, of this moment of mothering and that. Poetry has the ability to bear story, experience, imaginings, ideas, music — all in its one tender machine (oxymoron and all). These remarkable poems do this. ‘Hard Task, Master’ is a miniature snapshot of the child — its ending breathtaking:


as he tries

to build and build

the deck of himself

against the hard, tall wall

of the world.


At times it is the concatenation of verb or noun on the line that catches you in a knot of maternal thought — son glued to mother, mother glued to son. As in ‘Towards a Theory of Aggression in Early Childhood Development’:


Hit, push, lash, scratch,

these cheeks, this jaw, this shoulder,

are these in truth our edges, outlines, will we cry

as he does, daily, nightly, sky-wrenching as sunrise

yet still hold him in our arms


There is poetic braveness here that doesn’t loiter in conventional maternal paradigms. This is a poet opening layers of skin to get to where it hurts, confuses, demands, yet never loses sight of the enduring bond. The love. This is from ‘Domestic’:


you’re our darling our treasure.


You fling a tea cup at the cat,

plump up her spine like a goose-down pillow,


jab your thumbs at your father’s face

as if to pull out its two blue plums


but ah, little fisty-kins, honeyghoul, thorny-pie,

grapple hook of your daddy’s flooded eye,


stitch by stitch hope’s small black sutures

sew love’s shadow behind you.


The rest of the collection represents a mind engaged with the world at large. There is a strong political vein that never relinquishes the notion that the personal is political and that, importantly, the political is personal. Big issues such as consumerism, the compromised state of the planet, greed, waste are there potency ingredient in the ink of the pen, yet Emma’s ideas find poetic life in a variety of ways. Always there is an attentiveness to sound, to the way the poems hit the ear before the eye/mind drifts elsewhere. Assonance is plentiful. Delicious. The musicality is a first port of admiration that sends you back to reread with ears on alert. One poem, overtly and self-reflexively, plays with musical effects, yet delivers a subterranean plea for the earth (‘”Properly Protecting the Most Pure Marine Ecosystem Left on Earth Was Not Consistent with the Government’s Economic Growth Objective”‘. Here is a sample:


The spring tries to write

its long lyric poem again:

grass blade rhymes wing tip;

leaf rim, gull keen;

salt foam, thought arc;

surf break, line break;

historical break, heart break;

riven river, toxic stream;

smoked ozone, glacial melt.


So many standout poems. I especially loved the way ‘Suburban Story’ moves. It begins with a ‘shopkeeper at my old corner store’ and then travels through a poignant catalogue of losses, minor and major. Again the exquisite ear at work, again the pulsating detail.

This is a collection of reflection, revelation, absorption. Emma wrote many of these poems during her tenure as The NZSA/Beaton Fellow, The Otago Robert Burns Fellow and The University of Otago/ Sir James Wallace Pah Homestead Writer in Residence. Such awards benefit the poet immeasurably with the gift of writing space and time. You can see it in the gold nuggets of this book. In another favourite poem, ‘Sleep-talking,’ the clogged channels of thought become poetry. Emma takes you into a deep private space in her writing; in ways that sing and challenge, that move and muster every poetic muscle and tendon as you read — in this poem and in the book as a whole.


Perhaps for the self to hold its own air

it must be played in the key of sleep:

the body an instrument that over time

we must keep pitched, soaked in night like a reed softened in water,

while dreams tune the mind’s strings with a touch that seems

as precise as if the musician’s ear cranes deep



Otago University Press page

RNZ review

Emma Neale on her title

From the book: ‘Origins‘ posted on Poetry Shelf

Poem Friday: Anna Jackson’s ‘Scenes from the photographer’s childhood: wardrobe’ — Within that silent beat, poetry blooms


Scenes from the photographer’s childhood: wardrobe


She kneels in the red light of her wardrobe, leaning

over one tub of chemicals to pull out the dripping

sheet from the one in the far corner, the space so

small, the smell so sharp, the image not that

of her mother, poking her amused face

around the bathroom door as she heaved

it open, pushing across the floor the barricade

set up to keep her out, nor of her own fury, still

sharp days later, but the shot she had taken

seconds earlier of her body, her legs

half shaven, still half dressed in foam.

Every night, without fail, whatever

time she takes her bath, within minutes

her mother suddenly just has to wash

her hands. It is this, even more than the

ruined image, that makes her scream

when her mother opens the wardrobe now,

an extended scream that the exhausted

mother next door, in her faded blue thrift

shop dress, covered in spilt milk, thinks will

never end, and so joins in, even though

it will wake the baby, which it does: and now

they are all screaming, the girl in B, the neighbour

in G, and the baby in F, a long, tense chord

of such helpless rage, almost a panic, it seems

it must rise up, it will ruin them all, there

can never be any release, their throats, all three,

scraped raw, the scream continuing, the

exhausted mother holding, perfectly, her note

of G, as the baby drops to E, the photographer

rising to C, holding for four beats and then

stopping, just as the baby stops, and so

the mother stops too and for the long moment

before the baby starts again, stands rapt

in the most perfect silence

she has ever known and will ever know

again, milk all through her dress, blue

jug in pieces on the floor,

exactly at the midpoint of her life.

© Anna Jackson 2015



Author bio: Anna is the Programme Director in the English Department at Victoria University. She has published five poetry collections, including Thicket, which was shortlisted for the New Zealand Post Book Awards in 2011. Her latest collection  I, Clodia, and Other Portraits was published by Auckland University Press in  2014 (my review here). Anna is currently organising a Ruapehu Writer’s Festival with Helen Rickerby to be held in Ohakune, March 2016 (Facebook page here).

Paula’s note: This surprising poem, holds narrative in its palm, a sharp moment that reverberates  with implication. I get to the end and I am pulled back to the beginning, again and again. The musical chord that holds the moment together (and thus the poem)  jars, unsettles — until that moment of silence and it feels like time has iced over. Within that silent beat, poetry blooms. Ha! I need to get to work but this poem keeps distracting me. I adore the power of poetry to do just that.


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Auckland University page

New Zealand Book Council page

Anna Jackson’s poem, ‘Afraid of falls?’ on Poetry Shelf.

Anna Jackson’s interview on Poetry Shelf



Back home and I discover Bernadette Hall receives Prime Minister’s Award for Poetry – I am doing a little poetry jig of joy



I have been a fan of Bernadette Hall’s poetry for a long time so was delighted to see she has received this honour. I missed the initial release when I was walking the beauty of Stewart Island. This is well deserved. A little dance of poetry joy ensues! Reading a book by Bernadette is poetry pleasure. Utterly satisfying for ear, eye, heart and mind.

You can see the full achievements of Bernadette as both poet and teacher here on the Creative NZ press release here.

My review of Bernadette’s most recent collection Life & Customs here.

Bernadette talks to Poetry Shelf here.



Victoria University Press page

New Zealand Book Council page

New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre page

Canterbury University Press page

Best NZ Poems edited by Bernadette Hall here

My review of The Lustre Jug in The NZ Herald

Poem Friday – Carolyn McCurdie’s ‘A Potato Sonnet: Jersey Bennes for Christmas’ – each word gleams in the light bright space of the page


A Potato Sonnet: Jersey Bennes for Christmas


They gleam in the black

crumbled earth;


steady, as if candles

glow through layers of silk,


underpin the season’s quick

shifts of tinselled light


and the brisk heel-tap, chatter

of crowds in the street.


This is old, wondrous

as moon-rise,



as the maternal voice


that calls, come in

to the table.


© Carolyn McCurdie Bones in the Octagon  Mākaro Press 2015



Author Bio:  Carolyn McCurdie is a Dunedin writer. She won the Lilian Ida Smith Award in 1998 for short stories and a collection of stories — Albatross was published in 2014 by e-book publisher Rosa Mira Books. A children’s novel, The Unquiet, was published in 2006 by Longacre Press. She was the winner of the 2013 NZ Poetry Society International Poetry Competition and her first poetry collection, Bones in the Octagon, was published in 2015 by Mākaro Press as part of their Hoopla series. Carolyn is active in Dunedin’s live poetry scene, where she is a member of the Octagon Poets Collective.

Paula’s note: The potato is comfort food, but this particular potato hooks you to the extended  family table where the sun is blazing down and family stories circulate. Christmas. Ah. Reading the poem, each word gleams in the light bright space of the page along with the deep pit of personal memory. Each word is so perfectly placed for ear and eye. This is the first poem I read in Carolyn’s debut collection (the title lured me in — especially the idea of a sonnet meeting up with potatoes). There is a quietness, an attentiveness, delicious overlaps of meaning and propulsion. I can’t wait to settle back into the book and discover more.


Mākaro Press author page


Other books in 2015 Hoopla series:

Mr Clean & the Junkie by Jennifer Compton (I reviewed this here)
Native Bird by Bryan Walpert

Poetry Shelf interviews Sarah Jane Barnett — writing is an act of contemplation for me


Photo credit: Matt Bialostocki


Sarah Jane Barnett has an MA in Creative Writing from Victoria University and a PhD from Massey University. Her poetry has been published in New Zealand, Australia, and the US, and anthologised in Best New Zealand Poems, Dear Heart: 150 New Zealand Love Poems (Godwit), and Essential New Zealand Poems: Facing the Empty Page (Random House). Her debut collection A Man Runs into a Woman (Hue & Cry Press, 2012) was a finalist in the 2013 New Zealand Post Book Awards. Sarah was the recipient of the Louis Johnson New Writers’ Bursary and the Estate Phoebe Maunsell Scholarship. Her second collection WORK has just been launched by Hue & Cry Press. Sarah teaches creative writing at Massey University.

To coincide with the arrival of WORK, Sarah agreed to do an interview with Poetry Shelf.


Did your childhood shape you as a poet? Did you write as a child?

I’ve written for my whole life, in one way or another. I remember entering a poetry competition as a kid, and at primary school we’d illustrate poems. I also remember going for walks as a kid and making up silly poems in my head. I never thought I’d be a writer, though. My undergrad is in Fine Arts and then I studied Museum Studies, so I spent many years working in the public sector and writing on the side. I couldn’t look at my writing full on, in case it was truly awful (and some of it was). It was as though I was teaching myself to write behind my own back!

Something changed around the time I wrote the death row poems for my first collection. There was an inescapable humanity about the material. I had to fully engage with the work in order to respect the stories of the inmates and their victims. After that I quit my job and did a PhD at Massey. Now I’m overqualified so there’s no going back.


Your new collection, Work, lifted me off the page into realms of delicious contemplation – particularly in view of character and narrative. It grew in me. You say ‘these poems are works of fiction that draw on real people’ and that you ‘worked hard to be faithful to the facts while also allowing room for the poem.’ That poetic room is a fertile space (I want to write about it in my new book!) engendering countless fascinating relations. Were you aiming for particular kinds of poetic activity?

I like that you’ve used the word contemplation, because writing is an act of contemplation for me, and I hope my poems spark contemplation in a reader. I’m not sure that’s the same as ‘poetic activity.’ I know that I wanted the poems to be realistic, so set in the real world, with the sun rising at a real time and the flora and fauna being factual to a real landscape that any reader could visit. That was my way of honouring the people whose stories I drew from, and the landscapes they dwelt in, by making them as round and beautiful and burnished as I could.

But I also wanted the poem to be more than that – for it to be a fictional construction that explored what it is to be human. For each poem to be knowing that it was this imagined thing, created from language. In that sense each poem’s ‘realness’ is in being a poem. The main character in ‘Addis Ababa’ is a translator for this reason. Not only is it a nice metaphor for how he ‘translates’ his life from one country to another, but it was a way for me to explore how different languages, in his case Amharic and English, shape experience. It also points to how the poet ‘translates’ the world into poetry. I’m not sure where this preoccupation comes from, but I’m intrigued by the liminal space between fact and fiction (and, for that matter, poetry and prose). We all have stories that we tell ourselves in the on-going narrative of our life and identity. I think there’s value in questioning those stories.


I also loved ‘Glaciers’ and its multiple levels, overlaps and smudgings. It is a mysterious poem, a haunting poem – yet it embraces something utterly fundamental. Notions of family. I loved the different reactions that the poem drew from me; I was moved, perplexed and delighted in the myriad cryptic hinges. As I read the poem, and navigated the potent maternal traces, I wondered how being a mother affects your writing. Does it?

On a very practical level I have less time to write. At the start it was very difficult as he was a baby and I was finishing my PhD. There were some black days during that time (which is partially what ‘Glaciers’ is about). That said, having Sam actually helped my writing. I’ve had to learn how to stop the critical voice that fuels procrastination because he’s only in childcare 24 hours a week. That’s all I get! There’s no time to do it later.

At the moment I use the Pomodoro technique to get started. I set a timer for 25 minutes and write without stopping or editing. Then I have a five minute break (I write at home so usually I make a coffee or do the vacuuming or hang out the washing – such glamour!). That’s one ‘pomodoro’ and you’re meant to do four in a row before taking a 30 minute break. By the time I’m into my third pomodoro I’m away and can generally write for four hours at a stretch. So having Sam has been good for developing a stable and on-going writing practice. Also, and I’m going to get soppy here, he’s the most joyous and glorious human. He’s totally and entirely himself without reservation. Being around him makes me brave, which makes my writing brave as well.


What writers have mattered to you? Some may have mattered as a reader and others may have been crucial in your development as a writer.

That’s such a hard question to answer. So many of my friends are writers, and talking to them often feels like one long amazing master class! I also have a super writer’s group which has been going since 2007 when we had a studio in an old zipper factory on Tennyson Street.

That said, WORK is dedicated to my doctoral supervisors Bryan Walpert and Jack Ross, and to my publisher Chloe Lane. So those three – they’re all writers alongside the other hats they wear – have been mentors to me in different but crucial ways. Bryan especially; he has mentored me for the last six years, first as a teacher at Massey, and then as an academic and a poet during my PhD. You need to be tough to work with Bryan. He knew I could go further with my work, but like most writers I had self doubt and a lack of clarity about what I wanted to say. He kept on pushing and pushing until I stepped up. He will hate me saying this because he dislikes gushiness and sentimentality, but he’s a brilliant mind and an outstanding teacher. I’ve learned more about poetry from him than anyone else. It’s also why I’ve continued to teach at Massey. I want to be able to do that for other writers.

In terms of poets, Robert Hass and Anne Kennedy have both had a huge influence on my work. I wrote my doctorate on Hass, and while I know he’s not to everyone’s taste, I’m still deeply moved by his work. I’m in a life long relationship with his first four collections! Anne Kennedy’s The Time of the Giants was one of those collections that shifted my world. She’s simply amazing. It was my first introduction to contemporary long form poetry and now I can’t stop.


Hue & Cry Press author page

Sarah’s blog




Poetry Shelf review: Murray Edmond’s Shaggy Magpie Songs – I pictured I was sitting in a dark room, listening to a bit of blues or folk or jazz, a spotlight picking up a pianist whose fingers were freewheeling,


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Murray Edmond, Shaggy Magpie Songs Auckland University Press 2015


On the back of his new collection of poems, Murray Edmond writes, ‘Songs are poems that are incomplete without their music, so I think of these poems as all wanting to get off the page and start singing and dancing. The magpies of Aotearoa are silly (and slightly dangerous) birds who have given rise to the most profound line in the New Zealand poetry canon: Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle …. I like to think the poems are the kind of songs that magpies might sing if they were into making up words: a little bubbly, a little bitter, a little absurd, and echoing with the sound of laughter: songs with shaggy tales to tell.’

Murray’s musings are the perfect gateway to a collection that relishes sound, a sense of humour and pocket-book anecdotes. Not far into the collection, I pictured I was sitting in a dark room, listening to a bit of blues or folk or jazz, a spotlight picking up a pianist whose fingers were freewheeling, bodies were swaying, feet tapping, voices saying, Yeah! Aah! Mmm! These poems make you move because these poems make music before they do anything else. Your ear picks out melody, aural chords, infectious rhythms and shifty rhyme, so often rhyme. Rhyme has multiple effects but initially it taps into that deep-buried allure that rhyme holds for the child. With Murray’s fingers flicking along the scale of rhyme though, rhyme is surprising, it makes you laugh out loud when it hits the mark, it drives the poem, it sidetracks the poem, it celebrates the utter joy of electric aural connections. The music is never constrained. Always on the move. Consonants shuffle to make little bridges for your ear. The rhythm, jaunty, jittery, smooth.


Here is one example from ‘The Poet Returns to New York’


Frank O’Hara strolls on by in pyjamas

a knowing smile disposes the inelegant aftermath of dramas

that might otherwise threaten to alarm us

because this morning there is nothing that can harm us

and Tennessee has bought us tickets to the Bahamas


Here is another sample from ‘Snap Snap’:


addicted to your pictures

a picture ain’t a fixture

conjure hocus-pocus

turn me soft like focus

nail me with a frame

sign me with a name



The collection is divided into four sections (Praise, Nonsense, Blues, Pop) with no Endnotes (the poem is the thing!) and there is much traffic between. Murray sings the praises of colleagues, fellow poets. Stories are delivered in pieces, sung into pieces with those melodic arches. There is almost a cheekiness in the loping, looping sounds. Splinters of nonsense might tilt the praise. Maybe there is autobiography skimming between the lines, hiding in the flicks of wit. Or a madcap flow of stream-of-consciousness. Or a keen mind jamming facts and fiction.


Some samples. This from ‘Tongatapu Dream Choruses”


thar she


blow hole

blow mind

blow wind

blow whale

blow horn

blow me




from ‘National Standards’


Please step out of the poem slowly

stand by your word with hands on your head

the dogs will sniff you an officer will

frisk you please enjoy the experience



The collection is contoured in terms of pitch and tone. One of my favourite poems in the collection, ‘The Letter from Rilke,’ is like an onion. It is the poem that I keep returning to because each time I peel off a layer I get a different reaction. The visual and aural links are sumptuous (I have posted this poem). I am also drawn to ‘Kiss the Impossible Good Night,’ a poem for Kendrick Smithyman. After suggesting that the poem might work, a question is asked: ‘but can you/ get it to do anything? It is a poem with surreal kinks as you read, but it gets to the heart of writing. Murray’s poetry wears the look of play: a musician at play, a wordsmith at play, the wit of play, yet this playfulness belies the craft that steers the pen.



the impossible good night

before your very eyes

the poem appears


to work


it might work but can you

get it to do anything?)



If poets have recurring motifs, I claim the moon for Murray. His previous collection was entitled Fool Moon, and the moon features in a number of his poems. The motif is stamped here like a lunar signature — mysterious, mesmerising, moody, and is like a tether to poems of the past. Reading the new poems, through the folds and unfoldings, is to listen to different keys, yet whichever key you hit, these poems are sung into being out of a joy of words. Wonderful.


Auckland University Press page

Poetry Shelf interviews John Dennison — ‘it does seem to be a recurrent question in the collection—love’s strangeness’

John Dennison

Photo credit: Robert Cross


John Dennison was born in Sydney in 1978, and grew up in Tawa. He has lived and studied in Wellington, Dunedin, and St Andrews, Scotland, and now lives with his family here in Wellington, where he is a university chaplain. His poems have appeared in magazines in the UK, New Zealand and Australia, and were anthologised in Carcanet’s New Poetries V (2011). A first collection, Otherwise, was published by AUP and Carcanet earlier this year.

To celebrate the arrival of this terrific debut, John agreed to be interviewed. I reviewed Otherwise here.



Did your childhood shape you as a poet? What did you like to read? Did you write as a child? What else did you like to do?

Life was rich and full as a kid. We’d no TV, and I spent a good deal of time in books and up trees, or absorbed in endless audiobooks. That’s attuned my ear to some degree; I’ve also my mother’s knack for picking up other voices. Dad had a handful of poetry LPs in his collection—Eliot reading his Quartets, a record of Hopkins’s verse, one of American poet Carl Sandburg weirdly, wonderfully intoning. We worshipped at an open Brethren assembly in Porirua—a lively, community-oriented, rather tribal affair. I think it was partly the Church that attuned me critically to language, and taught me to take words and address seriously. At the same time, the Church attuned me to the culture around, to the market and to public cant; I’ve still got a well-developed, somewhat from-the-margins suspicion of life as it’s sold and told by the powers that be. Another formative aspect of my childhood: I was born with severe club feet. The deformities were corrected early on, when I was a baby, but it shaped me. I think the pre-verbal memory of that wounding and re-shaping, and my later memories of struggling with sports, with running, has had an effect in some way. Growing up has, in one sense, been a growing into–accepting–the woundedness of my earliest weeks. All of this enters the poetry in some way.


When you started writing poems as a young adult, were there any poets in particular that you were drawn to (poems/poets as surrogate mentors)?

Gregory O’Brien was my flesh-and-blood example of how to be a poet—he was a key figure in my apprenticeship. I took a writing paper with him. More than the workshop, to be accorded dignity and friendship by this older, much more dedicated writer—that was gold. I was stoked to meet Michael Symmons Roberts, a Manchester poet, in person recently—he’s been another important model, via his work. Baxter always hovered in the background—ready mythology.


Did university life transform your poetry writing? Theories? Peers? Discoveries? Sidetracks?

It’s interesting that this question irks me—I guess I chafe at the recognition that the university has become the dominant patron of poetry in NZ and beyond, and I feel uneasy at such patronage. For all that I love the community of scholarship, and serve that community as a chaplain, I do wonder whether it might not impoverish one’s poetry and poetics to turn habitually to the university. There really is, for instance, wonder and joy, contemplation and professing, which the modern university is pretty much deaf to. But yes, for me the university put poetry on the table every breakfast without apology or concern, and with the kind of seriousness a thoughty 19-year-old man is bound to fall for. Poetry was a subject of study before it was a practice, and learning to read slowly and in good faith—assuming everything on the page signifies—was good apprenticeship in the craft. That, and reading poets’ own accounts of making. I guess I learned the traditions, those at home and those abroad—it was important to do that.


Are there any critical books on poetry that have sustained or shifted your approach to writing a poem?

There’s a few. Those of any real use were written by poets. David Jones’s reflections on poetry and sacramental theology in Epoch and Artist was a timely discovery. More recently, Wendell Berry’s essay ‘On the use of old forms’ has helped me to understand what is at stake in choosing to work one or other received tradition and form—terza rima, or a Shakespearean sonnet, as opposed to free verse, say. He describes the way in which such forms enable you to live forwards into the poem, calling you into the possibilities of the language via rhymes, metre, etc. Berry’s been a real practical help. There’s Neruda’s manifesto ‘Toward an Impure Poetry’—I love his refusal to make poetry a religion, to give it some priestly function. Otherwise, I’ve pocketed a handful of dictums: Hopkins in a letter to Bridges, ‘Take breath and read it with the ears’; also, a phrase Seamus Heaney misattributes to Mandelstam, ‘The Incarnation sets the world free for play’. Stunning.


What poets have mattered to you over the past year?

Jorie Graham’s Sea Change has been a recent discovery – it’s difficult, unstable ground, one of the more moving mediations on climate change and the larger state of things I’ve read. Really good public poetry. And her use of negative prefixes has really stuck with me. She’s been important. I’m grateful for Cliff Fell’s poems. Fell sets up large pressure systems—essay poems—in which the lyric voice rises to break the surface tension of the larger flow. In its Dante-esque scope, in its prolonged and evident apprenticeship, and in its pitch and reach across the several keyboards of the language, his stuff is brilliant.


What New Zealand poets have you been drawn to over time?

Again, Baxter loomed large early on—my Father worked with Colin Durning, Baxter’s friend, and so James K. was part of the fabric of things. I love the work of Bethell—she’s been important. More recently, it’s been Curnow and O’Sullivan.


Any other areas you are drawn to read in?

Well, apart from essays in poetics, I’m often reading contemplative theology: Augustine’s Confessions, most recently. I love a good essay on any topic—love the essay form. I’ve been slowly working through Chaim Potok’s novels which have been utterly captivating—My Name is Asher Lev, a story about a gifted artist born into a community of New York Hasidic Jews. And then, I read a lot of kids’ picture books at the moment.


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In my review of your debut collection, Otherwise, I identified one of the joys of the collection: ‘the way the poem grounds you in the marvellous detail of the here and now so you feel earthed, and then uplifts you to the transcendental possibilities of elsewhere.’ What are key things for you when you write a poem?

Mostly, poems begin with the musical suggestiveness of a line, or the emotional implications of an image, rather than in some premeditated transection of marvellous and the everyday. A poem is a thing made out of words pitched through some emotional acuity, in which language is pushed towards the condition of music and affective image. If there’s a trajectory I’m inclined to trace, that’s simply a piece with life more generally. It’s how I am. The coordinates you’ve remarked on—the marvellous of the here and now, transcendental possibilities—well, shoot, that’s the shape of things.


The poems are steeped in love. Did you set out to navigate love in poetic forms or is it a key and enduring ingredient in your ink?

No, nothing as confident as navigating love—gosh, I’m not sure how one could do that without stunning presumption. I just went fishing for poems. But it does seem to be a recurrent question in the collection—love’s strangeness, I hope, rather than the stuff that well-worn word normally conjures. I’m very interested in the way that the lyric, traditionally being concerned with a speaking ‘I’, can become a space of loving address. I’m not thinking of some poly-vocal instability, nor of self-esteeming self-talk; I’m thinking more of the kind of address you find in the Psalms – ‘why are you cast down within me, o my soul?’ It’s a kind of excoriating, unflinching yet loving address to the estranged self; I’m excited by finding ways to open the lyric up to that.


I mentioned the spiritual steppingstones in the collection (a particular path the reader can explore). Is poetry a vital means to explore your spirituality?

No, I’d not say that. At times the process of writing, with its emotional accuracies, serves as a mirror. You know, that moment when the finished thing speaks up and looks back and you say ‘gosh, is that who I am, is that what it is! Mercy!’ But no, poetry isn’t some kind of intuitive scripture; it’s not prayer. Prayer—that’s exploration. I’m very interested in prayer as a kind of activity which takes place in the middle voice (rather than the active or passive moods)—a kind of led, participation in an action one didn’t initiate. There is some kinship with the experience of writing a poem—negative capability, and so on. But there are important differences too.


Your critical book, Seamus Heaney and the Adequacy of Poetry, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press this year. What vital discoveries did you make about poetry as you wrote and researched this book?

The book is a critical history of Seamus Heaney’s prose poetics—the poetics which culminate in his brilliant volume of lectures, The Redress of Poetry. It’s the story of a young Catholic poet who abandons his childhood faith, transferring much of that religious impulse to poetry and a theory about poetry’s sufficiency in the face of history. It’s the story of a poet who believes his art has a restorative, morally pure function in the midst of the violence of public life—for Heaney, the Ulster Troubles. It’s also the story of the son of a cattle dealer from Co. Derry, who wins a scholarship to University and becomes one of the most lauded poets of his time—Harvard professorship, Nobel Prize, etc. So I learned a great deal about contemporary poetics and this post-Christian age. Personally, it helped me to sort out my own thinking on some key questions around poetry and life—for example, that I do not feel any need to ascribe to art some redemptive agency. Also, that I don’t believe a poem is morally pure or true by virtue of its self-verifying ‘rightness’—some poems are beautiful lies, and this problem should interest us.


What irks you in poetry?

Moral smugness; a lyric self-regard which cuts out the reader; despair as an existential pose; free-verse which is really prose with line-breaks; a lack of musicality; forms which are not needful.


What delights you?

An ear at work—alive to the mnemonic possibilities and serious play of language pushed towards a condition of music. A lyric voice which is undone in its moment of saying—the suspicion the poem has cost the poet something. A full keyboard of language and register in use (what could be more democratic?) Fully employed forms of which one becomes blithely unaware in their unfolding.


Some poets argue that there are no rules in poetry and all rules are to be broken. Do you agree? Do you have cardinal rules? Do you have rules you particularly like to break?

I guess I want to ask What is this talk of rules? A successful poem is not a matter of rule-keeping or breaking, but of faithfulness—trust in the possibilities of language and the various poetic traditions. Some forms have constraints, and I am very interested in the possibilities generated by working within and against these constraints. The question is not whether to use free-verse or strict forms, it’s about what’s needful, about the way each form sets up a micro-economy of agency and possibility within language. Free-verse, in an apparent paradox, foregrounds a kind of existential bind of constantly having to choose, having to assert control over language, to use it as a means of expression. In terza rima, on the other hand, one is constantly getting ahead of oneself (with the b-rhyme in the tercet) while glancing back from where you’ve been; it’s a promissory kind of form, constantly entrusting itself to unknown possibilities.


Finally if you were to be trapped for hours (in a waiting room, on a mountain, inside on a rainy day) what poetry book would you read?

Probably, right now, I’d take Thomas Merton’s Collected Poems, for its utter strangeness. It includes a very compelling and haunting sequence on the cargo cults in Papua New Guinea. I waded through it in my early twenties – probably due a revisit. And, given his surrealist edge, a waiting room inside a rainy mountain would be an ideal fit.


Auckland University Press page

Poem Friday: Murray Edmond’s ‘The Letter from Rilke — Like a boat under the milky moon you slip and sway upon the crest of the poem


The  Letter from Rilke


Did you get the moon?

(I ask) as you come in

in your hoodie with your tripod.

You laugh. Recall another evening.

When you did ‘get the moon.’

Nice to see the sky. Okay. True.

Clock ticks. One always looks

for a total time of ecstasy

called writing. Taking a photo

it’s all there – or it’s not.

But even to trace letters

has no immediacy. It’s

like the moon rising.

There. You said. Some trace

of old enormity beckons.

The jug is heating up.

Footsteps. Water pump. Floorboards

shaking. I peel off

the outer layer of my insistence.

There is a letter from Rilke

underneath. As if it were a

landscape on the skin. He writes

about how it is impossible for

anything to escape itself. The sea

burnished with the full moon

blue of hyacinths. When you

look into them.


© Murray Edmond Shaggy Magpie Songs Auckland University Press, 2015


Author Bio: Murray Edmond was born in Hamilton in 1949. He has published thirteen books of poems. Letters and Paragraphs (1987) and Fool Moon (2005) were New Zealand Book Awards finalists. His latest volume of poems is Shaggy Magpie Songs (2015) from Auckland University Press. A collection of fiction, Strait Men and Other Tales, will be published by Steele Roberts in October 2015. His collection of critical writings, Then It Was Now Again: Selected Critical Writing was published by Atuanui Press in 2014. A study of Noh theatre and the Western avant-garde, Noh Business, was published by Atelos Press in California in 2005 and the long poem A Piece of Work was published by Tinfish Press in Hawai’i in 2002. He co-edited the anthology Big Smoke: New Zealand Poems 1960–1975 (AUP, 2000); and is the editor of the peer-reviewed, online journal of poetics Ka Mate Ka Ora: A New Zealand Journal of Poetry and Poetics. Since the 1970s, Edmond has been active in experimental and innovative theatre companies and for over 25 years taught theatre and drama at The University of Auckland, retiring from his position as Associate Professor of Drama at the end of 2014. He works as the dramaturge for Indian Ink Theatre Company, whose latest play, Kiss the Fish, was awarded Best New Play of 2014 in the Chapman Tripp Awards.


Note from Paula: Reading a Murray Edmond poem is like entering a linguistic harbour – you are held by the sway and slip of words, the way that sharp sea air alerts your senses, rejuvenates skin and eye and ear. He is the master of word play but the coils and overlaps and skids never feel stuck in exercise mode. This word play is infectious. It nourishes the gap and supports the bridge. Beneath the surface there is always heart, and with that subterranean heart, these are poems that matter.

Moons are a favoured motif in this collection and others. Mysterious; a drawcard in the pitch black of night or a poem or a myth or mood. The first line startles in its punning sidetracks (‘Did you get the moon?’). The last lines startling in their pitch for beauty. In between, gossamer threads that make silvery links between things. Luminous. Eye catching. In the heart of the poem, a relationship. And then another. A letter read. Under the skin; a poet, a lover perhaps. Like a boat under the milky moon you slip and sway upon the crest of the poem. It haunts. Lines stick like glue (‘I peel off/ the outer layer of my insistence’ ‘As if it were a/ landscape on the skin’). Do you get the poem? Jammed packed as it is with light and dark, everyday detail (Floorboards/ shaking’).  The line that sends you between the lines (‘He writes/ about how it is impossible for/ anything to escape itself’). Get – arrivals. Glorious.


Auckland University Press page

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